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Page 17

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Shaw fell into step beside her, his brown leather boots crunching the stray twigs and leaves that had blown onto the lane. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his tweed coat, casting a sideways glance at Livia’s profile as they walked. “You know,” he said casually, “I’m not going to let you get away from me again without telling me who you are.”

“I prefer to remain mysterious.”

“Why?”

She told him the truth. “Because I did something scandalous in the past, and now it is horribly awkward for me to come out in society.”

“What kind of scandal?” His sardonic tone made it clear that he expected her transgression to be a minor one. “You went somewhere unchaperoned, I suppose. Or you let someone steal a kiss from you in public.”

She shook her head with a wry smile. “Clearly you have no idea of how badly behaved we young ladies can be.”

“I would love for you to enlighten me.”

At Livia’s indecisive silence, Shaw abandoned the subject, and fastened his gaze on the tousled, heavily planted cottage garden ahead of them. Long banners of honeysuckle trailed over the garden fence, its fragrance making the air thick and sweet. Butterflies danced amid bright splotches of poppies and peonies. Beyond a plot of carrots, lettuce, and radishes, a rose-covered arch-way led to a tiny glasshouse that was shaded by a parasol-shaped sycamore.

“Very nice,” Shaw remarked.

Swinging her bonnet, Livia led him to the glasshouse, a cozy nook that no more than two people could occupy at the same time. “When I was a little girl, I used to sit in this glasshouse with my books and dolls, and pretend that I was a princess in a tower.”

“You grew up at Stony Cross Park, then,” he said.

Livia opened the glasshouse door and looked inside. It was clean and well-kept, the wooden seat gleaming from a recent polishing. “Lord Westcliff is my brother,” she finally admitted, her voice sounding hollow as it resounded inside the little glass-paned room. “I am Lady Olivia Marsden.”

Shaw stood behind her, close but not touching. Her awareness of him was so electric that it compelled her to step forward into the glasshouse. Shaw remained in the doorway, filling it with his lean body and broad shoulders. When Livia turned to face him, she was struck by the differences between him and Amberley. Shaw was at least ten years older than Amberley had been. A powerful, worldly man, and so clearly a disen-chanted one, with tiny lines of cynicism etched around his eyes. But when he smiled, it temporarily banished every sign of disillusionment, and made him so attractive that her heart nearly stopped.

“Lady Aline mentioned that she had a sister,” Shaw said. “However, I had the impression that you lived away from the estate.”

“No, I am definitely a resident of Stony Cross Park. But I keep to myself. The scandal, you understand.”

“I’m afraid I don’t.” The corners of his mouth lifted in a relaxed smile. “Tell me, Princess Olivia…why do you have to stay in your tower?”

The soft entreaty made Livia feel as if she were melting inside. She laughed unsteadily, wishing for a moment that she dared to trust him. But the habit of independence was too strong. Shaking her head, Livia approached him, expecting him to back away from the doorway. He retreated a half step, his hands still grasping the edges of the doorway, so that she couldn’t help but walk into an open-armed embrace. The bonnet ribbons slipped from her fingers.

“Mr. Shaw—” she began, making the mistake of looking up at him.

“Gideon,” he whispered. “I want to know your secrets, Olivia.”

A bitter half smile touched her lips. “You’ll hear them sooner or later from other people.”

“I want to hear them from you.”

As Livia began to retreat into the glasshouse, Shaw deftly caught the little cloth belt of her walking dress. His long fingers hooked beneath the reinforced fabric.

Unable to back away from him, Livia clamped her hand over his, while a hectic blush flooded her face. She knew that he was toying with her, and that she once might have been able to manage this situation with relative ease. But not now.

When she spoke, her voice was husky. “I can’t do this, Mr. Shaw.”

To her amazement, he seemed to understand exactly what she meant. “You don’t have to do anything,” he said softly. “Just let me come closer…and stay right there…” His head bent, and he found her mouth easily.

The coaxing pressure of his lips made Livia sway dizzily, and he caught her firmly against him. She was being kissed by Gideon Shaw, the self-indulgent, debauched scoundrel her brother had warned her about. And oh, he was good at it. She had thought nothing would ever be as pleasurable as Amberley’s kisses…but this man’s mouth was warm and patient, and there was something wickedly erotic about his complete lack of urgency. He teased her gently, nudging her lips apart, the tip of his tongue barely brushing hers before it withdrew.

