You shall be ruined ere you even have your coming out at this rate. Hoping I would take advantage of you, indeed! You are lucky I am not one of those fellows that are taking bets on seeing how many girls they can ruin this season, or you would be ruined already."
When Clarissa paled, tears springing to her eyes, Charlie suddenly felt an idiot. The silly chit was annoying, but she was also innocent and young and Well, hell, that was reason enough for her foolishness. Truly, Charlie supposed most girls in the first bloom of womanhood were equally silly, it was just that usually they had someone to look out for them. Clarissa seemed sadly lacking in that area. Which, Charlie supposed, explained her seeming desperation for someone to pay attention to her.
Shifting uncomfortably as one big fat tear after another rolled down the girl's pale face, Charlie sighed and reached out to pat her awkwardly on the shoulder.
"Do not cry, you are safe with me. I am not taking bets on ruining girls this season," she murmured a bit laconically, sighing when Clarissa suddenly threw herself against her chest, weeping copiously all over the new waistcoat the tailor had delivered only that morning.
"I am an idiot," Clarissa cried in self-loathing, and Charlie frowned.
"Nay. Nay, you are not an idiot, Clarissa. 'Tis just that you must be more careful; all men are not gentlemen. And you certainly must never suggest they take advantage of you." She shuddered inwardly at the thought of what would have happened if the girl had thrown herself at someone likethe Jimmy and Freddy that Beth had been telling her about.
"That was stupid of me," Clarissa admitted with a sniffle. "I am always doing stupid things. It is why no one likes me."
Charlie scowled. "You are not stupid, Clarissa, and I am sure a great many people like you."
"Do you think so?" she asked hopefully.
"Do you like me?"
Charlie forced a smile when Clarissa pulled away to peer up at her. "Of course."
"Then you may kiss me." So saying, she tipped her head up once more, lips puckered and eyes squinted closed.
Charlie pushed her away at once. "You have not heard a word I said!"
Clarissa's eyes blinked open at once. "Aye, I did, and you said I was safe with you, so why can you not kiss me? You said you liked me, Charles!"
Charlie sighed at her reasoning unhappily, then, for want of a better excuse, muttered, "There is such a thing as being too enthusiastic, you know."
Clarissa peered at her uncertainly, but Charlie wasn't too concerned. It seemed to her that she had struck on a way to help keep Clarissa safe and get the girl to leave her alone at the same time. "Truly," she averred, nodding her head.
"Think of a fox hunt. The fox is released to run and hide and the hunters chase after him. The hunters chase because the fox runs. Sometimes they will chase for hours and hours. The longer the chase, the more exciting the victory when the animal is caught. Is this not so?"
"Aye," she agreed uncertainly.
"And were the fox not to run at all, but to simply stand there and allow itself to be caught, where would be the sense in the hunt? It would be no fun, would it?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Well, there you are then." She nodded firmly, sure she had explained it so that the girl understood.
"So, you are saying that you refuse to kiss me and do your best to avoid me to keep me chasing you?"
Charlie blinked at that, her mouth chopping open briefly before she gasped, "Nay! Good Lord, you are impossible. You are the fox."
"But I am not running."
Charlie rolled her eyes and took a deep breath before gritting out, "That is the point. If you wish people to chase you, you should be running in the other direction."
"But I do not wish for people to chase me. I just want you to like me."
Charlie sighed at that, wondering what unlucky fates had decided she should be Charles today and not Beth. "Clarissa, my dear. Men, such as er myself, prefer a chase. It is more interesting and er exciting. We like to"she shrugged helplessly"chase."
Clarissa hesitated, then asked, "You mean to say that were I to run, you would give chase?"
"And you would like that?"
"Well" She shook her head unhappily, then straightened her shoulders and sighed resolutely. "If 'Tis what you wish, Charles." Pausing, she glanced consideringly at the bush that surrounded them, then glanced back. "Which direction shall I ran in?"
Charlie rolled her eyes and groaned. "Clarissa. I was using a metaphor."
