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Page 7

“What a pair we are,” Livia responded with a rueful laugh. “You realize that we’ll both end up old and unwed, living together with a great horde of cats.”

“God save me,” Aline had said with a laughing groan.

Thinking back to that conversation, Aline slid an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Well, dear,” she said lightly, “here is an opportunity for you to land an ambitious American with large pockets. Just what you were hoping for.”

Livia snorted. “I was joking about that, as you well know. Besides, how can you be certain that there are eligible gentlemen in the party?”

“Marcus told me a bit about the group last evening. Have you ever heard of the Shaws of New York? They’ve had money for three generations, which is forever in America. The head of the family is Mr. Gideon Shaw, who is unmarried—and apparently quite fine-looking.”

“Good for him,” Livia said. “However, I have no interest in husband hunting, no matter how attractive he may be.”

Aline tightened her arm protectively about Livia’s narrow shoulders. Since the death of her fiancé, Lord Amberley, Livia had vowed never to fall in love again. However, it was clear that Livia needed a family of her own. Her nature was too affectionate to be squandered on a life of spinsterhood. It was a measure of how deeply Livia had loved Amberley, that she still mourned him two years after his death. And yet surely Amberley, the most kindhearted of young men, would never have wanted Livia to spend the rest of her life alone.

“One never knows,” Aline said. “It’s possible that you will meet a man whom you will love as much as—if not more than—you did Lord Amberley.”

Livia’s shoulders stiffened. “Lord, I hope not. It hurts too much to love someone that way. You know that as well as I.”

“Yes,” Aline admitted, struggling to close away the memories that stirred behind an invisible door in her mind. Memories so incapacitating that she had to ignore them for the sake of her own sanity.

They stood together in silence, each understanding the other’s unspoken sorrows. How strange, Aline thought, that the younger sister she had always thought of as something of a nuisance would turn out to be her dearest friend and companion. Sighing, Aline turned toward one of the four towers that cornered the main body of the manor house. “Come,” she said briskly, “let’s go in through the servants’ entrance. I don’t wish to meet our guests while I’m dusty from our walk.”

“Neither do I.” Livia fell into step beside her. “Aline, don’t you ever tire of acting as hostess for Marcus’s guests?”

“No, I don’t mind it, actually. I like to entertain, and it’s always pleasant to hear the news from London.”

“Last week old Lord Torrington said that you have a way of making others feel more clever and interesting than they really are. He said that you are the most accomplished hostess he has ever known.”

“Did he? For those kind words, I will put extra brandy in his tea the next time he visits.” Smiling, Aline paused at the tower entrance and glanced over her shoulder at the entourage of guests and their servants, who milled in the courtyard as various trunks were carried this way and that. It seemed to be a boisterous group, this entourage of Mr. Gideon Shaw’s.

As Aline surveyed the courtyard, her gaze was drawn by a man who was taller than the rest, his height exceeding even that of the footmen. He was big and black-haired, with broad shoulders and a confident, masculine way of walking that was very nearly a strut. Like the other Americans, he was dressed in a suit that was well tailored but scrupulously conservative. He stopped to chat easily with another guest, his hard profile partially averted.

The sight of him made Aline feel uneasy, as if her usual self-possession had suddenly been stripped away. At this distance she could not see his features clearly, but she sensed his power. It was in his movements, the innate authority of his stance, the arrogant tilt of his head. No one could doubt that he was a man of consequence…perhaps he was Mr. Shaw?

Livia preceded her inside the house. “Are you coming, Aline?” she said over her shoulder.

“Yes, I…” Aline’s voice drifted into silence as she continued to stare at the distant figure, whose barely contained vitality made every other man in the vicinity seem pallid by comparison. Finishing his brief conversation, he strode toward the entrance of the manor. As he set foot on the first step, however, he stopped…as if someone had called out his name. His shoulders seemed to tauten beneath his black coat. Aline watched him, mesmerized by his sudden stillness. Slowly he turned and looked right at her. Her heart gave a hard, hurtful extra thump, and she retreated quickly into the tower before their gazes met.

“What is it?” Livia asked with a touch of concern. “You’re flushed all of a sudden.” She came forward and took Aline’s hand, tugging impatiently. “Come, we’ll bathe your face and wrists with cool water.”

