"Nay. No one knows but you." She sighed, then added under her breath to herself, "And the blackmailer."
"Blackmailer!" Bessie nearly screeched the word, her face a picture of honor, and Charlie grimaced. The girl's hearing was amazing.
"Aye. Well," she murmured, then quickly explained about the letters they had received, the botched payoff attempt, and the last letter that had warned them to get the money together and be prepared, that they would hear from the blackmailer again today. "I did not tell Beth before she left. She would just worry."
"Aye, she would have," Bessie agreed, then glanced nervously toward a tray on the table, murmuring, "Today, ye say?"
"Aye." Charlie followed her gaze, eyebrows rising at the rolled-up scroll that lay on the tray. It was secured with a blood-red ribbon. "What is that?"
she asked warily. "Where did it come from?"
"It arrived just ere I came upstairs," Bessie admitted anxiously. "A young street urchin delivered it. He said it was urgent one o' ye get it right away."
Charlie stared at the scroll, suddenly torn. Part of her wanted to snatch up the scroll, read the instructions, and follow them to get the whole thing finally over with. Another part was suddenly flooded with foreboding. Shrugging the dark feeling away, she reached for the scroll and silently undid the ribbon, very aware of Bessie's worried gaze as sheread it.
"What is it?" Bessie asked when she suddenly cursed.
Tossing the scroll impatiently on the table, Charlie stood and began to pace.
"His plan requires the two of us to be there."
"You and I?" Bessie asked with shock, and Charlie shook her head impatiently.
"Nay, Elizabeth and I. We have to" She paused suddenly and turned to stare at the maid, her mind working furiously.
Bessie sat back, her expression waiy. "Why are ye looking at me that way?"
"My, you make a lovely lady," Mrs. Hartshair murmured, stepping back from her handiwork with pride. "Doesn't she, m'lord? I mean, m'lady."
Charlie smiled slightly at the woman's expression The cook had even more trouble accepting the fact that Charles was really a Charlotte than Bessie had.
It had taken Charlie an hour to convince Bessie to assist her. The girl really had a horrid aversion to the idea of impersonating a lady. In the end it was guilt that had got her to agree. Desperate by that point, Charlie had shaken her head in feigned sadness and murmured that she could not believe what an ungrateful wretch she was and after all she, Charlie, had done forher.
Miserable, Bessie had caved in and agreed to do what was necessary. By that time, however, they had been left with only moments to prepare, and Charlie had reluctantly decided the cook had to be taken into confidence and put upon to help them.
"Aye," Charlie murmured now in response to the cook's comment. "She is quite lovely. 'Tis no wonder Aggie wanted her to work for her." Bessie made a face at that, and Charlie grinned as she tied off the thread she had used to sew a veil to one of "Elizabeth's" hats, then broke the thread and set the needle aside as she stood. "Here you are. The final touch to your disguise."
Taking the hat, Bessie donned it while Charlie moved to the table and slid the paper with the address into her pocket.
"How is this?" Bessie asked, drawing her attention again.
"Perfect." Charlie grinned with relief at the way the hat and veil completely disguised Bessie's hair color and facial features. "And now we have to go."
Turning, she opened the door and started out, Bessie on her heels, but Ms.
Hartshair chased after them anxiously. "How long shall you be?"
Charlie paused on the landing and frowned over the question. "I am not sure,"
she admitted, then sighed impatiently. "We should not be long. We will be back within the hour, before noon at the latest."
The Cock and Bull was a decidedly seedy establishment. Charlie and Bessie eyed it from the confines of the carriage, then glanced at each other. At least Charlie thought Bessie was looking at her. It was hard to see her eyes through the veil she wore.
"You are sure this is where the note said to go?" Bessie asked unhappily.
"Aye," Charlie sighed.
"What are we supposed to do now?"
"We are to go in and book a room under the name"Charlie pulled the note out of her pocket and checked it"Pigeon," she muttered wryly, then glanced back out the window at the shabby exterior of the building. "I suppose we had best get this over with."
