A night of forever, p.2
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       A Night of Forever, p.2

           Lori Brighton
 
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  Aidan bit back his laugh. “Nothing at all. Merely anxious to be in my own home.” If only the man knew the truth. He doubted Grayson would think kindly on the fact that he was imagining seducing his sister-in-law. “How are preparations for the festival coming along?”

  “Well, although I can’t claim to be involved. Meg is handling the affairs.” He glanced back at the house, the corners of his lips quirking. The same smile he wore whenever he mentioned his wife. An intimate look that always made him uneasy, a reminder of his own past romances.

  How envious Aidan was of the man’s happiness.

  But just as quickly as his smile had appeared, it vanished. Grayson settled beside him, resting his elbows on his knees. “I have a bad feeling about this festival.”

  Surprised, Aidan stiffened, immediately troubled. Grayson’s instincts were usually spot on. “What do you mean?”

  Grayson’s intense gaze met his. “You know as well as I that there are those who would see us harmed, if not worse. Those who do not accept our kind. After what happened here, with Meg, and then Nate…” He swallowed hard, the emotion evident.

  “It’s been some time since they were attacked,” Aidan reminded him.

  Grayson didn’t respond. Looking out upon the beautiful and peaceful gardens ripe with reds and yellows of autumn, it was hard to believe there was any evil in the world. But he knew better than anyone what lurked in the shadows. Hell, most would consider him part of that nightmare. Perhaps he was. His former fiancé certainly placed him in the same category as demons and devils.

  “I’m sure all will be well,” Grayson said, although it was obvious by the tone of his voice that he was still uneasy. “Meg insisted upon the festival, claiming we must make friends with our neighbors if we are to live in peace. I think she merely wants more allies, should the time come when we need them. As if they could help. But when a woman is with child, it’s best to merely nod and agree.”

  “And when she’s not with child?”

  Grayson grinned and slid him a wry glance. “Same thing. Nod and agree.”

  He’d remembered that feeling with his fiancé. They’d been giddy with adoration, both trying to please the other, seeing no fault. But there had been one thing she couldn’t overlook. It hadn’t worked with his fiancé and it would never work with Mary Ellen. The longer he stayed here, the more the impossibility of it all tore at his insides.

  “You haven’t fed in some time.” Grayson watched him closely, too closely. “You’re pale, your eyes too light in color.”

  Aidan studied a red leaf as it rolled across the crushed stone path, chased by the autumn wind. “No, I haven’t.”

  “Starving yourself will not change who you are. You need to feed, especially before the festival. All those warm bodies in one room will drive you mad.”

  Aidan nodded, although he didn’t agree. He liked to suffer the pangs of hunger. A punishment of sorts for what he’d been born.

  Grayson had no idea he’d already gone mad thinking about Mary Ellen, of what he could never have. He’d find no joy in feeding, although his body craved blood as a man in a desert would crave water.

  “Come Hanna,” Grayson called out. “Leave poor Mr. Miller alone.”

  The child pouted, but headed his way, brushing leaves from her green gown.

  Grayson turned back toward Aidan. “Before I take my leave, Meg wanted me to remind you that you are welcome to stay here as long as you’d like. Certainly until your cottage is repaired. Of course with four overly emotional females in residence, you might be better off sleeping in a rundown estate.

  Aidan nodded, smiling. “Thank you. But I don’t wish to overstay my welcome. The house is almost complete. I shall move within a fortnight.”

  Grayson slapped him on the back in a companionable way. “Good to know. You need your own home. A family.”

  “A happily ever after?” Aidan replied blandly.

  Grayson stood, grinning down at him. The man knew how ridiculous he sounded, but didn’t give a shite. “It will happen. Look at me.”

  Indeed. Grayson had the ideal life. A woman who didn’t care what he truly was. Who loved him anyway. Could he ever find such peace and happiness? He glanced back at the house. Perhaps, but obviously not with Mary Ellen.

  Hanna paused by Grayson, her little face full of knowledge. They were all of the same bond, the same being and it showed in their bearing, in their very eyes. Although she was merely a young lass, she could kill an adult human, if she so wished.

