The Countess Chapter Ten

Langley was answering about the hundredth question from Suzette on Lord Woodrow's character when Haversham cleared his throat, drawing their attention to his presence in the parlor doorway.

"Yes, Haversham?" Christiana asked as Langley paused in his answer.

"Lord Fairgrave has returned. He and Lord Woodrow shal be joining you here shortly, my lady."

"Daniel's here?" Suzette asked.

"Yes, my lady," Haversham said solemnly, and noting the way she was suddenly peering past him, added, "He is assisting his lordship in carrying something to the master bedroom."

"Oh." Suzette frowned, apparently not pleased with the news. Christiana noted that in an absentminded way, but her own thoughts were taken up with the announcement and what should be made of it. It was just so out of character for Dicky to have her informed of his return. He usual y just appeared when he wished to, and disappeared just as abruptly without explaining anything. This was very thoughtful and completely unlike his behavior to date. Realizing that the butler was waiting to be dismissed, Christiana murmured,

"Thank you for relaying the message, Haversham."

"Of course, my lady." Haversham nodded solemnly and then turned to move away.

Christiana sighed and glanced back toward the others but her mind was in a bit of an uproar. Dicky was back. Richard, she reminded herself. He'd asked her last night to cal him that and so she would.

"There!" Lisa said brightly. "Dicky's going to join us. That wil be nice, won't it?"

Christiana glanced to her younger sister, noting the silent pleading on the girl's face, and sighed to herself. Lisa was silently asking her to give the man a chance to prove he'd realized the error of his ways and changed. And last night had certainly been like nothing she'd ever experienced in her marriage to date so he might very wel have done so, but what was to stop him from changing again? Would it be Dicky, the nasty husband she'd lived with this last year who joined them, or last night's lover, Richard?

Aside from that, there was the whole "does he have a strawberry on his bottom"

issue to worry about as wel . The man might real y be George, a murderer of his own sibling. Honestly, it was al enough to make a woman want to scream and pul her hair out. Surely, most wives did not have such issues with their husbands. How had she landed in such a tangled marriage?

"Chrissy?" Lisa asked and Christiana stood abruptly.

"Chrissy?" Lisa asked and Christiana stood abruptly.

"I should have asked Haversham to have a tray prepared and brought to us. I shal do it now," she announced and hurried out of the room. Christiana spotted Haversham about to enter the kitchen at the end of the hal when she stepped out of the parlor, and hurried to catch up to him to make her request. Once the task was done, however, she headed upstairs. Christiana simply could not stand to wait and worry about whether he had the birthmark or not, and what kind of mood he would be in when he arrived in the parlor. She wanted to find out both things at once and she wanted to do so in private rather than with witnesses.

Although, if she were to be completely honest with herself, Christiana had already decided it must have been the birthmark she'd seen and that seeing it again would just be a formality. Because she simply couldn't believe the man who had held her in his arms and given her such pleasure could be a kil er. That left her real worry being how Richard would treat her when next they met.

This first meeting would tel her if she had made the biggest mistake of her life last night, or a smart decision. Christiana didn't head straight for the master bedroom, but stopped in her own room to check her hair and make sure it was stil in the nasty, tight bun Grace had automatical y fixed it into that morning. Dicky - Richard, she reminded herself

- would berate her if every hair was not in place and that was not a good way to start. She suddenly stopped dead as she realized what she was thinking. Dear God, she was already fal ing back into the dutiful wife mold! Worrying about her hair being perfect so as not to upset Dicky - Richard? Wel , she was done with that, Christiana reminded herself grimly. She'd experienced a few hours of freedom from her husband when she'd thought him dead, and that brief taste of freedom, along with the love and support of her sisters, had made her find her backbone once more. Straightening her shoulders, she determinedly turned and strode purposeful y across the room. She had paused at the door to the master bedroom and half-raised her hand to knock before she caught herself. She was supposed to see his bottom as soon as she could so if she entered without knocking and caught him changing or something of the like, it would actual y be a good thing, Christiana told herself as she opened the door without knocking and walked in.

He wasn't half naked mid-change or anything of the like. Instead, he and Daniel were talking quietly as they crossed the room in her direction. Both men paused abruptly at her appearance, however, eyes widening with alarm as if they'd been caught doing something they shouldn't. Christiana felt her eyebrows crawl up her forehead at the strange reaction and glanced curiously from one man to the other.

"Ah." Daniel was the first to speak. His eyes moving to Richard he asked,

"Should I . . . ?" He shifted his gaze over his shoulder in a silent question she didn't understand.

