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Page 11

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“No…but I saw his face when I mentioned your name.”

Aline took a strained breath before asking, “You didn’t tell him—”

“I would never betray your secret,” the housekeeper assured her.

Discreetly Aline took Mrs. Faircloth’s warm, work-coarsened hand in her own soft, cold one. She was comforted by the housekeeper’s touch as their fingers entwined tightly. “He must never know,” she whispered. “I couldn’t bear it.”

Aline found Marcus and Livia together in the family receiving room, a private place where they occasionally met to discuss issues of particular urgency. This appeared to be one of them. Despite her inner havoc, Aline smiled as she glanced at her brother’s dark, concerned face, and her sister’s tense one. “There is no reason to look as if you expect me to hurl myself through the window,” she told them. “I assure you, I am perfectly calm. I have seen McKenna, we spoke quite cordially, and we both agreed that the past is completely irrelevant.”

Marcus came forward and took her shoulders in his broad, square hands. “The past is never irrelevant,” he said in his distinctively gravelly voice. “And now, circumstances being what they are…I don’t want you to be hurt again.”

Aline tried to reassure him with a smile. “I won’t be hurt. There is nothing left of the feelings I once had for him. I was just a muddleheaded girl. And I am convinced that McKenna feels nothing for me now either.”

“Then why is he here?” Marcus asked, his gaze hard.

“To conduct business with Mr. Shaw, of course. And to discuss your investment in their foundries—”

“I suspect that is a subterfuge to conceal McKenna’s true purpose.”

“Which would be…what?”

“To finally make a conquest of you.”

“Really, Marcus, do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”

“I’m a sportsman,” he said flatly. “I’ve ridden to the hounds and shot game for most of my life—and I know a hunt when I see one.”

Pulling back from her brother, Aline gave him a mocking glance. “I should have known you’d reduce it to that. Life is about more than pursuit and conquest, Marcus.”

“For a woman, perhaps. Not for a man.”

Aline sighed and gave Livia a meaningful glance, silently enlisting her support.

Her younger sister complied immediately. “If Aline says that she is not troubled by McKenna’s presence, then I think we shouldn’t take exception to it either.”

Marcus’s expression did not soften. “I’m still considering asking him to leave.”

“Good Lord, do you know how much gossip that would cause?” Aline asked impatiently. “Why bother asking for my opinion, if you’ve already decided what to do? Just leave it be, will you? I want him to stay.”

She was surprised by the way that her brother and sister both looked at her, as if she had spoken in a foreign language. “What is it?” she asked warily.

“Just now, I saw some of your old spirit,” Marcus said. “It’s a welcome change.”

Aline responded with a wry laugh. “What are you implying, Marcus? That I’ve become timid and spineless?”

“Withdrawn is more like it,” he retorted. “You refuse to accept the attentions of any man except Sandridge—and it’s obvious that nothing will ever come of that.” As Aline spluttered in protest, Marcus turned his attention to Livia. “And you’re no better than Aline,” he said flatly. “It’s been two years since Amberley died, and you might as well have gone to the grave with him. Time to shed the widow’s weeds, Livia, and start living again. Good God, you’re the two prettiest women in Hampshire, and you both live like nuns. I fear I’m going to be saddled with the both of you until I’m bald and toothless.”

Livia gave him an offended glare, while Aline suddenly snickered at the image of her virile brother as a hairless old codger. She went to kiss him affectionately. “We’re exactly what you deserve, you arrogant meddler. Just be thankful that I’m not of a mind to lecture you on your faults, my dear, unmarried thirty-four-year-old brother, whose sole purpose in this life should be to produce an heir for the title—”

“Enough,” he groaned. “I’ve heard that a thousand times from Mother. God knows I don’t need it from you.”

Aline glanced triumphantly at Livia, who had managed a wan smile. “Very well, I’ll desist for now, if you’ll promise to do and say nothing in regard to McKenna.”

Marcus nodded and grumbled, taking his leave.

Holding Livia’s gaze, Aline saw how Marcus’s remarks had troubled her. She smiled reassuringly. “He’s right about one thing,” she said. “You should begin to mix in company again.”

“In the company of men, you mean.”

