The Countess Chapter Six

Oh Suzette, your lovely dress!" Lisa cried rushing forward now.

"I apologize," Richard murmured, bending to pick up the glass. "I didn't mean to spil it al over you."

"No, you just meant to keep me from drinking your precious whiskey," Suzette snapped with disgust. "Christiana said you don't al ow anyone else to drink it, but surely it was better in me than on the floor, don't you think?"

"I assure you, you are welcome to anything in my home," he said, straightening with dignity, and then added in a lie, "I just did not wish you to drink the whiskey out of anger. I'm quite sure you would never have consumed it under normal circumstances, and it's very strong. It would have gone right to your head."

Obviously not appeased by his explanation, she said dryly, "Yes, wel now it's gone to my bosoms instead."

"Suzette!" Lisa gasped with shock.

"Wel , it has," Suzette said unrepentantly, gesturing to her soaking bodice. She then clucked with annoyance and whirled toward the door. "Forgive me, but I no longer feel like talking tonight. I am going to bed."

"Perhaps it's best if we have this conversation tomorrow," Lisa said apologetical y, fol owing her sister to the door. Pausing there, she glanced back to offer him a crooked smile and added, "But I am very glad you have realized what guilt and loss were making you do and I shal do my best to help you repair the damage done to your relationship with Christiana. I promise."

"Thank you," Richard murmured, thinking that while Suzette was a virago, Lisa was real y . . . wel , she was incredibly young and sweet. If he stayed married to Christiana, and real y took them on as sisters he would have to help protect the girl from her own romantic tendencies. Dear Lord, he stil couldn't believe the tragic tale she'd come up with to explain George's nastiness, and al on the basis of one sentence. Shaking his head as the women left, Richard turned his attention to the glass in his hand and raised it to his nose to sniff it. He frowned when al he smel ed was whiskey without any hint of bitter almonds, then picked up the decanter and gave it a sniff too. No bitter almond scent. Unfortunately, he didn't know much about the poison and supposed the smel might not present itself until consumed. That or the whiskey wasn't the source of the poison. Better safe than sorry, he decided and carried the decanter to the French doors leading into the yard. Opening them, he stepped outside and upended the bottle, emptying the contents on the grass.

Richard had just turned to head back into the office when a heavy thud to his left made him stop. Glancing in that direction, he stared blankly at the bundle that had suddenly appeared on the grass several feet away. Richard was slow to recognize his half unwrapped brother lying there, but once he understood what he was looking at, his gaze shot swiftly up to the second floor window above. He was just in time to see a man's leg appear over the ledge. Daniel. He'd forgotten al about the man.

Obviously, his friend hadn't managed to get out before the women had returned upstairs and was now trying to escape via the window. Richard waited, ready to help if he could, but rather than his other leg appearing over the ledge, candlelight suddenly fil ed the room, framing Woodrow's dark shape in the window.

Cursing, Richard rushed back into his office. He deposited the empty decanter on his desk as he hurried past, and then rushed out into the hal only to nearly run down Haversham.

"My lord!" the butler cried, coming to an abrupt halt. "You're - "

"Yes, yes, I'm feeling better," Richard said with a forced smile, knowing the staff had been told he was il . He was pleased to know the man stil worked for the family and that George hadn't sacked the fel ow, but real y didn't have time for him at the moment. Moving around him, he added, "Excuse me. I have .

. . er . . . something to handle above stairs."

Richard didn't wait for a response from Haversham, but left him gaping after him and headed upstairs at a run, desperate to save Daniel from the virago that was Suzette. He was sure he would arrive to find her beating Daniel viciously about the head with her candlestick and shrieking "intruder."

Instead, he arrived at her closed door, thrust it open and stopped dead. It seemed he needn't have worried about his friend, or the virago that was Suzette.

