The Countess Chapter Five

The window is open. That's a bit of good luck."

Richard stopped climbing at Daniel's murmured comment and peered toward the window in question. It had taken some poking about, but after climbing several trees and checking the windows of several rooms, they'd deduced this was the master bedroom. At least they hoped it was. Richard didn't have a clue. His own townhouse had burned to the ground in the fire that was supposed to have kil ed him, and he didn't know the layout of this new one George had purchased afterward.

"They probably left it open to keep the body cool," he said as he continued to climb, pul ing himself up branch after branch until he reached the large thick one that stretched toward the open window.

"Do you see anyone in there?" Daniel asked as he joined him on the branch a moment later.

"There's someone in the bed," Richard muttered, craning his neck in an effort to see as much of the room as he could. "But I don't see anyone else."

"Is it George in the bed?"

"I can't see him wel enough to be sure from here, but who else would it be? The girls are at the bal and the servants would hardly be sleeping in the upper chambers."

Daniel grunted and then asked hopeful y, "I don't suppose you can tel if he real y is dead then?"

"No," Richard said with exasperation and began to ease his way further out along the branch, wishing that he'd thought to change before trying this. Aside from the fact that his clothing kept catching on branches, he feared his white shirt would be very visible to anyone who happened to glance their way in passing. The thought was enough to make him use more speed than caution getting to the window and he nearly paid for his haste with a tumble from the tree.

Fortunately, Daniel reached out quickly to steady him when his knee slipped off the branch, catching him by the back of his breeches and unfortunately, yanking them up his backside in a most uncomfortable manner.

"While I appreciate the aid, please release my breeches," Richard said final y once he was sure of his position. Daniel chuckled in response, but released his hold. "We'd best get out of this tree before we're seen."

Since that's what he'd been trying to do, Richard merely grunted and scooted along the branch as fast as he dared. After one last quick glance inside to be sure no one had yet entered, he swung himself over the ledge and into the room. Aware that Daniel was fol owing, Richard straightened to move swiftly out of the way and that Daniel was fol owing, Richard straightened to move swiftly out of the way and suddenly found himself standing at the bedside, staring down at its occupant. It was like looking into a mirror, Richard thought, except of course that he wasn't wet and gray with death like his brother.

"I'd say he's definitely dead," Daniel murmured coming up beside him. "Other than that he looks healthy enough though. He hasn't gained weight or become dissipated since I last saw him. I wonder what kil ed him?"

Richard shook his head. He had no idea and was too troubled by an unexpected surge of emotion to consider the question. This was not the reunion he'd expected tonight, and while part of him felt cheated of the confrontation he'd intended, another part seemed to actual y be experiencing some grief for the loss of his twin. While George had proven himself a bastard with his efforts to have Richard kil ed so that he could take his title and lands, they hadn't always been enemies. As young children they had been close friends. It was only once George had grown old enough to understand that he was somehow considered less simply because he hadn't fought his way out of their mother's womb first that he'd grown bitter and al owed jealousy to twist his thoughts.

Even so, the man had been the last family member Richard had. Their father had been an only son and their mother had lost her family in a house fire while stil a child. That was how George had got away with his plans. There had been no family members to recognize the trick, and he'd apparently kept his distance from the few good friends Richard had made over the years. Everyone had assumed he was grieving the supposed loss of his twin, George, and had left him alone to sort it out.

Including Daniel, until he'd received Richard's letter. And thank God for Daniel.

Without him Richard would stil be in America.

"How the devil are we going to get him out of here?"

Richard blinked at the question and then turned to peer toward the window and the tree beyond it.

"Oh, no," Daniel said at once. "There is no way we are going back down that tree dragging George's corpse between us."

Richard ran a hand through his hair as he turned back to peer at George. "I guess we'l have to take him down the stairs then."

"And just how are we to manage that without getting caught?"

"Most of the servants are probably abed by now," Richard pointed out. "If we are quick we should manage it al right."

"Right," Daniel said dryly.

"Come on." Richard moved to the top of the bed. "The sooner it's done the better."

Richard bent to slip his hands under his brother's armpits, intending to sit him up, but the action put his face close to George's and he paused.

"What is it?" Daniel asked, at his side at once.

Richard straightened and stepped back. "See if you smel anything by his mouth."

Daniel raised an eyebrow, and then bent to inhale close to George's mouth.

