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Page 20

She went to him eagerly, while McKenna followed like a grim specter. Reaching Adam, Aline took his hands and smiled up at him. “I behold a handsome stranger,” she teased. “No, wait—were you not once a frequent visitor to Stony Cross Park? It has been so long since I’ve seen you, my memory fails me.”

Adam’s mouth quirked with amusement as he replied. “My absence has been deliberate, sweet—and you know why.”

She felt a glow of fondness, comprehending that he had stayed away to allow her to deal with McKenna in any way she desired. “That doesn’t prevent me from missing you, however.”

Adam’s smooth, strong fingers squeezed hers before he released her hand. “I’ll come to call soon,” he promised. “Now, introduce me to your companion.”

Obediently Aline made the introduction between her dearest friend and her past love…the former, who would never cause her unhappiness, and the latter, who almost certainly would again. It was strange to see McKenna and Adam shaking hands. She had never imagined the two of them meeting, and she could not help but mark the contrasts between them, the angel and the devil.

“Mr. McKenna,” Adam said easily, “your return to Stony Cross has afforded Lady Aline such delight that I can’t help but share it, as I am appreciative of all things that bring her pleasure.”

“Thank you.” McKenna subjected him to a coldly hostile stare. “You have been friends for some time, I gather.”

“Well nigh five years,” Adam replied.

A stilted silence ensued, until it was broken by a cry from several yards away. “McKenna?…”

Glancing in the direction of the voice, Aline realized that some of McKenna’s old friends had seen him…Dick Burlison, once a carrot-headed, gangly-legged boy, who was now a stocky married man in his midthirties…Tom Haydon, the baker’s son, who now ran his father’s business…and Tom’s wife, Mary, the buxom butcher’s daughter whom McKenna had so often flirted with in his youth.

Smiling, Aline nudged McKenna gently. “Go on.”

He needed no further urging. As he strode to the group with a grin, they all let out jubilant laughs and shook hands enthusiastically. Mary, a mother of five, wore a look of astonishment on her round face as McKenna bent to kiss her cheek.

“I perceive that you have not been intimate with him yet,” Adam said to Aline sotto voce.

She replied softly as she continued to watch McKenna. “I may not be brave enough to take such a risk.”

“As your friend, I should probably advise you not to do something that you may regret later.” Adam smiled as he added, “Of course, one tends to miss out on a great deal of fun that way.”

“Adam,” she chided, “are you encouraging me to do the wrong thing?”

“Only if you promise to tell me all about it afterward.”

Aline shook her head with a laugh. Hearing the sound, McKenna turned and looked at her, a scowl working between his dark brows.

“There, I’ve just made it easier for you,” Adam murmured. “The flames of jealousy have been fanned. Now he won’t rest until he claims his territory. My God, you do like them primitive, don’t you?”

Sure enough, McKenna returned to her in less than a minute, his fingers clasping Aline’s elbow in a clear display of ownership. “We were heading to the village green,” he reminded her curtly.

“So we were,” Aline murmured. “Lord Sandridge, will you join us?”

“Regretfully, no.” Adam lifted Aline’s free hand to kiss the points of her knuckles. “I must rejoin my companions. Good evening to you both.”

“Goodbye,” McKenna said, making no effort to hide his animosity as the handsome viscount took his leave.

“Do be civil to him, please,” Aline said. “Lord Sandridge is quite dear to me, and I wouldn’t have his feelings hurt for the world.”

“I was being civil,” McKenna muttered.

She laughed, relishing his obvious jealousy. “You barely said one word to him, except to bid him goodbye. And the way you glowered reminded me of a stuck boar, ready to charge—”

“What kind of a man is he,” McKenna interrupted, “that he makes no objection when he sees you being escorted through the village by someone like me?”

“A trusting one. Lord Sandridge and I have a certain understanding—we allow each other as much freedom as is needed. It’s a very enlightened arrangement.”

“Enlightened,” he repeated with ill-concealed contempt. “Sandridge is a fool. And if I were in his place, you wouldn’t even be here.”

“Where would I be, then?” she asked pertly. “At home, I suppose, mending your shirt cuffs?”

