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Page 28

Seeing what a splendid time Mrs. Smedley was having in admonishing Gideon, Livia found an irrepressible grin breaking out, time and time again. Every now and then his gaze would meet with hers, and his smiling blue eyes held an expression that made her breath catch.

Finally the lecture on tobacco was diverted to the subject of etiquette, and then into the more sensitive area of courtship, which had Livia wincing even as Gideon seemed to be highly entertained by Mrs. Smedley’s pronouncements.

“…one should never marry someone who is similar in form, temperament and appearance to himself,” the chaperone counseled them both. “A dark-haired gentleman, for example, should not marry a brunette, nor should a corpulent man marry an overendowed girl. The warm-hearted should unite with the cold-blooded, the nervous should be paired with the stoic, and the passionate should marry the cerebral.”

“Then it is not advisable for two passionate individuals to wed?” Although Gideon was not looking at Livia, he somehow managed to avoid the kick she aimed at the front of his shin. Her foot connected harmlessly with a lacquered panel.

“No, indeed,” was the emphatic reply. “Just think of the excitable natures of the children!”

“Terrifying,” Gideon said, raising his brows mockingly at Livia.

“And societal position is most significant,” Mrs. Smedley said. “Only those of equal situation should marry…or if there be inequity, the husband should be superior to his bride. It is impossible for a woman to esteem a man who is below her station.”

Livia tensed suddenly, while Gideon fell silent. She did not have to look at him to know that he was thinking of McKenna and Aline.

“Will I have an opportunity to see McKenna in London?” she asked Gideon, while Mrs. Smedley kept on orating, oblivious to the fact that she wasn’t being listened to.

Gideon nodded. “Tomorrow night, if you will do me the honor of accompanying me to the theater.”

“Yes, I would like that.” She paused before asking in a low tone, “Has McKenna mentioned my sister to you of late?”

He hesitated, and gave her a wary glance. “Yes.”

“Has he given you any indication of the nature of his feelings for her?”

“One could say that,” Gideon replied dryly. “He’s quite bitter—and keenly desirous of revenge. The wounds she dealt him long ago were so deep as to be nearly lethal.”

Livia felt a rush of hope followed closely by despair. “None of that was her fault,” she said. “But she’ll never bring herself to explain what happened, or why she behaved as she did.”

Gideon stared at her intently. “Tell me.”

“I can’t,” Livia said unhappily. “I promised my sister that I would never reveal her secrets. Once such a promise was made to me by a friend, and then she broke her word, and it caused me a great deal of pain. I could never betray Aline that way.” Unable to read his expression, she frowned apologetically. “I know that you must fault me for remaining silent, but—”

“That’s not what I’m thinking.”

“Then what are you thinking?”

“That everything I learn about you makes me love you more.”

Livia stopped breathing for a second, stunned by the admission. It took a long time for her to speak. “Gideon…”

“You don’t have to say it back,” he murmured. “For once, I want to have the pleasure of loving someone without asking for anything in return.”

There were two kinds of theatergoers—those who actually went to enjoy the play, and then the great majority who went for purely social reasons. The theater was a place to be seen, exchange gossip, and carry on flirtations. Seated in a box along with Gideon Shaw, McKenna, Mrs. Smedley, and two other couples, Livia soon gave up all attempts to hear what was taking place onstage, as most of the audience had elected to talk through the entire performance. Instead she sat back and watched the parade of men and women who came by their box. It was remarkable, the amount of attention that two wealthy American industrialists could attract.

Gideon was an expert at social banter, appearing relaxed and smiling as he chatted with the visitors. McKenna, on the other hand, was far more reserved, making few remarks, and choosing his words with care. Dressed in a formal scheme of black and white, he was the perfect dark foil for Gideon’s golden elegance. Livia was more than a little intimidated by McKenna, and awed that Aline held a man like this in her thrall.

