The Countess Chapter One

"My lady?"

Christiana remained curled on her side in her cocoon of blankets. She merely opened one eye to peer at the older woman bent over her. Grace, her maid. "Hmm? "

"Your sisters are here." Those four words and the urgency behind them brought her other eye open at once.

"What? My sisters in London?" Christiana rol ed over, thrusting the blankets and linens away to sit up. "And here at this hour? There must be some sort of emergency for them to be cal ing so early."

"That was my thought when I saw them getting out of the carriage," Grace admitted as Christiana got out of bed. "So I hurried up here to fetch you. If you're quick we can have you dressed and downstairs before your husband sends them away."

"Dicky wouldn't send them away," Christiana said with surprise, and then tacked on an uncertain, "Would he?"

"He's done so with others."

"Who?" Her horror and surprise came muffled from inside the cloth of her nightdress as the maid dragged it off over her head.

"Lady Beckett, Lady Gower, Lord Ol ivet and Lord Langley . . . twice." Grace turned away to trade the nightdress for a pale blue gown that matched Christiana's eyes. As she began to help her don it, she added, "And I can tel you Lord Langley didn't like it the first time, but was absolutely livid the second."

"I can imagine," Christiana said with a sigh as the dress dropped to cover her body. The Langley estate bordered her childhood home, Madison Manor. Robert, the only son and heir, had grown up with her and her sisters. He was like family, the big brother she'd never had. He wouldn't have appreciated being sent away like some sort of undesirable. "Why didn't you tel me?"

Grace snatched up a hairbrush and began to drag it through her hair before saying, "What good would it have done?"

"None," Christiana admitted unhappily. Her husband had every right to turn away whomever he wished from his door, while she, as she'd come to learn, had few to no rights at al in this marriage. She sighed, and then grimaced as Grace tugged at her hair, pul ing it into the tight, matronly bun Christiana had worn since marriage, a style she absolutely abhorred. Aside from being ugly, having her hair pul ed so tight al day resulted in terrible headaches, but Dicky insisted it gave some sophistication to her unruly person.

"What could have brought my sisters here?" Christiana asked worriedly.

"I do not know, but it must be something important. They did not send word of their arrival in the city ere arriving," the woman pointed out, and then stepped back.

"There. I have finished with your hair."

Christiana barely managed to swipe up her slippers before Grace took her arm to urge her to move. "Come, we must hurry. Haversham wil have found and fetched Lord Radnor by now. Let us hope we were quick enough and your husband has not yet sent them away."

Grunting in agreement, Christiana hopped on first one foot and then the other to get her slippers on without the necessity of stopping as the woman rushed her to the door.

Christiana could hear both Lisa's and Suzette's high anxious voices from the entry below as she hurried along the upper hal and immediately frowned at the rudeness of keeping her sisters in the entry rather than showing them to the parlor.

She couldn't blame Haversham, however, the butler would only be fol owing Dicky's orders regarding guests. Dicky's voice sounded next, loud and pompous as he announced, "I fear my wife is stil sleeping. You real y should have sent a messenger around with a card had you wished to see her. I could have responded with an appropriate time for such a visit. As it is, I fear you shal simply have to return to your father's townhouse and send that card now."

"Can we not just slip up to speak to her, Dicky? We are her sisters and it's important." Suzette's tone was a combination of desperation, anger and something like shock. The anger was no doubt at Dicky's pompous words. Probably the shock was as wel , Christiana acknowledged and knew the man her sisters now faced was a far cry from the one they'd encountered prior to the wedding. She had no doubt they were just as confused and startled by the change in him as she herself had been for the first six months of their marriage. However, it was the desperation that worried her. Something was definitely wrong.

"It's al right, husband. I am awake," Christiana cal ed out as she reached the stairs and started down. Dicky immediately turned to peer up at her, his face like thunder. Whether his anger was over her sister's words or her own, she didn't know. Dicky preferred to be obeyed, and promptly; he wouldn't appreciate Suzette's insistence. However, he also wouldn't be pleased with her arrival before he could send Suzette and Lisa away as he apparently had others.

