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Page 34

“It’s not that simple,” she protested.

His mouth twisted impatiently. “Perhaps the problem isn’t simple—but the solution is. Start behaving like the mature woman you are, and acknowledge the fact that you have flaws. And give the poor devil a chance to prove that he can love you regardless.”

“You insufferable know-all,” she choked, yearning to slap him.

Marcus smiled grimly. “Go to him, Aline. Or I promise you that I’ll go tell him myself.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“I’ve already had a carriage readied,” he informed her. “I’m leaving for London in five minutes, with or without you.”

“For God’s sake,” she exploded, “don’t you ever get tired of telling everyone else what to do?”

“Actually, no.”

Aline was torn between laughter and exasperation at his reply. “Until today you’ve done your best to discourage my relationship with McKenna. Why have you changed your mind now?”

“Because you’re thirty-one and unmarried, and I’ve realized that this may be my only opportunity to be rid of you.” Marcus grinned and ducked to avoid the halfhearted swipe of her fist, then reached out to fold her tightly in his arms. “And because I want you to be happy,” he murmured against her hair.

Pressing her face against his shoulder, Aline felt tears well in her eyes.

“I feared that McKenna was going to hurt you,” Marcus continued. “I believe that was his intent in the beginning. But he couldn’t carry out his plans, after all was said and done. Even thinking that you had betrayed him, he couldn’t help but love you. When he left today, he looked somehow…diminished. And I finally realized that he had always been in far more danger from you than you ever were from him. I actually pitied the bastard, because every man has a mortal terror of being hurt that way.” Marcus fumbled for a handkerchief. “Here, take this before you ruin my coat.”

Blowing her nose gustily, Aline pulled away from him. She felt horribly vulnerable, as if he were prodding her to jump off a cliff. “Remember when you once told me that you didn’t like to take risks? Well, I don’t either.”

“As I recall, I said unnecessary risks,” he replied gently. “But this seems to be a necessary one, doesn’t it?”

Aline stared at him without blinking. Try as she might, she was unable to disavow the overwhelming need that would rule the rest of her life, no matter what she chose to do now. Nothing would end when McKenna left England. She would find no more peace in the future than she had during the past twelve years. The realization made her feel sick, scared, and yet oddly elated. A necessary risk…

“I’ll go to London,” she said, her voice shaking only a little. “I’ll only need a few minutes to change into my traveling clothes.”

“No time for that.”

“But I’m not dressed to go out in public—”

“As it is, we may not reach the steamer before it departs.”

Galvanized by the words, Aline jammed her feet into her discarded slippers. “Marcus, you have to get me there in time!”

Despite Marcus’s advice that she should try to sleep during the journey to London, Aline was awake for most of the night. Her insides seemed to knot and twist as she stared through the darkened interior of the carriage, wondering if she was going to reach McKenna before his ship, the Britannia, left for America. From time to time the silence was broken by the rasp of her brother’s snore as he dozed on the opposite seat.

Sometime before dawn, exhaustion overcame her. She fell asleep sitting up, with her cheek crushed against the velvet curtain that draped the interior wall. Floating in a dreamless void, she awakened with difficulty as she felt Marcus’s hand on her shoulder.

“What…?” she mumbled, blinking and groaning as he shook her lightly.

“Open your eyes. We’re at the docks.”

Aline sat up clumsily as Marcus rapped on the carriage door. The footman, Peter, who looked somewhat the worse for wear himself, opened the portal from outside. Immediately a curious mixture of odors filled the carriage. It was a malty, fishy smell, heavily tainted with coal and tobacco. The screeching of seagulls mingled with human voices…there were cries of “Rowse-in, and bend the cable,” and “Break bulk,” and other equally incomprehensible phrases. Marcus swung out of the carriage, and Aline pushed back a straggling lock of hair as she leaned forward to watch him.

The scene at the docks was a swarm of activity, with an endless forest of masts extending on both sides of the channel. There were coal barges, steamboats, and too many merchantmen to count. Crowds of burly, sweat-soaked dockers used hand-held hooks to move bales, boxes, barrels, and parcels of every kind to the nearby warehouses. A row of towering iron cranes were in constant motion, each long metal arm operated by a pair of men as they discharged cargo from the hold of a ship to the quay. It was brutal work, not to mention dangerous. She could hardly believe that McKenna had once earned his living this way.