“Yes. You’re going to fall in love again someday, Livia. You’ll marry some wonderful man, and bear his children, and have the life that Amberley would wish for you.”

“What about you?”

Aline’s smile vanished. “You know why those dreams are no longer possible for me.”

A sigh burst from Livia’s lips. “It’s not fair!”

“No,” Aline agreed softly. “But there you have it—some things are just not meant to be.”

Wrapping her arms tightly around herself, Livia frowned at the carpeted floor. “Aline, there is something I’ve never said to you—I’ve always been too ashamed. But now that McKenna has returned, and the past is so much in my thoughts, I can’t ignore it any longer.”

“No, Livia,” Aline said gently, sensing what her younger sister was about to say.

A sudden tear slid to the delicate curve of Livia’s chin. “I was the one who told Father about seeing you and McKenna together in the stables, all those years ago. You’ve suspected it, of course, but you’ve never asked. I wish I had kept silent. I’m so sorry that I didn’t. I ruined everything for you.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Aline exclaimed, moving forward to hug her. “How could I blame you for that? You were just a child, and…no, don’t cry! It doesn’t matter that you told Father. Nothing could ever have come of my relationship with McKenna. There was no place that we could have gone, nothing that could have been done, that would have allowed us to be together.”

“I’m still sorry.”

Making a soothing noise, Aline patted her slender back. “ ‘Only a fool argues with his fate’…that’s what Father always said, remember?”

“Yes, and it always made him sound like a complete idiot.”

Laughter rose in Aline’s throat. “Perhaps you’re right. McKenna has certainly defied his own fate, hasn’t he?”

Pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, Livia drew back and blew her nose. “The servants are talking,” she said, her voice muffled in the wad of crumpled cotton. “Apparently Mr. Chamberlain’s butler told James the footman—who told one of the housemaids—that McKenna is called ‘King’ McKenna in New York, and he has a huge mansion on Fifth Avenue, and he is known by everyone on Wall Street.”

Aline smiled crookedly. “From a stable boy to a king. I should have expected no less of him.”

“Aline, what if McKenna falls in love with you again?”

The question caused her to shiver. “He won’t. Believe me, once the flame of a past love affair has been extinguished, there is no way to revive it.”

“What if it was never extinguished?”

“Livia, I assure you that McKenna has not been pining after me for twelve years.”

“But haven’t you—” Livia stopped abruptly.

Realizing what her sister had been about to ask, Aline flushed. She wandered to the window, staring out at a path of stone arches that led through the east garden. The arches had overgrown with roses, clematis, and honeysuckle, forming a fragrant tunnel that led to a stone-walled summerhouse with a wood-latticed ceiling. Memories of McKenna were everywhere in the garden…his hands moving carefully among the roses, pruning the dead blossoms…his tanned face dappled with the sunlight that broke through the leaves and lattices…the hair on the back of his neck glittering with sweat as he shoveled gravel onto the path, or weeded the raised flower beds.

“I don’t know that one could call it pining,” Aline said, stroking the windowpane with her fingertips. “McKenna will always be a part of me, no matter where he goes. They say that people who’ve lost a limb sometimes feel as if they still have it. How many times I’ve felt that McKenna was still here, and the empty space beside me was alive with his presence.” She closed her eyes and leaned forward until her forehead and the tip of her nose touched the cool glass. “I love him beyond reason,” she whispered. “He’s a stranger to me now, and yet he is still so familiar. I can’t imagine a sweeter agony, having him so close.”

A long time passed before Livia was able to speak. “Aline…won’t you tell McKenna the truth, now that he has come back?”

“For what purpose? It would only earn his pity, and I would sooner throw myself from the bluff.” Pushing back from the window, Aline rubbed the side of her sleeve over the smudge her face had made on one of the gleaming panes. “Better to let him go on hating me.”

“I don’t know how you can endure it!” Livia exclaimed.

Aline smiled wryly. “Well, I find a strange comfort in the fact that he wouldn’t feel this degree of animosity now, had he not loved me so much before.”

