"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 br**sts 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 bu**ocks, 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 br**sts, 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."