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Page 15

“What if you told McKenna about your legs?” Mrs. Faircloth asked, settling a thin white nightgown over Aline’s head. “What do you think his reaction might be?”

The garment settled over her, covering a body that encompassed the incongruous difference of pure white skin and a shapely torso melded to a pair of damaged legs.

“McKenna cannot abide weakness in any form,” Aline said, padding to a chair and sitting heavily. “He would pity me, and that emotion is so close to contempt, it makes me ill to think of it.”

“You can’t be certain of that.”

“Are you saying that McKenna wouldn’t find these scars repellent?” Aline asked, wincing slightly as the housekeeper began to rub her legs with herbal salve that soothed the itching scar tissue. No one else, not even Livia, was ever permitted to touch her that way. “You know he would. Anyone would.”

“Aline,” came her younger sister’s voice from the bed, “If someone loved you, he would be able to look beyond your appearance.”

“That’s all well and good, for a fairy tale,” Aline said. “But I don’t believe in those anymore.”

In the uncomfortable silence that took hold of the room, Livia slipped from the bed and wandered to the vanity, sitting before the square Queen Anne looking glass. She picked up a brush and smoothed the ends of her braid, while making an effort to change the topic of conversation. “You’ll never guess what happened to me tonight, either of you. I went to the garden for a breath of fresh air, and found myself at the mermaid fountain…you know the place, where you can hear the music from the ballroom.”

“You should have been inside the ballroom, dancing,” Aline said, but Livia waved her into silence.

“No, no, this was much better than anything that could have happened in there. I was drinking a glass of wine, and tottering about like a demented ballerina, when all of a sudden I saw someone standing nearby, watching me.”

Aline laughed, diverted by the story. “I would have screamed.”

“I nearly did.”

“Was it a man or a woman?” Mrs. Faircloth asked.

“A man.” Livia turned on the vanity stool to grin at them both. “Tall and ridiculously handsome, with the most wonderful head of golden hair. And before we even got around to introducing ourselves, he took me into his arms, and we danced.”

“You didn’t,” Aline exclaimed in surprised delight.

Livia hugged herself in excitement. “Yes! And it turned out that my waltz partner was none other than that Mr. Shaw, who is the most debonair man I’ve ever met in my life. Oh, I’m certain that he is a terrible rake…but what a dance it was!”

“He drinks,” Mrs. Faircloth said darkly, being privy to the servants’ gossip.

“I don’t doubt it.” Livia shook her head in puzzlement. “There is such a look in his eyes, as if he has seen and done everything a thousand times, and takes no real pleasure or interest in anything.”

“He sounds very different from Amberley,” Aline remarked carefully, concerned by the realization that her sister was quite taken with the American.

“Different in every way,” Livia agreed, setting aside the silver-backed brush. Her tone mellowed as she continued thoughtfully. “I do like him, though. Aline, you must find out everything you can about him, and tell me—”

“No.” Aline tempered her refusal with a teasing smile, and winced as Mrs. Faircloth gently manipulated her ankle, flexing the stiff joint. “If you want to know more about Mr. Shaw, you’ll have to come out of hiding and ask him yourself.”

“Bother you,” Livia rejoined without heat, and yawned. “Perhaps I will.” Standing, she wandered to Aline and dropped a kiss on top of her head. “As for you, dearest, have a care in your dealings with McKenna. I suspect that he is a far better game player than you.”

“We’ll see about that,” Aline replied, eliciting a laugh from Livia and a worried frown from Mrs. Faircloth.

Nine

After a night of dancing, none of the guests at Stony Cross Park was inclined to awaken before noon, except for a small group of men who wished to go shooting. As Aline sipped from a cup of tea and smiled at the early risers who were gathering at the back terrace, she was disconcerted to see McKenna in their midst.

It was daybreak. The air was cool and heavy as the weak English sun struggled ineffectually to burn through the haze. Sitting at an outside table with a silk shawl knotted over her thin morning dress, Aline tried not to stare at McKenna. However, it was difficult to conceal her fascination. McKenna possessed a dynamic presence, an inherent virility, that she had seen in no other man except perhaps her brother. And the sportsman’s attire suited McKenna perfectly, the black coat defining the breadth of his shoulders, with dark forest-green breeches closely following his muscular legs, and black leather boots conforming to his long calves. Such garments were becoming to any man, but on someone as big as McKenna, the effect was awe-inspiring.

