More than a few curious gazes attended them as they joined the other Hathaways, who were speaking to a pair of women dressed in sumptuous ballgowns.
The older, presumably Countess Ramsay, was a woman of average appearance, a bit plump, neither attractive nor plain. The younger woman, Miss Vanessa Darvin, was a raving beauty, tall with an elegantly turned figure and a lavish bosom, all nicely displayed in a gown of blue-green trimmed with peacock feathers. Her midnight hair was arranged in a perfect mass of pinned-up curls. Her mouth was small and full, the color of a ripe plum, and her eyes were sultry, dark and heavily lashed.
Everything about Vanessa Darvin advertised sexual confidence, which Leo had certainly never held against a woman, except that in this girl it was a bit off-putting. Probably because she looked at him as if she expected him to fall at her feet and start panting like a pug dog with a respiratory ailment.
With Amelia on his arm, Leo approached the pair. Introductions were made, and he bowed with impeccable politeness.
“Welcome to Ramsay House, my lady. And Miss Darvin. What a pleasant surprise.”
The countess beamed at him. “I hope our unexpected arrival does not inconvenience you, my lord. However, when Lord and Lady Ulster made it known that you were giving a ball—the first at Ramsay House since its restoration—we felt certain that you wouldn’t mind the company of your nearest relations.”
“Relations?” Amelia asked blankly. The kinship between the Hathaways and the Darvins was so distant as to hardly warrant the word.
Countess Ramsay continued to smile. “We are cousins, are we not? And when my poor husband passed on to his reward, may God rest his soul, we found consolation in the knowledge that the estate would pass into capable stewardship as yours. Although…” Her gaze flickered to Cam and Merripen. “We had not expected such a colorful variety of in-laws as you seem to have accumulated.”
Fully comprehending the unsubtle reference to the fact that both Cam and Merripen were part Gypsy, Amelia scowled openly. “Now see here—”
“How refreshing it is,” Leo interrupted, trying to stave off an explosion, “to finally be able to communicate without the interference of solicitors.”
“I agree, my lord,” Countess Ramsay replied. “The solicitors have made the situation regarding Ramsay House quite complex, have they not? But we are only women, and therefore much of what they relate goes right over our heads. Isn’t that right, Vanessa?”
“Yes, Mama,” came the demure reply.
Countess Ramsay’s pillowy cheeks puffed out with another smile. Her gaze encompassed the entire group. “What matters most is the bond of familial affection.”
“Does that mean you’ve decided not to take the house away from us?” Amelia asked bluntly.
Cam settled a hand at his wife’s waist and gave her a warning squeeze.
Looking taken aback, Countess Ramsay regarded Amelia with wide eyes. “Goodness me. I’m not at all able to discuss legalities—my poor little brain fairly collapses when I try.”
“However,” Vanessa Darvin said in a silky voice, “as we understand, there is a chance we may not be entitled to Ramsay House, if Lord Ramsay marries and sires offspring within a year.” Her gaze slid boldly over Leo, traveling from head to toe. “And he seems well equipped to do so.”
Leo arched a brow, amused by the delicate emphasis she placed on the term “well equipped.”
Cam intervened before Amelia could utter a scathing reply. “My lady, do you have need of lodging during your stay in Hampshire?”
“Thank you for your kind concern,” Vanessa Darvin replied, “but we are staying at the residence of Lord and Lady Ulster.”
“Some refreshments would be welcome, however,” Countess Ramsay suggested brightly. “I think a glass of champagne would revive me nicely.”
“By all means,” Leo said. “May I escort you to the refreshment tables?”
“How delightful,” the countess said, beaming. “Thank you, my lord.” She came forward to take his proffered arm, and Vanessa went to his other side. Summoning a charming smile, Leo led the pair away.
“What dreadful people,” Amelia said dourly. “They’re probably here to inspect the house. And they’ll monopolize Leo all evening, when he should be talking and dancing with eligible young women.”
“Miss Darvin is an eligible young woman,” Win said, looking troubled.
“Good heavens, Win. Do you think they came here so that Miss Darvin could meet Leo? Do you think she might set her cap for him?”
“There would be advantages to both sides if they married,” Win said. “Miss Darvin would become Lady Ramsay and gain the entire estate instead of just the copyhold. And we could all continue living here, whether or not Leo fathers a child.”
“The thought of having a sister-in-law like Miss Darvin is intolerable.”
“One can’t judge her on first acquaintance,” Win said. “Perhaps she’s a nice person on the inside.”
“Doubtful,” Amelia said. “Women who look like that never have to be nice on the inside.” Noticing that Cam and Merripen were speaking to each other in Romany, she asked her husband, “What are you talking about?”
“There are peacock feathers on her gown,” Cam remarked, in the same tone he might have said, There are poisonous flesh-eating spiders on her gown.
“It’s a very dashing effect.” Amelia looked at him quizzically. “You don’t like peacock feathers?”