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Page 12

She was dazzling, with strands of white pearls in her lustrous dark hair, her voluptuous body wrapped in a blue dress that molded tightly over the swell of her breasts. A double circlet of fresh white rosebuds was wrapped around one of her gloved wrists. Extending her hands in welcome, she went to a group of guests near the door of the ballroom. Her smile was a flash of magic. As he watched her, McKenna noticed something about her that had not registered during their earlier meeting…she walked differently than he remembered. Instead of exhibiting the impetuous grace she had possessed as a girl, Aline now moved with the leisurely deliberateness of a swan gliding across a still pond.

Aline’s entrance attracted many gazes, and it was obvious that McKenna was not the only man who appreciated her sparkling allure. No matter how tranquil her facade, there was no concealing the luminous sensuality beneath. McKenna could barely restrain himself from going over to her and dragging her away to some dark, secluded place. He wanted to tear the pearls from her hair, and press his lips to her breast, and breathe in the scent of her body until he was drunk from it.

“Lovely,” Gideon commented, following his gaze. “But you could find someone almost as attractive—not to mention quite a bit younger—back in New York.”

McKenna threw him a dismissive glance. “I know what’s back in New York.” His gaze returned compulsively to Aline.

Gideon smiled and rolled the stem of a wineglass between his long fingers. “Although I wouldn’t claim that all women are alike, I can say with some authority that they do possess the same basic equipment. What makes this one so infinitely preferable to all the rest? The simple fact that you couldn’t have her?”

McKenna did not bother replying to such inanity. It would be impossible to make Shaw—or anyone else—understand. The dark reality was that he and Aline had never been separate—they could live on opposite sides of the earth, and they would still be caught together in a hellish tangle. Not have her? He had never stopped having her…She had been a perpetual torment to him. She was going to suffer for that, as he had suffered for more than a decade.

His thoughts were interrupted as Lord Westcliff approached. Like the other men present, Westcliff was clad in a formal scheme of black and white, with fashionably wide, straight-cut coat lapels and loose, expertly tailored trousers. He had the powerful build of a sportsman, and his manner was straightforward rather than scheming. His resemblance to the old earl, however, caused a prickle of animosity that McKenna couldn’t ignore. On the other hand, not many peers would receive a former servant as a valued guest—McKenna would give him that.

As Westcliff greeted them, his expression was pleasant, if not precisely friendly. “Good evening,” he murmured. “Are you enjoying yourselves so far, gentlemen?”

“Quite,” Shaw said cordially, lifting his glass in approbation. “A very fine Bordeaux, my lord.”

“Excellent. I will see that some of that particular vintage is stocked in the bachelor’s house for your convenience.” Westcliff’s gaze moved to McKenna. “And you, sir? What do you think of your first ball at Stony Cross Park?”

“It looks different from this side of the windows,” McKenna said frankly.

That drew a reluctant smile from Westcliff. “It is a long distance from the stables to the ballroom,” he acknowledged. “And not one that many men could have traversed.”

McKenna barely heard the remark. His attention had returned to Aline, who had gone to greet a newcomer.

It appeared the guest had come alone. He was a handsome man of not more than thirty years of age, with blond good looks that were comparable to Gideon Shaw’s. However, whereas Gideon was golden and weathered, this man was wintry-fair…his hair pale and gilded, his eyes piercing. The sight of him with Aline, light matched with dark, was strikingly attractive.

Following his gaze, Westcliff saw the pair. “Lord Sandridge,” he murmured. “A friend of the family, and held in high regard by Lady Aline.”

“Apparently so,” McKenna said, not missing the air of intimacy between the two. Jealousy spread through him in a poisonous tide.

Westcliff continued casually. “They have been friends for at leave five years. My sister has an unusual affinity with Sandridge—which pleases me a great deal, as I desire her happiness above all else.” He bowed to them both. “At your service, gentlemen.”

Gideon smiled as he watched the earl leave. “A proficient strategist is our Westcliff,” he murmured. “He seems to be warning you away from Lady Aline, McKenna.”

McKenna gave him a damning glance, though he had long been accustomed to Gideon’s perverse delight in jabbing at his self-possession. “Westcliff can go to hell,” he growled. “Along with Sandridge.”