Sensing her discreet regard, McKenna glanced at her quickly. Their gazes held in a flash of raw interest, before he forced himself to turn and reply to a guest who had approached him.

Aline stared into the hot amber depths of her tea, her body filled with exquisite tension. She did not look up until her brother approached to ask about the day’s schedule.

“Breakfast will be served at the pavilion by the lake,” Aline replied. On extended visits such as this, the first meal of the day was never served before noon. It would be a prodigious repast, with a multitude of hearty dishes and just enough champagne to revive the mood of the previous evening. Aline reached out to touch her brother’s broad brown hand. “Have a good morning,” she said cheerfully, “and do try to keep your distance from guests with bad aim.”

Marcus grinned and spoke in a low voice. “That’s not usually a problem with Americans. Although few of them can ride worth a damn, they’re fair shots.” Continuing to lean over Aline, he waited until her gaze lifted to his. His black eyes narrowed. “You disappeared with McKenna for almost a half hour last evening. Where did you go, and what did you do with him?”

“Marcus,” Aline said with a reproving smile, “on the occasions when you have disappeared with a female guest—and there have been many—I’ve never demanded to know where you went and what you did.”

“It’s different for you than it is for me.”

Aline was both touched and amused by his protectiveness. “Why?”

Marcus’s dark brows drew together in a frown, and his voice was infused with surliness. “Because you’re my sister.”

“I have nothing to fear from McKenna,” she said. “I know him quite well, Marcus.”

“You knew him when he was a boy,” her brother countered. “But McKenna is a stranger now, and you have no idea of what he’s capable of.”

“Don’t meddle, Marcus. I will do as I please with McKenna. And I hope that you won’t try to manipulate things as Father did, all those years ago. His interference cost me dearly, and while I had no choice but to accept it then, things are different now.”

Marcus settled a hand on the back of her chair. The tautness of his mouth betrayed his concern. “Aline,” he asked carefully, “What do you think he wants from you?”

The answer was clear to both of them. However, Aline saw that her brother didn’t yet understand what she desired. “The same thing that I want from him,” she replied.

“What did you just say?” Marcus stared at her as if he didn’t recognize her.

Sighing, Aline glanced across the terrace at McKenna, who was engaged in a conversation with two other men. “Haven’t you ever wished that you could steal back just a few hours of your past?” she asked softly. “That’s all I want…just a taste of what might have been.”

“No, I never wish for that,” came his brusque reply. “The words ‘might have been’ mean nothing to me. There’s only now, and the future.”

“That’s because there are no limitations to your future,” she said evenly. “But there are to mine.”

Marcus’s hand compressed into a hard fist. “Because of a few scars?”

The question made her eyes flash dangerously. “You’ve never seen my legs, Marcus. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And coming from a man who takes his pick of the most beautiful women in London as if he were sampling from a tin of bonbons—”

“Are you implying that I’m some shallow fool who values a woman only for her appearance?”

Aline was tempted to retract her charge in the interest of maintaining peace between them. But as she considered the last few women that Marcus had carried on with…“I’m sorry to say, Marcus, that each of your recent choice of companions—the last four or five, at least—displayed all the intelligence of a turnip. And yes, they were all quite beautiful, and I doubt that you were able to have a sensible conversation with any of them for longer than five minutes.”

Marcus stood back and glared at her. “How does that pertain to what we were discussing?”

“It illustrates the point that even you, one of the finest and most honorable men I’ve ever known, place great importance on physical attractiveness. And if I ever see you consort with a woman who is less than stunningly perfect, then perhaps I’ll listen to your lectures on how appearance doesn’t matter.”

“Aline—”

“Have a good shoot,” she said. “And heed my warning—don’t cross me in this, Marcus.”

Heaving a sigh, her brother went to find his valet, who was laden with rifles and leather bags.

