"And I warn you, Winnifred… I will launch quite a battle for your affections. I will prove such a devoted and generous husband, there will be no room in your heart for anyone else."
She thought about bringing up the subject of children, asking if perhaps he would relent someday if her health improved even more. But from what she did know about Julian, he would not reverse his decisions easily. And she wasn't certain it mattered. She was trapped.
Whatever life held in store for her now, she would have to make the best of it.
After two days of packing, the family was on its way to Hampshire. Cam, Amelia, Poppy, and Beatrix were in the first carriage, while Leo, Win, and Miss Marks were in the second. They had departed before day had broken, to gain as much headway as possible on the twelve-hour journey.
God knew what was being discussed in the second carriage. Cam only hoped Win's presence would help to blunt the animosity between Leo and Miss Marks.
The conversation in the first carriage, as Cam had expected, was nothing but animated. It both touched and amused him that Poppy and Beatrix had launched a campaign to put Merripen forth as a candidate to be Win's husband. Naively the girls had assumed that the only thing standing in the way was Merripen's lack of fortune.
"-so if you could give him some of your money-," Beatrix was saying eagerly.
"-or give him part of Leo's fortune," Poppy interceded. "Leo would only waste it-"
"-make Merripen understand that it would be Win's dowry," Beatrix said, "so it wouldn't hurt his pride-"
"-and they wouldn't need very much," Poppy said. "Neither of them gives a fig for mansions or fine carriages or-"
"Wait, both of you," Cam said, lifting his hands in a defensive gesture. "The problem is more complex than a matter of money, and-no, stop chirping for a moment and hear me out." He smiled into the two pairs of blue eyes regarding him so anxiously. He found their concern for Merripen and Win more than a little endearing. "Merripen has ample means to offer for Win. What he earns as the Ramsay estate manager is a handsome living in itself, and he also has unlimited access to the Ramsay accounts."
"Then why is Win going to marry Dr. Harrow and not Merripen?" Beatrix demanded.
"For reasons Merripen wants to keep private, he believes he would not be an appropriate husband for her."
"But he loves her!"
"Love doesn't solve every problem, Bea," Amelia said gently.
"That sounds like something Mother would have said," Poppy remarked with a slight smile, while Beatrix looked disgruntled.
"What would your father have said?" Cam asked.
"He would have led us all into some lengthy philosophical exploration of the nature of love, and it would have accomplished nothing whatsoever," Amelia said. "But it would have been fascinating."
"I don't care how complicated everyone says it is," Beatrix said. "Win should marry Merripen. Don't you agree, Amelia?"
"It's not our choice," Amelia replied. "And it's not Win's, either, unless the big dunderhead offers her an alternative. There's nothing Win can do if he won't propose to her."
"Wouldn't it be nice if ladies could propose to gentlemen?" Beatrix mused.
"Heavens, no," Amelia said promptly. "That would make it far too easy for the gentlemen."
"In the animal kingdom," Beatrix commented, "males and females enjoy equal status. A female may do anything she wishes."
"The animal kingdom allows many behaviors that we humans cannot emulate, dear. Scratching in public, for example. Regurgitating food. Flaunting themselves to attract a mate. Not to mention… Well, I needn't go on."
"I wish you would," Cam said with a grin. He settled Amelia more comfortably against his side and spoke to Beatrix and Poppy. "Listen, you two. Neither of you is to bedevil Merripen about the situation. I know you want to help, but all you'll succeed in doing is provoking him."
They both grumbled and nodded reluctantly, and snuggled in their respective corners. It was still dark outside, and the rocking motion of the carriage was soothing. In a matter of minutes, both sisters were drowsing.
Glancing at Amelia, Cam saw that she was still awake. He stroked the fine-grained skin of her face and throat, looking down into her pure blue eyes.
"Why didn't he step forward, Cam?" she whispered. "Why did he give Win to Dr. Harrow?"
Cam took his time about answering. "He's afraid."
"What he might do to her."
Amelia frowned in bewilderment. "That makes no sense. Merripen would never hurt her."
"You're referring to the danger of getting her with child? But Win doesn't agree with Dr. Harrow's opinion, and she says that even he can't say of a certainty what might happen."
"It's not just that." Cam sighed and settled her more closely against him. "Did Merripen ever tell you that he was asharibe?"
"No, what does that mean?"
"It's a word used to describe a Romany warrior. Boys as young as five or six are trained in bare-knuckle fighting. There are no rules or time limits. The goal is to inflict the worst damage as quickly as possible until someone drops. The boys' handlers take money from paying crowds. I've seen asharibe who were badly hurt, blinded, even killed during the matches. They fight with fractured wrists and broken ribs if necessary." Absently Cam smoothed Amelia's hair as he added, "There were none in our tribe. Our leader decided it was too cruel. We learned to fight, of course, but it was never a way of life for us."