“Oz.” His voice came out in a croak.
Oz’s jaw worked as he lowered his hands and peered into Win’s face. “I thought you were dead. I remember…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I remember you dying. Your name is on the family crypt.” It was an accusation full of pain and bewilderment. “And then…” He ran a hand along the back of his neck. “I woke up this morning and knew. Knew you were not dead. Knew where to find you as well.” Coal black eyes bored into Win. “How? How is that, Win?”
It took several tries for Winston to find his voice. “I don’t know.”
Oz drew himself up, his tone becoming stronger, more ducal. “You were here, in London, all this time. Working as a detective. How could you not—” He pressed his lips together. “How could you not come to me? You let me believe you were dead. Why?”
Win took a deep breath and regretted it. “Father disowned me when I married Poppy.”
“The merchant’s daughter.”
Win did not know nor care what Oz thought about Poppy. She was his, and he’d be damned if another Duke of Marchland stood in his way. “I thought you knew. And that you disowned me as well.” It was as close to the truth as Win could devise.
Oz sneered, his head snapping back as though Win had spit in his face. “You think so little of me?”
God forgive him. “It was what Father led me to believe.” Poppy had been correct; lying to one’s family was not nearly as easy as it would seem.
Oz gave a terse nod, then lowered his eyes before raising them once again, cold accusation still there. “We met. At Amy’s party. You acted as though you did not know me.”
Bloody hell. “I was ashamed.” Hell and damnation. “And you did not appear to know me, either.”
“Damn it all, Win. You are my brother. But you do not look as you once did. Had I recognized you, I would have…” His mouth snapped shut. “What happened to you?” he said after a moment.
Win sighed. He hadn’t the energy to make up a lie for his scars. “My life is different now, Oz.”
Silence answered him, and then his brother took another step closer to the bed. “It will be better now. I don’t care what Father did or said. You have an estate, funds that I will readily—”
Oz blinked. “What do you mean? I give these things to you freely. With joy.”
Win held his brother’s gaze. “I don’t want any of it. I never did. When I said that my life was different, I meant that it was apart from your world. This is the life I want to live.” He laughed abruptly, the action sending spears of hot pain through him. “Aside from my current predicament, that is.”
Oz tilted his head to frown down at Win. For a moment, he appeared so much like the boy who had taught Win to climb trees and shoot a gun that Win’s breath hitched. But the illusion vanished in the face of a duke thoroughly put out. “I will not let this go, Win.”
“I beg of you,” Win rasped back, “please do.”
The dark frown grew. “I don’t understand you at all.” Oz’s gaze slid away, focusing on some spot above Win’s shoulders. “Do you not want to know me then?”
Win gripped the bed sheets tightly. “I would be honored to know you again, my brother.” He swallowed hard. “I simply ask that you do not bring me back into that world. Winston Lane is not the brother of a duke. He is a detective.”
Oz’s hand closed over his. “Lord Winston Hamon Belenus Lane can be both.”
Win cleared his throat. “We shall see.”
“Yes, we shall.” Oz’s thin lips slanted in a gesture that was disturbingly like Win’s own. “You haven’t changed, you know.”
“Nor you.” By God, Win hadn’t realized how much he’d missed him.
After Poppy saw Osmond out, she crept back up the stairs and slipped into their bedroom. This time it had been Ian who’d tended Winston. Now with his wounds stitched, treated with ointment, and bandaged, Win lay in the center of the bed they had shared for so many years asleep and peaceful. Sunlight painted his hair in shades of gold and bronze. A morning beard shadowed the hard line of his jaw and made his lips appear softer. He shifted in sleep, and a lock of hair fell over his brow.
Poppy’s hands curled around the door handle. She itched to lie next to him and brush back that hair, cup his cheek with her hand, and soothe him. Her gaze settled on the white swath of wrappings that covered one shoulder and coiled around his upper torso. Her ice had done that. In some way, every scar upon his body had been because of her. What would Winston Hamon Belenus Lane have been had he not met Poppy Ellis? A lord. Safe.
Her life would not change. There was always danger. And she could not give it up. She did not want to. On sluggish limbs, she turned to go.
“Poppy Ann Lane.” His voice, though rough with exhaustion, commanded capitulation.
She turned back, resting her shoulder against the wall. “Yes, Mr. Lane?”
Purple smudges ran beneath his eyes, exaggerating their winter blue color. His mouth kicked up in a half smile, but it was not an amused smile. “You’ve never run from anything in your life. Do not tell me you mean to do so now.”
But she wanted to. Her body ached as she made herself speak. “When we first met, I thought I knew everything. I thought self-sacrifice, playing the martyr, would somehow ennoble me. Foolish. What is the point of living a life if it is spent in the shadows? And if fate had turned the other way, and I had said no to you, to our life together, then I would have been the worst of fools.” The very idea caused her to shiver. “You asked me about choices. Well, I choose you now, Win. I will always choose you.” Her fingers tightened on the doorframe. “I will always love you.”
His mouth opened as he strove to speak. Poppy held up a hand. “But this is not about my choice. It is about yours.” Poppy took a harsh breath, and it hurt. “What if you had your life back the way it was before?” She grimaced. “What if there is someone out there better for you? Safer. You could be safe.”
