The countess, p.15
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       The Countess, p.15

         Part #1 of Madison Sisters series by Lynsay Sands
 
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Chapter Fifteen

 

  The murmur of voices stirred Christiana from sleep, and had her roling onto her back in bed. Opening her eyes, she found the room awash with sunlight and Richard up, dressed, and at the door talking to someone in the hal . He closed the door now and turned back into the room, a smile curving his lips as his eyes landed on her.

  "Ah, you're awake. " Richard approached the bed, pausing to col ect a dressing gown off the back of a chair as he came. "Your bath is ready, and everyone else is gathering downstairs. Cook is making breakfast, which should be ready soon, and then we need to start moving on our plans for the day. You're stil wil ing to take care of interviewing the staff today while Daniel and I go see about the money, aren't you?"

  "Of course. " Christiana sat up, taking the robe from him and managing to pul it onto first one arm and then the other while stil holding up the bedclothes to cover her nakedness. Before she'd nodded off in the carriage on the journey back to London, the group had discussed and decided who would handle what tasks today after they'd rested. Daniel was going to accompany Richard to arrange for the blackmail money, Lisa and Robert were to visit the park and various other areas in search of gossip to see if they could not find out who George had seemed most friendly with this last year in the hopes of sorting out who the blackmailer could be, and Suzette and Christiana were to question the staff and see if they couldn't figure out who might have been paid to poison George's drink.

  Christiana had been rather surprised he'd trust her with the responsibility when Richard had asked if she'd be wil ing to handle the interviews. George wouldn't have.

  "Good. " He smiled, and offered a hand as she pul ed the robe around herself and pushed the blankets away. Holding the robe closed with one hand, Christiana clasped his fingers with the other and got out of bed, ducking her head and blushing as she realized that

  - despite her best effort - she'd flashed quite a bit of leg. She kept her head bowed, fussing nervously as she tied the sash, and then stiffened with surprise when Richard suddenly caught her under the chin and tipped her face up to his.

  "Good morning. " The words were a soft whisper as his mouth descended to hers.

  Christiana remained stil and self-conscious under the gentle caress, unsure how to respond. She wanted to throw her arms around his neck, press her body to his and open her mouth to him in a most wanton fashion. However, it was the middle of the morning. She wasn't sure he would welcome such a brazen display in the light of day, so she merely stood stil and waited to see if he would deepen the kiss. Much to her disappointment, he didn't, but ended it with a little sigh and straightened.

  "I suppose I should let you start your day. I'l be downstairs waiting with the others. "

  Christiana watched him go with confusion. He seemed somehow disappointed and she wasn't sure why.

  "Come take your bath before it gets cold. "

  Christiana glanced around with surprise to see Grace standing next to the steaming tub. She hadn't noticed the woman's presence on first waking, and now smiled in greeting as she crossed the room. "Your carriage made it back al right then?"

  "I gather we didn't arrive long after your carriage did. " Grace moved to col ect a cloth and soap as Christiana removed the robe she'd just donned and stepped into the tub. She then returned to the tub and knelt to wash her back for her, commenting, "His lordship seems a good man. "

  "Aye," Christiana murmured noncommittal y.

  "He has proven himself thoughtful, arranging the bath to be brought up for you, and letting you sleep as late as he could while it was prepared. "

  Christiana nodded, and accepted the cloth to wash the rest of herself when Grace finished and straightened.

  "And he's trusting you to interview the servants as wel . " Grace moved to col ect a gown for her to wear once she'd finished. "Dicky-George didn't trust you to buckle your own shoes. "

  "No, he didn't," she agreed with a grimace. The man had thought her useless. At least, that was how he'd made her feel this last year.

  "And though they were born brothers and twins, Richard is obviously nothing like George was. "

  Christiana remained silent. Everything Grace said was true. So far, Richard seemed to be a good man. He hadn't yet criticized her or treated her coldly, and he had been in her bed twice now, even before the ceremony at Radnor, which was definitely different from George. But George had seemed to be wonderful and caring when he was courting her, and yet had proven to be nothing like that once they were married.

  "He'l make you happy," Grace added firmly when Christiana remained silent. "If you let him. "

  She glanced to the maid with surprise. "What do you mean, if I let him?"

  Grace set aside the clothes she'd gathered and moved back to the tub. "Child, I know George hurt you. You thought you loved him and he betrayed you by turning into the cold, critical man who has tormented you this last year. But Richard isn't George. "

  "I know that," Christiana muttered, turning her face away and continuing to wash herself as she admitted, "And I know now that I didn't real y love George. I loved the romantic hero he pretended to be, but that man didn't exist and the real man . . . "

  She shrugged wearily and dipped the cloth in the water with a sigh.

