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Page 22

Only when her response was obvious to both of them did McKenna lift his head. His rapid breath mingled with hers as he spoke. “I’m going to come to your room tonight.”

Aline wrenched herself away from him, stumbling back to the forest path. “I’ll lock the door.”

“I’ll break it down, then.”

“Don’t be an ass,” she said with a touch of exasperation, hastening her stride despite the protests of her much-abused legs.

The rest of the walk back to the manor was silent, except for the sound of their feet crunching leaves and twigs and gravel. Aline was increasingly uncomfortable, becoming aware of a multitude of twinges and aches, not to mention the cold stickiness between her thighs. Her scars had begun to itch and burn. She had never wanted a hot bath so badly in her life. She only prayed that McKenna was too preoccupied to notice the pained hobble of her gait.

The manor was dark and quiet, only a few lights burning as a concession to guests who had decided to prolong their revels. McKenna walked Aline to a servants’ entrance at the side of the house, where there was far less likelihood of either of them being seen. Anyone who witnessed Aline’s disheveled condition would easily guess what she had been doing.

“Tomorrow, then,” McKenna warned her, standing in the entrance…watching as she made her slow, painstaking way upstairs.

Thirteen

McKenna wandered to the back terrace in a kind of stupor, feeling drugged and floundering…no doubt similar to the way Gideon Shaw had felt while he was drunk and drowning in a storm-swept ocean. In all of McKenna’s imaginings of this night, he had always pictured himself as completely in control. He was experienced with women, cognizant of his own sexual needs and the responses of his partners. He had known exactly what he was going to do with Aline, and how the scene would be played out. And then Aline had changed everything.

Sitting at an outside table in the shadows, McKenna clasped his head in his hands and closed his eyes. The faint mingled scents of oak and sap and female arousal clung to his hands…he inhaled the fragrance greedily and felt heat stirring in his groin. He remembered the feeling of sliding inside her, the lush flesh that had surrounded him so tightly. The gasps that had come from her throat. The taste of her mouth, spiced with wine and ginger. She had satisfied him more than anyone ever had, and yet he already desired her again.

A virgin…damn her. Damn her for the feelings she roused in him, the confusion and suspicion and protectiveness and sexual hunger. He would have bet every last cent that she had taken dozens of lovers by now.

And he would have lost.

McKenna tightened his palms on his head as though he could crush out the traitorous thoughts. She was not the girl he had once loved, he reminded himself grimly. That girl had never really existed. And yet it didn’t seem to matter. Aline was his curse, his fate, his consuming desire. He would never stop wanting her, no matter what she did, no matter how many oceans and continents he managed to put between them.

God…the sweetness of her body, so tight and warm around him…the salty-fresh scent of her skin, the perfumed softness of her hair. He had felt his sanity dissolve as he took possession of her, and he had lost all thought of withdrawing at the moment of cl**ax. It was possible that he had made her pregnant. The thought filled him with primitive satisfaction. To see her big and helpless with his child, overtaken with his seed, dependent in every way on him…yes, he thought grimly. He wanted to occupy her with his own flesh, and chain her to him with a bond she could never break. Aline didn’t realize it yet, but she would never be free of him—or the demands he would make of her.

“What a deadly dull evening,” Susan Chamberlain, Gideon Shaw’s sister, remarked sourly. They had just returned from the village fair, having left the festivities just as things began to get interesting. Apparently the provincial pleasures of having one’s palm read, or watching tumblers and fire eaters, or drinking local elder wine, was lost on people as urbane as the Shaws and their kin.

“Yes,” her husband, Mr. Chamberlain, chimed in, “the novelty of mingling with rustics wears off rather quickly, I’m afraid. It is better to spend time in one’s own company than to consort with people who have no more intelligence than the sheep and goats they herd.”

Annoyed by his snobbery, Livia could not resist making a retort. “You are fortunate, then, Mr. Chamberlain. With that attitude, it seems likely that you will indeed be spending a great deal of time in your own company.”

While both the Chamberlains glared at her, Gideon Shaw laughed freely at her impudence. “I enjoyed the fair,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling. He glanced at Susan. “And you seem to have forgotten, dear sis, that most of those so-called rustics have better bloodlines than the Shaws.”

