The countess, p.3
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       The Countess, p.3

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

 

  I must say, Lady Radnor, while Suzette has your father's dark hair, al three of you have your mother's features. She would be proud at how lovely you al turned out. "

  "Thank you, Lady Olivett," Christiana said, a smile tugging her mouth wide and bringing on a smal ache that merely made her beam. The ache was because she'd smiled so much this evening, something she hadn't done much of this last year. She was enjoying the ache as a sign that things had changed for the better, and oh how they'd changed. She hadn't enjoyed herself so much since . . . wel , since she'd married. Christiana had spent the last hour since arriving at the Landon bal enjoying her newfound freedom and chattering away with the other married women. She was doing her duty and gaining gossip about Suzette's dance partners as expected, but that stil left plenty of time to just converse and laugh and enjoy herself.

  It was lovely, and she vowed never to al ow herself to be so control ed and beaten down by anyone ever again. Truly, she could hardly believe she had al owed Dicky to do so in the first place and supposed it was only because no one had ever treated her like that before, and she had never been without the support and love of her family prior to that either. The combination had worked against her, leaving her feeling alone and frightened. But that was before, now she was a widow, had her sisters back, and intended to enjoy every minute of it.

  "The music is coming to an end. Who is Suzette's next dance partner?" Lady Olivett asked curiously.

  "Danvers, I think," Christiana answered, smiling at the woman. Lady Olivett had been a dear friend of her mother's while she lived and had immediately taken Christiana and her sisters under her wing when they arrived, which was very generous of her considering how shabbily Dicky had treated her, turning her away when she'd tried to visit Christiana and welcome her to London.

  "Yes, I think you're right. There he is approaching her and Wil throp," Lady Olivett commented. As Christiana turned to glance toward her sister, the lady continued, "Danvers isn't a much better prospect than Wil throp, but at least he is young and good-looking. Stil , caution her not to get too interested in him. He is in financial difficulties and a bit of a bounder to boot. "

  "I wil ," Christiana assured her, turning her gaze to search the other side of the dance floor where Lisa was ensconced amongst a giggling gaggle of single young ladies. Danvers was one of the names Lisa had been supposed to find information on. They had split the names on Suzette's dance card in half, Christiana and Lisa each taking every other one, in the hopes of making it less obvious they were seeking information on the men. Now, she was curious to see which prearranged signals Lisa would give Suzette. However, her gaze never found her youngest sister. Instead, it halted abruptly on a man just entering the bal room. After a year of marriage, she'd recognize the man anywhere. Dicky . . . alive and wel , and looking very, very angry.

  "Lord Radnor! Your wife said you were ailing and wouldn't be able to come tonight, but you've made it after al . "

  Richard Fairgrave, the Earl of Radnor, paused and turned, relaxing a little when he recognized his host, Lord Landon, approaching. But then the man's words sank in.

  "My wife?" he asked, his gaze sliding in question to his best friend and the man who'd saved his life and brought him here, Daniel, the Earl of Woodrow. Daniel merely shrugged helplessly.

  "Yes," Landon said cheerful y and glanced around. "She's here somewhere.

  Lady Radnor and her sisters were among the first to arrive. There she is,"

  he said with triumph, pointing toward a smal group of women gathered at the end of the bal room. Richard peered to where a petite blonde stood in a circle of several much older women. The older women were al chattering away while the woman who was apparently his wife listened, or didn't listen. He couldn't tel . Her eyes were locked on him with something like horror. He felt his eyebrows rise, but looked her over slowly, noting that she was overly thin, pale to the point of sickly, and not particularly pretty.

  "As I say," Landon continued, turning back to face him, "she told us you had taken to your bed with a malaise and wouldn't be attending tonight. You look fine to me, though. Stil , she does appear to be surprised to see you. "

  "I'm sure she is," Richard said quietly.

  The jovial smile on the man's face faded briefly and he said in more solemn tones, "I'm glad to see you here. You've kept too much to yourself since your brother's death. It's good to see you rejoining society. You were missed. "

  "Thank you," Richard murmured, oddly touched by the sentiment.

