“It is a delicate time for a woman, even one as hearty as Beth,” Isabella said, words tumbling from her. “Even with Ian constantly watching over her. She will need to rest and take care, and not try to do too much.” The last word ended on a sob, and Isabella pressed the backs of her fingers to her mouth.
She wished she weren’t so exhausted from her sleepless night and early morning. Then she could sit here in no danger of breaking down. She wouldn’t weep in front of Mac; she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t.
“Love.” His voice caressed her. “Please don’t.”
Isabella angrily brushed away her tears. “I am happy for Beth. I want her to be happy.”
“Hush, now.” His arms came around her, Mac shutting her away from anything that wanted to hurt her.
“Stop,” she said. “I can’t fight you now.”
“I know.” Mac rested his cheek on her hair. “I know.”
She heard the break in his own voice, turned her head to see his copper-colored eyes swimming with tears. It was his tragedy too, she knew. Their shared grief.
“Oh, Mac, no.” Isabella rubbed a drop from his cheek. “It was so long ago. I don’t know why I’m crying.”
“Let’s not talk of it. Please. I can’t.”
“I won’t make you. Don’t worry.”
His eyes were still wet. Isabella slid her arms around his neck, rubbing under his hair, knowing he found that soothing. A tear trickled to his upper lip, and Isabella instinctively kissed it away.
Their mouths met, touched, warmth on warmth, clung. Mac’s lips parted, and she tasted the sharp sweep of his tongue, the salt of his tears. This was no seduction; he kissed for comfort, hers and his own.
Even after more than three years apart, everything about Mac was familiar. The rough-silken feel of his hair, the texture of his tongue, the burn of whiskers on her lips, all were the same.
But there was one difference. Instead of being overlaid with the bite of single-malt, Mac’s mouth tasted only of Mac.
Mac eased away, but his lips lingered on hers like mist on glass. Another light brush of mouths, and Mac sat back, tracing her cheek. “Isabella.” It was a whisper, filled with sadness.
He knew what she meant. “This will not be a weapon in our game,” Mac said. “I’d never, ever do that to you.”
Their breaths mixed as she gratefully exhaled. Mac smiled a little and touched another kiss to her lips.
“My coat, on the other hand . . .”
“Morton is having it cleaned,” Isabella said quickly as she accepted the handkerchief Mac handed her. “You’ll soon have it back.”
Mac leaned on his elbow on the back of the seat. “I meant the story that you kept my coat in your bed with you all night. Lucky garment. You forget how swiftly gossip runs between our houses. Our servants have a messaging system that Prussian generals would envy.”
“Nonsense.” Isabella’s heart thumped. “I put the coat down on the bed last night, is all, then I forgot about it and fell asleep.”
“I see.” Mac’s eyes glinted with his knowing smile, despite the tears that hadn’t yet dried on his cheeks.
Isabella gave him a haughty look. “You know what staff can be like when they get an idea into their heads. The story grows with each retelling.”
“Servants can be quite perceptive, my sweet. Far more intelligent than their masters.”
“I only mean that you shouldn’t take everything they say as absolute.”
“Of course not. May I beg a glove from you so I can lay it on my pillow tonight? You can refuse my request, of course.”
“I do refuse. Most emphatically.”
“I wish only to entertain the servants,” he said.
“Then send them to a music hall.”
Mac’s smile widened. “I like that idea. I’d have the house to myself for an evening.” He ran one finger down her arm. “Perhaps I could invite someone to call.”
Isabella strove not to jump. “I am certain that your chums would enjoy a night of billiards and a generous amount of Mackenzie whiskey.”
“Billiards. Hmm.” Mac’s look turned thoughtful. “I might take pleasure in a game of billiards, with the right companion.” He took her hand, traced a design on her palm through her tight kid glove. “I could think of a few interesting wagers we could have. Not to mention the double entendres I could make about thrusting cues and balls and pockets.”
