“Yes.” Mac closed his eyes, his rage and need swirling around him until he was sick with it. “You’re right, it is the absolute worst.”
Lord and Lady Abercrombie’s hunt ball in Surrey the following night was stuffed to the rafters with fashionable people. Isabella entered the ballroom with some trepidation, expecting at any moment to see her husband, who, her maid Evans had informed her, had also received an invitation. Evans had obtained the information directly from her old crony, Bellamy.
Seeing Mac in his studio like a half-naked god yesterday had sent Isabella straight home to fling herself on her bed in tears. Her errands had never got done, because she’d spent the rest of the afternoon curled into a ball feeling sorry for herself.
Isabella had risen the next morning and made herself face facts. She had two choices—she could completely avoid Mac as she had in the past, or resign herself to encountering him about London as they lived their lives. They could be civil. They could be friends. What she ought to do was become
used to seeing him that his presence no longer plagued her. Grow inured to him so that her heart no longer leapt into her throat at one glimpse of his strong face or the flash of his wicked smile.
The second choice was the more unnerving, but Isabella berated herself until she stepped up to the task. She would not hide at home like a frightened rabbit. Hence, her acceptance of Lord Abercrombie’s invitation, even though she knew the odds were high that Mac would attend.
Isabella bade Evans dress her in a new ball gown of blue satin moiré with yellow silk roses across her bodice and train. Maude Evans, who could boast having been a dresser to famous actresses, several opera singers, a duchess, and a courtesan, had been dressing Isabella since the morning after Isabella’s scandalous elopement with Mac. Evans had arrived at Mac’s house on Mount Street, where Isabella, Mac’s ring heavy on her finger, had stood in her ball gown from the previous night, having no other clothes at hand. Evans had taken one look at Isabella’s innocent face and become her fierce protector.
I look quite acceptable for a matron of nearly five and twenty.
Isabella surveyed herself in the mirror as Evans draped diamonds across Isabella’s bosom.
I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Even so, her heart froze when she entered Lord Abercrombie’s ballroom and spied a tall Mackenzie male in the supper room beyond. Broad shoulders stretched a formal black coat as he rested an elbow on the fireplace mantel, his kilt Mackenzie plaid.
Isabella realized in the next heartbeat that the man was not Mac, but his older brother Cameron. Touched by relief and delight, she broke from the friends she’d arrived with, caught up her satin skirts, and sped through the crowd to him.
“Cam, what on earth are you doing here? I thought you’d be up north, frantically preparing for the St. Leger.”
Cameron tossed the cigar he’d been smoking into the fire, took Isabella’s hands, and leaned to kiss her cheek. He smelled of smoke and malt whiskey; he always did, though those were sometimes accompanied by the scent of horses. Cameron kept a stable full of the best racehorses in England.
The second-oldest brother, Cameron was a little larger than Mac, a little broader of shoulder and taller of stature, and a deep scar cut across his left cheekbone. Cam’s unruly red-brown hair was the darkest of the four brothers’, his eyes more deeply golden. He was known as the black sheep, a daunting task in a family whose exploits filled the scandal sheets. It was common knowledge that Cameron, a widower with a fifteen-year-old son, took a new mistress every six months, having his pick of famous actresses, courtesans, and highborn widows. Isabella had stopped trying to keep track of them long ago.
Cameron shrugged in answer to her question. “Not much more to do. The trainers have my instructions, and I’ll meet them there before the first race.”
“You’re a bad liar, Cameron Mackenzie. Hart sent you, didn’t he?”
Cameron didn’t bother to look embarrassed. “Hart was worried when Mac raced after you following Ian’s wedding. Is he making a nuisance of himself?”
“No,” Isabella said quickly. She loved Mac’s brothers, but they did tend to stick their noses into each other’s business. Not that she wasn’t grateful to them—they could have shut her out when she’d decided to leave Mac three and a half years ago, but instead they’d rallied to her side. Hart, Cameron, and Ian had made it known that they still considered Isabella part of the family. And as she was part of the family, they tended to watch over her like protective older brothers.
“So Hart sent you down to play nanny?” she asked.
“He did,” Cameron drawled, straight-faced. “You should see me in my cap and pinafore.”
Isabella laughed, and Cam joined her. He had a gravelly laugh, sounding as though something had scratched away at his voice.
“Is Beth well?” she asked. “She and Ian are all right?”
“Fine when I left them. Ian is extremely pleased at the prospect of becoming a father. He mentions it only about once every five minutes.”
Isabella smiled in true delight. Ian and Beth, his new wife, were so happy, and Isabella looked forward to holding their little one in her arms. The thought gave her a pang as well, which she quickly suppressed.
“And Daniel?” Isabella went on, keeping the conversation light. “Did he come with you?”
Cameron shook his head. “Daniel is lodging with an old don of mine who is to stuff his head with knowledge before Michaelmas term. I want to give Danny’s tutors less cause to beat his lessons into him.”
“Lessons instead of horses? I’m certain that rankles our Danny.”
“Aye, but if he keeps getting poor marks, he’ll never get into university.”
He sounded so like a concerned father, this tall man with the dark reputation, that Isabella laughed again. “He tries to emulate you, Cam.”
“Aye, he does. That’s wh’t worries me.”
Behind Isabella, the strains of a waltz began, and couples in the ballroom glided into place. Cameron held out his broad arm. “Dance, Isabella?”
“I’d be most happy to—”
Isabella’s polite acceptance was cut off when strong fingers closed over her elbow. She smelled Mac’s soap and masculine scent overlaid with the faint odor of turpentine.
“This waltz is mine,” Mac said in her ear. “And don’t bother to tell me your card is full, my wife, because you know I’ll make short work of that.”
