The Countess Chapter Seventeen

Do you know that felow?" Richard asked. They'd just puled up in front of the townhouse and Richard had been about to open the door to get out when he'd noted a man pacing back and forth on the path leading to his front door. The gentleman would walk toward the house as if to seek entrance, stop, shake his head and walk away from it, only to pause halfway to the gate and turn back to approach the door again. The fel ow was wel dressed, with gray hair, and a hat and cane, but his noble appearance was belied by the fact that he appeared to be talking to himself as he repeated the bizarre behavior.

"He looks vaguely familiar," Daniel said, leaning to peer out the window as wel .

"He seems a little troubled about something."

"Grand." Richard sighed, opening the door to get out. "More trouble at my door."

"You do seem to attract it of late," Daniel said dryly as he fol owed him out of the carriage.

"Hmmm," Richard muttered, and headed up the path. When he reached the fel ow, the man had again approached the door and stopped to peer at it as if it were some insurmountable mountain he dearly wished to climb. Richard was about to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention, when the fel ow shook his head again, muttered under his breath and turned abruptly, then leapt several steps back as he found Richard standing there. Richard raised his eyebrows, but asked politely, "Is there something I can assist you with, sir?"

"What?" the man asked with disbelief.

"I am Richard Fairgrave, Earl of Radnor," he offered, holding out one hand. "Can I be of assistance?"

The gentleman peered down at his hand as if it were a snake and then scowled at him grimly. "Surely you jest, my lord. After al you have cost me with your shady dealings, you think to act like you do not know me?"

Richard let his hand drop to his side, his eyes narrowing. This was obviously someone his brother had known and had dealings with. And someone not happy with those dealings, which put him on the list of suspects who might have wanted Dicky-George dead. So far it was a list of one, the man before him.

"Why do we not go inside and discuss this?" Richard suggested, moving past him to open the door.

"Why do you not go in there and fetch the girls back to me while your friend and I wait out here instead."

Richard glanced back to insist they go inside, but paused when he saw the man had moved up next to Daniel and now held a very large black-and-ivory pistol to his side. For his part, Woodrow looked somewhat startled, but not unduly alarmed.

Richard, on the other hand, noted the fine tremor in the man's hand and was worried for him.

"Ha! Not so clever now are you, Dicky?" the man asked grimly. "Now give me my daughters. Al of them. I'm not leaving a one of them here for you to abuse any longer."

"Your daughters?" Daniel asked with interest, half turning toward the man.

Fortunately the action didn't get him shot; Richard had spoken at the same time, saying, "Lord Madison?" in an amazed tone and the old man appeared more interested in him than Daniel, though he kept the gun pointed at Woodrow.

"Save your games, my lord." The man said with dislike. "You have managed to fool me one too many times already. I know you have mistreated my Chrissy. Robert told me everything after the Landons' bal the other night. He said the girls told him that you've treated her terribly and I've sorted it al out from there. You never loved my gel, it was al an act to get your hands on her dower, and now you've somehow swindled me again hoping to force my Suzette into the same position. Wel I won't have it, and I am not leaving my Chrissy in your hands either, marriage or no marriage. I'l have it annul ed. I'l take it to the King himself if I have to. Now fetch me al three girls before I lose my patience."


Al three men glanced to the woman hurrying up the path toward them: Lisa Madison with Robert Langley on her heels.

"Father, what are you doing pointing that pistol at Suzette's fiance? Put that away before you hurt someone."

"Nay," Lord Madison said firmly, grabbing her arm with his free hand and urging her to the side to keep her out of harm's way as he dug the pistol more firmly into Daniel's stomach. "I'l not let Suzette marry this blackguard. No doubt he's a friend of that devil's there, which means he'l be as bad as Dicky. Now, be a good girl and fetch your sisters, gel. We are leaving here and going back to Madison. I've sold the townhouse to pay the debts. There is no need for Suzette to marry anyone."

"You sold your townhouse?" Daniel asked with alarm.

"Aye." He smiled meanly, his eyes darting from Daniel to Richard. "The two of you didn't think I'd do that, did you? But I'd sel the estate itself before I let you rope another one of my girls into a miserable marriage." He stood a little straighter and added, "And I wil see Chrissy out of her marriage as wel ."

"Oh Father," Lisa said with a sigh. "That wasn't necessary at al . Daniel agreed to let Suzette keep half her dower to pay off the debt and use the rest as she wished. He is not the devil Dicky was."

