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Page 31

“When can I talk to you?” he asked.

“We’re talking right now.”

“You know what I want,” came his low murmur.

Aline fastened her gaze to the hedge beyond his broad shoulder. Yes, she knew exactly what he intended to discuss with her, and she would have given anything to avoid it. “Early in the morning, before the guests awaken,” she suggested. “We’ll meet at the stables, and walk somewhere…”

“All right.”

“Tomorrow, then,” she said, ducking her head as she began to walk around him.

McKenna caught her easily, bringing her close again. He gripped the back of her braided coiffure and tugged her head back, his mouth covering hers. Aline began to sigh repeatedly as he explored her with his tongue, filling her mouth the way he wanted to fill her body.

Sensing her rising need, McKenna gripped the sides of her h*ps and slid his knee between her legs. He urged her against him, over and over, until her heart was pounding madly and her skin was burning everywhere, even as the coolness of rain drenched her skin and clothing. Groping for balance, she held on to his shoulders while he pressed kisses and indistinct words against her parted lips. He pulled her forward until she rode him more fully, his hands moving her in a delicious rhythm. That steady friction, right where her body had become swollen and hot…the pleasure built too quickly, and she struggled against him with a moan of denial.

McKenna eased her away, breathing raggedly. They faced each other, standing in the rain like a pair of besotted half-wits. Shrugging out of his coat, McKenna held it over Aline as a makeshift umbrella and urged her to come with him. “Inside,” he murmured. “We’ll get struck by lightning, standing out here.” A crooked smile crossed his face as he added wryly, “Not that I would notice.”

Eighteen

Just after two o’clock in the morning, Livia sneaked into the darkened bachelor’s house and was immediately accosted in the entranceway. Repressing a shriek of surprise, she found herself being jerked against a tall male body. It was Gideon, clad in a silk robe. Livia relaxed in his arms and returned his kisses eagerly, her tongue curling around his. He kissed her as if their separation had been a matter of months rather than days.

“What took you so long?” he demanded, giving her a bone-warping squeeze before hauling her toward the bedroom.

“This lurking-and-prowling-about business isn’t easy, with the manor full of guests,” Livia protested. “I had to wait until I was certain that no one could see me slipping off to the bachelor’s house. Especially as we’re already under suspicion.”

“We are?” He stopped at the bedside and began to unfasten the back of her gown.

“Well, naturally, after I traipsed off to London while you just happened to be there. And then there’s the way you look at me, which practically announces that we’ve been in bed together. For a man who is supposedly a sophisticate, you’re terribly obvious.”

“Terribly,” he agreed, pulling her hand to his aroused body.

Drawing away with a giggle, Livia shed her gown, beneath which she was completely naked. Taken by surprise, Gideon drew his breath in sharply, his gaze riveted on her. “I came prepared,” Livia told him smugly.

Shaking his head as if to clear it, Gideon dropped his robe and approached her. His hands skimmed the curves of her h*ps as if she were a priceless sculpture. “So did I, actually. I brought something from London.” His hands drifted upward to her breasts, his thumbs lightly grazing the tips of her breasts. “Though you may not like it.”

Intrigued, Livia looped her arms around his neck as he picked her up and carried her to the bed. He dropped her to the mattress, bent to kiss the smooth skin between her breasts, then reached for something at the bedside table. She was surprised when he gave her a little packet made of thin paper, which enclosed an unfamiliar object. It was an elastic sort of ring, covered with a thin, transparent skin. Regarding the object closely, Livia felt herself blush as comprehension dawned. “Oh…it’s a…”

“Exactly.” He shrugged and looked vaguely sheepish. “At the risk of seeming presumptuous, I thought there was a chance that we might have another night together.”

“Presumptuous indeed,” Livia told him with mock sternness, holding the sheath in the palm of her hand.

“Have you ever seen one before?”

“No, although I’ve heard of them.” Her blush heightened. “It seems like an odd idea…and not especially romantic.”

“Neither is an unwanted pregnancy,” Gideon said frankly, pulling back the covers as he joined her on the bed. “I wouldn’t mind getting you with child, but not if you’re unwilling.”

