A fascinating and rather volatile mix of guests attended the Hunts' annual spring ball… politicians, foreigners, aristocrats, and businesspeople. It was said the invitations were highly sought after, since even the peers who outwardly disdained the pursuit of wealth were eager to have some connection to the extraordinarily powerful Mr. Hunt.
The Hunt mansion could well have been described as the symbol of the success of private enterprise. Large, luxurious, and technologically advanced, the house was lit with gas in every room and filled with plasterwork made from modern flexible molds that were currently being displayed at the Crystal Palace. Floor-length windows gave access to broad walks and gardens outside, not to mention a remarkable glass-roofed conservatory heated with a complex system of underfloor pipework.
Just before the Hathaways arrived at the Hunt mansion, Miss Marks whispered a few last-minute reminders to her charges, telling them not to fill their dance cards too quickly in case a prepossessing gentleman might arrive later at the ball, and never to be seen without their gloves, and never to refuse a gentleman who asked them to dance unless they were already engaged to dance with another. But by all means, they must never allow one gentleman more than three dances-such excessive familiarity would cause gossip.
Win was touched by the careful way in which Miss Marks relayed the instructions, and the earnest attention Poppy and Beatrix gave her. Clearly the three of them had labored long and hard on the intricate labyrinth of etiquette.
Win was at a disadvantage compared to her two younger sisters. Since she had spent so long away from London, her own knowledge of social mores was lacking. "I hope I won't embarrass any of you," she said lightly. "Though I should warn you that the chances of my making a social misstep are quite high. I hope you'll undertake to teach me as well, Miss Marks."
The governess smiled a little, revealing even white teeth and soft lips. Win couldn't help thinking that if Miss Marks were a bit more filled out, she would be quite pretty. "You have such a natural sense of propriety," she told Win, "I can't imagine you being anything less than a perfect lady."
"Oh, Win never does anything wrong," Beatrix told Miss Marks.
"Win is a saint," Poppy agreed. "It's very trying. But we do our best to tolerate her."
Win smiled at them. "For your information," she told them lightly, "I intend to break at least three rules of etiquette before the ball is over."
"Which three?" Poppy and Beatrix asked in unison. Miss Marks merely looked perplexed, as if she was trying to understand why anyone would deliberately do such a thing.
"I haven't decided yet." Win folded her gloved hands in her lap. "I'll have to wait for the opportunities to present themselves."
As the guests entered the mansion, domestics came to take the cloaks and shawls, and the gentlemen's hats and coats. Seeing Cam and Merripen standing near each other, shrugging off their coats with the same deft gestures, Win felt a whimsical smile touch her lips. She wondered how it was that everyone couldn't see that they were brothers. Their kinship was so clear to her, even though they weren't identical. The same wavy dark hair, although Cam 's was longer and Merripen kept his neatly cropped. The same long, athletic build, although Cam was slimmer and more supple, whereas Merripen had the sturdier, more muscular build of a boxer.
Their greatest difference, however, was not that of their external appearances, but the way each approached the world. Cam with a sense of amused tolerance and charm and shrewd confidence. And Merripen with his battered dignity and smoldering intensity, and most of all, the strength of feeling that he fought so desperately to hide.
Oh, how she wanted him. But he would not be easily won, if ever. Win thought it was rather like trying to coax a wild creature to come to her hand: the endless advances and retreats, the hunger and need for connection warring with fear.
She wanted him even more as she saw him here among this glittering crowd, his aloof and powerful form dressed in the austere evening scheme of black and white. Merripen did not consider himself inferior to the people around him, but he was well aware that he was not one of them. He understood their values, even though he didn't always agree with them. And he had learned how to acquit himself well in the gadjo world- he was the kind of man who would adapt to any circumstances. After all, Win thought with private amusement, not just any man could break a horse, build a stone fence by hand, recite the Greek alphabet, and discuss the relative philosophical merits of empiricism and rationalism. Not to mention rebuild an estate and run it as if he were to the manor born.
There was a sense of impenetrable mystery about Kev Merripen. She was obsessed with the tantalizing thought of what it would be like to slip past all his secrets, to reach the extraordinary heart he guarded so closely.
Melancholy swept over her as she glanced at the beautiful interior of the mansion, the guests laughing and chatting while music floated lightly over the scene. So much to enjoy and appreciate, and yet all Win wanted was to be alone with the most unavailable man in the room.
However, she wasn't going to play the wallflower. She was going to dance and laugh and do all the things she had imagined for years while lying in her sickbed. And if it displeased Merripen or made him jealous, so much the better.
Divested of her cloak, Win went forward with her sisters. They were all dressed in pale satins, Poppy in pink, Beatrix in blue, Amelia in lavender, and herself in white. Her gown was uncomfortable, which Poppy had laughingly said was a good thing, as a comfortable gown would almost certainly not be stylish. It felt too light on the top, the bodice low and square, the sleeves short and tight. And it felt too heavy from the waist down, with wide triple skirts caught up in flounces. But the main source of discomfort was her corset, which she had gone without for so long that she found herself resenting even the slightest constriction. Though it was only lightly laced, the corset stiffened her torso and pushed her br**sts artificially high. It hardly seemed decent. And yet it was considered Indecent to go without one.