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Page 25

Aline smiled at his self-confidence. “That wouldn’t be easy.”

“Nothing worthwhile ever is.”

“I’m certain that you must be furious with Marcus. But he only did it out of a mistaken desire to…”

“Protect you and your sister,” McKenna finished for her, as she hesitated. “I can hardly blame him for that.” His voice was very gentle. “Someone should keep you safe from men like me.”

Turning away, Aline confronted the panels of mirror glass, the mosaic of her own flushed face…and the way the lamplight slid over McKenna’s gleaming black hair as he came to stand behind her. Their gazes met in the midst of the fragmented images.

“You will have to go to London right away, won’t you?” she asked, flustered at being in such close quarters with him.

“Yes. Tomorrow.”

“Wh-what will you do about Mr. Shaw?”

His head bent over hers until she felt his breath at her temple. One of his hands came to the exposed top of her shoulder, his fingertips brushing over the pale skin with the lightness of a butterfly’s wing. “I’ll have to sober him up, I suppose.”

“I think it is so unfortunate that he chooses to—”

“I don’t want to talk about Shaw.” McKenna turned her to face him, and his hand drifted up her neck until his sun-browned fingers were cupping her cheek.

“What are you doing?” Aline asked, tensing as she felt his other hand slide to the back of her gown.

“Exactly what you knew I would do, if you let me in here.” McKenna kissed her as he began to unfasten her gown, the bristle of his cheek making her skin tingle.

“You left me no choice,” Aline protested. “You just barged in and—”

His mouth sealed over hers, while his fingers worked until he had exposed the laces of her corset. He wound the thin cords around his knuckles and tugged, until the web of stays expanded, and her compressed flesh was released. The corset dropped to the floor, beneath the dress she still wore. Her unbound flesh felt tender and swollen, aching for the clasp of his hands.

The rush of her heartbeat filled her ears as his mouth possessed hers with sweet, foraging kisses. The warm male incense of his skin, spiced with cologne, edged with starch and a pungent whiff of tobacco, filled her with drugging pleasure. She felt wildly excited at the prospect of having him inside her again, but at the same time an inner voice warned that he must not be allowed to explore her at his leisure.

“Hurry,” she urged unsteadily. “Just…hurry, please—” The words were crushed by his mouth, more steamy, delicious kisses, more dizzying closeness with his aroused body. His hands slipped inside her open dress, skimming the soft line of her back, down to the full swell of her buttocks. She felt a twinge of response between her thighs, the concealed flesh becoming supple and hot, and she strained hungrily into the wickedly gentle courtship of his fingers.

Tearing his mouth from hers, McKenna turned her to face away from him, his hands coming to her shoulders.

“Get on your knees,” he whispered.

At first she didn’t understand. But the pressure of his palms guided her, and she found herself sinking before the daybed. She knelt amid the shimmering billows of her dress. The pattern of an embroidered cushion blurred before her eyes as she heard the sound of McKenna shedding his coat. The garment landed on the daybed before her. More rustling, the sound of fabric being unfastened, and then McKenna knelt behind her.

Efficiently he reached beneath her skirts, smoothing up yards of layered material to find the vulnerable body beneath. She felt him grasp her hips, his thumbs digging into the plumpness of her buttocks. One of his hands slid between her legs, searching for the opening of her linen drawers. He seemed to measure the length of the lace-edged slit with his fingers, and Aline quivered as his knuckles brushed against the curling hair beneath the fabric. He used both hands to rend the slit another few inches, until the drawers gaped open. Gently McKenna adjusted her position, pushing her forward to lean harder on the daybed, kneeing her thighs open until she was spread wide before him.

McKenna moved closer behind her, covering her, his shoulders slightly hunched. “Easy,” he murmured, as she shivered beneath him. “Easy. I won’t hurt you this time.”

Aline couldn’t answer. She could only tremble, and wait, her eyes closing as she lowered her face to his forearm. She felt his h*ps shift, and something brushed between her legs…his male part, nudging the delicate tissues that he had exposed. His free hand moved beneath her skirts, over her front and down her stomach, until his fingers slid through the matted curls. He parted the soft furrow of her sex, following as her h*ps jerked backward against his solid body. She moaned at his gentle teasing, the tiny circles he made around the sensitive nub.

