Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 77

"I am. When she lets me."
Ian stopped walking, exasperated. "Are you man and wife again or not?"
"I am attempting to explain, brother mine, that I don't know. Sometimes I think so, but other times . . . I rushed her about revoking the separation, and I think that frightened her. I won't make that mistake again."
Ian didn't blink, and even though Ian didn't look directly at Mac, his stare was unnerving. "You are not trying hard enough."
"I am, Ian. I'm trying like the devil."
"You're not showing her your true self, because you fear looking like a fool."
This from a man who could not help but show his true self. Unable to master subtlety or lies, Ian said what was in the front of his mind, nothing more. This unnerved most people, but Beth managed to draw perfect sense from him.
"I did look like a fool," Mac said. "You missed my performance with the Salvation Army band. I was a master cymbal clasher."
"Isabella told me about that. But you did not let yourself be a fool. You make a joke of everything so people will laugh, so you will not have to face what you don't wish to."
"Stop it, Ian. This stark truth is killing me."
Ian ran his gaze up and down Mac's mourning suit. "You see? You are trying to joke again."
Mac lost his smile. "What do you want, Ian? For me to fall at her feet and show her what a pathetic wretch I've become? To expose every raw wound inside me?"
"Yes. Bare your soul. Hart told me what that metaphor meant a long time ago."
"But I don't think Isabella wants that. She wants funny and charming Mac, the Mac who makes her laugh and smile. Not mewling, pathetic Mac."
"Ask her," Ian said.
Mac heaved another sigh. "You're a hard man, Ian Mackenzie."
Ian didn't respond, which could mean that he didn't know what Mac meant, or that he didn't care. Both, probably.
The two of them continued their walk and ended up at the garden behind the house. Isabella stood with her sister and mother and Beth among the flower beds, with Beth holding Aimee. The ladies all wore black, but Isabella was regal and beautiful in it. She had one arm around her mother's waist, the other around Louisa's.
Mac's heart warmed. It had been a sad day, watching Isabella say good-bye to her father, but the fear and worry had left Lady Scranton's face. Isabella glanced up, saw Mac, and sent him a smile.
"There," Mac said to Ian in a low voice. "I'm sorry it took a tragedy to do it, but Isabella has been reunited with her family. Sins forgiven. Even if we are never truly man and wife again, seeing her as she is now, with her arms around the people she loves, is enough for me."
Ian looked at Mac in silence for a long time . "No, it isn't," he said.
He walked away from Mac and made for Beth and her welcoming smile.
Mac thought about Ian's words as they concluded their visit to Kent and returned to London. Louisa elected to stay with their mother and get her settled, not wanting to leave Lady Scranton alone too soon. Isabella had already asked them to travel with her when she went back to Kilmorgan for the Christmas season. Lady Scranton at first had been reluctant, but Mac had been at his most jovial and talked her into it. Isabella had given him a smile of gratitude for that too.
But Ian was right. Gratitude was not enough.
Exposing his soft underbelly was not something Mac was used to doing. Mac had thought he'd done it already, telling her about the terrible time he'd spent in Italy after he'd decided to give up drink. He realized now that he'd told her that to not only gain her sympathy, but prove that he took their marriage seriously. He hadn't actually showed her the entire wreck of a man that was Mac Mackenzie. Isabella might cheerfully grind her elegant, high-heeled boot into that wreck and walk away from him, but he had to take that chance.
Thinking about her slender ankles in those high-heeled boots did not help. Nor did thinking of her in nothing but the high-heeled boots.
He was visualizing this pleasant possibility while mixing paints in his studio one day when he heard Isabella walk in. He glanced up from his paint table, and his heart gave the excited twinge it always did when he saw her. She'd dressed today in a black gown trimmed with intricate loops of black braid, her red hair and green eyes startling color against this darkness.
"Mac," Isabella said abruptly. "Did you keep the letter I sent you?"
With effort Mac turned his attention back to his paints. "Letter?"
"The letter I sent you the night I left."
Ah. That letter. Mac kept kneading paint globs to hide his nervous start. "Why would you imagine I still have it?"
"I don't know whether you do. That is why I have to ask."
"You sound like Ian."
"Ian knows how to make people answer him."
Mac laid down his palette knife. "Touché. All right, then. Come with me."
He led her down the stairs to his bedroom. It still was his bedroom; he hadn't slept with Isabella since the night her father died.
Mac opened the wardrobe and extracted the small box that Bellamy had saved from the half-burned house, knowing that Mac kept his most treasured keepsakes in it. He set the box on a console table and opened it. A well-creased letter lay on the bottom, worn with time and reading. Mac extracted it and held it out to Isabella.

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