The countess, p.18
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       The Countess, p.18
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         Part #1 of Madison Sisters series by Lynsay Sands
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Chapter Eighteen

 

  Richard felt his hands clench into fists when one of the French doors opened and he recognized George's valet entering with Christiana bound and gagged and unmoving over his shoulder. It was the unmoving part that worried and enraged him and the degree to which he was affected was almost startling to him. He wanted to rip Christiana from the man's back, assure himself she was alive and wel , and then tear Freddy limb from limb for even daring to touch her let alone manhandling her so.

  That rage was swiftly fol owed by terror when Freddy paused in the door and readjusted his hold on Christiana, revealing the short, wicked blade in one of his hands. Richard was not used to such depths of emotion. Even what George had done to him had not left him with this level of fear or rage, and he found it unsettling to feel that way now, but his mind was crowding with images of his time since returning home from America, and al of them were of Christiana, laughing, smiling, looking thoughtful and then vexed.

  When Richard had left her in the dressing room that morning, he'd never imagined the next time he'd see her would be in a situation like this, with her life at risk and he uncertain he could save her, but desperate to do so. And he was desperate. Short though their time together had been, he already could not imagine life without her in it and didn't want to. Somehow she had managed to wiggle her way under his skin and into his heart and he wanted to keep her there.

  Freddy had finished adjusting his hold, but stood a moment longer as if sensing danger before closing the French door partway. He left it a crack open, probably for a swift escape, Richard supposed, watching from his hiding place behind a suit of armor in the office corner furthest from the doors. Robert had suggested hiding behind the curtains, but Richard had pointed out that if Freddy came from the outside he would surely see them there and their advantage of surprise would be lost, so they'd al had to find alternate spots. Richard had chosen the suit of armor, Daniel had ducked behind a settee in another corner and Robert had taken the only place left - the knee cubby under the desk. He'd squeezed himself in there and then pul ed the desk chair in behind him to help disguise his presence.

  Richard imagined Robert was probably in the most uncomfortable spot, but wished he'd taken it himself. It would have put him closer. His hand tightened around Lord Madison's pistol as he waited for the man to put Christiana down to conduct his search. He would rather she was out of the way before he confronted the man.

  However, it soon became obvious the valet wasn't going to put her down. He was poking through the top side drawer of the desk, just inches from Robert, but with Christiana stil firmly over his back.

  Richard ground his teeth together. He didn't even want to aim the pistol at the man with Christiana acting as his shield and wished he'd thought to have one of them hide somewhere in the yard just in case something like this occurred. They could have crept up behind him then. He'd barely had the thought when Richard noticed the French door easing slowly open behind Freddy. He held his breath briefly, and then recognized Haversham slipping into the room, a large butcher knife in hand.

  Alarm coursing through him, Richard tightened his hand on the pistol he held and moved out from behind the suit of armor. It immediately drew Freddy's attention from the drawer he was rifling through and he froze. Leveling his weapon at the man, Richard started forward, saying, "I real y think it would be in your best interests to put my wife down. "

  Panic crossed briefly over Freddy's face, but then was replaced by a calculating look. Straightening slowly from the desk he said, "You wouldn't shoot me. You might hit her. "

  "I won't let you leave here either unless it's in chains," Richard said grimly, continuing slowly forward as Lord Madison now slid into the room behind Haversham. Suzette and Lisa were behind him, hesitating in the door as they took in the situation. Freddy took an unknowing step back toward Haversham and then glanced sharply toward Daniel as the other man rose from behind the settee and started forward as wel . Beginning to look a little less sure of himself, Freddy shifted the knife he held, pressing it to Christiana's backside. "Stay back or I'l cut her. "

  "Ouch! That is my bottom," Christiana squawked.

  Richard felt a moment's relief at his first sign that she was alive and wel , but growled, "Put her down. "

  "Go to hel !" Freddy yel ed back in frustration and whirled to charge out of the room, only to come up short as he crashed into Haversham. No one moved for half a second and then Freddy began to fal back, taking Christiana with him. Richard saw Haversham and Lord Madison trying to grab for Christiana, even as he leapt the last few feet and caught at her himself as Freddy dropped. No one apparently thought to grab Freddy and save her from her fal that way, so it ended with al of them holding her up. Richard had her by the hips, Haversham had managed to grab one leg through her gown and Lord Madison had only managed to snatch a handful of skirt. Unfortunately, it left Christiana stil hanging head down, her behind in the air and her skirt raised. The men al exchanged a horrified glance and then Lord Madison quickly released his hold on her skirts, Haversham stepped back releasing his hold as wel , and Richard set Christiana down and stepped back to al ow her to straighten.