"Whiskey," he said at once and then frowned and added, "And bitter almonds?" He now straightened slowly and turned a frown on Richard. "Poison?"

"That was my first thought," Richard admitted grimly.

Daniel blew out a low whistle. "Murder. That's a wrinkle I hadn't expected.

Although I guess I should have. We know you aren't the only one he has crossed."

"No. He crossed Christiana, and poison is a woman's trick," Richard said grimly.

"A man would have met him at dawn with swords or pistols."

"Now don't go hanging the poor woman already," Daniel cautioned. "I don't think George would have agreed to a duel. Or he may have agreed, but then he would have sent riffraff out to kil his chal enger in his bed. He wasn't the sort to risk his own hide and he had no honor to speak of." He shook his head.

"George also didn't much leave the house from what I was able to learn tonight.

Poison may have been the only way to ensure he died. Besides, I just don't see Lady Christiana poisoning him."

Richard peered at him curiously. "Why are you so quick to defend her?"

"I like her," Daniel said with a shrug.

"You do not know the woman. You didn't even speak to her," Richard pointed out with exasperation.

"I talked to her sisters though," Daniel argued at once. "And they were both lovely young women. I'm sure she is too. They grew up in the same family."

"So did George and I," Richard pointed out dryly.

Daniel frowned. "Good point."

Richard shook his head with disgust. "Come on, we need to get him moved. We can worry about who kil ed him after we have him safely away."

Richard moved back to try to shift George into a sitting position, but paused with a curse when he found the man stiff as a board.

"Hmmm, he's been dead a while," Daniel pointed out quietly.

"Right." Richard scowled at George as if he were deliberately being difficult and then said, "You take his feet, I'l take his shoulders."

Daniel nodded and moved to take the man's feet so that they could heft him off the bed.

They had both seen the ice packed around the body, but neither had considered that some of it must have melted until water began to drip from George's sopping clothes in a steady stream.

"Back, back, back," Richard said sharply, quickly hefting his end back over the bed.

"Damn," Daniel breathed as they released their burden. "We wil leave a trail of water through the house taking him as he is."

Richard scowled briefly, but then stepped back up to the bed and began to work his brother's frock coat off his shoulders. It appeared the women had dumped him in the bed without making any effort to undress him. "Find a dry blanket."

"Where?" Daniel asked, glancing around the room.

"Try that chest at the foot of the bed," Richard suggested as he final y freed the jacket and tossed the sodden cloth to the floor.

"Got it," Daniel announced a moment later and reappeared at his side. He slung the blanket over his shoulder, leaving his hands free to help finish undressing George. Once they had him naked, Daniel laid the blanket out on the floor and they quickly shifted George from the bed to the blanket. This time he only dripped a little.

"I think your bed is ruined," Daniel said wryly as they straightened from rol ing George up in the blanket. Richard glanced to the bed. The mattress was swol en with water and likely to grow more so as the remaining ice melted. Not that he particularly wanted to sleep on a mattress his dead brother had occupied anyway.

They lifted George up together, each taking an end of the blanket and then moved quickly to the door with their burden. Richard then set down his end to open the door, only to discover it was locked.

"Probably to keep the servants out," Daniel suggested quietly.

Richard grunted and glanced to a second door on the adjacent wal , this one leading to Christiana's room, he suspected. Hopeful y it wouldn't be locked. He picked up his end again and nodded toward the door. "That way."

Daniel immediately began to back across the room. Both of them sighed with relief when he set down his end, tried the doorknob and it turned. He then started to push the door open wide, but stopped abruptly and instead pul ed it closed.

"What is it?"

"There's a woman sleeping in a chair by the fire," Daniel hissed.

Richard hesitated and then eased the end of George he was holding to the floor and moved over to ease the door open and look for himself. Sure enough, a middle-aged woman was slumped in a chair by the fire, snoring softly. Probably Christiana's lady's maid, Richard thought. Grimacing, he eased the door closed and briefly leaned his forehead against it.

"What do we do now?" Daniel asked.

Richard straightened and turned back to his blanket-wrapped brother. Bending, he caught the stiff body around the waist and lifted him. He then straightened, hefting George a little higher against his chest so that his feet didn't hit the floor.

"Are you going to be able to carry him like that?" Daniel asked in a concerned whisper.