  "Richard isn't George," Grace repeated solemnly.

  "But what if he too isn't the man he appears to be now? How do I know he wil not turn just as George did?" Christiana asked almost plaintively. Tears glazed her eyes and she shook her head on a sigh, confusion rife within her. She wasn't sure why she wanted to cry, and then she was and admitted, "I'm afraid. "

  "George turned the moment the 'I dos' were said, or very nearly," Grace pointed out. "He also didn't even consummate the marriage. Richard hasn't yet started to treat you differently. I haven't heard anything even remotely resembling a criticism of you from him, and he trusts your judgment where George didn't. As for consummating the marriage, the man did that before the two of you were even married. "

  Grace sighed. "Child, you have a choice here. You can trust that he is the man he is presenting now and treat him accordingly, or you can keep him at arm's length lest he hurt you as you have been doing. "

  Christiana frowned. "I haven't been keeping him at arm's length. "

  "Oh?" she asked dryly. "Wel , you haven't been yourself around him either. I have known you al your life and you have always been a bit of a hoyden. You may fool others, but I know you are not the prim proper lady who embroiders on a journey in a bouncing carriage. "

  She glanced at her sharply. "How did you know - "

  "I saw it in your hand as you got in the carriage," Grace said dryly, moving to kneel beside the tub again. "I also saw it go flying out the window before we stopped for lunch. "

  "Richard threw it out. He asked if I liked doing it and when I said no, he snatched it away and threw it out the window. He said with him I didn't need to do things I didn't care to do. "

  "Then listen to him," Grace said firmly, urging her to lean back and dip her head in the water to soak her hair. Once she was upright again, Grace began to soap the long strands and said, "You have not been yourself since marrying George and that was understandable the way he picked and chewed away at your self-respect. You are better now than while he lived, but - "

  "He has only been dead for a couple days," Christiana pointed out in her own defense.

  "I know that," she assured her solemnly. "But his death freed you from a cage of sorts. You should be fluttering about like mad, happy to be loose. Instead you are stil trying to be the proper little lady he insisted you should be.

  There is no sparkle in your eye, no bubbly chatter, no running about barefoot under your gown as you used to. " She used her hold on Christiana's hair to tilt her head to meet her gaze, "And you stood there wooden as a dol when Lord Radnor kissed you before leaving this morning. Tel me you didn't want to kiss him back. I could tel you did. Your hands bal ed up into fists
to avoid the temptation and you swayed, and then caught yourself. You wanted to kiss him, didn't you?"

  Christiana blushed. "Yes, but it is daytime and I was not sure a proper lady would - "

  "No man wants a proper lady in his bedroom, or in his house for that matter,"

  Grace assured her dryly. "Certainly, be proper when out in society, but you need not be so proper at home around him. Do you think your mother was always the proper lady? No, she wasn't. Where do you think you learned to run about barefoot in the first place?"

  Christiana's eyebrows rose. She had only been five when her mother died and didn't recal much of her. She hadn't realized her mother had run about the estate barefoot.

  "If you want marriage with a man who loves you, then you have to be the true you, not some proper lady you think he wants. That is the game Di -

  George played to convince you to marry him. Do not play that game with Richard. Be yourself," she said firmly.

  "What if he does not like the real me?" Christiana asked unhappily.

  "Then we shal pray he drops dead like George did and find you a man who wil ,"

  Grace said stoutly.

  "Grace!" Christiana cried with shock.

  "Oh, you know I am teasing," Grace muttered, urging her to lean back so she could rinse her hair. "Do not worry about his not liking the real you. That won't happen, my lady. Take it from me, you are easy to love. "

  Christiana opened her eyes and met Grace's gaze. She would have hugged the woman for the kind words if she weren't reclining in the tub as the woman poured water over her hair to rinse away the soap. The best she could do was reach up and squeeze her arm affectionately. She then quickly closed her eyes as the soapy water splashed toward them and murmured, "I love you too, Grace. "

  The maid "hrrumphed" at the words and continued rinsing her hair.

