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Page 6

“I apologized to my father, of course,” Aline said in a light, brittle voice. “I asked him to get rid of you, to spare me the embarrassment. He was angry, of course—he said that I should have at least looked somewhere higher than the stables. He was right. Next time I’ll choose with more discrimination.”

“Next time?” McKenna looked as if he had been struck.

“You’ve amused me for a while, but I’m bored with you now. I suppose we should try to part as friends, only…you are just a servant, after all. So let us end it cleanly. It’s best for both of us if you go before I am forced to say things that will make us both even more uncomfortable. Go, McKenna. I don’t want you anymore.”

“Aline…you love me…”

“I was playing with you. I’ve learned all I can from you. Now I need to find a gentleman to practice with.”

McKenna was silent, staring at her with the gaze of a fatally wounded animal. Desperately Aline wondered how long she could continue before she broke.

“How could I love someone like you?” she asked, each mocking word causing a stab of agony in her throat. “You’re a bastard, McKenna…you have no family, no blood, no means…what could you offer me that I couldn’t get from any man of low breed? Go, please.” Her nails left bloody crescents in her own palms. “Go.”

As the silence unraveled, Aline lowered her head and waited, trembling, praying to a merciless God that McKenna would not come to her. If he touched her, spoke to her once more, she would crumble in anguish. She made herself breathe in and out, forcing her lungs to work, willing her heart to keep beating. After a long time she opened her eyes and looked at the empty doorway.

He was gone.

Rising from the bed, she managed to reach the wash-stand, and she clutched her arms around the porcelain bowl. Nausea erupted in punishing spasms, and she gave in to it with a wretched gasp, until her stomach was empty and her knees had lost all ability to function. Stumbling and crawling to the balcony, she huddled against the railing and gripped the iron bars.

She saw McKenna’s distant figure walking along the drive that led from the manor house…the drive that connected to the village road. His head was bowed as he left without a backward glance.

Aline watched him hungrily through the painted bars, knowing that she would never see him again. “McKenna,” she whispered. She watched through the painted bars until he disappeared, following a bend in the road that would lead him far away from her. And then she pressed her icy, sweating face to the sleeve of her gown, and wept.

Four

Mrs. Faircloth came to the doorway of Aline’s cabinet, a small antechamber of her bedroom. The tiny room had originally come from a chateau built in the early seventeenth century. Years ago the earl and countess had bought the vaulted cabinet while traveling abroad. It had been packed into crates—paneling, painting, ceiling, and floor—and completely reconstructed at Stony Cross Park. Such rooms were rare in England but common in France, where the upper class used such places daydreaming, studying and writing, and conversing intimately with a friend.

Aline huddled in the corner of a chaise that had been lodged against the age-rippled glass window, staring at nothing. The narrow sill beneath the windowpanes was lined with small objects…a tiny painted-metal horse…a pair of tin soldiers, one of them missing an arm…a cheap wooden button from a man’s shirt…a small folding knife with a handle carved from a stag’s horn. All the items were bits and pieces of McKenna’s past that Aline had collected. Her fingers were curled around the spine of a pocket-sized book of verse, the nonsensical kind used to teach children the rules of grammar and spelling. Mrs. Faircloth remembered more than one occasion on which she had seen Aline and McKenna reading the primer together as children, their heads close together as Aline doggedly tried to teach him his lessons. And McKenna had listened reluctantly, though it had been clear that he would have much preferred to be running through the woods like an uncivilized creature.

Frowning, Mrs. Faircloth set a tray of soup and toast on Aline’s lap. “It’s time for you to eat something,” she said, masking her concern with a stern voice.

In the month since McKenna had left, Aline had been unable to eat or sleep. Broken and dispirited, she spent most of her time alone. When she was commanded to join the family for supper, she sat without touching her food and remained unnaturally silent. The earl and countess chose to regard Aline’s decline as childish pouting. However, Mrs. Faircloth did not share their opinion, wondering how they could so easily discount the profound attachment between Aline and McKenna. The housekeeper had tried to reason herself out of her worry, reminding herself that they were mere children, and as such, they were resilient creatures. Still…losing McKenna seemed likely to unhinge Aline.