"And actual y, Richard here is not the vil ain you think he is," Robert added, moving to the man's side. Pausing, he leaned forward and whispered in the old man's ear, and whispered, and whispered. Real y, while Richard knew it was quite a bit to explain, he thought Langley could have been a little more succinct. It seemed to take a very long time before Madison's mouth dropped and the hand holding the gun fel to his side.

"What?" he squawked with amazement.

Robert nodded solemnly. "Chrissy is very happy with the Earl of Radnor. This one," he added firmly. "And Daniel is a good and honorable man. He'l make Suzette a good husband."

"Only if he doesn't tel her he sold the damned townhouse to make good on his debts," Daniel muttered with disgust. "If she finds that out she is just contrary enough that she may very wel not marry me."

"I'm sure Lord Madison wil keep that information to himself for now," Richard said dryly.

"Why would I do that?" Lord Madison asked. "If Suzette doesn't wish to marry him, I wil not let her be forced into it."

"Under normal circumstances I would agree with you," Richard said solemnly.

"However, after what I interrupted in the parlor between the two of them this morning, honor demands he marry her, and as her brother-in-law I feel it my duty to ensure he does."

"Eh?" Madison's eyes shot to Daniel, who was suddenly grinning.

"I'd forgotten about that." He nodded cheerful y. "Yes, she has to marry me to avoid ruin."

Madison's eyes narrowed and he turned to Robert. "You're sure he's a good and honorable man?"

"Positive," Robert assured him, obviously fighting a grin. "Truly, just look how eager he is to do the right thing. Besides, the fact that Suzie al owed him to take liberties with her proves she is not averse to the marriage. However, she can be contrary. It may be best to al ow her to continue thinking for now that the marriage is necessary."

"Hmm." Madison grimaced. "Of the three of them she has always been the most stubborn and difficult." He glanced to Daniel. "Are you sure you know what you're getting yourself into? She won't make life easy."

"Perhaps not," Daniel said with unconcern. "But life shal certainly never be boring with her either."

Madison relaxed and nodded solemnly. "There is much to be said for that. She is like her mother and that woman had me hopping to keep up with her from the day we wed. Never regretted marrying her even for a moment."

"So you won't tel her that there is no need to marry?" Daniel asked hopeful y.

Madison pursed his lips, his gaze moving first to Lisa, who nodded solemnly, then to each of the men before he heaved a sigh. "I shal talk to her, and if Suzie doesn't seem averse to marrying you, I wil keep the sale of the townhouse to myself for now."

Daniel relaxed and nodded. "Thank you."

Madison turned to Richard then, his gaze moving slowly over his features, and then he shook his head. "You look remarkably like Dicky."

"We were twins," he pointed out quietly.

"Aye, wel , there is a difference in the eyes. When you looked into his they were usual y empty or calculating. Yours . . ." He shook his head, apparently unable to come up with a way to describe the difference.

"Perhaps we should move inside now," Richard suggested, his gaze sliding to the road as a carriage passed.

"Aye. Let's go in. I could use a cup of tea nice and sweet. I got myself al wound up to come here and now feel quite worn out," Madison admitted.

"Tea it is, then," Richard said, opening the door and leading the smal group into the house.

"What are you doing? Unlock that," Christiana snapped, trying to grab the key from Freddy, but he merely caught her hand with one of his own, while his other dropped the key in a pocket.

"Shut up and sit down while I figure out what to do," Freddy barked, pushing her toward the bed. Christiana stumbled back under his push, landing in an ungraceful heap on the edge of the bed, but promptly sprang back to her feet. "I demand you unlock that door this instant and let me - " The rest of her words died as he slapped her face and pushed her down on the bed again.

"I said sit down and shut up," he growled, looming over her to prevent her rising again. "I need to think what to do."

Her hand clasped to the spot where he'd slapped her, Christiana stared at him for a moment, and then slowly let her hand slide away. "You are the blackmailer."

"Yes, and I want that money. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life as some lackey to the gentry, helping them pul on their drawers and pul off their boots."

"You knew what George had done to his brother from the start?" Christiana asked, though she was sure she already knew the answer to that.

"Yes, yes," he said on an impatient sigh. "I knew from the beginning and was paid wel to keep my mouth shut. You and your sister had the right of it."

Christiana jerked back as the words struck her. "How do you know what my sister and I were talking about? You were listening?"

"I was in the office trying to find something when I heard your voices approaching the door. I slipped out through the French doors but left one cracked open to hear when you left so I could continue my search and instead heard a whole lot more." He grimaced with irritation, but went on, "The moment I realized you were heading to look for me I rushed around the house to try to get here before you, but was not quick enough."

realized you were heading to look for me I rushed around the house to try to get here before you, but was not quick enough."