Isabella snatched her hand away. “You do like to hear yourself talk, Mac. Now, I must insist you tell me why you have no interest in the forged paintings.”
Mac lost his smile. “Drop the topic, Isabella. I banish it from our game.”
“This isn’t a game. It is our lives—your life. Your art. And I’d be a bloody fool to play any game
Mac leaned to her as the carriage slowed. Isabella had no idea where they were, and she didn’t have the energy to lift the curtain to find out.
“It is a game, my love.” He held her gaze. “It is the most serious game I’ve ever engaged in. And I intend to win it. I will have you back, Isabella—in my life, in my house, and in my bed.”
Isabella couldn’t breathe. Breathing meant she’d inhale his scent and his warmth.
His eyes were hard, the copper irises still and cool. When he looked at her like this, she could believe that his ancestors had ruled the Highlands and swept nearly all the way through England in attempt to wrest it back for the Stuarts. Mac was a decadent man who went to parties in the finest houses, but the gentlemen who hosted the parties would quickly back down from the look in his eyes at present. Mac was determined, and when he was determined, ’ware all those who stood in his way.
Isabella lifted her chin. Betraying weakness to him would be fatal.
“Very well, then,” she said. “I intend to pursue the forger. If I play your game, I must make up my own rules.”
He didn’t like that, but Isabella had learned enough about Mac to know she should never let him have it all his way. She’d go down swiftly if she did that.
To her surprise, he made a conceding gesture. “If you must. Do your worst.”
“I said that about you after you left me at the ball.”
By Mac’s sudden, blazing smile Isabella realized she’d miscalculated. She hadn’t meant to say the words—they had slipped out before she could stop them. But she’d hugged herself on the cold terrace as she huddled there in Mac’s coat, angry, unnerved, lonely, scared, and angry again. “Do your worst, Mac Mackenzie,” she’d breathed in frustrated rage. “Do your absolute worst.”
“A fine invitation.” Mac cupped her face between his hands. He was strong; she’d never forgotten what natural power Mac had.
He kissed her, not tenderly this time. It was a hard, rough, hungry kiss, one that mastered her and bruised her lips. She realized with dismay that she kissed him just as hungrily back.
Mac pulled away, leaving her lips parted and raw. “I promise you,” he said. “This is nothing compared to my worst.”
Isabella tried to answer with a cutting remark, but her voice no longer worked. Mac gave her a feral smile, snatched up his hat and stick, and flung open the door of the now-still landau.
Isabella saw that they had halted in a snarl of traffic on Piccadilly, the landau perilously close to the posts that separated road from buildings and people. Mac leapt to the ground without bothering with the step.
“Until next time.” He clapped on his hat. “I look forward to another engagement on whatever battlefield you choose.”
Whistling, Mac strolled away. Isabella followed his broad back as he moved smoothly through the crowd until the footman slammed the door, cutting off her view. She peered through the rain-streaked window, but the familiar form of her husband was lost to the mist and crowd.
Feeling bereft, Isabella fell back against the seat as the landau jerked to roll on through Piccadilly.
Mac thoroughly disliked formal musicales, but he made an exception and dressed to attend the one at Isabella’s house two nights later. Two nights of restless sleep, twitching as he relived the kisses in the landau. In his fevered visions he would continue, loosening her bodice and licking her creamy breasts as they welled over the top of her corset.
He mused that lusting after one’s own wife was far more frustrating than lusting after a stranger. Mac knew exactly what Isabella looked like under her clothes, exactly what he was missing. He had many times undressed her during their marriage, liking to dismiss Evans and take over the servant’s duties to prepare Isabella for bed. As Mac lay awake alone, sweating, and randy, he remembered peeling each layer from her body—bodice, skirts, petticoats, bustle, corset, stockings, chemise.
