The Countess
Chapter Fourteen

 Lynsay Sands

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They're going to be very, very angry."
Richard grimaced at Robert's prediction, knowing the man was right. But real y, leaving the women behind was the best choice. Christiana and her sisters could now relax and enjoy themselves together at Radnor and be out of harm's way while he, Daniel and Robert hunted down their blackmailer. Besides, it seemed ridiculous to drag the maids, the chests, and al three carriages back to London when they would just have to make the return journey in a couple of days' time for Suzette and Daniel to marry. And they could travel much more swiftly with just the one carriage. They had taken Woodrow's carriage because it was the fastest. They were making good time. They'd stopped at three different inns along the way to change horses, but were stil more than three quarters of the way back to London and Richard was sure it wasn't yet midnight.
"They wil get over their anger," Daniel said now, not sounding at al worried about Suzette's reaction to their defection. Robert just shook his head. "Trust me. I have known the Madison sisters al my life. You wil not get off easily for this. Either of you." He let that sink in and then glanced to Richard. "I was glad to see Christiana stand up for herself and make you listen back at the house. It was a good sign."
"How so?" Richard asked curiously, recal ing his surprise when he'd placed her in the carriage and she'd suddenly snapped at him.
"She is being herself with you. It shows she isn't afraid of you as I think she was with Dicky . . . er . . . George," he corrected himself. "The one time I saw them together after the wedding she was as jumpy as a cat. I feared he was taking his fists to her, but she assured me he wasn't."
"Did you believe her?" Richard asked, frowning at the possibility that George may have beaten Christiana on top of everything else.
"Yes. Christiana is a terrible liar and I'm sure she was tel ing the truth, but she was stil afraid of the man." He shook his head. "Perhaps she just feared what would happen if he did lose his temper."
Richard scowled. No one should have to live in fear. A body should feel safe in their own home.
"That doesn't matter now though," Robert said after a moment. "The good news is she doesn't appear to fear you the same way. I think the two of you wil make a fine match."
"Thank you," Richard said dryly, but was secretly quite pleased with Robert's words. Christiana was proving to be intel igent, passionate and capable. words. Christiana was proving to be intel igent, passionate and capable.
He liked the woman, and suspected he could more than like her with a little time.
"Does Christiana like - " Richard began, and then grabbed for something to hold on to as a loud crack preceded the carriage suddenly pitching to the side. The next moments were a chaos of shouts, and whinnies as the three men were tossed about. The carriage seemed to rol and crash end over end, and then everything suddenly went stil and silent.
For one moment, Richard was too dazed to be quite sure what had happened and where he was, but then he heard a groan beneath him and realized the lumpy something he was lying on was either Daniel or Robert. He also became aware that something heavy lay on top of him, making it hard to breathe. Grimacing, he lifted a hand to touch whatever it was and was rewarded with another groan and a heel or elbow - he wasn't sure which in the darkness -
dug into his groin as whoever was on top of him began to struggle to get off.
"Lord Woodrow?"
The darkness surrounding them was suddenly relieved when the carriage door was yanked open above them and the driver peered in with a lit lantern in hand. It was then Richard realized the carriage had come to a halt on its side. He grunted as the man on top of him unintentional y jabbed him in the side as he struggled to sit up. The fel ow then reached up for the opening and began to pul himself out, but it wasn't until he was halfway through the opening, his face lit up by the driver's lantern that Richard knew it was Robert.
"Damn, Richard, get off me, I can't breathe," Daniel gasped beneath him, apparently recognizing Robert as wel . Richard immediately began to move, doing his best not to elbow or otherwise poke his friend as he did. Of course, that was impossible and he muttered several apologies as he shifted his weight to the side. Kneeling in the overturned carriage, he then turned back to ask, "Are you al right?"
"Battered and bruised, but otherwise fine I think," Daniel said grimly, sitting up beside him. "You?"
"The same," Richard said on a sigh and then glanced up to the opening and the stil waiting driver. Robert was now also peering back in at them.
"What happened?" Daniel asked his driver as he stood and began to pul himself through the opening.
"I'm not sure, my lord," the driver said unhappily. "We were riding along fine and then I heard a crack, and the carriage pitched and began to rol . Fortunately, the carriage body snapped just behind the boot and the horses weren't dragged with it or they would have died for certain."
"And you weren't hurt?" Richard heard Daniel ask the man as he fol owed him out of the carriage.
"I was tossed, but landed on a bush. I'm al right," the man muttered, and then added with disgust, "But the coach is a wreck. I don't think it can even be fixed."