The two were wrapped up in a most passionate embrace, so passionate in fact that neither appeared to have heard his arrival. At least she hadn't. Richard was just wondering what he should do when Daniel removed one hand from Suzette's back to wave him away. He hesitated one moment, but then decided to obey the gesture. Daniel was an honorable man and wouldn't do anything to harm Suzette or her reputation. Besides, now that the panic had cleared, he suddenly recal ed George's body lying out on the lawn.

Richard pul ed the door gently closed and knew he'd made the right decision when he heard Daniel's voice muffled through the door, saying, "Suzette, we have to stop now. I should go. It's not proper for me to be in your room like this."

"Oh, but we have to discuss . . ."

Richard didn't hear the rest of Suzette's words, he'd started away from the door the moment Daniel spoke, secure in the knowledge that he would soon join him to take care of George's body.

Haversham was nowhere to be seen when Richard got back downstairs, but then he shouldn't have been the first time. The man had been with the family for forty years now, wel before Richard and George had even been born. He was a mostly silent servant who went about his duties with the dignified reserve that al good butlers possessed, but, God in heaven, he was old. He should have been sleeping, not hanging about waiting for the house to go to their beds before he did. However, Richard knew that George wouldn't have cared about his age or frailty. His twin had probably ordered the poor old bastard to man his station until everyone else was abed, and to be up to see to them before he and Christiana arose. Shaking his head at what else his brother might have done while he was gone, Richard hurried through the office and back onto the lawn. George was right where he'd left him, his head poking out one end of the unraveled blanket and the lower half of his legs hanging out the other. Richard took the time to rol him back up in the blanket, hefted him up into his arms with some difficulty and then paused. Suzette's window looked out over the backyard and so that was where the body had landed. Richard would have preferred going around the house to Daniel's carriage with his burden, but that would mean traipsing through the stables, which would set the horses nickering and no doubt bring the stable master out of his room to see what was about. He would have to risk a quickstep through the house and out the front door, he decided with a grimace. Richard stepped back into the office, pul ing the French doors closed as he went and then halted as a knock sounded at the hal door. He stared at it blankly, glanced back to the French doors, and then simply dumped his bundle on the floor between himself and the desk. He spared a quick glance to be sure nothing stuck out on either side of the desk and then cal ed out, "Yes?"

The door opened and Haversham peered in with an expression that suggested he hadn't been sure what he'd find. It made Richard wonder what the hel the butler had caught his brother doing in here the last year. Surely George hadn't been crass enough to bring women into the same home where his wife slept?

"What is it, Haversham?" he asked quietly.

The man cleared his throat and straightened in the doorway. "I wondered if you would be wanting anything before you retire?"

"No. Thank you. You may seek out your bed," Richard said quietly, and then as the man began to back out of the door, he asked, "Are there any other servants stil awake?"

Haversham paused and considered briefly, before saying, "Not that I know of, my lord . . . except perhaps for Lady Christiana's maid, Grace. She is probably stil about."

"Right," Richard muttered, and then waved him on. "Go ahead and go to bed.

And in the future, Haversham, there's no need for you to stay up so late, but we wil talk about that tomorrow."

"As you wish," Haversham murmured and pul ed the door closed.

Richard waited a moment, giving the man time to get away from the door, and then bent to hoist the blanket-wrapped George up again. Sighing as he straightened with his burden, he crossed to the door Haversham had just closed, listened briefly, and then cracked it open. Once assured the hal was empty, Richard hurried out, and rushed straight to the front door.

The Woodrow carriage waited on the road where they'd left it. The driver was slumped on his perch, chin on chest, apparently asleep. Richard sped to the vehicle, opened the door and dumped George across one of the two bench seats, or tried to: stiff as he was, he rol ed right off. He also stuck out the door. Richard hesitated, but he couldn't leave him hanging out of the carriage. Cursing, he glanced nervously around and then began to massage and bend first his brother's neck and then his legs until he was able to bend him enough so that he could position him on his side on the bench seat. He then took a moment to make sure the blanket hadn't dislodged and that everything was covered before straightening and peering back at the house. There was stil no sign of Daniel. Where was the man? They had to sort out what they were going to do with George. Richard, himself, had no idea where they were going to keep the body for the next few days and since this was al Daniel's idea, he was hoping his friend had a thought or two in that regard. After another couple moments passed with no sign of Daniel, Richard closed the carriage door and headed impatiently back into the house.

