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Page 14

“You are not being helpful,” Aline said severely, struggling to hold back a sudden smile.

“Would you like for someone to give me permission to do what you’ve already decided to do? Would that help to pacify your guilty conscience?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. But no one can do that for me.”

“I can.”

She laughed suddenly. “Adam…”

“I hereby give you permission to do as you please. Now do you feel better?”

“No, just frightened. And as my friend, you should be doing your utmost to prevent me from making a mistake that will result in a great deal of pain.”

“You’ve already had the pain,” he pointed out. “Now you may as well have the pleasure of making the mistake.”

“My God,” Aline whispered, squeezing his arm tightly, “you are such a terrible influence, Adam.”

“I try,” he murmured, smiling down at her.

Gideon wandered to the terraced gardens behind the estate manor, following a flagstone path that curved around a row of artfully shaped yews. He had hoped that the outside air would distract him from temptation. The night was still young, and he had to slow the pace of his drinking a bit. Later, when the guests disbanded for the night, he could allow his thirst free rein, and he would pickle himself properly. Unfortunately, he still had to endure a few hours of relative sobriety until then.

A few strategically lit garden torches provided enough light to accommodate an evening stroll. In his aimless wandering, Gideon came to a small paved clearing with a splashing fountain embedded in the middle. To his surprise, he saw a girl moving about in the clearing. She seemed to be enjoying the distant music that floated from the open windows of the ballroom. Humming gently, she glided in a dreamy approximation of a waltz, pausing occasionally to sip from a glass of wine. Catching a glimpse of her profile, Gideon saw that she was not a girl but a young woman with pretty, if unremarkable features.

She must be a servant, he thought, noting that her gown was old, and her hair was braided loosely down her back. Perhaps she was a housemaid indulging in a stolen glass of wine.

The woman swirled back and forth like some misguided Cinderella whose ball gown had vanished before she had even reached the party. She made Gideon smile. Temporarily forgetting his desire for another drink, Gideon drew closer, while the gurgle of the fountain obscured the sound of his footsteps.

In the midst of a slow twirl, the woman saw him and froze.

Gideon stood before her with his customary elegant slouch, dipping his head and regarding her with a teasing gaze.

Recovering quickly, the woman stared back at him. A rueful smile curved her lips, and her eyes sparkled in the soft glow of torchlight. Despite her lack of classic beauty, there was something irresistible about her…a kind of vibrant feminine cheerfulness that he had never encountered before.

“Well,” she said, “this is quite mortifying, and if you have any mercy, you will forget what you have just seen.”

“I have a memory like an elephant’s,” he told her with feigned regret.

“How disagreeable of you,” she said, and laughed freely.

Gideon was instantly captivated. A hundred questions crowded in his mind. He wanted to know who she was, why she was there, if she liked sugar in her tea, had she climbed trees as a girl, and what her first kiss had been like…

The flood of curiosity puzzled him. He usually managed to avoid caring about anyone long enough to ask questions about him. Not quite trusting himself to speak, Gideon approached her cautiously. She stiffened slightly, as if she was unused to proximity with a stranger. As he drew closer, he saw that her features were even and her nose was a little too long, and her mouth was soft and sweetly shaped. Her eyes were some light color…green, perhaps…shining eyes that contained unexpected depths.

“Waltzing is somewhat easier with a partner,” he commented. “Would you care to try it?”

The woman stared at him as if she had suddenly found herself in a strange land with a friendly foreigner. Music from the ballroom drifted through the air in a heady current. After a long moment, she shook her head with an apologetic smile, searching for an excuse to refuse him. “My wine isn’t finished.”

Slowly Gideon reached for the nearly empty glass in her hand. She surrendered it without a word, her gaze remaining locked with his. Raising the glass to his lips, Gideon downed the contents in one expert swallow, then set the fragile vessel on the edge of the fountain.

She laughed breathlessly and shook her finger at him in mock reproof.

As he stared at her, Gideon’s chest felt very hot, the way it had once when he’d had croup and his nurse had made him breathe the reviving steam from a boiling pot of herbs. He remembered the relief of being able to breathe after hours of near-suffocation, the greedy movement of his lungs as they drew in the hot, precious air. Oddly, this felt rather like that…a sensation of relief, though from what he wasn’t quite certain.

