"Because there is nothing more beautiful than the unveiled female form." Julian laughed quietly as he saw her heightened color. "Have I embarrassed you with my frankness? I'm sorry."
"I don't think you are. I think you meant to disconcert me." It was a new sensation, flirting with Julian.
"You're right. I want to set you a bit off-balance."
"Because I would like for you to see me as someone other than predictable, tedious old Dr. Harrow."
"You're none of those things," she said, laughing.
"Good," he murmured, smiling at her. The waltz ended, and gentlemen began to lead their partners out of the dancing area, while others took their places.
"It's warm in here, and far too crowded," Julian said. "Would you like to be scandalous and slip away with me for a moment?"
"I would love to."
He took her to a corner partially screened by some massive potted plants. At an opportune moment, he led her out of the drawing room and into a huge glass conservatory. The space was filled with paths and indoor trees and flowers, and secluded little benches. Beyond the conservatory, a wide terrace overlooked the fenced gardens and the other mansions of Mayfair. The city was outlined in the distance, bristling with chimneys that frosted the midnight sky with streams of smoke.
They sat on a bench, Win's skirts billowing around them. Julian turned partially to face her. The glaze of moonlight gave his polished-ivory skin a slight luminescence. "Winnifred," he murmured, and the timbre of his voice was low and intimate. Staring into his gray eyes, Win realized that he was going to kiss her.
But he surprised her by removing one of her gloves with exquisite care, the moonlight shimmering over his black hair. Lifting her slender hand to his lips, he kissed the backs of her fingers, and then the fragile inside of her wrist. He held her hand like a half-open flower against his face. His tenderness disarmed her.
"You know why I've come to England," he said softly. "I want to know you much better, my dear, in a way that wasn't possible at the clinic. I want-"
But a sound from nearby caused Julian to break off, his head lifting.
Together, he and Win stared at the intruder.
It was Merripen, of course, huge and dark and aggressive as he strode toward them.
Win's jaw sagged in disbelief. He had followed her out here? She felt like a hunted creature. For heaven's sake, was there no place she could evade his outrageous stalking?
"Go… away," she said, enunciating each word with scornful precision. "You are not my chaperon."
"You should be with your chaperon," Merripen snapped. "Not here with him."
Win had never found it so difficult to master her emotions. She shoved them back, closing them behind an expressionless face. But she could feel the temper seething impatiently inside her. Her voice shook only a little as she turned to Julian. "Would you be so kind as to leave us, Dr. Harrow? There is something I must settle with Merripen."
Julian glanced from Merripen's set face to hers. "I'm not sure I should," he said slowly.
"He's been plaguing me all evening," Win said. "I'm the only one who can put a stop to it. Please allow me a moment with him."
"Very well." Julian stood from the bench. "Where shall I wait for you?"
"Back in the drawing room," Win replied, grateful that there was no argument from Julian. Clearly he respected her, and her abilities, enough to allow her to manage the situation. "Thank you, Dr. Harrow."
She was barely aware of Julian's departure, she was so focused on Merripen. She stood and went to him with a furious scowl. "You are driving me mad!" she exclaimed. "I want you to stop this, Kev! Do you have any idea how ridiculous you're being? How badly you've behaved tonight?"
"I've behaved badly?" he thundered. "You were about to let yourself be compromised."
"Perhaps I want to be compromised."
"That's too bad," he said, reaching out to grip her upper arm, preparing to haul her from the conservatory. "Because I'm going to make certain you stay safe."
"Don't touch me!" Win wrenched free of him, incensed. "I've been safe for years. Tucked safely in bed, watching everyone around me enjoying their lives. I've had enough safety to last a lifetime, Kev. And if that's what you want, for me to continue to be alone and unloved, then you can go to the devil."
"You were never alone," he said harshly. "You've never been unloved."
"I want to be loved as a woman. Not as a child, or a sister, or an invalid-"
"That's not how I-"
"Perhaps you're not even capable of such love." In her blazing frustration, Win experienced something she had never felt before. The desire to hurt someone. "You don't have it in you."
