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Authors: Viola Morne

Tags: #Domestic Discipline, #Victorian Romance

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Snow held the baby with assurance,
speaking to him soothingly, before placing him in his mother's arms. "Here
you are, Lucy. The young master wants his mama."

Isabelle sat silently, her fists
clenching and releasing spasmodically. Grief swamped her.

Snow bent towards her, murmuring
something she couldn't make out over the pounding in her head. Somehow Snow
propelled her from the house, exchanging greetings and goodbyes, while he
clasped her trembling hand on his arm, the hard pressure her only anchor in a
sea of loss.

*
* * * *

Snow ushered Isabelle through the
door, keeping a careful arm around her. He spoke briefly with Warwick before he
caught her up in his arms and carried her up the stairs. Her bedroom was
blissfully dim and quiet, the curtains drawn against the evening sun. Snow set
her down carefully. He untied her bonnet and smoothed her hair back from her
forehead.

"My head hurts."

"I know, my love. Your maid
will help you undress and Warwick will bring you some tea. I'll return shortly
to see you." Snow kissed her forehead gently. He let her maid in and left.

Nan clucked over her wan
appearance. She assisted her to slip off her frock, then unlaced her stays, and
removed her shoes and stockings. Nan pulled her night rail over her head, wiped
her face with a cloth, and tucked her into bed. A scratch on the door heralded
the entrance of the tea tray.

Isabelle had just set down her cup
when her husband returned. He shrugged out of his jacket, kicked off his shoes
and sat down beside her. He turned her on her stomach, using his strong fingers
to massage her scalp, then her neck and shoulders. Her tension and fear ebbed
away under his soothing touch. Even the pain lessened. He helped her onto her
side and lay down, his arm curving her body against his. She sighed her
pleasure.

"Better?" he whispered in
her ear.

"Much." She snuggled into
her pillow and drifted away into sweet oblivion.

Later, Isabelle woke to find her
room in darkness, except for the light of single candle. Her headache was gone
but the sadness lingered. All that she had suffered in her marriage, and
afterward at her brother's house, were nothing compared to the loss of her
daughter. Molly had been the light of her life, the reward for the misery of
life with Charlie. For so long, she had shut away her memories of Molly because
it hurt too much to think of her. Now, after speaking with Rose, the good
memories of her short time with her daughter returned, along with the anguish
of losing her.

She tossed restlessly, unable to
find comfort in her bed, or in her heart. Perhaps some warm milk, or a good book.
Isabelle got out of bed and put on her wrapper. The hall was dim and quiet, the
servants already in bed. A light shone beneath the study door. She paused
outside and heard the murmur of male voices. She passed on down the passage and
through the baize door. A short flight of stairs led to the kitchen. The fire
was banked and she stirred the coals to life before pushing the kettle over the
flame. A cup of tea, that was the thing.

Isabelle located the tea and sugar
in the pantry, finding comfort in performing these simple tasks. While the tea
brewed, she sat down at the scrubbed wooden table. The Countess of Snow in her
kitchen. She smiled at the thought, before her loss and guilt coiled around her
heart once more.

"Isabelle, what are you doing
here?" Her husband stood in the doorway, his friend Major Winter behind
him.

"I couldn't sleep."

"Julian thought we had a
burglar." The major sounded disappointed.

Isabelle stared down into her cup.
"No burglar, just me."

Snow murmured something to his
friend.

"Well, it's very late. I'm
off. Evening, Lady Snow."

She tried to smile at the departing
major, but her lips trembled.

Snow crossed the room to kneel by
her chair.

"What's troubles you, my
love?"

Isabelle shook her head.

Her husband lifted her chin.
"You need to feel my hand on you, don't you?"

"Yes," she whispered.

He smoothed her hair.

"Don't be ashamed. I know what
you need. Let me take care of you."

Isabelle nodded. Snow moved back.

"Stand up," he told her.

Isabelle stood, hands braced
against the table. She watched Snow lock the door and trembled with
anticipation.

"Bend over the table."

She sighed, and stretched her body
over the table, grasped the edges with both hands.

"Lift your skirts."

Isabelle brushed her hands down her
body. She shimmied her skirts over her thighs and then bared her buttocks. A
tendril of lust spiraled along her veins.

She felt him grasp her wrists. Snow
tied them behind her with something soft, like a length of flannel. He placed a
firm hand on her back.

"Don't move."

Isabelle couldn't understand why
his voice, stern and implacable, made her so wet. She pressed her legs
together. Snow moved behind her and pushed her thighs apart.

