"Please, Mr. Wickman," the woman murmured painfully, clasping her children close. "My husband he's dead" She shuddered over the word, but forced herself to continue. "We've nowhere else to go. I'll pay the rent the best I can, but my children"
"Dead?" the man interrupted, a startled look on his bulldog face that became calculating as the woman nodded. "Well, that there puts a whole different picture on things, don't it?" His gaze slid up and down her consideringly.
"A woman shouldn't be on her own. Not safe. Mayhap we can be coming to an agreement."
His expression left no doubt as to what kind of agreement he was considering, and Charlie felt herself bristle like a hedgehog. "The only agreement will be her paying the rent she owes you and collecting their things. She will not be staying here."
His beady eyes swiveled to Charlie, taking in her gentleman's outfit with an arched eyebrow. "So that's the way of it? Already found herself a protector?"
Charlie stiffened at his words, then turned to the woman he had addressed as Mrs. Hartshair. "You said it was three months' rent you owed?"
She nodded uncertainly.
"How much a month?"
When the woman hesitated, the landlord spat out an amount that made her eyes widen incredulously. " 'Tis barely half that!"
"Aye, but it's late, so I'm charging you interest," he announced smugly.
"I am afraid interest is out of the question."
Charlie glanced around with surprise at Radcliffe's steely words. She had not heard him approach.
"You shall take the correct amount and allow them to collect their things.
Or you shall be paid nothing and we shall use the money to replace whatever they are forced to leave behind. Which shall it be?"
Charlie turned back to see the landlord scowl briefly. His gaze moved from Radcliffe's tall, erect form to the crumpled hatful of coins that she had pulled from her pocket; then he gave a surly nod. "Deal."
Charlie counted out the necessary coins and held them out. The man snatched them so swiftly she almost missed the action.
"Take them inside, Charles, and assist them in gathering their things. Mr.
Wickman and I shall wait out here for you."
Mr. Wickman obviously did not care for the arrangement but could do little about it. He stepped reluctantly aside, glaringas the Hartshairs hurried past.
Charlie followed them into the dim, smelly interior of the building and up two flights of rickety stairs to a small room that had made up the entire living space of the Hartshairs. One end of the room was taken up with a bed; a length of string strung alongside it told her that a sheet or some such thing had probably been slung over it at night for privacy. Two pallets in the opposite corner were where The children had obviously slept, leaving a small spot around a fireplace that held a chair with a broken and mended leg, and rough tools for cooking.
Charlie felt a lump develop in her throat at such penury and was grateful that it didn't take long for them to gather what little they had. She had never been inside such a dismal dwelling, nor had she ever known anyone who'd had so few possessions. A couple of ragged items of clothing. A tattered little doll of the girl's. A clumsily carved wooden figure that was the boy's. One pot and one pan for cooking. They all fit into a small bundle, then Mrs. Haitshair turned to face Charlie with determination.
"I'm wishing to thank you for what yer doin', payin' our rent and all, but"
She swallowed and chew herself up proudly. "I'll pay ye back somehow, but"
"I am not truly doing you a favor so much as you are doing me one. Or at least I hope you will," Charlie interrupted her.
When the woman peered at her a bit suspiciously, Charlie explained, "Radcliffethe gentleman downstairs?" At her nod, Charlie continued, "Well, I fear his cook quit just this morning. He has not had an opportunity to look for a replacement just yet and Well, it does seem as ifyou need a home and a more substantial job just now."
"A job?" she echoed with an expression of combined hope and fear.
"Aye." Charlie offered her a bolstering smile. " 'Tis a live-in position, so the problem of your being without a home just now would be solved."
"But what of the children?" she asked anxiously. "They would not be underfoot?"
"Nay. I am sure all will be fine. Why, your daughter could help out Bessie, my sister's maid. 'Twould be good training for her. And I am sure they could always use a hand in the stables when your son is old enough."
"Oh, my." She dropped onto the edge of the bed, looking suddenly overcome.
