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Page 4

“It’s his age, I suppose,” Mrs. Faircloth told Salter, the butler. “Young men are all high spirits and mischief one day, all gloom and rebellion the next.”

“No matter what his temperament, McKenna had better do his work well,” Salter said dourly. “Or it’s back to the stables for good, and he’ll be a lower servant for the rest of his days.”

When Aline repeated the comment to McKenna one afternoon, he pulled a face and laughed. He was busy polishing the lacquered panels of a carriage, while Aline sat on an overturned bucket and watched him. The covered carriage room was empty and silent, save for the whickering and shifting of the horses in the stalls beyond the court.

McKenna’s exertions had caused him to sweat until his white shirt clung limply to the muscular surface of his back. His shoulders bunched and flexed as he applied a film of wax to the black lacquer, and rubbed it until it shone like glass. Aline had offered to help him, but he had adamantly refused and taken the cloth from her. “It’s my job,” he had told her brusquely. “You sit over there and watch.”

Aline had obeyed with pleasure, enjoying the masculine grace of his movements. As in everything else he did, McKenna performed the task meticulously. He had been taught since childhood that good work was its own reward—and that, coupled with a complete lack of ambition, made him a perfect servant. It was the only fault that Aline could find with him—his automatic acceptance of his lot in life, a resignation so intrinsic that it seemed nothing could ever change it. In fact, she mused guiltily, if it wasn’t for her, McKenna would have been perfectly happy with his fate. She was the only thing he had ever wanted that he couldn’t have. And she knew how selfish it was of her to keep him so firmly tied to her, but she couldn’t make herself let him go. He was as necessary to her as food and water and air.

“You don’t want to be a lower servant forever, do you?” she pressed, bringing her thoughts back to their conversation.

“I’d like it better than working in the house and wearing livery,” he retorted.

“Mrs. Faircloth thinks that you could make it to first footman someday, or even valet.” Aline neglected to mention the housekeeper’s regretful observation that although McKenna would make a wonderful valet, his chances of that were greatly diminished by his handsomeness. No master wanted to have a valet whose looks and bearing outshone his own. Far better to keep someone like McKenna in livery that clearly marked him as a servant. “And then you would be better paid.”

“I don’t care about that,” he muttered, applying more wax to the door of the extension-front carriage. “What do I need more money for?”

Aline frowned thoughtfully. “To buy a little cottage someday, and farm your own plot of land.”

McKenna paused in the midst of his polishing and glanced over his shoulder with a sudden devilish spark in his blue-green eyes. “And who would live with me, in my cottage?”

Aline met his gaze and smiled, while a fantasy took hold of her and suffused her with warmth. “Me, of course.”

Considering that, McKenna hung the waxing cloth on the hook of the carriage lamp before approaching her slowly. Aline’s stomach quivered at the look on his face. “I’d need to earn a fair coin for that,” he murmured. “Keeping you would be an expensive proposition.”

“I wouldn’t cost so much,” she protested indignantly.

He gave her a skeptical glance. “The price of your hair ribbons alone would beggar me, wife.”

The word “wife,” uttered in that low tone, made her feel as if she had swallowed a spoonful of sugar syrup. “I’ll make up for it in other ways,” she replied.

Smiling, McKenna reached down and pulled her to her feet. His hands ran lightly over her sides, lingering just beneath her arms, the heels of his hands brushing against her breasts. The musky male scent of him and the gleam of his sweat-dampened skin made her swallow hard. She drew a little rose-embroidered handkerchief from her sleeve and blotted his forehead.

Taking the dainty cloth from her, McKenna regarded the handiwork of green and pink silk threads with a smile. “Did you do this?” His thumb stroked over the embroidered flowers. “It’s beautiful.”

She colored in pleasure at the compliment. “Yes, I worked on it in the evenings. A lady should never sit with idle hands.”

McKenna tucked the handkerchief into the waist of his trousers and glanced swiftly at their surroundings. Ascertaining that they were completely alone, he slid his arms around her. His hands skimmed over her back and h*ps to exert delicious pressure in just the right places, adjusting their closeness with sensuous precision. “Will you be there waiting for me every night, in our cottage?” he murmured.

