The Countess Chapter Eleven

So," Grace said the moment Christiana finished her explanations and fel silent.

"Your marriage to Dicky-George wasn't legal, because it was Richard Fairgrave, Earl of Radnor on the marital contract and George was just impersonating Richard when he signed the papers?"

"I think that's probably true," Christiana admitted.

"But you've now consummated that il egal marriage to Dicky-George with Dicky-Richard . . . Does that make the marriage to Dicky-Richard legal now?

Or . . ." Grace let the words trail off, but then she didn't have to say it, Christiana knew what she was asking. Was she now legal y married to Richard or was she a fal en woman in a sham of a marriage with a dead man who hadn't been who he claimed to be?

Real y, Christiana thought, she'd believed she had problems when Richard had come walking into the bal and she'd thought Dicky resurrected, but it just kept getting more and more complicated, the problems mounting up one atop the other. Clearing her throat, she said, "I do not think so, though Richard may let it stand. He wishes to see how wel we deal together before he decides."

Grace snorted with disgust. "He apparently felt you dealt wel enough together last night when he consummated the marriage his brother got him into."

"Yes, wel , that may have been my fault," Christiana admitted, flushing hotly. "I was trying to see his strawberry and . . . er . . ."

"And fel on his pole?" Grace asked dryly.

"Grace!" Christiana cried with shock.

"Wel , listen to yourself trying to take the blame," the maid said impatiently. "You were an untried girl ere last night, the blood on the sheets proves that. And you were inebriated as wel . And you thought him your husband while he knew otherwise," she added grimly. "You are the innocent in this. It's those two in the next room at fault for al that has occurred."

"She's right."

Christiana swung around to see a grim-faced Richard in the connecting doorway to the master bedroom. He'd agreed to wait in the master bedroom while she explained the situation to Grace, but had apparently grown impatient. Christiana bit her lip as he now crossed the room toward them, worried that he might take Grace to task for what some would consider overstepping in even asking questions. However, Grace had been a member of her household al her life. While she was her maid, she was also like family to her. Christiana loved the older woman, and knew that love and caring was returned. It was the only reason the woman felt she could be so free with her tongue. Fortunately, Richard seemed to understand that and gave Grace a nod of respect. "You are right. I am the one who decided last night that I would let the marriage stand." He turned to Christiana. "I had no idea you were stil a virgin at the time, but I did know the marriage probably wasn't legal and that you were somewhat the worse for drink. I never should have al owed the situation to progress as it did."

Christiana stared at him wide-eyed. Dicky had never taken responsibility for his actions or faults. He had always blamed any mistake made or insult given on someone else, usual y her. As far as she could tel he'd blamed her for everything from his stumbling over his own feet to the rain fal ing.

"Wel , what are you going to do about it, my lord?" Grace asked abruptly when Christiana just continued to stare at the man.

"We shal have another ceremony to ensure it is legal," he announced solemnly.

"We can tel everyone we wish to renew our vows to explain the need for it."

"Wel , thank God for that." Grace stood abruptly and headed for the door. "I'd best go down and tel Langley and Lisa you are fine."

"Tel them she's fine?" Richard asked with a frown.

Grace nodded. "You've been up here a long time. Young Robert was worried, so I offered to check and be sure she was al right and report back."

Christiana saw a shaft of irritation flash across Richard's face, but he merely grunted and waited for the maid to leave. The moment the door closed behind her, he glanced to Christiana and gave a wry, apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't ask if you were wil ing to al ow the marriage to stand. Are you wil ing? Wil you marry me?"

She blinked in surprise, both at the apology and his comment. Christiana wasn't used to such consideration. Besides, it wasn't as if she had much choice in the matter. They had already consummated the marriage, legal or not.

Apparently taking her hesitation for reluctance, Richard knelt before her and took her hands in his. "I have heard enough to realize the last year with George has been hard. But I promise you I am not like him. I wil be a good husband to you. I wil

- "

Christiana brought his words to an end by covering his mouth with her hand.

When he frowned around her fingers and raised his eyebrows, she sighed and said,

"Dicky made - I mean George. George made me many promises before we married about the wonderful husband he would be and the glorious life we would have together . . . and he broke every one. I would rather you not make promises, my lord. Lies are easily spoken. Actions are real y more tel ing."

"Very wel . No promises," Richard agreed when she let her hand drop away from his mouth. "But you haven't answered my question. Do you wish to let the marriage stand and hold the ceremony again?"

Christiana smiled wryly at the question. His first questions, Are you willing? And Will you marry me? would have been easier to answer. She had little choice real y if she wished to avoid scandal. But his Do you wish to let the marriage stand and hold the ceremony again? was much more complicated. Christiana was so confused at that point she didn't know what she wished for.

