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by Jennifer Ashley

Genre: Victorian Period, Historical Romance

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London, 1881

Intro: After disaster makes his own house unusable, Mac Mackenzie persuades Isabella to let him spend the night in her spare bedroom. Isabella agrees — for one night only — and Mac decides to take a bath.

Mac did sing in the bathtub.

A bathroom had been added to Isabella’s house by the previous owner, the room squeezed between the front and rear bedrooms on the second floor. A door from each led to it. The tub and sink had running water, fortified by a pump and cistern in the basement.

Isabella sat stiffly before her fireplace, hands clenched on the arms of her chair. Half an hour ago she’d heard Mac enter the bathroom, heard his low conversation with Bellamy, then the water filling the tub. Finally, Mac splashed into it, Bellamy departed, and Mac’s voice rose in song.

Isabella could not bring herself to go back to bed while Mac bathed himself on the other side of her door. She would sit and wait until he retreated to his own room and all was quiet again.

And it is, it is, a glorious thing, to be a pirate kiiiing ...”

Mac’s baritone cut out, and she heard more splashing. He should be finished by now, drat him. He’d rise from the bath, water dripping down his tall body, slickly wet as he reached for a towel.

Isabella’s hands tightened until her nails dug into the fabric of the chair. If Mac hadn’t remained such a handsome man in the intervening years, would it have been easier to turn him away tonight? She thought it might have been. Rather unfair of her.

No, she thought as Mac began to hum again. He’d be Mac no matter what he looked like. Charming, reckless, smiling, stealing her heart.

The tune was slower this time, his voice low and dark.

In bonny town, where I was born.

There was a fair maid dwellin’.

Made every youth cry, ‘well-away!’

Her name was Iiiis-a-bella.

Isabella jumped to her feet, stormed to the door, and flung it open.

Mac lay in the bathtub, up to his neck in soapy water, his arms resting carelessly along the sides of the tub. Little red cuts laced his hands and arms from where he’d broken the skylight to save the maids. He gave her a leisurely smile as she halted, hand frozen on the doorknob.

“The fair maid’s name was Barbara Allen,” Isabella said coldly.

“Was it? I must have forgotten the words.”

Isabella clutched the knob, her palm damp. “You’re lingering. Finish, dress, and leave my house. You’re clean enough now to find a hotel.”

“I am finished.” Mac gripped the sides of the tub and hauled himself to his feet.

Isabella’s mouth went dry. Mac Mackenzie had always had the most delectable male body, and nothing had changed. Water slicked his muscles and darkened the red-brown hair on his head and chest, and the thatch between his legs gleamed copper.

Mac’s smile went positively sinful. He was challenging Isabella to behave like a maiden — perhaps the cruel Barbara Allen of the ballad, a standoffish beauty for whom men died. He was waiting for Isabella to scream, to have hysterics, or at least grow angry and slam the door.

Isabella arched her brows, leaned against the doorframe, and deliberately looked her fill.

Red touched Mac’s cheekbones as he stepped out of the tub to trickle water all over the floor. He put his hands behind his neck, clasping his fingers to press his arms out and back. The muscles of his body rippled like a symphony.

Isabella made herself stand still even when he began walking toward her. She caught the scent of the soap Bellamy must have brought for him, an odor filled with memories. She’d often slipped into the bathroom at Mount Street to wash Mac’s back, sitting on the side of the tub while she lathered his skin. Often these bathing sessions ended up with her being pulled into the water with him, dressing gown and all.

Isabella’s heart throbbed in sickening beats as Mac came closer. He was going to kiss her. He was going to take her in his arms and take her in a punishing kiss, claiming her until she could no longer deny her need for him.

At the last minute, Mac reached to the wall beside her and pulled a towel from a hook.

He wrapped the towel around his waist. “Disappointed?” he asked.

Bloody cheek. “Don’t be silly.”