"I have you for protection, do I not?" she pointed out. "Sweetheart," he said with a softness that undercut the noise of the crowd, "I may be the one you most need protection from."
She felt her heart miss a beat. He met her wide-eyed glance with a steady interest that caused her toes to curl inside her practical leather shoes. Fighting for composure, Amelia looked away from him. But she remained sharply aware of him, the relaxed alertness of his posture, the unknown pulse secreted beneath the elegant layers of his clothing.
They watched as Merripen waded into the chaos of brawling men, sorted through a few of them. Before a half minute had passed, he unceremoniously hauled someone out, easily deflecting blows with his free arm. "He's good," Rohan said in mild surprise. Amelia was overwhelmed with relief as she recognized Leo's disheveled form. "Oh, thank God."
Her eyes flew open, however, as she felt a gentle touch at the edge of her jaw. Rohan's fingers were nudging her face upward, his thumb brushing the tip of her chin. The unexpected intimacy sent a little shock through her. His flame-bright gaze had seized hers again.
"Don't you think you're being a bit overprotective, chasing your grown brother across London? He's not doing anything all that unusual. Most young lords in his position would behave the same."
"You don't know him," Amelia said, sounding shaken to her own ears. She knew she should pull away from his warm fingers, but her body remained perversely still, absorbing the pleasure of his touch. "It's far from usual behavior for him. He's in trouble. He? She broke off.
Rohan let a gentle fingertip follow the shining trail of her bonnet ribbon to the place where it tied beneath her chin. "What kind of trouble?"
She jerked away from his touch and turned as Merripen and Leo approached the carriage. A rush of love and agonized worry filled her at the sight of her brother. He was filthy, battered, and grinning unrepentantly. Anyone who didn't know Leo would assume he hadn't a care in the world. But his eyes, once so warm, were dull and wintry. His formerly fit body was paunchy, and the visible portion of his neck was bloated. There was still a long way to go before Leo was in total ruins, but he seemed determined to hasten the process.
"How remarkable," Amelia said casually. "There's still something left of you." Plucking a handkerchief from her sleeve, she strode forward and tenderly wiped sweat and a smear of blood from his cheeks. Noticing his unfocused gaze, she said, "I'm the one in the middle, dear."
"Ah. There you are." Leo's head bobbed up and down like a string puppet's. He glanced at Merripen, who was providing far more support than Leo's own legs were. "My sister," he said. "Terrifying girl."
"Before Merripen puts you in the carriage," Amelia said, "are you going to cast up your accounts, Leo?"
"Certainly not," came the unhesitating reply. "Hathaways always hold their liquor."
Amelia stroked aside the dirty brown locks that dangled like strands of yarn over his eyes. "It would be nice if you would try to hold a bit less of it in the future, dear."
"Ah, but sis ..." As Leo looked down at her, she saw a flash of his old self, a spark in the vacant eyes, and then it was gone. "I have such a powerful thirst."
Amelia felt the smart of tears at the corners of her eyes, tasted salt at the back of her throat. Swallowing it back, she said in a steady voice, "For the next few days, Leo, your thirst will be slaked exclusively by water or tea. Into the carriage with him, Merripen."
Leo twisted to glance at the man who held him steady. "For God's sake, you're not going to put me in her custody, are you?"
"Would you rather dry out in the care of a Bow Street gaolkeeper?" Merripen asked politely.
"He would be a damn sight more merciful." Grumbling, Leo lurched toward the carriage with Merripen's assistance.
Amelia turned to Cam Rohan, whose face was inscrutable. "May we take you back to Jenner's, sir? It will be tight quarters in the carriage, but I think we can manage."
"No, thank you." Rohan walked slowly around the carriage with her. "It isn't far. I'll go on foot."
"I can't leave you stranded in a London rookery."
Rohan stopped with her at the back of the carriage, where they were partially sheltered from view. "I'll be fine. The city holds no fears for me. Hold still."
Rohan turned her face up again, one hand cradling her jaw while the other descended to her cheek. His thumb brushed gently beneath her left eye, and with surprise she felt a smudge of wetness there.
"The wind makes my eyes water," she heard herself say unsteadily.
'There's no wind tonight." His hand remained at her jaw, the smooth band of the thumb ring pressing lightly against her skin. Her heart had begun to thump until she could hardly hear through the blood rush in her ears. The clamor of the tavern was muted, the darkness thickening around them. His fingers slid over her throat with stunning delicacy, finding secreted nerves and stroking gently.
His eyes were above hers, and she saw that the golden-hazel irises were rimmed with black. "Miss Hathaway ... you're quite certain fate had no hand in our meeting tonight?"
She couldn't seem to breathe properly. "Qu-quite certain."
His head bent low. "And in all likelihood we'll never meet again?"
"Never." He was too large, too close. Nervously Amelia tried to marshal her thoughts, but they scattered like spilled matchsticks ... and then he set fire to them as his breath touched her cheek.