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Page 32

The household was slumbering except for the indoor servants who were busy with coal and ewers of hot water, and those who worked in the stables and gardens. Aline passed a footboy who had been assigned the task of pushing the mower machine back and forth across the velvety green lawn, while another lad followed to collect the cut grass with a rake and a small tip cart. In the stables, grooms were busy cleaning the stable gutters, distributing hay, and mucking out the stalls. The familiar scents of hay and horses saturated the air with a pleasantly earthy smell.

McKenna was already there, waiting near the tack room. Aline was tempted to run to him, equally as much as she wanted to flee in the opposite direction. McKenna smiled faintly, but Aline sensed that he was fully as nervous as she. They were both aware that this was one of the rare occasions when a single conversation might alter the entire course of one’s future.

“Good morning,” Aline managed to say.

McKenna looked at her in a way that suspended them both in silent tension. He offered an arm to her. “Let’s go to the river.”

Aline knew at once where he would take her…the spot that had always been theirs alone. The perfect place to say goodbye, she thought bleakly, taking his arm. They walked in silence, while the lavender tones of early dawn turned pale yellow, and long, light shadows crossed the lawn. Aline’s knee joints felt stiff, as they always did in the morning before her scars were stretched by mild activity. She concentrated on walking smoothly, while McKenna matched his pace to her slower one.

They finally reached the clearing near the water, where a pied wagtail circled the glittering reeds several times before suddenly dropping in to roost. Aline sat on a large, flat rock and arranged her skirts carefully, while McKenna went to stand a few feet away from her. He bent to pick up a few small stones. One by one, he sent them skimming across the water with deft flicks of his wrist. She watched him, drinking in the sight of his tall form, the strong lines of his profile, the easy grace of his movements. When he turned to glance at her over his shoulder, his turquoise eyes were so vivid in his bronzed face that the color seemed almost unnatural.

“You know what I’m going to ask,” he said quietly.

“Yes,” Aline replied in mounting anxiety, “but before you say anything, I must tell you that I will never—”

“Hear me out,” he murmured, “and then you can answer. There are things that I want to say to you. Difficult as this is, I’m going to talk to you honestly, or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”

Black misery swamped her. Honesty—the one thing she couldn’t give him in return. “I’m going to refuse you, no matter what you say.” Her breath felt caustic in her throat, as if she had swallowed acid. “Please spare us both the unnecessary discomfort—”

“I’m not going to spare either of us,” he said gruffly. “It’s now or never, Aline. After I leave tomorrow, I’m not coming back.”

“To England?”

“To you.” McKenna found a rock near hers and sat on the edge of it, leaning forward to brace his forearms on his thighs. His dark head lowered for a moment, the sunlight moving over his black hair in a bright gleam. He looked up with a penetrating gaze. “It was the curse of my life to be sent to this estate. From the moment I first saw you, I felt the connection between us—a connection that should never have existed, and never should have lasted. I tried to admire you from a distance…just as I saw the stars in the sky and knew I could never touch them. But we were too young, and I was with you too often, to preserve that distance. You were my friend, my companion…and later I came to love you as deeply as any man has ever loved a woman. That never changed for me, although I’ve lied to myself for years.” He paused and took a long breath. “No matter how I want to deny it, I will always love you. And no matter how I wish I could be something other than what I am, I’m a commoner, and a bastard, and you’re a daughter of the peerage.”

“McKenna,” she began miserably, “please don’t—”

“My entire purpose in coming back to Stony Cross was to find you. That was fairly obvious, I think, as there was no practical reason to avail ourselves of your brother’s hospitality. For that matter, there was no need for me to come to England at all, as Shaw could have managed well enough on his own while I remained in New York. But I needed to prove that what I felt for you wasn’t real. I had convinced myself that I had never loved you…rather, it was that you represented all the things I could never have. I thought that an affair with you would dispel those illusions, and you would turn out to be like every other woman.” He fell silent for a moment, while the jangling song of a reed warbler pierced the air. “Then I planned to return to New York and take a wife. A man of my position, even without a name and family, can marry well there. Finding a willing bride is easy enough. But now after finding you again, I’ve finally realized that you were never an illusion. Loving you has been the most real thing in my life.”