Certainly Richard seemed much nicer than George, but despite what they had done in this room last night he was virtual y a stranger to her, and George had seemed nice prior to the wedding as wel . How was she to know if Richard might not turn into a control ing and critical monster the moment the vows were repeated as wel ? She couldn't, and was afraid to trust that he wouldn't and be hurt again as she had by George, for truly that had been the worst thing about the way he'd treated her, her sense of betrayal and hurt that the man who had claimed to love her had then treated her so cruel y. At least she would have the nights to look forward to this time , some part of her mind pointed out and Christiana glanced away from Richard with a blush at the thought. It was no smal consolation. Her memories of the pleasure they'd shared were vivid and glorious. Christiana supposed she would just have to hope that was not the only good part of their marriage, that he was kinder and showed her more respect and consideration than George had. Even a modicum of either behavior would make it bearable if she had those passionate nights too. Clearing her throat, she forced herself to meet his gaze again and nodded solemnly. "Very wel . The marriage wil stand so long as we have another ceremony."

She swal owed and then added quietly, "Thank you."

Richard shook his head. "Do not thank me. I do not want you to feel I have sacrificed myself and done you some great honor by standing behind the marriage.

This does not just make things easier for you, but for me as wel ." He squeezed her hand and added, "And I have high hopes that we wil deal wel with each other and in time become good friends and partners."

Christiana peered at him silently. Aside from the fact that he was trying to ensure she did not feel beholden to him, which seemed very kind to her, Richard also wasn't making false claims of love and adoration or even like and attraction. He was being honest and stating exactly how the marriage would benefit him, and that he hoped for more in the future. Before she'd met George the very unflowery words would have upset her; now they made her relax and want to smile. She had learned her lesson wel and would take truth over empty lies any day.

"Al right?" he asked when she continued to stare at him silently.

Christiana managed a smal , sincere smile and nodded. "Al right."

"Good." He smiled widely and stood, pul ing her to her feet with him. "Now, come along. We should join your sisters and Langley before he comes charging up here to rescue you."

He said the words teasingly enough, but with a slight edge that made her wonder.

However, it suddenly occurred to Christiana that she hadn't told him about Langley's suspicions.

"He thinks you are George," she blurted as he began to urge her out of the room.

Richard drew her to a halt, his gaze sharp as he asked, "He does?"

She nodded and quickly explained the conversation she'd had with Robert the night before. When she finished, they were both silent as Richard digested what he'd learned.

"I see," he said final y as he took her arm to walk her along the hal . "That explains a lot of his behavior, and I suppose I should have wondered how you knew about my birthmark. It's not common knowledge." He was silent as they descended the stairs, but at the bottom he paused, and turned her to face him. "Do you trust Robert?"

Her eyebrows flew up at the question. It seemed to suggest he would trust her judgment in this very serious matter, which definitely made a nice change from George, who hadn't even trusted her judgment in the day to day running of the house or the choosing of clothes.

"Yes," she said simply. "He is like family."

Richard nodded. "Then I shal take him aside and explain matters to him."

Christiana felt something unclench the slightest bit around her heart. She also felt the sting of tears in her eyes and turned away from Richard before he could see them. She didn't know where they were coming from anyway. It was foolish to want to cry with gratitude just because he was being both kind and apparently respecting her opinion. Ridiculous. Pathetic, real y, she decided with self-disgust.

"There you are! I thought I heard voices out here."

Christiana glanced around to see Robert Maitland standing several feet away, in the parlor door. Grateful for the distraction he offered, she beamed a smile on the man, but her smile dimmed when she noted Lisa behind him. The displeasure on her youngest sister's face had her eyebrows rising, but then she glanced back to Robert as he spoke again.

"The tea is growing cold. You should real y come join us," he said firmly.

"Actual y, Langley, if you don't mind, I need to have a word with you first," Richard said, taking Christiana's arm and urging her up the hal toward the other man.

"Oh?" Langley narrowed his eyes and then glanced to Christiana.

Reading the silent question as to her wel -being in his eyes, she smiled gently and said, "He has the strawberry. Though, it's real y more of a rosebud if you ask me, Robert."

Langley didn't comment, in fact he didn't look any happier to know Richard was Richard and Christiana supposed it was because he worried she was now stuck in this marriage to a man who had been horrible to her the last year. Sighing, she reached out to squeeze his arm in passing and said, " 'Tis al right. He's not the man we thought he was. He'l explain everything."

Christiana then continued on into the parlor, leaving Richard to sort out Robert.

