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Page 18

“Why are you still alone?” Aline whispered, swimming in the scent of him, a salty, sun-heated fragrance that made her heart pound in almost uncomfortably heavy beats. “You should have married by now.”

“I’ve never met a woman I wanted that much,” McKenna muttered. He stiffened as her hands coasted over the lean sides of his waist. “To be shackled by marriage vows would drive me—” He broke off and began to breathe like a winded racehorse as Aline let the backs of her fingers stroke his tense abdomen.

Relishing a sudden sense of power mingled with searing excitement, Aline prolonged the moment, letting him wonder if she would dare touch him the way he so obviously craved. His body was thoroughly excited, heat pouring from him in waves. She longed to feel the sleek masculine form beneath the layers of cotton and summer wool. Hardly able to believe her own wild recklessness, she slid her fingers over the outside of his trousers, until they curved delicately over the jutting length of his erection. A shock of pleasure went through her, the nerves in her palms tingling at the contact with his hard, tensile flesh. Memories of physical rapture elicited thrills of response from her sensation-starved body, delicate tissues swelling with anticipation.

McKenna groaned faintly and rested his hands on her shoulders, fingers splayed as if he were afraid of clenching her too tightly. She caressed the swelling, twitching shaft…up…her thumb rubbing lightly at the top…then down…her fingers flexing tentatively until his breath hissed between his clenched teeth. Up and down…the thought of having him inside her, being impaled with such plentiful maleness, brought a surge of liquid warmth to her own loins.

McKenna lowered his head, his mouth brushing over her face with the softness of butterfly wings. His reverence astonished her. His lips coasted to the corners of her mouth, lingered, then quested across her jaw until his tongue touched the soft lobe of her ear. Blindly Aline turned her mouth to his, wanting the full pressure of his kiss. He gave it to her slowly, possessing her by agonizing degrees, causing her to moan when he finally settled his mouth fully upon hers. Sagging against him, Aline opened to the penetration of his tongue. He tasted her gently, stroking the satin interior of her mouth with an exquisite skill that demolished her ability to think. The rhythm of her breath turned desperate, while all her muscles tightened with delicious urgency. She wanted to wrap herself around him, welcome him deeper into her embrace until he had sunk fully inside her.

Trying to pull her even closer, McKenna hunched his shoulders over hers and clamped one hand over her buttocks, lifting her to the tips of her toes. His mouth drifted to her throat, then wandered back to her lips, and he kissed her over and over, as if he were trying to discover all the ways that their mouths could fit together. His lips caught hers at a particularly luscious angle, and a soft moan rose in her throat, and she squirmed with the need to feel the full length of him against her. The movement of her br**sts against his chest drew a harsh sound from him. Suddenly he broke a kiss with a low curse.

Aline wrapped her arms around herself and stared at him dumbly, knowing that her trembling must have been visible to him…just as his was to her.

McKenna turned away from her and folded his arms across his chest, his head bent as he glared at the floor. “Only so much…self-control,” he muttered, the words compressed by his stiff jaw.

The knowledge that he had been about to lose all ability to master himself—and the fact that he was willing to admit it—filled Aline with a mindless excitement that was slow to subside.

It seemed to take forever for both of them to regain their self-possession. Finally McKenna bent to pick up the discarded basket and gestured wordlessly for her to precede him.

Dazedly Aline led the way to the entrance hall, where she encountered the housemaid Gwen, who was heading back to fetch the last basket from her.

McKenna refused to yield the heavy parcel to the girl. “No need,” he said easily. “I’ll carry it for you—just show me where you want it.”

“Yes, sir,” Gwen said at once.

He turned to exchange a brief glance with Aline, his blue-green eyes narrowed and dark. A silent message passed between them…later…and then he left with long, easy strides.

Standing still as she tried to gather her wits, Aline was diverted by the unexpected appearance of her brother, who wore a perturbed frown as he came to the hall entrance. Marcus had changed from his shooting clothes into pearl-gray trousers, a dark blue waistcoat, and a blue patterned silk necktie.

“Where is Livia?” Marcus demanded without preamble. “She’s gone missing all morning.”

Aline hesitated before replying, keeping her voice low. “I suspect she may be in Mr. Shaw’s company.”

“What?”

