"May I speak to him?"
"Yes, my lord. He's in the first room. I'll take you there."
"You needn't trouble yourself," Leo said pleasantly. "I know the way."
The constable grinned at that. "I suppose you do, my lord."
The cell was unfurnished except for a short-legged stool, an empty bucket, and a straw pallet. Merripen was sitting on the pallet, leaning his back against a timbered wall. One knee was propped up, his arm half-curled around it. The black head was lowered in a posture of utter defeat.
Merripen looked up as Leo approached the row of iron bars that separated them. His face was drawn and saturnine. He looked as if he hated the world and all its inhabitants.
Leo was certainly familiar with that feeling. "Well, this is a change," he remarked cheerfully. "Usually you're on this side and I'm on that side."
"Sod off," Merripen growled.
"And that's what I usually say," Leo marveled.
"I'm going to kill you," Merripen said with guttural sincerity.
"That doesn't provide much incentive for me to get you out, does it?" Leo folded his arms across his chest and regarded the other man with expert assessment. Merripen was no longer drunk. Only mean as the devil. And suffering. Leo supposed in light of his own past misdeeds, he should have more patience with the man. "Nevertheless," Leo said, "I will have you set free, since you've done the same for me on so many occasions."
"Then do it."
"Soon. But I have a few things to say. And it's obvious that if I let you out first, you'll bolt like a hare at a coursing, and then I won't have the chance."
"Say what you like. I'm not listening."
"Look at you. You're a filthy mess and you're locked up in the pinfold. And you're about to receive a lecture on behavior from me, which is obviously as low as a man can sink."
From all appearances, the words fell on deaf ears. Leo continued undaunted. "You're not suited for this, Merripen. You can't hold your drink worth a damn. And unlike people such as me, who become quite amicable when they drink, you turn into a vile-tempered troll." Leo paused, considering how best to provoke him. "Liquor brings out one's true inner nature, they say."
That got him. Merripen flashed Leo a dark glance that contained both fury and anguish. Surprised by the strength of the reaction, he hesitated before continuing.
He understood the situation more than the bastard would have believed or wanted to believe. Perhaps Leo didn't know the whole mysterious tangle of Merripen's past, or the complex twists and turns of character that made him unable to have the woman he loved. But Leo knew one simple truth that superseded all others.
Life was too bloody short.
"Damn you," Leo muttered, pacing back and forth. He would have preferred to take a knife and lay open a portion of his own flesh rather than say what needed to be said. But he had the sense that he was somehow standing between Merripen and annihilation, that some brace of essential words, a crucial argument, had to be set forth.
"If you weren't such a stubborn ass," Leo said, "I wouldn't have to do this."
No response from Merripen. Not even a glance.
Leo turned to the side and rubbed the back of his neck, and dug his fingers into his own rigid muscles. "You know I never speak of Laura Dillard. In fact, that may be the first time I've said her full name since she died. But I am going to say something about her, because not only do I owe you for what you've done for the Ramsay estate, but-"
"Don't, Leo." The words were hard and cold. "You're embarrassing yourself."
"Well, I'm good at that. And you've left me no bloody choice. Do you understand what you are in, Merripen? A prison of your making. And even after you're out of here, you'll still be trapped. Your entire life will be a prison." Leo thought of Laura, the physical details of her no longer precise in his mind. But she lingered inside him like the memory of sunlight, in a world that had been bitterly cold since her death.
Hell was not a pit of fire and brimstone. Hell was waking up alone, the sheets wet with your tears and your seed, knowing the woman you had dreamed of would never come back to you.
"Since I lost Laura," Leo said, "everything I do is merely a way of passing the time. It's hard to give a damn about much of anything. But at least I can live with the knowledge that I fought for her. At least I took every bloody minute with her that was possible to have. She died knowing I loved her." He stopped pacing and stared at Merripen contemptuously. "But you're throw-ing everything away-and breaking my sister's heart-because you're a damned coward. Either that or a fool. How can you-" He broke off as Merripen hurled himself at the bars, shaking them like a lunatic.
"Shut up, damn it."
