"This appears to be it."
"Will you read it to me?" she asked.
His false cheerfulness died. "Why?"
"I'd like to remember what I wrote."
Why the hell should she want that? Was she demanding, like Ian, that he expose his soul? Perhaps, but Mac felt as closed-off from her as ever as he unfolded the paper.
The words she'd written had burned into his heart like fine lines etched into metal. Mac didn't truly need to read the letter, because he'd memorized every damned word of it. But he dutifully began.
Isabella shifted slightly, and Mac cleared his throat.
I love you. I will always love you.
But I can live with you no longer. I've tried to be strong for you, for three years I have tried. I have failed. You tried to remake me in your image, dear Mac, and I tried to be what you wanted, but I no longer can. I am sorry.
I want to write that my heart is breaking, but it is not. It broke some time ago, and I have just now realized that I can leave my heartbreak behind and go on.
The decision to live without you was a painful one and not lightly made. I realize you can legally cause me much harm for taking this step, and I ask you, for the love we once shared, not to. It could be that I will not need to leave forever, but I know that I need time apart, alone, to heal.
You have explained that you sometimes leave me for my own good, so I will have a chance to recover from life with you. Now I am doing the same, leaving so that both of us have a chance to breathe, a chance to cool. Living with you is like being with a shooting star, one that burns so brightly that it scorches me. And I am watching the star burn out. In the end, Mac, I fear there will be nothing left of you.
I know you will be angry when you read this, because you can grow so angry! But when you stop being angry, you will realize that my decision is sound. Together, we are destroying each other. Apart, I can remember my love for you. But you are burning me. You have exhausted me, and I have nothing left to give.
Ian has agreed to bring this letter to you, and he will inform me of what steps you decide to take. I trust Ian to help us through. Please do not try to seek me yourself.
I love you, Mac. I will always love you.
Please be well.
By the time he finished, Mac no longer looked at the letter but at her. Isabella turned away, lashes shielding her eyes. She moved to the window, a slender, graceful figure in soot black.
Outside on the street, carriages clattered by, coachmen whistled, and people called out to one another. Inside all was stillness. Mac glanced back at the letter, and saw the words he'd read over and over until he knew each by heart, each one stabbing him to the quick.
"Why did you keep it?" Isabella asked without looking at him
Mac swallowed. "Who knows? I've tried to make myself burn it, but always I fold it up and put it back into the box."
Isabella turned and silently held out her hand for the paper. After a tense moment, Mac took it to her.
She unfolded it and skimmed the words. Her mouth tightened as she finished, and then in one short jerk, she tore the paper in half. Before Mac could protest, she moved swiftly to the stove and tossed the letter inside.
Mac was beside her, grabbing her wrist, but too late. "What are you doing?"
Isabella looked at him in surprise. "Why would you not want me to burn it?"
"Because that letter told me how you felt. Your true feelings, in black and white. I needed to know them."
"Those were my feelings then. They are not my feelings now."
The fire crackled as the last of the paper died away. Damn it, the letter had been his lifeline. It had been a reminder of why he'd pushed aside whiskey and wild living, why he'd chosen to reform.
"I read it for comfort," he said. "On the worst nights, when I was tempted to drink to ease the pain, I'd read it over again. And I'd tell you, in my head, that I was working to change-for you. That you didn't need to worry, I wouldn't let myself burn out. I would come back to you a new man."
"How on earth did that comfort you?"
"The letter kept me sober, love. I needed it to."
Was this the naked exposure? Foolish Mac, who'd used a hurtful letter as a prop to get him through the nights?
A part of him was crying out, the terrified boy who'd been caught and beaten when his father had found his copy-books covered with drawings instead of lessons. Mac had been forbidden with threats of more beatings to indulge in art, but try as he might, Mac hadn't been able to stop.
The pictures had poured out of him-birds outside the window, the stream where he fished, his brothers, his mother, even his father. Mac had lived in the shadows of Hart and Cameron, both so much older, both tall, athletic, smart. But the art was his own.
The old duke had considered Mac's need to paint weak and unmanly. When Mac had started taking mistresses at age fifteen, his father had not hidden his relief. I thought you'd be one of those unnaturals, boy. You stick with cunny and br**sts and kill any man who tries to convince you otherwise.
The old duke would have hated Mac now, his son so in love with a woman that he'd changed his whole life for her.
Women are like tar, his father had been fond of saying. Useful in their own way, but they'll mire you fast if you're not careful. They entice with their bodies then bind you with their little tantrums and tears. Take them to your bed and enjoy them, marry the one with the right connections, but above all, keep them in their place.