"As long as everyone is al right," Daniel said and raised an eyebrow in question at Robert.
"Fine," the other man assured him, easing to the edge of the carriage to leap down. "I got an elbow in the face during one of the rol s and wil probably have a black eye, but otherwise am fine."
Daniel grunted at this news and moved to inspect the two wheels on the upraised side of the carriage. Richard shifted to the edge of the carriage to look them over as wel , but both seemed fine so they fol owed Robert to the ground and moved to peer at the broken wheel.
"That's a rather straight break," Daniel muttered suspiciously as they peered at the spokes.
"You think they were cut?" Richard asked peering at what remained attached to the carriage.
"Those three spokes certainly look like they could have been," Daniel pointed out. "The rest are more splintered and natural-looking breaks. They probably snapped under the pressure when those three gave way."
Richard frowned at the suggestion and straightened to glance around. "I agree.
The question is if it was deliberate, who did it and why? And when?"
"The why is easy," Daniel said quietly. "As far as George's kil er knows, the poison didn't work. As for when . . ." He peered back at the broken wheel. "It couldn't have been done in town. There were four of us in the carriage this morning on the way to Radnor. The wheel would have given out under that kind of weight before we left London. Besides, you weren't even in my carriage on the way out of town."
"So it was done at Radnor or one of the three stops since we left," Richard reasoned and glanced around again. He didn't doubt for a minute he was the target, but he was more concerned with the possibility that someone may have fol owed them from London and might yet be fol owing them.
"Is that a carriage I hear?" he asked suddenly.
"Yes, and it's moving quickly. We'd best get off the road." Daniel cal ed to his driver to warn him and the man immediately urged the horses onto the grassy verge.
He then moved back to the edge of the road with his lantern and lifted it in the air to swing it back and forth to get the attention of the approaching vehicle.
"A coach and six," Robert muttered as the vehicle careened around the bend and into view on the moonlit lane. The oncoming coachmen spotted Daniel's driver and swerved to miss him. He didn't slow, however, but raced right past them.
"Wasn't that - ?" Robert began.
"Yes," Richard said grimly, having recognized the Radnor coach with Christiana, Suzette and Lisa al gaping out the window at them.
"I did tel you they would not take our leaving sitting down," Robert said with amusement.
"You didn't say they would fol ow," Daniel pointed out.
"Why spoil the surprise?" Robert laughed.
Richard rol ed his eyes and then watched the Radnor coach return from the direction it had gone. He wasn't surprised to see it returning. However, he was surprised when it pul ed to a halt next to them and the women did not immediately pile out exclaiming with concern over their wel -being after their accident. Instead, it sat silent and stil , the driver glancing uncertainly from the men to the stil closed coach door and back.
"Time to face the music," Robert said dryly, heading for the door.
Daniel grunted and then glanced to his own driver and ordered him to tie the leads of their horses to the back of the Radnor carriage and then join the driver on the front. They would stop at the next inn to leave the horses. Daniel's driver would stop there as wel to arrange for someone to col ect the broken carriage and see if it could be fixed.
"Hel o ladies," Robert said cheerful y as he opened the carriage door and got inside.
There was a polite chorus of hel os and then silence, Richard noted as he approached the open door. Glancing in, he saw that Robert had settled next to Christiana on one bench seat, leaving Suzette and Lisa on the other. His gaze moved over the women's sour expressions as they peered back at him and he sighed, but said, "Hel o ladies," as he entered as wel . This time, however, there was no response and thick silence reigned as he squeezed onto the bench seat between Robert and Christiana. There was also no response when Daniel entered with the same greeting. It was obvious the women were holding him and Daniel responsible for leaving without them, and despite being with them, Robert was not being held accountable. At least not by Christiana and Suzette, Richard thought as he tried to find a comfortable position on the seat. Lisa alone was glaring at Langley. The carriage started forward then, and Richard found himself jolted and then tossed against Christiana as they turned to head toward London. He quickly tried to ease back to give her more room, but found himself pressing uncomfortably against Robert to do so. Muttering with irritation, he gave up trying to force more space on the narrow seat and simply lifted Christiana onto his lap and slid over into her spot. the narrow seat and simply lifted Christiana onto his lap and slid over into her spot.
"Put me down," Christiana cried at once.
"This is more comfortable," Richard said.
"Perhaps for you," she snapped.
"For you too," he said confidently, relaxing and wrapping his arms around her waist. "You are just too angry at me to admit it."