  Nodding, Landon thumped him on the back in a manly manner, and then cleared his throat and glanced around. "Wel , I suppose I should see to the rest of my guests. Go assure your wife you're wel . She must have thought you at death's door to be so shocked now," Landon said with a laugh. "I fear you must have overplayed it a bit, boy. Next time you want to slip out to see your mistress, just give a sniffle or two and a cough. There's no need to act like you have the plague. " Laughing, Landon slapped him on the back again and then turned to disappear into the crowd.

  "I had no idea," Daniel assured him solemnly. "I was on my estate and out of the way of society and its gossip until your letter arrived, and then I was busy making arrangements to sail to America to hunt for you. "

  Richard nodded silently, not taking his eyes off the blonde across the bal room.

  She hadn't moved but stil stood, face pale and eyes and mouth round with horror, staring at him as if he were the devil himself.

  "What do we do now?" Daniel asked grimly. "You can't confront George for the greedy, murderous, bastard of an imposter he is if he isn't here. "

  Richard frowned as he realized the truth to those words.

  "Worse yet," Daniel continued. "You'l have completely lost the advantage of surprise once he hears you were here at the bal . He'l know you're alive and take measures to try to stop you from taking back everything he stole. He - Where are you going? Richard?"

  Richard was now crossing the bal room to approach his "wife," detouring only to col ect a healthy glass of whiskey along the way. The depth of the woman's horror, and the fact that she couldn't seem to snap out of it, suggested to him that more was amiss here than even he knew about, and he wanted to know it al . Knowledge could be a deadly weapon in the right hands and Richard intended it to be in his.

  "Why Christiana, I thought you said Dicky was sick," one of the older women tril ed as he reached the group.

  "He looks hail and healthy to me," the woman beside her said firmly, eyeing him with suspicion. No doubt because Christiana, as the woman had cal ed her, was stil gaping at him like a fish out of water.

  Richard took a moment to glance at the gaggle of women about them, his look enough to make every last one of them mutter about seeking out refreshments or friends and move away. Once left alone, Richard turned back to Christiana. Her eyes had grown wider as he approached. Unattractively so, he decided as he took in the way they almost bulged out of her head, and the woman appeared to have lost her powers of speech. She simply stood staring at him looking so pale he feared her fainting or simply dropping dead on the spot.

  Frowning, he held out the glass of whiskey. "You look quite overset, my lady. This should help you regain some color. "

  He expected her to take a mere sip of the potent liquid so was rather startled when she took the glass he offered and tossed it back as if it were water. It certainly did the trick, however, just more so than he'd hoped. Her pal or washed away under a sudden rush of red that was real y no more attractive than the pal or had been, and she gasped as if her breath had been taken with the pal or.

  She then bent forward hacking and coughing in a most violent manner.

  Grimacing, Richard took the now empty glass with one hand and patted her back with the other. "I suppose I should have warned you to sip it. "

  Either the words or the sound of his voice brought her upright and she suddenly shrank back from his touch a
s if he were some unclean beast.

  "You're alive," she gasped, and the whiskey's rasp in her voice did not hide her displeasure at the fact. It seemed obvious the woman knew of her husband's perfidy. Richard didn't know why but he'd assumed that she would have been innocent in al this. However, it appeared she was aware of the fact that George, his younger twin by several minutes, had hired men to kil him in a bid to steal his identity, title and wealth. She obviously was not pleased to learn it had failed. For some reason the knowledge that the woman had known about it disappointed him.

  "You could at least try to hide your horror at knowing I yet live," Richard said coldly. "It wil hardly do your case much good to show so openly how little my survival pleases you. "

  "I - no, I - you - " she struggled briefly, and then took a deep breath and said, "It is a bit of a surprise, my lord. We were sure you were dead when we left the house tonight. You were so stil and cold in the bed . . . "

  Richard felt his eyebrows rise on his forehead as he realized that she couldn't be talking about him. He had been nowhere near this woman earlier tonight. It couldn't be he who had been stil and cold in a bed. Was George - ?

  His thoughts died as a strangled gasp sounded to the side of them. Turning, he found himself staring at two younger versions of the woman who was supposed to be his wife; one blonde and one brunette. Both looked just as horrified to see him as

  "his wife" was.

