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Hampshire, 1832

A stable boy wasn’t supposed to speak to an earl’s daughter, much less climb up to her bedroom window. God knew what would happen to him if he was caught. He would probably be whipped before being booted off the estate.

McKenna climbed up a support column, curled his long fingers around the ironwork of the second-floor balcony, and hung suspended for a moment before swinging his legs up with a grunt of effort. Catching the edge of the balcony with one heel, he pulled himself onto the balcony and eased over the railing.

He crouched in front of the French doors and cupped his hands on either side of his eyes as he peered into the bedroom, where a single lamp was burning. A girl stood before the dressing table, pulling a brush through her long dark hair. The sight filled McKenna with a rush of pleasure.

Lady Aline Marsden…the older daughter of the Earl of Westcliff. She was warm, high-spirited, and beautiful in all ways. Having been allowed too much freedom by her inattentive parents, Aline had spent most of her short life roaming about her family’s lavish Hampshire estate. Lord and Lady Westcliff were too caught up in their own social affairs to give any real consideration to the supervision of their three children. The situation was not uncommon for families who inhabited country houses like the one at Stony Cross Park. Their lives were stratified by the sheer size of the estate, as children ate, slept, and played far away from their parents. Moreover, the notion of parental responsibility did not constitute any kind of bond between the earl and countess. Neither of them was particularly inclined to worry over a child who was the product of a practical and loveless union.

Since the day that McKenna had been brought to the estate at the age of eight, he and Aline had been constant companions for ten years, climbing trees, swimming in the river, and running about barefoot. Their friendship had been overlooked because they were children. But eventually things had begun to change between them. No healthy young man could fail to be stirred and set off-kilter by Aline, who, at the age of seventeen, had become the loveliest girl on God’s green earth.

At the moment Aline was already dressed for bed, wearing a nightgown made of intricately tucked and ruffled white cotton. As she moved across the room, the lamplight silhouetted the generous curves of her br**sts and h*ps through the thin fabric, and slid over the shining sable locks of her hair. Aline’s looks were the kind that caused the heart to stop and the breath to catch. Her coloring alone would have given even a homely woman the appearance of great beauty. But her features were fine and perfect, and perpetually lit with the radiance of unchecked emotion. And as if all that hadn’t been quite enough, nature had added one last flourish, a tiny black mark that flirted with the corner of her mouth. McKenna had fantasized endlessly about kissing that tantalizing spot, and following it to the lush curves of her lips. Kissing and kissing her, until she was weak and shivering in his arms.

On more than one occasion McKenna had pondered the question of how a man of the earl’s unremarkable looks, paired with a woman of the countess’s average attractiveness, could have produced a daughter like Aline. By some quirk of fate, she had inherited just the right combination of features from each. Their son, Marcus, had been somewhat less fortunate, resembling the earl with his broad and harsh-planed face, and his bull-like physical build. Little Livia—rumored to be the result of one of the countess’s extramarital affairs—was pretty but not extraordinarily so, lacking her sister’s radiant dark magic.

As he watched Aline, McKenna reflected that the time was fast approaching when they could have nothing more to do with each other. The familiarity between them would soon become dangerous, if it had not already. Collecting himself, McKenna tapped gently on a glass pane of the French doors. Aline turned toward the sound and saw him without apparent surprise. McKenna rose to his feet, watching her intently.

Folding her arms across her chest, Aline regarded him with a scowl. Go away, she mouthed silently through the window.

McKenna was both amused and consternated as he wondered what the hell he had done now. To his knowledge, he hadn’t been involved in any pranks or mischief making, and he hadn’t picked any arguments with her. And as a reward, he had been left waiting alone by the river for two hours this afternoon.

Shaking his head stubbornly, McKenna remained where he was. He reached down to rattle the door handle in subtle warning. They both knew that if he was discovered on her balcony, he would bear the brunt of the consequences, not she. And it was for that reason—to preserve his hide—that she reluctantly unlocked the door and opened it. He couldn’t help grinning at the success of his ploy, even as she continued to frown.

“Did you forget that we were to meet this afternoon?” McKenna asked without preamble, grasping the edge of the door in one hand. He leaned his shoulder against the narrow wood frame and smiled into her dark brown eyes. Even when he slouched, Aline was forced to crane her neck upward to meet his gaze.

