The Countess Chapter Four

If you glare at her any harder she's like to burst into flames."

Richard glanced to the side at that comment from Daniel and scowled. "She is avoiding me by dancing with seemingly every man in the room."

"Not every man," Daniel said with amusement, and then proved he was aware of what had been going on by adding, "Just Langley and his chums. Langley is apparently a longtime family friend. No doubt he has enlisted his friends and associates to keep her away from you."

"Why? I am her husband," Richard pointed out dryly, and then added, "Or at least I am as far as they know."

"That's apparently why," he explained wryly. "According to her sisters, I should be ashamed of claiming you as friend as you have treated her horribly."

Richard raised his eyebrows and Daniel nodded.

"Apparently the best thing you have done for her was to drop dead. Both sisters bemoan your unexpected resurrection."

"Hmmm." Richard peered back to his "wife." The music had ended and her present partner was leading her off the floor. He could see her tensing as she neared the edge of the dance floor and then she suddenly relaxed, a smile curving her lips as Langley stepped up to claim her for another dance. Apparently, he had run out of friends and was risking raised eyebrows by dancing with her for a second time. Gaze narrowing, Richard asked, "A family friend, huh?"

"Like a brother according to Suzette."

Richard grunted and turned his attention back to his wife and Langley. The man was holding her at a respectable distance, but his protectiveness of her was obvious in the way he peered down at her and the gentleness of his hold. Like a brother or not, Langley was far too proprietary with another man's wife. "Did you find out anything else?"

"You mean other than the fact that your brother apparently col apsed in his office this morning and is most likely dead?" Daniel asked dryly. "I should think that would be enough to concern you at the moment. If he is dead it complicates things somewhat."

Richard managed to drag his attention away from "his wife" again as he considered the ramifications. He'd been rather looking forward to confronting his brother, forcing a confession from him and plowing a fist into his face. Actual y, he'd planned to beat the man senseless for al he'd put him through, but that would be out of the question if he was dead.

"There may be some difficulty proving who you are if he's dead," Daniel pointed out, drawing a sharp look from Richard.

"What do you mean?"

"Wel , this last year everyone has thought it was George who died in the townhouse fire. The man now apparently lying packed in ice in your room has been pretending to be you al that time. There wil definitely be some confusion. They might think you are George, survived the fire, and are merely trying to claim to be Richard to ensure you inherit al without the necessity of waiting for his wil to be validated. Or they might even decide you are merely your father's byblow, fortunate enough to look like the twins, and greedily trying to claim their wealth and title now they are both dead. After al , George was supposedly buried over a year ago."

Richard grimaced. The man buried in the family vault was one of the criminals who had been sent to kil him. The man had been about his height and size. Found on his bed and charred to a cinder, no one had been able to tel any different. They'd al just assumed it was him, but Richard knew different and removing the vermin from the family vault was only one of many things he wanted to do once instal ed safely back in his rightful place. If he managed to get there, he thought grimly.

"We shal have to prove your identity . . . somehow," Daniel said in a tone that suggested he was concerned about their ability to do it. "And then there is the scandal that shal befal everyone. Lady Christiana married who she thought was Richard Fairgrave, the Earl of Radnor, over a year ago and has been living with him since that time."

"But it wasn't me," Richard pointed out quietly.

"No. It was George, but he signed your name on the license and contract."

Richard frowned. "The marriage wouldn't be legal. She is married neither to myself nor George."

"Exactly. The scandal shal surely be the ruin of her . . . as wel as her sisters.

They won't escape it either . . . which is a true shame when they are already working so hard to avoid the scandal their father has tipped them into with his gambling."

"Christiana mentioned something about that," Richard said on a sigh, his gaze sliding back to the woman in Langley's arms. "Suzette needs to find a husband quickly so she can claim her dower and save them from their father's gaming debts.

Christiana seemed to think I, or George, real y, caused it al by taking their father to a gaming hel ."


Something in his tone made Richard glance Daniel's way again and he raised an eyebrow at his sour expression. "What?"

"After leaving the women, I took a moment to ask around before returning to you and there is some interesting gossip floating about."

Richard narrowed his eyes. "What kind of gossip?"

"Apparently the Earl of Radnor has become quite chummy with a few unsavory characters about town; the owner of a certain gaming hel , for instance, one that is suspected of drugging the drinks of certain unwary lords and fleecing them of al that they own."

"Christiana's father?"

