The Countess Chapter Thirteen

I don't know how she can sleep."

Christiana smiled faintly at Suzette's dry comment, her gaze shifting to Lisa, who had chattered away nonstop for the first several hours after leaving the inn, but had slowed down and final y nodded off with her head on Suzette's shoulder. "She always used to fal asleep on carriage rides when we were children."

"Hmm." Suzette twisted her head to try to look at Lisa's face, but then glanced to Christiana and asked, "So would you care to explain what you meant back at the inn?"

Christiana glanced to her with confusion. "Explain what?"

Suzette narrowed her eyes, but before she could say anything else, Lisa's bag slipped from her lax hands and dropped to the carriage floor with a smal thunk.

Christiana immediately leaned forward to pick it up. The bag carried a smal notebook, quil and a sealed pot of ink. Lisa tended to carry it with her whenever she thought she might find something interesting to write about. She had aspirations to someday be a writer of those horrid adventure novels she was always reading.

"You missed something," Suzette said as Christiana straightened, and she glanced down to see that there was an envelope on the floor. Bending again, she picked that up as wel , but straightened much more slowly this time. There was nothing on the outside of the envelope to indicate who it was to, and it had been closed with a blob of dark wax without any seal impression pressed into it, which for some reason sent a shiver of apprehension through Christiana.

"Oh, I forgot about that," Lisa murmured sleepily.

Christiana glanced to the younger girl to see that she was yawning but awake.

"What is it?"

"A letter for Dicky," Lisa answered sitting up.

"You mean a letter for Richard," Suzette corrected dryly.

Christiana ignored her and asked, "Who is it from?"

"I don't know. I didn't open it," Lisa said indignantly.

"No, I can see that," she said with exasperation. "But why was it in your bag?"

"Oh." Lisa shrugged and took the bag from her. "It was this morning when Daniel and Robert were helping Dicky bring out his chest."

"Richard," Christiana murmured as Lisa paused and frowned, no doubt because the men had loaded it themselves rather than let the servants do it. Christiana was the only one of the three of them who knew that the men had loaded it themselves because George was in it and they hadn't wanted to risk it being dropped and its contents spil ing out.

"Anyway," Lisa continued. "The cutest little boy came running up. He asked which of the men was the Earl and I pointed out Dicky - "

"Richard," Christiana corrected.

" - he started to go toward the men," Lisa continued without stopping. "But I suggested he give the letter to me rather than trouble them when they were busy. I meant to give it to Dic - Richard once they were done with the chest, but then Grace came out of the house, tripped on the step and fel and I shoved the letter in my bag and went to help her up, and . . ." She shrugged. "I forgot al about it til now."

Christiana peered down at the letter. Something about the blank face and black blob of wax gave her a very bad feeling. Besides, it must be for George, not Richard. Richard was only newly returned from over a year in America, and the only person who knew that was Daniel. Daniel would hardly send Richard a note when he had been at the house almost every waking moment since their return.

She turned the letter over in her hands and stared at the blob of wax, and then began to open it.

"What are you doing, Chrissy? That's Dicky's!" Lisa tried to snatch the letter from her.

"Dicky's dead," Christiana snapped, shifting sideways on her seat and ripping the letter open.

"What?" Lisa gasped.

Ignoring her, Christiana held the letter to the window to read it. It was growing late in the day, the sun was setting and there wasn't much light to read from, but she managed and cursed as she did.

"What is it?" Suzette asked and snatched the letter from her.

Christiana didn't bother to try to stop her, but waited silently as she read it. She had meant to tel them at some point. Suzette's reading the letter was as good a way to bring up the subject as any.

"I knew it!" Suzette exclaimed suddenly.

"You knew what?" Lisa asked curiously.

"I knew there was something going on," Suzette explained, her tone distracted as she continued to read.

"Why? What's going on?" Lisa asked, turning narrowed eyes on Christiana.

"Dicky's dead," Suzette announced. "I knew he was. The man was cold as stone when we left for the bal ."

Lisa blinked in dismay. "Whatever are you talking about? Dicky's fine. He's in the carriage with Daniel and Robert."

