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Page 33

Gideon Shaw continued to eat calmly, as if oblivious to the upheaval he had caused. As he reached for a goblet of water, however, he shot a quick glance at Livia, whose lips twitched with a smile.

“I hope we will have the pleasure of seeing you from time to time, Mr. Shaw,” Aline murmured.

The handsome American turned his attention to her, his expression becoming enigmatic. “It would be my pleasure as well, my lady. However, I fear that I will be completely occupied with work for a long while.”

“I see,” Aline said softly, while understanding dawned. She deliberately picked up her own water glass and lifted it in a silently encouraging toast, and he responded with a nod of thanks.

Aline was not such a coward that she could hide in her room to avoid McKenna…although the idea was not without its appeal. His quiet words of yesterday had annihilated her. She knew how inexplicable her rejection had been, leaving him no choice but to believe that she had no feeling for him. The thought of facing him this morning was unbearable…but she felt that she should at least have the courage to tell him goodbye.

The entrance hall and the courtyard outside were filled with servants and departing guests. A row of carriages lined the drive, being loaded with bags and boxes and trunks. Aline and Marcus moved among the throng, exchanging farewells and walking with guests to their carriages. Livia was nowhere in sight, leading Aline to suspect that she was making her goodbyes to Gideon Shaw in private.

From what little Livia had revealed to her during a brief conversation this morning, Aline gathered that the pair had decided not to see each other for a period of several months, to allow Shaw the time and privacy he needed to conquer his drinking habit. They had, however, agreed to correspond during their separation, which meant that their courtship would continue by means of ink and paper. Aline had smiled with sympathetic amusement when Livia told her that. “I think the two of you have got it backward,” she said. “Usually a romantic involvement begins with exchanging letters, and then eventually leads to greater intimacy…whereas you and Mr. Shaw…”

“Began in bed and ended with correspondence,” Livia finished dryly. “Well, none of us Marsdens seem to do things the usual way, do we?”

“No, indeed.” Aline was glad that she and her younger sister seemed to be back on good terms. “It will be interesting to see what becomes of your relationship, limiting it to letter writing for such a long period.”

“I’m looking forward to it, in a way,” Livia reflected. “It will be easier to discern my true feelings for Mr. Shaw when the communication is entirely between our minds and hearts, with all the physical aspects removed.” She grinned and blushed as she admitted self-consciously, “Although I will miss those physical aspects.”

Aline had gazed at a distant point outside a nearby window while daylight stole over the grounds. Her smile turned wistful as she thought of how much she too would miss the joys to be found in a man’s arms. “It will turn out all right,” she said. “I have high hopes for you and Mr. Shaw.”

“What about you and McKenna? Is there any reason to hope for the both of you?” As Livia saw Aline’s expression, she frowned. “Never mind—I shouldn’t have asked. I have promised myself to say nothing more on the subject, and from now on I will hold my silence even if it kills me…”

Aline’s thoughts were brought back to the present as she stepped outside and noticed that one of the footmen, Peter, was having difficulty hefting a massive trunk onto the back of a carriage. Despite his brawny build, the weight of the brass-bound trunk was getting the better of him. The object slid from its precarious position, threatening to topple Peter backward.

Two of the guests, Mr. Cuyler and Mr. Chamberlain, noticed the footman’s dilemma, but it did not seem to occur to either of them to offer assistance. They moved away from the vehicle in tandem, continuing their conversation while they observed Peter’s struggles. Aline glanced quickly around the scene, looking for another servant to help the footman. Before she could say a word to anyone, McKenna seemed to appear from nowhere, striding to the back of the carriage and wedging his shoulder against the trunk. The muscles of his arms and back bulged against the seams of his coat as he shoved the trunk into its proper place, holding it steady while Peter clambered up to fasten a leather strap around it.

Cuyler and Chamberlain turned away from the sight, as if it embarrassed them to see one of their group assisting a servant with a menial task. The very fact of McKenna’s superior physical strength seemed a mark against him, betraying that he had once labored at tasks that no gentleman should ever have done. Finally the trunk was secured, and McKenna stepped back, acknowledging the footman’s thanks with a brief nod. Watching him, Aline could not help but reflect that had McKenna never left Stony Cross, he almost certainly would have been in Peter’s place, serving as a footman. And that wouldn’t have mattered to her in the least. She would have loved him no matter where he went, or what he did, and it tormented her that he would never know that.

