But she wasn't safe from him, either.
His own mother had died giving birth. The thought of killing Win with his own body, his spawn swelling inside her until-
His entire being shied at the thought. His deepest terror was harming her. Losing her.
Kev wanted to talk to her, to listen to her, help her somehow to come to terms with the limitations she'd been given. But he'd put a barrier between them, and he didn't dare cross it. Because if Harrow 's flaw was a lack of empathy, Kev's was just the opposite. Too much feeling, too much need.
Enough to kill her.
Later that evening Cam came to Kev's room. Kev had just returned from his walk, a glaze of evening mist still clinging to his coat and hair.
Answering the knock at the door, Kev stood at the threshold and scowled. "What is it?"
"I had a private talk with Harrow," Cam said, his face expressionless.
"He wants to marry Win. But he intends the marriage to be in name only. She doesn't know it yet."
"Bloody hell," Kev muttered. "She'll be the latest addition to his collection of fine objects. She'll stay chaste while he has his affairs-"
"I don't know her well," Cam murmured, "but I don't think she would ever agree to such an arrangement. Especially if you offered her an alternative, phral."
"There is only one alternative, and that is to stay safe with her family."
"There's one more. You could offer for her."
"That's not possible."
Kev felt his face burn. "I couldn't stay celibate with her. I could never hold to it."
"There are ways to prevent conception."
That elicited a contemptuous snort from Kev. "That worked well for you, didn't it?" He rubbed his face wearily. "You know the other reasons I can't offer for her."
"I know the way you once lived," Cam said, choosing his words with obvious care. "I understand your fear of harming her. But in spite of all that, I find it hard to believe that you would really let her go to another man."
"I would if that was best for her."
"Can you actually say that the best Winnifred Hathaway deserves is someone like Harrow?"
"Better him," Kev managed to say, "than someone like me."
Although the social season was not yet over, it was agreed that the family would go to Hampshire. There was Amelia's condition to consider-she would be better off in the healthful surroundings-and Win and Leo wanted to see the Ramsay estate. The only question was the fairness of depriving Poppy and Beatrix of the remainder of the season. But they both claimed to be quite happy to quit London.
This attitude was not unexpected coming from Beatrix, who still seemed far more interested in books and animals and romping through the countryside like a wild creature. But Leo was surprised that Poppy, who was candid about wanting to find a husband, would be so willing to depart.
"I've seen all this season's prospects," Poppy told Leo grimly as they rode through Hyde Park in an open carriage. "Not one of them is worth staying in town for."
Beatrix sat in the opposite seat, with Dodger the ferret curled in her lap. Miss Marks had wedged herself in the corner, her bespectacled gaze fixed on the scenery.
Leo had rarely encountered such an off-putting female. Abrasive, pale, her form an accumulation of pointy elbows and angular bones, her character stiff and knotty and dry.
Clearly Catherine Marks hated men. Which Leo wouldn't have blamed her for, since he was well aware of the faults of his gender. Except that she didn't seem to like women very much, either. The only people she seemed to unbend with were Poppy and Beatrix, who had reported that Miss Marks was exceptionally intelligent and could be very witty at times, and she had a lovely smile.
Leo had a difficult time imagining the tight little seam of Miss Marks's mouth curving in a smile. He rather doubted she even had teeth, since he had never seen them.
"She'll ruin the view," he had complained that morning, when Poppy and Beatrix had told him they were bringing him on their drive. "I won't enjoy the scenery with the Grim Reaper casting her shadow over it."
"Don't call her such horrid names, Leo," Beatrix had protested. "I like her very much. And she's very nice when you're not around."
"I believe she was treated very wrongly by a man in her past," Poppy said sotto voce. "In fact, I've heard a rumor or two that Miss Marks became a governess because she was involved in a scandal."
Leo was interested despite himself. "What kind of scandal?"
Poppy lowered her voice to a whisper. "They say she squandered her favors."
"She doesn't look like a woman who would squander her favors," Beatrix said in a normal voice.
"Hush, Bea!" Poppy exclaimed. "I don't want Miss Marks to overhear. She might think we were gossiping about her."
