"Does she look like a prostitute to you?"
Radcliffe glanced reluctantly at the girl, taking in her plain dress, fresh face, and long, undressed hair.
"She is a country girl," Charlie said when he remained silent. "She is from Oxfordshire. She came to London to find a job as a lady's maid."
"How did she end up at Aggie's, then?"
"Because your dear friend Aggie lured her back to that brothel of hers under the pretext that it was a home for runaways. She fed her, offered her a bed for the night, then locked her up in a room to force her to work for her."
Radcliffe frowned at that but had the good grace not to claim that Aggie would not do such a thing. Instead, he rapped on the roof of the carriage, signaling the driver that he was ready to leave. Charlie and Bessie both relaxed somewhat as the carriage started to move,taking them away from the possibility of the carriage door suddenly opening to reveal a furious Aggie, eager to snatch back her victim.
Charlie cast one last reassuring smile at the girl, then leaned her head back on the carriage seat and turned her face to the window to peer out at the passing night. They had ridden in silence for some time when Radcliffe finally shifted and muttered, "She is not my friend."
Charlie sniffed at that. "You could have fooled me."
"She is not. I have never even been in that establishment before," he said irritably. "Though I don't know why I'm bothering to say so."
She glared at him. "Well, then why the devil would you go there tonight?
And why drag me along with you?"
"I thought you would enjoy it," he snapped.
Charlie snorted. "Oh, aye. I have always fancied the idea of being tied to a bed and whipped." When Bessie gasped, her eyes going round, Charlie managed a stiff smile and reassured her quickly, "It did not go so far. She tied me to the bed, but Radcliffe came ere she used her whip."
"Oh, blessed saint, she is a wicked woman."
"She is a spongy, swag-bellied bawd," Charlie replied with disgust, then bent a glare on Radcliffe. "I notice that while you stuck me with her, you managed to lance yourself a lovely little bit of fluff. I suppose that Glory person was just your way of passing the time while I enjoyed myself?"
Before he could deny it she went on, "Next time you wish to take me somewhere I might enjoy myself, my lord, might I suggest you try one of the clubs or coffee houses? I only tell you this so that I do not find myself somewhere equally enjoyable next time, like oh, I do not know say a castle dungeon or bedlam."
"I take your point," Radcliffe growled.
Grunting in response, Charlie turned to peer out the window again, determined not to say another word to the man tonight. A brothel for God's sake! Wait until Beth heard about this. Her eyes were slipping closed, her mind beginning to drift as she heard Radcliffe ask Bessie where she came from. Already knowing the answer, Charlie allowed their voices to combine with the gentle jostling of the carriage to lull her to sleep.
"Wake up, Charles. We are here."
Opening her eyes, Charlie peered dully at Radcliffe. Her brain was throbbing painfully and it took her a moment to recall even who Charles was. Sighing wearily as recollection returned, she waited as Radcliffe disembarked, then helped Bessie out of the carriage, before stumbling after them and up the path to the front door, which was even now opening to reveal Radcliffe's butler.
"Good evening, m'lords. You had a good night, I hope?"
"Barrels of fun. Stokes. Just barrels," Charlie commented dryly when Radcliffe merely grunted at the question. Ignoring the man's obvious curiosity, she gestured toward the young maid, preparing to explain her presence, but Radcliffe beat her to it.
'This is Bessie, Stokes. She is" He hesitated, a frown tugging at his lips as he debated what to say, then finished simply with, "Lady Elizabeth's maid."
When the old man raised one questioning eyebrow at the girl's sudden and late arrival, Radcliffe added, "She came in by carriage today, and had some difficulty on the journey. No doubt she is hungry and tired. See that she has a nice meal and give her a comfortable room."
Nodding, the old savant turned away, leading Bessie down the hall as the door to the library opened and Beth stepped out.
"I thought you would be asleep by now," Charlie murmured with surprise.
"I was asleep," Beth admitted wryly, then held up a book. "I fell asleep reading." Lowering the book, she glanced curiously about the hall. "Did I hear something about a maid?"
