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Breathing fast, Gideon levered his body farther over hers, reaching for something just beyond her head. She heard the rattle of melting ice, and for a moment of confusion, Livia wondered if he was going to take a drink, now of all times. But he fished a shard of ice from the glass and popped it into his mouth, and then, to her bewilderment, he bent his head over her. He engulfed the tip of her breast in an icy kiss, his tongue sweeping across the nipple with chilling, supple strokes. Livia wriggled beneath him with an astonished cry, but Gideon held her down and persisted, until the ice dissolved and his mouth warmed. The heavy length of his arousal pressed against the inside of her thigh, while each caress of his tongue tightened a coil of pleasure in Livia’s belly. Sliding her hands into his thick, damp golden hair, she held his head against her, while her h*ps strained upward.

But Gideon pulled away suddenly, rolling off her with a groan. “No,” he said raggedly. “The first time can’t be like this. I’m too damned drunk to do it properly, and I won’t insult you that way.”

Livia stared at him blankly, too filled with desire to think clearly. Her breast tingled and throbbed. “I wouldn’t feel insulted. You weren’t doing badly at all, actually—”

“And on the floor, no less,” he muttered. “My God. Forgive me, Livia. You don’t deserve to be treated this way.”

“You’re forgiven,” she said quickly. “I wasn’t at all uncomfortable. I like this carpet. So let’s just go back to—”

But her companion had already risen to his feet. Livia was later to learn that Gideon had a genuine horror of being ungentlemanly. Finding a robe, he jerked it over himself and tied it at his waist. He returned to Livia and pulled her up from the floor. “I am sorry,” he said as he straightened her clothes and clumsily refastened her gown.

“It’s all right, really—”

“You have to leave, Livia. Now, before I have you on your back again.”

Only pride kept her from telling him how very amenable she was to the idea, when he was obviously so determined to get rid of her. Sighing in defeat, she allowed him to push and prod her from the bedroom.

“I sent your valet for sandwiches,” she said, preceding him along the hallway.

“Did you?”

“Yes, and I expect you to eat them, and there will be no more brandy for you tonight.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Livia made her voice as stern as possible. “You will eat, however, as it is part of your penance for trying to ravish me on the floor—”

“All right,” Gideon said hastily. “I’ll eat.”

Biting back a smile, Livia allowed him to open the door for her, and she crossed the threshold. Only when the door closed behind her did she let out a shaky sigh and finish her sentence. “…And how I wish you had finished!”

Fifteen

It would have been an exaggeration to claim that Gideon was completely sober when McKenna loaded him into the carriage the next day. However, he was at least clean and shaven, his face pale beneath the gleaming cap of expertly clipped blond hair. They were bound for the Rutledge, a London hotel comprising four luxurious homes that were let to well-to-do gentlemen or families from abroad. McKenna hoped that the investment negotiations would keep him so busy that he would stop thinking about Aline. At least for a few minutes at a time.

Afaint groan came from Gideon’s side of the carriage. Wreathed in a queasiness that was nearly palpable, Gideon had said virtually nothing so far that morning. “Goddamn,” Gideon said in bleary realization, “I’m riding backward. Change seats with me, will you?”

Recalling Gideon’s aversion to facing the rear of the carriage while traveling, McKenna complied. When they had both settled, Gideon propped one foot on the opposite cushion, heedless of the fine velvet upholstery. “What are you brooding about?” He braced his head on his hand as if to prevent it from toppling off his shoulders. “Haven’t you managed to tumble Lady Aline yet?”

McKenna gave him a narrow-eyed stare.

Gideon sighed and rubbed his aching temples. “I’ll say this—there is something about those Marsden women and their aristocratic little notches that is impossible to resist.”

The remark so perfectly expressed McKenna’s own sentiments that he smiled grimly. “You’ve taken an interest in Livia, it seems.”

“Yes,” came the none-too-happy reply. “An interest that has earned me the worst case of blue balls I’ve had in years.”

McKenna was perturbed by the realization that his friend was strongly attracted to Aline’s sister. It seemed an inappropriate match in every regard. “Aren’t you too old for her?”

Fumbling for the ever-dependable silver flask, Gideon registered extreme annoyance at the realization that he’d forgotten to fill it. Tossing the empty container to the floor, he glared at it blearily. “I’m too everything for her. Too old, too damned jaded, too thirsty…the list is endless.”

