Glancing toward it, she frowned slightly, wondering why it sounded so faint, then realized it was because the knocking was not at that doorbut next door, in Charles's room. She'd taken to leaving the interconnecting door open, in case of just such an occurrence. Sighing, she shoved the blankets aside, grabbed the wrap to cover her nakedness, and stumbled wearily between the bedrooms. She covered a sleepy yawn, then paused in the center of Charles's room, cleared her throat, and called out, "Who is it?"
"Lord Radcliffe. I know it is early, but I need to speak with you."
Charlie's eyebrows rose at the almost hushed sound to his voice, but she sighed, "Fine. I shall be down directly."
"Nay. I would speak with you now."
She frowned at that, her gaze chopping to the robe she wore and the unbound breasts pressing eagerly out from beneath it. "Now? Can it not wait until"
Hearing the firmness in his voice, Charlie shifted irritably. "Just a moment then," she snapped, and began searching for the cloth to bind her breasts.
Spotting it trailing toward the connecting door of the bedrooms, she grabbed it up, shrugged out of her robe, and began the binding.
"It is about your sister."
"What about her?" Charlie asked, wincing as she tightened the cloth around her breasts. Good Lord, it was uncomfortable to be trussed up thusly. Had she really spent days strapped so? Amazing what women were forced to do to __ "I cannot speak of it through the door. May I come in?"
"No!" she cried, dragging her shirt on over the binding, then, realizing how sharp she had sounded, added more calmly, "I am not dressed. I shall let you in directly."
There was silence for a momentas she found and began to tug on her stockings, then his impatient voice came again. "It is quite important."
"Fine, fine. Just a moment." Tying her hair quickly, she stuffed the strands down her back, plopped the wig on top, and peered about for the knee breeches.
Spying them sticking out from beneath the bed, she hurried over and knelt to retrieve them.
Hearing the soft tread of someone moving up the stairs, Radcliffe stiffened and stepped toward the rail to peer down. Bessie was coming up, no doubt headed to awaken her mistress. He was just sighing in relief that he had left Elizabeth's room ere the woman's arrival and thus had avoided an embarrassing scene, when he realized that he was still wearing last night's evening clothes. Panicking, he opened the door to Charles's room and stepped inside, closing the door just as the maid reached the top of the landing.
"I am sorry, Bessie was coming and I" he began, only to pause and gape at the bare behind directed toward him. Charles was on his hands and knees at the side of the bed, apparently attempting to drag something out.
He was dressed only in stockings that reached to his thighs and a shirt that had risen up to reveal his derriere as he searched. And what a shapely derriere it was, Radcliffe noticed with dismay. Good God! It was almost an exact replica of Elizabeth's. He supposed he should not be surprised at that. After all, they were twins. Then again, perhaps his shock was not so much at that as at the fact that his body was reacting to the sight of it in about the same way as it had reacted to the sight of Charles's sister's. So much for last night clearing up his sexual confusion.
Cursing, he turned around abruptly. It seemed to help little, however; the pink upside-down heart that was both Charles's and Elizabeth's derriere seemed etched on his brain.
Hearing his curse, Charlie straightened abruptly, knee breeches in hands as she glanced around to see Radcliffe standing with his back to her. Flushing with embarrassment despite the fact that he had seen every inch of her nude the night before, she leapt to her feet and began tugging on the breeches. "Dammit, Radcliffe, I did say to wait a moment."
"Yes, well, I er Bessie was coming up the hall," he explained lamely.
"So?" Charlie asked irritably, tucking her shirt into the breeches.
"So I did not wish her to see me like this."
She glanced at him curiously. "Why not? You look fine."
"These are the same clothes I was wearing last evening." Glancing over his shoulder, Radcliffe saw that the lad was dressed now and turned to face him.
"Which is part of the reason I wished to speak with you."
Charlie blinked at that. "You wished to speak with me because you are wearing last evening's clothes still?"
"Nay," he snapped impatiently. "Because of the reason that I am still wearing last evening's clothes."
