The next morning Amelia awakened to the unwelcome news, delivered by Poppy, that Leo had not slept in his bed the previous night and couldn't be found anywhere, and Merripen had taken a turn for the worse.
"Bother Leo," Amelia grumbled, climbing out of bed and reaching for her robe and slippers. "He started drinking yesterday afternoon and doubtless didn't stop. I couldn't care less where he is, or what's happened to him."
"What if he wandered out of the house and?oh, I don't know?stumbled over a tree branch or something? Shouldn't we ask some of the gardeners and groundsmen to look for him?"
"God. How mortifying." Amelia pulled the robe over her head and buttoned it hastily. "I suppose so. Yes, although make it clear they're not to go on an all-out search. I should hate for their work to be interrupted just because our brother has no self-control."
"He's grieving, Amelia," Poppy said quietly.
"I know. But God help me, I'm tired of his grieving. And it makes me feel horrid to say so."
Poppy stared at her compassionately, and reached out to hug her. "You shouldn't feel horrid. It always falls to you to pick up the pieces of his muck-ups, not to mention everyone else's. I'd be tired, too, if I were you."
Amelia returned the hug, and stepped back with a sigh. "We'll worry about Leo later. Right now I'm more concerned about Merripen. Have you seen him this morning?"
"No, but Win has. She says he's definitely feverish and the wound isn't healing. I think she stayed up with him most of the night."
"And now she'll probably faint from exhaustion," Amelia said in exasperation.
Poppy hesitated and frowned. "Amelia... I can't decide whether this is the best or worst time to tell you... but there's a minor to-do belowstairs. It seems some of the silver flatware has gone missing."
Amelia went to the window and stared beseechingly up at the cloud-heavy sky. "Dear Merciful Lord, please don't let it be Beatrix."
"Amen," Poppy said. "But it probably is."
Feeling overwhelmed, Amelia thought in despair, I've I failed. The house is gone, Leo is missing or dead, Merripen is injured, Win is ill, Beatrix is going to prison, and Poppy is doomed to spinsterhood. But what she said was, "Merripen first," and strode briskly from the room with Poppy at her heels.
Win was at Merripen's bedside, so exhausted she could hardly sit up straight. Her face was blanched, her eyes •bloodshot, her entire body drooping. She had so few reserves, it took very little to deplete them. "He has fever," she said, wringing out a wet cloth and draping it over the back of his neck.
"I'll send for the doctor." Amelia came to stand beside her. "Go to bed."
Win shook her head. "Later. He needs me now."
"The last thing he needs is for you to make yourself ill over him," Amelia replied shortly. She softened her tone as she saw the anguish in her sister's gaze. "Please go to bed, Win. Poppy and I will take care of him while you sleep."
Slowly Win lowered her face until their foreheads were touching. "It's going all wrong, Amelia," she whispered. "His strength has gone too quickly. And the fever shouldn't have come this fast."
"We'll get him through this." Even to her own ears, Amelia's words rang false. She forced a reassuring smile to her lips. "Go and rest, dear."
Win obeyed reluctantly, while Amelia bent over the patient. Merripen's healthy bronze color had been leached into ashen paleness, the black slashes of his brows and the fans of his lashes standing out in sharp contrast. He slept with his mouth partially open, shallow breaths rushing over the chapped surface of his lips. It didn't seem possible that Merripen, always so rugged and sturdy, could have sunk so fast. Touching the side of his face, Amelia was shocked by the heat coming from his skin. "Merripen," she murmured. "Wake up, dear. Poppy and I are going to clean your wound. You must hold still for us. All right?" He swallowed and nodded, his eyes cracking open. Murmuring in sympathy, the sisters worked in tandem, folding back the covers to his waist, lifting the hem of his shirt to his shoulders, and laying out clean rags, pots of salve and honey, and fresh bandages.
Amelia went to ring the servants' bell, while Poppy moved the old dressing. She wrinkled her nose at mildly unpleasant scent of the exposed raw flesh. The sisters exchanged worried glances.
Working as gently and quickly as possible, Amelia cleaned the exudate from the oozing wound, applied fresh salve, and covered it. Merripen was quiet and rigid, although his back flinched beneath the treatment. He couldn't stifle an occasional hiss of pain. By the time she had finished, he was trembling.
