logo
Share this:

Page 10

testpreptraining

Dumbfounded by the emotional scene involving their normally stoic housekeeper, the maids in the stillroom drifted into the hallway. They were followed by a gaping scullery maid, a kitchen maid, and the cook, who had worked at the manor for only five years.

“I never thought to see you again,” Mrs. Faircloth gasped.

McKenna tightened his arms around her, basking in the never-forgotten maternal comfort of her presence. He remembered the countless times that Mrs. Faircloth had saved extra food for him—the heels of the bread loaves, the leftover tea biscuits, the flavorful dregs from the stew pot. Mrs. Faircloth had been a source of necessary softness in his life…someone who had always believed the best of him.

She was much smaller than he remembered, and her hair was now pure white. But time had painted her gently, adding only a few softening wrinkles across her rosy cheeks, and a nearly imperceptible bow to the formerly straight lines of her shoulders and spine.

Drawing back her lace-capped head, Mrs. Faircloth regarded him with open disbelief. “My heavens, you’ve grown into a Goliath! I would scarcely have known you, were it not for your eyes.” Becoming aware of their audience, the housekeeper released the large young man from her arms and gave the assembled servants a warning stare. “Busy yourselves at once, all of you. There’s no need to stand there with your eyes bulging from your heads.”

Mumbling obediently, the maids scattered and resumed their posts, throwing discreet glances at the visitor as they worked.

Mrs. Faircloth pressed McKenna’s hand between her small, plump ones. “Come with me,” she urged. They went in tacit agreement to the housekeeper’s personal room. She unlocked the door and let him inside, and the familiar smell of clove pomanders and beeswax and tea-dyed linen mingled in a perfume of pure nostalgia.

Facing Mrs. Faircloth, McKenna saw that the housekeeper was becoming tearful once again, and he reached out to wrap his fingers around hers. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “I should have found a way to warn you before I appeared so suddenly.”

Mrs. Faircloth managed to master her welling emotions. “What has happened to you?” she asked, staring at his elegant clothes, even noting the polished black shoes on his feet. “What has brought you back here, after so many years?”

“We’ll talk later, when we both have more time,” McKenna said, remembering the tumult of activity on days such as this, when dozens of visitors kept most of the servants at a dead run. “You have a house full of guests—and I haven’t yet seen Lord Westcliff.” He withdrew a packet of wax-sealed papers from his coat. “Before I go, I wanted to give you this.”

“What is it?” the housekeeper asked in bewilderment.

“The money you gave me for my passage to America. I should have repaid you long before now, but—” McKenna paused uncomfortably. Words were inadequate to explain how, for the sake of his own sanity, he’d had to avoid anything or anyone in connection with Aline.

Shaking her head, Mrs. Faircloth tried to give the packet back to him. “No, McKenna, that was my gift to you. I was only sorry that I hadn’t more to spare at the time.”

“That five pounds saved my life.” With great care, he straightened the cap on her head. “I’m returning your gift with interest. Those are shares in a brand-new locomotive foundry, all in your name. You can cash them immediately, if you wish. But I’d advise you to let them ripen a bit more. In the next year, they’ll probably triple in value.” McKenna couldn’t restrain a rueful grin as he saw the perplexed way Mrs. Faircloth regarded the packet. She had little knowledge of stocks, equity, and future prospects.

“There’s no actual money in here, then?” she asked.

“It’s better than money,” McKenna assured her, half suspecting that the stock certificates would soon be used to wrap fish. “Put that in a safe place, Mrs. Faircloth. What you’re holding in your hands is worth about five thousand pounds.”

Blanching, she nearly dropped the bundle. “Five thousand…”

Instead of demonstrating the elation McKenna had anticipated, the housekeeper seemed utterly dazed, as if she could not absorb the fact that she had just been made a wealthy woman. She swayed a little, and McKenna quickly reached out to steady her shoulders.

“I want you to retire,” he said, “and buy a house for yourself, with your own servants, and a carriage. After all you’ve done for so many other people, I want you to enjoy the rest of your life.”

“But I can’t accept so much,” she protested.

McKenna helped her to sit in the chair by the hearth, and sank to his haunches before her. He settled his hands on either arm of the chair. “That’s only a drop in the bucket. I’d like to do more for you. To start with, I want you to consider coming back to New York with me, so that I can look after you.”