“How could I forget?” Susan Chamberlain asked sharply. “You are always so eager to remind me.”

Livia bit the insides of her lips to keep from laughing. “I suppose I shall retire for the evening. I bid you all a good night.”

“Not yet,” Shaw said softly. “The night is still young, my lady. Shall we play a hand of cards, or have a turn at the chessboard?”

She smiled and asked ingenuously, “Do you like to play games, Mr. Shaw?”

His gaze was subtly seductive, but his tone matched hers for innocence. “Of every kind.”

Livia’s teeth caught at her lower lip in the way that had always inspired Amberley to say that she was adorable. How strange—she hadn’t consciously done that in so very long. Which made her realize how very much she wanted to attract Gideon Shaw.

“I never play when I don’t think I can win,” she told him. “Therefore, I suggest that we take a turn through the portrait gallery, and you can view my ancestors. You may be interested to know that our family tree boasts of a pirate. Quite a ruthless fellow, I’ve been told.”

“So was my grandfather,” Shaw remarked. “Although we politely refer to him as a sea captain, he did things that would make a pirate blush for shame.”

His sister Susan made a strangled sound. “I will not join you, Lady Olivia, as it is obvious that my brother is determined to denigrate his antecedents at every opportunity. Heaven knows for what purpose.”

Livia tried to suppress a rush of pleasure at the prospect of being alone with Shaw again, but a betraying tide of color burnished her cheeks. “Certainly, Mrs. Chamberlain. Again, I wish you good night.”

The Chamberlains’ replies, if they made any, were inaudible. And Livia wouldn’t have been able to hear them in any case: her ears were filled with the pounding of her own heartbeat. She wondered what they thought of her going somewhere unchaperoned with Shaw, and then decided in a rush of happy self-indulgence that it did not matter. The night was young, and for the first time in a long while, she felt young too.

Leading Shaw to the portrait gallery, Livia gave him an arch glance. “You are wicked, to tease your sister so,” she said severely.

“It is a brother’s duty to torment his older sister.”

“You perform your duty with awe-inspiring thoroughness,” she said, and his grin broadened.

They entered the long, narrow portrait gallery, where paintings had been hung in six rows up to the ceiling, clearly intended not as a display of art but rather a display of aristocratic heritage. At the far end of the gallery stood a pair of immense gothic thrones. The backs of the chairs were eight feet tall, and the seats were surfaced by cushions that managed to be harder than a wooden plank. To the Marsdens, bodily comfort was of far less importance than the fact that the thrones dated back to the 1500s and represented a lineage far less corrupted by foreign influences than that of the current monarch.

As they walked back and forth along the gallery, the conversation quickly detoured from the subject of ancestry into far more personal channels, and somehow Shaw managed to guide Livia into the subject of her love affair with Amberley. There were countless reasons why Livia should not have confided in him. She ignored them all. Somehow Livia did not want to keep anything hidden from Gideon Shaw, no matter how shocking or unflattering. She even told him about her miscarriage…and as they talked, Livia found herself being pulled to one of the enormous chairs, and suddenly she was sitting on his lap.

“I can’t,” she whispered anxiously, staring at the empty doorway of the gallery. “If someone should catch us like this—”

“I’ll watch the doorway,” Shaw assured her, his arm tightening around her waist. “It’s more comfortable to sit like this, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Stop wiggling, darling, or you’re going to embarrass us both. Now…you were telling me…”

Livia went still in his lap, blushing wildly. The endearment, commonplace as it was, and the prolonged contact with his body, and the friendly sympathy in his gaze, made her weak all over. She struggled to remember what they had been talking about. Ah…the miscarriage. “The worst part was that everyone thought I was fortunate to have lost the baby,” she said. “No one said it in those exact words, but it was obvious.”

“I imagine that it wouldn’t have been easy, to be unmarried with a fatherless child,” Shaw said gently.

“Yes. I knew that at the time. But I still grieved. I even felt as if I had failed Amberley, by not managing to keep that last little part of him alive. And now there are even times when I find it difficult to remember exactly what Amberley looked like, or what his voice sounded like.”

“Do you think he would have wanted you to commit suttee?”

“What is that?”