  "But you're dead," the younger blonde breathed with a horror that could not be feigned. Turning to Christiana, she added with confusion, "Wasn't he dead, Chrissy? We packed ice around him and everything. "

  "The ice must have revived his cold dead heart," the brunette said grimly, apparently recovering more quickly than the other two. Richard's eyebrows rose when she added grimly, "More's the pity. "

  "Suzette!" Christiana gasped. Glancing nervously at him, she moved closer to her sisters and murmured, "Perhaps we should go out for some air. Lisa looks ready to faint and you, Suzie, obviously need some time to cool yourself. Perhaps so much dancing has overheated you. "

  "Al ow me. "

  Richard glanced to Daniel as he moved to step between his "wife's" sisters and take each by an arm. The man had obviously fol owed him and he was grateful for it.

  It was now urgent that he speak to the woman who had thought she'd married the Earl of Radnor and find out whether his brother was dead or alive. Packed in ice?

  Dear God.

  "I shal see the ladies outside so the two of you might talk. " Daniel turned Suzette and Lisa firmly away despite the fact that it was obvious neither was particularly amenable to the idea. He then glanced over his shoulder to suggest meaningful y,

  "You might consider somewhere more private for this discussion. "

  Richard took a moment to note that while none of the other guests was presently near enough to hear properly, they were trying, and they were certainly watching.

  Mouth tightening, he took his wife by the arm and began to lead her in the opposite direction to the one Daniel was leading her sisters. Christiana went no more wil ingly than her sisters had accompanied Daniel.

  However, where her sisters had seemed reluctant to cause a public spectacle, "his wife" apparently didn't care. He'd barely dragged her half a dozen feet before she planted her feet firmly and yanked her arm from his hold in a way that anyone watching would have noticed. She also planted her hands firmly on her hips and glared at him in a way that almost dared him to try to force her from the room. Richard glanced briefly around, frowning when he saw that they weren't going without notice. Mouth tightening, he turned back to his "wife" and said firmly,

  "We need to go somewhere more private to talk. "

  "No. "

  His eyebrows rose in surprise at the blunt refusal. "No? But - "

  "I have had quite enough of your 'talk' during this last year of marriage, my lord,"

  she said grimly. "And I have no intention of being the docile little wife I have been to now and fol ow you to some empty room so that you can berate and insult me. I also have no intention of leaving this, the very first ball I have ever attended. "

  Richard tried his most charming smile, "I don't intend to insult or berate you, and this can hardly be your first bal . "

  "You know it is," she said at once.

  He shook his head, not believing her. "I'm sure you attended many during your season. You - "

  "You know I had no season," she interrupted, confusion flashing briefly across her face. It was quickly replaced with anger. "I do not know what game you now play, Dicky, but I have no intention of leaving this room with you. "

  Richard hesitated briefly, wondering why she hadn't had a season, and if that were the case how she had come to meet and marry his brother, but then decided that wasn't important at the moment. He needed to know if his brother yet lived or not, and since she wouldn't leave the room with him, he had to find another way to gain them some privacy. His gaze slid over the people mil ing about the bal room and then he became aware that the strains of a waltz were starting. Nodding to and then he became aware that the strains of a waltz were starting. Nodding to himself, he glanced back to his "wife. " "Then perhaps you would do me the honor of dancing with me?"

  Her eyes narrowed. "You don't dance. That has always been one of your excuses for not attending the bal s during the season. You would not even dance at our wedding. "

  Richard managed to keep from grimacing. He'd forgotten that George had always seemed to have two left feet. Their dance instructor had done his best when they were children, but George simply hadn't been able to manage any sort of grace on the dance floor and had final y refused lessons. Managing to hold on to his smile he said, "Yes, wel , I am wil ing to give it my best effort now. Wil you not dance with me?"

  He held his hand out and she stared at it briefly as if it were a snake, but then sighed and placed hers in it with little enthusiasm and a muttered, "Very wel

  . "

  Afraid she might change her mind at any moment, Richard ushered her quickly onto the dance floor. He found it ironic that she was so obviously less than pleased to dance with him. As a wealthy and titled member of the peerage he had always enjoyed a certain success with women, but it appeared Christiana was less than enthral ed with him, and she was supposed to be his wife. It made him wonder what the devil his brother had done to the woman. Once in the center of the dance floor, Richard took her into his arms for the dance. She was stiff and awkward in his hold, her face turned away as if she couldn't even bear to look at him. Richard gave her a moment, hoping she would relax, but she continued to move like a wooden dol , her jaw tense and eyes darting about as if in search of escape. He final y decided just to get it over with and asked,

  "So am I to understand you thought your husband dead?"