Despite entreaties from both Marcus and Aline, Livia refused to attend the welcoming ball that would be attended by everyone of note in the county. “I need you there,” Aline had insisted, trying to think of any way that would induce her sister to emerge from her self-imposed seclusion from society. “I am feeling unsettled tonight, Livia, and your presence at my side would be such a help—”

“No,” Livia said placidly, settled in the family receiving room with a book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She wore her hair in a loose braid, and her feet were tucked into soft knit slippers. “I have no desire to mix with that mob of Americans. Besides, I know exactly why you’re unsettled, and my company won’t make a bit of difference to you.”

“Have you no desire to see McKenna, after all these years?”

“God help me, no.” Livia’s bright hazel-green eyes surveyed her over the rim of the glass as she sipped her wine. “The thought of facing McKenna after the way I tattled on the two of you so long ago makes me want to sink through the floor.”

“He doesn’t know about that.”

“Well, I do!”

Frowning, Aline decided to take another tack. “What about Mr. Shaw? Aren’t you the least bit desirous of meeting him?”

“From what Marcus has told me about the infamous Mr. Shaw, I would do well to stay far away from him.”

“I thought Marcus liked Shaw.”

“He does, but not as a companion for either of his sisters.”

“I should think that would make Mr. Shaw very entertaining,” Aline said, making Livia laugh.

“Since he’s staying here for a month, we’ll probably find out. In the meantime, go downstairs and enjoy yourself. You look so beautiful in that gown…didn’t you once tell me that blue was McKenna’s favorite color?”

“I don’t remember.”

It had indeed been blue. Tonight Aline had not been able to prevent herself from reaching for a silk gown the color of Russian lapis. It was a simple gown with no flounces or overskirt, just a demi-train in the back and a low, square-cut bodice. A string of pearls was wrapped twice around her throat, with the lower loop hanging almost to her waist. Another strand had been artfully entwined in her pinned-up curls.

“You’re a goddess,” her sister proclaimed cheerfully, raising her wineglass in tribute. “Good luck, dear. Because once McKenna sees you in that gown, I predict that you’ll have a difficult time keeping him at bay.”

Once McKenna’s business partnership with Gideon Shaw had been struck, Gideon had insisted on making him presentable for Knickerbocker society. This had entailed a long and rigorous period of training and instruction, which had given McKenna suitable polish to mingle with those in the Shaws’ elevated circles. However, McKenna would never deceive himself into thinking that his cultivation was anything more than skin-deep. Being a member of the upper class consisted of far more than clothes and manners. It required an attitude of entitlement, an intrinsic confidence in one’s own superiority, and an elegance of character that he knew he could never attain.

Luckily for McKenna, in America money was enough. As exclusive as the American upper class was, it still reluctantly made room for wealthy climbers. A man with new money, usually referred to as a “swell,” found that most doors were open to him. Women were not so fortunate. If an heiress’s family was not well established, no matter how financially well endowed, she would never be accepted by Old New York, and she was obliged to do her husband hunting in Paris or London rather than at home.

After the captious atmosphere of the New York balls, McKenna was pleasantly surprised by the relaxed quality of this gathering. When he said as much to Gideon, his friend laughed quietly.

“It’s always like this in England,” Gideon said. “English peers have nothing to prove. Since no one can ever take their titles away from them, they are free to do and say as they wish. Whereas in New York, one’s social status is a rather precarious thing. The only way you can be certain of your standing is if you’re included on one damned list or another. Committee lists, guest lists, members lists, visiting lists…”

“Are there any lists that you aren’t on?” McKenna had asked.

“God, no,” Gideon said with a self-mocking laugh. “I’m a Shaw. Everyone wants me.”

They stood together at one end of the ballroom, which contained what seemed to be acres of parquet flooring. The air was dense with the fragrance of roses, irises, and lilies, cut from the estate gardens and expertly arranged in crystal vases. The niches set into the walls had been fitted with tiny velvet-upholstered benches, where dowagers and wallflowers sat in tightly compacted groups. Music floated down from an upper-floor balcony, the small orchestra half concealed by bowers of lush greenery. Although this ball did not approach the extravagance of some of the Fifth Avenue affairs McKenna had attended, it put those opulent balls to shame. There was a difference between quality and mere showiness, he thought. That notion was reinforced immediately by the appearance of Lady Aline.

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