The Countess Chapter Two

Christiana usualy knocked before daring to enter Dicky's office. This time, however, she was angry and ready for a fight. She did not knock, but thrust the door open, and sailed determinedly inside, her voice sharp as she announced, "We have to talk, Dicky."

Christiana thought it a very strong start. It was just a shame that Dicky wasn't there to hear it. The room was empty. She started to turn away with a scowl, intending to hunt the man down, but paused mid-turn as she saw someone sitting in one of the chairs by the fire. Recognizing her husband's dark hair above the chair back, Christiana glared briefly, awaiting some sort of acknowledgment that he'd heard her. When none was forthcoming, her scowl deepened and she strode forward.

"You wil not ignore me, Dicky. I know you have been withholding my family's letters from me, and you have somehow been preventing my letters from getting to them as wel . And now I find out that you took my father to a gaming hel of al places?

How could you when you know what happened the last time? You have treated me most shabbily since our marriage, but I never imagined you would do something so - "

Christiana had been building up a nice head of steam as she crossed the room to stand before him, but stopped now as she got a good look at the man she was berating.

Dicky was leaning back in the chair, eyes closed and fingers resting on his chest as if he'd meant to loosen his cravat but had dropped off before he could. No doubt Dicky had nodded off after returning here on escaping Suzette's "nattering," she thought grimly. And the liquor probably didn't help, Christiana decided as her gaze shifted to the empty glass next to the half-empty bottle of amber liquid on the table beside him.

She recognized the carafe, it was very fine, very expensive whiskey that he usual y only opened when celebrating something. Wondering what on earth he could have to celebrate, Christiana bent to shake his shoulder. "Dicky, you - Oh!" she gasped and leapt back when he suddenly slid from his seat and landed in a heap on the floor. Christiana was about to bend down and rouse him from his stupor when a rustling from the door drew her attention to the fact that Suzette and Lisa had fol owed and now stood in the open door. Suzette peered at Dicky and then raised her gaze to Christiana and said wryly, "I thought you were just teasing when you said you'd kil him."

"Very funny," Christiana muttered, not appreciating her sister's sense of humor.

"He's drunk. Close the door before one of the servants sees the state he's in."

"Does he often drink this early?" Suzette asked, crossing the room to join her as Lisa quickly closed the door.

"Not this early, no," Christiana admitted. "But he does start earlier than he should and drink more than he should on a regular basis. It's given me hope that he'l fal down the stairs and make me a widow sooner rather than later," she added dryly and then grimaced, knowing how bitter and unkind the thought was.

"I think he has," Lisa said quietly as she joined them around Dicky's prostrate form. "Made you a widow I mean. I don't think he's breathing, Chrissy."

Christiana glanced doubtful y back to Dicky. He'd slid onto his knees, and slumped forward over them so that his head landed on the rug in front of the fireplace. While it didn't appear that his back was moving or expanding with the inhalation of breath, it was hard to tel for sure with him crumpled the way he was.

Christiana knelt beside him and with a little help from Suzette managed to lay him out on his back. They then both stared at his chest for a moment. It wasn't moving.

Hardly believing what she was seeing, Christiana leaned forward to rest her ear above his heart. There was no steady thump, no thump at al . Eyes widening, she sat back on her haunches again and simply stared at the man, finding it hard to believe he was dead. Dicky just wasn't thoughtful enough to do something so kind.

"He is dead, isn't he?" Lisa asked.

Christiana glanced to where her youngest sister stil stood by the chair and said uncertainly, "It would seem so."

"What do you think kil ed him?" Lisa asked with a frown and then suggested, "It was probably his heart. I noticed how flushed he got when Suzette argued with him.

He seemed a very passionate man."