"That would be my guess. And it wouldn't have been the first time. I suspect George was behind the first supposed losses as wel , and did it deliberately to force the man to the edge of ruin so that he could offer for Christiana's hand," Daniel said grimly, and then explained. "Christiana and her sisters are the granddaughters of Lord Sefton."

"Old moneybags?" Richard asked with surprise. The Baron had been rumored to be richer than the King. Daniel nodded. "He apparently divided his estate into three parts and put it in trusts for the girls, to be turned over on their marriage. However, he arranged it al so that it would be a secret. He had no desire to have his granddaughters hunted by fortune seekers."

"Then how do you know about it?" Richard asked dryly.

"Because Suzette just explained it to me," he admitted with wry amusement.

Richard narrowed his eyes. "Why on earth would she do that when the two of you just met?"

"I'l explain that later," Daniel muttered, glancing away. "Right now, the important thing is that Suzette thinks Dicky somehow found out about the dower and married Christiana to get it."

"I could see that being the case," Richard said dryly.

"Real y?" Daniel asked with a frown. "I did wonder, but he gained so much wealth when he got rid of you and took your place that he shouldn't have needed to marry for more."

"Al the money in the world would not be enough for George," Richard said grimly.

"He always wanted more of everything. It was like he was trying to fil the hole where his soul should have been with things." He scowled at the thought of his brother and then glanced back to Daniel and said, "I can see him having taken Christiana's father to this shady gaming hel the first time to force him to the edge of ruin and gain her fortune, but why would he take him there again now? He had already married one sister. He couldn't claim the dower of either of the others, and al he accomplished was possibly bringing scandal down on everyone. Christiana would not have avoided the scandal, which meant it would taint him as wel . What profit is there in that?"

Daniel frowned and shook his head. "I have been wondering that myself, but have not yet come up with anything. He must have had some plan in mind, but I cannot see what it might have been."

Richard scowled with displeasure at the mystery and glanced back to the woman in Langley's arms. "So to reclaim my name and birthright I shal have to ruin a woman who has already been sorely mistreated by my brother."

"And probably battle in court for months or even years to prove you are Richard Fairgrave, or a Fairgrave at al ," Daniel said quietly. "And then even if the courts eventual y decide in your favor, there wil stil be those in the ton who think you an imposter."

"Damn George," Richard breathed wearily. "As usual, he has made one hel of a mess."

"There is an alternative," Daniel said tentatively.

Richard glanced at him narrowly. "Do not even suggest I forsake everything and slink back to America. While I have no desire to ruin Lady Christiana and her family, I also have no desire to give up my rightful title and place. It is al I have."

"I wasn't going to suggest that," Daniel assured him.

"Then what is the alternative?"

"You could simply take up your place again as if you'd never been away," he said quietly.

"What?" Richard asked with amazement.

"Wel , you cannot gain justice from George, he is apparently dead," Daniel pointed out. "So, revealing what he did wil only succeed in hurting innocents. Besides, by merely stepping in and taking up your position again, you can avoid a long drawn-out battle to prove you are who you are. It wil be as if your stay in America never happened . . . except that it did and you would now have a wife."

"A wife who hates me," Richard muttered, his gaze returning to the woman in question. She was laughing at something Langley had said. With her face alight and softened by amusement she almost looked pretty, he decided, and recal ed their dance. She hadn't seemed to hate him by the end of the dance. In fact, he was quite sure if he'd managed to get her out on the balcony she wouldn't have fought off his kisses.

"She hates George not you," Daniel corrected quietly. "And who could blame her.

The man was a bastard as we both wel know. But you are a different kettle of fish.

With a little time I suspect she wil let go of that anger and come to trust you. The two of you might even make a good match of it." He was silent for a moment and then added, "Whatever the case, it would make reclaiming your title and position that much easier and would prevent Christiana and her sisters from further hurt by your brother's actions."

Richard frowned. The suggestion was not without merit. He had no desire to destroy Christiana, nor did he wish a long drawn-out court battle simply to claim his own name. However, while there was a bit of hope in their response to each other on the dance floor, it was little to gamble his future on. He didn't know the woman and was reluctant to take such a step blindly.

"What if it turns out she is a shrew?" he asked quietly. "Or a bitter ice maiden?

Or a spoiled brat with whom I cannot bear to deal?"

"Hmm." Daniel peered at the woman in question. "She does not seem to be any of those things, but then few reveal their true faces in public." He considered the matter for a moment and then suggested. "Wel , we could keep George's body for a couple of days while you find out her true nature and if you find you cannot stomach the idea of being married to her, we can just drop George back in your bed to be found dead, and go the legal route after al


"George's body." Richard's eyes widened as he recal ed that little problem.

