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She believed what she was saying—McKenna saw it in her face. It broke his heart, even as it infuriated him. Damn her, she knew that the differences between them were insurmountable, and she had to accept that. He couldn’t stay here and be faced with constant temptation, knowing that to give in would result in both their downfalls.

Cradling her face in his hands, McKenna let his fingers touch the outward tips of her dark brows, and drew his thumbs over the warm velvet of her cheeks. And because he couldn’t manage to disguise the reverence of his touch, he spoke with cold bluntness. “You think you want me now. But you’ll change. Someday you’ll find it damned easy to forget about me. I’m a bastard. A servant, and not even an upper servant at that—”

“You’re the other half of me.”

Shocked into silence, McKenna closed his eyes. He hated his own instinctive response to the words, the leap of primitive joy. “Bloody hell. You’re making it impossible for me to stay at Stony Cross.”

Aline backed away from him at once, the color draining from her face. “No. Don’t go. I’m sorry. I won’t say anything else. Please, McKenna—you’ll stay, won’t you?”

He had a sudden taste of the inevitable pain that he would experience someday, the lethal wounds that would result from the simple act of leaving her. Aline was nineteen…he had another year with her, perhaps not even that long. Then the world would open up to her, and McKenna would become a dangerous liability. Or worse, an embarrassment. She would make herself forget this night. She would not want to remember what she had said to a stable boy on the moonlit balcony outside her bedroom. But until then…

“I’ll stay for as long as I can,” he said gruffly.

Anxiety flashed in the dark depths of her eyes. “And tomorrow?” she reminded him. “You’ll meet me tomorrow?”

“The river at sunset,” McKenna said, suddenly weary from the endless inner struggle of wanting and never having.

Aline seemed to read his mind. “I’m sorry.” Her anguished whisper descended through the air as gently as falling flower petals as he climbed down from the balcony.

After McKenna had disappeared into the shadows, Aline padded back into her room and touched her lips. Her fingertips rubbed the kiss deeper into the tender skin. His mouth had been unexpectedly hot, and his taste was sweet and exquisite, flavored with apples that he must have purloined from the orchard. She had imagined his kiss thousands of times, but nothing could have prepared her for the sensual reality of it.

She had wanted to make McKenna acknowledge her as a woman, and she had finally succeeded. But there was no triumph in the moment, only a despair that was as incisive as a knife blade. She knew that McKenna thought she didn’t understand the complexity of the situation, when in truth she knew it better than he.

It had been relentlessly instilled in her since the cradle that people did not venture out of their classes. Young men like McKenna would forever be forbidden to her. Everyone from the top of society to the bottom understood and accepted such stratification—it caused universal discomfort to suggest that it could ever be any other way. She and McKenna might as well have been different species, she thought with black humor.

But somehow Aline could not see McKenna as everyone else did. He was no aristocrat, but neither was he a mere stable boy. Had he been born to a family of noble pedigree, he would have been the pride of the peerage. It was monstrously unfair that he had started life with such disadvantages. He was smart, handsome, hardworking, and yet he could never overcome the social limitations that he had been born with.

She remembered the day he had first come to Stony Cross Park, a small boy with unevenly cropped black hair and eyes that were neither blue nor green, but some magical shade in-between. According to the servants’ gossip, the boy was the bastard of a village girl who had run off to London, gotten herself in a predicament, and died in childbirth. The unfortunate baby had been sent back to Stony Cross, where his grandparents had cared for him until they became infirm. When McKenna reached the age of eight, he was sent to Stony Cross Park, where he was employed as a hall boy. His duties had been to clean the upper servants’ shoes, help the maids carry heavy cans of hot water up and down the stairs, and wash the silver coins that had come from town, so as to prevent the earl and countess from encountering any traces of dirt that might have come from a tradesman’s hands.

His full name was John McKenna, but there had already been three servants on the estate named John. It had been decided that the boy would be referred to by his last name until a new one was chosen for him…but somehow that had been forgotten about, and he had been simply McKenna ever since. At first most of the servants had taken little notice of him, except for the housekeeper, Mrs. Faircloth. She was a broad-faced, rosy-cheeked, kindhearted woman who was the closest thing to a parent that McKenna had ever known. In fact, even Aline and her younger sister, Livia, were far more apt to go to Mrs. Faircloth than they were to approach their own mother. No matter how busy the housekeeper was, she always seemed to have a moment to spare for a child, to bandage a hurt finger, to admire an empty bird’s nest that had been found outside, or to glue the broken part of a toy back into place.

