His warm tickling lingers stroked against her like the idle sway of river reeds… cunning fingertips that quickly discovered where she most wanted them. He toyed with her. parting her, slowly investigating the cambered softness and the sensitive places within. Blindly she reached down to grip his strong wrist, feeling the intricate movements of bone and tendon. He slid two fingers inside her, his thumb gliding over her sex in tender circles.

The water sloshed in the tub as she began to push up rhythmically, urging herself into his hand. A third finger worked inside, and she tightened and gasped out a protest-it was too much, she couldn't-but he whispered that she could, she must, and he stretched her carefully and took her groans into his mouth.


Splayed and floating, Win felt herself loosening, opening to the sensuality of the fingers reaching inside her. She felt greedy and wild, undulating to capture more of the obliterating pleasure. She actually clawed him a little, her hands scrabbling against his hard, bare skin, and he growled as if it pleased him. An abbreviated cry left her lips at the first shock of release. She tried to stifle it, but another was torn from her, and another, and the bathwater rippled as she shuddered, the cl**ax lengthened by the delicately emphatic thrusting that continued until she was limp and panting.

Settling her against the high-backed tub, Merripen left her for a few minutes. She soaked in the steaming water, too replete to ask or notice where he'd gone. He returned with a length of toweling and lifted her from the bath. She stood passively before him, letting him dry her as if she were a child. As she leaned against him, she saw that she had scored little red marks on his skin, not deep ones, but marks nonetheless. She should have been apologetic, horrified, but all she wanted was to do it again. To feast on him. It was so unlike her that she withdrew into herself to ponder it.

Merripen carried her back into the bedroom and tucked her into a freshly made bed. She slid deep beneath the quilts and waited for him, drowsing, while he went to wash himself and empty the tub. She was steeped in a feeling she hadn't experienced in years… the kind of incandescent joy she had felt as a child waking on Christmas morning. She had stayed quietly in her bed, relishing the knowledge of all the good things that would soon happen, her heart alight with anticipation.

Win's eyes half-opened as she felt him climb into bed eventually. His weight depressed the mattress, his body startlingly warm against Win's coolness. Snuggling into the crook of his arm and shoulder, she sighed deeply. His hand made a slow, lovely pattern over her back.

"Will we have a cottage like this someday?" she murmured.

Being Merripen, he had already come up with a plan. "We'll live at Ramsay House for a year, more likely two, until the restoration is complete and Leo is on his feet. Then I'll find a suitable property for a farm, and build a house for you. A bit larger than this, I expect." His hand slid to her bottom, rubbing in slow circles. "It won't be an extravagant life, but it will be comfortable. You'll have a cookmaid and a footman and a driver. And we'll live near your family, so you can see them whenever you like."

"That sounds lovely," Win managed to say, so filled with happiness she could scarcely breathe. "It will be heaven." She had no doubt of his ability to take care of her, nor did she doubt that she could make him happy. They would create a good life together, though she was fairly certain it would not be an ordinary one.

His tone was sober. "If you marry me, you'll never be a lady of position."

"There is no better position for me than being your wife."

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One of his big hands clasped over her skull, pressing her head against his shoulder. "I've always wanted more for you than this."

"Liar," she whispered. "You always wanted me for yourself."

Laughter stirred in his chest. "Yes," he admitted.

They were quiet then, relishing the sensation of lying together in the morning-filled room. They had been close in so many ways before this… They had known each other so well… and yet not at all. Physical intimacy had created a new dimension to Win's feelings, as if she had taken not only his body inside hers, but also a part of his soul. She wondered how it was that people could engage in this act without love, how empty and pointless it must be by comparison.

Her bare foot explored the hairy surface of his leg, toes nudging against hard-sculpted muscle. "Did you think about me when you were with them?" she asked tentatively. "Who?"

"The women you slept with."

She knew from the way Merripen tensed that he didn't like the question. His reply was low and guilt-roughened. "No. I didn't think about anything when I was with them."

Win let her hand wander over his smooth chest, finding the small brown ni**les, teasing them into points. Rising on her elbow, she said frankly, "When I imagine you doing this with someone else, I can hardly bear it."

His hand came over hers, securing it against his strong heartbeat. "They meant nothing to me. It was always a transaction. Something to be done with as quickly as possible."

"I think that makes it even worse. To use a woman in that way, with no feeling…"

"They were well compensated," he said sardonically. "And always willing."

"You should have found someone you cared for, someone who cared for you. That would have been infinitely better than a loveless transaction."

"I couldn't."

"Couldn't what?"

"Care about anyone else. You took up too much room in my heart."