More of the shooting party came to Aline’s table to exchange pleasantries, and she smiled and chatted pleasantly, always aware of McKenna’s dark figure in the background. Only when the guests began to descend en masse down the terrace steps, led by Marcus, did McKenna come to her.

“Good morning,” Aline said, while her heartbeat rapidly outpaced her ability to think. She offered him her hand, and her breath caught at the gentle clasp of his fingers. Somehow she managed to find a calm social voice. “Did you rest well last night?”

“No.” His eyes glinted as he retained her hand a moment longer than was acceptable.

“I do hope that your room is not uncomfortable,” Aline managed to say, tugging free of him.

“What would you do if I said it was?”

“Offer you another room, of course.”

“Don’t bother—unless it’s yours.”

His boldness nearly startled a laugh from her—she couldn’t remember when, if ever, a man had spoken to her with such a stunning lack of respect. And it reminded her so much of the comfortable ease they had once shared that she actually found herself relaxing in his presence. “That obliging a hostess, I’m not,” she informed him.

McKenna leaned over the table, resting his hands lightly on the glossy surface. His dark head hovered over hers, his stance reminding her of a cat poised to strike its prey. A flicker of predatory interest lightened the turquoise depths of his eyes. “What’s the verdict, my lady?”

She pretended not to understand. “Verdict?”

“Am I to leave the estate, or shall I stay?”

Idly Aline drew an invisible circle on the table with a well-manicured fingertip, while her heart thumped in her chest. “Stay, if you wish.”

His voice was very soft. “And you understand what will happen if I do?”

Aline had never thought that McKenna could be so arrogant—or that she would enjoy it so much. A sense of challenge, male against female, rippled between them. When she replied, her voice matched his for softness. “I don’t wish to disappoint you, McKenna, but I have complete faith in my ability to resist your advances.”

He seemed mesmerized by whatever he saw in her face. “Do you?”

“Yes. Yours wasn’t the first proposition I’ve ever received. And at the risk of sounding rather conceited, it probably won’t be the last.” Aline finally let herself smile at him as she wanted to, full and provocative and gently mocking. “Therefore, you may stay and do your worst. I fully expect to enjoy your efforts. And you should know that I do appreciate a certain amount of finesse.”

His gaze fell to her smiling lips. Although he showed no reaction to her impudence, Aline sensed how greatly she had astonished him. She felt a bit like a damned soul who had gone right up to Lucifer and chucked him playfully beneath the chin.

“Finesse,” he repeated, looking back into her eyes.

“Well, yes. Serenades, and flowers, and poetry.”

“What kind of poetry?”

“The kind that you write yourself, of course.”

His sudden lazy smile caused soft prickles of pleasure to course through her. “Does Sandridge write poetry for you?”

“I daresay he would.” Adam was clever with words—no doubt he would perform such a task with great style and wit.

“But you haven’t asked him to,” McKenna murmured.

She shook her head slowly.

“I’ve never given much thought to finesse,” he told her.

Aline arched her brows. “Even when it comes to seduction?”

“The women I take to bed don’t usually require seduction.”

She rested her chin on her hand, staring at him intently. “They’re simply yours for the taking, you mean?”

“That’s right.” He gave her an inscrutable glance. “And most of them are ladies of the upper class.” With a perfunctory bow, he turned and left with the shooting party.

Aline worked to keep her breath even, and sat until her pulse had steadied.

It was now clear to both of them that the game had two fully committed players…agame with no rules and no clear outcome, and potentially heavy losses on both sides. And as much as Aline feared for herself, she feared even more for McKenna, whose knowledge of the past was riddled with significant and hazardous gaps. She must let him go on thinking the worst of her…to take what he wanted of her, and to eventually leave Stony Cross with his sense of vengeance appeased.

Now that she had seen the shooting party off, she had time to relax with a cup of tea in the breakfast room. Preoccupied with thoughts of McKenna, she nearly bumped into someone who was leaving the manor at the same time.

The man reached out to steady her, grasping her elbows until he was assured of her balance. “Forgive me. I was in a bit of a hurry to join the others.”

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