"Change Alley?" Elizabeth murmured blankly.
"By the docks," Tomas explained while Radcliffe cursed under his breath.
"Where the brokers go to invest in ships."
"Where in Change Alley?" Radcliffe asked. "It was an inn," she murmured unhappily. "Which inn?"
Her brow furrowed in concentration and she tipped her head back to squint at the ceiling as if expecting it to be written there, but finally she shook her head unhappily. "It's on the tip of my tongue, but" She shook her head again helplessly.
"Think, woman!" Radcliffe snapped, too worried to be patient.
"You are scaring her, my lord," Stokes pointed out. "That will hardly help her recall." Nudging his master out of the way, he clasped her shoulders gently and bestowed a sweet smile on her. "Now, just relax, love, and concentrate.
The paper was on the table. You peeked at it and read ?"
"I peeked at it and read"she was squinting again"I read something-something inn. Change Alley. What was it now ?"
Radcliffe shifted in frustration. "We do not have time for this."
"Give her a minute, my lord. She will remember." Stokes gave her an encouraging smile and nod as he added, "Won't you, love?"
Her smile in response was confident. "Oh, aye. I'll remember. I made a special note to myself to remember, so I'll remember eventually. Now, if I were to see the name, 'twould spark my memory fer sure. Mayhap if we just rode down there"
When Radcliffe went still at the suggestion, Tomas murmured, "Mayhap that would be a good idea, Radcliffe."
Before he could agree, Elizabeth suddenly murmured, "Mayhap the note is still upstairs." Turning to the cook, she asked, "What was Charles wearing this mom?"
"Black breeches, a white shirt, and a dove gray waistcoat. She said as how it was solemn and blackmail was a solemn business."
"Aye. I shall see if the letter was left behind," she announced and whirled about, her skirts flying as she hurried from the room.
Charlie's head was throbbing, her brain slipping and crashing about inside her skull like loose livers in a bowl. It was a most uncomfortable sensation.
Opening her eyes slowly, she grimaced as the light assaulted her, and squinted them closed briefly before trying again.
"Yer awake!" That relieved gasp from somewhere above her head was enough to send her eyes flying shut with a moan once again. "My lord? I mean, my lady?
Are you all right?"
"I am alive," Charlie muttered grimly, not sure if it was a good thing or a bad one at that point. Or even if it was a state that was likely to remain. Her head was positively killing her. Reaching up tentatively to prod the area, she was dismayed to find her skull still intact and a bump all she had to show for her pain. There wasn't even a chop of dried blood to show for the agony she had suffered. "Amazing."
"What is, my lady?" Bessie asked curiously at the thready word from Charlie.
"Nothing," she murmured on a sigh and forced her eyes open once again.
She was lying on the floor of a carriage, her head resting in Bessie's lap. The girl was curled up on the floor with her, unconcerned for the care of the gown she wore.
"How long have I been unconscious?" she asked, easing to a sitting position.
"I am not sure. Two, mayhap three hours."
"Two or three hours?" Charlie gasped in dismay, then dragged herself up to sit on the bench seat and peer out of the window. Bucolic scenes of country life were passing by the window. Trees, cows, and sheep, along with the occasional hut all whizzed by under a bright blue sky clear of all but the fluffiest of pure white clouds. They were definitely far and away from the smog and stench of the city.
Cursing under her breath, she glanced at the worried girl beside her.
Bessie had discarded her hat, her long red hair had given up its tight bun and now hung down her back in a tumble. "Did you overhear anything about where we are headed?"
"Nay. They merely picked you up and bundled us both into the carriage. I was so worried about you, I did not pay much attention to them once the door closed. I am sorry."
Charlie waved her apology away. How could she be upset that the girl was more concerned about her health than about their destination? "Are we locked in?"
Biting her lip, Bessie glanced toward the door, then back helplessly. "I am not sure, but I do not think so."
Charlie started to nod at that, then caught herself before committing the undoubtedly painful movement and sighed. "You do not know if all of them came with us then either, I suppose?"
