Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 73

"That is kind, but . . ."
"Mother." Isabella sat at Lady Scranton's side, still holding her hand. "This is no time for politeness, and Mac isn't being polite. I know Papa was ruined. I know the creditors are busy taking everything. I know there isn't money even for a proper funeral."
Her mother's face crumpled. "I have a small widow's portion-so the solicitors tell me. In a trust."
"The creditors might find a way to take that too," Mac said in a gentle voice. "Do nothing until you know, and let me worry about your expenses."
"I can't. Isabella, your father would never have wished that I be on your charity."
Isabella rubbed her mother's hands, which were cold through her lace gloves. "Of course he never meant for you to be on anyone's charity. He lost his money trying to make a fortune for you. But we're family. It isn't charity at all. It's what families do."
Pride warred with desperation in Lady Scranton's eyes. Isabella saw that her mother did not want to be dependent on Mac, but also that Lady Scranton had been raised in a world in which she'd always been taken care of. A fortune wiped away with a stroke of a pen was not part of her understanding. Neither was a husband wrenched from her by a sudden illness. Isabella's mother's back was straight, her posture always perfect, but she trembled like a sapling in a storm.
"Isabella, I don't know what to do," she whispered.
"My dear lady," Mac said, rising. "You do not have to do anything. You sit and have a chat with Isabella, and I will rush about the City putting everything right. By this time tomorrow, all will be well."
Lady Scranton drew a shuddering breath as she looked up at him. "Why? Why would you do this for me? Lord Scranton refused to let your name even be mentioned in this house."
Smiling his most charming smile, Mac lifted Lady Scranton's limp hand in his. "I do it because I love and cherish your daughter." He leaned and kissed Isabella's cheek, letting his lips linger on her skin. "Stay with her until I return," he murmured.
He squeezed Lady Scranton's hand again, let himself out of the house, and was gone.
"What will he do?" Lady Scranton asked in trepidation.
"Exactly what he said he would," Isabella said, knowing the truth of her words. "You can put your trust in Mac, Mama. The man does drive me mad, but one thing he is very good at is taking care of people. He has proved that time and again."
Lady Scranton wiped her eyes on a black lace handkerchief that was nearly sodden. "I thought he would be cold and scornful. I thought he would mock us."
"He is not so unkind as that. He really is quite generous. His entire family is."
"We refused to acknowledge him or your marriage, or even let him speak to us about settlements," Lady Scranton said, sniffling. "We shut him out for stealing you from us . I thought he'd gloat about our ruin, laugh at us when we were forced to live in the gutter."
"Then you read Mac very wrong. He would never do such a thing. And you will not have to live in the gutter." Isabella took her mother's hands again. "Mama, what happened? With Papa, last night, I mean. Can you tell me?"
Lady Scranton looked not so much crushed in grief as very, very tired. "He called me into his study yesterday afternoon and told me he wanted me to take Louisa and go live in Italy, where I would be able to do well on very little. He wanted me to leave then and there, but of course I could not. I asked when he would be joining us, and he said he would not be able to for a long time. He'd stay behind and try to unravel the mess he'd made." A new tear trickled down her cheek. "He pressed me to pack and go at once, but it took too long-so many arrangements had to be made. I heard him downstairs in the night, but he never went up to his bedroom. I grew worried. In the small hours, I crept down again to his study and found him on the floor, his face all twisted. The room was a mess, papers everywhere, a table overturned where he'd fallen. The doctor said he'd had an apoplectic fit. He'd died instantly, apparently. Very little pain. That at least is a mercy."
Isabella put her arms around her mother. "Mama, I'm so sorry."
"God is punishing me, I think. For not having the courage to stand up to your father, for letting him banish you. I went along with it. I refused to see you or let Louisa see you. And now look at me." Fresh tears trickled down her face.
Isabella rocked her. "God isn't as cruel as that; you know that in your heart. Mac told me that Papa had started to lose money a long time ago, when I was still at Miss Pringle's. Everything seemed to go wrong year after year. It was not your fault."
Lady Scranton raised her head. "Then why didn't he tell me?"
"To spare you the worry, I imagine. He was struggling to get the money back so he wouldn't shame you."
Her mother shook her head. As Isabella held her close, she thought of things Mac had told her that she could never explain to her mother. It seemed that Lord Scranton had gone into considerable debt to give Isabella her coming-out ball, determined that it be the largest and most elegant of the Season. He'd pinned his hopes on pairing Isabella with one of three young men of fortune to whose families Lord Scranton owed a great deal of money. A marriage with one of them would not only wipe out that debt but let Lord Scranton climb out of the slough he'd gotten himself get into. Isabella had destroyed his hopes when she'd slipped away with Mac to marry him. The fathers of the other three gentlemen had been very angry and demanded that Lord Scranton repay them immediately.

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