"Idiot man," Christiana muttered staring at the drapes over her bed and wishing they would stop swaying. "Dumb Dicky. Dumb Earl Dicky. Earl Dicky Dumb."

She made a face at the spinning drapes and sighed unhappily as she waited for him to return home so she could look at his bottom . . . which she didn't want to do, she assured herself and wouldn't have to do if he wasn't a big dumb Dicky. That was the conclusion Christiana had come to since Grace had left her alone, because frankly, she was a fine woman. She wasn't a raving beauty, but she wasn't ugly either, and she was smart enough and nice. Goodness, she never nagged the man or made demands: al she'd wanted was to love him. But he was a big dumb idiot who didn't seem to realize his good fortune.

Or at least hadn't seemed to since their wedding. Before that while courting her he had . . . and tonight . . . She closed her eyes and recal ed their time on the dance floor. The man who had held her in his arms and showed such concern had been a far cry from the one who, with the two words I do, had suddenly decided she lacked al the intel igence and taste he'd complimented while courting her. The man who had announced that her kindness was a liability he needed to guard her against, and that no one would want her for a friend except social climbers. Stil , this evening, he had seemed a different man and had apologized for this last year, promising he would make it up to her, she recal ed, and could almost feel his arms around her again.

Closing her eyes, Christiana shivered as she recal ed his breath on her ear and the way he'd nipped at it. She then sighed as she recal ed the feel of his hand sliding over her bottom and pressing her against him.

She'd wanted him to take her out on the balcony. She'd wanted to know what it would be like to be kissed properly by him, for other than the perfunctory peck on the lips during their wedding ceremony, he had never kissed her. It was not something Christiana had real y missed . . . until he'd held her in his arms on the dance floor and stirred such warm sensations in her with his breath and touch.

Perhaps there was hope, she thought. Wel , if he was Richard and not George, Christiana reminded herself with a grimace. She real y needed to find out what her situation was and who exactly she was married to, she acknowledged, and glared toward the door between her room and his. Where was the man? She knew from experience she would hear him banging about in there as he prepared for bed, but hadn't heard a peep yet, and he'd left the bal before them.

The sound of her bedroom door opening caught Christiana's attention then and she glanced over to see Lisa poking her head in.

"Oh good, you're awake," the younger woman said happily and slipped inside. "I couldn't sleep either. I was too happy and excited."

"About what?" Christiana asked curiously, managing with some effort to gain a sitting position in the bed. Real y, things would be much easier if the room would just stop bobbling about.

"You and Dicky," Lisa announced as she settled on the edge of her bed.

It took Christiana a moment to realize that Lisa was answering the question of what she was happy and excited about. The realization made her grimace and snort with disgust. "Dicky. Ugh."

"Oh, Chrissy." Lisa sighed and took her hands. "I know that your marriage hasn't been al that you'd hoped for this last year, and that you're upset with him, but it's going to be al right. I promise."

"How?" Christiana asked with disbelief. "The blashted man's alive."

"Yes, and I know you were disappointed about that at first, but everything is going to improve now. You'l see, Chrissy. He loves you." Lisa squeezed her hands. "He does, Chrissy. He has just been tortured by the guilt and loss of his brother. That's why he's behaved so badly this last year."

"What?" she asked with disbelief.

"Don't you see?" she said earnestly. "Poor George died in a house fire in Dicky's home. One he survived himself. He must have been suffering horrible guilt over that afterward. And then he met you and that would have just made it worse, because he fel in love with you and married you and was enjoying a happiness his poor dead brother never would. He must have been racked with guilt, even tortured by it, poor man."

