Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage (10 page)

He tossed the brush onto the table just as he smelled the first heavy odor of fire.
Mac opened the studio door to see a black wedge of smoke issuing from the door opposite. Snatching up a heavy drop cloth, Mac hurried across the landing and opened the door.
He looked into a cave of flames. Fire crawled from a pile of broken furniture in the middle of the room, eating the dry board floor and the stack of discarded drapes from the last redecoration Isabella had done. The flames had already caught the furniture that remained whole—a heavily carved chest of drawers, an old chaise, a cradle.
Mac rushed inside. He knew it was hopeless even as he unfurled the drop cloth and beat at the fire. He’d taken too long to notice, been too absorbed in his painting, and now the flames were out of control.
“My lord!”
At Bellamy’s shout, Mac ran out, slamming the door, and shoved open the door of the next room, where two maids lay sleeping. “Up!” Mac roared at them. “Get up and out. Hurry!”
The two girls screamed, first at being jerked awake by the master of the house in nothing but a kilt, then again when they saw the smoke.
Mac left them to it and ran back to his studio. Every foul word he’d ever learned poured from his mouth as he gathered up the three paintings he’d finished. He stacked them carefully, using the drying rack he’d designed to separate them. There would be some smearing, but hopefully he could repair the damage. He wrapped the entire bundle in a sheet and carried it out in time to run into Bellamy coming up the stairs.
The hall was thick with smoke, the fire consuming the attic door. Mac coughed, and Bellamy said frantically, “Mary and Sal ain’t come down yet.”
Mac shoved the wrapped canvases at him. “You get those out. I’ll get Mary and Sal.”
“No, my lord.
You
come down. Now!”
“Bellamy, those canvases are worth my life. You guard them with yours.
Go.

He released the pictures so Bellamy would have to grab for them. Giving Mac a despairing look, Bellamy retreated down the attic stairs, the sheet-wrapped bundled clenched in his big hands.
Mac pushed open the door to the maids’ room again. The wall between their bed and the attic was in flames, the smoke thick. Both Sal and Mary were on the floor, Sal coughing—both had lingered to try to dress.
Mac grabbed Sal around the waist. “Come on. Go.”
“Mary,” Sal sobbed.
Mary lay unmoving on the floor. Mac stooped and lifted her over his shoulder, at the same time shoving Sal out into the hall in front of him.
The landing was bathed in flames. Mac heard a creak and a groan as the stairs to the lower floors gave way.
Sal screamed at the top of her lungs, “We’re trapped. We’re trapped.”
“My lord!” Bellamy stood below, looking up in anguish.
“Damn you, Bellamy. Get those paintings
out
. We’ll escape through the roof.”
Mac pushed Sal into his studio and slammed the door on smoke. In a matter of seconds, the fire would jump to this room—a room filled to the brim with paints, oil of turpentine, and other things that liked to explode.
He dragged his table to the middle of the room, leapt upon it, and pushed open the skylight. He grabbed Sal first, boosting her up through the opening. Sal bravely grabbed the roof slates and rolled out, pressing a foot against Mac’s shoulder to help.
Mac jumped down and lifted Mary, who was starting to come ’round now that she was out of the smoke. Her eyes fluttered open and she gasped at him in stark terror.
Mac gave her an encouraging grin. “No time for screaming, my dear. Up you go.”
Sal reached down and helped Mac get Mary through the opening, Sal pulling the girl up and onto the roof. Mac jumped, grabbed the sill, and slithered through the skylight just as the fire burst into the studio.
“What do we do now?” Sal wailed. “We’re so high.”
“We get away from here before that fire gets to all my paints. Onward.”
Mary started to cry, staring across the roofs in sheer terror. Sal was a little more resilient, quietly seizing Mac’s offered hand in a desperate grip. Both girls clung to him but allowed him to tow them across the sloping roof to the roof of the house next door.
The house was currently empty, Mac knew, the family away in the country. The skylight was latched, not yielding to Mac’s tugging. He jerked the gypsy scarf from his head, wrapped it around his fist, and punched through the pane. The glass was thick, and it took several tries. He cut his hand badly, but at last he reached through the hole he’d made and released the catch.
The cold, stuffy attic, free of smoke, smelled good as Mac lowered himself into it. He reached up to catch first Mary then Sal as they slithered after him. He led the two maids out of the attic room and down the long staircases to the front door.
The two girls were sobbing in relief when Mac unbolted and threw open the door. People had poured out of nearby houses, neighbors and their servants already forming a bucket chain. Mac joined them until the clanging of bells announced the arrival of the fire brigade with their water pump and hoses. The machinery might not save Mac’s house, but it could prevent the fire from spreading down the street.
Mac scowled at an empty-armed Bellamy, who came running toward him. “Where the devil are my paintings?”
“In your coach, my lord. I got it and the horses out of the mews.”
Something inside Mac loosened. “I think you need a rise in wages, Bellamy. You didn’t happen to bring one of my shirts out as well, did you?”
“In the coach, sir. A complete set of clothing.”
Mac clapped Bellamy on his beefy shoulder. “You’re a marvel of a man. No wonder you won all your matches.”
“Preparation, sir.” Bellamy looked up at the house and the smoke above it, the crowded street, the firemen plying the walls with water. “What do we do now, my lord?”
Mac laughed, which ended on a cough. “We climb into the coach you so thoughtfully prepared and find another place to spend the night. I believe I know just where to go.”
Isabella leaned over the landing where Mac had kissed her not six hours ago and drew her wrapper closed over her chilled body.
“Morton, what on earth is going on?”
The babbling of voices below didn’t cease, and Morton didn’t answer. Isabella trotted down the stairs, stopping in astonishment before she reached the bottom.
Mac’s entire household—Bellamy, Mac’s cook, footmen, and two maids—were trailing toward the back stairs, all talking excitedly to Morton and other members of Isabella’s staff. “You should have seen ’im, Mr. Morton,” the maid called Mary said. “His lordship was like the hero in a magazine story, carrying us out and across the rooftops and all. I’d like to have
swooned
.”
Isabella cupped her hands around her mouth. “Morton!”
Mac strolled out of her dining room, arrogant as you please, and grinned up at her. His shirt was open to the waist, his kilt pocked with burn-marks, his face soot-stained, his auburn hair partially singed.
“Beg pardon, yer ladyship,” he said in an exaggerated Cockney accent. “But could you see your way to taking in meself and me band of gypsies?”
Chapter 7
Mount Street is once more overflowing with
entertainment
as the Titian-haired Lady held an End-of-Season ball lasting
a day and a night.
The Lord and Lady were once more billing and cooing, their guests among the most glittering in the land, including the Lord’s oldest brother, the high-placed Duke. Meanwhile the Lady’s father, a redoubtable peer, spends his days giving lectures on
temperance
and
modesty
.
—June 1876
Isabella stared down the stairs in shock. “Mac, what the devil happened?”
Mac’s grin remained in place as he looked up at her, but his eyes held anger. Down the hall, Morton herded the babbling group, including Daniel, toward the back stairs. The door shut behind them, halving the noise.
“Someone set fire to my attics,” Mac said. “The fire brigade managed to quash the blaze before it destroyed the entire house, but the upper floors are pretty much ruined.”
Isabella’s eyes widened. “Your studio?”
“Gone. Or at least I assume so. The lads from the fire brigade wouldn’t let me back in.”
“Is everything in the attics burned?” A small dart of pain lanced her heart. “Everything?”
“Yes.” Mac’s eyes softened. “It’s gone. I’m sorry.”
Isabella swallowed, her throat burning, and she wiped away a tear that trickled from her eye. How silly, she thought in anger. Why weep over a piece of furniture when Mac and his people were obviously safe?
She cleared her throat. “Your servants may, of course, stay here. I wouldn’t turn them out.”
“And what about the master, your ladyship?” Mac rested one arm on the newel post, unnerving in his disheveled dress. “Would you turn him out?”