Sensing her gaze, McKenna glanced up, then immediately averted his gaze. His jaw hardened, and he stood there in silent contemplation before finally looking at her once more. His expression sent a chill through her…so wintry and withdrawn…and she realized that his feelings for her were transforming into a hostility that was proportionate to how much he loved her.

He was going to hate her soon, she thought bleakly, if he didn’t already.

McKenna squared his shoulders and came to her, stopping an arm’s reach away. They stood together in brittle silence, while small clusters of people chatted and shifted around them. One of the most difficult things Aline had ever done in her life was to lift her chin and stare into his eyes. The exotic blue-green irises were nearly obliterated by the dark black of his pupils. He looked pale beneath his healthy tan, and his usual vitality had been crushed beneath an air of absolute grimness.

Aline lowered her gaze. “I wish you well, McKenna,” she finally whispered.

He was very still. “I wish the same for you.”

More silence, pressing down on her until she nearly swayed beneath its weight. “I hope you will have a safe and pleasant crossing.”

“Thank you.”

Clumsily Aline offered her hand to him. McKenna didn’t move to take it. She felt her fingers tremble. Just as she began to withdraw her hand, he caught it and brought her fingers to his lips. The touch of his mouth was cool and dry against her skin. “Goodbye,” he murmured.

Aline’s throat closed, and she stood silent and shivering, her hand suspended in the air after he released it. Closing her fingers slowly, she brought her fist against her midriff and turned away blindly. She felt his gaze on her as she left. As she began to ascend the short flight of steps that led to the entrance hall, the thick scar tissue pulled at the back of her knee, a persistent, annoying burn that brought tears of rage to her eyes.

Nineteen

After the last guest had departed, Aline changed into a comfortable at-home gown and went to the family receiving room. Curling up in the corner of a deeply upholstered settee, she sat and stared at nothing for what seemed to be hours. Despite the warmth of the day, she shivered beneath a lap blanket, her fingers and toes icy. At her request, a maid came to light a fire in the hearth and brought a steaming pot of tea, but nothing could take the chill away.

She heard the sounds of rooms being cleaned; servants’ footsteps on the stairs, the manor being restored to order now that the house was finally cleared of visitors. There were things that she should be doing; taking household inventory, consulting with Mrs. Faircloth about which rooms should be closed and what items were needed from market. However, Aline could not seem to rouse herself from the stupor that had settled over her. She felt like a clock with a damaged mechanism, frozen and useless.

She dozed on the settee until the fire burned low and the shafts of sunlight that came through the half-closed curtains were replaced by the glow of sunset. A quiet sound awakened her, and she stirred reluctantly. Opening her bleary eyes, she saw that Marcus had come into the room. He stood near the hearth, staring at her as if she were a puzzle that he was uncertain how to solve.

“What do you want?” she asked with a frown. Struggling to a sitting position, she rubbed her eyes.

Marcus lit a lamp and approached the settee. “Mrs. Faircloth tells me that you haven’t eaten all day.”

Aline shook her head. “I’m just tired. I’ll have something later.”

Her brother stood over her with a frown. “You look like hell.”

“Thank you,” she said dryly. “As I said, I am tired. I need to sleep, that is all—”

“You seem to have slept most of the day—and it hasn’t done you a damned bit of good.”

“What do you want, Marcus?” she asked with a spark of annoyance.

He took his time about answering, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat as he appeared to be thinking something over. Eventually he glanced at the shape of her knees, hidden beneath the folds of her blue muslin skirts. “I’ve come to ask something of you,” he said gruffly.

“What?”

He gestured stiffly toward her feet. “May I see them?”

Aline gave him a blank stare. “My legs?”

“Yes.” Marcus sat on the other side of the settee, his face expressionless.