"An example," Charlie explained impatiently. "I do not truly wish to dash about the woods after you. I am saying you must pretend that you do not care for me."
She blinked in dismay. "But I do like you."
"I know that, but you should pretend that I do not. You should ignore me, give me the cut direct, do whatever you think necessary to convince me you are not the least bit interested in me."
"But what will you be doing while I am ignoring you?"
"Me? IWell, I shall be admiring you from afar."
She did not look the least pleased with the idea and seemed about to protest, so Charlie blurted out, " 'Tis all the rage. It's considered most romantic."
"Romantic?" She perked up at that.
"Aye, I shall write love poetry about my broken heart."
"And send them to me?" she asked excitedly, bringing a frown to Charlie's face.
"Nay. I am no good at poetry. They shall be horrible and morbid, so I shall crumple them up, throw them into the fire, and suffer most horribly."
"Suffer?" she asked in alarm. "Oh, Charles I do not wish you to suffer."
"Our parish priest says suffering is good for the soul," Charlie told her firmly, taking the girl's arm to lead her back in the direction from which they had come.
"Oh," she murmured as they paused on the edge of the woods. "Well, if you think this is for the best."
"It is definitely for the best," Charlie assured her laconically, then added, "And you must promise me that you shall stay away from anyone named Jimmy or Freddy."
"As you wish, Charles," she murmured dutifully.
"Good girl," Charlie muttered, peering through the bushes at the people beyond.
"No one appears to be looking now. You go on back to the picnic. I shall wait a moment, then follow so as not to attract talk."
"Yes, Charles." Turning, she stepped into the clearing.
Charlie watched her go with a sigh of relief, then moved to lean against the trunk of a tree and wait the appropriate amount of time necessary before returning herself.
Radcliffe moved through the picnickers, his gaze searching the laughing, chatting people for Charles. He had not seen the boy for quite some time and was beginning to worry. More than he really should, he realized on a sigh and shook his head at his own behavior.
As much as he told himself he should concentrate on the sister and avoid the boy altogether, he could not help himself. The moment Charles had traipsed into the breakfast room that morning and beamed a cheerful smile at him, he had realized how impossible the task would be. There was just something magnetic about the boy. Endearing even. He had enjoyed a rousing conversation with the lad at the table about the current political situation and laughed heartily at his wit.
That was not so bad, but when their hands had met as they both reached for the marmalade at the same time, Radcliffe had felt a shock of awareness run through him that had sat him back in his seat with dismay.
It was most distressing. One day he found himself taking advantage of the sister who was supposed to be under his protection and the next he was feeling things for the brother that he had never felt for any member of the male sex in his life. It was all beyond his understanding, and he had decided that it would simply be best if he kept his distance as much as he could from the twins. And he truly would have given both brother and sister a wide berth today had he not already agreed to take them on this picnic. Still, he had managed to avoid them nicely up until now, leaving them in the company of the other young men and women that had been invited on this picnic and placing himself with the older set. He would still be there, talking economics and politics, had Charles not gone missing, he thought with irritation as he reached the spot where Beth stood chatting amicably with Tomas and Clarissa Mowbray.
"Where is Charles?" he asked without preamble, and the threesome turned in surprise at his interruption.
"Charles?" Beth repeated blankly, then glanced about. "Oh, well He was here not long ago, he must have"
"He went for a walk in the woods."
Radcliffe glanced sharply at the young Mowbray girl when she blurted out that answer, and she immediately blushed guiltily under his gaze. "Where?" he demanded.
"In the woods. He umm, wished to get away from the crowd for a bit. No doubt he shall return shortly."
Radcliffe frowned, considering whether it was necessary for him to hunt the boy down, then sighed unhappily. It seemed the wiser thing to do. The lad was in his care, after all. Besides, after the fiasco at Aggie's he did not trust the boy to have the sense of a gnat. No one else he knew could have ended up tied to the bedposts by a whip-brandishing old whore. The boy, he thought to himself, may very well be lost.
