The Countess Chapter Sixteen

That went wel."

Richard settled back in the carriage and merely nodded. They had just finished making arrangements for the funds to pay the blackmailer. He was hoping that wouldn't be necessary, but was prepared if it was. Richard was glad to have the business out of the way. He'd spent the past hour constantly worrying that someone was going to stand up shouting, "Imposter!" He supposed that was foolish since he was the true Richard Fairgrave, Earl of Radnor. However, George had been impersonating him for over a year and it was he everyone was used to. Richard had been sure someone would notice something different about him, courtesy perhaps, or a less caustic attitude. He was actual y surprised and even a little insulted that they hadn't. He liked to think he was different enough from his brother that someone would have noticed something, and couldn't help his slightly disgruntled tone as he commented, "No one seemed to notice anything amiss or different about me."

Daniel smiled wryly and shrugged. "People see what they expect to. Besides, while you were thanking the clerk for your tea I commented to Lord Sherwood that I was glad to see you final y shaking off the strange mood that had claimed you this last year since your twin's death," Daniel admitted. "He said he'd heard you were final y coming around and had even attended a bal . So I wouldn't worry too much. It appears everyone wil just put down any oddity they notice to your final y getting over the grief that has supposedly plagued you this last year."

"Wel , that's something anyway," Richard said wryly, tugging at the sleeve of his pale green coat and grimacing. He detested the color, but it had been the best of the lot. "I real y need to improve my wardrobe."

"George always did have terrible taste in clothes," Daniel said dryly, eyeing his outfit. "Why do we not stop at the tailor's on the way back to the townhouse?"

Richard hesitated, his conscience making him feel that he should head right back to the townhouse and try to further their investigations. But he didn't want Christiana to think he didn't trust her to interview the staff, and he could hardly gain gossip on himself. There seemed little reason not to stop, so he nodded and ordered the driver to change direction.

"How are you finding marriage so far?" Daniel asked as Richard sat back in his seat.

"It has not even been a ful day yet," he pointed out with amusement.

Daniel shrugged. "Christiana appears terribly wary. I think she fears you wil suddenly begin criticizing and berating her as George apparently did."

Richard nodded, not surprised his friend had noted the wariness that often clouded Christiana's eyes. It was seldom missing. The only time it seemed to him that she managed to completely shed it was when he stirred her passions. Then she managed to forget everything but the pleasure they were enjoying together, and to trust him with at least her body. It gave him hope that eventual y she would trust him with more and he said, "Time wil help undo the damage George did. When she sees that I do not change and do not try to change her, she wil relax and be more herself."

Daniel nodded and said with a grin, "She made a good start this morning racing Lisa downstairs barefoot."

Richard smiled at the memory. That had surprised him. Christiana had been so polite and stilted when she first awoke, the complete antithesis to the warm passionate woman he had made love to just hours earlier. In truth, he'd been disappointed when he'd kissed her that morning and she'd not kissed him back. It had made him worry about what it might indicate for their future together. Would she be one woman at night, a warm passionate lover in their bed, and then another woman, the cautious, wary proper lady during the daylight hours? Not that that would have been the worst thing in the world to deal with, many men were not even fortunate to have the passion. However, Richard wanted more from Christiana. He wanted her to trust him and to be as unguarded and warm with him al the time as she was in their bed. He wanted the easy affection he saw her shower on her sisters and even Robert. He wanted her as a friend as wel as a lover.

Much to his relief, the episode in the dressing room before he and Daniel had left had gone a long way toward reassuring him, however. She hadn't been a proper lady then, and they hadn't been in their bed either, but in the closet in broad daylight. Richard wasn't sure what had caused the difference in her, but was grateful for it.

He was truly beginning to believe they would more than make a go of this marriage.

They might actual y have a sterling one like his own parents had enjoyed. Theirs had been a love match and while he'd never real y thought about it before, Richard now decided he would like that for himself as wel .

"Here we are."

Daniel's words drew his gaze out the window to see that they'd arrived on the street where the tailor was. A glance along the busy lane told him his driver wouldn't be able to find a spot close to the tailor's without some difficulty and he commented,

"It looks as if we wil have a bit of a walk to reach the tailor's."

"I don't mind," Daniel said. "After spending al yesterday and last night in a carriage, I shal enjoy the brief walk."

Nodding, Richard banged on the wal of the carriage. Moments later they were disembarking and making their way along the crowded walk toward the tailor's.

"You'l need a whole new wardrobe," Daniel commented as they swerved closer to the road to avoid a smal party of women walking the opposite way.

