"You wouldn't have time to see anything. It's already afternoon. I'll bring you tomorrow."
"Now. Please" She tugged impatiently on his arm. "Oh, Kev, don't say no."
As Merripen looked down at her, he was so handsome that she felt a pleasant little ache at the pit of her stomach. "How could I say no to you?" he asked softly.
As he took her to the towering arched entrance of the Crystal Palace, and paid a shilling each for their admission, Win gazed at her surroundings in awe. The driving force behind the exhibition of industrial design had been Prince Albert, a man of vision and wisdom. According to the tiny printed map that was given out with the tickets, the building itself was constructed of over a thousand iron columns, and three hundred thousand panes of glass. Parts of it were tall enough to encompass full-grown elm trees. All totaled, there were one hundred thousand exhibits from around the world.
The exhibition was important in a social sense as well as a scientific one. It provided an opportunity for all classes and regions, the high and low, to mingle freely beneath one roof in a way that seldom happened. People of all manner of dress and appearance crowded inside the building.
A fashionably dressed gathering waited at the transept, or central cross-section, of the Crystal Palace. None of them seemed to take an interest in their surroundings. "What are those people waiting for?" she asked.
"Nothing," Merripen replied. "They're only here to be seen. There was a similar group when I was here before. They don't go to any of the exhibits. They merely stand there preening."
Win laughed. "Well, should we stand nearby and pretend to admire them, or shall we go look at something really interesting?"
Merripen handed her the little map.
After scrutinizing the list of courts and displays, Win said decisively, "Fabrics and textiles."
He escorted her through a crowded glass hallway into a room of astonishing size and breadth. The air chattered with the sounds of looms and textile machinery, with carpet bales arranged around the room and down the center. Scents of wool and dye made the atmosphere acrid and lightly pungent. Goods from Kidderminster, America, Spain, France, the Orient, filled the room with a rainbow of hues and textures… natweave, knotted pile and cut pile, looped, hooked, embroidered, braided… Win removed her gloves and ran her hands over the gorgeous offerings.
"Merripen, look at this!" she exclaimed. "It's a Wilton carpet. Similar to Brussels, but the pile is sheared. It feels like velvet, doesn't it?"
The manufacturer's representative, who was standing nearby, said, " Wilton is becoming much more affordable, now that we are able to produce it on steam-powered looms."
"Where is the factory located?" Merripen asked, running a bare hand over the soft carpet pile. " Kidderminster, I assume?"
"There, and another in Glasgow."
As the men conversed about the production of carpet on the new looms, Win wandered farther along the rows of samples and displays. There were more machines, bewildering in their size and complexity, some made to weave fabrics, some to print patterns, some to spin tufts of wool into yarn and worsted. One of them was used in a demonstration of how stuffing mattresses and pillows would someday be mechanized.
Watching in fascination, Win was aware of Merripen coming to stand beside her. "One wonders if everything in the world will eventually be done by machine," she told him.
He smiled slightly. "If we had time, I would take you to the agricultural exhibits. A man can grow twice as much food with a fraction of the time and labor it would take to do by hand. We've already acquired a threshing machine for the Ramsay estate tenants… I'll show it to you when we go there."
"You approve of these technological advances?" Win asked with a touch of surprise.
"Yes, why wouldn't I?"
"The Rom doesn't believe in such things."
He shrugged. "Regardless of what the Rom believes, I can't ignore progress that will improve life for every-one else. Mechanization will make it easier for common people to afford clothing, food, soap… even a caipet for the floor."
"But what about the men who will lose their livelihood when a machine takes their place?"
"New industries and more jobs are being created. Why put a man to work doing mindless tasks instead of educating him to do something more?"
Win smiled. "You speak like a reformist," she whispered impishly.
"Economic change is always accompanied by social change. No one can stop that."
What an adept mind he had, Win thought. Her father would have been pleased by how his Gypsy foundling had turned out.
"A large workforce will be required to support all this industry," she commented. "Do you suppose a sufficient number of country people would be willing to move to London and the other places that-"
She was interrupted by an explosive puff and a few cries of surprise from the visitors around them. A thick, startling flurry of down filled the air in a choking gust. It seemed the pillow-stuffing machine had malfunctioned, sending eddies of feathers and down over everyone in sight.