"Aye." Bessie sounded less than enthusiastic about it, and Charlie gave her a reassuring smile.
" 'Twill all be over in a jiffy, and when it is, I shall buy you a fine new gown of your own as a thank you."
"That won't be necessary, my lady. As you pointed out earlier, you have done quite a lot for me already and I would hate to have any more to have to pay you back for."
Charlie glanced away guiltily, then sighed. "I am sorry, Bessie. I never should have blackmailed you so. If-if you do not wish to accompany me inside, you could just wait in the carriage and" She paused at a disgusted snort from the girl.
"And waste all that primping and poking for nothing? Nay. Someone shall see me dressed up so ere I remove all this fancy finery, thank you. Besides, it is the least I can do," she added more gently. "And I am sorry if I sounded a bit touchy just now."
Charlie hesitated another moment, nodded with relief, pushed the carriage door open, then stepped out and turned to help Bessie down.
If the exterior of the Cock and Bull had looked seedy, the inside was positively depressing. The heavy stench of smoke and stale ale were the first things to hit Charlie. Nosewrinkling, she blinked several times in an effort to adjust to the dim interior after the bright sunlight outside. When she could see clearly, she had to wonder why she had bothered. There wasn't much to see. Scarred wooden tables. A dirty wooden floor littered with various bits of debris. Brown walls which may have started out cream or white but were now stained from decades of smoke. Unkempt people with stained, shabby clothes filled every cranny, despite the fact that it was not yet noon.
Taking Bessie's arm, Charlie led her quickly through the noisy crowd to the bar.
The innkeeper noticed them at once. Flashing a set of teeth as stained as his brown walls, he continued to wipe a mug with a filthy cloth as he nodded in greeting. "What'll it be?"
"A room please. For Lord and Lady er Pigeon."
His hands slowed in their wiping as he glanced over them curiously, then he nodded slowly. "That'll just take a minute. One of the girls'll prepare the room. Why don'tcha sit over there at that corner table and have an ale while ye wait."
It wasn't a question. Charlie followed the man's gaze toward the table indicated, noting that there was a lone man seated at it. Short and stout, his head was sunk deep on his chest as he studied his drink with an air of boredom.
Realizing that this must be the man she was to meet, Charlie nodded and started to turn away, but paused when the innkeeper suddenly grabbed her arm.
"Ye'll be paying for the room and ale in advance, won't ye."
That wasn't a question either, Charlie noted as she grimly reached into her pocket and withdrew a couple of coins. Tossing them at the man a bit impatiently, she hurried Bessie toward the table they had been directed to, eager to have the ordeal done with.
The stranger lifted his head when Charlie and Bessie stopped at the table.
His eyes skimmed them both, noting their matching height and slender frames. "Yer late."
Charlie stiffened at the belligerent tone, her eyes scanning his face. She frowned over his bulbous nose, thick lips, and pockmarked face. He was not someone one was likely to forget meeting, and she was positive she had never met him before. Which meant he probably wasn't the actual blackmailer but an agent for him. She had been rather hoping to have a discussion with the blackmailer himself, to discern whether he intended to try to extort more money later.
It seemed she wasn't going to get the chance. Which meant they would be left to wonder and worry for a while longer.
"A couple more minutes and I would have left," the man added, obviously displeased with her silence in response to his complaint.
Shrugging impatiently, Charlie reached into her pocket to retrieve the sack of coins that was the payoff, eager to get this meeting over with.
"Put that away," he snapped, adding with disgust when she did, "D'ye want to get us killed or something? Gawd!" Rising abruptly, he gestured for them to follow and headed for the back of the establishment, leading them through a door that opened into a small, filthy kitchen, then on through that to another door.
This one led into an alley behind the inn. An alley that positively reeked of rotting meat and human excrement.
Covering their noses with distaste, Charlie and Bessie followed the man several feet away from the door before he stopped to face them, grinning with obvious pleasure over their discomfort. He didn't seem to be affected by the odors at all. Apparently his nose was all show, and not very useful otherwise.