Christiana didn't comment, instead she let her gaze drift over the man she'd been so eager to be free of and let a sad sigh slip from her lips. She'd thought herself in love with him when they married, but the man she'd loved hadn't existed, he'd turned into someone entirely different once the ceremony was over. That man had smothered every last drop of her love over this last year with his control ing and critical attitude. Stil , she felt a tinge of grief stir within her. It was probably for the man she'd thought he was and the life she'd hoped for, Christiana acknowledged. Despite everything, she'd stil held on to a drop of hope that something would happen to turn him back into the wonderful Prince Charming he'd been when he'd courted her, and that she could yet have the happy ending she'd expected on their wedding day. Christiana hadn't been foolish enough to think there was much hope for that, but there was absolutely no chance for it now. She was a widow . . . and had every intention of staying one. There was no way she would ever entrust herself into another man's hands again, not in this lifetime. Christiana had learned her lesson wel .

Shoulders straightening resolutely, she said, "I suppose I should have the servants cal a doctor to - "

"No," Suzette interrupted. "If he's dead you wil have to go into mourning and cannot give us our debut. We wil be expected to join you in mourning too and wil have absolutely no chance of saving ourselves."

Christiana recognized the truth in Suzette's words, but said helplessly, "What can we do? He's dead."

As Suzette glowered at the hapless Dicky, Lisa suggested, "Perhaps we could just put him in his bed and tel the servants he is feeling unwel . Even a couple of days may be enough for Suzie to choose someone desperate enough to accept her offer. The moment she settles on someone and heads for Gretna Green you can pretend to discover Dicky dead in his bed."

"A couple of days wouldn't even be enough time for Suzie to start her search for a husband," Christiana argued sensibly.

"It is," Suzette insisted. "Tonight is the season opening bal at Lord and Lady Landon's. Everyone wil be there. You and Lisa can gossip with the women to find out who is rumored to need money, and I can assess those men and find out which seem the most desperate and amenable to my needs."

"Everyone wil be there who has been invited," Christiana corrected dryly. "And we weren't."

"You were," Suzette argued. "Lady Landon told us so."

"When could she have told you that?" Christiana asked suspiciously. "You only arrived in London this morning."

"Lord and Lady Landon were at the last inn we stopped at on the way to London," Lisa said with a wide smile. "They're both very nice and were kind enough to share their table with us. While talking, Lady Landon said she had sent you and Dicky an invitation and would be pleased to extend the invitation to include the two of us."

"Dicky never mentioned an invitation to the Landons' bal ." Christiana glanced to his body.

"What a surprise," Suzette said with disgust and glowered at the man. Her foot also moved sharply in his direction before stopping abruptly and Christiana raised an eyebrow, sure the girl had just stopped herself from kicking the corpse.

"Lady Landon also mentioned the Hammonds' bal is the night afterward," Lisa announced. "She said it is a crush, and everyone attends it as wel . She said she knew you had also been invited to that. She and Lady Hammond are apparently good friends and Lady Landon promised to send a message to Lady Hammond tel ing her how delightful we were and suggesting she extend your invitation to include us as wel ." Lisa beamed with satisfaction.

"Between those two bal s, Suzie should find someone so we only need the two nights and then you can claim you found Dicky dead in his bed."

Christiana stared at her with disbelief. "He is dead now, Lisa. After a couple of days . . ." She didn't finish, it was just too gruesome to say that the man would start to smel .

"We can open the bedroom window and let the cold air in," Suzette said at once.

"It wil slow down decay. We could even make a trip to the ice house to get ice to pack around him and - "

"Dear God," Christiana leapt to her feet with horror. "I cannot believe you are suggesting this. He is a man, not a slab of meat."

"Wel , it's not like he was a good man," Suzette said with irritation. "From the little we've seen, it appears he treated you abominably."

"And he is the one who took father to the gaming hel and started this latest ruination," Lisa pointed out solemnly. Christiana was silent, her thoughts torn. She peered from the man on the floor, to Lisa's worried expression, to Suzette's desperate one and clenched her hands.

"Two nights," she said tightly. "We cannot risk any more than that."

"Two nights," Suzette agreed on a breath of relief.

Christiana shook her head. "We are mad."