  “You’re sure you’ll be well enough when they start arriving?” Grayson asked.

  Aidan sighed. Was the man worried he’d go feral and feast upon the guests? “You know as well as I that I’m not a monster, Gray.” Although he had to admit there were some would whole-heartedly disagree.

  Chapter 2

  “I’m rather bored,” Sally complained to Meg in an overly harsh whisper that drew the attention of practically everyone in the sitting room.

  A few unattached younger women giggled behind their needlework, wishing they were so bold. The three married ladies in attendance smiled kindly, most likely remembering days when they were as free. While the two elder aunts Meg had been forced to invite out of fear of offending their distant family frowned at Sally’s frankness. Mary Ellen could imagine the stories they would take home.

  “Money certainly hasn’t changed the James girls. Why, they’re as shocking as ever.”

  “Sally,” Meg reprimanded.

  Sally didn’t seem to mind. She sighed long and loud, resting her chin in her palm as she slumped against the settee next to Meg. Meg was knitting a tiny yellow baby bonnet, while Sally was pretending to work on a sampler. But with a quick glance around the richly furnished room that Grayson had redecorated in a light blue French fashion for Meg, Mary Ellen realized that most of the women were merely pretending to sew. She worried her bottom lip between her teeth, setting her own sampler upon the arm of the chair where she rested near the marble hearth.

  Meg might not care about the lack of adventurous activities, for she was too content with life at the moment to notice much but her own happiness, but Mary Ellen would not allow the town and ton to gossip about what a bore her sister’s gathering had been. She glanced toward the windows. Raindrops pattered against the glass and trailed down the panes. Any outdoor activity had been canceled, the weather forcing them inside. As of yet only a handful of guests had arrived, but already they were growing restless, apparent by the sound of rustling skirts and tedious sighs.

  “Sally, dear,” Meg said, not bothering to look up from her knitting. “Perhaps you’d care to check on Hanna and the other children?”

  Mary Ellen didn’t miss the meaning…if Sally couldn’t sit silently by, she was not ready to be in the parlor with the adults. She swallowed her groan, knowing Sally was one harsh comment away from crying. The girl wailed at the drop of a hatpin. At times it was bloody exhausting being the calm between two storms. Meg was the unofficial mother to them all, there was no doubt. But Mary Ellen was the kindly aunt whom everyone went to with their problems, the one who must soothe the ruffled feathers.

  Sally flushed. “I apologize.”

  “Perhaps we should attempt something different,” Mary Ellen said quickly, before an argument erupted. “A stroll through the conservatory?”

  “Or maybe a game!” Elizabeth Palmer suggested, jumping to her slippered feet and nearly pulling the unfashionably low neckline of her satin gown to her waist. Really, it was a country garden party yet she dressed as if at a ball in London. But the woman was all golden perfection with her pale skin and blonde hair, and so easily forgiven.

  Mary Ellen narrowed her eyes as the woman adjusted her gown. Her own light lavender dress she’d taken such pains to choose paled in comparison to the golden goddess’s bold cranberry skirts. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Elizabeth did these things on purpose, for she always needed to be at the center of all attention. Mary Ellen had never been fond of
the woman; she was entirely too proud of herself. The way she clung to men when they entered the room, was downright shameful. The way she’d clung to Aidan when they’d been introduced annoyed Mary Ellen more than it should have. Indecent, she was.

  “What do you suggest?” Lady Whimple asked, picking up her teacup and sipping.

  “A…a…” She paced the room, in deep thought. “Why, perhaps charades?”

  Parlor games? Really! They weren’t twelve!

  But the nods of agreement coming from the ten other coifed heads in the room only confirmed her worst fears. Perhaps she could cry off because of a headache.

  “Any other suggestions?” Meg asked, smiling. She was obviously amused with the younger girl’s excitement, and trying to appease the group, but Mary Ellen knew her sister well enough to know she’d rather be cuddled in her bedchamber with Grayson than here.

  “I’m not quite sure.”

