Straightening her shoulders, Beth turned and crawled out to sit on the window ledge before glancing back. "Three days."
"Three days." Charlie agreed, then gasped in alarm when Beth pushed herself off the ledge. Leaning forward, she peered down to see Tomas holding her cradled in his arms, having caught her. Releasing her legs, he let her stand. The couple kissed briefly, then glanced up, waved, and hurried through the darkness to the waiting carriage.
Charlie watched them ride out of sight, then closed the window with a sigh.
Charlie had never imagined that time could pass so slowly. These past three days had seemed more like a week to her. She had played Charles each evening since Beth's leaving, donning the wig, jumping into bed, and pulling the linens up to cover her gown as Bessie delivered "Charles's" tray at dinnertime.
Dressed as Elizabeth, she had taken up the morning and afternoon trays herself, much to Bessie's relief. The girl was quite busy with the puppies, taking them for walks, then fussing over the fact that they seemed to be off their food.
Little did she know that the reason for this sudden drop in their voracious appetites was that they were snacking on the food meant for Charles.
Pacing to the salon window, Charlie peered out. There was still no sign of Radcliffe's carriage. They were supposed to have left for the Sommervilles' ball four hours ago, but Radcliffe had never arrived home to take her. She had gone from irritation, to anger, to anxiety, and now she was worried silly that something had happened to him.
The sound of the front door closing drew her glance out the window again to see that Radcliffe's carriage had returned. Turning smartly, she hurried into the hall in time to see Stokes disappearing with his master's gloves, cape, and hat.
"You are home."
About to step into the library, Radcliffe paused and glanced at her with surprise, then changed direction and moved toward the room she had just exited.
"Oh, good evening, Elizabeth."
"Did you have a good day?" she asked sweetly, following him into the salon and watching as he poured himself a drink from a carafe on the table.
"Very good, actually. That investment I madethe one I included you and Charles inhas paid out. We tripled our money," he murmured with satisfaction, then swallowed some of his drink. "That is where I have been, actually."
Charlie's tension eased, her anger dissipating quickly. He had been tending to business. That was why he had not arrived home to take her to the Sommervilles' ball. She could hardly be angry at him for that. She could not expect the man to give up his life or shirk his business to aid her in finding a husband, she thought. And then he added, "I was out celebrating with some of the other investors."
Radcliffe had raised theglass to his lips again when a missile flew at him.
Catching it out of the corner of his eye, he dodged it automatically, sloshing port all over the place as he did. It smashed against the wall behind him and he stared at it with amazement, then turned in time to see Elizabeth's skirts disappear through the door. "What the deuce?"
Setting his glass down, he hurried after her. She was halfway up the stairs when he stepped into the hall. "What the devil was that all about?" he shouted after her, taking to the stairs himself.
Not having anything close to hand to hurl at him, Charlie did not deign to stop and answer him. Instead, she picked up her pace in an effort to avoid him.
Unfortunately, the constricting farthingale that women were forced to wear to be fashionable, tended to makelittle things like breathing difficult, and running was out of the question without air, which was why Radcliffe caught her on the landing.
"I want an answer." Catching her arm, he dragged her around to face him.
"What was that all about?"
Pressing a hand to her chest, Charlie made a determined effort to regain her breath, then offered him a perplexed look. "What, my lord?"
"In the salon," he snapped. "You threw something at me."
"Did I?" she murmured "I must have been terribly angry."
"Aye, but about what?"
"Do you know, my lord, I think I have forgotten."
"Forgotten?" He stared at her dumbfounded, and she nodded solemnly.
"Aye. Just like you obviously forgot about the Sommervilles' ball." Turning on that note, she headed down the hall toward "Elizabeth's" room.
"Oh, damn," Radcliffe breathed, squeezing his eyes closed for a moment, then blinking them open again as she reached the door to her room. "Elizabeth, I am sorry. I meant only to have one, maybe two drinks, then head home, but I"
She whirled on him coldly. "You are not sorry, my lord. Pray do not pretend that you are."
