"Sorry, old man," Mac said. "I came in here, in fact, to bring something to Beth. To cheer her up."
Isabella watched rigidly. She felt a fool now, panicking over Beth while Mac and Ian had kept their heads. She realized that her fear of watching Beth live out Isabella's remembered ordeal had rendered her unable to think or act.
"I adore presents," Beth said, smiling.
Ian propped himself on his elbow as Mac approached, remaining by Beth's side like a protective dragon. Mac took a large sheaf of banknotes from his pocket and laid them on the blanket.
"Your winnings, madam," he said.
"Oh, heavens, I forgot all about them! Bless you, Mac. What a fine brother-in-law you've turned out to be. You fetch me a carriage and a doctor and my ill-gotten gains-all in one afternoon."
"The least I can do for you for looking after my baby brother."
Beth smiled in delight. Mac looked smug, and Ian . . . Ian had lost the train of the conversation and was tracing patterns on Beth's abdomen.
"What about my winnings?" Isabella asked, her voice still shaky.
"I'll distribute those to you outside. Good night, Beth."
Isabella kissed Beth's cheek, and Beth pulled Isabella into a tight hug. "Thank you, Isabella. I'm so sorry I gave you a fright."
"Never mind. You are well. That is the important thing." Isabella kissed her again and left the room through the door that Mac held open for her.
Mac strolled in silence with Isabella down the gallery while the dogs flowed around them, sensing that the crisis was over.
"Well," Isabella said, wishing her cursed voice would stop trembling. "Are you going to give me my money?"
Mac turned her to face him. "Certainly. After I exact my price."
Her heart jumped, and she didn't like that his nearness made her want to melt to him again. Being held by him had felt too good.
"I am hardly a lady of easy virtue, thank you very much. I won't kiss you for a guinea."
"It's one hundred guineas, and that is not what I had in mind." His eyes glinted. "Though it's an interesting suggestion."
Mac put his hands on her shoulders. Warm, sure hands, which burned through her thin gabardine. "My price is that you promise to stop carrying your grief alone. You accused me of self-flagellation, but you've folded in on yourself so tightly you barely let anyone touch you. Promise me you'll cease keeping it to yourself."
Anger rose through her worry. "And who am I to share this painful part of my life with? Who will be willing to listen to me bleat on about my tragedy without feigning an excuse to leave the room?"
Isabella stopped. She opened her mouth to answer, but the lump in her throat wouldn't let her
"It is my tragedy as well as yours," Mac went on in a gentle voice. "When I heard about our baby, I wanted to die. Doubly so, because I was so far away from you. You might have died that night too, and there I was, oblivious and stupid in a Montmartre hotel. Ian never says much, but I know he thought I could do with a few of the tortures he'd endured in the asylum. You thought so too."
Isabella nodded, tears burning her eyes. "But at the same time I needed you so much I didn't care how far Ian had to go to find you."
"Well, he found me," Mac said. He spread his arms. "And here I am again."
"Yes, here you are. What am I going to do with you?"
"I can think of so many things."
The air went still as they regarded each other. The sun warmed Isabella's skin, the last rays shining through the window.
She asked because she didn't know what to do with him springing back into her life. He'd given up drink because of her, and now he was a different Mac-sober, quieter, more cynical, but still with a touch of his old wicked arrogance.
Mac slid his hands around her waist, heating her through her corset. His large body enclosed hers, the strength of his hands both unnerving and comforting. He could easily overwhelm her, take from her what he wanted, and yet he never had. He'd never so much as tried. Not once.
Mac touched her face with gentle fingers. His eyes held no demand, no heat, though she could feel his obvious physical reaction through her skirts.
"I'm here," he said. "You don't have to bear the burden alone anymore."
"For now." Could she have sounded more bitter?
She thought Mac would flinch or grow angry, but he just smoothed her hair. "For always. I'm not leaving you again, Isabella."
"We are separated."
"By legal document. But if you need me-for anything, day or night-you have but to crook your finger, and I'll be there."
She tried a smile. "Mac tied to a woman's apron strings?"
"I'd gladly lash myself to you, love, if you ever wore an apron." He kissed the corner of her mouth, the warmth of his lips burning electricity across her skin. "Especially if you wore nothing but an apron."
Mac could still make her laugh, that was certain. He touched another kiss to her lips, but then the house filled with sudden sound as Cam, Daniel, and Hart entered and started up the stairs to check on Beth, followed by all the dogs. Mac smiled at Isabella, kissed her lips, and turned with her to greet them.
Mac wasn't fool enough to assume that Isabella would welcome him back with open arms after one brief kiss in the sunshine. They'd made a bit of progress, but he knew they had a long way to go.