She didn't get far into the room, however; Lisa blocked her way and didn't appear eager to move.

"Shal we sit and pour the tea while we wait for the men?" Christiana suggested uncertainly. When Lisa didn't respond at once, but merely glared after Robert as he moved off with Richard, she asked, "Is something amiss?"

Lisa let her breath out on a smal impatient, huff. "He's just so . . . annoying."

"Robert?" Christiana asked with surprise.

"Yes, him." Lisa turned abruptly and stomped back to drop into a chair by the tea tray. "He wouldn't stop worrying about you. From the minute you left he was watching the door like a hawk and then started asking where you were and even sent Grace to check on you. Good Lord, he was acting like Richard was some murderous fiend.

He's your husband. What did Robert think was going to happen to you?"

"Ah." Christiana sat down on the sofa across from Lisa, unsure what to say. Part of her wanted to babble out al that had happened. However, she'd rather explain it to both sisters at the same time than have to do it twice, so merely said, "Robert is aware that things have not been ideal between Richard and myself this last year and is just worried."

"Wel , he worries too much about you," she grumbled, unappeased.

Christiana's eyebrows rose. Lisa actual y sounded jealous and it made her wonder if the girl's feelings for Langley weren't more than just the sisterly type affections Christiana and Suzette felt for the man, but merely said, "He worries about al of us: you, me and Suzette. Speaking of Suzette," she added with a frown.

"Where is she?"

"Oh, she muttered something about changing her slippers and left shortly after you did," Lisa said on a sigh.

"Oh." Christiana glanced toward the door, wondering where the girl was . . . and where Daniel was as wel . Lord Woodrow had left her and Richard upstairs some time ago and, she'd thought, joined everyone in the parlor, but it seemed not.

"We may as wel drink the tea before it grows stone cold," Lisa decided and began to pour.

Christiana murmured a thank-you as the younger girl handed her a cup.

"I knew he wasn't you," Langley muttered, peering over George's face when Richard pul ed back the blanket for him. "Not at first, or I would have warned Christiana away from him. But then I saw little of him at first. It wasn't until they were married and living here in London that I began to suspect something was amiss.

Christiana was so tense the first time I came to visit, her smile strained, her eyes constantly dancing to him as if afraid she may have said or done something to upset him. Then the next time he had the butler turn me away. The second time that happened I knew something was wrong and waited until I saw Grace come out. I made her tel me what was going on and when she told me how he was treating her .

. ." Langley's mouth tightened and then he sighed and said, "The bastard has treated Christiana like dirt this last year, and from what I recal ed of you from school, you just didn't seem the type. George, on the other hand . . ."

Richard pul ed the blanket back up to again cover George's face. His brother looked worse every time he looked at him and it was becoming obvious they couldn't keep him around much longer. While the open window was keeping the room cool, he would soon start to smel . They had to resolve the matter of who had poisoned George swiftly so they could lay the man and the matter to rest and get on with life.

"Wil you be moving him to the family vault on the way to Gretna Green then?"

Langley asked, heading for the bedroom door, apparently eager to escape the room.

"Daniel seems to think we should keep the body here until the situation is resolved, just in case," Richard admitted as they left the bedroom.

"Wel you aren't going to be able to keep him here much longer," Langley said dryly as he watched Richard lock the door. "Surely he would be fine in the family vault? At least you needn't worry a servant or someone else wil come across him there."

"True," Richard murmured and liked the idea of moving his brother to the family vault. Real y it was starting to get a bit disturbing having him here, and it was becoming obvious that their efforts to keep him chil ed weren't working al that wel . "I think perhaps you're right. I wil talk to Daniel and see if he can come up with any faults in the plan."

"Faults in what plan?"

Both men turned to peer at Daniel as he strode toward them. Richard couldn't help noticing that the man was already halfway up the hal to them and yet the hal had been empty just seconds ago when they'd stepped into it. That realization made his eyes shift instinctively to Suzette's bedroom door, which was just steps behind Daniel now.

"Where did you come from, Woodrow?" Langley asked abruptly, apparently having noted the same things Richard had. Or perhaps it was the fact that Daniel's hair was a bit mussed, his jacket was wrinkled, and his cravat missing that put the displeased suspicion in Langley's eyes, he thought with amusement as he waited for Daniel to explain himself.

"Oh . . . I . . . er . . ." He waved vaguely back the way he'd come, and then paused abruptly as Suzette's door suddenly opened and she hurried out, headed for the stairs, hissing, "Daniel! Daniel, you forgot your cravat."

Richard bit his lip to hold back a laugh, and glanced to Daniel to see him rol ing his eyes. It was Robert, however, who snapped, "Suzette!"

