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Authors: Viola Morne

Tags: #Domestic Discipline, #Victorian Romance

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BOOK: Taming His Scandalous Countess
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"And how did you find the new
foal, Lord Snow?" Lady Hill broke the small silence of what was admittedly
an awkward company.

"Most promising. Your husband
and I will have to discuss terms."

Sir John beamed at him.

"There is nothing more
rewarding," Snow continued, "than acquiring a new horse. Once she's
of an age to be trained and... mounted, the results can be quite
exhilarating." He let his gaze slide to Isabelle. As if feeling the weight
of his stare, she looked up from her soup. He held her eyes for a moment before
turning to his hostess. Isabelle's small pink tongue flicked out, licking along
her bottom lip. He caught his breath. Was she flirting with him? The vicar
addressed some remark to her in a low tone, and she smiled and shook her head.

"But, Lord Snow, are you never
frightened of injury?" Miss Simpson asked. "A young horse, unused to
the saddle, it sounds most dangerous."

"That, Miss Simpson, is
precisely its attraction." Snow looked at Isabelle again, who bit her lip.
No, she wasn't flirting, precisely, but the double entendres of his
conversation were apparent to her. He smiled at her. He did love an intelligent
woman.

"You are very brave, I
think," Miss Simpson said.

"Come, come, Alice! We are
speaking of training horses, not breaking wild Arabians! Lord Snow will you
think you very silly," Sir John said.

Snow silently agreed, but aloud he
demurred, saying a lady's opinion was always of interest to him. Then he
brushed his middle finger around the top of his wine glass, letting it slide
down the side to touch the wine. While the discussion of horse training
continued, Snow lifted his finger to his mouth and sucked off the wine.
Isabelle stared at him, her breasts rising and falling with quickened breath.
Oh, she knew what he wanted, what he was determined to have. She looked away
again, with an almost imperceptible shake of her head.

His smile deepened. He would not be
denied. Snow wanted Isabelle as he hadn't wanted any other woman in quite some
time. She was beautiful, spirited, and in need of a firm hand. And he was just
the man to give it to her.

*
* * * *

He was insufferable. Isabelle could
only be thankful when the dinner party finally wound to a close. Even John, not
the most intuitive individual, could divine Snow's wicked intentions. The poor
vicar did not know which way to look, while Cordelia was positively glowering
over the tea tray.

Snow brought her a cup of tea and
sat down beside her on the sofa. His hard, warm thigh pressed against hers.
Isabelle could feel his heat right through the thin silk fabric. When she
attempted to move away, he simply moved closer. Once he'd drunk his tea, his hand,
under cover of her skirt, caressed her leg through the material.

"Lord Snow! I must insist that
you remove your hand from my person, this instant."

"This very instant?"
Snow's slow smile was an invitation to sin. "Just as I was finally
beginning to enjoy this dreary evening. Do you not have any inclination to see
to your guest's...comfort?"

"You are not my guest, but
John's. And I don't want you pawing me."

Snow's fingers curled around the
edge of her thigh, the pressure increasing until she gasped. He removed his
hand and laced his fingers on his lap.

"I will accede to your wishes,
this once, in view of the company present. But make no mistake, my wicked
little kitten. In future I plan to touch you whenever, and however, I
wish."

Isabelle dared a glance. Snow still
smiled, but his eyes were hot. She swallowed.

"I fear you have not fully
apprehended my position. I am here on sufferance only, through my brother's
grace. Were he to discern any improper conduct on my part, I believe that even
his home would be closed to me."

"And I fear you have not
understood my position. I mean to have you, and I will."

"So this was why you lied to
John about my acquaintance with your sister," she said. "A rather
shabby ploy, sir."

"How fierce you are, my sweet.
Dare I hope you are as passionate in the bedchamber?"

"Sometimes hope is all we
have," Isabelle said sweetly, and upended her cup on Snow's lap. He jumped
like a scalded cat but, fortunately for him, the tea had cooled. Isabelle stood
and set down her cup. He grabbed her arm, but intervention arrived in the form
of Lady Hill.