He offered her a bare hand, having removed his gloves and placed them in his pocket as soon as he had entered the garden. Turning his palm up, he silently willed her to take it.

Apparently the decision was not an easy one. She looked away from him, her expression suddenly contemplative, the edges of her teeth catching at the plush curve of her lower lip. Just as Gideon thought she was going to refuse him, she reached out impulsively, her warm fingers catching at his. He held her hand as if he cradled a fragile bird in his palm, and drew her close enough that he could smell the hint of rose water in her hair. Her body was slim, sweetly curved, her uncorseted waist soft beneath his fingers. Despite the undeniable romance of the moment, Gideon felt a most un romantic stirring of lust as his body reacted with typical male awareness to the nearness of a desirable female. He eased his partner into a slow waltz, guiding her expertly across the uneven flagstones.

“I’ve seen fairies dancing on the lawn before,” he said, “when I got deep enough in a bottle of brandy. But I’ve never actually danced with one before.” He held her more tightly as she tried to alter their direction. “No, let me lead.”

“We were too close to the edge of the pavement,” she protested, laughing as he compelled her back into his rhythm.

“We were not.”

“Bossy American,” she said, wrinkling her nose at him. “I’m sure I shouldn’t dance with a man who admits to seeing fairies. And no doubt your wife would have a thing or two to say about this.”

“I have no wife.”

“Yes, you do.” She gave him a chiding smile, as if he were a schoolboy who had just been caught in a lie.

“Why are you so certain of that?”

“Because you’re one of the Americans, and they’re all married, except for Mr. McKenna. And you are not Mr. McKenna.”

“There’s one other unmarried American in the group,” Gideon commented lazily, releasing her waist and turning her with one hand. At the completion of the turn, he caught her back against him and smiled down at her.

“Yes,” she replied, “but that would be…”

“Mr. Shaw,” Gideon said helpfully, as her voice trailed into silence.

“Oh…” She looked up at him with wide eyes. Were he not holding her so securely, she would have stumbled. “I’m supposed to stay away from you.”

He grinned at that. “Says who?”

She ignored the question. “And while I’m certain that at least half the rumors about you couldn’t possibly be true—”

“They are,” Gideon said without a trace of shame.

“You’re a rake, then.”

“The worst kind.”

She pulled away from him with a laugh. “At least you’re honest about it. However, it is probably best if I go now. Thank you for the dance…it was lovely.”

“Don’t go,” Gideon said, his voice soft and urgent. “Wait. Tell me who you are.”

“You’re allowed three guesses,” she said.

“Are you a servant?”

“No.”

“You can’t be one of the Marsdens—you look nothing like them. Are you from the village?”

“No.”

Gideon scowled at a sudden thought. “You’re not the earl’s mistress, are you?”

“No,” she said sweetly, smiling. “That was your third guess. Goodbye, Mr. Shaw.”

“Wait—”

“And no dancing with fairies on the lawn,” she admonished. “It’s wet, and you’ll ruin your shoes.”

She left him swiftly, leaving only the empty wineglass on the fountain, and the bemused smile on Gideon’s lips, as evidence that she had been there.

“He said what?” Livia demanded, nearly toppling from her cross-legged seat on the edge of Aline’s bed. As was their habit, she had come to Aline’s room after the ball to hear the latest gossip.

Aline sunk deeper into the steaming, oily water of her bath in the center of the room. Hot as the water was, it was not entirely responsible for the flush that rose inher face. She looked from her younger sister’s incredulous face to Mrs. Faircloth’s openmouthed astonishment. Despite her own turmoil, Aline couldn’t help but be amused. “He said that if he is allowed to stay at Stony Cross, he is going to bed me.”

“Did McKenna also say that he still loves you?” Livia asked.

“Good Lord, no,” Aline said wryly, stretching her sore legs and wiggling her toes beneath the water. “McKenna’s intentions toward me have nothing to do with love—that is quite clear.”

“But…but a man doesn’t just come out and say he’s going to…to…”

“Apparently McKenna does.”

