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Page 9

“I worked as a boatman, ferrying passengers between Staten Island and the city,” McKenna said, seeming to read her thoughts. “Twenty-five cents round-trip. That’s how I met Shaw.”

“He was one of your passengers?” Aline asked. At his nod, she sent him a quizzical glance. “How did a chance meeting turn into a business association?”

His expression became guarded. “One thing led to another.”

She managed to smile at his evasiveness. “I see I’ll have to use all my arts to bring out your talkative side.”

“I don’t have a talkative side.”

“It is a guest’s responsibility to be entertaining,” she informed him.

“Oh, I’ll entertain you,” he murmured. “I just won’t talk while I’m doing it.”

As he must have intended, the remark dismantled her composure. Blushing, Aline gave a rueful laugh. “You haven’t lost your knack for making wicked remarks, I see. Remember that you’re in the company of a sheltered English lady.”

He did not look at her as he replied. “Yes, I remember.”

They approached the bachelor’s quarters, a small residence set apart from the main house and reserved for the use of guests who wished for more privacy than the manor afforded. Marcus had told Aline that Mr. Shaw had specifically requested that he alone be given the bachelor’s house, even though it could have accommodated three additional guests. Although there was no sign of Mr. Shaw yet, Aline saw a pair of servants entering the place with trunks and baggage.

McKenna stopped, his vivid eyes catching the sunlight as he glanced at the little house. “Shall we part company here? I will come to the manor soon—but first I want to have a look around.”

“Yes, of course.” Aline supposed that it must be overwhelming for him to return to Stony Cross, with memories lurking in every corner and path. “McKenna,” she said unsteadily, “was it coincidence that Mr. Shaw decided to accept my brother’s invitation for a visit? Or did you deliberately arrange things so that you could come back?”

McKenna turned to face her, his shoulders looming over hers. “What reason would I have to come back?”

Aline met his unfathomable gaze. There was nothing in his appearance or manner to suggest anger, but she sensed the tension coiled like a watch spring inside him.

And then she understood what he was concealing so carefully…what no one could have seen unless she had once loved him. Hatred. He had come back for revenge—and he would not leave until he had punished her a thousand ways for what she had done to him.

Oh, McKenna, she thought dazedly, feeling a curious sympathy for him even as her instincts screamed at her to flee from the imminent danger. Does it still hurt that much?

She glanced away, her brows drawing together as she reflected on how little it would take for him to annihilate her. Bringing herself to look up into his dark face, she spoke with great care. “How much you’ve accomplished, McKenna. You seem to have gotten everything you’ve ever wanted. More, even.” Turning, she left him with measured strides, calling upon all her self-restraint to keep from running.

“Not everything,” McKenna said beneath his breath, his gaze tracking her carefully until she disappeared.

McKenna wandered into the bachelor’s house, disregarding the servants as they laid out Shaw’s belongings. The furniture was heavy and authentically Jacobean, the shapes ponderous and stately. Lavish rosewood paneling covered the walls, and the windows were hung with fringed velvet that obliterated all traces of light. That was good. Much of the time, sunlight was anathema to Gideon Shaw.

McKenna knew exactly why Gideon needed the privacy of the bachelor’s house. Ever a gentleman, Gideon scrupulously avoided making scenes or appearing out of control. McKenna had actually never even seen him drunk. Gideon would just quietly lock himself into a room with a bottle or two, and reappear two or three days later, pale and unsteady, but sharp-witted and perfectly groomed. Nothing in particular seemed to spur such episodes—it was simply the pattern of his life. His siblings had confided that the ritualistic drinking had begun not long before he and McKenna had met, when the oldest son, Frederick Shaw III, had died of a weak heart.

McKenna watched as Gideon’s valet set out a japanned box of cigars on a blockfront desk with a multitude of drawers and pigeonholes. Although McKenna seldom smoked, and never at this time of day, he reached for the box. He extracted a cigar, its leaves oily and richly pungent. Immediately the well-trained valet produced a tiny pair of wickedly sharp scissors, and McKenna received them with a nod of thanks. He snipped off the end of the cigar, waited as the valet lit the end, then drew on it rhythmically until it produced a heavy draught of soothing smoke. Dispassionately he saw the trembling of his own fingers.

The shock of seeing Aline again was even greater than he had anticipated.

