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Page 29

“I don’t care about your money.”

“I know that, damn it.” Now he began to sound disgruntled. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve got to have you.”

“Have?”

“Marry.”

Frowning, Livia began to slide off him, but Gideon grasped her h*ps and made her stay. “It’s worth considering, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Not when we’ve known each other for little more than a fortnight!”

“Then tell me how long a courtship you want. I can wait.”

“You have to go back to New York.”

“I can wait,” he repeated stubbornly.

Sighing, Livia lowered her face to his chest and rested her cheek against the crisp, curling hair. She forced herself to be honest. “Nothing would induce me to marry you, my darling.”

Gideon’s arms went around her then. He held her a little too tightly, and ran his hands over her back in a long, supplicating stroke. “Why not?”

“Because I care for you too much to watch you destroy yourself.”

She felt the sudden tension in the long body beneath hers. Again she moved to roll away from him, expecting that this time he would let her go. But his arm tightened around her slender back, and one hand came to press her head more firmly against his chest. Resignation flattened his tone. “You want me to stop drinking.”

“No—I want no part of that decision.”

“But you would consider marrying me if I didn’t drink?” At her long hesitation, he urged her to raise her head and look at him.

“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “In that case, I would probably consider it.”

Gideon’s expression was shuttered, his mouth twisting as if he were looking inside himself and was dissatisfied with what he saw. “I don’t know if I can stop,” he muttered with a frankness that she admired, even if the words were unwelcome. “I don’t even know if I want to. I’d rather just keep drinking, and have you as well.”

“You can’t,” she said flatly. “Even if you are a Shaw.”

Gideon turned to his side, holding her head in the crook of his arm as he looked down at her. “I would give you everything you’ve ever wanted. I would take you anywhere in the world. Anything you asked for—”

“It would come between us, eventually.” Livia began to wonder if she weren’t insane, turning down a proposal from him when most women would have fallen to their knees in gratitude. A tremulous smile came to her lips as she saw his expression. Clearly he was not a man accustomed to being refused for any reason. “Let’s just enjoy the time that we have together now. I’ll be returning to Stony Cross in a few days, but until then—”

“A few days? No, stay longer, and go back with me.”

She shook her head. “It wouldn’t do for us to travel together—people would talk.”

“I don’t give a damn.” Desperation threaded through his voice. “Just take me as I am, Livia.”

“Perhaps I could, if I cared less,” she returned, keeping her eyes closed as he brushed his lips over her delicate lids, her lashes, her hot cheeks, the tip of her nose.

“But I won’t subject myself to the process of losing you little by little, until you’ve either killed yourself or become someone that I don’t recognize.”

Gideon drew back and gave her a sullen stare. “At least tell me one thing—do you love me?”

Livia remained silent, uncertain whether the admission would make things better or worse.

“I have to know,” Gideon said, his mouth twisting with self-derision as he heard the plea in his own voice. “If I’m to change my life for you, I’ve got to have some hope.”

“I don’t want you to change your life for me. You’ll have to make the same decision every day, over and over—it must be for yourself alone. Otherwise you will come to resent me.”

She saw how much he wanted to argue with her. Instead he settled beside her, loosely wrapping his arm around her waist. “I don’t want to lose you,” he whispered.

Stroking the back of his hand, Livia sighed. “I’ve been adrift for so long, ever since Amberley’s death, and now I’m finally ready to start living again. You came along just at the time I needed you, and for that I will always remember you with fondness and gratitude.”

“Fondness?” he repeated, his mouth twisting. “Gratitude?”

“I’m not going to admit that I feel anything more than that. It would be a form of coercion.”

Grumbling beneath his breath, Gideon rose above her. “Maybe I should test your resolve.”

“You’re welcome to try,” Livia said, but instead of sounding flirtatious, her voice was melancholy, and she found herself wrapping him in her arms and legs as if she could somehow protect him from the demons within himself.

