"I'll take the title," Leo had said decisively.
"Because you don't believe in curses any more than I do?"
"Because I'm already so damned cursed, another one won't matter."
Having never been to the southern county of Hampshire before, all the Hathaway siblings—with the exception of Leo—craned their necks to view the scenery.
Amelia smiled at her sisters' excitement. Poppy and Beatrix, both dark-haired and blue-eyed like herself, were filled with high spirits. Her gaze alighted on Win and stayed for a moment, taking careful measure of her condition.
Win was different from the rest of the Hathaway brood, the only one who had inherited their father's pale blond hair and introspective nature. She was shy and quiet, enduring every hardship without complaint. When scarlet fever had swept through the village a year earlier, Leo and Win had fallen gravely ill. Leo had made a complete recovery, but Win had been frail and colorless ever since. The doctor had diagnosed her with a weakness of the lungs, caused by the fever, that he said might never improve.
Amelia refused to accept that Win would be an invalid forever. No matter what it took, she would make Win well again.
It was difficult to imagine a better place for Win and the rest of the Hathaways than Hampshire. It was one of the most beautiful counties in England, with intersecting rivers, great forests, meadows, and wet heath lands. The Ramsay estate was situated close to Stony Cross, one of the largest market towns in the county. Stony Cross exported cattle, sheep, timber, corn, a plenitude of local cheeses, and wild-flower honey?rich territory, indeed.
"I wonder why the Ramsay estate is so unproductive?" Amelia mused as the carriage traveled alongside lush pastures. "The land in Hampshire is so fertile, one almost has to try not to grow something here."
"But our land is cursed, isn't it?" Poppy asked with mild concern.
"No," Amelia replied, "not the estate itself. Just the titleholder. Which would be Leo."
"Oh." Poppy relaxed. "That's fine, then."
Leo didn't bother responding, only huddled in the seat corner looking surly. Although a week of enforced sobriety had left him clear-eyed and clear-headed, it had done nothing to improve his temper. With Merripen and the Hathaways watching over him like hawks, he'd had no opportunity to drink anything other than water or tea.
For the first few days Leo had been given to uncontrollable shaking, agitation, and profuse sweating. Now that the worst of it was over, he looked more like his old self. But few people would believe Leo was a man of eight and twenty. The past year had aged him immeasurably.
The closer they came to Stony Cross, the lovelier the scenery was until it seemed nearly every view was worth painting. The carriage road passed tidy black-and-white cottages with thatched roofs, millhouses and ponds shrouded with weeping willows, old stone churches dating back to the Middle Ages. Thrushes busily stripped ripe berries from hedgerows, while stonechats perched on blossoming hawthorns. Meadows were dense with autumn crocus and meadow saffron, and the trees were dressed in gold and red. Plump white sheep grazed in the fields.
Poppy took a deep, appreciative breath. "How bracing," she said. "I wonder what makes the country air smell so different?"
"It could be the pig farm we just passed," Leo muttered.
Beatrix, who had been reading from a pamphlet describing the south of England, said cheerfully, "Hampshire is known for its exceptional pigs. They're fed on acorns and beechnut mast from the forest, and it makes the bacon quite lovely. And there's an annual sausage competition!"
He gave her a sour look. "Splendid. I certainly hope we haven't missed it."
Win, who had been reading from a thick tome about Hampshire and its environs, volunteered, "The history of Ramsay House is impressive."
"Our house is in a history book?" Beatrix asked in delight.
"It's only a small paragraph," Win said from behind the book, "but yes, Ramsay House is mentioned. Of course, it's nothing compared to our neighbor, the Earl of Westcliff, whose estate features one of the finest country homes in England. It dwarfs ours by comparison. And the earl's family has been in residence for nearly five hundred years."
"He must be awfully old, then," Poppy commented, straight-faced.
Beatrix snickered. "Go on, Win."
" 'Ramsay House,'" Win read aloud," 'stands in a small park populated with stately oaks and beeches, coverts of bracken, and surrounds of deer-cropped turf. Originally an Elizabethan manor house completed in 1594, the building boasts of many long galleries representative of the period. Alterations and additions to the house have resulted in the grafting of a Jacobean ballroom and a Georgian wing.'"
"We have a ballroom!" Poppy exclaimed.
"We have deer!" Beatrix said gleefully.
Leo settled deeper into his corner. "God, I hope we have a privy."
It was early evening by the time the hired driver turned the carriage onto the private beech-lined drive that led to Ramsay House. Weary from the long journey, the Hathaways exclaimed in relief at the sight of the house, with its high roofline and brick chimney stacks.
"I wonder how Merripen is faring," Win said, her blue eyes soft with concern. Merripen, the cook-maid, and the footman had gone to the house two days earlier to prepare for the Hathaways' arrival.
"No doubt he's been working ceaselessly day and night," Amelia replied, "taking inventory, rearranging everything in sight, and issuing commands to people who don't dare disobey him. I'm sure he's quite happy."