Win didn't flinch from the truth. "They're criticizing our family," she said, "because we're harboring a Rom. Some of the villagers don't like it. They're afraid Merripen might steal from them, or place curses on people, or other such nonsense. They blame us for taking him in."
In the silence that followed, Kev trembled with undirected rage. And at the same time, he was overwhelmed with defeat. He was a liability to the family. He could never live among the gadje without conflict.
"I will go," he said. It was the best thing he could do for them.
"Where?" Win asked, a surprising edge to her voice, as if the notion of his leaving had annoyed her. "You belong here. You have nowhere else to go."
"I'm a Rom," he said simply. He belonged nowhere and everywhere.
"You will not leave," Mrs. Hathaway astonished him by saying. "Certainly not because of some village ruffians. What would it teach my children, to let such ignorance and despicable behavior prevail? No, you will stay. It is only right. But you must not fight, Merripen. Ignore them, and they will eventually lose interest in taunting us."
A stupid gadjo sentiment. Ignoring never worked. The fastest way to silence a bully's taunts was to beat him to a bloody pulp.
A new voice entered the conversation. "If he stays," Leo remarked, coming into the kitchen, "he will most certainly have to fight, Mother."
Like Kev, Leo looked much the worse for wear, with a blackened eye and a split lip. He gave a crooked grin at his mother's and sister's exclamations. Still smiling, he glanced at Kev. "I thrashed one or two of the fellows you overlooked," he said.
"Oh dear," Mrs. Hathaway said sorrowfully, taking her son's hand, which was bruised and bleeding from a gash where he must have caught someone's tooth with his knuckle. "These are hands meant for holding books. Not fighting."
"I like to think I can manage both," Leo said dryly. His expression turned serious as he gazed at Kev. "I'll be damned if anyone will tell me who may live in my home. As long as you wish to stay, Merripen, I'll defend you like a brother."
"I don't want to make trouble for you," Kev muttered.
"No trouble," Leo replied, gingerly flexing his hand. "After all, some principles are worth standing up for."
Principles. Ideals. The harsh realities of Kev's former life had never allowed for such things. But constant exposure to the Hathaways had changed him, elevating his thoughts to considerations beyond mere survival. Certainly he would never be a scholar or a gentleman. He spent years, however, listening to the Hathaways' animated discussions about Shakespeare, Galileo, Flemish art versus Venetian, democracy and monarchy and theocracy, and every imaginable subject. He had learned to read, and even acquired some Latin and a few words of French. He had changed into someone his former tribe would never have recognized.
Kev never came to think of Mr. and Mrs. Hathaway as parents, although he would have done anything for them. He had no desire to form attachments to people. That would have required more trust and intimacy than he could summon. But he did care for all the Hathaway brood, even Leo. And then there was Win, for whom Kev would have died a thousand times over.
He would never degrade Win with his touch, or dare to assume a place in her life other than as a protector.
She was too fine, too rare. As she grew into womanhood, every man in the county was enthralled by her beauty.
Outsiders tended to view Win as an ice maiden, neat and unruffled and cerebral. But outsiders knew nothing of the sly wit and warmth that lurked beneath her perfect surface. Outsiders hadn't seen Win teaching Poppy the steps to a quadrille until they had both collapsed to the floor in giggles. Or frog-hunting with Beatrix, her apron filled with leaping amphibians. Or the droll way she read a Dickens novel with an array of voices and sounds, until the entire family howled at her cleverness.
Kev loved her. Not in the way that novelists and poets described. Nothing so tame. He loved her beyond earth, heaven, or hell. Every moment out of her company was agony; every moment with her was the only peace he had ever known. Every touch of her hands left an imprint that ate down to his soul. He would have killed himself before admitting it to anyone. The truth was buried deep in his heart.
Kev did not know if Win loved him in return. All he knew was that he didn't want her to.
"There," Win said one day after they had rambled through dry meadows and settled to rest in their favorite place. "You're almost doing it."
"Almost doing what?" Kev asked lazily. They reclined by a clump of trees bordering a winterbourne, a stream that ran dry in the summer months. The grass was littered with purple rampion and white meadowsweet, the latter spreading an almondlike fragrance through the warm, fetid air.
"Smiling." She lifted on her elbows beside him, her fingers brushing his lips. Kev stopped breathing.
A pipit rose from a nearby tree on taut wings, drawing out a long note as he descended.
Intent on her task, Win shaped the corners of Kev's mouth upward and tried to hold them there.
Aroused and amused, Kev let out a smothered laugh and brushed her hand away.
"You should smile more often," Win said, still staring down at him. "You're very handsome when you do."
She was more dazzling than the sun, her hair like cream silk, her lips a tender shade of pink. At first her gaze seemed like nothing more than friendly inquiry, but as it held on his, he realized she was trying to read his secrets.