  Christiana remained silent for a moment, her thoughts on how she had behaved this last year, and more importantly, the last few days with Richard. She wasn't as miserable as she had been with George, in fact, she hadn't felt a moment's misery since the man had died, but she had stil felt slightly restricted and tried to temper her behavior. Wel , except for when she'd grown impatient back at Radnor when Richard had been hustling her back to the carriage and not listening to her. Biting her lip at the recol ection, Christiana blurted, "I yel ed at him at Radnor. "

  "I know. I saw. " Grace sounded amused. "He was startled but didn't get angry. "

  "No, he didn't," she agreed. "Dicky - George would have been furious. "

  "Hmm. " Grace finished with her hair and released her. "I think I would be happy never to have to hear either of those two names again. "

  Christiana nodded in agreement and sat up in the tub again.

  "You'd best get out now. We have to get you dressed and downstairs. They are holding breakfast for you. "

  Christiana nodded and stood up to wring out her hair. She dried off and dressed quickly, and then waited patiently as Grace brushed out her hair to dry it further. She expected her to pin it up on top of her head then, but Grace set the brush aside.

  "You are not planning to go out, why do you not leave it down today and see what he says?" she suggested gently. When Christiana just stared at her uncertainly, Grace added, "And perhaps not bother with shoes today, just this once to see what he says. "

  Christiana bit her lip. She was tempted, her feet always seemed to be hot and uncomfortable in shoes, and it real y was more comfortable to have her hair down.

  "Just this once to see if he reacts like his brother did," Grace said quietly. "Do you not think it is better to know now than wait in an agony of worry?"

  Christiana gave in with a sigh and headed for the door. It was better to know, she supposed. And real y, it was more comfortable she thought, smiling slightly at the feel of the cool wood underfoot. By the time she was halfway up the hal , she was beginning to feel a little more like her old self.

  "Oh, good. "

  Christiana glanced over her shoulder as she reached the top of the stairs, eyebrows rising slightly when she saw Lisa coming out of the room she was occupying.

  "I was worried I would be the last one downstairs this morning," her youngest sister admitted, hurrying toward her.

  "You wil be," Christiana assured her with a grin and started down the stairs. She heard Lisa squeal and the patter of her feet as she ran after her, and promptly snatched up the skirts of her gown and broke into a run as wel , charging down the stairs with more speed than care. She jumped the last two steps, landed on the hardwood and whirled to hurry up the hal toward the breakfast room, her feet slipping on the polished floor. Christiana kept her balance and hurried forward, not slowing until she neared the door, but then her worries flowed back to crowd her mind and she skidded to a halt just short of the breakfast room, and took a breath to calm her heavy breathing before stepping inside. Daniel, Suzette, Robert and Richard were al seated around the table talking over cups of tea, but every eye turned Christiana's way as she stepped inside. So everyone was watching when Lisa burst into the room and crashed into her back.

  "Phooey," Lisa gasped, grabbing at Christiana's arms to steady herself. "You win. "

  Christiana bit her lip, and reached back to steady Lisa, but she was watching Richard warily as she did. Her heart sank when he rose from the table and came around toward her, sure he was about to admonish her for racing about the house in so unruly a manner. However, he paused before her, and bent to kiss her cheek, whispering, "Your hair looks nice this morning. " Straightening, he asked, "Ready for breakfast?"

  Christiana nodded wide-eyed and al owed him to lead her to the sideboard.

  Where George had insisted on a variety of foods available to him in the morning, it seemed Richard had requested a much more conservative selection. This morning the sideboard held breakfast items she was more used to, plum cake, baked eggs, sausages, and hot rol s. Smiling she picked up a plate and quickly made her choices, bypassing the baked eggs but taking one of everything else.

  "No eggs?" Richard asked as she reached for a slice of plum cake, having to rise up on tiptoe to reach over the rest of the food to the plate on the back of the sideboard.

  Christiana tensed and sank back on her feet, but said, "I don't care for baked eggs. Our cook used to boil them for me. "

  "Sorry, I didn't realize. I prefer them baked myself, but I'l tel Cook to make both in future. "

  Christiana relaxed and smiled at him, then turned back and rose up on her tiptoes again to get a slice of the plum cake.

  "Er . . . Christiana, I think you forgot something. "

  She glanced toward him in question, and then down toward her feet as she saw where he was looking. Realizing that her position revealed her bare feet, she released the cake and dropped self-consciously back to her heels again.

  "I doubt she forgot," Robert said with a laugh, piling sausages onto his plate next to Richard. "She was forever running around barefoot at Madison. "

  Recal ing Grace's words, when Richard glanced at her with surprise, Christiana straightened her shoulders and said, "My feet get hot. I'm more comfortable barefoot and most of the time see no reason to don shoes unless I'm leaving the house or have company. "

  Richard nodded. "I see. That's fine. I just thought in your rush that you had forgot them. If you're more comfortable without, then don't wear them. "

  "Real y?" she asked doubtful y. "You don't mind?"