"No. That's al right. Go ahead," Richard said quietly. Apparently he understood the question. Frowning, Christiana peered in the direction Daniel had glanced, but didn't see anything but the bed. It looked quite lumpy, but then Grace had said it had been ruined by the soaking from the melting ice. The other servants were apparently speculating on how the bed had come to be soaked as it was, but she doubted they'd ever come up with the truth. Christiana, her sisters and Grace themselves had gone out to fetch back the ice to avoid involving the other servants.


She blinked her thoughts away to realize that while she'd been wool gathering, Daniel had exited through the door she'd left open and Dicky - Richard

- was now standing directly in front of her. His expression was questioning, but she couldn't help noticing that his eyes were locked on her mouth and darkening with a heat she recal ed from the night before. It brought an answering heat to life inside her.

"You must be terribly uncomfortable with your hair pul ed so tight," he murmured suddenly and reached up to begin removing hairpins.

"It's the way you insisted I wear it," Christiana reminded him, irritation slipping in to nudge aside a bit of the awakening heat.

"Then I was an idiot," he said simply as he finished freeing her hair and al owed the now loose strands to fal around her face. He smiled with approval.

"Much better."

It felt much better too, she acknowledged with a sigh as the pressure was released from her scalp, but her eyes widened as he now caught her face between his hands and lifted it so their gazes met. They widened even further when he asked, "No kiss of greeting for your husband?"

Before she could respond, his mouth was on hers, coaxing that greeting from her. Christiana remained completely and utterly stil at first, confusion rampant inside her head as memories from this last year of life with this man col ided with the new reality. She wanted to push him away and demand some explanation for everything, for how he could have treated her as he had this last year, for how he could now treat her so differently. Unfortunately, her body had memories of its own from last night and didn't appear to care much about the worries her mind had. It urged her to just kiss the man. After al a good wife would, surely?

When his tongue traced a line across her closed lips and then tried to snake between them, Christiana gave in with a sigh and opened to him . . . and was lost.

Suddenly, her body was on fire, her back arching, hips pressing forward to grind herself against his growing hardness, and her arms went up to al ow her fingers to run through his hair.

When she then clutched at the strands to urge him to deepen the kiss even further, Richard's response was to release what sounded almost like a growl into her mouth. Christiana shivered in response and then moaned as his hands dropped away from her face to begin traveling over her body. One hand dropped to her bottom, urging her more tightly against him. The other slid to her breast, squeezing her through her gown and she gasped and twisted in his hold, pressing her breast more firmly into his touch and rubbing against his lower body with unfettered desire. This was not the reaction she'd feared on meeting him, but it was stil a damned good thing she'd met him in private, Christiana decided as the hand at her breast began to tug impatiently at the neckline of her gown to free her breast. Had they met in the parlor with everyone there, she wouldn't have been able to reach down between them and squeeze his now rock hard manhood through his trousers as she now did. Richard's reaction to the touch was startling. Tearing his mouth from hers on a curse, he muttered, "I have to be inside you. Now."

Despite her confusion over the state of her marriage and identity of her husband, Christiana panted a breathless "Yes," and then gasped and clutched at him as he picked her up by the waist, carried her to the bed and tumbled them both onto it.

Richard was immediately kissing her again. Christiana kissed him back.

However, it was now more of an automatic response without the earlier passion behind it, she was a bit distracted by whatever it was she'd landed on in the bed. It was hard and had hit right at the base of her spine so that her back was arched unpleasantly over it. She felt like she was lying across two smal logs and it was real y kil ing the passion that had so quickly stirred.

Turning her head to the side, she managed to tear her mouth from his and muttered, "Richard."

"Yes." The word was slightly muffled and distorted as his lips trailed down her neck.

"There's something - Oh," Christiana gasped with a start as he suddenly tugged her bodice down and latched onto the nipple he revealed. When he began to suckle and draw on it, she bit her lip and closed her eyes against the firestorm that set off inside her, but after the first shock of pleasure even that wasn't enough to ful y distract her from her discomfort. Frowning, Christiana reached to feel what she lay on, hoping she might be able to tug it out from under herself, but whatever she lay on was under the covers and extended out to the side away from her. Richard had apparently been drawing her skirts up as he worked at her breast.

When he suddenly released her nipple to slide down her body and duck under the voluminous material, her attention was immediately reclaimed by what he was doing.