Forcing a soothing smile to her lips, Christiana stepped off the stairs and moved to his side. The man had a terrible temper and could say the cruelest things when angered. She had to live with the insults and criticisms, but her sisters shouldn't have to face the rage she found so frightening. It wasn't the anger itself that have to face the rage she found so frightening. It wasn't the anger itself that unsettled Christiana so much as the depth of it. Fury swirled around him at al times like a dark cloak. When provoked, his face flushed red and twisted into a tight, cruel mask, and he would begin to snap and snarl with such rage and venom that spittle actual y flew from his lips, and gathered at the corners of his mouth like a rabid dog. He also tended to tremble with the depth of his feelings as if they were barely contained and might explode at any moment. It was that explosion Christiana wished most to avoid. He was a strong man and she didn't wish ever to see the wreckage his anger would leave in its wake were it completely unleashed.

"Good morning, Dicky," Christiana breathed nervously as she reached his side.

She leaned up to kiss his cold, hard cheek as if al were wel and she wasn't fighting the urge to flee the seething fury she could sense simmering in him. Dicky did not even respond to her greeting, snapping instead, "I was just explaining to your sisters that it's quite rude to arrive uninvited so early in the morning."

"Yes, wel , family is al owed some leeway, aren't they?" Christiana said, and winced at the pleading she could hear in her own voice. There was no mistaking that she was begging him not to make a scene and she could tel by her sisters'

expression that they recognized it, which was just humiliating.

Even more humiliating was that Dicky chose to ignore the plea.

"My family would never arrive uninvited and without any warning," he snarled, sneering at her sisters as if they were beneath contempt.

"Of course your family wouldn't. They're al dead," Suzette snapped in response and Christiana glanced at her with alarm. Her gaze then darted worriedly back to Dicky, who was sucking in air through his teeth and puffing up.

Recognizing the signs of an approaching explosion, she quickly took his arm and tried to urge him away, saying, "Why do you not go enjoy your breakfast and leave me to deal with my sisters?"

Dicky didn't move. Feet planted solidly, he ignored her tugging and scowled at Suzette who merely glared defiantly back. Christiana closed her eyes briefly and fought the urge to slap the stupid girl. Oh yes, Suzette was being brave enough, but then she had little to lose in this battle.

Dicky couldn't hit her or even penalize her in any way. It was Christiana he would punish for the girl's bravery . . . and probably in several different ways. It wouldn't be enough for him to rant and rave at her for half an hour about her unruly and uncouth family. He would also most likely insist Suzette was a bad influence and order Christiana not to see her again. Then he would add various other little unpleasantries to the punishment such as ensuring that al meals served were ones she disliked, having her woken early with some excuse or other, and then either insisting she retire early when she was curled up with a good book, or keeping her up late when she was exhausted. Where Dicky had started to leave her to her own devices lately, he would probably force her to suffer his company for the next several days as he ranted and raved about everything and everyone in London in a manner sure to leave her disheartened and depressed, and then he would insist on taking her out to aid him in purchasing some item or other, only so that he could announce that her choices were poor ones and select something else instead in a show of how little taste she had. Al of which were petty punishments, but when added together and carried on for long periods of time would leave her exhausted and despairing of a life of such steady, smal tortures. On top of al of that, Dicky would also be spouting criticism after criticism of her looks, her dress, her speech, her comportment, her family members, her intel igence, her naivety, her friends or her lack of them. It would be a steady trickle of abuse that slowly eroded every last vestige of self-esteem she possessed until she longed for nothing but the escape of sleep. There was no other escape available to her. Suicide was out of the question, as was divorce.

"Where is your father?" Dicky barked suddenly, drawing her attention back to the matter at hand. "What kind of man leaves two young unmarried women to gal ivant about the city without his escort?"

"Visiting us is hardly gal ivanting about the city," Christiana protested quickly to forestal Suzette doing so. "Please husband, your breakfast wil be getting cold. Why do you not - "

"Our breakfast," Dicky corrected sharply and then smiled in a way that made her sigh inwardly. He had thought of a way to punish someone. "But you're right. It is getting cold while we waste our time on uninvited guests."

Christiana found her hand suddenly caught up in his as Dicky began to drag her up the hal , "Show my wife's sisters to the parlor, Haversham. We shal attend them after we have enjoyed the breakfast cook has worked so hard to produce."

Christiana cast a glance that was half apologetic and half warning to her sisters and then she was in the breakfast room and Dicky was slamming the door closed behind them.

"Your father should be ashamed of raising three such unruly creatures," Dicky snarled as he led her to the sideboard and the food waiting there. "A little discipline would have gone a long way toward making better women of you al . But then he has little discipline himself, does he not?"

Christiana remained silent, merely picking up a plate and beginning to select food from the offerings. She had learned long ago that to try to argue her case merely ensured an even longer, more furious rant, so simply chose a piece of toast and some fruit and started to turn away.

