Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 86

"Mac, shut up." Tears were streaming down her face. "Cease talking and stay alive for me. Please."
Mac sank into the warmth of her body, even as Cameron's strong arm supported him on his other side.
"Anything for you, Isabella, love," Mac said. "Anything at all. You just ask me."
"I love you, Mac."
Mac turned his head and kissed her smooth cheek. Did anything smell better than this woman, so warm and sweet? "I love you, my Isabella." He sighed. "I do believe I will lose consciousness now."
The last thing he remembered was Isabella's lips in his hair, her soft voice saying over and over that she loved him.
Isabella sat in Mac's studio in her black dress with her hands in her lap. A bowl of yellow hothouse roses rested on a table next to her, a mix of rosebuds, full-blown flowers, and those that had already started dropping petals.
Mac was half-hidden behind his large easel, his painting boots and strong legs showing below the canvas, his formidable frown and red kerchief above it. He held the palette against his bare, tight arm, and scowled at the canvas as he slapped on paint. He still wore a bandage on his side where the bullet had barreled through his flesh, but he was healing well. A strong constitution, he'd said with a shrug. That was Mac, careless about the most important things.
Isabella's limbs had grown at bit stiff with the sitting, but she knew better than to move. Mac might be focusing on one crook of her finger, and if she shifted, it would break his concentration. A petal fell from a flower, and she silently admonished it.
Mac lowered his brush and stepped back. He studied the painting for a long time, so long, frozen in place, that worry gnawed at her. She jumped up, damn the pose.
"Mac, what is it? Is it the pain?" She knew he hadn't quite finished healing, no matter how robust he pretended to be.
Mac didn't answer, his gaze fixed on the painting. Isabella glanced at it in curiosity, but she could see nothing wrong with it. It was a Mac Mackenzie painting, muted browns and blacks highlighted with brilliant tones of red and yellow. Isabella sat a bit primly, her coppery curls piled high on her head, one ringlet drooping down her cheek. A little smile hovered about her mouth, and her eyes sparkled with good humor. The painting wasn't finished, but already it glowed with life.
"It's lovely," she said. "What is the matter? Do you not like it?"
Mac turned to her, a strange look in his eyes. "Not like it? It's bloody wonderful. It's the best thing I've ever done."
Isabella made her voice light. "What, even more than the erotic pictures?"
"Those were different . This . . ." Mac pointed at the painting with the handle of his brush. "This is beauty."
"I'm pleased that your high opinion of yourself has returned."
Mac dropped the brush and caught her shoulders, never mind that he smeared yellow paint on her black gabardine. He studied her intently, the strange look still in his eyes.
"My love, Ian told me right after your father died that I needed to bare my soul to you. Well, here it is, the good and the bad of it." He pointed to the portrait. "That's my soul right there, crying out for you."
Isabella looked at it again. The woman who was herself through and through smiled out at Mac.
"I don't understand. It's just a picture of me."
"Just a picture." Mac laughed, but tears wet his eyes. "It is just a picture. Of you. Painted by me, with love in every stroke." He drew a breath. "That's what I didn't understand before. This is why my talent went away and now has come bursting back."
He looked so joyous that Isabella wanted to kiss him, but she still didn't understand. "Explain?"
"I can't, love. I always thought my ability came from astonishing luck, or a drunken stupor, or lust for you. When I painted the erotic pictures, I assumed they came out well because I wanted you so much."
She shot him a sly look. "But you discovered you didn't want me so much?"
"No, I want you all the damn time." His fingers went to the nape of her neck, caressing, warming, loosening her.
"You were explaining."
He smiled. "It wasn't the lack of drink that took away my ability, love; it was my own bitterness. I know that now. Once I sobered up I couldn't shut out my anger at you for leaving me, and at myself for causing it. I buried my love, because it hurt me too damn much to feel it. And my paintings were awful. When I decided to let myself love you-just love you, what you are, no matter what you thought of me, it came flooding back." Mac drew another shaking breath. "I think I can paint anything now."
Isabella's heart squeezed with sudden happiness, but she said, "There's a flaw in your reasoning."
"Can't be. It's what I feel."
She shook her head. "You painted beautifully before you ever met me. I've seen your paintings from that time. They are excellent. Don't pretend they're not."
"I think then I was in love with life itself. I was young, out from under my father's fist, finally free of him. I could do anything I pleased. But then I met you, and my world came crashing down."
Isabella wished she could fix this moment in time, with Mac's body hard against hers, his eyes filled with naked emotion.

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