Isabella had never clung, never played games with tantrums and tears. She was a woman, not a girl, and could have brought his father to his knees with one scornful look.
I need that letter, the whimpering boy inside him cried.
Or did he? For one thing, every word of the damn thing was seared into his memory. For another, he'd done it: Mac had stopped living in a frenzy. He'd lived the wild life, he now knew, because he feared that he'd have to face his true self if he ever ceased drinking, painting, running, always running away.
"What are your feelings now?" Mac asked her.
Isabella kept her gaze averted. "I was harsh three years ago," she said. "I was tired and miserable and angry and afraid. I kicked you away because I couldn't face what I needed to while I was distracted with you."
"I distracted you, did I?" Mac wanted to laugh. "A kind word for it."
"You needed me to forgive you. You demanded it, and I no longer had the strength."
"I had no business demanding anything of you. I told you that before, remember? I humbly apologized, and I still do. I mean it."
"I know." Isabella finally looked at him, and he saw anxiety in her eyes, as though she worried that he wouldn't forgive her. "I did forgive you. I knew about everything you did after I left you. Ian reported to me-and when Ian makes a report, you can be sure I hear every detail."
They both smiled a little. Ian had the kind of mind that could remember a list of numbers three months after he'd seen it, or every word of a conversation from the previous week even when no one had thought him listening.
"So, where are we now?" Mac asked. "I'm a responsible teetotaler who's adopted a child, but you married a carousing, carefree, wild cad. Will you even like the Mac Mackenzie I've become?"
Isabella reached for his hand. "You . . . I don't know how to put this, but you're the real you now, I think. You've lost all the things you hid behind. As though you're naked and unafraid."
Mac squeezed her fingers. "I could be naked, if you like. It's warm enough in here."
"But there are things about the other Mac I still love," Isabella went on. "I love your humor, your ability to render things harmless by laughing at them. I love your charm. When you were playing with the band on the street corner, you rose to the occasion with aplomb and made your friends look like idiots for ridiculing people. I was so proud to be your wife that night."
Mac kissed her fingers. "You know, the sergeant said I was welcome to canvass with them any time. Then you can show me again how proud you are of me."
"And I love how you turn anything we talk of into a game of seduction
"Now, that is good to know."
"It makes me feel wanted and loved." Isabella covered his paint-smeared hand with both of hers. "I'm willing to try to be your wife again."
Mac's heart thumped so hard he could barely breathe. Never mind the damn letter. Having Isabella herself was hundred times better. "What do you mean by that? Exactly. Be precise. Be as precise as Ian would be. I don't want to misunderstand. Misunderstanding would make me hope, and I can't live on false hope."
Isabella stilled his lips with her fingertips. "I mean that I'm willing to try to live as your wife, to see how we rub along. No more games. Just life."
"Try." Mac kissed her fingers before she lowered them. "Only try? Not-yes, Mac, please reverse the separation and we'll live happily ever after?"
"No hurrying. Living together as man and wife. If we both truly have changed, if we are able to settle down and trot along happily together, then we summon Mr. Gordon and have him attend to the legal matters."
While part of Mac rejoiced at her words, another part chafed in impatience. He wanted this done, finished, so that the gnawing in his belly could go away, and he wouldn't wake up in terror that she'd be gone again.
Still another part of him felt a twinge of guilt. He'd started to show her his soft underbelly with the letter, but she'd cut him off before he could do much more. The letter was only part of it. She was wrong; he was still hiding, and she was praising him for it.
He gave her a wicked smile, the wretch inside him banished again. "You wish to live together as man and wife, eh? My deliciously scandalous lady." He grasped her hand and pulled her to him. "I'll agree to your terms. For now. Not exactly the dazzling romance I had in mind, but I'll take it."
"I'd like to try for a baby."
Her words washed more hope through him. Isabella had been so terrified to conceive again after her miscarriage that they'd ceased sleeping in the same bed together. Mac had understood and wanted to give her time, but keeping away from each other had put even more strain on their already strained marriage.
"That sounds a fine idea," Mac's mouth said while his head rang with jubilation. "We've been doing quite a bit of trying already. Something may come of that."
Isabella shook her head. "I had my courses when we were in Kent."
"Mmm." Mac strove to suppress his sudden and acute disappointment. "Well, my sweet, we'll simply have to try harder." He touched a silken curl on her forehead. "And often. Much, much more often."