Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 70

Mac handed his cymbals to a fellow band member and strolled the crowd, his tall hat held out for donations. It was one of his best hats, made of brushed fur and lined with silk. The cost of it could easily keep the lady sergeant and her band fed for months.
Mac waved it under the noses of Cauli and Lord Randolph. "Come on then, gentleman, we've had the hymn and the sermon. Time to pass the offering plate."
Randolph and Cauli grinned, thinking it a jest. "Good fun, Mackenzie," Cauli said.
Mac shoved the hat into Cauli's middle. "Dig deep, there's a good chap. Give your cash to the good sergeant instead of wasting it on gambling and drink."
Cauli blinked, dazed. "Dear God, they've got to him. He's joined the temperance movement."
"How the mighty have fallen," Randolph snorted.
"Thirty guineas?" Mac said in a loud voice. "Did you say you were giving thirty guineas? How very generous of you, my Lord Randolph Manning. Your ducal father will be proud. And you too, Cauli? The Marquis of Dunstan donates thirty guineas, ladies and gentleman."
The crowd applauded. Mac kept his hat pressed into Cauli's chest until Cauli sheepishly dropped a handful of notes into it. Randolph glowered, but he added his cash. Mac turned to his next friend.
"Forty guineas from you, the Honorable Bertram Clark?"
Bertram's eyes widened. "Forty? You must be joking."
"I never joke about charity. I am so moved by all this generous giving."
"Yes, I feel a movement coming on myself," Bertram muttered, but yanked out a wad of notes and dropped them into Mac's hat.
Mac moved to Charles Summerville, who quickly paid up without fuss. Mac swung the hat to the other aristocrats his friends had persuaded to accompany them. Some gave, grinning. Others snarled until Mac caught and held their gazes, and they meekly paid up.
Mac had known these men since the faraway days when they'd scrapped and fought at Harrow, establishing a hierarchy that had lasted into adulthood. Mac had been the leader of the troublemaking faction, a group that had fearlessly bullied older boys and tutors; sneaked out of school to drink, smoke, and lose their virginity; and scraped through with marks that barely let them finish. Though some of these men were or would become grand peers of the realm, and Mac was a third son, they still acknowledged him as their superior.
Mac finished his collection, deliberately not seeking out any of the poorer members of the crowd, and took the full hat back to the lady sergeant. Her eyes widened as she viewed its contents.
"My lord-thank you. And thank your friends. How kind they are."
Mac took up his cymbals again. "They are always happy to give to a good cause. In fact, I will make certain that they regularly support you ."
"You are too good to us, my lord."
Mac didn't answer. "More music, sergeant?"
The sergeant brightened and led them off in a rousing rendition of a crowd favorite.
Sweeping through the gates of the new Jerusalem, (Crash!)
Washed in the blood of the Lamb! (Crash! Crash! Crash!)
Mac rolled back to Mayfair in his coach with Isabella seated next to him and Aimee in his lap. His arms hurt from all the cymbal banging, but he felt content and at peace.
And a little bit smug. The look on Randolph Manning's face when he'd been forced to cough up thirty guineas had been priceless. Randolph was notoriously cheap, always touching his friends for money although he had thousands upon thousands tucked away in his bank.
"What is funny?" Isabella asked.
Mac realized he'd chuckled out loud. "Thinking that my friends should know better than to wager with me."
She smiled, her face soft in the carriage's lantern light. "In other words, they thought you'd lost, but you really won?"
"Something like that." He didn't explain that the wager had let him win everything he'd ever wanted. The courting game had given Mac a place to start with Isabella, but if it hadn't been for the silly wager, he'd be a long way from the smile she now bestowed upon him. The wager had not only let him touch her and love her, but also to find the art that once more poured out of his fingers.
"You are a rogue." Isabella leaned her head on his shoulder. The straw of her hat scraped his chin, but he didn't mind. He had a warm, sleeping child on one arm, his wife on his other. What could be better?
He found out later, when Isabella waited for him at her bedroom door as he returned from carrying Aimee to the nursery. Mac decided he didn't give a damn how sore his arms might be as Isabella took his hand and led him inside.
Isabella was surprised the afternoon after Mac's bold debut with the Salvation Army to see her friend Ainsley Douglas stepping out of a coach at the front door, coming to call.
Isabella invited her in and had Morton bring tea. Ainsley had news, Isabella could tell, but neither said anything while Morton delivered the tea tray and three-tiered platter of cakes. Under ordinary circumstances Isabella liked the formality of taking tea, a comfortable ritual that gave even the shiest person words and actions with which to fill in awkward spaces. At the moment, however, she wished the ritual of pouring tea would drop to the bottom of the nearest well.
Ainsley set down her cup as soon as Morton had retreated and closed the pocket doors behind him. She leaned forward, a somber look in her eyes. "Isabella, I am so sorry. I came to warn you, before you read it in the newspapers."

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