Reacting swiftly, Merripen stripped off his coat and pulled it over Win, and clamped a handkerchief over her mouth and nose. "Breathe through this," he muttered, and hauled her through the room. The crowd was scattering, some people coughing, some swearing, some laughing, as great volumes of fluffy white down settled over the scene. There were cries of delight from children who had come from the next room, dancing and hopping to try to catch the elusive floating clumps.
Merripen didn't stop until they had reached another nave that housed a fabric court. Enormous wood and glass cases had been built for displays of fabric that flowed like rivers. The walls were hung with velvets, brocades, silks, cotton, muslin, wool, every imaginable substance created for clothing, upholstery, or drapery. Towering bolts of fabric were arranged in vertical rolls affixed to more display walls that formed deep corridors within the court.
Emerging from beneath Merripen's coat, Win took one look at him and began to gasp with laughter. White down had covered his black hair and clung to his clothes like new-fallen snow.
Merripen's expression of concern changed to a scowl. "I was going to ask if you had breathed any of the feather dust," he said. "But judging from all the noise you're making, your lungs seem quite clear."
Win couldn't reply; she was laughing too hard.
As Merripen raked his hand through the midnight locks of his hair, the down became even more enmeshed.
"Don't," Win managed, struggling to restrain her laughter. "You'll never… You must let me help you; you're making it worse… and you s-said I was a pigeon to be plucked…" Still chortling, she snatched his hand and tugged him into one of the fabric corridors, where they were partially concealed from view. They went beyond the half-light and into the shadows. "Here, before anyone sees us. Oh, you're too tall for me-" She urged him to the floor with her, where he lowered to his haunches. Win knelt amid the mass of her skirts. Untying her bonnet, she tossed it to the side.
Merripen watched Win's face as she went to work, brushing at his shoulders and hair. "You can't be enjoying this," he said.
"Silly man. You're covered in feathers-of course I'm enjoying it." And she was. He looked so… well, adorable, kneeling and frowning and holding still while she de-feathered him. And it was lovely to play with the thick, shiny layers of his hair, which he never would have allowed in other circumstances. Her giggles kept frothing up, impossible to suppress.
But as a minute passed, and then another, the laughter left her throat, and she felt relaxed and almost dreamlike as she continued to pull the fluff from his hair. The sound of the crowds was muffled by the velvet draped all around them, hanging like curtains of night and clouds and mist.
Merripen's eyes held a strange dark glow, the contours of his face stern and beautiful. He seemed like some dangerous pagan creature emerging from the witching hour.
"Almost done," Win whispered, although she was already finished. Her fingers sifted gently through his hair. So vibrant, heavy, the shorn locks like velvet pile at the back of his neck.
Win's breath caught as Merripen moved. At first she thought he was rising to his feet, but he tugged her closer and took her head in his hands. His mouth was so close, his exhalations like steam against her lips.
She was stunned by the moment of suspended violence, the savage tightness of his grip. She waited, listening to his hard, angry breathing, unable to understand what had provoked him.
"I have nothing to offer you," he finally said in a guttural voice. "Nothing."
Win's lips had turned dry. She moistened them, and tried to speak through a thrill of anxious trembling. "You have yourself," she whispered.
"You don't know me. You think you do, but you don't. The things I've done, the things I'm capable of- you and your family, all you know of life comes from books. If you understood anything-"
"Make me understand. Tell me what is so terrible that you must keep pushing me away."
He shook his head.
"Then stop torturing the both of us," she said unsteadily. "Leave me, or let me go."
"I can't," he snapped. "I can't, damn you." And before she could make a sound, he kissed her.
Her heart thundered, and she opened to him with a low, despairing moan. Her nostrils were filled with the fragrance of smoke, and man, and the earthy autumn spice of him. His mouth shaped to hers with primitive hunger, his tongue stabbing deep, searching hungrily. They knelt together more tightly as Win rose to press her torso against his, closer, harder. And every place they touched, she ached. She wanted to feel his skin, his muscles bunched and hard beneath her hands.