She twisted sideways across his lap to scowl at him and asked, "Why ever would I be angry at you? Just because the three of you snuck out like a trio of cowards leaving the poor pastor to explain you'd headed back to London without us?"
"We thought we were doing you a favor at the time," Richard said quietly. "You would have been much more comfortable waiting at Radnor with your maids."
"The maids are fol owing in Robert's carriage," she announced, and then added grimly, "And if you'd thought you were doing us a favor, you would have told us yourselves you were leaving."
"I didn't say I thought you would believe it a favor," he said calmly. "Just that we knew it was."
Christiana snorted and turned away, folding her arms angrily across her chest.
"Oh, aye, we would have been terribly comfortable waiting at Radnor not knowing what was happening and worrying ourselves sil y. My, I can't think why we fol owed you with so much to look forward to."
"Wel , I'm glad you did. Thank you. We could have been stuck out there on the road al night," he said solemnly. Christiana stil ed, and then turned to peer at him suspiciously in the light cast by the lantern outside the window. After a moment, she relaxed enough to ask, "What happened?"
"It looks like three spokes in the front left wheel may have been cut. The whole wheel col apsed under the stress when they gave," he answered promptly, deciding there was no sense keeping the information from the women. It was better if they were prepared and had an eye out for trouble too. Christiana turned sharply to peer at him. "Cut? Are you certain?"
Richard hesitated. "Not completely, but the breaks on three spokes side by side were almost straight across while the others were jagged and splintered."
"George's poisoner?" she asked unhappily.
"That would be my guess," he acknowledged.
"What? George was poisoned?" Suzette asked at once, and Richard glanced over to see that Daniel had drawn the young woman onto his own lap to make room on their side of the carriage. Suzette was sitting, arms crossed and expression grim like her sister, apparently not real y happy to be there either.
"It seems George may have been poisoned," Christiana explained. "Daniel and Richard smel ed bitter almonds by his mouth."
"Almonds aren't poisonous," Suzette said at once.
"Bitter almonds are used to make cyanide," Lisa explained solemnly, drawing every eye her way. Shrugging, she said, "I read a lot."
"She does," Suzette said dryly and then turned to Christiana. "What else don't we know?"
"You know everything I know now," she assured her. "And I only found out about the poison after the wedding. I just hadn't yet had a chance to tel you."
Suzette nodded and then turned to spear Daniel with a look. "What else?"
"That's it," he assured her.
"And why didn't you tel me yourself before this?" Suzette asked.
"It wasn't my secret to tel ," he said simply.
"Where have I heard that before?" she asked dryly, turning back to face forward again, apparently not appeased.
"So we have a murderer as wel as a blackmailer," Lisa murmured thoughtful y.
"Or do we think they are the same person?"
Richard and Daniel exchanged glances.
"They don't know," Suzette said for them when neither man spoke.
"Wel . . ." Lisa frowned. "Surely it wouldn't be easy for someone to get poison inside the townhouse without being discovered?"
Richard almost piped up to say that they had got George out without discovery, but then realized that wasn't true. Daniel had been caught in Suzette's room by Suzette, and he would have been caught there too had he not thrust the body at the man and rushed out to lead the women downstairs. He hardly could have done that were he a stranger to the house. Had he been a stranger, they both would have been caught in Suzette's room. Perhaps it wouldn't have been easy for an outsider to get the poison in undiscovered.
"So it is probably someone in the townhouse who did it," Christiana fol owed her reasoning.
"Someone could have paid one of the servants to do it," Suzette suggested.
There was silence as everyone contemplated that. It seemed the most likely scenario, but no one was eager to embrace it. Members of the ton depended on the steadfast loyalty of their servants. Without it the number of scandals made public would probably treble. Of course, it happened on occasion that a servant wasn't as loyal as one would hope, but it was never something anyone wished to consider.
"I shal have to question the servants when we arrive back in London," Richard said with a sigh, acknowledging that a betrayal by one of the staff was most likely what had happened.
"That leaves the blackmailer . . . if it isn't the same person who paid someone on staff to administer the poison," Lisa said.
"It is someone who knew what George did last year and that he took Richard's place," Christiana said, her expression thoughtful. "There can't be many who know that. I hardly think he would trust that information to many people."
"No," Richard agreed, and asked, "Who among his friends do you think he would have trusted with the information?"
Christiana snorted at the question. "You are asking me? I daresay you would know that better than I. I haven't even an idea who his friends were. No one ever came to cal , and he certainly didn't deign to tel me where he was going or with whom when he went out."
"Do you have any idea, Daniel?" Richard asked, glancing to his friend.