  "Why would I mind?" he asked with surprise.

  "Wel , George said - "

  Richard silenced her by catching her by the chin and urging her to meet his gaze, and then said solemnly, "I am not George. "

  She met his gaze, and then nodded equal y solemnly. "No, you aren't. "

  Smiling, he turned back to the sideboard and Christiana watched him for a moment, and then let her breath out and turned away to head to the table, thinking that maybe Grace was right. Maybe she could be herself
with this man. Maybe he wouldn't hate her for it as George had.

  "Christiana?"

  She paused and turned back, and then glanced down with surprise when he set a piece of plum cake on her plate. "I know you forgot this. You tried to grab it twice before being distracted. "

  Christiana smiled wryly and murmured, "Thank you. "

  There was little conversation as they ate. Christiana supposed no one wished to discuss either the blackmailer or the murder of George when they suspected a member of the household staff might be involved. They were also apparently eager to get on with their individual tasks for the day and were soon finished and excusing themselves from the table.

  "Shal we head out?" Daniel asked Richard as the group left the dining room.

  Christiana noted the distaste on her husband's face as he glanced to the wrinkled dark coat he wore and wasn't surprised when he said, "I need to change my clothes first. I should have sought out a change of clothes on awaking, but so loathe wearing what's available that I put it off. I won't be a minute though. "

  "I shal wait in the parlor," Daniel said with a nod and turned into the room as Richard started up the stairs. Christiana watched Richard jog lightly up the steps, and then glanced to the side when Suzette touched her arm.

  "When do you want to start interviewing the staff?" her sister asked, glancing toward the parlor after Daniel.

  "We wil wait until everyone leaves," Christiana decided. "Why do you not go keep Daniel company? I want a word with Richard about how he wishes us to proceed with the staff anyway. "

  Suzette smiled and immediately slipped into the parlor. She also pul ed the door closed, Christiana noted and briefly considered opening it and reminding her sister that unmarried ladies did not stay alone in a closed room with men. However, she simply let it go and turned to head upstairs. The two would be married soon enough.

  She found Richard in the master dressing room, contemplating George's wardrobe with a less than pleased expression. Christiana supposed she could not blame him. George had dressed like a dandy and Richard just was not a dandyish man.

  "Oh, Christiana," he said and smiled wryly when he noted her entrance. "Is something wrong?"

  "No," she assured him quickly, running a hand absently over a pair of pink knee breeches. "I just wondered how you wished us to proceed with the interviews. I presume you don't wish us to give away what we are trying to learn?"

  "You presume right. " Richard frowned. "We don't want whoever hired them to realize we are on to them before we sort out who it is. "

  "No," she agreed.

  "I suppose you and Suzette have the hardest task of the bunch of us. I'm sorry about that. "

  She smiled faintly and shrugged. "It wil not be hard to carry out, just hard to succeed at. We might manage to be able to cross servants off the list, but I doubt we wil learn exactly who could have poisoned the whiskey. It could have been put in at any time between the day he died and the last time he drank from it before that.

  George didn't al ow anyone else to drink his special whiskey. "

  "True, which suggests there was no urgency to seeing him dead," he murmured thoughtful y. He shook his head, apparently unsure what that meant, and then held up a pale green cutaway frock coat. "This appears to be the best of the lot. "

  "Yes," she agreed and watched him shrug out of the dark coat to pul on the lighter one.

  "Do I need to change my trousers?" he asked as he buttoned the coat over his cravat.

  Christiana glanced to the buff trousers and hessian boots and shook her head.

  They went with pretty much everything. It was why the color was popular.

  "Good. " Richard sighed and started past her. "I had best go then. "

  "Before you do," Christiana said, catching his arm as he started to pass her.

  He paused and glanced down at her in question.

  Christiana hesitated and then blew out her breath and said, "I wanted to thank you for trusting me to interview the staff. "

  His eyebrows rose slightly, and then he frowned and took her by the shoulders to turn her until they faced each other. "I am not George, Christiana. I realize you are an intel igent woman capable of many things. You are also my wife and partner.

  Trust is important in such a relationship. We must learn to trust each other if we wish this marriage to succeed. "

  "Yes," she acknowledged. And while she knew it was true, it was just so hard.

  She had little confidence in her ability to inspire love after life with Dicky.

  She had little confidence in her ability to inspire love after life with Dicky.

