“That’s all right,” Daniel said cheerfully. “If ye turn me out, I can always sleep in the gutter, or in a bawdy house.”
Mac chuckled softly, and Isabella threw him a glare. “You’ll sleep in my back bedroom at the top of these stairs,” she said severely. “Go on up, and I’ll have one of the footmen make up the bed for you.” As Daniel started a happy jig, she went on. “Only until we go to Doncaster, mind, where I will turn you over to your father. And only if you behave. Any mischief, and I’ll send for him right away.”
“I’ll be good, Auntie. I don’t care if Da’ locks me up with monks afterward as long as I don’t miss the St. Leger.”
“And no cigars.”
Daniel removed the cigar from his mouth and dropped it into an antique porcelain bowl on a side table. “Say, Aunt Isabella, can a pretty maid come up and make my bed rather than a footman?”
“No,” Mac said at the same time as Isabella.
Isabella continued, “I’ll give my maids permission to slap you if you pester them. They work too hard to be annoyed by you.”
“Aw, I was only teasing.” Daniel seized Isabella’s hands and kissed her cheek. “Good night, Auntie. You’re my favorite aunt, you know.”
“I heard you say the same to Beth not more than a week ago.”
“Her too.” Daniel laughed as he charged up the stairs and into the room at the top. He slammed the door behind him so hard the stairs trembled.
Isabella let out a sigh. “He runs more wild each year.”
Mac fished the cheroot from her priceless antique bowl and laid the two cigars on the edge of the table, positioned so they wouldn’t burn the wood. “You’re good for the lad.”
“I’m too soft on him. He needs a firm hand.”
“He needs a gentle one as well,” Mac pointed out.
“I remember the morning after you married me, Daniel came charging into our house in Mount Street and mistook me for one of your models.”
“Aye, I remember boxing his ears for his impertinence.”
“The poor mite. He didn’t know.” Isabella turned to the railing, watching her guests talking and laughing below, wondering why she didn’t want to go back down to them. “He was all of nine years old, seeking refuge because he’d been sent home from school again and was afraid to tell Cam.”
“Spare him your sympathy. The ‘poor mite’ dropped a mouse down my coat to get back at me for the ear boxing.”
“I think perhaps none of you ever grew up.”
“Oh, but we did.”
Mac’s hands came around Isabella’s waist. His warmth covered her back, her bustle bent under his weight, and his lips burned the curve of her neck.
A most lavish soiree held by the Lady of Mount Street Saturday last was marred somewhat by the failure of her Lord to make an appearance. The Lady assured her guests that his Lordship would be only a little late, but it was discovered in the small hours of the morning that he had gone to Rome instead. Perhaps he took a wrong turning?
Isabella closed her eyes, gripping the railing until her fingers ached. “I should go down.”
Mac’s teeth grazed her skin. “They are enjoying themselves on their own. Your task is finished.”
He was right. The crowd had a new focus point—the soprano. Isabella’s mission had been to draw notice to the singer’s talent, and she’d done it. She was the director who could now retire to the wings. An excellent excuse to linger.
As Mac’s hands glided along the satin of her bodice, Isabella’s thoughts fled back through years, to the night she and Mac had hosted their first grand soiree at his Mount Street house. They’d stood like this on the landing while their guests roamed below, eager to see what effect Mac’s marriage had wrought on his bachelor’s abode. Isabella had felt wild and wicked and reckless. All those people, many well-respected members of society, had no idea that she stood in the shadows above, letting her rakish husband put love bites on her neck.
“You still wear yellow roses for me,” he said into her skin.
“Not necessarily for you,” she said faintly. “Redheads can’t wear pink ones.”
“You wear what you please and damn your detractors.” Mac nibbled her earlobe, her earring trickling into his mouth.
It would be easy to give in to him. Easy to let him touch her until she forgot pain and grief, despair and anger, and her burning loneliness.
She’d done it before. She’d smiled at him and welcomed him back after each one of his disappearances, and all would be sunshine between them again. More than sunshine—it had been happiness words couldn’t express, an expanse of joy that tore at her until she’d thought she’d come apart.
Then it would start again. Mac’s nearly obsessive attentiveness would give way to irritation, deteriorating tempers on both their parts. Their quarrels would start small and then escalate into blazing rows. Then more hurting, more sorrow, Mac retreating into drunkenness and wild behavior until Isabella would wake to find him gone again.
Mac pressed a kiss behind her ear, and the memory of the bad times dissolved into pure feeling. His mouth was hot, his clever tongue touching places that he knew aroused her. Below them, guests chattered and talked, unaware of the two in the shadows above. Mac moved his hand to her décolletage, slid fingers inside her bodice.
Isabella leaned back into him, letting him take her weight in his arms while his hard fingertips played with her breast. She turned her head, and Mac caught her lips with his.
Mac had taught Isabella to kiss, taking his time and showing her every technique. He’d begun the lessons on her father’s chill terrace, continued them in the carriage on the way to the bishop’s house. More still on the way back to his own house, while his ring, which he’d slipped on her finger during the makeshift ceremony, had weighed heavily on her hand.
He’d carried her up the stairs to his bedroom and then taught her that her preconceptions of what husband and wife did in bed were all wrong. No lying quietly while her husband took his pleasure with her body, as was her “duty.” No praying it would be over soon. No pain, no fear.
Mac had touched her as though she were an exquisite piece of art, learning her body while he encouraged her to learn his. He’d been so incredibly gentle and loving, and at the same time, wicked. He’d teased her and made her blush, taught her naughty words, and let her explore the hard planes of his interesting body. He’d taken her virginity slowly, never rushing, never hurting her.