  Just then Grayson entered looking handsome in his dark evening attire, with a group of young men who looked equally as handsome trailing behind him. But for Aidan. No, Aidan walked at Grayson’s side as if he was his equal when he was the mere son of a baron. She wasn’t sure if his lack of manners was refreshing or obnoxious.

  “Oh Mr. Callaghan!” Elizabeth raced toward him, all atwitter. Mary Ellen had the sudden urge to reach out her foot and trip the obnoxious oaf. “I was just suggesting a game. Have you any ideas?”

  Aidan lifted a dark brow as he paused near the center of the room. “Poker? I hear it’s quite the thing in America.”

  “Gambling?” She gasped, than slapped his biceps playfully. “Quite dastardly sir! How dare you!”

  The rest of the women giggled, only their aunts frowned in outrage. Why was she the only one to find his charm more annoying that amusing? Perhaps because he rarely used it upon her. Instead of moving away, Aidan, the bastard, merely smiled down at Elizabeth as if he enjoyed her flirtatious banter. Frustrated, Mary Ellen surged to her feet and strolled to the windows. Why had Meg invited her anyway? Didn’t she remember how the woman had mocked their hand-me-down frocks and bonnets? Didn’t she recall the day she had invited the entire town to her garden party, but had omitted their family? Pregnancy was making her sister’s mind muddled.

  “I have an idea,” Aidan said.

  She didn’t dare look back at him, for then he would think her interested but she couldn’t help but search out his reflection in the windows. What would he suggest…hymnals? No doubt he had a rich and deep singing voice that would send Elizabeth’s heart aflutter. Mary Ellen rolled her eyes, scoffing at the man even if he couldn’t see her.

  “The women will hide, the men will find them. The last to be found will be the winner.”

  Mary Ellen stiffened. Women hiding in shadowed corners waiting for men to find them? The idea bordered on the scandalous, and she was shocked someone as dull as Aidan would suggest such a thing. Surely he was jesting, as he had been when he’d suggested poker. So why did the thought of being in a darkened corner alone with Aidan send a thrill of excitement down her spine?

  “Oh yes! How truly amusing!” Elizabeth declared. “Shall we?”

  “I do believe, dear sister,” her aunt Rose said, “This is our time to retire for the night.”

  “Do sleep well,” Meg called after them politely as they shuffled from the parlor. No one was sad to see them go, their dour faces were darkening an already dreary atmosphere.

  “We’ll count to twenty,” Aidan said. “You hide.”

  This caused a scurry of rustling skirts as the woman raced from the room like sheep in a herd. The other men laughed in amusement, no doubt enjoying the chase. There was something entirely too predatorial about the situation that made Mary Ellen uneasy. She hadn’t the least desire to be hunted.

  “Sally,” Meg warned, as their sister started for the door. “You will hide with me.”

  Sally sighed, impatiently crossing her arms over her chest and waiting. Before they could escape, Grayson leaned down and whispered something in Meg’s ear that caused her sister to blush. Sally caught Mary Ellen’s gaze and rolled her eyes. They were used to their public displays of affection. Although they both mocked their sister, Meg didn’t mind in the least.

  As Meg and Sally disappeared into the hall, Mary Ellen realized that suddenly she was the only female left. Although the other men were too busy chatting to notice her presence Aidan’s mysterious gaze found hers immediately. His lips quirked into the tiniest of smiles as if he knew something she didn’t. A shiver she couldn’t quite identify raced over her skin urging Mary Ellen to flee.

  Without thought she bolted from the room and up the stairs. She ignored the scurry of colorful skirts headed toward the east wing and instead turned west. Parlor games were for children, and the thought of Aidan finding her was too much to bear. She’d find a nice, safe spot at the back of the house where the rooms were being renovated, and hide until the game was over. Hopefully no one would miss her.

  Breathless and cursing her tight corset, she tried the first door she came to, but it was locked. Funny how only a few years ago she would have given her best bonnet to be friends with Elizabeth and the other women giggling and racing about the estate. How she would have adored sitting in their richly furnished parlor while gossiping, and chatting about fashion and yes, even participating in minor flirtations with local lads. With Meg’s marriage to Grayson, she finally had the means to hold her head high, to have an introduction in London and experience all the excitement most girls her age do. So why did she feel in no hurry to leave their small shire?