Coming to a shuddering halt, she glanced back, her already wide eyes growing even wider as she spotted the three men in the hal .

"Oh." Straightening, she turned to face them, and gestured toward the stairs, but stopped as she noted the cravat waving about, and quickly jerked the hand behind her back as if she hoped they hadn't noticed it. "I was just going downstairs."

Richard coughed into his hand to hide the laugh that would not be held back and Suzette scowled at him, and then sighed with exasperation and moved up the hal toward them. She shoved the cravat at Daniel without another word and then simply turned to march silently away up the hal . Daniel put his cravat back on as he watched her go, his eyes locked on her behind, Richard noted. When he'd finished, he turned back, took in Langley's narrow-eyed gaze and said stiffly, "We are getting married."

"You've decided for certain have you?" Richard asked with amusement.

"I am not certain that is the correct phrasing for it," he said wryly. "It would be more fitting to say I have bowed to the inevitable. The woman is a force of nature."

"That she is," Langley agreed, his tone dry and attitude relaxing now that he knew Suzette's reputation and future were safe. "So, when is the trip to Gretna Green to occur? I should like to accompany you."

"The sooner the better," Daniel said grimly. "If Suzette jumps out and drags me into one more room I cannot guarantee she wil reach Gretna as pure as she is now, and she is already less pure today than she was yesterday."

Richard burst out laughing.

Even Langley smiled, apparently not minding the frankness now that Daniel had assured him he was marrying the girl, but he also raised an eyebrow in Richard's direction and asked, "What are you laughing about? From what Christiana said to me earlier she is definitely not pure anymore."

"She told you that?" Richard asked with amazement.

"I was assuring her that we could get the marriage annul ed and she had to explain that that wasn't the case anymore," he said dryly, and then shrugged.

"Since last night at the bal was when we realized it could be annul ed, I'm guessing last night after the bal was when that situation changed."

"Erm . . . yes, wel  - " Richard paused and raised his eyebrows as he noted Christiana's maid, Grace, striding up the hal leading two maids. Al three women carried a col ection of bedding, blankets and pil ows. As she drew abreast of them, he frowned and asked, "What's al this?"

"I asked Mil y and Sal y to help me make up a room for you," Grace said calmly as she opened the door to the guest room across from the master bedroom.

"A room for me?" he asked with surprise as she ushered the younger girls inside.

"Yes. You cannot sleep in the master bedroom until the bed is repaired," she said sensibly.

"No, but there is no need to go to this trouble, I wil just sleep - "

"In the spare room until a certain situation is made legal," Grace said firmly. She gave him a hard smile and added, "Lady Christiana asked me to see to it, and so I am."

Richard gaped after the woman as she slipped into the bedroom and closed the door.

"Hmm. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised," Daniel said, not hiding his amusement. Langley was no better, chuckling openly without even bothering to try to cover it behind a cough.

Richard scowled at them both. "I think we should head for Gretna Green this afternoon. There is real y no need to wait."

"Er . . ." Daniel glanced to Langley and then urged Richard a few feet away to say quietly, "What about the business with George's murder? Do you not think we should try to sort out who kil ed him before we do anything else?"

"Langley knows everything, Daniel," Richard said quietly. "You can speak in front of him."

"He does?"

"I do," Langley assured him closing the distance between them.

"Oh, wel ," he frowned and then repeated, "As I was saying, do you not think we should resolve that matter before we - "

"No," Richard interrupted firmly. "You are the one who pointed out that the kil er would now think he'd failed and may try again. I think the most important thing is to ensure Christiana is legal y wed to me in case a second attempt is successful."

"You may be right," Daniel murmured.

Richard relaxed a little, glad he didn't have an argument on his hands, and then added, "Langley suggested stopping off at the family vault on the way and dropping off George there. I think that may be a good idea."

"I suppose it's better than leaving him here unguarded for days," Daniel said dryly.

Richard nodded.

"Wel then, al we have to do is convince the girls to go," Langley said dryly.

"Oh, I'm sure that wil not be a problem," Richard assured him, quite certain the women would be as eager to get to Gretna Green and get married as he and Daniel were.

Langley snorted at the suggestion and started toward the stairs commenting,

"You have a lot to learn about women, my friend."

Richard frowned after him and then glanced to Daniel, who shrugged.

"Suzette is definitely eager to be wed, I do not think she wil be a problem.

However, Christiana may fuss a bit."

"Nay." Richard shook his head. Christiana had been like wildfire in his arms last night, she too would be eager to be wedded and bedded. At least he hoped she was.

