Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 49

Ian glanced up. "But you are not."
"No, I'm not. Hart thinks me a liar. God knows what Isabella thinks."
"Isabella believes in you."
Mac looked back at his brother and realized that Ian looked directly into his eyes. He warmed. The times Ian managed to do so were precious. And Ian believed Mac, knew in his heart that Mac wasn't lying. Doubly precious.
Ian blinked and became absorbed in the bricks again, the moment gone.
A peculiar odor began to waft through the room. Both men looked at Aimee, who picked up a block and tried to stuff it into her mouth.
Mac grimaced. "Time to find the women, I think."
"Yes," Ian agreed.
The brothers scrambled to their feet. Aimee rocked forward on her hands and boosted herself to her chubby legs, still clutching the block. She held up her arms for Mac.
Ian's glance was evasive, but an amused smile hovered around his mouth. Mac picked up Aimee, who now exuded a sour smell. She happily played with the block as the two men went through the house desperately seeking someone female.
The local doctor came and stayed with the Frenchwoman a long time. Whenever Mac looked into the spare bedroom, he found his wife sitting at the woman's bedside or helping the doctor.
Aimee did not want to let Mac out of her sight. One of the maids, a sunny-faced Scotswoman with five children of her own, cheerfully washed the child and changed her dressing, but Aimee cried when Mac tried to leave the room and only quieted when he picked her up again. For the rest of the day, whenever Mac tried to leave Aimee with Beth, or the housekeeper, or the sunny-faced maid, the little girl would have none of it. Mac fell asleep that night fully clothed on top of his bed with Aimee lying on her stomach next to him.
In the morning, still exhausted, Mac carried Aimee out to the terrace. The wind had turned cold, winter coming early to the Highlands, but the sun was bright in a cloudless sky. The housekeeper brought out a little chair for Aimee and helped Mac bundle her up against the cold. Aimee fell asleep in the sunshine, while Mac perched himself on the low stone balustrade and looked across the gardens to the mountains beyond, their knifelike wall bounding the Highlands.
He heard Isabella's step on the marble terrace behind him but didn't turn. She came to the balustrade and stopped next to him, gazing at the beauty of the landscape.
"She died in her sleep," Isabella said after a time. Tiredness clogged her voice. "The doctor said she had a cancer that spread through her body. He was surprised she'd lived this long. She must have kept herself alive to get her child to safety."
"Did she ever tell you her name?" Mac asked.
"Mirabelle. That's all she would say."
Mac studied the artificially shaped beds of the garden . Soon the fountains would be drained to keep them from freezing, and the beds would be covered with snow.
"I believe you, you know," Isabella said.
Mac turned to look at her. Isabella wore a gown of somber brown this morning, but it shone richly in the sunlight. She stood like a lady in a Renoir painting, regal and still, the light kissing her hair and playing in the folds of the fabric. Her face was pale from her sleepless night but chiseled in beauty.
"Thank you," Mac said.
"I believe you because Mirabelle struck me as being a timid rabbit. She told me she'd done everything she could to keep from coming to find you, that she wouldn't have left Paris at all, but she grew desperate. She was terrified-of me, of you, of this place." Isabella shook her head. "Not your sort of woman at all."
Mac raised his brows. "And if she had been, as you say, my sort of woman?"
"Even if she'd been a plucky young woman ready to put you in your place, you'd never have left her destitute, especially not with a child. That isn't your way."
"In other words, you have no confidence in my fidelity, only in my generosity and taste in females."
Isabella shrugged. "We've lived apart for more than three years. I walked away from you, requested a separation. How can I know whether you sought pleasure elsewhere? Most gentlemen would."
"I am not most gentleman," Mac said. "I did think of it-to make myself feel better or to punish you, I'm not certain which. But you'd broken my heart. I was empty. No feeling left. The thought of touching anyone else . . ."
Mac's friends had viewed his celibacy as a joke, and his brothers had thought he'd been trying to prove himself to Isabella. Proving himself had been part of it, but the truth was that Mac had not wanted another woman. Going to someone else wouldn't have been comfort, or even forgetting. Mac had lost himself when he'd married Isabella, and that was that.
"The father must have been him," Isabella said. "The man who sold those forged paintings to Mr. Crane, I mean."
"I drew the same conclusion. Damn it, who is this bugger?" Mac scowled at the landscape. "When I carried Mirabelle up the stairs, I saw her realize that I wasn't the same man. But she never said a word-did she mention anything to you or Beth?"
"Of course not. Think, Mac. If you were a penniless woman, knowing you were dying, would you rather leave your child with the wealthy brother of a duke or confess your mistake and have said child tossed into the gutter?"
Mac conceded the point. "Aimee won't be tossed into the gutter. She can be fostered with one of the crofters. Our ghillie's wife loves children and has none of her own."

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