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Page 35

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With an admirable display of tact, the valet did not even glance in Aline’s direction. “Yes, sir.”

Brusquely McKenna ushered Aline into the residence, which was handsomely furnished in dark woods, the walls covered in rich plum-colored em-bossed paper. They went to the sitting room, with the bedroom visible just beyond. Heavy velvet drapes had been pulled back to reveal curtains of tea-dyed lace that softened the sunlight as it streamed into the room.

Aline could not control her nervousness. It erupted in a violent trembling that made her teeth click. Clenching her jaw, she went to sit in a large leather chair. After a long pause, McKenna did the same, settling back in a nearby chair and regarding her coldly. An antique French carriage clock ticked busily on the mantel, underscoring the tension that fractured the air.

Aline’s mind went blank. In the carriage she had managed to think of a fairly well-structured explanation, but all her carefully considered phrases had suddenly vanished. Nervously she dampened her lips with the tip of her tongue.

McKenna’s gaze flickered to her mouth, and his dark brows drew together. “Get on with it, will you?”

Aline inhaled and exhaled slowly, and rubbed her forehead. “Yes. I’m sorry. I’m just not quite certain how to begin. I’m glad of the chance to finally tell you the truth, except…this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Looking away from him into the empty hearth, Aline gripped the upholstered arms of the chair. “I must be a better actress than I thought, if I’ve managed to convince you that your social standing matters to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never cared one whit about the circumstances of your birth…where you came from, or who you are…you could be a rag man, and it wouldn’t matter to me. I would do anything, go anywhere, to be with you.” Her nails dug deep crescents into the worn leather. She closed her eyes. “I love you, McKenna. I’ve always loved you.”

There was no sound in the room, only the crisp tick of the mantel clock. As Aline continued, she had an odd sense of listening to herself as if from a distance. “My relationship with Lord Sandridge is not what it appears. Any appearance of romantic interest between the two of us is a deception—one that has served both Lord Sandridge and myself. He does not desire me physically, and he could never entertain that kind of feeling for me because he…” She paused awkwardly. “His inclinations are limited exclusively toward other men. He proposed marriage to me as a practical arrangement—a union between friends. I won’t say that I didn’t find the offer attractive, but I turned him down just before you returned from London.”

Opening her eyes, Aline stared down at her lap, while the blessed feeling of numbness left her. She felt raw and exposed and terrified. This was the hardest part, making herself vulnerable to a man who had the power to demolish her with a single word. A man who was justifiably furious at the way she had treated him. “The illness that I had so long ago…” she said raspily, “…you were right to suspect that I was lying about that. It wasn’t a fever. I was injured in a fire—I was burned quite badly. I was in the kitchen with Mrs. Faircloth, when a pan of oil started a fire in the basket grate on the stove. I don’t remember anything else. I was told that my clothes caught fire, and I was instantly covered in flames. I tried to run…a footman knocked me to the ground and beat out the flames. He saved my life. You may remember him—William—I think he was second footman when you were still at Stony Cross.” She paused to take a long breath. Her trembling had eased a little, and she was finally able to steady her voice. “My legs were completely charred.”

Risking a glance at McKenna, she saw that he was no longer leaning back in his chair. His body was canted slightly forward, his large frame overloaded with sudden tension, his eyes a blaze of blue-green in his skull-white face.

Aline averted her gaze once more. If she looked at him, she wouldn’t be able to finish. “I was in a nightmare that I couldn’t awaken from,” she said. “When I wasn’t in agony from the burns, I was out of my head with morphine. The wounds festered and poisoned my blood, and the doctor said that I wouldn’t last a week. But Mrs. Faircloth found a woman who was said to have special healing abilities. I didn’t want to get better. I wanted to die. Then Mrs. Faircloth showed me the letter…” Remembering, she trailed into silence. That moment had been permanently engraved in her mind, when a few scrawled words on paper had eased her away from the brink of death.

“What letter?” she heard McKenna ask in a suffocated voice.

“The one you had sent to her…asking for money, because you needed to break your apprenticeship and flee from Mr. Ilbery. Mrs. Faircloth read the letter to me…and hearing the words you had written made me realize…that as long as there was a chance that you were in this world, I wanted to go on living in it.” Aline stopped suddenly as her eyes blurred, and she blinked furiously to clear them.