"Aye." Charlie glanced at Radcliffe, then whispered, "I shall explain as I walk you to your room."
Nodding, Beth closed the library door and crossed the hall to lead the way upstairs with Charlie trailing behind her.
They both paused on the steps to turn back at Radcliffe's weary voice.
"I apologize for giving you grief over Bessie. You showed great compassion in involving yourself in her troubles. You er your father would be proud of you, I am sure." On that note, he turned and strode into the library, closing the door quietly behind him.
Beth managed to contain her curiosity all the way up the stairs and along the hall to Charles's room. Once in the bedchamber, however, she turned on her questioningly. Charlie dropped onto the bed and told her everything. The tale sounded somehow more amusing and less frightful as she told it, so much so that they were both rolling on the bed with laughter as she regaled her with her tussle with the whip-wielding Aggie. Beth showed some dismay over Lord Seguin's behavior, however, then anger at Aggie's attempt to force Bessie into such a dishonorable business.
Once Charlie fell silent, Beth sighed and rolled onto her stomach upon the bed to prop her chin in her hands. "You always seem to be the one to have the adventures."
"You could have gone," Charlie reminded her unsympathetically, relaxing upon her back, her hands beneath her head. "I did make the offer."
"Aye, well in truth, I am glad it was you. I should have been terrified in your position." When Charlie remained silent, she asked, "You do not think he really did anything with that girl, do you?"
"Radcliffe? And that prostitute?" Charlie frowned at the thought, finding the very idea troublesome. "Nay," she said at last. "He would not have had the chance."
"Hmm." Beth began to pluck at the coverlet of the bed. "Do you think he was telling the truth when he claimed never to have been there before?"
Charlie shifted irritably and sat up. This was an uncomfortable subject. "I do not know. Are you going to be Charles tomorrow, or am I?"
"Me, please," Beth answered at once, then sat up as Charlie nodded and moved toward the connecting door between bedrooms. "What are you doing?"
"Going to bed."
"But you should sleep in here tonight. You are to be me tomorrow, after all."
"Aye. And we have switched rooms, remember?"
"Oh, yes," she smiled wryly. "I moved my things into your room and yours into here, but forgot about it while I was in the library." Her expression became curious. "What did he say about walking in on your bath?"
"Nothing much. Just that he would apologize," Charlie murmured as she opened the door. "I suppose he forgot tonight."
"No doubt. Goodnight, Charlie."
"Nay," Charlie murmured with a sigh. "I meant.I am Beth now. As of now I am Beth and you are Charles."
Her sister smiled slightly at that. "Then should we not switch clothes?"
"Oh, yes." Pulling the door closed, Charlie began to remove her clothes.
When she got to her braies, she suddenly suggested. "You had best roll up one of our stockings and tuck it in your braies on the morrow Just so the tailor does not notice anything amiss."
"Hmm." Beth sighed as she removed her gown. "It will be nice when we have more than one set of clothes each."
"Tomorrow should take care of that," Charlie agreed dryly. There was nothing more annoying in this life than a fitting. Prior to now, she had always managed to avoid those boring hours of being poked and jabbed at with pins.
Usually she would show up late, then claim that since she and Beth were the same size and Beth was already being measured for it, there was no sense in wasting time measuring her as well. Beth could see them both fitted out. That argument had worked wonderfully for years now. In this case it would not. If she was to be Elizabeth on the morrow she alone would have to suffer the dressmaker's attention. Perhaps she would get lucky and it would go quickly.
Charlie should have realized by now that Lady Luck was not exactly feeling generous towards her. After all, had she not found herself engaged to a murderous brute, at the mercy of a whip-wielding harridan, and clobbered over the head by a falling lady's maid all within the last week?