“You’d better take care, or Westcliff will slaughter and dress you like a yuletide goose.”

“If he’ll do it quickly, he has my blessing,” Gideon replied morosely. “Damn you, McKenna, I wish I hadn’t let you talk me into visiting Stony Cross. We should have gone directly to London, conducted our business, and returned to New York as soon as possible.”

“You didn’t have to come with me,” McKenna pointed out.

“I had some misguided notion of keeping you out of trouble. And I wanted to see what kind of woman could turn you into such a mooncalf.”

Stewing, McKenna gazed out the window, watching the quiet green countryside that rolled beside them. Only Lady Aline Marsden, he thought balefully. A woman of such discriminating taste that she had remained unwed rather than accept a suitor who was below her standards.

“I want to take her back to New York with me,” he said.

Gideon was silent for a long time. “Has Lady Aline indicated that she might consider such a proposition?”

“No. In fact, she’s made it clear that anything other than a five-minute hump in the closet is out of the question. Because I’m not of her class.”

Gideon did not seem at all surprised. “Naturally. You’re a professional man in a culture that values indolence and has contempt for ambition.”

“You work.”

“Yes, but not regularly, and everyone knows that I don’t have to. And my money is old, if only by New York standards.” Gideon paused for a thoughtful moment before continuing. “Don’t mistake me, McKenna—you’re the best man I’ve ever known, and I’d give my life for you if necessary. But the fact is, socially speaking, you’re not just a step down for Lady Aline. You’re a long tumble from the mountaintop.”

The words hardly did anything to improve McKenna’s mood. However, Gideon could always be counted on to speak to him honestly—and McKenna appreciated that far more than countless well-meant lies. Receiving the observation with a nod, he frowned at the tops of his shiny black shoes.

“I wouldn’t say that your situation is completely hopeless,” Gideon continued. “You’ve got some advantages that would inspire many women, even Lady Aline, to overlook the fact that you’re an oversized mongrel. The ladies seem to find you attractive enough, and the devil knows you don’t lack for money. And you’re damned persuasive when you want to be. Don’t tell me that you can’t manage to convince a thirty-one-year-old spinster from Hampshire to marry you. Especially if she’s already demonstrated her willingness to, er…favor you, as she apparently has.”

McKenna threw him a sharp glance. “Who said anything about marriage?”

The question seemed to catch Gideon off-guard. “You just said you want her to come to NewYork with you.”

“Not as my wife.”

“As a mistress?” Gideon asked incredulously. “You can’t really believe that she would lower herself to accept such an arrangement.”

“I’ll make her accept it—by any means necessary.”

“What about her relationship with Lord Sandridge?”

“I’ll put an end to that.”

Gideon stared at him, seeming confounded. “My God. Have I misunderstood, McKenna, or do you really intend to ruin Lady Aline’s hopes of marriage, blacken her name on two continents, break all ties to her family and friends, and destroy all hope of her ever participating in decent society? And probably foist a bastard child on her in the bargain?”

The thought caused McKenna to smile coldly. “A Marsden giving birth to the bastard of a bastard…yes, that would suit me quite well.”

Gideon’s eyes narrowed. “Holy hell—I never would have thought you capable of such malice.”

“You don’t know me, then.”

“Apparently not,” Gideon murmured with a wondering shake of his head. Though it was clear that he would have liked to continue, a particularly bumpy stretch of road caused him to subside back in his seat and clutch his head with a groan.

McKenna returned his gaze to the window, while the remnant of a cool smile remained on his lips.

Marcus’s pleasure at Shaw and McKenna’s departure lasted for precisely one day…until he discovered that Livia had left for London on the following morning. It had been no mean feat to accomplish the necessary packing and make the travel arrangements, all in secret. Aline had been certain that one of the servants might let something slip before Livia was actually off. Thanks to Mrs. Faircloth, however, lips were buttoned everywhere from the scullery to the stables, as no one dared to incur the housekeeper’s wrath by betraying Livia’s plans.

When Livia’s carriage finally rolled away, the sun had just begun to shed its first feeble rays on the drive leading from Stony Cross. Heaving a sigh of relief, Aline stood in the entrance hall, wearing a soft blue morning gown and worn felt slippers. She smiled at Mrs. Faircloth, whose obvious ambivalence about Livia’s actions had not prevented her from doing whatever was necessary to help her.