Aline sighed as she extracted yet another sheet of cream paper from the drawer of her writing desk and wiped the quill of her pen with a square of black felt. Nearly a dozen letters were piled in front of her, from friends and relatives who were doubtless peeved at her lateness in replying. However, one could not simply dash off a conveniently quick reply. Letter writing was an art that demanded close attention to detail. One had to convey the latest news with style and verve…and if there had been a lack of noteworthy events to write about, one had to be creatively amusing, or philosophical.

Aline frowned at the three letters that she had already finished. So far she had described minor household complaints, related some choice bits of gossip, and even given commentary on the recent weather. “How skillful I’ve become at talking about everything but the truth,” she commented to herself with a mocking smile. But she doubted that her real news would be music to the ears of her relatives…I have recently taken a lover, and have participated in two decidedly torrid encounters, in the forest and in my bedroom cabinet. My sister Livia is enjoying good health, and is currently on a visit to London, where at this moment she is probably rolling in bed with a perpetually inebriated American…

Picturing how such a missive would be received by her starchy cousin Georgina, or Great-Aunt Maude, Aline stifled a grin.

Her brother’s voice came from the doorway, providing a welcome interruption. “Good God. You must be at a complete loss for something to do, if you’ve resorted to writing letters.”

She glanced up at Marcus with a teasing smile. “Spoken by the one person on earth who is more abominable at correspondence than I.”

“I despise every aspect of it,” Marcus admitted. “In fact, the only thing worse than writing a letter is receiving one—God knows why anyone would think I would be interested in the minutiae of his or her life.”

Continuing to smile, Aline set down her pen and glanced at a tiny smudge of ink on the tip of her finger. “Is there something you want, dear? I beg you, do something to rescue me from this unbearable tedium.”

“No need to beg. Rescue is at hand…or at least a convenient distraction.” He showed her the sealed letter in his hand, while an odd expression crossed his face. “A delivery has arrived from London. This came with it.”

“All the way from London? If it’s the oysters we sent for, they’re two days early—”

“It’s not oysters.” Marcus strode to the doorway and gestured to her. “The delivery is for you. Come to the entrance hall.”

“Very well.” Methodically Aline stoppered the cut-glass bottle of glue that she used to seal the envelopes, and closed a box of red wax wafers. When all was in order, she rose from the desk and followed Marcus to the entrance hall. The air was steeped with the heady fragrance of roses, as if the entire hall had been rinsed with expensive perfume.

“Good Lord!” she exclaimed, stopping short at the sight of massive bunches of flowers being brought in from a cart outside. Mountains of white roses, some of them tightly furled buds, some in glorious full bloom. Two footmen had been recruited to assist the driver of the cart, and the three of them kept going outside to fetch bouquet after bouquet wrapped in stiff white lace paper.

“Fifteen dozen of them,” Marcus said brusquely. “I doubt there’s a single white rose left in London.”

Aline could not believe how fast her heart was beating. Slowly she moved forward and drew a single rose from one of the bouquets. Cupping the delicate bowl of the blossom with her fingers, she bent her head to inhale its lavish perfume. Its petals were a cool brush of silk against her cheek.

“There’s something else,” Marcus said.

Following his gaze, Aline saw the butler directing yet another footman to pry open a huge wooden crate filled with brick-sized parcels wrapped in brown paper. “What are they, Salter?”

“With your permission, my lady, I will find out.” The elderly butler unwrapped one of the parcels with great care. He spread the waxed brown paper open to reveal a damply fragrant loaf of gingerbread, its spice adding a pungent note to the smell of the roses.

Aline put her hand over her mouth to contain a bubbling laugh, while some unidentifiable emotion caused her entire body to tremble. The offering worried her terribly, and at the same time, she was insanely pleased by the extravagance of it.

“Gingerbread?” Marcus asked incredulously. “Why the hell would McKenna send you an entire crate of gingerbread?”

“Because I like it,” came Aline’s breathless reply. “How do you know this is from McKenna?”

Marcus gave her a speaking look, as if only an imbecile would suppose otherwise.

Fumbling a little with the envelope, Aline extracted a folded sheet of paper. It was covered in a bold scrawl, the penmanship serviceable and without flourishes:

No miles of level desert, no jagged mountain heights, no sea of endless blue

Neither words nor tears, nor silent fears

will keep me from coming back to you.