Wanting more of those silken strokes, Livia began to strain against him, her breath quickening. He nurtured her excitement with such subtle skill that she was utterly helpless to defend against it. To her astonishment, she found herself winding her arms around his neck and pressing her br**sts against the hard plane of his chest. His hand slid behind her neck, tilting her head back to expose her throat more fully. Still gentle and controlled, he kissed the fragile skin, working his way down to the hollow at the base of her throat. She felt his tongue swirl in the warm depression, and a moan of pleasure escaped her.

Shaw lifted his head to nuzzle the side of her cheek, while his hand smoothed over her back. Their breaths mingled in swift puffs of heat, his hard chest moving against hers in an erratic rhythm. “My God,” he finally said against her cheek, “you are trouble.”

Livia smiled. “No, you are,” she managed to accuse in return, just before he kissed her again.

The bag for the morning was respectable, consisting of at least twenty grouse and a half-dozen woodcocks. The women joined the sportsmen for a hearty breakfast by the lake, and they all chattered and laughed lazily while the servants kept their plates and glasses filled. Afterward the guests separated into groups, some of them going for carriage drives or walks through the grounds, others retreating to the manor house to write letters or play cards.

When Aline saw the considerable amount of uneaten food that had been brought back to the kitchen, she and two housemaids packed it into jars and baskets, to be distributed to villagers in Stony Cross. As lady of the manor in her mother’s absence, Aline was mindful to call on the families who had need of extra food and household supplies. It was an obligation that she did not always enjoy, for these visits took up a full day or more of the week. She would enter cottage after cottage, sit by a multitude of hearths, listen diligently to complaints, and dispense advice when necessary. Aline feared that she was insufficiently equipped with both the wisdom and the stoicism that such calls required. On the other hand, the knowledge of how little the cottagers possessed, and how hard they toiled, never failed to humble her.

In the past few months Aline had often managed to persuade Livia to accompany her to the village, and her sister’s presence always made the day go by much faster. Unfortunately Livia was nowhere to be found this afternoon. Perturbed, Aline wondered if her sister was still in the company of Mr. Shaw, as he was also absent. Surely not—Livia hadn’t spent this much time with a man in years. On the other hand, it was just possible that Shaw had been able to draw Livia out of her shell.

But was that a good thing or a bad thing? Aline fretted silently. It would be just like Livia, the contrary imp, to focus her attention on a licentious rake rather than on some upright gentleman. Smiling ruefully, Aline hoisted a heavy basket in her arms and made her way out to the carriage. The dishes clinked in the basket, while the salty tang of ham and the rich fragrance of an egg casserole rose to her nostrils.

“Oh, milady,” came a maid’s voice from behind her, as they walked from the kitchens. “Let me take that from ye, please!”

Glancing over her shoulder, Aline smiled as she saw that the young maid was already burdened with two heavy baskets. “I can manage, Gwen,” she replied, huffing slightly as she ascended a short flight of steps. An obstinate pull from a contracture scar made her right knee stiffen. Gritting her teeth, Aline forced her leg to stretch its full range of motion.

“Milady,” Gwen persisted, “if ye’ll just set it to the side, I’ll come back for it—”

“No need for that. I want to load these into the carriage and be off, as I am already pressed for t—”

Aline broke off suddenly as she saw McKenna standing near the entrance to the servants’ hall. He was talking with a giggling housemaid, casually leaning one shoulder against the wall. It seemed that his ability to charm women had not faded…he was smiling at the red-haired maid, reaching out to give a light, teasing tap beneath her chin.

Although Aline made no sound, something must have alerted McKenna to her presence. He glanced in her direction, his gaze turning wary.

Instantly the housemaid departed, while McKenna continued to stare at Aline.

She reminded herself that she had no right to feel possessive of him. After all, she was no longer a nineteen-year-old girl infatuated with a stable boy. Nevertheless, a burn of anger raced through her at the evidence that she was not the only woman that McKenna had targeted for seduction. Her face felt stiff as she continued toward the entrance hall. “Go on,” she murmured to Gwen, and the girl obediently hurried ahead of her.

McKenna reached Aline in a few long strides. His dark face was unreadable as he reached for the basket. “Let me have that.”

Aline jerked it away from him. “No, thank you.”

“You’re limping.”

