"How long did you stay at the Hardings' after we left?"
"We left right after you and went to the Kit Kat Club."
Charlie sucked in her breath. The Kit Kat Club? It seemed Beth had all the luck.
"We drank quite a bit and Tom told me that he was falling in love with you."
"Me?" Charlie gaped at her. "Elizabeth," she clarified with a sigh.
"Oh, Beth!That's wonderful," Charlie cried, hugging her, then pulled back uncertainly at her sister's lack of response. "Is it not?"
"I do not know. I love him, but" She gave her sister a tortured look. "But is it me he is falling in love with, or you?"
Charlie gave a laugh and hugged her again. "You goose! 'Tis you he loves.
Last night was the first time that I have been Elizabeth around Tomas. You were Elizabeth in the carriage to London, at the theater, and at the picnic. And the two of you spent each occasion deep in conversation. Why, I hardly said two words to the man last night. It must be you he loves."
Beth brightened considerably at that, then sobered again. "He was quite jealous of Radcliffe last night, you know. I think he sensed that something was not quite right, but not knowing what else it could be, he blamed it on Radcliffe's attitude."
Charlie stilled. "You mean, you think he knew that I was not you?"
She nodded solemnly. "He said you were not yourselfI mean I was not"
"I know what you mean," Charlie interrupted, a smile tugging at her lips.
"Well, then it must be love."
"Do you think so?" she asked hopefully. Charlie shrugged. "Mother and Father were the only ones who could ever tell us apart. No one else has ever been able to. Do you remember what Maman said when we asked her that time how it was that they always knew who was who?"
"Hmm. She said it was because they looked at us through the eyes of love, and the eyes of love never lie."
"Exactly. So Tomas must be looking through the eyes of love."
Beth fairly beamed at that. "Thank goodness Radcliffe acted so oddly last night.
Otherwise Tomas might have delved deeper into the matter. Do you know why he behaved as he did?"
Charlie avoided her gaze for a moment, then sighed. "I think he was jealous."
Beth's eyes widened incredulously. "Jealous? Of what?"
"Over the way Tomas was fawning over you me Elizabeth. Beth, I think that he is falling in love with you, too."
When Beth merely stared at her blankly, Charlie shiftedimpatiently.
"Well, surely you must have realized? I mean, he has been kissing you, too, has he not?"
"Nay!" She nearly shouted the word and Charlie blinked in surprise.
"He has not?"
"Nay. Never once. He has been a perfect gentleman with me. Why, almost uncle-ish in his attentions. He" Her gaze zeroed in on Charlie. "He kissed you?"
She nodded slowly, her heart filling with glee that he had not kissed Beth.
"When? Last night?" Charlie's blush was answer enough for Beth, and her eyes widened. "Is that the only time?"
"Nay, he also kissed me the first time you played Charles."
"But Radcliffe was with me that day."
"It was when you came home. He joined me in the library and kissed me."
"So both times that you have been me, he kissed you." Beth considered that briefly, then smiled. "Then he must be kissing .you."
"I just said so, did I not?" Charlie muttered indignantly.
"Nay. I mean, he is only attracted to Elizabeth when you are her," she explained, and Charlie stiffened.
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, goodness, sister. He has had a dozen opportunities to kiss me as Elizabeth, and he has not even tried. And last night was the first time that he showed any sign of jealousy over Tomas. It must be you he is attracted to."
Charlie sucked her lower lip into her mouth and contemplated the matter briefly, then shook her head, afraid to believe something she was only now realizing that she wanted. Radcliffe. She had convinced herself that her feelings for him were amused indifference because she'd feared he was beyond her reach. Too sophisticated. Too handsome. Too marvelous. He would never be interested in a country bumpkin, and that was what she was. A member of the nobility, but a country-bumpkin member of nobility with a gambling drunk for an uncle who would sell her to her death for a couple of coins.
"You are wrong," Charlie said at last. " 'Tis you, Beth. He loves you."