  He didn't realize how he'd framed the question until the words were out, but Christiana didn't seem to notice his saying "your husband" rather than referring to himself in the first person. Her head whipped around, her wide eyes meeting his with dismay, but then she seemed to forcibly calm herself and merely turned her face away again, muttering, "You did seem to be. "

  "And your response to that death was to attend a bal ?" he asked careful y.

  He saw the flush of shame that rose up her neck, but when she turned her face back to him it was mitigated by anger and she scowled. "Wel , what was I supposed to do, Dicky? We couldn't risk having to go into mourning. Suzie has to find a husband, and it's your fault she does. You are the one who took Father to that gaming hel . Now he's apparently gambled his way to the edge of ruin again and Suzie has to find a husband and claim her dower to pay off his debts and avoid scandal. " Hurt bewilderment covered her face and she asked, "How could you take him to one of those places when you knew what happened the last time?"

  Richard had no answer for her. He had no idea why George would have done such a thing. His instinct would be to say greed had led to it because
that seemed to ever be George's motivation. However, Richard couldn't see how ruining Christiana's father and family would increase his own riches. He also had no idea what had happened to Christiana's father "the last time" but it obviously wasn't good. Sighing, he said the only thing he could and offered a quiet, "I apologize. It was not wel done to take your father somewhere like that given his history. "

  Christiana was so startled by her husband's words and the apparent sincerity behind them that she stumbled in her step and fel against him. Dicky immediately caught her against his chest to keep her upright.

  "Are you al right?" he asked, holding her close and tilting his head to try to see her face. Christiana nodded and took a deep breath to steady herself, but it helped little.

  With everything that had occurred that day, she hadn't eaten since breakfast and was now feeling the effects of the drink she'd so precipitously downed. Her thoughts were slowing and growing a bit muddy even as the tension eased from her body. It left her more relaxed, which she didn't necessarily think was a good thing at the moment. Especial y when they were dancing so close now that she was inhaling his scent, and finding it surprisingly heady, a spicy male aroma that made her want to inhale again. She had never noticed him smel ing this lovely before, but then was rarely as close to him as this.

  "Christiana?"

  She reluctantly lifted her eyes, confusion and vulnerability swirling inside her.

  "You're quite lovely when you aren't frowning," he said suddenly as if surprised at the revelation. Christiana felt her lips part slightly with surprise. This was the very first compliment she'd heard from the man in the year since their wedding. It was so rare and so unexpected, it quite took her breath away. Or perhaps that was the whiskey, she thought. For surely it was the whiskey that made her forget how horrid the man was and notice only how handsome he looked in his formal garb. Of course, she had always known Dicky was a handsome man, at least on the surface. His features were strong and sharp, but suited his face perfectly, and he had short, dark hair that looked so silky it made a girl want to run her fingers through it. She had always found him incredibly attractive physical y. However, at the moment he was eyeing her with a concern she had never seen before and it seemed to increase his attractiveness tenfold, making him darned near irresistible.

  "If you continue to look at me like that I may be tempted to kiss you," he said in a husky voice. Christiana's eyes widened slightly and for a moment she almost wished he would, but then she recal ed this was her husband and abruptly turned her head away with a little, "Oh dear. "

  "What is it?" Dicky asked with a smal frown.

  "I believe that drink you gave me may be affecting my good sense," she muttered, thinking it the only excuse for how she could find this man attractive after having suffered under being his wife for a year. Besides, she was beginning to feel a little off balance, her thoughts a little slow and confused. Of course, she was also finding it suddenly overly hot and a touch airless in the room, but suspected that was from being in Dicky's arms. At the moment, they were as close as lovers, his body brushing against hers with each dance step, his one hand at her back, his arm encircling her, the other hand clasping her suddenly sweaty one . . . and his smel just kept wafting up her nose, sliding through her body, making her want to lean into him. That drink was definitely affecting her, she decided grimly.