  However, she stayed bent over and murmured, "Oh dear. "

  Richard glanced down, noting then that she was peering at Freddy, or real y at the large knife sticking out of his chest.

  "He ran right into it, my lord," Haversham said calmly.

  Richard nodded, but his thoughts were taken up with the fact that had Haversham been a little more to one side, the knife would now be sticking out of Christiana.

  Christiana final y straightened and patted the butler on the arm. "Do not feel bad, Haversham. He wasn't a very good man. "

  "Yes, my lady," the butler murmured, and then cleared his throat and glanced to Richard. "Shal I send for the authorities, my lord?"

  "Ah . . . " Richard scowled at Freddy, not pleased at the prospect of having to admit to the authorities that the man had been blackmailing them. They would have to explain what he was blackmailing them about and al their attempts to keep George's activities a secret would be for not.

  "He was trying to take Lady Christiana and hold her to ransom," Haversham pointed out quietly. "The authorities should real y be informed of this and his death. "

  Richard relaxed and nodded. They would just stick to that and not mention the blackmail or anything else.

  "Very good, my lord. " The butler slid silently from the room and Richard turned to Christiana, only to find she had moved to speak to her father and sisters by the door. He started her way, eager to touch and hold her and reassure himself that she was wel . In truth, he wanted to strip her naked, examine every inch of her to be sure she bore no wounds and then make love to her, but knew he would just have to be content to wait for that.

  "Hel o? Can someone get this chair out of the way? Hel o?"

  Richard glanced down at Robert's cal to see that Freddy had fal en behind the chair, blocking it so that Langley couldn't push it out and unfold himself from the cubbyhole where he'd hidden.

  "Problems, Langley?" Daniel asked with a laugh, coming around the desk to Richard's side.

  "Move the damned chair, Woodrow," Robert barked. " 'Tis hot as hades down here and I think my leg is cramping. "

  Richard chuckled and together he and Daniel shifted Freddy's body around to the side of the desk. By the time they straightened, Robert was crawling out from under the desk.

  "That was a damned stupid place to hide," Langley muttered with self-disgust as he straightened. "Freddy was leaning against the chair while searching the desk and there wasn't a damned thing I could have done to help anyone while stuck under there. "

  "It wasn't like there were many hiding spots to choose from," Richard pointed out wryly as the man brushed himself down.

  "Hmm. " Robert glanced to Freddy's body. "Wel , that is one problem taken care of anyway. The blackmail threat is over. "

 
"Now we just need to figure out who poisoned George and is stil trying to kil Richard," Daniel agreed dryly. Robert frowned and shook his head. "Wel , I'm afraid Lisa and I didn't find out anything of use today. I think people were reluctant to gossip about you with Lisa there. She is your sister-in-law, after al . Perhaps Christiana and Suzette were more successful at discovering what servant may have administered the poison. "

  "We should ask them," Richard murmured and turned to find that Christiana and her father were gone. "Where - "

  "Father wished to speak to Christiana. They have stepped out into the garden,"

  Suzette explained before he could finish his question.

  Richard glanced toward the French doors, spotting the two at the back of the garden, their heads together. Before he could decide whether to intrude or wait, the office door opened and Haversham led two men into the room; both wore the tel tale red vest of Bow Street runners. The authorities had arrived.

  "What is it, Father?" Christiana asked when he stopped walking but stared at his feet rather than bring up whatever it was he'd brought her outside to discuss. "If 'tis about this gambling business, you should know you didn't do it. We think George as Dicky drugged you and - "

  "Yes, I know, Suzette told me," he interrupted, and then added, "I came here today to take you away. "

  "Take me away?" she asked with surprise.

  Lord Madison nodded. "Robert had written, tel ing me how unhappy you seemed in your marriage and how Dicky treated you. It was why I came to London in the first place. I told the gels I needed to see the lawyer, but truly I was coming to see you. "

  "Thank you," she whispered, hugging him tightly.