"That's Richard," Suzette muttered, continuing to read.

"What? I don't understand." Her gaze slid to Christiana. "What is she talking about, Chrissy?"

"The man I married - "

"Murder!" Suzette squawked suddenly. "Dicky wasn't murdered."

"Of course he wasn't," Lisa said with exasperation. "He's alive and fine."

Suzette ignored their younger sister and waved the letter with disgust. "I wouldn't even bother to show this to Richard. It's al just claptrap. Threatening to tel everyone Richard murdered George to get his title and name back. What nonsense."

"Yes, I know, but the other business is true enough, and even that would cause a scandal if what George did got out," Christiana said unhappily as Suzette continued reading. "I need to tel Richard about this and the sooner the better. Suzie, bang on the wal and tel the driver to stop."

Suzette lowered the letter and raised an eyebrow. "Don't you think it's better if we wait until we reach Radnor? We must be almost there by now and if that chest the men insisted on loading themselves holds what I think it does, we definitely need to leave it at Radnor and not take it back to town."

"What does the chest hold?" Lisa asked at once.

"George," Christiana answered, verifying Suzette's thoughts.

"Who's George?" Lisa asked with a frown.

"Dicky," Suzette answered.

"What? " Lisa squawked, and bounced on her seat impatiently. "You aren't making any sense! I demand someone explain what's going on this instant."

Christiana and Suzette exchanged a glance and then Christiana sighed and sat back. Suzette was right, they probably were almost at Radnor. Richard had said they should arrive before dark and that was almost upon them. And they did need to get George there and leave him. She certainly didn't want him back in the master bedroom in town. It was a bit disturbing to sleep in the room next to your dead, not quite legal y wed, husband.

"Is someone going to explain?" Lisa asked grimly.

"Ask her," Suzette said dryly. "I have an idea of what's happened, but am not sure of al the specifics."

When Lisa and Suzette both turned to her, Christiana grimaced and said, "I was going to tel you this yesterday, but wanted you both together to explain, and then with the sudden need to pack and the trip and everything, there never seemed a good time to - "

"Yes, yes, you were going to tel us," Suzette interrupted impatiently. "Just get to it."

Christiana took a breath and then said abruptly, "The man I married was an imposter. It was Richard's twin brother George."

"But he's dead," Lisa protested.

"He is now," Christiana said grimly, and then sighed and said, "Just listen and let me explain."

When Lisa and Suzette both nodded, Christiana quickly explained things as clearly and concisely as she could. She then sat back and waited expectantly.

Lisa was the first to speak. Releasing a deep sigh, she said, "It's just like one of those books I read." Turning on Suzette she added, "And you said they were al nonsense and wouldn't happen in real life."

Christiana blinked. "It is not like one of your novels."

"It is," Lisa insisted. "George was the evil vil ain, you are the beautiful heroine, and Richard is the brave hero who loves and rescues you."

"There is no love," Christiana said firmly.

"Of course there is. Why else would he marry you?"

"Because he's a good man who doesn't wish to see us pay for his brother's sins."

"Oh, he's so good," Lisa gasped. "You have to love him, Chrissy."

"For heaven's sake, Lisa," Suzette said with exasperation. "He is saving himself from scandal too."

"Men do not real y suffer from scandal," Lisa said grimly. "It is only the female who does. Why, when word got out that Lord Mortis had assaulted and deflowered Penelope Pureheart, the scandal barely touched him. He was stil welcomed into the finest homes and free to go to his club. It was Penelope who was banished to the wilds of - "

"Lisa, that is fiction," Suzette interrupted impatiently.

"If I were to tel someone the tale Christiana just told me they would probably think it fiction too. I -  Oh!" she interrupted herself, eyes going wide. "I could write it!"

"No," Christiana and Suzette said as one, both equal y horrified. It was Suzette who pointed out, "Someone might realize it is about Christiana and Richard and - "

"Oh, I would change the names," she said with irritation. "Never fear. It wil be fine."

Christiana opened her mouth to protest further, but paused as the carriage slowed. A glance out the window showed that they were winding up a driveway toward a large house. She recognized it at once as Radnor.