Poppy wiped his sweating face with a dry cloth. "Poor Merripen." She brought a cup of water to his lips. When he tried to refuse, she slid an arm beneath his head and raised it insistently. "Yes, you must. I should have known you'd be a terrible patient. Drink, dear, or I'll be forced to sing something."
Amelia stifled a grin as Merripen complied. "Your singing isn't that terrible, Poppy. Father always said you sang like a bird."
"He meant a parrot," Merripen said hoarsely, leaning his head on Poppy's arm.
"Just for that," Poppy informed him, "I'm going to send Beatrix in here to look after you today. She'll probably put one of her pets in bed with you, and spread her jacks all over the floor. And if you're very lucky, she'll bring in her glue pots, and you can help make paper-doll clothes."
Merripen gave Amelia a glance rife with muted suffering, and she laughed.
"If that doesn't inspire you to get well quickly, dear, nothing will."
But as the next two days passed, Merripen worsened. The doctor seemed powerless to do anything except offer more of the same treatment. The wound was turning sour, he admitted. One could tell by the way it was bleeding white and the skin around it was blackening, an inevitable process that would eventually poison Merripen's entire body.
Merripen dropped weight faster than one would have thought humanly possible. It was often that way with burn injuries, the doctor said. The body consumed itself in its effort to heal the wounds. What troubled Amelia more than Merripen's appearance was the increasing listlessness that even Win couldn't seem to penetrate. "He can't stand being helpless," Win told Amelia, holding Merripen's hand as he slept.
"No one likes to be helpless," Amelia replied.
"It's not a question of liking or not liking. I think Merripen literally can't tolerate it. And so he withdraws." Win gently stroked the lax brown fingers, so powerful and callused from work.
Watching the tender absorption of her sister's expression, Amelia couldn't help asking softly, "Do you love him, Win?"
And her sister, unreadable as a sphinx, turned mysterious blue eyes to her. "Why, of course. We all love Merripen, don't we?"
Which wasn't at all an answer. But Amelia felt she didn't have the right to pursue the matter.
A matter of increasing worry was Leo's continued absence. He had taken a horse but had packed no belongings, Would he have gone on the long ride to London on horseback? Knowing her brother's dislike of travel, Amelia didn't think so. It was likely Leo had remained in Hampshire, although where he could have been staying was a mystery. He was not at the village tavern, nor was he at Ramsay House, nor anywhere on the Westcliff estate.
To Amelia's relief, Christopher Frost came to call one afternoon, dressed in somber attire. Handsome and scented of expensive cologne water, he brought a perfectly arranged bouquet of flowers wrapped in stylish parchment lace.
Amelia met him in the downstairs parlor. In her distress over Merripen's illness and Leo's disappearance, all the constraint she might have felt toward Christopher was gone. The past hurts had receded to the back of her mind, and at the moment she needed a sympathetic friend.
Taking both her hands in his, Christopher sat with her on a plush settee. "Amelia," he murmured in concern. "I can see the state of your spirits. Don't say Merripen's condition is worse?"
"A great deal worse," she said, grateful for the sustaining grip of his hands. "The doctor seems to have no other remedy, nor does he think any of the local folk cures would have any effect other than to cause Merripen further discomfort. I'm so afraid we'll lose him."
His thumbs rubbed gently over her knuckles. "I'm sorry. I know what he has meant to your family. Shall I send for a doctor from London?"
"I don't think there's time." She felt tears rising, and held them back with an effort.
"If there is any help I can give, you have only to ask."
"There is something ..." She told him about Leo's absence, and that she felt certain he was somewhere in Hampshire. "Someone has to find him," she said. "I would look for him myself, but I'm needed here. And he tends to go to places where..."
"Where respectable people don't go," Christopher finished wryly. "Knowing your brother as I do, sweet, it's probably best to let him stay wherever he is until he's slept it off and the fog has lifted."
"But he could be hurt, or in danger. He? She perceived from his expression that the last thing Christopher wanted to do was search for her scapegrace of a brother. "If you would ask some of the townspeople if they have seen him, I would be very grateful."
"I will. I promise." He surprised her by reaching out for her, his arms closing around her. She stiffened but allowed him to draw her near. "Poor sweet," he murmured. "You have so many burdens to carry."
