The Accidental Countess

“When selecting poultry for cooking, choose a chicken with soft yellow feet, short thick legs, and a plump breast. First, kill the chicken by wringing its neck . . . ”
-Emily Barrow’s Cook Book

Chapter One

Falkirk House, England

Cool hands sponged his forehead. Stephen Chesterfield fought against the darkness that threatened to pull him into oblivion once more. Pain lashed his skull, ripping through him in violent waves. His mouth felt lined with cotton batting, and his body ached with vicious pain.

“Drink,” a woman said, lifting a cup of warm tea to his mouth. It tasted bitter, but he swallowed. “You’re very lucky, you know.”

Lucky? He felt as though someone had cracked his skull in two. He hadn’t even the strength to open his eyes to see who was tending him.

“How am I lucky?” he managed to whisper. Lucky to be alive, she’d probably say.

“You’re lucky I haven’t got any arsenic for this tea,” she remarked. “Or another poison, for that matter. Otherwise, you’d be dead by now.” A warm poultice dropped across his forehead, scented with herbs.

“I beg your pardon?” His knuckles clenched around the bedcovers, and he forced his eyes open. The room blurred, and he tried to grasp his surroundings. Where was he? And who was this woman?

The creature intending to murder him had the face of an angel. Her hair, the color of warm honey, was pulled back into a loose chignon. Long strands framed a face with tired amber eyes. Despite the hideous serge mourning gown, she was rather pretty, though her cheeks were thin.

She was familiar, but her name hovered on the outskirts of memory. Like a childhood acquaintance, or someone he’d known long ago.

“You broke your promise. If it weren’t for you, my brother would still be alive.” Anguish lined her voice, eroding the waspish anger. Her eyes glistened, but she kept her chin up.

She blamed him for her brother’s death? There had to be a mistake. He didn’t even know who she was, much less her brother.
He pulled off the poultice, and glared at her. “Who are you?”

She blanched. “You don’t remember me?” The question held sardonic disbelief. “And here I thought this day could not get any worse.” With a clatter, she set the saucer down.

He had little patience for her frustration. Damn it all, he was the one who’d been wounded. And each time he tried to reach back and seize the memories, it was as if they faded into smoke. What had happened to him?

“You didn’t answer my question,” he responded. “What is your name?”

“My name is Emily.” She leaned in, her gaze penetrating. Almost as if she were waiting for him to say something.

Hazy bits of the past shifted together. Emily Barrow. The Baron of Hollingford’s daughter. My God. He hadn’t seen her in nearly ten years. He stared hard at her, unable to believe it was true. Though her rigid posture proclaimed her as a modest woman of virtue, he remembered her throwing rocks at his carriage. And climbing trees to spy on him.

And kissing him when he’d been an awkward, adolescent boy.

He shook the thought away, thankful that at least some of his memories remained. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here.” With an overbright smile, she added, “Don’t you remember your wife?”

Her revelation stunned him into silence. His wife? What was she talking about? He wasn’t married.

“You must be joking.” He wasn’t an impulsive man. He planned every moment of every day. Getting married to a woman he hadn’t seen in years wasn’t at all something he would do. Unless he’d gotten extremely deep in his cups one night, she had to be lying. And by God, if Emily Barrow thought to take advantage of him, she would be sorry for it.

“I would never joke about something like this.” She held out the cup of tea, but he dismissed it. He had no intention of drinking anything she gave him. His vision swam, and a rushing sound filled his ears. Closing his eyes, he waited for the dizziness to pass.

When the world righted itself, he studied the room. Heavy blue drapes hung across the canopied bed, while bookcases overflowing with books filled another wall. The pieces of remembrance snapped together as he recognized his bedchamber within Falkirk House, one of the country estates. For the life of him he didn’t know how he’d gotten here.

“How long have I been at Falkirk?”

“Two days.”

“And before that?”

She shrugged. “You left for London a week after our wedding. I haven’t seen you since February. Why don’t you tell me where you’ve been?”

He tried to reach for the memory, but nothing remained, not even the smallest fragment of a vision. Like a gaping hole, he’d lost a part of himself. It frustrated the hell out of him, having pieces of his life gone. He could remember most of his childhood and adolescence. He even recalled working upon a list of accounts for one of the estates in January. But after that, he recalled nothing.

“What day is it?” he asked, trying to pinpoint the last memory he had.

“The twentieth of May.”

He clenched the bedcovers. February, March, April, almost all of May . . . three and a half months of his life were entirely gone. He closed his eyes, trying to force himself to remember. But the harder he struggled, the worse his head ached.

“Where were you?” she asked. There was worry inside her tone, though he found it hard to believe she cared. Not after she’d threatened to poison him.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “But I certainly don’t remember getting married.”

“You might not remember it, but it’s true.” Her back stiffened in defiance.

Something was wrong, something she wasn’t telling him. There was a desperate air about her, as though she had nowhere else to go. Likely he’d caught her in the lie.

“You are welcome to leave,” he suggested. “Obviously my return offended you.”

Tears glimmered in her eyes, and softly, she replied, “You have no idea what I’ve been through. I thought I’d never see you again.”

She dipped the cool cloth back into the basin, wringing out the water. Then she set it upon his forehead, her hand grazing his cheek. The gesture was completely at odds with her sharp words.

“You’re not my wife.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, drawing his gaze toward her silhouette. A bit on the thin side, but the soft curve of her breasts caught his eye. The top button of her gown had come loose, revealing a forbidden glimpse of skin.

“Yes, I am.” She lowered her arms, gathering her courage as she stared at him. But her full lips parted, her shoulders rising and falling with a quickening breath. The fallen strand of golden hair rested against the black serge, a coil of temptation, beckoning him to touch it.

She’d never been able to tame her hair, even as a girl. He’d helped her with hairpins on more than one occasion, to help her avoid a scolding.

Now the task took on an intimacy, one more suited to a husband. Had he truly married her? Had he unbuttoned her gowns, tasting the silk of her skin? From the way she drew back, he didn’t think so.

“I want to see a doctor,” he said, changing the subject.

“Dr. Parsons examined you last night. I’m to change your bandages and keep the wound clean. He’ll return tomorrow.” She lifted the lip of the teacup to his mouth again, but he didn’t drink.

The china clattered, revealing her shaking hands. Despite her bitterness, there was a look on her face that didn’t quite match her words. He caught a glimpse of something more . . . something lost and lonely. He forced himself not to pity her. For God’s sakes, the woman had threatened to kill him.

At last, she gave up and set the cup down. “I didn’t poison this cup,” she said with reluctance. “There wasn’t any arsenic to be had.”

“Laudanum would work,” he advised. “In large doses.” Though why he was offering suggestions, he didn’t know.

“I’ll remember that for next time.” Color stained her cheeks, but she didn’t smile.

“Why did I marry you?” he asked softly.

She picked up the tray containing the teapot and cup. “You should rest for a while. I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Later, that is.”

“I want to know now. Sit down.”

She ignored him and moved toward the door. He might as well have been ordering a brick wall to sit. If the unthinkable had happened, if he really and truly had gone off and gotten married, one thing was certain. He had lost more than his memory.
He’d lost his mind.

From the book The Accidental Countess
Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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