"Naughty girl."

He moved away again. Her breath
caught, part fear and part longing. Perhaps he did understand her, after all.
Maybe even better than she understood herself.

Isabelle heard the rasp of a
kitchen drawer being pulled open. The clink of metal, the clatter of wood, as
Snow rummaged through the drawer.  At last, he grunted in satisfaction.

"Just what we need."

The heels of Snow's boots thudded
as he walked towards her. Her pulse sped up in response. Isabelle lay stretched
and open to his pleasure, to his will. She could taste fear, yes, but her
pelvis tightened shamefully and her breath quickened. She ground herself
against the table.

"No." His voice, so
commanding, it quickened her desire to fever pitch.

Isabelle felt Snow smooth something
hard and cool over her exposed skin. He stroked it over her buttocks, down her
thighs and back to her bottom. The edge of the instrument snagged in the space
between them, where the rough surface caught at the delicate skin within and
made her gasp.

"You liked that, did
you?"

This time that hard edge rubbed
right through the crease. She moaned, without volition. She must truly be
wicked when such a sensation took her to the very brink. Abruptly, it was gone.
Snow was silent behind her. Her stomach fluttered in anticipation. Without
warning, the flat side of the wooden spoon thwacked her flesh, hard. Smack on
the other cheek. Heat bloomed along her skin. The pain was sharp but so sweet.
Her thighs opened helplessly. The blows rained down then, without mercy.
Something stirred inside her in response. The physical pain of the spanking
sparked a connection with her sorrow and guilt. It was if the pain outside made
the agony within more bearable. A final round of strikes and Snow paused.
Isabelle heard his footsteps again, as he crossed the room and returned to
stand behind her once more. Something dark slithered along the table. A leather
strap. Snow drew it over her back. The leather felt smooth, cold against her
reddened skin. She shuddered.

Isabelle heard the leather hiss
through the air and felt a line of fire as the strap hit the swollen surface of
her spanked bottom. She reared back in reaction, but Snow placed a large hand
in the small of her back and pushed her down. She wasn't going anywhere.

He gave her a moment to settle, to
accept what was about to happen. Isabelle forced herself to lie quiescent, and
allow the tension in her muscles to uncoil. Snow must have felt her surrender
because he removed his hand. She inhaled deeply, once, twice. The strap hissed
and fell again. Dimly, she heard the impact of leather on skin. Her flesh
burned and her spirit soared past the confines of body to a place of peace.
Sweet, sweet agony. Tears burned in her eyes and, finally, she let them fall,
gathering strength, until her grief burst from her chest in great, shuddering
sobs.

The strap fell on the table beside
her and her husband pulled her into his arms and carried her to bed.

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Isabelle found the letter on the
salver with the rest of her mail when she went to her desk in the morning room
the following day.

 

Dear Countess

It's time for us to meet. I know
your filthy secrets and have little compunction about sharing them, unless you
make it worth my while. Meet me at Blackfriars Bridge at noon, or I shall do
just that.  I am sure you don't want to lose another husband.

Come alone and tell no one. Or
I'll remove your husband myself.

 

Would her torment never end? Thank
God, Snow had risen early to ride in the park with Major Winter. She needed
time to think. What did this anonymous letter writer want from her, beyond
torturing her with his knowledge? He made no specific demands, but he clearly
wanted something. If he wanted money, why did he not name a specific sum?

She feared meeting with him. She
feared not going even more. God, what should she do?

Isabelle tried to calm her tortuous
thoughts. She had to retain her wits if she meant to triumph over her opponent.
If it was his intention to harm her, he could have done it before now.

She struck her palm in frustration.
The only person she could ask for advice was her husband, something the
blackmailer had forbidden her to do, with deadly consequences if she did not
obey.

She was weary of being a victim.
This time, she would act. Isabelle walked to the bell rope and pulled. She
glanced at the portrait of the last Countess of Snow. Was that a glimmer of
approval in her painted eyes?

I'll keep him safe
,
she promised,
whatever the cost
.

The door opened to admit Purvis,
the junior footman. Just the man she needed.

"Purvis, I'll need a hackney
in one hour."

*
* * * *

"You seem more settled this
morning, Julian."

Snow smiled. The summer sunshine
was warm on his face.

"I believe my wife and I have
finally reached a rapprochement. We begin to understand each other."

"This is excellent news, my
friend. I am happy for you."