"We are here," Suzette murmured, peering out the window on the opposite side of the carriage.

"Thank God," Christiana muttered, and then turned to Lisa. "You are not to write a word of this ever. Do you understand?"

"Oh, very wel ," Lisa said resentful y. "But it would have made a wonderful love story."

"It is not a love story," she insisted.

"It wil be," Lisa assured her solemnly. "Trust me Chrissy. He is your hero, you wil love him."

Christiana rol ed her eyes and opened the carriage door, leaping out before it had even come to a complete halt. The last thing she needed was Lisa's drivel about her fal ing in love with Richard. She had no desire to have her heart broken al over again. She'd been through that with Dicky-George already and it hadn't been pleasant. But she feared it would be a thousand times worse if she were foolish enough to fal in love with Richard, and the most depressing thing about that was she feared she was already halfway there.

"Christiana! What the devil are you doing leaping out of the carriage before it's stopped?" Richard demanded, doing the same thing himself from Daniel's carriage to stride forward and berate her. "You could have been hurt."

"I wasn't though," she said quickly, and then held out the letter and added,

"Besides, this is important."

Richard scowled at her for another moment, but then took the letter and peered at the broken seal.

"A young boy gave it to Lisa this morning saying it was for the Earl. She got distracted and forgot to give it to you and I opened it in the carriage just a few minutes ago. I thought it was probably for George, but it's for you."

Eyebrows rising, he opened the letter and began to read.

"What is it?" Daniel asked as he reached them.

"Blackmail," Suzette answered, stepping down from the carriage and moving to his side. "Someone knows what George did and that he's dead. They actual y think Richard kil ed him to get back his name and position and is threatening to reveal al if he isn't paid a good sum of money."

"I see. Then Christiana explained - ?" Daniel began, but Suzette cut him off grimly.

"Yes, she explained everything. Something that you, as my soon-to-be-husband, surely should have done before this, don't you think, Woodrow?

Husbands and wives real y shouldn't have such secrets, should they?"

Christiana bit her lip at Suzette's tone and the use of Daniel's last name. It was a good indicator that Suzette wasn't pleased. Daniel seemed to realize that, but merely shrugged and said solemnly, "It wasn't my secret to tel ."

Suzette hrrumphed and glanced to Richard as he closed the letter again.

"We need to get back to the city at once," he announced.

"But - " Christiana said, and then gasped in surprise as he caught her elbow to urge her toward the Radnor carriage.

"I only have until the day after tomorrow to get the money together and wil receive another message tel ing me where to leave it then," he said. "We have to go."

"No, wait," Christiana said breathlessly, forced to run to keep up with him.

"Surely you aren't going to pay the blackmail?" Daniel asked, fal ing into step on her other side.

"I hope not. That's why I want to get back at once. We need to try to sort out who it could be. But if we don't figure it out, I wil pay rather than risk the scandal damaging the girls."

"But - " Christiana tried again, only to gasp in surprise as they reached the carriage and he caught her by the waist and lifted her in. Once on her feet on the floor of the carriage, however, she whirled and blocked his entrance. "Dammit, husband, listen to me."

Richard stopped at once, eyes wide and mouth round with surprise. Daniel too was rather agape. However, Suzette and Lisa were both biting their lips to keep from smiling and Robert was grinning like an idiot.

"There she is," he said with a grin. "That's the take-no-nonsense Chrissy I grew up with." Expression turning solemn, he added, "You disappeared after marrying Dicky, and that worried me more than anything else."

"Me too," Suzette announced. "I couldn't believe it when you let Dicky treat you as he did. If one of us had tried it with you, you would have slapped us sil y."

Christiana sighed and merely shook her head. Now was not the time to explain that she hadn't lost this side of herself right away on marriage, that George had beat it out of her with insults and criticisms until she'd no longer had the confidence to stand up for herself. Instead, she turned her attention back to Richard. "We need to see to your brother before we head back," she said reasonably. "It seems sil y to have come al this way and not at least do that. Besides, we real y can't keep him any longer. Al the ice in London is not going to keep his presence hidden much longer."