"Yes," Richard agreed dryly. "Fashion is one of many things George and I did not have in common."

"Did you have anything in common?" Daniel asked with amusement.

"Taste in women," Richard answered promptly.

"Ah." Daniel grinned. "I'l take that to mean you are not displeased to have Christiana for a wife."

"If Suzette is half the woman Christiana is, we can both count ourselves lucky men," Richard assured him.

"Hmm. Suzette mentioned that Christiana had fol owed you upstairs, and I did notice a certain spring in your step when you found me in the parlor some time later . I wonder what could have happened to cause that?"

"You can keep wondering," Richard said dryly and led the way into the tailor's.

As he'd hoped, his time with the tailor was short. The man was swift and efficient, taking Richard's measurements and his order with a speed that spoke of the years of experience he had. Much to Richard's relief, the man assured him he could have several of the items to him by week's end. He also did have a couple of cutaway coats, a pair of trousers and a pair of breeches available right away. One of the coats was a perfect fit and could be taken at once, the other items needed a bit of tailoring, but the man promised to fix them up right away and send al four items along to the townhouse by the day's end.

"Wel that went wel too," Daniel commented as they stepped out of the tailor's and started up the walk in the direction of the Radnor carriage. "Perhaps we shal be lucky and arrive back at the townhouse to find that everyone has had such a successful day, and the identities of the blackmailer and poisoner have been discovered so that we need only round them up."

"We should be so lucky," Richard said wryly.

"Was it not you who said just as we entered the tailor's that we were both lucky men?" Daniel asked cheerful y. Richard glanced around at Daniel's words and opened his mouth to respond, but froze as he spotted the carriage careening toward them. The first shout of warning went up then, but Richard was already grabbing Daniel's arm and throwing himself to the side, out of the way of the oncoming vehicle. They crashed to the ground amid a cacophony of screams and shouts as the people around them noted the danger and tried to get out of the way, and then there was a moment when the only sound Richard could hear was that of the horses'

hooves and the trundle of the carriage's wheels as it raced past, the breeze of its passing tel ing how close they'd come to being trampled.

"Are you al right, my lord?"

Richard glanced around at that alarmed question and sighed when he spotted his driver just reaching and kneeling beside him. Nodding, he rol ed onto his back to sit up, and then glanced toward Daniel, who was as of yet unmoving.

"Woodrow?" he asked with a frown.

Daniel groaned and pushed himself to a sitting position, but said, "Yes. Thanks to you."

"It was a yel ow bounder, my lord," the Radnor driver said grimly, glaring in the direction the post chaise had gone. "Probably rented. The postil ion didn't even try to steer clear of ye. In fact, it looked almost like he was aiming for the two of ye."

Richard grunted at the man's words, suspecting he was right. George had been murdered after al and they had expected the murderer to try again. He definitely had to be more careful in future.

Richard got to his feet even as Daniel did and then paused to brush down his clothes, frowning when something dripped down the side of his forehead.

"You're bleeding," Daniel said quietly. "You must have knocked your head as we fel ."

Richard raised a hand to his forehead, grimacing when he felt the scrape there.

Sighing, he wiped the blood away and started toward the carriage.

Daniel and the driver fol owed.

"Where to now, my lord?" the driver asked solemnly as he held the carriage door for Richard and Daniel to get in.

"Home," Richard answered abruptly as he settled back in his seat.

Nodding, the man closed the door.

"What are we going to do now?" Daniel asked as he settled across from him.

"Find out who wants the Earl of Radnor dead, and fast. I should like to accomplish it before Christiana is made a widow . . . again."

"This is a waste of time," Suzette hissed with frustration as Christiana led her from the guest bedroom Robert and Daniel had shared the night before. They had gone there to have a little chat with the upstairs maid who had been making the bed and cleaning the room. The problem was that was al it had been, a chat, Christiana acknowledged. They could hardly ask flat out if she had been paid to poison George's whiskey. They didn't want everyone on staff to know about George's attempt to kil Richard, his stint as his imposter and that George was now dead . . . again. That being the case, they couldn't ask much of anything useful real y, and instead had been forced to ask each person general questions about how long they'd worked for Lord Fairgrave and where they'd worked previously, what their family situation was like and so on.

"It isn't a complete waste of time," she assured Suzette. "I am pretty sure we can cross most of the staff we've talked to off the list of suspects, and that is a good thing."

Suzette sighed with exasperation. "Why am I not surprised you are looking at the bright side?"

