“Very well,” Mac said in a tight voice. “What is your view about gifts?”
“Ladies do like gifts. Tokens of affection. But appropriate gifts, nothing wildly extravagant.”
“But he’s bloody rich, this friend. He likes to be extravagant.”
“That doesn’t necessarily impress a lady.”
Like hell, again. Women cooed over strands of diamonds, glittering blue sapphires, emeralds as green as their eyes. Mac had once bought Isabella a strand of emeralds to drape softly across her breasts. The first night she’d worn them they’d been alone, her very lovely breasts bared for him. He still remembered the taste of the emeralds against her skin.
“Then I will teach him the difference between appropriate and extravagant,” Mac said, his voice thick. “Anything else?”
“Yes. Time. The lady will need time to think and not be rushed. To decide whether the gentleman will be appropriate for her.”
. There’d been too damn much of that. Wasted weeks and months and years, when Mac could have been curled against her in bed, tasting her and smelling her, feeling her warmth against the length of his body.
“You mean time for the fellow to prove his devotion?” Mac couldn’t keep the impatient edge out of his voice. “Or time for the lady to drive him completely mad?”
“Time for the lady to decide whether his devotion is true or all his imagination.”
“The lady decides that, does she?”
“She does. Always.”
Mac growled. “Bloody hard luck on the gentleman isn’t it, when a lady knows his mind better than he does?”
“That is how things are in courtship,” Isabella said coolly. “You
ask for the advice.”
“What if the damned fellow is in love and he knows it?”
“In that case, he would never have hurt the lady in the past.”
The sudden flare of pain in her eyes cut him, and Mac had to look away. Yes, he’d hurt her. Mac had hurt her and kept hurting her, and he knew it. She’d hurt him back, the two of them thrusting and parrying and trying desperately to keep their footing. What a bloody stupid way to conduct a marriage.
He drew an uneven breath. “What I propose is for you to teach me what my friend should do. Give me the lessons in courting. I will then teach what I learn to my friend.”
Mac waited while she pursed her lips. She always did that while she thought, and he’d always loved leaning closer, closer, until he brushed his mouth across that gentle pucker. Then she’d laugh and say something like,
Darling Mac, you are so silly.
“I suppose I could be persuaded,” Isabella said now with her soft, red mouth. “Though this is not what’s meant by courting, you know.”
Mac pulled back a hairsbreadth. “What isn’t?”
She wet her lips, making his longing spike. “You have started badly, I am afraid. You do not ask a lady to dance by tearing her away from the partner she’s just accepted, and when she’s overheated, you walk her to a chair and fetch her an ice. You don’t whisk her out to the terrace and into the shadows.”
“That is seduction, not courting. You could ruin the lady.”
“Ah.” Mac returned his hand to the wall beside her, noticing that it was shaking. “Then you consider that I’ve failed that lesson.”
“Almost.” She smiled, and his heart turned over. “You are very flattering, which is always a point in a gentleman’s favor.”
“I can be more flattering than that. I can tell you that your hair is a trail of fire, your lips sweeter than the finest wines, that your voice flows inside me and stirs all my desires.”
A swallow moved down her throat. “A proper lady might be taken aback by such comparisons.”
“I remember a proper lady who didn’t mind me talking about the pillows of her breasts and the glory that lay between her legs.”
“Then she couldn’t have been a proper lady,” Isabella said softly.
Mac leaned to her. “Would the proper young lady be shocked to learn I’m in danger of taking her right here, uncaring of who might wander to our end of the terrace?”
Her lashes swept down. “I don’t think such a thing would be practical in this gown.”
“Don’t tease, Isabella. I’m perfectly serious.”
“I’ve never been able to resist teasing you.” She gave him her coy little smile, and his limbs hurt. “But I have been thinking about this rather a lot, Mac. We have both closed in on ourselves, barely able to speak to one another, which has caused great strain. Perhaps if we grow more used to seeing each other, stop avoiding events where we both might attend—like tonight—perhaps we would become comfortable with each other.”
Mac’s bubble of hope dissipated. “Comfortable? What the devil does that mean? As though we were in our dotage, nodding to each other in our Bath chairs?”
“No, no. I meant that if we become used to each other’s company, perhaps your wanting would decrease. We would be more civil to each other. As it is we are nervous. About everything. ”
Mac wanted to burst into laughter, and then again, he wanted to rage. “Bloody hell, Isabella, do you think that the strain between us is all to do with me
you? Oh, my darling girl.”
“Of course I do not believe it is so simple. But perhaps, if we agree to become more, well, easy with each other, perhaps we could catch sight of each other without simmering.”
“I very much doubt that.” Mac slanted her a hot smile. “I’ve been simmering for you since the night we met. I’ve never stopped, and I never will, no matter how many times I have the pleasure of taking you to bed.”
Isabella’s lips parted in surprise. Had she thought the solution to their unhappiness so simple? That if they grew bored with each other’s company, Mac would cease wanting her and let her be? Some men—utter fools—did lose interest in a woman once they’d bedded her, but Mac couldn’t imagine ever, ever losing interest in Isabella.