McKenna made a hoarse sound. He came to the chair and sank to his haunches before her, breathing as if someone had delivered a crushing blow to the center of his chest.

“I never thought you’d come back,” Aline said. “I never wanted you to find out about my accident. But when you returned to Stony Cross, I decided that being close to you—even for one night—was worth any risk. That is why I…” She hesitated, blushing wildly. “The night of the village fair…”

Breathing heavily, McKenna reached for the hem of her gown. Swiftly Aline bent to stop him, gripping his wrist in a convulsive movement. “Wait!”

McKenna went still, the muscles of his shoulders tightly bunched.

“Burn scars are so ugly,” Aline whispered. “They’re all over my legs. The right one is especially bad, where much of the skin was destroyed. The scars tighten and shrink until it’s difficult to straighten my knee sometimes.”

He absorbed that for a moment, and then proceeded to pry her fingers from his wrist and remove her slippers, one after the other. Aline fought a wave of nausea, knowing exactly what he was about to see. She swallowed repeatedly, while salty tears burned the back of her throat. He reached beneath her skirt and slid his hands along her tense thighs, his palms skimming the fabric of her drawers until he found the tapes at her waist. Aline turned chalk-white, followed by brilliant scarlet, as she felt him tugging at the undergarment.

“Let me,” he murmured.

She obeyed clumsily, raising her h*ps while he pulled the drawers over her buttocks and stripped the garment from her legs. The hem of her skirt was pushed to the tops of her thighs, the cool air washing over her exposed skin. A profuse sweat of anxiety broke out on her face and neck, and she used her sleeve to blot her cheeks and upper lip.

Kneeling before her, McKenna took hold of one of her icy feet in his warm hand. He brushed his thumb over the pink tips of her toes. “You were wearing shoes when it happened,” he said, staring at the pale, smooth skin of her feet, the delicate tracing of blue veins near the arch.

Perspiration stung her eyes as she opened them to look at the top of his dark head. “Yes.” Her entire body jerked as his hands slid to her ankles.

McKenna’s fingers stilled. “Does it hurt when I touch you?”

“N-no.” Aline blotted her face again, gasping as the slow, easy exploration continued. “It’s just…Mrs. Faircloth is the only one I’ve ever allowed to touch my legs. In some places I can’t feel anything…and in others, the skin is too sensitive.” The sight of his hands sliding along her ravaged calves was almost more than she could bear. Transfixed and miserable, she watched his fingertips pass over the rough, reddened scars.

“I wish I had known,” he murmured. “I should have been with you.”

That made Aline want to weep, but she set her jaw hard to keep it from quivering. “I wanted you,” she admitted stiffly. “I kept asking for you. Sometimes I thought you were there, holding me…but Mrs. Faircloth said they were fever dreams.”

The motion of his hands stopped. The words seemed to send a tremor across his wide shoulders, as if he had taken a chill. Eventually his palms resumed their progress along her thighs, pressing them apart, his thumbs skimming the insides. “So this is what has kept us apart,” he said unsteadily. “This is why you wouldn’t let me come to your bed, and why you refused my proposal. And why I had to hear the truth from Livia about what your father did, instead of hearing it from you.”

“Yes.”

McKenna rose on his knees, gripping the chair arms on either side of her, his face just inches from her own.

Aline had been prepared for sorrow, sympathy, repulsion…but she had never anticipated rage. She had not expected the gleam of primitive fury in his eyes, and the grimace of a man who had nearly been pushed beyond the limits of sanity. “What did you think I meant when I said that I loved you? Did you think I would give a damn about your scars?”

Stunned by his reaction, Aline responded with a single nod.

“My God.” The blood rose higher in his face. “What if the situation were reversed, and I was the one who had been hurt? Would you have left me?”

“No!”

“Then why did you expect anything less of me?”

The explosive outburst caused her to shrink back in the chair. McKenna leaned forward, following her, his fury now edged with anguish. “Damn you, Aline!” He took her face between his shaking hands, his long fingers cradling her cheeks, his eyes liquid and glittering. “You’re the other half of me,” he said hoarsely. “How could you think that I wouldn’t want you? You’ve put us both through hell for no reason!”

