"They're welcome to have him," Amelia replied grumpily. "I fail to see the appeal of a man who goes through each day looking as if he's either just gotten out of bed or is preparing to get back in it." She wrapped her hair in a protective cloth and tucked the ends under turban-style.
They were preparing for another day of cleaning, and the ancient house dust had a tendency to cling obstinately to the skin and hair. Unfortunately the hired help was not wont to arrive in a timely manner, if at all. Since Leo was still abed after a night of heavy drinking, and probably wouldn't arise until noon, Amelia was feeling particularly cross with him. It was Leo's house and estate—the least he could do was help restore it. Or hire proper servants.
"His eyes have changed," Win murmured. "Not merely the expression. The actual color. Have you noticed?"
Amelia went still. She took a long time to reply, thought it was my imagination."
"No. They were always dark blue like yours. Now they're mostly light gray. Like a pond after the sky has turned in winter."
"I'm certain the color of some people's eyes change as they mature."
"You know it's because of Laura."
A dark heaviness pressed against Amelia from all sides as she thought about the friend she had lost and the brother she seemed to have lost along with her. But she couldn't dwell on any of that now, there was too much to be done.
"I don't think such a thing is possible. I've never heard of? She broke off as she saw Win wrapping her long braids in a cloth identical to hers. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to help today," Win said. Although her tone was placid, her delicate jaw was set like a mule's. "I'm feeling quite well and?
"Oh, no you're not! You'll work yourself into a collapse, and then you'll take days to recover. Find some place to sit, while the rest of us?
"I'm tired of sitting. I'm tired of watching everyone else work. I can set my own limits, Amelia. Let me do as I wish."
"No." Incredulously Amelia watched as Win picked up a broom from the corner. "Win, put that down and stop being silly!" Annoyance whipped through her. "You're not going to help anyone by expending all your reserves on menial tasks."
"I can do it." Win gripped the broom handle with both hands as if she sensed Amelia was on the verge of wrenching it away from her. "I won't overtax myself."
"Put down the broom."
"Leave me alone," Win cried, "Go dust something!"
"Win, if you don't? Amelia's attention was diverted as she saw her sister's gaze fly to the kitchen threshold.
Merripen stood there, his broad shoulders filling the doorway. Although it was early morning, he was already dusty and perspiring, his shirt clinging to the powerful contours of his chest and waist. He wore an expression they knew well—the implacable one that meant you could move a mountain with a teaspoon sooner than change his mind about something. Approaching Win, he extended a broad hand in a wordless demand.
They were both motionless. But even in their stubborn opposition, Amelia saw a singular connection, as if they were locked in an eternal stalemate from which neither wanted to break free.
Win gave in with a helpless scowl. "I have nothing to do." It was rare for her to sound so peevish. "I'm sick of sitting and reading and staring out the window. I want to be useful. I want…" Her voice trailed away as she saw Merripen's stern face. "Fine, then. Take it!" She tossed the broom at him, and he caught it reflexively. "I'll just find a corner somewhere and quietly go mad. I'll?
"Come with me," Merripen interrupted calmly. Setting the broom aside, he left the room.
Win exchanged a perplexed glance with Amelia, her vehemence fading. "What is he doing?"
"I have no idea."
The sisters followed him down a hallway to the dining room, which was spattered with rectangles of light from the tall multipaned windows that lined one wall. A scarred table ran down the center of the room, every available inch covered with dusty piles of china … towers of cups and saucers, plates of assorted sizes sandwiched together bowls wrapped in tattered scraps of gray linen. There were at least three different patterns all jumbled together.
"It needs to be sorted," Merripen said, gently nudging Win toward the table. "Many pieces are chipped. The must be separated from the rest."
It was the perfect task for Win, enough to keep her bus but not so strenuous that it would exhaust her. Filled with gratitude, Amelia watched as her sister picked up a teacup and held it upside down. The husk of a tiny dead spider dropped to the floor.
"What a mess," Win said, beaming. "I'll have to wash it, too, I suppose."
"If you'd like Poppy to help? Amelia began.
"Don't you dare send for Poppy," Win said. "This is my project, and I won't share it." Sitting at a chair that has been placed beside the table, she began to unwrap pieces of china.
Merripen looked down at Win's turbaned head, his fingers twitching as if he were sorely tempted to touch blond tendril that had slipped from beneath the cloth. His face was hard with the patience of a man who knew he would never have what he truly wanted. Using a single fingertip, he pushed a saucer away from the edge of the table. The china rattled subtly across the battered wood.
Amelia followed Merripen back to the kitchen. 'Thank you," she said when they were out of her sister's hearing, "In my worry over making certain Win didn't tire herself, it hadn't occurred to me that she might go mad from boredom."