He let his smile grow predatory. “My dear Isabella, I will take your suggestion and show you what happens when you play with fire. I will make certain we see each other quite, quite often. And there will be no growing jaded with each other. Because you see, my dear, when I at last take you home again, it will be forever. No regrets, no games, no being ‘comfortable.’ We will be man and wife, in all ways, and it will be final.”
Isabella gave him a haughty look. That was his Isabella. A firecracker, no whimpering miss. “I see. So the games we play must be ones of
He touched her lips with his fingertip. “Exactly, my sweet. And when I win, Isabella, it will be for good. I promise you that.”
Isabella opened her mouth to retort, but Mac silenced her with one hot, swift kiss. The taste of her was enough to crumble him to dust, but he made himself, just as swiftly, release her.
He ran his finger down her neck to the shadow of her cleavage. “Good night, my darling,” he said. “Keep the coat.”
Walking away from her, so delectable in that low-cut dress, his own coat draped over her shoulders, was one of the most difficult things Mac had ever done. At every step, he expected her to call after him, to beg him to come back, even to curse him.
Isabella never said a word. Mac’s need berated him soundly as he kept walking the length of the terrace and stepped back into the overly stuffy house.
Mac’s arousal hadn’t died by the time he reached home and climbed the four flights to his studio. He stood in the middle of the room, absorbing the ruined picture still propped on the easel, the table strewn with jars and palettes, his brushes fastidiously washed and sorted. Even when Mac lost his temper and threw things about, he always took care of his brushes. They were an extension of the painter’s fingers, the mad old artist who’d first trained him had told him. They needed to be treated with care.
The labored breathing of Bellamy sounded behind Mac as the valet puffed up the attic stairs. Mac absently pulled off his cravat and waistcoat and handed them over to the disapproving Bellamy when the man entered the room. Mac had conducted wild painting sessions in evening dress before, and Bellamy had said flatly in his East End accent that he wouldn’t be held responsible for his lordship’s clothes if his lordship insisted on mucking them up with oil paints.
Mac didn’t much care, but Bellamy did, so Mac piled the man’s arms high with his garments and told him to go. Once Bellamy closed the door, Mac pulled on the old kilt he kept up there to paint in along with his paint-streaked boots.
He tossed the ruined canvas facedown on the floor and propped a blank one in its place. His charcoal pencil nestled into his palm, and with the ease of long practice, Mac began to sketch.
It took only a few lines to draw what he wanted—the eyes of a woman, another few lines to fill in her face, more to depict the spill of brilliant hair down her shoulder. The beauty and simplicity of the drawing caught at his heart as he finished.
He took up his palette, globbed on colors, and started to paint. Muted tones, many shades of white, the paint for the shadows mixed from green and umber and darkest red. Her green eyes toned down with black, the shine of them caught exactly right.
Dawn filtered through the skylights before Mac finished. In the end, he dropped his palette to the table, shoved his brushes into the cleaning solution, and contemplated the painting.
Something in him rejoiced. After so long—
—the brilliance Mac’s mentor had seen in him finally broke through once more.
A woman looked out of the canvas: her chin a bit pointed, her lips parted in a half smile. Red hair trickled down her shoulder, and her eyes regarded him with a haughty yet seductive look. Yellow rosebuds, painted the vibrant yellow of Mac’s signature color, drooped from her curls as though she’d danced the night away and come home tired. He hadn’t painted the gown she’d worn tonight, just suggested it with dashes of deep-shadowed blue that blended into the background.
It was the most beautiful thing he’d painted in years. The picture sang out of the canvas, the colors and lines flowing with effortless grace.
Mac let his blunt, paint-stained fingers hover above the woman for a few seconds. Then he resolutely turned his back on the picture and left the room.
Isabella settled the gloves on her fingers the next morning with quick jerks and checked the angle of her hat in the hall mirror. Her heart was thumping, but she was determined. If Mac wouldn’t do anything about the forged paintings, Isabella would.
She nodded to her butler as he opened the front door for her. “Thank you, Morton. Please make certain his lordship’s coat is cleaned and returned to him by this afternoon.”
Isabella took her footman’s hand and settled herself in her landau. Not until the vehicle had rolled into morning traffic did she droop against the cushions and let out her breath.
She’d slept very little after she’d returned from Lord Abercrombie’s ball the night before. When Mac had walked away from her down the terrace, the pain of his leaving had struck her to the heart. She’d wanted to rush after him, to make him turn back to her, to beg him with everything she had to stay.
As it was, she’d had to make do with his coat. She’d laid it next to her when she’d gone to bed, where she could touch it and smell his scent on it. She’d remained awake and restless, craving him, until she finally drifted into dreams of his smile and that sinfully hot kiss.
In the morning, she’d tossed the coat carelessly at Evans, instructing her to tell Morton to look after it.
She directed her coachman to take her to the Strand, where Messrs. Crane and Longman, purveyors of fine art, kept a shop. There was no longer a Mr. Longman, he having died and left Mr. Crane the entire business, but Mr. Crane had never removed Longman’s name from the sign.
Mr. Crane, a smallish man with soft palms and well-manicured nails, shook Isabella’s hand when she entered, then began spewing forth praise of Mac Mackenzie.