“Oh, I’m perfectly all right,” Aline replied, but the pit of her stomach felt queer and fluttery. “It’s just that I saw a gentleman in the courtyard…”

“The black-haired one? Yes, I noticed him too. Why is it that Americans are always so tall? Perhaps it’s something in the climate—it makes them grow like weeds.”

“In that case, you and I should go for an extended stay,” Aline said with a smile, for both she and Livia were small of stature. Their brother, Marcus, was also no more than average in height, but his build was so muscular and bull-like that he posed a perilous physical threat to any man foolish enough to challenge him.

Chatting comfortably, the sisters made their way to their private apartments in the east wing. Aline knew that she would have to be quick about changing her gown and freshening her appearance, as the Americans’ early arrival had undoubtedly set the household in a commotion. The guests would want refreshments of some kind, but there was no time to prepare a full-blown breakfast. The Americans would have to be content with beverages until a midmorning “nuncheon” could be assembled.

Rapidly Aline went through a mental list of the contents of the pantry and larders. She decided they would set out crystal bowls of strawberries and raspberries, pots of butter and jam, along with bread and cake. Some asparagus salad and broiled bacon would also be nice, and Aline would also tell the housekeeper, Mrs. Faircloth, to serve the chilled lobster soufflé that had been intended as a supper course for later in the day. Something else could be substituted at dinner, perhaps some tiny salmon cutlets with egg sauce, or sweet-breads with celery stalks—

“Well,” Livia said prosaically, interrupting her speculations, “Have a pleasant day. I shall proceed to skulk about as usual.”

“There is no need for that,” Aline said with an instant frown.

Livia had virtually gone into hiding after the scandalous consequences of her tragic love affair with Lord Amberley. Although she was generally regarded with sympathy, Livia was still considered “ruined,” and therefore unfit company for those of delicate sensibilities. She was never invited to social events of any kind, and when a ball or soiree was held at Stony Cross Park, she stayed in her room to avoid the gathering. However, after two years of witnessing Livia’s social exile, Marcus and Aline had both agreed that enough was enough. Perhaps Livia could never regain the status she had enjoyed before her scandal, but the siblings were determined that she should not be forced to live the rest of her life as a recluse. They would gently wedge her back into the fringes of good society, and eventually find her a husband of suitable fortune and respectability.

“You’ve done your penance, Livia,” Aline said firmly. “Marcus says that anyone who does not wish to associate with you will simply have to leave the estate.”

“I don’t avoid people because I fear their disapproval,” Livia protested. “The truth is that I’m not ready to get back into the swim of things just yet.”

“You may not ever feel ready,” Aline countered. “Sooner or later you will simply have to jump back in.”

“Later, then.”

“But I remember how much you used to love to dance, and play parlor games, and sing at the piano—”

“Aline,” Livia interrupted gently, “I promise you, someday I will dance and play and sing again—but it will have to be at the time of my choosing, not yours.”

Aline relented with an apologetic smile. “I don’t mean to be overbearing. I just want you to be happy.”

Livia reached for her hand and squeezed it. “I wish, dearest, that you were as concerned for your own happiness as you are for everyone else’s.”

I am happy, Aline wanted to reply, but the words stuck in her throat.

Sighing, Livia left her standing in the hall. “I will see you later this evening.”

Aline took hold of the painted porcelain doorknob, pushed into her bedroom, and tugged the bonnet from her head. The hair at the back of her neck was wet with perspiration. Pulling the crimped wire pins from her long chocolate-brown locks, she set them on her dressing table and picked up a silver-backed brush. She dragged it through her hair, relishing the soothing scratch of boar bristles on her scalp.

It had been an exceptionally warm August so far, and the county was swarming with fashionable families who would not be caught dead in London in the summer months. Marcus had said that Mr. Shaw and his business partner would be traveling back and forth between Hampshire and London, with the rest of their entourage remaining firmly entrenched at Stony Cross Park. It appeared that Mr. Shaw planned to establish a London office for his family’s new enterprises, as well as secure the all-important docking rights that would allow his ships to unload their cargo at the docklands.

