Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 87

"Why did we make ourselves so unhappy?" she asked, half to herself.
"You were an innocent, and I was a debauched rake. I think it was inevitable that it wouldn't work."
Isabella slid her hands across his bare shoulders. His skin was warm and firm, muscles solid beneath it. "You make yourself out to be such a bad man, but you're not. You took care of me from the night you met me, and you've never stopped. You take care of everyone you love."
Mac looked affronted. "I am a debauched rake, my darling. I've spent years cultivating my disreputable reputation. Remember how I taught you to take whiskey neat and sit on my lap and kiss me in front of my friends?" He deflated, the humor leaving him. "I wanted to make you bad like me, because I knew I'd never be good enough for you."
"You were always good enough for me," Isabella said, her heart in every word.
"Sweetheart, you wound me. A rake has his pride." Mac slid her hands from him and held them in his. "I'm busy baring my soul to you, Isabella. Let me continue."
"If you wish."
Mac took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and sank to his knees. The movement hurt him, she could tell from the way his grip tightened on her hands.
"Look at me." Mac spread his arms, still holding her hands so that their arms moved out to the sides together. "What do you see?"
Her blood heated. "A very handsome man I happen to be married to."
"A wasted man. I am nothing. I can make pictures come out of my hands when I'm not feeling sorry for myself. That is all there is, what you see here at your feet."
"No . . ."
Mac's voice went hard. "All there is, Isabella. Everything else-the joker, the wild bohemian, even the debauched rake-is what I've pasted on to keep the world from overrunning me. But it's all fake. I use that façade to keep you from seeing and despising me."
She smiled. "If I believed that, I never would have married you."
"I didn't give you much bloody choice, did I? You were right to leave me, because I took what you gave me and threw it carelessly away. And now here I am, charging in and telling you that you'll take me back, whether you like it or not."
Mac released her, letting his hands fall to his sides. His eyes held undisguised fear and love, and a pain she'd never seen before. "But this time, it is your choice," he said. "If you don't want me back, I'll go. I'll take care of you as I did before, without obligation, without you having to bother with me and my obsession for you."
Obsession. Isabella had seen the paintings in Payne's hideaway in the rookery in Marylebone, the pictures of herself that had made her ill to look upon . They were destroyed now, but they'd been painted from obsession.
Her gaze slid to the painting Mac had just finished, and beyond that to the stack of the nude paintings he'd turned to the wall so that no servant who chanced up here would see them.
Mac had painted all of those pictures of her from love. Payne had painted from crazed jealousy and a strange need. There was a difference, and it was plain to see from the picture that now rested on Mac's easel.
Mac loved Isabella, truly loved her.
It was obvious in everything he did.
"Mac," she said in a quiet voice. "Being with you has always been my choice."
Mac looked up at her with such stark astonishment that her eyes brimmed with tears. "No, I forced the choice upon you," he said.
She smiled, feeling her mouth shake. "No. You never did. I chose."
Isabella touched Mac's face, loving the hardness of his jaw, the rough of his whiskers.
"Bloody hell," he whispered.
"Poor Mac. You are on your knees for nothing."
A sudden, rakish smile split his face. "Not for nothing, my sweet. I've decided to do it properly this time."
He was decadent, which made Isabella adore him. He was also half-naked with a gypsy scarf on his head, which made her crave him. She suddenly wanted more than anything to fall against him and have the pair of them land in a happy tangle on the floor.
"Do what properly?" she made herself ask.
"Court you. I'm supposed to be the model gentleman courting a lady, remember? Spilling out my heart in my studio is not the way."
"I like it," Isabella said. "It's perfect."
Mac's eyes darkened. "Do not tempt me to ravish you until I've done this properly. I've never done anything properly with you."
"Very well, if you must."
"Isabella Mackenzie." Mac took her hands again, still on his knees. "There is something important I would like to ask you."
Isabella's heart beat swiftly. "Yes?"
"I've asked some friends to help me. Will you walk with me over to the window?"
"As you wish."
It was difficult to be calm while he was being so mysterious. He rose with some difficulty, and Isabella pretended she didn't notice the soft grunt as he got to his feet. She followed him across the room to the window, whose curtains had been pulled back to let in the light.
Mac flung open the window, and early November air poured into the room. He leaned out and shouted, "Now!"
A band struck up a tune. Isabella peered around Mac and saw the little Salvation Army band, directed by the lady sergeant, pumping away enthusiastically. Next to it stood Cam and Daniel and Mac's club friends.

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