"What will either of you have, once Win has gone with Harrow?" Leo persisted. "You'll stay in your self-made prison, that's obvious. But Win will be worse off. She'll be alone. Away from her family. Married to a man who regards her as nothing more than a decorative object to keep on a bloody shelf. And what happens when her beauty fades and she loses her value to him? How will he treat her then?"
Merripen went motionless, his expression contorted, murder in his eyes.
"She's a strong girl," Leo said. "I spent two years with Win, watching as she met one challenge after another. After all the struggles she's faced, she's bloody well entitled to make her own decisions. If she wants to risk having a child-if she feels strong enough-that's her right. And if you're the man she wants, don't be a sodding idiot by turning her away." Leo rubbed his forehead wearily. "Neither you nor I are worth a damn," he muttered. "Oh, you can work the estate and show me how to balance account books and manage the tenants and inventory the stinking larder. I suppose we'll keep it running well enough. But neither of us will ever be more than half-alive, like most men, and the only difference is, we know it."
Leo paused, vaguely surprised by the tightening sensation all around his neck, as if a noose had been cinched around it. "Amelia told me once about a suspicion she'd had for a while. It bothered her quite a bit. She said that when Win and I had fallen ill with scarlet fever, and you made the deadly nightshade syrup, you'd concocted far more than was necessary. And you kept a cup of it on Win's nightstand, like some sort of macabre nightcap. Amelia said that if Win had died, she thought you would have taken the rest of that poison. And I've always hated you for that. Because you forced me to stay alive without the woman I loved, while you had no bloody intention of doing the same."
Merripen didn't answer, gave no sign that he registered Leo's words.
"Christ, man," Leo said huskily. "If you had the bollocks to die with her, don't you think you could work up the courage to live with her?"
There was nothing but silence as Leo walked away from the cell. He wondered what the hell he had done, what effect it would have.
Leo went to the parish constable's office and told him to let Merripen out. "Wait another five minutes, however," he added dryly. "I need a running start."
After Leo had left, the talk at the dinner table had taken on a tone of determined cheerfulness. No one wanted to speculate aloud on the reason for Merripen's absence, or why Leo had gone on a mysterious errand… but it seemed likely the two were connected.
Win had worried silently, and told herself sternly that it was not her place, nor her right, to worry about Merripen. And then she had worried some more. As she had forced a few bites of dinner down, she felt the food stick in her clenched throat.
She had gone to bed early, pleading a headache, and had left the others playing games in the parlor. After Julian had escorted her to the main staircase, she had let him kiss her. It was a lingering kiss, turning damp as he had searched just inside her lips. The patient sweetness of his mouth on hers had been-if not earth-shat-tering-very pleasant.
Win thought that Julian would be a skilled and sensitive partner when she finally did manage to coax him into making love to her. But he didn't seem terribly driven in that regard, which was both a disappointment and a relief. Had he ever looked at her with a fraction of the hunger, the need, that Merripen did, perhaps it might have awakened a response in her.
But Win knew that while Julian desired her, his feelings didn't begin to approach the all-encompassing pri-mality of Merripen's. And she found it difficult to imagine Julian losing his composure even during that most intimate of acts. She couldn't picture him sweating and groaning and holding her tightly. She knew intuitively that Julian would never allow himself to descend to that level of abandonment.
She also knew that at some time in the future there was a possibility that Julian might sleep with another woman. The thought dejected her. But such a concern was not enough to deter her from marriage. After all, adultery was hardly an uncommon circumstance. While it was held as a social ideal that a man should keep his vows of fidelity, most people were quick to excuse a husband who had strayed. In society's view, a wife should be forgiving.
Win bathed and donned a white nightgown, and sat in bed reading for a while. The novel, loaned to her by
Poppy, had such a confusingly large cast of characters and such extended flowery prose that one could only assume the author had been paid by the word. After finishing two chapters, Win closed the book and turned out the lamp. She lay down to stare despondently through the darkness.
Sleep claimed her eventually. She slept heavily, welcoming the escape. But some time later, while it was still very dark, she found herself struggling upward through layers of dreams. Someone or something was in the room. Her first thought was that it might be Beatrix's ferret, who sometimes slipped past the door to collect objects that intrigued him.