  "Perhaps I should take you outside for a breath of fresh air. "

  "No!" Christiana said at once, instinct tel ing her that would be a very bad idea indeed. She was already terribly confused and flustered and it was difficult enough being this close to him in public, but out on the dark terrace, with the sparkly stars overhead and torchlight the only thing chasing back the shadows . . . No, Christiana felt sure the best thing she could do was put some distance between them so that she could start thinking straight again. Unfortunately, she would have to wait until the end of the waltz to do that.

  "Are you sure?" Richard asked, pul ing back to look at her. "You are quite pale.

  Perhaps some air would make you feel better. "

  Christiana stared at him silently, her gaze moving over his handsome features with bewilderment. He was like a different person. His expression was kind and concerned instead of the cold mask she was used too, and certainly his behavior was nothing like the man she had been married to this last year. It was more like the man she'd thought she'd married, and was stirring up feelings Christiana had thought long dead.

  "Why are you being nice to me?" she asked with confusion. "You are never nice to me. Why are you being nice now?"

  Dicky reacted as if she'd struck him, his head jerking back as if under a physical blow, and then anger briefly crossed his face. He said quietly, "I apologize if my behavior has been less than kind this last year. Al I can say is I haven't been myself. " He glanced away, frowned, and then continued, "At the moment, I can't explain what has been occurring, but I can promise you things wil be different from now on and I wil do everything I can to protect you and make this last year up to you. "

  Christiana stared at him with something like wonder. His words could have been plucked from one of the many hope-fil ed dreams she'd had this last year. They were words she'd longed to hear ever since the wedding and his horrid change in behavior and she had the sudden urge to pinch herself to be sure she wasn't dreaming now. But before she could, Dicky urged her closer against him to continue the dance. While she al owed him to lead her back into the rhythm of the music, her mind was awhirl with confusion. This was not the man she'd lived with this past year, but it was the man she'd thought she'd married, and his words were making hope rise within her foolish heart. Hope that perhaps there was an explanation for his previous behavior and that whatever had caused it was now over. Perhaps she could have the marriage she'd hoped for. Or perhaps she was deluding herself, and would get her hopes up, only to have them dashed again, Christiana worried. Unfortunately, it mattered little either way.

  He was alive and was her husband. That meant that at the moment al she had was the hope that things would be different and her life would not continue as it had been since her wedding.

  Christiana was distracted from her thoughts when Dicky's hand moved up and then down her back in an almost unconscious, soothing caress. At least, she suspected that was how he'd intended it, but it had an entirely different effect on her. Rather than soothe, it sent shivers up her back to her neck.

  Confused by her body's reaction, she instinctively stepped back to try to put some space between them and bumped into someone. Richard pul ed her closer again and murmured, "I apologize. It has been some time since I danced. I am a little rusty at leading. "

  Christiana glanced over her shoulder to offer an apology to whomever she'd bumped, and then glanced sharply back to Richard. The smal accident had been her fault for moving, yet he was taking the blame. That was completely unheard of prior to this. Dicky simply did not take blame for anything. In fact, Christiana usual y caught the blame for everything, even if it had nothing to do with her.

  "No, it was me," she admitted, not one to al ow others to take the blame for her mistakes.

  Dicky lowered his head and said with amusement, "My dance instructor would disagree most stringently with that. It is always the man's fault. He is the one leading, the one who is supposed to be steering you safely around the dance floor. "

  Christiana bit her tongue and said nothing. Confusion was rife within her and it wasn't just because of the complete about-face in his attitude. He had spoken the words into her ear, his breath brushing the outer shel and sending startling shivers through her. She was also suddenly very aware of just how close he'd pul ed her after the smal accident. She was now plastered to him, her breasts against his chest, and his legs and hips brushing against her with every step. He had also let his hand slip lower on her back so that it now crested the upper curve of her behind. Al of this was stirring the oddest sensations in her, making her shiver and lon
g to press herself tighter stil against him. She even had the quick mad thought to wonder what it would be like if he slipped his hand a little lower, and pressed a little tighter so that their hips met more firmly. Even when courting she hadn't experienced these physical reactions to him and it was quite unsettling. Richard found himself repeatedly stealing glances at the woman in his arms. It seemed obvious from their brief exchange that she had no idea what George had done, and that the man she lived with and thought was her husband was actual y an imposter. It also seemed obvious that this last year of the sham marriage had not been a happy one for her, that his brother was treating her poorly. Christiana was as much a victim of George's machinations as he was and the revelations about to come out would not be pleasant ones. Scandal would fol ow as it was realized that the wedding had not been legal, that she wasn't actual y married at al since George was an impostor.