Christiana narrowed her eyes and spoke slowly in an effort not to slur. "Dicky is tortured?"

"Yes." Lisa nodded, looking pleased that she understood.

"So he tortured me?"

Lisa blinked. "Wel , yes I suppose."

"That's not love. You don't take out your frustrations and guilt on someone you love." She shook her head. "He doesn't love me."

Lisa was frowning now. "But tortured, guilt ridden men always torture and hurt the ones they love. It happens al the time in the books I read. The hero is tortured and guilt ridden and is just horrible to the woman, but she is good and patient and her pure love is eventual y rewarded when he discovers the error of his ways and mends them."

"Dear God," Christiana muttered with disgust. This was al her fault. She should have steered Lisa toward more elevated reading than the ridiculous, romantic and tragic stories she tended toward. Sighing, she said, "That is not a true hero, Lisa."

"But - "

"Would you treat Suzie or me horribly because you were sad?"

"I . . . wel , I might be short and snap at you," she pointed out.

"But would you insult us and make ush feel unintel igent or useless? Tel us we had no taste, that no one would want to be our friend except for our title?"

"Wel , no, of course not."


"Because I love you," she said and then blinked and breathed, "Oh. I see."

Christiana stared at Lisa silently, finding herself oddly disappointed that she'd won the argument rather than Lisa convincing her that Dicky might have changed. It would have meant her marriage might have a chance, that she might experience his kiss and see if it affected her as much as his mere proximity and touch had. Wel , if he was Richard and not George, she reminded herself. She kept forgetting that little possibility. That and the fact that she could have the marriage annul ed because it had never been consummated. Surely she didn't want to stay in this horrid marriage?

"But Christiana, can you not give him a chance to change? No one is perfect, and I truly believe he's sorry for what he's done. Besides you are rather stuck in this marriage now."

"That depends on what's on his bottom," she muttered, thinking that if she was married to Richard not George, and he was sorry, perhaps . . . But real y, would the marriage change at al ? One moment of kindness and holding her on the dance floor hardly meant the marriage might improve. Or did it? She was so confused and real y wished she hadn't had those drinks at the bal .

"Not that again," Lisa said on a sigh.

"What?" Christiana asked uncertainly.

"This Dicky's bottom business," Lisa said with disgust.

"Seeing Dicky's naked bottom could fix everything," Christiana insisted, her mood lightening at the very thought. If there was no strawberry, she would know it was George, that he was a cold murderous bastard and that there was definitely no chance for their marriage whether he kissed her or not. Of course, if there was a birthmark, then things would get more complicated. She could stil have the marriage annul ed, or she could give it another chance and maybe experience his kisses, or she could experience his kisses and not give it a chance. Either way she could have the marriage annul ed, she thought and then tried to remember why she had to see the strawberry at al . Oh, that was right. "If there is no strawberry, I'm married to George."

"George is dead," Lisa said patiently. "You cannot marry -  Oh, Chrissy."

Christiana peered at the girl, wondering why she suddenly looked alarmed . . .

and why there were two of her moving in circles in front of her eyes.

Giving her head a shake to try to clear her vision, she asked, "What?"

"Please tel me you are not thinking of ending your own life," Lisa said worriedly.

"Of course not," she said at once, and Lisa began to relax until she added, "I'm ending Dicky's. Or George's." Certainly his life would be over if he was George and what he had done came out. Of course, that was only if Dicky was George and not Richard, she realized and added, "Wel , maybe. It just depends on if there's a strawberry or not."

Lisa stared at her blankly for several minutes, her lips pursed, then cleared her throat and stood up. "I think perhaps we should talk about this in the morning when your thinking is clearer."

"Very wel ," Christiana said cheerful y and dropped back in her bed to contemplate how she might see Dicky's naked bottom. It suddenly seemed the most important thing in the world to accomplish it as soon as possible.

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