Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 47

Chapter 13
The Lady of Mount Street has packed her things and retreated to the seaside after a sudden illness. Mayfair is the lesser for her departure.
-September 1877
Urgent, Bellamy had said. Damned disaster, Mac thought as he stepped off the stairs.
Hart stood in the ground floor hall with Ian and a woman Mac had never seen before. The grand hall of the Palladian-style house traversed its entire length and was filled with polished wood, oil paintings, and tall windows. The very center of the hall sported a round table with a massive flower arrangement that the staff changed daily. It used to sport a marble statue of an entwined Greek god and goddess by Bernini, but as beautiful as it was, Beth had decided that flowers would be less shocking to ladies who might pay calls there. The Bernini now resided in Hart's private suite upstairs.
Mac doubted that the woman had come to call on Beth or Isabella. She was thin to the point of emaciation and wore a dark brown dress, a battered hat, and a cloak that hung loosely from bony shoulders. Her face was worn with care, though she did not look to be much older than Isabella. At her feet, attached to her wrist by a piece of string, stood a tiny girl with bright red hair and brown eyes.
Hart spoke to the woman in French. Ian stood next to them, his hands behind his back, rocking slightly on his heels as he did when he was distracted or upset.
Mac closed the shirt Bellamy had tossed at him over his bare torso and approached them. "Hart? What do you want? Who is she?"
The look Hart turned on him could have punched a hole in a stone wall. Hart's eyes, golden like an eagle's, always had a predatory bent, and at the moment they were filled with fury.
"I give you free rein because I'm no saint myself," Hart said in a tight voice. "But I do not like lies."
"Lies? What lies? What the devil are you talking about?"
Ian cut him off. "She claims the child is yours. She is wrong."
"Of course she's wrong," Mac said in astonishment. "I've never seen the woman before in my life."
The young woman watched their conversation with uncomprehending eyes, looking anxiously from one brother to the other.
Mac addressed her in impatient French. "You've made a mistake, Madame."
She gave him an anguished look and started babbling. Of course she had not mistaken Mac Mackenzie, the great Scottish lord who had been her lover for years in France. Mac had left his wife for her, but disappeared a year after their little girl had been born. She'd waited and waited for him to return, then she grew ill and too poor to care for little Aimee. She'd traveled all the way to Scotland to find Mac and give Aimee to him.
Mac listened in growing amazement. Hart's face was set in anger, and Ian stared at the floor, fist tucked under his chin .
"I swear to you, Hart, I have no idea who she is," Mac said when the woman's speech wound down. "I have never bedded her, and this girl not my child."
"Then why the hell is she saying she is?" Hart demanded.
"How the devil should I know?"
Mac heard a light step behind him and a rustle of silk, and he closed his eyes. Damnation.
He opened them again to see Isabella gliding down the last flight of stairs She was fully dressed, every ribbon tied, every button buttoned. The only sign of dishevelment was her hair, which had been brushed into a ponytail that hung down her back. Isabella didn't say a word to the brothers but headed straight for the fragile young woman.
Hart stepped in her way. "Isabella, go back upstairs."
"Do not tell me what to do, Hart Mackenzie," she said crisply. "She obviously needs to sit down. Can one of you men be prevailed upon to ring for tea?"
"Isabella." Hart tried his stern tone.
"It is not Mac's child," Ian repeated. "Not old enough."
"I heard you," Isabella said. "Come with me, petite," she said to the woman in French. "We will sit, and you will rest."
The woman stared at Isabella in astonishment as Isabella put a gentle arm around her shoulders. She let Isabella lead her a few steps before she put her hand to her belly and collapsed to the floor.
Mac shouted at Bellamy, who'd been heading for the servants' hall in response to Isabella's command. "Never mind the blasted tea, Bellamy. Send for a doctor."
He helped Isabella lift the woman and get her to a settee. The woman gazed at Mac in terror, but Isabella spoke quietly to her. "It will be all right, Madame," she said. "A doctor will come. You will rest."
The woman began to weep. "An angel. You are an angel. My poor baby."
The child, watching her mother collapse, hearing the men shout, and being no fool, realized that something dreadful was taking place. She did what all children would do in such a situation-she opened her mouth and started to wail.
The woman's weeping escalated. "My poor baby! What will become of my poor baby?"
Ian turned his back on them all and rushed up the stairs, passing Beth, who was coming down, as though he didn't see her. Beth blinked at Ian's retreating back then paused to debate which way to go-up or down.
She decided on down. Beth went to the little girl and lifted her into her arms.
"Hush now," she said in French. "No one will hurt you. See, here is Maman."
Beth carried the child to her mother, but the young woman didn't reach for her baby. She was sitting back against the cushions as though she hadn't sat on something soft in a long time, if ever.

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