His observation caused tendrils of alarm to spread through her stomach.

“I turned my ankle on the stairs,” she said shortly, resisting as he tugged the basket from her. “Let go. I don’t need your help.”

Ignoring her, McKenna carried the basket with ease, his brow creasing as he stared at her. “You should let Mrs. Faircloth bind that before it worsens.”

“It’s already feeling better,” Aline said in exasperation. “Go find someone else to bother, McKenna. I’m certain there are many other women you wish to trifle with today.”

“I wasn’t trying to seduce her.”

She responded with a speaking glance, and his dark brows lifted in mocking crescents. “You don’t believe me?” he asked.

“No, actually. I think that she is your insurance, in case you don’t succeed in bedding me.”

“First, I have no intention of bedding one of the housemaids. I was trying to get some information from her. Second, I don’t need insurance.”

The arrogance of his statement was enough to make Aline speechless. She had never met a man so abominably sure of himself—and that was fortunate, as there was not sufficient room in the civilized world to accommodate more than a handful of men like him. When she thought she could speak without stuttering, she finally asked in a clipped voice, “What information would a housemaid have that could possibly interest you?”

“I found out that she was employed here at the time of that mysterious illness of yours. I was trying to make her tell me something about it.”

Aline fixed her gaze on the knot of his cravat, her entire body tensing. “And what did she tell you?”

“Nothing. It seems that she and the rest of the servants are determined to keep your secrets.”

His answer afforded Aline boundless relief. She relaxed slightly as she replied. “There are no secrets to discover. I had a fever. Sometimes it happens to people for no apparent reason, and sends them into decline. I recovered eventually, and that was that.”

He gave her a hard stare as he replied. “I don’t buy that.”

The expression was unfamiliar, but its meaning was clear. “Obviously you will believe whatever you wish to,” she said. “I can do no more than offer you the truth.”

One of his eyebrows lifted at her tone of offended dignity. “As I learned in the past, my lady, you play fast with the truth when it suits you.”

Aline scowled at her own inability to defend her past actions, without having to tell him far more than she would ever want him to know.

Before she could reply, McKenna stunned her by pulling her to the side of the narrow passageway. He set the basket down and straightened to face her. As they stood in the hallway with their bodies almost touching, erotic urgency sang through Aline’s body. Shrinking away from him, she felt her shoulders come up against the wall.

McKenna stood close enough that she could see the grain of his close-shaven whiskers, a shadow that enhanced his swarthy masculine appeal. His lips were set in severe alignment, until brackets formed at the sides of his mouth. Aline wanted to kiss those lines of tension, soothe them away with her tongue, taste the corners of his lips…Desperately she shoved the thoughts away and lowered her face to avoid the sight of his mouth.

“It makes no sense that you should have stayed unmarried,” came his low, aggravated voice. “I want to know what happened to you all those years ago, and why you’re alone. What is the matter with the men of Hampshire, that none of them has taken you for himself? Or is the problem with you?”

That was so close to the truth that Aline felt a chill of unease. “Is this an example of your seductive skills, McKenna?” she asked crisply. “Seizing a lady in the servants’ hallway and subjecting her to an inquisition?”

That provoked a sudden grin, his baffled frustration disappearing with startling quickness. “No,” he admitted. “I can do better than this.”

“One would hope so.” She tried to move past him, but he stepped forward, his solid weight impelling her against the wall until there was no possibility of retreat. Aline gasped at the feel of his body, the thick-muscled wedge of his thigh between hers, the touch of his breath against her ear. He did not attempt to kiss her, only continued to hold her carefully, as if his body were absorbing the details of hers.

“Let me pass,” Aline said thickly.

He did not seem to have heard her. “The feel of you…” he muttered.

Awareness rippled through her as she was trapped between the cold, hard wall and the warm, hard man who held her. His body was different from how she remembered it, no longer loose-limbed and narrow, but bigger, heavier, imbued with the strength of a male in his full-blooded prime. McKenna was no longer the winsome boy she remembered…he had become someone else entirely. A powerful, ruthless man, with a body to match. Fascinated by the differences in him, Aline could not stop herself from sliding her hands beneath his coat. Her fingers passed over the burgeoning muscles of his chest, the sturdy vault of his ribs. McKenna went still, disciplining himself so sternly that a tremor of effort went through his limbs.

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