"You wil eat a proper breakfast, wife," Dicky snapped, bringing her to a halt.

"Give me your plate."

Christiana bit her tongue as he snatched the china away, and managed to swal ow the sigh that tried to escape as Dicky began to pile kidneys and kippers on her plate. She hated both kidneys and kippers and he knew that. It seemed the punishment was starting already.

"There. Now you may sit."

A glance at the plate Dicky shoved under her nose showed that he'd added scrambled eggs to the kidneys and kippers. She preferred boiled eggs, but merely took the plate and turned to take her place at the table. But she was wishing the whole while that she had the nerve to toss the plate, food and al , in his face.

Unfortunately, she never did anything so bold, ever. She might have, had he dared to treat her like this before they were married, but he had been al charm and compliments then. This behavior hadn't started until after the wedding, and Christiana had been so startled and taken aback by the sudden transformation in his attitude that she'd been slow to stand up for herself. It had left her feeling as dazed as if someone had hit her in the head. By the time she'd got over the shock and even considered standing up for herself, it was too late, the criticisms and abuse had already taken effect and rather than argue, she'd found herself wondering if perhaps the dress he was criticizing wasn't cut too low, or that the shade might clash with her coloring. Her selfconfidence had been shaken, and as time had passed it was shaken more. Now rather than even consider that he might be wrong, she simply tried to appease him, soothe his temper and please him if possible. Somehow she had become a slave with less rights than the servants who worked for them.

"You're not eating your breakfast," Dicky said as he joined her at the table.

Christiana cleared her throat. "I am not very hungry."

"I don't care. You're too skinny. Eat," Dicky said firmly, and then added, "Your diet is atrocious. You don't eat enough meat. Eat your kidney and kippers."

Christiana bowed her head and began to eat, doing her best not to taste what went into her mouth. That was impossible, however, and she was more than grateful to finish the last bite and stand up.

"What are you doing?"

Christiana stil ed, her eyes shooting to her husband. "I am finished, Dicky. I thought I would go see what my sisters - "

"I am not finished." When confusion covered Christiana's face, he snapped, "Is it too much to expect my wife to keep me company while I breakfast?"

She settled reluctantly back in her seat, but resentment and anger were stirring within her again. They never breakfasted together. From the first morning of their marriage he had either risen early, breakfasted and left the house before she had even stirred, or he slept later than her and took his breakfast in his room alone. At first Christiana had worried over that, thinking a wife and husband should breakfast together, but after a while she'd been grateful for the respite. Now she was just annoyed with the man, knowing he was simply using the demand for her company as an excuse to make her sisters wait longer.

Dicky took his time about finishing his meal, but final y pushed his plate away and rose. He then insisted on walking her to the parlor and did so at a pace that snails could have outstripped. Christiana was gritting her teeth by the time he paused to open the parlor door.

"Chrissy!" Suzette started to her feet with relief when Christiana entered, but stopped abruptly when Dicky fol owed. She then watched with obvious frustration as he ever so slowly walked Christiana to a seat and saw her settled.

"So?" Dicky arched an eyebrow as he took up a position on the arm of Christiana's chair where he could loom over her like a bird of prey about to pounce.

He then eyed her sisters like they were naughty children. "What was so urgent that you had to arrive here at such an ungodly hour?"

Suzette's gaze slid to Christiana and then to Lisa before she forced a cool smile and sweetly lied, "Nothing at al . We just missed Chrissy terribly. It has been more than a year since your marriage and you have not brought her back to visit as you promised."

Christiana could feel Dicky stiffen at the chastisement and sighed inwardly. Here was more he would punish her for later.

"I am an Earl, girl, an important man who is far too busy to waste time gal ivanting about the countryside when there is work to be done here," Dicky said stiffly.

"Ah, wel , we are seeing each other now," Christiana murmured to forestal her sister saying anything else. "And I am very happy to see you. You must tel me everything that has happened since I left home."

Much to her relief, Suzette caught the hint and immediately launched into tale after tale of life back on their country estate. She actual y seemed to begin to enjoy the endeavor, devilment sparkling in her eyes as she recounted who had married, who hadn't, and every bit of gossip she had heard no matter how trivial. As for Lisa, she sat silent, her worried gaze remaining warily on an increasingly impatient Dicky as Suzette babbled on. It was a relief to al of them when he suddenly stood to announce, "I shal leave you ladies to your nattering then. I have more important issues to attend to."

