That seemed to bring him up short. His gaze narrowed. "And Norwich?"
He would ask that, she thought, but admitted, "I asked him to kiss me."
Radcliffe seemed to deflate with disappointment. "Why?"
She debated whether to lie, but he looked so miserable "Because I did not care for Tom's kisses."
He blinked in confusion. "Tom's kisses?"
"Aye. He is a skilled kisser, I can tell, but his kisses did not affect me at all."
Radcliffe shook his head as if tryingto scatter a fog clouding his brain.
"You asked Norwich to kiss you because Tom's kisses did not affect you?"
When she nodded solemnly, he was silent for a moment, then, "And did you like Norwich's kisses?"
Charlie hesitated. "They were nice."
"Aye. They were pleasant enough, but they did not make my knees go all weak and my stomach quiver as if it were full of butterflies," she admitted, then glanced up with surprise when he was suddenly standing before her. A hair's breadth away.
"And whose kisses do that to you?" he asked huskily.
Charlie swallowed. Her breathing had turned shallow at his proximity, the blood roaring in her ears like rushing water.
"Hmm?" he breathed, raising a hand to the pulse fluttering at the base of her throat. It immediately began to race. "Do my kisses affect you that way?"
Charlie swallowed again to keep from groaning as his finger slid down to trace the neckline of her gown across the swells of her breasts. His other hand slid to her neck, rising until his fingers curved around the base of her skull, his thumb resting before her ear and caressing gently.
Charlie's eyes closed, her face pressing into his palm like a cat nuzzling its owner.
"Do they?" he whispered, his head lowering until his lips were inches away from her own, his breath a warm caress across her mouth.
"Aye," she moaned in defeat as the finger at her neckline feathered over her breast, brushing one painfully erect nipple through the cloth of her gown.
His breath catching at that plea, he finally dropped his lips to hers. It was as if he had poured whiskey on embers. The flame exploded within her, her body arching violently,pressing her breasts hungrily against his chest. Head falling back, she opened her mouth for his invasion and clung desperately to his shoulders.
For a few moments it seemed more a battle than a kiss. Both of them were fighting for more, demanding it. There was no tenderness, just burning need as they devoured each other, bodies thrusting and hands grasping. Then Radcliffe broke free of the kiss, to worship her chin, cheek, then her earlobe with his mouth.
Charlie shuddered wildly as his tongue laved her. His hand slid to cup her breast through her gown and she cried out as he squeezed it frenziedly.
When he released her at once, she nearly wept with disappointment until she felt his hand at the neckline of her gown tugging at it until he had freed her breast to his uninhibited touch.
"Oh, God," he breathed into her ear as his hand closed over the warm swell of flesh, and Charlie gasped as his thumb brushed over her puckered nipple.
When the weakness she had spoken of suddenly hit her knees and she sagged in his arms, he slid one leg between hers, his thigh rubbing against her pelvis through the cloth of their apparel.
"Please," she breathed into his ear, nipping at the succulent lobe, then sucking hungrily until he pulled his head away and pushed her back against one arm to drop his mouth to the breast he had revealed.
Hands catching in his hair, she twisted her head feverishly, shaking her hair loose from its pins. But then she wanted his kisses again, needed them, and she tugged at his hair until he released her breast and claimed her lips once more.
Running her hands over his chest, she suddenly pushed his coat off of his shoulders, and he helped her, shrugging out of one sleeve, then the other.
It wasn't enough for Charlie, though; she wanted his bare flesh against her own, and she began tugging at the buttons of his shirt.
Releasing a half-chuckle, half-growl at her frustrated whimper as she struggled with the buttons, Radcliffe tugged the shirt out of his breeches and slipped button after button free of its hole until the shirt hung loose. Charlie immediately pressed her hands to his chest, marveling over the hard strength of him, the width, the curly dark hairs that brushed her fingers making them tingle.
