"For the pups," he explained as if to a simpleton, drawing her gaze back to his solemn face. "You rescuing them an' all, I figured on yer wantin' to buy 'em."

"Buy them?" she repeated in disbelief. "Are you mad?"

One rust and gray eyebrow arched at that. "Yer not wantin' to buy them?"

When Charlie merely glared at him, fury and indignation making it impossible to speak, he shrugged and stooped to snatch up the bag she had discarded.

"Well, what'd ye go to all this trouble fer then? Ye jest made more work fer me.

Now I'll be havin' to drown 'em again." So saying, he scooped up the pup who had been licking her fingers and plopped him back in the bag.

"The devil you will!" Charlie roared and made a grab for the bag.

Radcliffe had gone quite a distance with no sign of Charles and had just decided Clarissa had been mistaken when a string of curses and shouts broke out from the woods ahead. He picked up his pace and soon found himself stepping into a clearing where a startling sight met his eyes. At first he merely stood gaping at Charles and a burly farmer playing tug of war with a squirming sack.

The size of the farmer foretold who the winner of the battle would be, and Radcliffe wasn't the least surprised when the lad's hands lost their grip on the sack and he tumbled onto his behind in the damp grass. Radcliffe's mild amusement turned to shock when the farmer then bent to grab up some puppies, and Charles regained his feet and launched himself onto the man's back.

Roaring in surprise and pain as Charles grabbed up handfuls of the man's hair and tugged viciously, the fanner dropped the bag and the pups and straightened abruptly, swatting at the boy as if he were a swarm of bees on his back.

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Charles deftly avoided the first hand that swatted at him, but the second one caught himupside of his head. The boy released a shriek of pain, but held determinedly on to his position.

The blow had more effect on Radcliffe, however, who launched forward, bellowing, "What the devil goes on here?"

The twosome froze. The farmer stilled in mid-blow and glanced guiltily toward him, while Charles heaved a sigh of relief and swiftly slid from the man's back.

"Radcliffe," the lad gasped and took a step toward him, his relief obvious.

He seemed to catch himself then, and glanced from Radcliffe to die farmer, then down at the squinning bag at his feet. Distressed yowls came muffled from inside it.

"What is going on here, Charles?" Radcliffe asked as the lad bent to open the sack and scoop out a furry bundle from inside.

"Leave my dogs alone," the farmer growled as Charles quickly began snatching up the pups nearest.

"Yours!" he snapped back. "You threw them away."

"Aye. And I'll be doing so again should ye not pay for 'em!"

"The devil you will!" Charles snarled and glared at the man.

"The devil I won't!" The brute moved toward the lad then and the boy danced quickly behind Radcliffe, struggling to hold on to the four squirming bodies he had managed to gather. The farmer stopped at once, apparently unwilling to accost a member of the nobility that was not attacking him. Suddenly, frustration crested on the man's face, and he whirled and moved to snatch up one of the two remaining pups. Lifting the animal, he held the body in one beefy hand and took the head with the other.

"No!" Charles shrieked, stepping out from behind Radcliffe when the farmer made asif to break the poor animal's neck. The man paused and arched an eyebrow in enquiry, and Charles turned to glare at Radcliffe, pleading, "Do something!"

Sighing, Radcliffe glanced from his annoying charge to the farmer, then back.

"How can I do anything when I do not know what is happening?"

"Can you not tell? Good God! This, this man"

Radcliffe's eyebrows rose at the way the word was said and nearly laughed since the boy was insulting his own sex, but managed to restrain himself as the lad continued.

"tied these poor creatures in a sack and tossed them into the river to drown. I rescued them and managed to revive six out of the eight of them. Now he expects me to pay for the six who lived or he will throw them back into the water.

Tell him he cannot do that. Tell him." Charles turned to glare at the farmer with an obvious combination of satisfaction and spite, nodding with grim triumph as he awaited Radcliffe's proclamation. That triumph died, transformed into dismay when Radcliffe finally spoke.

"I am afraid he can."

"What?"

"They are his dogs," he answered solemnly.