  The thought made Richard angry al over again. It also made him want to do what he could to protect her. From what he could tel , Christiana deserved none of this.

  She had married in good faith, but would now be ruined by it unless he could find a way to prevent that. His gaze slid over her troubled features. Had he real y thought her unattractive?

  Richard now decided it had merely been her expression of shock on seeing him.

  She had certainly grown more attractive as they'd danced. The first burst of anger she'd had earlier had put a natural bloom in her cheeks and a spark in her eyes that was almost arresting. The confusion and hurt that had fol owed as she'd reprimanded him for taking her father to a gaming hel had made him want to comfort and hold her closer. Now she appeared a touch flustered. Hectic color had bloomed in her cheeks, and she was nibbling her lower lip in a rather adorable fashion.

  However, she was also much more relaxed in his arms, her body almost fluid rather than the stiff wooden woman he'd first led to the dance floor. The swift changes were fascinating to him and he found himself wondering what she would look like under the influence of other moods and passions. For instance, how would she look in his bed, with desire making her sloe eyed, and her lovely blonde hair spread out on a pil ow?

  These thoughts coursing through his mind, Richard almost without realizing it let his hand slide a little lower to curve over her behind and urge her tighter against his hips. The effect was rather startling. Christiana didn't pul back, but gasped and shivered, her eyes dropping closed as their hips met and they both became aware of the hardness he hadn't realized had grown between them.

  "Husband?"

  The word was a breathy sigh, and Richard smiled and lowered his head, deliberately al owing his breath to brush her ear as he said, "Yes?"

  "I - Oh," she paused as he nipped at her ear, and then said a little shakily, "I think

  . . . "

  "What do you think?" he asked, nipping at her ear again and enjoying the shudder it sent through her. It made him grow even harder.

  "I think the music has stopped," she managed to get out in a strangled tone even as her hands tightened on his hand and shoulder. Richard stil ed, released the earlobe he'd captured between his teeth, and then straightened to glance around. The music had indeed stopped and most of the dancers had left the dance floor while others were stil flowing past them to leave it as wel . His gaze shifted back to Christiana, noting how flushed she was and the way she was nibbling at her lips. She hadn't pul ed free of his embrace, however, and he had a sudden urge to nibble on those lips himself, so was about to suggest again that they go out on the balcony for some air when someone suddenly appeared beside them.

  "I believe I was promised the next dance. "

  Richard stared blankly at the man who had approached them. He recognized him at once. Robert Maitland, Lord Langley. They had attended school together and been friends then, though they'd drifted apart afterward. The way Langley was looking at him now, however, was not friendly at al .

  "Oh, yes, I'd almost forgotten," Christiana said in a voice that was high and strained and slipped from his arms to move to the man's side. He almost caught her arm to stop her, but then refrained. If the man was on her card for the next dance, she would have to dance it with him. It was considered the height of rudeness to do otherwise.

  Nodding stiffly, Richard stepped out of the way and merely watched as the couple moved a little further away on the dance floor. His eyes narrowed slightly as he noted how comfortable the woman appeared to be with Langley as she went into his arms for the dance. She was also smiling at the man with a combination of relief and what could only be described as affection. It made Richard wonder about their relationship. It also caused a smal , surprising, pang of jealousy to slip through him.

  Ridiculous, he told himself as he turned to move off the dance floor. She was nothing to him. While he found himself wanting to protect her, that was al . Other than that, he didn't even know her.