He turned his back to her then and paced the floor a couple times. Christiana glanced around, hoping to see something to use as a weapon, but real y the room was as sparse as a monk's cel . Glancing back to the man, she asked curiously,

"What were you looking for in the office?"

He hesitated and then apparently decided there was no harm in tel ing her and admitted, "Your father's marker. Between that and the blackmail money, I can set myself up wel in France or Spain. Have a good life as a man of means." He sighed at the thought.

"Why would Dicky have the marker?" Christiana asked.

He scowled her way and then propped his hands on his hips. "Bloody women, always asking questions, just have to know everything. I suppose you won't shut up and give me a moment's peace until you know everything?"

"Probably not," she admitted unsympathetical y.

His mouth twisted and he snapped, "Fine. I knew al from the start. I knew when George hired those men to kil his brother, I knew he then stepped into his shoes and pretended to be him, enjoying his wealth and title in his place. I knew when John Butterworth told George about the dowers for you and your sisters. I - "

"So it was al for the dowers," Christiana interrupted with disgust. While she'd suspected it for quite a while, actual y hearing the words made her angrier than she'd expected.

"Oh, yes," Freddy said with amusement. "He drugged your father and dragged him to the gaming hel to make him think he'd gambled so deep he would accept an offer of marriage for you in exchange for George's supposedly paying off markers he already held. And he did the same again, this time to force Suzette to be married to one of his friends. The markers were to be George's payment for acting as procurer."

"Who was the friend who was supposed to marry Suzette?" Christiana asked curiously.

"Does it matter? She's set her mind on marrying that damned Woodrow," he pointed out dryly, and then shook his head. "Were George stil alive he would have arranged an accident for the man or some other such thing, but the stupid bastard went and hired idiots to kil his brother. They failed him and now Richard is back and poisoned him to get his title back."

"Richard did not poison him," Christiana said firmly.

"Wel someone did," Freddy snapped.

"Yes, but it wasn't Richard," she assured him and then tilted her head in question.

"How did you know he was poisoned?"

"Because I saw him die," he said grimly. "He dragged me into his office the morning your sisters arrived to crow about the latest success of his plans. He was sure they were there about your father's latest apparent faux pas," he explained, and then continued, "Once assured I was properly impressed with his cleverness, George sent me for snuff. When I got back the whiskey was there, and he was clawing at his throat, then he died right there in front of me."

He grimaced. "Wel , I know trouble when I see it and got myself out of there right quick. Told the cook I was unwel and his lordship had excused me to recover, then came in here to await the hue and cry that he was dead. But there was none," he added with exasperation. "When I final y ventured out it was to be told his lordship was feeling unwel and resting abed. I came back to my room to try to puzzle that one out. I knew damned right wel the man was dead. So I waited until the servants were al abed and you were at the bal and then snuck upstairs to see for myself, but as I started up the hal your bedroom door opened. I ducked into the guest bedroom across from yours and watched through the cracked door as a man came out carrying George over his shoulder with a second man fol owing. I recognized the one man as Lord Woodrow and while George's body obstructed my view of the other man's face, when Woodrow cal ed him Richard I knew he wasn't dead after al


"I stood there in that room for a long time that night, watching the comings and goings as a plan formed in my mind. I could blackmail Radnor about George's death, take the markers and force your father to pay his debts, and then head for the continent." He fel silent, his lips twisting with displeasure.

"And it would have worked perfectly. By this time tomorrow I would have the blackmail money. The money for the gaming debt would have fol owed and then I'd be on my way."

"Except for Suzette and myself," she murmured.

"Aye," he agreed grimly, his gaze scouring her with displeasure.

"You realize she knows I went in search of you and wil soon worry that I have not returned," Christiana pointed out quietly. "You may as wel release me and just go. I promise if you do that no one wil pursue you."

"I'm sure you think that a very kind offer," he said dryly. "However, I am not going anywhere without the money."

anywhere without the money."

"Do you real y expect my husband simply to pay, knowing it is you?"

"He doesn't know," Freddy pointed out. "And he wil pay. In fact, I think I wil just up the price now that I have an added bargaining chip in you."

"Me?" she asked with surprise.

"Aye. Judging by the caterwauling that's been coming from your room the last couple nights, I think it's safe to say he wil pay handsomely for your safe return."

Christiana flushed and glanced away. She was definitely going to have to stuff a bit of cloth or something in her mouth when she and Richard were alone. It was too humiliating to know everyone could hear them.

A tearing sound caught her ear and she turned back, frowning when she saw that Freddy had retrieved an old shirt and was rending it into strips. Wariness creeping up her spine, she asked, "What is that for?"