“Don’t,” Aline whispered, her eyes stinging.

“I am asking you, with all the humility I possess, if you will marry me, and come to America. Once Westcliff takes a wife, he’ll no longer need you as a hostess. You’ll have no real place at Stony Cross Park. But as my wife, you would be the queen of New York society. I have a fortune, Aline, with the prospect of tripling it in the next few years. If you come with me, I’ll do everything in my power to make you happy.” His voice was so quiet, so careful, the voice of a man who was taking the most dangerous gamble of his life. “Obviously it would be a sacrifice for you to leave your family and friends, and the place where you’ve lived since you were born. But you could come back to visit—the crossing only takes twelve days. You could begin a whole new life with me. Name your price, Aline—it’s yours for the asking.”

With every word he had spoken, Aline felt despair twist inside her. She could hardly draw breath around the huge choking knot in her chest. “You must believe me when I say that it would impossible for us to be happy together. I care for you, McKenna, but I…” She hesitated and took a pained gasp before forcing herself to continue. “I don’t love you in that way. I cannot marry you.”

“You don’t have to love me. I’ll accept whatever you can give.”

“No, McKenna.”

He came to her, dropped to his haunches, and took one of her cold, perspiring hands in his own. The heat of his flesh was startling. “Aline,” he said with difficulty, “I love you enough for the both of us. And there must be something about me worth loving. If you would just try…”

The need to tell him the truth was enough to drive Aline insane. As she considered it wildly, her heart beat so hard that it hurt, and there was an icy prickling all over her skin. She tried to envision it, showing him the disfiguring scars right here and now. No. No.

She felt like a creature caught in a net, struggling in vain to break free of the filaments of the past, which tightened around her with every movement. “It’s not possible.” Her hands clenched into the soft silk of her dress.

“Why?” The word was harshly spoken, but there was a vulnerability behind it that made her want to weep. Aline knew what McKenna wanted, and needed—a partner who would gladly yield herself to him, in and out of bed. A woman who had the wisdom to take pride in all the things he was, and never mind about the things he could never be. Once Aline might have been that for him. But now that could never happen.

“You’re not of my class,” she said. “We both know that.”

It was the one thing she could say that would convince him. An American he might be, but McKenna had been born in England, and he would never be able to completely rid himself of the class awareness that had permeated every aspect of his existence for eighteen years. For such a comment to come from her was the ultimate betrayal. She looked away, not wanting to see his expression. She was dying inside, her heart turning to ash.

“Christ, Aline,” came his ragged whisper.

She turned away from him. They stood like that for a long time, both struggling with unexpressed emotion, fury feeding on hopelessness. “I don’t belong with you,” she said hoarsely. “My place is here, with…with Lord Sandridge.”

“You can’t make me believe that you would choose him over me—not after what’s happened between us, damn it! You let me touch you, hold you, in a way you never let him.”

“I’ve gotten what I wanted,” she forced herself to say. “And so have you. After you leave, you’ll see that it was for the best.”

McKenna nearly crushed her hand as his grip tightened. Turning her hand up, he laid his cheek against the soft cushion of her palm. “Aline,” he whispered, mercilessly divesting himself of all pride, “I’m afraid of what I’ll become if you won’t have me.”

Aline’s throat and head ached, and she finally began to cry, tears sliding down her cheeks. She jerked her hand from his, when all she wanted to do was pull his head to her breasts. “You’ll be fine,” she said shakily, dragging a sleeve across her streaming face as she walked away without looking back. “You’ll be fine, McKenna—just go back to NewYork. I don’t want you.”

Mrs. Faircloth arranged a row of rare crystal glasses on the shelves in her private room, where the most fragile household valuables were kept under lock and key. Her door had been left half open, and she heard someone approach the threshold in a slow, almost reluctant tread. Leaning out from the shelf, she glanced at the doorway to behold McKenna’s large outline, his face shadowed. Poignant regret filled her as she realized that he must have come for a last private talk.

