Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 84

"You don't care for her. You love yourself too much and care nothing about what she wants, what she needs. That is how I know you are not the true Mac, her true husband. I cherish Isabella. I will keep her and protect her, dote on her. I will worship her as she deserves."
"If you think Isabella wants to be put on a pedestal, you don't know her very well. She likes her independence."
Payne shook his head. "She wants to be cared for, and I will live to care for her. Not to prove to my father that I can make something of myself, not to prove to Hart that I'm not a wastrel. For her. Even my art isn't as important as she is."
Dear God, it was humiliating to hear truths coming out of Payne's mouth. Yes, Mac had tried desperately for years to make his father proud, even when he told himself he cared nothing for it. He'd gone on trying to prove himself to his father even after the man was dead.
He'd even been trying to prove himself to Hart, and to Cam, and to Ian, he realized. His three brothers had turned their obsessions into practical living, while Mac had devoted himself to art for its own sake, as he'd explained to Payne in the hansom. For its own sake? He wondered now. Or had he decided not to try to exhibit or sell his paintings because he feared he'd be a failure?
Isabella had never once thought Mac inadequate.
"I do love her," Mac said, his anger stilling to a point of calm.
"Then why didn't you stay with her? Why did you keep running away, leaving her vulnerable to every man with designs on her? This is how I know I am the real Mac Mackenzie. Because I would never have done those things to Isabella. I'd have treated her like an angel. You never understood what you had in her."
Damn, the man was mesmerizing. Mac needed to concentrate.
"She'll never come to you," Mac said. "She'll know the difference."
Payne rose swiftly to his feet, cocking the revolver. Well done, enraging the madman with the gun.
"She will come. She will come, and she will stay with me."
Isabella, be sensible, don't come. Let me rot.
Payne walked away, his Mackenzie plaid swirling around his knees. Mac's vision began to cloud, and despair washed over him.
He would never see Isabella again. He'd never see her bend over him, her red hair falling to tickle his face, never see her green eyes flash in anger, never smell the attar of roses that clung to her skin. He'd never again touch the petal-soft smoothness of her, never cup the firm perfection of her breast.
His senses drifted, and he was dancing with her again at Lord Abercrombie's ball, when she'd been dressed in the blue satin ball gown with yellow roses in her hair. The beauty of her cut like a knife. She'd talked to him in a voice smooth like fine wine, and he'd drunk her in .
Bare your soul, Ian had advised.
Mac hadn't done it yet. He'd let her love him again, but he'd not surrendered the entirety of himself to her. He knew that, and the knowledge beat at him.
I dragged her off and married her, because if I hadn't simply taken her, if I'd given her the choice, she never would have chosen me.
But Mac had changed. He'd given up everything but moving doggedly through life. For her.
For her? The nagging thing inside asked. Or so that she'd feel sorry for you and acknowledge your martyrdom?
Hell and damn, he couldn't even win an argument with himself.
Isabella, please, I need to see you one more time.
He'd loved the determined and naïve debutante he'd met that first night. He'd loved the young woman she'd become, bold enough to fall into step with Mac's life, putting up with his dissipated friends and his skin-baring models. Mac had loved showing off how well his proper young wife took Mac's scandalous life in stride, and he'd never realized just how strong Isabella had been to do it. Nothing in her upbringing or education at her select academy could have prepared her for someone like Mac, not even the redoubtable Miss Pringle. And yet, she'd done it.
Mac had loved the woman she'd become: admired by society, able to stand on her own and look her neighbors in the face, notwithstanding that her family disowned her and her marriage fell apart. The world hadn't blamed Isabella; they'd blamed Mac.
Perceptive of them.
I want to love you, Isabella. Not as Mac the scandalous, or the reformed Mac, but as myself. The Mac I truly am.
The one who loves you.
I love you, Isabella.
And he'd never have the chance to tell her.
Chapter 22
Delicious rumor puts the Scottish Lord having moved in with his Lady in North Audley Street. The Lord's Mount Street house was sadly burned, but observers say the Lady welcomed him with open arms. They have been seen about Town together in a most friendly fashion.
-September 1881
Time ceased to have meaning. The room gently spun around him, the women who were not Isabella staring down at him in their garish, erotic glory. The artist in Mac whispered that the pictures were quite well done-Payne was exactly the sort of man Mac would have taken under his wing once upon a time, and helped build his career.
No chance of that now, Mac thought dryly.
Darkness came and went, though there was no change in the level of gaslight. The fading was his own vision sliding in and out. Mac had no more feeling in his legs and feet. Payne was going to let him die here.
Mac heard his own voice issue from between his cracked lips.
In bonny town, where I was born.

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