On the far end of the dock, a kiln next to the warehouses was being used to burn off the damaged tobacco, its long chimney sending a thick stream of blue smoke into the sky.

“They call that the queen’s pipe,” Marcus said dryly, following the direction of her gaze.

Staring along the row of warehouses to the other end of the quay, Aline saw a massive wooden paddle steamer, easily over two hundred feet in length. “Is that the Britannia?”

Marcus nodded. “I’ll go find a clerk to fetch McKenna from the ship.”

Aline closed her eyes tightly, trying to picture McKenna’s face as he received the news. In his current disposition, he wasn’t likely to take it well. “Perhaps I should go aboard,” she suggested.

“No,” came her brother’s immediate reply. “They’re going to weigh anchor soon—I’m not going to take the chance of having you sail off across the Atlantic as an accidental passenger.”

“I’ll cause McKenna to miss his departure,” she said. “And then he’ll kill me.”

Marcus gave an impatient snort. “The ship is likely to launch while I stand here arguing with you. Do you want to talk to McKenna or not?”

“Yes!”

“Then stay in the carriage. Peter and the driver will look after you. I’ll be back soon.”

“He may refuse to disembark,” she said. “I hurt him very badly, Marcus.”

“He’ll come,” her brother replied with calm conviction. “One way or another.”

A hesitant smile worked its way past Aline’s distress as she watched Marcus stride away, prepared to do physical battle, if necessary, with an adversary who was nearly a head taller than he.

Settling back in the carriage, Aline pushed the curtain open and stared through the window, watching a marine policeman wander back and forth past rows of valuable sugar hogsheads piled six and eight high. As she waited, it occurred to her that she must look as if she had been pulled backward through a hedge, with her clothes rumpled and her hair a disheveled mess. She wasn’t even wearing proper shoes. Hardly the image of a fine lady visiting town, she thought ruefully, regarding her toes as she wiggled them inside the knit slippers.

Minutes passed, and it became warm and stuffy in the carriage. Deciding that the smell of the docks was better than the prospect of sitting in an enclosed vehicle with no breeze, Aline began to rap on the door to summon Peter. Just as her knuckles touched the paneling, the door was wrenched open with a violence that startled her. She froze, her hand stopped in mid-motion. McKenna appeared in the doorway of the carriage, his shoulders blocking the sunlight.

He reached out to grip her arm as if he were saving her from an unexpected fall. The urgent clamp of his fingers hurt. Wincing, Aline reflected that McKenna seemed like an utter stranger. She found it impossible to believe that this harsh-featured man had held and kissed her so tenderly. “What is the matter?” he demanded, his voice grating. “Have you seen a doctor?”

“What?” She stared at him in utter bewilderment. “Why would I need a doctor?”

McKenna’s eyes narrowed, and his hand dropped from her abruptly. “You’re not ill?”

“No…why would you think I…” As comprehension dawned, Aline glared at her brother, who stood just beyond him. “Marcus! You shouldn’t have told him that!”

“He wouldn’t have come otherwise,” Marcus said without a trace of remorse.

Aline gave him a damning glance. As if matters hadn’t been difficult enough, Marcus had now succeeded in making McKenna even more hostile. Unrepentant, Marcus stepped back from the carriage to allow the two of them a marginal amount of privacy.

“I’m sorry,” Aline said to McKenna. “My brother misled you—I’m not ill. The reason I am here is that I desperately need to talk to you.”

McKenna regarded her stonily. “There’s nothing left to be said.”

“There is,” she insisted. “You told me the day before yesterday that you were going to talk to me honestly, or you would regret it for the rest of your life. I should have done the same, and I am so sorry that I didn’t. But I’ve traveled all night to reach you before you left England. I am asking—no, begging you to give me a chance to explain my behavior.”

He shook his head. “They’re about to pull the gangway. If I don’t reboard within five minutes, I’m going to be separated from all my trunks and personal papers—everything but the clothes on my back.”

Aline gnawed at the insides of her cheeks, trying to contain her rising desperation. “Then I’ll come aboard with you.”

