All of London was amazed to learn of the sudden marriage of Lady I—S—and Lord M—M—, brother of the Duke of K—,last evening. The lady in question had her Come-Out and her Wedding the same night, leading debutantes to plead with fathers to make their coming-out balls just as eventful.
—From a London society newspaper, February 1875
Isabella’s footman rang the bell at the house of Lord Mac Mackenzie on Mount Street, while Isabella waited in the landau, wondering for the dozenth time since she’d set off whether this were wise.
Perhaps Mac would be out. Maybe the unpredictable man had gone off to Paris, or to Italy, where summer would linger for a time. She could investigate the matter she’d discovered by herself. Yes, that would be best.
As she opened her mouth to call back her footman, the large black door swung open, and Mac’s valet, a former pugilist, peered out. Isabella’s heart sank. Bellamy being here meant Mac was here, because Bellamy never strayed far from Mac’s side.
Bellamy peered into the landau, and a look of undisguised astonishment crossed his scarred face. Isabella hadn’t approached this house since the day she’d left it three and a half years ago. “M’lady?”
Isabella took Bellamy’s beefy hand to steady herself as she descended. The best way to do this, she decided, was simply to do it.
“How is your knee, Bellamy?” she asked. “Are you still using the liniment? Is it too much to hope that my husband is at home?”
As she talked, she breezed into the house, pretending not to notice the parlor maid and a footman popping out to stare.
“The knee’s much better, m’lady. Thank you. His lordship is . . .” Bellamy hesitated. “He’s painting, m’lady.”
“So early? There’s a wonder.” Isabella started up the stairs at a quick pace, not letting herself think about what she was doing. If she thought about it, she’d run far and fast, perhaps lock herself into her house and not come out. “Is he in his studio? No need to announce me. I’ll go up myself.”
“But m’lady.” Bellamy followed her, but his damaged knee wouldn’t let him move quickly, and Isabella reached the landing, three floors up, before Bellamy had mounted the second flight.
“M’lady, he said not to be disturbed,” Bellamy called upward.
“I won’t be long. I need only ask him a question.”
“But, m’lady, he’s . . .”
Isabella paused, hand on the white doorknob of the right-hand attic room. “I shall take full blame for invading his lordship’s privacy, Bellamy.”
She lifted her skirts as she swung open the door and walked into the room. Mac was there, all right, standing in front of a long easel, painting with fervor.
Isabella’s skirts slid from her nerveless fingers, the beauty of her estranged husband striking her like a blow. Mac wore a kilt, threadbare and paint-flecked, and he was naked from the waist up. Though it was cool in the studio, Mac’s torso gleamed with sweat, his skin tanned from spending the summer on the warmer Continent. He wore a red kerchief on his head, gypsy style, to keep paint out of his hair. He’d always done that, she remembered with a pang. It made his cheekbones more prominent, emphasized the handsomeness of his face. Even the rough boots, much worn and paint-splotched, were familiar and dear.
Mac laid paint on his canvas with energy, obviously not hearing Isabella open the door. He held the palette in his left hand, arm muscles tight, while his right moved the brush in swift, jerking strokes. Mac was a stunning man, made still more attractive when absorbed in doing something he loved.
Isabella used to sit in this very studio on an old sofa strewn with cushions, simply watching him paint. Mac might not say one word to her while he worked, but she had adored watching the play of muscles on his back, the way he’d smear paint on his cheek when he’d absently rub it. After a particularly good session, he’d turn to her with a wide smile and pull her into his arms, never minding that paint now smeared all over her skin.
So absorbed in Mac was she that Isabella didn’t notice what he painted with such intensity until she forced herself to look away from him and across the room. She barely stifled her dismay.
A young woman lay on a raised platform draped with yellow and red coverings. She was nude, which came as no surprise—Mac generally painted women who wore nothing or very little. But Isabella had never seen him paint anything so blatantly erotic. The model lay on her back with her knees bent, her legs wide apart. Her hand rested on her private place, and she was spreading herself open without shame. Mac scowled at the offering and painted with rapid brushstrokes.
Behind Isabella, Bellamy reached the top landing, puffing from exertion and distress. Mac heard him and growled but didn’t look ’round.
“Damn it, Bellamy, I told you I didn’t want to be disturbed this morning.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I couldn’t stop her.”
The model raised her head, spied Isabella, and grinned. “Oh, hello, yer ladyship.”
Mac glanced behind him once, twice, then his copper gaze riveted to Isabella. Paint dripped, unheeded, from his brush to the floor.
Isabella strove to keep her voice from shaking. “Hello, Molly. How is your little boy? It’s all right, Bellamy, you can leave us. This won’t take long, Mac. I only came to ask you a question.”
What the hell was Bellamy playing at, letting her up here?
Isabella hadn’t set foot in the Mount Street house in three and a half years, not since the day she’d left him with nothing but a short letter for explanation. Now she stood in the doorway, in hat and gloves donned for calling. Today of all days, while Mac painted Molly Bates in her spread glory. This wasn’t part of his plan, the one that had made him leap onto a train to London after his brother’s wedding and follow Isabella down here from Scotland. He’d call this a grievous miscalculation.
Isabella’s dark blue jacket hugged her torso and cupped her full bosom, and a gray skirt of complicated ruffles spread over a small bustle. Her hat was a concoction of flowers and ribbons, her gloves a dark gray that wouldn’t show London grime. The gloves outlined slender fingers he wanted to kiss, hands he longed to have slide up his back as they lay together in bed.
Isabella had always known how to dress, how to present herself in colors dear to his artist’s eye. Mac had loved to help her dress in the mornings, lacing her gowns against her soft, sweet-smelling skin. He’d dismiss her maid and perform the tasks himself, though those mornings it had taken them a long time to descend for breakfast.