You
can afford a hotel.”
“No hotel will admit me looking like this, love. I am in desperate need of a bath.”
A vision swooped at her of Mac leaning back in the zinc-lined tub in her large bathroom, his voice raised in some Scottish tune. He always sang in the bathtub, and for some absurd reason that memory made her blood heat.
“Cameron is in town,” she began.
“Ah, but he’s lodging at the Langham Hotel. Same problem.”
“I cannot imagine you have no more friends in Mayfair who can put you up.”
“Most of my friends are off in the country riding horses or shooting things. Or they’re in Paris or Italy painting the view.”
“What about Hart’s house? It’s always staffed.”
“It is the middle of the night, and I don’t want to wake them.” Mac’s raffish grin returned. “I’m afraid you are my last hope, my dear.”
“You’re a poor liar. I do hope that the gossip newspapers do not put about that you started the fire yourself as an excuse to come here. I can imagine them saying so.”
Mac lost his smile. “I will strangle them if they do. Sal and Mary almost burned to death.”
Isabella shivered, the weight of the situation pressing at her. “I know you’d never be that ruthless.”
“Oh, I
can
be ruthless, love. Never doubt that.” Mac mounted the stairs toward her, the acrid scent of smoke clinging to him. “Whoever did this couldn’t be bothered to care that two girls were snug in their beds not ten feet away. He didn’t worry about who else he might hurt.” Mac’s copper-colored eyes sparked with anger, but he was gentleness itself as he brushed the tear from her face. “Whoever this chap is, he doesn’t know the meaning of ruthlessness. But I assure you, my love, he will find out.”
Mac did sing in the bathtub.
A bathroom had been added to Isabella’s house by the previous owner, the room squeezed between the front and rear bedrooms on the second floor. A door from each led to it. The tub and sink had running water, fortified by a pump and cistern in the basement.
Isabella sat stiffly before her fireplace, hands clenched on the arms of her chair. Half an hour ago she’d heard Mac enter the bathroom, heard his low conversation with Bellamy, then the water filling the tub. Finally, Mac splashed into it, Bellamy departed, and Mac’s voice rose in song.
Isabella could not bring herself to go back to bed while Mac bathed himself on the other side of her door. She would sit and wait until he retreated to his own room and all was quiet again.

And it is, it is, a glorious thing, to be a pirate kiiiing . . .”
Mac’s baritone cut out, and she heard more splashing. He should be finished by now, drat him. He’d rise from the bath, water dripping down his tall body, slickly wet as he reached for a towel.
Isabella’s hands tightened until her nails dug into the fabric of the chair. If Mac hadn’t remained such a handsome man in the intervening years, would it have been easier to turn him away tonight? She thought it might have been. Rather unfair of her.

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