"I doubt it." Kev drew the bed linens lower and nuzzled into the lush valley between her br**sts. "And I would kill the first person who approached the threshold."
A quiet laugh caught in her throat.
"What is it?" he asked without moving.
"Oh, I was just thinking of all the years I spent trying to get out of bed, to be with you. And when I came home, all I wanted was to get back into bed. With you."
For breakfast they had strong tea and rarebit, cheese melted on thick slices of buttered toasted bread. Wrapped in Merripen's shirt, Win perched on a low stool in the kitchen. She took pleasure in watching the play of muscles on his back as he poured steaming water into a portable hip bath. Smiling, she popped the last morsel of rarebit into her mouth. "Being abducted and ravished," she commented, "gives one an appetite."
"The ravisher as well."
There seemed a near-magical aura about this ordinary place, this small and quiet cottage. Win felt as if she had been caught in some enchanted spell. She was almost afraid she was dreaming, that she would wake alone in her chaste bed. But Merripen's presence was too vital and real for it to be a dream. And the small aches and twinges in her body offered further proof that she had been taken. Possessed.
"They all know by now," Win said absently, thinking of everyone at Ramsay House. "Poor Julian. He must be furious."
"What about heartbroken?" Merripen set the water can aside and came to her dressed only in trousers.
Win frowned thoughtfully. "He'll be disappointed, I think. And I believe he cares for me. But no, he won't be heartbroken." She leaned against Merripen as he stroked her hair, and her cheek brushed the taut smoothness of his stomach. "He never wanted me the way you do."
"Any man who didn't would have to be a eunuch." There was a hitch in his breath as Win kissed the rim of his navel. "Did you tell him what the London doctor said? That you were healthy enough to bear children?"
"What did Harrow say?"
"Julian told me that I could visit a legion of doctors, and get any number of differing opinions to support the conclusion I wanted. But in Julian's view, I should remain childless."
Merripen brought her to a standing position and looked down at her, his expression unfathomable. "I don't want to put you at risk. But neither do I trust Harrow, or his opinions."
"Because you think of him as a rival?"
"That's part of it," he admitted. "But it's also instinct. There's something… lacking in him. There's something false."
"Perhaps it's because he's a doctor," Win suggested, shivering as Merripen drew his shirt away from her. "Men of his profession often seem aloof. Superior, even. But that's necessary, because-"
"It's not that." Merripen guided her to the hip bath and helped to lower her in. Win gasped not only from the heat of the water, but also from being na**d in front of him. The hip bath obliged one to straddle the tub and relax into the water with the legs held apart, which was wonderfully comfortable in private, but rather mortifying with someone else present. Her modesty was further violated as Merripen knelt beside the tub and washed her. But his manner was not at all lascivious, only caring, and she couldn't help but relax under the ministrations of those strong, soothing hands.
"You still suspect Julian of having harmed his first wife, I know," Win said while Merripen bathed her. "But he is a healer. He would never hurt anyone, least of all his own wife." She paused as she read Merripen's expression. "You don't believe me. You're determined to think the worst of him."
"I think he feels entitled to play with life and death. Like the gods of those mythology stories you and your sisters are so fond of."
"You don't know Julian as I do."
Merripen didn't reply, only continued to wash her.
She watched his dark face through the veil of steam, as beautiful and implacable as an ancient carving of a Babylonian warrior. "I shouldn't even bother to defend him," she said ruefully. "You'll never be disposed to think well of him, will you?"
"No," he admitted.
"And if you believed Julian was the better man?" she asked. "Would you have allowed him to marry me?"
She saw the muscles in his throat tense before he answered, "No." There was a touch of self-hatred in his response. "I'm too selfish for that. I could never have let it happen. If it came down to it, I would have carried you off on your wedding day."
Win wanted to tell him that she had no desire for him to be noble. She was happy-thrilled-to be loved in just this way, with a passion that left no room for anything else. But before she could say a word, Merripen had taken up more soap, and his hand glided over the soreness between her thighs.
He touched her with love. And ownership. Her eyes half-closed. His finger eased inside her, and his free arm slid behind her back, and she leaned weakly into the cradle of his hard chest and shoulder. Even this small invasion hurt. Her flesh was still too newly broached, unused to being entered. But the hot water soothed her, and Merripen was so gentle that her thighs relaxed, supported in the buoyant warmth.
She breathed in the morning air, luminous with steam, scented of soap and wood and hot copper. And the intoxicating fragrance of her lover. She brushed her lips against his shoulder, savoring the rich taste of skin salt.