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Page 8

testpreptraining

A maid came bearing a silver coffee service, and Marcus gestured for her to place it on his desk.

“How was the crossing?” Marcus asked.

A smile crinkled the corners of Shaw’s blue-gray eyes. “Uneventful, thank God. May I ask after the countess? She is well, I trust?”

“Quite well, thank you. My mother bid me to convey her regrets that she could not be here at this time, but she is visiting friends abroad.” Standing over the refreshment tray, Marcus wondered why Aline had not yet appeared to greet the guests. No doubt she was busy adjusting plans to compensate for the party’s early arrival. “Will you take some coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Lowering his rangy form into the chair beside the desk, Shaw sat with his legs slightly spread.

“Cream or sugar?”

“Just sugar, please.” As Shaw received his cup and saucer, Marcus noticed a distinct trembling of his hands, causing the china to rattle. They were the unmistakable tremors of a man who had not yet recovered from a previous night’s drinking.

Without missing a beat, Shaw set the cup on the desk, withdrew a silver flask from the inside of his well-tailored coat, and poured a liberal quantity of spirits into the coffee. He drank from the cup without benefit of the saucer, closing his eyes as the hot alcohol-infused liquid poured down his throat. After downing the coffee, he extended the cup without comment, and Marcus obligingly refilled it. Again the ritual of the flask was performed.

“Your business partner is welcome to join us,” Marcus said politely.

Settling back in his chair, Shaw drank the second cup of coffee more slowly than the first. “Thank you, but I believe that at the moment, he is busy giving instructions to our servants.” An ironic smile touched his lips. “McKenna has an aversion to sitting down in the middle of the day. He is in constant motion.”

Having taken his own seat behind the desk, Marcus paused in the act of lifting a cup to his own lips. “McKenna,” he repeated quietly. It was a common name. Even so, it sounded a note of warning inside him.

Shaw smiled slightly. “They call him ‘King’ McKenna in Manhattan. It’s entirely because of his efforts that the Shaw foundries have begun to produce locomotive engines instead of agricultural machinery.”

“That is seen by some as an unnecessary risk,” Marcus commented. “You are already doing quite well with the production of agricultural machines…the mowers and grain drills, in particular. Why venture into locomotive manufacturing? The principal railway companies already build their own engines—and from all appearances, they supply their own needs quite efficiently.”

“Not for long,” Shaw said easily. “We’re convinced that their production demands will soon exceed their capability—and they’ll be forced to rely on outside builders to make up the difference. Besides, America is different from England. There, most of the railways rely on privately owned locomotive works—such as mine—to provide their engines and parts. Competition is fierce, and it makes for a better, more aggressively priced product.”

“I would be interested to learn why you believe that the railway-owned foundries in England won’t be able to maintain an acceptable pace of production.”

“McKenna will provide all the figures you require.” Shaw assured him.

“I look forward to meeting him.”

“I believe you already have, my lord.” Shaw’s gaze did not stray from Marcus’s as he continued with studied casualness. “It seems that McKenna was once employed here at Stony Cross Park. You may not remember him, as he was a stable boy at the time.”

Marcus showed no reaction to the statement, but inwardly he thought, Oh, bloody hell! This McKenna was indeed the same one whom Aline had loved so long ago. Marcus felt an immediate urgency to reach Aline. He had to prepare her somehow for the news that McKenna had returned. “Footboy,” he corrected softly. “As I recall, McKenna was made a house servant just before he left.”

Shaw’s blue eyes were deceptively guileless. “I hope it will cause you no discomfort to receive a former servant as a guest.”

“On the contrary, I admire McKenna’s achievements. And I will not hesitate to tell him so.” That was half the truth. The problem was, McKenna’s presence at Stony Cross would certainly cause Aline discomfort. If so, Marcus would have to find a way to deal with the situation. His sisters meant more to him than anything else on earth, and he would never allow either of them to be hurt.

Shaw smiled at Marcus’s reply. “I see that my judgment of you was correct, Lord Westcliff. You are as fair and open-minded as I suspected.”

“Thank you.” Marcus devoted himself to stirring a spoonful of sugar in his own coffee, wondering grimly where Aline was.

