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Page 23

Livia was careful not to reveal her sympathy, fearing that he would misread it. A dozen platitudes occurred to her, about how Shaw would certainly find a woman worthy of his love someday, and perhaps his father had only wanted the best for him…but in the stark honesty of the moment, she couldn’t say anything so banal. Instead she sat in silence with him, eventually glancing into his face to find that instead of looking bitter or disillusioned, he was staring at her with a quizzical smile.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“I was just reflecting on how fortunate I am. Even though I only had Amberley for a short time, at least I know that once I was truly loved.”

His fingers touched the edge of her jaw, stroking delicately. The gentle caress made Livia’s heart throb violently. He held her gaze deliberately, his fingertips playing on her skin until he found the tender hollow behind her earlobe. “Anyone would love you.”

Livia could not seem to look away from him. He was a dangerous man, offering sensation in lieu of safety, passion instead of protection. Once she never would have believed that she would consider having an affair with a man whom she didn’t love. But there was something tantalizing about him, a promise of wicked enjoyment, of fun, that she found impossible to resist.

Impulsively she leaned forward and touched her mouth to his. The texture of his lips was smooth and silken, cool at first, then warming rapidly. As before, his kisses were playful, expressive, nipping with gentle curiosity, then pressing with more purposeful intent. After coaxing her lips apart, he settled in for a long, open kiss, his tongue delving in soft exploration.

As Livia squirmed closer to him, she felt the tension of his body, the taut muscle of his chest and abdomen…and lower down, a rising pressure that made her flush in sudden awareness. His hand moved over her back in a lazy circle, influencing her to lean harder against him, until one of her hands encountered the edge of the silver flask. The metal object interfered with her explorations, giving her an unwelcome jolt of reality.

Livia pulled back, smiling and trembling.

“Don’t go yet,” Shaw murmured, feeling the way she tensed in preparation to climb off his lap.

His hand was at her waist, and she reluctantly pushed it away. “I can’t do this with my entire family watching, Mr. Shaw.” She gestured at the rows of solemn-faced ancestors lining the walls.

Shaw responded with a slow smile. “Why not? Don’t they approve of me?”

Livia pretended to consider the question seriously, contemplating the countless austere Marsden faces. “They don’t seem to. Perhaps they should get to know you better.”

“No,” he replied without hesitation. “I don’t improve on closer acquaintance.”

She arched her brows, wondering if the statement had been made out of sincerity, or manipulation, or merely a dark sense of humor. Unable to decide, she shook her head with a reluctant smile. “Actually, the closer you are, the more I like you.”

Instead of replying, Shaw took her small head in both his hands and pulled her close, and crushed a kiss on her mouth. The smacking imprint of his lips was hardly romantic—it was too hard, too fast, though gratifyingly enthusiastic. Yet it affected Livia even more intensely than the languid, soft searching of a few minutes earlier.

Releasing her, Shaw watched as Livia slid from his lap. The floor seemed to slant beneath her feet before she finally regained her balance. Shaw settled back in the throne, staring at her in a way that drew a quiver from deep in her abdomen.

“What are you thinking?” Livia whispered, echoing his earlier question.

He answered with a startling lack of pretense. “I’m wondering how much I can take from you without hurting you.”

It was then that Livia was certain of something: before Gideon Shaw returned to America, she and he were going to be lovers. She saw from the expression in his eyes that he knew it too. The knowledge filled her with a shivery kind of anticipation. Blushing, she backed away from him a step or two, and murmured good night. Turning to walk away from him, she could not resist throwing a glance over her shoulder.

“I’m not afraid of being hurt,” she murmured.

He smiled faintly. “All the same…you’re the last person in the world I want to cause any harm.”

Aline discovered that the door to her room was half open, with golden lamplight spilling invitingly into the hallway. Desperately self-conscious, she went inside and hesitated as she saw Mrs. Faircloth waiting at a chair near the grate. Her usual bath had been placed in the center of the room, with a kettle of scalding water on the hearth.

Naturally Mrs. Faircloth understood everything in one incisive glance.

Aline closed the door, not looking at the housekeeper. “Good evening, Mrs. Faircloth. If you will unfasten the back of my gown, I will manage everything else by myself. I don’t need any help tonight.”

“Yes, you do,” Mrs. Faircloth said, coming to her.