"But we are gossiping about her. Besides, I don't believe she would do… you know, that… with anyone. She doesn't seem at all that sort of woman."
"I believe it," Leo had said. "Usually the ladies most inclined to squander their favors are the ones who don't have any."
"I don't understand," Bea said.
"He means unattractive ladies are more easily seduced," Poppy had said wryly, "which I don't agree with. And besides, Miss Marks isn't unattractive at all. She's only a bit… stern."
"And scrawny as a Scottish chicken," Leo had muttered.
As the carriage passed Marble Arch and proceeded to Park Lane, Miss Marks glued her gaze to the spring floral displays.
Glancing at her idly, Leo noted that she had a decent profile-a sweet little tip of a nose supporting the spectacles, a gently rounded chin. Too bad the clenched mouth and frowning forehead ruined the rest of it.
He turned his attention back to Poppy, pondering her lack of desire to stay in London. Surely any other girl her age would have been begging to finish the season and enjoy all the balls and parties.
"Tell me about this season's prospects," he said to Poppy. "Can it be that not one of them holds any interest for you?"
She shook her head. "Not one. I've met a few whom I do like, such as Lord Bromley, or-"
"Bromley?" Leo repeated, his brows lifting. "But he's twice your age. Are there any younger ones you might consider? Someone born in this century, perhaps?"
"Well, there's Mr. Radstock."
"Portly and plodding," Leo said, having met the porker on a few previous occasions. The upper circles of London were a relatively small community. "Who else?"
"There is Lord Wallscourt, very gentle and friendly, but… he's a rabbit."
"Curious and cuddly?" Beatrix asked, having a high opinion of rabbits.
Poppy smiled. "No, I meant he was rather colorless and… oh, just rabbity. Which is a fine thing in a pet, but not a husband." She made a project of neatening the bonnet ribbons tied beneath her chin. "You'll probably advise me to lower my expectations, Leo, but I've already dropped them to the extent that even a worm couldn't squeeze itself beneath my expectations. I must tell you, the London season is a grave disappointment."
"I'm sorry, Poppy," Leo said gently. "I wish I knew a fellow to recommend to you, but the only ones I know are ne'er-do-wells and drunkards. Excellent friends. But I'd rather shoot one of them than have him as a brother-in-law."
"That leads to something I've wanted to ask you."
"Oh?" He looked into her sweet, serious face, this perfectly lovely sister who aspired so desperately to have a calm and ordinary life.
"Now that I've been out in society," Poppy said, "I've heard rumors.…"
Leo's smile turned rueful as he understood what she wanted to know. "About me."
"Yes. Are you really as wicked as some people say?"
Despite the private nature of the query, Leo was aware of both Miss Marks and Beatrix turning their full attention to him.
"I'm afraid so, darling," he said, while a sordid parade of his past sins swept through his mind.
"Why?" Poppy asked with a frankness he ordinarily would have found endearing. But not with Miss Marks's sanctimonious gaze fastened on him.
"It's much easier to be wicked," he said. "Especially if one has no reason to be good."
"What about earning a place in heaven?" Catherine Marks asked. He would have thought she had a pretty voice, if it hadn't come from such an unappealing source. "Isn't that reason enough to conduct yourself with some modicum of decency?"
"That depends," he said sardonically. "What is heaven to you, Miss Marks?"
She considered the question with more care than he would have expected. "Peace. Serenity. A place where there is no sin, nor gossip, nor conflict."
"Well, Miss Marks, I'm afraid your idea of heaven is my idea of hell. Therefore my wicked ways shall happily continue." Turning back to Poppy, he spoke far more kindly. "Don't lose hope, Sis. There's someone out there, waiting for you. Someday you'll find him, and he'll be everything you were hoping for."
"Do you really think so?" Poppy asked.
"No. But I've always thought that was a nice thing to say to someone in your circumstances."
Poppy snickered and poked Leo in the side, while Miss Marks gave him a stare of pure disgust.
On their last evening in London, the family attended a private ball given at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Simon Hunt in Mayfair. Mr. Hunt, a railway entrepreneur and part owner of a British locomotive works, was a self-made man, the son of a London butcher. He was part of a new and growing class of investors, businessmen, and managers who were unsettling the long-held traditions and authority of the peerage itself.