  Lord Madison hugged her back and said, "I can stil take you away. "

  Startled, Christiana pul ed back to peer at him. "Has no one explained that George was Dicky and now I am married to Richard, the true - "

  "Yes," he said solemnly, cutting her off. "Robert explained everything. He also said that Richard was a fine, honorable man who wil treat you wel and he hopes you wil have a good life together. But you were tricked into marrying Dicky, and if you only married Richard to avoid scandal, I don't want you to feel trapped into it. " He eyed her solemnly and then said, "Just say the word and I wil take you home and we wil figure out a way to get you out of this marriage. "

  Her eyes widened incredulously. "Father, the scandal would - "

  "Scandal be damned," he growled. "We can weather that. 'Tis your happiness I care about, and the fact that your only protest is the possible scandal tel s me you do not real y wish to be in this marriage. Come. " He caught her hand and started to drag her toward the house. "We shal col ect your sisters and head straight for home. I am done with this damned town. "

  "No, wait!" Christiana cried, tugging at her hand as panic seized her at the thought of leaving Richard. "Please, Father, stop. I don't want to leave. Real y. I love him. "

  Lord Madison paused at once and turned to peer at her in question. "Real y? Do you love him?"

  Christiana stared at him blankly, her mind in an uproar of confusion. She hadn't meant to say that, wasn't even sure where the words had come from. Surely she didn't mean them, her sensible side argued, but the idea of leaving him had struck such terror in her . . . Taking a deep breath she tried to think clearly. The passion they shared was incredible, of course, but love was more than passion, and she hadn't known him long enough to - Christiana let that thought die in her head, because another part of her mind was arguing that she did know him. With Dicky-George Christiana had been constantly on edge, anxious over what he might say or do, and wary of his temper making an appearance and his lashing out at those around him. But Richard didn't seem to have the same unpredictability: he was courteous and respectful of everyone he encountered, even the lowliest servant. Richard was also honorable where George probably wouldn't have been able to even spel the word. And he had married her to save her and her sisters from scandal, which was as chivalrous as a man could get, real y, she acknowledged and realized that Lisa was right, Richard was her hero, and she had come to love him for it. For that and so much else.

  Straightening her shoulders, Christiana nodded solemnly. "I love Richard. I do not want to leave him. "

  Lord Madison nodded solemnly. "Very wel . "

  "But thank you, Father," she added, hugging him.

  Lord Madison patted her back, and then took her arm when she stepped back.

  "We should go back inside and join the others. "

  Christiana nodded in agreement and they turned to walk into the house, but both paused abruptly when they spotted Richard standing in the open French doors.

  Christiana bit her lip, worried about how long he'd been there and whether he'd heard her declaration, but her husband merely said, "The authorities have been and gone. We explained that Freddy had tried to take you to ransom and we al stopped him and they accepted our explanations and took him away. "

  him and they accepted our explanations and took him away. "

  "Oh," Christiana murmured. "They didn't wish to speak to me?"

  "I told them you were upset. They accepted that and said there was no need to talk to you with so many other witnesses. "

  "Oh, good," she smiled crookedly, glad not to have to explain things. She real y was a bad liar, even when it came to lies of omission and probably would have blurted out everything.

  Her father urged her forward then and Christiana started to walk again. When they came abreast of Richard, he slid his arm around her waist, drawing her to a halt. Her father immediately released her arm and continued into the office, leaving her to smile nervously at her husband.

  "Are you al right?" he asked solemnly. "Freddy didn't hurt you?"

  "I have a slight headache and a lovely goose egg from when he knocked me out, but am otherwise fine," she assured him and glanced around the office as he led her inside. Her father, Daniel and Robert were there, but Suzette and Lisa were missing, as was Haversham. "Where - ?"

  "Suzette took Lisa to the parlor while the runners were asking questions,"

  Richard answered before she could finish the question. "Apparently Freddy's body lying here was distressing to her. "

  "It would be. Lisa doesn't care for the sight of blood. She wil even faint if there is enough of it," Christiana murmured, and then frowned as she noted the scrape on his forehead. "What happened to your head?"

