" 'Tis loud"
"Nonsense!" Charlie glowered at her for the insult to her taste, then sighed.
"Look, if you must know, I have always found your taste in gowns rather well, to be honest, quite dull."
"Dull!" Beth stood up, dismay on her face.
"Yes. All those pale pastels that melt into nothingness and high decolletage."
She wrinkled her nose. "They were all rather tedious, you know."
Her sister's mouth worked briefly, then snapped shut and she suddenly stood straight and tall, her expression cold. "I see. Well. I am sorry to have burdened you with my tedious taste all these years."
Charlie smiled faintly. "It was not a burden, Beth. Had that been so, I would have chosen my own gowns long ago."
"Why did you not?"
Shrugging, Charlie touched the burgundy gown reverently, a pleased smile touching her lips at how well her choice had turned out. She answered distractedly, "There seemed little reason to bother. It was not as if anyone actually saw me in them out in the country."
At her sister's outraged gasp, she glanced at her sharply, suddenly recognizing the insult she had dealt. She shook her head at once. "Now, Beth, do not take it so. 'Tis just that our tastes differ somewhat"
"You are right, of course. I just never realized how much." Her mouth firming, Beth peered at the gown. "I cannot wear this, Charlie. I would not feel comfortable."
"Whyever not? Our coloring is perfect for burgundy."
"Perhaps in your opinion, but I prefer the pastels. Besides, I can tell from just looking at it that the neckline is indecently low."
" 'Tis not indecent. 'Tis all the rage."
"Mayhap, but I could not possibly wear it. I would feel uncomfortable. On display. I prefer a more understated style with nice"
"Pastels," Charlie finished for her dryly. "Beth, you are on the marriage market now. 'Tis no time to play the shrinking violet, unless you wish to be a wallflower. You must display your wares."
"I cannot do it. 'Tis not my style. I will not wear it."
Before Charlie could think of what to say to that, Bessie returned carrying a silver salver. The excitement on the young girl's face distracted both sisters from their discussion.
"You will never believe it," the girl cried, setting the tray down and grabbing a handful of paper scraps off of it to rush to them. "Look, just look! They are invitations to balls and such. Master Stokes says that a couple of them came this morning, but that the door knocker has been banging nonstop since ye returned from the picnic."
'This one is for a ball at the Hardings'. Tonight!" Beth cried, opening one.
'They were at the theater last night, Charlie. Tomas pointed them out to me."
Smiling at her sister's excitement, Charlie took out one of the invitations to read. "The Seawoods are having a ball tomorrow evening and we are invited,"
Charlie murmured with a small perplexed frown. "Who are the Seawoods?"
"They were at the picnic today. Their daughter, Lily, was one of the women helping you with the dogs," Beth answered distractedly as she read another invitation. "Oh look, the Wullcotts! They were at the picnic too. And here is one from the Fetterleys. Oh, Charlie, we are a success! We shall be married in no time."
"You shall," Charlie collected quickly.
"Oh, aye." Beth glanced self-consciously at Bessie, then away.
Picking up another invitation, Charlie opened it, then froze.
"What is it?" Beth asked, aware of her reaction at once.
"Bessie, please arrange for a bath to be brought up for each of us, and ask cook to prepare an early dinner."
"Aye, sir." Bobbing, the girl left the room and Charlie handed the note she had opened to Beth.
" 'I know who you are" Beth read with dismay. " 'If you do not want me to tell, you will have to pay. Bring' My God!" She lifted horrified eyes to Charlie.
"What are we going to do?"
Standing, Charlie paced to the window and peered blindly out. She stayed like that for a moment, then suddenly turned back. "We are going to the Hardings' ball tonight Then tomorrow, I shall see Mr. Silverpot to cash in some more of Mother's jewels. Tomorrow night you shall have Radcliffe escort you to the Seawoods' ball. I shall claim to be too tired to attend and will meet this person to pay them off."
Beth bit her lip. "Charlie, I do not like the idea of your meeting this person alone. It could be dangerous."
"Aye, but one of us has to keep Radcliffe busy," Charlie pointed out with a sigh.
