Kev, she thought in despair and wonder, what's happened to you?

He came to her. Win had forgotten the fluid way he moved, the breathtaking vitality that seemed to charge the air. Hastily she lowered her head.


Merripen reached out for her, and felt her flinch. He must have also detected the tremors that ran through her frame, for he said in a pitiless tone, "You're new at this."

She managed a hoarse whisper: "Yes."

"I won't hurt you." Merripen guided her to a nearby table. As she stood facing away from him, he reached around to the fastenings of her cloak. The heavy garment fell away, revealing her straight blond hair, which was falling from its combs. She heard his breath catch. A moment of stillness. Win closed her eyes as Merripen's hands skimmed her sides. Her body was fuller, more curved, strong in the places where she had once been frail. She wore no corset, in spite of the fact that a decent woman always wore a corset. There was only one conclusion a man could have drawn from that.

As he leaned over to lay her cloak at the side of the table, Win felt the unyielding surface of his body brush against hers. The scent of him, clean and rich and male, unlocked a flood of memories. He smelled like the outdoors, like dry leaves and clean rain-soaked earth. He smelled like Merripen.

She didn't want to be so undone by him. And yet it shouldn't have been a surprise. Something about him had always reached through her composure, down to the vein of purest feeling. This raw exhilaration was terrible and sweet, and no man had ever done this to her except him.

"Don't you want to see my face?" she asked huskily.

A cold, level reply. "It's of no concern to me if you're plain or fair." But his breath hastened as his hands settled on her, one sliding up her spine, urging her to bend forward. And his next words fell on her ears like black velvet.

"Put your hands on the table."

Win obeyed blindly, trying to understand herself, the sudden sting of tears, the excitement that throbbed all through her. He stood behind her. His hand continued to move over her back in slow, soothing paths, and she wanted to arch upward like a cat. His touch awakened sensations that had lain dormant for so long. These hands had soothed and cared for her all during her illness; they had pulled her from the very brink of death.

-- Advertisement --

And yet he was not touching her with love, but with impersonal skill. She comprehended that he fully intended to take her, use her, as he had put it. And after an intimate act with a complete stranger, he planned to send her away a stranger still. It was beneath him, the coward. Would he never allow himself to be involved with anyone?

He had closed one hand in her skirts now, easing them upward. Win felt the touch of a cold draft on her ankle, and she couldn't help but imagine what it would be like if she let him go on.

Aroused and panicking, she stared down at her fists and choked out, "Is this how you treat women now, Kev?"

Everything stopped. The world halted on its axis.

Her skirt hem dropped, and she was seized in a fierce, hurtful grip and spun around. Caught helplessly, she looked up into his dark face.

Merripen was expressionless, save for the widening of his eyes. As he stared at her, a flush burned across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.

"Win." Her name was carried on a shaken breath.

She tried to smile at him, to say something, but her mouth was trembling, and she was blinded by pleasure tears. To be with him again… it overwhelmed her in every way.

One of his hands came upward. The calloused tip of his thumb smoothed over the gloss of dampness beneath her eye. His hand cradled the side of her face so gently that her lashes fluttered down, and she didn't resist as she felt him bring her closer. His parted lips touched the salty wake of the tear and followed it along her cheek. And then the gentleness evaporated. With a swift, greedy move, he reached for her back, her hips, clutching her hard against him.

His mouth found hers with hot, urgent pressure. He tasted her… She reached up to his cheeks and shaped her fingers over the scrape of bristle. A sound came from low in his throat, a masculine growl of pleasure and need. His arms clasped around her in an unbreakable hold, for which she was grateful. Her knees threatened to give way entirely.

Lifting his head, Merripen looked down at her with dazed dark eyes. "How can you be here?"

"I came back early." A shiver went through her as his hot breath fanned against her lips. "I wanted to see you. Wanted you-"

He took her mouth again, no longer gentle. He sank his tongue into her, aggressively searching. Both his hands came up to her head, angling it to make her mouth fully accessible. She reached around him, gripping the powerful stretch of his back, the hard muscles that went on and on.

Merripen groaned as he felt her hands on him. He groped at the combs in her hair, tugged them out, and tangled his fingers in the long silken locks. Pulling her head back, he sought the fragile skin of her throat and dragged his mouth along it as if he wanted to consume her. His hunger escalated and drove his breath faster and his pulse harder, until Win realized he was close to losing all control.

He scooped her up with shocking ease. He carried her to the bed and lowered her swiftly to the mattress. His lips found hers, ravaging deep and sweet, draining her with hot, seeking kisses.

He lowered over her, his solid weight pinning her in place. Win felt him grip the front of her traveling gown, pulling so hard she thought the fabric might tear. The thick cloth resisted his efforts, although a few of the buttons at the back of her gown strained and popped. "Wait… wait…" she whispered, afraid he would rip her gown to shreds. He was too caught up in his savage desire to hear anything.