"But I am!"
"Is that right? Well, pray forgive me if I find that hard to believe in light of your recent behavior." His head came up at that, and he hurried forward as she opened the door to her room.
"What do you mean? What recent behavior?" he demanded, barging into the room behind her as she would haveclosed the door in his face.
Charlie stared at him briefly then shook her head and crossed the room to peer out the window. Her expression when she turned back was solemn.
"Radcliffe, you know that I must find a husband. This is not a question of what I want, it is what I need. If I am not married ere my uncle and Carland find me, I will be forced to marry him. And if that happens, I can guarantee you I shall be dead within a week."
"I would not let that happen."
"Would not let? You are practically guaranteeing that outcome," she cried.
"Do not be ridiculous."
"Ridiculous? My lord, you took me to the Halthams' ball the night before last."
'There! You see? I am trying to aid you."
"The Halthams are eighty years old if they are a day."
He looked uncomfortable. "Well, that does not mean"
"There were exactly three men at that ball under sixty years of age, and when one or another of them even looked my way, you glowered at them so ferociously that they immediately turned away."
"Well, not one of them was much of a man if a little frown scares them off."
"My lord, next to Carland, Mr. Haltham himself looks like a prince."
Flushing guiltily, he shook his head. "All right, the night before last was a failure and it was all my fault."
"Last night you took me to the Whitmans' ball."
"AliceWhitman isn't a day over nineteen," he pointed out quickly.
"But Lord Whitman is ninety if he is a day. He is also deaf as a post and blind as a bat and uses these frailties as excuses to literally drool down every single woman's bodice as he supposedly listens to them speak. This is why, as I learned last night, no one who is anyone attends his balls, and why there was not one single available male in attendance. Or female, for that matter.
Oh, other than myself, I mean," she added dryly. "But am I to believe that tonight was not another attempt to sabotage my efforts at saving myself? Fine.
The Sommervilles' ball slipped your mind. My need to find a husband to share my life slipped your mind. I apparently slipped your mind!"
Radcliffe stood silent before her, shame covering him like a cloak. She was right of course, though he had not even realized it himself until now. He had deliberately sabotaged her efforts to gain a husband. And he could not even explain why. All he knew was that the last three days had been hell as he had tried to keep his distance and behave appropriately while all the young bucks in London sniffed about her. Oh, he had noticed the way they looked at her.
And had found it damned annoying. Every gleaming eye that was cast her way had made him clench his teeth in fury.
She wastoo good for them. Too good for them all. The thought of any of them having the right to take her to his bed, to touch her body, taste the sweetness he had experienced The very idea made him furious. Impossible. Never.
Over his dead body. He would marry her himself first.
Radcliffe went still. Marry her? His gaze slid over her in the royal blue gown, caressing the mounds of her breasts, remembering the weight and feel of them in his hands. An ache started immediately in his groin, and he swallowed thickly.
If he married her he would have the right to feel them again And much more. He could have her in his bed every night. Face her across the table every morning She would be safe. More importantly, she would be his.
Then he thought of Charles and the odd reaction he'd had to the lad sometimes, and Radcliffe frowned. To marry the sister meant having to be around the brother a great deal. A prospect that made him extremely uncomfortable.
"I need your assistance, not your interference, Radcliffe."
He glanced down with a start to see that she had moved to stand directly in front of him, close enough for him to smell. Close enough for him to touch.
His heart rate picked up just at her nearness, his body responding with definite enthusiasm. Mayhap Charles would be interested in a Grand Tour. "I must speak to your brother."
Charlie's eyes widened in shocked dismay at Radcliffe's announcement.
She leapt forward, grabbing his arm in panic as he turned to exit the room. "Oh, nay.
Please, you mustn't disturb Charles. You know he is unwell just now."
"Aye, and I promise I will not disturb him for any longer than I have to, but I must have a word with him."