"Isabella! Have you taken
leave of your senses? My lord, I pray you allow me to assist you."
Cordelia fussed and bleated like a demented sheep, allowing Isabelle the
opportunity to slip out the door.

 The air in the hallway felt cool
against her cheeks. Isabelle fanned herself, deliberating. Someone would be
here in moments to bring her back to her rooms and lock her in–an unbearable
thought. The hall ran the length of the house, ending in the conservatory. She
fled there, through the scented plants, and out into the night beyond the glass
doors.

The air was sweet with the
fragrance of roses, and a full moon beckoned. Isabelle, confined in her stays
and elegant gown, hemmed in by convention and propriety, answered its call. She
hurried along the paving to the kitchen garden and through its tidy rows to the
hedge gate, which opened onto the park. The lake glittered before her. Isabelle
ran along its edge until she reached the stone bridge. The flags felt cold
under her slippers. Once over the bridge, she turned left, to where the shore
curved under the arch of a large willow. Here had been her favorite swimming
spot, screened by the low-lying branches.

Did she dare? John would not
suspect she come here. He was so sure her spirit was broken. But tonight,
something was different. Was it Lord Snow? She hadn't encouraged his advances,
but to give the devil his due, he'd made her feel more alive than she had in
months. His face when she'd spilled the tea! Snow's expression had promised
retribution. A sudden breeze shivered across her skin.

Isabelle kicked off her slippers,
untied her garters and rolled down her stockings. The grass was cool on her
bare feet. The wind teased her hair and she laughed suddenly. Sweet, blessed
freedom. Isabelle pulled the pins from her hair until it hung around her
shoulders in a sunset cloud. She lifted it, running the curls through her
fingers. Then Isabelle raised her arms to the moon and danced, her feet
flashing along the turf. She felt like a pagan of old, dancing before the
shrine of the goddess. An owl hooted in the distance.

The cool scent of the water drew
her down to the lake bank, thick with shadows. Isabelle undid the buttons at
the top of her gown, pushing and pulling at the material until she could thrust
it down her hips. She tore at her stays and flung them on the grass. Petticoat
and chemise followed, until Isabelle stood naked in the night air. She splashed
into the shallows and threw herself forward into the lake. The cold water
closed over her head. She re-surfaced, flinging back her wet hair. Isabelle
swam a few strokes and turned on her back, floating in the water while the
stars wheeled overhead.

A small sound broke her reverie,
like a shoe scraping against rock. She turned her head. A man stood on the bank
watching her. She knew it was Snow, by his height and the breadth of the
shoulders. His presence seemed inevitable, eternal, like the moon and the
stars. She swam back to the shore, halting when her feet found the sandy
bottom. She walked up the bank, water streaming from her naked body.

Snow waited for her. She could hear
his breathing, harsh and quick, in the quiet night. "Artemis," he
said, and reached for her.

*
* * * *

She was incandescent. Isabelle's
body gleamed as white as the moon, her breasts full, her stomach rounded, her
sex shadowed between her thighs. Snow wanted to worship her, to fall to his
knees and suck her very essence. He closed his fingers around her arm, the skin
cool and wet. Isabelle stared up at him, eyes dark, lips parted. What was she
thinking? He bent his head to capture her mouth, sucking her tongue into his. A
low moan, was it his or hers? His hands dropped to her buttocks, cupping the
deliciously firm cheeks as he pulled her up against his erection. A sigh
escaped her. His lips slid down the satin skin of her throat. He lifted her
breasts to his eager mouth, first one, and then the other. He kissed and licked
them, pulling the nipples until Isabelle ground against him.

Snow dropped to his knees. He
pushed her legs open, parted her nether lips, dying to taste the salted honey
of her quim. His tongue glided through the wetness which traced down her
thighs. He lapped and sucked like a man dying of thirst, flicking her nub over
and over, until she clutched his shoulders. His tongue speared her opening. Her
fingers tightened.