"Nay," the girl admitted with a disheartened sigh.
" 'Tis all right," Charlie assured her quickly. " 'Tis easy enough to find out."
Bessie raised an eyebrow at that, then bit her lip anxiously when Charlie shifted closer to the window and stuck her head out.
The breeze that hit her face was soothing. Charlie inhaled deeply, her eyes closed, then opened them again and leaned farther out to peer toward the front of the carriage. From this angle, she could just see an arm and the back of a hip. She couldn't even tell if it was the driver's hip or someone else's, but judging by how close that hip was to the edge of the driver's wide bench seat, she would guess that the driver was not alone up there.
"Get your head in or I'll knock it off!"
At that, Charlie whipped her head around to peer toward the back of the carriage, her eyes widening in amazement when she spied the man hanging from the back left footman's stand. It was the behemoth who had attacked her. She pulled her head in at once and sank back onto the seat. She had her answer now. At least two of the three attackers now rode the carriage with them and the driver.
What good that information was, she didn't know quite yet.
"She must have taken the note with her," Beth said as she hurried back into the room, slightly out of breath from rushing about.
Radcliffe blinked, not from the news, but from her transformation. Gone was the dress and fancy, upswept hairstyle. Even her breasts were gone. Beth was now "Charles," her hair covered by another of those awful wigs Charlie had been sporting since Radcliffe had first met the pair, her breasts hidden somewhere beneath the gray overcoat she now wore with black pants.
"Amazing," Stokes murmured, drawing Radcliffe's gaze.
Taking in the older man's bemused expression, Radcliffe grimaced and sighed, knowing that his own expression was not much different. He did not know which was more amazing, the fact that the two sisters were most definitely identical, how different yet similar Elizabeth looked as each character, or the fact that everyone had been fooled for so long. Her stride, though a little longer and more confident, was definitely still a feminine stride, and her hand gestures were as well. How had they neglected to figure out that the pair were twinsand girls?
"I thought being in a male garb might be more practical," Beth explained.
"But Charlie is 'Charles' right now," Tomas pointed out and she nodded.
"Aye. Trust me. I have the sense that my pretending to be her may come in handy at some point." Turning to cook, she asked, "Have you recalled the inn's name?"
When Mis. Hartshair gave an apologetic shake of her head, Beth patted her arm reassuringly. "I am sure that once we get there you shall recall." She glanced toward the men questioningly. "Shall we go?"
"Aye." Radcliffe strode forward."We shall have to take your carriage, Mowbray.
I sent my driver on an errand with my carriage. He will not be back for hours."
"Oh, no!" Tomas said. .
Radcliffe peered from Beth's horrified face to Mowbray's grim one. "What?"
"I sent my driver home to bed," Tomas admitted unhappily. "He had driven for two days and a night straight without a wink of rest. He was falling asleep on his bench. I thought sure we could get a ride home with your driver."
"Mayhap Fred has not yet left," Stokes murmured hopefully of Radcliffe's driver.
He rushed off to check.
"All will be well." Charlie roused herself from her anxious thoughts at that calm announcement from Bessie. She had been searching her mind for a way out of this mess. Unfortunately, she wasn't coming up with any brilliant notions just yet. Of course, she wasn't planning to tell Bessie that. She had got the girl into this and was determined to get her out. Preferably in one piece. Not that the other girl appeared worried. The maid was looking as serene as a cow, Charlie noted with some irritation. Didn't she know the fix they were in?
For God's sake, they had been kidnapped! "Is there something you know that I do not?" Charlie asked suspiciously, and the other girl's eyebrows rose slightly at the question.
"Oh." Charlie glanced away, then back, a frown tugging at her lips as she continued to study the young woman's calm continence. "Then why do you say all will be well like that?"
Bessie smiled. "I have said a prayer to Saint Sebastian."
"St. Sebastian? Is he not the saint for the plague?"
"Aye, well, there are no plagues about just now so I thought he might be the least busy. Besides, it worked when I was locked in at Aggie's. He sent me you."
