“Please, may we stop now, Mac? I really am quite warm.”
“You do look flushed. There’s only one remedy for that.”
“A seat and a cool drink?”
“No.” A smile spread over his face, the same wicked smile that had destroyed Isabella the debutante more than six years ago. He swung her out of the dance, tucked her arm through his, and led her swiftly across the ballroom and out of the French windows. “A stroll on the terrace.”
Mac ignored her protest and propelled them along the length of the chill and dimly lit terrace. He stopped at the end of it, in the shadows beyond the lit windows.
“Now then,” he said.
Isabella found herself against the wall, Mac’s strong hands on either side of her.
Isabella’s breath was sweet, her body a warm length in the cool air. Her bosom rose against her décolletage, diamonds sparkling on her skin.
They’d stood like this on her father’s terrace the night they’d met, Isabella against the wall, Mac’s hand splayed on the bricks beside her. Isabella had been eighteen then, her dress virgin white, her only adornment a necklace of pearls. A pure, untouchable maiden with glorious hair, a ripe plum ready to be plucked.
The temptation to touch her had been irresistible. The wager Mac had agreed to that night had been simple—enter the overly priggish Earl Scranton’s house without invitation, dance with the prim and proper debutante in whose honor the ball was being held, and entice her to kiss him.
Mac had expected to find a stick-thin maiden with a prissy mouth and irritating mannerisms. Instead, he’d found Isabella.
It had been like discovering a butterfly among colorless moths. The instant Mac had seen Isabella, he’d wanted to know her, to talk to her, to learn everything about her. He remembered how she’d watched him push through the crowded ballroom toward her, her chin lifted, her green eyes daring him to do his worst. Her friends had whispered behind her, no doubt warning her who he was, hoping to watch her rebuff the scandalous Lord Roland “Mac” Mackenzie. Isabella, Mac had come to know, was quite good at the rebuff.
He’d stopped before her, and without saying a word, Isabella had taken his breath away. Her hair spilled over her shoulder in a river of red, her eyes glinted with cool intelligence, and he’d wanted her. To dance with her, to paint her, to make love to her.
Come, sweetheart. Sin with me.
Mac had grabbed the nearest male acquaintance and forced the man to introduce them, knowing that this perfectly raised young lady would refuse to speak to him at all until then. When Mac had held out his hand and asked the conventional question, “My lady, may I have this waltz?” she’d given him a cool look and lifted her wrist to show him her dance card dangling from it.
“What a pity,” she’d said. “My card is full.” Of course it was. She was a well-protected debutante, the oldest daughter of Earl Scranton, an advantageous catch. One of her father’s handpicked gentlemen would even now be pushing his way through to her, hurrying to claim his waltz.
Mac had caught the card in his hand, removed a pencil from his pocket, and slashed a heavy diagonal line through all the names. Across this line he wrote in his careless scrawl—
He dropped the card and held out his hand. “Come dance with me, Lady Isabella,” he’d said.
I dare you . . .
He had expected her to freeze him with a cutting dismissal. She’d walk away, her nose in the air, seek her father’s footmen, and instruct them to throw the blackguard out.
Instead, she’d placed her hand in his. They’d eloped that very night.
Tonight, in the semidarkness of Lord Abercrombie’s terrace, Isabella’s hair stood out like fire, but her eyes were shadowed. She hadn’t screamed and fled from him the night they’d met, and she didn’t scream and flee now.
On the terrace at her father’s house, she’d regarded him with courage, her eyes unafraid. Mac had touched his lips to hers, a touch only, not a kiss. When he’d eased back, Isabella had stared up at him in shock.
Mac had been equally shocked. He’d intended to laugh at her fluttering modesty and leave her. Debutante kissed, wager won. But after the first touch of lips, he couldn’t have dragged himself away if he’d been tied to one of Cameron’s swiftest racehorses.
At the next touch of mouths, Isabella had parted her lips, trying to kiss him back. Mac had laughed softly in triumph, told her she was impossibly sweet, and claimed her mouth. He’d wanted her in his bed that very night, needed it, craved it. But he’d ruin her utterly if he didn’t marry her, and Mac didn’t want to hurt a hair on this lady’s head.
Ergo, he’d married her.
That night, after the kiss, Isabella had opened her lips and whispered his name. Tonight, those same red lips parted, and she said, “Have you looked into the forgery I told you about yesterday morning?”
The present returned to Mac like a cold slap
“I told you, Isabella, I don’t give a damn if some fool wants to copy my paintings and sign my name to them.”
“And sell them?”
“He’s welcome to the money.” Whoever it was could have it and enjoy it.
Isabella regarded him in earnest, her eyes wide. “It is not only the money. He—or she—is stealing a part of you.”
“Is he?” Mac couldn’t imagine what part. Isabella had taken most of him when she’d left, leaving a hole where Mac had been.
“He is. Painting is your life.”
his life. Attempting the picture of Molly yesterday had been a complete disaster. The pictures he’d started in Paris this summer had been equally disastrous and had ended up on the scrap heap. Mac had accepted it—that part of his life was over.
“You know I took up painting only to annoy my father,” he said, his tone light. “That was a long time ago, and the old bastard is out of reach of my annoying hobbies now.”
“But you fell in love with art. You told me that. You’ve produced some wonderful work, you know you have. You might be dismissive of it, but your paintings are astonishing.”
Astonishing, yes. That was what hurt so much. “I’ve rather lost the taste for it.”
“I saw you painting with great energy when I barged in yesterday morning.”
“On a picture which, as you rightly pointed out, was bloody awful. I paid Molly for a full sitting and told Bellamy to destroy it.”
