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The words filled Aline with a hatred that was almost lethal in its intensity. She wanted to strike at her father’s sneering face, vanquish him, hurt him to the bottom of his soul…if he had one. Focusing on a small square of paneling, Aline schooled herself into perfect stillness, flinching only a little as her father reached out and seized her jaw in one hand. The clench of his fingers bit cruelly into the small muscles of her face.

“Has he taken your virtue?” he barked.

Aline looked directly into the obsidian surface of his eyes. “No.”

She saw that he didn’t believe her. The bruising grip on her face tightened. “And if I summon a physician to examine you, he will confirm that?”

Aline did not blink, only stared back at him, silently daring him. “Yes.” The word came out like a hiss. “But had it been left to me, my virginity would be long gone. I offered it freely to McKenna—I only wish that he had accepted it.”

The earl let go of her with an infuriated sound and struck out swiftly, his palm cracking against her cheek. The force of the slap numbed her face and snapped her head to the side. Stunned, Aline held her palm to her swelling cheek and stared at him with round eyes.

The sight of her astonishment and pain seemed to calm the earl somewhat. Letting out a deep breath, he went to his chair and sat with haughty grace. His glittering black gaze found her. “The boy will be gone from the estate by the morrow. And you will ensure that he never dares to approach you again. Because I will find out if he does—and I will use every means at my disposal to ruin him. You know that I have the power, and the will, to do it. No matter where he goes, I will have him hunted and found. And I will take the greatest pleasure in making certain that his life is brought to a miserable and torturous end. He deserves no less for defiling the daughter of a Marsden.”

Aline had never truly understood before that to her father she was a piece of property, that her feelings meant nothing to him. She knew he meant every word—he would crush McKenna like a hapless rodent beneath his foot. That must not happen. McKenna must be shielded from her father’s vindictiveness, and provided for. She couldn’t allow him to be punished simply because he had dared to love her.

While fear gnawed at her heart, she spoke in a brittle voice that didn’t seem to be her own. “McKenna won’t come back if he believes that I want him gone.”

“Then for his sake, make him believe it.”

Aline did not hesitate in her reply. “I want a situation found for him. A decent one—an apprenticeship—something that will allow him to better himself.”

Her father actually blinked at the bold demand. “What gives you the temerity to believe that I would do that for him?”

“I am still a virgin,” she said softly. “For now.”

Their gazes held for a frozen moment.

“I see,” the earl murmured. “You will threaten to rut with the first man you can find, be he a pauper or a pig farmer, if I don’t grant your request.”

“Precisely.” It required no acting skill for Aline to convince him. She was sincere. After McKenna had left for good, nothing would hold any value for her. Not even her own body.

Aline’s audacity seemed to interest the earl, fully as much as it annoyed him. “It seems you may have some of my blood in you yet,” he murmured. “Though that is, as always, very much in question, considering your mother. Very well, I will find a situation for the insolent bastard. And you’ll do your part to ensure that Stony Cross is rid of him.”

“I have your word on that?” she persisted quietly, her fists clenched at her sides.

“Yes.”

“Then you have mine in return.”

A contemptuous sneer distorted his features. “I don’t require your word, daughter. Not because I trust you—I assure you, I do not. But because I have learned that the honor of a woman is of less value than the sweepings from the floor.”

Since no reply was required, Aline stood there stiffly until he snapped at her to leave. Numb and disoriented, she walked to her room, where she would wait for McKenna to come for her. Thoughts clamored frantically in her mind. One thing was certain—no power on earth would ever keep McKenna away from her, as long as he believed that she still loved him.

Three

It had been a long, hard day’s work for McKenna, helping the gardener’s assistants to construct a stone wall around the fruit orchard. Hours of lifting heavy rock had caused his muscles to tremble with strain. With a rueful grin, he reflected that he wouldn’t be of much use to Aline for a day or two—he was almost too sore to move. But perhaps she would let him lay his head in her lap, and allow him to nap for a few minutes, with her perfume and softness surrounding him. Sleeping while her gentle fingers stroked his hair…the thought filled him with weary anticipation.