She bent to press a kiss to the very center of his chest, then shifted her lips to one small pebble-like nipple. Closing her lips around it as he had done to her, she grazed it with her teeth, then gasped in surprise as Radcliffe suddenly stiffened and pushed her away. Her eyes shot to his face in hurt surprise until she recognized the intent look he had acquired. Then she heard Beth's voice sing out, vibrant with excitement. "Ch-Elizabeth! Beth!" Her footsteps pounded up the stairs and faded.
She saw the passion fade from Radcliffe's eyes to be replaced with regret, and felt her anger stir. "Do not even consider apologizing for what just happened,"
she warned icily. "It was as much my fault as yours and I enjoyed it too much to be sorry."
Radcliffe's eyebrows shot up even as his jaw dropped.
Charlie felt at least a smidgen of satisfaction at that fact as she nicked her neckline back up, smoothed her skirt, lifted her chin, and sailed out of the room before he could regain his voice.
"There you are!" Rushing down the stairs, Beth grabbed her arm excitedly.
"You will not believe it. I am so happy. Tomas has asked me to"
When Beth closed her mouth abruptly, Charlie glanced over her shoulder, not in the least surprised to see Radcliffe standing in the door to the library. No one looking at him now would believe he had been in flagrante delicto just moments agounlike herself she supposed with a sigh, running a self-conscious hand through her hair.
"Tomas asked you to what?" Radcliffe queried when Beth stared at him blankly.
"He er to" Panic began to color her face, then it cleared. "Go hunting with him. In the country. For a couple of days." She was positively bearmng with a happiness Charlie very much doubted had anything to do with hunting, but it had been a good save and Charlie could not resist smiling in return, until Radcliffe said, "I am afraid that is impossible."
"What?" Beth and Charlie both cried the word at once, turning to glare at him.
"I am sorry. You cannot go." He did not sound sorry. "How would it look?"
"How would what look?" Beth asked warily, her gaze shooting to Charlie, who had also stiffened at his words. Did he know? Did he know they were both girls? And if he did, how long had he known?
"Your running off to go hunting and leaving your sister alone here with me Unchaperoned."
"Unchaperoned?" Charlie relaxed. He did not know. "Radcliffe, everyone thinks you are our cousin. I have no need of a chaperone."
"Everyone thinks we are cousins now, but what happens when it comes out that we are not related? What then? There would be whispers about the fact that at some point during the charade Charles had run off leaving you here unchaperoned.
Besides, our supposedly being cousins does not make us above scandal.
Cousins marry all the time."
"But" Beth began desperately.
" 'Tis all riglit," Charlie murmured, drawing her sister's reluctant gaze.
"Come. You can tell me all about your night." Taking her arm, she urged her up the stairs and Beth allowed herself to be led to "Elizabeth's" room. Once there, however, she tugged her arm free and turned on Charlie defiantly. "I told Tom everything. All about us."
"I am not surprised. He seemed very upset when he left the ball."
Beth grimaced. "He was furious. He was also confused. He said that kissing you was like kissing Clarissa. He could not figure out what was going on. But he wasn't happy seeing you, I mean me, in Radcliffe's arms. Well, who he thought was me."
Charlie nodded solemnly. "So, you told him everything and ?"
Happiness exploded on her face. "And he asked me to many him."
"I thought as much," Charlie admitted with a grin and hurried forward to hug her, truly happy for her sister. "Congratulations."
"Oh, Charlie." Beth squeezed her desperately. "I love him so. What am I to do?"
"Do?" Charlie pulled back to look at her with surprise. "Why, you shall marry him, of course."
"But Tomas wants to elope to Gretna Green at once. He is waiting out front."
"Then you had best hurry and get ready, hadn't you?" Releasing her, Charlie rushed into the dressing room.
"Why?" Beth asked miserably, following to find her searching through the gowns they had received so far from the dressmaker. "Radcliffe is not going to let me out the door. He is afraid for Elizabeth's reputation."
