No, she thought as Mac began to hum again. He’d be
no matter what he looked like. Charming, reckless, smiling, stealing her heart.
The tune was slower this time, his voice low and dark.
In bonny town, where I was born.
There was a fair maid dwellin’.
Made every youth cry, “well-away!”
Her name was Iiiis-a-bella.
Isabella jumped to her feet, stormed to the door, and flung it open.
Mac lay in the bathtub, up to his neck in soapy water, his arms resting carelessly along the sides of the tub. Little red cuts laced his hands and arms from where he’d broken the skylight to save the maids. He gave her a leisurely smile as she halted, hand frozen on the doorknob.
“The fair maid’s name was Barbara Allen,” Isabella said coldly.
“Was it? I must have forgotten the words.”
Isabella clutched the knob, her palm damp. “You’re lingering. Finish, dress, and leave my house. You’re clean enough now to find a hotel.”
finished.” Mac gripped the sides of the tub and hauled himself to his feet.
Isabella’s mouth went dry. Mac Mackenzie had always had the most delectable male body, and nothing had changed. Water slicked his muscles and darkened the red-brown hair on his head and chest, and the thatch between his legs gleamed copper. He was half erect, the crown of his cock pushing toward her as though it sought her touch.
Mac’s smile went positively sinful. He was challenging Isabella to behave like a maiden—perhaps the cruel Barbara Allen of the ballad, a standoffish beauty for whom men died. He was waiting for Isabella to scream, to have hysterics, or at least grow angry and slam the door.
Isabella arched her brows, leaned against the doorframe, and deliberately looked her fill.
Red touched Mac’s cheekbones as he stepped out of the tub to trickle water all over the floor. He put his hands behind his neck, clasping his fingers to press his arms out and back. The muscles of his body rippled like a symphony.
Isabella made herself stand still even when he began walking toward her. She caught the scent of the soap Bellamy must have brought for him, an odor filled with memories. She’d often slipped into the bathroom at Mount Street to wash Mac’s back, sitting on the side of the tub while she lathered his skin. Often these bathing sessions ended up with her being pulled into the water with him, dressing gown and all.
Isabella’s heart throbbed in sickening beats as Mac came closer. He was going to kiss her. He was going to take her in his arms and take her in a punishing kiss, claiming her until she could no longer deny her need for him.
At the last minute, Mac reached to the wall beside her and pulled a towel from a hook.
He wrapped the towel around his waist. “Disappointed?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly.”
Isabella knew Mac didn’t want this to be easy for her. He wanted her to work at what was between them, to peel back the layers of cool politeness behind which they’d retreated, to admit the raw core of their pain.
“I’m not ready,” she whispered.
Mac touched her chin, water dripping from his fingertip to chase down her throat. “I know. Else you’d not have cried about the cradle.”
Her throat tightened. “Perhaps it was symbolic.”
Mac’s voice went gruff. “No, it was not symbolic, or a message from the other side, or any other occult nonsense. It simply happened to be in the room where a madman started a fire.”
Isabella hadn’t meant that the cradle’s destruction was a bad omen, a portent for their future together. She’d meant that perhaps the fire had removed a reminder of their failure; perhaps with that barrier burned to ash they could start afresh.
“That’s my girl.” Mac stepped back. A towel around his waist did not make him any less mouth-watering; it only made Isabella long to hook her finger around the cloth and pull it away. “Sensible in the face of tribulation,” he said. “I’ve always loved that about you.”
Isabella lifted her chin and willed her voice not to shake. “Miss Pringle taught us that practical common sense was much more important than learning how to pour tea.”
“Someday I must meet Miss Pringle and congratulate her on her success.”
“She’d hardly want to meet you. She has no use for men.”
Mac leaned closer, warmth filling the space between them. “Maybe she’ll make an exception for me. After all, I’m in love with her best and brightest student.”
“I was one of her dullest, not brightest.”
Mac slid his hand to the back of her neck, under her hair, and a trickle of water found its way inside her collar. His breath touched her lips, and Isabella closed her eyes, waiting for the soft pressure of his mouth.
It never came. He caressed her neck for a moment or two then released her. As chill disappointment wrapped her heart, Mac kissed his fingertip, slightly wrinkled from the water, and pressed it to her lips.
“I’ve changed my mind about the hotel,” he said. “Your house is much more comfortable. See you in the morning, love.”
He turned from her, made for the other door, and just as he opened it, dropped the towel.
Isabella sagged against the doorframe as her gaze riveted to his tight and beautiful backside. His skin was bronzed above the waist, paler below where his kilt would cover him from country sunshine.
She remembered how she’d loved to watch his naked body as Mac lounged in bed after lovemaking, kicking back the covers when he grew too warm. They’d laugh and talk, tease each other, and return to loving, so comfortable with each other. Those days seemed so long ago, so far away.
Mac grinned over his shoulder at her, and whistling
walked into his bedroom and closed the door behind him.
It was a long time before Isabella could peel herself from the doorway and return to sit rigidly in her chair before the fire. Going to bed for the remaining few hours of the night was out of the question.
Isabella entered her dining room in the morning to see two newspapers held by two sets of male hands, one set large and muscular, the other narrower and bonier. The occasional crunch of toast sounded behind the sheets of newsprint.
Isabella seated herself in the chair Bellamy held out for her, while her footman set a plate of steaming eggs and sausage before her. She thanked both servants politely and started sorting through the post that lay to the right of her plate. Down the table, pages turned and more toast crunched.
Haughty society ladies might be surprised to see the wild Mackenzies apparently tamed into such domestic order.
Isabella would have to tell them. Newspapers and breakfasts simply kept them quiet for a time.
