The pleasure was so great it caused an unfamiliar stinging in his eyes and nose, and that shook him to his foundations. Bloody hell, Kev thought, realizing that something had changed in him, something that could never be put back. All his defenses had been reduced to the uncertain strength of one small woman.
The sun was descending into the basin of rich wooded valleys by the time they had both dressed. The fires were extinguished, leaving the cottage cold and dark.
Win clung to Merripen's hand anxiously as he led her to the horse. "I wonder why happiness always seems so fragile," she said. "I think the things our family has experienced… losing our parents, Leo losing Laura, the fire, my illness… have made me aware of how easily the things we value can be snatched away. Life can change from one moment to the next."
"Not everything changes. Some things last forever."
Win stopped and turned to face him, wrapping her arms around his neck. He responded immediately, holding her secure and close, locking her against his powerful body. Win buried her face in his chest. "I hope so," she said after a moment. "Are you really mine now, Kev?"
"I've always been yours," he said against her ear.
Braced for the usual clamor of her sisters, Win was relieved when she and Kev returned to Ramsay House and found it serene and quiet. So unusually serene that it was clear everyone had agreed to behave as if nothing unusual had transpired. She found Amelia, Poppy, Miss Marks, and Beatrix in the upstairs parlor, the first three doing needlework while Beatrix read aloud.
As Win entered the room cautiously, Beatrix paused, and the women looked up with bright, curious gazes.
"Hello, dear," Amelia said warmly. "Did you have a nice outing with Merripen?" As if it had been nothing more than a picnic or carriage drive.
"Yes, thank you." Win smiled at Beatrix. "Do go on, Bea. Whatever you're reading sounds lovely."
"It's a sensation novel," Beatrix said. "Very exciting. There's a dark and gloomy mansion, and servants who behave oddly, and a secret door behind a tapestry." She lowered her voice dramatically. "Someone's about to be murdered."
While Beatrix continued, Win sat beside Amelia. Win felt her older sister's hand reach for hers. A small but capable hand. A comforting grip. So much was expressed in Amelia's loving clasp, and in the returning pressure of Win's fingers… concern, acceptance, reassurance.
"Where is he?" Amelia whispered.
Win felt a pang of worry, though she kept her expression serene. "He's gone to talk to Dr. Harrow."
Amelia's grip tightened. "Well," she returned wryly, "it should be a lively conversation. I've gotten the impression that your Harrow has been saving up quite a few things to say."
"You crude, stupid peasant." Julian Harrow was white-faced but controlled as he and Kev met in the library. "You have no idea what you've done. In your haste to reach out and grab what you want, you've given no heed to the consequences. And you won't until it's too late. Until you've killed her."
Having a fairly good idea of what Harrow was going to say, Kev had already decided how he would deal with him. For Win's sake, Kev would tolerate any number of insults or accusations. The doctor would have his say… and Kev would let it all roll off his back. He had won. Win was his now, and nothing else mattered.
It wasn't easy, however. Harrow was the perfect picture of an outraged romantic hero… slim, elegant, his face pale and indignant. He made Kev feel like a swarthy oafish villain by contrast. And those last words, until you've killed her, chilled him to the marrow.
So many vulnerable creatures had suffered at his hands. No one with Kev's past could ever deserve Win. And even though she had forgiven his history of brutality, he could never forget.
"No one is going to harm her," Kev said. "It's obvious that as your wife, she would have been well cared for, but it wasn't what she wanted. She's made her choice."
"I didn't force her."
"Of course you did," Harrow said with contempt. "You carried her off in a display of brute strength. And being a woman, of course she thought it thrilling and romantic. Women can be dominated and persuaded into accepting nearly anything. And in the future, as she's dying in childbirth, in grotesque pain, she won't blame you for it. But you'll know that you're responsible." A harsh laugh escaped him as he saw Kev's expression. "Are you really so simple that you don't understand what I'm saying?"
"You believe she's too fragile to bear children," Kev said. "But she consulted another doctor in London, who-"
"Yes. Did Winnifred tell you the name of this doctor?" Harrow 's eyes were frosty gray, his tone brittle with condescension.
Kev shook his head.
"I persisted in asking," Harrow said, "until she told me. And I knew at once it was an invented name. A sham. But just to make certain, I checked the registers of every legitimate physician in London. The doctor she named doesn't exist. She was lying, Merripen." Harrow raked his hands through his hair and paced back and forth. "Women are as devious as children when it comes to getting their way. My God, you're easily manipulated, aren't you?"
Kev couldn't answer. He had believed Win, for the simple reason that she never lied. As far as he knew, there was only one time in her life she had ever deceived him, and that had been to trick him into taking morphine when he'd been suffering from a burn wound. Later he'd understood why she'd done it, and he had forgiven her at once. But if she had lied about this… Anguish burned like acid in his blood.