Win’s eyes narrowed, but he did not move as he studied her. And though her heart threatened to thunder right out of her chest, she held his gaze. After an endless moment, he blinked. His voice was clear when he spoke. “Winston Lane was born when he met Poppy Ellis.” His raspy voice grew stronger. “My life began with you. And it will end with you. That much I know.”
Her breath hitched, his words lancing her heart and making it bleed. “I’m afraid. I-I don’t like seeing you in danger.”
“Nor I you.” Again came that tilting smile of his. “But we shall have to get used to it.”
“Will we?” Her insides jumped and twitched. She rubbed her arms as if the motion would calm her.
Win’s gaze went to the action. His staid expression did not alter but he held out a hand. “Come here.” When she hesitated, he gave her one of his reproachful looks. “If you don’t, then I’ll have to come to you. And my chest hurts like a bugger.”
She had to smile at that. Her skirts whispered in the quiet as she walked forward and stopped by his bed. Win cocked a brow as he looked up at her. “Sit.” That imperious voice of his grew emphatic. “On me.”
A shocked laugh left her lips. “Win.”
“Poppy,” he answered in the same tone. A smile hovered about his lips.
“Bossy,” she muttered. But she loved it when he was, and he knew it, the canny bastard. Lightness bubbled up within her breast.
His grin became outright when she hauled up her skirts and climbed on to the bed to carefully straddle him. The moment her weight settled on his upper thighs, he groaned and his hands came to her knees. “I needed that.”
She laughed again, a breathless sound, for his rough palms trailed up her thighs, catching her attention. “You needed to be crushed on your sickbed?”
His eyes gleamed, no longer winter cold but blazing with heat. “I needed to feel you against me.”
How well she understood that need. Something within her had settled the moment she touched him. She sucked in a breath as his thumbs came to rest upon the crease of her hips. Lightly he stroked there as he looked up at her. “Certain events in the past few months have taken years off my life, I’m quite sure.”
“Win, don’t even joke about that.”
“Years.” The imperious look came back. “Undo my trousers.”
His trousers tented over the rippled expanse of his abdomen. She’d been ignoring it, as he was injured. But Win in a mood could not be ignored. Her fingers shook a little as she obeyed. The first button set the crown of his c**k free, and her gut tightened in response. Dark, smooth, and hot. Her knuckles grazed the head as she set about her work. With each give of a button, a bit of her tension released as well. Soon, he was free.
Win sighed in response, and his hands slid up to cup her bottom.
Laid out beneath her, he was a banquet of male beauty, golden skin, and taut muscles. The expanse of his chest lifted and fell with each light breath he took. He’d have a scar there, to match the hash marks covering the left side. A warrior’s body, hiding beneath a gentleman’s veneer. His ruddy c**k lay thick and heavy against his skin.
“Touch me,” he whispered.
Heat swirled and nipped her skin as their gazes clashed, and she filled her hand with him. Win twitched within her grasp. He licked his lips quickly. “Stroke me.”
“Like this?” she whispered, gliding her palm lightly along his silken length.
He shivered. “Harder. Ah… Now there’s a good wife.”
Biting her lip to keep from laughing, Poppy stroked him. With a grunt, he wrenched her closer so that she rested on his hips, the tight sac of his cods nestling against her heat. Poppy stifled the need to rub against him. Later. Now was his turn. She worked her hand up and down the length of him, and his eyes closed.
He lay like that for a moment, panting and prone from her attentions, then his eyes opened and settled on her with slumberous contentment. “Not once have I truly regretted the danger, Boadicea.” His fingers clenched her bottom. “Never have I felt so alive as when I have faced death and known that you would be there waiting for me should I defeat it.”
Poppy searched his face, taking in the ragged scars, and the wild heat and the joy in his eyes. Her heart leapt within her breast as she smiled. “It is always going to be like this, isn’t it?”
His grin was slow to unfurl, but when it did, it was wicked. “What is?”
He knew perfectly well, but she told him anyway.
“You craving danger, seeking it out.” Gently, she kissed his mouth before pulling back to look at him. “Somehow, I fear you are going to be difficult to manage, Mr. Lane.”
“Oh, extremely—” He chuffed out a breath when she gave him a decadent squeeze, “difficult.” He rallied and met her eyes once again. His voice turned to smoke and sand. “Afraid, Mrs. Lane?”
“Afraid?” She swirled her thumb around his crown, eliciting a gasp. “I can hardly wait.”
Jack preferred darkness now. It soothed. Muted the harsh angles of reality. In darkness, he did not have to fear talking to others or trying to pretend that he was not broken. In darkness, he could sit. And watch.
Crouched on the edge of a roof, the whole of London lay out before him. The round dome of St. Peter’s and the endless chimneys tucked between the roof peaks. Smoke drifted up from those chimneys, black even against the night sky. Thousands of funnels of smoke lifting to the heavens, like souls leaving the earth. Yet his attention was focused on the window below him. A rectangle of golden light, a small patch of room—a table before the window, the thick rug upon the floor… and her. Light flickered as she walked by. Graceful limbs, flowing hair and swaying skirts. His gut clenched with pain. And yet, like the dark, the fluid way in which she moved soothed him.
So he watched. And she never knew that he was there. Every night, watching for just one brief glimpse before slipping away into the darkness. And she would never know.