"I've been working a farm the last year, Daniel, I'l be fine. And this wil be faster than the two of us dragging him about. If we're quick and quiet we should get through the room without waking the maid." Richard wasn't sure that was true, but he was hoping. Fortunately, Daniel didn't argue the point, but helped him lift George even higher until he clasped him around the upper legs just below his bottom. It left Richard's legs free to move without bumping into George every step. Once he was sure he had a good grip on George, he said, "You'l have to get the doors."

Daniel nodded and moved to the door to the connecting bedroom again. He eased it open just enough to peer inside, then apparently finding the maid stil sleeping, he pul ed it wide and gestured for him to hurry.

Richard took a deep breath and started forward at once with his burden. He didn't breathe again, however, until they'd crossed the room and Daniel opened the door and ushered him out into the hal .

"Dear God, Richard, for a minute there I thought we were done for," Daniel gasped once he had the door safely closed.

"Now we just have to make it out of the house," Richard muttered, starting forward. He was eager to get out of the house before they encountered anyone else, and had just reached the stairs when the front door suddenly opened below.

Heart stopping, he immediately backed up, crashing into an unsuspecting Daniel.

Fortunately, the man kept his feet and quickly turned to get out of the way. The two scurried back up the hal until Daniel had the sense to try one of the doors. Finding it open, he waved Richard in with his burden and fol owed, then pul ed the door closed and stood with his ear pressed to it. Richard waited in the darkness, his brother's blanket-wrapped body pressing to his chest, and final y asked, "Do you hear anything?"

"They're talking," Daniel whispered. "I think they're stil in the entry."

Richard shifted closer, stepping up behind Daniel to better hear what was being said.

"I swear he was dead, Chrissy. He was growing cold when we left tonight."

Christiana grimaced at Lisa's distressed words, but concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, and merely muttered, "He must have made a deal with the devil to come back."

"Hush, one of the servants wil hear," Suzette cautioned as she closed the front door. The words had barely left her lips when Haversham appeared at the end of the hal , hurrying toward them.

Christiana waved the man away. They didn't need help. Besides she didn't want him to witness her in this shape. Those drinks she'd had were rather having an effect now.

"Are you al right, Chrissy?" Suzette asked, taking her arm to steady her. "You are not at al steady on your feet."

"I'm fine," Christiana answered, but wasn't al that sure she was. While she hadn't noticed much amiss during the short ride home, when she'd risen to alight from the carriage, the world had suddenly tilted a bit and she'd nearly tumbled out of the contraption. Fortunately, the coachmen had been there to catch her arm and steady her much as Suzie was doing now.

"I fear those drinks Langley gave her may have affected her after al ," Lisa said with concern, taking her other arm as the world tilted again and Christiana stumbled in her direction.

"Surely two drinks wouldn't affect her this much," Suzette protested.

"Two drinks on an empty stomach might," Lisa reasoned.

"Three drinks," Christiana muttered.

"Three?" Suzette peered at her with surprise. "When did you have a third one?"

"A firsht one," Christiana corrected and paused to frown at the slur. She spoke with more care as she explained. "I drank Dicky's whiskey earlier." She frowned when whiskey came out as "whishkey," but then decided it didn't matter and admitted, "It's okay though, I actual y feel good."

"Oh dear," Lisa said.

Suzette merely shook her head. "Wel , at least she feels good, probably for the first time since marrying that odious man. No doubt he did make a deal with the devil to return."

" 'S what I said," Christiana pointed out, stopping to wave her finger at Suzette.

Unfortunately, Suzette's grip on her arm prevented it.

Lisa sighed pitiably. "What are we going to do, Suzie? We can't let her stay married to him."

"Oh don' worry. I'l fix it," Christiana assured her, wondering why they were stil standing there in the entry.

"How?" Lisa asked dubiously.

"I'l get to the bottom of it," Christiana answered blithely, and then burst out laughing at what to her seemed a very clever play on words. Her sisters were less impressed and merely watched her cackle, and then exchanged a worried glance.

"Perhaps we'd best get her to bed," Lisa murmured. "She appears to be getting worse."

"Aye," Suzette said dryly and they urged her to and up the stairs.

"Never fear, Chrissy," Lisa patted the arm she held as they reached the upper hal . "We wil see you tucked safely in your bed so you can sleep off the effects."

"I can't sleep," Christiana protested, tugging on her arms. "I need to see Dicky.

Where's Dicky?"

