"I did not leave the house today."
He shifted impatiently. "Do not be ridiculous. You must have left. You have just returned with Mowbray in tow."
Beth shook her head. "Nay, my lord. I never left the house today. I have not been here for the past three days. I left the night of the Fetterleys' ball.
Charlie pretended to be me to hide the fact that I was gone."
"That is rot, madam and you know I know it is!" Grabbing her wrist, Radcliffe turned toward the library. "I do not know what game you are playing, madam," he snapped as he moved. "But you shall explain yourself."
"Hang on there," Mowbray said as he hurried after them and caught Beth's free hand, tugging her away from Radcliffe.
"Let go of her, Mowbray, this is none of your concern." Radcliffe dragged her back a step so that Beth stood between the two men, caught in the middle of a tug of war.
"It certainly is my concern, man. She is my wife."
"What?" Radcliffe blanched Tomas nodded with satisfaction. " 'Tis where we have been for the last few days.
Gretna Green. We rode there by carriage, married, and I brought her directly back."
Radcliffe laughed his relief at that. "Do you take me for a fool? You could not have possibly taken her there. She was here."
"Nay, my lord. That was Charlie," Elizabeth said. "Charlie has been covering for my absence," she repeated gently.
Rather than being soothed by her gentle words, Radcliffe grew more angry, his mouth tightening grimly. "You know you cannot fool me with that nonsense, Elizabeth. Why would you even try?"
"But 'Tis true, my lord," she insisted, merely managing to annoy him further.
"Charles in a dress? And with long dark tresses?" he queried sarcastically.
Radcliffe shook his head. "Even if it were true that Charles could pass himself off as a woman in a dress, you and I both know that I know that it was not him.
Do I really have to state how I know it was not Charles in front of this young buck, or will you confess this a poor joke and give it up?"
"But Charlie did pretend to be me while I was gone," she insisted once more.
"Madam, the body I held in my arms and made love to last night was a woman's. It definitely was not your brother, Charles."
"You made love to Charlie?" the girl asked with some shock.
"I made love to you!" Radcliffe snapped back.
"The devil you did," Tom muttered. "Even I have not had that honor yet.
There was no opportunity what with having to rush back here to save Charlotte."
"Charlotte? Who the deuce is Charlotte?"
"Charlie!" Beth and Tomas answered as one. When Radcliffe merely stared at them blankly, Tomas explained. "Beth and Charlotte are twin sisters."
"Charlie only pretended to be a boy so that we might travel safely," Beth added quickly. "Are you all right, my lord? You have gone quite pale."
Radcliffe shook his head. "I think you had best explain this to me slowly."
Beth bit her lip and glanced at her husband, then back to Radcliffe. "Well, it is really very simple. You see. Uncle Henry had arranged our marriages to Carland and Seguin, and Charlie and IWell, really, my lord, you yourself said Carland has seen three wives to the grave. As for Seguin, I fear he has some peculiar predilections. Though I must confess I did not know that until you took Charlie to the brothel."
Radcliffe gave a start at that, honor passing across his face even as Tomas turned on him accusingly. "You took her to a brothel?"
Grimacing now, Radcliffe shook his head. "I took Charles. The boy was missish. I thought to make a man of him."
"I fear that would be quite impossible," Beth murmured with amusement, then hurried on with her explanations when he glared at her. "At any rate, we decided Carland and Seguin were unsuitable and that we would flee to our cousin Ralphy's."
Radcliffe gave another start. "Ralphy? I thought you were headed to London."
She smiled apologetically. "Well, no, not really. Charlie simply told you that in case you should run into Uncle Henry and give us away. We were really headed to Ralph. He is our cousin on our mother's side, and Uncle Henry did not know about him as far as we knew. It seemed the best place to go, but it is not safe for a woman to travel alone Nor even for two women, so Charlie decided to dress as a man. She thought it would keep us safe from ne'er-do-wells, as well as make it harder for Uncle Henry to track us. He would have been looking for two women, you see?"
"I see," he said dryly, recalling the slim youth facing him in the stables.
His fear had been obvious, but equally obvious had been the boy's determination to protect his her sister. "Why did the two of you not tell me the truth?"
"Well, we did not know you then, my lord."
"Nay, at first you did not," he conceded. "But after, when I offered my aid"
"We never really meant to accept your assistance. In fact, we did try to refuse it, if you will recall, but you seemed unwilling to leave us to our own devices.
So we were forced to start out for London with you, but planned to sneak off in the middle of the night and head back for Ralphy's alone."
His eyebrows rose at that. "And why did you not do so?"
"You did not stop," she pointed out dryly. "We expected you simply to lead us to the next inn to rest for the night ere continuing on the next day, but you rode us through the night, stopping only at dawn. We were too exhausted to be able to leave then."
Radcliffe smiled wryly, recalling Charles's stumbling wearily about their room that first morning as dawn had crept into the sky. She had taken a grave risk in sharing that room. She could have been ruined had she been discovered.
He suddenly recalled waking up with her wrapped around his body and his own shock and honor at his physical response to the boy's proximity and grimaced. If he had known then what he knew now Pushing such thoughts aside, he asked, "Why did you not leave the next night, then?"
She shrugged. "You had pointed out the necessity of having a firing arm and we did not have one. Then, too, as time passed and we got to know you, my lord, we came to quite like you. It did not seem right to run off in the middle of the night when you had been so kind. So we decided mayhap London would be the better destination for us. You had offered to help change our jewels for us and"
Flushing guiltily, she glanced at Tomas. "Well, we did rather hope that we might find alternative husbands, saving us from having to hide at our cousin's country estate and spend our lives as spinsters," she admitted self-consciously.
Smiling, Tomas placed his arm around her comfortingly. "And so you did, my dear, and I am grateful for it."
