"In the drawing room with Beatrix. We're trying to keep appearances as normal as possible." Amelia sent a tense, rueful smile to the Hunts. "But our family has never been especially good at that."
Win stiffened as she saw Leo and Merripen enter the room. Leo came straight to her, while Merripen went to lurk in the corner as usual. He wouldn't meet her gaze. The room was filled with a charged silence that caused the down on the back of her neck to rise.
She hadn't gotten herself into this all alone, Win thought with a flare of anger.
Merripen would have to help her now. He would have to protect her with any means at his disposal. Including his name.
Her heart began to pound so heavily that it almost hurt.
"It appears you've been making up for lost time, Sis," Leo said flippantly, but there was a flicker of concern in his light eyes. "We have to be quick about this, since people will talk even more in light of our collective absence. Tongues are wagging so fast, they've created a strong breeze in the drawing room."
Mrs. Hunt approached Amelia and Win. "Winnifred."
Her voice was very gentle. "If this rumor is not true, I will take action at once to deny it on your behalf."
Win drew in a trembling breath. "It is true," she said.
Mrs. Hunt patted her arm and gave her a reassuring glance. "Trust me, you are not the first nor will you be the last to find yourself in this predicament."
"In fact," came Mr. Hunt's lazy drawl, "Mrs. Hunt has firsthand experience in just such a-"
"Mr. Hunt," his wife said indignantly, and he grin-ned. Turning back to Win, Mrs. Hunt said, "Winnifred, you and the gentleman in question must resolve this at once." A delicate pause. "May I ask whom you were seen with?"
Win couldn't answer. She let her gaze fall to the carpet, and she studied the pattern of medallions and flowers dazedly as she waited for Merripen to speak. The silence only lasted a matter of seconds, but it seemed like hours. Say something, she thought desperately. Tell them it was you!
But there was no movement or sound from Merripen.
And then Julian Harrow stepped forward. "I am the gentleman in question," he said quietly.
Win's head jerked up. She gave him an astonished glance as he took her hand. "I apologize to all of you," Julian continued, "and especially to Miss Hathaway. I didn't intend to expose her to gossip or censure. But this precipitates something I had already resolved to do, which is to ask for Miss Hathaway's hand in marriage."
Win stopped breathing. She looked directly at Merripen, and a silent cry of anguish seared through her heart. Merripen's hard face and coal-black eyes revealed nothing.
He said nothing.
Merripen had compromised her and now he was letting another man assume the responsibility for it. Letting someone else rescue her. The betrayal was worse than any illness or pain she had ever experienced before. Win hated him. She would hate him until her dying day and beyond.
What choice did she have but to accept Julian? It was either that or allow herself and her sisters to be ruined.
Win felt her face drain of all color, but she summoned a paper-thin smile as she glanced at her brother.
"Well, my lord?" she asked Leo. "Should we ask your permission first?"
"You have my blessing," her brother said dryly. "After all, I certainly don't want my pristine reputation to be marred by your scandals."
Win turned to face Julian. "Then yes, Dr. Harrow," she said in a steady voice. "I will marry you."
A frown notched between Mrs. Hunt's fine dark brows as she stared at Win. She nodded in a businesslike manner. "I will go out and explain quietly to the appropriate parties that what they saw was a betrothed couple embracing… a bit intemperate perhaps, but quite forgivable in light of a betrothal."
"I'll go with you," Mr. Hunt said, coming to his wife's side. He extended a hand to Dr. Harrow and shook it. "My congratulations, sir." His tone was cordial but far from enthusiastic. "You are most fortunate to have won Miss Hathaway's hand."
As the Hunts left, Cam approached Win. She forced herself to stare directly into his perceptive hazel eyes, though it cost her.
"Is this what you want, little sister?" he asked softly.
His sympathy nearly undid her. "Oh yes." She set her jaw against a wretched quiver, and managed to smile. "I'm the luckiest woman in the world."
And when she brought herself to look at Merripen, she saw that he was gone.
"What a ghastly evening," Amelia muttered after everyone had left the library.
"Yes." Cam led her into the hallway.
"Where are we going?"
"Back to the drawing room to make an appearance. Try to look pleased and confident."
"Oh, good God." Amelia pulled away from him and strode to a large arched wall niche, where a Palladian window revealed a view of the street below. She pressed her forehead against the glass and sighed heavily. A repeated tapping noise echoed through the hallway.
Serious as the situation was, Cam couldn't prevent a quick grin. Whenever Amelia was worried or angry, her nervous habit asserted itself. As he had once told her, she reminded him of a hummingbird tamping down her nest with one foot.
Cam went to her, and rested his warm palms on the cool slopes of her shoulders. He felt her shiver at his touch. "Hummingbird," he whispered, and slid his hands up to the back of her neck to knead the small frozen muscles there. As her tension ebbed, the foot tapping gradually died away. Finally Amelia relaxed enough to tell him her thoughts.