"Now I know I shal never drink," Suzette said dryly. "If it affects the mind to the point that she would actual y want to see that blasted man, then I shal never touch a drop."

Christiana blinked in surprise. "I don't want to see Dicky."

"But you just said you did," Lisa protested as they reached the door to her bed chamber.

"Did I?" Christiana asked a bit befuddled as they urged her into the room. She then shook her head and explained, "Wel , I don't want to see him."

"That's good," Suzette muttered as she closed the door.

"I just want to see his bottom," Christiana explained and frowned as see came out "shee."

"What? "

Christiana scowled at the screeched word, noting that the loudest screech of al came not from her sisters, but from Grace, who was pushing herself out of the chair by the fire where she'd apparently been awaiting her return.

"What what?" Christiana asked, perplexed by their upset as the maid rushed across the room to join them. It al made perfect sense to her. "I half to get Nicky naked," she explained and then frowned and corrected herself. "Dicky daked. No, that's not right either." She heaved a sigh and pul ed free of her sisters to weave her way across the room, waving one hand expansively as she added, "Wel , you know what I mean."

"Not real y," Suzette said dryly. "Why do you not explain it to us?"

Christiana turned back to her sisters, most distressed to find her earlier good cheer suddenly replaced with a deep depression, and then blurted mournful y, "Do you know I've never seen Dicky daked? A wife should see a naked Nicky."

"Or even a naked Dick," Suzette put in dryly.

"Suzie!" Lisa gasped, blushing furiously.

"What? It's his name," Suzette pointed out.

The words were innocent enough, but mirth was curving the corners of her sister's lips and Christiana was sure there was a joke there she was missing. However, she was rather consumed with the need to see Dicky's bare bottom, not to mention a bit distressed that the room would not stop swinging about her. It seemed to her that her room had never moved before and shouldn't be now. She'd heard that rooms on ships moved though, so perhaps they'd brought her to a ship rather than home, she reasoned as she sat on the edge of her bed. "I don't feel good. Can you make the boat stop pitching about?"

"Oh dear, are you going to be sick?" Lisa asked and Christiana noticed that she took a step or two back. Lisa never had been good with il ness.

"She probably wil ," Suzette said dryly. "Just the thought of seeing Dicky naked makes me nauseous."

"Not al of Dicky, just his bottom," Christiana assured her earnestly. "I have to find the strawberry."

"I think you'd have more luck finding strawberries in the kitchen, Chrissy dear,"

Suzette said, laughing openly now.

"Al right, now that's enough of this nonsense," Grace snapped with exasperation. Moving to stand before Christiana, she eyed her briefly with worry before glancing to her sisters to ask, "What on earth is the matter with her? Has she been drinking?"

"No," Lisa said at once, and then frowned and added, "Wel , yes, but not on purpose. I'm afraid Langley gave her his whiskey by accident and she downed it without realizing what it was until it was too late, and then she had a glass of the Regent's punch as wel , and apparently she'd already had another whiskey earlier so the combination . . ."

"I see," Grace said with a sigh, and then a smile tugged at her lips and she shook her head. "Wel , a good night's rest wil right what's wrong with her then. Come along, dear, let's get you out of this dress and ready for bed."

"But I have to find Dicky's strawberry," Christiana protested, trying ineffectual y to stop Grace as she began to undo her lacings.

"Darling child, don't you worry about Dicky anymore. He's dead remember?"

"Actual y, he's not," Lisa said unhappily and the words stopped Grace's cold where Christiana's efforts had failed.

"Of course he is. He's - "

"Alive and wel and showed up at the bal ," Suzette interrupted.

"No," Grace said with certainty and immediately strode across the room to the connecting door to the master chamber. She opened it, peered inside, and then slammed it quickly closed and whirled to them with horror on her face, "How?"

"A deal with the devil," Christiana answered morosely. "Now I have to get him naked. He should of stayed dead don't you think? The King should make a law, if you're dead, you stay dead. It's entirely too upsetting for dead husbands to show up at bal s and spoil them like that . . . and then I wouldn't have to shee his bare bottom."

Grace stared at her blankly for a moment, and then shook her head and moved back to her side. "Al right, you girls get yourselves to bed. I'l see my lady into bed."

"Oh, but I don't want to go to bed. I might fal asleep and miss Dicky's strawberry."