Beth frowned, opened her mouth to argue, then paused and crawled out of bed with a determined expression. "Well, I suppose we shall see soon enough."
Charlie eyed her warily. "And how will we see?"
"By how he reacts to me this morning." She crossed the room as she spoke, but paused at the door to peer back. "Do you need any help with your bindings?" When Charlie shook her head, she nodded. "Good, then I shall go ring Bessie and get dressed."
Charlie watched her go, then glanced at the moving blanket on the bed.
Leaning down, she tugged it aside, freeing the dogs Beth had covered when she had tossed the blanket aside to get up. They immediately bounded around her with excited yips, and, despite herself, Charlie felt a smile tug at her lips. Then she forced herself to rise and begin to don the clothes of Charles.
Beth was dressed and securing her hair on top of her head when Charlie rejoined her, the puppies scampering about her feet as she went.
"I told Bessie we would take the puppies downstairs to her so that she could take them outside for a few moments," Beth commented, finishing with her hair.
"Good idea." Charlie scooped three of the mutts up, then waited as her sister gathered the other tliree.
"They are adorable, are they not?" Beth laughed as they all tried to climb up her bosom to lick her face as she followed Charlie into the hall.
"Aye," Charlie agreed, starting down the stairs. She was on the second last step when a gasp from Beth made her glance back. With her hands full of puppies, the girl had been unable to hold her skirt out of the way while traversing the stairs. Her foot had apparently tangled in her skirts and she was now teetering on the sixth step, alarmed.
Dropping the three puppies she held, Charlie started up the steps even as Beth dropped her three and reached wildly for something to save herself. Charlie was just in time to catch Beth as she tumbled forward. Grunting under the sudden impact, Charlie stumbled back, her foot coming down on nothing but air.
Crying out in alarm now herself, Charlie braced herself as they crashed to the floor at Radcliffe's feet.
"Are you all right?" he asked, kneeling beside them with concern as Beth rolled off her sibling.
"Aye," Beth assured him quickly, then turned to her twin. "Oh, Charles.
Are you all right? You did not hurt yourself, did you? I am so sorry. Thank you for catching me. You are not hurt, are you?"
"I am fine," Charlie murmured with a grimace, forcing herself to sit up. "Do not fuss. What about the puppies? We did not land on any of them, did we?"
They all glanced around now at the empty entry.
"Where did they" Radcliffe's question died as cursing, shouting, and banging erupted from the kitchen.
"Oh, dear," Charlie muttered, jumping to her feet and rushing down the hallway with Beth and Radcliffe hard on her heels. The minute Charlie pushed the kitchen door open, six dark blurs whizzed past her, yipping for all they were worth as they raced down the hall. Cook was the next through the door, nearly knocking Charlie on her back again as he charged past, face purple with rage, a meat cleaver in hand, and cursing a blue streak as he hunted his quarry.
Grabbing for the door to keep her balance, Charlie glanced at Bessie as the girl hurried forward, followed by Stokes.
"I am sorry, my lord. 'Tis all my fault. I heard a cry from the hallway and started out of the kitchen to see what was amiss, but when I opened the door, the dogs came charging in. Cook tried to kick one and fell, sending breakfast flying everywhere. Then he grabbed the cleaver and started after them before Stokes or I could do anything to stop him." She gave this explanation as she and Stokes chased after Charlie, who had taken one look at the mess on the kitchen floor and headed after the furious cook. She found him in the salon, chasing the puppies around the sofa and waving his cleaver madly.
"Cook!" Radcliffe snapped, coming up behind Charles.
The man slid to a stop at once, but his furious expression remained as he whirled to face his employer. "They have ruined my breakfast! They are a nuisance. I will not have such goings-on." Pausing, he drew himself up staunchly. "Either they go or I do!"
"Oh!" Beth cried, turning a pleading look to Radcliffe as her twin moved forward to shepherd the pups a safe distance away before turning to peer at Radcliffe pleadingly as well.
Scowling, Radcliffe glanced from Charlie to the cook. "An ultimatum? Then 'Tis you who goes, master cook," he announced firmly, eliciting a shocked gasp from the man.
