"I forgot all about Elizabeth." When she raised an eyebrow questioningly, he explained, "I left her at the ball with the Mowbrays. They promised to see her home. I suppose I had better check and see that she has returned and all is well."
"I shall do that," she volunteered quickly. "You go ahead and lie down."
When he hesitated, she hurried past him to "Elizabeth's" door and knocked briefly. The minute it started to open, she turned to offer Radcliffe a reassuring smile, then gasped as she was grabbed by her arm and tugged quickly inside the room.
"Charlie! You wouldn't believe what a wonderful time I had. It was marvelous! Fantastic!Amazing!" Pushing the door closed, Beth whirled Charlie around the room gleefully,then released her and collapsed backward on the bed with a huge sigh to hug herself. "What a stupendous night."
"So I saw," Charlie murmured dryly, seating herself on the bed beside her as the girl colored prettily.
"Was that you in the library?" she asked, her nose wrinkling. "I did wonder."
"Wonder? Are you mad? If Radcliffe had caught you at your antics"
"But he did not," she laughed and dropped back upon the bed, only to sit up abruptly again. "Did you pay off the blackmailer? Radcliffe did not find you, did he?"
"Nay. And aye," Charlie answered in order, then went on to explain the night's adventures, running through them quite briefly since it was obvious that her sister was not paying much attention. When she fell silent, Beth immediately began to regale her with her own evening, which seemed incredibly dull in comparison. She had danced with Tomas, talked with Lady Mowbray, danced with Tomas, discussed fashion with Lady So-and-So. Then she'd danced with Tomas again, and so her evening had seemed to have gone.
Compared to her own night, Beth's evening seemed terribly tame. Her mind had begun to wander when she caught her sister's last words.
"So, you may be Elizabeth during the day. But I should like to be me in the evening again at the Wulcotts' ball. You do not mind, do you?"
Charlie sat still for a moment, her heart seeming to have dropped into her stomach somewhere. Then she shook her head and rose wearily. "Nay, of course not."
"Oh, thank you, Charlie. I knew you would not let me down."
Nodding, she moved to the connecting door and started out of the room, then turned back. "I suppose you should sleep in "Charles's" room tonight, then."
"Oh, aye." Bouncing off the bed, Beth moved cheerfully across the room, kissing her sister's cheek affectionately before closing the door behind her with a cheery "Good night."
Charlie stared at that door for several moments, feeling vaguely cheated.
She had to find a husband, too. Her own need for one was even more pressing than Beth's, really. After all, while Seguin may not be every girl's dream come true, at least he was not dangerous like Carland. And there was the source of her upset, she realized glumly. They were supposed to be taking turns here at being the girl. Both of them were supposed to have their chance at finding a husband.
Yet it seemed that Charlie was spending most of her time playing Charles.
And most of her time was spent in the company of Radcliffe. She would never find a husband that way. Straightening her shoulders grimly, she marched into "Charles's" room, startling Beth as she started to crawl under the bed covers.
"Charlie. What is it? Is something wrong?"
"I am afraid I disagree with your playing Elizabeth tomorrow night. To date, the Hardings' ball is the only event at which I have been the sister and allowed to hunt up a husband, and then Mowbray and Radcliffe clung to me like limpets the whole time. If we are to take turns at this as you suggested, then take turns we shall. Tomorrow evening is my turn to be a girl and look for a husband. If you wish, I shall be Charles during the day tomorrow, but in the evening, I will be Elizabeth."
Beth opened her mouth to complain at the switch, thenpaused, shame covering her expression. "I am sorry," she said at last. "You are absolutely right. 'Tis your turn. Besides, your need for a husband is more pressing than mine, and I do already at least have my eye on someone. Of course, you must be Elizabeth tomorrow night. And during the day, too," she added firmly. "I shall even endeavor to keep Tom and Radcliffe away from you tomorrow evening so that yon might find someone you are interested in without their interference."
Charlie's shoulders sagged suddenly in relief and weariness.
"Charlie," Beth murmured when she started to turn away.
"This was a good thing, I think." She stared at her blankly.
"All of this." She waved vaguely around the room, then explained, "Having to escape, meeting up with Radcliffe, ending up in London, fending for ourselves Well, with a little help from Radcliffe, of course."
Charlie shook her head. "I do not think I understand"
"It is changing us. I have always been terribly shy. You know that. But here I am learning to deal with social situations better. And you, you have never really stood up for yourself or what you want, yet twice now you have done it here."
Charlie blinked at that. "What on earth do you mean, I have never stood up for myself before? Iam forever standing up for myself, rebelling and such. My God, Beth, you make me sound like a coward."
"Nay. Never a coward. You have a great deal of courage. You have always been a grand champion for others. But only for others. You never stand up for what you want." Seeing the bewilderment on her face, Beth explained, "The dresses, for instance. For years you have put up with my choices, never complaining once, let alone demanding"
Charlie waved that away impatiently. "Dresses. What did they matter in the country? Besides, you were going through all the fittings, you had every right to choose."
"But I did not mind the fittings, and while I was doing those, you were doing something else. Something I disliked doing, like mucking out the stables."
"Well, after Uncle Henry let go all of his staff, 'Old' Ben had a rough time keeping up with things. He needed help."
"Aye. I know. But I detested working in the stables. You did not mind it so much, so you did it while I went for the fittings. 'Twas an equal trade and you should have had a say in what gowns you wore as much as me. You never said a word. Until now. Just as with everything else you let me have my way.
Until now, you would have let me attend the ball as Elizabeth. In fact, your first instinct was to let me, but then you stood up for yourself and said it was your turn."
"Well, aye, but this is a matter of my life. Do I not find a husband, I shall have to marry Carland and he would kill me. I must find a husband. I must have my equal turns."