  "You looked like you needed rescuing. "

  Christiana smiled weakly and lifted her eyes to Robert as he moved her around the dance floor. He wasn't wrong there. She had been fal ing under her husband's spel , her body being assaulted by completely alien desires and wants. In fact, she'd been half a breath away from suggesting she did want to seek out the fresh air on the balcony after al when Robert had appeared. The problem was it hadn't been fresh air she'd been hoping to find. Christiana had hoped Richard might take her in his arms and kiss her there. That drink she'd had was obviously having some strange effects on her. She'd never felt this way toward Dicky before, even on their wedding night.

  "Yes, I rather did need rescuing. Thank you," she murmured vaguely and glanced to where Richard now stood on the edge of the dance floor, fol owing them with burning eyes. She thought she could actual y feel a trail of warmth slide along her body as his eyes skated over her and quickly turned her head back to Robert as he spoke.

  "I was surprised but happy to see that he final y let you attend a bal . "

  Christiana didn't comment. Dicky hadn't exactly let her attend. However, she simply couldn't explain the events of that day to him. She couldn't even explain the events of the last few moments to herself. How had her general dislike and loathing of her husband turned to desire on the dance floor?

  The combination of whiskey on an empty stomach and exhaustion from the day's events must have conspired to confuse and befuddle her, she reasoned

  . . . and she was exhausted. It had been a very stressful day al told, and had simply grown more stressful when Dicky appeared here at the bal . Christiana had just begun to adjust to the fact that she was free of him and had enjoyed those precious hours of not worrying about what Dicky would say and do.

  Yet now here he was alive and wel and she was suddenly attracted to him in a way she had never been before. Christiana hadn't even felt this way toward him during their courting. She'd never once wanted him to kiss her or pul her close then as she'd wanted during the waltz. In fact, she had come to realize that her feelings for the man during their courting had been more of a child's daydream than a woman's wishes. The courting had been al hearts and flowers, leading to a child's light fluffy dream of happy-ever-afters. However, the attraction she'd felt just now on the dance floor was much more raw and physical and left her bewildered and even a little scared. She had never experienced that with him before, but then while he had been ever charming before the marriage, he had never shown kindness and concern until now. There was something different about him tonight and she wondered to herself if his brush with death had somehow changed him. If perhaps that's what he'd meant by things being different now.

  "Chrissy, there is something different about Dicky. "

  Christiana blinked and peered up at Robert with surprise. It was as if he'd read her thoughts. Before she could say so, he added, "I have felt it for some time now. He's not the man I attended school with. "

  Christiana frowned. Robert wasn't talking about his being different tonight then.

  "How so?"
>
  "Did you know I have been to see you three times the last few months and he has turned me away each time?"

  She grimaced apologetical y, and admitted, "I only knew about two occasions and found out about those just this morning. I'm sorry. I hope you know I consider you like family and would never - "

  "It doesn't matter," he interrupted. "The point is that the Richard Fairgrave I knew was nothing like the pompous ass who took such delight in sending me away. It was more like his brother, George. "

  Her eyebrows rose at mention of her husband's brother. George Fairgrave, the younger of the twin brothers by moments, had died in a fire just months before she had married Dicky. She tilted her head to the side and frowned. "Oh?"

  Robert was silent for a moment, appearing uncomfortable, but final y met her gaze and asked uncomfortably, "Does he have a birthmark?"

  Christiana raised her eyebrows. "Not that I've seen. Should he?"

  He nodded grimly. "It's a smal strawberry on his left buttock. "

  Her eyes widened and then she flushed. "Oh, wel , he may have one then, but I have never seen him without clothes. "

  "You have not seen him . . . ?" Robert's voice died and he now flushed as wel , as he apparently realized what he was asking. Aware she was blushing furiously, Christiana glanced around to see if anyone was listening. Much to her relief Robert had steered them to a relatively open area on the dance floor and no one was near enough to hear. Stil , she scowled and murmured, "I think we should change the subject. It real y isn't proper to discuss - "

  "No it isn't proper," Robert agreed quietly. "And despite how close we have always been, I wouldn't have brought it up, but it is very important. Please, trust me on that. If I am right, you could be in danger. "

  She frowned at his words and glanced away, but then admitted, "He has simply never disrobed in front of me. "

  "Not even on your wedding night?" he asked.