He’d had oils that let him slide gently into her, easing her tightness so she could take him without pain. He’d done other things with the oils—used them to glide his hands across her skin, showed her how to use them on
body to bring him to arousal. He’d taught her that he could find exquisite pleasure with her even when he didn’t enter her, and then Mac proved that he could give Isabella the same kind of pleasure in turn.
Isabella had fallen in love with his tenderness as well as his strength, his playfulness as well as the way his smiles died just before his climax came. She’d loved Mac’s laughter, his growls, even his irritation, which could become laughter again in an instant.
Isabella’s gaze strayed to her bedroom door, not five feet from where they stood. Below her, people talked and laughed, oblivious, as Mac’s tongue caught and tangled hers. She craved Mac with everything she had. And the bedchamber was so close.
Mac broke the kiss and stepped back, removing his wonderful warmth. “No,” he said. He drew a shaking breath. “I don’t want this.”
Isabella blinked, the sudden cold on her skin like a slap. “You certainly do want this. Do you wish me to kiss you or kick you away? Please be consistent.”
Mac ran a hand through his hair, his eyes tight in the darkness. “What I want is everything. I refuse to take crumbs.”
Isabella shook her head. “I can’t give you everything. Not now.”
“I know you can’t. But understand this: I want to take you to bed and have you wake up with me, unashamed, no regrets, no tossing me out before anyone catches us. I want your trust, whole and unblemished. I will keep fighting until I have that.”
Confusion made her voice sharp. “And what assurance do I have that you won’t make me deliriously happy and then tear me apart again? Like you did every single time you left and turned up again weeks later, expecting forgiveness?”
Mac stepped to her again, took her face between his hands. “I know what I did to you. And I have punished myself over and over for it, believe me. If it makes you feel better, the months after I’d ceased drinking were hell on earth. I wanted to die, and probably would have expired if not for Bellamy.”
“That does not make me feel better,” she said, anguished. “I hate to think of you like that.”
“Never worry—I learned to drink tea instead of whiskey. I’ve become rather obsessed with tea, in fact. Bellamy finds and brews the best exotic blends. He’s a master.” Mac traced her cheekbone, his thumb a point of warmth. “But I will tell you what makes
feel better. That in the years we’ve been apart, neither of us has turned to another for comfort. That tells me a great deal.”
“It tells me I was too crushed to trust a man with my heart ever again.”
He gave her his breath-stopping smile, and Isabella quailed. Mac always managed to gain the upper hand; how, she did not know.
Yes, she did know: Mac Mackenzie was master at the art of seduction.
“It tells me I still have a chance,” he said. “One day you’ll ask me to stay, Isabella. One day. And I’ll be there for you. I promise.”
Mac released her, and Isabella slammed her arms over her chest. “No. I don’t want to see you again. Do not come back into my house. It’s not fair.”
He laughed. “I’m not interested in being fair. I’m fighting for our marriage and our life. Fair doesn’t come into it.” Mac cupped her cheek again. “But tonight, I’ll leave you to your guests and not scandalize you.”
Isabella drew a sharp breath, not certain whether to be pleased by the development. “Thank you.”
“We’d better go back down before someone happens to notice we’ve both disappeared. Speculation will run rampant. London likes to talk.” Mac adjusted the edge of her décolletage that he’d mussed, the brush of his fingers sending fires across her skin.
He touched her lips again, his eyes full of heat, but he turned her around and let her precede him down the stairs.
When she reached the bottom, the guests in the hall surged around her, and Isabella had to turn and greet them. She saw Mac out of the corner of her eye make his way down the stairs and through the crowd, talking, smiling, shaking hands as though he were still the master of the house. She heard his laughter, and then she was pulled into the drawing room, and Mac was lost to sight. When she emerged much later, to see her guests off, Mac was gone.
The wee hours of the morning found Mac back in his studio. He’d yielded to Bellamy’s annoyed look and stripped out of his evening suit for his kilt again. He tied his red gypsy scarf over his head and started piling colors onto his palette.
Painting was the only thing that relieved his craving for Isabella. No,
was too tame.
Kept it at bay for a few brief moments
was a better description.
The painting he’d done of her sleeping on her side was still wet, and Mac set it carefully on a rack stretched between two tables to dry before he propped another canvas on the easel. For this one he began with charcoal, outlining the picture that came to him in crystal clarity.
Isabella was nude in this one as well. She sat with her legs stretched in front of her, knees slightly bent. She leaned her elbows on her knees, rendering her back a long, bare curve. Her hair partly obscured her face and fell in red rivulets over her skin.
Mac kept the colors completely pale for this one: whites, yellows, and light browns; even her hair was more brown than red, as though she sat in shadow. Mac lovingly stroked the paint across her long legs, her arms, down the length of her back. Curls straggled over her shoulders, hiding all but one firm curve of breast. She was contemplating something on the floor next to her, and Mac painted it in, a half-blown yellow rose.
He was sweating by the time he’d finished, though the room was cold. Mac stood back, breathing hard, and studied what he’d created. The painting sang with life, the simple lines of Isabella’s body exuding beauty, serenity, and sensuality.
Kissing her tonight, feeling her skin under his fingers, breathing her warmth, had ramped up Mac’s desires until he thought he’d die. He’d seen her glance at the door near them on the landing, had guessed that her bedroom lay behind it. It had been all he could do to stop himself snatching her up and running inside it with her, tossing her on the bed and tearing off that beautiful satin gown. He’d done such a thing before, and those times, she’d surrendered to him with laughter.
Mac jammed a brush into dark brown paint and scrawled “Mackenzie” across the bottom. Chasing Isabella to London suddenly seemed very foolish, the way in which Mac was sure to lose the rest of his sanity.