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Page 36

McKenna brushed the backs of his fingers against the slope of her breast, trailing them down to the quivering tautness of her midriff. He massaged the cool skin, then slid his arms around her with extreme care, whispering something soft and indecipherable into her tumbled hair. She took hold of the lapels of his coat, resting her face against his shirtfront. He was infinitely tender as he pulled the pins from her hair, dropping them to the carpeted floor. Soon the long locks hung loose and free, tickling her back with heavy silkiness.

Sliding his hand beneath her jaw, McKenna turned her face upward and fitted his lips to hers in a long, incendiary kiss that made her knees buckle. She was caught firmly against his body, the tips of her br**sts softly abraded by the broadcloth of his coat. Her lips parted helplessly beneath his, and McKenna demanded more, creating a seal of moisture and heat and erotic suction as he drove his tongue into the warm depths of her mouth.

His hand ran possessively down her back and over the swell of her buttocks. Finding the vulnerable spot just below her spine, he brought her closer against his front until she felt the thick shape of his arousal mounded tightly behind his trousers. He nudged against her deliberately, as if to demonstrate the scalding eagerness of his flesh to join with hers. She gave a little sob against his mouth. Allowing her no time to think, McKenna reached over her buttocks and between her thighs, while one of his legs expertly nudged hers apart. He kept her locked securely against his body, while his fingers parted her intimate flesh, stroking, spreading the secret softness to leave her open and vulnerable.

Poised on his hand, Aline arched her back slightly as he slid two fingers inside her. More, her body demanded, undulating to take him deeper. She wanted McKenna all over her, against her, inside her, filling every empty space. More of him, and more, leaving no cruel modicum of distance between them.

McKenna adjusted her body until his shaft fit snugly against the notch between her thighs, providing a delectable friction that corresponded perfectly with the slow wriggle of his fingers. He urged her against himself, dragging her repeatedly over the rock-hard swell of his loins, caressing her outside and inside in a lazy but unfaltering rhythm. He smoothed his cheek over her hair, and rubbed his lips into the dark filaments until he had reached the sweat-dampened roots. Aline felt her body tightening, throbbing, the pleasure intensifying until she had almost reached the bright flashpoint of release. His mouth took hers again, his tongue penetrating her gently, a soul kiss that flooded her with aching bliss. Oh, yes…oh yes…

To her frustration, McKenna lifted his mouth from hers and withdrew his fingers just as the rocketing sensation began to crest. “Not yet,” he whispered, while she shuddered wildly.

“I need you,” she said, barely able to speak.

His damp fingers traced the taut line of her throat. “Yes, I know. And when I finally let you leave this bed, you’re going to understand exactly how much I need you. You’re going to know all the ways that I want you…and how completely you belong to me.” McKenna picked her up and laid her on the bed, setting her on the pressed linen sheets. Still fully clothed, he leaned over her na*ed body. His dark head lowered, and she felt his lips touch her knee.

It was the last place she wanted to feel his mouth, against the ugliest of her scars. Turning cold, Aline protested and tried to roll away from him. McKenna caught her easily, grasping her h*ps in his hands. He pinned her to the mattress, while his mouth wandered back to her knee. “You don’t have to do that,” Aline said, cringing. “I would rather you didn’t…really, there’s no need to prove—”

“Shut up,” McKenna said tenderly, continuing to kiss her legs, accepting her scars as she had never been able to do for herself. He touched her everywhere, his hands stroking and caressing her shrinking flesh. “It’s all right,” he murmured, reaching up to rub her taut stomach in soothing circles. “I love you. All of you.” His thumb traced the small circle of her navel, and he nibbled at the delicate skin high inside her thigh. “Open for me,” he whispered, and she colored violently. “Open,” he urged, the velvety kisses venturing higher.

Moaning, she parted her legs, feeling the desire rise again. McKenna’s mouth delved into the exposed cleft, his tongue tracing the swelling bud of her sex, then slipping lower to probe the salt-scented entrance of her body. Aline felt her body turning heavy, her senses unlocking, all awareness focused on the delicate, excruciatingly light stroking between her legs. McKenna drew back to blow lightly on her wet flesh, then worried the peak of her sex with the tip of his tongue. She clenched her fists and dug her head back, pressing herself upward, making pleading sounds in her throat. Just as she thought she could take no more of the artful torture, he slid three fingers inside her, the hard knobs of his knuckles plunging into the slick channel. She couldn’t think, couldn’t move, her body immersed with pleasure. His mouth tugged at her, while his entwined fingers twisted and thrust until she cried out sharply, convulsing in ecstasy.