“No, in my bed. Under me.”

Her amusement dissolved at once. Reaction to the soft-voiced words skittered through her body, making her feel light and shivery. She kept silent, her face turning pink as she walked with him to the village green. More than a few people glanced at them speculatively as they passed. After McKenna had spent so many years away, his return was reason enough for the villagers’ interest, but the fact that he was in Aline’s company caused tongues to wag even more eagerly.

The music was accompanied by clapping hands and stomping feet as men and women skipped and spun to a spirited folk tune. Enjoying the infectious melody, Aline let McKenna draw her closer to the musicians.

As soon as the song finished, McKenna gestured to their leader, a fiddle player, who approached him at once. McKenna spoke close to the man’s ear and crossed his palm with a few coins, while Aline observed him with sudden suspicion.

Grinning broadly, the fiddle player hastened back to his companions, held a quick conference, and the group of eight musicians walked en masse to Aline. She regarded McKenna with growing suspicion. “What have you done?”

Bringing her with them to the center of the crowd, the musicians stood her in front where she was visible to everyone. Their leader gestured with his bow to McKenna. “My merry friends,” he called, “this gentleman has requested a song to honor the charms of the lady who stands before us. I beg your kind assistance in singing ‘The Rose of Tralee’ to Lady Aline.”

The audience applauded heartily, for the tune was a wildly popular one that had just been published that year. Turning scarlet, Aline gave McKenna a glance that openly threatened murder, causing most of the assemblage to laugh. He returned her gaze with an innocent smile, lifting his brows mockingly to remind her that she had been the one to request a serenade.

The musicians gazed at Aline with exaggerated soulful gazes, and she shook her head with a grin as they began to play, accompanied by at least two hundred voices. Even some of the shopkeepers and traveling merchants gathered near to join in, substituting her name for that of the heroine in the song:

The pale moon was rising

above the green mountain;

the sun was declining

beneath the blue sea

when I strayed with my love

to the pure crystal fountain

that stands in the beautiful

vale of Tralee.

She was

lovely and fair

as the rose of the summer

yet ’twas not her beauty

alone the won me

Oh, no! ’twas the truth

in her eye ever dawning

that made me love Aline,

the Rose of Tralee

The cool shades of evening

their mantle was spreading,

and Aline, all smiling,

was listening to me,

The moon through the valley,

her pale rays was shedding

when I won the heart

of the rose of Tra-leeeeee!

At the conclusion of the song, Aline curtsied deeply in acknowledgment. She gave the lead fiddle player her hand, and after bending to kiss it, he pretended to fall backward in a swoon, eliciting a round of applause and friendly laughter from the gathering.

Returning to McKenna, Aline regarded him with a mock glare. “You’re going to pay for this,” she warned.

He grinned. “You wanted a serenade.”

Laughter rustled up from her chest. “From you,” she exclaimed, taking his arm once again. “Not from the entire population of Stony Cross!”

“Trust me—that was far better than hearing me sing alone.”

“As I recall, you had a very nice voice.”

“I’m out of practice.”

They stared at each other, smiling, while delight hummed through Aline’s veins. “I also asked for a poem,” she said.

The flirtatious sparkle of her eyes seemed to affect McKenna, causing his voice to deepen as he replied. “And I told you I needed more inspiration.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more precise. What kind of inspiration are you referring to?”

His wide mouth curled up at the corners. “Use your imagination.”

Aline was struck by the words. Unknowingly, McKenna had used the same phrase that Adam had once spoken, when they had discussed the scars on her legs.

The feeling of impatience returned, and she could hardly draw breath around the billowing excitement and confusion in her chest. If she was clever, if she was bold, she might be able to have what she wanted most in the world. One night with McKenna…no, just a few minutes stolen from the grasp of an uncharitable Fate…Dear God, was that too much to ask for?

No.

No matter what it cost her, she would have a few precious moments of intimacy with the man she had never stopped loving. And she would find a way to do it without letting him know her secrets. Tonight, she thought in passionate rebellion, and damn anyone or anything that tried to stop her. Damn Fate itself…she and McKenna were finally going to have their reckoning.

