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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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"There," Winter clutched
his arm. "The hackney stand. They may have hired a coach here to transport
Isabelle, if he didn't have his own. He couldn't have just walked away with
her."

One of the ostlers heard him out
and spit between his teeth.

"Might 'ave seen 'im, mind
you, sir, oi couldn't be sure."

"He would have been with a young
woman, medium height, reddish hair, well-dressed."

"Ginger-haired?" He
scratched his neck. "Blue dress? Didn't seem too happy to see the gent. I
seen her. Yestiday sometime. That the one?"

Snow nearly embraced him.

"Yes, that's her. Where did
they go?"

"He come 'ere, first, like and
'ired a carriage, then drove over to bridge. Met up with your lydy and took 'er
up in the carriage. They went off down south, across the bridge."

Snow thanked the ostler and tossed
him a coin, which the fellow caught and pocketed in a single motion.

"They could have gone
anywhere." Despair threatened, but he shook it off. "Where
next?"

The major rubbed his jaw.

"You won't like it, but I want
to go back to the house. There is something about those letters that bothers
me. I want to look at them again."

Snow hesitated. He wanted to be on
the move, tracking Isabelle and her captor southward. But he knew Winter and
trusted the major's instincts. If there was a chance to learn more from
examining the letters, then that was the prudent move. If only every instinct
didn't urge him to ride after them, even not knowing where they were going. He
nodded and reluctantly turned his horse homeward. He sensed that time was not
on his side.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 The groom hurried to take Snow's
horse. The earl took the stairs two at a time and burst in the door.

"Any word from her ladyship,
Warwick?"

"Nothing, my lord, I'm afraid.
There is something else that I found when we searched the house, as you
ordered."

Snow blew out an impatient breath.
"Well, what was it?"

Warwick looked troubled. "The
lock on the cabinet in your study was broken. Nothing was touched anywhere
else."

Snow strode to his study. The
cabinet door hung loosely on its hinge, the lock shattered. Everything seemed
in order, but something was missing. The bottle of laudanum was gone. Snow
cursed, banged the door shut, and threw himself in his chair. He eyed the
brandy bottle.
Best to keep a clear head.

"I've ordered breakfast."
The major followed him into the room. He cocked an appraising eye. "You
should eat something, Julian."

"I had a bottle of laudanum
locked up in the cupboard. I dispense it when a member of the household is in
need, usually for headaches. Someone broke into the cupboard and took it."

The major looked grim.

"I don't like the
implications. Someone here must know more than they're saying."

"You think a member of my
household is involved."

"Don't you?"

Snow pounded a fist into his thigh.

"Isabelle is out there,
somewhere, with an unknown ruffian bent on villainy. You think someone I know,
someone I trust, is behind it. How? And why, for the love of Christ? Where is
she? Who took her? She must be so terrified..."

"Julian, stop imagining the
worst. We'll find out who took your wife. We'll find Isabelle."

Winter's calm manner had its usual
effect. Snow took a deep breath and nodded.

"There was something about
those letters that bothers me." The major leafed through the pile. "I
checked with Warwick and the footmen, to see if any letters had been brought by
the house. They all confirmed the only letters in the past several days have
come by post. But look at the letters Isabelle received. They haven't been hand
stamped...here, look at them closely."

Snow looked at the letters and then
at his friend, suspicion dawning.

"These letters never came by
the post."

"Then someone must have
slipped them into the pile of posted letters."

"But who? The only person who
handles all my correspondence is Trent."

"Then let's talk to
Trent."

"Warwick!" The butler
hurried into the study. "Fetch Mr. Trent, at once."

"I'm very sorry, my lord, but
Mr. Trent hasn't come in today. Nor has he sent any word."

Snow lifted a brow. "Rather
unusual, wouldn't you say?"

"Most unusual, my lord. I even
sent Purvis round his lodgings, I was that concerned. But no one has seen him
at his lodging for several days."

Winter stood up.

"Then it must be Trent who has
her. He had access to the mail and your study."

Snow shook his head.

"Where would he take her? And
why, for the love of Christ? Why would he take Isabelle? There's been no demand
for money...or anything else."

"That's because Trent already
has what he wanted."

Snow swore. "Isabelle."