Wry amusement broke through Aline’s misery. There was no possible chance that the housekeeper would ignore this turn of events without having her say. After helping Aline off with her gown, Mrs. Faircloth fetched the kettle from the hearth and warmed the bath with a new infusion of boiling water. “I expect you’re sore,” the housekeeper said. “The hot water will help.”

Turning crimson all over, Aline unhooked her corset and dropped it to the floor. The sudden inrush of oxygen made her dizzy, and she waited until she felt steadier before removing the rest of her clothes. The tight cinch of her garters had left dark red rings around her thighs, and she sighed in relief as she untied them and removed her stockings. Filled with the uncomfortable suspicion that the things that she had done with McKenna were probably visible on her body, Aline hurriedly entered the bath. She sank down into the water with a hiss of comfort.

Mrs. Faircloth went to straighten various articles around the room, while a pair of notches appeared in the space between her silvery brows. “Did he see the scars?” she asked quietly.

Aline let the top of her right knee break through the steaming surface of the water. “No. I managed things so that he didn’t notice them.” She narrowed her eyes against the sudden sting of tears, willing them not to fall. “Oh, Mrs. Faircloth, it was such a mistake. And so appallingly wonderful. Like finding a part of my soul that had been ripped away.” She grimaced in self-mockery at the melodrama of the words.

“I understand,” the housekeeper said.

“You do?”

An unexpected glint of humor appeared in Mrs. Faircloth’s eyes. “I was a young woman once, difficult as that may be to believe.”

“Who did you—”

“It is not something I ever discuss,” the housekeeper said firmly. “And it has no relevance to your predicament with McKenna.”

A more accurate word could not have been chosen. It was not a difficulty, or a problem, or even a dilemma. It was indeed a predicament.

Morosely Aline swirled her hands in the water, while Mrs. Faircloth came to pour some herb-infused oil into the bath. “I’ve behaved like a greedy child,” Aline said ruefully. “I reached out for what I wanted without giving a thought to the consequences.”

“McKenna’s behavior has been no better.” The housekeeper retreated to the chair near the fire. “Now you’ve both gotten what you wanted, and it seems that you’re both the worse off for it.”

“The worst is yet to come,” Aline said. “Now I’ve got to drive him away without ever explaining why.” She paused, rubbed her wet hands over her face, and added bleakly, “Again.”

“It needn’t be that way,” Mrs. Faircloth countered.

“Are you suggesting that I tell him the truth? You know what his reaction would be.”

“You can never know someone else’s heart completely, my lady. Why, I’ve known you since the day you were born, and yet you still have the ability to surprise me.”

“What I did with McKenna tonight…did that surprise you?”

“No.” For some reason the promptness of Mrs. Faircloth’s reply caused them both to laugh.

Leaning her head against the rim of the tub, Aline flexed her knees, willing the heat of the bath to soften her scars. “Has my sister returned from the fair yet?”

“Yes, she came back in the company of Mr. Shaw and the Chamberlains, at least three hours ago.”

“How was she? Did she seem happy?”

“Rather too much so.”

Aline smiled faintly. “Is it possible for someone to be too happy?”

The housekeeper frowned. “I only hope that Lady Livia understands what kind of gentleman Mr. Shaw is. No doubt he has dallied with a hundred women before her, and will continue doing so long after he’s left Stony Cross.”

The words caused Aline’s smile to fade. “I will talk to her tomorrow, and perhaps together we can settle our heads.”

“That’s not what needs settling,” Mrs. Faircloth said, and Aline made a face at her.

Fourteen

To Livia’s disappointment, Gideon Shaw did not surface at all the next day. His absence at breakfast and lunch were not remarked on by any of the American entourage, who seemed to take Shaw’s disappearance as a matter of course. After bidding Mrs. Faircloth to make discreet inquiries as to his whereabouts, Livia learned that Shaw had simply closed himself away in the bachelor’s house and left word that he was not to be bothered for any reason. “Is he ill?” Livia asked, imagining him helpless and feverish in a sickbed. “Should he be left alone at such a time?”

“Ill with liquor, one would surmise,” Mrs. Faircloth said in disapproval. “In which case, Mr. Shaw should most definitely be left alone. There are few sights more unpleasant than that of a gentleman in his cups.”

“What reason would he have to do this?” Livia fretted, standing at the huge oak worktable in the kitchen, where the maids had just finished rolling out and cutting pastry dough. She used her fingertip to make a pattern in the heavy dusting of flour, leaving a succession of tight little circles. “What could have set him off? He seemed perfectly fine last evening.”