As Gideon went to fetch her a glass of lemonade for her, and a cordial for Mrs. Smedley, Livia had the opportunity to speak with McKenna more or less privately, as her chaperone was deaf as a post. McKenna was polite and a bit distant, certainly seeming far from needing anyone’s sympathy, and yet Livia couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Despite McKenna’s invulnerable facade, she saw signs of fatigue in his swarthy face, and shadows beneath his eyes that bespoke many sleepless nights. She knew how terrible it was to love someone that you couldn’t have—and it was even worse for McKenna, because he would never know why Aline had rejected him. As Livia’s guilty conscience reminded her of the part she had played in causing McKenna to be sent away from Stony Cross all those years ago, she felt herself turn red. To her consternation, McKenna noticed the telltale blush.

“My lady,” he murmured, “does my company disturb you for some reason?”

“No,” she said swiftly.

McKenna held her gaze as he replied gently. “I think it does. I will find another place from which to view the play, if it would ease your discomfort.”

As Livia stared into his weary blue-green eyes, she remembered the dashing boy he had once been, and she thought of the apology she had wanted to make for a dozen years. Agitation filled her as she considered the promise she had made to Aline—but that promise had been never to talk about the scars. She hadn’t promised not to talk about their father’s manipulations.

“McKenna,” she said hesitantly, “my distress arises from the memory of something I did a long time ago. An injustice that I did to you, actually.”

“Are you referring to the time I was in service at Stony Cross Park?” he asked with a slight frown. “You were only a little girl.”

Livia fidgeted as she replied in a low voice. “I fear that little girls are quite adept at mischief making—and I was no exception. I was the reason that you were bundled off to Bristol so suddenly.”

McKenna stared at her with sudden intensity, remaining silent as she continued.

“You know how I used to follow Aline around, watching everything she did. I worshipped her. And of course I knew about the attachment between the two of you. I suppose I was a bit jealous, wanting all of Aline’s love and attention, as she was like a second mother to me. So when I happened to see you in the carriage room one day, while the two of you were—” Livia stopped and blushed even harder. “I did the worst possible thing—I didn’t realize what the consequences would be. I went to my father and told him what I had seen. And that is why you were dismissed and sent to Bristol. Afterward, when I comprehended the results of my actions, and saw how Aline was suffering, I felt the worst kind of remorse. I’ve always regretted what I did, and although I do not expect you to forgive me, I do want to tell you how sorry I am.”

“Suffering?” McKenna repeated tonelessly. “Lady Aline had me sent to Bristol because she regretted having feelings for a servant. She knew I would soon become an embarrassment to her—”

“No,” Livia interrupted earnestly. “It was our father—you can’t know what a vindictive man he was. He told my sister that if she ever saw you again, he would destroy you. He vowed that he wouldn’t rest until you were left without a home or any means of supporting yourself—you would have ended up dead or in prison. And Aline believed him, because she knew what he was capable of. She never wanted you to leave Stony Cross—but she did what was necessary to protect you. To save you. In fact, the only reason Father secured your apprenticeship in Bristol, rather than cast you into the streets, was because Aline demanded it.”

McKenna gave her a derisive glance. “Then why didn’t she tell me so at the time?”

“My sister believed that if she had given you any reason to hope, you would have risked everything to come back to her.” Livia looked down into her lap, smoothing the silk of her gown as she murmured, “Was she wrong about that?”

An endless silence passed. “No,” he finally whispered.

Lifting her gaze, Livia saw that McKenna was staring blindly at the action onstage. He seemed composed…until one noticed the mist of sweat on his forehead, and the blanched surface of his knuckles as his fist rested on his thigh. Livia reflected uneasily that she had revealed too much, but now that she had started, she found it difficult to stop. She had to set things right, if only to make McKenna understand the truth about this one facet of the past. “After you left,” she said, “Aline was never the same. She loved you, McKenna…enough that she chose to make you hate her, rather than see you harmed in any way.”

His voice was thick with condensed hostility. “If that was true, she would have told me about it by now. Your father is dead, devil take his soul—and there is nothing to stop Aline from setting the record straight.”

“Perhaps,” Livia said carefully, “she does not want you to feel obligated to her in any way. Or perhaps she is afraid, for some reason that you have yet to learn. If you would only—”

She fell silent as McKenna unclenched his hand suddenly and gestured for her to stop, while his unseeing gaze remained locked on the stage. Noticing the slight tremor of his hand, Livia realized that the information had upset him, when she had thought he would receive it with gratitude, or even relief. Chewing the inside of her lip, Livia sat in abashed silence, while McKenna lowered his hand and continued to focus on some distant object.