"But he" Seeing the determination on his face, Charlie slid between him and the door, caught him by the ears, and dragged his head down to her own.
Radcliffe went stiff as a board as her lips mashed his. Realizing that her play was not working, she released his ears, slid her fingers into his hair, and eased her lips until they were rubbing and nibbling at his. She sensed his hesitation then and slid her tongue out to lick his lips, in what she hoped was a provocative manner.
Much to her relief it seemed to work. Giving in to temptation, Radcliffe slid his arms around her waist, his lips opening and his own tongue coming out to master hers. The result was shattering. They had been playing with fire too long, dancing with arousal then leaving it unfed too many times. Both of them went up in flames.
Continuing to kiss her, Radcliffe swept her up in his arms and carried her to the side of the bed. When he set her down again, Charlie found that someone had stolen her strength and her legs were shaking with her need. Breaking the kiss, he straightened suddenly, caught her at the waist, and turned heraway from him.
Then she felt his hands at her lacings, and she held her breath, releasing it with a sigh when the top of her gown loosened, then slid off her shoulders and down her arms to pool at her feet. Her chemise quickly followed, and before her nipples could pucker defensively against the sudden chill of vulnerability, Radcliffe's hands replaced the material, cupping her breasts and pressing her back to lean against him.
"You are so lovely," he breathed into her ear, peering down her body from behind.
Charlie glanced down, seeing what he saw; smooth ivory skin and the curve of her breasts held in his darker hands. It was an erotic sight, and she shuddered against him as he caught her nipples between each thumb and forefinger to roll them teasingly.
Moaning, Charlie dropped her head back onto his shoulder as he kissed and nipped at her neck, then stiffened in his arms, quivering as he slid one hand down between her thighs. Gasping, she twisted her head abruptly, searching for and finding his lips and kissing him with a violence that startled her. But Radcliffe merely chuckled deep in his throat and tugged his lips away to shift her around to face him once more. Charlie immediately took that opportunity to push his dress coat and waistcoat off, then commenced with undoing his shirt buttons, kissing every inch of skin she could reach as it was exposed.
She had run out of shirt and started to work at his breeches when he caught her by the shoulders and pushed her back to sit on the bed. Following her, he kissed her feverishly, then trailed his lips to her ear, then down her throat to a spot between her breasts. Catching her breasts in his hands, he turned his head to kiss first one, then the other and continued his trail downward.
Swallowing, Charlie knotted her hands in his hair and clenched her stomach against the quivers that shot through her as he licked a path along it. Then she stilled, even her breathing seeming to halt as she felt his hands clasp her ankles and draw her legs further apart, then slide slowly, deliciously upward, over her calves, her knees, her thighs. Lifting his head, he caught her lips in another passionate kiss, then pulled away and kissed the inside of first one knee, then the other. A gasp tore from her throat and she nearly leapt off the bed when he then pressed a kiss to the very core of her, his tongue whipping out to tease the center of all her sensation, his teeth grazing her tender flesh.
Throwing her head back, Charlie released a high, piercing cry of need that died on a whimper as he gently inserted one finger inside, slowly stretching her.
"Oh God, oh God, please," she sobbed breathlessly, not even sure what she was begging for.
Radcliffe knew, however, and he continued his tender ministrations until she found it, the release she needed. It came with a thundering of blood in her ears, a rush of sensation, then Radcliffe was straightening before her, catching her beneath the knees to pull her to the edge of the bed. Clasping her buttocks in hand, he lifted her slightly and eased into her still shuddering body, groaning as she closed around his engorged flesh. Plunging forward, he took her innocence swiftly and painlessly as she pulled his head down and kissed him demandingly. Radcliffe kissed her back, his tongue thrusting into her mouth as he drove into her body.
It was the closing of the door that woke Charlie. Blinking sleepily, she peered at the empty bed beside her, then slowly sat up. Sunlight was peeking through the closed drapes. Radcliffe had slipped out while she slept. She was just wondering if she should be upset when she heard the knock at the door.