"I see, so you are saying that you are only doing this because your life is more important than my pleasure?"
Charlie blinked in amazement that she would even ask the question.
"Well, aye, of course my life is more important than your pleasure!"
Beth nodded solemnly. "Yet your pleasure is less important than mine."
Charlie frowned. "How do you come to that conclusion?"
"That is what you have said. You are not letting me have my way this time because your life is at stake. You let me have my way with the dresses because it was simply a matter of taste. Yours versus mine. Mine was more important."
"You are twisting things," Charlie muttered impatiently.
"Am I? Then what of our birthday dinners?" "What are you talking about now?"
"Cook always asked what we would wish for our birthday dinner and I always chose roast duckling and blueberry torte."
"You detest duck. And blueberries, while you like them, are not your favorite flavor of torte."
"Please get to your point, Beth."
"But that is my point. Had things been fair, we would have had roast duckling and blueberry toite one year and a meal of your choice the next. Or we would have had roast duckling and yourchoice of dessert one year, then your choice of meal and blueberry torte the next. But, nay, for the past several years, we had roast duckling and blueberry torte on our birthday."
Seeing that what she was saying was sinking in, Beth murmured, "You did things like that all the time, Charlie. You stood up for everyone from the village drunk to me. Everyone but yourself. And you always put others' wants before your own. Twas as if you thought everyone else was better than yourself. I bet that if Uncle Henry had arranged marriages between myself and Seguin and between you and someone similarly disgusting but harmless, you would have gone ahead and married the old coot."
Charlie grimaced but did not deny it.
"And I blame Uncle Henry."
She gave a laugh at that. "Something else to blame him for?"
Beth's chin rose. "Well, he was constantly criticizing you. He was forever calling you stupid and cheap and" Her shoulders slumped. "And 'twas all my fault," she finished miserably.
Charlie's head shot up. "Your fault? Good Lord, Beth!"
"Well, it was sometimes. The times he would start out picking at me for something and you would jump to my defense. He would turn his anger on you then and leave me alone." She sighed. "Mayhap had I returned the favor and defended you back, he may have left us both alone, but I" She raised stark eyes to her sister. "I was so afraid of his temper."
Charlie moved to her side at once, placing a comforting arm around her. "I know.
'Tis all right."
"Nay. 'Tis not. I am ashamed of myself. You werenot afraid."
"Of course I was."
Beth stilled at that, eyes wide and incredulous. "You were?"
"Of course. Uncle Henry has a terrible temper. I was terrified every time I faced him. So you see, there is nothing for you to be ashamed of. I was afraid too."
"Oh, but this is worse," Beth breathed with dismay. "Do you not see? You were afraid like I was, but you stood up to him anyway. That is true courage, Charlie. While my allowing my fear to hold me back was cowardice."
"Beth." Charlie shook her impatiently. "Stop it. For heaven's sake. As if we do not have enough to worry about. Anyone with any sense would have kept their mouth shut and let his criticisms run their course, ignoring everything that man said. Now, why do you not go to your room and get some sleep?"
"I am in my room. Charles sleeps here and I am to be Charles tomorrow."
"I thought you might wish to be Elizabeth during the day, since I am going to be"
"Nay. I shall be Charles all day and night."
The Fetterleys' ballroom was filled to capacity with men and women all asparkle in their fineiy. It was also unbearably hot, and the fact that she had been dancing non-stop since arriving wasn't helping much, Charlie thought, fanning her face with one hand as she followed the steps of the dance.
"I did not realize that Radcliffe had any cousins. Lady Elizabeth."
Charlie glanced sharply at her dance partner. Lord Nor-Something-or-Other. She hadn't really caught the name. She hadn't caught the names of most of the men she had danced with this evening. But then, none of them had been all that memorable anyway. This one at least was taller than she was, had all his teeth, and hadn't stepped on her toes yet.
Actually, he was rather attractive too, she realized with some surprise, peering at his face for the first time since he had cut in on her dance with Lord Whoever. He had blue eyes, nice features, and light blond hair. He was also nearly as tall as Radcliffe, with shoulders almost as wide as his.
"Is there something on my nose?"
Realizing that she had been staring, Charlie flushed and dropped her gaze. "Nay, my lord," she murmured, her mind returning to the comment he had made.
"Do you know Lord Radcliffe well?" she asked cautiously after a moment.
"As well as anyone, I would wager. His sister was married to my brother."
"Mary." She whispered the name sadly, then tilted her head to look at her dance partner. "You met B-Charles at Radcliffe's club," she recalled Beth telling her.
"Aye. A charming lad. Though not as charming as his sister."
Flushing at the compliment, she glanced away, wondering how she was to feel him out to see if he was possible husband material. He was the first likely candidate she had met so far. The fact that he was tall, confident, attractive, and a good dancer already put him far above the other men she had met that night. And he came from a good family. It had to be good if Radcliffe had let his sister many into it. "Are you married?"
"Considering me as husband material, my lady?" he teased.
Charlie flushed, but managed an unconcerned shrug. "Is that not what these balls are all about?"
"Aye. But usually the ladies are more subtle about it. I am single," he added gently, then teased, "No diseases that I know of and quite capable of producing heirs." Charlie flushed again and he laughed softly. "How charming you are.
Blunt and to the point, yet you blush deliciously. Does that blush go all the way down, I wonder?"
When her eyes went round and she stumbled slightly, he pulled her against his chest to steady her, his hand sliding to the base of her spine and applying gentle pressure.
Charlie swallowed, confused by her responses as his body caressed hers through their clothes. There was the excitement she had experienced with Radcliffe, and yet it was different. With Radcliffe it had been pure, unadulterated pleasure.
Her heart had leapt and she had followed it, reveling in the sensations.