Win stopped and waited, smiling, as he came to her. His gaze swept over her, not missing a detail of the simple pink walking gown and matching saque jacket.
"You're dressed now," Merripen remarked, as if he were surprised that she wasn't parading na*ed through the lobby.
"This is a walking dress," she said. "As you can see, I'm going out for some air."
"Who's escorting you?" he asked, even though he could see the footman standing a few feet away. "Charles," she replied.
"Only Charles?" Merripen looked outraged. "You need more protection than that."
"We're only walking to Marble Arch," she said, amused.
"Are you out of your mind, woman? Do you have any idea what could happen to you at Hyde Park? There are pickpockets, cutpurses, confidence tricksters, and gangs, all ready for a nice little pigeon like you to pluck."
Rather than take offense, Charles said eagerly, "Perhaps Mr. Merripen has a point. Miss Hathaway. It is rather far… and one never knows…"
"Are you offering to go in his stead?" Win asked Merripen.
As she had expected, he put on a show of grumbling reluctance. "I suppose so, if the alternative is to see you traipsing through the streets of London and tempting every criminal in sight." He frowned at Charles. "You needn't go with us. I'd rather not have to look after you, too."
"Yes, sir," came the footman's grateful reply, and he went back up the stairs with considerably more enthusiasm than he had shown while descending them.
Win slipped her hand through Merripen's arm and felt the fierce tension in his muscles. Something had upset him deeply, she realized. Something far more than her exercise costume or the prospective walk to Hyde Park.
They left the hotel, Merripen's long strides easily keeping measure with her brisk ones. Win kept her tone casual and cheerful. "How cool and bracing the air is today."
"It's polluted with coal smoke," he said, steering her around a puddle as if it might cause mortal harm to get her feet wet.
"Actually, I detect a strong scent of smoke from your coat. Not tobacco smoke, either. Where did you and Mr. Rohan go this morning?"
"To a Romany camp."
"For what reason?" Win persisted. With Merripen, one could not be easily be put off by terseness, or one would never get anything out of him.
"Rohan thought we might find someone there from my tribe."
"And did you?" she asked softly, knowing the subject was a sensitive one.
A restless shift of the muscle beneath her hand. "No."
"Yes, you did. I can tell you're brooding."
Merripen glanced down at her, and saw how closely she was studying him. He sighed. "In my tribe, there was a girl named Shuri…"
Win felt a pang of jealousy. A girl he had known and never mentioned. Perhaps he had cared for her.
"We found her today in the camp," Merripen continued. "She hardly looks the same. She was once very beautiful, but now she appears much older than her years."
"Oh, that's too bad," Win said, trying to sound sincere.
"Her husband, the rom baro, was my uncle. He was… not a good man."
That was hardly a surprise, considering the condition Merripen had been in when Win had first met him. Wounded, abandoned, and so savage that it was clear he had lived like a wild creature.
Win was filled with compassion and tenderness. She wished they were in some private place where she could coax Merripen to tell her everything. She wished she could embrace him, not as a lover, but as a loving friend. No doubt many people would think it ludicrous that she should feel so protective of such an invulnerable-seeming man. But beneath that hard and impervious facade, Merripen possessed a rare depth of feeling. She knew that about him. She also knew that he would deny it to the death.
"Did Mr. Rohan tell Shuri about his tattoo?" Win asked. "That it was identical to yours?"
"And what did Shuri say about it?"
"Nothing." His reply was a shade too quick.
A pair of street sellers, one bearing bundles of watercress, the other carrying umbrellas, approached them hopefully. But one glower from Merripen caused them to retreat, braving the traffic of carriages, carts, and horses to go to the other side of the street.
Win didn't say anything for a minute or two, just held Merripen's arm as he guided her along with exasperating bossiness, muttering, "Don't step there," or, "Come this way," or, "Tread carefully here," as if stepping on broken or uneven pavement might result in severe injury.
"Kev," she finally protested, "I'm not fragile."