"Yes, yes," Grace interrupted soothingly, urging her to her feet and quickly finishing undoing her gown. "You want to see Dicky's bottom. But he's not here right now, is he? So we'l just get you ready for bed. You can see his bottom whether you're wearing a dress or nightgown, can't you?"

"I suppose," Christiana muttered.

"Go on, you two. I can handle this," Grace insisted, drawing Christiana's attention to the fact that her sisters were stil there. Despite the maid's words, the two women seemed reluctant to leave and Christiana wondered if they wanted to stay and help her get a look at Dicky's bottom.

"I think they're gone," Richard whispered when silence reigned in the hal for several minutes. "We'd best move while we have the chance. Once they have Christiana in bed, the girls wil no doubt seek their own rooms and this could be one of them."

Daniel grunted agreement and eased the door open to check the hal . Apparently finding it empty, he stepped back and pul ed the door wide for Richard to carry his burden out of the room. He didn't get far. Richard had barely stepped out the door when another one along the hal opened. He immediately whirled back to the room to return inside, but Daniel apparently hadn't heard the sound, wasn't aware of the threat of discovery, and blocked his way, stil trying to exit the room.

More concerned about the body being seen than himself, Richard cursed and shoved George at Daniel, who had the wit to catch the blanket-wrapped body. He then pushed his friend back into the room with his burden. He pul ed the door closed even as he whirled to face Christiana's sisters, who had appeared outside the door to the room he thought was Christiana's. The two women were looking back into the room, saying their good nights, and didn't turn his way until he'd taken a couple of steps toward them. Both women paused, their smiles fading.

"Ladies," he murmured, racking his brain for some way to delay the women from seeking their beds. Preferably something that would take them downstairs and give Daniel the chance to slip out of the house with George. The best he could come up with was, "Might I convince you both to join me in my office for a drink before you retire?"

"No, thank you," Lisa said stiffly as they approached. Suzette didn't even bother with a refusal, she merely snorted with disgust as she started past him, heading for the door to the room he'd just exited.

"I need to talk to you," he said desperately, catching at Suzette's arm to bring her to a halt. When she turned angry eyes his way and glared at the hand on her arm, he released her. "I realize I've been a bit of an ass to your sister - "

"A bit?" Suzette asked dryly.

"Al right, a lot of an ass," Richard acknowledged and wished he knew exactly what George had done. "The point is, my brush with death tonight has awakened me to what is important in this life, and I would dearly like to make it up to Christiana and, if possible, mend our relationship. I was hoping you could advise me on how to do that."

He had thought it an inspired ruse, and one that wasn't entirely a ruse real y. If he was going to step back into his life as it now was and keep Christiana for a wife, he needed to repair the damage George had done. Of course, there was stil the smal matter of who had poisoned George. If Christiana was the culprit, it was a matter that would have to be dealt with. However, his main concern at the moment was getting her sisters out of that hal way long enough for Daniel to escape.

"Are you sincere about this?" Lisa asked quietly.

"Of course he isn't," Suzette said with irritation. "A leopard does not change its spots."

"He changed his spots going from nice to nasty after marrying Christiana," Lisa pointed out. "Perhaps he can change again."

"That wasn't changing his spots," Suzette assured her. "Those spots were fake ones he'd painted on to get her to marry him so that he could get his hands on her dower. He just washed them off once he'd accomplished that and reverted to his true, nasty nature."

"I'm very wealthy, ladies," Richard said quietly. "I had no need to marry Christiana for money."

Suzette's eyes narrowed. "Then why did you marry her?"

That one stumped him. How could he answer that? He suspected George had married Christiana for her dower and he himself hadn't married her at al . Final y, he simply said, "I care about Christiana and her happiness." Which was true. He did care. He didn't want to see her suffering for his brother's actions. However, Suzette didn't look impressed, so he continued, "My behavior this last year is a direct result of what happened with my brother. I - "

of what happened with my brother. I - "

"Oh," Lisa breathed, sudden understanding dawning on her face. "Of course."

"Of course what?" Suzette asked suspiciously.

"Don't you see, Suzette?" Lisa peered at Richard with pity and understanding.

"No doubt in his heart of hearts he has always felt guilty for surviving the fire that kil ed his brother."

Richard managed not to grimace. He doubted George had felt a moment's guilt over hiring men to kil him.