It had been Mrs. Faircloth who had sometimes dismissed McKenna from his duties so that he could run and play with Aline. Those afternoons had been the boy’s only escape from the unnaturally restrained existence of a child servant.

“You must be kind to McKenna,” Mrs. Faircloth had admonished Aline, when she had run to her with a tale of how he had broken her doll’s painted wicker perambulator. “He has no family at all now, nor does he have nice clothes to wear, nor good things to eat for his supper, as you do. Much of the time while you are playing, he is working for his keep. And if he makes too many mistakes, or he is ever thought to be a bad boy, he may be sent away from here, and we will never see him again.”

The words had sunk into Aline’s marrow. From then on she had sought to protect McKenna, taking the blame for his occasional acts of mischief, sharing the sweets that her older brother sometimes brought from town, and even making him study the lessons that her governess gave her to read. And in return McKenna had taught her how to swim, how to skip pebbles across a pond, how to ride a horse, and how to make a whistle from a blade of grass stretched between her thumbs.

Contrary to what everyone, even Mrs. Faircloth, believed, Aline had never thought of McKenna as a brother. The familial affection she felt for Marcus bore no resemblance to her relationship to McKenna. McKenna was her counterpart, her compass, her sanctuary.

It had been only natural that as she developed into a young woman, she would become physically attracted to him. Certainly every other female in Hampshire was. McKenna had grown into a tall, big-boned male with striking looks, his features strong if not precisely chiseled, his nose long and bold, his mouth wide. His black hair hung over his forehead in a perpetual spill, while those singular turquoise eyes were shadowed by extravagant dark lashes. To compound his appeal, he possessed a relaxed charm and a sly sense of humor that had made him a favorite on the estate and in the village beyond.

Aline’s love for McKenna made her want the impossible; to be with him always, to become the family he had never had. Instead she would have to accept the life her parents chose for her. Although love matches among the upper classes were no longer as objectionable as they once had been, the Marsdens still insisted on the tradition of arranged marriage. Aline knew exactly what was in store for her. She would have an indolent aristocratic husband, who would use her to breed his children and turn a blind eye when she took a lover to amuse herself in his absence. Every year she would spend the season in London, followed by the country house visits in summer, and then the autumn hunts. Year after year she would see the same faces, hear the same gossip. Even the pleasures of motherhood would be denied her. Servants would care for her children, and when they were older, they would be sent away to boarding school as Marcus had been.

Decades of emptiness, Aline thought gloomily. And worst of all would be knowing that McKenna was out there somewhere, entrusting another woman with all his thoughts and dreams.

“God, what am I to do?” Aline whispered in agitation, flinging herself onto her brocade-covered bed. She clutched a pillow in her arms and dug her chin into the downy plumpness of its surface, while reckless thoughts clattered through her mind. She couldn’t lose him. The thought made her shaky, filled her with wildness, made her want to scream.

Flinging aside the pillow, Aline lay on her back and stared blindly into the dark folds of the overhead canopy. How could she keep McKenna in her life? She tried to imagine taking him as her lover after she was married. Her mother had affairs…many aristocratic ladies did, and as long as they were discreet, no one objected. But Aline knew that McKenna would never accept such an arrangement. Nothing was half measure for him—he would not consent to share her. A servant he might have been, but he had as much pride and possessiveness as any man on earth.

Aline did not know what to do. It seemed the only choice was to steal every moment she could with him, until fate pulled them apart.

Two

After his eighteenth birthday, McKenna had begun to change with astonishing speed. He grew so quickly that he made Mrs. Faircloth exclaim in fond exasperation that it was no use in letting his trousers out, as it would just have to be done again the next week. He was ravenously hungry all the time, but no amount of food served to satisfy either his appetite or fill out his lanky, big-boned frame.

“The lad’s size bodes well for his future,” Mrs. Faircloth said proudly as she discussed McKenna with the butler, Salter. Their voices carried clearly from the stone-flagged hall to the second-floor balcony where Aline happened to be passing. Alert to any mention of McKenna, she stopped and listened intently.