Firelight would brush her skin and dance in her red hair. Then Mac would kiss every part of her. He would savor the touch of Isabella’s lips, each swirl of her tongue, the taste of her skin beneath his mouth. He’d move his hands to cup her buttocks, or slide his fingers between her thighs to find liquid heat there.
The hair between Isabella’s legs was not as bright red as that on her head; it was more the color of brandy. Mac would lay her on the floor or on the bed, or better still, have her sit in an armchair, while he’d lick his way from her breasts, over the flat of her stomach, to the fiery pleasure that awaited him between her parted thighs.
The night after their meeting in Crane’s shop followed by the delicious fencing match in the landau, Mac had thrown back his bedcovers, climbed to the attic, and spent the next several hours painting.
This time, he portrayed Isabella lying in his bed, on her side, asleep. He painted from memory, showing her body relaxed, one breast soft against the sheet. One leg was bent as she sought a comfortable position, her arms stretched across the pillow. Her fingers were loose, untroubled. Her face was turned downward, half hidden by her hair, and another tuft peeked coyly from between her thighs.
As in the picture of Isabella in her ball gown, Mac left the background vague, splotches of paint that suggested shadows. The bedding was cream-colored, Isabella’s hair, lips, and areolas being the only splashes of vivid color. Those and a yellow bud in a slim vase—Mac painted yellow roses into all pictures of Isabella. He signed the painting with his scrawl and left it to dry beside the other.
As Bellamy buttoned Mac into a black suit with Mackenzie kilt, Mac wondered if he’d be able to be in the same room with Isabella without tenting out the tartan. He hadn’t received an invitation to her musicale, but he didn’t intend to let that stop him.
“Let me in, Morton,” Mac told Isabella’s butler upon arriving at North Audley Street.
Morton had worked for Mac once upon a time, but the butler had become smitten with Isabella and her knack for household management. Even at age eighteen, Isabella had recognized that Mac had no idea how to run a houseful of servants and had begun making changes the morning after her arrival. Mac had cheerfully handed her the reins and told her to get on with it. When Isabella had left Mac, Morton had followed her.
Morton looked down his haughty nose at Mac. Being a foot shorter, Morton had to crank his head back to do so, but he managed it. “Her ladyship stipulated that tonight’s entertainment is by invitation only, my lord.”
“I know she did, Morton. However, please keep in mind that I pay your wages.”
Morton didn’t like the vulgar mention of money. His nose rose even more. “Invitation
, my lord.”
Mac glared, but Morton was made of stern stuff. He refused to move aside, though he knew quite well that Mac could simply pick him up and haul him out of the way if he wanted to.
“Never mind,” Mac said. “Tell her ladyship she keeps a fine guard dog.”
He tipped his hat to a large woman with enormous ostrich plumes on her head, who was stepping up to enter the house. He sensed the woman’s delight that she’d just witnessed Morton turn Isabella’s untamed husband away.
Whistling a music-hall ditty, Mac swung himself onto the scullery steps, clattered down the stairs, and entered the kitchen through the back door. The staff looked up through the steam-filled kitchen and froze in surprise. The cook stopped in the act of icing a row of teacakes, and a lump of icing fell from her spoon. The scullery maid squeaked and dropped a greasy cloth to the flagstone floor.
Mac removed his hat and gloves and shoved them at a footman. “Look after those for me, Matthew, there’s a good lad. Don’t mind if I snatch a seedcake, do you Mrs. Harper? I never had any tea today. Thank you, you’re a good woman.”
So saying, Mac snatched up a sliver of seedcake and popped it into his mouth. He winked at Mrs. Harper, who had once been an undercook at Kilmorgan. She blushed like a schoolgirl and said, “Go on with you, your lordship.”
Mac ate the cake on the way up the stairs and licked his fingers as he pushed open the green baize door at the top. He emerged into the hall to nearly run into the woman with the ostrich plumes again. Mac bowed to her while she stared with pale eyes, then he gestured for her to precede him into the drawing room.