Merripen didn't stop until they had reached another nave that housed a fabric court. Enormous wood and glass cases had been built for displays of fabric that flowed like rivers. The walls were hung with velvets, brocades, silks, cotton, muslin, wool, every imaginable substance created for clothing, upholstery, or drapery. Towering bolts of fabric were arranged in vertical rolls affixed to more display walls that formed deep corridors within the court.

Emerging from beneath Merripen's coat, Win took one look at him and began to gasp with laughter. White down had covered his black hair and clung to his clothes like new-fallen snow.


Merripen's expression of concern changed to a scowl. "I was going to ask if you had breathed any of the feather dust," he said. "But judging from all the noise you're making, your lungs seem quite clear."

Win couldn't reply; she was laughing too hard.

As Merripen raked his hand through the midnight locks of his hair, the down became even more enmeshed.

"Don't," Win managed, struggling to restrain her laughter. "You'll never… You must let me help you; you're making it worse… and you s-said I was a pigeon to be plucked…" Still chortling, she snatched his hand and tugged him into one of the fabric corridors, where they were partially concealed from view. They went beyond the half-light and into the shadows. "Here, before anyone sees us. Oh, you're too tall for me-" She urged him to the floor with her, where he lowered to his haunches. Win knelt amid the mass of her skirts. Untying her bonnet, she tossed it to the side.

Merripen watched Win's face as she went to work, brushing at his shoulders and hair. "You can't be enjoying this," he said.

"Silly man. You're covered in feathers-of course I'm enjoying it." And she was. He looked so… well, adorable, kneeling and frowning and holding still while she de-feathered him. And it was lovely to play with the thick, shiny layers of his hair, which he never would have allowed in other circumstances. Her giggles kept frothing up, impossible to suppress.

But as a minute passed, and then another, the laughter left her throat, and she felt relaxed and almost dreamlike as she continued to pull the fluff from his hair. The sound of the crowds was muffled by the velvet draped all around them, hanging like curtains of night and clouds and mist.

Merripen's eyes held a strange dark glow, the contours of his face stern and beautiful. He seemed like some dangerous pagan creature emerging from the witching hour.

"Almost done," Win whispered, although she was already finished. Her fingers sifted gently through his hair. So vibrant, heavy, the shorn locks like velvet pile at the back of his neck.

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Win's breath caught as Merripen moved. At first she thought he was rising to his feet, but he tugged her closer and took her head in his hands. His mouth was so close, his exhalations like steam against her lips.

She was stunned by the moment of suspended violence, the savage tightness of his grip. She waited, listening to his hard, angry breathing, unable to understand what had provoked him.

"I have nothing to offer you," he finally said in a guttural voice. "Nothing."

Win's lips had turned dry. She moistened them, and tried to speak through a thrill of anxious trembling. "You have yourself," she whispered.

"You don't know me. You think you do, but you don't. The things I've done, the things I'm capable of- you and your family, all you know of life comes from books. If you understood anything-"

"Make me understand. Tell me what is so terrible that you must keep pushing me away."

He shook his head.

"Then stop torturing the both of us," she said unsteadily. "Leave me, or let me go."

"I can't," he snapped. "I can't, damn you." And before she could make a sound, he kissed her.

Her heart thundered, and she opened to him with a low, despairing moan. Her nostrils were filled with the fragrance of smoke, and man, and the earthy autumn spice of him. His mouth shaped to hers with primitive hunger, his tongue stabbing deep, searching hungrily. They knelt together more tightly as Win rose to press her torso against his, closer, harder. And every place they touched, she ached. She wanted to feel his skin, his muscles bunched and hard beneath her hands.

The desire flared high and wild, leaving no room for sanity. If only he would press her back among all this velvet, here and now, and have his way with her. She thought of taking him inside her body, and she flushed beneath her clothes, until the crawling heat made her squirm. His mouth searched her throat, and her head tipped back to give him free access. He found the throb of her pulse, his tongue stroking the vulnerable spot until she gasped.

Reaching up to his face, she shaped her fingers over his jaw, the heavy grain of shaven beard scraping deli-ciously against her delicate palms. She guided his mouth back to hers. Pleasure filled her as she was blindfolded by the darkness and the sensation of him all around her.

"Kev," she whispered in between kisses, "I've loved you for so-"

He crushed her mouth with his desperately, as if he could smother not only the words but the emotion itself. He stole as deep a taste of her as possible, ardently determined to leave nothing unclaimed. She clung to him, her body racked with sustained shivers, her nerves singing with incandescent heat. He was all she had ever wanted, all she would ever need.

But a sharp breath was torn from her throat as he pushed her back, breaking the warm, necessary contact between their bodies.

For a long moment neither of them moved, both striving to recover equilibrium. And as the glow of desire faded, Win heard Merripen say roughly, "I can't be alone with you. This can't happen again."