  "On our wedding night he did not even take off his cravat," she admitted with embarrassment and then with some annoyance said, "And you are not his wife so how did you see this birthmark?"

  "A group of us used to go skinny-dipping in a nearby lake back at school. He and I were among that group," he explained, and then asked gently, "He didn't even take off his cravat?"

  She shook her head with irritation. It felt like her face was on fire now and she'd real y rather not discuss this. It just wasn't done.

  "And he hasn't at any time since either?" Langley prodded.

  "There hasn't been an 'any time since,' " Christiana admitted in little more than a whisper. That was her shame. Her husband found her so wanting that he had not visited her bed since her wedding night. She'd often wondered if she'd been terribly bad at it and that was why Dicky had suddenly gone cold on her and begun to treat her so poorly. Unfortunately, she hadn't had her mother to explain the matter of the marital bed to her and had been completely ignorant of what to do or expect so had lain in bed, unmoving and practical y not breathing until it was done. Fortunately, it had been quick. Perhaps had she known what to do things would have been different.

  Or perhaps it would have been different had she experienced those feelings and sensations then that she'd had tonight while they were dancing, a little voice in her head spoke up. Christiana didn't think she'd have lain holding her breath and unmoving had she felt even a little of what she had tonight in his arms. She'd wanted to touch and kiss and do al sorts of things to the man she'd danced with.

  "Can you try to see if he has the birthmark?" Robert asked quietly, drawing her from her thoughts. Christiana grimaced at the suggestion and admitted, "I'd real y rather not. "

  "You don't have to actual y . . . erm . . . " He hesitated and then said instead, "If you were to enter his room while he was dressing or undressing you could see if he has it without . . . er . . . an 'any time since. ' "

  Christiana wrinkled her nose at the suggestion. Dicky did hate it when she entered any room he was in without gaining permission first.

  "It is important," Robert assured her.

  She glanced to him silently, and then said, "You suspect he doesn't have the birthmark, which suggests you believe he isn't Dicky at al ? You think Dicky is real y George?"

  Langley nodded apologetical y. "I began to suspect it the first time I came to visit and he turned me away, but the second time just convinced me more. "

  He scowled and shook his head. "I could just kick myself for not being there when he was courting you. If it is George and I'd spent any time around him back then I would have known at once. I could have saved you from al this misery. I - "

  "Your father was dying, Robert. Of course you spent those last weeks at his side. Never blame yourself for that, marrying Dicky was my choice," she said firmly.

  "Dicky," Robert said the name with disgust. "Richard hated that name. George is the only one who cal ed him that. "

  Christiana frowned at this news. It was Richard, or the man they'd thought was Richard, who had insisted they al cal him Dicky. She preferred Richard herself.

  "George was always a pompous little ass," Robert informed her grimly. "He was not wel liked at school and was only ever included in things because he was Richard's brother, which just made him act worse. He was envious of how wel liked Richard was and bitter that as the older twin Richard would gain the title on their father's death. " He sighed and then admitted quietly, "I suspect it was Richard who died in the fire and George just took his place. "

  Christiana shook her head and pointed out, "But if it real y was Richard who died in the fire, George had no need to impersonate him. He would have gained everything anyway. "

  "That's true, but . . . " Robert shook his head. "I suspect that wouldn't have been enough for George. He would have stil been George. Titled or not, and holding al the wealth or not wouldn't have made anyone respect or like him better and I think he envied that most about his brother. Everyone liked and trusted Richard. Being heir to the title and estate never affected Richard. He was natural y kind and considerate and everyone knew and appreciated that. "

  Those last words resonated through Christiana's head. Richard was natural y kind and considerate and everyone knew and appreciated that . . . like she had on the dance floor just now. The man she'd just danced with had been surprisingly kind and considerate, and she had appreciated it. But he'd shown precious little of either attribute this last year. Was the man she'd married Richard Fairgrave, the Earl of Radnor, or his twin, George? And if it was George, what would that mean to her?

  Would their marriage be legal?

  "Try to see if he has the birthmark," Robert said quietly. "If he doesn't, come to me at once no matter the hour. I shal handle everything after that. "

  Christiana nodded unhappily and thought how much simpler life would be had her husband just had the good graces to stay dead . . . If he was her husband.

 
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