All things considered, however, it seemed worth the discomfort when she saw Merripen's reaction. His face went blank at the sight of her in the low-cut ball gown, his gaze traveling from the tip of one satin slipper peeking from beneath the hem up to her face. He stared an extra few moments at her br**sts, lifted high as if they had been cupped by his hands. When his eyes finally looked into hers, they flickered with obsidian fire. A responsive shiver chased beneath the framework of Win's corset. With difficulty, she looked away from him.
The Hathaways went farther into the entrance hall, where a chandelier shed sparkling light over the parquetry floor.
"What an extraordinary creature," Win heard Dr. Harrow murmur nearby. She followed his gaze to the lady of the house, Mrs. Annabelle Hunt, who was greeting guests.
Although Win had never met Mrs. Hunt, she recog-nized her from descriptions she had heard. Mrs. Hunt was said to be one of the greatest beauties of England, with her beautifully turned figure and heavily lashed blue eyes, and hair that gleamed with rich shades of honey and gold. But it was her luminous, lively expressiveness that made her truly engaging.
"That's her husband, standing next to her," Poppy murmured. "He's intimidating, but very nice."
"I beg to differ," Leo said.
"You don't think he's intimidating?" Win asked.
"I don't think he's nice. Whenever I happen to be in the same room as his wife, he looks at me as if he'd like to dismember me."
"Well," Poppy said prosaically, "one can't fault his judgment." She leaned toward Win and said, "Mr. Hunt is besotted with his wife. Their marriage is a love match, you see."
"How unfashionable," Dr. Harrow commented with a grin.
"He even dances with her," Beatrix told Win, "which husbands and wives are never supposed to do. But considering Mr. Hunt's fortune, people find reasons to excuse him for such behavior."
"See how small her waist is," Poppy murmured to
Win. "And that's after three children-two of them very large boys."
"I will have to lecture Mrs. Hunt on the evils of tight-lacing," Dr. Harrow said sotto voce, and Win laughed.
"I'm afraid the choice between health and fashion is not an easy one for women," she told him. "I'm still surprised that you allowed me to wear stays tonight."
"You hardly need them," he said, his gray eyes twinkling. "Your natural waist is hardly wider than Mrs. Hunt's corseted one."
Win smiled into Julian's handsome face, thinking that whenever she was in his presence, she felt safe and reassured. It had been like that ever since she had first met him. He had been a godlike figure to her, and to everyone at the clinic. But she still had no real sense of him as a flesh-and-blood man. No idea if there was potential for them to be more together than they were individually.
"The mysterious missing Hathaway sister!" Mrs. Hunt exclaimed, and took both Win's hands in her gloved ones.
"Not so mysterious," Win said, smiling.
"Miss Hathaway, what a delight to meet you at last, and even more to see you in good health."
"Mrs. Hunt always asks about you," Poppy told Win, "so we've kept her informed about your progress."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hunt," Win said shyly. "I am quite well now, and honored to be a guest at your lovely home."
Mrs. Hunt gave Win a dazzling smile, retaining her hands as she spoke to Cam. "Such graceful manners. I think, Mr. Rohan, that Miss Hathaway will easily attain the popularity of her sisters."
"Next year, I'm afraid," Cam said easily. "This ball marks the end of the season for us. We're all traveling to Hampshire within the week."
Mrs. Hunt made a little face. "So soon? But I suppose that is only to be expected. Lord Ramsay will want to see his estate."
"Yes, Mrs. Hunt." Leo said. "I adore bucolic settings. One can never view too many sheep."
At the sound of Mrs. Hunt's laughter, her husband joined the conversation. "Welcome, my lord," Simon Hunt said to Leo. "The news of your return is being celebrated throughout London. Apparently the gaming and wine establishments suffered greatly in your absence."
"Then I shall do my best to reinvigorate the economy," Leo said.
Hunt grinned briefly. "You owe quite a lot to this fellow," he said to Leo, turning to shake Merripen's hand. Merripen, as usual, had been standing unobtrusively at the side of the group. "According to Westcliff and the other neighboring estate, Merripen has made a rousing success of the Ramsay estate in a very short time."
"Since the name 'Ramsay' is so seldom coupled with the word 'success,'" Leo replied, "Merripen's accomplishment is all the more impressive."
"Perhaps later in the evening," Hunt said to Merripen, "we might find a moment to discuss your impressions of the threshing machine you purchased for the estate. With the locomotive works so firmly established, I'm considering expanding the business into agricultural machinery. I've heard of a new design for the thresher, as well as a steam-powered hay press."
"The entire agricultural process is becoming mechanized," Merripen replied. "Spindle harvesters, cutters, and binders… many of the prototypes are on display at the exhibition."
Hunt's dark eyes glinted with interest. "I'd like to hear more."