Charlie simply nodded. She was all for prayers and such, but had found in her life that it was always good to help prayers along a bit with some effort of one's own. After all, plague or no plague, saints were awfully busy fellows.
They couldn't be expected to be everywhere and do everything asked of them.
Clearing her throat, she offered a reassuring smile. "There is little we can do at the moment but rest. When we see our chance, we shall make our escape."
"Aye. Besides, Lord Radcliffe is no doubt charging after us right now." At Charlie's blank look, she pointed out, " 'Tis well past noon. No doubt Mrs.
Hartshair has realized something is amiss and fetched the blackmailer's letter to give to him. He will go to the inn and force that nasty old barkeep to tell him where we are being taken, then he shall follow and rescue us." She said it as if she had the deepest faith in the matter. Charlie didn't have the heart to tell her that the letter in question was presently lining the inside of her pocket.
"Slow down. Stokes. We must read the inn names for Mrs. Hartshair,"
Radcliffe shouted out the window as the carriage turned into Change Alley.
Fred had already left with the carriage when Stokes had gone in search of him.
The fastest option at that point had been to hire a hack and Stokes had left promptly to do so. As soon as he had left, Beth had rushed upstairs to fetch some things that they may need. She had returned with the large sack Tomas now held on his lap, just as Stokes had arrived back at the helm of a rickety old coach.
It seemed that all the drivers had been out on fares when he'd reached the stables, and that he had only managed to gain the hack he had at an absorbitant fee. Assuring Radcliffe that he had served in a stable in his youth and could well handle driving the contraption. Stokes had pointed out that speed was of the essence and urged him to fetch the household. Andmuch to Radcliffe's dismayin the end it had been the entire household. Beth and Tomas had insisted on going, of course, and Mrs. Hartshair was needed for the name of the inn. But Radcliffe had not counted on having to take her two children as well.
Unfortunately, after learning that the cook next doorthe only woman friend Mrs.
Hartshair had managed to make since taking over the cooking at Radcliffe'swas laid up in bed with pneumonia, there had been little choice but to take the children with them. Which was why Radcliffe had Billy, Mrs. Hartshair's son, on his lap, while she held her daughter Lucy on her own in the cramped confines of the carriage.
"The Fox and Whistle Lin," Beth called out, leaning out of her window on the opposite side of the carriage, glancing back to see Mrs. Hartshair shake her head firmly.
Peering out his own window, Radcliffe began reading the names of any passing inns himself, disheartened each time the cook said "nay." He was becoming seriously concerned that she had recalled the wrong street address when he called out the next name. He glanced back to see her spring to attention like a soldier.
"That's it! The Cock and Bull. That's it, I tell you!"
Hearing her excited cry. Stokes pulled over at once and Radcliffe quickly set young Billy on his feet in the carriage so that he could disembark. Tomas was right behind him when he stepped down from the carriage, but paused to frown at Beth when she, too, followed.
"Nay, Beth. You should wait here with Mrs. Hartshair and Stokes."
"But, dressed as I am, they may think I am Charlie and talk more freely."
"We do not even know who Charlie was meeting here."
"All the more reason to take me with you," she argued staunchly. "They may give themselves away when they see me."
"She may be right," Radcliffe murmured when Tomas opened his mouth to refuse her again. When the younger man nodded reluctantly, Beth was off at once, leading the way to the inn. They entered.
"Noone seems to be reacting," Tomas pointed out, his gaze moving narrowly around the room as the three of them paused inside the door to allow their eyes to adjust.
"Aye. Let's talk to the barkeep."
Once again, Beth led the way. The moment the beefy barkeep spied her, they knew they had hit pay dirt. His jaw dropped so far that it almost hit the floor.
"What the devil are ye doing back here? Ye should be well on the way to"
He caught himself just in time, but cried out in the next moment as Radcliffe stepped around Elizabeth, caught the beefy man by the throat, and dragged him halfway across the counter. "Well on the way to where?"