"Well" Standing, Beth moved to the connecting door of the rooms. "I suppose I should start getting ready. You said the tailor sent some new clothes around?"
Charlie's eyebrows rose. "Aye. Did you not wish to be Elizabeth tonight?"
Beth shrugged but her gaze was annoyed as it fell upon the burgundy gown. "Nay.
You have to be Charles tomorrow night, so you should be Elizabeth this evening."
Charlie sank back into the carriage seat with a weary sigh. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. The Hardings' ball, her first actual social event as a female, had gone over like a stone. She had not danced with anyone but Radcliffe and Tomas Mowbray. She had not even had a chance to meet prospective husbands.
Tomas had hovered over her like a love-sick calf, and Radcliffe had behaved like some dowager aunt guarding her virginity and glowering at any male who came near her, including an oblivious Tomas. Meanwhile, Beth/Charles had fluttered about anxiously, babbling away to Tomas.
Charlie had suffered the ridiculous charade until her head and feet both ached.
And that was the excuse she had used to end the farce: her aching feet and head.
Immediately solicitous, Radcliffe had insisted on taking her home.
Beth/Charles had shown enough reluctance to leave that Tomas had suggested that she stay and he would drop her off later. Nodding, Radcliffe had ushered the woman he thought was Elizabeth out of the ballroom.
The carriage hit a rut in the road, and Charlie grabbed for something to hold on to as she was jostled against Radcliffe's side.
"Are you all right?"
Charlie glanced up at him through the dim interior of the carriage, slightly startled by the husky sound of his voice. She was even more startled by the sudden intensity of his eyes as he looked down at her. Swallowing,she licked her lips nervously and began to nod, only to pause self-consciously when his gaze dropped to her lips with interest.
Dropping her head shyly, she peered blindly at her hand for a moment, then realized that it was clutching his thigh. She pulled it away with dismay.
"Oh! I am sorry, my lord. I did not mean to"
" 'Tis all right," he assured her gently. "I know it was not on purpose. How is your head?"
"Muzzy," she murmured distractedly, wondering why her hand had begun to tingle the moment she'd realized where she had placed it while searching for something sturdy to hold on to.
"Muzzy?" Concern filling his voice, he slid a finger beneath her chin to lift her face up for his inspection. "Is your headache worse?"
"Nay," she admitted on a sigh, then asked plaintively, "Is it hot in here?"
"Nay. 'Tis a cool evening." He was beginning to frown now, anxiety drawing small lines on his forehead as he raised a hand to feel hers. "Mayhap yon are coming down with something."
Charlie was beginning to suspect her problem had nothing to do with a true illness. She seemed to be one huge ball of sensitivity. She was very aware of his nearness, could feel the pressure of his leg along her own, his breath on her face, the scent of him in her nose, and the memory of their shared kiss when last she'd played Beth was now crowding her mind. Feeling herself sway slightly toward him, she drew herself up and pulled back as far as the carriage wall would allow.
"These carriages are very small, are they not?" she asked in a high, strained voice.
Radcliffe blinked, dragging his gaze away from her chest where it had dropped when she had suddenly leaned back.
"Small?" He glanced around the dark interior of the hack. They hit another rut, and Charlie would have bounced right onto the floor if Radcliffe had not caught her and drawn her protectively against his chest. When she raised her head to peer at him, he bent to kiss her.
Charlie sighed as his mouth claimed hers. Her headache was suddenly gone, her feet no longer hurt. The entire night seemed somehow less of a miserable failure than it had been as his mouth opened passionately over hers. Slipping her arms up around his neck, she pressed eagerly forward, her mouth opening in welcome, her toes curling inside her slippers. Little shivers and shudders of pleasure ran through her as his hands slid down her back, molding her to him. His lips left hers to search out her ear, and she gave a keening cry of surprised excitement before his attention and lips slid down to her neck.
"Oh, Radcliffe, please," she whispered, her hands sliding from his head where she had been clutching his hair, down to clasp his shoulders convulsively as he caught and cupped her breasts through her gown.