  "It's nothing," Richard assured her. "Daniel and I stopped at the tailor's after arranging for the blackmail money and a carriage came after us. I got this as we jumped out of the way. "

  "As he jumped out of the way and dragged me with him," Daniel corrected dryly.

  "I didn't even see the thing until it was almost upon us. "

  "I suppose that wasn't Freddy," Christiana said with a sigh as she realized the worst was not over. While they had caught the blackmailer, they stil had a murderer to find.

  "No," Daniel said, looking doubtful. Stil , he sounded hopeful when he asked,

  "Unless Freddy happened to confess to being the kil er as wel as the blackmailer?"

  Christiana smiled apologetical y. "Sorry. No. He thought Richard had kil ed him. "

  "Then who kil ed George?" Robert asked with a frown.

  "I fear that would be me, Lord Langley. "

  Christiana turned toward the door, her eyes wide as she peered at Haversham.

  The butler stood in the open door, back straight and face as expressionless as ever. The perfect servant.

  "Would you care to explain, Haversham?" Richard asked quietly after several moments of silence had passed.

  "Of course," the man murmured. "I suspected quite soon after the fire that the man masquerading as the Earl was not you, my lord, but your brother,

  "Of course," the man murmured. "I suspected quite soon after the fire that the man masquerading as the Earl was not you, my lord, but your brother, Master George. He quite simply did not act in a lo
rdly manner as you have always seen fit to do. He was careless with his possessions, cruel to the staff, and both careless and cruel to Lady Christiana. "

  "Did you tel anyone of your suspicions?" Richard asked, and Christiana felt him tense beside her. She supposed he worried that if Haversham had told anyone his suspicions their worries wouldn't be over. But Haversham shook his head.

  "No. Al I had were suspicions. I could not prove anything and who would believe a servant over a member of gentry?"

  "I see," Richard murmured, relaxing.

  "I saw no choice but to al ow the situation to progress as it would and hope for some proof to come to light. I was rather counting on Lord Woodrow becoming suspicious himself and looking into the matter. I would have come forward then with my own suspicions, of course. However, that never came to pass. Lord Woodrow disappeared from society the week of the townhouse fire and simply did not return. "

  "Er . . . yes. I'm afraid I was a bit distracted with matters at Woodrow," Daniel explained apologetical y under the stern man's displeased eye.

  "Yes," the butler said dryly. "So I was forced to simply stand by and wait, a witness to Master George's abuses of his position and shabby treatment of Lady Christiana, but unable to do anything about it. "

  "What made you stop waiting?" Christiana asked curiously, wondering that she'd had at least one al y al that time and hadn't even realized it.

  "It was the morning your sisters arrived at the townhouse, my lady," he said solemnly. "Master George had been tense and expectant, almost buzzing with a certain excitement for the two weeks prior and I anticipated that he was up to something, but was unsure what until your sisters arrived with the news your father had apparently gambled again. I realized then that this must have been what Master George had been waiting for, and quite impatiently, I wil add. From the conversation I chanced to overhear afterward, I gather he had expected them to come to you much sooner, or for your father to come pleading his case.

  "However," Haversham continued, "After leaving you ladies in the parlor, Master George was quite cheerful and ordered me to bring his best whiskey to him in his office. Freddy appeared then, headed for the kitchens and Master George took him to the office, where I overheard his gleeful announcement that the plan was final y moving forward again. He was sure the sisters were there about the gambling, and that it would be no time before he had Suzette married off to one of his friends. "

  "Who?" Daniel asked sharply, making Christiana glance curiously his way. His expression suggested the answer was important to him, though she couldn't imagine why he cared. He and Suzette were marrying. Whoever the friend was, he was out of luck.

  "I'm afraid he did not speak the proper name of his friend, but referred to him as Twiddly. "

  "Twiddly?" her father echoed with disbelief.

  Haversham nodded, and then continued, "Apparently Master George was to get a good portion of the money supposedly owed to the gaming hel from this gentleman, Twiddly, for acting as broker. Then they merely had to wait for Lord Madison to come to town again, drug and drag him to the gaming hel for a third time and force Lady Lisa into marriage as wel . Master George would gain a portion of her dower in that instance as wel . The gaming hel only took a percentage to keep its mouth shut about the fact that no money was actual y owing at al . "

  "I wil see the place shut down," Robert growled furiously.