Christiana glanced at her in question. "What do you mean?"

"You have been Miss Bloody-Cheerful-and-Optimistic ever since talking to Richard upstairs before the men left," she said with disgust.

"And you have been Miss Glum-and-Pessimistic just as long," Christiana said wryly. Suzette had been surly and cross throughout the interviews.

"Aye, wel I suspect that would be because I didn't find the same satisfaction you obviously did before Richard came into the parlor and interrupted us."

Christiana paused and whirled to gape at her. "By satisfaction you do not mean .

. . ?"

Suzette rol ed her eyes and urged her to keep moving toward the stairs. "Of course I do. Anyone could tel what the two of you had been up to. If the banging from upstairs hadn't given it away, then your wrinkled skirts, the smile on Richard's face, and your utterly replete relaxation and good cheer since would have."

Christiana felt herself color with embarrassment and glanced anxiously down at her skirt, self-consciously brushing at the wrinkles she hadn't noticed until now as they started down the steps.

"What was the banging by the way?" Suzette asked. "If it was your bed, you should have the servants shift it away from the wal , else no one wil sleep tonight."

Christiana stiffened at the taunt, but rather than answer, narrowed her eyes on Suzette and asked, "What do you mean by the satisfaction you didn't find before Richard interrupted you?"

"Exactly what you think I mean," she assured her. However, despite Suzette's attempt to sound blase about it, a pink flush stole up her cheeks. Christiana gaped at her. "But you are - "

"An unmarried woman, pure and innocent and completely ignorant of what a man and woman do behind closed doors," Suzette said dryly, urging her to continue down the stairs. "Heavens, Christiana, this is the nineteenth century. Women need not go to the marriage bed completely ignorant."

"I did," she muttered, half embarrassed and half annoyed.

"You never read any of those books Lisa constantly has her nose in."

"And you did?" Christiana glanced at her with amazement as they stepped off the stairs and started along the hal . Suzette had never been much of a reader.

Suzette shrugged. "It gets a bit boring in the country now that you are not there.

Lisa is always reading, and Robert has been in town the last year, while trying to discover what was going on with your marriage. There were days when I think I would have gone mad without something to read."

"But surely those horrid novels Lisa reads do not - "

"Nay, not most of them, but - " Suzette paused to glance around and then ushered her into the nearest room, Richard's office. She closed the door and urged Christiana over to the chairs by the fire before admitting, "Lisa received one recently that was about a young girl named Fanny who runs away to London and becomes a prostitute and it was . . . er . . . quite informative."

"And you and Lisa read this?" she cried with dismay. When Suzette reddened but nodded, she asked, "Does Father know?"

Suzette snorted. "No, of course not. He hasn't known much of anything ever since the first gambling incident. He has mostly stayed locked in his office, hiding from his shame since you left with Dicky the day after the wedding." She scowled briefly, but then glanced to Christiana and pleaded, "Don't say anything to him. And don't say anything to Lisa either. 'Tis a banned book, and she made me swear not to tel anyone about it."

"If 'tis banned, how did she get it?" Christiana asked grimly.

"I am not sure," Suzette admitted. "She won't tel me. But I think she got it from Mrs. Morgan."

Christiana didn't recognize the name. "Who is Mrs. Morgan?"

"A widow whose carriage broke down by the estate on her way to London,"

Suzette explained. "Father invited her in for tea while the men looked at it for her. Of course, then he left us to entertain her," she added bitterly.

"And this Mrs. Morgan gave Lisa the book then?" Christiana asked.

Suzette shook her head. "Her carriage was beyond the men's ability to repair and had to be taken into the vil age. Mrs. Morgan stayed at the inn for nearly a week while it was repaired and Lisa visited her there every day. They became quite friendly and I guess before she left for London, Mrs. Morgan gave her the book as a thank-you gift for keeping her company."

"Dear God," Christiana growled. "What kind of woman gives a banned book like that to an unmarried girl?"

"Mrs. Morgan is very forward thinking," Suzette said with a shrug. "She believes women should have more rights and freedoms of our own rather than be ruled by our fathers and husbands. Besides, Lisa is nearly twenty, Christiana. She is not a child anymore, and should already have had her debut and be settled with a husband and starting on children."

Christiana didn't argue the point. Their father had been lax in seeing to their future. But then she and her sisters hadn't been pushing to have their debuts. They'd al simply been content as they were, each uneager to leave their childhood home and loved ones for an unknown husband. Although, Christiana had been contemplating doing so more and more the last year before marrying Dicky. She had begun to think she wanted children, which meant a London season to choose a husband, and she probably would have soon broached the subject with her father had the supposed ruination at the gambling table not forced the marriage to Dicky.