Aline found herself walking quickly, almost running, to her favorite place by the river, where a wildflower meadow sloped down to tall grasses alive with meadow-brown and marbled-white butterflies. She had never brought anyone here, not even Livia. It was the place she had shared only with McKenna. And after he had gone, it was where she had cried alone.

The prospect of seeing him again was the worst thing that could happen to her.

Still clutching the embroidered handkerchief, Aline lowered herself to a patch of grass and tried to calm herself. The sun struck off the water with brilliant glints, while tiny black beetles crawled along stalks of spiny gorse. The pungency of sun-warmed thistle and marsh marigold mingled with the fecund smell of the river. Numbly she stared at the water, tracking the progress of a crested grebe as it paddled by industriously with a slimy clump of weed clamped in its beak.

Voices from long ago whispered in her mind…

“I’ll marry no man but you, McKenna. And if you ever leave me, I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.”

“Aline…I would never leave unless you told me to go…”

She shook her head sharply, willing the tormenting memories to go away. Wadding the handkerchief into a ball, she drew her arm back to throw it into the gentle river current. The movement was stayed by a quiet sound.

“Wait.”

Six

Aline closed her eyes, while the word tugged gently at her shrinking soul. His voice…only deeper and richer now, the voice of a man, not a boy. Although she heard the sounds of his feet treading closer, crushing the moor grass, she refused to look at him. It took all her strength just to keep breathing. She was paralyzed by something that felt like fear, a kind of incapacitating heat that pumped into her with each frantic beat of her heart.

The sound of his voice seemed to open pathways of sensation inside her. “If you’re going to throw that into the river, I want it back.”

As Aline tried to loosen her clutch on the handkerchief, it dropped completely from her stiff fingers. Slowly she made herself turn to look at him as he approached. The black-haired man she had seen in the courtyard was indeed McKenna. He was even larger and more imposing than he had seemed at a distance. His features were blunt and strong, his bold, wide-bridged nose set with perfect symmetry between the distinct planes of his cheekbones. He was too masculine to be considered truly handsome—a sculptor would have tried to soften those uncompromising features. But somehow his hard face was the perfect setting for those lavish eyes, the clear blue-green brilliance shadowed by thick black lashes. No one else on earth had eyes like that.

“McKenna,” she said huskily, searching for any resemblance he might bear to the lanky, love-struck boy she had known. There was none. McKenna was a stranger now, a man with no trace of boyishness. He was sleek and elegant in well-tailored clothes, his glossy black hair cut in short layers that tamed its inherent tendency to curl. As he drew closer, she gathered more details…the shadow of bristle beneath his close-shaven skin, the glitter of a gold watch chain on his waistcoat, the brutal swell of muscle in his shoulders and thighs as he sat on a rock nearby.

“I didn’t expect to find you here,” he murmured, his gaze never leaving hers. “I wanted to have a look at the river…it’s been so long since I’ve seen it.”

His accent was strange, soft and drawn-out, with extra vowels added in places that weren’t necessary.

“You sound like an American,” Aline whispered, willing her tight throat to relax.

“I’ve lived in New York for a long time.”

“You disappeared without a word to anyone. I…” She paused, scarcely able to breathe. “I worried for you.”

“Did you?” McKenna smiled faintly, though his face was cold. “I had to leave Bristol rather suddenly. The shipbuilder I was apprenticed to, Mr. Ilbery, turned out to be a bit heavy-handed in his discipline. After a beating that left me with a few broken ribs and a cracked skull, I decided to leave and make a new start somewhere else.”

“I’m sorry,” Aline whispered, blanching. Fighting back a ripple of queasiness, she forced herself to ask, “How were you able to afford the passage to America? It must have been expensive.”

“Five pounds. More than a year’s pay.” A touch of irony edged his voice, revealing that the sum, so desperately needed then, was nothing to him now. “I wrote to Mrs. Faircloth, and she sent it to me from her own savings.”

Aline bent her head, her mouth trembling as she remembered the day his letter arrived…the day that her world had fallen apart and she had been forever changed.

“How is she?” she heard McKenna ask. “Is she still employed here?”

“Oh yes. She is still here, and quite well.”

“Good.”

Carefully McKenna leaned over and picked up the discarded handkerchief from the ground, seeming not to notice the way Aline stiffened at his proximity. Straightening, he resumed his seat on the nearby rock, and studied her. “How beautiful you are,” he said dispassionately, as if he were admiring a painting or a striking view. “Even more so than I remembered. You wear no ring, I see.”