  "No doubt you would be doing many unwary men a favor," Haversham assured him and then continued. "Once al three women were wed and fleeced of their dowers, the plan was to dispose of them al in one tragic carriage accident. "

  Haversham al owed a moment's silence and then added, "Once the women were dead, Master George already had his sights set on a certain young heiress who was too young to enter society yet, but should be on the verge of her debut by the time he was widowed. Master George was quite pleased with himself and his clever machinations," he added dryly.

  "I considered warning lady Christiana," he admitted. "However, I fear I could not see how that would help. There was stil no proof of the man's perfidy, and while she might be able to warn her father and prevent his going anywhere near Master George again, I worried it would force Master George to kil the whole lot of them earlier than intended, including perhaps Lord Madison since he would know what was going on and be suspicious of any accidents to befal the women. It seemed to me the only other option was to stop Master George myself, and so I dropped cyanide into his glass of whiskey before taking it in to him. "

  He sighed. "I expected Freddy to be there when I took the poisoned drink in to Master George, and had not yet decided how to handle the man. However, he was nowhere to be seen, so I simply left the master to enjoy his celebratory drink and waited for matters to develop. It wasn't long after that Freddy claimed he wasn't feeling wel and Master George had excused him. For a short time I was quite concerned that he may have drunk the master's whiskey in his place.

  However, when I checked on Master George, he was quite dead. I quickly emptied and wiped the glass to remove any proof of what I'd done, then refil ed the glass halfway and set it back before returning to the kitchens to await his discovery. But of course it never came. Lady Christiana eventual y went into the office, her sisters fol owed, and they were in there quite a while, but there was no hue and cry. Instead, the three ladies came out some time later lugging the dead George about in a rug. "

  "You knew he was in there?" Christiana asked with surprise.

  "My lady, you real y were not gifted with a talent for subterfuge," Haversham said kindly.

  Christiana flushed as she recal ed that her first words on running into Haversham had been We're just taking Dicky up to warm the rug. Honestly, she didn't lie wel at al .

  "And then of course there were his fingers," Haversham added.

  "His fingers?" Christiana echoed with confusion.

  Haversham nodded. "The three of you apparently rol ed up Master George with his arms stretched above his head?"

  "We thought the rug would seem less lumpy that way," Christiana admitted with a frown.

  "I'm sure it did. However, his fingers were sticking out the top end and waving at me the entire time as you struggled to hold the thing and lie about what the three of you were doing. It was most distracting. "

  "Oh dear," Christiana murmured.

  Haversham smiled at her gently and continued, "I realized at once that you were going to hide the death in the hopes of finding a husband for Lady Suzette and so ordered the staff to stay away from that wing of the house for the time being. Of course, later that night I nearly had an attack of apoplexy when the Earl - the true Earl - " he added firmly, eyeing Richard, "came rushing out of his office as I was coming up the hal . I thought I had failed after al and that Master George was stil alive. However, the moment his lordship spoke I recognized that it was he. "

  "How?" Richard asked with surprise.

  "You said 'excuse me,' " Haversham said simply.

  "And from that you knew it was him?" Daniel asked with amusement.

  Haversham nodded solemnly. "His lordship treats everyone from the lowliest servant to the highest nobleman with a certain respect that was sadly missing in his brother. George never would have troubled to excuse himself, not even to the King. "

  "Ah. " Daniel nodded and the butler continued.

  "After that the events in the house became rather confusing to me," Haversham admitted. "I felt a draft as I passed the library, opened the door to see that the French doors were wide open, went in to close them and saw something lying on the lawn. Realizing it was Master George half wrapped in a blanket, I looked up and saw Lord Woodrow and Lady Suzette in the window in a passionate embrace. "

  Everyone turned to peer at Daniel. He shifted and murmured an uncomfortable,

  "Erm. " And then Haversham drew the attention back to himself, saying,

  "I left Master George as I found him and started upstairs, but heard L
ady Lisa and Lord Richard talking and realized that she - and I therefore assumed everyone else - believed Lord Richard was Dicky. It appeared to me then that he was simply going to remove George's body and step back into his life and al would be wel . I nearly left then to - "

  "Left?" Christiana interrupted with surprise.