It was with relief that Livia saw Gideon return to the box with her lemonade. He glanced alertly from her face to McKenna’s, sensitive to the brittle tension in the air. Resuming his place beside Livia, Gideon engaged her with his easy charm until her uncomfortable flush faded, and she was able to smile naturally.

McKenna, on the other hand, looked as if he were staring into the bowels of hell. The perspiration on his face accumulated until the mist had transformed into heavy streaks, and every line of his body was tense and tightly marshaled. He seemed unaware of what was going on around him, or even where he was. When it seemed that he could stand it no longer, he rose from his seat with a murmur, and left the box swiftly.

Gideon turned to Livia with an astonished gaze. “What in God’s name was said between you while I was gone?”

McKenna made his way outside the theater, where street vendors walked back and forth from Covent Garden. Passing the massive columns that braced the pedimented entrance, McKenna stopped in the lee of the farthest one, where he could stand in shadow. His mind and body were in chaos. The echo of Livia’s words buzzed in his ears, eroding his self-possession, making him wonder angrily what the hell he should believe. The idea that everything he had thought for twelve years might not be true…It jarred him to the core. It terrified him.

Suddenly he remembered his own long-ago words. “Aline…I would never leave unless you told me to go…”

That hadn’t been entirely true. The fact was, it would have required far more than that. Had McKenna retained any hope that Aline had loved him, he would have kept coming back to her, compelled by a need that far outweighed any sense of self-preservation.

Aline had known that.

McKenna dragged the sleeve of his fine broadcloth coat over his face. If it was true, if Aline had driven him away to protect him from the old earl’s vengeance…then she had loved him. Perhaps there was nothing of it left by now, but she had loved him once. He struggled to keep from believing it, while at the same time he was filled with an agony of emotion that seemed impossible for mere human flesh to contain. He needed to go to her, and ask if it was true. But he already knew the answer, which was confirmed by a sudden certainty that emanated from the very marrow of his bones.

Aline had loved him…the knowledge sent him reeling.

A few passers-by glanced curiously at the dark figure that leaned against the massive column, his head bowed like that of a battered colossus. However, no one dared to stop or ask after his welfare. They sensed a coiled threat in his stillness, as if he were possibly a madman who might be provoked into some desperate action. Easier, and far safer, to walk away and pretend they had not seen him.

Gideon came to Livia later that night, slipping into the house and up to her bedroom. He undressed her carefully and made love to her for a long time, moving inside her with deep, languid glides, lifting her gently to change positions. Her moans were smothered by silken, questioning kisses, while her shivering body welcomed his anchoring weight.

It occurred to Livia that she was doing things with him that she had never even done with Amberley. There were no illusions in this bed, nothing but a terrible, wonderful honesty that left no corner of her soul to hide in. She wanted Gideon to know her completely, even her defects. Something about him—his intense physicality, perhaps, seemed to melt the reserve she had worn like a hair shirt, leaving her free to respond to him without inhibition. Whatever he wanted, she did with shameless delight, and in turn he loved her in ways that she would never have thought to ask for.

They lay peaceful and winded and sated in the aftermath, with Livia half lying on top of Gideon’s body, her leg thrown heedlessly across his. She felt his fingers moving in her hair, finding the hot curve of her scalp beneath the fine locks, stroking his way down to the nape of her neck. As her leg shifted higher, she felt the pressure of his sex against her thigh, still half-turgid even after cl**ax. Lazily she reached down to fondle him.

“You’re insatiable,” she accused with a tremor of laughter in her voice.

Smiling, Gideon hooked his hands beneath her arms and shifted her fully over him. “No more so than you.”

She leaned down until their noses were touching. “I will confess, Mr. Shaw, that I am becoming rather enamored of you.”

“Enamored?” he scoffed. “You’re madly in love with me.”

Livia felt her heart skip a beat, but she kept her tone light. “Now, why would I be so silly as to fall in love with you?”

“There are a multitude of reasons,” he informed her. “Not only do I satisfy you in bed, I also happen to be one of the richest men in the civilized world—”

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