“And sail across the Atlantic without so much as a toothbrush?” he jeered.

“Yes.”

McKenna gave her a long, hard stare. He gave no indication of what he was feeling, or even if he was considering her plea. Wondering if he was going to refuse her, Aline cast about recklessly for the right words, the key to unlock his frozen self-control…and then she noticed the vein throbbing violently at his temple. Hope unfurled inside her. He wasn’t indifferent to her, no matter that he tried to pretend otherwise.

Perhaps the only salve to McKenna’s battered pride was the sacrifice of her own. Reluctantly letting her guard down, she spoke more humbly than she ever had in her life. “Please. If you still feel anything at all for me, don’t go back on that ship. I swear that I will never ask anything else of you. Please let me tell you the truth, McKenna.”

As another untenable silence spun out, McKenna’s jaw tightened until a muscle in his cheek twitched. “Damn you,” he said softly.

Aline realized with dizzying relief that he was not going to refuse her. “Shall we go to Marsden Terrace?” she dared to whisper.

“No—I’ll be damned if I’ll have your brother hovering over us. He can go to Marsden Terrace, while you and I talk in Shaw’s rooms at the Rutledge.”

Aline was afraid to say another word, on the chance that she might cause him to change his mind. She nodded and settled back in the carriage, while her heart slammed repeatedly against her ribs.

McKenna gave instructions to the driver and then climbed into the vehicle. He was immediately followed by Marcus, who did not seem terribly pleased by the plan, as he wanted the situation to remain under his immediate control. Nevertheless, he offered no protest, only sat beside Aline and folded his arms across his chest.

The silence was thick and heavy as the vehicle rolled away from the docks. Aline was wretchedly uncomfortable, her legs stiff and itching, her emotions in turmoil, her head aching. It didn’t help that McKenna looked about as warm and understanding as a block of granite. Aline wasn’t even certain about what she would say to him, how she could tell him the truth without engendering his pity or disgust.

As if sensing her worry, Marcus reached down and took her fingers in his, giving them a small, encouraging squeeze. Looking up, Aline saw that McKenna had noticed the subtle gesture. His suspicious gaze flickered from Marcus’s face to hers. “You may as well start explaining now,” he said.

Aline gave him an apologetic glance. “I would rather wait, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine,” McKenna said derisively. “It’s not as if I don’t have the time.”

Marcus stiffened at the other man’s tone. “Look here, McKenna—”

“It’s all right,” Aline interrupted, digging her elbow into her brother’s side. “You’ve helped quite enough, Marcus. I can manage on my own now.”

Her brother frowned. “Be that as it may, I don’t approve of you going to a hotel with no family member or servant to accompany you. There will be gossip, and you don’t—”

“Gossip is the least of my worries,” Aline interrupted, increasing the pressure of her elbow against his ribs, until Marcus grunted and fell silent.

After what seemed to be hours, they reached the Rutledge Hotel. The carriage stopped in the small street behind one of the four private accommodations. Aline was in an agony of anticipation as McKenna descended from the carriage and helped her down. Turning, she glanced back at Marcus. Seeing the raw helplessness in her eyes, Marcus gave her a reassuring nod, just before he spoke to McKenna in a hard voice.

“Wait. I want a word with you.”

Arching one black brow, McKenna stepped aside with him. He met the earl’s gaze with a look of icy inquiry. “What now?”

Marcus turned his back on Aline, and spoke too quietly for her to overhear. “I hope to hell that I haven’t underestimated you, McKenna. Whatever comes of your conversation with my sister, I want to assure you of one thing—if you harm her in any way, you’ll pay with your life. And I mean that literally.”

Aggravated beyond bearing, McKenna shook his head and muttered some choice words beneath his breath. He strode to Aline and guided her forcibly to the back entrance, where the footman had already rapped at the door. Gideon Shaw’s valet appeared at the doorway with an expression of open astonishment. “Mr. McKenna,” he exclaimed, “I would have thought your ship had sailed by now—”

“It has,” McKenna said curtly.

The valet blinked and strove to regain composure. “If you are searching for Mr. Shaw, sir, he is at the company offices—”

“I want the use of his rooms for a few minutes,” McKenna said. “See that we’re not disturbed.”

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