Recalling McKenna’s offer to take her back to America with him, Mrs. Faircloth was conscious of a small, unheeded wish that she could accept the invitation. Foolish old hen, she scolded herself, knowing that it was too late for a woman her age to consider uprooting herself. All the same, the prospect of going to live in another country had kindled her blood with an unexpected sense of adventure. It might have been wonderful, she thought wistfully, to experience something new as she approached her sunset years.

However, she would never leave Lady Aline, whom she had loved too dearly and for too long. She had watched over Aline from infancy to adulthood, sharingin every joy and tragedy of her life. Although Mrs. Faircloth cared for Livia and Marcus as well, she had to admit privately that Aline had always been her favorite. In the hours when Aline had hovered closest to death, Mrs. Faircloth had felt the despair of a mother losing her own child…and in the years afterward, watching Aline grapple with fearful secrets and broken dreams, the bond between them had strengthened even more. As long as Aline needed her, there was no thought in the housekeeper’s mind of leaving her.

“McKenna,” Mrs. Faircloth said, welcoming him into her room. As he stepped into the quiet lamplight, the expression on his face troubled her, reminding her of the first time she had seen him, a poor motherless bastard with cold blue-green eyes. Despite his lack of expression, fury and grief clung to him in an invisible mantle, too profound, too absolute, for him to give voice to. He could only stand there and stare at her, not knowing what he needed, having come to her only because there seemed to be no other place to go.

Mrs. Faircloth knew that there could be only one reason that McKenna would look that way. Swiftly she went to shut the door. The servants at Stony Cross Park knew never to bother the housekeeper when her door was closed, unless the situation was near-catastrophic. Turning, she held her arms out to him in a maternal gesture. McKenna went to her at once, his black head lowering to her soft, round shoulder as he wept.

Aline never fully remembered the rest of that day, only that she had managed to play the part of hostess mechanically, talking and even smiling, without really taking notice of whom she was with or what she was saying. Livia gallantly sought to cover for her, diverting all attention with a show of effervescent charm. When it was noticed that McKenna was not present at the group’s final supper, Gideon Shaw lightly excused his absence. “Oh, McKenna is putting things in order before his departure on the morrow—and making long lists for me, I’m afraid.” Before more questions could surface, Shaw stunned them all with the information that instead of returning to New York with McKenna, he was going to stay on in London to manage the newly established office.

Even in her numbness, Aline grasped the import of the news. She threw a quick glance at Livia, who was devoting a great deal of concentration to slicing a bit of potato into minuscule portions. Livia’s pretended disinterest, however, was belied by the tide of color that rose in her cheeks. Shaw was staying because of Livia, Aline realized, and wondered what sort of arrangement he and her sister had come to. Flicking a glance at Marcus at the head of the table, Aline saw that he was wondering the same thing.

“London is fortunate to be favored by your continued presence, Mr. Shaw,” Marcus commented. “May I ask where you will reside?”

Shaw replied with the whimsical smile of a man who had recently discovered something unexpected about himself. “I’ll remain at the Rutledge until the new construction begins, after which I will find some appropriate place to lease.”

“Allow me to offer some assistance toward that end,” Marcus said politely, his gaze calculating. Clearly he was planning to exert as much control over the developing situation as possible. “I can put a few words in the right ears to secure a suitable situation for you.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” Shaw replied, with a jaunty twinkle in his gaze that showed he was perfectly aware of Marcus’s true intent.

“But you have to go back to New York!” Susan Chamberlain cried, glaring at her brother. “My God, Gideon, even you can’t simply cast off your responsibilities in this cavalier manner! Who will look after the family business, and make decisions, and—” She stopped, suddenly aghast as the realization hit her. “No. You are not appointing that docker as a de facto head of the Shaw family, you sodden lunatic!”

“I’m perfectly sober,” Shaw informed her blandly. “And the papers have already been drawn up and signed. I’m afraid there’s not much you can do about it, sis. McKenna has well-established relationships with all our business associates, and he alone possesses the full information regarding our accounts, trusts, and contracts. You may as well settle back and give him free rein.”

Seething with outrage, Susan Chamberlain seized her wine and drank angrily, while her husband tried to pacify her with low-voiced murmurs.

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