Clearly he did not understand the source of her fear. Taking hold of his broad, hard wrists, Aline gripped them tightly, her throat working.

McKenna glared at her with ardent, angry concern. “What is it?” He kept one hand at the side of her face, while using the other to smooth the hair back from her forehead.

“It was one thing to make love to me when you didn’t know about my legs. But now that you know…you will find it difficult, perhaps even impossible…”

McKenna’s eyes gleamed in a way that alarmed her. “You doubt my ability to make love to you?”

Hurriedly Aline pulled the gown back over her legs, infinitely relieved when they were covered once more. “My legs are horrible, McKenna.”

He uttered a curse that startled her with its foulness, and gripped her head between his hands, forcing her to stare at him. His voice was savage. “For twelve years I have been in constant torment, wanting you in my arms and believing it would never be possible. I want you for a thousand reasons other than your legs, and…no, damn it, I want you for no reason at all, other than the fact that you’re you. I want to shove myself deep inside you and stay for hours…days…weeks. I want morning and noon and nightfall with you. I want your tears, your smiles, your kisses…the smell of your hair, the taste of your skin, the touch of your breath on my face. I want to see you in the final hour of my life…to lie in your arms as I take my last breath.” He shook his head, staring at her like a condemned man who beheld the face of his executioner. “Aline,” he whispered, “do you know what hell is?”

“Yes.” Her eyes overflowed. “Trying to exist with your heart living somewhere outside your body.”

“No. It’s knowing that you have so little faith in my love, you would have condemned me to a lifetime of agony.” His face contorted suddenly. “To something worse than death.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice cracked. “McKenna—”

“Not sorry enough.” He pressed his wet face to hers, his mouth rubbing over her cheeks and chin in feverish, rough half kisses, as if he wanted to devour her. “Not nearly enough. You say you’ve had to live without your heart…how would you like to lose your soul as well? I’ve cursed every day I’ve had to live without you, and every night that I spent with another woman, wishing that it was you in my arms—”

“No—” she moaned.

“Wishing,” he continued fiercely, “for some way to stop the memories of you from eating away at me until there was nothing left inside. I’ve found no peace anywhere, not even in sleep. Not even in dreams…” He broke off and assaulted her with hungry, shuddering kisses. The taste of his tears, his mouth, made Aline disoriented and hot, her head reeling from shocks of pleasure. McKenna seemed possessed by a passion that bordered on violence, his lungs wracked with hard breaths, his hands tightening with a force that threatened to leave bruises on her tender flesh. “By God,” he said with the vehemence of a man to whom entirely too much had happened, “In the past few days I’ve suffered the torments of the damned, and I’ve had enough!”

Suddenly Aline felt herself being plucked out of her chair and lifted against his chest as if she weighed nothing. “What are you doing?” she gasped.

“Taking you to bed.”

Aline squirmed and struggled in his arms. Wildly she wondered how to explain to him that this would require slow degrees of acclimation, rather than full and immediate submersion. “No, McKenna, I’m not ready for that yet! Please. I want to talk first—”

“I’m tired of talking.”

“I can’t,” she said desperately. “I need some time. And I’m exhausted…I haven’t slept properly in days, and—”

“Aline,” he interrupted tersely, “the forces of heaven and hell combined couldn’t stop me from making love to you right now.”

That hardly left room for ambiguity. Quaking, Aline felt a renewed sweat break out on her face.

McKenna pressed his mouth to her shimmering cheek. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “Not with me.”

She couldn’t help it. The habits of privacy and isolation had been established over twelve long years. And the knowledge that he would allow her no retreat, no refuge, made her heart thrash violently as McKenna carried her into the next room with purposeful strides. Reaching the bed, he lowered her to her feet, and leaned over to pull back the brocaded counterpane. As Aline stared at the smooth expanse of freshly laundered white linen, her stomach plummeted.

McKenna reached for the buttons of her gown, his fingers moving along the front placket to unfasten her bodice. After letting the loosened gown drop to the floor, McKenna grasped Aline’s chemise and pulled it over her head. Goose bumps rose over her skin as she stood na*ed and trembling before him. It took all her will to keep from trying to cover herself, to hide the disparate parts of her body.

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