Win smiled. Even pale and drained as she was, her beauty was incandescent, her silvery-gold hair shining in the waning light, her complexion like porcelain. The line of her profile would have sent poets and painters into raptures. One was almost tempted to touch her to make certain she was a living, breathing being instead of a sculpture.
The carriage stopped at a much larger house than Amelia had expected. It was bordered by overgrown hedges and weed-clotted flower beds. With some gardening and considerable pruning, she thought, it would be lovely. The building was charmingly asymmetrical with a brick and stone exterior, a slate roof, and abundant leaded-glass windows.
The hired driver came to set out a movable step and assist the passengers from the vehicle. Descending to the crushed-rock surface of the drive, Amelia watched as her siblings emerged from the carriage. "The house and grounds are a bit unkempt," she warned. "No one has lived here in a very long time."
"I can't imagine why," Leo said. "It's very picturesque," Win commented brightly. The journey from London had exhausted her. Judging from the slump of her narrow shoulders and the way her skin seemed stretched too tightly over her cheekbones, Win had little strength left.
As her sister reached for a small valise that had been set by the carriage step, Amelia rushed forward and picked it up. "I'll carry this," she said. "You are not to lift a finger. Let's go inside, and we'll find a place for you to rest."
"I'm perfectly well," Win protested as they all went up the front stairs into the house.
The entrance hall was lined with paneling that had once been painted white but now was brown with age. The floor was scarred and filthy. A magnificent curved stone staircase occupied the back of the hall, its wrought-iron balustrade clotted with dust and spiderwebs. Amelia noticed that an attempt had already been made to clean a section of the balustrade, but it was obvious the process would be painstaking.
Merripen emerged from a hallway leading away from the entrance room. He was in his shirtsleeves with no collar or cravat, the neck of the garment hanging open to reveal tanned skin gleaming with perspiration. With his black hair falling over his forehead, and his dark eyes smiling at the sight of them, Merripen cut a dashing figure. "You're three hours behind schedule," he said.
Laughing, Amelia pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and gave it to him. "In a family of four sisters, there is no schedule."
Wiping at the dust and sweat on his face, Merripen glanced at all the Hathaways. His gaze lingered on Win for an extra moment.
Returning his attention to Amelia, Merripen gave her a concise report. He had found two women and a boy at the village to help clean the house. Three bedrooms had been made habitable so far. They had spent a great deal of time scrubbing the kitchen and stove, and the cook-maid was preparing a meal?Merripen broke off as he glanced over Amelia's shoulder. Unceremoniously he brushed by her and reached Win in three strides.
Amelia saw Win's slight form swaying, her lashes lowering as she half collapsed against Merripen. He caught her easily and lifted her in his arms, murmuring for her to put her head on his shoulder. Although his manner was as calm and unemotional as ever, Amelia was struck by the possessive way he held her sister.
"The journey was too much for her," Amelia said in concern. "She needs rest."
Merripen's face was expressionless. "I'll take her upstairs."
Win stirred and blinked. "Bother," she said breathlessly. "I was standing still, feeling fine, and then the floor seemed to rush up toward me. I'm sorry. I despise swooning."
"It's all right." Amelia gave her a reassuring smile. "Merripen will take you to bed. That is? She paused uncomfortably. "He will convey you to your bedroom."
"I can manage by myself," Win said. "I was just dizzy for a moment. Merripen, do put me down."
"You wouldn't make it past the first step," he said, ignoring her protests as he carried her to the stone staircase. And as he walked with her, Win's pale hand lifted slowly around his neck.
"Beatrix, will you go with them?" Amelia asked briskly, handing her the valise. "Win's nightgown is in here—you can help her change clothes."
"Yes, of course." Beatrix scampered toward the stairs. Left in the entrance hall with Leo and Poppy, Amelia turned in a slow circle to view all of it. "The solicitor said the estate was in disrepair," she said. "I think a more accurate word would have been 'shambles.' Can it be restored, Leo?" Not long ago—though it seemed a lifetime—Leo had spent two years studying art and architecture at the Grand Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He had also worked as a draftsman and painter for the renowned London architect Rowland Temple. Leo had been regarded as an exceptionally promising student, and had even considered setting up a practice. Now all that ambition had been extinguished.
Leo glanced around the hall without interest. "Barring any structural repairs, we would need about twenty-five to thirty thousand pounds, at least."
The figure caused Amelia to blanch. She lowered her gaze to the pockmarked floor at her feet and rubbed her temples. "Well, one thing is obvious. We need the advantage of wealthy in-laws. Which means you should start looking for available heiresses, Leo." She flicked a playful glance at her sister. "And you, Poppy—you'll have to catch a viscount, or at the very least a baron."
Her brother rolled his eyes. "Why not you? I don't see why you should be exempt from having to marry for the family's benefit."