  The thought made Christiana blink in surprise as she realized that it wasn't real y that she worried Richard would change, but that she feared she wasn't worthy of love anymore. It was something she'd been confident of while growing up surrounded by family and friends who loved her. But somehow that foundation had been washed away, leaving her floating in a sea of uncertainty . . . because George hadn't loved her and she'd assumed it must be due to some flaw in her. If she'd just been smart enough, pretty enough, charming enough he would have loved her. In truth, she'd spent the last year trying to earn that love, and almost lost herself in the process.

  "I should go," Richard murmured, peering at her worriedly. When she managed a smile and nod, he bent to press a quick kiss to her lips. At least, she suspected he'd intended it to be a quick parting kiss. However, it didn't end up that way, because Christiana did what she'd wanted - and had been too afraid - to do that morning.

  The moment his lips met hers, she went up on her toes to wrap her arms around his neck, pressed her body against his and opened her mouth to him. Richard stil ed, obviously taken by surprise, but then his own arms slid around her back and he pul ed her close and deepened the kiss. Christiana breathed a little sigh of relief into his mouth. She had fol owed her instincts and he had not rejected her, berating her for unladylike behavior. It was a smal first step, but a step just the same, she thought and then let go of her worries and merely enjoyed the kiss as he caught her head in hand and tilted it to al ow him more access as he tried to devour her with his mouth.

  When he clasped her bottom through her skirt and lifted her to press her against the hardness growing between them, Christiana breathed a little moan and curled her fingers into his hair. Heat was already pooling in her lower bel y and spreading outward to answer that hardness, but he then lowered her back to the floor and broke the kiss.

  "Temptress," he growled, leaning his forehead against hers.

  "Are you tempted?" she asked in a pleased whisper.

  "You know I am," he said on a humorless laugh.

  "Do you mind?" she asked next, holding her breath as she waited for the answer.

  "Mind that my wife tempts me to take her in the dressing room amongst the hatboxes and breeches?" he asked with amusement. "No, I don't mind at al . But Daniel probably would if I succumbed. "

  "Suzette is with him. " She slid one hand from around his shoulder and let it drift down to press against the proof of how she was affecting him. "I don't think he would mind a short wait. "

  Richard growled as she ran her hand over him through the cloth of his trousers.

  "Stil , I should - "

  His words died on a gasp as she suddenly slipped her hand inside his trousers and clasped him.

  "Witch," he breathed and oddly enough it didn't sound like an insult. In the next moment he was kissing her again, his own hands beginning to move over her body through her gown, cupping and caressing her breasts, squeezing her behind and then dragging her skirt up to slip beneath and move over the skin of her outer leg and hip as she undid his trousers to be able to caress him more ful y. Christiana had just got the last button undone and taken him in hand again when his own hand slid between her legs to press against the center of her. They groaned in unison into each other's mouths then, the sound and vibration merely adding to t
heir excitement.

  Christiana felt the dressing table press against the backs of her thighs through her dress and realized he'd backed her up, but was taken by surprise when he removed his hand from between her legs and suddenly lifted her to sit on the spindly legged piece of furniture. His hand returned to her then, caressing and urging her legs wider so that he could move between them. When he urged her hand away, she released him and clutched at his shoulders. Richard then took himself in hand and rubbed his shaft against her teasingly and Christiana gasped and wiggled her bottom to the edge of the table, her legs wrapping around his and urging him closer.

  "Witch," he repeated, breaking their kiss, and then he clasped her bottom and pul ed her even further forward on the tabletop and final y gave up his teasing to thrust himself into her.

  Christiana cried out and clawed at his shoulders, her heels pressing into his behind and urging him deeper. She lifted her face to his, seeking his lips again and then kissed him desperately. Richard withdrew, and then groaned as he plunged into her again, his tongue thrusting into her mouth at the same time. She was vaguely aware of a banging sound as he moved and realized the table was moving with them and hitting the wal with each thrust, but didn't care and simply held on as the sound became a rapid tattoo.

  As fast as it had started, it ended just as swiftly, both of them crying out as one and clutching at each other as they were rocked by the explosion. Christiana then sagged back against the wal , taking Richard with her. He leaned his head against her shoulder for a moment and then gave a shaky laugh.

  "What?" she murmured, raising one languid hand to brush the hair from his face in an effort to see his expression. Richard raised his head and smiled at her wryly. "I was just thinking, whatever his faults, George had excel ent taste when it came to choosing a wife,"

  he admitted almost apologetical y, and then cupped her face, pressed a gentle kiss to her lips, and whispered, "Thank you. "

 
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