When Leo had fallen ill with scarlet fever, Merripen had helped care for him with a mixture of patience and kindness that had surpassed even Amelia's. Later she had told Leo that he owed Merripen his life. Instead of being grateful, however, Leo seemed to hold it against Merripen.
Please, please don't be an ass, Leo, Amelia longed to beg, but she held her tongue and went with her sisters to the brightly lit entrance of Stony Cross Manor.
A pair of massive double doors opened into a cavernous hall hung with priceless tapestries. A grand stone and marble staircase curved up to the lofty second-floor gallery. Even the most distant corners of the hall, and the entrances of several passages leading away from the great room, were lit by a massive crystal chandelier.
If the outside grounds had been well tended, the interior of the manor was nothing short of immaculate, everything swept and sparkling and polished. There was nothing of newness in their surroundings, no sharp edges or modern touches to disrupt the atmosphere of easeful splendor.
It was, Amelia thought bleakly, exactly the way Ramsay House should look.
Servants came to take hats and gloves, while an elderly housekeeper welcomed the new arrivals. Amelia's attention was immediately drawn to the sight of Lord and Lady Westcliff, who were crossing the hall toward them.
Clad in precisely tailored evening clothes, Lord Westcliff moved with the physical confidence of a seasoned sportsman. His expression was reserved, his austere features striking rather than handsome. Everything about his appearance indicated he was a man who demanded a great deal of others and even more of himself.
There was no doubt that someone as powerful as Westcliff should have chosen the perfect English bride, a woman whose icy sophistication had been instilled in her since birth. It was with surprise, then, that Amelia heard Lady Westcliff speak in a distinctly American voice, the words tumbling out as if she couldn't be bothered to think everything over before speaking.
"You can't know how often I've wished for new neighbors. Things can get a bit dull in Hampshire. You Hathaways will do nicely." She surprised Leo by reaching out and shaking hands in the way men did. "Lord Ramsay, a pleasure."
"Your servant, my lady." Leo didn't seem to know quite what to make of this singular woman.
Amelia reacted automatically as she was accorded a similar handshake. Returning the firm pressure of Lady Westcliff's hand, she stared into tip-tilted eyes the color of gingerbread.
Lillian, Lady Westcliff, was a tall, slender young woman with gleaming sable hair, fine features, and a raffish grin. Unlike her husband, she radiated a casual friendliness that instantly put one at ease. "You are Amelia, the one they fired upon yesterday?"
"Yes, my lady."
"I'm so glad the earl didn't murder you. His aim is hardly ever off, you know."
The earl received his wife's impudence with a slight smile, as if he were well accustomed to it. "I wasn't aiming at Miss Hathaway," he said calmly.
"You might consider a less dangerous hobby," Lady Westcliff suggested. "Bird-watching. Butterfly-collecting. Something a bit more dignified than setting off explosions."
Amelia expected the earl to frown at this irreverence, but he only looked amused. And as his wife's attention moved to the rest of the Hathaways, he stared at her with warm fascination. Clearly there was a powerful attraction between the two.
Amelia introduced her sisters to the unconventional countess. Thankfully they all remembered to curtsy, and they managed polite responses to her forthright questions, such as did they like to ride, did they enjoy dancing, had they tried any of the local cheeses yet, and did they share her dislike of slimy English fare such as eels and jellied hog loaf?
Laughing at the droll face the countess had made, the Hathaway sisters went with her to the receiving room, where approximately two dozen guests had gathered in anticipation of going in to supper. "I like her," she heard Poppy whisper to Beatrix as the two of them walked behind her. "Do you think all American women are so dashing?"
Dashing ... yes, that was an appropriate word for Lady Westcliff.
"Miss Hathaway," the countess said to Amelia in a tone of friendly concern, "the earl says Ramsay House has been unoccupied for so long, it must be a shambles."
Mildly startled by the woman's directness, Amelia shook her heard firmly. "Oh no, 'shambles' is too strong a word. All the place wants is a good thorough cleaning, and a few small repairs, and..." She paused uncomfortably.
Lady Westcliff's gaze was frank and sympathetic. "That bad, is it?"
Amelia hitched her shoulders in a slight shrug. "There's a great deal of work to be done at Ramsay House," she admitted. "But I'm not afraid of work."
"If you need assistance or advice, Westcliff has infinite resources at his disposal. He can tell you where to find?
"You are very kind, my lady," Amelia said hastily, "but there is no need for your involvement in our domestic affairs." The last thing she wanted was for the Hathaways to appear to be a family of cheapjacks and beggars.
"You may not be able to avoid our involvement," Lady Westcliff said with a grin. "You're in Westcliff 's sphere now, which means you'll get advice whether or not you asked for it. And the worst part is, he's almost always right." She sent a fond glance in her husband's direction. Westcliff was standing in a group at the side of the room.
Becoming aware of his wife's gaze, Westcliff's head turned. Some voiceless message was delivered between them?and he responded with a quick, almost indiscernible wink.