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Page 19

McKenna quickly became aware of the way Marcus looked from him to Aline, his sharp black eyes missing nothing. The earl was no fool—and it was obvious that he would not suffer Aline to be taken advantage of.

“I suppose you’re right,” Aline said. “If a man looks, speaks, and thinks like an American, he probably is one.” She leaned toward him slightly, her brown eyes sparkling. “However, McKenna, there is some small part of you that will always belong to Stony Cross—I refuse to let you disclaim us entirely.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” he said softly.

Their gazes held, and this time neither of them could manage to look away, even when an uncomfortable silence gathered in the conservatory.

Westcliff broke the spell, clearing his throat and standing so abruptly that Aline’s weight on the arm of the chair nearly caused it to topple sideways. She stood as well, giving her brother a little frown. As Westcliff spoke, he sounded so much like the old earl that the hairs prickled on the back of McKenna’s neck. “Lady Aline, I want to discuss some of the arrangements you’ve made for the next few days, to ensure that our schedules do not conflict. Accompany me to the library, if you will.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Aline said, and smiled at McKenna and Gideon, who had both risen to their feet. “Do excuse me, gentlemen. I wish you a pleasant afternoon.”

After the earl and his sister had departed, McKenna and Gideon resumed their seats and stretched out their legs.

“So,” Gideon remarked in a casual tone, “it seems that your plans are well on the way.”

“What plans?” McKenna asked, moodily surveying the watery remains of his lemonade.

“To seduce Lady Aline, of course.” Lazily Gideon went to pour himself more lemonade.

McKenna responded with a noncommittal grunt.

They sat in companionable silence for a few moments, until McKenna asked, “Shaw…has a woman ever asked you to write a poem for her?”

“Good God, no,” Gideon replied with a snicker. “Shaws don’t write poetry. They pay others to write it for them and then they take the credit for it.” He arched his brows. “Don’t say that Lady Aline asked for such a thing?”

“Yes.”

Gideon rolled his eyes. “One can’t help but marvel at the variety of ways that women have devised to make us look like flaming idiots. You’re not actually considering it, are you?”

“No.”

“McKenna, how far do you plan to take this revenge notion of yours? I rather like Lady Aline, and I’m discovering an odd reluctance to see her hurt.”

McKenna shot him a glance of cold warning. “If you try to interfere—”

“Easy,” Gideon said defensively. “I don’t intend to foul up your plans. I expect you’ll foul them up quite well enough on your own.”

McKenna lifted one brow sardonically. “Meaning?”

Gideon withdrew his flask and poured a liberal quantity of alcohol into his own lemonade. “Meaning that I’ve never seen you so spellbound by anyone or anything as you are by Lady Aline.” He took a deep swallow of the potent mixture. “And now that I’ve had some liquid fortification, I’ll venture to say that in my opinion, you still love her. And deep down, you’d rather die by slow inches than cause her one moment of pain.”

McKenna stared at him stonily. “You’re a drunken fool, Shaw,” he muttered and rose to his feet.

“Was that ever in question?” Gideon asked, tossing back the rest of his drink with a practiced swallow as he watched McKenna’s departing figure.

As evening approached and the temperature cooled, the guests at Stony Cross Park began to congregate in the entrance hall. Small groups drifted out to the graveled drive, where a line of carriages waited to convey them to the village. Among those who wished to amuse themselves at the fair were Gideon’s sister, Mrs. Susan Chamberlain, and her husband, Paul. During the past few days Aline had found it easy enough to socialize with the Chamberlains, but she could not summon any real liking for them. Susan was golden-haired and tall like her brother Gideon, but she did not possess his easy humor or his gift of self-mockery. Rather, she seemed to take herself a bit too seriously—a quality that was shared by her husband, Paul.

Just as the first carriage left, Aline happened to glance at Gideon Shaw, and she saw that his attention was ensnared by someone coming from the house. A faint smile curved his lips, and his expression softened. Following his gaze, Aline saw with a jolt of glad surprise that Livia had finally ventured out of her self-imposed seclusion. It was the first time that Livia had gone on a public outing since Amberley’s death. Dressed in a deep rose gown edged with pale pink piping, Livia looked very young, and more than a little nervous.

Aline went to her sister with a welcoming smile. “Darling,” she said, sliding an arm around her sister’s slender waist, “how nice that you’ve decided to join us. Now the evening will be perfect.”

