Win had never been so mortified. "You're saying you would have reacted that way with any woman?"
"I don't believe you!"
"Believe what you like." Merripen went to the door and opened it to glance in both directions along the hallway. "Come here."
"I want to stay. I need to talk with you."
"Not alone. Not at this hour." He paused. "I told you to come here."
This last was said with a quiet authority that made her bristle. But she obeyed.
As Win reached him, Merripen pulled the hood of her cloak up to conceal her face. Ascertaining that the hallway was still clear, he guided her outside the room and closed the door.
They were silent as they went to the staircase at the end of the hallway. Win was acutely conscious of his hand resting lightly on her back. Reaching the top step, she was surprised when he stopped her.
"Take my arm."
She realized he intended to help her down the stairs, as he had always done when she was ill. Stairs had been a particular trial for her. The entire family had been terrified that she would faint while going up or down the steps, and perhaps break her neck. Merripen had often carried her rather than let her take the risk.
"No, thank you," she said. "I'm able to do it on my own now."
"Take it," he repeated, reaching for her hand.
Win snatched it back, while her chest tightened with annoyance. "I don't want your help. I'm no longer an invalid. Though it seems you preferred me that way."
Although she couldn't see his face, she heard his sharply indrawn breath. She felt ashamed at the petty accusation, even as she wondered if there wasn't a grain of truth in it.
Merripen didn't reply, however. If she had hurt him, he bore it stoically. They descended the stairs separately, in silence.
Win was utterly confused. She had pictured this night a hundred different ways. Every possible way but this. She led the way to her door and reached in her pocket for the key.
Merripen took the key from her and opened the door. "Go and light the lamp."
Conscious of his large, dark form waiting at the threshold, Win went to the bedside table. Carefully she lifted the glass globe of the lamp, lit the wick, and replaced the glass.
After inserting the key into the other side of the door, Merripen said, "Lock it behind me."
Turning to look at him, Win felt a miserable laugh knotting in her throat. "This is where we left off, isn't it? Me, throwing myself at you. You, turning me away. I thought I understood before. I wasn't well enough for the kind of relationship I wanted with you. But now I don't understand. Because there's nothing to stop us from finding out if… if we are meant to…" Distressed and mortified, she couldn't find words for what she wanted. "Unless I was mistaken in how you once felt for me? Did you ever desire me, Kev?"
"No." His voice was barely audible. "It was only friendship. And pity."
Win felt her face go very white. Her eyes and nose prickled. A hot tear leaked down her cheek. "Liar," she said, and turned away.
The door closed gently.
Kev never remembered walking back to his room, only that he eventually found himself standing beside his bed. Groaning a curse, he sank to his knees and gripped huge handfuls of the counterpane and buried his face in it. He was in hell.
Holy Christ, how Win devastated him. He had starved for her for so long, dreamed of her so many nights, and woken to so many bitter mornings without her that at first he hadn't believed she was real.
He thought of Win's lovely face, and the softness of her mouth against his, and the way she had arched beneath his hands. She had felt different, her body supple and strong. But her spirit was the same, radiant with the endearing sweetness and honesty that had always pierced straight to his heart. It had taken all his strength not to go to his knees before her.
Win had asked for friendship. Impossible. How could he could separate any part of the unwieldy tangle of his feelings, and hand over such a small piece? And she knew better than to ask. Even in the Hathaways' eccentric world, some things were forbidden.
Kev had nothing to offer Win except degradation. Even Cam Rohan had been able to provide Amelia with his considerable wealth. But Kev had no worldly possessions, no grace of character, no education, no advantageous connections, nothing that the gadje valued. He had been isolated and maltreated even by the people of his own tribe for reasons he had never understood. But on some elemental level, he knew that he must have deserved it. Something about him had destined him for a life of violence. And no rational being would say there was any benefit for Win Hathaway to love a man who was, essentially, a brute.
If she was well enough to marry someday, it would be to a gentleman.
To a gentle man.
In the morning, Leo met the governess.
Poppy and Beatrix had both written to him about having acquired a governess a year earlier. Her name was Miss Marks, and they both liked her, although their descriptions didn't exactly convey why they should like such a creature. Apparently she was slight and quiet and stern. She was helping not only the sisters but the entire family learn to acquit itself in society.
Leo thought this social instruction was probably a good thing. For everyone else, not himself.
When it came to polite behavior, society tended to be far more exacting of women than men. And if a man had a title and held his liquor reasonably well, he could do or say nearly anything he liked, and still be invited everywhere.