“No, I didn’t forget.” Her voice, usually so light and sweet, was edged with surliness.

“Then where were you?”

“Does it really matter?”

McKenna tilted his head as he briefly pondered why girls liked to put a fellow through a guessing game when he was in trouble. Arriving at no reasonable answer, he resolutely picked up the gauntlet. “I asked you to meet me at the river because I wanted to see you.”

“I assumed that you had changed your plans—since you seem to prefer someone else’s company to mine.” As Aline read the confusion in his expression, her mouth twisted impatiently. “I saw you in the village this morning, when my sister and I went to the milliner’s.”

McKenna responded with a cautious nod, recalling that he had been sent to the cobbler’s by the stable master, to deliver some boots that needed repair. But why the hell would that have offended Aline so?

“Oh, don’t be such a dunderhead,” Aline exclaimed. “I saw you with one of the village girls, McKenna. You kissed her. Right there in the street, for the whole world to see!”

His brow cleared instantly. So he had. His companion had been Mary, the butcher’s daughter. McKenna had flirted with her this morning, as he did with most of the girls he knew, and Mary had teased him about something or another until he had laughed and stolen a kiss from her. It had meant nothing to him or to Mary, and he had promptly put the whole incident out of his mind.

So that was the source of Aline’s irritation—jealousy. McKenna tried to hold back his pleasure at the discovery, but it gathered in a sweet, heavy mass in his chest. Hell. He shook his head ruefully, wondering how to remind her of what she already knew—that a daughter of the peerage shouldn’t give a damn about what he did.

“Aline,” he protested, half lifting his hands to touch her, then snatching them back. “What I do with other girls has nothing to do with us. You and I are friends. We would never…you’re not the kind I…damn, there’s no need for me to explain the obvious!”

Aline looked at him in a way she never had before, her brown eyes filled with an intensity that caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise. “What if I were a village girl?” she asked. “Would you do the same thing with me?”

It was the first time that McKenna had ever been tongue-tied. He had a knack for knowing what people wanted to hear, and he usually found it to his advantage to oblige them. His easy charm had stood him in good stead, whether it was to wheedle a cross bun from the baker’s wife, or to get himself out of trouble with the stable master. But as for Aline’s question…there was infinite danger in saying either yes or no.

Silently McKenna groped for some half truth that would pacify her. “I don’t think of you that way,” he finally said, forcing himself to meet her gaze without blinking.

“Other boys do.” At his blank look, Aline continued evenly, “Last week when the Harewoods visited, their son William cornered me by the ironstone wall at the bluff and tried to kiss me.”

“That arrogant little snot!” McKenna said in instant fury, recalling the stocky, freckle-faced boy who had made no effort to conceal his fascination with Aline. “I’m going to tear his head off the next time I see him. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not the only one who’s tried,” Aline said, deliberately adding fuel to the flame. “Not long ago my cousin Elliot dared me to play a kissing game with him—”

She broke off with a slight gasp as McKenna reached out and seized her.

“Damn your cousin Elliot,” he said roughly. “Damn all of them.”

It was a mistake to touch her. The feel of her arms, so supple and warm beneath his fingers, made his insides tighten into knots. He needed to touch more of her, needed to bend closer and fill his nostrils with the smell of her…the soapy scent of just-washed skin, the hint of rose water, the intimate waft of her breath. Every instinct clamored for him to pull her closer and set his mouth on the velvety curve where her neck met her shoulder. Instead he forced himself to release her, his hands remaining suspended in midair. It was difficult to move, to breathe, to think clearly.

“I haven’t let anyone kiss me,” Aline said. “I want you—only you.” A rueful note entered her voice. “But at this rate, I’ll be ninety years old before you ever try.”

McKenna was unable to conceal his wretched longing as he stared at her. “No. It would change everything, and I can’t let that happen.”

Carefully Aline reached up to touch his cheek with the tips of her fingers. Her hand was almost more familiar to McKenna than his own. He knew where every tiny scar and nick had come from. In childhood her hand had been chubby and often grimy. Now her hand was slender and white, the nails neatly manicured. The temptation to turn his mouth into her soft palm was excruciating. Instead McKenna steeled himself to ignore the stroke of her fingers against his jaw.