She nodded, leaning against him.

McKenna’s bristly black lashes lowered until they cast shadows on his cheeks. “And you’ll scrub my back when I’m tired and dusty from the field?”

Aline pictured his large, powerful body lowering into a wooden tub…his pleasured sigh at the heat of the water…his bronzed back shining in the firelight. “Yes,” she breathed. “And then you can soak while I hang the stew pot over the fire, and I’ll tell you about the argument I had with the miller, who didn’t give me enough flour because his scale was weighted.”

McKenna laughed softly while his fingertip skimmed lightly along her throat. “The cheat,” he murmured, his eyes sparkling. “I’ll speak with him tomorrow—no one tries to fleece my wife and gets away with it. In the meantime, let’s go to bed. I want to hold you all night long.”

The thought of being tucked in a cozy bed with him, their na*ed bodies entwined, made Aline tremble with longing. “You’ll probably fall asleep as soon as your head touches the pillow,” she said. “Farming is hard work—you’re exhausted.”

“Never too tired to love you.” His arms slid around her, and he hunched over to nuzzle the curve of her cheek. His lips were like hot velvet as he whispered against her skin. “I’m going to kiss you from your head to your toes. And I won’t stop until you’re crying for me, and then I’ll pleasure you until you’re weak from my loving.”

Aline slid her fingers to the hard back of his neck and guided his mouth to hers. His lips covered hers, molding gently until she opened to admit the exquisite probing of his tongue. She wanted the life he had just described…she wanted it infinitely more than the future that awaited her. Yet that life belonged to another woman. The thought of someone else sharing his days and nights, his secrets and dreams, filled her with desperation.

“McKenna,” she moaned, turning her mouth from his, “promise me…”

He held her tight, stroking her back, rubbing his cheek against her hair. “Anything. Anything.”

“If you ever marry someone else, promise that you’ll always love me best.”

“Sweet, selfish darling,” he murmured tenderly. “You’ll have my heart always—you’ve ruined me for life.”

Aline wrapped her arms around his neck. “Do you resent me for that?” Her voice was muffled against his shoulder.

“I should. If not for you, I might have been content with ordinary things. With an ordinary girl.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, hugging him fiercely.

“Are you?”

“No,” she admitted, and McKenna laughed, tugging her head back to kiss her.

His mouth was firm and demanding, his tongue sliding deep with ruthless sensuousness. As Aline’s knees weakened, she molded herself to him until no inch of space remained between them. McKenna supported her easily, holding her between his thighs, his big hand cradling the back of her neck. The pressure of his lips altered as he licked inside her mouth with an erotic playfulness that drew a ragged sigh from her. Just as she thought she would melt to the floor in a puddle of bliss, Aline was disgruntled as McKenna abruptly took his mouth from hers.

“What is it?” she asked thickly.

McKenna silenced her with a touch of his forefinger on her lips, staring at the doorway of the carriage room with narrowed eyes. “I thought I heard something.”

Aline frowned in sudden worry, watching as he strode swiftly across the flagstones to the arched opening. He gazed from one side of the empty courtyard to the other. Detecting no sign of anyone, he shrugged and returned to Aline.

She slipped her arms around his lean waist. “Kiss me again.”

“Oh no,” he said with a crooked grin. “You’re going back to the house—I can’t work with you here.”

“I’ll be quiet,” she said, her lower lip pushing out mutinously. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

“Yes, I will.” He glanced down at his own aroused body and then gave her a wry look. “And it’s hard for a man to get his work done when he’s in this condition.”

“I’ll make it all better,” she purred, her hand stealing down to the fascinating bulge of his erection. “Just tell me what to do.”

With a laughing groan, McKenna stole a swift, warm kiss from her lips and pried her away from him. “I’ve already told you what to do—go back to the house.”

“Will you climb up to my room tonight?”

“Maybe.”

She gave him a mock-threatening glare, and McKenna grinned, shaking his head as he returned to the carriage.