“You’re not afraid of competition, then?” Gideon murmured.

McKenna arched one brow and spoke scornfully. “After five years of knowing Lady Aline, Sandridge hasn’t yet laid claim to her. That’s not what I would call competition, in any sense of the word.”

“Hasn’t publicly laid claim to her,” Gideon corrected.

McKenna shook his head with a faint smile. “To my knowledge, Shaw, that’s the only way that counts.”

Eight

There had been few people in Aline’s life that she had trusted enough to love. However, loving Adam, Lord Sandridge had been one of the easiest things she had ever done. Theirs was a friendship in its purest form, uncompromised by any nuance of sexuality. Many rumors of an affair had circulated during the past five years, which served both their purposes. Aline liked the fact that fewer men dared to approach her because of her supposed romantic involvement with Adam. And Adam, for his part, was grateful that the gossip about them prevented other, more destructive rumors that might have arisen otherwise.

Aline had never pried into the subject of Adam’s sexual preferences, as they had nothing to do with her. But she knew what very few people suspected—that his attraction was limited exclusively toward other men. Which would make some like-minded fellow very fortunate indeed. Adam’s charm, his intelligence, and his finely honed wit would have made him desirable no matter what his physical appearance. But as it happened, he was also resplendently handsome, with thick hair the color of white gold, dark-lashed gray eyes, and a lean, well-exercised body.

When Aline was with Adam, she couldn’t help but enjoy herself. He made her laugh, he made her think, and he understood what she was going to say before she even said it. Adam could lift her from her occasional depressions of the spirit as no one else could, and she had, on occasion, done the same for him. “Sometimes you make me wish that I were a man,” she told him once, laughing. His answering smile was a dazzle of white in his lightly tanned face.

“No, you’re too perfect as a woman.”

“Far from perfect,” she had murmured, conscious of the thick mass of scar tissue that covered her legs.

Being Adam, he had not resorted to platitudes or lies, but had only taken her hand in his and held it for a long time. She had already told him about her accident, and the damage it had done to her legs, not long after they had met. Odd, really, as she had kept it a secret from friends she had known for years…but there was no hiding anything from Adam. She had also told Adam every detail of her forbidden love for McKenna, and how she had sent him away. Adam had received her confidences with quiet understanding and just the right amount of sympathy.

Wearing a stiff social smile, Aline took his hands in a viselike grip, and spoke beneath her breath. “I need you, Adam.”

He looked into her face with light, intent eyes. “What is it?”

“McKenna,” she managed to say. “He’s come back.”

Adam shook his head incredulously. “To Stony Cross?” At her jerking nod, he shaped his lips in a soundless whistle. “Good God.”

Aline smiled tremulously. “He’s staying at the manor—he came with the Americans.”

“Poor sweet,” he said ruefully. “Your bad luck is holding true, it seems. Come with me to the garden, and we’ll talk.”

She longed to comply, but she held back uncertainly. “I must stay and receive the guests.”

“This is more important,” Adam informed her, pulling her hand to the crook of his arm. “Just a few minutes—I’ll have you back before you are missed. Come.”

They walked to the stone-flagged balcony overlooking the back terraces, where a row of French doors were open to admit any stray breeze from outdoors. Aline spoke rapidly, telling Adam everything while he listened in thoughtful silence. Pausing at the open doors, Adam glanced back at the milling throng. “Tell me which one he is,” he murmured.

Aline barely needed to glance inside the ballroom, so attuned was she to McKenna’s presence. “He’s over there, near the gilded frieze. My brother is speaking to him.”

After a discreet glance, Adam returned his gaze to hers and spoke dryly. “Quite nice, if one likes the dark, brooding sort.”

As distraught she was, Aline couldn’t suppress a wry laugh. “Is there anyone who doesn’t like that sort?”

“I, for one. You’re welcome to your Sturm und Drang, darling—I’ll take someone who’s a bit easier to manage.”

“What is Sturm und Drang?”

“Ah…I see that I’ll have to introduce you to the finer points of German literature. It means passionate turmoil—literally translated, ‘storm and stress.’ ”

“Yes, well, there is nothing quite as exciting as a storm, is there?” Aline asked ruefully.

