“You can’t take me in there.” She shook her head frantically. “Those are your rooms!”
“I know very well whose rooms they are,” he answered, kicking the door beside them open and shutting it firmly behind them with his heel. Without ceremony, he carried her over to the sofa in a small room that apparently served as a sitting room, and deposited her on the dark green velvet cushions before returning to the door and snibbing the lock, pointedly pocketing the key in his coat. “And in reply to your earlier comment,” he continued as fiercely as she had done, “you may not be subject to the whims of a governess, but you are damn well subject to my whims. And I will not accept blatant subversion of doctor’s orders and my directives because they do not suit you. Do you understand me?”
Abigail met his glare unflinchingly, but she stilled. Was he reacting to some perceived threat to her health, or was he one of those men who always had to be in control of their surroundings? Was his fury violent, or was he overtired from not sleeping?
“I think,” she said, gathering every ounce of composure and reasonableness she possessed to put into the words, “that we have much to discuss before I would agree that I am subject to you at all, though I will certainly acknowledge it is one possibility. For the moment, I am still my father’s daughter and Aunt Betsy is both my chaperone and now my responsibility. I am the reason she is here, and if I cannot change the past and somehow prevent the accident or her injury, I can for certain nurse her back to health.”
Meriden shook his head, responding in kind to her calm. “No. If anyone is at fault, it is I. I allowed you to travel in your father’s carriage all this way, without considering that it would be in as poor a condition as the rest of his property. I should have arranged for you to use my own travelling coach. I hope that you will accept my apology for not considering the means by which he might convey you north, even for not escorting you myself. Indeed, I would hope that you accept my apology for not caring for you as I ought. It might seem a poor start, but I would ask for your consideration under the circumstances. As it happens, you are not only my first wife, you are also the first lady for whose welfare I am wholly responsible.”
Abigail blinked, her world tilting a bit. She had, of course, known her father could be criticised, but Winchester had never once apologised to her or her sisters—not even for the current debacle. She was equally convinced Winchester had never once apologised to her mother for anything. And yet this man all the women of London called a brooding monster did so unflinchingly, over a matter that was not completely within his purview.
“It was my father’s responsibility,” she said after a long moment. “Not yours. No apology is necessary.”
“Nevertheless, I will take better care in the future,” he murmured, still staring at her. “Because you are mine and in my care now, regardless of the formalities yet to be observed.”
Abigail drew a deep breath, trying to calm her inner nerves and save herself from whirling headfirst into a re-examination of what she had previously known to be true. “Fiddlesticks!” she eventually objected, frowning him down as he approached at her words. Challenging him to an argument over this notion of ownership did seem the best way to reinforce her earlier impression of selfish arrogance. She allowed her eyes to briefly graze over the scar along his jawbone as she reminded herself that they were essentially adversaries. “You can’t seriously expect me to believe that I am somehow chattel to be ordered about callously according to your moods and tempers, simply because we are expected to marry? If you believe such nonsense, I’m afraid you’ve picked the wrong female and should perhaps reconsider this ridiculous plan before it’s too late.”
“I expect you are sensible enough to follow directions that are given for your own wellbeing, as we will marry,” he countered very carefully, sitting down as close to her as he could manage—so close that his breath raced across her cheek. “And I have not picked the wrong bride. To my mind, I couldn’t have found a more perfect one.”
Abigail turned her head to scoff, but he simply leaned closer and murmured in her ear, the warmth of his breath sliding over her neck and down her jaw, tempting her to shiver. “In any event, there is no going backward, even if I were not determined to have you permanently at my side. You’re here, alone with me, in my house. Your aunt is present, but she is insensible and cannot be thought of as a proper chaperone in the minds of the interfering biddies who dictate your public behaviour. Meanwhile, you are in my own private sitting room, gowned in nothing more than a nightdress, dressing gown and house slippers. In addition, you will likely be here for quite a while, alone with me, as you have already proven conclusively that you did not learn the skill of obedience during childhood.”
Suddenly short of breath, Abigail sat very still, but when Meriden leaned in to kiss her, she couldn’t help her instinctive response to flee.
She leapt to her feet and backed to the fire, rubbing her hands together uselessly in the warm room.
“What did I just finish telling you?” Meriden barked, reaching for her and grabbing her wrist before she could flit farther away. “If you try to walk on that ankle again tonight, I swear I’m going to turn you over my knee and paddle you for behaving like a silly child.” He grabbed her by the waist and lifted her, setting her squarely on his knees, locking one arm around her to hold her there.
“You wouldn’t!” Abigail gasped, unable to think of anything more profound on such short notice, and trying desperately to squelch the traitorous part of her gut that seemed to respond more dramatically every time he touched her. She didn’t know what she was feeling, but now was not the time or place to work it out.
Instead, she lifted her hand to push him away but he simply growled, “It’s either that, or this—” Then he slid his free hand around to the back of her head, and set his lips to hers.
Abigail had been kissed before, of course. She was twenty-one and had spent more than three full years in London society. While not the Winchester sister to inspire lust from the masses, she was certainly eligible, and had attracted her fair share of more serious, reserved men who were not attracted to the glamorous Gloria or the voluptuous, young Genevieve. Kissing, she had advised her younger siblings, was an art. Some men had practised, did it well, considered little things like how they tasted and whether their partner could still breathe. Other men had no skill at all, and no interest in acquiring any. They pushed, suffocated, forced and followed it up with self-important pride. It had not taken Abigail more than a few brief experiences to decide that any man in the second group could be gently eased in the direction of some more desperate girl. Abigail had no interest in a man who used kissing as a means to press more invasive intimacies on the female. Men who were patently disinterested in pleasing a partner with something as simple as a kiss could not be expected to do so in any more important pursuit, and were therefore not worth considering.
Abigail was fairly certain Gloria had deliberately ignored Abigail’s opinion on the subject.
With such a preconceived opinion, Abigail tensed as Meriden touched his mouth to hers. Should he turn out so early on to be an insensitive clod, Abigail knew she would have difficulty with following through on the engagement, no matter the consequences. She’d have preferred to ease into such intimacy after she had learnt whether to guard against him or not. Nevertheless, she stilled and tried to take in the sensation of his lips rubbing over hers.
He was not gentle, precisely, but neither did he plunder selfishly. No, his mouth worshiped her lower lip, then the upper one, learning the shape and size of her mouth before he eased his tongue just inside her lower lip to taste her.
Meriden was definitely not one of the untrained, inconsiderate brutes. She closed her eyes, softened against the arm that surrounded her waist and leaned closer, her lips tingling in a rush of sensation where his tongue stroked hers.
He caught her fingers with his free hand, where she had pushed futilely against his chest. Trapping her hand in place, he murmured, their lips still touching, “I would, you know.”
Abigail breathed a soft sigh. “Would what?” she asked, a bit wobbly from the unexpected rush of warmth that had ripped up her spine with the kiss. She’d forgotten what he had said.
“I would spank you. Paddle you, if I had to,” Meriden repeated in a husky whisper against her mouth. He ran his hand up from her waist to tangle it in the hair at the back of her head, and instead of the indignant reaction Abigail felt was required, she leaned in closer, shivering when Meriden used his lips to examine the corners of her mouth in an exquisite intimacy.