"I'm taking her to see
Constable's latest exhibition this afternoon. He's done something modeled on a
landscape by Claude. Isabelle is quite anxious to attend."

Winter regarded him with awe.

"I had no idea you were so
interested in art."

"Neither did I."

They both laughed.

"Speaking of lovely women, how
is your ward, Elinor?"

Snow could have sworn the old
warrior blushed.

Winter cleared his throat.

"She's driving me to
distraction with all these new ideas about household management. Why she wants
to be a housekeeper, I'll never know. I told her she could have a Season in
town, but the cursed woman wasn't interested. She wants to run my house, like
some damned Roman goddess, what's her name."

Snow controlled his laughter, with
some difficulty.

"I think you mean Vesta."

"I don't understand bloody
women."

"Oh, major," said the
earl, as he clapped his friend on the shoulder, "tell me something I don't
know already."

"Very humorous. Come, I'll
race you to that tree." Winter dug in his heels and streaked away. Snow
followed, not much caring whether he won or not. He already possessed the only
prize he desired.

He won by a nose, a fact that the
major blamed on his horse being distracted by a squirrel, but Snow thought his
old friend had something on his mind.

They parted ways and Snow continued
on home. He looked forward to seeing Isabelle again and pleasing her by taking
her to the exhibit.

He was surprised when Isabelle
wasn't at home. Warwick explained she had called for a hackney and left some
time ago. When she didn't turn up in time to attend the exhibit, he was
concerned, and when dinner came and went, he was frantic.

He summoned Purvis to question him
again.

"No, my lord, the countess
didn't say where she was going. She asked me to procure her a hackney carriage
because she had an appointment."

"Those were her exact words,
that she had an appointment?"

"Yes, my lord. I walked down
to the square, found a carriage and told the driver to come by at eleven, just
like my lady requested. He got here on the dot and she went off."

Her maid, Nan, was just as helpful.
“Lady Snow hadn't said where she was going, though she had seemed a little
distracted.”

Finally, Snow called for his horse
and instructed the footmen to search for Isabelle. The search went on for
several hours before he finally called a halt. She was nowhere to be found. He
slammed into his study and poured himself a stiff measure of brandy. He tossed
it off and poured another. He was on the point of summoning a constable when
Warwick entered with a note.

"The groom said a lad left
this with him."

 

Dear Snow,

I fear this letter will come as
a shock, but I haven't known how to tell you. You see, I've met someone else, a
man whom I believe will make me truly happy. We are leaving the country, so you
won't need to worry about me anymore. I will always be grateful to you, but I
can never love you. I'm so very sorry. My lawyers will be in touch.

With sincere regards,

Isabelle

 

Snow tried to process what he was
reading, but it made no sense. He read her note again. She was leaving him, for
another man. They had been so close last night. Isabelle had wanted his hand on
her. They had come to an understanding. Snow twisted the letter in his hands,
like he wanted to wring her neck. Poor deluded fool, so sure the heart he had
entrusted to her care was in safe hands. He flung down the letter, shoved his
fingers through his hair.
Wait, that didn't make sense.

"Why the groom?"

"I beg your pardon, my
lord?"

"Why was this note left with
the groom? Why was it not delivered to the front door?"

"Perhaps it arrived when
everyone was out looking for her ladyship. Shall I ask at the stables..."

"Never mind. It doesn't
matter."

Snow picked up the letter and
tossed it in the grate. So his wife had left, just like the rest of them. Just
like his mother. Lightskirts, all of them. Oath-breaking, false-hearted
Jezebels. He was finished, with her, with every other so-called lady of
quality. All he needed was a real whore. One paid for their bodies and one
risked nothing, especially not one's heart.

Snow finished his drink and pulled
on his gloves. He was not a marrying man. Isabelle had proved him right.

*
* * * *

A fist hammered on the door. Snow
raised his head from the doxy's breast and shouted, "Fuck off. This room's
taken." He wrenched open the fall of his breeches and the whore obligingly
opened her legs.

The door crashed open. Snow felt a
hand on his collar just before he was lifted bodily from the bed and flung to
the floor.

Winter picked up a robe and threw
it at the girl. "Get out." She started to protest, but the major
jerked his chin towards the door and she fled.

Snow pulled himself up and
staggered to the dresser. He took a lengthy pull at the whiskey bottle.
"Crashing the party? I was willing to share the girl, you know."

Winter growled at him, "You
cretin. What the hell are you doing here, when your wife is missing?"

Snow showed his teeth.
"Missing? She left me, damn you." He picked up the bottle again only
to have Winter knock it out of his hand.

