The Countess
Chapter Seven

 Lynsay Sands

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Richard pressed an ear to Suzette's door, trying to hear what was happening inside so he could decide how to proceed. He couldn't just knock on the door and ask for Daniel, the man wasn't supposed to be in there. But if anything scandalous was happening in that room, he bloody wel would. Suzette wasn't legal y his sister, but he felt a certain responsibility to the young woman. She was staying in what was ultimately his home, under his protection, and while he didn't think Daniel would do anything like debauch Christiana's sister, something was holding him up. He'd barely made out the sound of soft murmurs when the opening of a door further up the hal made Richard straighten abruptly. Instinct had him shifting quickly away from Suzie's door to prevent being caught loitering outside it and by the time Lisa stepped into the hal from Christiana's room, Richard was walking toward her as if merely heading for his own bed.
"Oh." Blushing at being caught in her nightgown and robe, Lisa managed a weak smile and murmured, "I just wanted to have a word with Chrissy."
"Of course," Richard said as they passed each other. He then continued to the door to his room. Once there, he glanced over his shoulder and - seeing Lisa by her own door, biting her lip as she watched him - he forced a smile and turned the knob . . . only the knob didn't turn.
"Oh! We forgot to unlock it," Lisa said softly and scurried up the hal toward him.
She patted her pockets as she came as if the key might be in her robe.
Halfway to him, she paused with dismay. "Suzie has the key."
She whirled back as if to rush to Suzette's door to get the key from her sister, but Richard forestal ed her by saying, " 'Tis al right. Let her sleep. I wil go through Christiana's room. We can unlock the door on the morrow."
Lisa paused and glanced back, then merely stood there looking uncertain. Afraid she might stil go to Suzette and catch Daniel inside, he quickly moved to the door of Christiana's room. Richard paused there briefly, but final y murmured good night, opened the door and slipped into Christiana's room. He had known she would be awake, of course. After al , Lisa had just left.
Perhaps it was because of that he'd expected to find her stil ful y clothed and up, perhaps chatting with her maid. However, a quick glance around the room revealed no maid, and he wondered when the servant had left.
When a soft gasp sounded from his left, Richard turned to spot Christiana in the bed. She popped up into a sitting position at once, and gaped at him with a combination of horror and surprise similar to the expression she'd had on her face at the bal . It seemed obvious he was the last person she'd expect to see here in her room which seemed odd since she thought him her husband. Before he could consider that too deeply, his attention turned to the fact that her bed coverings had slipped to reveal the bodice of her nightgown, a lovely lacy, rose confection that made her slim figure seem ful er. Al thought pretty much stopped right then and it wasn't until she grabbed the blanket and yanked it up to cover herself that his brain began to function again, although his thoughts were a little slow, as if moving through molasses.
Finding himself unable to turn away from the vision she made, he began to move sideways in the direction of the door to the master bedroom, murmuring a pained,
When she raised her eyebrows, he realized a little more than "Ah" was required here, and managed, "Sorry, just passing through. My door is locked. The other one I mean, the one that leads to the hal . So I'm using this one."
"Oh." Christiana's eyes widened slightly, and then she began to push the linens and blankets aside. "Shuzie has the key to your door. I'l get it."
"No, no," Richard put his hands up in alarm and began to move a little more swiftly, sidling toward the door like a scrabbling crab as more and more of her in the real y very attractive gown was revealed. "I'l just go this way. It's fine. You just - "
Richard stopped protesting, and rushed forward to catch her as she started to get out of bed, tangled one foot in the bed covers and pitched forward. Fortunately, he reached her in time to prevent her tumbling to the floor, and caught her against his chest instead. He then moved back enough to ask, "Are you al right?"
Christiana stared silently up into his face, a rather dazed look on her own and he found his attention focusing on her lips, noting that they were ful and slightly parted as if awaiting a kiss. He had the sudden mad urge to do just that, press his lips over hers and slide his tongue out to explore her mouth. He may even have fol owed through on that urge had the strong odor of whiskey not reached his nose. It then struck him that she'd slurred her sister's name and he suddenly remembered the conversation he'd heard while hiding in the room up the hal with Daniel. The women had been talking about some drink or drinks Langley had given Christiana. Hard liquor. The woman was soused.
"Can I see your bottom now?"
Richard blinked at the bizarre request. "What?"
"Did I say that aloud?" she asked with a frown.
A surprised laugh slipped from Richard's lips, and he eased her gently away. "I believe it may be best if you got back in bed, my lady."
