Cam doubted his own sanity, approaching Merripen when he was working in the timber yard. He watched for a moment as Merripen helped a trio of woodmen to unload massive logs from the wagon. It was a dangerous job, with one mistake resulting in the possibility of severe injury or death.

With the use of sloping planks and long levers, the men rolled the logs inch by inch to the ground. Grunting with effort, muscles straining, they fought to control the descending weight. Merripen, as the largest and strongest of the group, had taken the center position, making him the least likely to escape if anything went wrong.


Concerned, Cam started forward to help.

"Get back," Merripen barked, seeing Cam out of the corner of his eye.

Cam stopped at once. The woodmen had worked out a method, he realized. Anyone who didn't know their procedures might inadvertently cause harm to them all.

He waited and watched as the logs were eased safely to the ground. The woodmen breathed heavily, leaning over and bracing their hands on their knees as they sought to recover from the dizzying effort. All except Merripen, who sank the tip of a deadly sharp hand hook into one of the logs. He turned to face Cam while still holding a pair of tongs.

Merripen looked demonic, his face dark and sweat-streaked, his eyes bright with hellfire. Although Cam had come to know him well over the past three years, he had never seen Merripen like this. He looked like a damned soul with no hope or desire for redemption.

God help me, Cam thought. Once Win was married to Dr. Harrow, Merripen might careen out of control. Remembering all the trouble they'd had with Leo, Cam groaned inwardly.

He was tempted to wash his hands of the entire damned mess, reasoning that he had far better things to do than fight for his brother's sanity. Let Merripen deal with the consequences of his own choices.

But then Cam considered how he himself would behave if anyone or anything threatened to take Amelia away from him. Not any better, surely. Reluctant compassion stirred inside him.

"What do you want?" Merripen asked curtly, setting the tongs aside.

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Cam approached slowly. " Harrow 's here."

"I saw."

"Are you going inside to welcome him?"

Merripen gave Cam a contemptuous glance. "Leo's the master of the household. He can welcome the bastard."

"While you hide out here in the timber yard?"

The coffee-black eyes narrowed. "I'm not hiding. I'm working. And you're in the way."

"I want to talk to you, phral."

"Don't call me that. And I don't need your interference."

"Someone has to try and talk some sense into you," Cam said softly. "Look at you, Kev. You're behaving exactly like the brute the rom baro tried to make you into."

"Shut up," Merripen said hoarsely.

"You're letting him decide the rest of your life for you," Cam insisted. "You're clutching those damned chains around you with all your strength."

"If you don't close your mouth-"

"If you were only hurting yourself, I wouldn't say a word. But you're hurting her as well, and you don't seem to give a d-"

Cam was interrupted as Merripen launched toward him, attacking him with a bloodthirsty force that sent them both to the ground. The impact was hard, even on the muddy ground. They rolled twice, thrice, each striving to gain the dominant position. Merripen was as heavy as hell.

Realizing that being pinned was going to result in some serious damage to himself, Cam twisted free and sprang to his feet. Raising his guard, he blocked and sidestepped as Merripen leaped upward like a striking tiger.

The woodmen all rushed forward, two of them grabbing Merripen and hauling him back, the other one pouncing on Cam.

"You're such an idiot," Cam snapped, glaring at Merripen. He shook free of the man who was trying to restrain him. "You're determined to foul things up for yourself no matter what, aren't you?"

Merripen lunged, his face murderous, while the woodmen fought to hold him back.

Cam shook his head in disgust. "I'd hoped for a minute or two of rational conversation, but apparently that's beyond you." He glanced at the woodmen. "Let him go! I can handle him. It's easy to win against a man who lets his emotions get the best of him."

At that, Merripen made a visible effort to control his rage, going still, the wildness in his eyes diminishing to a glint of cold hatred. Gradually, with the same care they had used to manage the heavy crushing logs, the woodmen released his arms.

"You've made your point," Cam told Merripen. "And it seems you'll keep on making it until you've proven it to everyone. So let me spare you the effort: I agree with you. You aren't fit for her."

And he left the timber yard, while Merripen glared after him.

Merripen's absence cast a shadow over dinner that night, no matter how they all tried to behave naturally. The odd thing was, Merripen had never been one to dominate a conversation or take the central role of the gathering, and yet removing his unobtrusive presence was the same as taking off the leg of a chair. Everything was off-balance when he was gone.

Julian filled the gap with charm and lightness, relaying amusing stories about his acquaintances in London, discussing his clinic, revealing the origins of the therapies that served his patients to such good effect.

Win listened and smiled. She pretended interest in the scene around her, the table laden with china and crystal, platters of well-seasoned food, and a few pieces of good, serviceable silver. She was calm on the surface. But underneath she was nothing but writhing emotion, anger and desire and grief mixed so thoroughly that she couldn't divine their proportions.

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