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Page 30

Aline couldn’t help contrasting him with Marcus, who believed so strongly in absolutes—right and wrong, good and bad—and her mouth curved with a bittersweet smile. “Adam, dear, I’ve considered your proposal over the past few days…”

“Yes?” They stopped once again, facing each other with their hands linked.

“I can’t accept,” she said. “It would be unfair to both of us. I suppose that if I can’t have a real marriage, I should be happy with an imitation of it. But all the same, I’d rather share a genuine friendship with you than a counterfeit marriage.”

Seeing the glitter of unhappiness in her eyes, Adam reached out to clasp her in a strong, warm hug. “Darling girl,” he murmured, “my offer stands indefinitely. I’ll be your genuine friend until my dying day. And if you ever change your mind about marriage, you have only to snap your fingers.” He smiled wryly. “I’ve found that imitations can sometimes become damned attractive, when one can’t afford the real thing.”

Seventeen

Livia had spent approximately seven nights in London, returning with sufficient parcels and boxes to lend credence to the claim that she had gone to town for a shopping expedition. The female guests took great enjoyment in viewing some of Livia’s purchases…a small, high-crowned hat trimmed with dyed feathers…gloves that had been embroidered and beaded at the wrists…shawls of lace, cashmere, and silk,…a sheaf of sketches and fabric samples from the London modiste who was making gowns for her.

Naturally, Susan Chamberlain asked if Livia had seen Mr. Shaw and McKenna while she was in London, and Livia replied with breezy offhandedness. “Oh yes, my chaperone Mrs. Smedley and I spent a most delightful evening with them at the Capitol Theater. Box seats, and an excellent view of the stage—we were positively transported!”

However, no matter how casual Livia’s manner was, her statements were greeted by arched brows and pointedly exchanged gazes. Everyone, it seemed, suspected that there was far more to the story than what was being told.

Aline had heard the details of the London visit as soon as Livia had returned. She went to Livia’s bedroom after her sister had changed into her nightclothes, and the two of them sat on the bed with glasses of wine. Aline leaned against one of the massive carved bedposts, while Livia settled back into the pillows. “I was with him every evening,” she told Aline, her cheeks flushed. “Seven nights of absolute heaven.”

“He’s a good lover, then?” Aline asked with a smile, not above a little prurient curiosity.

“The most wonderful, the most exciting, the most…” Unable to think of the precise superlative she wanted, Livia sighed and sipped her wine. Regarding Aline over the delicate rim of the glass, she shook her head in wonder. “How strange it is that he could be so different from Amberley, and yet suit me just as well. Perhaps even better in some ways.”

“Are you going to marry him?” Aline asked with a queer pang in her chest, happy for her sister, and yet at the same time thinking how far away America was. And if she was being honest with herself, she would have to admit that an envious voice inside was demanding to know why she too couldn’t have what she most wanted.

“He proposed to me, actually,” Livia said. Then she astonished Aline further by adding bleakly, “I turned him down.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

Aline nodded, her gaze locking with Livia’s as an entire silent conversation seemed to pass between them. Letting out a long breath, she looked down and traced the edge of her wineglass with her fingertip. “I’m certain that was the right decision, dear, though not an easy one to make.”

“No, it wasn’t.” They sat in silence for a minute, until Livia asked, “Aren’t you going to ask about McKenna?”

Aline stared into her glass. “How is he?”

“Quiet. Somewhat distracted. We…spoke of you.”

A clang of warning sounded in Aline’s mind as she heard the edge of guilt in Livia’s cautious admission. She looked up quickly, her face stiffening. “What do you mean, you spoke of me?”

Livia took a large swallow of wine. “It turned out quite well, actually,” she said guardedly. “At least, it didn’t turn out badly, although one can’t be certain how he reacted to—”

“Livia, out with it!” Aline demanded, turning cold with anxiety. “What did you tell him?”

“Nothing very much.” Livia gave her a defensive glance. “I finally brought myself to apologize to him about what I did to both of you, so long ago. You know, when I told Father about—”

“Livia, you shouldn’t have,” Aline said, too furious and fearful to shout, her throat constricting to one thin channel. Her hands quivered so violently that her wine was in danger of spilling.

