He understood the situation more than the bastard would have believed or wanted to believe. Perhaps Leo didn't know the whole mysterious tangle of Merripen's past, or the complex twists and turns of character that made him unable to have the woman he loved. But Leo knew one simple truth that superseded all others.
Life was too bloody short.
"Damn you," Leo muttered, pacing back and forth. He would have preferred to take a knife and lay open a portion of his own flesh rather than say what needed to be said. But he had the sense that he was somehow standing between Merripen and annihilation, that some brace of essential words, a crucial argument, had to be set forth.
"If you weren't such a stubborn ass," Leo said, "I wouldn't have to do this."
No response from Merripen. Not even a glance.
Leo turned to the side and rubbed the back of his neck, and dug his fingers into his own rigid muscles. "You know I never speak of Laura Dillard. In fact, that may be the first time I've said her full name since she died. But I am going to say something about her, because not only do I owe you for what you've done for the Ramsay estate, but-"
"Don't, Leo." The words were hard and cold. "You're embarrassing yourself."
"Well, I'm good at that. And you've left me no bloody choice. Do you understand what you are in, Merripen? A prison of your making. And even after you're out of here, you'll still be trapped. Your entire life will be a prison." Leo thought of Laura, the physical details of her no longer precise in his mind. But she lingered inside him like the memory of sunlight, in a world that had been bitterly cold since her death.
Hell was not a pit of fire and brimstone. Hell was waking up alone, the sheets wet with your tears and your seed, knowing the woman you had dreamed of would never come back to you.
"Since I lost Laura," Leo said, "everything I do is merely a way of passing the time. It's hard to give a damn about much of anything. But at least I can live with the knowledge that I fought for her. At least I took every bloody minute with her that was possible to have. She died knowing I loved her." He stopped pacing and stared at Merripen contemptuously. "But you're throw-ing everything away-and breaking my sister's heart-because you're a damned coward. Either that or a fool. How can you-" He broke off as Merripen hurled himself at the bars, shaking them like a lunatic.
"Shut up, damn it."
"What will either of you have, once Win has gone with Harrow?" Leo persisted. "You'll stay in your self-made prison, that's obvious. But Win will be worse off. She'll be alone. Away from her family. Married to a man who regards her as nothing more than a decorative object to keep on a bloody shelf. And what happens when her beauty fades and she loses her value to him? How will he treat her then?"
Merripen went motionless, his expression contorted, murder in his eyes.
"She's a strong girl," Leo said. "I spent two years with Win, watching as she met one challenge after another. After all the struggles she's faced, she's bloody well entitled to make her own decisions. If she wants to risk having a child-if she feels strong enough-that's her right. And if you're the man she wants, don't be a sodding idiot by turning her away." Leo rubbed his forehead wearily. "Neither you nor I are worth a damn," he muttered. "Oh, you can work the estate and show me how to balance account books and manage the tenants and inventory the stinking larder. I suppose we'll keep it running well enough. But neither of us will ever be more than half-alive, like most men, and the only difference is, we know it."
Leo paused, vaguely surprised by the tightening sensation all around his neck, as if a noose had been cinched around it. "Amelia told me once about a suspicion she'd had for a while. It bothered her quite a bit. She said that when Win and I had fallen ill with scarlet fever, and you made the deadly nightshade syrup, you'd concocted far more than was necessary. And you kept a cup of it on Win's nightstand, like some sort of macabre nightcap. Amelia said that if Win had died, she thought you would have taken the rest of that poison. And I've always hated you for that. Because you forced me to stay alive without the woman I loved, while you had no bloody intention of doing the same."
Merripen didn't answer, gave no sign that he registered Leo's words.
"Christ, man," Leo said huskily. "If you had the bollocks to die with her, don't you think you could work up the courage to live with her?"
There was nothing but silence as Leo walked away from the cell. He wondered what the hell he had done, what effect it would have.
Leo went to the parish constable's office and told him to let Merripen out. "Wait another five minutes, however," he added dryly. "I need a running start."
After Leo had left, the talk at the dinner table had taken on a tone of determined cheerfulness. No one wanted to speculate aloud on the reason for Merripen's absence, or why Leo had gone on a mysterious errand… but it seemed likely the two were connected.
Win had worried silently, and told herself sternly that it was not her place, nor her right, to worry about Merripen. And then she had worried some more. As she had forced a few bites of dinner down, she felt the food stick in her clenched throat.
She had gone to bed early, pleading a headache, and had left the others playing games in the parlor. After Julian had escorted her to the main staircase, she had let him kiss her. It was a lingering kiss, turning damp as he had searched just inside her lips. The patient sweetness of his mouth on hers had been-if not earth-shat-tering-very pleasant.