"I know that."
"Then please don't treat me as if I'll break at the first misstep."
Merripen grumbled a little, something about the street not being good enough for her. It was too rough. Too dirty.
Win couldn't help chuckling. "For heaven's sake. If this street was paved with gold and angels were sweeping it, you would still say it was too rough and dirty for me. You must rid yourself of this habit of protecting me."
"Not while I live."
Win was quiet, gripping his arm more tightly. The passion buried beneath the rough, simple words filled her with an almost indecent pleasure. So easily, he could reach down to the deepest region of her heart.
"I'd rather not be put on a pedestal," she finally said.
"You're not on a pedestal. You're-" But he checked the words, and he shook his head a little, as if he was vaguely surprised he'd said them. Whatever had happened that day, it had shaken his self-control badly.
Win pondered what possible things Shuri might have said. Something about the connection between Cam Rohan and Merripen…
"Kev." Win eased her pace, forcing him to go more slowly as well. "Even before I left for France, I had the idea that those tattoos were evidence of a close link between you and Mr. Rohan. Being so ill, I had little to do except observe the people in my sphere. I noticed things that no one else had the time to perceive, or think about. And I've always been especially attuned to you." Taking in his expression with a quick sidelong glance, Win saw that he didn't like that. He didn't want to be understood, or observed. He wanted to stay safe in his iron-clad solitude.
"And when I met Mr. Rohan," Win continued in a casual tone, as if they were having an ordinary conversation, "I was struck by many similarities between the two of you. The tilt of his head, that half smile he has… the way he gestures with his hands… all things I had seen you do. And I thought to myself, I wouldn't be surprised to learn someday that the two of them are… brothers."
Merripen stopped completely. He turned to face her, standing right there on the street while other pedestrians were forced to go around them, muttering about how inconsiderate it was for people to block a public footpath. Win looked up into his heathen dark eyes and gave an innocent shrug. And she waited for his response.
"Improbable," he said gruffly.
"Improbable things happen all the time," Win said. "Especially to our family." She continued to stare at him, reading him. "It's true, isn't it?" she asked in wonder. "He's your brother?"
Kev hesitated. His whisper was so soft she could barely hear it. "Younger brother."
"I'm glad for you. For both of you." She smiled up at him steadily, until his mouth took on a wry, answering curve.
"Someday you will be."
After a moment he pulled her arm through his and they began walking again.
"If you and Mr. Rohan are brothers," Win said, "then you're half gadjo. Just like he is. Are you sorry about that?"
"No, I-" He paused to mull over the discovery. "I wasn't as surprised as I should have been. I've always felt I was Romany and… something other."
And Win understood what he didn't say. Unlike Rohan, he wasn't eager to face this entire other identity, this vast part of himself that was so far unrealized. "Are you going to talk about it with the family?" she asked softly. Knowing Merripen, he would want to keep the information private until he'd sorted through all its implications.
He shook his head. "There are questions that must be answered first. Including why the gadjo who fathered us wanted to kill us."
"He did? Good heavens, why?"
"My guess is that it was probably some question of inheritance. With gadjos, it usually comes down to money."
"So bitter," Win said, clinging more tightly to his arm.
"I have reason."
"You have reason to be happy as well. You have found a brother today. And you found out that you're half-Irish."
That actually drew a rumble of amusement from him. "That should make me happy?"
"The Irish are a remarkable race. And I see it in you: your love of land, your tenacity…"
"My love of brawling."
"Yes. Well, perhaps you should continue to suppress that part."
"Being part-Irish," he said, "I should be a more proficient drinker."
"And a far more glib conversationalist."
"I prefer to talk only when I have something to say."
"Hmmm. That is neither Irish nor Romany. Perhaps there's another part of you we haven't yet identified."
"My God. I hope not." But he was smiling, and Win felt a warm ripple of delight spread through all her limbs.
"That's the first real smile I've seen from you since I came back," she said. "You should smile more, Kev." "Should I?" he asked softly.