While she lay gasping on the bed, McKenna stood and shrugged out of his coat, his gaze locked on her supine form. He undressed before her, dropping his shirt to reveal a tautly muscled torso and a chest covered with black hair. His big-framed body was clearly built for power rather than elegance. Yet there was something innately graceful about the long lines of muscle and sinew, and the heavy breadth of his shoulders. He was a man who made a woman feel safe, and at the same time, deliciously overpowered.

Joining her on the bed, McKenna slid a large hand behind her neck and settled over her, nudging her legs apart. Aline’s breath caught as she absorbed the sensation of his na*ed body pressed all along hers…the hard, hair-roughened limbs, the stunning breadth of his chest, and the places where satin skin stretched over rippling muscle. McKenna grasped her right thigh, carefully adjusting her knee to keep the contracture scar from pulling.

Wonderingly she lifted a hand to the side of his face, caressing the close-shaven surface of his cheek. The moment was so tender, so sweet, that tears spilled from her eyes. “McKenna…I never dared to dream about this.”

His thick lashes swept downward, and he pressed his forehead against hers. “I did,” he said gruffly. “For thousands of nights I dreamed of making love to you. No man on earth has ever hated sunrise as much as I do.” He bent to kiss her lips, her throat, the rosy tips of her breasts. Drawing on her lightly, he stroked her nipple with his tongue, and as she quivered in response, he reached down to guide himself inside her. He entered her, filling her until they were matched hip to hip. They both gasped at the moment of joining, hard flesh immersed in softness, the deep, unbearably sweet fusion of their bodies.

Aline drew her hands over McKenna’s flexing back, while he slid his hands beneath her bottom, pulling her neatly into his savoring thrusts. “Don’t ever doubt my love,” he said raggedly.

She shuddered hungrily with each wet, hard lunge, and whispered obediently through kiss-swollen lips. “Never.”

McKenna’s features gleamed from mingled exertion and emotion. “Nothing in my life has ever compared to what I feel for you. You’re all I want…all I need…and that will never change.” He groaned harshly as the headlong rush of release began. “God…tell me that you know that…tell me…”

“I do,” Aline whispered. “I love you.” The ultimate pleasure rippled through her once more, silencing her with its power and acuity, causing her flesh to enclose his with pulsing heat.

Afterward, Aline was barely conscious as McKenna tenderly used a corner of the sheet to wipe the film of sweat and tears from her face. Cuddling against his bare shoulder, she closed her eyes. She was replete, and exhausted, and filled with wholesale relief. “I’m so tired, McKenna…”

“Sleep, my love,” he whispered, smoothing her long hair, lifting the damp locks away from the back of her neck. “I’ll be here to watch over you.”

“You sleep too,” she said groggily, her hand creeping to the center of his chest.

“No.” McKenna smiled and pressed a soft kiss against her temple. His voice was husky with wonder. “Not when staying awake is better than anything I could find in a dream.”

It was late afternoon by the time Gideon returned to his rooms at the Rutledge. He was tired, gray-faced, and irritable, wanting a drink so badly that he could hardly see straight. Instead he had downed enough coffee to float a timber barge. He had smoked too, until the smell of a cigar had started to make him nauseated. It was a novel experience, this pairing of exhaustion and over-stimulation. Considering the alternative, however, he supposed he had better get used to the feeling.

Entering the residence, Gideon was immediately met by his valet, who had some rather surprising news to convey. “Sir…it seems that Mr. McKenna did not depart for New York as scheduled. He came here, as a matter of fact. Accompanied by a woman.”

Gideon gave the valet a blank look. Considering the information for a long moment, he frowned inquiringly and rubbed his jaw. “Dare I ask—was it Lady Aline?”

The valet nodded at once.

“I’ll be damned,” Gideon said softly, his surliness replaced by a slow smile. “Are they still here?”

“Yes, Mr. Shaw.”

Gideon’s smile broadened into a grin as he speculated on the unexpected turn of events. “So he finally got what he wanted,” he murmured. “Well, all I can say is, McKenna had better get his hindquarters back to New York soon. Someone’s got to build the damned foundry.”

“Yes, sir.”

Wondering how long McKenna was going to make use of his rooms, Gideon headed to the bedroom and paused at the door, discerning that no noise came from within. Just as he turned to leave, he heard a brusque summons.