Although the Shaw family was already wealthy from real estate and Wall Street speculation, they had recently launched into the fast-growing business of locomotive production. It seemed their ambition was not only to supply American railways with engines, coaches, and parts, but also to export their products to Europe. According to Marcus, Shaw would have no shortage of investors for his new enterprise—and Aline sensed that her brother was interested in becoming one of them. With that goal in mind, Aline intended to see that Mr. Shaw and his partner had an extremely enjoyable stay at Stony Cross.

Her mind filled with plans, Aline changed into a light summer frock of white cotton printed with lavender flowers. She did not ring for a maid to help her. Unlike other ladies of her situation, she dressed herself most of the time, requesting help only from Mrs. Faircloth when necessary. The housekeeper was the only person who was ever allowed to see Aline bathing or dressing, except for Livia.

Closing the line of tiny pearl buttons up the front of her bodice, Aline stood before the looking glass. Expertly she braided and pinned her dark hair in a twist at the back of her neck. As she anchored the last pin in her coiffure, she saw in the reflection that something had been left on the bed…a stray glove or garter, perhaps…on the gleaming pink damask coverlet. Frowning curiously, Aline went to investigate.

She reached out to lift the object from the pillow. It was an old handkerchief, the silk embroidery faded to near-colorless hues, many of the threads worn away. Puzzled, Aline traced her fingertip over the pattern of rosebuds. Where had it come from? And why had it been left on her bed? The fluttery feeling came back to her stomach, and her fingertip stilled on the delicate web of embroidery.

She had made this herself, twelve years ago.

Her fingers closed around the bit of cloth, compressing it into her palm. Suddenly her pulse drummed in her temples, ears, throat, and chest. “McKenna,” she whispered.

She remembered the day she had given it to him…or more accurately, the day he had taken it from her, in the carriage room of the stables. Only McKenna could have returned this fragment of the past to her. But that was not possible. McKenna had left England years ago, breaking his apprenticeship agreement with the Bristol shipbuilder. No one had ever seen or heard from him again.

Aline had spent her entire adult life trying not to think about him, entertaining the futile hope that time would soften the memories of aching love. Yet McKenna had remained with her like a phantom, filling her dreams with all the abandoned hopes she refused to acknowledge during the daytime hours. All this time she had not known if he was dead or alive. Either possibility was too painful to contemplate.

Still clutching the handkerchief, Aline walked from her room. She slipped through the east wing like a wounded animal, using the servants’ entrance to leave the manor. There was no privacy in the house, and she had to steal a few minutes alone to gather her wits. One thought was foremost in her mind…Don’t come back, McKenna…It would kill me to see you now. Don’t come back, don’t…

Marcus, Lord Westcliff, welcomed Gideon Shaw into his library. Marcus had met Shaw before, on a previous visit to England, and he had found much to recommend the man.

Admittedly, Marcus had been predisposed not to like Shaw, who was a well-known member of the so-called American aristocracy. Despite a lifetime of social indoctrination, Marcus did not believe in aristocracy of any kind. He would have disclaimed his own title, were it legally possible. It was not that he minded responsibility, nor did he have an aversion to inherited money. It was just that he had never been able to accept the concept of one man’s innate superiority over another. The notion was inherently unfair, not to mention illogical, and Marcus had never been able to tolerate a breach of logic.

However, Gideon Shaw was nothing like the American aristocrats that Marcus had encountered. In fact, Shaw seemed to enjoy making his New York family cringe with his cheerful references to his great-grandfather, a crude and outspoken sea merchant who had amassed a staggering fortune. Subsequent generations of refined and well-mannered Shaws would have preferred to forget their vulgar ancestor…if only Gideon would let them.

Shaw entered the room with a loose, easy stride. He was an elegant man of about thirty-five years of age. His wheat-colored hair was cropped in short, gleaming layers, and his skin was tanned and close-shaven. His looks were quintessentially American…blue-eyed, blond, with an air of irreverence. But there was a darkness beneath his golden surface, a cynicism and dissatisfaction that had etched deep lines around his eyes and mouth. His reputation was that of a man who worked hard and played even harder, triggering rumors of drinking and debauchery that Marcus suspected were well deserved.

“My lord,” Shaw murmured, exchanging a decisive handshake, “it is a pleasure to arrive at last.”

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