"But, my lord, I have served you faithfully for several years now."
"You have served me poorly for several years now," Radcliffe collected dryly.
"You are the worst cook I have ever had. The only reason I put up with you for this long was because I was not here often enough to care and did not have the time to trouble with hiring a replacement. Howbeit, sirrah, your meals are bland, generally cold, and unsuitable to serve my guests. It has become obvious to me that you cannot perform your job. Good day to you."
Charlie watched wide-eyed as the man sputtered briefly, then turned and stormed down the hallway. She felt a brief pang of guilt, then caught the satisfied gleam in Stokes's eye as he watched the man go. She began to relax a little. The man was a rotten cook. And he had treated the staff horribly. This was for the best.
Holding her skirt out like a basket, Bessie began scooping puppies up into it, and Charlie moved quickly to help her.
"I am ever so sorry, my lord," the maid murmured, taking the two puppies Charlie had gathered and adding them to the other three in her skirt. " 'Tis all my fault."
"Nay, it is not," Charlie assured the girl firmly.
"Charles is right," Beth announced, collecting the last puppy and joining them.
"It sounds as if cook was a thoroughly nasty man. Besides, he would not have ruined breakfast had he not tried to kick one of the precious creatures. He got what he deserved. His meals really were rather bland. Radcliffewill do better with another cook."
They all glanced toward the doorway where the man had been, but he had slipped silently away. The click of the front door closing drew Charlie to the window in time to see him climb into his carriage. When she turned back to the room, Bessie was gone, taking the puppies with her.
"Was that Radcliffe leaving?" Beth asked.
"Aye," Charlie said thoughtfully, then headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
Pausing at the door, she glanced about to be sure that no one was around to hear, then said, "Now seems the perfect time to accomplish that little task we talked about."
"Mr. Silverpot?" Beth whispered, eyes round as she hurried forward to clasp her hand anxiously. "Do you wish me to come with you?"
Charlie hesitated, then shook her head. "You look all done in. Why do you not return to bed and rest a while longer? I shan't be long."
Charlie watched from her window as Radcliffe helped Beth into the carriage. She waited until he got in and it pulled away before chopping the curtain closed again and gathering the sack of coins Mr. Silverpot had given her that afternoon for a couple of her mother's jewels. The transaction had gone without a hitch.
She had hired a hack to take her to the jeweler's, had been greeted warmly as "Charles," and been paid far more for the gems than she had expected.
Thanking the man, Charlie had headed right back to the townhouse to find Beth entertaining Tomas Mowbray in the salon. Radcliffe had arrived almost directly behind her and taken them all out to lunch. It was after lunch, while they had been walking in the park, that Charlie had begun to complain of weariness.
When they had returned to the townhouse, she had announced herself far too weary to be bothered attending a ball that evening. She had waited just long enough to see Radcliffe accept that news and assure Beth that he would escort her, then Charlie had fled to her room to pace until Beth joined her.
She had spent the rest of the time between then and now helping Beth prepare for the ball and convincing her that all would be well. She would not get hurt during this endeavor. She would convince the blackmailer to leave them alone, at least until they had both found husbands and were safe. She would be careful.
Now, she repeated those same reassurances to herself as she sneaked out the front door of Radcliffe's townhouse and hired a hack.
Charlie alit from the carriage several streets later, paid the driver, then glanced about a bit nervously. This was not exactly a good area.
The street was poorly lit, the people walking it unsavory.
Slipping her hand into her pocket, she clutched the sack of coins, hunched her shoulders, and started up the sheet. The instructions had said that she was to go to an alley next to a Madame Claude's confectionery. Charlie had had the driver drop her off a block before the place so that she might scout the area.
She was not eager to enter a dark alley on her own and had hoped that the walk there would reassure her.
She was not reassured. If anything, having a closer look at the menacing, shabbily dressed men she was passing and the dilapidated state of the shops she walked by was making her extremely edgy.