"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 cle**age.
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.