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Excerpt: Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Book 2: The Mackenzies & McBrides Series

Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage by Jennifer Ashley
Chapter One

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

September, 1881

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 had 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 was she in Mac 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.”

Damnation.

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 her 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 took them a long time to descend for breakfast.

Now Mac drank in every inch of her, and damn it, grew hard. Would she see, and would she laugh?

Isabella crossed to the dressing gown Molly had left in a heap on the floor. “You’d better wrap up in this, dear,” she said to the model. “It’s chilly up here. You know Mac never believes in feeding the fire. Why don’t you warm up downstairs with a nice cup of tea while I have a chat with my husband?”

Molly leapt to her feet, her grin wide. Molly was a beautiful female in the way many men liked—large-bosomed, round-hipped, doe-eyed. She had a mass of black hair and a perfect face, an artist’s dream. But next to the glory of Isabella, Molly faded to nothing.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Molly said. “It’s stiff work posing for naughty pictures. My fingers are that cramped.”

“Some teacakes ought to loosen you again,” Isabella said as Molly slid on the dressing gown. “Mac’s cook always used to keep currant ones in large supply, in case of emergencies. Ask her if she still does.”

Molly’s dimples showed. “I’ve missed you, no lie, your ladyship. ’Is lordship forgets we ’ave to eat.”

“It’s his lordship’s way,” Isabella said. Molly strolled from the studio without worry, and Mac watched as though from far away as Bellamy followed Molly out and closed the door.

Isabella turned her lush green eyes to him. “You’re dripping.”

“What?” Mac stared at her then heard a glob of paint hit his board floor. He let out a growl, slammed the palette onto the table, and thrust the brush into a jar of oil of turpentine.

“You’ve begun early today,” Isabella said.

Why did she keep on in that friendly, neutral voice, as though they were acquaintances at a tea party?

“The light was good.” His own voice sounded stiff, harsh.

“Yes, it’s a sunny morning for a change. Don’t worry, I’ll let you get back to it soon. I only want your opinion.”

Blast her, had she come here to throw him off guard on purpose? When had she gotten so good at the game?

“My opinion on what?” he asked. “Your new hat?”

“Not my hat, although thank you for noticing. No, I want your opinion on this.”

Mac found the hat in question right under his nose. Gray and blue ribbons trailed into glossy curls that beckoned to be lifted, smoothed.

The hat tilted back until he was looking into Isabella’s eyes, eyes that had snared him across a ballroom so long ago. She hadn’t been aware of her power then, the sweet debutante, and she didn’t know it now. Her simple look of inquiry, of interest, could pin a man and give him the most erotic dreams imaginable.

“On this, Mac,” she said impatiently.

She was lifting a handkerchief toward him. In the middle of its snowy whiteness lay a piece of yellow-covered canvas about an inch long and a quarter inch wide.

“What color would you say this was?” she asked.

“Yellow.” Mac quirked a brow. “You drove all the way here from North Audley Street to ask me whether something is yellow?”

“Of course I know it’s yellow. What kind of yellow, specifically?”

Mac peered at it. The color was vibrant, almost pulsing. “Cadmium yellow.”

“More specific than that?” She wiggled the handkerchief as though the motion would reveal the mystery. “Don’t you understand? It’s Mackenzie yellow. That astonishing yellow you mix for your paintings, the secret formula known only to you.”

“Yes, so it is.” With Isabella standing so close to him, her heady scent in his nostrils, he didn’t give a damn if the paint was Mackenzie yellow or graveyard black. “Have you been amusing yourself slicing up my pictures?”

“Don’t be silly. I took this from a painting hanging in Mrs. Leigh-Waters’s drawing room in Richmond.”

Curiosity trickled through Mac’s impatience. “I’ve never given a painting to Mrs. Leigh-Waters of Richmond.”

“I didn’t think you had. When I asked her about it, she told me she bought the picture from an art dealer in the Strand. Mr. Crane.”

“The devil she did. I don’t sell my paintings, especially not through Crane.”

“Exactly.” Isabella smiled in triumph, the red curve of her lips doing nothing to ease his arousal. “The painting is signed Mac Mackenzie, but you didn’t paint it.”

Mac looked again at the strip of brilliant yellow on the handkerchief. “How do you know I didn’t paint it? Maybe some ungrateful blackguard I gave a picture to sold it to raise money to pay a debt.”