"Oh - er - Rich - oh - " Christiana gasped, clutching at the bedclothes as he kissed a trail up one thigh. This definitely managed to distract her from whatever she lay on, and she clenched her teeth against the tingles of excitement he was causing in her, preparing for the much stronger shock of pleasure she knew was coming as he neared the apex of her thighs. Even so, she cried out when his mouth final y found her center. It was the lightest of caresses, almost a teasing, but stil had her half sitting up, her hands clawing at the bedclothes and drawing them away from both ends of the bed toward herself. The position immediately removed the discomfort at her back and Christiana felt a moment's relief until his mouth brushed over her again and she turned her head to the side, gasping for the breath that had seemed to rush out of her with the touch. The moment she'd drawn in enough breath, however, it whooshed right back out on a shriek as she found herself staring at Richard, now half uncovered in the bed, and definitely not looking very healthy. The Richard under her skirt stil ed and suddenly pul ed out from under it, his expression surprised as he said, "Wel , that was fast."

Christiana's response was to turn wide eyes his way and shriek again. She fol owed it up by planting her foot in his chest and shoving him away from her with a strength born of horror. Then she leapt off the bed and made a run for the door.

Richard landed on the hardwood floor with a startled curse and immediately sat up to peer toward his wife, only to find her scrambling off the bed . . . a bed where George lay half uncovered and most definitely dead. Cursing much more violently this time, Richard bounded to his feet and hurried after Christiana. Fortunately, she'd made a run for the door to the hal and it was locked. She was wrestling with it, trying desperately to get it open when he caught her arm.

"Christiana, wait, listen to me."

"Don't touch me," she cried, shaking off his hold. Giving up on the door, she backed quickly away from him, panic on her face as she glanced at him and to the bed and back.

"Al right, I won't touch you," Richard said quietly, hoping that if he remained calm, she would calm down as wel . " 'Tis al right. You are safe with me. Al is wel ."

"Al is wel ?" she echoed with disbelief, not sounding the least bit calmed by his voice. "Who are you?"

"I am Richard Fairgrave, the Earl of Radnor," he said solemnly.

"Then who is that?" she asked, pointing toward the bed.

Richard noted the way her hand was shaking, and sighed at her unnecessary upset. This was al his fault. He was the one who had fal en on her like a randy bul and then apparently lost al sense as the blood rushed to his manhood. That was the only explanation he could come up with for how he could have been stupid enough to try to tumble her on the bed where his dead brother lay. Good Lord, he'd completely forgotten al about the man's presence, able to think only of the nearest horizontal surface and getting her onto it and himself in her.

"That," he said wearily, "is my twin brother George."

Richard supposed it would have been too much to hope that Christiana would suddenly relax, and say, "Oh that's al right then, let's go to my room and finish what we started." But real y, his stil aching manhood would have been grateful for it. However, instead her eyes narrowed suspiciously and there was a sudden pinched look about her lips that assured him explanations were in order. He ran a weary hand through his hair and said, "A little over a year ago I returned home to the sound of a muffled scream from the rooms above stairs. I rushed up to see what was about and found my valet struggling with four attackers.

Unfortunately, I was too late to aid him. Even as I reached my room, one of them slit Robbie's throat and let him drop on the bed to die. I had grabbed up a bust from the entry on the way upstairs and brought it down on the skul of the man who had kil ed Robbie. I think it kil ed him instantly. Even so, there were stil three men to my one and after a bit of a struggle they managed to subdue me.

"The only reason they didn't kil me outright was that George wanted me to know that he was the one who had hired them. He was staying with me at the time and my body was to be found, burned beyond recognition in his bed. It would be assumed that it was he who was dead and he could simply step into my place and become the Earl of Radnor. He would claim my name, the title, the lands and wealth that had been denied him simply because he was born three minutes after me. He wanted me to die knowing I had been kil ed by my own brother." Richard's mouth twisted bitterly as he recal ed the sense of betrayal he'd felt that night. While the two of them hadn't been close for years, he'd stil reeled under the news that his brother could hate him so much. Now he glanced toward the man in the bed and forced himself to continue. "That nasty streak in him is what saved my life. Not kil ing me outright gave me the chance to barter for my life. I had an iron chest hidden behind a false wal of the townhouse. No one knew about it but me and I offered it to them in exchange for my life."