She supposed she should not be surprised then that the seamstress kept her all the day through, tucking, measuring, pinning, and prodding. By the time the woman announced her chore finished and gathered her cloths and workers together to depart, Charlie was nearly ready to break down in tears of relief. She considered lying down for a nap, for as boring as her day had been she could not help but be wearied by it, but decided to relax in the library with a book and a cup of tea. After asking Bessie to fetch her some of the soothing liquid, she retired to the library and walked idly along the rows of books, pulling one from the shelves, leafing through it in a desultory fashion, then slipping it back and moving to find another. Charlie was not big on reading. She was more a doer than a reader of others' doings. In the end, nothing really tickled her fancy and she was relieved when Bessie arrived with the tea to distract her.
Moving to sit in the chair by the fire, she watched Bessie pour her a cup from the service she had brought. The girl was wearing a plain gray gown that had seen better days but was clean and serviceable. She was also looking far more cheerful today and less as if the world could be coming to an end at any moment.
When the maid straightened and offered her a warm smile before heading for the door, Charlie forestalled her leaving with a quick question."Have you settled in nicely?"
Bessie paused and turned back, smiling widely. "Oh, aye. Thank ye, miss. Mr.
Stokes is most kind, as is the rest of the staff. Well, except for cook, but Joan, the housekeeper, she told me he is the, er, temporaritalNo, that's not it." Pausing, her brow puckered slightly and she hesitated, then tried again.
"Temperamental?" Charlie suggested, and the girl's face brightened at once.
"Aye, that's it. He's the temperamental sort, she said. Though I think he's just mean. Everyone seems scared stiff o' him. Even Stokes steps lightly around him, if ye know what I mean." She tilted her head to the side thoughtfully and murmured, "He's like Lord Kentley's valet where me mum works at Woodstock. He's a nasty old sot 'cause he knows he can be. No one would dare dress him down fer it Except perhaps Lord Kentley himself, but then the valet would ne'er be, er, tempermeanal with him"
Charlie frowned slightly at that news. She had heard quite a bit of banging and shouting coming from the kitchens earlier, mere moments after Beth and Radcliffe had left, in fact, and had wondered what was about. The answer seemed to be that the cook had been having some sort of outburst. She wondered if Radcliffe realized that his cook behaved so when he was not about. The man's meals were passable at best; he was hardly in a position to make harassing the staff acceptable behavior. She would have said as much to Bessie, but just then they both heard the front door open.
Turning, the maid moved to open the library door, allowing Beth's excited voice to float in to Charlie moments before her flurried footsteps echoed up the stairs. Bessie closed the door then and turned back to beam at her. "Lord Charles is home."
Eyebrows rising slightly, Charlie nodded. "So he is."
"He is such a nice man and ever so handsome," Bessie went on, adoration obvious in her eyes. "I'll be forever grateful for his saving me from Aggie's. I don't know what I would have done had he not."
"Aye, well," Charlie began uncomfortably, but paused when Radcliffe entered the room.
"Oh!" He halted in the doorway upon spotting them. "I am sorry, I did not realize anyone was inhere."
Relief adding warmth to her smile, Charlie beamed at him. " 'Tis all right, I was just about to have a cup of tea. Would you care for some?"
Radcliffe hesitated, then nodded.
"I shall fetch another cup," Bessie murmured, hurrying from the room.
Radcliffe watched her go, then moved to join Charlie. "She seems a nice enough lass. How is she working out?"
"Very well. She is quite competent as a lady's maid"
"Good," he murmured, settling into the seat across from her before actually looking at her. When he did, his gaze seemed suddenly arrested.
Charlie shifted uncomfortably under his sudden intense stare. "Is something wrong?"
"Wrong?" he murmured faintly, then seemed to snap out of his almost dazed state and smiled brilliantly. "Nay. Nothing is wrong. You look quite lovely today."
"Thank you, my lord," she murmured selfconsciously.
"There is something different about you somehow."
Charlie stilled in surprise at that comment. Could he tell the difference between her and Beth? she wondered a bit frantically. Nay, he could not.
Only their mother and father had ever been able to tell them apart. To everyone else they were identical. Her gaze dropped to her lap under his continued stare, and she blinked at the lavender material, understanding making her relax. "It is simply the new gown. I have worn the same one for days now."