Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 8

"He is. Painting is your life."
No, painting had been his life. Attempting the picture of Molly yesterday had been a complete disaster. The pictures he'd started in Paris this summer had been equally disastrous and had ended up on the scrap heap. Mac had accepted it-that part of his life was over.
"You know I took up painting only to annoy my father," he said, his tone light. "That was a long time ago, and the old bastard is out of reach of my annoying hobbies now."
"But you fell in love with art. You told me that. You've produced some wonderful work, you know you have. You might be dismissive of it, but your paintings are astonishing."
Astonishing, yes. That was what hurt so much. "I've rather lost the taste for it."
"I saw you painting with great energy when I barged in yesterday morning."
"On a picture which, as you rightly pointed out, was bloody awful. I paid Molly for a full sitting and told Bellamy to destroy it."
"Good heavens, it wasn't that bad. A bit odd for your style, I admit."
He shrugged. "I painted it to win a wager. Before I went to Paris, a few fellows egged me to do some erotic pictures, betting that I wouldn't. They said I'd become far too prudish to paint anything naughty."
Isabella laughed out loud, her breath warm in the cool air. It reminded him of how she used to laugh into his skin while they lay together on cold winter nights.
"You?" Isabella said. "Prudish?"
"I took the wager to save my honor, thank you very much, but I will forfeit." Forfeiting rankled, but not because of his pride. Mac had realized yesterday that he wouldn't be able to paint the wretched pictures no matter how he tried. He simply couldn't paint anything at all.
"What happens if you lose?" Isabella asked.
"I don't remember the details. I think I'll have to sing tunes with the Salvation Army band or something equally ridiculous."
Isabella laughed again, the sound silken. "What utter cheek."
"Wagers are wagers, my dear. The wager is all."
"I suppose this is a male ritual I'll never understand. Although at Miss Pringle's Select Academy, we could get up to some fine dares."
Mac leaned his arm on the wall, putting himself even closer to her. "I'm certain Miss Pringle was shocked."
"Not shocked, only cross. She always seemed to know what we were up to."
"The very perceptive Miss Pringle."
"She is highly intelligent. Don't make fun of her."
"Never. I'm rather fond of her. If you are the product of her academy, all young ladies ought to attend."
"She wouldn't have room for them," Isabella said. "That is why it's called Miss Pringle's Select Academy."
This was how it used to be with Isabella, the two of them chattering nonsense while he let the silk of her hair trickle through his fingers . They'd lounge in bed, talking, laughing, arguing about nothing, everything.
Damn it to hell, I want that back.
He'd missed her with his entire body since the moment Ian had handed him the letter. What's this? Mac had asked, not in the best temper-his head aching from a night of drunken debauchery. Does Isabella have you passing billets-doux now?
Ian's golden gaze had slid to Mac's right shoulder, Ian uncomfortable with looking into anyone's eyes. Isabella is gone. The letter explains why.
Gone? What do you mean, gone? Mac had broken the seal and read the fateful words: Dearest Mac. I love you. I will always love you. But I can live with you no longer.
Ian had watched while Mac swept the contents of his painting table to the floor in rage. Once he'd cooled down, Mac had stared bleakly at the letter again, and Ian, a man who didn't like to be touched, had laid his hand on his brother's shoulder. She was right to go.
The weeping came much later, when Mac had drunk himself into a stupor, the letter crumpled on the table next to him.
Isabella shivered suddenly, breaking his thoughts.
"You're cold," Mac said. The temperature had dropped, and Isabella's low-cut gown was no defense against an autumn evening. Mac slid off his coat and draped it around her shoulders.
He kept hold of the edges of the coat while his need for her plucked at him. They were relatively alone and unseen, she was his wife, and he needed so much to touch her. Dancing with her had been a mistake. It had given him a taste of her, and he hungered for much, much more. He wanted to unravel her complicated curls, have her long hair spill over his naked body. He wanted her to look up at him with languid eyes and smile at him, wanted her to lift to his hand as he pleasured her.
Mac had painted her the morning after their hasty wedding, Isabella sitting on the edge of the bed, nude, the sheets tangled around her. She'd been winding her flame-colored hair into a knot, her firm br**sts lifting with her movements. She'd taken that painting with her when she'd gone, and Mac had never asked for it back. He wished he had now, because at least he could look at her, and remember.
"Isabella." The word came out half whisper, half moan. "I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you." She touched his face, her hand cool and soft. "I do miss you, Mac."
Then why did you leave me?
He bit back the words that rose in his mouth. Remonstrations would only anger her, and there had already been too much anger.

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