His gaze slid back to Christiana to see that while she stil looked wary, she was listening and that was something. "At first, I didn't think they would take the deal. The man I'd kil ed had been a friend to one of them and he wanted to just kil me . . . after beating the whereabouts of the chest out of me, of course. The second fel ow was greedy, he wanted to let me live, keep me tied up somewhere until they could get the money George had agreed to pay them and then let me go and watch the chaos that fol owed when I came forward with the news that George had tried to have me kil ed

. . . I gather he didn't like my brother much." He waited for her to nod or otherwise acknowledge what he'd said, but Christiana merely stared at him waiting, so he continued.

"The third fel ow was the brightest of the bunch. He didn't think that even a beating would get them the location of the chest, especial y since I knew they would just kil me afterward. But he also didn't want word getting out that they'd welsh on a deal as it might affect their getting future jobs. So, he suggested a compromise.

They would let me live, and take me and the iron chest to the ship they worked on. It was setting sail for America the next day, where they would trade me to the Indians as a slave in exchange for some furs they could then sel off. They would more than treble the money they'd expected to get from George for just kil ing me.

"It took a bit of persuasion for the friend of the dead attacker, but in the end his greed won out and they al agreed to the plan. I wasn't too pleased about the being traded to the Indians part of the plan, but I would be alive and alive was better than dead so I told them where the false wal was, and how to open it, as wel as the iron chest, and then they bound and gagged me. They dumped me in the back of a cart, set the townhouse on fire and drove to the prearranged meeting spot where George was to pay them." He glanced toward his brother again. "I heard it al . He wanted to know every moment of the night's events, wanted to know if I'd begged for my life, how crushed I'd been by my valet's death . . . He seemed to take delight in the idea that I'd suffered."

Richard shook his head with disgust. He'd never imagined his brother had hated him so much. "Once they had satisfied his morbid curiosity and gained their pay, the men took me to the docks and dumped me in the hold of a ship. I stayed there for what seemed like forever."

He closed his eyes at the memory of what had turned out to be one long, dark hel ish journey for him. They'd kept him bound the entire trip and only removed the gag to give him food and water. Days had sometimes passed between feedings and the journey had seemed unending. By the time it did end, Richard had been half dead, weak and feverish, his wrists and ankles a mass of infected sores from the chafing of the ropes binding him. Uncaring of that, his three captors had dragged him from the hold, thrown him over the back of a horse and ridden out to try to trade him as a slave to Indians in exchange for furs. However, in the shape he was in, no one had been wil ing to trade anything for him. Final y his captors had simply pushed him off the horse, and then ridden off.

"They just left you there to die? After you'd given them your iron chest?"

Christiana asked with outrage. "How did you survive?"

Richard blinked his eyes open, saw Christiana's upset expression and realized he'd been speaking the memories aloud as he'd recal ed them. Clearing his throat, he shrugged. "I was fortunate enough that a farmer named Teddy McCormick found me. He put me in the back of his cart and took me to his farm. He and his wife, Hazel, both took care of me. They saved my life." He smiled at the memory of the couple.

"The moment I was wel enough I wrote a letter to Daniel explaining al . I had no family except for George," he explained quietly. "And Daniel was my closest friend."

This time when he paused to look at her, Christiana nodded solemnly. She was aware of his lack of family, of course. She'd been married to his brother this last year. Wel , sort of, Richard thought to himself, relieved to note that she was also looking much less suspicious and frightened. She believed him.

"I stayed with Teddy and Hazel and worked the farm with them to pay them back for their trouble in saving me, and waited what seemed like forever to receive a reply. It was almost a year to the day since the attack in my townhouse when who should ride up to the farm but Daniel."

Richard smiled at the memory, recal ing his shock and joy on seeing him. "I'd expected him just to purchase me passage on a ship or send someone to fetch me, but he got on a ship and came after me himself. He brought clothes for me and had a ship waiting to bring us back to England."

"Us? The McCormicks too?" Christiana asked.

"What?" he asked with surprise. "Oh, no. They were happy on their farm, but I had Daniel leave some money with them for al their trouble." He frowned now and added, "Which reminds me I have to pay him back. What with everything that's happened since our return I haven't got around to that yet."

"And exactly what is everything that's happened?" Christiana asked quietly. "How long have you been back in England?"

"Ah." Richard managed a crooked smile. "We arrived in port yesterday morning."

Christiana suddenly moved over to the bed to drop to sit on the edge of it. The action seemed to suggest her legs would no longer hold her up, but he couldn't tel what she was thinking from her expression.

"Daniel and I had decided that the best way to handle the situation was to confront George at the Landon bal . As the season opener, it would be attended by nearly everyone in the ton and the plan was to surprise a confession out of him."