“Ah, McKenna…” Her eyes glittered as she laid her work-roughened hand atop his. “I could never leave Stony Cross! I must stay with Lady Aline.”

“Lady Aline?” he repeated, giving her an alert glance as he wondered why she had mentioned Aline in particular. “She can hire a new housekeeper.” His senses sharpened as he saw her guarded expression.

“Have you seen her yet?” the housekeeper asked cautiously.

McKenna nodded. “We spoke briefly.”

“Fate has not been kind to either of Lord Westcliff’s daughters.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. Lady Aline told me about what happened to her sister.”

“But nothing about herself?”

“No.” McKenna did not miss the shadow of consternation that crossed her face. “What is there to tell?”

The housekeeper seemed to choose her words carefully. “Not long after you left Stony Cross, she was…quite ill.” Two small, sharp indentations formed between the silvery arcs of her brows. “She was bedridden for at least three months. Although she recovered in time, she…has never been quite the same.”

His eyes narrowed. “What happened to her?”

“I dare not tell you. The only reason I’ve mentioned it is that the illness has left her somewhat…fragile.”

“In what way?”

She shook her head decisively. “I cannot say.”

McKenna sat back on his heels, staring at her. Calculating the most effective way to elicit the information he wanted, he made his voice gentle and coaxing. “You know you can trust me. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Surely you wouldn’t ask me to break a promise,” Mrs. Faircloth chided.

“Of course I would,” he said dryly. “I ask people to break promises all the time. And if they don’t, I make them sorry for it.” He rose to his feet in a fluid movement. “What do you mean, Lady Aline was ‘never the same’? She damned well looks the same to me.”

“Profanity!” The housekeeper clicked her tongue reprovingly.

Their gazes caught, and McKenna grinned suddenly as he thought of how many times he had received that same look from her in his boyhood. “Don’t tell me, then. I’ll get the truth from Lady Aline herself.”

“I doubt that. And if I were you, I shouldn’t push her too far.” Mrs. Faircloth stood as well. “What a fine-looking man you have become,” she exclaimed. “Is there a wife waiting for you back in America? A sweetheart?”

“No, thank God.” His grin faded, however, at her next words.

“Ah…” Her tone was imbued with what could have been either pity or wonder. “It’s always been her, hasn’t it? That must be why you’ve come back.”

McKenna scowled. “I’ve come back for business reasons, not the least of which is the likelihood that Westcliff will invest in the foundry. My presence here has nothing to do with Lady Aline—or a past that no one remembers.”

“You remember it,” she said. “And so does she.”

“I must go,” he said brusquely. “I have yet to find out if Westcliff will object to my presence here.”

“I don’t believe that will be the case,” Mrs. Faircloth said at once. “Lord Westcliff is very much a gentleman. I expect he will offer you a gracious welcome, as he does to all his guests.”

“Then he is remarkably un like his father,” McKenna said sardonically.

“Yes. And I suspect you’ll get on quite well with him, as long as you give him no cause to fear that you might harm Lady Aline. She has suffered quite enough, without you adding to it.”

“Suffered?” McKenna couldn’t restrain the contempt that curled through his tone. “I’ve seen real suffering, Mrs. Faircloth…people dying for lack of food and medicine…breaking their backs with hard labor…families wretched with poverty. Don’t try to claim that Aline has ever had to lift a finger for her own survival.”

“That is narrow-minded of you, McKenna,” came her gentle rebuke. “It is true that the earl and his sisters suffer in different ways than we do, but their pain is still real. And it is not Lady Aline’s fault if you’ve had a difficult life, McKenna.”

“Nor is it mine,” he said softly, while his blood boiled like a cauldron in hell.

“Good heavens, what a diabolical look,” the housekeeper said softly. “What are you plotting, McKenna?”

He divested his face of all expression. “Nothing at all.”

She regarded him with patent disbelief. “If you intend to maltreat Lady Aline in some way, I warn you—”

“No,” he interrupted gently. “I would never cause her harm, Mrs. Faircloth—you know what she once meant to me.”

The housekeeper seemed to relax. And, turning away, she missed the dark smile that crossed his hard features.