"Oh yes. It's beneficial for your health. Dr. Harrow says his cheerful patients tend to recover far more quickly than the sour ones."
The mention of Dr. Harrow caused Merripen's elusive smile to vanish. "Ramsay says you've become close with him."
"Dr. Harrow is a friend," she allowed.
"Only a friend?"
"Yes, so far. Would you object if he wished to court me?"
"Of course not," Merripen muttered. "What right would I have to object?"
"None at all. Unless you had staked some prior claim, which you certainly have not."
She sensed Merripen's inner struggle to let the matter drop. A struggle he lost, for he said abruptly, "Far be it from me to deny you a diet of pabulum, if that's what your appetite demands."
"You're likening Dr. Harrow to pabulum?" Win fought to hold back a satisfied grin. The small display of jealousy was a balm to her spirits. "I assure you, he is not at all bland. He is a man of substance and character."
"He's a watery-eyed, pale-faced gadjo"
"He is very attractive. And his eyes are not at all watery."
"Have you let him kiss you?"
"Kev, we're on a public thoroughfare-"
"Once," she admitted, and waited as he digested the information. He scowled ferociously at the pavement before them. When it became apparent he wasn't going to say anything, Win volunteered, "It was a gesture of affection."
Still no response.
Stubborn ox, she thought in annoyance. "It wasn't like your kisses. And we've never…" She felt a blush rising. "We've never done anything similar to what you and I… the other night…"
"We're not going to discuss that."
"Why can we discuss Dr. Harrow's kisses but not yours?"
"Because my kisses aren't going to lead to courtship."
That hurt. It also puzzled and frustrated her. Before all was said and done, Win intended to make Merripen admit just why he wouldn't pursue her. But not here, and not now.
"Well, I do have a chance of courtship with Dr. Harrow," she said, attempting a pragmatic tone. "And at my age, I must consider any marriage prospect quite seriously."
"Your age?" he scoffed. "You're only twenty-five."
"Twenty-six. And even at twenty-five, I would be considered long in the tooth. I lost several years-my best ones perhaps-because of my illness."
"You're more beautiful now than you ever were. Any man would be mad or blind not to want you." The compliment was not given smoothly, but with a masculine sincerity that heightened her blush.
"Thank you, Kev."
He slid her a guarded look. "You want to marry?"
Win's willful, treacherous heart gave a few painfully excited thuds, because at first she thought he'd asked, "You want to marry me?" But no, he was merely asking her opinion of marriage as… well, as her scholarly father would have said, as a "conceptual structure with a potential for realization."
"Yes, of course," she said. "I want children to love. I want a husband to grow old with. I want a family of my own."
"And Harrow says all of that is possible now?"
Win hesitated a bit too long. "Yes, completely possible."
But Merripen knew her too well. "What are you not telling me?"
"I am well enough to do anything I choose now," she said firmly.
"What does he-"
"I don't wish to discuss it. You have your forbidden topics; I have mine."
"You know I'll find out," he said quietly.
Win ignored that, casting her gaze to the park before them. Her eyes widened as she saw something that had not been there when she had left for France… a huge, magnificent structure of glass and iron. "Is that the Crystal Palace? Oh, it must be. It's so beautiful-much more so than the engravings I've seen."
The building, which covered an area of more than nine acres, housed an international show of art and science called the Great Exhibition. Win had read about it in the French newspapers, which had aptly termed the exhibition one of the great wonders of the world.
"How long since it was completed?" she asked, her step quickening as they headed toward the glittering building.
"Not quite a month."
"Have you been inside? Have you seen the exhibits?"
"I've visited once," Merripen said, smiling at her eagerness. "And I saw a few of the exhibits, but not all. It would take three days or more to look at everything."
"Which part did you go to?"
"The machinery court, mostly."
"I do wish I could see even a small part of it," she said wistfully, watching the throngs of visitors exiting and entering the remarkable building. "Won't you take me?"