Richard glanced toward the carriage roof and the chest there, and then sighed and nodded. "Yes, of course. We should . . . er . . ." He hesitated, and then cal ed the driver over. The man had moved around to the front of the horses to examine the beasts, but came at once and Richard ordered him to drive the carriage around the house to the family chapel. When he then started into the carriage, Christiana backed out of the way to al ow it. She settled on a bench seat, squeezing up into the corner to make room as Richard sat beside her. The others climbed in after to join them. It was rather cramped with the six of them in the cab, but no one complained and the carriage set off the moment Langley pul ed the door closed. It was a quick ride around the house, thank goodness, and the moment the carriage stopped they al piled out. The men lifted down the chest and then Richard paused to order the driver to take the carriage to the stables and change the horses for another journey. When the carriage started away, Daniel and Richard each lifted one end of the chest and carried it around behind the chapel. Christiana and the others fol owed, walking silently until they reached the family vault, a smal , low stone building. Robert then rushed ahead to open the door, revealing steps descending down into darkness.

"We should have thought to bring a torch," Daniel muttered, peering down the steps.

"We won't go far from the door," Richard decided as they started down the steps. "I'l have him moved to a proper casket later."

Christiana fol owed Robert down the steps, aware that Suzette and Lisa were on her heels. Her nose wrinkled as she glanced around the dark interior once they reached the bottom step. The weak early evening light cast a pale square on the floor, but it didn't light up much more than that. Judging by the smel s assaulting her, Christiana suspected that might be a good thing. Her imagination was supplying gruesome enough images of rotten, col apsing coffins and ravaged corpses. She didn't need to see the real thing.

"We'l put him here," Richard said directing Daniel to the very edge of the square of light coming through the doors. The two men set the chest down and immediately turned to head back out, but paused on seeing the others.

"Shouldn't we say something before we go?" Christiana asked uncertainly.

Richard paused and glanced uncertainly back toward the chest.

"It just feels wrong to simply dump him and hurry away," she said uncomfortably when everyone was silent.

"Oh, come on then," Suzette said and slid past her to move to the chest.

Christiana fol owed and took up position beside her and then waited as everyone else came to form a half circle around the chest. Suzette then clasped her hands together, closed her eyes and lowered her head.

Biting her lip, Christiana did the same, aware that the others were fol owing suit.

She heard Suzette clear her throat, and then her sister intoned solemnly, "Here lies George Cainan Fairgrave . . . Thank God he's dead. Amen."

Christiana blinked her eyes open and gaped at her sister.

"That works for me," Daniel said with amusement. "Short, sweet and honest."

Christiana sighed, sure something more should have been said, but at the same time knowing Daniel was right. It was certainly honest. There wasn't a person there who wasn't glad the man was dead.

She started to turn toward the steps leading back out of the vault, but paused at the sight of a man standing there, a silhouette against the lighter backdrop of early evening outside.

"Reverend Bertrand," Richard said with surprise.

"I arrived as your driver was bringing the carriage around the house. He said you'd come to the vault and I presumed it was to visit your brother," the man said quietly. "Imagine my surprise when I realized it was to lay him to rest here."

Christiana heard Richard curse and bit her lip as he moved quickly past her to mount the steps.

"If you'l come with me to my office, I wil explain," he said quietly as he urged the pastor out of the vault. Christiana and the rest of their group fol owed, more than eager to escape the musty atmosphere with its pal of death. Richard had started to lead the reverend away, but paused and glanced back to suggest, "Christiana, perhaps you could greet the staff and arrange for a basket of food to be packed for the trip back to London?"

"Yes, of course," she said at once.

"Thank you," he said and then continued forward with the pastor.

"Do you think we should go with him to back him up on the story?" Robert asked with a frown. Daniel considered the question, but shook his head. "He'l send for us if he needs assistance."

They were al silent as they watched Richard lead the pastor not around to the front of the house, but in through a pair of French doors Christiana thought must lead to the office here.

"Wel ," Daniel said as the two men disappeared. "Shal we?"