A fascinating and rather volatile mix of guests attended the Hunts' annual spring ball… politicians, foreigners, aristocrats, and businesspeople. It was said the invitations were highly sought after, since even the peers who outwardly disdained the pursuit of wealth were eager to have some connection to the extraordinarily powerful Mr. Hunt.
The Hunt mansion could well have been described as the symbol of the success of private enterprise. Large, luxurious, and technologically advanced, the house was lit with gas in every room and filled with plasterwork made from modern flexible molds that were currently being displayed at the Crystal Palace. Floor-length windows gave access to broad walks and gardens outside, not to mention a remarkable glass-roofed conservatory heated with a complex system of underfloor pipework.
Just before the Hathaways arrived at the Hunt mansion, Miss Marks whispered a few last-minute reminders to her charges, telling them not to fill their dance cards too quickly in case a prepossessing gentleman might arrive later at the ball, and never to be seen without their gloves, and never to refuse a gentleman who asked them to dance unless they were already engaged to dance with another. But by all means, they must never allow one gentleman more than three dances-such excessive familiarity would cause gossip.
Win was touched by the careful way in which Miss Marks relayed the instructions, and the earnest attention Poppy and Beatrix gave her. Clearly the three of them had labored long and hard on the intricate labyrinth of etiquette.
Win was at a disadvantage compared to her two younger sisters. Since she had spent so long away from London, her own knowledge of social mores was lacking. "I hope I won't embarrass any of you," she said lightly. "Though I should warn you that the chances of my making a social misstep are quite high. I hope you'll undertake to teach me as well, Miss Marks."
The governess smiled a little, revealing even white teeth and soft lips. Win couldn't help thinking that if Miss Marks were a bit more filled out, she would be quite pretty. "You have such a natural sense of propriety," she told Win, "I can't imagine you being anything less than a perfect lady."
"Oh, Win never does anything wrong," Beatrix told Miss Marks.
"Win is a saint," Poppy agreed. "It's very trying. But we do our best to tolerate her."
Win smiled at them. "For your information," she told them lightly, "I intend to break at least three rules of etiquette before the ball is over."
"Which three?" Poppy and Beatrix asked in unison. Miss Marks merely looked perplexed, as if she was trying to understand why anyone would deliberately do such a thing.
"I haven't decided yet." Win folded her gloved hands in her lap. "I'll have to wait for the opportunities to present themselves."
As the guests entered the mansion, domestics came to take the cloaks and shawls, and the gentlemen's hats and coats. Seeing Cam and Merripen standing near each other, shrugging off their coats with the same deft gestures, Win felt a whimsical smile touch her lips. She wondered how it was that everyone couldn't see that they were brothers. Their kinship was so clear to her, even though they weren't identical. The same wavy dark hair, although Cam 's was longer and Merripen kept his neatly cropped. The same long, athletic build, although Cam was slimmer and more supple, whereas Merripen had the sturdier, more muscular build of a boxer.
Their greatest difference, however, was not that of their external appearances, but the way each approached the world. Cam with a sense of amused tolerance and charm and shrewd confidence. And Merripen with his battered dignity and smoldering intensity, and most of all, the strength of feeling that he fought so desperately to hide.
Oh, how she wanted him. But he would not be easily won, if ever. Win thought it was rather like trying to coax a wild creature to come to her hand: the endless advances and retreats, the hunger and need for connection warring with fear.
She wanted him even more as she saw him here among this glittering crowd, his aloof and powerful form dressed in the austere evening scheme of black and white. Merripen did not consider himself inferior to the people around him, but he was well aware that he was not one of them. He understood their values, even though he didn't always agree with them. And he had learned how to acquit himself well in the gadjo world- he was the kind of man who would adapt to any circumstances. After all, Win thought with private amusement, not just any man could break a horse, build a stone fence by hand, recite the Greek alphabet, and discuss the relative philosophical merits of empiricism and rationalism. Not to mention rebuild an estate and run it as if he were to the manor born.