The thought of carrying his baby…Livia looked away from him, unable to keep from wishing for things that seemed likely never to happen. Gideon brought her beneath the bed linens with him and kissed her gently. “Do you want to try it this way?”

“I suppose so,” Livia said doubtfully, holding the rolled-up sheath up to the lamplight and staring through the near-transparent membrane.

She felt Gideon shake with suppressed laughter. “It won’t hurt,” he said. “And you may appreciate the fact that when a man wears one of these, it takes much longer for him to cl**ax.”

“Does it? Why? Because you can’t feel as much?”

“That’s right.” He smiled wryly. “Rather like trying to eat supper through a table napkin.”

Livia gave him the sheath. “Don’t wear this, then, and we’ll do it the usual way.”

Gideon shook his head decisively. “I don’t trust myself to do that anymore. It’s becoming impossible to withdraw at the moment that I most want to stay inside you. Here…help me put it on. You should try everything at least once, I always say.”

Bashfully Livia followed his murmured instructions and unrolled it along the taut length of his erection, adjusting it to form a shallow pocket at the head. “It seems rather tight,” she said.

“It’s supposed to fit this way, or it will slide off.”

Letting go of him, she lay back on the mattress. “Now what?”

“Now,” he said, his body covering hers, “I’m going to make love to you the way I’ve imagined doing for five nights.”

Livia’s eyes half-closed as his head lowered to her breasts, his tongue swirling in intricate patterns over her skin. He took her nipple into his mouth and worried it gently with his teeth and licked until it was engorged and darkened. Then he moved to her other breast, treating it in a similar fashion until she was moaning and writhing beneath him. He made love to her with tender skill, attentive to every twitch and shiver of response. Pausing briefly, Gideon reached for something at the bedside. She heard him fumble with the lid of a jar, and then his hand slid between her thighs to distribute a satiny film of cream. His gentle fingertip slid through the soft folds, then circled the entrance of her body.

“Gideon,” she said in agitation, “I’m ready now.”

He smiled as he continued to play idly with her. “You’re too impatient.”

“I’m impatient because I’m ready…oh, why do you always have to take so much time?”

“Because I love to torment you.” He bent to kiss her throat, while his fingertips combed through the wet thatch of curls. Willing herself to endure the teasing exploration, Livia reached upward to the spindles of the headboard and gripped the hard, slender cylinders of wood. Gideon knelt between her thighs and applied more of the slippery unguent, his fingers reaching deep inside her.

Livia was finally reduced to begging. “Gideon, please do it now, please…”

Her words were cut off as he entered her carefully, filling her until she groaned in relief. “Is it all right?” Gideon asked, bracing his forearms on either side of his head. “It’s not uncomfortable, is it?”

Livia pushed up at him for answer, her body teeming with pleasure. Smiling down at her passion-taut features, Gideon rested his thumb lightly on the sensitive bud of her sex, and stroked her as he began to move in deep, rocking thrusts, and she was lost in a tide of bliss…

“Livia,” he said a long time later, cuddling her against his chest while he played with the fine locks of her hair. “What if I decide not to return to New York?”

Her mind went blank. Wondering if he had just said what she thought he had said, she got up from bed and lit a lamp. Gideon remained on his side, the sheet draped loosely over his hips.

Returning to bed, Livia rolled to face him and pulled the sheet up beneath her arms. “You’re thinking of staying in London?” she asked. “For how long?”

“At least a year. I would run the London office and develop business for us on the continental market. I would be as useful here as I would be in New York, if not more so.”

“But your entire family is in New York.”

“Another good reason to stay here,” Gideon said dryly. “It has become clear that a period of separation will be to their benefit as well as mine. I’m tired of acting as the family patriarch—they can damned well learn to muddle through things on their own.”

“What about the foundries, and your business properties—”

“I’m giving McKenna the authority to make any and all decisions in my absence. He’s proven that he’s ready for the responsibility—and I trust him more than I do my own brothers.”

“I thought you didn’t like London.”