“Indisputably,” Salter said. “Nearly six feet tall already…I should say he’ll easily attain the proportions of a footman someday.”

“Perhaps he should be brought in from the stables and begin an apprenticeship as a footboy,” Mrs. Faircloth suggested in a diffident tone that made Aline grin. She knew that behind Mrs. Faircloth’s casual manner was a keen desire to bring him up from the lowly position of stable boy to something more prestigious.

“Heaven knows,” the housekeeper continued, “we could use another pair of hands to carry coal and clean the silverplate, and polish the looking glasses.”

“Hmm.” There came a long pause. “I believe you’re right, Mrs. Faircloth. I shall recommend to the earl that McKenna be made a footboy. If he concurs, I will order a livery to be made.”

Regardless of the increase in pay and the privilege of sleeping in the house, McKenna was somewhat less than grateful for his new status. He had enjoyed working with the horses and living in the relative privacy of the stables, and now he spent at least half his time in the manor wearing a conventional full dress livery of black plush breeches, a mustard-colored waistcoat, and a blue pigeon-tailed coat. More aggravating yet was the time every Sunday when he was required to accompany the family to church, open the pew for them, dust the bench, and set out their prayer books.

Aline couldn’t help but be amused by the amicable teasing that McKenna had endured from the village boys and girls who waited outside the church. The sight of their friend clad in the detested livery was an irresistible opportunity for them to comment on the sight of his legs in white stockings. They speculated loudly on whether the bulge of his calves was truly made of muscle or perhaps the “falsies” that footmen sometimes used to make their legs more shapely. McKenna maintained a suitably impassive facade, but he flashed them a glance promising vengeance, causing them to howl in delight.

Mercifully, the rest of McKenna’s time was occupied with gardening and cleaning the carriages, which allowed him to wear his regular disreputable trousers and loose white shirt. He became deeply sun-browned, and although the bronze hue of his skin clearly proclaimed him to be of the working classes, it enhanced the vivid blue-green of his eyes and made his teeth look even whiter than usual. Not surprisingly, McKenna began to attract the notice of female guests at the estate, one of whom even attempted to hire him away from Stony Cross Park.

Despite the lady’s best efforts to entice him, McKenna declined the offer of employment with bashful discretion. Unfortunately, that sense of tactful restraint was not shared by the other servants, who teased McKenna until he turned red beneath his tan. Aline questioned him about the lady’s offer, as soon as she found an opportunity to be alone with him. It was midday, right after McKenna had finished his outdoor chores, and he had a few precious minutes of leisure before he would dress in his livery to work in the manor.

They lounged together at their favorite spot by the river, where a meadow sloped down to the banks. Tall grasses camouflaged them from view as they sat on flat rocks that had been worn smooth by the quietly persistent flow of water. The air was thick with the scents of bog myrtle and sun-warmed heather, a mixture that soothed Aline’s senses.

“Why didn’t you go with her?” Aline asked, drawing her knees up beneath her skirts and locking her arms around them.

Stretching out his long, lanky body, McKenna propped himself up on one elbow. “With whom?”

She rolled her eyes at his pretended ignorance. “Lady Brading—the woman who wanted to hire you. Why did you refuse her?”

His slow smile nearly blinded her. “Because I belong here.”

“With me?”

McKenna was silent, his smile lingering as he stared into her eyes. Unspoken words drifted between them…words as tangible as the very air they breathed.

Aline wanted to curl up beside him like a drowsing cat, relaxing in the sunshine and the shelter of his body. Instead she forced herself to remain still. “I overheard one of the footmen saying that you could have gotten double the salary you earn now—only you would have to provide her with a different kind of service than you’re used to.”

“That must have been James talking,” McKenna muttered. “Damn his loose tongue. How would he know, anyway?”

Aline was fascinated to see a blush crossing the crests of his cheeks and the heavy bridge of his nose. Then she understood. The woman had wanted to hire McKenna to come to her bed. A woman at least twice his age. Aline felt her own face begin to heat, and she let her gaze slip over the broad slope of his shoulder, down to the large hand that rested on a green-black berth of moss.

“She wanted you to sleep with her,” Aline said rather than asked, breaking a silence that had become painfully intimate.

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