That thought made her recal what Richard had said about the gaming hel and the rumors about what went on there and she asked, "Father has been punishing himself for what happened and my having to marry Dicky?"

"Yes, and so he should," Suzette said grimly. "I was actual y feeling sorry for him, but then he went and did it again."

"That may not be true," Christiana said quietly. "He may not have gambled at al ."

"What?" Suzette glanced at her sharply.

"Richard said there are rumors that Dicky had befriended a certain owner of a gaming hel reputed to drug its patrons and fleece them. He suspects it's possible that is what happened to Father."

Suzette's breath left her on a whoosh, making Christiana's eyebrows raise.

Before she could ask what had caused it, Suzette said, "When we found him at the townhouse, Father kept saying he was sorry, and he didn't know how it had happened, that his memories were a jumble and he didn't even recal how he'd ended up at the gaming hel , just waking up there both times to learn he'd gambled us into ruin."

Christiana sighed. "He probably didn't gamble at al ."

"Oh God," Suzette moaned and dropped back against the chair unhappily. "I was so cruel to him the morning we arrived in London. I said some awful things."

"It is understandable under the circumstances," Christiana said quietly. "How were you to know Dicky may have drugged him to bring about his downfal ?"

"Damn Dicky," Suzette burst out furiously, sitting upright again. "If he weren't already dead, I think I'd kil him myself."

"Hmm," Christiana murmured, and then bit her lip and pointed out, "Although, if it weren't for Dicky and what he'd got up to I wouldn't now be married to Richard and you might never have met and proposed to Daniel."

"That's true." Suzette frowned, some of her anger easing from her expression, and then she glanced to Christiana and asked, "So you are content with Richard?"

"I think we might have a good marriage," she said cautiously, and much to her surprise Suzette snorted at the tame words.

"Oh, give over," she said with disgust. "A good marriage? I've heard the moaning and groaning coming from your room, both the night Dicky died and last night as wel

. Oh Richard, oh . . . oh . . . yes . . . ooooooh," she mimicked with amusement.

"Then you scream like you're fit to die."

Christiana blushed furiously. "You could hear us?"

"I'm sure the whole house can hear you," she said dryly. "He roars like a lion, and you squeal like a stuck pig." She paused and then added thoughtful y,

"Which I suppose is an apt description from what I read in Fanny's book. Did it hurt very much the first time he stuck his maypole in your tender parts?"

"His maypole?" Christiana gasped with disbelief.

"That's what Fanny cal ed it. Wel one of the things," she added thoughtful y, and then repeated, "Did it hurt?"

Christiana groaned and covered her face, mortified by the entire conversation.

"Wel ?" Suzette persisted.

"A little perhaps," Christiana said final y, forcing her hands away and straightening in her seat.

"Hmm, Fanny fainted from the pain," Suzette muttered. "And there was a great deal of blood, which suggests pain as wel ."

Christiana grimaced and decided a change of subject was in order. "Anyway, what happens in the bedroom is only a portion of marriage, Suzette. I must deal with him out of the bedroom as wel and begin to think I may be able to."

Suzette glanced to her curiously. "He seems to treat you much more kindly than Dicky did. And he upheld the marriage to prevent us al from being cast into scandal.

I thought at first that he avoided scandal as wel , but Lisa is right, men do not suffer scandal like we women do and he probably did uphold if for your sake, which is real y very chivalrous. Much more chivalrous than Daniel's marrying me for money."

Christiana frowned slightly. Suzette's last words sounded almost bitter and yet the girl had written the rules for this marriage herself, choosing to marry someone who needed money to ensure she was not trapped in a miserable marriage as Christiana had endured with Dicky. However, the marriage might not be necessary at al now, she realized, and frowned over the fact that she couldn't say as much because she hadn't yet spoken to Richard about his promise to make everything right. She real y must remember when he returned, Christiana told herself firmly. Until then, she couldn't say anything to Suzette, at least nothing certain.

A deep sigh drew her attention back to Suzette.

Seeing the dissatisfaction on her face, she asked quietly, "Are you having second thoughts about marrying Daniel?" Biting her lip, she added, "Perhaps Richard would be wil ing to cover Father's gambling debts. If we even need to cover them. If we prove he was drugged and didn't gamble at al  - "

"Nay, 'tis fine," Suzette said quickly. "I doubt it would be that easy to prove and we have enough on our plate at the moment. Speaking of which, we should real y get back to our task. Who have we not yet talked to?"