Mrs. Hutchins and one of the maids
entered with platters of cold meat, hot muffins, and tankards of ale. Buoyed by
their discoveries, Snow and the major ate their breakfast with appetite.

"We should have a look at
Trent's lodgings, see if he's left some clue to his whereabouts." Winter
wiped a smear of butter from his chin.

"I'm trying to remember where
he's from. I'm sure he mentioned it at some point, but truthfully, I wasn't
interested enough to inquire."

"You always were a selfish
ass." The major pushed away his plate. "Time to leave."

Snow drained his tankard and set it
down with a thump.
Stay strong, my love. I'm coming for you.

*
* * * *

Trent had lodgings in the City, on
a narrow street near St. Paul's, within walking distance of Blackfriars Bridge.
His landlady told them he'd mentioned a trip to the country, though he hadn't
said where. She agreed to let them in the room, which was scarcely furnished.
It showed signs of having been hastily emptied: drawers left open and the
wardrobe door hung askew. All empty. A desk by the window was bare except for a
used blotter. The single drawer held nothing but unpaid bills and vowels, all
for small sums. Snow bent to check the fireplace but found only ashes. He
cursed and kicked over the fire iron.

Winter glanced at him but said
nothing. He rifled through each drawer of the bureau methodically. Then he
pulled each one out, checking behind and underneath.

"Nothing. Trent was very
thorough. Anything in the desk?"

"Bills and the like, nothing
too expensive."

The major crossed over to the desk,
flipping through the bills.

"Seems Trent was fond of a
flutter. He owed about ten pounds to a bookie in Epsom."

Snow frowned.

"Epsom." Something
flitted through his memory. He'd been speaking to Trent, after the Derby races
last year. Snow had backed the winner and Trent had said, curse it, what had he
said? He paced the small room, brow furrowed in concentration.

The major's head lifted, like a
hound scenting a fox.

"Something?"

"I was telling Trent about the
horse I backed in the Derby, Sweet Alice. He said he'd seen her train down at
Epsom Downs before the races." Snow stopped, shook his head, the memory
eluding him.

Winter picked up on his thought.
"He had time to go see the horses at Epsom. He's your secretary; where
were you at the time?"

"We traveled down together.
Trent had some leave coming and he planned to go the races, but went down early
to spend time with his mother." Snow grinned, remembering. "Because
his mother had a cottage in the country not far from Epsom."

"Got him." The major's
answering smile was ferocious.

*
* * * *

Isabelle's head swam as she tried
to sit up. Nausea churned her stomach. She flopped back upon the pallet. The
last thing she remembered was walking on the bridge, to meet the unknown author
of those horrible letters.  There had been footsteps behind her and
then...blankness.

A heavy tread sounded on the bare
wooden boards.

"Back with us, my dear
Countess? How's the head? I fear I might have been too liberal with your
husband's laudanum."

Isabelle blinked. That explained
why her head felt stuffed with cotton wool and she felt sick to her stomach.

"Mr. Trent! Why are
you...where are we..."

Trent shook a reproving finger.

"You really are rather stupid,
aren't you, my lady?" He gestured wide. "I am the author, nay the
creator of all this. My lord Snow deprived of his lovely wife, you imprisoned
here, as you so richly deserve, well, it's all very satisfying, isn't it?
Especially for a moralist like myself."

"A moralist? You are a
kidnapper and a villain!"

"You wound me, my lady. Let us
examine the facts and then perhaps you shall have to rethink who the villain
truly is."

Isabelle rolled her eyes. She'd
never suspected the secretary of having such a theatrical bent, as well as
being a blackguard. She was almost relieved that her assailant was only Mr.
Trent.

"Amused, my lady? You won't
be, I assure you. Picture a young woman, fresh from the country, a rose in
bloom, so to speak. Once in London, her position fell through. Adrift, she took
employment on the stage. Not the ideal occupation for a gently-bred girl, but
needs must. The night she made her debut, she caught the eye of a noble
gentleman, a man some would term a rake and others a libertine. He took her
into his keeping, thus assuring her ruin. When he tired of her, the lord
cruelly cast her aside. Eventually, she drifted into prostitution, lost to her
family forever. That man was your husband, Julian Beaufort, the Earl of
Snow."

