Signs of strain have issued from home of our Scottish Lord and his Lady. The gentleman has disappeared, rumored to have fled to Paris weeks ago, while the lady remains entertaining marchionesses and actresses alike. All is seeming delight at the big house, the absence of its Lord glibly explained away by his madness for painting in Montmartre.
Isabella’s only sign of exasperation when she caught sight of Mac was a tightening around her eyes. But Isabella had been trained by a series of governesses and Miss Pringle’s Select Academy to be a gracious hostess no matter what disasters might ensue.
Isabella continued chatting with her guests, never once looking directly at Mac. Mac envied the lady and gentleman she spoke to as she leaned to them with a smile and a little flick of her hand. He’d always loved being the focus of her green gaze, loved watching her lips purse as she listened to him and formed her next answer.
She wore burgundy tonight, a satin shoulder-baring dress that rippled like water when she moved. Her bosom swelled over the décolletage, inviting his gaze and the gaze of all other gentlemen present. Mac stifled a growl. He might have to start killing people soon.
The double drawing room was packed, Isabella’s evenings always popular. Mac greeted major and minor nobility, ambassadors, foreign princesses, old friends, mere acquaintances. Artists presented by Isabella always had successful come-outs. She’d gained a reputation for excellent taste, and although her own family would not speak to her, the rest of society had seen no reason to shun her. Even Isabella’s separation from her husband had alienated only a few. The Mackenzies were so very rich after all. Hart was the second-highest duke in the land behind the royal dukes, and the ambitious wanted to cultivate his support and patronage. If that meant they attended salons and musicales hosted by Hart’s sister-in-law, so be it.
Mac had never understood Isabella’s liking for so many damned people in the house, but he had to admit that he’d never really tried to understand her likes and dislikes. He’d simply drunk her in like fine wine, not questioning, letting her fill and inspire him. He never thought to ask how the wine felt.
He didn’t have to turn to know that Isabella had stopped at his elbow. He would recognize her presence were he blind and deaf in the middle of the barren sands of Egypt.
“Odd,” she said in her musical voice. “I do not recall your name on my guest list.”
Mac turned, and his breath caught. Isabella stood beside him like living flame. She’d threaded her red hair with yellow rosebuds, and as she had at Lord Abercrombie’s ball, she wore a diamond necklace on her bosom. She was beauty incarnate, even when her eyes sparkled in annoyance—at him.
“Why would I not attend one of my own wife’s famous musicales?” he asked.
“Because I never sent you an invitation. I would have remembered. I write them all myself.”
“Don’t blame Morton. He did his best to keep me out.”
“Oh, I know precisely where the blame lies.”
Mac shrugged, trying for carelessness. Never mind that his hands were sweating and that he was in danger of dropping the glass of water Morton had grudgingly fetched for him. “Now that I am here, I might as well be useful. Who would you like me to woo?”
The lines around Isabella’s eyes tightened even more, but she would never make a scene. Not in public. She was too finely bred for that.
“The princess of Brandenburg and her husband. They haven’t much wealth, but they are fashionable and have great influence. Scotland fascinates them. You are wearing your kilt, so you can give them your full Highland charm.”
“As you wish, my love. I will prepare to be very Scottish.”
Isabella laid her fingers on his arm and smiled, and Mac’s heartbeat rose to dangerous levels. He told himself that the smile was not for him; she was aware they’d become the center of the room’s attention and wanted to make a good show of it. She’d smile until her lips fell off to keep people from reporting an entertaining argument between Mac Mackenzie and his estranged wife.
“Don’t overdo it, Mac,” she said. “It is Mrs. Monroe’s night, and I don’t wish the spotlight taken from her.”
“The soprano. Whose name you would have known if you’d received an invitation.”
“I did come here for a reason tonight, my lovely—other than to drive you mad, of course. I came to tell you that I have not been idle about the forger.”
Isabella’s smile became more genuine. Mac’s gaze shifted to the curl that lay against her right shoulder, and he fought the temptation to lean down and take the red lock between his lips.
“Truly?” she asked. “What progress have you made?”
“I talked to Inspector Fellows. Told him the problem and that I wanted it kept quiet. No official complaint, no official investigation.”
“I see.” She sounded skeptical, and her attention wandered to a knot of guests who’d gathered around the nervous-looking soprano.
“And here I imagined you’d be pleased that I’m taking the problem seriously.”
She saw right through him, as usual. “You are not taking it seriously. You are passing it off to Mr. Fellows, at the same time telling him not to barge around and ask questions.”
“These Scotland Yard men have an amazing knack for ferreting out information. You know that.”
“And you have an amazing knack for not doing things that don’t interest you.” Isabella turned away. “Do escort the princess to her seat. We’re about to start.”
She glided off. Mac’s fingers slid from her water-smooth gown, his whole body longing for the feel of the warm woman beneath the satin.
Mrs. Monroe sang to a silent, enraptured room, which exploded into applause and cries of “Brava!” as she finished. Isabella saw that even Mac was entranced, his usual sardonic expression replaced by one of appreciation.
Oh, why couldn’t she keep her eyes off the blasted man? She didn’t believe for one minute his glib explanation that he’d come to report that he’d spoken to the police. A note informing her would have sufficed. No, Mac had come to torment her, to demonstrate that she could shut him out of her life only when he chose to let her. He’d proved that even her devoted butler couldn’t bar him from the house.
Mrs. Monroe’s performance ended, and the audience descended upon her. The plump young soprano would now be a success. Isabella handed her off to her admirers and glanced at the seat Mac had occupied. He’d disappeared.
. Knowing Mac roamed the house but not where was rather like having a wasp loose in the place. Keeping an eye on it before the servants could arrive to chase it out was essential.
