If only she could go back to the hotel, now, and be alone in her room. She needed privacy in which to think. What was it he had said?… I would rather see you live in the arms of that cold, soulless bastard than die in mine. But that made no sense. Why had he said such a thing?
She wanted to confront him, but this was not the time or place. This was a matter that must be handled with great care. Merripen was more complicated than most people realized. Although he gave the impression of being less sensitive than most men, the truth was, he harbored such powerful feelings that even he wasn't able to manage them well.
"We must talk later, Kev," she said.
He gave a short nod, his shoulders and neck set as if he were carrying an unbearable burden.
Win went as discreetly as possible to the ladies' dressing room upstairs, where maids were busy repairing torn flounces, helping to blot the shine from perspiring faces, and anchoring coiffures with extra hairpins. Women had gathered in small groups, giggling and gossiping about things they'd seen and overheard. Win sat before a looking glass and inspected her reflection. Her cheeks were flushed, a marked contrast to her usual composed paleness, and her lips were red and swollen. Her color deepened as she wondered if everyone could see what she had been doing.
A maid came to blot Win's face and dust it with rice powder, and she murmured her thanks. She took several calming breaths-as deep as the dratted corset would allow-and tried inconspicuously to make certain her bodice was fully covering her br**sts.
By the time Win felt ready to go downstairs once more, approximately thirty minutes had passed. She smiled as Poppy entered the ladies' dressing room and came to her.
"Hello, dear," Win said, standing from the chair. "Here, take my chair. Do you need hairpins? Powder?"
"No, thank you." Poppy wore a tense, anxious expression, looking nearly as flushed as Win had been earlier.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" Win asked with a touch of concern.
"Not really," Poppy said, drawing her to the corner to keep from being overheard. "I was looking forward to meeting someone other than the usual crowd of stuffy old peers, or worse, the stuffy young ones. But the only new men I met were climbers and businessmen. Either they want to talk about money-which is vulgar and I don't know anything about it-or they have careers they claim they can't discuss, which means they're probably involved in something illegal."
"And Beatrix? How is she faring?"
"She's quite popular, actually. She goes around saying outrageous things, and people laugh and think she's being witty when they don't realize she's perfectly serious."
Win smiled. "Shall we go downstairs and find her?"
Not yet." Poppy reached out to take her hand, and gripped it tightly. "Win, dear… I've come to find you because… there's a sort of upheaval going on downstairs. And… it involves you."
"An upheaval?" Win shook her head, feeling cold in the marrow of her bones. Her stomach gave a sick plunge. "I don't understand."
"A rumor is quickly spreading that you were seen in the conservatory in a compromising position. A very compromising one."
Win felt her face turn white. "It's only been thirty minutes," she whispered.
"This is London society," Poppy said grimly. "Gossip travels at full throttle.''
A pair of young women entered the dressing room, saw Win, and immediately whispered to each other.
Win's stricken gaze met Poppy's. "There's going to be a scandal, isn't there?" she asked faintly.
"Not if it's managed properly and quickly." Poppy squeezed her hand. "I'm to take you to the library, dear. Amelia and Mr. Rohan are there-we're going to meet them and put our heads together, and decide on a course of action."
Win almost wished she could go back to being an invalid with frequent fainting spells. Because at the moment, a good long swoon sounded quite appealing. "Oh, what have I done?" she whispered.
That elicited a faint smile from Poppy. "That seems to be the question on everyone's mind."
The Hunts' library was a handsome room lined with mahogany bookcases with fronts of glazed glass. Cam Rohan and Simon Hunt were standing beside a large inlaid sideboard laden with glittering spirit decanters. Holding a glass half-filled with amber liquid, Hunt gave Win an inscrutable glance as she entered the library. Amelia, Mrs. Hunt, and Dr. Harrow were also there. Win had the curious feeling that it couldn't really be happening. She had never been involved in a scandal before, and it wasn't nearly as exciting or interesting as she had imagined while lying in her sickbed. It was frightening.
Because in spite of her earlier words to Merripen about wanting to be compromised, she hadn't meant any of it. No sane woman would wish for such a thing. Causing a scandal meant ruining not only Win's prospects, but those of her younger sisters. It would cast a shadow over the entire family. Her carelessness was going to harm all the people she loved.
"Win." Amelia came to her at once, embracing her firmly. "It's all right, dear. We'll manage this."
Had Win not been so distressed, she would have smiled. Her older sister was famous for her confidence in her ability to manage anything, including natural disasters, foreign invasions, and stampeding wildlife. None of those, however, could come close to the havoc of a London society scandal.
"Where is Miss Marks?" Win asked in a muffled voice.