Oddly enough, he hadn't considered it when Daniel had first made the suggestion.

"Yes," Daniel said dryly. "If you decide to take a day or two to find out, we shal have to be sure to leave before the ladies, make our way to your townhouse, and snatch his body from the bed before they see it is stil there."

"We should get it done now," Richard announced and began making his way around the bal room toward the doors.

"So, you're going to give it a try?" Daniel asked, hurrying after him.

"What choice do I have? I would prefer not to ruin an innocent if I can help it, but I also don't want to land myself in a miserable marriage just to make up for George's sins. We'l do as you suggested, and remove the body for the next day or two while I see if I could stomach being married to her. If not, we wil replace him and go to the courts."

"And if you find you are wil ing to be married to her?" Daniel asked. "What wil we do with the body then?"

"I haven't the foggiest notion," Richard admitted dryly. "But we wil worry about that if and when the time comes."

"He just left with Woodrow."

Christiana gave up searching the bal room for Dicky and glanced back to Langley. "Did he?"

He nodded solemnly and then asked, "Wil you be very upset if it turns out that Dicky is George?"

Christiana glanced away with a frown, those few moments in her husband's arms on the dance floor the first thing to come into her mind. Any other memory of this last year would have had her saying, no she wouldn't be upset at al , but that one

. . . Sighing, she simply said, "The scandal wil be horrendous."

"Yes, wel , we might be able to mitigate that," Langley murmured as he turned her around the dance floor.

"How do you mean?"

Robert was silent for so long that she began to think that he wouldn't answer, but apparently deciding it was unavoidable, he said reluctantly, "I knew one of George's old mistresses and she said he could not . . ." He paused and looked embarrassed, but then said, "I am sorry to ask this, Chrissy, but was the marriage properly consummated?"

Christiana's eyes widened incredulously at the question and he grimaced and began to speak quickly.

"I real y am sorry to ask it, but if George was incapable of the task as his mistress suggested, then it makes al the difference in the world."

Christiana stared at him blankly. "Wel . . . I - he - I think it - I don't know," she admitted, now scarlet herself. She shrugged helplessly and confessed,

"I'm not quite sure what the consummation includes. Father simply said 'Just do what he says and your husband wil manage the rest.' I did as he said and assumed what Dicky did was the consummation."

"Of course," he muttered, avoiding her eyes briefly, then cleared his throat. "You said he didn't even take off his cravat on your wedding night, but did he take off anything else?"

She considered the question briefly, and then offered, "I think he took off his shoes."

Langley grimaced impatiently. "What about his pants? Did he take them off or at least open them or pul them down?"

"I don't think so," she said slowly.

"You don't think so?" he asked incredulously. "Were you even there? How could you not know if he took off his pants or not?"

Christiana scowled, half angry and half embarrassed, and then glanced around to be sure none of the other dancers were listening in on the conversation. Reassured that no one appeared to be paying them any attention, she glanced back to Langley and hissed, "I was bathed and powdered, dressed in a gown and propped in bed and then he came in and put out the candle. There was a thud and then another I assumed was his shoes hitting the floor and then he climbed on top of me, rocked about a bit as if riding a horse, then rol ed off and said, "There. It is consummated." I have no idea if he took anything else off but his shoes, but it didn't seem to me he had time to disrobe further between putting out the candle and climbing on top of me."

"You were under the blankets?" Langley asked sharply. When she nodded, he asked, "And he was on top?"

Christiana bit her lip at the growing excitement in his expression. "That was wrong, wasn't it? I did wonder, but Dicky said it was consummated, and I had no one to ask, so . . ."

"Dicky," he muttered with disgust. "It's no wonder Richard hated that name. I do as wel ." He let his breath out on a little huff and then suddenly smiled.

"That doesn't matter. However, what does is the fact that, from your description, the marriage certainly hasn't been consummated. We can take you to a doctor now this very night. He can examine you, proclaim you stil a virgin, and we can have the marriage annul ed at once. There would stil be a scandal, but not much of one compared to the alternative."

"The alternative being proving he doesn't have the birthmark and is real y George masquerading as his brother, which would mean the wedding wasn't valid and I have been living with him without benefit of marriage?" she asked quietly.

Langley's smile faded, but he nodded.

"You do realize that if he is George and has taken his brother's place . . . Wel , we simply can't al ow him to get away with it," she pointed out gently. "We would have to tel someone."

"At the expense of you, Suzie and Lisa suffering a maelstrom of scandal?"