Snow grasped her thighs, holding
her in position as he fucked her with his tongue. She panted, fast and then
faster, her thighs strained taut under his fingers. Her exhalations became
cries, rising in intensity as she came, hard, her sweet fluid bathing his face.
Isabelle's climax shuddered to a stop, and Snow rose, unbuttoning his breeches
with desperate haste.

 "Isabelle! Isabelle, where
are you?"

Realization flooded her rapt
expression. Damn Sir John. She staggered back.

"I have to go. I can't be
seen...like this."

He let her go. She dipped down to
retrieve her clothing and fled, clad in starlight, across the lawn. Snow
re-fastened his breeches and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his face. He'd
best take himself off to bed, before Sir John caught him smelling of his sister
and sex. He was surprised to find his fingers somewhat unsteady. Moonlight and
Isabelle were a heady mixture.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Isabelle was not at breakfast
again. Snow found himself smiling. He must have tired her out. Either that or
her brother had discovered their encounter and banished her from the table. He
hoped not.

He had retired after Isabelle left
him, and lain there sleepless for hours, craving her presence in his bed. Last
night had been beyond anything he'd ever experienced--a gently-bred lady with
the soul of a wanton. Not a painted courtesan, but something wild, the essence
of nature. Lord, he was getting maudlin. Now, how to get the woman away from
her damned family?

 Snow glanced at Sir John, stolidly
munching his way through eggs and muffins, and Lady Hill, immersed in society
gossip as she read the London papers, pausing occasionally to share some tidbit
with them. No sign that either of them was aware he'd dallied with Isabelle
under the moon.

He had planned to leave today, but
he needed more time. He needed to speak to Isabelle. Surely, after what had
happened between them last night, she'd be more amenable to an arrangement. A
small house in town, perhaps, since her brother was so intractable. His head
was so filled with plans for a future of illicit liaisons with the lovely
Isabelle that he'd not been listening to the conversation.

"I beg your pardon, Lady
Hill," Snow said, "I was not attending."

After a moment of offended silence,
Lady Hill offered him a thin smile. "I merely inquired after your plans
for the day, my lord. I have received an invitation to visit my neighbor and
you are most welcome to join me."

"How kind, but I fear I must
decline. Your husband and I have business to discuss."

His host nodded amiably.

A lucky emergency at the home farm
took Sir John away in the afternoon. Snow assured him he would happy in the
library, perusing the estate's stud books.

Now to find her. His valet had
discovered Isabelle was lodged in an older wing of the house, well away from
everyone else. That was a little odd, but perhaps the lady had requested some
degree of privacy. Snow followed Cheem's instructions, passing from the library
to a central passage which led to the old hall, its furnishings covered with
white sheeting. He walked under an elaborately carved minstrel's gallery,
through a narrow door, and into another passage beyond. Here the age of the
original building was apparent, with stone-flagged floors and low ceilings.
Several doors opened along the passage, all empty. The door at the end was
locked. He knocked softly, but hearing no response, he turned the key,
purloined by Cheem from a helpful maid, and opened the door.

The room was dim and cold. Isabelle
sat by the sole window, chin on her fist as she stared outside.

"Lady Croucher.
Isabelle."

She turned with a start. "Lord
Snow! What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see you and you
weren't at breakfast."

She smiled wistfully. "I am
never at breakfast, or any other meal. Last night's dinner was the first time I
had eaten with them in two years."

"Do you find company so
distasteful then? I know you were in mourning."

"You still do not understand,
Lord Snow. I am a prisoner here."

He looked around the room, at the
shabby furnishings, and the lack of ornaments or pictures, save a well-stocked
bookshelf. Isabelle was clothed as before, in a drab, shapeless gown of some
thick stuff. Her hair had been braided tightly and pinned up, like some prim
governess. But no amount of unbecoming dress could disguise the curve of her
full lower lip or the beauty of her deep blue eyes.

"I don't understand why your
brother would treat you like this."

