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"Don't," he growled, backing away.
Casting aside all caution, Win followed. She reached out to grasp the loose folds of his shirt. "Tell me. Let's finally bring the truth out into the open-"
"Hush; you'll make yourself ill."
It infuriated Win that he was right. She could feel the familiar weakness, the dizziness that came along with her pounding heart and laboring lungs. She cursed her failing body. "I love you," she said wretchedly. "And if I were well, no power on earth could keep me away from you. If I were well, I would take you into my bed, and I would show you as much passion as any woman could-"
"No." His hand lifted to her mouth as if to muffle her, then snatched back as he felt the warmth of her lips.
"If I'm not afraid to admit it, why should you be?" Her pleasure at being near him, touching him, was a kind of madness. Recklessly she molded herself against him. He tried to push her away without hurting her, but she clung with all her remaining strength. "What if this were the last moment you ever had with me? Wouldn't you have been sorry not to tell me how you felt? Wouldn't you-"
Merripen covered her mouth with his, desperate for a way to make her quiet. They both gasped and went still, absorbing the feel of it. Each strike of his breath on her cheek was a shock of heat. His arms went around her, wrapping her in his vast strength, holding her against the hardness of his body. And then everything ignited, and they were both lost in a furor of need.
She could taste the sweetness of apples on his breath, the bitter hint of coffee, but most of all the rich essence of him. Wanting more, craving him, she pressed upward. He took the innocent offering with a low, savage sound.
She felt the touch of his tongue. Opening to him, she drew him deeper, hesitantly using her own tongue in a slide of silk-on-silk, and he shivered and gasped and held her more tightly. A new weakness flooded her, her senses starving for his hands and mouth and body… his powerful weight over and between and inside her.… Oh, she wanted him, wanted…
Merripen kissed her with savage hunger, his mouth moving over hers with rough, luscious strokes. Her nerves blazed with pleasure, and she squirmed and clutched at him, wanting him closer.
Even through the layers of her skirts, she felt the way he urged his h*ps against hers, the tight subtle rhythm. Instinctively she reached down to feel him, to soothe him, and her trembling fingers encountered the hard shape of his arousal.
He buried an agonized groan in her mouth. For one scalding moment he reached down and gripped her hand tightly over himself. Her eyes flew open as she felt the pulsing charge, the heat and tension that seemed ready to explode. "Kev… the bed…," she whispered, going crimson from head to toe. She had wanted him so desperately, for so long, and now it was finally going to happen. "Take me-"
Merripen cursed and shoved her away from him, turning to the side. He was gasping uncontrollably.
Win moved toward him. "Kev-"
"Stay back," he said with such force that she jumped in fright.
For at least a minute, there was no sound or movement save the angry friction of their breaths.
Merripen was the first to speak. His voice was weighted with rage and disgust, though whether it was directed against her or himself was impossible to fathom. "That will never happen again."
"Because you're afraid you might hurt me?"
"Because I don't want you that way."
She stiffened with indignation, and gave a disbelieving laugh. "You responded to me just now. I felt it."
His color deepened. "That would have happened with any woman."
"You… you're trying to make me believe that you have no particular feeling for me?"
"Nothing other than a desire to protect one of your family."
She knew it was a lie; she knew it. But his callous rejection made leaving a bit easier. "I…" It was difficult to speak. "How noble of you." Her attempt at an ironic tone was ruined by her breathlessness. Stupid weak lungs.
"You're overwrought," Merripen said, moving toward her. "You need to rest-"
"I'm fine," Win said fiercely, going to the washstand, gripping it to steady herself. When her balance was secured, she poured a splash of water onto a linen cloth, and applied it to her flushed cheeks. Glancing into the looking glass, she made her face into its usual serene mask. Somehow she made her voice calm. "I will have all of you or nothing," she said. "You know the words that will make me stay. If you won't say them, then leave."
The air in the room was heavy with emotion. Win's nerves screamed in protest as the silence drew out. She stared into the looking glass, able to see only the broad shape of his shoulder and arm. And then he moved, and the door opened and closed.
Win continued to dab at her face with the cool cloth, using it to blot a few stray teardrops. Setting the cloth aside, she noticed that her palm, the one she had used to grip the intimate shape of him, still retained the memory of his flesh. And her lips still tingled from the sweet, hard kisses, and her chest was filled with the ache of desperate love.
"Well," she said to her flushed reflection, "now you're motivated." And she laughed shakily until she had to wipe away more tears.
As Cam Rohan supervised the loading of the carriage that would soon depart for the London docks, he couldn't help wondering if he was making a mistake. He had promised his new wife that he would take care of her family. But less than two months after he'd married Amelia, he was sending one of her sisters to France.