Langley asked grimly.

She hesitated, but then nodded.

"You always did have an implacable belief in justice," Langley muttered with frustration.

Christiana smiled faintly, but then sighed. An annulment would certainly be less scandalous than possible murder, stealing a man's name and living in sin. But if the man she thought she married real y was George Fairgrave, he was even more dastardly than she'd thought, and should be stopped and brought to justice. Stil , she would rather do so with as little damage to herself and her family as possible and there was real y no rush for justice.

"Why do we not find out what is what before we worry about anything else," she suggested quietly. "I shal see if he has the birthmark or not. If he does, he is Richard, I wil be examined, be proven a virgin, and I wil simply go for an annulment.

If he doesn't and he is George, I wil stil be examined, be proven a virgin, and go for the annulment, but then, once the dust has settled, we can see about reporting him to the authorities," she suggested. "That little bit of distance might be enough to protect Suzie and Lisa, or it would at least give them the chance to find husbands before the scandal hits . . . husbands who hopeful y have powerful families who can before the scandal hits . . . husbands who hopeful y have powerful families who can help protect them."

Langley was silent for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly. "I would prefer you were away from him at once. However, doing it your way may cause the least damage al the way around."

"I think it's for the best."

"Aye, wel , be as quick as you can about seeing if he has the birthmark, Chrissy.

Do it tonight if you can manage it. I have a bad feeling that you might be in danger and the sooner you are away from him the better I wil feel."

Christiana smiled gently and squeezed the hand holding hers as they danced.

"You always were a good friend, Robert. I have missed you this last year."

He nodded acknowledgment of the praise, then drew them both to a halt as the music ended. They both took a moment to survey the people in the room. Christiana had just assured herself that her husband was not back when Langley murmured,

"Your husband hasn't returned, more's the pity. If he had I would do my best to get him drunk so that he passed out the moment he returned home. Then you would merely have to take a quick look and rush out while he snored off the drink."

"Dicky rarely does things in a convenient manner," she said dryly as he led her to an empty seat along the wal . Christiana was grateful to drop into it. She had been dancing nonstop for some time and was ready for a break. But she hadn't forgotten her responsibilities and peered around now for her sisters. "I wonder where Suzie and Lisa are."

"I shal take a look about for them," Langley promised. "Would you like me to bring you back a beverage? You have been dancing quite a bit and must be thirsty."

"Yes, please. A drink sounds delightful." The effects of the earlier drink appeared to have dissipated as she'd danced. Besides, he would bring her punch, which probably wouldn't have much alcohol, if any. At least it hadn't at the few country events she'd attended.

"I'l be back directly," he assured her and moved off.

Christiana immediately began scouring the crowded bal room for Suzie, Lisa or her husband. Finding al three of them would be a good thing. While moments ago she would have been glad did Dicky not return, she was now rather hoping for it. If he did, and Langley did get him drunk, it would certainly make it easier for her to see if he had the birthmark or not. If that didn't happen, Christiana hadn't a clue how she was supposed to get a peek at his behind.

She suspected that was not normal y a problem in a marriage and that were she to ask any other married woman in here if their husband had a birthmark or any other distinguishing feature on their bottom, they would know the answer.

"Final y, you've stopped dancing!"

Christiana gave a start as her sisters suddenly appeared before her. Eyebrows rising, she asked, "Final y?"

"Yes, it was beginning to look as if you might dance until dawn and we are both exhausted and ready to leave."

"You're joking," she said with surprise and reminded Suzette, "You planned to stay to the end in a bid to find a likely husband."

"I've found him," Suzette announced with satisfaction.

"Already?" Christiana asked with disbelief.

She nodded. "And I've proposed."

"Wel who is it?"

"Lord Woodrow. Daniel."

Christiana blinked at her with confusion. She'd never heard the name. "Who is Daniel Woodrow?"

"The fel ow who walked us out for some air so you and Dicky could talk," Lisa explained and Christiana blanched in horror.

"Dicky's friend?"

"He is not Dicky's friend," Suzette assured her solemnly.

"Are you sure? He seemed to be with him."

"I'm sure. When we got outside I berated him for being friends with Dicky and he said, 'I assure you I never have and never wil be friends with your sister's husband.

In fact, I think he's a despicable creature who should be taken out in a field and shot.' " Suzette beamed. "He real y doesn't seem to like him at al , Chrissy, which at least shows the man has good taste."

Christiana shook her head slightly, but then admitted, "I have never heard Dicky mention Woodrow and he hasn't been to the house. In fact, I have never seen him before tonight so I suppose he could be tel ing the truth. It's just that he seemed to be helping Dicky when he took you two outside."