It hadn't even occurred to him that she might frown on the idea of sleeping together again before they ensured their marriage was al legal and proper. But if that was the case, he wanted it done with quickly so that he could have her in his arms again. Surely she would feel the same way?

"Are you two coming?" Langley asked, pausing at the top of the stairs to glance back at them. Richard and Daniel started forth at once, Richard marshaling his arguments in his head as he went. They needed to ensure their marriage was legal in case anything happened to him. She could be pregnant after al . The other reason for the rush was that they needed to then get back and look into who could have poisoned George. Of course, he hadn't yet told her that George had been poisoned, Richard realized and didn't suppose now was the time to do it. Suzette and Lisa weren't even aware that the Dicky of the last year had been his brother George who was now dead, and that he himself was the true Richard Fairgrave, newly returned from America.

"Good luck."

The words, accompanied by a pat on the back from Langley, drew Richard's attention to the fact that they'd arrived at the parlor door. Glancing to the man, he noted the pitying look he was giving him and frowned, but merely led the way inside the parlor, where Christiana, Suzette and Lisa were al chattering cheerful y away.

Approaching the sofa and chairs around the tea tray, he cleared his throat and started. "Ladies, I - "

"Oh, Richard, Suzette was just tel ing us that Daniel has agreed to her proposal.

They are going to Gretna Green." Christiana beamed as she made the announcement.

"Yes." Richard smiled back. "In fact, I thought we might accompany them and - "

his gaze slid to Suzette and Lisa before he continued, " - renew our own vows. It could be a fresh start for us."

"Oh, how romantic," Lisa breathed and grabbed for Christiana's hands to squeeze them excitedly. "Isn't that wonderful, Chrissy? That's so wonderful,"

she hugged her and then pul ed back to ask, "When do we leave?"

"Now. This afternoon, as soon as I have - "

"No." It wasn't Christiana that said it, but al three sisters together, reacting with the same horror they'd had to his arrival at the bal last night.

"Er . . ." Richard glanced toward Daniel and Langley, but they were both apparently content to stay out of this.

"We cannot possibly pack and prepare for a journey that quickly," Christiana said reasonably, drawing his attention back to the girls. "Why, we shal be lucky to manage it by morning. It wil have to be tomorrow, and then only if we start right away."

Suzette and Lisa nodded agreement and rose, apparently ready to rush off at once. Richard stopped them by raising a hand.

"Now, wait. There is no need to panic. We can manage it today. You needn't pack much, just one change of clothes, we - "

"One change of clothes?" Christiana echoed with dismay. "Richard, it is at least a two day ride from here to York by carriage and Gretna Green must be another day or day and a half after that. We cannot manage with one change of clothes."

"We can make Gretna Green in two days if we ride straight through only stopping to change horses," he assured her gently. "And since we wil not be stopping either way there is no need to don fresh clothes except when we can actual y stop and bathe at an inn in Gretna Green. Besides, I want to take only the one carriage. There would be no room for wardrobes for the six of us and - "

"The six of us?" Lisa squawked. "What about our maids?"

"Lisa is right. We need our maids. I intend to look nice at my wedding and my maid Georgina is the only one who knows how I like to wear my hair. No, your plans just wil not do," Suzette said firmly.

"Christiana and Lisa could help you with your hair," Richard pointed out desperately.

Christiana clucked her tongue impatiently. "Even if we agreed to forgo taking our maids, you cannot expect us to ride for two straight days and nights there and then two more back, the six of us crammed into one tiny carriage. How do you expect us to sleep jostling about in a tiny, cramped carriage with you three large men? No, we shal have to stop each night to rest."

Lisa and Suzette nodded, and then Lisa added, "We shal need at least two carriages, preferably three if we are taking the maids. And we definitely need more than one change of clothes. Let me see, if we stop each night the journey shal likely take four days and three nights there and the same back

. . . We need at least eight outfits each, and then there are night clothes and shoes and -  Oh, we real y need to get started if we want to get any sleep at al tonight."

"You are right." Christiana stood and headed for the door. "You two go on up and start choosing what you wish to take. I shal find our maids and join you directly."

Richard stared after Christiana and her sisters as they hurried from the room chattering away. He real y had thought she'd be as eager to get to Gretna Green and legalize their marriage as he was. He was sure she'd enjoyed last night as much as he and would be eager to be able to do it again. It seemed, however, that he hadn't a clue when it came to Christiana. It also looked as if he would be sleeping in the guest bedroom tonight . . . alone.

"I did warn you," Langley said dryly once it was just the three of them. "You should have listened. I have known them al my life, after al ."

"Yes, you have," Richard agreed, turning on him. "And while the women are packing, you can tel us everything you've learned about them in that time."

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