  "I am a murderer, my lady, leaving did seem wise," he said gently. "However, I decided I should wait to be sure the transition went without difficulty. Besides, there was stil Freddy to worry about. He would surely realize that Richard was not George, and I thought I had best see how he decided to handle it. If he just pretended he didn't know and carried on I would have slipped quietly away and retired. However, if he didn't and caused trouble I wished to be on the scene to help right things.

  "That is done now," he added on a smal sigh. "And I feel quite certain al wil be wel from here on in, so if no one protests, I shal col ect my things and begin my retirement . . . on the continent. "

  Much to Christiana's relief, Richard slipped past her and moved to the man. At least she was relieved at first, but much to her dismay he merely shook the man's hand and thanked him for everything and then walked him out of the room.

  "He isn't going to let him leave, is he?" she whispered with dismay.

  "It would appear he is," Daniel murmured, and then moved toward the door as wel , saying, "I should go tel Suzette everything is resolved and we can head for Gretna Green. "

  "Wait for me," Robert said, hurrying after him.

  Christiana watched them go with a frown, but then glanced to her father as he moved to her side.

  "Are you al right?" he asked with concern.

  "I - Yes," she sighed and then said, "I need to talk to Richard. "

  Her father nodded, not appearing surprised. "I shal go check on the girls then. "

  Christiana walked with him to the door, but as he continued on to the parlor, she turned toward the front door, relieved when she spotted Richard and Haversham there, speaking quietly.

  "Richard, you can't let him go like this," she protested rushing to join them, but paused with surprise when she saw the smal chest and bag waiting to the side of the front door. The butler was already packed and ready to go. Frowning at that, she turned to Richard and added, "He only kil ed George to save my sisters and me. "

  "This is for the best, Christiana," Richard said quietly, slipping his arm around her waist and drawing her against his side.

  "He is right, my lady. Besides I wish it this way. I am getting far too old to perform my duties as I should. It is time I retired," Haversham said, opening the door before bending to pick up his chest and bag. Straightening, he turned back and added, "I wish you both a happy and healthy life together. " Then he turned and strode out the door.

  "Richard," Christiana begged, trying to pul free and go after the man.

  "Let him go, Christiana," Richard said quietly. "It real y is for the best. "

  "Why? Kil ing George was a spur of the moment, desperate effort to save my sisters and me. He - "

  "He used cyanide, Christiana," Richard said quietly. "That is not something a person typical y keeps sitting about the house. It suggests premeditation. "

  Her eyes widened as she realized what he said was true and then she turned to watch Haversham get into a carriage waiting on the road. The man had planned his exit down to the last detail.

  "You don't real y think it was premeditated do you?" she asked with a frown.

  Richard hesitated and then said, "Haversham plans everything. He is a very careful man and always has been. I suspect he intended to kil George eventual y, probably as punishment for his kil ing me, but also to rid you of the man and the miserable marriage he'd trapped you into. I suspect Haversham had been planning it for some time before actual y doing it. He was most likely just waiting in the hopes that you would produce an heir. "

  When Christiana glanced at him with surprise, he shrugged.

  "Haversham is traditional. He would see the continuing of the family line as important," he explained. "No doubt by the time he overheard George talking to Freddy, he'd realized that George never visited your room and there would be no heir. There was no longer a reason to wait, so he kil ed him. "

  Richard closed the door as the carriage pul ed away. "He knows I would realize al this, and that the only way my conscience would al ow me to stay mum on the murder was if he was gone and beyond the reaches of English law. "

  "Surely you wouldn't have turned him in?" she asked with amazement.

  "Everything would have had to be revealed then, what George did, that we weren't legal y married . . . everything. "

  "I realize that, and I don't know if I would have actual y turned him in knowing the outcome," he admitted quietly. "But I would have wrestled with the decision.

  Haversham knows me wel enough to know that, which is - I think - why he said he was going to retire to the continent. He wil be beyond English law and revealing what he did would accomplish nothing but cause trouble and pain for those I love. Now I don't have to wrestle with the decision. "

  "I see," she murmured.

  "Is everyone stil in the office?" Richard asked.

  "No, Daniel went to tel Suzette - Oh," she breathed suddenly.

  "What?" He glanced at her with concern.