Christiana nodded and started forward, leading the way around the house to the front door. The servants were al lined up on either side of the hal when she opened the door and led the way inside. Some time was spent explaining that Lord Radnor had been detained and would be along shortly. Fortunately, the butler recognized Christiana from her one visit and made introductions to the rest of the staff. There was a good number of them, however, and it took longer than she would have liked to meet everyone, but she didn't feel she could be rude and refuse so smiled and shook hands and nodded to everyone from the housekeeper to the lowliest maid. They had just finished with the last introduction and Christiana was about to ask to have a word with Cook when one of the hal doors opened and Richard peered out.

"Christiana, can you come here please?" he asked and then peered back into the room to listen to something the reverend was saying. He then turned back to say, "Actual y, if everyone would come in here, that would be good."

He then left the door open and moved out of sight. Richard was standing talking to the pastor next to a large, dark wood desk by the French doors when Christiana entered. She moved immediately to his side, catching the pastor's last words as he said, "absolutely legal."

"What is?" she asked, pausing beside Richard.

He glanced down at her and smiled. "The wedding Reverend Bertrand has agreed to perform for us."

Christiana's eyes widened and she glanced to the holy man in question.

"My lady," the pastor said, taking her hand and smiling at her kindly. "I am sorry to hear of al the troubles you and his lordship have suffered this last year. George always did seem to have the devil in him. Stil , I am a little surprised and saddened to hear just how much devil." He patted her hand. "We'l set this right today, though, and make it al legal. And I don't see any reason anyone else need know about it. George did enough damage without us adding to it, and it seems God meted out his own punishment."

"Thank you," Christiana murmured.

"If we're ready then?" Reverend Bertrand asked glancing to Richard.

He nodded and turned toward Daniel, but then paused with surprise. Seeing his expression, Christiana glanced about the room, her own eyes widening. It wasn't just Daniel, Robert, Suzette and Lisa who had fol owed them into the room.

Apparently the servants had thought Richard had meant them too when he'd said everyone and every last one of them, including Grace and Christiana's sisters'

maids, were now crammed into the room as wel .

Clearing his throat, Richard said apologetical y, "I didn't mean - "

"It's al right," Reverend Bertrand interrupted and then stepped to Richard's side and smiled at everyone. "The Earl and Countess would like to renew their vows and be married again to each other and you are al going to be witnesses."

A buzz went around the servants and Suzette immediately moved to Christiana's side to whisper worriedly, "Wil it be legal now?"

"I think so," Christiana whispered back.

Both women gave a start as the pastor turned and whispered, "Yes, my dear lady, it wil . The banns were read, and the license issued for the original wedding between Richard Fairgrave and Christiana Madison . . . and handily the license was right here in the office. Apparently, it was left here for safekeeping when you stopped on the way to London. We wil carry out the ceremony in the church here at Radnor in front of several witnesses. Once the ceremony is over and we, as wel as witnesses, sign the marriage register in the church, it wil most definitely be legal."

Christiana smiled uncertainly at the man and then gave a start as Richard took her arm. "Shal we?"

"Yes, of course," Christiana murmured, but felt some trepidation as he urged her to fol ow the pastor, who was making his way through the now parting people in the room. She was going to be married . . . Again. It hadn't been that long since Christiana had vowed to herself that she would never marry again and yet here she was doing it, and while she knew they had to for several very good reasons, not least of which was that she might even now be carrying Richard's child, she couldn't help worrying that it would be her first marriage al over again. That the moment the ceremony was over, Richard, like George before him, would suddenly find her wanting and turn from the considerate kind man he'd proven to be, to a critical, cold stranger. The thought was a depressing one and she felt more like she was being led to the gal ows than to a wedding as they fol owed Reverend Bertrand out of the house and to the chapel with her sisters, Daniel, Robert and every last Radnor servant fol owing.

Richard, on the other hand, didn't appear to be suffering the same misgivings, Christiana noted, glancing at him from under her lashes. He was rushing along, nearly treading on the pastor's heels in his eagerness to get to the church. Weren't men supposed to be the reluctant ones when it came to weddings?