He shook his head. "I have been stuck at Woodrow since Uncle Henry died last year, trying to bring the estate back up to scratch. I only left because I received your letter from America. I didn't even know you - or George pretending to be you - had married. I have no idea what he's been up to this last year or with whom."
"It shouldn't be too difficult to find out," Robert put in. "There's nothing the ton loves more than a good gossip. A question here or there should tel us who George considered a trusted friend."
"So we need to question the staff, as wel as nose out any gossip we can about what George was up to this last year and with whom . . . and I need to make arrangements for the money." Richard paused and glanced around the shadowed faces in the carriage. "Can anyone think of anything else we might do to solve matters?"
Silence was his answer as everyone looked at each other and then Daniel said,
"I guess we shal have to start with that and hope we uncover some useful information."
Richard nodded, and then glanced to Christiana as she suddenly shifted on his lap. He thought she was trying to get off him and grabbed her hips to hold her in place, but found himself staring at her derriere as she leaned down to col ect something from under the seat. He quite enjoyed the view and was rather disappointed when she straightened, bringing a large basket with her.
"What's that?" Robert asked curiously from beside him as she began to dig through its contents.
"We had Cook pack some food for the journey while we waited for the carriage to be readied," Christiana answered.
"Food?" Richard asked hopeful y, his attention immediately shifting to the basket as his stomach growled hungrily. He hadn't eaten since the stop at Stevanage for lunch.
"Yes." She turned to peer down her nose at him. "Did you three not think to have a basket prepared before sneaking off like thieves?"
She was stil annoyed with him then, Richard acknowledged with a sigh as he shook his head. That being the case, he was sure the women would refuse to share with them as punishment.
He was proven wrong when Suzette suddenly leaned down and dragged out a second basket under the opposite bench seat as Christiana said, "Then
'tis fortunate we brought enough for everyone."
A kiss on her forehead and Richard's whispered, "Wake up, sleeping beauty.
We are almost home," are what woke Christiana. Blinking her eyes open, she peered about the dark interior of the carriage noting that Daniel was waking Suzette much the same way, while Robert had leaned forward to shake Lisa's leg to wake her. Forcing herself to straighten, she glanced out the window to see that while the sky was lightening, dawn was stil a good distance off. They'd made good time, she realized, her gaze moving over the dark buildings lining the road they were traversing. She's just recognized it as their street when the carriage stopped in front of the townhouse.
Robert was the first to alight. He then offered Lisa a hand to help her disembark.
After the long hours in the carriage, Christiana found her legs stiff and shaky under her when she moved to fol ow and was grateful for Robert's hand when he held it out. Even with it, she stumbled a bit, and then gasped with surprise as Richard stepped down and quickly swept her up in his arms.
"I can walk, husband," she whispered with embarrassment as he carried her up the path to the front door of the townhouse.
"But I like carrying you," Richard whispered back, amusement in his voice.
Christiana peered at his face in the darkness to see that he was smiling, and then glanced over his shoulder as Suzette stumbled sleepily out of the carriage next.
It made her feel better to know she wasn't the only one unsteady on her feet after a day and night of travel.
"Can you get the door?" Richard asked, drawing her attention again.
Christiana glanced to the door in front of them and reached down to open it for him, giving it a push to send it swinging open. Richard immediately carried her across the threshold. He didn't set her down then as she'd expected, but simply started up the stairs with her stil in his arms.
"Should we not wait for everyone else?" she asked, glancing back toward the stil open door.
"They wil be fine," Richard assured her. "We discussed it as you slept and rather than wake the servants to prepare another room, Daniel and Robert are going to share the guest room Grace made up for me the night before we left. We wil al get a couple of hours' sleep and then start into our investigations and plans for the day."
"Oh," Christiana murmured, hardly hearing the last part of what he'd said. She was contemplating that with Daniel and Robert sharing the guest room, Richard would be sharing her bed . . . which was perfectly appropriate now that they were married, of course, but Christiana found herself suddenly nervous at the prospect.
She would have to undress in front of him. Richard would disrobe in front of her too. And which side of the bed would he prefer? Should she let him undress and get in bed first so he could pick his side? But then he would be free to just lie there and watch as she disrobed, Christiana realized. Besides, why did he have more right to first choice of which side of the bed to sleep in? It was her bed, she reminded herself. Christiana was stil fretting over the matter when Richard said, "Can you get the door again, please?"