"His? But he threw them away to drown. He tried to kill them. They would be dead now but for me. II found them."

"They are still his to do with as he wishes," Radcliffe sighed, feeling as if he were letting the lad down by admitting such, and not liking it very much at all.

"There ye are, then." The farmer's barrel chest puffed up with importance.

"So, either ye'll be paying me sixpence for the beasties or I'll be breaking this one here's neck and drowning the rest."

"Sixpence! A minute ago it was a groat."

"That was afore ye attacked me."

The boy glared at the man briefly, then set the squirming mass of puppies down and began digging through the pockets of his jacket, frowning when they came up empty. "I must have lost my money in the water. Pay the man, Radcliffe."

He raised his eyebrows at the order, and the boy grimaced. "You know I am good for it."

Heaving a sigh, Radcliffe dug out a small sack of coins and withdrew a silver one which he handed to the man. The farmer's fierce scowl gave way to a beaming smile as he accepted it. Then he handed Radcliffe the pup he had been holding, gave a slight nod, bent to snatch up the sack still holding the two dead pups, and turned to saunter away.

Radcliffe watched the man swagger off into the trees with distaste, then saw Charles sigh and glance down at the damp puppies that were presently climbing all over each other in an attempt to crawl up his sodden pant legs and gain his attention.

"Poor darlings," Charles murmured, bending to scoop up two more of them. " 'Tis all right.That nasty old man won't hurt you anymore," the lad assured them, cuddling them close to his face, then he caught the raised eyebrows Radcliffe was giving him. Frowning at him slightly as if his behavior were all Radcliffe's fault, Charles glanced toward the two pups still on the ground, then back to him with arched eyebrows. "Do you suppose you could pick up those two?"

Radcliffe blinked at that. "Whatever for?"

"Well, I can hardly carry all six of them by myself, can I?"

His eyebrows drew down with unpleasant suspicion. "Why would you want to, anyway? You do not plan to keep those mutts, do you?"

"What else did you think I would do?" the boy asked with open amazement. "I can hardly leave them here for that farmer to kill later."

"Well, you are certainly not bringing them back to my home," Radcliffe said with a snort.

"My lord." Stokes's smile of greeting as he hurried down the hall toward the open front door two hours later turned into a gasp of surprise as six little brown fur-balls suddenly erupted around his feet. Yipping excitedly, they flew past Radcliffe, dashing wildly if a bit clumsily every which way into the entry, legs flying out from beneath them on the polished marble floor as they tried to sniff everything at once.

His mouth was still agape a moment later as each and every one of the creatures suddenly froze. Tails stiff and quivering excitedly, they lifted their noses upward and sniffed the air briefly, then made a mad dash down the hall toward the kitchens.

"Oh, no you don't!" Charlie cried, leaping past a pained looking Radcliffe and charging after the pups, scooping one after another up into her arms. She grabbed up the last one just as it reached the kitchen door. Turning then with the squirming bundle of bodies caught awkwardly in her arms, she started back down the hall, relieved when a laughing Beth hurried into the house and to Charlie's side to assist her with them.

"Poor darlings." Beth laughed, taking three of them and cuddling them against her chest. "They must be hungry again."

"I do not know how that is possible," Radcliffe sniffed, irritation marring his expression as he pushed the door closed with a decided crash. "They acted more like pigs than puppies at the picnic. After all the food they ate there, they should be full for a week."

Charlie rolled her eyes at that and Beth laughed. "Hardly, my lord. They were adorable at the picnic. Quite a hit. Why, every woman in attendance descended on you and Charlie when you came out of the woods with the little wonders.

They considered both of you to be quite the heroes, once the story of how you rescued them unfolded."

Charlie's lips quirked at Radcliffe's disgruntled expression as he finished removing his gloves and slapped them against his butler's chest. The action finally startled the servant out of his stunned state. He closed his mouth and quickly caught the gloves, then accepted the hat Radcliffe shoved at him.

Radcliffe had not stuck long to his refusal to take the pups home with them.

