Finally a compromise had been reached: a housemaid would bring the tray to the top of the stairs, and Win could take it from there.
As she neared his room, Win heard the sounds of something hitting a wall with a thud, and a few threatening growls that could only have come from Merripen. She frowned, her pace quickening as she proceeded along the hallway. An indignant housemaid was departing from Merripen's room.
"Well, I never," the maid exclaimed, red and bristling. "I went to stir the coals and add wood to the fire—and that nasty Gypsy shouted and threw his cup at me!"
"Oh, dear. I'm so sorry. You weren't injured, were you? I'm sure he didn't intend?
"No, his aim was off," the maid said with dark satisfaction. "The tonic's made him higher than a Cable Street constable." The reference was to a mile-long road in London known for harboring a quantity of opium dens. "I wouldn't go in there if I were you, miss. He'd snap you in two as soon as you got within arm's length of him. The beast."
Win frowned in concern. "Yes. Thank you. I'll be careful," Tonic… the doctor must have left something extremely potent to dull the agony of a burn wound. It was probably laced with opiate syrup and alcohol. Since Merripen never took medicine and rarely even drank a glass of wine, he would be highly susceptible to intoxicants.
Entering the room, Win used her back to close the door, and went to set the tray on the bedside table. She started a little at the sound of Merripen's voice.
"I told you to get out!" he barked. "Told you? He broke off as she turned to face him.
Win had never seen him like this before, flushed and disoriented, his dark eyes slightly unfocused. He lay on his side, his white shirt falling open to reveal the edge of a heavy bandage, and muscles gleaming like polished bronze. He was tense and radiating what her mother had gingerly referred to as "animal spirits."
"Kev," she said gently, using his first name.
They'd made a bargain once, after she'd gotten scarlet fever, when he'd wanted her to take some medicine. Win had refused until he offered to tell her his name. She'd promised never to tell anyone, and she hadn't. Perhaps he had even thought she had forgotten.
"Lie still," she urged gently, "There's no need to work yourself into a temper. You frightened the poor housemaid half to death."
Merripen watched her sluggishly, having trouble keeping his gaze focused. "They're poisoning me," he told her. "Pouring medicine down my throat. My head's muddled. Don't want any more."
Win assumed the role of implacable nurse, when all she wanted was to baby and coddle him. "You'd be much worse off without it." She sat on the edge of the mattress and reached for his wrist. His forearm was hard and heavy as it lay across her lap. Pressing her fingers to his wrist, she kept her face expressionless. "How much of that tonic have they given you?"
His head lolled. "Too much."
Win agreed silently, feeling how weak his pulse was. Releasing his wrist, she felt his forehead. He was very warm. Was it the beginnings of a fever? Her worry sharpened. "Let me see your back." She tried to ease away, but he had reached up to press her cool hand harder against his forehead. He wouldn't let go.
"Hot," he said, and closed his eyes.
Win sat very still, absorbing the feel of him, the heavy masculine body beside hers, the smooth burning skin beneath her hand.
"Stay out of my dreams," Merripen whispered in the humid stillness. "Can't sleep when you're here."
Win let herself caress him, the thick black hair, the handsome face devoid of its usual sullen sternness. She could smell his skin, his sweat, the sweet opiated breath, the pungent whiff of honey. Merripen was always clean shaven, but now his bristle was softly scratchy against her palm. She wanted to take him into her arms, against her chest, like a little boy.
"Kev … let me look at your back."
Merripen moved, swift and powerful even now, more aggressive in his drugged state than he normally would ever have permitted himself to be. He had always handled Win with a sort of exaggerated gentleness, as if she would blow away like dandelion floss. But at this moment his grip was hard and sure as he pushed her to the mattress.
Breathing heavily, he glared down at her with glassy belligerence. "I said get out of my dreams."
His face was like the mask of some ancient god of war, beautiful and harsh, the mouth contorted, lips parted enough to reveal the edges of animal-white teeth.
Win was amazed, excited, the tiniest bit frightened… but this was Merripen?and as she stared at him, the edge of fear melted and she drew his head down to hers, and he kissed her.
She had always imagined there would be roughness, urgency, impassioned pressure. But his lips were soft, grazing over hers with the heat of sunshine, the sweetness of summer rain. She opened to him in wonder, the solid weight of him in her arms, his body pressing into the crumpled layers of her skirts. Forgetting everything in the passionate tumult of discovery, Win reached around his shoulders, until he winced and she felt the bulk of his bandage against her palm.
"Kev," she said breathlessly, "I'm so sorry, I?no, don't move. Rest." She curled her arms loosely around his head, shivering as he kissed her throat. He nuzzled against the gentle rise of her breast, pressed his cheek against her bodice, and sighed.
After a long, motionless minute, while her chest rose and fell beneath his heavy head, Win spoke hesitantly. "Kev?"