Escaping from Bath and the news that her former love is about to marry another, Isabel, the young widowed Marchioness of Axbridge, accepts an invitation to her cousin’s house party. Yet, instead of finding respite, she stumbles into a domestic crisis of majestic proportions: The kitchen staff has succumbed to the influenza.
If that weren’t bad enough, her former sweetheart arrives with his fiancée, seeking shelter from the increasingly hazardous snow storm. Trapped inside Chernock Hall with a volatile mix of house guests, including abolitionists and slave owners, Isabel wishes she could hide below stairs for the duration. But, alas, she cannot. While helping in the kitchen, Isabel is cornered by her cousin’s disreputable friend, Marcus Bateman, who challenges and provokes her at every turn.
At last, the storm subsides. However, the avalanche of repercussions cannot be undone. Caught in the grip of the terrible winter of 1813, will Isabel’s greatest threat come from the weather, her abolitionist views, or from falling in love again?
The young boy called a farewell as he left the shed for his sleeping quarters, and Mr Bateman observed the cow and calf for a few moments, before walking across to the drinking trough, scooping a handful of water out, and rinsing his hands. When he returned to where Isabel waited in the middle of the shed, she asked, “Were you also employed as a farm-hand when you lived in America, Mr Bateman?”
He gave her a long, considered look. “It behooves a landowner to have a basic understanding of matters pertaining to the management of his estates, Lady Axbridge.”
“Indeed. It seems, however, that you wear so many hats that it is difficult to know which occupation fits you. Are you a cook or a farmer? A shipping magnate or a landed gentleman? I do not know how to think of you.”
“I am flattered that I feature so largely in your thoughts.”
“You do not – well not largely,” she revised, catching his amused expression.
“Are you certain of that? You forgot to mention the most infamous of my occupations, the one which should at least make some impression on your mind.”
“Which one is that?” she asked, taking a step back. There was something in his teasing grin she didn’t quite trust.
He removed the lantern from her hand and placed it on the stone floor, and took her in his arms. She had to crane her neck to see his expression. His eyes glinted in the lantern light. “That of a rake.” His lips lowered to hers.
Isabel’s knees weakened as his lips slanted expertly over hers, and she clutched the front of his greatcoat. Her heart pounded deafeningly in her ears again, and she struggled to breathe. His lips moved away from hers as he trailed light kisses over her cheeks, and she sighed at the exquisite sensation. She didn’t want him to stop.
A gentle lowing from the corner of the shed broke the spell, and she put her hands up to her burning face.
“You – you shouldn’t have!”
He picked up the lantern and held it high so that it illuminated her. “Why not?”
“I did not come out here to dally with you, Mr Bateman.”
“Dally! Such an innocent word. But you are an innocent, are you not? Even though you have been married, you do not have the air of a worldly-wise widow.”
Isabel stood straighter in an effort to shake off the lethargy which still lingered in her limbs. It wouldn’t do to let him see the stunning effect his kiss had had on her. She needed to get back on safer ground. Quickly. “Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness.”
He raised his brows and then took her by the arm and led her to a nearby wooden crate. “Sit down for a while. I want to remain here until the calf stands on his own. So you have a fondness for Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas? Why does that not surprise me?”
“You have read her works?” Isabel gingerly lowered herself onto the crate, and then froze. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to have sat down. Now he loomed over her…
“What do you think of her thoughts regarding the education of women?”
He held the lantern higher to study her face. “It is a fine idea to give women access to the same educational opportunities as men. However, I don’t believe society would countenance freeing women from the domestic trap.”
Isabel stamped her feet on the flag-stoned floor in an effort to keep warm. “So you do see it as a trap?”
“Don’t most men? Parson’s Mousetrap is designed to keep society in order. Without such conventions, and the restraining influence women put on men, we would quickly descend into such ramshackle ways that women would be constantly put to the blush.”
“But they would cease to blush if they were treated as adults and not as dependent children. Wollstonecraft says she does not wish women to have power over men, but only over themselves.”
“Indeed – although it would be a sad thing if women were so in control of themselves that they lost the ability to blush. It is one of the more charming characteristics of the fairer sex, I’ve often thought.”
“A rake would say that.”
He laughed. “Do you truly believe women have no power in society?”
She frowned as she pondered the question. “I cannot speak for all women, but I have felt powerless. When women owe their duty to their families and marry to please their fathers, they can never be entirely free. And after they marry, their husbands assume complete control over them. I believe Wollstonecraft was correct when she likened men’s domination of women to the planters’ domination of slaves, although we live in far greater comfort than they, of course, which makes me loath to compare myself to a Caribbean slave. However, the abstract concept of slavery applies to how women are treated by men in general – as their legal property. Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood? Only to sweeten the cup of man?”
“Quoting philosophy in a cow shed. You are an unusual woman.”
“Philosophy is one of my interests.”
He set the lantern back on the ground, and took her hands in his. “And what of love, ma belle? Does that interest you?”
She blinked. The darkness of the shed provided a dangerously intimate atmosphere. He held her hands, called her “ma belle”… she should not allow it. But she didn’t pull her hands away.
“As a young girl, I fancied myself in love,” she said slowly. “But now I am older, I see how foolish it is to allow an emotion that is so unstable to govern one’s life. Reason should form the basis of our decisions. I forgot that recently… I won’t forget it again.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alissa Baxter wrote her first Regency romance, The Dashing Debutante, during her long university holidays. After travelling the world, she settled down to write her second Regency romance, Lord Fenmore’s Wager, which was inspired by her time living on a country estate in England. Also the author of two contemporary romances, Send and Receive and The Blog Affair, Alissa currently lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two sons.