Win had always thought Kev Merripen was beautiful, in the way that an austere landscape or a wintry day could be beautiful. He was a large, striking man, uncompromising in every angle. The exotic boldness of his features was a perfect setting for eyes so dark that the irises were barely distinguishable from the pupil. His hair was thick and as black as a raven's wing, his brows strong and straight. And his wide mouth was set with a perpetually brooding curve that Win found irresistible.
Merripen. Her love, but never her lover. They had known each other since childhood, when he had been taken in by her family. Although the Hathaways had always treated him as one of their own, Merripen had acted in the capacity of a servant. A protector. An outsider.
He came to Win's bedroom and stood at the threshold to watch as she packed a valise with a few personal articles from the top of her dresser. A hairbrush, a rack of pins, a handful of handkerchiefs that her sister Poppy had embroidered for her. As Win tucked the objects into the leather bag, she was intensely aware of Merripen's motionless form. She knew what lurked beneath his stillness, because she felt the same undertow of yearning.
The thought of leaving him was breaking her heart. And yet there was no choice. She had been an invalid ever since she'd had scarlet fever two years earlier. She was thin and frail and given to fainting spells and fatigue. Weak lungs, all the doctors had said. Nothing to do but succumb. A lifetime of bed rest followed by an early death.
Win would not accept such a fate.
She longed to get well, to enjoy the things that most people took for granted. To dance, laugh, walk through the countryside. She wanted the freedom to love… to marry… to have her own family someday.
With her health in such a poor state, there was no possibility of doing any of those things. But that was about to change. She was departing this day for a French clinic, where a dynamic young doctor, Julian Harrow, had achieved remarkable results for patients just like herself. His treatments were unorthodox, controversial, but Win didn't care. She would have done anything to be cured. Because until that day came, she could never have Merripen.
"Don't go," he said, so softly that she almost didn't hear him.
Win struggled to remain outwardly calm, even as a hot-and-cold chill went down her spine.
"Please close the door," she managed to say. They needed privacy for the conversation they were about to have.
Merripen didn't move. Color had risen in his swarthy face, and his black eyes glittered with a ferocity that wasn't at all like him. He was all Rom at this moment, his emotions closer to the surface than he ever usually allowed.
She went to close the door herself, while he moved away from her as if any contact between them would result in fatal harm.
"Why don't you want me to go, Kev?" she asked gently.
"You won't be safe there."
"I'll be perfectly safe," she said. "I have faith in Dr. Harrow. His treatments sound sensible to me, and he's had a high success rate-"
"He's had as many failures as successes. There are better doctors here in London. You should try them first."
"I think my best chances lie with Dr. Harrow." Win smiled into Merripen's hard black eyes, understanding the things he couldn't say. "I'll come back to you. I promise."
He ignored that. Any attempt she made to bring their feelings to light was always met with rock-hard resistance. He would never admit he cared for her, or treat her as anything other than a fragile invalid who needed his protection. A butterfly under glass.
While he went on with his private pursuits.
Despite Merripen's discretion in personal matters, Win was certain there had been more than a few women who had given him their bodies, and used him for their own pleasure. Something bleak and angry rose from the depths of her soul at the thought of Merripen lying with someone else. It would shock everyone who knew her, had they understood the power of her desire for him. It would probably shock Merripen most of all.
Seeing his expressionless face, Win thought, Very well, Kev. If this is what you want, I'll be stoic. We'll have a pleasant, bloodless good-bye.
Later she would suffer in private, knowing it would be an eternity until she saw him again. But that was better than living like this, forever together and yet apart, her illness always between them.
"Well," she said briskly, "I'll be off soon. And there's no need to worry, Kev. Leo will take care of me during the trip to France, and-"
"Your brother can't even take care of himself," Merripen said harshly. "You're not going. You'll stay here, where I can-"
He bit off the words.
But Win had heard a note of something like fury, or anguish, buried in his deep voice.
This was getting interesting.
Her heart began to thump. "There…" She had to pause to catch her breath. "There's only one thing that could stop me from leaving."
