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On Monday night, Belinda Stronach ate dinner with her boyfriend Peter MacKay. Then, without saying where she was going, she popped over to 24 Sussex Dr. to talk with Prime Minister Paul Martin over another lavish, late meal.

Mr. MacKay, the deputy Conservative leader, made a brief appearance at a Tory fundraiser before heading home. He didn't know where she was, but when she returned to him in the wee hours, she made a confession that ripped out his heart: Ms. Stronach would cross the floor to the Liberals the next morning.

"She came back after midnight on Monday night," Mr. MacKay said at his father's farm yesterday, speaking publicly for the first time since Ms. Stronach defected to the Liberals. "She'd been at the Prime Minister's residence. I had no idea. . . . She hadn't told me anything about it."

"I was completely surprised," he said softly. "I knew she'd been troubled and had a lot on her mind, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't see it coming."

Until 8 o'clock in the morning, Mr. MacKay pleaded with his ambitious colleague and lover to abandon her plan to leave the Conservatives -- and by extension him -- just days before a crucial budget vote in the House of Commons. She left anyway.

One sweeping survey of Elmer MacKay's bucolic homestead makes plain why the Prince of Pictou County retreated here to nurse his heavy heart.

Several sprawling acres of gorgeous green grass, gentle rolling hills and a soaring pine forest under a blue sky lured Peter MacKay outdoors yesterday from the white clapboard house he stills calls home.

"I thought it was important to reflect a little bit personally on things," he said. "I came home to heal a bit and clear my head. I came to the place I feel I most belong, here on my family farm."

Mr. MacKay said he had not slept in two days. "If I look and sound . . ." he said as his voice trails off, "that's the reason."

"I've been wrestling with a lot of things and reflecting on a lot of things that have happened over the past year or so. It tries your soul. But it's not unique to me."

The handsome, ruddy-cheeked 39-year-old wore an off-white work shirt layered over a dark T-shirt, his khaki pants tucked into orange rubber boots. He lugged a pitchfork and bucket as he distracted himself with planting potatoes.

Mr. MacKay returned to his Central Nova riding on Tuesday afternoon as news of Ms. Stronach's decision sent shock waves across the country. Elmer MacKay, who served as a minister in Brian Mulroney's cabinet, picked up his son at the Halifax airport and the two went for dinner.

"He doesn't need comforting," Mr. MacKay said. "He's a strong, tough MP. He got bushwhacked a little bit, but he's fine. This is something that happens from time to time. I don't think it's the end of the world.

"I don't know what Peter and Belinda's plans were. They were obviously fond of each other but I don't know if they had any lifelong plans together."

But one source familiar with the relationship said the MPs had discussed the possibility of marriage, and Mr. MacKay was devastated by his girlfriend's decision.

Yesterday, he said he did not know whether his relationship with the auto-parts heiress is over.

"I haven't talked to her," he said. "That part of this is deeply hurtful and deeply personal. We'll see what happens."

Asked whether he felt Ms. Stronach's move amounted to betrayal, Mr. MacKay said with a wry chuckle: "Oh, it's more than that. But I want to leave the personal side separate."

It has been a rough few years romantically for the Hill Times's reigning sexiest MP.

He ended a four-year relationship with Lisa Merrithew, daughter of former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Gerald Merrithew, before he started dating Ms. Stronach.

He said he is poised to move forward professionally, if not personally.

"The heart's got to heal a little more," he said. "I wish her and her kids, who I have a lot of affection for, happiness. I'm going to focus on my job. I don't walk away from things. I'll be back in Ottawa [today]to vote.

"I'll be with my caucus and working with the party to make sure we have a moderate, inclusive, national voice. I don't walk away from things."

Ms. Stronach left the party because she said Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's vision included none of those things. Yesterday, a number of Mr. MacKay's constituents agreed with Ms. Stronach politically, even as they felt for him personally.

In nearby New Glasgow, the heart of Mr. MacKay's rural riding, residents were still gossiping about Tuesday's news and the political power couple's doubtful romantic future. But they applauded Ms. Stronach and wished big things for Mr. MacKay.

"She was smart, she got out," said Russell Dooling of nearby Loch Broom, N.S. "She has ambition and Harper had his thumb on her. I wouldn't blame [Mr. MacKay]if he did the same thing. But he won't. His father would kill him."

Central Nova is as Tory blue a riding as they come, having gone Liberal only once since it was created in 1966.

Asked whether he would follow Ms. Stronach to the Liberals, Mr. MacKay said, "That will never happen."

Most of the lunch crowd at the Dock Pub, where Mr. MacKay and Ms. Stronach have enjoyed dinner with pints of beer and Celtic music, said they hoped their MP would eventually assume leadership of the Conservatives.

"I'm disappointed in Stephen Harper," said music teacher Janet Goguenproudfoot. "Peter is the future of the party. I'd like to see him lead the party and take them back to the centre. I hope he waits it out."

Mr. MacKay's father repeated several times yesterday that the end of his son's relationship with Ms. Stronach is "not the end of the world." He recoiled slightly when asked whether he felt she had betrayed Peter.

"I don't like the word betray," Elmer MacKay said, thoughtfully. "But if you're going to use it, then I'd much rather be the one betrayed than the one who did the betraying."

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