“It’s a scene from a hill, overlooking Rome.”

“I’ve done many scenes overlooking Rome.”

“I know that, but this wasn’t one of yours. It’s your style, your brushwork, your colors, but you didn’t paint it.”

Mac pushed the handkerchief back at her. “How do you know? Are you intimately acquainted with all my works? I’ve painted quite a few Rome pictures since you . . .” He couldn’t bring himself to say “since you left me.” He’d gone to Rome to soothe his broken heart, painting the bloody vista day after day. He’d done too damn many pictures of Rome, until he’d grown sick of the place. Then he’d moved to Venice and painted it until he never wanted to see another gondola as long as he lived.

That was when he’d still been a debauched, drunken sot. Once he’d sobered up, replacing his obsession for single-malt with one of tea, he’d retreated to Scotland and stayed put. The Mackenzies didn’t view whiskey as strong drink—they viewed it as essential to life—but Mac’s drink of choice had changed to oolong, which Bellamy had learned to brew like a master.

At his words, Isabella flushed, and Mac felt a flash of sudden glee. “Ah, so you are intimately acquainted with everything I’ve painted. Kind of you to take an interest.”

Her blush deepened. “I see notices in art journals, is all, and people tell me.”

“And you’ve become so familiar with each of my pictures that you know when I didn’t paint one?” Mac gave her a slow smile. “This from a woman who changed her hotel when she knew I was staying in it?”

Mac hadn’t thought Isabella could grow any more red. He felt the dynamics in the room change, from Isabella in a bold frontal attack to Isabella in hasty retreat.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I happen to notice things, is all.”

And yet she’d known straightaway that he hadn’t painted what she’d seen in Mrs. Leigh-Waters’s drawing room. He grinned, liking her confusion.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that someone out there is forging Mac Mackenzies,” Isabella said impatiently.

“Why would anybody be fool enough to forge something by me?”

“For the money, of course. You are very popular.”

“I’m popular because I’m scandalous,” Mac countered. “When I die, the paintings will be worthless, except as souvenirs.” He set the slice of paint and handkerchief on the table. “May I keep this? Or do you plan to restore it to Mrs. Leigh-Waters?”

“Don’t be silly. I didn’t tell her I was taking it.”

“You left the painting on her wall with a bit sliced out, did you? Won’t she notice that?”

“The picture is high up, and I did it carefully so it doesn’t show.” Isabella’s gaze moved to the painting on his easel. “That is quite repulsive, you know. She looks like a spider.”

Mac didn’t give a damn about the painting, but when he glanced at it he wanted to groan. Isabella was right: It was terrible. All of his paintings were terrible these days. He hadn’t been able to paint a decent stroke since he’d gone sober, and he had no idea why he’d thought this one would be any better.

He let out a frustrated roar, picked up a paint-soaked rag, and hurled it at the canvas. The rag landed with a splat on Molly’s painted abdomen, and brown-black rivulets ran down the rosy skin.

Mac turned from the picture in time to see Isabella swiftly exiting the room. He sprinted after her and caught up to her halfway down the first flight of stairs. Mac stepped around her, slamming one hand to the banister, the other to the wall. Paint smeared on the wallpaper Isabella had picked out when she’d redecorated his house six years ago.

Isabella gave him a cold look. “Do move, Mac. I have half a dozen errands to attend before luncheon, and I’m already late starting.”

Mac took long breaths, trying to still his rage. “Wait. Please.” He made himself say the word. “Let us go down to the drawing room. I’ll have Bellamy bring tea. We can talk about the paintings you think are forged.” Anything to keep her here. He knew in his heart that if she walked away from this house again, she’d never return.

“There is nothing more to say about the forged paintings. I only thought you’d want to know.”

Mac was aware that his entire household lurked below, listening. They wouldn’t do anything so gauche as peer up the staircase, but they’d be in doorways and in the shadows, waiting to see what happened. They adored Isabella and had mourned the day she’d left them.

“Isabella,” he said, pitching his voice low. “Stay.”

The tightness around her eyes softened the slightest bit. Mac had hurt her, he knew it. He’d hurt her over and over again. The first step in winning her back was to stop the hurting.

Her lips parted, red and lush. Because he was two steps below her, Isabella’s face was on level with his. He could close the few inches between them and kiss her if he chose, feel her mouth on his, taste her warm moisture on his tongue.

“Please,” he whispered. I need you so much.

