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 me 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, relieved 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.