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Page 24

“That is nonsense,” Aline interrupted. “You are just playing on the typical Englishman’s fear of large-scale production. You have no evidence that it will be a problem for the Shaw foundries.”

“I have no proof that they won’t,” Marcus said.

Folding her arms across her chest, Aline gave him a challenging glance. “I predict that your efforts will come to nothing, Marcus—Shaw and McKenna will prove themselves more than capable of settling any concerns their investors might have.”

“That remains to be seen. I also put a few words in Lord Elham’s ear—he sits on the board of the Somerset Shipping Company—and now he’s going to think twice about selling his docking rights to Shaw. And those rights are an essential part of Shaw’s plans.”

Livia followed the conversation with complete bewilderment, understanding only that her brother had deliberately undertaken to make Shaw’s and McKenna’s forthcoming business negotiations difficult. “Why would you do that?” she asked.

“Simple,” Aline said, before Marcus could reply. “By throwing obstacles in Mr. Shaw’s path, Marcus has ensured that he—and McKenna—will have to go to London at once, to deal with all the mischief he has wrought.”

Livia stared at her brother with dawning fury. “How could you do that?”

“Because I intend to keep those two bastards as far away from my sisters as I can,” Marcus said. “I’ve acted in your best interests—both of you—and someday you’ll see the wisdom in what I’ve done.”

Livia glanced wildly around the room, searching for something to throw at him. “You are just like our father, you self-important, interfering clod!”

“At this very moment,” Marcus told her grimly, “Shaw is drowning himself in a bottle of something-or-other, after spending all day holed up in a dark room. What a fine character for you to associate with, Livia. How happy Amberley would be.”

Livia turned white at his sarcasm. Incoherent with hurt and anger, she strode from the room, not bothering to close the door.

Aline stared at her brother with narrowed eyes. “That was going too far,” she warned gently. “Don’t ever forget, Marcus, that some things can never be taken back once they are said.”

“Livia would do well to remember the same,” he retorted. “You heard what she just said.”

“Yes, that you are just like Father. And you disagree?”

“Categorically.”

“Marcus, in the last few minutes you have never sounded or behaved or looked more like him.”

“I’m not!” he said in outrage.

Aline held up her hands as if in self-defense, and spoke in sudden weariness. “I won’t waste time arguing the point. But you might use that clever brain to consider something, my dear…how many other ways might you have handled the situation? You took the shortest and most efficient route to accomplish your goal, without pausing to consider anyone else’s feelings. And if that wasn’t like Father…” Her voice trailed away, and she shook her head with a sigh. “I’m going to find Livia now.”

Leaving her unrepentant brother in the study, Aline hurried after her sister. The effort of walking so fast caused her scars to pull, and she sighed impatiently. “Livia, where are you going? For heaven’s sake, stop for a moment and let me come even with you!”

She found Livia standing in a hallway, her cheeks streaked red with wrath. Suddenly Aline remembered when Livia had been a small child and had once frustrated herself by building a tower of blocks that was too tall to stand. Over and over, Livia had painstakingly constructed the same wobbly tower, crying angrily when it fell…never accepting that she should have just settled for building a less ambitious structure.

“He had no right,” Livia said, shaking from the violence of her feelings.

Aline regarded her sympathetically. “Marcus has been high-handed and arrogant,” she agreed, “and obviously he has done the wrong thing. But we must both keep in mind that he did it out of love.”

“I don’t care about his motivation—it doesn’t change the result.”

“Which is?”

Livia looked at her with annoyance, as if she was being willfully obtuse. “That I won’t see Mr. Shaw, of course!”

“Marcus is assuming that you won’t leave Stony Cross. You haven’t traveled out of the county since Amberley passed away. But what doesn’t seem to have occurred to either you or Marcus is that you can go to London.” Aline smiled as she saw the dawning surprise on Livia’s face.

“I-I could, I suppose,” Livia said distractedly.

“Then why don’t you? There’s no one to stop you.”

“But Marcus—”

“What could he possibly do?” Aline pointed out. “Lock you in your room? Tie you to a chair? Go to London if you wish, and stay at Marsden Terrace. I will manage Marcus.”