“I believe he joined Livia for her morning walk,” Aline said, striving to sound casual. “To my knowledge, neither of them has been seen since then.”

“And you let him go with her?” Marcus whispered in outrage. “For God’s sake, why didn’t you do something to stop him?”

“Oh, don’t carry on so,” Aline said. “Believe me, Marcus, Livia is perfectly capable of telling a man to leave her alone. And if she wishes to spend some time in Mr. Shaw’s company, I think she’s earned the right to do so. Besides, he seems to be a gentleman, regardless of his reputation.”

“He’s not like the gentlemen that Livia is accustomed to. He’s American.” The particular emphasis he placed on the last word made it sound like an insult.

“I thought you liked Americans!”

“Not when they’re sniffing around one of my sisters.” Marcus’s gaze was taut with suspicion as he regarded her more closely. “And what have you been doing?”

“I…” Briefly taken aback, Aline put a hand to her throat, which had become the focus of his darkening scowl. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“There is a whisker burn on your neck,” he said grimly.

Deciding to play ignorant, Aline gave him a blank look. “Don’t be silly. It is merely some chafing caused by my cameo ribbon.”

“You’re not wearing a cameo ribbon.”

Aline smiled and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek, knowing that underneath his glowering exterior, he was terrified that one of his adored sisters might be hurt. “Livia and I are grown women,” she said. “And there are certain things you can’t protect us from, Marcus.”

Her brother accepted her kiss and offered no further complaint, but as Aline walked away from him, she heard him murmur something that sounded suspiciously like “Oh yes, I can.”

That night Aline found a single red rose on her pillow, its lush petals slightly unfurled, its long stem carefully stripped of thorns. Picking up the fragrant blossom, she drew it over her cheek and parted lips.

My lady,

Flowers, and a serenade to come forthwith. As for the poetry…you’ll have to provide me with further inspiration.

Yours,

M.

Eleven

For the next two days McKenna could find no opportunity to get Aline alone. Playing the part of hostess with sparkling skill, she seemed to be everywhere at once, efficiently orchestrating suppers, games, amateur theatricals, and other entertainments for the horde of guests at Stony Cross Park. Short of stalking up to her, seizing her, and dragging her away in front of everyone, McKenna had no recourse but to wait for his chance. And as usual, he found it hard to be patient.

Everyone flocked around Aline whenever she appeared. Ironically, she possessed the ability that her mother, the countess, had always coveted—to draw others to herself. The difference was that the countess had wanted their attention for her own benefit, whereas Aline seemed to possess a sincere desire to make people happy in her presence. She flirted skillfully with old men, and sat and gossiped over glasses of cordial with old women. She played games with the children, listened sympathetically to the unmarried girls’ tales of romantic woe, and deflected any young men’s interest by acting like a kind older sister.

In this last endeavor Aline was not entirely successful. Regardless of her lack of interest, many men were obviously smitten with her…and the sight of their hopeful, barely suppressed ardor turned McKenna’s entire being to gall. He wanted to dispatch them all, drive them away, bare his teeth at them like a snarling wolf. He owned her, by virtue of his need and the bitter-washed memories of their past together.

In the afternoon, as McKenna, Gideon, and Lord Westcliff relaxed in an outside conservatory, Aline appeared bearing a silver tray. A footman followed closely, carrying a small portable mahogany table. The day was humid, the summer breeze doing little to cool them as they sat in their shirtsleeves. Lazy quietness ruled the estate, most of the guests having elected to nap with the windows open until the cooler evening hours approached.

For once, no soiree, supper, or al fresco party had been scheduled for tonight, as the annual village fair had begun. There would be much drinking and reveling in Stony Cross while practically everyone in the county attended the fair. It had been held once a year since the mid-1300s, a week-long event at which all of Stony Cross was overtaken with happy chaos. High Street was virtually unrecognizable, the usually tidy succession of storefronts surmounted with booths run by jewelers, silk mercers, toymakers, cobblers, and a host of other craftsmen. McKenna still remembered the excitement he had felt as a boy at fair time. The first night always began with music, dancing, and a bonfire located at a short distance from the village. Together he and Aline had watched the conjurors, tumblers, and stilt walkers. Afterward they had always gone to the horse fair, to view dozens of gleaming Thoroughbreds and massive draught horses. He still remembered Aline’s face in the light of the bonfire, her eyes shining with reflected flame, her lips sticky from the iced gingerbread she had bought from one of the merchant stalls.