Mrs. Faircloth waited to reply until the maids had taken the rounds of pastry to the next room. “Drunkards need nothing in particular to set them off.”

Livia disliked the images that the word conjured, of nasty, sloppy, ridiculous men who said disagreeable things and tripped over invisible furniture, and ended up florid and fat. Although it was well known that practically all men drank to excess now and then, one wasn’t considered a drunkard until it became obvious that his thirst was perpetual, and that he had no ability to hold his liquor. Livia had known very few such men. In fact, she had never seen Marcus intoxicated, as he had always maintained a rigorous grip on his self-control.

“Shaw isn’t a drunkard,” Livia countered in a half whisper, mindful of the servants’ sharp ears. “He’s only, well…” Pausing, she furrowed her forehead until it resembled a window shutter. “You’re right, he’s a drunkard,” she admitted. “How I wish that he were not! If only someone or something might inspire him to change…”

“That kind of man does not change,” Mrs. Faircloth murmured with dismaying certainty.

Livia stepped back from the table as one of the maids came to clean it with a damp cloth. She dusted the traces of flour from her hands and folded her arms across her chest. “Someone should go and make certain that he is all right.”

The housekeeper regarded her with disapproval. “If I were you, my lady, I should leave the matter alone.”

Livia knew that Mrs. Faircloth was right, as always. However, as the minutes and hours crawled by, and suppertime approached, she went in search of Aline. Who, now that Livia thought of it, had seemed rather distracted today. For the first time all day, Livia tore herself away from her absorption with Gideon Shaw long enough to wonder how her sister was faring with McKenna. Livia had seen the two of them walking together at the fair, and of course she had heard about the “Rose of Tralee” serenade. She had found it interesting that McKenna, whom she had thought of as very private and self-contained, would have resorted to making a public demonstration of his interest in Aline.

It was likely that no one had been surprised, however, as it was clear that Aline and McKenna belonged together. There was something invisible and yet irrefutable that made them a couple. Perhaps it was the way both of them stole quick glances at each other when one thought the other wasn’t looking…glances of wonder and hunger. Or the way McKenna’s voice changed subtly when he spoke to Aline, his tone deepening, softening. No matter how circumspectly they behaved, anyone could tell that Aline and McKenna were drawn together by a force more powerful than either of them. They seemed to want to breathe the same air. Their need for each other was painfully obvious. And Livia was convinced that McKenna worshipped her sister. Perhaps it was wrong, but Livia couldn’t help but wish that Aline could find the courage to trust McKenna with the truth about her accident.

Absorbed in her thoughts, Livia managed to find Aline in Marcus’s private study, the one their father had always used. Like their father, it was all hard angles. The walls were covered with polished rosewood paneling, ornamented only by a row of rectangular stained-glass windows. Although Aline often visited Marcus there to discuss household matters, they appeared to be discussing something far more personal at the moment. They seemed to be arguing, actually.

“…don’t see why you should have taken it upon yourself…” Aline was saying sharply, just as Livia entered the room with a cursory knock at the door.

Neither sibling looked particularly thrilled to see her. “What do you want?” Marcus growled.

Unruffled by his rudeness, Livia focused her attention on her sister. “I wanted to talk with you before supper, Aline. It’s about…well, I’ll tell you later.” Pausing, she regarded them both with raised brows. “What are you arguing about?”

“I’ll let Marcus explain,” Aline said shortly. She sat on the corner of the large desk, leaning back to brace her hand on the glossy oiled surface.

Livia stared suspiciously at Marcus. “What has happened? What have you done?”

“The right thing,” he said.

Aline gave a scornful huff.

“What do you mean?” Livia asked. “Marcus, must we play twenty questions, or will you just tell me?”

Marcus went to stand by the empty hearth. Had he been a tall man, he might have been able to rest his elbow on the mantel in a nicely casual pose. As it was, he got nearly the same effect by leaning his broad shoulders back against it. “I merely took it upon myself to send word to a few of Shaw’s potential investors—all of whom are acquaintances of mine—to be cautious about investing in the Shaw foundries. I informed them of some potential problems in the deal that Shaw and McKenna have proposed. I warned them that in the Americans’ drive to expand their business, we have no guarantee against falling production quality, debasement of design, defective service, even fraud—”

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