"Meeting and fal ing in love with Chrissy must have been a balm to his wounded soul," Lisa continued in earnest tones. "But then they married and moved here, living just up the street from the charred remains of the townhouse where his poor brother died. It must be a daily reminder of his death. His guilt would have returned and trebled, because he was no longer experiencing just the guilt of surviving while his brother didn't, but now also for finding a love and happiness his poor dead brother would never have." She peered at Richard with big, wet eyes. "His soul tortured, his spirit wounded, he lashed out at Chrissy, the woman he loved, destroying her love and their relationship out of the guilt consuming him."

Richard stared at the young woman wide-eyed. So much dramatic drivel out of the simple comment that his behavior was a result of what had happened with his brother was just astonishing to him. The girl should write fiction, he thought, and then noticed that Suzette's expression had softened just a little, some of her suspicion easing away. Apparently, she wasn't as hard as she appeared to be and had something of a romantic streak as wel .

"Is this true?" Suzette asked.

Richard cleared his throat, tried for what he hoped was a tragic expression, and murmured, "Guilt can lead a man to act like an ass and do the most foolish of things." Like breaking into his own house and stealing corpses, he thought grimly as it occurred to him that getting the body out of here would not be the end of their problems. What the devil were they going to do with it for the next few days?

Richard hadn't thought of that when Daniel had made his ridiculous suggestion that started al of this. Apparently, Daniel hadn't either. But al they'd managed to do was create more problems. He hoped Christiana was worth al this trouble. He would be extremely annoyed if it turned out she was the murderer, or some waspish shrew.

"Please, Suzette," Lisa said quietly. "Can we not at least hear him out?"

A brief battle took place on her face, and then Suzette threw up her hands with exasperation and turned toward the stairs. "Very wel , but only because Christiana is stuck with him now."

Lisa beamed and caught Richard's hand to drag him after her, saying, "I knew it could not have been al pretense when you were courting Christiana. You were so sweet and romantic, cal ing her Rosebud and showering her with gifts. She fel completely in love with you."

"Rosebud?" Richard muttered, glancing back at the door to Suzette's room and hoping Daniel would manage to get the body out without further problem.

"She loved that endearment most of al ," Lisa assured him as she tugged him down the stairs. "Everyone could see the way she melted every time you cal ed her that. She said you cal ed her that because she was a fragile flower, beautiful and sweet smel ing."

George had obviously had someone to coach him in wooing, Richard decided grimly. The man hadn't a romantic bone in his body and wouldn't have come up with such drivel on his own.

"Is drinking so early in the morning a result of your guilt as wel ?"

Richard blinked at those words from Suzette as Lisa led him into the room George had apparently used as his office. She was standing by the fire beside a smal table with an empty glass and a decanter of amber liquid that he suspected was whiskey. He eyed the decanter, and then glanced back to Suzette, not having any idea what she was talking about. Final y he asked, "Drinking so early?"

Suzette clucked with annoyance and picked up the decanter. Removing the lid, she sniffed at it and wrinkled her nose. "When we found you this morning you'd obviously been drinking this stuff. And it was barely past the breakfast hour." She scowled at him for such debauched tendencies, before splashing some of the liquid into the empty glass. Setting down the decanter then, she raised the glass as if in a toast. "Christiana said it was your best whiskey and you only drank it when celebrating. So what is there for us to celebrate?"

Her expression was chal enging. Richard suspected she thought she knew exactly what he - or real y George - had been celebrating. However, he didn't have a clue what that might have been. Instead, his mind had put together the smel of bitter almonds on George's breath with the knowledge that the amber liquid had been the last thing he'd consumed. Richard was suddenly quite positive that the whiskey Suzette was now holding aloft was how his brother had been poisoned.

"Come tel us what it was so we can al celebrate," Suzette suggested grimly. "We can use some good news about now."

"I wasn't celebrating anything," Richard said final y, starting across the room toward her. "I wasn't feeling wel and my uncle used to always swear by a shot of whiskey every morning doing wonders for your health so I thought I would give it a try."

"Liar," she said sweetly, and then shrugged as if it were of no consequence and lifted the glass toward her lips. "Ah wel , now we can celebrate you turning over a new leaf and making my sister happy for a change."

"No!" Richard sped the last few feet that separated them, desperate to keep her from drinking what might be poison. He managed to knock the glass from her hand, sending it to the floor, but the contents spil ed down her dress front as it went.

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