“I’ve noticed the way you’ve looked at me lately,” Aline said, a flush rising in her pale face. “I know your thoughts, just as you know mine. And with everything I feel for you, and everything you are to me…can’t I have at least one moment of…of…” She struggled to find the right word. “Illusion?”

“No,” he said gruffly. “Because soon the illusion would end, and we’d both be worse off than before.”

“Would we?” Aline bit her lip and looked away, her fists clenching as if she could physically knock away the unpleasant truth that hung so insistently between them.

“I would die before I ever hurt you,” McKenna said grimly. “And if I let myself kiss you once, there would be another time, and another, and soon there would be no stopping place.”

“You don’t know—” Aline began to argue.

“Yes, I do.”

They stared at each other in wordless challenge. McKenna kept his face blank. He knew Aline well enough to be certain that if she detected any vulnerability in his facade, she would pounce without hesitation.

Finally Aline let out a sigh of defeat. “All right, then,” she whispered, as if to herself. Her spine seemed to straighten, and her tone flattened with resignation. “Shall we meet at the river tomorrow at sunset, McKenna? We’ll throw stones, and talk, and fish a little, as always. Is that what you want?”

It was a long time before McKenna could speak. “Yes,” he said warily. It was all he could have of her—and God knew it was better than nothing.

A wry, affectionate smile tugged at Aline’s lips as she stared at him. “You had better go then, before you’re caught up here. But first, bend down and let me fix your hair. It’s sticking up on top.”

Had he not been so distracted, McKenna would have pointed out that there was no need for her to neaten his appearance. He was going to his room over the stables, and the five dozen horses that were lodged there didn’t give a damn about his hair. But he bent automatically, indulging Aline’s slightest wish from sheer force of habit.

Instead of smoothing his unruly black locks, Aline stood on her toes, slid a hand behind the back of his neck, and brought her mouth to his.

The kiss affected him like a lightning strike. McKenna made an agitated sound in his throat, his entire body suddenly immobilized from a shock of pleasure. Oh God, her lips, so lush and delicate, searching his with awkward determination. As Aline had known, there was no way in hell that he could pull away from her now. His muscles locked, and he stood passively, fighting to contain the flood of sensation that threatened to overwhelm him. He loved her, wanted her, with blind adolescent ferocity. His shaky grasp on his self-control lasted for less than a minute before he groaned in defeat and clamped his arms around her.

Breathing harshly, he kissed her over and over, intoxicated by the softness of her lips. Aline responded eagerly, pressing upward, while her fingers curled into the closely shorn strands of his hair. The pleasure of holding her was too great…McKenna couldn’t stop himself from increasing the pressure of his kisses until her lips parted innocently. He took immediate advantage, exploring the edge of her teeth, the wet silk of her mouth. That surprised her—he sensed her hesitation, and he crooned in his throat until she relaxed. He slid his hand over the back of her head, his fingers conforming to the curve of her scalp, while he sank his tongue more deeply inside her. Aline gasped and clutched his shoulders tightly, responding with a raw, unselfconscious sensuality that devastated him. McKenna longed to kiss and love every part of her, to give her more pleasure than it was possible to bear. He had known desire before, and although his experience was limited, he was not a virgin. But he had never encountered this agonizing blend of emotion and physical hunger before…a searing temptation that he could never surrender to.

Tearing his mouth from hers, McKenna buried his face in the shining midnight veil of her hair. “Why did you do that?” he groaned.

Aline’s brief laugh was an audible ache. “You’re everything to me. I love you. I’ve always—”

“Hush.” He shook her slightly to silence her. Holding her at arm’s length, he glared into her flushed, radiant face. “Don’t ever say that again. If you do, I’ll leave Stony Cross.”

“We’ll run away together,” she continued recklessly. “We’ll go to a place where no one can find us—”

“Holy hell, do you know how insane you sound?”

“Why is it insane?”

“Do you think I would ruin your life that way?”

“I belong with you,” she said stubbornly. “I’ll do whatever I have to, to be with you.”

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