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Page 13

“Lord Sandridge,” she murmured. “A very dear friend.”

“Only a friend?”

Ten minutes ago, Aline would have replied with an unhesitating yes. Now in light of Adam’s marriage proposal, she considered the question thoughtfully. “He wants to marry me,” she admitted.

McKenna’s expression was perfectly bland, though there was an odd flicker in his eyes. “And will you?”

Aline stared at him as he stood before her, half in shadow, half in light, and she felt a change coming over her body, skin tingling beneath the covering of blue silk, the tips of her br**sts turning hard. Warmth moved over the surface of her chest and stomach as if someone were breathing against her. “Probably,” she heard herself whisper.

McKenna came to her, reaching a hand down in a silent gesture of command. She let him pull her up, and felt his long fingers encircle her gloved wrist just beneath the ring of entwined white rosebuds. Her wrist remained pliable and unresisting in his grasp. She felt her heart contract briefly as his thumb slipped into the cup of her palm. Their hands were sheathed in two thickness of gloves, and yet the mere pressure of his fingers against her was enough to send her pulse hurtling.

“McKenna,” she asked quietly, “why did you give me no warning before you came back to Stony Cross so suddenly?”

“I didn’t think it would matter to you if I came or not.”

The obvious lie was delivered smoothly. Anyone would have believed him, except her. Not matter? she thought, suspended between anguish and miserable laughter. How many rain-swept days and lonely nights she had spent longing for him. In the fever-induced delirium that had brought her to the threshold of death, she had spoken his name, begged for him, dreamed that he held her while she slept. “Of course it matters,” she said with forced lightness, pushing aside the memories. “We were friends once, after all.”

“Friends,” he repeated without inflection.

Cautiously Aline eased her wrist away from his hold. “Why, yes. Very good friends. And I so often wondered what became of you, after you left.”

“Now you know.” His face was hard and smooth. “I wondered as well…what happened to you after I was sent to Bristol? I’ve heard mention of an illness—”

“Let’s not talk about my past,” Aline interrupted with a quick, self-deprecating laugh. “It is quite dull, I assure you. I am far more interested in hearing about you. Tell me everything. Start with the moment you first set foot in New York.”

The artful flattery of her gaze seemed to amuse McKenna, as if he understood somehow that she had decided to keep him at a distance by flirting with him, thereby averting the possibility of discussing anything meaningful. “It’s not ballroom conversation.”

“Ah. Then is it parlor conversation? Cardroom conversation? No? Heavens, it must be lurid indeed. Let’s walk outside somewhere. To the stables. The horses will be quite entertained by your story, and they hardly ever gossip.”

“Can you leave your guests?”

“Oh, Westcliff is an adept host—he’ll make do.”

“What about a chaperone?” he asked, though he was already guiding her to the side entrance of the ballroom.

Her smile turned wry. “Women my age don’t require chaperones, McKenna.”

He slid an unnervingly thorough glance over her. “You may need one yet.”

They walked through the outside gardens to the back entrance of the stables. The estate manor had been laid out in the European fashion, with the stables forming one of the wings that enclosed the courtyard in front. It was jokingly remarked that Lord Westcliff’s horses lived in a grander fashion than most people, and there was more than a little truth in it. The stone-flagged central court of the stables contained a large marble drinking fountain for the horses. Archways led to the harness room, rows of five dozen stalls, and a carriage room that smelled strongly of brass polish, leather, and wax. The stables had changed little in the years since McKenna had left Stony Cross Park. Aline wondered if he took pleasure in the familiarity of the place.

They stopped in the harness room, the walls hung with saddles, bridles, halters, breastplates, and leathers. Wooden boxes filled with grooming implements were aligned neatly on shelves. The smell of horses and leather made the air sweetly pungent.

McKenna wandered to a saddle and smoothed his fingertips over the well-worn surface. His dark head bent, and he suddenly seemed lost in memory.

Aline waited until his gaze returned to her. “How did you get your start in New York?” she asked. “I would have thought you’d find something to do with horses. Why on earth did you become a boatman?”