“It seems rather brazen, doesn’t it? Chasing after Mr. Shaw…”

“You won’t be chasing after him,” Aline assured her immediately. “You’re going shopping in town—and a long overdue trip it is, I might add. You need to visit the dressmaker, as everything you own is sadly out of fashion. And whose concern is it if you happen to be shopping in London at the same time that Mr. Shaw is there?”

Livia smiled suddenly. “Will you go with me, Aline?”

“No, I must stay at Stony Cross with our guests. And…” She hesitated for a long moment. “I think it would be best to effect a separation between McKenna and myself.”

“How are things between you and him?” Livia asked. “At the fair, the two of you seemed—”

“We had a lovely time,” Aline said lightly. “Nothing happened—and I expect that nothing ever will.” She felt a sharp twinge of discomfort at lying to her sister. However, the experience with McKenna last night had been too intensely personal—she was not up to the challenge of putting it into words.

“But don’t you think that McKenna—”

“You had better go make plans,” Aline advised. “You’ll need a chaperone. I have no doubt that Great-Aunt Clara would stay at the terrace with you, or perhaps—”

“I’ll invite old Mrs. Smedley from the village,” Livia said. “She’s from a respectable family, and she would enjoy a trip to London.”

Aline frowned. “Dearest, Mrs. Smedley is hard of hearing, and as blind as a bat. A less effective chaperone I couldn’t imagine.”

“Precisely,” Livia said, with such satisfaction that Aline couldn’t help laughing.

“All right, then, take Mrs. Smedley. But if I were you, I should keep everything quite discreet, until you have actually departed.”

“Yes, you’re right.” With furtive excitement, Livia turned and hastened through the hallway.

Deciding that it was only fair to let McKenna know about her brother’s machinations, Aline decided to approach him after supper. However, she had the opportunity to speak to McKenna sooner than expected, as the meal ended in a precipitate and distinctly awkward manner. Gideon Shaw was conspicuously absent, and his sister Susan Chamberlain seemed to be in an ill humor.

Seeing that Susan was consuming her wine a bit too freely, Aline exchanged a subtle glance with the first footman, communicating that the wine should be more heavily watered. Within a minute, the footman had circumspectly handed a carafe of wine to a subordinate, who secreted it to the serving room and then quickly returned with it. The entire process was unnoticeable to any of the guests except McKenna, who regarded Aline with a quick smile.

As the first course of asparagus soup and salmon with lobster sauce was removed, the conversation veered to the subject of the business negotiations that would take place in London. Mr. Cuyler innocently undertook to ask Marcus’s opinion about how the negotiations would turn out, and Marcus replied coolly, “I doubt this subject can be adequately discussed in Mr. Shaw’s absence, as the outcome will depend strongly upon his performance. Perhaps we should wait until he is no longer indisposed.”

“Indisposed,” Susan Chamberlain said with a mocking laugh. “Are you referring to my brother’s habit of swilling rotgut from sunup to sundown? Quite the family figurehead, isn’t he?”

All conversation stopped. Inwardly startled by Susan’s flash of hostility toward her brother, Aline tried to ease the tension in the room. “It seems to me, Mrs. Chamberlain,” she said, “that your family has prospered under Mr. Shaw’s leadership.”

“That has nothing to do with him,” Susan said scornfully, resisting her husband’s attempts to shush her. “No, I will have my say! Why must I pay homage to Gideon merely because he had the fool’s luck to be next in line when poor Frederick died?” Her mouth twisted bitterly. “The reason the Shaws have prospered, Lady Aline, is because my brother decided to place his family’s welfare at the mercy of an uneducated immigrant who happened to make a few lucky choices.” She began to laugh. “A drunkard and a docker—what a distinguished pair. And my future lies completely in their hands. So very amusing, don’t you think?”

No one else seemed to share her amusement. A long moment of silence ensued. McKenna’s expression was implacable. He seemed completely unaffected, as if he had long ago been inured to poisonous words. Aline wondered how many insults and affronts he had endured over the years, merely because he had committed the unpardonable sin of laboring for his keep.

Standing, McKenna bowed to the company at large, his gaze catching briefly with Aline’s. “Excuse me,” he murmured. “My appetite fails me this evening.”