Susan Chamberlain turned to whisper to her husband, delicately cupping her hand over one side of her mouth to mask the gossip she was relating. Chamberlain’s gaze flickered to Livia and then slid quickly away, as if he did not want to be caught staring at her.

Determined to shield her sister from any slights, Aline urged Livia to come forward. “You must meet some of our guests. Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain, I should like to introduce you to my younger sister, Lady Olivia Marsden.” Aline adhered exactly to the order of precedence, wishing there were some way she might emphasize that they were, socially speaking, of a lower rank than Livia—and therefore they had no right to slight her. After the Chamberlains had acknowledged Livia with shallow smiles, Aline introduced the Cuylers and Mr. Laroche, whose wife had already departed in the first carriage.

Suddenly McKenna appeared before them. “I doubt you’ll remember me, my lady, after all the years that have passed.”

Livia smiled at him, though she suddenly looked pale and guilty. “Of course I remember you, McKenna. Your return to Stony Cross is quite welcome, and long overdue.”

They came to Gideon Shaw, who did a poor job of concealing his fascination with Livia.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady,” Shaw murmured, taking her hand and bowing over it, rather than simply nodding as the others had. When his head raised, he smiled at Livia, whose cheeks had turned several shades darker than her dress. The attraction between the pair was nearly tangible. “You will ride to the village in our carriage, I hope,” Shaw said, releasing her hand with obvious reluctance.

Before Livia could reply, Shaw’s sister Susan intervened. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” she told Shaw. “There simply won’t be enough room in the carriage for someone else. We’ve already got you and Paul and I, and Mr. Laroche, not to mention McKenna—”

“McKenna isn’t riding with us,” Shaw interrupted. He glanced at McKenna meaningfully. “Isn’t that right?”

“Indeed,” McKenna confirmed, taking his cue. “Lady Aline has already arranged for me to ride in another carriage.”

“Whose?” Susan asked peevishly. It was obvious that she was not pleased by the substitution.

Aline smiled brightly. “My own, actually,” she lied. “McKenna and I have not finished an earlier conversation about, er…”

“Poetry,” McKenna supplied gravely.

“Yes, poetry.” Maintaining her smile, Aline resisted the temptation to step hard on his foot. “And I had hoped to continue our discussion on the way to the village.”

Susan’s blue eyes narrowed into suspicious slits. “Really. I doubt that McKenna has ever read a poem in his life.”

“I’ve heard McKenna recite one before,” Shaw said. “I believe it started with the line ‘There once was a man from Bombay.’ But as I recall, the rest of it would prove unsuitable for present company.”

Mr. Chamberlain turned red and began to snicker, betraying his familiarity with the rest of the so-called poem.

McKenna grinned. “Obviously it falls to Lady Aline to improve my literary tastes.”

“I doubt that can be accomplished during one carriage ride,” Aline replied demurely.

“That depends on how long the ride lasts,” McKenna rejoined.

The remark could hardly be construed as a suggestive one, but something in his tone and the way he looked at her brought a blush to Aline’s face.

“I suggest you don’t stop until you reach Siberia, then,” Shaw said, breaking the sudden tension between them, and a chuckle rumbled through the group. Gallantly he presented his arm to Livia. “My lady, please allow me…”

As Shaw guided her sister to the waiting carriage, Aline stared after them in wonder. It was a bit odd, really, to see Livia with another man. And yet Gideon Shaw seemed to be good for her. Perhaps Livia needed a man with his easy confidence and worldliness. And he seemed to be a gentleman, in spite of his cynicism.

However, there seemed to be no real possibility of a match between Shaw and Livia. His drinking was a problem that worried Aline greatly, not to mention his wicked reputation, and the fact that he came from an entirely different world from Livia’s. Sighing with a thoughtful frown, Aline looked up at McKenna.

“He’s a good man,” McKenna said, reading her thoughts with an ease that amazed her.

“I believe that,” Aline said quietly. “But if Livia were your sister, McKenna…would you want her to be involved with him?” The question was asked without prejudice, only concern.

McKenna hesitated for a long moment, then shook his head.

“I was afraid of that,” Aline murmured. She took his arm. “Well, since you’ve availed yourself of my carriage, we may as well depart.”