Understanding struck Charlie then and she nearly smiled. This was what one might call the big confession scene. He thought to tell her that he had ruined her sister last night. Of course, he had really not ruined Beth at all, but her playing Beth. Well, she had not really been playing Beth last night, because Beth loved Tomas and so would not have slept with Radcliffe, so she supposed she had really been Charlie last night but Charlie the girl, not Charles the brother. Goodness, what a tangle things were getting into.
Radcliffe cleared his throat, drawing her attention again as he began to pace before her. "Charles, it has occurred to me that perhaps you would care to take a Grand Tour?"
When he quit his pacing to peer at her hopefully, she frowned with bewilderment.
"What has that to do with the fact that you have not changed your clothes?"
"Ahh yes well, you see I thought perhaps If we married, you see"
Charlie gaped at him. "Excuse me?"
"I said, I am going to marry your sister," he repeated grimly.
Charlie frowned at that, for she was absolutely positive that there had been no mention of marriage to her. Not to her as Elizabeth at least. Then the fact that Radcliffe did not exactly sound pleased at the notion struck her.
Radcliffe shifted uncomfortably. "Why?"
"Why do you wish to marry her?"
"I well last night we er"
"Last night you ' er"?" she repeated grimly, taking great offense at the description. "Er" seemed to reduce what had been a beautiful experience to a rather tawdry little episode. Fury raising in her, she snapped, "You ' er'd her?"
"I realize this is a poor showing on my part." "A poor showing?" she repeated, incredulous.
"I had offered the two of you my protection and I have behaved badly,"
Radcliffe continued as if Charlie had not interrupted. "I am terribly sorry for my slip, but" Frustration crossed his face. This was not at all the way he had meant for things to go. He didn't even know why he had brought up last night except that it was looming large in his mind just now Along with the fact that he could repeat it should he marry Elizabeth. Good Lord! He realized with dismay that he was allowing his manly parts to make decisions now.
Nay, he collected himself at once. He was not marrying Elizabeth simply to bed her. And he had decided on marrying her ere bedding her. Last night merely meant that they would have to be married at once to avoid the possibility of having a child too soon after the wedding. Marrying quickly was a necessity anyway, thanks to Carland.
"You were saying?"
Radcliffe cleared his throat, then frowned.
"What was I saying?"
"You were sorry for your slip and ?"
"Oh." He frowned. "Well, really, that part was not very important."
"You ' er'd my sister and it is not important?"
Radcliffe eyed the lad warily. There was something rather threatening about his attitude. "It is important, of course," he tried to explain. "But it really has nothing to do with why I am prepared to many your sister."
"So, the fact that you ' er'd her is not important, but you wish to many her because?" The lad was waiting.
"So that no one else can." Oh dear, that didn't sound very good at all. "I mean, I am willing to suffer the consequences of my actions and marry her at the first opportunity."
"Suffer the consequences?" The boy was nearly foaming at the mouth, but visibly forced himself to calm down. "What of love?"
"Love?" Radcliffe was nonplussed by the question. "Well, I do not" He paused there, frowning slightly, for he had been about to say that he did not think it an issue at the moment, besides his feelings were most confused on the subject.
One moment he would look at Elizabeth and feel heat and desire and she seemed the most exciting creature he had ever met. Then the next time he saw her she would seem quiet and reticent, and he would feel nothing but a slight avuncular affection. His reactions to the boy before him were just as confusing. "I do not"
The boy turned away at those words, paling.
Shaking his head, Radcliffe gave up attempting to sort out his feelings.
"My feelings are not at issue here. What happened last night is. Should I not many her, your sister will be ruined or forced to marry Carland. Do I have your permission to marry her, or not?"
"Oh, by all means," Charlie sighed, sounding almost bitter. "Marry my sister If she will have you. I couldn't care less."
Frowning at his tone of voice, Radcliffe hesitated, then turned toward the door.