Adam grinned as he drew her to a nearby bench. “Only when one is viewing it from inside a nice, cozy house.” As they sat, he took Aline’s hand in his and pressed it lightly. “Tell me, sweet, what are we to do about this problem of yours?”

“I’m not yet certain.”

“Has McKenna said yet what he wants from you?” Adam answered his own question before she was able. “Never mind—I know exactly what he wants. The question is, is there a possibility that he might force or coerce you in some way?”

“No,” she said at once. “No matter how McKenna has changed, he would never resort to that.”

Adam seemed to relax slightly. “That’s good news.”

“I’m afraid, Adam,” Aline confessed in a whisper, laying her head on his shoulder. “Not of what will happen now, or during the next few weeks…I’m afraid of afterward, when McKenna leaves again. I survived it once, but I don’t know if I can again.”

He slid his arm around her and squeezed comfortingly. “Yes, you will—I’ll be here to help you.” A long pause ensued as he considered his next words. “Aline, what I’m about to say may seem rather illoccasioned…but I’ve been considering an idea lately, and this may be as good a time as any to mention it.”

“Yes?”

Adam looked down at her, their noses nearly touching. He smiled, his gray eyes gleaming as they reflected the gathering moonlight. “We’re a good pair, sweet. In the five years that we’ve known each other, I’ve come to adore you as I have no other person on earth. I could spend the next hour enumerating your many virtues, but you’re well aware of them already. My proposition is this—I think we should continue on as we have, with one minor alteration. I want to marry you.”

“Have you been drinking?” Aline asked, and he laughed.

“Think about it—you would be mistress of Marshleigh. We would be that rarest of all combinations, a husband and wife who actually like each other.”

She stared at him in confusion. “But you would never want to—”

“No. We would each find one kind of satisfaction in marriage, and another kind outside it. Friendship is a hell of a lot more durable than love, Aline. And I’m very much a traditionalist in one sense—I see the wisdom in keeping passion entirely separate from marriage. I won’t blame you for seeking your pleasures where you can find them, and you won’t blame me for doing the same.”

“I won’t be seeking those kinds of pleasures,” she murmured. “Any man who saw my legs would find it impossible to make love to me.”

“Then don’t let him see them,” Adam said casually.

She gave him a skeptical glance. “But how would I—”

“Use your imagination, darling.”

The devilish glint in his eyes caused her to blush. “I’ve never considered the possibility before. It would be strange and awkward—”

“It amounts to a simple matter of logistics,” Adam informed her sardonically. “But back to my proposal—will you give it some thought?”

She shook her head with a reluctant smile. “I may be a bit too conventional for such an arrangement.”

“Conventions be damned.” Adam kissed her hair. “Let me help to mend your heart when it’s broken. Let me rub your legs at night, and hold you as a beloved friend would. Let me take you to beautiful places when you tire of English views.”

Aline smiled against the fine weave of his coat. “May I have some time to consider your very tempting offer?”

“All the time in the world.” Suddenly Adam shifted, though his arms remained around her, and he spoke quietly into her ear. “Mr. Sturm is coming this way, Miss Drang. What will you have me do—stay or leave?”

Aline eased away from him. “Leave,” she whispered. “I can manage him.”

“We’ll make that your epigraph,” Adam teased, and brushed his lips across her cheek. “Good luck, sweet. Give a shout if you need me.”

“You don’t want to meet him before you go?” she asked.

“God, no. Slay your own dragons, my lady,” he said, and left her with a grin.

Aline looked up from her seated position at the bench as McKenna approached her, his dark presence falling over her like a shadow. Adam’s reference to McKenna was not quite accurate—he looked far more like a devil than a dragon, needing only a pitchfork to complete the image. A tall, brooding, smoldering-eyed devil, in a formal scheme of black and white. He literally took her breath away. Aline was shocked by her own uncontrollable hunger to touch him. This was the feeling of her youth, the wild, dizzying excitement that she had never been able to forget. “McKenna,” she said breathlessly. “Good evening.”

He stopped before her and glanced intently at the doorway through which Adam had just departed. “Who was that?” he asked, although she suspected that he already knew.

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