His response was to shift her so that she straddled him on the bench seat. She was now slightly above him, her breasts at face level, and he took advantage of that, nibbling the flesh that was revealed by the low-cut gown, nudging the gown lower until his teeth could gently graze one nipple.
Charlie gave a start, her body jerking slightly at the unbearable sensation, a moan slipping from her lips as she arched in his arms. She was just becoming aware of his hands sliding up her legs beneath her skirt when the carriage came to a shuddering halt. Unprepared for the small jolt, Charlie found herself tumbling from his lap. She landed on the opposite bench with a grunt of surprise. They both stared at each other blankly, then Radcliffe peered out the window and cursed.Charlie knew at once that they were home. She also became aware suddenly of the sight she must be with her clothing in disarray and one bare breast peeking out from her gown. Shuddering with embarrassment now, she quickly straightened her gown, studiously avoiding looking at Radcliffe as she did. She had just finished putting herself back in order when he reached out and caught her hand.
Charlie glanced up guiltily, surprised to see that same expression on his face.
"I am sorry, Elizabeth. I have behaved abominably. You are under my protection and I have taken advantage of my position. I do not know what came over me."
Charlie would have felt better at once, thought him sweet, and taken her share of the blame had he not called her Beth. That just managed to put the icing on the cake of her humiliation. She was reminded that he really had not been kissing her at all. It was Bethhe had thought he was kissing. It was Beth he wanted.
Closing her eyes briefly, she drew herself up, nodded stiffly, then hurried out of the carriage. She was in the house and racing up the stairs before Radcliffe had even managed to get out and close the carriage door.
It was a sloppy lick of her cheek that awoke Charlie in the morning.
Blinking, she peered at the grinning puppy perched with his front paws on her cheek and his back paws on her chest, a gurgling laugh slipping from her lips as he lost his purchase and tumbled into the curve of her neck and shoulder.
Reaching her hand up awkwardly, she gave him a pat, then glanced down the length of her body to see the other five furballs scampering and playing over the blanket across her legs.
Chuckling softly, Charlie sat up, slid her feet out from under them, and shifted to sit on the edge of the bed, petting the half-dozen darlings as they converged on her, yippig and licking at her hands and wrists.
"Good morning to all of you, too," she murmured, then stood and moved to the adjoining door to "Charles's" room. "Let's go see if Beth is up yet."
Opening the door, she watched the six little bodies scamper through, then followed, reaching the bedside as they leapt onto it and threw themselves excitedly onto a sleeping Beth. The other girl came awake with a miserable groan.
"Oh no, not yet. It cannot be morning yet." Beth clasped her head desperately between her hands and turned her face into the pillow.
"I take it you got in late last night" Charlie laughed, crawling into bed beside her sister and sitting with her back against the headboard. When Beth's only response was an unintelligible mumble, Charlie nudged her shoulder.
"Just let me die," Beth begged into the pillow. "I think I broke my head."
Charlie blinked at that. "Broke your head?" Grabbing her arm, she pulled her sister onto her back, eyebrows rising at the sight she made. Her face was pale, her eyes red-rimmed. "Did you drink a lot last night?"
"Aye. And stop yelling."
Charlie's eyebrows rose. She had not been yelling, but she was beginning to gather that while she herself had apparently inherited her father's ability to drink to excess without paying for it the next day, Beth had inherited Uncle Henry's nasty problem of hangovers.
"What else did you do?" she asked in an almost-whisper.
"Ask me later," Beth groused, dragging the pillow over her head again.
Charlie scowled impatiently at her back. "How much later?"
"This afternoon. I shall get up at noon, I promise. But, I did not get in until dawn. Let me sleep now."
Charlie hesitated for a moment, then sighed and took the pillow away. "I am afraid I cannot wait that long," she said regretfully. "I am to be Charles today. Remember? I shall need to know what I did last night in case Radcliffe asks, or I run into Tomas on the way to see Mr. Silverpot."
Beth stiffened at the jeweler's name, then sat up with a grimace of mingled pain and resignation. "I had quite managed to put that out of my head," she admitted sadly, waiting until Charlie finished arranging her pillow against the headboard for her, then leaning back on it wearily. "Ask me what you need to know."