Amelia, who had always loved walking, matched Win's brisk pace easily.
"I love Stony Cross," Win said, relishing the sweet, cool air. "It feels like home even more than Primrose Place, even though I've never lived here for long."
"Yes. There is something special about Hampshire. Whenever we return from London, I find it an indescribable relief." Removing her bonnet, Amelia held it by the ribbons and swung it lighdy as they walked. She seemed absorbed in the scenery, the tumbles of flowers everywhere, the clicks and drones of insects busy among the trees, the scents released by sun-warmed grasses and peppery watercress. "Win," she said eventually, her voice pensive, "you don't have to leave Hampshire, you know."
"Yes, I do."
"Our family can weather any scandal. Look at Leo. We survived all of his-"
"In terms of scandal," Win interrupted wryly, "I think I've actually managed to do something worse than Leo."
"I don't think that's possible, dear."
"You know as well as I that the loss of a woman's virtue can ruin a family far more effectively than the loss of a man's honor. It's not fair, but there you have it."
"You didn't lose your virtue," Amelia said indignantly.
"Not for lack of trying. Believe me, I wanted to." Glancing at her older sister, Win saw that she had shocked her. She smiled faintly. "Did you think I was above feeling that way, Amelia?"
"Well… yes, I suppose I did. You were never one to moon over handsome boys, or talk about balls and parties, or dream about your future husband."
"That was because of Merripen," Win admitted. "He was all I ever wanted."
"Oh, Win," Amelia whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Win stepped up onto a stile leading through a narrow gap in a stone fence, and Amelia followed. They walked along a grassy footpath that led to a forest trail, and continued to a footbridge that crossed a stream.
Amelia linked her arm with Win's. "In light of what you just said, I feel even more strongly that you should not marry Harrow. What I mean is, you should marry Harrow if you wish, but not because of any fear over a scandal."
"I want to. I like him. I believe he is a good man. And if I stay here, it would result in endless misery for me and Merripen. One of us has to leave."
"Why does it have to be you?"
"Merripen is needed here. He belongs here. And it truly doesn't matter to me where I am. In fact, I think it would be better for me to make a new beginning elsewhere."
" Cam 's going to talk to him," Amelia said.
"Oh no, he mustn't! Not on my behalf." Win's pride bristled, and she turned to face Amelia. "Don't let him. Please."
"I couldn't stop Cam no matter how I tried. He's not talking to Merripen for your sake, Win. It's for Merripen's own sake. We very much fear what will become of him once he's lost you for good."
"He's already lost me," Win said flatly. "He lost me the moment he refused to stand up for me. And after I leave, he'll be no different than he has always been. He will never allow softness in himself. In fact, I think he despises the things that give him pleasure, because enjoyment of anything might make him soft." All the tiny muscles of her face felt frozen. Win reached up to massage her tense, pinching forehead. "The more he cares for me, the more determined it makes him to push me away."
"Men," Amelia grumbled, crossing the footbridge.
"Merripen is convinced he has nothing to give me. There's a kind of arrogance in that, don't you think? Deciding what I need. Disregarding my feelings. Setting me so high on the pedestal that it absolves him of any responsibility."
"Not arrogance," Amelia said softly. "Fear."
"Well, I won't live that way. I won't be bound by my fears, or his." Win felt herself relaxing slightly, calmness stealing over her as she admitted the truth. "I love him, but I don't want him if he has to be dragged or trapped into marriage. I want a willing partner."
"Certainly no one could blame you for that. It has always irked me, really, the way people say a woman has 'caught' herself a man. As if they're trout we've managed to hook and jerk out of the water."
Despite her moroseness, Win couldn't help smiling.
They pushed on through the damp, warm landscape. As they eventually approached Ramsay House, they saw a carriage coming to a stop before the entrance. "It's Julian," Win said. "So early! He must have left London well before first light." She quickened her pace and reached him just as he stepped from the carriage.
Julian's cool handsomeness had not been mussed one bit by the long journey from London. He took Win's hands and gripped them firmly, and smiled down at her.
"Welcome to Hampshire," she said.
"Thank you, my dear. Have you been out walking?"
"Briskly," she assured him, smiling.
"Very good. Here, I have something for you." He reached in his pocket and withdrew a small object. Win felt him slide a ring onto her finger. She looked down at a ruby, the shade of red known as "pigeon's blood," set in gold and diamonds. "It is said," Julian told her, "that to own a ruby is to have contentment and peace."
"Thank you, it's lovely," she murmured, leaning forward. Her eyes closed as she felt his lips press gently against her forehead. Contentment and peace… God willing, perhaps someday she would have those things.