And yet, there
been many mornings like this. Breakfasts at Kilmorgan Castle when all four brothers were under one roof were happy occasions, filled with loud laughter and male speech. Breakfasts at Mount Street had been cozy and quiet—sometimes Mac would walk down the length of the table to her on some pretense, sit next to her, lift her onto his lap. They’d cuddle together, feeding each other bits of the cooling breakfast. Isabella eyed the barrier of Mac’s newspaper and shivered with memories.
Someone thumped on the front door. Bellamy set down a pot of steaming coffee and departed to answer it.
Why was Bellamy answering doors? Isabella wondered. Where the devil was Morton? Mac had been in the house perhaps five hours, and already he was rearranging the staff’s schedule.
“Let me in, Bellamy,” came a gravelly, male voice. “I know he’s in there.”
Daniel’s newspaper flew high as he exploded out from under it. He gave Isabella one wild, pleading look then raced through the connecting door to the library.
Mac laid down his paper and took up another piece of toast. Cameron strode into the dining room and scowled at Mac, Isabella, the hastily pushed back chair, and the scattered newspaper. Isabella motioned Bellamy to pour her more coffee, and Mac took a bite of toast as Cameron made for the connecting door, flung it open, and stormed inside.
There was the sound of a scuffle, voices raised in protest, and the bang of another door. Cameron entered the dining room through the hall again, dragging a struggling Daniel with him.
“Ow, Da’, let me go.”
Cameron shoved Daniel back into his chair. “What the devil do ye think ye’re doing here?”
“Aunt Isabella said I could stay.”
Isabella continued to sort through her letters as though nothing very remarkable had happened. “I thought it best, Cam. He’d only have run away again if I’d sent him back to your professor.”
“Aye, that’s likely true.” Cameron scraped back a chair and sat heavily on it. The big man wore a black evening suit and kilt, presumably leftover from the night before. His cravat was crumpled and his face dark with whiskers, but otherwise, he looked as wide awake as Mac. Isabella, on the other hand, was groggy from lack of sleep. Mac lying in a bed two rooms away had kept her on the chair, eyes open, for the rest of the night.
“Bring me something to eat, Bellamy,” Cameron said. “I’m famished. And coffee, lots of it.”
Bellamy was already on his way with the coffeepot. The footman opened the dumbwaiter and extracted another tray of covered dishes to place in front of Cameron.
Daniel rubbed his neck. “You’re supposed to be in Scotland with the ponies, Da’. How did you know I was here?”
“Dr. Nichols telegraphed to Kilmorgan that you’d gone missing. Hart telegraphed me.”
“Dr. Nichols is a daft old man,” Daniel grumbled. “I thought he’d be too scared of you to tell on me.”
Cameron dissected his eggs and sausage. “That daft old man is one of the most brilliant physicists in the world, ye little beggar. I wanted him to teach you something.”
“Not if it means missing the St. Leger.”
“Daniel did promise to return to his studies if he was allowed to go to the races,” Isabella said. “Didn’t you, Daniel?”
“I did,” Daniel said in a bright voice. “I promise I’ll become a dried-up stick like Dr. Nichols if you let me go to Doncaster w’ ye. It’s damned unfair for me to have to miss it. I never miss the St. Leger.”
“You watch your language around a lady,” Cam growled.
“Aunt Isabella don’t mind.”
“That doesn’t make any difference. Apologize.”
“Oh, very well. Sorry, Auntie, for m’ foul tongue.”
Isabella gave Daniel a gracious nod, while Mac turned another page of his newspaper. Cameron gave attention to his coffee and held out the cup for Bellamy to refill.
“What the devil are
doing here, Mac? And why is Isabella serving you breakfast instead of dropping you down the cistern?”
“My house burned down,” Mac said from behind his paper.
Mac folded his newspaper, slid it to Cam, and tapped an article. The banner read: “Conflagration at peer’s Mayfair home.”
“They’ve got that wrong,” Daniel said. “Uncle Mac’s not a peer. Only Uncle Hart is.”
“The reading public doesn’t care, my boy,” Mac said. “They just want to read about a fire at the house of an aristocrat.”
“What the hell happened?” Cameron demanded.
Mac explained while Cam listened in growing bafflement and anger. “You think whoever’s forging your paintings tried to burn you out? Why? Because you found out he was doing it? How did the bastard get inside your house at all? Beg pardon, Isabella.”
Mac shrugged. “My front door stood unlocked much of the day. I have a footman stationed at the door, but I imagine he’d have had to relieve himself at some point.”
“Or he let in the culprit himself,” Cameron suggested.
“I’d be surprised; he’s loyal. I plan to quiz him, but I’m letting my servants sleep this morning. They had a bad night.”
“Bellamy isn’t sleeping.” Isabella looked pointedly at the former pugilist who remained hovering nearby with the coffeepot.
“He refused,” Mac said. He shot Bellamy a severe look, which Bellamy blandly returned. “He seems to think I’ll be struck down by an assassin if he lets me out of his sight.”
“Could be.” Cameron shoved his plate away and wiped his mouth on a napkin. He took another long drink of coffee and clattered the cup to the saucer. “You’ll be safe enough here, Mac, with Bellamy and Isabella’s household looking after you.”
Mac slanted a smile down the table at Isabella. “Exactly what I thought.”
“I’m certain the Langham will suit your needs much better,” Isabella said coolly.
Cameron shook his head. “Hotel’s full up. Heard the manager say it this morning.”
If Cameron had been back to the hotel that morning, Isabella would eat her silverware. “Hart keeps his house open and ready at all times,” she pointed out.
The brothers looked at each other, wordlessly trying to figure out how to refute her argument. Daniel grinned. “
stay in Hart’s house.”