There was no signature…none was necessary. Aline closed her eyes, while her nose stung and hot tears squeezed from beneath her lashes. She pressed her lips briefly to the letter, not caring what Marcus thought.

“It’s a poem,” she said unsteadily. “A terrible one.” It was the loveliest thing she had ever read. She held it to her cheek, then used her sleeve to blot her eyes.

“Let me see it.”

Immediately Aline tucked the poem into her bodice. “No, it’s private.” She swallowed against the tightness of her throat, willing the surge of unruly emotion to recede. “McKenna,” she whispered, “how you devastate me.”

Sighing tautly, Marcus gave her a handkerchief. “What can I do?” he muttered, unraveled by the sight of a woman’s tears.

The only reply that Aline could make was the one he most hated to hear. “There’s nothing you can do.”

She thought that he was about to put his arms around her in a comforting hug, but they were both distracted by the appearance of a visitor who entered the hall in the wake of the busy footmen. Strolling in with his hands thrust in his jacket pockets, Adam, Lord Sandridge, gazed at the proliferation of white roses with a bemused expression.

“I presume those are for you,” he said to Aline, removing his hands from his pockets as he approached.

“Good afternoon, Sandridge,” Marcus said, his manner turning businesslike as they shook hands. “Your arrival is well timed, as I believe Lady Aline is in need of some pleasant distraction.”

“Then I shall endeavor to be both pleasant and distracting,” Adam replied with a casual grin. He bowed gracefully over Aline’s hand.

“Come walk with me in the garden,” she urged, her fingers tightening on his.

“What an excellent idea.” Adam reached out to one of the bouquets heaped on the entrance table, broke off a perfect ivory blossom, and tucked it into his lapel. Extending his arm to Aline, he walked with her through the hall to the French doors at the back of the house.

The gardens were brilliant with summer magic, with plump cushions of forget-me-nots, lemon balm, and vibrant yellow daylilies, surrounding plots of roses shot through with garnet clematis. Long rows of silvery lamb’s-ear stretched between large stone urns filled with rainbows of Oriental poppies. Descending the terrace steps, Adam and Aline began on a winding gravel path that led past neatly clipped yews. Adam was one of those rare people who was comfortable with silence, waiting patiently for her to speak.

Feeling soothed by the serenity of the garden and Adam’s reassuring presence, Aline let out a long sigh. “The roses were from McKenna,” she finally said.

“I gathered that,” Adam replied dryly.

“There was a poem too.” She extracted it from her bodice and gave it to him. Adam was the only person on earth whom she would allow to read something so intimate. Pausing in the center of the path, Adam unfolded the slip of paper and scanned the few lines.

When he glanced at her, he seemed to read the exquisite mingling of pain and pleasure in her eyes. “Very touching,” he said sincerely, returning the poem to her. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing. I’m going to send him away, as I originally planned.”

Considering the words carefully, Adam seemed inclined to venture an opinion, then appeared to think better of it. He shrugged. “If that’s what you think best, so be it.”

No one else of her acquaintance would have made such an answer. Aline took his hand and held on tightly as they continued to walk. “Adam, one of the things I adore most about you is that you never try to advise me what to do.”

“I despise advice—it never works.” They skirted the edge of the mermaid fountain, which splashed lethargically amid heavy beds of delphiniums.

“I’ve considered telling McKenna everything,” Aline confided, “but it would turn out badly, no matter how he responded.”

“How so, sweet?”

“The moment that I show McKenna my scars, he would either find them too horrible to accept, or worse, he’ll pity me, and feel duty-bound to propose out of obligation or honor…and then he’ll eventually come to regret his decision, and wish to be rid of me. I couldn’t live like that, looking into his eyes every morning and wondering if that was the day he would leave me for good.”

Adam made a soft, sympathetic sound.

“Am I doing the wrong thing?” she asked.

“I never define these matters in terms of right and wrong,” Adam replied. “One should make the best choice possible given the circumstances, and then avoid second-guessing for the sake of one’s own sanity.”

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