Her lips trembled. "There was
a scandal, a terrible scandal and he brought me here, to save the family
reputation, and to save me."

"I know your husband
died..."

She looked desolate. "Charlie
was murdered, stabbed. John arrived at the house to find him dead, and me
unconscious. The servants were gone, so John cleaned me up and brought me here.
The murder was ruled unsolved, a burglary gone wrong by an unknown
culprit."

There was something she wasn't
saying.

Snow lifted Isabelle's chin gently.
"And what really did happen to Charlie?"

She looked away. "I believe
sometimes John thinks I killed him."

 "Did you?"

Her anguished gaze swung back to
him. "I don't remember. I've tried, God knows I've tried."

She wrenched away from him and
leapt to her feet, to pace back and forth across the narrow room.

  "Perhaps I picked up the
knife when I came into the room after, after..."

"After he was dead?"

Isabelle shrugged. "I don't
know."

"Were you injured?"

Her hand rose, pushing her hair
back from her brow. "There was blood, everywhere, on my face and..."
She stretched her hands out, as if examining them for stains. "I hurt,
there were bruises on my arms...I don't remember," she said, voice rising
in agitation. Her breasts heaved against the stiff fabric of her bodice.

"Hush, Isabelle, it's all
right. You can't remember and it's no wonder." He bent towards her, to
comfort her, but she pushed him away.

 "It's no use. John will never
let me go."

"Leave your brother to
me."

Isabelle eyed him with suspicion.
"Why would you help me?"

Snow cleared his throat. "I
thought, I hoped, I could persuade you to come to London with me."

Her eyes narrowed. "How
benevolent of you, Lord Snow. And in return? You'll expect me to warm your bed
until you tire of me?"

An image of a naked Isabelle
reclining on his bed, hair tumbled over her shoulders, eyes warm with welcome,
stirred his cock. Yes, that was exactly what he expected, what he desired. And
increasingly, what he yearned for.

"And once you are finished
with me, what then? You'll toss a few baubles my way and I'll be left with no reputation
and nowhere to go. Or perhaps I'll find a new protector and continue my career
as a courtesan. Impossibly tempting as it sounds, I'm afraid I must decline
your offer, my lord."

Isabelle stormed over to the
window, but Snow saw how her mouth shook. Damn, he'd hurt her, when he only
wanted to comfort her.

"Isabelle."

She wouldn't turn around.

"I'm sorry if I've made
everything worse. That was far from my intention." He stopped, unsure. Why
was he apologizing to a woman?

Her shoulders drooped. He sought
for the words which would convince her.

"Isabelle, you are a lovely
and spirited woman."

Her head lifted.

"I want to give you a chance
to be back in the world where you belong, not immured here like some medieval
nun."

Isabelle swung around, hands clenched
at her sides. "Such altruism. You want to save me, oh, I am truly moved,
my lord."

"Why do you mock me? I want to
help you, to care for you..."

"Get out of here. Get
out!" Isabelle grabbed a cushion from the chair and threw it at his head.

Snow ducked and held up his hands.
"I'm sorry, Isabelle, truly. I'll leave you alone."

Isabelle's bosom heaved with the
force of her emotions. She was so angry, but Christ, she was so beautiful. He
took one last look before slipping quietly out of the room. The sound of china
smashing against the door only made him smile. Such fire. Now if only he could
direct her passions towards a more ardent conclusion, in a much more alluring
milieu...

*
* * * *

"Sir?  Do you still plan to
depart tomorrow?  I could begin your packing." Cheem opened the bureau
drawer.

Snow stared out the window, his
gaze drawn to the lake beyond. The view was a charming one, but he saw only
Isabelle, clad in starlight, walking out of the water. Today, when she'd told
him her terrible story, he had felt something stir within his petrified heart,
something which terrified him. Something he longed for.

His plan to carry Isabelle away
when he left, picked up like some stray bitch, was unspeakably selfish in light
of her history. She was right. Sir John would not permit it. Even if he managed
to steal her away, the ensuing scandal would destroy her. He'd survive,
cushioned by his wealth and rank, but doors would be closed to her, forever.
The whispers, the snubs, Isabelle couldn't bear it. There must be something
else he could do.