Years of boozing had probably killed any ability it had once had to smell, Charlie thought nastily as she once again reached for the sack of coins. This time he did not stop her. Dropping the sack into the hand he held out, she waited while he opened it and peered at the coins inside. When he nodded in satisfaction, she shifted, drawing his attention once again. "If our business is concluded?"
Stilling, she glanced around when he gestured as if to someone behind her. With a sinking heart she saw two men moving toward them from the back door of the inn, and whirled angrily back to the man she had just handed the coins to.
"What is this?"
"Well, now, it seems that my boss thinks that if you will pay this well to keep your whereabouts a secret, your uncle will pay even more to have you back."
Before Charlie could do or say anything in response to that, a cry from Bessie brought her around to see that the men had reached them. One had grabbed her upper arms from behind and was attempting to subdue her as she began struggling and kicking. Charlie moved at once to try to help, but had barely taken a step when she found herself facing the second man. He was a behemoth. As tall as a tree and as broad as a bam. His presence before her blocked out the sun and cast her in shadow.
Charlie swallowed grimly, fear leaving her frozen until another cry from Bessie made her move. Stomping on the man's foot, she ran around him and launched herself at the back of the other man as he forced Bessie up the alley toward a carriage that suddenly appeared there. This man wasn't quite as tall as the other, but he was as brawny. He gave a grunt when she attached herself to his back, one arm around his neck, the other hand caught in his hair and pulling furiously. Her feet and knees dug into the flesh of his hips as she scrambled for purchase. Then she was grasped about the waist, and her upper body was pulled away from the man.
"Here now, don't hurt her," the man with the nose muttered. It was the last thing Charlie heard. The fellow who had grabbed her released her at once, and Charliewhose legs were still wrapped around the other man's hipshad no time to grab at anything to stop her fall as her upper body suddenly plummeted downward, her head crashing onto the cobbled street.
"Good day, my lord. I trust your expedition-was successful?"
"Most successful. Stokes," Radcliffe murmured, handing over his frock coat, hat, and gloves before reaching down instinctively to pat his pocket, feeling for the jeweler's package there. "Is Lady Elizabeth in the salon?"
"Nay, my lord. She is still out."
"Out?" He stilled at that.
"With her brother, my lord. Lord Charles asked me to procure them a carriage shortly after you left this morning."
"And they have not returned yet? Where did they go?"
Before Stokes could answer either question, a tap at the front door drew him forward to answer it.
"Elizabeth!" Radcliffe hurried forward as he spied The woman on the doorstep, his smile turning to a scowl when he noticed Tomas a step behind her.
Takingher arm, he drew her into the house and away from the other man. "Stokes said you left with Charles this morning. Where did you go? And where is Charles?"
"Charlie is not here?" Worry pulled at her brow as she asked Stokes that.
"Nay, my lady. He has not returned since the two of you departed this morning."
"The two of us?"
"Aye, my lady." His confusion was obvious.
Elizabeth frowned at his words, then seemed to come to a conclusion that soothed her. "But not at the same time. First one left, then the other, is that not right?" she guessed. Stokes blinked.
"Nay, my lady. You both walked out together. You were wearing a different gown, though."
This news seemed to simply confuse the woman, Radcliffe saw with irritation as Elizabeth turned worriedly to Tomas Mowbray, whispering his name in confusion.
"And a veiled hat," Stokes added suddenly, which brought a spark of what seemed to be understanding to Mowbray's eye.
"You are saying Charlie and a woman in a veiled hat left the house this morning, but they have not returned yet?"
Stokes nodded slowly, his expression becoming thoughtful as he recognized the distinction being made. "Aye, my lord."
Beth's frown deepened. "Who could the woman have been?"
Radcliffe was frowning now, too. "Are you saying it was not you?"
"It was not me," Beth confirmed Radcliffe glanced at Stokes confused face, then asked, "Then when and how did you leave the house today?"