Detecting the evidence of his shattered nerves, the valet shot him an assessing glance. “Shall I fetch something else for you, sir?”

McKenna shook his head. “If Shaw comes, tell him I’m at the balcony in back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Like the main house, the bachelor’s lodgings were set near a bluff overlooking the river. The land was heavily wooded with pine, the sounds of flowing water underlying the trill of nesting willow warblers. Shedding his coat, McKenna sat in one of the chairs on the covered balcony and smoked clumsily until he had regained a semblance of his self-control. He barely noticed when the valet brought out a crystal dish for the clumps of ash from his cigar. His mind was completely occupied with the image of Aline by the river, the rich mass of her pinned-up hair, the exquisite lines of her body and throat.

Time had only made Aline’s beauty more eloquent. Her body was ripe and fully developed, the form of a woman in her prime. With maturity, her face had become more delicately sculpted, the nose thinner, the lips faded from deep rose to the pale shade of pink that tinted the inside of a seashell. And there was that damned, never-forgotten beauty mark, the festive dark fleck that lured his attention to the tender corner of her mouth. The sight of Aline had caused a remnant of humanity to stir inside McKenna, reminding him that he had once had the ability to experience joy—an ability that had vanished a long time ago. It had taken years to alter the obstinate course of his fate, and he had sacrificed most of his soul to do it.

Stubbing out his half-finished cigar, McKenna leaned forward with his forearms braced on his thighs. As he stared at a nearby hawthorn in full bloom, he wondered why Aline had remained unmarried. Perhaps like her father, she was essentially cold-natured, the passions of her youth having eventually been replaced by self-interest. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. He was going to seduce Aline. His only regret was that old Lord Westcliff would not be around to find out that McKenna had finally taken his pleasure between his daughter’s lily-white thighs.

Abruptly McKenna’s attention was captured by the creak of the flooring and the liquid rattle of ice shards in a glass. Settling back in his chair, he glanced up as Gideon Shaw crossed the threshold of the covered balcony.

Turning to face McKenna, Gideon half sat on the railing and hung his free arm loosely around a support column. McKenna met his gaze steadily. Theirs was a complex friendship, supposed by outsiders to be founded purely on a shared desire for financial gain. Though that was an undeniable facet of their relationship, it was by no means the sole reason for it. As with most solid friendships, they each possessed characteristics that the other lacked. McKenna was of common origins, and rampantly ambitious, whereas Gideon was cultivated and subtle and complacent. McKenna had long ago acknowledged that he could not afford scruples. Gideon was a man of impeccable honor. McKenna had grimly enmeshed himself in the daily battles of life, while Gideon chose to remain detached.

The shadow of a smile crossed Gideon’s mouth. “I encountered Lady Aline as she returned to the house. A beautiful woman, just as you described. Is she married?”

“No.” McKenna stared moodily through the veil of smoke in the air.

“That makes things easier for you, then.”

McKenna’s broad shoulders twitched in the barest of shrugs. “It wouldn’t matter one way or the other.”

“You meant you wouldn’t let a minor thing like a husband get in the way of what you wanted?” Gideon’s smile broadened into an admiring grin. “Damn, you’re a ruthless bastard, McKenna.”

“That’s why you need me as a partner.”

“True. But the realization that there is such a poverty of morals between us…It makes me want a drink.”

“What doesn’t?” McKenna asked in a friendly gibe, taking the glass from him. Raising it to his lips, he drained it in a few efficient gulps, welcoming the velvety burn of iced bourbon.

Gideon’s keen gaze didn’t miss the residual unsteadiness of McKenna’s hand, causing the ice to rattle in the glass. “Don’t you think you’re taking your revenge a bit too far? I have no doubt you’ll succeed with Lady Aline. But I don’t think it will bring you any peace.”

“It’s not revenge,” McKenna muttered, setting aside the glass. His mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “It’s an exorcism. And I don’t expect to find any peace afterward. I just want…”

He trailed into silence. As always, he was in the grip of a hunger that had begun twelve years ago, when he had been cast into a life he had never envisioned for himself. In America, an opportunist’s paradise, he had become successful beyond his wildest dreams. But it still wasn’t enough. Nothing could satisfy the beast inside him.