On that pompous note, he left them, moving much more swiftly than he had al owed her to on entering.

"Thank God," Suzette moaned when the door closed, her gay, trouble-free facade dropping away. Anger immediately replaced it and she sat forward to demand, "What the devil is going on, Chrissy? Does he act like that al the time? My God he was nothing like that when he courted you. He - "

"Hush," Christiana hissed. Standing, she moved swiftly to the door and knelt to peer out the keyhole. When al she saw was empty hal , she released a relieved breath and moved back to her sisters.

"How bad is your marriage?" Suzette asked quietly as Christiana settled on the couch between her sisters. "You look tired and miserable. He's not treating you right, is he?"

"Never mind that," Christiana said wearily. There was little anyone could do about her situation and discussing it would merely bring her misery to the surface. It was easier when she simply didn't think about it. "What is going on? Why are you two here?"

Suzette and Lisa exchanged a glance and then Lisa final y spoke up for the first time since their arrival and announced, "Father has been gambling again."

"What?" Christiana gasped with dismay. "But he promised never to gamble again after Dicky paid off his last gambling debts."

It was how she'd ended up married to the man. Her father had landed them in hot water with one aberrant night of drinking and gambling. He'd raised what money he could by sel ing family heirlooms to meet the debt, but it hadn't been enough, and he'd been at a loss as to how to pay the rest. The creditors had been knocking on the door when fortune had seemed to smile on them in the form of Dicky. He'd arrived at Madison Manor with an offer of marriage for Christiana, and on hearing of their dire straits had offered to clear the remainder of her father's debts in exchange for Christiana's hand in marriage.

To her father's credit, he'd refused the offer until Dicky had convinced him that he loved Christiana. Dicky had claimed to have seen her at the local fair that summer and spoken to her briefly, which she hadn't recal ed at al . He'd also claimed he'd been fascinated and found out al he could about her and that everything he'd learned he'd found pleasing.

His words had been convincing and her father had been swayed, but despite his dire straits, had insisted that while he would give his blessing to the union, it was only if she was wil ing. Unfortunately, Christiana had been easy enough to persuade. Dicky was handsome, wel off and an Earl. Any girl would be flattered to be courted by such a man. And what a courtship! He'd been the sweetest of men, cal ing her his little rosebud and romancing her with touching poems and declarations of undying love. It had al been rather heady to a simple girl who had spent her life quietly in the country with only her sisters and one neighbor boy for company, and in no time at al he'd swept her off her feet and gained her agreement.

Christiana grimaced at the thought of the naive idiot she'd been, and now saw that she should have questioned his motives and insisted on more time to make her decision. But her father only had two weeks to pay off his gambling debts, and she'd foolishly believed every word Dicky had said to her. She'd been sure he must love her and that there could be no other purpose for his rapturous courting. After al , what other reason could there be? It was not as if he knew about the outrageously huge dower that her mother's father, Baron Sefton, had bestowed on herself and her two sisters in his wil . That was a family secret.

Of course, once they'd married and his behavior had changed so dramatical y Christiana had begun to suspect he'd known about the dower after al and that gaining it had been the true target of his courting. She just didn't know how he could have learned about it.

"Father said he didn't mean to," Suzette said unhappily, drawing Christiana's mind back to this new problem. "He feels horrible about what's happened and has been scrambling to try to figure out a way to pay off his debts, but can think of nothing."

Christiana grimaced. He'd felt horrible the last time too. "When did it happen?

And how? He has not even been to London and there is nowhere near Madison for him to - "

"He has been in London this last month," Lisa corrected quietly. "Didn't you know?"

"No," Christiana admitted with dismay. "Why didn't he come to see me?"

"He did," Suzette assured her. "In fact it was his original reason for traveling to London. He was worried because Dicky hadn't brought you home to visit, and we weren't getting responses to the letters we were sending."

"I haven't received any letters, and I have been writing faithful y every week,"

Christiana said quietly, anger beginning a slow burn in her stomach. Not getting responses to her own letters had left her feeling even more lonely and depressed.

Now it seemed Dicky had somehow been ensuring none of her letters went out and that she didn't receive any in return. What else had the man been doing? She wondered grimly.

"The bastard," Suzette snapped, looking ready to smack someone.

"You say father came here?" Christiana asked, returning them to the topic at hand.

"Aye," Lisa murmured, her worried gaze on a stil furious Suzette. "Dicky said you were out at the dressmaker's."