“You have a gift for discovering rare talent, Isabella.”
Isabella dragged her gaze from the crowd and focused with difficulty on Ainsley Douglas, an old school friend from Miss Pringle’s. Ainsley still wore black for her husband dead these five years, but the beauty of her fair hair, pink cheeks, and gray eyes hadn’t dimmed.
“She will do well, I think,” Isabella answered distractedly, still looking for Mac.
“I thought you might like to know, Isabella. I spoke to your mother yesterday in the Burlington Arcade.”
Isabella snapped her attention back to her. Ainsley regarded her with a neutral look, aware that too many guests hovered near, but then Ainsley had always been excellent at subterfuge. Whenever Miss Pringle’s cook had demanded to know who had raided the buttery the night before, no one could look more innocently surprised than Ainsley. She was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies now, but her eyes still hinted at the mischievous tomboy she’d been.
“My mother?” Isabella asked, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Yes. And your sister, Louisa.”
Ainsley’s gray eyes were sympathetic, and Isabella swallowed a lump in her throat. Isabella hadn’t been allowed to see or speak to her mother and younger sister since the night of her debut ball and subsequent elopement. For more than six long years, her father had forbidden her all communication with the family, even after she’d stopped living with Mac.
“How are they?” she managed.
“Quite well,” Ainsley said. “They are looking forward to Louisa’s come-out in the spring.”
An ache burrowed into Isabella’s heart. “Yes, I’d heard Louisa is due to make her bow. She is seventeen now, time enough.”
“Eighteen, your mother said.”
Isabella’s breath caught on a sob. Eighteen already. Isabella had lost track, which hurt her all the more.
She remembered with clarity the afternoon of her fateful coming-out ball. Louisa had helped Isabella dress, spinning dreams of what she’d do at her own debut ball, crying because she was too young to attend Isabella’s.
Louisa would be the girl in white now, with pearls around her throat. Gentlemen would scrutinize her, deciding her worth as their bride.
“I’m sure she’ll be a success, Isabella,” Ainsley said. “Louisa is so very lovely.”
On impulse, Isabella reached for Ainsley’s hands. She had no idea how to ask without sounding desperate, so she took a breath and simply asked. “When you see Louisa again, will you tell her how proud I am of her? Not within my mother’s hearing, of course.”
Ainsley smiled. “Of course I will.” She squeezed Isabella’s hands. “And I will bring you any message she wishes to send. Your mama doesn’t need to know a thing.”
Isabella breathed a sigh. “Thank you, Ainsley. You were always good-hearted.”
“Despite what the others said?” Ainsley’s smile turned wicked, and she wound her fingers through Isabella’s in a complicated pattern they’d come up with at the academy. Isabella started to laugh. “Miss Pringle’s ladies are ever loyal,” Ainsley said.
They shared another laugh, and Ainsley flowed back into the crowd toward where her brother and his wife stood with the press of Mrs. Monroe’s admirers.
Isabella suddenly could stand the crush no longer. She hurried to the door at the rear of the drawing room and plunged into the shadowed back hall. She had ordered the lights to be left off there and on the upper staircase, to discourage the guests from wandering the house. The quiet here was soothing, and she drew a breath of relief.
A movement caught her eye at the top of the stairs, followed by a whiff of cigar smoke. Isabella pressed her lips together, gathered her skirts, and mounted the stairs.
She moved around the landing to the man lounging against the railings, but as she neared, she realized that two figures stood there. Two cigar ends glowed with light, illuminating not only Mac but his tall and spare nephew, Daniel.
Isabella’s skirts swished as she released them. “Good heavens, Daniel, how did you get here? What are you even doing in London?”
“I asked him the same question,” Mac said, his voice deceptively mild.
“Before or after you gave him the cheroot?”
Mac raised his hands. “Not guilty.
gave a cheroot to
Isabella ignored him. “Daniel, you are supposed to be with Cam’s professor, taking extra study.”
“I know, but I couldn’t stick it.” Of all the Mackenzies, Daniel had least let English public schools dim his Scots accent. “The man is daft, and it’s bloody unfair that I’m imprisoned in Cambridge while Da’ does th’ St. Leger.”
“Your Da’ is here in London,” Isabella said.
A furious puff on the cigar. “I know. Uncle Mac just told me. Why’s he here? He’s no business traipsing to London when the races are about to start.”
Isabella frowned at his cheroot. “You are too young for that.”
“I’m fifteen. Besides, Da’ gives them to me. He says I need to learn the bad habits of gentleman right away so I won’t seem prudish when I’m older.”
“Perhaps Uncle Mac should have a word with your Da’.”
Mac backed away in surrender, the cigar held between two fingers. “Uncle Mac should stay the hell out of Cameron’s business. If my brother wants to spoil his son rotten, who am I to stop him?”
“But he don’t spoil me rotten,” Daniel protested. “He locks me up with an old man who can barely speak and who makes me read dull books in Latin all day. It’s not fair. Da’ was bad as bad could be when he was a lad. They still talk about wha’ he got up to at Harrow. Why can’t I be like him?”
“Perhaps Cameron has realized that being bad didn’t pay,” Isabella said.
Daniel snorted. “Not bloody likely. He’s still as bad, and now there’s no one to stop him.” His look turned pleading. “Can I stay here with you, Auntie? Please? Just until the races? If I stay with Uncle Mac, Da’ will find me and give me a thrashing. You won’t tell on me, will you?”
Though it was practiced, Daniel’s pleading touched Isabella’s heart. Cameron carelessly shuttled the lad between school and the Mackenzie brothers’ houses, not always having time for his son. Daniel was a lonely young man. But that did not mean that Daniel should be allowed to run wild, that Isabella should condone him disobeying his father. “I ought to say no.”