Win thought that Julian would be a skilled and sensitive partner when she finally did manage to coax him into making love to her. But he didn't seem terribly driven in that regard, which was both a disappointment and a relief. Had he ever looked at her with a fraction of the hunger, the need, that Merripen did, perhaps it might have awakened a response in her.

But Win knew that while Julian desired her, his feelings didn't begin to approach the all-encompassing pri-mality of Merripen's. And she found it difficult to imagine Julian losing his composure even during that most intimate of acts. She couldn't picture him sweating and groaning and holding her tightly. She knew intuitively that Julian would never allow himself to descend to that level of abandonment.

She also knew that at some time in the future there was a possibility that Julian might sleep with another woman. The thought dejected her. But such a concern was not enough to deter her from marriage. After all, adultery was hardly an uncommon circumstance. While it was held as a social ideal that a man should keep his vows of fidelity, most people were quick to excuse a husband who had strayed. In society's view, a wife should be forgiving.

Win bathed and donned a white nightgown, and sat in bed reading for a while. The novel, loaned to her by


Poppy, had such a confusingly large cast of characters and such extended flowery prose that one could only assume the author had been paid by the word. After finishing two chapters, Win closed the book and turned out the lamp. She lay down to stare despondently through the darkness.

Sleep claimed her eventually. She slept heavily, welcoming the escape. But some time later, while it was still very dark, she found herself struggling upward through layers of dreams. Someone or something was in the room. Her first thought was that it might be Beatrix's ferret, who sometimes slipped past the door to collect objects that intrigued him.

Rubbing her eyes, Win began to sit up, when there was a movement beside the bed. A large shadow crossed over her. Before bewilderment could give way to fear, she heard a familiar murmur, and felt a man's warm fingers press across her lips.

"It's me."

Her lips moved soundlessly against his hand. Kev.

Win's stomach constricted with an ache of pleasure, and her heartbeat hammered in her throat. But she was still angry with him, she was done with him, and if he had come here for a midnight talk, he was sadly mistaken. She started to tell him so, but to her astonishment, she felt a thick piece of cloth descend over her mouth, and then he was tying it deftly behind her head. In a few more seconds, he had bound her wrists in front of her.

Win was rigid with shock. Merripen would never do something like this. And yet it was him; she would know him if only by the touch of his hands. What did he want? What was going through his mind? His breath was faster than usual as it brushed against her hair. Now that her vision had adjusted to the darkness, she saw that his face was hard and austere.

Merripen drew the ruby ring off her finger and set it on the bedside table. Taking her head in his hands, he stared into her wide eyes. He said only two words. But they explained everything he was doing, and everything he intended to do.

"You're mine."

He picked her up easily, draping her over one powerful shoulder, and he carried her from the room.

Win closed her eyes, yielding, trembling. She pressed a few sobs against the gag covering her mouth, not of unhappiness or fear, but of wild relief. This was not an impulsive act. This was ritual. This was an ancient Romany courtship rite, and there would be nothing halfhearted about it. She was going to be kidnapped and ravished.

Finally.

Chapter Seventeen

As far as abductions went, it was skillfully executed. One would have expected no less of Merripen. Although Win had assumed he would carry her to his room, he surprised her by taking her outside, where his horse was waiting. Wrapping her in his coat, he held her against his chest and rode off with her. Not to the gatehouse, but alongside the wood, through night mist and dense blackness that daylight would soon filter.

Win stayed relaxed against him, trusting him, and yet she shook with nerves. This was Merripen, and yet he wasn't at all familiar. The side of himself he had always kept under strict control had been set free.

Merripen guided the horse expertly through a copse of oak and ash. A small white cottage appeared, ghost-colored in the darkness. Win wondered whom it belonged to. It was tidy and new-looking, with smoke curling from the chimney stack. It was lit, welcoming, as if it had just been readied in anticipation of visitors.

Dismounting, Merripen tugged Win down into his arms, and he carried her to the front step. "Don't move," he said. She stayed obediently still while he tethered the horse.

Merripen closed his hand over her bound wrists and led her inside. Win followed easily, a willing captive. The cottage was sparely furnished, and it smelled of fresh wood and paint. Not only was it empty of current residents, but it seemed that no one had ever lived there.

Taking Win into the bedroom. Merripen lifted her onto a bed covered with quilts and white linen. Her bare feet dangled over the edge of the mattress as she sat upright.


Merripen stood before her, the light from the hearth gilding one side of his face. His gaze was locked on her. Slowly he removed his coat and dropped it to the floor, heedless of the fine fabric. As he pulled his open-necked shirt over his head, Win was startled by the powerful expanse of his torso, all ribbed muscle and swarthy brawn. His chest was hairless, the skin gleaming like satin, and Win's fingers twitched with the urge to touch it. She felt herself flush with anticipation, her face rouged with heat.

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