Her fingers curled into the loose folds of her skirts. “No. I never married.”

That earned a strange glance from him. Brooding darkness filtered through the vivid blue-green of his eyes, like a summer sky filling with smoke. “Why not?”

She fought to conceal her upheaval with a calm, offhand smile. “It wasn’t my fate, I suppose. And you? Did you ever—”

“No.”

The news should not have brought the pressure of a rapid heartbeat to the base of her throat. But it did.

“And Livia?” McKenna asked softly. “What became of her?”

“Unmarried as well. She resides here with Marcus and me, and she…well, you will probably see very little of her.”

“Why?”

Aline searched for words that would explain her sister’s situation in a way that would not cause him to judge her harshly. “Livia does not often go out into society, nor does she choose to mix with the guests here. There was a scandal two years ago. Livia was betrothed to Lord Amberley, a young man with whom she was very much in love. Before they could be married, he was killed in a hunting accident.” She paused to brush away a beetle that had landed on her skirt.

McKenna’s expression was impassive. “What is the scandal in that?”

“Not long after that, Livia had a miscarriage, and so everyone knew that she and Amberley had…” She paused helplessly. “Livia made the mistake of confiding her sorrows to one of her friends, who couldn’t keep a secret to save her life. Although Marcus and I tried to stem the gossip, soon the entire county was buzzing, and it spread to London.” She shot him a defiant glance. “In my opinion, Livia did nothing wrong. She and Amberley were in love, and they were going to be married. But of course there are those who try to make her a pariah, and Livia refuses to come out of mourning. My mother is mortified by the situation, and has spent most of her time abroad ever since. And I am glad my father is no longer living, as he would undoubtedly have condemned Livia for her actions.”

“But your brother doesn’t?”

“No, Marcus is nothing like our father. He is every bit as honorable, but he is also very compassionate, and rather freethinking, too.”

“A freethinking Marsden,” McKenna mused, seeming to find it a contradictory phrase.

The glint of humor in his eyes somehow soothed her, eased her, and she was finally able to take a full breath. “You will agree, after you come to know Marcus better.”

It was clear that the gulf between them was now even wider than it had been in childhood. Their worlds were, as always, so vastly different that there was no possibility of intimacy between them. Now they could interact as polite strangers, with no danger of heartbreak. The old McKenna no longer existed, just as the girl Aline had once been was also gone. She looked at the moss-carpeted earth, the torpid flow of the river, the diluted blue of the sky, before she was finally able to meet his gaze. And she was desperately grateful for the feeling of unreality that allowed her to face him without falling apart.

“I had better return to the house,” she said, levering herself from the rock. “I have many responsibilities…”

McKenna stood immediately, the silhouette of his body dark and graceful against the flow of the river behind him.

Aline forced herself to break the excruciating silence. “You must tell me about how you have come to work for a man like Mr. Shaw.”

“It’s a long story.”

“I am eager to hear it. What happened to the boy who didn’t even care if he made it to first footman?”

“He got hungry.”

Aline stared at him with a mixture of dread and fascination, sensing the complexity beneath the simple statement. She wanted to know every detail, to understand what had happened to McKenna, and to discover the facets of the man he had become.

McKenna seemed unable to take his gaze from hers. For some reason a band of color appeared high on his cheeks, as if he had spent too long in the sun. He came toward her with undue caution, as if her nearness presented some threat to him. As he stopped just a foot away from her, the paralyzing heat flooded her again. She inhaled quickly, the air feeling rich and heavy in her lungs.

“Will you take my arm?” he asked.

It was a commonplace courtesy that any gentleman would have offered…but Aline hesitated before touching him. Her fingers fluttered over his sleeve like the wings of a silver moth. “Thank you.” She bit her lip and took hold of his arm, her hand conforming to the outline of heavy muscle beneath the soft layers of broadcloth and linen. The reality of touching him, after years of hopeless longing, made her sway slightly, and her grip tightened as she sought to steady herself. The rhythm of McKenna’s breathing was abruptly fractured, as if something had caught him by the throat. However, he quickly recovered his self-possession as he escorted her up the gentle incline toward the house. Sensing the enormous power of his body, Aline wondered what he had done to acquire such physical strength.

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