"I'l show you yours if you show me mine," she offered, and then tilted her head and muttered, "I think I said that wrong."
"Yes, wel ," Richard hesitated, an image rising up in his mind of her turning, and yanking her nightgown up. Oddly enough, it was a tempting offer. Giving his head a shake, he urged her toward the bed. "I managed to translate and while it is a most kind offer, I fear I am going to have to refuse it."
She gave a long sigh, "It always works with Lisa."
That brought him to a halt. His voice was choked when he asked, "You and your sister look at each other's bottoms?"
"No, our embroidery," she said with exasperation, "Why would I want to see her bottom?"
"I have no idea," he admitted weakly.
She muttered something under her breath that sounded like "Dumb Earl Dicky"
and crawled onto the bed now of her own accord, her silk-covered bottom waving briefly in front of him before she twisted to sit on it. Peering at him then, she frowned. "Wasn't there something I was shupposed to do?"
Richard cleared his throat. "Sleep. You are to sleep, and I am to go to my own room now."
But he just stood there and stared at her sitting in the center of her bed, one strap of the nightgown half off her shoulder, so that the bodice sagged, revealing the top curve of one breast. Had he real y thought her unattractive? He must have been stressed at the idea of confronting his brother and not thinking clearly. She seemed to grow more attractive every time he saw the damned woman.
"I'm sure there was something I was supposed to do."
Her fretful words stirred him from his contemplation of what he could and could not see of her bosom, and Richard forced himself to turn and head for the connecting door. "Nothing important, I am sure. Good night."
He stepped into the bedroom, pushed the door closed and then simply leaned weakly back against it.
"Can I see your bottom now?" he murmured her words with disbelief.
Good Lord, the woman was certainly ful of surprises. From what he'd seen so far, life with her would never be boring. She'd packed her dead husband in ice and gone off to a bal for heaven's sake. Of course, that had been to help her sisters escape ruin. It wasn't as if the scandal would have troubled her much. Christiana had said tonight's bal was her first, and Daniel had verified it in the carriage on the way to the townhouse. It seemed George and Christiana had not been out in society at al this last year. No bal s, teas, no soirees, dinners or plays. And Richard knew why: George had been avoiding society to avoid anyone's twigging to the possibility that he might not be Richard. He supposed the man had planned to avoid society for a year or two and then return after memories had had a chance to fade and the possibility of being caught out was lessened. Which meant Christiana had been forced into seclusion with him, relying on only George for her social outlet.
"Poor woman," he muttered stepping away from the door and then pausing as he realized he was neatly trapped in the locked master bedroom . . . and he'd done it to himself.
"Wel hel ." He glanced back to the door he'd just closed. Going that way was out.
Christiana was wide awake and would just insist on getting the key for him and in so doing discover Daniel in Suzette's room. He didn't want his friend trapped into a marriage to save Suzette's reputation. One of them possibly being stuck in an unwanted marriage was enough. Richard looked around the room for an alternate escape. He could try to pick the lock of the door to the hal , but suspected there wouldn't be anything in the room to accomplish the task.
His gaze final y turned to the window and he grimaced. It looked like if he wanted to meet up with Daniel and take care of George's body, he would be leaving the room the same way he'd first entered it on arriving here tonight, through the window. Shaking his head at the tricks fate seemed to like to play, Richard walked quickly to the bedroom window. Someone had closed it since he and Daniel had snuck George's body out of the room. Richard now reopened it and leaned out to peer about, then straightened abruptly at the sound of the connecting door opening behind him. The abrupt movement had him slamming his head into the window he'd just raised. Cursing, Richard grabbed the back of his head and rubbed it to relieve some of the pain as he turned to see Christiana crossing the room toward him.
"I just remembered! Your valet is sick. I shal have to help you undress," she announced sounding very cheerful as she walked unsteadily toward him.
"My valet?" Richard asked with confusion.
"Is sick." She grinned widely as if the man's being il were quite the most wonderful thing.
"Oh, yes, of course," he murmured as if just recal ing it, and realized he had to be much more careful about such things. There would be much that had happened this last year that he knew nothing about. People he should know that he didn't, conversations he should recal but wouldn't. He would have to be very careful and
- Richard's thoughts died abruptly as he felt a tugging at the back of his breeches.
Christiana had continued forward until she was now behind him and appeared to be trying to pul down his tight knee breeches.
"What are you doing?" he asked with surprise, wheeling around to face her.
"Helping you undress." She tried to get around behind him again.
Richard turned with her. "There is no need for that. I can manage on my own."