He shot her an alert glance. "What is it?"
It took her a long moment to summon the courage to speak. "Tell me you love me. Tell me, and I'll stay."
The black eyes widened. The sound of his indrawn breath cut through the air like the downward arc of an ax stroke. He was silent, frozen.
A curious mixture of amusement and despair surged through Win as she waited for his reply.
"I… care for everyone in your family…"
"No. You know that's not what I'm asking for." Win moved toward him and lifted her pale hands to his chest, resting her palms on a surface of tough, unyielding muscle. She felt the response that jolted through him. "Please," she said, hating the desperate edge in her own voice, "I wouldn't care if I died tomorrow, if I could just hear it once-"
"Don't," he growled, backing away.
Casting aside all caution, Win followed. She reached out to grasp the loose folds of his shirt. "Tell me. Let's finally bring the truth out into the open-"
"Hush; you'll make yourself ill."
It infuriated Win that he was right. She could feel the familiar weakness, the dizziness that came along with her pounding heart and laboring lungs. She cursed her failing body. "I love you," she said wretchedly. "And if I were well, no power on earth could keep me away from you. If I were well, I would take you into my bed, and I would show you as much passion as any woman could-"
"No." His hand lifted to her mouth as if to muffle her, then snatched back as he felt the warmth of her lips.
"If I'm not afraid to admit it, why should you be?" Her pleasure at being near him, touching him, was a kind of madness. Recklessly she molded herself against him. He tried to push her away without hurting her, but she clung with all her remaining strength. "What if this were the last moment you ever had with me? Wouldn't you have been sorry not to tell me how you felt? Wouldn't you-"
Merripen covered her mouth with his, desperate for a way to make her quiet. They both gasped and went still, absorbing the feel of it. Each strike of his breath on her cheek was a shock of heat. His arms went around her, wrapping her in his vast strength, holding her against the hardness of his body. And then everything ignited, and they were both lost in a furor of need.
She could taste the sweetness of apples on his breath, the bitter hint of coffee, but most of all the rich essence of him. Wanting more, craving him, she pressed upward. He took the innocent offering with a low, savage sound.
She felt the touch of his tongue. Opening to him, she drew him deeper, hesitantly using her own tongue in a slide of silk-on-silk, and he shivered and gasped and held her more tightly. A new weakness flooded her, her senses starving for his hands and mouth and body… his powerful weight over and between and inside her.… Oh, she wanted him, wanted…
Merripen kissed her with savage hunger, his mouth moving over hers with rough, luscious strokes. Her nerves blazed with pleasure, and she squirmed and clutched at him, wanting him closer.
Even through the layers of her skirts, she felt the way he urged his h*ps against hers, the tight subtle rhythm. Instinctively she reached down to feel him, to soothe him, and her trembling fingers encountered the hard shape of his arousal.
He buried an agonized groan in her mouth. For one scalding moment he reached down and gripped her hand tightly over himself. Her eyes flew open as she felt the pulsing charge, the heat and tension that seemed ready to explode. "Kev… the bed…," she whispered, going crimson from head to toe. She had wanted him so desperately, for so long, and now it was finally going to happen. "Take me-"
Merripen cursed and shoved her away from him, turning to the side. He was gasping uncontrollably.
Win moved toward him. "Kev-"
"Stay back," he said with such force that she jumped in fright.
For at least a minute, there was no sound or movement save the angry friction of their breaths.
Merripen was the first to speak. His voice was weighted with rage and disgust, though whether it was directed against her or himself was impossible to fathom. "That will never happen again."
"Because you're afraid you might hurt me?"
"Because I don't want you that way."
She stiffened with indignation, and gave a disbelieving laugh. "You responded to me just now. I felt it."
His color deepened. "That would have happened with any woman."
"You… you're trying to make me believe that you have no particular feeling for me?"
"Nothing other than a desire to protect one of your family."
She knew it was a lie; she knew it. But his callous rejection made leaving a bit easier. "I…" It was difficult to speak. "How noble of you." Her attempt at an ironic tone was ruined by her breathlessness. Stupid weak lungs.