"To bind and gag you. We cannot stay here and I want to find that marker, but I am not sneaking you around to the office until I am sure you wil not scream and give us away."

Christiana stared at him wide-eyed, her mind working quickly. She was in a bit of a spot now, but if he bound and gagged her she would be helpless and she just didn't feel like al owing him to put her in that position. She needed to draw attention while she could. Drawing in a deep breath, she opened her mouth to scream, but al that came out was a moan as his fist suddenly slammed into the side of her head, sending her into unconsciousness.

"I thought I heard voices out here."

Richard glanced toward his office door as Suzette stepped out into the hal . She pul ed the door closed as she glanced over them. Her eyes widened with surprise when she spotted Lord Madison there and she started forward at once.

"Father, what are you doing here?"

"He came to rescue us," Lisa told her before anyone else could speak. "He even held Richard and Daniel at gunpoint until Robert and I explained the new situation to him."

"Oh, how sweet," Suzette said pausing before her father and hugging him, which seemed to leave the man a little startled. Apparently, he hadn't expected a warm greeting from her, but she said, "I am sorry I was so angry when we arrived in London, Father. You didn't deserve it." She pul ed back and added,

"Chrissy says the men think Dicky drugged you and just made you think you'd gambled the money away. It was al a trick to try to get our dowers."

When Lord Madison glanced his way in question, Richard nodded solemnly and said, "There are rumors that I, or Dicky real y, had become quite chummy with the owner of a gaming hel famous for the trick."

Lord Madison sagged with relief and nodded. "I had begun to suspect as much. I have no recol ection of gambling at al , and what recol ections I do have of the gaming hel are quite fuzzy flashes of being led through it, people talking and laughing, being told to sign something . . ." He grimaced and shook his head. "I have never cared for gambling and don't even know how to play the games of chance in those places. Yet there was the marker with my signature on it."

Suzette patted his back and hugged him again.

"Wel , now that that is al straightened out, why do we not sit down and hear what everyone has learned?" Daniel suggested, moving to Suzette's other side so that she stood between the two men.

Richard managed to restrain the grin of amusement that wanted to claim his lips.

He knew Daniel's main concern was changing the subject before anyone could mention that Lord Madison had sold his townhouse to gain the money to pay off his debt without the need for Suzette's dower. The man was going to be itching to get Suzette to Gretna Green before someone spil ed the beans. It seemed he'd definitely settled on the woman to wife, but wasn't sure she would wil ingly wed him in return were it not for the circumstances she had found herself in. Richard wasn't so sure Daniel had anything to worry about though. He had noted the way Suzette seemed always to track him with her eyes, and the way she tended to stick close to him. And then there was the scene he'd walked in on that morning after leaving Christiana to straighten her clothes. By his guess the pair had been a heartbeat away from anticipating their vows. He suspected Suzette's feelings for his friend were much deeper than anyone suspected.

"Yes, let's move into the parlor," Richard suggested and then glanced to Suzette to ask, "Where is Christiana?"

"Oh." She frowned and glanced along the hal . "I was just going in search of her.

She was going to have Haversham fetch Freddy to us to interview, but has taken an awful y long time so I thought I'd best check on her."

"George's valet, Freddy?" Richard asked with a frown. Freddy had been his brother's valet for twenty years and, like Robbie, wouldn't have been fooled into believing George was Richard. The man must have known al along.

"Yes, George's valet," Suzette said now. "We realized that he might not have been fooled by the switch George made and if he somehow saw you the last day or two may realize you are not George. If so, he could be the blackmailer."

"Of course," Richard growled, and then glanced up the hal as Haversham came hurrying out of the kitchens, heading their way. He knew at once that there was trouble. Haversham was a proper En-glish butler to the core of his being and simply never hurried anywhere. It was considered unseemly, and butlers were never unseemly. Stil , Richard was more interested in Christiana's whereabouts than any smal emergency the butler may be approaching about and asked, "Haversham, have you seen my wife? She apparently went looking for you to have you send Freddy to her."

"Actual y, my lord, I was just coming to seek you out about that. It appears Lady Christiana was unable to find me and went in search of your valet herself and has now found herself in something of a fix."

"What kind of a fix?" Richard asked grimly.

"Wel , I happened to be passing Freddy's room and overheard him saying that he intended to take her and force you to pay to get her back safely," he admitted grimly. "I believe he is planning to take her around to the office to try to find something first, however, so if we were to hide ourselves away in there and wait for him to approach we may be able to take him by surprise and relieve him of Lady Christiana without her coming to harm."

"That's actual y a good plan," Daniel said with some surprise and eyed the butler with a new respect. He then glanced to Richard and said, "We should move quickly though, I don't recal a lot of places in the office to hide."