“A Hindu practice in which a widow is expected to throw herself on her husband’s burning funeral pyre. Her suicide is considered as proof of her devotion to him.”

“What if the wife dies first? Does the husband do the same thing?”

Shaw threw her a mildly taunting grin. “No, he re-marries.”

“I should have known,” Livia said. “Men always manage to arrange things for their own benefit.”

He tsked in mock reproof. “You’re too young to be so disillusioned.”

“What about you?”

“I was born disillusioned.”

“No, you weren’t,” she said decisively. “Something made you that way. And you should tell me what it was.”

Subtle amusement flickered in his eyes. “Why should I do that?”

“It’s only fair, after I told you about Amberley and my scandal.”

“It would take the rest of the night to tell you about my scandals, my lady.”

“You owe it to me,” she said. “Surely you are too much of a gentleman to renege on a debt to a lady.”

“Oh, I’m quite the gentleman,” Shaw said sardonically. Reaching into his breast pocket, he withdrew the small silver flask. He tucked her deeper into the crook of his arm and brought his hands together to uncap the flask. Livia gasped a little as she was lightly squeezed amid taut bands of muscle. When the task was accomplished, Shaw’s arms relaxed, and he brought the flask to his lips. The smell of expensive liquor drifted to Livia’s nostrils, and she watched him warily.

Shaw let out a measured sigh, welcoming the calming effect of the bourbon. “Very well, Princess Olivia…how do you like your scandal…au tartare, or well done?”

“Something in-between, perhaps?”

Shaw smiled and took another pull on the flask. For a long minute they sat together in silence, with Livia piled on his lap in a heap of skirts and stays and confined female flesh. She saw the careful consideration in his eyes as he weighed how much to tell her, which words would most efficiently convey his meaning…and then his mouth quirked with moody resignation, and his shoulders tensed in the bare promise of a shrug. “Before I tell you anything, you have to understand the Shaws’ perception—no, conviction—that no one is quite good enough for them.”

“Which Shaws are you referring to?”

“Most of them—my parents in particular. I have three sisters and two brothers, and believe me, the ones who are married had the very devil of a time getting my father to approve of their prospective spouses. It was infinitely more important to my parents that their offspring should marry people of the right backgrounds, with the appropriate bloodlines and financial endowments, rather than marry someone whom we may have actually liked.”

“Or loved,” Livia said perceptively.

“Yes.” Shaw regarded the worn silver flask and drew his thumb across the warm, scuffed metal. Livia had to avert her gaze from the sight, astonished by the sudden intense wish that his hand was on her body instead. Fortunately Shaw seemed too lost in his thoughts to notice the way she had tensed in his lap. “I am…was…the second oldest son,” he said. “While my brother Frederick struggled beneath the weight of expectation, I became the black sheep of the family. When I reached a marriageable age, the woman I fell in love with was nowhere near the standards that the Shaws had established. Naturally that only made her more attractive.”

Livia listened carefully, her gaze on Shaw’s face as he smiled with self-derision. “I warned her what to expect,” he continued. “I told her they would likely disown me, they would be cruel, they would never approve of someone they had not chosen themselves. But she said that her love for me would never waver. We would always be together. I knew that I would be disinherited, and it didn’t matter. I had found someone who loved me, and for the first time in my life I would have the chance to prove to myself and everyone else that I didn’t need the Shaw fortune. Unfortunately, when I took her to meet my father, the relationship was immediately exposed for the sham that it was.”

“She crumbled beneath your father’s disapproval,” Livia guessed.

Shaw laughed darkly, recapping the flask and replacing it in his coat pocket. “ ‘Crumbled’ is not the word I would use. They struck a deal, the two of them. My father offered her money to simply forget my proposal and go away, and she responded with a counteroffer. The two of them bargained like a pair of bookies in a listmaker’s office, while I stood by and listened, slack-jawed. When they reached an acceptable sum, my beloved left the house without once looking back. Apparently the prospect of marrying a disinherited Shaw wasn’t nearly as attractive as a nice big payoff. For a while I couldn’t decide whom I hated more—her or my father. Not long after, my brother Frederick died unexpectedly, and I became the heir apparent. My father made his disappointment in me clear from then until the day he died.”

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