"Do not be sil y, Dicky. You died today. You shouldn't undress yourself." She continued to circle him like a bul dog looking for an opportunity to bite, and he just kept turning with her.
Growing dizzy, Richard final y grabbed her arm to stop her, and stated firmly,
"Thank you, but I real y can manage to - " The words died on an exasperated sigh.
The woman wasn't listening. She had given up trying to get to the back of his pants, however, and was now working to remove his dark, double-breasted blue coat. He had undone the buttons before trying to climb the tree earlier. Al she had to do was push it off his shoulders, which she now did from the front, rising up on her tiptoes as she did. She wasn't very steady on her feet, however, and ended up leaning against him, her lace covered breasts pressing against his chest as she worked the material off his shoulders and down his arms.
"There." Smiling brightly, she tossed the expensive coat Daniel had bought him only that day to the side. She then set to work on the white, quilted, singlebreasted Marseil es waistcoat he'd worn beneath. This time she had to undo the buttons, and Richard tried again to dissuade her from the duty.
"Truly, Christiana. There is no need to assist me. I - " Despite obviously being a little unsteady on her feet due to drink, she was surprisingly quick with the buttons and he paused as she now pushed that off his shoulders as wel . This time she did not catch the item of clothing she'd just removed, but let it fal to the floor and simply stood staring wide-eyed. He was now bare from the waist up except for his cravat.
"Oh my," she breathed final y with something like surprised wonder. "What big shoulders you have."
"Er . . . aye, wel . . ." Richard grimaced. She wouldn't have been saying that had she seen him six months ago. He'd been a pitiful shadow of a man after the il ness he'd suffered. Fortunately, he'd fil ed out again since then and was probably more fit now than he had been before George had so disrupted his life and nearly ended it.
Richard shook these thoughts away and glanced sharply to Christiana when she suddenly slid her fingers into the front of his breeches. He thought she was going to try to tug them off from the front as she had tried to do earlier from the back, but then realized she had merely taken hold to steady herself as she dropped to her knees before him.
Even with the hold she had on his breeches, she lost her balance and fel forward, banging her head against his groin before steadying herself. Much to his relief she also then removed her hand from his pants. When she then reached for one of his feet and yanked it out from under him, Richard grunted in surprise and grabbed for the window ledge behind him, leaning heavily against it to stay upright as she lifted his foot between them.
"My, what big feet you have, Dicky."
Richard grimaced. He hated the name Dicky, and would have told her so, but instead grunted again and now held onto the ledge to keep from sliding forward and dropping to his butt as she raised his foot even higher and then rested it against her chest to free her hands so that she could work the buckle of his shoe. Richard simply stared then. His shod foot was nestled between her breasts like a lover's head and he had the sudden mad thought that he'd rather his face was there.
He was actual y disappointed when his shoe slid off, until she resettled his now unshod foot against her chest again to set to work on his stockings. Richard stayed completely stil , hardly breathing as he stared at the way the curves of her breasts cuddled his stockinged foot. He was hard-pressed not to wiggle his toes to feel the flesh surrounding them, but then his attention was drawn to his legs as she slid both his cotton under-stockings and the top silk ones down at the same time, her fingers gliding over his skin in an unintentional caress. Richard sighed as she raised his foot to remove the stockings entirely, and then she let the foot drop back to the floor. In the next moment, she'd claimed his other foot, however, and rested it where the first had been. Christiana was equal y quick about unbuckling and removing this shoe, and then he again suffered through the innocent caress of her breasts around his stockinged foot and the glide of her fingertips down his leg. It was over much too soon for his liking.
Sighing once she was done, Richard straightened, thinking surely Christiana would consider her duty done now, but apparently not. He was barely upright before she was reaching for the covered buttons on the front of his breeches.
"Christia - " Her name died on a choked gasp as her hands brushed against his groin through the cloth of his breeches as she worked and Richard simply stood there, feeling himself growing beneath this latest unintentional caress and incapable of doing a damned thing about it. Wel , Richard supposed he could grab her hands and force her to stop, but frankly, he didn't want to.
Damn. How could such an innocent touch have such an enervating effect on him? He certainly wouldn't be growing were it a valet helping him undress. The thought died as she got his breeches undone and the proof of her effect on him sprang from his opening breeches to nearly slap her in the face.
"Oh my, Dicky, what a big - " Her words died on a startled gasp as Richard grabbed her by the upper arms and yanked her to her feet. The moment he could reach her mouth he covered it with his own.