Although they were both mindful of the need for caution, they took every opportunity to sneak away together. They met in the woods, or at their place by the river, or at night on her balcony. McKenna steadfastly refused to cross the threshold of Aline’s room, saying that he could not be responsible for his actions, were he to find himself near a bed with her. His self-restraint was far greater than hers, though Aline was well aware of the effort it cost him, and how badly he wanted her. He pleasured her twice again, kissing and holding and caressing her until she was limp with fulfillment. And then late one afternoon, as they lay together by the river, McKenna finally allowed Aline to bring him to release. It would forever be the most erotic experience of her life, with McKenna panting and groaning her name, his flesh stiff and silky hard as it slipped through the ardent grasp of her fingers, his powerful body helpless at her touch. Aline enjoyed his cl**ax more than her own, loving the fact that she could give him the same ecstasy that he had shown to her.

If these were their halcyon days, however, their time was far too short-lived. Aline knew that her love affair with McKenna, such as it was, could never last. All the same, she did not expect it to end so quickly, nor in such a brutal manner.

Her father summoned Aline to his study after supper one evening—something he had never done before. There had never been any reason for the earl to speak either to her or to her sister Livia, privately. Marcus, his son, was the only offspring that the earl gave any attention to…and neither of the girls envied their older brother for that. The earl was especially critical of his heir, demanding perfection at all times, preferring to motivate with fear rather than with praise. And yet for all the harsh treatment Marcus had received, he was essentially a kind and good-natured boy. Aline hoped very much that he wouldn’t turn out to be like their father someday, but there were many years of the earl’s ruthless molding in store for him.

By the time Aline reached the study, she felt as if her stomach had turned into a block of ice. The coldness spread outward through her limbs until it had reached the tips of her fingers and toes. There was no question in her mind about why she had received this unusual command from her father. The earl must have found out somehow about her involvement with McKenna. If it were anything else, he would have had her mother or Mrs. Faircloth speak to her. But the fact that he was bothering to communicate with her directly conveyed that the matter was one of importance. And her instincts warned that the coming confrontation was going to be ugly indeed. Frantically she tried to think of how to react, how best to protect McKenna. She would do anything, promise anything, to keep him safe from the earl’s wrath.

Chilled and sweating, she reached the study, with its dark-paneled interior and the massive mahogany desk where much of the estate business was conducted. The door was open, and a lamp was burning inside. She entered the room and found her father standing by the desk.

The earl was not a handsome man—his features were too broad and harsh, as if fashioned by a sculptor who had been in too much of a hurry to refine the deep strikes of his chisel. Had the earl possessed a measure of warmth or wit, or any increment of kindness, his features might have lent themselves to a certain hard attractiveness. Unfortunately he was an utterly humorless man, who, with all his God-given advantages, had found life to be a bitter disappointment. He took no pleasure in anything, especially in his family, who seemed to be little more than a collective burden to him. The only approval he had ever shown to Aline was a reluctant pride in the physical beauty that friends and strangers had complimented so often. As for her thoughts, her character, her hopes and fears—he knew and cared nothing about such intangibles. He had made it clear that Aline’s only purpose in life was to marry well.

As she faced her father, Aline wondered how it was possible to have so little feeling for the man who had sired her. One of the many bonds between her and McKenna was the fact that neither of them had ever known what it was like to be loved by a mother or father. It was only because of Mrs. Faircloth that either of them had any concept of parental affection.

Reading the active hatred in her father’s gaze, Aline reflected that this was how he had always looked at Livia. Poor Livia, who through no fault of her own had been sired by one of the countess’s lovers.

“You sent for me, Father?” she murmured tonelessly.

The lamplight sent jagged shadows across the Earl of Westcliff’s face as he regarded her coldly. “At this moment,” he remarked, “I have never been more certain that daughters are a curse from hell.”

Aline made her face blank, though she was forced to take a quick breath as her lungs contracted.

“You’ve been seen with the stable boy,” the earl continued. “Kissing, with your hands on each other…” He paused, his mouth contorting briefly before he managed to school his features. “It seems your mother’s blood has finally risen to the fore. She has a similar taste for the lower order…although even she has the discernment to indulge in footmen, whereas you seem to have confined your interest to nothing better than stable offal.”

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