"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 only, 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.
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."