“Mr. Crane, Mac is precisely who I’ve come to see you about,” Isabella said when he’d wound down. “Please tell me about the painting you sold to Mrs. Leigh-Waters.”
Crane pressed his hands together and tilted his head, which made him look like a small, plump bird. “Ah, yes,
Rome from the Capitoline Hill
. An excellent work. One of his best.”
“You do know that Mac doesn’t sell his paintings? He gives them away to whoever wants them. Did it not strike you as odd when this one came up for sale?”
“Indeed, I was quite surprised when his lordship instructed us to sell it,” Mr. Crane said.
instructed it? Who told you that?”
Mr. Crane blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Who brought in the painting and told you his lordship wanted it sold?”
“Why, his lordship himself.”
Now Isabella blinked. “Are you certain? Mac carried the painting in here and handed it to you himself?”
“Well, not to me, as a point of fact. I was out. My assistant received it and cataloged it. Said his lordship told him he didn’t care what price he got.”
Isabella’s thoughts whirled. She had assumed her errand would be simple—point out to Mr. Crane that he’d sold a forgery and demand to know what he would do about it. Now she wondered. Had Mac actually painted it himself and sold it? And why?
“Does your assistant know Mac by sight?” she asked. “He didn’t assume that the gentleman was Mac without asking?”
“My lady, I was as surprised as you are, but my assistant described his lordship precisely. Even that careless way he has of talking, as though nothing about his art very much matters. So charming, when he has such talent. Mind you, his lordship hasn’t done much lately, so I was happy I could obtain something at all from him.”
Isabella had no idea what to say next. She’d pictured herself interrogating Mr. Crane on who had brought in the painting, to scold him for letting forgeries pass through his hands. Now she did not know how to continue. She’d been so certain that Mac hadn’t painted the scene, although come to think of it, Mac had neither confirmed nor denied it when she’d asked him.
“Ah, your lordship,” Crane said brightly. “How propitious of you. We were just speaking of you and that lovely picture you did of Rome. Welcome to my humble shop.”
Isabella whirled. Mac himself stood in the doorway, blotting out the weak sunlight outside.
He stepped across the threshold, swept off his hat, sent a smile to Isabella that weakened her knees, and said, “Now then, Crane. What have you been up to, selling forgeries of my blasted paintings?”
The smitten Groom of Mount Street has purchased his Lady a country Cottage in Buckinghamshire where she hosts charity Garden Fetes now that the weather has grown warm and Town swelters. The great and the good attend these parties and speak of nothing else.
Crane spluttered, but Mac couldn’t summon up much anger for the little man. Mac’s entire awareness centered on Isabella standing near him as resplendently beautiful in a brown-and-cream day dress as she had been in her elegant satin ball gown and diamonds.
If Mac were to paint her in this costume he’d use the palest of yellows for the trim, cream and umber for the bodice, darker brown for the shadows. For her skin, tints of cream and pink. Darkened red for her lips, which would be the only color on her face, rippling red orange for the curls under her hat. Eyes a suggestion of black and green, in shadow.
“Mac, I was just explaining . . .”
Mac didn’t hear her. Or rather, he couldn’t hear Isabella’s words—he heard only her voice, low, musical, designed to make his heart dance.
“Your lordship.” Crane rubbed his hands together in that irritating manner he had. “You brought me the paintings yourself.”
?” Mac’s brows rose. “You mean, there’s been more than one?”
“Of course. I have another here.” Crane minced his way into a back room and came out with a framed canvas almost as tall as himself. Mac laid his walking stick and hat on a table helped Crane lift the painting to a hook on the wall.
It was a Venice picture. Two men worked a gondola in the foreground, with the buildings of the Grand Canal fading into the mist, the merest suggestion of reflections of them in the murky water.
“One of your best, your lordship,” Crane said. “From your Venetian Period.”
The painting was damned good, Mac had to say that. The composition was finely balanced, the colors just right, light and shadow precise without being dull. Mac had painted quite few a pictures of canals while he’d been wallowing in self-pity after Isabella’s departure. But he hadn’t painted this one.
Isabella rolled her lower lip under her teeth, rendering it red and kissable. She shot Mac a worried look. “It
a forgery, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t paint that, Crane. Someone’s having you on.”
Mr. Crane pointed at the corner of the painting. “But you signed it.”
Mac leaned close to see the words
scrawled in the corner in his usual lazy style. “That does look like my signature.” He stepped back and regarded the picture fully. “Mind you, it isn’t bad.”
“Isn’t bad?” Isabella burst forth like a fury. “Mac, it’s a
“Yes, and a damned good one. The fellow paints better than I do.”
Crane looked horrified. He glanced over his shoulder as though the police might come flooding in any moment to drag him away to a dank, dark dungeon. “But, your lordship, my assistant swore you brought it in yourself.”
“Mr. Crane,” Isabella began.
Mac cut her off. “Don’t blame him, love. If I didn’t know better, I couldn’t tell the difference myself.”
“Because you have an eye for it. How many of these did you take, Crane?”
“Just the two,” Crane said in a small voice. “But I’m afraid I asked for more.”
Mac burst out laughing. Isabella looked indignant, but Mac couldn’t help himself. It was too idiotic. He hadn’t been able to paint anything decent in years, and this upstart not only painted better than Mac did, he gave Mac the credit for it.
“Out of curiosity, how much did Mrs. Leigh-Waters pay you?” Mac asked.
“A thousand guineas, my lord,” Crane whispered.
Mac whistled then laughed harder.
Isabella glared at him. “That’s criminal.”