He had never made such a request before. Why would he want to see her legs now, after all these years? Aline could not fathom his motive, and she felt too exhausted to sort through the many tiers of emotion she felt. Certainly it would do no harm to show him, she thought. Before she allowed herself to think twice, she kicked off her slippers. Her legs were bare beneath the gown. Lifting them to the settee cushions, she hesitated before tugging the hem of her skirts and drawers up to her knees.

Other than a nearly undetectable hitch to his breathing, Marcus showed no reaction to the sight of her legs. His dark gaze moved over the ropy pattern of scars, the patches of rough, ravaged skin, down to the incongruous whiteness of her feet. Watching his impassive face, Aline didn’t realize that she was holding her breath, until she felt the taut burn of her lungs. She let out a slow sigh, rather amazed that she was able to trust Marcus to this extent.

“They’re not pretty,” he finally said. “But they’re not quite as bad as I expected.” Carefully he reached over to pull the skirt back over her legs. “I suppose things that are unseen are often worse in one’s imagination than they are in reality.”

Aline stared curiously at the overprotective, strongwilled, often annoying brother she had come to love so dearly. As children, they had been little more than strangers to each other, but in the years since their father’s death, Marcus had proved himself to be an honorable and caring man. Like her, he was independent to a fault, outwardly social and yet fiercely private. Unlike her, he was always scrupulously honest, even when the truth was painful.

“Why did you want to see them now?” she asked.

He surprised her with a self-derisive smile. “I’ve never been certain how to contend with your accident, other than wish to hell that it had never happened. I can’t help but feel that I failed you in some way. Seeing your legs, and knowing there is nothing I can do to make them better, is damned difficult for me.”

She shook her head in bafflement. “Good Lord, Marcus, how on earth could you have prevented an accident from happening? That’s taking your sense of responsibility rather too far, don’t you think?”

“I’ve chosen to love very few people in this world,” he murmured, “but you and Livia are among them—and I would give my life to spare either of you a single moment’s pain.”

Aline smiled at him, feeling a welcome crack in the numbness that surrounded her. Despite all better judgment, she couldn’t prevent herself from asking a critical question, even as she struggled to crush the feeble stirring of hope within herself. “Marcus,” she asked hesitantly, “if you loved a woman, would scars like this stop you from—”

“No,” he interrupted firmly. “No, I wouldn’t let them stop me.”

Aline wondered if it was really true. It was possible that once again he was trying to protect her, by sparing her feelings. But Marcus was not a man to lie out of kindness.

“Don’t you believe me?” he asked.

She looked at him uncertainly. “I want to.”

“You are wrong to assume that I insist upon perfection in a woman. I enjoy physical beauty like any other man, but it’s hardly a requirement. That would be hypocritical, coming from a man who is far from handsome himself.”

Aline paused in surprise, regarding his broad, even features, his strong jaw, the shrewd black eyes set beneath the straight lines of his brows. “You are attractive,” she said earnestly. “Perhaps not in the way that someone like Mr. Shaw is…but few men are.”

Her brother shrugged. “Believe me, it doesn’t matter, since I’ve never found my looks—or lack thereof—to be an impediment in any way. Which has given me a very balanced perspective on the subject of physical beauty—a perspective that someone with your looks rarely attains.”

Aline frowned, wondering if she was being criticized.

“It must be extraordinarily difficult,” Marcus continued, “for a woman as beautiful as you to feel that there is a part of you that is shameful and must be concealed. You’ve never made peace with it, have you?”

Leaning her head against the side of the settee, Aline shook her head. “I hate these scars. I’ll never stop wishing that I didn’t have them. And there’s nothing I can do to change them.”

“Just as McKenna can never change his origins.”

“If you’re trying to draw a parallel, Marcus, it won’t do any good. McKenna’s origins have never mattered to me. There is nothing that would make me stop loving him or wanting him—” She stopped abruptly as she understood the point he had been leading to.

“Don’t you think he would feel the same way about your legs?”

“I don’t know.”

“For God’s sake, go tell him the truth. This isn’t the time for you to let your pride get the better of you.”

His words kindled sudden outrage. “This has nothing to do with pride!”

“Oh?” Marcus gave her a sardonic look. “You can’t bear to let McKenna know that you’re less than perfect. What is that if not pride?”

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