"He didn't tel me," Christiana said unhappily.

"Apparently Dicky welcomed him and took him to the club for a drink . . . and then on to a gaming hel ," Lisa said. Christiana sat back with dismay.

"Father was supposed to return home two weeks ago," Suzette continued the explanations in a quiet voice. "When he did not arrive and we heard no word we began to worry. I sent messages to the townhouse but got no response, and then final y decided Lisa and I had best come to London and find out what had happened."

When she fel silent, Lisa picked up the tale again. "We arrived in London at dawn and went straight to the townhouse. We found father there in the library. He was in his cups and sobbing."

Christiana let her breath out on a sigh and asked with resignation, "How bad is it?"

"Worse than last time," Suzette said tightly.

"Worse?" Christiana could feel the blood rush out of her face.

"He owes less than last time," Lisa said quickly. "But the estate is stil recovering from his first misstep and there is no ready cash or even much to sel . If father cannot come up with the money, he may be forced to sel the family estate to pay off the debt."

Christiana sucked in a horrified breath. This was worse than last time.

"We shal be ruined once this gets out," Lisa pointed out solemnly.

Christiana bit her lip, knowing that was true. "How long does he have to find the money?"

"Two weeks," Suzette answered.

"Two weeks," Christiana breathed with dismay. Her mind raced around like a rat in a larder for a moment and then she straightened her shoulders determinedly. "I shal talk to Dicky. We wil have to take some money from my dower and - "

"No. You paid last time. It's not fair that you should pay again," Suzette argued, and then added grimly, "Besides, it appears that you are stil paying for father's last misstep."

Christiana waved that away, knowing Suzette was referring to how Dicky treated her. Not wishing to discuss it, she instead addressed her suggestion,

"Suzette, you cannot pay. You cannot claim your dower without first marrying."

"True," she agreed. "So I shal marry."

"In two weeks?" Christiana shook her head. "You cannot find a suitable husband in two weeks."

"Who says he has to be suitable?" Suzette asked dryly. "Dicky was supposedly suitable and that hasn't turned out very wel , has it?"

"But - "

"Do not fret, Chrissy," Suzette interrupted. "I have a plan. I just need a little help from you to make it work."

"What kind of plan? And what help?" Christiana asked worriedly.

Suzette sat eagerly forward and took her hands. "There are always Lords who are land and title rich and yet in desperate need of funds. I intend to find one who is desperate enough that he wil strike a deal with me. In exchange for marriage and access to three quarters of my dower, he must agree to al ow me access to one quarter of it to use as I wish, as wel as the freedom to live my own life." She smiled widely. "Al I need is for you to sponsor our coming out . . . immediately. You have to get us to bal s and teas and soirees and anything else where I can meet and assess the men available. I wil do the rest."

Christiana stared at her sister. Her plan seemed sound enough. Three quarters of Suzette's dower was stil a fortune, and certainly the arrangement should leave Suzette happier than she herself was in her own marriage. In fact, Christiana actual y felt a moment's envy that her younger sister would manage such an arrangement.

As for Suzette's request, sponsoring her for a coming out was little enough to ask, and certainly much easier than trying to convince Dicky to al ow Christiana access to her funds. While the man was pleased to waste money on food, wine, and his own pleasures, when it came to giving her anything as smal as pin money, his fist suddenly spasmed and closed tight. Of course, Dicky did seem pleased to say no to her when it came to anything, so convincing him to sponsor her sisters for a coming out might not be al that easy either, she thought worriedly.

"Chrissy?" Suzette asked anxiously. "You can do that, can you not?"

Christiana's gaze returned to her younger sister. Seeing the worry and desperation on her face, she straightened abruptly. "Certainly I can. I shal make Dicky do it . . . somehow," she added in a mutter as she got determinedly to her feet.

She would confront him at once, Christiana thought firmly as she crossed the room, and found she wasn't afraid for the first time in a long time. It wasn't just because she was angry about Dicky's part in her father's gambling either. Somehow just learning that her family had tried to write her and that she wasn't as alone as she'd felt this last year was resurrecting her spirit, as was this short time basking in her sisters' company. The old Christiana was awakening inside her as if from a long sleep, and she was ready for a fight.

"What if he says no?" Lisa asked worriedly, bringing her to a halt as she reached the door.

Christiana paused just long enough to force a smile to her lips, and then glanced back to say lightly, "Then I shal just have to kil him, won't I?"

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