Charlie eyed her uncertainly.
"Are you all right?"
"I it is just" She shook her head weakly and tears began to course down her face. Her children were at her side at once, confusion and fear on their faces even as they sought to comfort her. She drew them into her embrace, kissing the top of first one head, then the other before raising her face to peer at Charlie with blind gratitude and adoration. "Things have been so bad for so long.
My husband, God love him, he did not mean to gamble, to make things so hard. He tried to stop, constantly promised to. But" She shook her head wearily.
"He was a good man when I married him, then he took to gaming, then the drink.
He neglected business and began to sleep the day away. When we lost the inn, I thought that he must see how much damage all of this was causing. I thought sure he would change. But when Mr. Wickman told me about the unpaid rent, then"
She paused and her eyes became glassy with honor. Charlie was sure she was recalling her husband's death. The woman's expression cleared and she whispered, "God forgive me. I never wished him dead, but right now I see more hope for the future than I have in years."
She raised slightly shocked eyes to Charlie. 'I'm an awful woman to feel that way, aren't I?"
Charlie shook her head solemnly. "Nay. You are a woman with two children to raise, clothe, and feed. And you have been trying to do so alone for quite some time while your husband stole the roof from over your head and gambled it away.
Now you are free of the sickness he had and the hold it had over your life.
You can start fresh. There is hope. There is no shame in embracing it."
The woman considered that silently, then nodded. "You are a good man, my lord. I have been praying for help for a long time. I think surely God must have sent you to me in answer to those prayers. I will be the best cook I can be."
"I am sure you will do fine," Charlie murmured, uncomfortable with her gratitude.
"Now, we had best go below before your Mr. Wickman comes looking for us."
Moving to the door, she held it open and ushered the threesome out and back downstairs. Radcliffe and Wickman were still on the front stoop. At Radcliffe's questioning glance, Charlie merely shook her head and followed Mrs.
Hartshair and her children into the carriage.
Radcliffe entered after Charlie, then sat to eye the woman and her two children seated on the opposite bench seat. He experienced a definite sense of dj vu, only the memory mixing with this reality was of Bessie seated fearfully on the bench. Sighing inwardly, he shook his head and sat silently for the duration of the ride home.
"It would seem we have guests. Stokes," Radcliffe announced, slapping his gloves and hat into the butler's waiting hand as the man gaped at the woman and children who trailed him into the house.
"Not exactly guests," Charlie corrected gently as she followed the family into the house and pushed the door closed.
"Oh?" Radcliffe arched one supercilious eyebrow at the lad. "Pray tell?"
"You are in need of a cook, as I recall. Unless you have already made arrangements?"
Radcliffe grimaced. "You know I have hardly had the opportunity for that."
Charlie breathed a small sigh of relief. She had not thought he had done so yet, but if he had, that would have been a complication indeed. "Well, now you need not bother. You need a cook. Mrs. Hartshair is a cook."
Radcliffe blinked at the simple announcement, then glanced toward the woman for verification. "You are a cook?"
"Aye." She swallowed nervously as her gaze slid around the luxurious foyer before she added unhappily, "Aye, I am a cook, but II'm a fair hand at buns and such, but the sort o' food I can cook is" She glanced at Charlie, who gave her an encouraging smile. Straightening slightly, the woman murmured, " 'Tis tasty, hearty food, my lord. But I know naught about fancies and pastries and the like."
'That will not be a problem," Charlie assured her quickly. "His Lordship never entertains. Besides, his last cook could not even boast tasty or hearty fare, and you shall learn anything necessary over time. Is that not right, Radcliffe?"
There was a moment of silence, just long enough to make Charlie glance at him in reprimand, at which he nodded solemnly. "Aye. 'Tis quite true. I am sure you will do very well." His gaze went to the weary and bedraggled children hanging onto their mother's skirts, and he murmured, "Your children look as if they are all in. Stokes will show you to your room."