"If you hate him so much, then
why accept employment with him?"

Trent crouched down.

"That's the beauty of it, my
dear countess. I infiltrated the enemy ranks, not difficult for a man of my
address. A few forged references, and a proper show of ingratiation. That's all
it took. Once employed, I searched for a way to avenge myself, reading letters,
deciphering his ledgers. And then he married you. Really, it was as though he
gave me a gift. The proud aristocrat allied to the Widow of Woe. It
was...delicious."

Isabelle's stomach turned over
again, not just with sickness. The way Trent recounted his history reminded her
of her late husband. Charlie had the same talent of twisting facts to meet his
own version of reality. The drink had merely exaggerated it. She had
underestimated Trent. She must keep her head, and try to find a way out of this
fix.

"You've been very clever, Mr.
Trent, I am bound to admit."

He looked at her sharply, perhaps
expecting prevarication.

"You have, unfortunately,
confirmed my own fears where my husband is concerned." She forced herself
to smile ruefully. "I am not lucky in my choice of spouses."

Trent laughed, low and incredulous.

"Unlucky? Does your gall have
no bounds? I know you killed your husband." He leaned closer. "Don't
you want to know how?"

Isabelle swallowed.
Don't think
about that now. Keep calm.

"Of course, Mr. Trent. You
have a captive audience."

He smirked.

"Your late husband, the
unlamented Sir Charles Croucher, baronet, was made from the same stuff as your
current husband. Drinking, gambling, whoring, his infamy knew no bounds. But,
of course, you would know that, better than most. He also enjoyed despoiling
innocent girls before discarding them. Quite by chance, I encountered such a
young woman. She was very willing to share her information with me. She was
there the night your husband died."

Isabelle's breath quickened. She
was close, so close to learning the truth about Charlie, and she was sick with
fear. Her nails dug into her palms.

Fear had let John control her, and
practically imprison her. Fear had forced her to stay with Charlie and her
daughter had died. She'd been weak and compliant. She disgusted herself.
Isabelle slowed her breathing and closed her eyes. When she opened them, Trent
was staring at her, puzzled.

"Well then, Mr. Trent. Tell me
what she said, and then we will both know what happened that night."

Trent's brows rose.

"You mean that you don't
know?" He might be vengeful and vainglorious, but he wasn't stupid.

Isabelle settled herself against
the wall. A curious kind of relief settled over her.

"I have no memory of my
husband's death."

"You're serious? Oh, this is
rich." He bounded to his feet and took a quick turn around the room.

"I'm trying to decide if that
makes it better or worse." Trent tapped his chin with one finger.
"Better, I think. You've been squirming, not knowing when your husband
would find out, and you didn't even know what it was he would discover. Allow
me to elucidate." He pulled out a chair and sat down.

"Your husband dismissed
everyone that night. You and your child were both ill. What you didn't know was
that your husband's discarded mistress crept back into the house. You see, she
wanted her due. She found your husband stabbed to death in the parlor. You were
wandering around with a knife in your hand, and your clothes stained with his
blood."

Isabelle heard a roaring in her
ears. She felt light-headed and cold, so cold.

She saw Charlie, drunk and
disheveled, sneering at her. She tried to tell him that their daughter was
dead, but he wouldn't listen. Why hadn't he sent for the doctor? He kept
drinking. He pushed her and she fell. She pulled herself up by holding on to
his desk. She saw the pearl-handled knife Charlie used as a letter opener. She
took in her hand. The steel gleamed in the candle light. The fire in the hearth
had gone out and it was freezing.

Charlie was...unreachable. He
laughed and took another swig from the brandy bottle. She staggered towards him.
Any trace of the man she'd married was gone, erased by years of neglect and
misuse. Her daughter lay dead in her cold cradle. She was done. She raised the
knife.

It slid in so easily. Quite
surprising, really. So Isabelle stabbed him again, and again, until he finally
stopped laughing. She dropped the knife and went back to the nursery. She
picked up her daughter and settled down in the rocker with the tiny body in her
lap. She rocked, singing a lullaby softly, so as not to wake the baby. Isabelle
was still there when John arrived.

BOOK: Taming His Scandalous Countess
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