Merripen moved through a shaft of moonlight that had slipped through the conservatory glass, and Win felt a little shock as she saw his murderous expression. In just a few words she had managed to cut him deeply, enough to open a vein of dark and furious feeling. She fell back a step, alarmed as he seized her in a brutal grip.
He jerked her upward. "All the fires of hell could burn for a thousand years and it wouldn't equal what I feel for you in one minute of the day. I love you so much there is no pleasure in it. Nothing but torment. Because if I could dilute what I feel for you to the millionth part, it would still be enough to kill you. And even if it drives me mad, I would rather see you live in the arms of that cold, soulless bastard than die in mine."
Before she could begin to comprehend what he'd said, and all the implications, he took her mouth with savage hunger. For a full minute, perhaps two, she couldn't even move, could only stand there helplessly, falling apart, every rational thought dissolving. She felt faint, but not from illness. Her hand fluttered to the back of his neck, the muscles rigid above the crisp edge of his collar, the locks of his hair like raw silk.
Her fingers unconsciously caressed his nape, trying to soothe his hard-breathing fervor. His mouth slanted deeper over hers, sucking and teasing, his taste drugging and sweet. And then something quieted his frenzy, and he became gentle. His hand trembled as he touched her face, his fingers smoothing over her cheek, his palm cradling her jaw. The hungry pressure of his mouth lifted from hers, and he kissed her eyelids and nose and forehead.
In his drive to press close, he had urged her back against the conservatory wall. She gasped as her bare upper shoulders were flattened on a pane of glass, causing gooseflesh to rise. Cold glass… but his body was so warm, his scalding-soft mouth traveling down to her throat, her chest, the hint of cleavage.
Merripen slipped two fingers inside her bodice, stroking the cool cushion of her breast. It wasn't enough. He tugged impatiently at the edge of the bodice and the shallow cup of the corset beneath. Win closed her eyes, offering not so much as a word of protest, still except for the heaves of her breathing.
Merripen gave a soft grunt of satisfaction as her breast popped free. He lifted her higher against the glass, nearly lifting her off her feet, and he closed his mouth over the tip of her breast.
Win bit her lip to keep from crying out. Each swirling lick of his tongue sent darts of heat down to her toes. She slid her hands into his hair, one gloved, one ungloved, her body arching against the tender stimulation of his mouth.
When her nipple was taut and throbbing, he moved back up to her neck, dragging his mouth along the delicate skin. "Win." His voice was ragged. "I want to-" But he bit back the words and kissed her again, deep and feverish, while he took the hard peak of her breast in his fingers. He squeezed and rolled it softly, until the wickedly gentle harassment caused her to writhe and sob in pleasure.
Then it all ended with cruel suddenness. He froze inexplicably and jerked her away from the window, pulling the front of her body into his. As if he was trying to hide her from something. A quiet curse escaped him.
"What…" Win found it difficult to speak. She was as dazed as if she were emerging from a deep sleep, her thoughts tumbling over on themselves. "What is it?"
"I saw movement on the terrace. Someone may have seen us."
That startled Win back into a semblance of normalcy. She turned from him, clumsily pulling her bodice back into place. "My glove," she whispered, seeing it lying by the bench like a tiny abandoned flag of truce.
Merripen went to retrieve it for her.
"I… I'm going to the ladies' dressing room," she said shakily. "I'll put myself to rights, and return to the drawing room as soon as I'm able."
She wasn't altogether certain what had just happened, what it had meant. Merripen had admitted he loved her. He had finally said it. But she had always imagined it as a joyful confession, not an angry and bitter one. Everything seemed so terribly wrong.
If only she could go back to the hotel, now, and be alone in her room. She needed privacy in which to think. What was it he had said?… I would rather see you live in the arms of that cold, soulless bastard than die in mine. But that made no sense. Why had he said such a thing?
She wanted to confront him, but this was not the time or place. This was a matter that must be handled with great care. Merripen was more complicated than most people realized. Although he gave the impression of being less sensitive than most men, the truth was, he harbored such powerful feelings that even he wasn't able to manage them well.
"We must talk later, Kev," she said.
He gave a short nod, his shoulders and neck set as if he were carrying an unbearable burden.