McKenna’s hand left her, and he touched her face, using the tip of his middle finger to stroke her lower lip. Opening her mouth obediently, she let his finger slip inside the warm dampness. His hand dipped beneath her skirts once more, and this time his finger was slippery when he stroked her. He aroused her softly, massaging the wetness all around until she clawed the upholstery of the daybed and dug her sweating forehead into the cushions. A shuddering sound escaped her as she felt his finger enter her, gliding farther and farther until her swollen flesh had enveloped every joint. Her buttocks rose to fit as closely against his body as possible, and she waited in brimming hunger while he stretched her in gentle circling thrusts, preparing her for the invasion yet to come.

Again, that maddeningly light nudge of his organ, a teasing brush of stiff, silken tension. Her breath caught, and she remained utterly passive, her thighs spread in helpless offering. McKenna entered her in a slow thrust…again, she experienced that startling sense of fullness, but this time there was only a brief flicker of pain. He went deep, encountering no resistance as the throbbing depths of her body welcomed him. Each time he pulled back to tunnel inside her again, Aline writhed to press closer to him. His fingers played in the wet curls of her sex, tenderly rubbing the source of her craving, stroking sweetly in counterpoint to the rhythm of his thrusts. The sensation multiplied rapidly, building on itself with each delicious lunge, the hardness advancing ever deeper into the slick channel of her body. The pleasure sharpened to a harrowing pitch, gathering in the part of her that he possessed so consummately, until she could bear it no longer. Arching against his fingers, she convulsed uncontrollably, muffling her groans in the upholstery of the daybed. McKenna contained her with a growl, driving hard into her center until a raw sound was torn from his throat and he pulsed violently inside her.

They remained locked together for a long, breathless minute, their bodies joined and clinging, while McKenna’s weight nearly smothered her. Aline never wanted to move again. Her eyes remained closed, her damp lashes sticking to her cheeks. When she felt him ease away from her, she bit her lip to keep from moaning a protest. Instead, she continued to lean against the cushions in a heap of silk and torn linen, her limbs weak in the aftermath of their lovemaking.

McKenna restored his clothing and fumbled for his discarded coat. He had to clear his throat before speaking, his voice sounding scratchy. “No promises, no regrets—just as you wanted.”

Aline did not move as he left the cabinet. She waited until he had left her suite of rooms, listening for the sound of the door clicking shut, before she let the tears slide from her eyes.

The long, hellish supper was over. Although Livia knew that almost everyone at Stony Cross Park suspected that she had gone to visit the bachelor’s house, she felt that it was only decent to try to be discreet. She used a path at the side of the manor and kept to the side of a tall yew hedge before slipping over to the quiet residence. No doubt it would be wise to leave well enough alone, but her concern for Gideon Shaw compelled her to go see him. After she had made certain that he was all right, she would go back to the manor and find some nice long novel to occupy herself with.

Knocking on the door, Livia waited tensely for some response. Nothing. Frowning, Livia knocked again. “Hullo?” she called. “Hullo? Can anyone hear me?”

Just as Livia began to consider the option of going to fetch a key from Mrs. Faircloth, the door vibrated and clanked as it was unlocked. It opened a cautious crack, revealing Shaw’s valet. “Yes, milady?”

“I’ve come to see Mr. Shaw.”

“Mr. Shaw is not receiving visitors at this time, milady.”

The door began to close. Livia wedged her foot in it. “I won’t leave until I’ve seen him,” she said.

The valet’s gaze conveyed infinite exasperation, though his tone remained courteous. “Mr. Shaw is not in a suitable condition, milady.”

Livia decided to be blunt. “Is he drunk?”

“As David’s sow,” the valet confirmed sourly.

“Then I’ll send for some tea and sandwiches.”

“Mr. Shaw has asked for more brandy.”

Livia’s jaw firmed, and she pushed her way past him. Being a servant, he could not stop her—no one in service would ever dare to lay a hand on a lady of the manor. Ignoring the valet’s protests, she surveyed the darkened receiving room. The air was tainted with the smells of liquor and tobacco. “No brandy,” she said in a tone that allowed no room for argument. “Go to the manor, and bring back a pot of tea and a plate of sandwiches.”

“He won’t take that well, milady. No one stands between Mr. Shaw and what he wants.”

“It’s time someone did,” Livia said, motioning him away. The valet left reluctantly, and Livia ventured farther into the darkened bachelor’s house. The glow of a lamp filled the main bedroom with quiet amber light. The unmistakable rattle of ice in a glass floated to her ears. Assuming that Shaw was in a drunken stupor, Livia went to the doorway.