Everyone wished him a pleasant evening, except for Susan Chamberlain, who proceeded to bury her resentment in another glass of wine.

Aline knew that she should have stayed to ease the atmosphere with light conversation. But as she stared at McKenna’s empty chair, the urge to follow him became unbearable. Stay where you are, and do what you should, she disciplined herself, but with every second that passed, the sense of exigency became sharper, until her heart pounded and sweat trickled beneath her dress. Aline found herself rising from the table, obliging the gentlemen to stand. “I beg your pardon…” she murmured, trying to come up with some reason for her sudden departure. “I…” However, she couldn’t seem to think of anything. “Do excuse me,” she said lamely, and left the room. Ignoring the whispers that followed her departure, she hurried after McKenna. When she reached the top of the staircase, she found him waiting for her. He must have heard her footsteps behind him.

Waves of cold and heat winnowed through her as they faced each other. McKenna’s eyes were bright in his dark face, his piercing gaze invoking the memory of the two of them clutching greedily at each other in the forest…her body impaled and writhing on his.

Discomfited, Aline closed her eyes, while pinpoints of heat seemed to cover her face. When she finally managed to look at him once more, his eyes still held a disquieting gleam.

“Are all the Shaws like that?” Aline asked, referring to Susan Chamberlain.

“No, she’s the nice one,” McKenna said dryly, startling a laugh from her.

Twisting her fingers into a little knot, she asked, “May I speak with you for a minute? I have something rather important to tell you.”

He stared at her alertly. “Where shall we go?”

“The family receiving room,” Aline suggested. It was the most appropriate second-floor room to hold such a conversation.

“We’ll run the risk of being interrupted if we talk in there,” McKenna said.

“We’ll close the door.”

“No.” He took her hand, pulling her along with him. Bemused by his authoritative manner, Aline went without resistance. Her heart kicked in an unruly pattern as she realized where he was taking her. “We can’t go to my room,” she said warily, glancing up and down the long hallway. “Is that where you…no, really, we can’t…”

Ignoring her protests, McKenna went to the door of the room she had slept in all her life, and pushed his way in. A brief contemplation of his large, broad-shouldered form convinced Aline that it was useless to argue. She could hardly throw him out, after all. With a sigh that conveyed exasperation, she entered the room and closed the door.

A lamp reposed on a table near the entrance. Aline paused to light it deftly, the flame casting long shadows across the bedchamber and dressing room beyond. Picking up the lamp by its painted porcelain handle, she followed McKenna into the cabinet—the private space he had never dared to trespass in their childhood.

A daybed—the only piece of furniture in the room—was littered with embroidered cushions. Nearby, a strand of pearls hung from a gold hook, beside a collection of tiny beaded reticules and purses. Out of the corner of her eye, Aline saw McKenna reach out to touch one of the delicate reticules, which looked absurdly small beside his hand.

She went to the cabinet’s ancient widow. The age-rippled glass panels made the view of the outside grounds pleasantly blurred, as if one were looking through water. The other three sides of the cabinet were lined with squares of silvered glass, creating a myriad of reflections that multiplied one another. As McKenna stood behind her, Aline saw his face, and her own, reproduced infinitely in the glow of lamplight.

Exploring, McKenna went to the window and picked up an object from the painted sill. It was a child’s toy, a little metal horse with the figure of a man riding it. Aline saw at once that he recognized the object…it had been his favorite toy, so well loved that most of the brightly colored paint had worn off. Mercifully McKenna set it down without making a comment.

“What do you want to tell me?” he asked quietly. Aline was fascinated by the perfect juxtaposition of hardness and softness in his face…the bold angle of his nose, the lush curve of his bottom lip, the way the feathery silk of his eyelashes cast shadows over his cheekbones.

“I’m afraid that my brother has made your negotiations a bit more difficult than you may expect,” she said.

His gaze sharpened. “In what way?”

As she proceeded to explain what Marcus had done, McKenna listened with a reassuring lack of alarm.

“It will be all right,” he said when she had finished. “I can ease the investors’ concerns. And I’ll find a way to convince Elham that it’s in his best interests to sell us those docking rights. Failing that, we’ll build our own damned dock.”

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