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Win had always thought Kev Merripen was beautiful, in the way that an austere landscape or a wintry day could be beautiful. He was a large, striking man, uncompromising in every angle. The exotic boldness of his features was a perfect setting for eyes so dark that the irises were barely distinguishable from the pupil. His hair was thick and as black as a raven's wing, his brows strong and straight. And his wide mouth was set with a perpetually brooding curve that Win found irresistible.
Merripen. Her love, but never her lover. They had known each other since childhood, when he had been taken in by her family. Although the Hathaways had always treated him as one of their own, Merripen had acted in the capacity of a servant. A protector. An outsider.
He came to Win's bedroom and stood at the threshold to watch as she packed a valise with a few personal articles from the top of her dresser. A hairbrush, a rack of pins, a handful of handkerchiefs that her sister Poppy had embroidered for her. As Win tucked the objects into the leather bag, she was intensely aware of Merripen's motionless form. She knew what lurked beneath his stillness, because she felt the same undertow of yearning.
The thought of leaving him was breaking her heart. And yet there was no choice. She had been an invalid ever since she'd had scarlet fever two years earlier. She was thin and frail and given to fainting spells and fatigue. Weak lungs, all the doctors had said. Nothing to do but succumb. A lifetime of bed rest followed by an early death.
Win would not accept such a fate.
She longed to get well, to enjoy the things that most people took for granted. To dance, laugh, walk through the countryside. She wanted the freedom to love… to marry… to have her own family someday.
With her health in such a poor state, there was no possibility of doing any of those things. But that was about to change. She was departing this day for a French clinic, where a dynamic young doctor, Julian Harrow, had achieved remarkable results for patients just like herself. His treatments were unorthodox, controversial, but Win didn't care. She would have done anything to be cured. Because until that day came, she could never have Merripen.
"Don't go," he said, so softly that she almost didn't hear him.
Win struggled to remain outwardly calm, even as a hot-and-cold chill went down her spine.
"Please close the door," she managed to say. They needed privacy for the conversation they were about to have.
Merripen didn't move. Color had risen in his swarthy face, and his black eyes glittered with a ferocity that wasn't at all like him. He was all Rom at this moment, his emotions closer to the surface than he ever usually allowed.
She went to close the door herself, while he moved away from her as if any contact between them would result in fatal harm.
"Why don't you want me to go, Kev?" she asked gently.
"You won't be safe there."
"I'll be perfectly safe," she said. "I have faith in Dr. Harrow. His treatments sound sensible to me, and he's had a high success rate-"
"He's had as many failures as successes. There are better doctors here in London. You should try them first."
"I think my best chances lie with Dr. Harrow." Win smiled into Merripen's hard black eyes, understanding the things he couldn't say. "I'll come back to you. I promise."
He ignored that. Any attempt she made to bring their feelings to light was always met with rock-hard resistance. He would never admit he cared for her, or treat her as anything other than a fragile invalid who needed his protection. A butterfly under glass.
While he went on with his private pursuits.
Despite Merripen's discretion in personal matters, Win was certain there had been more than a few women who had given him their bodies, and used him for their own pleasure. Something bleak and angry rose from the depths of her soul at the thought of Merripen lying with someone else. It would shock everyone who knew her, had they understood the power of her desire for him. It would probably shock Merripen most of all.
Seeing his expressionless face, Win thought, Very well, Kev. If this is what you want, I'll be stoic. We'll have a pleasant, bloodless good-bye.
Later she would suffer in private, knowing it would be an eternity until she saw him again. But that was better than living like this, forever together and yet apart, her illness always between them.
"Well," she said briskly, "I'll be off soon. And there's no need to worry, Kev. Leo will take care of me during the trip to France, and-"
"Your brother can't even take care of himself," Merripen said harshly. "You're not going. You'll stay here, where I can-"
He bit off the words.
But Win had heard a note of something like fury, or anguish, buried in his deep voice.
This was getting interesting.
Her heart began to thump. "There…" She had to pause to catch her breath. "There's only one thing that could stop me from leaving."
He shot her an alert glance. "What is it?"
It took her a long moment to summon the courage to speak. "Tell me you love me. Tell me, and I'll stay."
The black eyes widened. The sound of his indrawn breath cut through the air like the downward arc of an ax stroke. He was silent, frozen.
A curious mixture of amusement and despair surged through Win as she waited for his reply.
"I… care for everyone in your family…"
"No. You know that's not what I'm asking for." Win moved toward him and lifted her pale hands to his chest, resting her palms on a surface of tough, unyielding muscle. She felt the response that jolted through him. "Please," she said, hating the desperate edge in her own voice, "I wouldn't care if I died tomorrow, if I could just hear it once-"