Livia shook her head in bemusement. “I’ve never heard of such arrogance!”

A wisp of a smile came to Aline’s lips. “One could call it flattering, I suppose, if one chose to view it in that light.” A stray lock of her hair fell from her topknot, and she reached up to reanchor it.

Livia laughed suddenly. “Even sporting, really, to warn you of his intentions.”

“I call it grossly insolent,” Mrs. Faircloth said, approaching the side of the tub with a folded towel, “and I will waste no opportunity in telling him so.”

“No, no, don’t mention it to him,” Aline said hastily. “You mustn’t. It’s only a game. I want to enjoy it, just for a little while…”

The housekeeper stared at her in astonishment. “My lady, have you taken leave of your senses? This is very far from a game, in light of your history with McKenna. The emotions on both sides are too deep, and have been buried too long. Don’t start on this path with him, my lady, if you aren’t prepared to follow it to the end.”

Remaining mutinously silent, Aline stood to be enfolded in the depths of the thick cotton towel that Mrs. Faircloth held up. She stepped from the tub and stood still as Mrs. Faircloth bent to dry her legs. Glancing at Livia, she saw that her younger sister had suddenly averted her gaze, staring into the hearth as if occupied in thought. She did not blame Livia for not wanting to look. Even after all these years, the sight of her own legs never failed to surprise even Aline.

Twelve years had passed since the accident, very little of which she remembered. She was well aware, however, that it was only because of Mrs. Faircloth that she had survived. When the doctors summoned from London had said that nothing could be done for Aline, the housekeeper had sent one of the footmen to fetch a healer from the neighboring county. A white witch, actually, who was regarded with both reverence and fear by the local villagers, who swore to the efficacy of her healing gifts.

Marcus, being a hard-bitten realist, had protested violently at the appearance of the witch, who turned out to be a middle-aged woman of unassuming appearance, carrying a small copper cauldron in one hand and a bulging sack filled with herbs in the other. Since Aline had been near death at the time, she had no memory of the witch, but she had been greatly entertained by Livia’s account of the episode.

“I thought Marcus would drag her away bodily,” Livia had told Aline with relish. “He planted himself in front of your bedroom door, having decided that he would protect you in your last hours. And this woman walked right up to him without any fear—she wasn’t even half his weight—and demanded that she be allowed to see you. Mrs. Faircloth and I had begged Marcus all morning to let her do what she could for you, as we thought it could do no harm at that point. But he was being especially mulish, and he made some dreadfully obscene comment to her about broomsticks.”

“And the witch wasn’t frightened of him?” Aline had asked, knowing how intimidating their older brother could be.

“Not in the least. She told him that if he did not let her enter your room, she would cast a spell on him.”

Aline had grinned at that. “Marcus doesn’t believe in magic or witchcraft—he’s far too practical.”

“Yes, but he’s a man, after all. And it seems the spell she threatened to use would have removed his…his…” Livia had begun to choke with laughter. “His manly potency,” she managed to gasp out. “Well, the very idea was enough to turn Marcus pale, and after some fierce negotiating, he told the witch that she had exactly one hour to spend in your room, and he was going to watch her the entire time.”

Livia had described the scene that had ensued, the blue candles…the circle that had been drawn around her bed with a sage smudge stick…the incense that had saturated the air with a pungent haze while the witch performed her rituals.

To everyone’s amazement, Aline had lived through the night. When the herb-dressed sheets that covered her were removed in the morning, her wounds were no longer putrid, but clean and beginning to heal. Unfortunately, the witch’s remarkable abilities had not been able to prevent the formation of thick, elevated red scars that went from Aline’s ankles to the tops of her thighs. Her legs were hideous…there was no other word for it. Her feet, which had been encased in leather shoes at the time of her accident, had mercifully been spared much of the damage. However, in the areas where large expanses of skin had been destroyed, the scar tissue had pulled tightly at the edges of remaining skin, affecting the movement of muscles and joints beneath. Walking was occasionally difficult and even painful, on the days when she pushed herself too far. She took nightly baths in oily herbal water to soften the scars, and followed them with gentle stretching to keep herself as limber as possible.

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