  She tried the next bedchamber, relieved when the door opened. No one would think to search for her here, in an unoccupied wing by herself. She closed the door softly behind her, happy to be alone. Ever since Aidan’s arrival everything had seemed to turn upside down. Left was now right, north now south. Nothing made sense. Why, oh why, couldn’t she get the man out of her bleeding mind?

  She sighed and moved toward the windows, brushing her hand down the velvet curtains. Although she had never said as much, Mary Ellen knew that Meg had planned this party for her. As a younger girl she’d often complained about their lack of socializing. She should have been grateful. Instead she only had the desire to return to her room and read, or paint. Her fingers curled, itching to draw. Something that she had found she enjoyed since Meg had married. Before they hadn’t been able to afford charcoal and paper, let alone paints. Now…now she had everything she could want, yet was still not satisfied.

  She sighed and rested her head against the cool glass window. The sun had set, the skies growing gray. How long would she be forced to hide? How long before they gave up their childish games? She turned toward the bedchamber. The large four-poster and two chairs near the fireplace were covered with cloths, the paper on the wall having been torn down and removed weeks ago. It gave the room an abandoned, eerie sensation that made her feel very much alone in this world.

  Slowly, she made her way around the furniture and toward the mirror that hung above the fireplace mantel. Sally’s voice whispered through her memory. “Cook said if I look into a mirror, I’ll see the face of the man I’m to marry.”

  There was no one but her…pale face…embarrassing freckles…gaudy hair. No one else. Perhaps she’d done it wrong. Mayhap she must spin in circles, or say a chant of some sort. She frowned and stepped closer, peering at herself. “Or perhaps I’m a bloody idiot.”

  Aidan suddenly appeared in the mirror, standing directly behind her. Mary Ellen gasped, stumbling back into his hard chest. Oh God, he was real. His hands gripped her upper arms, holding her close to him. Real. Too real!

  “Do you always talk to yourself?” he asked, the words whispering like a cool breeze across her ear.

  She took in a deep trembling breath, resisting the urge to laugh at her own silliness. Aidan was not for her. He had not appeared out of thin air. She had nothing to fear. Slowly, she turned to face him. They were close, so close that if she took in a d
eep breath her breasts would brush across his jacket.

  “Only when no one else is around.”

  He smiled a slow half-smile that sent her pulse racing. Lord, he was much too handsome. She would not fall for this man, she would not! She’d spent her entire childhood toiling because of a lack of money, being mocked and belittled. She would not live the rest of her life in poverty, and she most assuredly would not see her future children suffer because she had fallen for a man who couldn’t support.

  “So then, you’ve found me. The game is over.” She stepped back, out of his hold, feigning indifference. “Do you always sneak up on unsuspecting women?”

  “Sneak?” He laughed. She liked his laugh, a deep, rich chuckle that vibrated through her. “I thought I was quite loud. Perhaps you were merely too lost in thought.”

  “Nonsense.” She started around him, only to draw up short. The door was closed, which meant somehow he had opened it and closed it without her hearing. Was she truly that far gone that she hadn’t noticed him enter? She spun on her heels to face him. “Besides, I’m not playing the game.”

  “No? Why not?” He strolled toward the windows, his back to her as if barely interested in what she had to say. She tried not to notice the way the fading light shone upon his profile and highlighted his hard planes, making him appear fiercely handsome and slightly ruthless. “Why, pray tell, would a young, unattached miss not participate in harmless fun? What could possibly keep you from enjoying life?”

  She frowned, annoyed. He acted as if her world was completely unimportant. “You seem to think young women are of no consequence, and have little to worry over. We have plenty to occupy our thoughts.”

  He turned toward her, and quirked a dark brow in an infuriating way. “Such as?”

  “Such as…a lack of control.” She crossed her arms over her chest and started toward him, drawn to the man, determined to prove her point…whatever that may be. “An unmarried woman has little say in her life. We are at the whims of first our fathers, than our husbands.”

 
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