However, before he could go to Aline, he would have to see Mrs. Faircloth, who had bid him to come to her at once. After bathing in the old iron tub that all the menservants made use of, McKenna went to the kitchen with his hair still wet. His skin was scented with the acrid soap that was used to clean floors and wash the laundry, as well as given to the servants for their personal needs.

“The hall boy said you wanted me,” McKenna said without preamble. As he glanced at the housekeeper, he was puzzled by the consternated look on her face.

“Lord Westcliff has asked to see you,” Mrs. Faircloth said.

Suddenly the large kitchen lost its comforting warmth, and the rich sweetness of a pot of jam simmering on the stove ceased to call to his ever-ravenous appetite. “Why?” McKenna asked cautiously.

Mrs. Faircloth shook her head. The heat of the kitchen had caused wisps of her salt-and-pepper hair to stick to the sides of her cheeks. “I’m sure I don’t know, and neither does Salter. Have you gotten into some kind of mischief, McKenna?”

“Mischief, no.”

“Well, to my knowledge you have done your work, and you’ve behaved yourself as well as a boy your age is able.” She frowned contemplatively. “Perhaps the master wishes to commend you, or send you about some special task.”

However, they both knew that was unlikely. The earl would never summon a lower servant for such a reason. It was the butler’s province to offer praise or discipline, or hand down new responsibilities. “Go put on your livery,” Mrs. Faircoth bade him. “You can’t appear before the master in your ordinary garb. And be quick about it—he won’t want to be kept waiting.”

“Hell,” McKenna muttered, cringing at the idea of dressing in the hated livery.

Pretending to scowl, the housekeeper raised a wooden spoon threateningly. “Another blasphemous word in my presence, and I’ll rap your knuckles.”

“Yes, ma’am.” McKenna lowered his head and attempted a meek expression, which made her laugh.

She patted his cheek with her warm, plump hand. Her eyes were soft pools of brown as she smiled. “Be off with you, and after you’ve seen the earl, I’ll have some fresh bread and jam waiting for you.”

As McKenna left to comply, his smile vanished, and he let out a long, taut sigh. Nothing good would come of the earl’s request. The only possible reason for the summons was his relationship with Aline. A slightly nauseous feeling came over him. McKenna feared nothing except the possibility of being sent away from her. The thought of days, weeks, months passing without being able to see her was unfathomable…like being told that he must try to live under water. He was overwhelmed with the need to find her, now, but there was no time. One did not tarry when the earl had sent for him.

Dressing quickly in the livery of gold-braided velvet, pinching black shoes, and white stockings, McKenna went to the study where Lord Westcliff waited. The house seemed peculiarly quiet, filled with the hush that occurred before an execution took place. Using two knuckles as Salter had taught him, McKenna gave the door a cautious rap.

“Enter,” came the master’s voice.

McKenna’s heart pounded so hard that he felt light-headed. Making his face expressionless, he entered the room and waited just inside the door. The room was stark and simple, paneled in gleaming cherrywood and lined on one side with long, rectangular, stained-glass windows. It was furnished sparsely, with bookshelves, hard-seated chairs, and a large desk where Lord Westcliff sat.

Obeying the earl’s brief gesture, McKenna ventured into the room and stopped before the desk. “My lord,” he said humbly, waiting for the ax to fall.

The earl regarded him with a narrow-eyed stare. “I’ve been considering what is to be done with you.”

“Sir?” McKenna questioned, his stomach dropping with sickening abruptness. He glanced into Westcliff’s hard eyes and then looked away instinctively. No servant ever dared to hold the master’s gaze. It was an untenable sign of insolence.

“Your service is no longer required at Stony Cross Park.” The earl’s voice was a quiet lash of sound. “You will be dismissed forthwith. I have undertaken to secure another situation for you.”

McKenna nodded dumbly.

“I am acquainted with a shipbuilder in Bristol,” Westcliff continued, “a Mr. Ilbery, who has condescended to hire you as an apprentice. I know him to be an honorable man, and I expect that he will be a fair, if demanding, taskmaster…”

Westcliff said something else, but McKenna only half heard him. Bristol…he knew nothing about it, save that it was a major trading port, and that it was hilly and rich with coal and metal. At least it was not too far away—it was in a neighboring county—

“You will have no opportunity to return to Stony Cross,” the earl said, recapturing his attention. “You are no longer welcome here, for reasons that I have no wish to discuss. And if you do attempt to return, you will regret it bitterly.”

