"And you try to win by shouting about everything but what it is you've done to make me angry in the first place! You decided to revoke our separation without bothering to tell me. Remember?"
Mac couldn't deny the charge. He had hoped to put the revocation through so fast she wouldn't have time to object. No, to be honest, he'd hoped Isabella would give him a big, warm smile and tell him she was glad he'd done it. She would be happy that they were truly together again.
Too fast. He'd rushed in before she was ready.
"Can you blame me for wanting this to be real?" The Scots started to fade as Mac tried to rein in his temper. "Haven't we had enough time apart, Isabella?"
"I don't know."
She was so elegantly beautiful sitting there next to him, her red hair in perfect curls, her jacket hugging her lovely torso. How could any man not want her?
Mac could have divorced her for abandoning him, but he'd decided, even before Gordon advised him, that he'd be damned if he would give the world more food for vicious gossip. Divorce would have made Isabella a ruined woman, vulnerable to any unscrupulous man. And Mac would die before he let any man touch his Isabella. As much as she'd hurt him, Mac was happy to set up Isabella in her own house to live an independent life. He'd protect her from afar, watch over her as well as he could. He loved her enough to do that.
"I think we've spent plenty of time apart," he said.
"But how do I know our time together now won't be the same as it was before?" she asked, anguished. "With you coming and going without a word, you deciding when we'll be together and when I need a rest from you? You don't get to decide everything, Mac."
Mac spread his arms. "Look at me. I'm different now. Never drunk. Home for dinner, in my place for breakfast. No carousing with my friends. I am the model husband."
"Good heavens, Mac. You aren't a model anything."
"I want to be the man you want me to be: sober, dependable, reliable . . . God, all those boring adjectives."
"You think that is what I want?" Isabella asked. "I fell in love with the charming, unpredictable Mac all those years ago. If I wanted dependable and dull, I would have banished you and pursued the men my father had chosen for me."
"You are insanely difficult to please. You don't want the wild Mac, but you don't want the stay-at-home Mac, either? Is that what you are saying?"
"I want you to stop trying to be what you're not. I predict you'll become bored with your new role in a few months' time. You alternately obsess over something and then grow tired of it and forget all about it. Including me."
Mac regarded her in silence for a long moment. She colored under his gaze, but his anger had receded to hollow-ness. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. "You are a fool, Isabella Mackenzie
"What?" She looked hurt.
"You have decided what kind of man I am, which makes it damned difficult to talk to you. You don't believe I can change, but I already have. You simply won't see it."
"I know you stopped drinking. I've noticed that improvement."
Mac laughed. "Stopped drinking? You make it sound so effortless. I was sick and disgusting for an entire year. I hadn't realized how much I'd been using whiskey to blunt the pain of my own existence. I found myself facedown on a hotel room floor in Venice, hurting like hell, praying for the strength to not go in search of wine to ease the agony. I'd never truly prayed before. I was taken to chapel as a boy to mouth prayers, but this time I prayed. It was more like begging, actually. Quite an unusual experience for me."
Isabella listened, her lips parted. "Mac."
"I could tell you tales to make you blanch, my love, but I will spare you. The begging and praying didn't last one night. I did it for many, many nights, never ceasing. And then, just when I thought it was over, and I felt better, another night would come. My friends thought they'd 'help' me from time to time by holding me down and pouring whiskey down my throat. They ceased when I discovered the trick of spewing it back, all over their fine clothes. Eventually, my friends deserted me. Every last man of them."
Isabella's face was white. "They had no right to do that."
Mac shrugged. "They were wastrels and sycophants. Not a true friend among them. There is nothing like hardship to teach you who truly cares for you."
"Did you have no one at all? Oh, Mac."
"I did. I had Bellamy. He made sure I ate food and kept it down; he was the one who realized I could drink tea by the bucketful when water merely made me sick. I became quite the tea connoisseur, even beyond the haughty English who believe their knowledge of tea unsurpassed. An Assam tea brewed with jasmine is quite fine. You ought to try it."
Isabella's eyes were wet. "I'm glad Bellamy took care of you. I will tell him how grateful I am. He deserves a gift. What would he like, do you think?"
"I already gave him a large rise in wages," Mac said. "And I lavish constant praise on him. I worship Bellamy as a god, which, I assure you, embarrasses the hell out of him."
Isabella looked away. She was a regal, proud woman, and his wanting of her consumed every waking moment of his life. Staying away from her had been absolute hell, but when she'd left him, Mac had made himself let her, because she was right. If he'd gone back to her before withdrawal from drink had forcibly reformed him, he would have continued the pattern until he'd driven her so far away he could never have reached her again. Because he'd given her time to heal, he could now sit so close to her and drink in her scent.