Charlie cursed and grabbed at the wig on her head as another branch caught at it, then released her hold on the item to swat at a bug buzzing near her face.
She had never been much of an outdoors sort. Truly, as boring as the picnic had proven to be up to now, she would much rather be back in the clearing, seated at a temporary table,dining on squab and pigeon pie than struggling her way through this thick underbrush headed for heaven knew where. And she certainly would have been, had she not heard a distressed cry just as she'd been about to reenter the clearing. Charlie could not ignore such obvious fear, even when it was that of an animal, and when the cry came again, she had given up the idea of returning to the picnic and started in the direction from which the cries appeared to be coming. They had led her away from the picnic, but closer to the river's edge, she realized as she set her foot down and found it sinking in spongy, damp ground.
Pausing, she stepped back, frowning at the damage to her shoe, then glared at the branches of the bush before her and continued forward once more as the whining became a panicked sort of squealing, whimpering, and mewling.
After a moment the frantic cries were suddenly muffled and Charlie stiffened, the silencing of the sound alarming her more than the actual squeals had. Her throat tight with anxiety, Charlie lunged through the brush and nearly stumbled to her knees in surprise when the undergrowth gave way abruptly to another clearing.
This one was much smaller than the first and held a leathery-faced farmer who was in the process of tossing a squirming sack into the river.
"Nay!" she cried in alarm, but it was too late, the sack was already tumbling through the air toward the water. Without thinking about it, Charlie sped forward, hurtling into the water after the bag. She was quick on land, but the water seemed to drag at her feet, making each step an effort. Still she continued determinedly forward, a frustrated curse slipping from her lips as the sack dropped into the water some ten feet in front of her and immediately sank below the surface, the river swallowing it up, silencing the crazed mewlings the sack emitted.
It seemed like hours to Charlie, but was probably only seconds as she waded to where the sack had landed. Unconcerned that she was soaking herself and ruining a brand-new suit,she bent forward to feel about for it. Relief coursed through her as the top of the sack brushed against her fingers and she was able to grasp it, tugging it quickly out of the water. Holding it aloft, she turned and began to wade out of the water, chanting a prayer under her breath that she had been quick enough.
Reaching the shore, she dropped to her knees on the soft turf, ignoring the farmer who was moving closer as she quickly worked at the knot holding the top of the sack closed until it gave. She tugged the bag open and peered fearfully inside, gasping at the handful of soaking, silky, dark brown puppies that lay inside. She reached quickly in for the top pup, catching him by his back paws and lifting him out of the sack. She had barely moved him clear of the sack when his upside-down position moved him to retch up the water he had swallowed.
Murmuring soothingly, Charlie laid him on the grass and quickly grabbed up the next pup, this time giving a little pat and shake to help urge him on when the pup did not immediately toss up the river water as the first had. Once her urgings had worked, she set the pup aside and reached for the next in the sack.
She repeated the action six more times and managed to save six of the eight puppies. The last two were beyond help and no amount of effort on her part would revive them. Giving up on the last pup, Charlie set him by the first one that had died and sighed unhappily. She stiffened when the farmer, who had stood silently by throughout, shifted and spat on the ground near the two corpses.
"Aye, well, them two's beyond help, but 'twas a fine attempt jest the same, m'lord."
Eyes narrowing to slits, she raised her head slowly and glared at the man, taking in his sun-baked skin, jowly cheeks, and the gray peppering his red hair.
"An' sure enef it was, m'lord. A fine effort. A mighty fine rescue iffen I do say so. Ye saved six out o' the eight of 'em. Now, let's see, that'd be Well, I guess a groat would about cover it, seeing as how there's only six of 'em."
Charlie shook her head in bewilderment. "What?" she asked, glancing distractedly down as one of the six pups she had been able to save struggled weakly to its feet and shifted closer to her before collapsing onto its belly and settling down to some serious licking of her fingers as if in gratitude.