Now he would have to talk to Elizabeth. Mayhap he should go collect the engagement ring first. Aye, a capital idea. This had to be done properly.
He would collect the ring, have Mrs. Hartshair make a special dinner "I have something I must do. Do not tell your sister. I wish to tell her myself."
"As you wish," Charlie murmured as the door closed behind Radcliffe, then whipped off the wig furiously with one hand, using the other to half-shrug, half-tug off her shirt as she turned away from the door. Radcliffe had not left a moment too soon, she saw. Her bindingsas sloppily as she had donned them in her hastewere half-undone and quickly unraveling.
Grimacing, she tugged the last of the bindings away and tossed them after the robe, only to stiffen as a gasp sounded. Lifting her gaze slowly, she stared at the girl frozen in the connecting door between rooms, her wide eyes taking in Charlie half-in and half-out of her disguise.
"Bessie." Charlie took a step toward her and the girl turned and fled.
Cursing, she was after her at once, following her into "Elizabeth's" room. Seeing that she was fleeing for the door, Charlie chargedforward leaping onto the bed and running right over it in an effort to reach the door first. She slammed against the door just as Bessie started to tug it open, her weight forcing it closed with a crack like thunder. Bessie fell away atonce, shock and fear on her face as she stumbled backward across the room.
" 'Tis all right, Bessie. I am not going to hurt you," Charlie murmured reassuringly, her gaze dancing between the girl and the room until she spied Elizabeth's robe lying across the foot of the bed. She moved quickly to grab it, and Bessie danced skittishly away from her, her eyes darting nervously around for some escape. Sighing impatiently, Charlie donned the robe and ripped at the ribbon that held her hair at her back, then brushed some of it forward before facing the girl once more. " 'Tis all right, Bessie," she repeated on a sigh.
"Nay, I'm not seein'," Bessie cried unhappily, but she stopped moving and focused on Charlie now. "What's going on? Which are ye? The brother or the sister?"
"Both," Charlie answered truthfully with a wry smile, then sighed again as she saw she had only confused the girl further. "I am Charlie."
As impossible as it seemed, the girl's eyes widened more and she shook her head a bitwildly. "Nay. Yer not. Ye've bosoms. I saw them."
"Aye, well, that is because I am a girl. Charlie is short for Charlotte. I was just pretending to be a boy to" She paused and took a step to the side, blocking the path to the door when Bessie started in that direction again.
Bessie paused at once, but it was obvious she would flee at any moment.
"Bessie, I am the same Charlie that rescued you from that room at Aggie's. Do you not think you at least owe me the chance to explain?"
The girl swallowed at that, uncertainty covering her face as she peered longingly at the door; then she sighed unhappily and gave one small nod.
"Good." Charlie offered her a gentle smile, then gestured to the small table by the window. "Why do we not sit down so that I can explain everything?"
Bessie looked doubtful, but moved to perch on one of the two seats at the table, eyeing Charlie warily as she followed and claimed the other seat.
"You see," Charlie began promptly, not surprised when as her story progressed, Bessie's suspicious expression was replaced by surprise, concern, then sympathetic murmurings. She told the servant everything. Well, almost everything. She kept back any mention of the blackmailer and her less respectable moments with Radcliffe. By the time she was finished, the girl was eyeing her with admiration.
"Yer so brave. To have dressed up as a lad and fled your uncle." She shook her head in wonder, but Charlie smiled wryly and reached out to pat her hand.
"No more brave than you, Bessie. You may not have dressed up as a lad, but you did travel all the way to the city alone to seek employment."
"Oh, aye. But just look how that turned out. Aggie fooling me in to" She paused suddenly, her eyes wide with realization. "You were in a brothel! Oh, my lord. A lady in a brothel!"
"Shh," Charlie hissed nervously, afraid of their being overheard. "That was Radcliffe's idea. He thought I was too umm feminine and thought to make a 'man' out of me." Amusement tugged at her lips as she admitted that Bessie's eyes widened further. "Lord Radcliffe doesn't know that yer a girl?"