Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 17

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."
"Mrs. Who?"
"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 .
Botheration. 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."

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