“Moving cargo at the docks was the first job I could find. When I wasn’t loading boats, I learned how to hold my own in a fistfight. Most of the time the dockers had to brawl over who was going to get the work.” He paused, and added frankly, “I learned in no time to bully my way into getting what I wanted. Eventually I was able to buy a small sailboat with a shallow draft, and I became the fastest ferryman going to and from Staten Island.”

Aline listened carefully, trying to understand the gradual process by which the cavalier boy had become the hard-driven man standing before her. “Did someone act as a mentor to you?” she asked.

“No, I had no mentor.” He ran his fingers over the line of a tightly braided crop. “I thought of myself as a servant for a long time—I never thought I would be more than I was right then. But after a while I realized that the other ferrymen had ambitions far beyond mine. They told me stories about men like John Jacob Astor—have you heard of him?”

“I’m afraid not. Is he a contemporary of the Shaws?”

The question made McKenna laugh suddenly, his teeth flashing white in his dark face. “He’s richer than the Shaws, though even Gideon won’t admit it. Astor was a butcher’s son who started with nothing and made a fortune in the fur trade. Now he buys and sells New York real estate. He’s worth at least fifteen million dollars by now. I’ve met Astor—he’s a domineering little runt who can barely speak English—and he’s made himself into one of the richest men in the world.”

Aline’s eyes widened. She had heard about the explosive growth of industry in America, and the fast-rising value of New York property. But it seemed nearly impossible for one man—especially one of low station—to have acquired such a fortune.

McKenna seemed to follow the train of her thoughts. “Everything’s possible, over there. You can make a lot of money if you’re willing to do what it takes. And money is all that matters, since Americans aren’t distinguished by titles or noble blood.”

“What do you mean, ‘if you’re willing to do what it takes’?” Aline asked. “What have you had to do?”

“I’ve had to advantage of others. I’ve learned to ignore my conscience, and put my own interests above anyone else’s. Most of all, I’ve learned that I can’t afford to care about anyone but myself.”

“You’re not really like that,” she said.

His voice was very soft. “Don’t doubt it for a minute, my lady. I’m nothing like the boy you knew. He may as well have died when he left Stony Cross.”

Aline could not accept that. If there was nothing left of that boy, then a vital part of her heart would die too. Turning toward the tack on the wall nearest her, she concealed the unhappiness that had pulled her features taut. “Don’t say that.”

“It’s the truth.”

“You seem to be warning me away from yourself,” she said thickly.

Aline was not aware of McKenna’s approach, but suddenly he was right behind her. Their bodies were not touching, but she was acutely aware of the solidity and size of him. In the midst of her inner turmoil, pure physical hunger stirred. She went weak with the need to lean back against him and pull his hands to her body. It had been a bad idea for her to go somewhere with him alone, she thought, closing her eyes tightly.

“I am warning you,” McKenna said gently. “You should tell me to leave Stony Cross. Tell your brother to get rid of me, that my presence here offends you. I’ll go, Aline…but only if you make it happen.”

His mouth was very close to her ear, his breath fanning over the tender outer rim.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then I’m going to bed you.”

Aline turned to face him with a bemused gaze. “What?”

“You heard me.” McKenna leaned forward and braced his hands on either side of her, palms flattened on the ancient stable wood. “I’m going to take you,” he said, his voice laced with soft menace. “And it will be nothing like the gentlemanly lovemaking that you’re used to from Sandridge.”

That was a shot in the dark. McKenna watched her intently, to see if she would contradict his assumption.

Aline held her silence as she realized that giving him any thread of truth would cause all her secrets to unravel. Better for him to think that she and Adam were lovers, than to wonder why she had remained alone for so many years.

“You…you don’t waste time on subtlety, do you?” she managed, staring at him in wonder, while a warm, prickling sensation invaded the pit of her stomach.

“I thought it only fair to give you advance warning.”

She was jarred by the strange familiarity of the moment, as she was held in thrall by those extraordinary blue-green eyes. Surely this could not really be happening. “You would never force yourself on a woman,” she murmured. “No matter how much you may have changed.”

McKenna answered steadily, while his gaze encompassed every degree of temperature between fire and ice. “If you don’t send me away from Stony Cross by tomorrow morning, I’ll take it as a personal invitation to your bed.”