McKenna understood what he was being told. He had never felt so much at someone else’s mercy. It was a feeling that a servant should be well accustomed to, but for the first time in his life, he resented it. He tried to swallow back the seething hostility, but it remained sharp and stinging in the back of his throat. Aline…

“I’ve arranged for you to be transported tonight,” Westcliff said coolly. “The Farnham family is conveying goods to be sold at Bristol market. They will allow you to ride in the back of their cart. Collect your belongings at once, and take them to the Farnhams’ home in the village, from whence you will depart.” Reaching into his desk drawer, he extracted a coin and flicked it to McKenna, who caught it reflexively. It was a crown, the equivalent of five shillings.

“Your month’s pay, though you are a few days short of the full four weeks,” Westcliff commented. “Never let it be said that I am ungenerous.”

“No, my lord,” McKenna half whispered. This coin, along with the meager hoard of savings in his room, would amount to approximately two pounds. He would have to make it last, since his apprenticeship would probably begin as unpaid labor.

“You may leave now. You will leave your livery behind, as you have no further need of it.” The earl turned his attention to some papers on his desk, ignoring McKenna completely.

“Yes, my lord.” McKenna’s mind was a welter of confusion as he left the study. Why had the earl not asked any questions, why had he not demanded to know precisely how far their short-lived affair had gone? Perhaps the earl had not wanted to know. Perhaps Westcliff was assuming the worst, that Aline had indeed taken McKenna as her lover. Would Aline be punished for it?

He would not be here to find out. He would not be able to protect or comfort her…he was being removed from her life with surgical precision. But he was damned if he wouldn’t see her again. The stupor faded, and suddenly his breath seemed to burn in his throat and chest, as if he had inhaled lungfuls of fire.

Aline nearly doubled over with agony as she heard the sounds she had been expecting…the quiet scrape of McKenna climbing up to her balcony. Her stomach roiled, and she clenched her fist against her abdomen. She knew what she had to do. And she knew that even without her father’s manipulations, her involvement in McKenna’s life could only have resulted in unhappiness for them both. McKenna would be better off to make a new start, unfettered by anything or anyone from his past. He would find someone else, someone who was at liberty to love him as she would never be. And no doubt many female hearts would be offered to a man like him.

Aline only wished that there was another way to set him free—a way that wouldn’t cause them both so much pain.

She saw McKenna on her balcony, a big shadow behind the web of the lace curtain. The door had been left slightly open…he nudged it with his foot, but as always, he did not dare to cross the threshold. Carefully Aline lit a candle by her bedside, and watched as her own reflection flickered to life in the panes of glass, superimposed on McKenna’s dark form before the door opened further and the image slid away.

Aline sat on the corner of the bed nearest the balcony, not trusting herself to come any closer to him. “You talked with the earl,” she said without inflection, as a trickle of sweat eased down her tense back.

McKenna was very still, reading the stiffness of her posture, the way she withheld herself from him. She should have already been in his arms by now. “He told me—”

“Yes, I know what he told you,” Aline interrupted softly. “You’re leaving Stony Cross Park. And it’s for the best, really.”

McKenna gave a slow, confused shake of his head. “I need to hold you,” he whispered, and for the first time ever he stepped into her room. He was stayed, however, as Aline raised her hand in a gesture of restraint.

“Don’t,” she said, and her breath caught before she could continue. “It’s all over, McKenna. The only thing to do now is say your goodbyes and disappear.”

“I’ll find a way to come back,” he said thickly, his gaze haunted. “I’ll do whatever you ask—”

“That wouldn’t be wise. I…” Self-loathing twisted through her as she forced herself to go on. “I don’t want you to come back. I don’t want to see you ever again.”

Staring at her blankly, McKenna took a step back from her. “Don’t say that,” he murmured huskily. “No matter where I go, I’ll never stop loving you. Tell me you feel the same, Aline. God…I can’t live without some shred of hope.”

It was precisely that hope that would prove his eventual ruin. If he had hope, he would come back to her, and then her father would destroy him. The only way to save McKenna was to drive him away for good…to extinguish all faith in her love. If she didn’t accomplish that, then no power on earth would be enough to keep him from her.

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