“Is your brother coming with us?” he asked, escorting her along the drive.

“No, Westcliff has no interest in the fair. He’s staying at the manor this evening.”

“Good,” McKenna said with such obvious satisfaction that Aline laughed.

It was clear that McKenna would have preferred to ride alone with her in the carriage, but they were joined by the Cuylers, who turned the conversation to the subject of local cheeses. As Aline answered their questions in detail, she found it difficult to hide a grin at the sight of McKenna’s disgruntlement.

By the time the entire party had arrived in the heart of Stony Cross, the village was blazing with lamps and torches. Music floated over the oval-shaped village green, which was crowded with exuberant dancers. Tidy rows of thatched black and white cottages were nearly obscured by a proliferation of booths. The flimsy wooden structures were all similar, with a stall in front for selling and a tiny room in back where the owner took shelter at night. There were stalls featuring jewelry, cutlery, toys, shoes, fans, glassware, furniture, and specialty foods. Bursts of laughter issued from the crowds around the theatrical booths, where actors and comedians entertained as coins were scattered at their feet.

Allowing McKenna to escort her along the rows, Aline glanced at him curiously. “This must bring back many memories.”

McKenna nodded, his gaze turning distant. “It seems as if it was a lifetime ago.”

“Yes,” Aline agreed with a touch of melancholy. How different they both had been. The innocence of those days, the exquisite simplicity, the sense of life and youth that had imbued every moment with a golden aura…remembering, she was suddenly invaded by a warm impatience that seemed to have no particular aim or outlet. The feeling coalesced inside her until her blood was pumping and she felt radiantly aware of every sight and sound and sensation. Walking through the village with McKenna by her side…it was a lovely echo of the past, like listening to a beautiful melody she had not heard since childhood.

Staring into his eyes, she saw that he too was becoming enmeshed in the feeling. He was relaxing, smiling more easily, losing the harsh look about his eyes and mouth. They pushed through a tightly packed section of High Street, where a pair of conjurors was eliciting cries of delight from the gathering onlookers. Sliding an arm around Aline to protect her from being jostled, McKenna continued to shoulder his way through the crowd. In the excitement of the fair, no one took notice of the gesture, but Aline was stunned by the naturalness of it, and by the response he evoked from her. It felt completely right to be held close against his side, to let him guide her where he would, to surrender to the coaxing pressure of his hand at her back.

As they emerged from the densely gathered fair-goers, McKenna’s hand found hers, and he pulled it back to the crook of his arm. Aline’s fingers conformed to the hard swell of muscle, while the side of her breast brushed against his elbow. “Where are we going?” she asked, vaguely perturbed by the languid, almost dreamlike quality of her own voice.

McKenna didn’t answer, only led her past more stalls until they reached the one he wanted. The pungent fragrance of gingerbread rose in a warm draught to her nostrils, and Aline laughed in delight. “You remembered!” As a girl, the first thing she had always done at the fair was to gorge on iced gingerbread—and although McKenna had never shared her fondness for the treat, he had always gone with her.

“Of course,” McKenna said, extracting a coin from his pocket and purchasing a thick slice for her. “To this day, I’ve never seen anyone devour an entire loaf the way you used to.”

“I did not,” Aline protested with a frown, sinking her teeth into the heavy, sticky bread.

“I was in awe,” McKenna continued. He drew her away from the stall. “To watch you eat something the size of your head in less than a quarter hour—”

“I would never be that gluttonous,” she informed him, deliberately taking another huge bite.

He grinned. “I must be thinking of someone else, then.”

As they browsed leisurely among the stalls, McKenna bought some sweet wine for Aline to wash down her gingerbread with, and she drank thirstily. “Slowly,” McKenna admonished, his gaze caressing. “You’ll make yourself dizzy.”

“Who cares?” Aline asked blithely, drinking again. “If I stumble, you’ll be here to catch me, won’t you?”

“With both arms,” he murmured. Coming from anyone else, the statement would have had the ring of gallantry. From McKenna, however, it contained a deliciously threatening edge.

They made their way toward the village green, but before they reached it, Aline saw a familiar face. It was Adam, his blond hair glittering in the torchlight. He was accompanied by friends, both male and female, and he parted from the group with a brief comment, eliciting a few knowing laughs as they saw that he was heading to Aline.

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