"And he is right," Charlie said absently as she packed the lavender gown in a satchel. "Elizabeth should not be here alone. Aside from our reputations, there is the blackmailer to consider. Radcliffe would never let Elizabeth out alone at night, and criminals do seem to like to arrange their meetings at night."
Beth watched her pack away various toiletries, her confusion slowly turning to understanding. "So Elizabeth will rush off to elope with Tomas, and Charles will remain here," she reasoned out slowly, beginning to glow with happiness.
Beth's glow died an abrupt death. "Nay?"
"Nay, of course not. How on earth can I find a husband for myself as Charles?
Impossible. Ridiculous. Completely hopeless."
"Then why are you packing a case?" Beth wailed.
Charlie peered at her with surprise. "Why, so that you can elope, of course."
"But you just said"
"You, Beth," Charlie interrupted patiently. "You are going to elope. In the meantime, Charles will be terribly under the weather and spend most of his time in his room. That way, Elizabeth's reputation is safe, Charles is available if the blackmailer arranges another meeting, and I can be Elizabeth almost full-time to search for a husband."
"You will play both roles!" Beth gasped with understanding, following when Charlie snapped the satchel closed and led her from the dressing room.
"Only for a couple of days. Do make sure Tom hurries you back."
Beth bit her lip. "Tom said it would take a full day, a night, and almost another half day to reach Gretna Green if we ride without stopping," she admitted reluctantly.
"A day and a half there, and a day and a half back." Charlie began to shake her head. "You will have to stop to rest the night. That means you will be gone almost four"
"Nay. We will head right back," Beth interrupted to assure her, afraid Charlie was about to change her mind about all this. "It will only be three days."
"Beth, you cannot ride three clays straight without rest, and even if you could, his horse could not."
"We are taking the carriage. Tom and the driver can take turns at the whip, one driving while the other rests. And we can change horses regularly," she added as Charlie began to look hopeful.
"Do you think Tomas will agree to all this?"
"He loves me," was Beth's simple answer.
Smiling wryly, Charlie nodded. "Very well. And once you get back, you can play Charles full time. It will give you a chance to spend as much time alone with your new husband as possible until I find one, too. If I have not found one by the time you return," she added on a sigh, turning to hold the satchel out.
Beth grabbed the bag in one hand, then pulled her sister into an enthusiastic hug. "Oh, Charlie, you are brilliant! Magnificent! Incredible!"
"I love you, too," Charlie murmured, holding her close briefly. Then she pushed her away and turned to open the window. "Now, you had best get going."
Beth glanced at the window, her smile fading somewhat. "Out the window?"
Charlie arched an eyebrow. "Would you care to try walking right out the front door under Radcliffe's nose? If he catches you, the jig will be up."
"Aye, but" she hesitated, recollections of her encounter with the window at the inn filling her mind. What a dreadful experiencethat had been.
Leaving her to her thoughts, Charlie peered out the window. They were on the second floor above the salon, facing the road, and there was a bush directly beneath the window, offering a cushion should Beth fall. Her gaze slid to the street to see Tomas pacing anxiously beside the Mowbray carriage.
Placing two fingers in her mouth, Charlie used the whistle the stablemaster at home had taught her while working with the horses.
The piercing sound drew Tom's head around at once. Spying her at the window, he rushed forward to stand by the bushes beneath the window. Gesturing for him to stay put and remain quiet, Charlie turned back to Beth and took the bag she had packed. She dropped it into the bushes, waiting until Tom scrambled to remove it before turning back to her sister.
"He is waiting for you," she said gently.
"Tom?" Startled from her thoughts, Beth leaned out the window to wave at her husband-to-be before straightening again. "I can do this."
She didn't sound at all certain. Smiling, Charlie hugged her one last time.
"We have already escaped unwanted marriages, fled inns in the middle of the night, made our way to London, and fooled the entire ton into thinking we are brother and sister. Beth, I think we can do anything we set our minds to."
Grinning, Beth stepped back. "We are rather daring, are we not?"
"Bold as brass," she agreed cheerfully.