Christiana hesitated, but then decided to let her change the subject. They real y did have to continue with their task. "I think we have spoken to al the maids and footmen. That leaves Haversham, Cook, Richard's valet - "

"I thought his valet died in the fire where Richard was supposed to have died?"

Suzette interrupted.

"Yes, of course, I meant Dicky's valet. I guess he wil have to be Richard's now though. Wel , once he recovers from his il ness."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Suzette asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Wel , I'd like to think Georgina knows me wel enough that she would know in an instant if someone tried to take my place, even if they were my twin."

"I'm sure Grace would realize at once too, if a twin tried to take my place, or at least rather quickly." She frowned. "In fact, that's why George ordered Richard's valet to be murdered. He feared the man would know that he wasn't Richard."

"Wel there you are," Suzette said quietly. "It's just as likely that George's valet wil notice something amiss with Richard and suspect he isn't the master he has served this last year."

"Twenty years," Christiana corrected and when Suzette raised her eyebrows in question, she explained thoughtful y, "Dicky once said that Freddy had been with him for twenty years, they pretty much grew up together."

"Hmm." Suzette grimaced. "Then Richard definitely wouldn't be able to fool him."

"No," she agreed grimly. "And George wouldn't have been able to fool him into thinking he was real y Richard."

Suzette's eyes widened with realization. "Freddy had to know what George had done."

"Yes. He could be the blackmailer," she exclaimed with excitement, and then just as swiftly shook her head. "But he has been il since the day you and Lisa arrived and hasn't been to assist Dicky-George since, so can't yet know he's now Richard again."

"Are you sure about that?" Suzette asked.

"That he's sick?" Christiana asked with surprise. "Haversham told us Freddy was il when he caught us with Dicky in the rug. Why would he lie?"

"I'm not suggesting he lied," Suzette said. "But just because this Freddy is il doesn't necessarily mean he has been confined to bed al this time. Maybe he has been up and saw or heard something that made him realize Richard was back and George gone."

Christiana sank back in her chair with a frown. What Suzette suggested was more than possible. Il or not, Freddy would have to get up to eat and drink and tend to other functions. Cook was busy enough she probably wouldn't tend to him like an il child unless he was at death's door, and Haversham had not suggested the ailment was that desperate. The man probably had been up and about and while it was most likely that he'd stuck to the back of the house, it was possible he had seen Richard at some point or other. He may even have gone in search of Dicky to explain his il ness and seen him then, though Richard hadn't mentioned seeing the man. But then Freddy could have seen Richard without his even noticing. Servants, at least the good ones, could go about their business in an unobtrusive way that ensured their presence went without note. Nodding, she stood up abruptly. "You're right, and it's certainly worth checking into at least. I wil ask Haversham to send him to us. He wil be our next interview."

Suzette nodded. "I have a good feeling about this."

Christiana too thought they may have struck on something with Freddy. She didn't think for a minute that he might be the servant who had poisoned DickyGeorge. The man had always been obsequious and toadying with Dicky. But she was suddenly almost positive that he might be their blackmailer. The hal was empty when Christiana stepped into it and she started toward the kitchen, glancing into each room in search of Haversham as she went. The man usual y appeared the moment she stepped into the hal . Actual y, she suspected he was usual y hanging about listening at doors. It appeared he wasn't today, however, and she didn't see him in any of the main-floor rooms. Frowning, she made her way into the kitchen, but he wasn't there either. Giving up on the man, she asked one of the kitchen girls where Freddy's room was and then went to fetch the man herself. She'd intended to simply knock on his door and request that he come join her and Suzette in the office, however when she arrived at the room she'd been directed to, she found the door ajar. After a hesitation, she pushed it open, cal ing out, "Freddy?"

There was no answer and no one in the room, she saw as the door swung open.

The bed was also made with no sign that a sick man had just risen from it. Frowning, Christiana turned to leave, but paused with a start when she found the man in question standing behind her.

"Oh, Freddy! You gave me a start. I was just going to ask you to come to the office for a minute," she said nervously, one hand at her throat.

"Yes, I know," Freddy said grimly, moving forward.

Christiana stepped back to avoid his running her down, but paused abruptly as she realized that she was moving further into the room. Not comfortable, she started to move around him then, suddenly desperate to get back out into the hal , but Freddy quickly blocked her exit, slammed the door closed and locked it with a definitive click.

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