Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 3

Mac looked again at the strip of brilliant yellow on the handkerchief. "How do you know I didn't paint it? Maybe some ungrateful blackguard I gave a picture to sold it to raise money to pay a debt."
"It's a scene from a hill, overlooking Rome."
"I've done many scenes overlooking Rome."
"I know that, but this wasn't one of yours. It's your style, your brushwork, your colors, but you didn't paint it."
Mac pushed the handkerchief back at her. "How do you know? Are you intimately acquainted with all my works? I've painted quite a few Rome pictures since you . . ." He couldn't bring himself to say "since you left me." He'd gone to Rome to soothe his broken heart, painting the bloody vista day after day. He'd done too damn many pictures of Rome, until he'd grown sick of the place. Then he'd moved to Venice and painted it until he never wanted to see another gondola as long as he lived.
That was when he'd still been a debauched, drunken sot. Once he'd sobered up, replacing his obsession for single-malt with one of tea, he'd retreated to Scotland and stayed put. The Mackenzies didn't view whiskey as strong drink-they viewed it as essential to life-but Mac's drink of choice had changed to oolong, which Bellamy had learned to brew like a master.
At his words, Isabella flushed, and Mac felt a flash of sudden glee. "Ah, so you are intimately acquainted with everything I've painted. Kind of you to take an interest."
Her blush deepened. "I see notices in art journals, is all, and people tell me."
"And you've become so familiar with each of my pictures that you know when I didn't paint one?" Mac gave her a slow smile. "This from a woman who changed her hotel when she knew I was staying in it?"
Mac hadn't thought Isabella could grow any more red. He felt the dynamics in the room change, from Isabella in a bold frontal attack to Isabella in hasty retreat.
"Don't flatter yourself. I happen to notice things, is all."
And yet she'd known straightaway that he hadn't painted what she'd seen in Mrs. Leigh-Waters's drawing room. He grinned, liking her confusion.
"What I'm trying to tell you is that someone out there is forging Mac Mackenzies," Isabella said impatiently.
"Why would anybody be fool enough to forge something by me?"
"For the money, of course. You are very popular."
"I'm popular because I'm scandalous," Mac countered. "When I die, the paintings will be worthless, except as souvenirs." He set the slice of paint and handkerchief on the table. "May I keep this? Or do you plan to restore it to Mrs. Leigh-Waters?"
"Don't be silly. I didn't tell her I was taking it."
"You left the painting on her wall with a bit sliced out, did you? Won't she notice that?"
"The picture is high up, and I did it carefully so it doesn't show ." Isabella's gaze moved to the painting on his easel. "That is quite repulsive, you know. She looks like a spider."
Mac didn't give a damn about the painting, but when he glanced at it he wanted to groan. Isabella was right: It was terrible. All of his paintings were terrible these days. He hadn't been able to paint a decent stroke since he'd gone sober, and he had no idea why he'd thought this one would be any better.
He let out a frustrated roar, picked up a paint-soaked rag, and hurled it at the canvas. The rag landed with a splat on Molly's painted abdomen, and brown-black rivulets ran down the rosy skin.
Mac turned from the picture in time to see Isabella swiftly exiting the room. He sprinted after her and caught up to her halfway down the first flight of stairs. Mac stepped around her, slamming one hand to the banister, the other to the wall. Paint smeared on the wallpaper Isabella had picked out when she'd redecorated his house six years ago.
Isabella gave him a cold look. "Do move, Mac. I have half a dozen errands to attend before luncheon, and I'm already late starting."
Mac took long breaths, trying to still his rage. "Wait. Please." He made himself say the word. "Let us go down to the drawing room. I'll have Bellamy bring tea. We can talk about the paintings you think are forged." Anything to keep her here. He knew in his heart that if she walked away from this house again, she'd never return.
"There is nothing more to say about the forged paintings. I only thought you'd want to know."
Mac was aware that his entire household lurked below, listening. They wouldn't do anything so gauche as peer up the staircase, but they'd be in doorways and in the shadows, waiting to see what happened. They adored Isabella and had mourned the day she'd left them.
"Isabella," he said, pitching his voice low. "Stay."
The tightness around her eyes softened the slightest bit. Mac had hurt her, he knew it. He'd hurt her over and over again. The first step in winning her back was to stop the hurting.
Her lips parted, red and lush. Because he was two steps below her, Isabella's face was on level with his. He could close the few inches between them and kiss her if he chose, feel her mouth on his, taste her warm moisture on his tongue.
"Please," he whispered. I need you so much.
Molly chose that moment to climb toward them up the stairs. "Are you ready for me again, yer lordship? You still want me sticking me fingers in me Mary Jane?"

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