“There’s no reason to be upset,” Livia said, infuriating her further. “I didn’t break my promise to you—I said nothing about your accident, or the scars. I just told him about my part in the matter, and about how our father manipulated everyone, and…well, I did happen to mention that you sent him away to protect him, because Father had threatened to harm him—”

“What? I never wanted him to know that. My God, Livia, what have you done?”

“I only told him a little part of the truth.” It seemed that Livia was torn between defiance and repentance, her face flushing brightly. “I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. But as they say, honesty is the best policy, and in this case—”

“I’ve never said that!” Aline exploded. “That is the most overused, self-serving maxim in existence, and it is most definitely not the best policy in this situation. Oh, Livia, don’t you realize how difficult you’ve made everything for me? How infinitely harder it’s going to be to part from him again, now that he knows—” She broke off suddenly. “When did you tell him?”

“The second night I was in London.”

Aline closed her eyes sickly. The flowers had arrived two days after that. So that was why McKenna had sent the gifts, and the poem. “Livia, I could kill you,” she whispered.

Evidently deciding to go on the offensive, her younger sister spoke decisively. “I don’t see what is so terrible about removing one of the obstacles between you and McKenna. The only thing left to do now is for you to tell him about your legs.”

Aline responded with an icy glare. “That will never happen.”

“You have nothing to lose by telling him. You’ve always been the bravest person I’ve ever known until now, when you finally have a chance at happiness, and you’re throwing it away because you’re too stubborn and afraid—”

“I’ve never been brave,” Aline shot back. “Bravery isn’t tolerating something merely because there is no other choice. The only reason that I haven’t thrown myself to the ground and kicked my heels and screamed every day for the past twelve years is the knowledge that when I get up from the floor, nothing will have changed. My legs will always be repulsive. You can barely bring yourself to look at them—how dare you suggest that I’m being cowardly in not wanting to expose them to McKenna?” She left the bed and set her wineglass aside. “You’re a bloody hypocrite, Livia—you seem to expect that McKenna should accept me no matter what my flaws are, when you refuse to do the same for Mr. Shaw.”

“That’s not fair,” Livia protested indignantly. “The two situations are entirely different. Your scars aren’t remotely comparable to his drinking—and how dare you imply that I’m being small-minded in refusing him?”

Steaming with fury, Aline strode to the door. “Just leave me in peace. And don’t you dare say another word to McKenna about anything.” She barely restrained herself from slamming the door as she left.

Aline and Livia had always lived in relative harmony. Perhaps it was because of the seven-year difference in their ages, which had caused Aline to assume a motherly role toward her younger sister. On the rare occasions in the past when they had argued, it had been their way to avoid each other afterward, letting their tempers cool as they sought to pretend that nothing had happened. If a quarrel had been particularly bitter, they each went separately to Mrs. Faircloth, who had always reminded them that nothing was more important than their sisterly bonds. This time, however, Aline did not confide in the housekeeper, nor did she think that Livia would. The issues were too explosively personal. Instead Aline tried to go on as usual, treating Livia with a stiff politeness that was all she could manage. She supposed that she should unbend enough to offer an apology…but apologies had never come easily to her, and she would most likely choke on it. Nor did it seem that Livia was inclined to offer the olive branch, though she was most definitely the one at fault. After three days, Aline and Livia managed to achieve a state of normalcy, although a residual frostiness lingered between them.

On Saturday evening Marcus gave an al fresco party that was soon threatened by clouds gathering overhead. The sky turned the color of black plums, while a few preliminary droplets of rain fell onto the crowd and caused the garden torches to sputter in protest. The crowd began to drift indoors, while Aline hurried back and forth giving directions to the servants as they labored to bring refreshments, glasses, and chairs into the drawing room. In the midst of the flurry, she saw something that caused her to stop in her tracks. Livia was talking with Gideon Shaw, who must have just returned from London. They stood near the doorway, while Livia rested back against the wall. Livia was laughing at some quip he had made, her face glowing, her hands clasped behind her back as if she had to restrain herself from reaching for him.