The desire flared high and wild, leaving no room for sanity. If only he would press her back among all this velvet, here and now, and have his way with her. She thought of taking him inside her body, and she flushed beneath her clothes, until the crawling heat made her squirm. His mouth searched her throat, and her head tipped back to give him free access. He found the throb of her pulse, his tongue stroking the vulnerable spot until she gasped.
Reaching up to his face, she shaped her fingers over his jaw, the heavy grain of shaven beard scraping deli-ciously against her delicate palms. She guided his mouth back to hers. Pleasure filled her as she was blindfolded by the darkness and the sensation of him all around her.
"Kev," she whispered in between kisses, "I've loved you for so-"
He crushed her mouth with his desperately, as if he could smother not only the words but the emotion itself. He stole as deep a taste of her as possible, ardently determined to leave nothing unclaimed. She clung to him, her body racked with sustained shivers, her nerves singing with incandescent heat. He was all she had ever wanted, all she would ever need.
But a sharp breath was torn from her throat as he pushed her back, breaking the warm, necessary contact between their bodies.
For a long moment neither of them moved, both striving to recover equilibrium. And as the glow of desire faded, Win heard Merripen say roughly, "I can't be alone with you. This can't happen again."
This, Win decided with a surge of anger, was an impossible situation. Merripen refused to acknowledge his feelings for her and wouldn't explain why. Surely she deserved more trust from him than that.
"Very well," she said stiffly, struggling to her feet. As Merripen stood and reached for her, she pushed impatiently at his hand. "No, I don't want help." She began to shake out her skirts. "You are absolutely right, Merripen. We should not be alone together, since the result is always a foregone conclusion: you make an advance, I respond, and then you push me away. I am no child's toy to be pulled back and forth on a string, Kev."
He found her bonnet and handed it to her. "I know you're not-"
"You say I don't know you," she said furiously. "Apparently it hasn't occurred to you that you don't know me, either. You're quite certain of who I am, aren't you? But I've changed during the past two years. You might at least make an effort to find out what kind of woman I've become." She went to the end of the fabric corridor, peeked out to make certain the coast was clear, and she stepped out into the main part of the court.
Merripen followed. "Where are you going?"
Glancing at him, Win was satisfied to see that he looked as rumpled and exasperated as she felt. "I'm leaving. I'm too cross to enjoy any of the displays now."
"Go the other direction."
Win was silent as Merripen led her from the Crystal Palace. She had never felt so unsettled or peevish. Her parents had always called irritability an excess of spleen, but Win lacked the experience to comprehend that her ill humor stemmed from a source quite different from the spleen. All she knew was that Merripen seemed similarly vexed as he walked beside her.
It annoyed her that he didn't say a word. It also annoyed her that he kept pace so easily with her brisk, ground-digging strides, and that when she had begun to breathe hard from exertion, he barely seemed affected by the exercise.
Only when they approached the Rutledge did Win break the silence. It pleased her that she sounded so calm. "I will abide by your wishes, Kev. From now on, our relationship will be pi atonic and friendly. Nothing more." She paused at the first step and looked up at him solemnly. "I've been give a rare opportunity… a second chance at life. And I intend to make the most of it. I'm not going to waste my love on a man who doesn't want or need it. I won't bother you again."
When Cam entered the bedroom of their suite, he found Amelia standing before a towering pile of parcels and boxes overflowing with ribbons and silk and feminine adornments. She turned with a sheepish smile as he closed the door, her heart tripping a little at the sight of him. His collarless shirt was open at the throat, his body almost feline in its lithe muscularity, his face riveting in its sensuous male beauty. Not long ago, she would never have envisioned being married at all, much less to such an exotic creature.
His gaze chased lightly over her, the pink velvet dressing gown open to reveal her chemise and na*ed thighs. "I see the shopping expedition was a success."
"I don't know what came over me," Amelia replied a touch apologetically. "You know I'm never extravagant. I only meant to purchase some handkerchiefs and some stockings. But…" She gestured lamely to the piles of fripperies. "I seem to have been in an acquisitive mood today."