"He said he was trying to prevent anyone else hearing what he had overheard,"

Lisa explained.

"And he's perfect," Suzette assured her. "He's land rich, but poor as a church mouse when it comes to the money to run those lands. And he's titled,"

she added and then frowned and admitted, "I'm not yet sure what his title is. He may just be a Baron, but - " She shrugged indifferently.

"And you say you proposed to him?" Christiana asked.

"Yes," Suzette said, beaming with pride at taking her own future in hand.

"Wel , what did he say?"

"He is taking this evening to think about it," Suzette answered with a little sigh, and then shifted impatiently and said, "I don't know about you two but I am exhausted. It has been a terribly stressful day. Why do we not head back to the townhouse and get some rest?"

Christiana bit her lip. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather stay and consider a couple more men before we leave? If Lord Woodrow says no - "

"Nay," Suzette interrupted firmly. "We have weeded out al the candidates here tonight and Daniel was the only one I was interested in. The rest are either unattractive, pompous or older than Father. I can always choose one of the others, or maybe find another at tomorrow night's bal if Daniel says no, but otherwise . . ."

She grimaced. "Frankly I have no interest in shackling myself to an old man. I want children and would rather be at least attracted to the man who helps me make them.

Besides, Dicky isn't dead so the urgency has been removed. I have two weeks now to find a husband."

"Oh, of course," Christiana murmured and got wearily to her feet.

"You found them."

Christiana turned to Langley as he approached with two glasses in hand.

"Yes. Wel , actual y, they found me, and are quite ready to go," she admitted, and then reached for the nearer glass he held and asked, "Is that for me?"

"Yes," he murmured sounding distracted as he glanced to Lisa. He then frowned and glanced back to her with surprise and said, "No!"

It was too late, however, Christiana had already taken the glass and quickly gulped down its contents, barely tasting it in her effort to finish it off so they could leave. She was already lowering the glass when she realized the liquid she'd swal owed was burning a trail down her throat and splashing into her stomach like liquid fire. Whiskey again, she realized and drew in one long gasping breath as the air seemed to be sucked out of her. That breath was then fol owed by a deep, nasty fit of coughing.

"I'm sorry," Langley said thumping her back with his free hand. "That was whiskey for me. The other glass was for you."

Gasping for breath as she straightened, Christiana took the glass of punch, quickly drinking that down now in the hopes of clearing her throat. Her eyes widened incredulously as a second wave of heat poured down her throat.

"Oh dear," Langley muttered.

"Oh dear, what?" Suzette asked grimly, eyeing Christiana with concern.

"That was the Regent's punch," Robert said on a sigh, taking the glass from Christiana as she burst into another round of coughing.

"Regent's punch?" Lisa asked, rubbing Christiana's back.

"Rum, brandy, arrack and champagne with some tea, pineapple syrup and a couple other ingredients thrown in for flavor," he explained dryly.

"Wel , judging by Christiana's reaction there was precious little of those other ingredients in it," Suzette said dryly. Robert grimaced. "Lady Landon usual y has her staff make it stronger as the night goes on. She is sure it is the reason her bal s are always so wel attended and such a success."

"Bril iant," Suzette muttered.

"Are you al right, Chrissy?" Lisa asked with concern when Christiana's second round of coughing final y began to subside. She nodded, her breath stil too raspy to respond, but she wasn't at al sure that was true. The two drinks seemed to be hitting her hard. Dear God, her head was spinning and spots were floating before her eyes, though whether that was from the whiskey or her coughing fit she couldn't tel . She took another moment to regain her composure under the concerned gazes of Suzette, Lisa and Langley, then forced a smile and suggested, "We should be going."

"Are you sure you are al right?" Langley asked with a frown. "You are stil quite flushed."

Christiana grimaced, but nodded and turned careful y in search of the exit. "We are al tired. A good night's rest wil do us good. Besides, I have something to look into if you'l recal ?"

"What's that?" Lisa asked even as Langley suggested, "Perhaps you should leave that for another night now, Chrissy. You are not used to liquor and it may go straight to your head."

Christiana shook her head. "The first glass didn't affect me that badly, and this hasn't either except to steal my breath. It wil be fine. I shal let you know what I find out."

"What are you two talking about?" Lisa asked impatiently, concern tautening her expression.

"Nothing you need worry about," Christiana assured her, beginning to lead the way out of the bal room. "Just something I need to check with Dicky about."

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