The sight that greeted her eyes caused her to gasp.

Gideon Shaw was reclining in a slipper tub that had been set near the fire, his head leaning back against the mahogany rim, one long leg dangling carelessly over the side. He held an ice-filled glass in his hand, his gaze arrowing to hers as he took a swallow. Steam rose in veils from the bathwater, condensing on the golden curvature of his shoulders. Droplets glistened on the amber curls of his chest and the small circles of his nipples.

Good Lord in heaven, Livia thought dazedly. Gentlemen suffering the aftereffects of an excess of strong spirits usually looked terrible. “Death’s head on a mop stick” was how Marcus liked to describe them. However, Livia had never seen anything as magnificent as an unshaven and unkempt Gideon Shaw in his bath.

Scowling, Shaw levered himself upward, causing water to slosh gently against the rim of the tub. Glittering rivulets slid over the muscular surface of his chest. “What are you doing here?” he asked curtly.

Livia was so mesmerized that she could barely manage a reply. Tearing her gaze away from him, she moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue. “I came to see if you were all right.”

“Now you’ve seen me,” he said coldly. “I’m fine. Get out.”

“You’re not fine,” she countered. “You’re intoxicated, and you probably haven’t eaten anything all day.”

“I’ll eat when I’m hungry.”

“You need something more nourishing than the contents of that glass, Mr. Shaw.”

His hard gaze met hers. “I know what I need, you presumptuous wench. Now leave, or you’re going to get a big eyeful of Gideon Shaw.”

Livia had never been called a wench before. She supposed she should be offended, but instead she felt a little smile push up from her chest. “I’ve always thought it so pompous for someone to refer to himself in the third person.”

“I’m a Shaw,” he replied, as if that was a perfectly acceptable exemption for pomposity.

“Do you know what is going to happen to you if you keep drinking this way? You’re going to turn into an ugly wreck of a man, with a big red nose and an overhanging belly.”

“Is that so,” he said stonily, tossing back the rest of his liquor in a deliberate swallow.

“Yes, and your brain will rot away.”

“I can hardly wait.” He leaned over the edge of the tub, setting the glass of ice on the carpet.

“And you’ll be impotent,” Livia finished triumphantly. “Sooner or later, alcohol robs a man of his virility. When was the last time you made love to a woman, Mr. Shaw?”

Evidently the challenge was too much for him to withstand. Shaw clambered out of the tub with a sneer. “Are you asking for proof of my potency? By all means—come and get it.”

As Livia’s gaze swept over his rampantly aroused body, she felt herself turn crimson. “I-I should probably go now. I’ll leave you to consider what I’ve said—” She whirled to escape, but before she could take a step, he reached her, and caught her from behind. Livia stopped, her eyes closing at the feel of the wet masculine body pressing against her back. His dripping forearm locked just beneath her breasts.

“Oh, I’m considering it, my lady,” he said near her ear. “And I’ve just come to the conclusion that there’s only one truly effective rebuttal for your argument.”

“No need,” she gasped, while his arm shifted and his hand cupped over her left breast. Heat and water soaked through the fabric, causing her nipple to tighten against his palm. “Oh—”

“You shouldn’t cast aspersions on my virility. It’s a subject we men are rather touchy on.”

Livia began to tremble, her head falling back against his shoulder. His warm hand left her breast, swept over the exposed skin of her neck, then slipped beneath the edge of her bodice. She jolted as she felt him touch the hard tip of her nipple. “I’ll have to remember that,” she whispered.

“See that you do.” Turning her in his arms, he covered her mouth with his. The softness of his lips, surrounded by the wiry scratch of unshaven bristle, was wildly exciting. Livia arched up to him fervently, her hands sliding over his gleaming body. Realizing dimly that she was about to take her first lover after Amberley, Livia tried to gather her wits…but it was impossible to think, with Gideon kissing her over and over, until they both sank to their knees on the water-splotched carpet.

Pushing Livia to her back, Gideon settled into the billowing heap of her skirts. He unfastened the first few buttons of her bodice and pulled the top of her chemise downward, revealing the shallow curves of her breasts. She wanted him to kiss them. She wanted his mouth on her, his tongue…the thought of it drew a moan from her throat.

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