  "I just realized. Suzette doesn't have to marry Daniel now. The markers are in the office somewhere and - "

  "I think you might want to keep that bit of information to yourself for a bit,"

  Richard interrupted.

  Christiana's eyebrows rose. "Why?"

  "Because Daniel real y wants to marry Suzette, and I think she wants to marry him too, but Daniel thinks she needs the markers as an excuse or may become difficult. "

  She considered that solemnly. The conversation she'd had with Suzette today had made her suspect her sister real y did care for Daniel. In fact, she'd seemed quite disgruntled over the idea that Daniel was only marrying her for the dower which made her ask, "Does he want her for her dower?"

  Richard grinned and shook his head. "He's almost as rich as I. "

  Her eyes widened incredulously. "Then why - ?"

  "She fascinates him and he wants her. In truth, I think he's half in love with her. "

  "I think she may be fal ing in love with him too," Christiana said quietly. "Why do we not just tel them and - "

  "Daniel believes, and your father concurred, that Suzette is just contrary enough to refuse to marry him despite her feelings if she finds out she doesn't have to. He also thinks that your year of marriage with George has put her off the idea of marriage altogether. " He raised an eyebrow. "What do you think?"

  Christiana grimaced. "I think he knows her very wel . "

  "Then perhaps we can just keep the information about the markers to ourselves until we see how things go," he suggested, and then smiled wryly. " 'Tis a bit of good fortune for Daniel that Suzette wasn't in the room to hear al that business. "

  "Yes, I suppose," Christiana murmured, thinking she would wait a bit, but she would tel Suzette before she and Daniel married. Her conscience wouldn't al ow her to do otherwise. She changed the subject then, asking, "If Haversham kil ed George, does that mean the carriage accident was just that, an accident?"

  Richard frowned. "It could have been, I suppose. It was only George's murder combined with the fact that three spokes on the carriage wheel seemed relatively straight that made us think otherwise. I guess they could have simply broken that way as the wheel col apsed. Stranger things have happened. "

  "But what about the post chaise that nearly ran you down today?" she pointed out.

  He frowned and considered, but then sighed and said, "Accidents do happen and drivers lose control of carriages. It's possible it was just an accident and we put it down as a murder attempt because George was poisoned. "

  Christiana frowned, not convinced. "We shal have to be careful and alert for a while un
til we are sure. "

  Richard smiled and drew her against his chest with a sigh. "I love you too. "

  Christiana glanced up sharply. "What?"

  Taking her face in both hands, he said firmly, "I said, I love you too. "

  "You do?" Christiana breathed with wonder, and then realized he'd said I love you too and smiled wryly. "You did hear what I said to Father outside then?"

  Richard nodded and then asked, "You did mean it, didn't you? You weren't just saying it to ease your father's worries and - ?"

  "I meant it," she interrupted, covering his hands with her own.

  "Thank God," he breathed, and lowered his head to kiss her.

  Christiana sighed, her body melting against his and arms sliding up around his neck. She did love his kisses, they stirred her like nothing she'd ever before experienced, and apparently stirred him too, she realized as she felt him hardening against her.

  "Richard?" she whispered, tearing her mouth from his.

  "Yes?" he murmured, kissing her ear in lieu of her lips.

  "Why do we not go upstairs?"

  "Upstairs?" He stopped kissing her to pul back and peer at her face uncertainly.

  Christiana nodded, pressed more tightly against his growing erection, and murmured, "I should like to discuss our feelings further . . . in the bedroom,"

  she added shyly in case he was misunderstanding her meaning.

  Richard's eyebrows flew up, and then he caught her hand and turned to start toward the stairs, only to pause abruptly as the parlor door suddenly burst open and Daniel and the others hurried out.

  "Richard," Daniel said spying them by the stairs and heading their way. "Now that the blackmailer is caught and the identity of the murderer found there is no reason to delay. We are heading for Gretna Green at once. "

  Christiana heard Richard groan, and could have groaned with him, but then he suddenly straightened and said, "Certainly, we shal leave first thing in the morning. "

  "The morning?" Daniel frowned.

  "Wel , the women wil have to pack and - " he began, but Suzette interrupted him.

  "The chests are stil packed from this morning. At least mine is," she added with a frown and glanced to Lisa in question.

  "Mine too," Lisa said.