“I love it.”

Amused by his change of tune, when she had heard him say just the opposite last week, Livia had to bite back a smile. “Why have you fallen in love with London so suddenly?”

Gideon reached out to stroke her hair, tucking a silken wisp neatly behind her ear. His eyes stared into her, the lamplight striking golden glints amid the depths of lambent blue. “Because it’s close to you.”

Livia closed her eyes, while the words riddled her with uncertainty and unwanted hope. The force of her longing seemed to fill the entire room. “Gideon,” she said, “we’ve already discussed—”

“I’m not asking to see you, or court you,” he said swiftly. “In fact, I insist on not seeing you for at least six months, until I can figure out if I’m able to stop drinking for good. It’s not a pleasant process, I’ve heard…for a while I’m hardly going to be fit company. So for that and other reasons, it would be better for us to stay apart.”

Livia was dumbstruck by the realization of what he was trying to do, the magnitude of effort it would require. “What do you want from me?” she managed to ask.

“To wait for me.”

More self-imposed isolation, Livia thought, and shook her head reluctantly. “I can’t remain secluded in Hampshire any longer, or I’ll go raving mad. I need to take part in society, and talk and laugh and go places—”

“Of course. I don’t want you to stay buried in Stony Cross. But don’t let other men…that is, don’t promise to marry anyone, or fall in love with some damned viscount…” Gideon scowled at the thought. “Just stay unmarried for six months. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

She considered the request with a thoughtful frown. “No, of course not. But if you are doing this for me…”

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t partly for you,” he said frankly. “However, it’s for me as well. I’m weary of staggering through life in a fog.”

Livia ran her palm along the strong line of his forearm. “It’s possible that when you emerge from the fog, you won’t want me anymore,” she said. “Your perceptions may be different…your needs may change…”

He caught her hand in his, interlacing their fingers. “I’ll never stop needing you.”

She stared down at their joined hands. “When are you planning to start?”

“You’re referring to the fiendish condition of sobriety? I’m sorry to say that I’ve already started. I haven’t had a drink in twelve hours. By tomorrow morning I’m going to be a stinking, shivering, foul-tempered mess, and by the next day I’ll probably have murdered someone.” He grinned. “So it’s a good thing that I’m leaving Stony Cross.”

Undeceived by his flippant manner, Livia snuggled against his chest and pressed her lips to his heart. “I wish I could help you,” she said softly, rubbing her cheek against the dark golden fur. “I wish I could suffer through some of it for you.”

“Livia…” His voice thickened with emotion, and his hand passed gently over her hair. “No one can help me with this. It’s my cross to bear—one I’ve fashioned entirely by myself. And that is why I don’t want you to be any part of this. But there is one thing you could do to make it a bit easier…something to get me through the worst moments…”

She drew back to look up at him. “What is it?”

Gideon paused, and let out a taut sigh. “I know that you’re not going to admit that you love me—and I understand why. But in light of the fact that I’m facing six months of hell, can’t you give me just a little something?”

“Such as?”

He looked at her speculatively. “A blink.”

“A what?” she asked in confusion.

“If you love me…just blink at me. One time. A meaningful blink. You don’t have to say the words, just…” His voice trailed away as their gazes locked, and he stared at her with the ardent determination of a lost soul who had caught sight of his home far off on the horizon. “Just blink at me,” he whispered. “Please, Livia…”

She would not have believed it was possible to love this way again. Perhaps some people would consider it a disloyalty to Amberley, but Livia did not. Amberley had wanted her to be happy, to have a full life. She even thought that he might have approved of Gideon Shaw, who was struggling so hard to overcome his flaws…a warm, human, approachable man.

Gideon was still waiting. Livia held his gaze and smiled. Very deliberately, she closed her eyes and opened them again, and looked at him through the warm, blurry brightness of hope.

Aline was exhausted after a sleepless night, and filled with cold dread as she went to the stables, where she had promised to meet McKenna. She had rehearsed a list of objections over and over, arguments and counter-arguments…although when she practiced the words, she sounded unconvincing even to herself.

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