"As am I. I was attracted to you from the first, but I knew you were the man for me that day at Radcliffe's club," Beth murmured back,hugging him close so that she missed Radcliffe giving a start again.
"My club? When were you at my club?"
"The day after we arrived, my lord," Beth answered, glancing at him with surprise. "Do you not recall?"
"I took Charles there, not you." .
"I was Charles that day," she admitted, blushing furiously.
"That day?" He looked nonplused. "What do you mean, that day? I thought Charlie" He was looking bewildered again and Beth hurried to explain.
"Well, Charlie seemed to be having so much fun that I thought to try it.
After all, you had taken her to learn to shoot, to a brothel, sat up all night drinking with her" She frowned as he seemed to pale further with each example of the "fun" he had shown Charlotte. "I thought I should like to try being a man for a day. So the morning after we arrived, we switched. Charlie played me, and I played Charles."
"I see," he murmured faintly and thought he actually might be beginning to. He vividly recalled the trip to his club that she spoke of. How could he not? It had been the first time that he had been with Charles and not found himself reluctantly attracted to the boy. Thinking on it now, he realized that that afternoon had also been the first time he had found himself attracted to who he had thought was Beth. It had actually been Charlotte. He had kissed her there for the first time, then they had gone to the theater that night and she had flirted horrifically with"But you were Beth again that night when we went to the theater?"
"And the next day?"
"But not that night?"
"Nay." She looked surprised that he could tell when she had been herself and when not, but he was not about to explain that it was not actually him but his body that had known the difference. Every time Charlottewhat a horrendous namehad played Beth, he had been drawn to her like a moth to a flame.
Just as he had been drawn to Charles only when Charlie wasthe one wearing the breeches.
It was damned relieving, that. At least he knew there was nothing peculiar about him. He was suddenly quite happy with himself and the world around him.
His feelings were all sorted out now. It was Charlie. Charlie he had desired, Charlie he had wanted, Charlie he found charming, and Charlie he had loved. The wicked little femme had really pulled one over on him. She looked damned good in breeches. Mayhap he should have her wear them once in a while to "realized Carland was headed here, we headed directly back."
Radcliffe blinked his less than sterling thoughts aside as he caught the end of Beth's explanations. He had missed quite a bit of them while imagining the things he would like to do with Charlie. The important parts, he suspected with irritation as he turned to her now. "What did you say?"
"I said we headed directly back."
"No, before that."
"Oh." She frowned. "About Carland?" When he nodded, she explained, "Well, he and Uncle Henry were in the same inn as us last night. He didn't see me, luckily, but Tomas overheard them talking. From what they said, we gathered that they knew we were in London and some plans were afoot to bring us to them.
Tomas and I did not even stay the night in the end. We left right away and returned."
"Why did you rush right back? If you and Mowbray are married, all is well.
Your uncle cannot force you to many Carland if you are already married."
"Nay. Not me. Charlie."
"Charlie?" He paled at that. "But you two said "We could hardly tell you that Charles was to marry Carland," she pointed out logically. "And we feared that had we told you I was to marry Segin, you may have been less than sympathetic. After all, at the time, we'd heard nothing derogatory about him except that he was old. You may have stopped our attempted escape. You may even have turned us in to our uncle."
"Charlie with Carland?" His honor was obvious. "My God, he would never put up with her sass. She would be dead within the day!"
Beth nodded solemnly. "That is why we returned. To help her flee."
"Flee?" He looked as if the word were alien to him, then stood up suddenly.
"Nay. There is no need for her to flee. We are to marry."
Beth blinked at that. "You are?"
"Aye. I told her this morning."
"You told her'?" She frowned with concern.
"Aye," he answered distractedly, his thoughts on all she had said. Charles was really Charlotte, and she had gone somewhere with Bessie this morning and had not returned. Did her uncle already have her? Cursing, he jumped to his feet and moved to the door of the library. He tugged it open, then paused, his eyebrows raised. Stokes, whom he had been about to call, was standing right there, looking as dignified as a butler could when caught with his ear to the door.
"Aye, my lord?" the man murmured calmly, straightening.
"Did Charles have anything with him when he left?"
Stokes cleared his throat. "I presume you mean besides the young lady?"
"I mean something such as baggage," Radcliffe bit out impatiently.
"Nay, my lord. They had no baggage."
Radcliffe relaxed slightly at that. "Did he mention where they were going?"
"Nay, my lord. She did not tell me where she was headed. But"
"But?" Radcliffe coaxed when the older man hesitated.
"Well, my lord, cook helped Lady Charles and the young woman dress.
Perhaps she overheard something of use."
"Cook? Why was Bessie not assisting him?"
"I suspect that may be because Bessie was the veiled woman with Lady Charles."
"Of course," Elizabeth exclaimed. "It must have been Bessie."
Radcliffe nodded solemnly, then ordered, "Fetch cook to me."
"There's no need to fetch me, m'lord, I'm here." Those anxious words made Stokes turn sideways to reveal the woman in question standing a foot or so behind him, wringing a cloth between her work-worn hands fretfully. "I was comin' to tell ye as how I was worried about the lady and Bessie. Lady Charlie said as how they shouldn't be any later than noon and it's well nigh supper now. I've been frettin' and stewin' all day over the two of 'em. I knew somethin' was afoot."
"Where did they go? Did she tell you?"
"Nay. But" Sighing, she grimaced and confessed, "There was a piece of paper on the table and I kept sneakin' peeks at it, trying to find out where they was going."
"And?" Radcliffe snapped, unintentionally intimidating the woman with his ferocious expression.
"And" She paused, frowned, licked her lips, then shook her head with irritation. "It was an address in Change Alley."