“I miss him too,” the housekeeper had said, her throat tight with shared grief. “But you must think of what is best for McKenna, and not for you. You wouldn’t want him to stay here and be tormented by all the things he could never have. And it serves no one to let yourself go to pieces this way. You’re pale and thin, and your hair is as rough as a horse’s tail. What would McKenna think if he saw you right now?”

Aline lifted a dull gaze to hers. “He would think it was what I deserved, for being so cruel.”

“He will understand someday. He’ll reflect on it and realize that you could only have done it for his own good.”

“Do you think so?” Aline asked without apparent interest.

“Of course,” Mrs. Faircloth asserted stoutly.

“I don’t.” Aline picked up the metal horse from the window and regarded it without emotion. “I think that McKenna will hate me for the rest of his life.”

The housekeeper meditated on the words, becoming more and more convinced that if something were not done soon to jolt the girl from her grief, it might cause permanent damage to her health.

“Perhaps I should tell you…I’ve received a letter from him,” Mrs. Faircloth said, although she had meant to keep the information to herself. There was no predicting how Aline would react to the news. And if the earl learned that Mrs. Faircloth had allowed Aline to see such a letter, there would be yet another position at Stony Cross Park to be filled—her own.

The girl’s dark eyes were suddenly alive, filled with a frantic blaze. “When?”

“This very morning.”

“What did he write? How is he?”

“I haven’t read the letter yet—you know how my eyes are. I need the proper light…and I’ve misplaced my spectacles…”

Aline shoved the tray aside and struggled out of the chaise. “Where is it? Let me see it at once—oh, why did you wait so long to tell me?”

Troubled by the feverish color that had swept over the girl’s face, Mrs. Faircloth tried to settle her. “The letter is in my room, and you will not have it until you finish every morsel on that tray,” she said firmly. “To my knowledge, nothing has passed your lips since yesterday—you’ll likely faint before you even reach the stairs.”

“God in heaven, how can you talk about food?” Aline demanded wildly.

Mrs. Faircloth stood her ground, holding Aline’s challenging gaze without blinking, until the girl threw up her hands with a wrathful sound. Reaching down to the tray, she grabbed a piece of bread and tore it angrily with her teeth.

The housekeeper viewed her with satisfaction. “All right, then. Come to find me when you’re done—I’ll be in the kitchen. And then we’ll go to my room to fetch the letter.”

Aline ate so quickly that she nearly choked on the bread. She fared little better with the soup, the spoon shaking too violently in her hand to deliver more than a few drops to her mouth. She couldn’t seem to focus on one thought, her mind jumbled and spinning. She knew that there would be no words of forgiveness or understanding in McKenna’s letter—there would be no mention of her. That didn’t matter. All she wanted was some reassurance that he was alive and well. Oh God, she was starved for news of him!

Fumbling with the spoon, she threw it impatiently into the corner and shoved her feet into her shoes. It was a sign of how stupidly self-absorbed she had been that she hadn’t already thought to ask Mrs. Faircloth to begin a correspondence with McKenna. Although it was impossible for Aline to communicate with him, she could at least maintain a fragile link through the housekeeper. The thought caused a warm ache of relief inside her, thawing the detachment that had encased her for weeks. Ravenous for the letter, craving the sight of the marks that McKenna’s hand had made on parchment, Aline hurried from the room.

When she reached the kitchen, her appearance earned a few odd glances from the scullery maid and the pair of cook maids, and she realized that her face must be very red. Excitement burned through her, making it difficult to stay calm as she moved around the huge wooden table to the side where Mrs. Faircloth and the cook stood, close to the brick-built oven range over the hearth. The air was laden with the smell of fish frying, the rich, fatty aroma seeming to curdle the contents of Aline’s stomach. Fighting a surge of nausea, she swallowed repeatedly and went to the housekeeper, who was making a list with the cook.

“The letter,” Aline whispered in her ear, and Mrs. Faircloth smiled.

“Yes. Just a moment more, my lady.”

Aline nodded with an impatient sigh. She turned to face the stove, where a cook maid was clumsily attempting to turn the fish. Oil splashed from the pan repeatedly as each piece was flipped, the liquid spilling into the basket grate filled with unused coal. Raising her brows at the girl’s ineptitude, Aline nudged her elbow into the housekeeper’s plump side. “Mrs. Faircloth—”

“Yes, we’re almost finished,” the housekeeper murmured.