McKenna paused before reaching for the doorknob, and glanced back over his shoulder. “Mrs. Faircloth, tell me…”

“Yes?”

“Why is she still unmarried?”

“That is for Lady Aline to explain.”

“There must be a man,” McKenna murmured. A woman as stunningly beautiful as Aline would never lack for male companionship.

Mrs. Faircloth replied cautiously. “As a matter of fact, there is a gentleman with whom she keeps company. Lord Sandridge, who now owns the old Marshleigh estate. He took up residence there about five years ago. I suspect you may see him at the ball tomorrow night—he is often invited to Stony Cross Park.”

“What kind of man is he?”

“Oh, Lord Sandridge is a very accomplished gentleman, and well liked by his neighbors. I daresay you’ll find much to recommend him, when you meet.”

“I look forward to it,” McKenna said softly, and left the housekeeper’s room.

Aline greeted the guests mechanically. After encountering Mr. Gideon Shaw on the way back to the manor house, she made the acquaintance of the Chamberlains—his sister and brother-in-law, and their wealthy New York friends, the Laroches, the Cuylers, and the Robinsons. As one might have predicted, they possessed the typical American awe of British nobility. The fact that Aline asked about their comfort during the Atlantic crossing elicited a torrent of gratitude. The mention of the refreshments that would soon be served was received with the volume of joy one would expect from a condemned man who had just received a pardon. Aline was strongly hopeful that after they had all lived beneath the manor roof for a few days, they would cease to be quite so dazzled by her.

Taking leave of the guests, Aline went to the kitchen in search of Mrs. Faircloth. Oddly, although the scene was completely normal, Aline knew without being told that McKenna had just been there. The air seemed alive with energy, as if a lightning bolt had just been hurled across the room. One look into Mrs. Faircloth’s eyes confirmed her suspicion. Yes, McKenna had come immediately to find the housekeeper, after seeing Aline. Of everyone who had once known him, they were the two who had loved him best.

McKenna…Thoughts swarmed in her head like bees in an overturned hive…she couldn’t seem to catch hold of one coherent notion, one clear image. It seemed impossible that McKenna could have returned to Stony Cross as if drawn by the polarity of some magical lodestone, needing a resolution to the past that had haunted them both. He wanted something from her…some ransom of pain, regret, or pleasure, that would finally bring him a measure of peace. And she had nothing to offer him, though she would have given her very soul as a willing sacrifice, were it possible.

She wanted another glance of him, just to make certain that he was real. She needed the sound of his voice, the feel of his arm beneath her hand, anything to confirm that she had not gone mad from her eternal craving. Struggling for self-mastery, Aline made her face blank as she moved toward the long wooden table. She glanced at the page of notes between the cook and Mrs. Faircloth, and quietly suggested a few changes to the menus. When the final decisions were agreed upon, Aline considered the prospect of joining the crowd of visitors for the midmorning meal, and felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over her. She did not want to eat and smile and make conversation with so many eager strangers. And to have to do so with McKenna there watching…impossible. Later tonight she would have set herself to rights, and she would be the consummate hostess. Right now, however, she wanted to go somewhere private, and think. And hide, a little mocking voice added. Yes, and hide. She did not want to see McKenna again until she had managed to compose herself.

“The earl will want to see you,” Mrs. Faircloth said, drawing aside with her to the kitchen entrance. Her gaze was warm and concerned as she stared into Aline’s bloodless face.

Of course. Marcus would want to make certain that she wasn’t weeping or shaken, or otherwise dismantled by the appearance of a man whom she had once loved. “I will go find him,” Aline said. “And I will also tell him that he will have to entertain the guests this morning without my help. I feel…rather fatigued.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Faircloth agreed, “you will want to be well rested for the ball tonight.”

McKenna, attending a ball at Stony Cross Park—it was something Aline had never dared to imagine. “Life is strange, isn’t it,” she murmured. “How ironic it is that he should finally come back.”

Naturally Mrs. Faircloth knew which “he” Aline was referring to. “He still wants you.”

The words caused a quiver to run through her, as if her spine had been plucked like an archer’s drawn bow. “Did he say so?”

Leave a comment

We will not publish your email address. Required fields are marked*

Related Novels