"My husband is endlessly fascinated by machines," Mrs. Hunt said, laughing. "I believe they've eclipsed all his other interests."
"Not all," Hunt said softly. Something about the way he glanced at his wife caused her cheeks to flush.
Amused, Leo smoothed over the moment by saying, "Mr. Hunt, I would like to introduce Dr. Harrow, the physician who helped my sister to recover her health."
"A pleasure, sir," Dr. Harrow said, and shook Hunt's hand.
"Likewise," Hunt replied cordially, returning the shake. But he gave the doctor an odd, speculative look. "You are the Harrow who runs the clinic in France?"
"And you reside there still?"
"Yes, although I try to visit friends and family in Great Britain as often as my schedule allows."
"I believe I am acquainted with the family of your late wife," Hunt murmured, staring hard at him.
After a quick double blink, Harrow responded with a regretful smile, "The Lanhams. Estimable people. I haven't seen them for years. The memories, you understand."
"I understand," Hunt said quietly.
Win was puzzled by the long, awkward pause that followed, and the sense of discord that emanated from the two men. She glanced at her family, and Mrs. Hunt, who clearly didn't comprehend, either.
"Well, Mr. Hunt," Mrs. Hunt said brightly, "are we going to shock everyone by dancing together? They're going to play a waltz quite soon-and you know you are my favorite partner."
Hunt's attention was immediately distracted by the flirtatious note in his wife's voice. He grinned at her. "Anything for you, love."
Harrow caught Win's gaze with his own. "I haven't waltzed in far too long," he said. "Might you save a place for me on your dance card?"
"Your name is already there," she replied, and placed a light hand on his proffered arm. They followed the Hunts to the drawing room.
Poppy and Beatrix were already being approached by prospective partners, while Cam closed his gloved fingers over Amelia's. "I'll be damned if Hunt's the only one who's allowed to be shocking. Come dance with me."
"I'm afraid we won't shock anyone at all," she said, accompanying him without hesitation. "People already assume we don't know any better."
Leo watched the procession into the drawing room with narrowed eyes. "I wonder," he said to Merripen, "what Hunt knows about Harrow? Do you know him well enough to ask?"
"Yes," Merripen said. "But even if I didn't, I wouldn't leave this place until I made him tell me."
That made Leo chuckle. "You may be the only one in this entire mansion who would dare try to 'make' Simon Hunt do anything. He's a bloody big bastard."
"So am I," came Merripen's grim reply.
It was a lovely ball, or would have been, if Merripen had behaved like a reasonable human being. He watched Win constantly, hardly bothering to be discreet about it. While she stood in one group or another and he conversed with a group of men that included Mr. Hunt, Merripen's gaze never strayed far from Win.
At least three times Win was approached by various men with whom she had engaged to dance, and each time Merripen appeared at her side and glowered at the would-be dance partner until he slunk away.
Merripen was frightening off suitors right and left.
Even Miss Marks was unable to deter him. The governess had told Merripen most firmly that his chaper-onage was unnecessary, as she had the situation well in hand. But he had replied obstinately that if she were to act as chaperon, she had better do a better job of keeping undesirable men away from her charge.
"What do you think you're doing?" Win whispered to Merripen furiously, as he sent off yet another abashed gentleman. "I wanted to dance with him! I had promised him I would!"
"You're not going to dance with scum like him," Merripen muttered.
Win shook her head in bewilderment. "He's a viscount from a respected family. What could you possibly object to?"
"He's a friend of Leo's. That's reason enough."
Win glared up at Merripen. She struggled to retain a grasp on her composure. She had always found it so easy to conceal her emotions beneath a serene facade, but lately she was finding that more and more difficult. All her feelings were lurking too close to the surface. "If you are trying to ruin my evening," she told him, "you're doing a splendid job of it. I want to dance, and you're scaring away everyone who approaches me. Leave me alone." She turned her back to him, and sighed with relief as Julian Harrow came to them.
"Miss Hathaway," he said, "will you do me the honor-"
"Yes," she said before he could even finish the sentence. Taking his arm, she let him lead her into the mass of swirling, waltzing couples. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Merripen staring after her, and she sent him a threatening look. He returned it with a scowl.
As Win walked away, she felt the pressure of a frustrated laugh in her throat. She swallowed it back, thinking that Kev Merripen was the most infuriating man alive. He was a dog in the manger, refusing to have a relationship with her and yet not allowing her to be with anyone else. And knowing his capacity for endurance, it would probably go on for years. Forever. She couldn't live like this.
"Winnifred," Julian Harrow said, his gray eyes concerned. "This is far too lovely a night for you to be distressed. What were you arguing about?"