“Good heavens, it wasn’t that bad. A bit odd for your style, I admit.”
He shrugged. “I painted it to win a wager. Before I went to Paris, a few fellows egged me to do some erotic pictures, betting that I wouldn’t. They said I’d become far too prudish to paint anything naughty.”
Isabella laughed out loud, her breath warm in the cool air. It reminded him of how she used to laugh into his skin while they lay together on cold winter nights.
“You?” Isabella said. “Prudish?”
“I took the wager to save my honor, thank you very much, but I will forfeit.” Forfeiting rankled, but not because of his pride. Mac had realized yesterday that he wouldn’t be able to paint the wretched pictures no matter how he tried. He simply couldn’t paint anything at all.
“What happens if you lose?” Isabella asked.
“I don’t remember the details. I think I’ll have to sing tunes with the Salvation Army band or something equally ridiculous.”
Isabella laughed again, the sound silken. “What utter cheek.”
“Wagers are wagers, my dear. The wager is all.”
“I suppose this is a male ritual I’ll never understand. Although at Miss Pringle’s Select Academy, we could get up to some fine dares.”
Mac leaned his arm on the wall, putting himself even closer to her. “I’m certain Miss Pringle was shocked.”
“Not shocked, only cross. She always seemed to know what we were up to.”
“The very perceptive Miss Pringle.”
“She is highly intelligent. Don’t make fun of her.”
“Never. I’m rather fond of her. If
are the product of her academy, all young ladies ought to attend.”
“She wouldn’t have room for them,” Isabella said. “That is why it’s called Miss Pringle’s
This was how it used to be with Isabella, the two of them chattering nonsense while he let the silk of her hair trickle through his fingers. They’d lounge in bed, talking, laughing, arguing about nothing, everything.
Damn it to hell, I want that back.
He’d missed her with his entire body since the moment Ian had handed him the letter.
Mac had asked, not in the best temper—his head aching from a night of drunken debauchery.
Does Isabella have you passing billets-doux now?
Ian’s golden gaze had slid to Mac’s right shoulder, Ian uncomfortable with looking into anyone’s eyes.
Isabella is gone. The letter explains why.
Gone? What do you mean, gone?
Mac had broken the seal and read the fateful words:
Dearest Mac. I love you. I will always love you. But I can live with you no longer.
Ian had watched while Mac swept the contents of his painting table to the floor in rage. Once he’d cooled down, Mac had stared bleakly at the letter again, and Ian, a man who didn’t like to be touched, had laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
She was right to go.
The weeping came much later, when Mac had drunk himself into a stupor, the letter crumpled on the table next to him.
Isabella shivered suddenly, breaking his thoughts.
“You’re cold,” Mac said. The temperature had dropped, and Isabella’s low-cut gown was no defense against an autumn evening. Mac slid off his coat and draped it around her shoulders.
He kept hold of the edges of the coat while his need for her plucked at him. They were relatively alone and unseen, she was his wife, and he needed so much to touch her. Dancing with her had been a mistake. It had given him a taste of her, and he hungered for much, much more. He wanted to unravel her complicated curls, have her long hair spill over his naked body. He wanted her to look up at him with languid eyes and smile at him, wanted her to lift to his hand as he pleasured her.
Mac had painted her the morning after their hasty wedding, Isabella sitting on the edge of the bed, nude, the sheets tangled around her. She’d been winding her flame-colored hair into a knot, her firm breasts lifting with her movements. She’d taken that painting with her when she’d gone, and Mac had never asked for it back. He wished he had now, because at least he could look at her, and remember.
“Isabella.” The word came out half whisper, half moan. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you.” She touched his face, her hand cool and soft. “I do miss you, Mac.”
Then why did you leave me?
He bit back the words that rose in his mouth. Remonstrations would only anger her, and there had already been too much anger.
You aren’t trying hard enough to get her back,
Ian had told him not long ago.
I never thought you were this bloody stupid.
But Mac knew he had to go slowly. If he pushed Isabella too quickly, she’d slip out of his reach, like a sunbeam he tried to capture in his hands.
“Actually, if you’ll allow me a few precious moments,” Mac said, clearing his throat, “I brought you out here for a reason.”
She smiled. “To let me cool from our rather arduous dance?”
Damn it, let me do this.
“To ask you for your help.”
The lofty Lord of Mount Street, so recently a Groom, has not, we have been assured, ceased his hobby of painting in the manner of the
, and in fact, has been painting with renewed vigor since his marriage.
Isabella’s eyes flickered in genuine surprise. “My help? What on earth could I do for a lofty lord like you?”
“Nothing very difficult,” Mac said. “I simply need some advice.”
A faint smile touched her mouth, and his blood started to burn. “Good heavens, Mac Mackenzie seeking advice?”
“Not for me. For a friend.” This suddenly seemed like a bloody stupid idea, but Mac hadn’t been able to think of a better one. “I know a gentleman who wishes to court a lady,” he said in a rush. “I’ve come to ask you how to go about it.”
Isabella’s brows climbed high, her eyes so close in the darkness. “Truly? Why should you need my advice about that?”
“Because I don’t know much about courting, do I? Our own courtship lasted, what was it, about an hour and a half? Besides, this is a delicate matter. The lady in question loathes him. Once, years ago, this man hurt her. Deeply.” Mac shifted, every muscle aching. “She will need coaxing. A vast amount of coaxing.”
“But ladies do not like to be coaxed,” Isabella said, that half smile hovering. “They like to be admired and respected.”
Like hell. They wanted to be adored, wanted men panting in anticipation at the merest crook of a finger. A smile from the lady would cost even more.