Molly chose that moment to climb toward them up the stairs. “Are you ready for me again, yer lordship? You still want me sticking me fingers in me Mary Jane?”

Isabella closed her eyes, her lips thinning into a long, immobile line. Mac’s temper splintered.

“Bellamy!” he shouted over the banisters. “What the devil is she doing out of the kitchen?”

Molly came closer, her smile good-natured. “Oh, her ladyship don’t mind me. Do you, yer ladyship?” Molly sidled around first Mac, then Isabella, her dressing gown rustling as she headed back up to the studio.

“No, Molly,” Isabella said in a cool voice. “I don’t mind you.”

Isabella lifted her skirt in her gloved hand and prepared to start around Mac. Mac reached for her.

Isabella shrank away. Not in loathing, he realized after the first frozen heartbeat, but because the hand he stretched toward her was covered in brown and black paint.

Mac slammed himself back against the stair railing. He wouldn’t trap her. At least not now, with all his servants watching and listening, and Isabella looking at him in that way.

Isabella moved down the stairs around him, very carefully not touching him.

Mac strode after her. “I’ll send Molly home. Stay and have luncheon. My staff can run your errands for you.”

“I very much doubt that. Some of my errands are quite personal.” Isabella reached the ground floor and took up the parasol she’d left on the hall tree.

Bellamy, don’t you dare open that door.

Bellamy swung the door wide, letting in a wash of London’s fetid air. Isabella’s landau stood outside, her footman ready with the door open.

“Thank you, Bellamy,” she said in a serene voice. “Good morning.”

She walked out.

Mac wanted to rush after her, grab her around the waist, drag her back into the house. He could have Bellamy lock and bolt the doors so she couldn’t leave again. She’d hate him at first, but she’d gradually understand that she still belonged with him. Here.

Mac made himself let Bellamy close the door. Tactics that worked for his barbaric Highland ancestors would be useless on Isabella. She’d give him that cool look from her beautiful eyes and have him on his knees. He had prostrated himself for her often enough in the past. The feeling of carpet on his knees had been worth her sudden laughter, the cool tinge leaving her voice as she said, “Oh, Mac, don’t be so absurd.” He’d pull her down to the carpet with him, and the forgiveness would take an interesting turn.

Mac sat down heavily on the bottom stair and put his head in his paint-stained hands. Today had been a misstep. Isabella had caught him off guard, and he’d ruined the beautiful opportunity she’d handed him.

“Oh, the painting’s all spoiled.” Molly hurried from the floors above in a flurry of silk. “Mind you, I think I look a bit funny in it.”

“Go on home, Molly,” Mac said, his voice hollow. “I’ll pay you for the full day.”

He expected Molly to squeal in pleasure and hurry off, but instead she sank down next to him. “Oh, poor lamb. Want me to make you feel better?”

Mac’s arousal had died, and he didn’t want it to rise again for anyone but Isabella. “No,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” Molly stroked slender fingers through his hair. “It’s the absolute worst when they don’t love you back, ain’t it, me lord?”

“Yes.” Mac closed his eyes, his rage and need swirling around him until he was sick with it. “You’re right, it is the absolute worst.”

Lord and Lady Abercrombie’s hunt ball in Surrey the following night was stuffed to the rafters with fashionable people. Isabella entered the ballroom in some trepidation, expecting at any moment to see her husband, who, her maid Evans had informed her, had also received an invitation. Evans had obtained the information directly from her old crony, Bellamy.

Seeing Mac in his studio like a half-naked god yesterday had sent Isabella straight home to fling herself on her bed in tears. Her errands had never got done, because she’d spent the rest of the afternoon curled into a ball feeling sorry for herself.

Isabella had risen the next morning and made herself face facts. She had two choices—she could completely avoid Mac as she had in the past, or resign herself to encountering him about London as they lived their lives. They could be civil. They could be friends. What she ought to do was become so used to seeing him that his presence no longer plagued her. Grow inured to him so that her heart no longer leapt into her throat at one glimpse of his strong face or the flash of his wicked smile.

The second choice was the more unnerving, but Isabella berated herself until she stepped up to the task. She would not hide at home like a frightened rabbit. Hence, her acceptance of Lord Abercrombie’s invitation, even though she knew the odds were high that Mac would attend.