If there had been any doubt in Aline’s mind that Livia loved Gideon Shaw, it was removed at once. She had seen her sister look at only one other man that way. And although Shaw’s expression was not visible from this angle, the protective inclination of his posture spoke volumes. What a pity, Aline thought. It was clear that no matter what their differences were, they had each found something necessary in the other.

She was distracted from her thoughts as she felt an odd warmth spreading over every inch of her skin, all the way up to the roots of her hair. Transfixed, she stood still while people brushed by her, heading for refuge as the storm continued to gather. The air felt damp and alive with energy, causing thrills to chase over her skin.

“Aline.”

A deep voice came from behind her. She looked down for a moment, concentrating fiercely on the ground as the world seemed to tilt off its axis. When she was able to move, she turned to find McKenna just a few feet away.

It was difficult to believe that she could need another human being this much, that longing could send one into near-delirium. It required scrupulous effort to breathe, while her heart tripped clumsily behind her lungs. They stood at the edge of the garden like a pair of cold marble statues, while the rest of the party swarmed away from them.

He knows, she thought, her nerves stretched to the breaking point. There had been a change in him, some inner transformation that seemed to have released him from all constraint. He stared at her the way he used to in the days of their youth, his eyes lit with open yearning. It produced the feeling in her that only he could engender, a sort of dreamlike excitement that seemed to open all her senses.

As Aline remained mute and unmoving, a cold drop of rain struck her cheek and slid down to the corner of her mouth. McKenna came to her slowly. His hand lifted, and he captured the raindrop with the pad of his thumb, and rubbed the dampness between his fingers as if it were a precious elixir. She back-stepped instinctively, away from him, from her own insatiable longing, and he caught her easily with one hand at her back. Slowly he drew her with him into the concealment of the yew hedge.

Unable to look at him, Aline bent her head, even as McKenna pulled her close. He moved with great care, bringing her against his body until her face rested near his collar. The delicious smell of his skin drew a catch of pain from beneath her ribs, a sting that quickly eased into fluid warmth. It went far beyond sexual pleasure, standing there with his hands on her, one at her back, one at her nape. It was bliss. Completeness. The heat of his touch sank through her skin and leaked down into the marrow of her bones. His thigh pressed between her legs, nudging so gently, as if he knew of the urgent fullness that was gathering in her tender flesh. And he held her, just held her, with his mouth against her temple and his hot breath blowing over her skin. Their bodies were so close, and yet not close enough. She would gladly give away the rest of her life in exchange for one night of pure intimacy, to feel the na*ed length of his body, skin to skin, heart to heart.

“Thank you,” Aline whispered after a long time.

“For what?” His lips moved softly against her forehead.

“The gifts,” she managed. “They were lovely.”

McKenna remained silent, breathing in the scent of her hair. In a desperate attempt at self-preservation, Aline attempted conversation. “Did it go well for you, in London?”

To her relief, McKenna answered. “Yes.” He eased her head back, with his hand still cradling the back of her neck. “We secured the docking rights from Somerset Shipping, and all the potential investors have made firm commitments.”

“Including my brother?”

That drew a quick smile from him. “He’s indicated that he will throw his lot in with theirs.”

She sighed with relief. “That’s good.”

“Now that everything has been settled, I have to leave for New York. There is much to be done, and many decisions to make.”

“Yes, I…” Her voice faded as she looked up at him anxiously. “When are you leaving?”

“Tuesday.”

“So soon?” she whispered.

“Shaw and I will return to New York. The Chamberlains, the Cuylers, and the rest of them want to tour abroad. They’ll go to Paris first, and then to Rome.”

Aline absorbed the information quietly. If the ship sailed on Tuesday, then McKenna and Shaw would probably depart from Stony Cross the day after tomorrow. She couldn’t believe that she would lose him so quickly.

The rain fell harder, until sparkling water beaded on the dense black locks of McKenna’s hair and ran off as if it were a seal’s pelt. “We should go in,” Aline said, reaching up to brush a few droplets from the inky locks. He caught at her hand and wrapped his fingers around hers, and pressed the points of her knuckles against his lips.

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