Mac wiped his eyes. “Good Lord, Crane, I’m sure you were happy with
commission. What became of her payment, by the way? I’m sure this ‘Mac Mackenzie’ didn’t let go of his share.”
Crane looked troubled. “Funny thing, my lord. He’s never come for it. And he left no address or name of a bank where we could send it on. That was three months ago.”
“Hmm,” Mac said. “Well, if ever he does come ’round—”
“You must contact his lordship at once,” Isabella said.
“I was going to say, let the fellow have the cash. He’s obviously desperate for money.”
“Mac . . .”
“He did the work, after all.”
Mac wasn’t sure whether Isabella was more beautiful when she smiled or when she was bloody furious. Her cheeks were red, her eyes shone with green fire, and her breasts rose delightfully inside her tight bodice.
“What about Mrs. Leigh-Waters?” Crane’s face was ashen. “I should tell her what I’ve done.”
Mac shrugged. “Why? She likes the painting—praised it to the skies, my wife tells me. If Mrs. Leigh-Waters is happy, why spoil it for her?” He took up his stick and hat. “But if any more Mac Mackenzies turn up to sell you paintings, be warned. I never sell mine. I see no reason to charge people for my worthless drivel.”
“Drivel?” Crane cast him an indignant look. “Your lordship, they call you the English Manet.”
“Do they? Well, you know my opinion of ‘them.’ ”
“Yes, my lord, you’ve said.”
“Utter idiots, I believe is the term I prefer. Good morning to you, Crane. My dear?” Mac offered his arm to Isabella. “Shall we go?”
To his surprise, Isabella took his arm without rebuff and let him escort her out of the shop into the now-falling rain.
Isabella tried to remain angry as Mac assisted her into her landau, but the strength of his hands as he lifted her dissolved all thought.
She dropped into her seat and settled her skirts, expecting to hear the door shut and Mac say his farewells. Instead, the carriage listed as Mac climbed in and sat down beside her.
Isabella tried not to shrink away. “Do you not have your own coach?”
“Yours will suit my needs for now.”
Isabella started to give him a heated answer, but just then droplets poured from her hat brim to stain her tight jacket. “Oh bother, the rain. My new hat will be ruined.”
“Take it off.”
Mac flipped his own hat to the opposite seat as the landau jerked forward. Rain drummed on the canvas roof, a hurried thrumming that matched the beating of Isabella’s heart.
She snatched out hat pins, removed the hat, and dabbed at the straw with her handkerchief. The ostrich feathers were already soaked, but perhaps Evans could save them. She leaned forward to drop the hat on the seat next to Mac’s, and when she sat back again, Mac had extended his arm across the seatback behind her.
Isabella stilled. Being a large man, Mac liked to spread out, usually crowding Isabella to do it. She used to love to snuggle into him when they rode in a carriage, as though he were a great bear rug. She’d felt so protected and warm.
Mac regarded her with a lazy smile, knowing damn well why she remained upright on the seat, back rigid.
“What about your coachman?” she asked stiffly.
“He knows his way home. He’s lived there for years.”
“Very amusing.” Isabella tried a different tack. “Why on earth did you spew that nonsense to Mr. Crane about letting this other man keep the money? He is forging your paintings and selling them. Why should he profit?”
Mac’s arm brushed her as he shrugged. “But he hasn’t returned for the money, has he? Perhaps his game is different. Perhaps he knew he couldn’t sell his things under his own name, so he used mine.”
“Your name, your style, and your colors. How do you suppose he came up with the formula for your yellow? You keep it a secret.”
Mac shrugged again, his body moving in a most distracting manner. “Trial and error? And you’re rather assuming the forger is a man. It could be a woman.”
“Crane said a man calling himself Mac left the paintings.”
“The woman could have a male accomplice, someone who resembles me.”
He sprawled so comfortably, as though there were no tension at all between them. Mac wore trousers instead of a kilt today, a trifle disappointing.
“You are being most maddening about this,” she said.
“I told you, I don’t care.”
Mac sighed and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Must we go over it again, sweeting? That part of my life is in the past.”
“Which is absolute nonsense.”
“Perhaps we should change the subject.” Mac’s face settled into firm lines. “How are you this morning, love? Had any interesting correspondence?”
He wore that stubborn Mackenzie look, which said if he didn’t want to talk about a thing, an iron bar couldn’t pry his mouth open to do it. Well, she could pretend as well.
“I had a letter from Beth, as a matter of fact. She and Ian are settling in nicely. I miss her.”
Isabella couldn’t keep the sigh from her voice. Beth was a delightful young woman, and Isabella was excited that she had a new sister. Isabella hadn’t seen her own younger sister, Louisa, since the night she’d married Mac. Isabella’s family had disowned her, the upright Earl Scranton appalled that his daughter had eloped with a
. The Mackenzies might be rich and powerful, but they were also decadent, immodest, profligate, promiscuous, and worst of all, Scots. Louisa was seventeen now, nearing her own come-out. The thought made Isabella’s heart ache.
“You’ll see Beth in Doncaster,” Mac was saying. “That is, if you can tear yourself away from London to go.”
“Of course I will be at the St. Leger. I haven’t missed it in years. Do you think Beth will come? I mean, with the baby.”
“Since the baby isn’t born yet, I imagine it will accompany her.”
“Very droll. I meant, do you think Beth will want to travel? Even on a train? She needs to be careful, you know.”
“Ian will keep an eagle eye on her, my love. I have every confidence in him.”
True, Ian kept Beth in his sight at all times. Ever since Beth had broken the news that she was due to deliver a baby sometime in the spring, Ian’s protectiveness had doubled. Beth sometimes rolled her eyes about it, but she exuded joy at the same time. Beth was very well loved, and she knew it.