“I know, but the stove—”

“One more word with Cook, my lady.”

“Mrs. Faircloth, I don’t think the cook maid should—”

Aline was interrupted by a shocking blast of heat accompanied by an explosive roar as the oil-soaked basket grate caught fire. Flames shot up to the ceiling and spread to the pan of fish, turning the range into an inferno. Stunned, Aline felt the cook maid stumble against her, and the breath was knocked from her lungs as her back struck the edge of the heavy table.

Hiccupping for air, Aline was dimly aware of the kitchen maids’ frightened screams, overlaid by Mrs. Faircloth’s sharp cries for someone to fetch a sack of bicarbonate salts from the larder, to smother the blaze. Aline turned to escape the heat and the smoke, but it seemed she was surrounded by it. Suddenly her body was encompassed with a pain more searing than anything she had ever imagined possible. Panicking at the realization that her clothes were on fire, she ran instinctively, but there was no escape from the flames that ate her alive. She had a blurred flash of Mrs. Faircloth’s horrified face, and then someone knocked her violently to the ground…a man’s voice cursing…there were punishing blows to her legs and body as he beat at her burning clothes. Aline cried out and fought him, but she could no longer breathe or think or see as she sank into the darkness.

Five

Twelve years later

“It seems that the Americans have arrived,” Aline said dryly, as she and her sister, Livia, returned to the manor house after an early-morning walk. She paused beside the honey-colored stone facade to have a good look at the four ornate vehicles that were stopped in front of the manor house. Servants dashed across the large courtyard that fronted the manor house, from the stables located on one side, to the servants’ quarters on the other. The guests had come with a great quantity of trunks and baggage for their month-long stay at Stony Cross Park.

Livia came to stand by Aline. She was a winsome young woman of twenty-four, with light brown hair and hazel-green eyes and a slim, small figure. From her blithe manner, one would think she hadn’t a care in the world. But it became evident to anyone who looked into her eyes that she had paid a high price for the rare moments of happiness she had known.

“Silly things,” Livia said lightly, referring to their guests, “haven’t they been told that it isn’t done to arrive so early in the day?”

“It would seem not.”

“Rather ostentatious, aren’t they,” Livia murmured, observing the gilded moldings and painted panels on the sides of the carriages.

Aline grinned. “When Americans spend their money, they like for it to show.”

They laughed and exchanged impish glances. This wasn’t the first time that their brother, Marcus, now Lord Westcliff, had hosted Americans at his renowned hunting and shooting parties. It seemed that in Hampshire, it was always the season for something…grouse in August, partridge in September, pheasant in October, rooks in spring and summer, and rabbits all year round. The traditional chase took place twice a week, with ladies occasionally riding to the hounds as well. All manner of business was conducted at these parties, which often lasted weeks and included influential political figures or rich professional men. During these visits, Marcus cleverly persuaded certain guests to side with him on one issue or another, or to agree to some business matter that would serve his interests.

The Americans who came to Stony Cross were usually nouveaux riches…their fortunes made from shipping and real estate, or factories that produced things like soap flakes or paper rolls. Aline had always found Americans rather engaging. She liked their high spirits, and she was touched by their eagerness to be accepted. Out of fear of seeming too modish, they wore clothes that were a season or two behind the current fashion. At dinner they were terribly anxious about whether they either had been seated below the salt or had been given the more prestigious locations near the host. And generally they were concerned about quality, making it clear that they preferred Sèvres china, Italian sculpture, French wine…and English peers. Americans were notoriously eager to make transatlantic marriages, using Yankee fortunes to catch impoverished British blue bloods. And no blood was more exalted than that of the Marsdens, who possessed one of the most ancient earldoms of the peerage.

Livia liked to joke about their pedigree, claiming that the renowned Marsden lineage could make even a black sheep like herself seem attractive to an ambitious American. “Since no decent Englishman would have me, perhaps I should marry one of those nice rich Yankees and sail with him across the Atlantic.”

Aline had smiled and hugged her tightly. “You wouldn’t dare,” she whispered into her sister’s hair. “I would miss you too much.”

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