The Accidental Countess

By: Michelle Willingham
Chapter One

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

Falkirk House, England—1850

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 wool, 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 out-skirts 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 curtains hung across the canopied bed, while bookcases overflowing with books filled another wall. The pieces of remembrance snapped together as he recognised his bedchamber within Falkirk House, one of the country estates. For the life of him he didn’t know how he’d arrived 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?’

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