There had been a time when Amelia had passionately longed for a moment such as this. Being held by Christopher, soothed by him. Once this would have been heaven.
But it didn't feel quite the same as before.
"Christoph? she began, moving away from him, but his mouth caught hers, and she froze in astonishment as he kissed her. This, too, was different... and yet for a moment, she remembered what it had been like, how happy she had once been with him. It seemed so long ago, that time before the scarlet fever, when she had been innocent and hopeful and the future had seemed full of promise.
She turned her face from his. "No, Christopher."
"Of course." He pressed his lips to her hair. "Now isn't the proper time for this. I'm sorry."
"I'm so concerned about my brother, and Merripen, I can't think of anything else?
"I know, sweet." He turned her face back to his. "I'm going to help you and your family. There's nothing I want more than your safety and happiness. And you need my protection. With your family in turmoil, you could easily be taken advantage of."
She frowned. "No one is taking advantage of me."
"What about the Gypsy?"
"You're referring to Mr. Rohan?"
Christopher nodded. "I chanced to meet him on his way to London, and he spoke of you in a way that... well, suffice it to say, he's no gentleman. I was offended for your sake"
"What did he say?"
"He went so far as to claim that you and he were going to marry." A scornful laugh escaped him. "As if you would ever lower yourself to that. A half-bred Gypsy with no manners or education."
Amelia felt a rush of defensive anger. She looked into the face of the man she had once loved so desperately. He was the embodiment of everything a young woman should want to marry. Not all that long ago, she might have compared him to Cam Rohan and found Christopher superior. But she was no longer the woman she had been... and Christopher wasn't the knight in shining armor she had believed him to be.
"I wouldn't consider it lowering myself," she said. "Mr. Rohan is a gentleman, and highly esteemed by his friends."
"They all find him entertaining enough for social occasions, but he will never be their equal. And never a gentleman. That's understood by everyone, my dear, even Rohan himself."
"It's neither understood nor accepted by me," she said. 'There is more to being a gentleman than fine manners."
Christopher stared intently into her indignant face.
"Very well, we won't discuss him, if it makes you heated. But never forget that Gypsies are renowned for their charm and deceit. Their ruling principle is to seek their own enjoyment without regard for responsibilities or consequences. Your faith in him is misplaced, Amelia. I only hope you haven't entrusted any of your family's business or legal affairs to him."
"I appreciate your concern," she replied, wishing he would leave and try to find her missing brother. "But my family's affairs will remain in the hands of Lord Ramsay and myself."
"Then Rohan won't be returning from London? Your connection with him is severed?"
"He will return," she admitted reluctantly, "to bring some professional men who will advise what can be done with Ramsay House."
"Ah." There was just enough condescension in his tone to set her teeth on edge. Christopher shook his head and was silent for a long moment. "And is it only his counsel you will accept on the matter?" he finally asked. "Or may I be allowed to make recommendations on a subject of which I have a fair amount of expertise and he has none?"
"I would welcome your recommendations, of course."
"Then I may visit Ramsay House to make some professional assessments of my own?"
"If you like. That is very kind of you. Although..." She paused uncertainly. "I wouldn't wish for you to spend too much of your time there."
"Any time in your service is well spent," He leaned forward and brushed his lips against hers before she had the chance to pull back.
"Christopher, I'm far more concerned about my brother than the house?
"Of course," he said reassuringly. "I'll ask after him, and if there is any news, I will relay it to you at once."
But somehow she knew as Christopher left that his search for Leo would be halfhearted at best. Despair crept through her in a cold, heavy wave.
The next morning Amelia awakened from a nightmare with her arms and legs thrashing, her heart pounding. She had dreamed of finding Leo floating facedown in a pond, and as she had swum to him and tried to pull him to the edge, his body had begun to sink. She couldn't keep him afloat, and as he retreated farther into the black water, she was pulled down with him ... choking on water, unable to see or breathe?Trembling, she climbed out of bed and hunted for her slippers and robe. It was early yet, the house still dark and quiet. She headed for the door, and paused with her hand on the doorknob. Fear pumped through her veins. She didn't want to leave the room. She was afraid of finding out that Merripen had died during the night... afraid, too, that her brother had met with tragedy... and most of all afraid that she wouldn't be able to accept the worst, if the worst should come. She didn't feel as if she had the strength.