"Yes, miss," he said, sounding disgruntled. Charles was somewhat stout, and not fond of walking. Although he was getting on in years, the Hathaways were loath to dismiss him before he wished to retire.
Win bit back a smile. "Just to Hyde Park and back, Charles."
As they neared the entrance to the hotel, Win saw a tall, dark form moving through the lobby. It was Merripen, looking moody and distracted as he walked with his gaze focused downward. She couldn't suppress the flutters of pleasure that went through her at the sight of him, the handsome, bad-tempered beast. He approached the stairs, glancing upward, and his expression changed as he saw her. There was a flash of hunger in his eyes before he managed to extinguish it. But that brief, bright flare caused Win's spirits to lift immeasurably.
After the scene that morning, and Merripen's display of jealous rage, Win had apologized to Julian. The doctor had been amused rather than disconcerted. "He is exactly as you described," Julian had said, adding ruefully, "… only more."
"More" was a fitting word to apply to Merripen, she thought. There was nothing understated about him. At the moment he looked rather like the brooding villain of a sensation novel. The kind who was always vanquished by the fair-haired hero.
The discreet glances Merripen was attracting from a group of ladies in the lobby made it evident that Win was not the only one who found him mesmerizing. The civilized attire suited him. He wore the well-tailored clothes without a trace of self-consciousness, as if he couldn't have cared less whether he was dressed like a gentleman or a dock laborer. And knowing Merripen, he didn't.
Win stopped and waited, smiling, as he came to her. His gaze swept over her, not missing a detail of the simple pink walking gown and matching saque jacket.
"You're dressed now," Merripen remarked, as if he were surprised that she wasn't parading na**d through the lobby.
"This is a walking dress," she said. "As you can see, I'm going out for some air."
"Who's escorting you?" he asked, even though he could see the footman standing a few feet away. "Charles," she replied.
"Only Charles?" Merripen looked outraged. "You need more protection than that."
"We're only walking to Marble Arch," she said, amused.
"Are you out of your mind, woman? Do you have any idea what could happen to you at Hyde Park? There are pickpockets, cutpurses, confidence tricksters, and gangs, all ready for a nice little pigeon like you to pluck."
Rather than take offense, Charles said eagerly, "Perhaps Mr. Merripen has a point. Miss Hathaway. It is rather far… and one never knows…"
"Are you offering to go in his stead?" Win asked Merripen.
As she had expected, he put on a show of grumbling reluctance. "I suppose so, if the alternative is to see you traipsing through the streets of London and tempting every criminal in sight." He frowned at Charles. "You needn't go with us. I'd rather not have to look after you, too."
"Yes, sir," came the footman's grateful reply, and he went back up the stairs with considerably more enthusiasm than he had shown while descending them.
Win slipped her hand through Merripen's arm and felt the fierce tension in his muscles. Something had upset him deeply, she realized. Something far more than her exercise costume or the prospective walk to Hyde Park.
They left the hotel, Merripen's long strides easily keeping measure with her brisk ones. Win kept her tone casual and cheerful. "How cool and bracing the air is today."
"It's polluted with coal smoke," he said, steering her around a puddle as if it might cause mortal harm to get her feet wet.
"Actually, I detect a strong scent of smoke from your coat. Not tobacco smoke, either. Where did you and Mr. Rohan go this morning?"
"To a Romany camp."
"For what reason?" Win persisted. With Merripen, one could not be easily be put off by terseness, or one would never get anything out of him.
"Rohan thought we might find someone there from my tribe."
"And did you?" she asked softly, knowing the subject was a sensitive one.
A restless shift of the muscle beneath her hand. "No."
"Yes, you did. I can tell you're brooding."
Merripen glanced down at her, and saw how closely she was studying him. He sighed. "In my tribe, there was a girl named Shuri…"
Win felt a pang of jealousy. A girl he had known and never mentioned. Perhaps he had cared for her.
"We found her today in the camp," Merripen continued. "She hardly looks the same. She was once very beautiful, but now she appears much older than her years."
"Oh, that's too bad," Win said, trying to sound sincere.
"Her husband, the rom baro, was my uncle. He was… not a good man."
That was hardly a surprise, considering the condition Merripen had been in when Win had first met him. Wounded, abandoned, and so savage that it was clear he had lived like a wild creature.
Win was filled with compassion and tenderness. She wished they were in some private place where she could coax Merripen to tell her everything. She wished she could embrace him, not as a lover, but as a loving friend. No doubt many people would think it ludicrous that she should feel so protective of such an invulnerable-seeming man. But beneath that hard and impervious facade, Merripen possessed a rare depth of feeling. She knew that about him. She also knew that he would deny it to the death.