Memories of Aline had tormented him forever. Certainly he did not love her—that illusion had faded long ago. He no longer believed in love, nor did he want to. But he needed to satisfy the raging need that had never allowed him to forget her. He had seen Aline’s eyes, her mouth, the turn of her jaw, in the faces of a thousand strangers. The harder he had tried to ignore her memory, the more persistently she had haunted him.

“What if she gets hurt during this so-called exorcism?” Gideon asked. His tone was not shadowed by any form of judgment. It was one of Gideon’s better qualities, his ability to look at things without filtering them through an ethical prism.

Reaching inside the glass, McKenna fished out a shard of ice and popped it into his mouth. He crunched it between his strong teeth. “Perhaps I want to hurt her.”

That was an understatement. McKenna didn’t intend to merely hurt Aline. He was going to make her suffer, weep, scream, beg. He was going to bring her to her knees. Break her. And that was just the beginning.

Gideon stared at him skeptically. “That’s a rather strange attitude, coming from a man who once loved her.”

“It wasn’t love. It was a mixture of animal passion and youth and idiocy.”

“What a glorious concoction,” Gideon said with a reminiscent smile. “I haven’t felt that way since I was sixteen and became infatuated with my sister’s governess. An older woman, being all of twenty…” He paused, and his smile became brittle, his blue eyes darkening.

McKenna plucked another piece of bourbon-washed ice from the glass. “What happened to her?”

“We had an affair. And I seem to have gotten her with child, though she never told me about it. I believe it was mine, as there was no reason to think otherwise. She went to some fraud of a doctor who ‘fixed’ these things in his backroom. Bled to death. A pity, as my family would have compensated her for the child, had she told them about it. We Shaws always take care of our bastards.”

Although his posture was relaxed as usual, Gideon could not hide the bleakness in his eyes.

“You’ve never mentioned her before,” McKenna said, staring at him intently. They had known each other for more than ten years, and he had thought that he knew Gideon’s every secret.

“Haven’t I?” Seeming to recover himself, Gideon stood and brushed some imaginary dust from his hands. “Something about this place is making me maudlin. Too damned picturesque.” He motioned to the door with a nod of his head. “I’m going to have another drink. Care to join me?”

McKenna shook his head, standing also. “I have some things to attend to.”

“Yes, of course. You’ll want to make the rounds—no doubt some of the servants here will remember you.” A mocking smile touched Gideon’s lips. “A lovely place, Stony Cross. One wonders how long it will take for its residents to realize they’ve let a serpent into paradise.”

Seven

Without question, the best-smelling room in the manor house at Stony Cross Park was the storeroom, a chamber next to the kitchen where Mrs. Faircloth stored blocks of soap, candles, crystallized flowers, and fancy edibles such as bottled fruit. Today the housekeeper was unusually busy, with the household filled with guests and servants. She left the storeroom, her arms filled with heavy bricks of newly made soap. As soon as she carried the bricks to the stillroom, a pair of housemaids would use string to cut the soap into hand-sized cakes.

Preoccupied with the multitude of tasks yet to be done, Mrs. Faircloth became vaguely aware of the large bulk of a footman as he followed her along the narrow hall. “James,” she said distractedly, “be a good lad and take these things to the stillroom. I have need of a strong pair of arms. And if Salter takes exception, you tell him that I bade you to help me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” came the obedient reply.

The voice did not belong to James.

As Mrs. Faircloth hesitated in confusion, the burden was taken from her, and she realized that she had just issued orders to one of the master’s guests. His well-tailored clothes proclaimed him to be a man of privilege—and she had just ordered him to carry something for her. Servants, even upper ones, had been dismissed for less. “Sir, do forgive me…” she began in distress, but the dark-haired gentleman continued to the stillroom, hefting the weighty soap bricks with ease. He set the soap on the slate-topped table, turned from the openmouthed housemaids, and regarded Mrs. Faircloth with a rueful smile.

“I should have known you’d start giving commands before I had the chance to say hello.”

Staring into his glowing blue-green eyes, Mrs. Faircloth pressed her hands to her heart as if to stave off the threat of apoplexy, and blinked with sudden tears of astonishment. “McKenna?” she exclaimed, impulsively holding out her arms. “Oh, good Lord…”

He reached her in two strides and caught her stout form against his, briefly lifting her off her feet as if she were a slight-framed girl. His gruff laugh was muffled in her silvery curls.

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