The object of his thoughts entered the conservatory, and all three men began to stand. Aline smiled and quickly bade them to remain seated.

Although Westcliff and Gideon obediently settled back in their chairs, McKenna stood anyway, taking the tray of iced lemonade from Aline while the footman unfolded the portable table. Aline smiled up at McKenna, her cheeks flushed from the heat, her brown eyes velvety. He wanted to taste her dewy pink skin, lick the salt of her perspiration, and strip away the gown of thin pastel-yellow muslin that clung to her body.

After setting the tray on the table, McKenna straightened and caught Aline staring at the hair-roughened surface of his forearms, where his sleeves had been rolled snugly over his tanned skin. Their gazes meshed, and suddenly it was difficult for him to remember that they were not alone. He could no more hide the fascination in his eyes than Aline could conceal her own helpless attraction.

Turning to the tray, Aline reached for the etched-glass pitcher and poured some lemonade, the brief rattle of ice shards betraying a momentary slip of composure. She gave him the glass, refusing to look into his face again. “Do be seated, kind sir,” she said lightly. “And continue your conversation, gentlemen—I did not intend to interrupt you.”

Gideon received his glass of lemonade with a grateful smile. “This kind of interruption is always welcome, my lady.”

Westcliff motioned for Aline to join them, and she sat gracefully on the arm of his chair as she gave him a glass. The warm friendship the siblings shared was obvious. Interesting, McKenna thought, remembering that in the past, their relationship had been rather distant. Aline had been intimidated by her accomplished older brother, and Marcus had been isolated from the family during his years at school. Now, however, it seemed that Marcus and his sister had formed a close bond.

“We were discussing the question of why British firms don’t sell their products abroad as effectively as the Americans and Germans do,” Westcliff told his sister.

“Because Englishmen don’t like to learn foreign languages?” she suggested cheerfully.

“That’s a myth,” Westcliff told her.

“Is it?” she responded. “Then tell me how many languages you know—aside from Latin, which doesn’t count.”

Westcliff gave his sister a challenging glance. “Why doesn’t Latin count?”

“Because it’s a dead language.”

“It’s still a language,” Westcliff pointed out.

Before the siblings became detoured in an argument, McKenna steered them back on course. “The problem isn’t language,” he said, earning the attention of them both. “The difficulty with British trade abroad is that the manufacturers here have an aversion to mass producing their goods. You value individuality over conformity—and as a result, the average British manufacturer is too small, and their products are too varied. So few of them can afford to launch a strong selling effort in the world markets.”

“But shouldn’t a company please its patrons by offering a variety of products?” Aline asked, her brow puckered in a way that made McKenna want to kiss it smooth.

“Within certain limits,” McKenna said.

“For example,” Gideon broke in, “British locomotive foundries are so specialized that no two engines coming out of any one factory look alike.”

“It’s that way with other British-owned firms,” McKenna continued. “A biscuit factory will make a hundred varieties of biscuits, when it would do far better to offer only twelve. Or a wallpaper printer will produce five thousand designs, even though it would be more profitable to offer one-fifth that amount. It’s too expensive to offer so many different products, especially when one is trying to market them overseas. The numbers don’t support it.”

“But I like having a large assortment of things to choose from,” Aline protested. “I don’t want my walls to look like everyone else’s.”

She looked so adorably perturbed by the notion of having fewer choices of wallpaper that McKenna couldn’t help grinning. Noticing his amusement, Aline raised her brows in a coquettish tilt. “What are you smiling at?”

“When you spoke just now, you sounded very British,” he told her.

“Aren’t you British too, McKenna?”

Still smiling, he shook his head. “Not any longer, my lady.”

McKenna had become an American the very second his foot had touched Staten Island all those years ago. While he would always admit to a certain nostalgia for his birthplace, he had been reinvented and forged in a country where his common blood was not a hindrance. In America he had learned to stop thinking of himself as a servant. Never again would he bow and scrape before anyone. After years of backbreaking work, sacrifice, worry, and sheer mulishness, he was now sitting in Lord Westcliff’s library as a guest, instead of working in the stables for five shillings a month.

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