"The mad Madison sisters," Suzette said with a sudden grin.

Christiana didn't smile, she was too busy considering the problem of how to get her husband up to his bedroom. Then there was the smal matter of how they were going to keep his valet - not to mention the rest of the servants - away from him.

Another problem was how to fetch back the ice to keep him cold enough that the smel alone wouldn't give away the state he was in, and then they had to find the invitations and arrange for appropriate gowns for the three of them in very short order. Dear God, she thought, this couldn't work, and they truly were mad to even consider it.

"Take his feet, Lisa."

Christiana glanced to her sisters as they moved to either end of the man on the floor. Eyes widening with alarm, she asked, "What are you doing?"

"We have to get him up to his room," Suzette said sensibly. "You go make sure there is no one in the hal ."

"But - "

"Move," Suzette grunted impatiently as she caught Dicky under the shoulders and hefted his upper body off the floor. Christiana narrowed her eyes and propped her hands on her hips. "See here, miss, I may have had to take that kind of bossy nonsense from Dicky this last year, but that was only because he was my husband. I'l not have you ordering me around like a servant in his place now he's dead."

Lisa had just grabbed Dicky's feet, but dropped them to the floor with a thud and hurried to her side to pat her arm soothingly. "Now Chrissy, I don't think Suzie meant anything by it. We're al just a little overexcited at the moment."

Christiana rol ed her eyes. Lisa always had been the peacekeeper, forever trying to soothe hurt feelings and prevent the outbreak of battles. Shaking her head, she glanced to Dicky. He real y was a good sized man, and was not going to be moved easily or quickly. "Wel , we can't take him like this."

"What do you mean?" Suzette let Dicky's upper body drop.

Christiana winced at the thud of his head hitting the wood, but explained patiently,

"Even if there is no one in the hal now, someone could come out while we are carting him up the stairs. Then what would we say?"

Suzette frowned and peered down at Dicky with dislike. "Even dead the man is a pain."

Christiana actual y felt her mouth twitch with amusement and knew it must be hysteria. There was absolutely nothing funny about any of this. Her eyes slid over him again and then settled on the rug he half lay on and suddenly she knew what to do. "We shal rol him up in the rug and cart that upstairs. That way if anyone comes along they won't see him."

"How do we explain why we're dragging a rug around?" Suzette asked doubtful y.

"We shal say the rose room is chil y at night and you, Suzie, are going to stay in it and we are hoping the rug wil help keep it warm for the few nights you are here,"

Christiana announced with satisfaction. It was nice to have an issue she could solve for once. It made a change from constantly banging her head against a wal trying to sort out how to fix her marriage.

"That may work," Lisa said slowly.

"It wil ," Christiana assured her. "Now come, help me rol him onto the rug."

With the three of them working together it was a quick job getting him positioned on the end of the rug and then rol ing him up in it.

"Now what?" Suzette asked as they straightened.

"Now we carry him upstairs," Christiana said firmly. "Suzie, you take that end, Lisa you take the middle and I shal take this end." She knelt at her end of the carpet and waited for her sisters to position themselves, and then said, "On the count of three. One, two, three."

The last word was almost a grunt as Christiana tightened her hold on the rug and pushed herself to a standing position using only her legs.

"Gad, he's heavy," Lisa complained as they started to walk slowly toward the door.

"The added weight of the rug does not help," Suzette panted as they paused at the door.

Christiana merely grunted in agreement and jutted out her hip to help hold up her end as she reached out with one hand to quickly open the door. It was a very fast maneuver, even so the rug started to slip from her hip and she barely caught it in time to keep from dropping it. Sighing her relief, Christiana started out into the hal , only to come to an abrupt halt as she spotted Haversham approaching. Unfortunately, Lisa and Suzette were not expecting her to stop so abruptly and there was a soft curse and a bit of stumbling about behind her that nearly jerked the rug out of her hands as the weight increased. Just managing to keep her hold, Christiana glanced over her shoulder to see that Lisa had lost her grip on the rug and it was sagging in the middle. Even as she saw that though, the younger woman quickly caught it up again. Sighing, Christiana turned back and forced a smile for Haversham as he paused before her. She would say this for the man: he was wel trained. The butler didn't even bat an eyelash at the sight of the three women dragging a heavy rug about.

