The clock ticked away slices of the night: eight, nine, ten, eleven. At midnight, Evans stood on the landing with her arms folded, her way of indicating that she thought her mistress should be in bed.
"Not until I hear word from Mac," Isabella said. "Not until then."
By three o'clock, Isabella's body drooped, though her thoughts still spun with agitation. When she found herself being supported by Evans, she succumbed and allowed herself to be put to bed.
She'd let herself sleep, she told herself. When she woke, Mac would be home. Or at least have sent a message.
It was strange, Isabella reflected as she curled up under the covers, that earlier in their marriage, when Mac had not turned up at home at his usual time, Isabella had never worried. She'd been annoyed, yes, but never seriously concerned. She'd known that he was simply out with his friends or had run off to Italy or some such place and that he or Bellamy would send word to her sometime.
Tonight was different. A dangerous man stalked them, and Isabella's worry kept her awake. Something new had begun between her and Mac, a deeper understanding, a deeper knowledge of each other. Their new relationship was fresh and fragile, and Isabella feared to lose it.
No, to be honest, she feared to lose Mac himself, no matter what was between them. She loved him. Losing him would put a hole in her life that nothing could ever fill.
Isabella rolled over into the pillow he'd slept on the night before, inhaling his lingering scent, and fell asleep, dreaming of his warm body on hers. She woke to find the sun high and Mac still gone.
TWELVE HOURS EARLIER
Lloyd Fellows allowed Mac to accompany him and his team of constables in the search for Payne. Fellows hadn't wanted to let Mac come with them-Mac knew the inspector would prefer it if Mac stayed the hell out of the way, but Mac couldn't. He simply could not sit at home waiting to hear that Fellows had lost track of Payne again. He wanted Payne caught, dealt with, and out of their lives, to know that Isabella was finally safe.
Mac's Highland ancestors would have gone after the beggar and run him through, then returned home and celebrated with much drinking, dancing, and bedding. Mac could forgo the drinking and dancing, but his blood was up, and he wanted to find the man. He'd deal with him and then spend three days bedding Isabella.
All through the afternoon, he moved with Fellows's constables through Chancery Lane and its environs, beginning with Payne's last known place of residence. Payne had never returned here, but he knew the area, and it was possible that he'd find someplace nearby to hide.
Mac made his way through Fleet Street and down through Temple Bar to the Strand. The traffic was thick, the thoroughfare jammed with carriages. Mac stepped on and off the road, around people, barricades, wagons, horses
. He walked up Southampton Street, which had only a slightly lesser crush, to the wide market at Covent Garden.
They saw no sign of Payne. At least, Mac thought, he had plenty of people guarding Isabella, so even if Payne doubled back to North Audley Street, he'd never get near her. Bellamy might have a bad knee, but he knew how to fight dirty, and he was a dead shot. The man had also talked to his old chums, street toughs, most of them, and had them help him watch the house.
Mac and the constables joined up with the others, continuing to search until the sky was black. The rain poured down, and clocks all over the metropolis struck three. Fellows advised Mac to go home, giving him a look that said he was ready to haul Mac there himself.
Mac conceded and found a hansom cab. He wanted to tell Isabella what they'd discovered-nothing-and then decide what to do.
No, truth to tell, Mac wanted to shed his wet clothes and slide into bed next to Isabella, letting her warm him with her soft body. Damn Payne; Mac refused to let the man disrupt his life.
He sank into a half-doze as the hansom took him home, imagining how he'd kiss Isabella's skin and feel her fingers glide down his torso to the c**k that hardened at the thought. Isabella's touch was skilled. She knew how to stroke him, how to glide her fingers around the tip and back down the shaft, slowly bringing Mac to the ready, but never letting it finish too quickly. Sweet, sweet woman.
A wash of chill rain filled the hansom, and Mac snapped his eyes open. A dark figure climbed into the cab and slammed the door.
Mac let out a roar and lunged for him, wanting nothing more than the feel of the man's throat under his hands. A cold ring touched his face, the end of a pistol barrel. Payne regarded Mac over the revolver, a Webley, Mac thought distractedly, the kind Hart liked. Payne's eyes were wide, dark, and full of fury that matched Mac's own.
Mac's heart thumped in rage. Payne would kill him. He didn't fear so much for himself or even for Isabella's safety-she was a sensible woman, and Hart, Cam, Ian, and Bellamy would protect her. What Mac feared was dying without seeing her again.
He wanted so much to see her again.
"I've got you," Payne said. His voice was scratchy and thin. "While you were hunting me, I hunted you."
"How bloody convenient for you," Mac growled.
The pistol dug harder into Mac's cheek. "You will stay the hell away from my wife," Payne said.
Mac's rage rose. "You touch Isabella, you son of a bitch, and I will kill you."
"You are in no position to make threats to me."
"I don't have to be. Even if you shoot me, you can be sure you'll never get away from Hart. He's a f**king obsessed bastard, and he's touchy about people harming his sisters-in-law. You will be praying to have me alive once Hart is on your trail."