"You're overwrought," Merripen said, moving toward her. "You need to rest-"
"I'm fine," Win said fiercely, going to the washstand, gripping it to steady herself. When her balance was secured, she poured a splash of water onto a linen cloth, and applied it to her flushed cheeks. Glancing into the looking glass, she made her face into its usual serene mask. Somehow she made her voice calm. "I will have all of you or nothing," she said. "You know the words that will make me stay. If you won't say them, then leave."
The air in the room was heavy with emotion. Win's nerves screamed in protest as the silence drew out. She stared into the looking glass, able to see only the broad shape of his shoulder and arm. And then he moved, and the door opened and closed.
Win continued to dab at her face with the cool cloth, using it to blot a few stray teardrops. Setting the cloth aside, she noticed that her palm, the one she had used to grip the intimate shape of him, still retained the memory of his flesh. And her lips still tingled from the sweet, hard kisses, and her chest was filled with the ache of desperate love.
"Well," she said to her flushed reflection, "now you're motivated." And she laughed shakily until she had to wipe away more tears.
As Cam Rohan supervised the loading of the carriage that would soon depart for the London docks, he couldn't help wondering if he was making a mistake. He had promised his new wife that he would take care of her family. But less than two months after he'd married Amelia, he was sending one of her sisters to France.
"We can wait," he had told Amelia only last night, holding her against his shoulder, stroking her rich brown hair as it lay in a river over his chest. "If you wish to keep Win with you a little longer, we can send her to the clinic in the spring."
"No, she must go as soon as possible. Dr. Harrow made it clear that too much time has already been wasted. Win's best hope of improvement is to start the course of treatment at once."
Cam had smiled at Amelia's pragmatic tone. His wife excelled at hiding her emotions, maintaining such a sturdy facade that few people perceived how vulnerable she was underneath. Cam was the only one with whom she would let down her guard.
"We must be sensible," Amelia had added.
Cam had rolled her to her back and stared down at her small, lovely face in the lamplight. Such round blue eyes, dark as the heart of midnight. "Yes," he allowed softly. "But it's not always easy to be sensible, is it?"
She shook her head, her eyes turning liquid.
He stroked her cheek with his fingertips. "Poor hummingbird," he whispered. "You've gone through so many changes in the past months-not the least of which was marrying me. And now I'm sending your sister away."
"To a clinic, to make her well," Amelia had said. "I know it's best for her. It's only that… I'll miss her. Win is the dearest, gentlest one in the family. The peacemaker. We'll all probably murder each other in her absence." She gave him a little scowl. "Don't tell anyone I was crying, or I shall be very cross with you."
"No, monisha," he had soothed, cuddling her closer as she sniffled. "All your secrets are safe with me. You know that."
And he had kissed away her tears and removed her nightgown slowly, and made love to her even more slowly. "Little love," he had whispered as she trembled beneath him. "Let me make you feel better…" And as he took careful possession of her body, he told her in the old language that she pleased him in all ways, that he loved to be inside her, that he would never leave her. Although Amelia hadn't understood the foreign words, the sound of them had excited her, her hands working on his back like cat paws, her h*ps pressing upward into his weight. He had pleasured her, and taken his own pleasure, until his wife had fallen into a sated sleep.
For a long while afterward Cam had held her nestled against him, with the trusting weight of her head on his shoulder. He was responsible for Amelia now, and for her entire family.
The Hathaways were a group of misfits that included four sisters, a brother, and Merripen, who was a Rom like Cam. No one seemed to know much about Merripen aside from the fact that he had been taken in by the Hathaway family as a boy, after being wounded and left for dead in a Gypsy hunt. He was something more than a servant, but not quite part of the family.
There was no predicting how Merripen would fare in Win's absence, but Cam had a feeling it wasn't going to be pleasant. They couldn't have been more opposite, the pale blond invalid and the huge Rom. One so refined and otherworldly, the other brown and rough-hewn and barely civilized. But the connection was there, like the path of a hawk that always returned to the same forest, following the invisible map that was etched in its very nature.