A slight snore was her reply.
The first time she had ever kissed a man, she thought ruefully, and she had put him to sleep.
Struggling out from beneath him, Win turned back the covers and grasped the hem of his shirt. The linen clung to the powerful slope of his back. Pulling the hem all the way up, she tucked it into the collarless neck of the shirt. Carefully she lifted the edge of the bandage, the cotton gauze sticky and reeking of honey. She blinked at the sight of the burn wound, which was angry and inflamed. The doctor had said a scab would form, but the oozing crust of the wound didn't remotely resemble healing.
Seeing a black mark on the other side of his back, Win frowned curiously and pushed his shirt a little higher. What she discovered caused her breath to catch, her eyes turning wide.
For all Merripen's robust physicality, he had always been an exceptionally modest man. The family had teased him, in fact, for his refusal to bathe in front of anyone, or remove his shirt even during strenuous exertions.
Was this why? What significance did this strange mark have, and what might it reveal about his past?
"Kev," she murmured in wonder, her fingers tracing the pattern on his shoulder. "What secrets are you hiding?"
The next morning Amelia awakened to the unwelcome news, delivered by Poppy, that Leo had not slept in his bed the previous night and couldn't be found anywhere, and Merripen had taken a turn for the worse.
"Bother Leo," Amelia grumbled, climbing out of bed and reaching for her robe and slippers. "He started drinking yesterday afternoon and doubtless didn't stop. I couldn't care less where he is, or what's happened to him."
"What if he wandered out of the house and?oh, I don't know?stumbled over a tree branch or something? Shouldn't we ask some of the gardeners and groundsmen to look for him?"
"God. How mortifying." Amelia pulled the robe over her head and buttoned it hastily. "I suppose so. Yes, although make it clear they're not to go on an all-out search. I should hate for their work to be interrupted just because our brother has no self-control."
"He's grieving, Amelia," Poppy said quietly.
"I know. But God help me, I'm tired of his grieving. And it makes me feel horrid to say so."
Poppy stared at her compassionately, and reached out to hug her. "You shouldn't feel horrid. It always falls to you to pick up the pieces of his muck-ups, not to mention everyone else's. I'd be tired, too, if I were you."
Amelia returned the hug, and stepped back with a sigh. "We'll worry about Leo later. Right now I'm more concerned about Merripen. Have you seen him this morning?"
"No, but Win has. She says he's definitely feverish and the wound isn't healing. I think she stayed up with him most of the night."
"And now she'll probably faint from exhaustion," Amelia said in exasperation.
Poppy hesitated and frowned. "Amelia... I can't decide whether this is the best or worst time to tell you... but there's a minor to-do belowstairs. It seems some of the silver flatware has gone missing."
Amelia went to the window and stared beseechingly up at the cloud-heavy sky. "Dear Merciful Lord, please don't let it be Beatrix."
"Amen," Poppy said. "But it probably is."
Feeling overwhelmed, Amelia thought in despair, I've I failed. The house is gone, Leo is missing or dead, Merripen is injured, Win is ill, Beatrix is going to prison, and Poppy is doomed to spinsterhood. But what she said was, "Merripen first," and strode briskly from the room with Poppy at her heels.
Win was at Merripen's bedside, so exhausted she could hardly sit up straight. Her face was blanched, her eyes •bloodshot, her entire body drooping. She had so few reserves, it took very little to deplete them. "He has fever," she said, wringing out a wet cloth and draping it over the back of his neck.
"I'll send for the doctor." Amelia came to stand beside her. "Go to bed."
Win shook her head. "Later. He needs me now."
"The last thing he needs is for you to make yourself ill over him," Amelia replied shortly. She softened her tone as she saw the anguish in her sister's gaze. "Please go to bed, Win. Poppy and I will take care of him while you sleep."
Slowly Win lowered her face until their foreheads were touching. "It's going all wrong, Amelia," she whispered. "His strength has gone too quickly. And the fever shouldn't have come this fast."
"We'll get him through this." Even to her own ears, Amelia's words rang false. She forced a reassuring smile to her lips. "Go and rest, dear."
Win obeyed reluctantly, while Amelia bent over the patient. Merripen's healthy bronze color had been leached into ashen paleness, the black slashes of his brows and the fans of his lashes standing out in sharp contrast. He slept with his mouth partially open, shallow breaths rushing over the chapped surface of his lips. It didn't seem possible that Merripen, always so rugged and sturdy, could have sunk so fast. Touching the side of his face, Amelia was shocked by the heat coming from his skin. "Merripen," she murmured. "Wake up, dear. Poppy and I are going to clean your wound. You must hold still for us. All right?" He swallowed and nodded, his eyes cracking open. Murmuring in sympathy, the sisters worked in tandem, folding back the covers to his waist, lifting the hem of his shirt to his shoulders, and laying out clean rags, pots of salve and honey, and fresh bandages.