"Thank you, my lord," the woman gasped, her face blossoming into near beauty with her relief. "Thankyou."
Nodding, Radcliffe glanced toward Stokes expectantly, frowning at the servant's stunned expression and the way he gazed, unmoving, upon the widow.
"Stokes?" he prompted, drawing the man's attention. "Show them to a room."
"Of course, my lord."
The servant had actually blushed slightly, Charlie noticed. Radcliffe grunted and turned to her. "In the library, Charles."
She grimaced at the autocratic tone, but paused to suggest to Stokes that he offer the Hartshairs some food before seeing them to bed. The three looked pale and thin to her. They could use some meat on their bones, and she doubted they had eaten that day. When the man assured her he would see to it, she turned resignedly and followed Radcliffe's trail to the library.
He was standing at the sideboard pouring himself a drink when she entered. A stiff drink, she could not help but notice as she settled in a seat before the desk to await the lecture she knew would come. She did not have long to wait.
"My home is not a refuge for runaways and waifs, Charles."
"Runaways?" Her eyes widened innocently as she watched him cross the room to take his seat at the desk. "I have brought no runaways here, my lord."
His brows drew together in displeasure. "You know what I mean, Charles."
"Aye, well," she sighed briefly, then shook her head. "Actually, no, I do not. I am hardly using your home as some sort of charity workshop, Radcliffe.
Beth needed amaid and I found her a maid. You needed a cook and I have found you a cook. The fact that both women were in untenable situations when I found them is merely coincidental."
This fine argument, one she was rather proud of, was blown to the four winds by a child's sudden squeal of"Puppies!" from the hallway, followed by a shout from Stokes and the scampering of little feet. Charlie could picture what was happening in the hall. Stokes had led the Hartshairs to the kitchens to feed them, unthinkingly opening the kitchen door, only to have the puppies make a grand escape. All no doubt to the children's glee. They were now surely chasing the little creatures about, attempting to recapture them. Charlie almost smiled at the pictures running through her head, but she managed to restrain herself when she caught the expression on Radcliffe's face.
"As I said," he muttered grimly, "you must stop collecting people and puppies."
"Of course, Radcliffe. You are right. I shall refrain from rescuing any more wayward strays," she murmured soberly.
Radcliffe sighed heavily. "I wish I believed that."
"Oh, you can. After all, there are no more positions in the house to fill, are there?"
"I did not have a position for the puppies," he pointed out.
"Aye, well he was going to kill them," she said helplessly, and Radcliffe dropped his head into his hands and began massaging his scalp, making her ask sympathetically, "Does your head ache? Mayhap you should take yourself off to bed."
"Aye." Standing wearily, he gestured for Charles to lead the way, then followed her to the door.
Charlie felt a sense of relief that the lecture was over until she opened the library door. The puppies were gone, apparently having been recaptured and taken away. However, Beth and Tomas Mowbray were in a clinch just inside the front door. Slamming the door, she whirled to face a wincing Radcliffe. "I just had a thought. Mayhap a nice massage would ease your ache. You just sit yourself down right over here and I shall see what I can do."
Charlie started to urge him toward the desk, but Radcliffe dug his heels in halfway across the room. "Thank you for the offer, Charles. However, I think you had it right the first time. Bed will cure what ails me."
"Oh, but" Charlie hurried after him as he started back across the room, throwing herself in front of the door when he would have opened it. "What about tomorrow?"
He stared at her blankly. "Tomorrow?" "Do we have any plans?"
He shifted impatiently. "We can discuss that at breakfast, Charles."
"I have a headache, Charles. Please get out of the way so that I can go lie down and be rid of it."
Shoulders drooping, Charlie stepped aside, opened the door, and followed him into the hall. The empty hall. Much to her relief, neither Beth nor Tomas Mowbray were anywhere in sight. She followed Radcliffe silently up the stairs, pausing at the topwhen he suddenly stopped. She glanced at him questioningly.