Win went as discreetly as possible to the ladies' dressing room upstairs, where maids were busy repairing torn flounces, helping to blot the shine from perspiring faces, and anchoring coiffures with extra hairpins. Women had gathered in small groups, giggling and gossiping about things they'd seen and overheard. Win sat before a looking glass and inspected her reflection. Her cheeks were flushed, a marked contrast to her usual composed paleness, and her lips were red and swollen. Her color deepened as she wondered if everyone could see what she had been doing.
A maid came to blot Win's face and dust it with rice powder, and she murmured her thanks. She took several calming breaths-as deep as the dratted corset would allow-and tried inconspicuously to make certain her bodice was fully covering her breasts.
By the time Win felt ready to go downstairs once more, approximately thirty minutes had passed. She smiled as Poppy entered the ladies' dressing room and came to her.
"Hello, dear," Win said, standing from the chair. "Here, take my chair. Do you need hairpins? Powder?"
"No, thank you." Poppy wore a tense, anxious expression, looking nearly as flushed as Win had been earlier.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" Win asked with a touch of concern.
"Not really," Poppy said, drawing her to the corner to keep from being overheard. "I was looking forward to meeting someone other than the usual crowd of stuffy old peers, or worse, the stuffy young ones. But the only new men I met were climbers and businessmen. Either they want to talk about money-which is vulgar and I don't know anything about it-or they have careers they claim they can't discuss, which means they're probably involved in something illegal."
"And Beatrix? How is she faring?"
"She's quite popular, actually. She goes around saying outrageous things, and people laugh and think she's being witty when they don't realize she's perfectly serious."
Win smiled. "Shall we go downstairs and find her?"
Not yet." Poppy reached out to take her hand, and gripped it tightly. "Win, dear… I've come to find you because… there's a sort of upheaval going on downstairs. And… it involves you."
"An upheaval?" Win shook her head, feeling cold in the marrow of her bones. Her stomach gave a sick plunge. "I don't understand."
"A rumor is quickly spreading that you were seen in the conservatory in a compromising position. A very compromising one."
Win felt her face turn white. "It's only been thirty minutes," she whispered.
"This is London society," Poppy said grimly. "Gossip travels at full throttle.''
A pair of young women entered the dressing room, saw Win, and immediately whispered to each other.
Win's stricken gaze met Poppy's. "There's going to be a scandal, isn't there?" she asked faintly.
"Not if it's managed properly and quickly." Poppy squeezed her hand. "I'm to take you to the library, dear. Amelia and Mr. Rohan are there-we're going to meet them and put our heads together, and decide on a course of action."
Win almost wished she could go back to being an invalid with frequent fainting spells. Because at the moment, a good long swoon sounded quite appealing. "Oh, what have I done?" she whispered.
That elicited a faint smile from Poppy. "That seems to be the question on everyone's mind."
The Hunts' library was a handsome room lined with mahogany bookcases with fronts of glazed glass. Cam Rohan and Simon Hunt were standing beside a large inlaid sideboard laden with glittering spirit decanters. Holding a glass half-filled with amber liquid, Hunt gave Win an inscrutable glance as she entered the library. Amelia, Mrs. Hunt, and Dr. Harrow were also there. Win had the curious feeling that it couldn't really be happening. She had never been involved in a scandal before, and it wasn't nearly as exciting or interesting as she had imagined while lying in her sickbed. It was frightening.
Because in spite of her earlier words to Merripen about wanting to be compromised, she hadn't meant any of it. No sane woman would wish for such a thing. Causing a scandal meant ruining not only Win's prospects, but those of her younger sisters. It would cast a shadow over the entire family. Her carelessness was going to harm all the people she loved.
"Win." Amelia came to her at once, embracing her firmly. "It's all right, dear. We'll manage this."
Had Win not been so distressed, she would have smiled. Her older sister was famous for her confidence in her ability to manage anything, including natural disasters, foreign invasions, and stampeding wildlife. None of those, however, could come close to the havoc of a London society scandal.
"Where is Miss Marks?" Win asked in a muffled voice.
"In the drawing room with Beatrix. We're trying to keep appearances as normal as possible." Amelia sent a tense, rueful smile to the Hunts. "But our family has never been especially good at that."