Twelve

It was long past midnight, and the torches were burning down. Villagers and visitors swarmed through the darkened streets, many of them intoxicated. Some sang, some scuffled and disputed, while others took advantage of the shadows to indulge in brazen kisses. Those of more genteel sensibilities had prudently left for home, while those who remained could not help but be aware that the crowd’s inhibitions were fading as fast as the torchlight. Musicians played near the bonfire, while dancers perspired freely as they moved in and out of the pool of flickering light.

Staring into the glow of the bonfire, Aline leaned back against McKenna. He supported her automatically, one hand settling at the nipped-in curve of her waist, the other cupping gently around her elbow. On any other night, in any other circumstances, the way they stood would have caused a scandal. However, the usual standards of propriety were relaxed, if not outright ignored, at fair time. And in the milling crowd, no one seemed to notice or care that Aline and McKenna had materialized like a pair of shades from a time long past.

Aline’s eyes half closed as the heat of the firelight limned her face. “You’re taller,” she murmured absently, thinking of how he used to stand with his chin resting on the top of her head. Now he couldn’t do the same without hunching over.

He bent his head, his voice warm and soft in her ear. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.” Wine had loosened her tongue. “We don’t fit the way we used to.”

His chest, so solid behind her, moved in a huff of amusement. “The fit may be better than before. Let’s try it, and see.”

Aline smiled and almost let herself melt back against him…oh, how she wanted, needed, to lean her head on his shoulder and feel his mouth brush over the fragile arch of her neck. Instead she stood in absolute stillness, staring blindly at the bonfire. McKenna’s skin and clothes carried the scents of midnight air and summer meadows and smoke…and the far subtler aura of a healthy, aroused male. Desire was thick between them, intoxicating them, blurring the edges of reality. The sounds of the bonfire, the crackling and smoldering and breaking wood, seemed a perfect expression of her own inner dismantling. She was not the heedless girl of the past, nor was she the resigned Aline with so many empty places inside, but some other, temporary self…an eager insurgent, rebellious with love.

“Not at the house,” she heard herself whisper.

McKenna did not move, but she sensed the shock of response that went through him. A full minute passed before he murmured, “Where, then?”

“Let’s walk through the woods,” she said recklessly, “along the path that goes by the wishing well.”

McKenna knew the path she referred to—a dark and unfrequented route that they had traversed a thousand times in their youth. There could be no doubt in his mind as to why she suggested it.

A rueful little smile rose to Aline’s lips as she reflected that coupling in the forest was hardly the stuff of great romance. Furtive, inelegant, hasty, and almost certainly uncomfortable. But she would never have the luxury of candlelight and white linen and leisurely lovemaking. If she were to keep McKenna from seeing her scars, she needed darkness and expedience, so that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to notice her legs. The fact that she was actually contemplating such a thing—an act so utterly devoid of grace and tenderness—was astonishing. But this was all she could have of McKenna. And whom would it hurt? Clearly McKenna wanted the opportunity to take what he’d been denied in the past. For her part, she wanted something to remember, for all the long years she had yet to live without him. They desired each other for what were probably selfish reasons—and in Aline’s current mood, that was just fine.

“The wishing well…” McKenna murmured. “Do you still visit it?”

She remembered how, as a girl, she had often gone to cast a pin into the well and wish for the one thing she couldn’t have. “No,” she said, and turned to face him with a faint smile. “That well ran out of magic a long time ago. It never made any of my wishes come true.”

His face was shadowed as he stood with his back to the firelight. “Maybe you wished for the wrong things.”

“Always,” she admitted, her smile holding a bittersweet curve.

McKenna stared at her intently, then led her away from the bonfire, toward the forest that surrounded Stony Cross Park. They were soon swallowed in the night, their way illuminated by the cloud-crossed moon. After a while Aline’s eyes adjusted to the thickening darkness, but she was less surefooted than McKenna as they walked through the coppices of hazel and elm. He caught her hand in his. Remembering how he had once caressed her, the tender places those fingers had ventured so long ago, Aline felt her breathing turn choppy. She tugged free of him with a low, nervous laugh.

“Am I walking too fast for you?” McKenna asked.

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