"Except he was dead," she said quietly.

"Yes, and he was married to you, which put a wrinkle in our plans," Richard said quietly.

Christiana blinked at him in surprise. "Why did that put a wrinkle in them?"

"Because George had escaped justice by dying. It was only you and your sisters who would suffer in the scandal that would ensue if I revealed what he'd done, and the three of you are innocents."

Christiana was staring at him now as if he were some exotic creature she'd never encountered before. Uncomfortable under that steady, odd gaze, he added,

"So when Daniel suggested that I simply step back into my life as if George had never stolen it from me . . . wel , the truth is that I hesitated. I didn't wish to hurt you or your sisters, but on the other hand, I didn't know you and didn't wish to be punished further by his actions either. So we decided to remove George and hide him away for a couple of days while I saw if you and I would deal wel together."

Christiana stood up abruptly, her face suddenly florid and Richard realized she'd taken what he'd said the entirely wrong way, thinking he'd meant whether they suited each other in bed. "Not that way," he assured her quickly. "Last night was whol y unexpected. In fact, if you'l recal I was trying to stop you from undressing me. It was you who was so determined to get my clothes off."

"I was trying to see your strawberry," she snapped and then narrowed her eyes.

"Speaking of which, I should like to see it now."

"My strawberry?" he asked blankly and peered down at his groin. It had been his pants she'd been so determined to remove last night as he recal ed, but no one had ever cal ed his manhood a strawberry before. In fact, he thought he might be insulted if that was what she was referring to.

"On your bottom," she said, her irritation of a moment ago seeming to transform into a mix of exasperation and embarrassment. "Richard Fairgrave is supposed to have a strawberry-shaped birthmark on his behind. I should like to see it, please."

"Oh." Richard relaxed and even grinned. "No one has ever said to me that it was strawberry-shaped."

She merely arched an eyebrow, apparently unwil ing to be put off from seeing it.

He supposed he couldn't blame her real y. She'd been married to who she'd thought was Richard Fairgrave this last year and now he was tel ing her it had real y been his brother George. He supposed it was reasonable for her to want proof of who was who. Sighing inwardly, he grimaced, turned his back to her, undid his trousers and dropped them.

Christiana simply stood there gaping at Richard for a moment, completely taken aback. She supposed she shouldn't be so surprised, she'd asked to see his bottom to check for the strawberry, but real y she'd expected something of an argument perhaps, or a little modesty, but the way he'd simply dropped his drawers suggested there was very little modesty in the man.

"Wel ?" Richard asked impatiently.

Swal owing, Christiana took a tentative step closer to him and forced herself to focus on his bare derriere, but then frowned. The man was standing near the door about as far away from the light cast by the window as possible. He also happened to be standing in the bed's shadow. "I . . . erm . . . it's too dark. I can't see."

Richard clucked impatiently and turned around to make his way across the room.

With his pants around his ankles it wasn't a fast maneuver and watching him duck march around the bed toward the window with his family jewels hanging out and swinging to and fro under his frock coat was real y quite the most ridiculous thing she thought she'd ever seen.

"There. Is this better?" he asked, pausing beside the window and turning so that he was sideways to it. Christiana cleared her throat to remove the laughter lodged there and made herself fol ow him across the room. She then bent and peered at his behind.

"Oh! There it is," she said, reaching out to brush a finger over the mark. It was a pale red or dark pink-colored splotch on his left butt cheek as Langley had said. "It's not real y a strawberry though, is it? It's more the shape of a rosebud. Langley said it was - "

"My lady? Your sisters are -  Oh, dear Lord."

Christiana straightened abruptly and turned toward the connecting door that she'd left open and Daniel hadn't closed. Grace now stood in the entrance, eyes wide as she took in the portrait of the two of them by the window. A moment of silence passed as Christiana tried to think of something to say and then the maid started to withdraw, mumbling an apology that died abruptly as she spotted the body on the bed. Her gaze slid from the body in the bed to the man behind Christiana and back and she breathed, "Oh, dear Lord," again.

"I can explain everything," Christiana said at once, and hurried toward the woman. Hearing a resigned sigh and the rustle of clothing behind her, she glanced over her shoulder to see Richard looking exasperated as he pul ed up his pants and did them up. She supposed between her discovering the body, her demand to see his bottom and Grace's discovering the body, the man was having something of a difficult morning. Christiana could sympathize, she'd been having a difficult year and it didn't look as if things were going to get any easier in the near future.

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