*
* * * *

"Lord Snow to see you, Sir
John."

Snow could see his host over the
butler's shoulder, hands clasped on the ornate desk.

"Thank you, Fulford." Sir
John rose. "Lord Snow, come in, please. The paper work for the foal is complete
and ready for signing."

Snow took a seat. Sir John wouldn't
meet his eyes. He sighed inwardly. His behavior last night must have occasioned
more conjecture than he'd supposed.

"Excellent. But I've come to
speak to you about another matter. It concerns your sister."

Sir John blinked. He'd obviously
not expected Snow to be so blunt.

"What about her?"

Snow steepled his fingers and
stared at his host. "I understand there was a scandal involving Lady
Croucher's husband. His abrupt demise, to be more precise."

"There was, my lord. How is it
any business of yours?" Sir John could be blunt as well.

"Please bear with me. Do you
believe your sister murdered her husband?"

Sir John inhaled sharply. "My
lord! I must protest..."

Snow waved a hand. "Confine
yourself to answering my question. It is important."

Sir John turned and paced around
the room. "I don't know. I can hardly believe that she would commit so
foul an act, no matter how provoked."

"Provoked how?"

Sir John hesitated. "The
marriage was not a happy one. Lord Croucher was..."

"A drunkard, a gambler and a
wastrel?"

"Precisely, my lord."

"And Isabelle, Lady
Croucher?"

"She bore it as best she
could, as she must. The child was a comfort, of course, but then..."

"There was a child?"

"A wee girl, very like her
mother. On the night Croucher was killed, I found the babe dead as well, dead
in her cradle. Terrible it was, the worst night of my life."

Sir John sat down and pulled the
whiskey decanter towards him. He poured a drink and downed it in one gulp. He
gestured towards a glass. Snow nodded and poured his own drink.

"There was no injury to the
child. She had been ill for some days. But Croucher..." Sir John covered
his face with one hand. "At any rate, I dealt with everything as well as I
could, invented some plausible tale for the authorities, and got Isabelle out
of that house as fast as I could. She was incoherent, claimed not to remember
anything that happened. I brought her home and she's been here ever
since." Sir John poured himself another drink and took a large sip.

Snow frowned, turning over the
story in his mind. He'd known Charlie in the mad days before the war, before
his brother died and Snow came into the title. That was prior to Isabelle's
marriage, but it seemed that Charlie had not altered a whit. And Isabelle, tied
to that squanderer...

He thought of her in the moonlight,
her flesh cool and sweet against his mouth, her hair tumbled around them as
they took their pleasure. He remembered her defiant glare at supper, her
despair as she sat in that cold, comfortless room.

"I have a proposition for you,
Sir John."

*
* * * *

Her sister-in-law was furious.
Isabelle could almost see steam curling around her door from the hallway where
her brother and his wife argued. She couldn't hear John, but Cordelia's voice
was pitched like a teakettle about to boil over.

"And now you reward her for
her lack of conduct? Am I to be humiliated in this fashion? That she, she of
all women, will take precedence over me! I cannot bear it, I will not!"

What on earth were they talking
about?

Finally, John's voice rose.
"Be silent, Cordelia. The decision does not rest with you. Now, please
excuse me while I speak to Isabelle." A moment of stunned silence, before
angry footsteps clattered away from the door.

John entered, his face flushed.
"I beg your pardon. My wife is rather overwrought, I fear."

"So I heard. What is
amiss?"

Her brother took a turn about the
room, stopping in front of the bookshelf, where he stood, seemingly lost in
thought. She waited. Could John have discovered her moonlit swim or her tryst
with Lord Snow? No, he didn't seem upset, just at a loss somehow.

"My dear, something quite
unexpected has occurred. I have received an offer for you."

She must have misheard him.
"An offer? Of marriage?"

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