"Here we are." Reverend Bertrand led them to the altar in the smal church and busied himself positioning Christiana and Richard where he wanted them, then took a moment to arrange everyone else before rushing off to col ect his bible. He was back almost before Christiana could take a breath. The service was a blur for Christiana and she gave her responses automatical y without real y taking in what she was saying. Her mind was on the worry of what would happen once it was done. In that state, she was taken rather by surprise when it ended, even giving a start when Richard kissed her. Before she could gather herself enough to kiss him back, he was straightening and urging her to fol ow the pastor to sign the marriage register. Christiana signed first, her hand shaking as she did, and then she stepped back to make room for Richard to sign and found herself surrounded by her sisters and the servants, al offering congratulations. She managed to smile and nod in response, but was distracted by the panic that wanted to claim her. She noticed that Daniel and Robert signed as witnesses, then the three men put their heads together with the pastor. She wondered what they were talking about when he suddenly nodded and then Richard turned to make his way to her as the pastor clapped his hands to get everyone's attention.

"We shal go back to the house now and eat the fine meal Cook prepared for the arrival of the Earl and Countess and their guests. Come along. Let us head back to the house."

Richard took her arm as the servants al began to leave. "Did you and your sisters wish to freshen up before the meal?"

"I thought we were going to head straight back to London?" she said with surprise.

"The men convinced me to alter the plans slightly," he said quietly, urging her to fol ow the servants outside. "I'm sure you and your sisters would like to wash and change after the long journey today, and a meal would be nice too."

"I suppose," Christiana murmured as they started toward the house. It would be pleasant to have a quick wash and change of clothes, then a meal before setting out again. "But Richard, I have been thinking. You can't pay this blackmailer."

"I don't want to," he admitted, "And we wil do what we can to catch the blackmailer rather than pay, but I also won't risk it getting out that George tried to kil me and married you in my name. The scandal would destroy you and ruin any chance of your sisters marrying wel ."

Christiana stared. His concern was for her and her sisters. He hadn't suddenly changed . . . yet. Clearing her throat, she said, "That is very thoughtful, but I suspect if you pay him once, the blackmailer wil continue to demand money. And it just isn't right that you should have to pay when al of this is George's fault to begin with, especial y since you didn't kil him."

"And you and your sisters shouldn't have to pay by suffering the scandal either,"

he pointed out quietly, glancing around to be sure no one was close enough to overhear their conversation. "George was my brother. If anyone is going to pay, it should be me."

Christiana frowned. She didn't want a scandal any more than he did. Her sisters would suffer horribly from it, but . . . She wasn't foolish enough to think if they paid once, it would be done. The blackmailer would no doubt ask for more later, and then again, and this would hang over al their heads until they were al dead and buried.

Frowning, she asked, "Can we not take the body to the authorities, claim George didn't die in the fire after al as we had al assumed, but that he was the one away in America this last year? That he left a letter to that effect when he departed, but it apparently burned up in the fire. We can say he returned because he was feeling unwel and that we found him dead in his bed this morning. The authorities can examine him, wil find he died of natural causes and al wil be wel ." She smiled widely, sure she'd found the answer. "That way there would be no scandal, and no way the blackmailer could blackmail us."

"Ah, wel . . ." Richard grimaced, and then sighed and admitted, "Actual y, Daniel and I suspect George was murdered."

"What?" she asked with shock and stopped walking.

"We smel ed bitter almond around his mouth when we went to move him the first night," Richard explained, urging her to walk again. Christiana stared at him blankly. "I don't understand."

"We think he was poisoned." Richard glanced around as they reached the house and urged her to fol ow the others inside. "Don't worry. We have a plan to catch the blackmailer."

"What is this plan?" she asked worriedly as he started to lead her upstairs.

"I'l explain later," Richard said rather than answer the question. He also started to move more quickly, urging her upstairs and along the hal to the master bedroom.

"You just go on inside and refresh yourself before the meal. Al wil be wel . I'l have Grace and your chest brought up. Would you like a bath?"

Christiana frowned. "No, that would take too long and I know you want to head back to London. A basin of water to wash with wil do."

"Right. I'l see it's brought up," he assured her opening the bedroom door.