Richard had already turned to head to his office when Robert announced, "I am coming too."

"And me," Lord Madison said firmly.

"Me too," Suzette announced.

Richard paused abruptly and glanced back to see that everyone was fol owing, including Lisa and Haversham. Scowling, he shook his head. "There aren't enough hiding spaces for everyone. Robert and Daniel only wil come. The rest of you need to get into the parlor and out of the hal so you don't scare Freddy off." His gaze slid to Lord Madison, who opened his mouth to protest, and forestal ed him by adding, "I trust you are the only person here who could keep Suzette and Lisa in that parlor."

Lord Madison let his mouth close with a sigh and nodded.

Richard started to turn away then, but paused and swung back to ask, "Might I borrow your pistol, my lord?"

"Of course." Madison held out the pistol and said grimly, "Keep her safe."

"I intend to," Richard assured him as he took the weapon. He then stepped back and waited as Christiana's father turned to take Suzette and Lisa each by an arm to lead them to the parlor. Both girls began to protest at once, but he merely said, "I am your father and you wil go in the parlor and like it."

When Richard's gaze next slid to Haversham, the butler hesitated, but then nodded stiffly and turned to fol ow the others. Richard immediately turned and led Robert and Daniel to the office to seek out hiding spots and await the arrival of his wife and her captor. Christiana groaned, or tried to, as consciousness returned to her. However, her groan was stifled by the gag in her mouth. She blinked her eyes open, and immediately wished she hadn't and closed them again. The sight of the ground moving by below was only her first hint that she was not in a position she wanted to be in. The pain of the shoulder lodged in her stomach was her second hint.

Freddy had obviously knocked her out, bound and gagged her and was now carting her about over his shoulder like a sack of wheat. Her head was dangling down his back and aching. Though she wasn't sure whether the aching was from the blow she'd taken to the head, her position, which had the blood pooling in that same abused head, or a combination of both. Al Christiana real y knew was that her head hurt, her stomach hurt from the jarring it was taking with each step, and the corners of her mouth hurt where the gag rubbed tightly against it. The inside of her mouth wasn't al that happy either; it was as dry as a bone thanks to the gag apparently soaking up every drop of liquid in there.

Basical y, she was very uncomfortable, and growing very annoyed with Freddy for it. Christiana could hardly wait to fire the man, for those were going to be the first words out of her mouth once the gag was removed. She was sure it wouldn't upset him much, considering he'd planned to leave their employ and move to the continent.

However, she would stil enjoy saying the words.

Grimacing at her own thoughts, which truly were just an effort to distract herself from her discomfort, Christiana forced her eyes open again. The ground was stil moving by below her, but now it was grass. They were outside. Lifting her head, she peered around to see that Freddy was carrying her along the house toward the French doors leading to the office. Christiana supposed he'd decided this was the safer approach and lowered her head, hoping that Suzette wasn't stil in there. The only thing she could think of that would be worse than her being held for ransom was Suzette being caught and held with her.

Freddy slowed and she glanced around to see that they had nearly reached the French doors. He was creeping close to the house now, presumably approaching cautiously in case someone was inside.

Apparently, the room was empty. At least that was her guess when Freddy began to move faster again, opening the door to slip into the room with her stil over his shoulder. He paused halfway through the door, tensing like a rabbit smel ing a predator on the wind, and Christiana tried to glance around to see what had made him suddenly tense, but couldn't see past him to the room. She sagged against his back again, her gaze moving over the yard instead and it was then she glimpsed the man creeping up behind them along the back of the house. Haversham. The butler was moving with the silence and stealth of a thief as he approached. He also carried a rather wicked butcher knife in his hand. Movement behind Haversham then drew her attention to the fact that there was another man fol owing the butler. Christiana's eyes widened as she recognized her father. She had no idea what he was doing there, but there he was, face grim and eyes determined as he crept along in much the same manner as Haversham, a smal er knife in his own hand.

Christiana had barely taken note of that when she next spotted Suzette and Lisa tiptoeing along behind the two men. Her sisters were each armed as wel

, Suzette with a rol ing pin and Lisa with a big, long two-tined cooking fork. It appeared the whole household intended to save her and had raided the kitchen to do it, she thought wryly, and then wondered where Richard and the men were. She supposed it was possible that they were not yet back from their own task of arranging for the blackmail money, but Lisa and Robert had been together so she knew he at least must be there somewhere, though she didn't see him yet. And then Freddy apparently got over whatever had spooked him and continued into the office and Christiana could no longer see her would-be rescuers.

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