Rubbing her eyes, Win began to sit up, when there was a movement beside the bed. A large shadow crossed over her. Before bewilderment could give way to fear, she heard a familiar murmur, and felt a man's warm fingers press across her lips.
Her lips moved soundlessly against his hand. Kev.
Win's stomach constricted with an ache of pleasure, and her heartbeat hammered in her throat. But she was still angry with him, she was done with him, and if he had come here for a midnight talk, he was sadly mistaken. She started to tell him so, but to her astonishment, she felt a thick piece of cloth descend over her mouth, and then he was tying it deftly behind her head. In a few more seconds, he had bound her wrists in front of her.
Win was rigid with shock. Merripen would never do something like this. And yet it was him; she would know him if only by the touch of his hands. What did he want? What was going through his mind? His breath was faster than usual as it brushed against her hair. Now that her vision had adjusted to the darkness, she saw that his face was hard and austere.
Merripen drew the ruby ring off her finger and set it on the bedside table. Taking her head in his hands, he stared into her wide eyes. He said only two words. But they explained everything he was doing, and everything he intended to do.
He picked her up easily, draping her over one powerful shoulder, and he carried her from the room.
Win closed her eyes, yielding, trembling. She pressed a few sobs against the gag covering her mouth, not of unhappiness or fear, but of wild relief. This was not an impulsive act. This was ritual. This was an ancient Romany courtship rite, and there would be nothing halfhearted about it. She was going to be kidnapped and ravished.
As far as abductions went, it was skillfully executed. One would have expected no less of Merripen. Although Win had assumed he would carry her to his room, he surprised her by taking her outside, where his horse was waiting. Wrapping her in his coat, he held her against his chest and rode off with her. Not to the gatehouse, but alongside the wood, through night mist and dense blackness that daylight would soon filter.
Win stayed relaxed against him, trusting him, and yet she shook with nerves. This was Merripen, and yet he wasn't at all familiar. The side of himself he had always kept under strict control had been set free.
Merripen guided the horse expertly through a copse of oak and ash. A small white cottage appeared, ghost-colored in the darkness. Win wondered whom it belonged to. It was tidy and new-looking, with smoke curling from the chimney stack. It was lit, welcoming, as if it had just been readied in anticipation of visitors.
Dismounting, Merripen tugged Win down into his arms, and he carried her to the front step. "Don't move," he said. She stayed obediently still while he tethered the horse.
Merripen closed his hand over her bound wrists and led her inside. Win followed easily, a willing captive. The cottage was sparely furnished, and it smelled of fresh wood and paint. Not only was it empty of current residents, but it seemed that no one had ever lived there.
Taking Win into the bedroom. Merripen lifted her onto a bed covered with quilts and white linen. Her bare feet dangled over the edge of the mattress as she sat upright.
Merripen stood before her, the light from the hearth gilding one side of his face. His gaze was locked on her. Slowly he removed his coat and dropped it to the floor, heedless of the fine fabric. As he pulled his open-necked shirt over his head, Win was startled by the powerful expanse of his torso, all ribbed muscle and swarthy brawn. His chest was hairless, the skin gleaming like satin, and Win's fingers twitched with the urge to touch it. She felt herself flush with anticipation, her face rouged with heat.
Merripen's dark eyes took in her reaction. She sensed that he understood what she wanted, needed, even more than she did. He removed his half boots, kicked them aside, and came closer until she caught the scent of salty maleness. He touched the lace-edged collar of her nightgown, fingered it lightly. His hand slid over her chest and molded the weight of her breast. The warm squeeze drew a shiver from her, sensation gathering at the hardening tip. She wanted him to kiss her there. She wanted it so badly that she fidgeted, her toes curling, her lips parting with a gasp beneath the binding cloth.
To her relief, Merripen reached around to the back of her head and untied the gag.
Red and trembling, Win managed an unsteady whisper. "You… you needn't have used that. I would have kept quiet."
Merripen's tone was grave, but there was a pagan gleam in the depths of his eyes. "If I decide to do something, I do it properly."
"Yes." Her throat cinched around a sob of pleasure as his fingers slid into her hair and touched her scalp. "I know that."