When she pushed the bedroom door open, he carried her in and straight to the bed. Richard set her down beside it and then immediately went back to close the door. Christiana shifted nervously, her hands fluttering to her gown and away as she realized she could not reach the fastenings at the back on her own. She glanced to Richard, considering how to ask for his help, but in the next moment the question slipped from her mind and her jaw dropped. He was coming toward her, removing and discarding his clothes along the way. The dark coat went first, the vest and cravat fol owed and he was dressed only in his trousers and hessians as he moved to sit on the bed. Christiana watched blankly as he removed his boots, then he straightened and his trousers joined them on the floor so that he stood before her completely nude.
She was busy staring at al that had been revealed when Richard suddenly caught her by the shoulders and turned her. Christiana felt his hands moving down her back as he undid the fastenings of her gown and murmured a thank-you as she felt the material gape to al ow cool air to caress the skin of her back. She then sucked in a startled breath when his hands suddenly slid inside the material and glided around her sides to the front under it until he found and cupped her breasts.
Richard used that hold to pul her back against his chest and Christiana let her breath out on a whoosh as he began nibbling at her neck while caressing her.
For one minute, Christiana was so startled at the suddenness of it al , including the desire that was sent rushing through her, that she simply stood there, unsure what to do. And then she realized that there was little she could do in this position. His arms inside her dress made it impossible for her to reach back and touch him, and his mouth was traveling up her neck, urging her head slightly to the side, but was out of her reach to kiss him.
"We're married," he whispered by her ear, before nipping at it lightly.
"Yes," Christiana breathed as he sucked the lobe into his mouth.
"We haven't consummated it yet though," he added, startling her by swirling his tongue in her ear.
"I - No, I suppose we - ah!" She gasped with surprise as one hand suddenly left her breast to ride down over her stomach and then slide between her legs. The action forced the gown off one shoulder and down her arm to al ow room for the maneuver. Christiana immediately slid her arm out to let the material drop away. She then tugged the material off her other shoulder and removed that arm from its sleeve as wel , leaving the gown to pool at her waist. She was now as bare as he from the waist up, and found it oddly erotic to see his tanned hand cupping her one breast while his other disappeared under the material of her dress. And then he pressed the heel of his hand against her pelvic bone, urging her back more snugly against his growing hardness as his fingers glided over her most sensitive spot.
"I -  Oh," Christiana moaned, now grinding her bottom against him herself. She covered the hand at her breast with one of her own and then used the other to reach back over her shoulder for his head. Christiana managed to catch him by a handful of hair and tugged gently as she turned her head, desperate for him to kiss her. Richard responded at once, covering her mouth with his own as his hands continued to move over her. It wasn't enough and Christiana was sure it would drive her mad if she weren't able to touch him as wel , so managed to slip her arm beneath his and reached back between them to find the hardness pressing so insistently against her. Richard reacted as if she'd burned him, his body stiffening, fingers tightening almost painful y around her breast. Then he suddenly released her and turned her to face him so that he could tug her gown over her hips. The moment the material hit the floor he urged her back against the bed.
Christiana dropped to sit on the edge of it, one hand instinctively reaching out to grab the erection waving before her as he stepped up to the bed. Richard stil ed at once and she glanced up to see that his jaw was clenched, his eyes squinted almost closed and his throat moving as he swal owed. She watched him and let her hand drift lightly over his erection, noting that his eyes immediately closed al the way and his head tipped back as he sucked in a long breath.
Encouraged, Christiana leaned forward and down to run her tongue over the tip, trying to emulate what he did to her. She stil ed briefly as he suddenly caught her head in his hands and said her name in a tight voice, but when he didn't force her head away, she rasped her tongue over him again and then took him in her mouth so that her tongue could reached further down the shaft. That's when he did force her head away, He also urged her to lie back on the bed.
"Was that wrong?" she asked uncertainly as she fel back.
"No," he assured her sounding grim. "It was too right. Much more and I would be useless."
"But you do it to me, and I want to - " Her protest ended on a gasp when he caught her beneath the knees, and pul ed her bottom to the edge of the bed. She started to sit up again then, but fel back with another gasp as he suddenly spread her legs wide, stepped between them and drove himself into her. He paused briefly then and Christiana blinked her eyes open, aware only then that she'd closed them. She immediately wished she hadn't. He stood, peering down at her and she was completely revealed in this position. Before she could cover her nakedness he lifted one of her legs to press against his chest and leaned against it as he reached with one hand to caress her breast. The other then moved between her legs, caressing her again as he began to move inside her and Christiana quickly forgot her self-consciousness and everything else as he pounded vigorously into her, his actions and caresses taking them both to the precipice and over.