Isabella bade Evans dress her in a new ball gown of blue satin moiré with yellow silk roses across her bodice and train. Maude Evans, who could boast having been a dresser to famous actresses, several opera singers, a duchess, and a courtesan, had been dressing Isabella since the morning after Isabella’s scandalous elopement with Mac. Evans had arrived at Mac’s house on Mount Street, where Isabella, Mac’s ring heavy on her finger, had stood in her ball gown from the previous night, having no other clothes at hand. Evans had taken one look at Isabella’s innocent face and become her fierce protector.

I look quite acceptable for a matron of nearly five and twenty. Isabella surveyed herself in the mirror as Evans draped diamonds across Isabella’s bosom. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Even so, her heart froze when she entered Lord Abercrombie’s ballroom and spied a tall Mackenzie male in the supper room beyond. Broad shoulders stretched a formal black coat as he rested an elbow on the fireplace mantel, his kilt Mackenzie plaid.

Isabella realized in the next heartbeat that the man was not Mac, but his older brother Cameron. Touched by relief and delight, she broke from the friends she’d arrived with, caught up her satin skirts and sped through the crowd to him.

“Cam, what on earth are you doing here? I thought you’d be up north, frantically preparing for the St. Leger.”

Cameron tossed the cigar he’d been smoking into the fire, took Isabella’s hands, and leaned to kiss her cheek. He smelled of smoke and malt-whiskey; he always did, though those were sometimes accompanied by the scent of horses. Cameron kept a stable full of the best racehorses in England.

The second-oldest brother, Cameron was a little larger than Mac, a little broader of shoulder and taller of stature, and a deep scar cut across his left cheekbone. Cam’s unruly red-brown hair was the darkest of the four brothers’, his eyes more deeply golden. He was known as the black sheep, a daunting task in a family whose exploits filled the scandal sheets. It was common knowledge that Cameron, a widower with a fifteen-year-old son, took a new mistress every six-month, having his pick of famous actresses, courtesans, and highborn widows. Isabella had stopped trying to keep track of them long ago.

Cameron shrugged in answer to her question. “Not much more to do. The trainers have my instructions, and I’ll meet them there before the first race.”

“You’re a bad liar, Cameron Mackenzie. Hart sent you, didn’t he?”

Cameron didn’t bother to look embarrassed. “Hart was worried when Mac raced after you after Ian’s wedding. Is he making a nuisance of himself?”

“No,” Isabella said quickly. She loved Mac’s brothers, but they did tend to stick their noses into each other’s business. Not that she wasn’t grateful to them—they could have shut her out when she’d decided to leave Mac three and a half years ago, but instead they’d rallied to her side. Hart, Cameron, and Ian had made it known that they still considered Isabella part of the family. And as she was part of the family, they tended to watch over her like protective older brothers.

“So Hart sent you down to play nanny?” she asked.

“He did,” Cameron drawled, straight-faced. “You should see me in my cap and pinafore.”

Isabella laughed, and Cam joined her. He had a gravelly laugh, sounding as though something had scratched away at his voice.

“Is Beth well?” she asked. “She and Ian are all right?”

“Fine when I left them. Ian is extremely pleased at the prospect of becoming a father. He mentions it only about once every five minutes.”

Isabella smiled in true delight. Ian and Beth, his new wife, were so happy, and Isabella looked forward to holding their little one in her arms. The thought gave her a pang as well, which she quickly suppressed.

“And Daniel?” Isabella went on, keeping the conversation light. “Did he come with you?”

Cameron shook his head. “Daniel is lodging with an old don of mine who is to stuff his head with knowledge before Michaelmas term. I want to give Danny’s tutors less cause to beat his lessons into him.”

“Lessons instead of horses? I’m certain that rankles our Danny.”

“Aye, but if he keeps getting poor marks, he’ll never get into university.”

He sounded so like a concerned father, this tall man with the dark reputation, that Isabella laughed again. “He tries to emulate you, Cam.”

“Aye, he does. That’s wh’t worries me.”

Behind Isabella, the strains of a waltz began, and couples in the ballroom glided into place. Cameron held out his broad arm. “Dance, Isabella?”

“I’d be most happy to—”

Isabella’s polite acceptance cut off when strong fingers closed over her elbow. She smelled Mac’s soap and masculine scent overlaid with the faint odor of turpentine.

“This waltz is mine,” Mac said in her ear. “And don’t bother to tell me your card is full, my wife, because you know I’ll make short work of that.”