She started to automatical y walk into the room, but he caught her back, drawing her around to face him and then suddenly kissed her. It was no quick pressing of lips like the one in the church, but a hard, demanding kiss that quickly had her sinking against him with a sigh and wrapping her arms around his shoulders.

"To tide me over until we can consummate the marriage," he said with a sigh as he ended the kiss a moment later, and then he smiled crookedly and added, "You are now most definitely, and legal y, my wife."

Christiana managed a smile despite her reservations, and he urged her into the room. "I shal send up Grace and your chest. Take your time. I'm sure Cook wil need a bit of time to get the meal on the table."

He then pul ed the door closed, leaving her alone in the master bedroom.

Christiana sighed and glanced around as she moved further into the room.

She had never been in it before. When she and George had stopped on the way into London she'd been given the connecting room next door and never stepped foot in the room. She'd also cried herself to sleep wondering why George had been so short with her that day and why he hadn't come to her that night. She'd cried herself to sleep many nights during the first six months of their marriage wondering the same thing. Shaking those memories away, she walked around the room, looking over everything curiously as she waited for Grace. It seemed to take forever for the woman to arrive with two footmen in tow carrying Christiana's chest. Despite Richard's tel ing her to take her time, she was quick about her ablutions and change of clothes. Even so, Suzette was stepping out of her room when Christiana left the master bedroom to head downstairs.

"I feel better," Suzette commented as the two of them started toward the stairs.

"As do I," Christiana murmured.

"I'm not looking forward to the ride back to town though."

"I'm sorry about this, Suzie," Christiana said. "I know you cannot welcome this delay. Perhaps you and Daniel should continue on to Gretna Green and leave us to deal with this other business."

"As if we would," Suzette said dryly and shook her head as they started down the stairs. "No, this is more urgent. We have some time yet. If things drag on and it's necessary, Daniel and I can travel through the night, stopping only to change horses. We could make the journey to Gretna in a couple days that way and be back just as quickly. So as long as we do not delay much more than a week we should be able to make the two-week deadline Father was given."

"Thank you," Christiana murmured and wondered if Suzette's marrying Daniel was even necessary anymore. Richard had said he'd make up for what his brother had done. Did that include paying off the gambling debt? He hadn't said so specifical y, and he also hadn't said anything to suggest Suzette and Daniel needn't marry to gain the dower and pay the debt, but things had been a bit chaotic and confusing since the night of the bal . Perhaps he just hadn't had the chance to say anything. Or even think about it real y. She would have to broach the subject with him the first chance she got just to be sure, Christiana decided. She didn't wish to see Suzette forced into marriage, even if on her own terms, if there was no need.

"Wait for me!" Lisa cried out, suddenly appearing at the top of the stairs behind them. "I don't know where the dining room is."

Suzette and Christiana paused, smiling at their younger sister as she rushed down to join them and then the trio headed up the hal to the dining room. Christiana had expected Richard and the other men to be there, entertaining the pastor when they arrived, so was a bit surprised to find Reverend Bertrand standing al by himself, peering out a window when they entered.

"Sorry we took so long," Christiana murmured as she glanced back up the empty hal in search of her husband.

"Not at al ," the pastor said at once, beaming at them as he turned from the window. "You are al three wel worth the wait." Moving toward the table, he began to pul out a chair and suggested, "Shal we sit down? I believe the meal is ready and the servants were merely waiting for your arrival to serve."

Christiana felt her eyes narrow at the words. "What about the men?"

"Ah." Reverend Bertrand, pul ed out a second chair and moved on to do the same with a third before saying, "They wished me to explain that they felt they could travel more swiftly with just the one carriage and thought you might be more comfortable waiting here with your maids while they dealt with matters in town."

"They left?" Suzette snapped with disbelief.

"Er . . . yes," he admitted, looking uncomfortable.

Christiana turned on her heel and started out of the room at once.

"Real y, my lady, I think you would do better to simply wait here as they wish.

They left some time ago, directly after seeing you ladies upstairs. You wil never catch up to them," the man argued, hurrying after them when Suzette and Lisa fol owed her.

Al three women ignored him.

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