“Mrs. Faircloth,” Aline said, slipping her hand into the housekeeper’s. Their fingers clung briefly. “How many years have you stood by and watched Marsdens doing things you haven’t approved of?”

The housekeeper smiled at the rhetorical question, and they stood together in silent affection, watching the carriage disappear at the end of the drive.

A voice startled the two of them, and Aline turned to meet her brother’s suspicious gaze. Marcus was dressed in his hunting clothes, his eyes cold and black amid the hard angles of his face. “Would you care to tell me what is going on?” he asked brusquely.

“Certainly, dear.” Aline glanced at Mrs. Faircloth. “Thank you, Mrs. Faircloth—I am certain that you have things to do now.”

“Yes, my lady,” came the immediate and distinctly grateful reply, as the housekeeper had no wish to be present during one of Marcus’s rare but volcanic rages. She sped away, her black skirts fluttering behind her.

“Who was in that carriage?” Marcus demanded.

“Shall we go to the parlor?” Aline suggested. “I’ll ring for some tea, and—”

“Don’t tell me that it was Livia.”

“All right, I won’t.” She paused before adding sheepishly. “But it was. And before you work yourself into a lather about it—”

“By all that’s holy, my sister has not raced off to London to pursue that damned libertine!” Marcus said in murderous fury.

“Livia will be perfectly fine,” Aline said hastily. “She’s going to stay at Marsden Terrace, and she has a chaperone, and—”

“I’m going to fetch her at once.” Squaring the muscled bulk of his shoulders, Marcus started for the door.

“No!” Well intentioned he might be, but her brother’s high-handedness had just reached its limits. “You will not, Marcus.” Although she did not raise her voice, her tone stopped him in his tracks. “If you dare try to follow her, I will shoot your horse out from under you.”

Marcus swiveled around to stare at her incredulously. “Good God, Aline, I don’t have to tell you what she’s risking—”

“I know perfectly well what Livia is risking. And so does she.” Sailing past him, Aline went to the parlor that adjoined the entrance hall, while he followed at her heels.

Marcus closed the door with a perfectly executed swipe of his foot. “Give me one good reason why I should stand by and do nothing!”

“Because Livia will resent you forever if you interfere.”

Their gazes locked for a long time. Gradually the fury seemed to drain from Marcus, and he went to sit heavily in the nearest chair. Aline could not help but feel a flicker of sympathy for him, knowing that for a man like her brother, this enforced helplessness was the worst sort of torture. “Why does it have to be him?” he grumbled. “Why couldn’t she pick some decent young man from a solid English family?”

“Mr. Shaw is not so terrible,” Aline said, unable to repress a smile.

He gave her a dark look. “You refuse to see anything past that blond hair and all that empty charm, and that damned American insolence that women seem to find so alluring.”

“You forgot to mention all that nice American money,” Aline teased.

Marcus lifted his gaze heavenward, clearly wondering what he had done to deserve such infernal aggravation. “He’s going to use her, and then break her heart,” he said flatly. Only someone who knew him well could hear the edge of fearful worry in his voice.

“Oh, Marcus,” Aline said gently, “Livia and I are both stronger than you seem to believe. And everyone must risk heartbreak, at one time or another.” Coming to stand by his chair, she smoothed a hand over his crisp black hair. “Even you.”

He shrugged irritably and ducked away from her hand. “I don’t take unnecessary risks.”

“Not even for love?”

“Especially not for that.”

Smiling fondly, Aline shook her head. “Poor Marcus…how I look forward to the day when you fall under some woman’s spell.”

Marcus stood from the chair. “You’ll have to wait a long time for that,” he said, and left the parlor with his usual impatient stride.

The Rutledge Hotel was currently approaching a remarkable metamorphosis, at the conclusion of which it would undoubtedly be the most elegant and modern hotel in Europe. In the past five years, the owner, Harry Rutledge—a gentleman of somewhat mysterious origins—had quietly and ruthlessly acquired every lot on the street between the Capitol Theater and the Embankment, in the heart of the London theater district. It was said that in his ambitions to create the ultimate hotel, Rutledge had visited America to observe the latest in hotel design and service, which was developing much faster there than anywhere else. Currently the Rutledge consisted of a row of private homes, but these structures would soon be razed in preparation for a monumental building the likes of which London had never seen.

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