What else could he do? They could hardly leave them there in the clearing to be killed. When Charlie had pointed that out to him and left the problem as to what to do with the animalsup to him, he had quickly realized there was little other solution but to return home with them temporarily. He had made that as clear as glass. This was a temporary situation and one he did not appreciate.

Charlie was to find a home for the beasts as quickly as possible. And they were not to be allowed to make a nuisance of themselves.

Charlie had promised to keep the pups in her room and out of the way until she found them homes, then happily helped him carry thelittle fur-balls back through the woods to the picnic. As Beth said, the women in the party had descended on them at once when they had reappeared with the pups, cooing and sighing over the furry little monsters. Charlie had been more than aware of Radcliffe's discomfort under the avalancheof attention and had not been surprised when he had extricated himself from the crowd and slipped off to join a group of older men to watch the foofaraw from a safe distance, leaving Charlie to deal with the attention and the puppies both.

Not that she'd had much difficulty with the puppies. She'd had more than enough volunteers to aid in minding and feeding the little creatures. In fact, the other "ladies" had nearly come to blows as they'd fought over who got to hold, pet, and feed them. The pups had been fed the choicest bits of squab and dishes of pigeon pie by every female there. Still, they were puppies. Energetic, happy, bounding everywhere to the delight of the picnic guests, and they now appeared already to be eager for more food.

"Come along, Beth. Let us take them upstairs, then raid the kitchen for them."

Shaking his head in disgust, Radcliffe turned on his heel and strode into the library, no doubt headed for the bottle of port that waited there, Charlie thought with amusement. She led Beth upstairs.

"Oh, my lady. Just look at the gown Madame Decalle sent today," Bessie cried excitedly, holding up the gown she had just unpacked as Beth led Charlie into "Elizabeth's" room. "It arrived only moments ago. Is it not lovely?"

Beth paused in the door, three puppies in her arms and her eyes wide with a combination of dismay and alarm as she stared at the gossamer gown.

Shoving the door closed with one foot, Charlie pushed past her stunned sister and set the puppies she held on the floor before walking over to survey the dress with a smile. "It is lovely, is it not, Bessie?" she murmured, smugly, then glanced toward Beth with amusement. "Faith, Beth, you have amazing taste,"

she complimented, laughter in her eyes as her sister stared at the burgundy gown.

Beth had a preference for prim pastels and classic cuts. And as Beth had always been the one to stand as model for their gowns, Charlie had allowed her to choose the styles. They had spent the past several years dressed in pink, baby blue, white, and cream gowns with necklines that could be called nothing less than respectable.

Charlie's taste, in comparison, was much more dramatic. Had she been concerned with fashion and the like through those years, she would have leaned more toward deeper, more vibrant colors, and far more daring styles. Of course, she had not been concerned. Now that they were on the marriage market, however, it seemed to her that it was time to "dress the window." The gown she had chosen was in the height of fashion, as low a dcolletage as could be worn and still be thought respectable, and a jaunty little hat to top it off. Simple, stylish and sexy as the devil, she hoped. It was obvious to her that Beth was taken aback at the gown.

"Charlie! How could you"

"Bessie?" Charlie interrupted "Please go down and see if cook has anything for the puppies to eat. And a bowl of milk for them, too," she added as the maid set the gown down and moved to leave the room.

"What have you done?" Beth whispered once the door had closed behind the girl, moving to stand by the bed to gape down at the gown.

Charlie shrugged with unconcern. "I chose clothes."

"Are they all like this?"

"Of course not. They are all different styles and colors."

"What colors?"

Charlie's eyebrows rose at the menace in Beth's voice. "Emerald green, crimson"

"Crimson!" Beth dropped onto the bed, her hands raising to cover her face.

"Oh, God!" She pulled her hands away to stare at her sister in honor. "Is this punishment for making you stand for the measuring?"

"No, of course not!" Charlie threw her sister a dirty look, then spread the gown out. "Really, Beth. Just look at it. It is lovely. How can you think it a punishment? Why, 'Tis a beautiful cut,the color vibrant, the sheen to the material lovely."