"That's not going to help you
get her back. Now get dressed; we're getting out of here." Winter flung
some coins on the bed and marched him, bleary-eyed, down the stairs. He threw
him into a waiting carriage and pounded on the roof.

The house seemed empty without
Isabelle. Snow lurched up the stairs to the first floor, to her room, where her
scent of lavender lingered.

"You see? She's gone, I told
you!"

He stumbled across the carpet to
one of the armchairs.

Winter followed behind him.
Frowning, he looked over her dressing table, opened several drawers and threw
open the wardrobe door. He turned and pulled the bell. Isabelle's maid entered
quietly and waited.

"Can you tell me what items
your mistress took with her? Clothing, jewels?" Nan curtsied, performing a
thorough search of Isabelle's dresser and wardrobe while the major waited in silence.
Snow thought of the whiskey bottle in his study.

"Beg pardon, sir, my lord, but
there's nothing missing, save her everyday cloak and a reticule. Even the
jewels she keeps in the dresser are still here."

Winter wheeled around from the
window. "Nothing is missing?"

"Not a stitch, sir."

Snow blinked. "But that makes
no sense."

"Unless she didn't know she
wasn't coming back?" The major turned to Nan. "Search everything. I
don't care if we have to tear the room apart."

The little maid gasped and hastily
opened a drawer. Winter started in the wardrobe.

Snow stared at them. "What the
hell are you doing?" He rose unsteadily.

Winter turned around, a small
casket open in his hands. He lifted out a pile of letters. Snow snatched them
away. They were all addressed to Isabelle in the same block printing. He tore
one open and read:

 

Dear Countess Snow,

How lovely that title must sound
to you.  After all, how could a mere baronet compete with a viscount?  Though
why two men of property would want to wed a trollop like you exceeds all bounds
of common sense.  Tell me, what does your new husband prefer, your loose morals
or your tight cunt?

You'll be hearing from me again,
Countess.

 

Snow looked up at his friend, heart
twisted in anguish. "She was being blackmailed."

Winter took the letters, scanning
several of them in turn. He spoke to the maid. "We'll need coffee, lots of
it, in his lordship's study." He turned to his friend. "Pull yourself
together, Julian. Your wife needs you."

Snow still stood, staring blankly
at the carpet. He looked up, shook himself out like a dog climbing out of
water, and bellowed through the open door. "Cheem! I need a bath and clean
clothes. At once!"

The staff tripped over themselves
to assist their master, and it was less than half an hour before a cleaned-up
and much chastened earl strode into his study where Winter pored over the
letters. He nodded to the coffee. Snow poured himself a cup, refilled the
major's and threw himself in his chair. A headache threatened behind his eyes.
He sipped the coffee gratefully.

Caine put down the last letter and
tapped it, pursing his lips.

"The first letter arrived only
days after you were wed."

Snow rubbed his reddened eyes.
"Isabelle never said a word."

"Julian."

 Snow looked at his friend, his
brain fogged with drink and misery.

"Isabelle is not your mother.
She is a good woman, who overcame a terrible past, to find a new life with you,
one you have chosen to share with her. Don't give up on her now." Winter
bent over the letters again. "And, Julian? You are not your father."

 "These letters, they hint of
some knowledge of what occurred the night Lady Snow's first husband died. But
there is no mention of any actual proof, only insinuations, along with the idea
that you, as the unwitting husband, would be angered if you knew the truth
about your wife. The tone is increasingly threatening, until this last one...it
mentions a meeting..."

Snow leaned over the desk and
grabbed the letter.

"A meeting? Where?"

"Blackfriars Bridge. They were
to meet yesterday at noon."

"He must have taken her at the
bridge or soon after." Snow cursed and paced around the room. "I'm
the worst fool in England, and the most useless husband."

"No time for recriminations,
Julian. We'll go to the bridge and see if anyone witnessed the abduction and
make our plans from there. That bridge is usually crowded, so someone must have
seen something."

Snow stopped in place. "You're
right. Isabelle needs me."

He whirled and strode through the
door.

"Coming, major?"

Winter sprinted after him.

*
* * * *

Dawn had barely broken, but already
Blackfriars Bridge teemed with traffic. Horses, carriages and pedestrians
streamed back and forth across the Thames. Amid the noise and dirt, Snow
searched frantically for anyone who might have seen Isabelle. He was met with
blank stares and head-shaking. One enterprising gentleman even told him to
shove off. Snow held onto his temper with difficulty.

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