Aline was filled with the most bewildering mix of emotions imaginable…annoyance, amusement, consternation…not to mention admiration. The boy who had been born in service had become a splendidly arrogant man, and she loved his simmering self-confidence. If circumstances were different, how utterly willing she would have been to give him anything and everything he desired of her. If only—

Suddenly her mind went blank as McKenna took the double rope of pearls in his hand. He rested most of his weight on one leg, letting the other press gently into the mass of her skirts. In that moment of fully clothed proximity, Aline felt her self-control crumbling. The smell of his skin filled her nostrils—the hints of cologne and shaving soap, and the clean, sun-warmed, masculine essence that belonged to him alone. Breathing deeply of the fragrance, she felt an elemental jolt of response.

With a deliberateness that stunned her, McKenna used the front of his body to anchor her against the wall. She felt his free hand slide behind her neck, his gloved thumb and forefinger spread in a firm vise around the back of her skull. For some reason it did not occur to Aline that she should try to resist him. She could only hang there in his grasp, weak with excitement and desire and trepidation.

“Tell me to go,” McKenna muttered, appearing to want her to struggle, almost willing her to. Her lack of opposition seemed to inflame him. The hot waft of his breath struck her lips, and she felt her body tightening inside. “Tell me,” he urged, as his head bent over hers.

And the memories of who and what they had been, of past kisses, of agonizing longing, were consumed in a roar of desire. There was only now, her moan trapped in McKenna’s hot mouth, the kiss beginning as a near-assault, transforming swiftly to a kind of greedy, ecstatic worship. His tongue plunged inside her, strong and sure, and she cried out at the pleasure of it, the sound smothered by his lips. McKenna had taught her how to kiss, and he still remembered all the tricks that aroused her. He paused to toy with her, using his lips, teeth, tongue, then settled back in, delving into her mouth with gloriously aggressive kisses. His hand slid from her nape to the bottom of her spine, bringing her more tightly against him. Arching in response, Aline whimpered as his palm reached the swell of her buttocks and urged her into his loins. Even with the thickness of her skirts between them, she could feel the hard ridge of his arousal.

The pleasure intensified to an almost frightening pitch. Too much, too strong, too fast…

Suddenly McKenna made a rough sound and jerked away from her.

Staring at him, Aline leaned back against the wall, her legs threatening to collapse beneath her. They both breathed with deep, wracking pulls of their lungs, while frustrated passion saturated the air like steam.

Finally McKenna managed to speak. “Go back to the house,” he said hoarsely, “while I can still let you. And think about what I told you.”

It took several minutes for Aline to compose herself sufficiently to return to the ball. She thought she had managed to paste a facade of deceptive poise over her inner tumult—no one seemed to notice that anything was amiss as she greeted guests and conversed and laughed with artificial cheer. Only Marcus, who gave her a narrowed, meditative stare from halfway across the ballroom, made her aware that narrow strips of heat were glowing at the crests of her cheeks. And Adam, of course, who appeared at her left elbow and gazed into her upturned face with discreet concern.

“Do I look all right?” she whispered to him.

“Aside from being your usual ravishingly beautiful self,” Adam said, “you are a bit flushed. What happened between the two of you? Did you exchange words?”

Far more than words, she thought ruefully. That kiss…the annihilating pleasure like nothing she had ever felt before. Years of longing and fantasy distilled into pure physical sensation. It seemed impossible to layer detachment over the seething desire, to stand while her knees showed a dismaying inclination to fold. Impossible to pretend everything was as it should be…when nothing was.

That kiss, charged with their mutual hunger to discover the changes that had been wrought over a dozen years of living apart. McKenna presented a danger to Aline in every way, and yet she was somehow certain that she was going to make the wrong choices, take insane risks, all in the futile attempt to appease her need for him.

“Adam,” she murmured without looking at him, “have you ever wanted something so much that you would do anything to have it—even knowing that it was bad for you?”

They walked slowly, taking a slow turn around the outskirts of the ballroom. “Of course,” Adam replied. “All the truly enjoyable things in life are invariably bad for you—and they’re even better when done to excess.”

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