"Is there some way I may be of assistance, my lady?" the man asked politely.

"No, no," she said quickly. "We're just taking Dicky up to warm the rug. I mean we're taking Dicky's rug up to warm the room," she corrected herself quickly in a strangled tone and then, because she couldn't lie worth beans, babbled, "The guest room. The rose one that's so chil y. Suzie wil be staying there. In the room. And it's chil y so we're going to warm it with the rug. Dicky's already warm. With a fever. He's up in his room fevering so he won't need his rug you see," she ended almost desperately, unable to miss the exasperated sigh from behind her. Probably Suzette, she thought unhappily. It sounded like one of her "my sister is a big dolt" sighs. Christiana had suffered them often while growing up. But surely there should be an age limit to such obnoxious sounds? She felt certain they shouldn't be al owed after a person had married.

"I see," Haversham said slowly. "Would you like me to carry it up for you?"

"No!" The word exploded from her mouth like a bal from a cannon. Forcing herself to calm down, she added, "I need you to do something else."

Haversham nodded politely, waited, and then prompted, "And that would be?"

"That would be what?" Christiana asked uncertainly.

"The something else you need me to do, my lady," Haversham explained patiently. "That would be what?"

He was speaking slowly as if to a particularly dul child, but Christiana could hardly blame him for that when she had apparently turned into an idiot. She real y had not been made for cloak-and-dagger activities, she decided wearily as she struggled for some errand to send the man on.

"I need you to send one of the servants out to buy a chicken," she said at last.

Haversham's eyebrows rose. "A chicken?"

"For Dicky. He's sick," she reminded him of the lie. "And they do say chicken soup is good for such things."

"Yes, they do," he agreed solemnly. "Should I go upstairs first and see if Lord Radnor desires my assistance undressing and getting himself into bed? I fear his valet is under the weather as wel and incapable of aiding him."

"Freddy is sick?" Christiana asked with surprise. That was a spot of good luck for them. It solved the problem of keeping the valet away from Dicky.

"Deathly il . I shouldn't be surprised if he is unavailable for days," the butler said solemnly, and then added, "I, of course, wil make myself available to Lord Radnor to fil in for Freddy in the meantime."

"Oh no," Christiana said at once. "I mean, il as he is, my husband is not likely to need assistance dressing. He'l no doubt rest abed until he is recovered. I'm sure he won't need you."

"Hmmm." Haversham nodded. "Then I shal arrange for someone to go purchase a chicken and leave you ladies to your endeavors."

"Yes, you do that," Christiana said with relief. She waited until he disappeared through the door to the kitchen, and then muttered, "Let's go," and immediately started forward again.

"Thank God," Suzette gasped as Christiana headed for the stairs at a hurried pace. "I thought he'd never leave. And real y, Chrissy, you cannot lie at al ."

Christiana grimaced but could hardly argue the fact, so merely picked up the pace as much as she could, eager to unburden herself of her dead husband. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, they were also sweaty and exhausted, but continued forward without resting. They had reached the door to Dicky's room and Christiana had just jutted out her hip and released one handhold on the rug to open the door when the next door down opened. Christiana immediately glanced around with alarm. Unfortunately, the slight movement was enough to dislodge the bundle from her hip. She felt it slip off and drop toward the floor, but this time wasn't quick enough to stop it. Worse yet, Suzette and Lisa were taken by surprise and lost their own holds on the rug. The whole length of it thudded to the floor and then unrol ed, spil ing a very dead Dicky at the feet of Christiana's maid as the woman paused in the hal .

Al four women stared down at the man and then Grace lifted her eyes to Christiana and murmured, "Final y kil ed him, did you? It's about bloody time."

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