The Mount Street residence of a famous Scottish Lord and his new Lady has undergone a complete transformation. Privileged guests have reported wallpaper, carpets, and objects d’art of exquisite
, which speaks of the Lady’s most gracious upbringing. The guests range from quite a
crowd to foreign princes to the lofty ladies who grace our London stages.
Isabella was never certain how she reached the ballroom floor without stumbling over her rose-studded train or high-heeled slippers. She heard the music begin, felt Mac’s hand cup her waist, felt herself pulled into the sway of the dance. Her ploy of making herself blasé about Mac seemed suddenly ridiculous.
She’d always loved the waltz and had loved best to dance it with Mac. He’d guide her unerringly until she’d forget about the steps and simply flow with the music. She’d float as though she danced on air, safe in the arms of the man she loved.
Tonight, her slippers pinched and her heart banged against too-tight boning. Mac’s hand on her waist burned through bodice, corset, and chemise, as though his fingers branded bare skin. His strong legs moving against her skirt heated her body still more.
“You were rude, you know,” she said, as though every step didn’t unnerve her. “I was enjoying speaking with Cameron.”
“Cameron knows when he’s gooseberry.”
The picture of Cameron the womanizer as a gooseberry should have been amusing, but Isabella was too distracted by Mac for laughter. She wished she didn’t like feeling the play of his shoulder under her hand, the way her fingers were lost in his firm grip. They both wore several layers of clothing, fashion being what it was, but in her opinion, the number of layers wasn’t nearly enough.
“I suppose you are pleased with yourself,” she said, trying to keep her voice light. “You know I couldn’t refuse to dance with you without the scene being repeated all over London. Everyone loves to gossip about us.”
“London’s insatiable need for gossip is one weapon in my arsenal,” Mac said, his voice as smooth as fine wine. “Though not always a reliable one.”
Isabella couldn’t bring herself to look straight into his eyes. She had enough trouble balancing without letting herself become fixated on those copper irises. Instead, she focused on his chin, which was brushed with red gold whiskers. Remembering she knew what they tasted like did not help.
“Interesting, and a bit insulting, that you talk of what is between us in terms of weapons of war,” she said.
“It’s an apt metaphor. This ballroom is a battlefield, this dance the engagement,
weapon that decadent gown that hugs you so well.”
Mac’s gaze swept over her off-the-shoulder bodice and rested on the yellow roses at her décolletage. Isabella had favored yellow roses since he’d painted her with them the second day they were married. His eyes darkened, and her exposed skin burned.
“Then another of your weapons is dancing me until my feet hurt,” Isabella said. “That and your kilt.”
He looked nonplussed. “My kilt?”
“You look particularly fine in a kilt.”
Mac’s gaze flickered. “Yes, I remember, you always liked looking at my legs. And other parts of my anatomy. Rumor has it that a Scotsman wears nothing at all under his kilt.”
Isabella remembered mornings when he’d wear nothing
a kilt draped carelessly around his hips, his feet up at the table in their bedroom while he perused the morning paper. Mac was heady enough in formal dress, but in undress, he was devastating.
“You read too much into my statement,” Isabella said, voice unsteady.
“Do I? Would you like to come out to the terrace and satisfy your curiosity about the other part?”
“I want to go nowhere near a terrace with
, thank you very much.” On the terrace at her father’s house, after he’d walked into her debut ball without invitation, Mac had kissed her for the first time.
Mac’s eyes glinted, a sinful smile touching his mouth. “You fear it a more dangerous battleground?”
“If you must keep on with the war metaphor, then yes, I feel that the terrace would give me a tactical disadvantage.”
Mac pulled her the slightest bit closer. “You always have the advantage of me, Isabella.”
“I hardly think so. Why should I?”
He tugged her closer still. “Because you can unman me by simply walking into a room—as you did yesterday in my studio. I’ve lived like a monk for three and a half years, and to see you so close, to smell you, to touch you . . . Have pity on a poor celibate.”
“Not pursuing others was your choice.”
Mac caught and held her gaze, and finally she looked into his eyes. Behind the teasing sparkle, she saw a quietness she’d never noted before in him.
“Yes,” he said. “It was.”
Isabella believed him. She could easily name half a dozen women who would leap into bed with Mac Mackenzie the moment he indicated they were welcome. Isabella knew he hadn’t pursued women, either before or after she’d left him, because plenty of people would have delighted to tell her so if he had. Even their more spiteful acquaintances had to admit that Mac had remained faithful to his wife, even after their separation.
“Perhaps I should change my perfume,” Isabella said.
“It has nothing to do with the perfume.” Mac leaned to her, his breath touching the curve between her neck and shoulder. “I like that you still wear attar of roses.”
“I am fond of roses,” she said faintly.
“I know. Yellow ones.”
Isabella tripped again. Mac straightened, his hand tightening on her waist. “Careful.”
“I’m clumsy tonight,” she said. “These slippers are wretched. May we please sit down?”
“I told you, not until the waltz is over. This dance is my price, and I can’t very well let you go when you’ve only half-paid, can I?”
“Your price for what?”
“For not kissing you senseless in front of all these people. Not to mention yesterday on the stairs.”
Isabella’s fingers shook. “You would have kissed me yesterday, even though I did not wish it?”
“But you did wish it, my wife. I know you so very well.”
Isabella didn’t answer, because he had the truth of it. When they’d stood face-to-face on the stairs, in the house they used to share, she’d almost let him kiss her. If Molly hadn’t interrupted them, Isabella would have let him take her into his arms and press his paint-stained face to hers, to touch her as much as he liked. But Mac had let her go, his choice.