“Shaw?”

Cautiously Gideon opened the door a crack and ducked his head inside. He saw McKenna propped up on his elbow, his tanned chest and shoulders contrasting with the gleaming white linens. Little was visible of Lady Aline, save for a few locks of dark brown hair that draped over the edge of the mattress. She was snuggled in the crook of his arm, sleeping soundly as McKenna drew the bedclothes protectively over her bare shoulder.

“Missed your ship, did you?” Gideon asked mildly.

“Had to,” McKenna replied. “It turns out that I was about to leave something important behind.”

Gideon stared at his friend intently, struck by the difference in him. McKenna looked younger and happier than Gideon had ever seen him. Carefree, in fact, with a relaxed smile on his lips and a lock of hair tumbling over his forehead. As Lady Aline stirred against him, her sleep disrupted by the sound of their voices, McKenna bent to soothe her with a soft murmur.

In the past Gideon had seen McKenna with women in far more licentious circumstances than this. But for some reason the brilliant, unguarded tenderness of McKenna’s expression seemed unspeakably intimate, and Gideon felt an unfamiliar heat creeping up his face. Damnation—he hadn’t blushed since the age of twelve.

“Well,” Gideon said flatly, “since you’ve helped yourself to the use of my rooms, it seems I’ll have to find other accommodations for the night. Of course, I wouldn’t think twice about putting you out…but for Lady Aline, I’ll make an exception.”

“Go to Marsden Terrace,” McKenna suggested with a sudden gleam of mischief in his eyes. His gaze returned compulsively to Lady Aline’s sleeping face, as if he found it impossible to look away from her for more than a few seconds. “Westcliff is there alone—he might welcome the company.”

“Oh, splendid,” Gideon replied sourly. “He and I can have a lengthy discussion about why I should stay the hell away from his youngest sister. Not that it matters, since Livia will have forgotten all about me in six months.”

“I doubt it,” McKenna said, and grinned. “Don’t give up hope. Nothing’s impossible—God knows I’m proof of that.”

Epilogue

The blustery February wind whistled against the parlor window, diverting Livia’s attention from the letter in her hand. Curled in the corner of a settee with a cashmere blanket over her lap, she shivered pleasantly at the contrast of the damp, bitter winter day outside, and the cheerful warmth of the parlor. A mahogany letter box sat open beside her, one side of it filled with a neat stack of letters, and the other side stuffed with a far more ungainly pile tied with a blue ribbon. The smaller stack was from her sister Aline, whose letters from New York had been surprisingly regular, considering her notorious laxness in matters of correspondence.

The other mass of letters was from an entirely different source, all written in the same masculine scrawl. By turns playful, touching, informative and searingly intimate, these letters told the story of a man’s struggle to change himself for the better. They also spoke of a love that had deepened and matured during the past months. It seemed to Livia that she had come to know a different man than the one she had met at Stony Cross, and while her attraction to the original Gideon had been impossible to resist, the former rake was turning into a man that she could trust and depend on. Reaching down to the blue ribbon, she stroked the satiny surface with her fingertip, before turning her attention back to the letter from Aline.

…they say the population of New York City will reach a half-million in the next two years, and I can well believe it, with foreigners such as myself pouring in every day. This blend of nationalities gives the city a wonderfully cosmopolitan aspect. Everyone here seems to take a large, liberal view of matters, and at times I have actually felt a bit provincial in my opinions. I have finally begun to adjust to the pace of things here, and have caught the New York mania for improving oneself. I am learning a great many new things, and have acquired the art of making decisions and purchases with a rapidity that will no doubt amuse you when we meet again. As you can imagine, Mrs. Faircloth has a firm command of the household staff, and seems quite enamored of the markets west of Manhattanville, where every conceivable variety of produce is available. It is remarkable, really, that two miles away from towering eight-story buildings, one can find rural country with an abundance of miniature farms. I have barely begun to explore this handsomely built city, and I am pleased to say that I generally accomplish more in a week here than I did in a month back at Stony Cross.

Lest I mislead you, however, I will confess that McKenna and I do have our lazy days now and then. Yesterday we went sleighing through Washington Square, with silver bells jangling on the horses’s harnesses, and then we spent the rest of the day snuggled by the hearth. I forbade McKenna to do any work at all, and naturally he obeyed me, as an American wife is ruler of the home (though we cleverly give all outward appearance of authority to the husband). I am a benevolent dictator, of course, and McKenna seems to be quite content with the arrangement…

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