"Like you did?" Louisa looked angrier. "You left us, Isabella. You ran away without a word to me. How could you?"
Isabella started at her sudden vehemence. "Louisa, I tried to send word. I wanted to see you, to explain myself, but Papa wouldn't hear of it. He blocked me at every turn, returned my letters to you in shreds. I didn't persist, because I did not want to make trouble for you."
"You could have found some way. But you were too busy being the grand Lady of Mount Street. Oh, yes, I read all the stories in the newspapers, every word of them. Perhaps it's lucky that I'll have no Season, because everyone remembers your scandalous elopement, and they'll speculate on whether I'll run off during my debut ball as well."
"Darling, it was a nine days' wonder, that is all. My true friends saw that I'd made a good match with a good man. I didn't marry Mac to cause a scandal. I married him because I fell in love with him."
"Then why did you leave him?" Louisa fixed her with an accusing glare. "If you loved him so much, and the marriage was so wonderful, why did you run away? Did you send word to him or simply disappear as you did from me?"
Isabella gasped, stung. "Louisa."
"I'm sorry, Isabella. I've been angry at you for so long. If you loved Lord Mac enough to turn your back on all of us, why did you turn your back on him as well?"
Isabella rose swiftly to her feet. "I did not turn my back on you. Papa turned his back on me. He refused me the house. He wouldn't let me speak to you or Mama. Never."
"You could have defied him. You could have found some way around him. Your husband is rich enough-you could have paid Papa's debts and let his pride go to the devil. You didn't come back because you didn't want to."
Tears streamed down Louisa's face. Isabella stared at her, aghast, hating the fact that her sister might be right. Isabella had been so angry at her father that she'd built a wall between her old life and her new. She wondered now if she could have worn down her father's defenses if she'd tried harder. But Isabella had been too hurt by Lord Scranton's fury, too defiant to reason with him. Isabella had loved Mac, still did, and she'd been angry that her parents had not rejoiced in her happiness. Lady Scranton not talking her father 'round had upset her too. And Louisa, caught in the middle, had only seen Isabella walking away from them.
"Louisa, I'm sorry," Isabella whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"Do you love Lord Mac?"
"Yes." Isabella's heart went into the word. "I love him very much."
"Marriage is not simple, I'm sorry to say. There are so many facets to it, and every year brings something new. For the good and for the bad. I suppose that's why the marriage vows say for better or for worse
"But you love him?"
Louisa moved to stand in front of Isabella. They were of the same height now, Isabella's funny little sister all grown up.
"I'm glad," Louisa said. "I'm glad that you found someone to love. Does he love you?"
Isabella nodded, the dratted tears welling in her eyes again. "Yes, he does. Rather a lot, I think."
"Then you were wrong to leave him. Why did you throw that away?"
"Because he didn't love me enough. It is difficult to explain. Mac loved me so intensely that he did maddening things for me and because of me. He'd disappear without a word for weeks, because he thought that would make me happy. He never thought to ask me what would make me happy, or what I needed from him. Mac did everything based on what he felt, never noticing what I felt."
"And that's why you left him?"
"In the end, yes."
Isabella remembered the dark days after she'd lost the baby, the despair she'd felt when Mac finally came home too drunk and crushed himself to comfort her. Everything between them had built and built into a wall of anger and hurt and sadness.
"One day I woke up and saw things clearly," Isabella said, half to herself. "I knew that Mac would never learn to love me without hurting me. I couldn't stay with him while he did the same things over and over again. I no longer had the strength to face him."
"Did you tell him? Give him a chance to try?"
"You didn't see the truth of us." Isabella sighed. "I don't know if you knew this, Louisa, but I was carrying a child, and I lost it. I needed a long time to recover after that ordeal, and Mac couldn't give that to me. He was hurting too, and he didn't know how to make everything all better. That drove him a little insane, I think."
She explained how the physical pain of the miscarriage had given way to months of grief, and then of tiredness. She'd no longer had the energy for the comet that was Mac Mackenzie.
"What about now?" Louisa asked. "I saw him arrive with you today, and my maid says he has been living in your house with you."
Isabella nodded. "Mac has changed. He is calmer-a bit. And he seems to think about things more." She laughed a little. "Usually. He still is impetuous and exasperating. It's part of what makes him so charming, I suppose."
"And you still love him?"
Louisa held her gaze, her look stern. Isabella realized at that moment that it would be Louisa who held the family together after this tragedy. Their mother was too worn down, too uncertain how to live without a cushion of money and security beneath her. Louisa would be the strong shoulder everyone leaned on.