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. He gave a cheroot to me."
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."
"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."