  Suzette glanced to Christiana next and she hesitated briefly, but then nodded.

  "So is mine. "

  Richard ducked his head to her ear and muttered, "You could have lied. "

  "I am a terrible liar. Besides, al is not lost. Trust me," she whispered back.

  "Richard, is your carriage stil out front?" Daniel asked. "I don't recal you sending it to the stables. "

  "I didn't," Richard answered. "I wasn't sure we wouldn't need it again. "

  "Mine is stil out front as wel ," Robert announced. "They just need to be loaded. "

  "Excel ent. " Daniel clapped his hands with satisfaction. "Then we merely need to have mine prepared and brought around, load them up and we can -

  Damn," Daniel interrupted himself, and muttered, "I forgot my carriage is presently out of commission. I wil have to rent one. "

  "We can use mine," Lord Madison offered at once. "It is out front. "

  "Perfect," Christiana breathed.

  "Why is it perfect?" Richard asked under his breath.

  "The Madison carriage is a coach. Five or even more can ride in it comfortably. "

  He appeared perplexed as to how that could be perfect, but Christiana just grabbed his hand, gave it a squeeze and drew him with her as she backed toward the front door. "Lisa, wil you see that Grace and the chest holding Richard's and my clothes aren't forgotten?"

  "Of course," she said with surprise. "But where wil you be?"

  Christiana reached behind her for the door. "We are going to head out at once.

  We have something to do. We shal wait for you at Stevenage," she announced and then before anyone could protest or ask further questions, Christiana pul ed the door open and hurried out, tugging Richard with her.

  "What is the something we have to do?" he asked as they hurried to the Radnor carriage.

  "I shal explain in the carriage," she assured him and moved to the door while he moved to speak to the driver. By the time he entered, she had closed the smal curtains at the windows. Richard eyed them with surprise as he sank on the bench opposite her.

  "What - ?" he began, and then swal owed the rest of his question when she tugged the sleeves of her gown off her shoulders and then shimmied her arms out of it. His breath then came out on a long, "Ohhhh," as the material dropped to pool around her waist. Reaching across the space between them, Richard caught her by the waist and promptly pul ed her from her seat to straddle his lap. Christiana sighed with relief as she slid her arms around his neck. She was trying to be as brazen as she wanted and not al ow fear to hold her back, but truly, she'd felt terribly vulnerable baring herself like that so was glad not to feel so on display anymore.

  "So this is the something we had to do?" Richard asked, his hands moving over her back in circles. Christiana nodded. "I seemed to recal from our last journey to Gretna that we could . . . discuss our feelings almost as wel in the carriage as in our room,"

  she whispered, pressing a kiss to the scrape on his forehead. "So I thought perhaps . . . "

  The words died on a gasp as his hands found her breasts and squeezed gently.

  When he then used his hold to urge her up, Christiana obeyed and rose on her knees until her chest was in front of his face. Richard immediately took one hardening nipple into his mouth, rasping it with his tongue and then suckling briefly, before releasing it to peer up at her.

  "Have I told you how bril iant I think you are?" he asked solemnly.

  She blinked in surprise, but shook her head.

  "Wel I do, and you are," he assured her, his hands moving over her hips and then down to slip under her skirts. "I find you lovely. " He pressed a kiss to the spot between her breasts. "Intel igent. " His hands glided up the outside of her legs.

  "Resourceful. " He licked one nipple, nipped at it, then suckled briefly, before releasing it to say, "Amusing. " His mouth dipped to the other breast, attending that nipple as one hand closed around her hip and the other slipped between her legs.

  "Charming. "

  "Richard," Christiana gasped as his fingers found her core.

  "Hush," he murmured against her breast. "I am discussing my feelings. " And then he paused, his hands stil ing as he raised his head to ask. "Or have you heard enough? Shal I stop?"

  Christiana shook her head at once. "No, husband. Pray continue. "

  Christiana shook her head at once. "No, husband. Pray continue. "

  A slow smiled claimed his lips and he al owed his fingers to strum over her again as he said solemnly, "I fear it could take a very long time for me to tel you al of them. "

  "Then perhaps you should just show me," she suggested breathlessly, and bit her lip as his fingers slid across her damp skin.

  "It would be my pleasure," he assured her, and proceeded to do so.

 
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