His eyes bulged in alarm, but his mouth stayed firmly closed until Radcliffe made a fist with his free hand and brought it up to the man's face. "You were saying?"
"Gretna," he blurted out.
"Gretna Green?" Radcliffe's hand clenched tighter on the throat he held.
Turning blue in the face, the man choked out an affirmation, and Radcliffe released him to whirl toward the exit with Beth and Tomas hurrying after him.
"That must be where Carland and Uncle Henry were headed when we ran into them,"
Beth murmured worriedly as they reached the carriage. "Were they the blackmailers."
Nodding, Radcliffe opened the door. "Come along, Mis. Hartshair. I shall give you some money and you may hire a hack to get you and the children back to the townhouse."
"My lord!" Stokes cried, even as Beth gasped. "You cannot simply dump the lady and her children here unattended."
"This is a rather nasty neighborhood, Radcliffe," Tomas murmured reasonably.
"You are right, of course. Stokes, you stay with them and see them home. Tomas and I shall take turns heading the horses for this journey."
A concerned murmur from Beth made him glance at her to see her staring at her husband's stoic face.
"I shall be fine," Mowbray assured her quietly, but she shook her head.
"My lord, Tomas and his driver took turns driving to Gretna Green and back. It is how we managed the journey so quickly. As it is, the two men were so exhausted last night that we decided to rest the night at an inn. Of course, after hearing Carland and Uncle Henry's discussion, we had to give up our room and hurry home. He has had very little sleep the last four days and nights.
I fear heis not up to sharing the duty."
"I will manage it," Tomas reiterated firmly, but Beth shook her head apologetically.
"If this concerned anyone but Charlie, I would be willing to risk it, Tom, but"
"She is right," Radcliffe announced with obvious frustration. "We cannot risk it with Charlie's future at stake."
When he turned to survey the woman and children peering at him uncertainly from the carriage, Mrs. Hartshair offered him a hesitant smile. "My babies will be good, my lord. They tend to sleep during long trips."
Radcliffe threw up his hands in defeat. "Very well. Everyone back into the carriage. We shall all have to go. Stokes and I shall take turns at driving.
Tomas, you rest up so that you may be of assistance later." He knew better than to suggest the man stay here. He would not stay behind without his new bride, and Beth would not allow him to ride off to Charlie's rescue without her.
"Oh, m'lady," Bessie murmured, eyeing her with concern. "Are you not well?"
Charlie ignored Bessie's question, doing her best to concentrate on anything but how she was feeling. "Oh, dear."
"Are you all right, m'lady?" Bessie moved anxiously closer, staring at her face with a half-horrified expression.
"Oh, Lord." Charlie groaned, closing her eyes and trying to concentrate on bright sunny days in the park. On fresh green grass nice firm, unmoving glass that a body could stand on without feeling as though they were pitching about in a small, tight, airless carriage that was bouncing along a rutted road.
"Yer lookin' kind of green."
"Oh, God!" Charlie grabbed desperately for the door, thrusting it open in a panic.
Crying out in alarm, Bessie grasped her arm, keeping Charlie from leaping out of the moving vehicle right away. By the time she had shaken off the maid's hold, the man riding on the footman's stand at the back of the carriage had spotted the open door, shouted a warning, and the carriage was slowing to a halt.
It had nearly come to a stop when Charlie stumbled weakly out onto the roadside. The villain from the back of the carriage was there at once, solid and stem before her, blocking her path. Charlie covered her mouth and tried to step around him, but he mirrored her movement, determined to stop her from succeeding at what he thought was an escape attempt.
Charlie tried one more time to avoid him as her stomach roiled dangerously, but he remained directly before her. There was little she could do to prevent what happened when her stomach refused to stay down and he refused to get out of the way. Charlie tossed her stomach's contents all over the man's feet and lower legs.
"Oh, gor! Putrid damn Ugh!" The man stumbled several steps away, trying to escape the fowl stuff, but as it was on him, he couldn't possibly succeed.
Charlie felt a moment's embarrassment at what had happened, but soothed herself with the fact that she had done all she could to avoid the event Besides, he was a villain.
"They were here, my lord."
Radcliffe straightened from examining the new horses the stable master was harnessing to the carriage in trade for the original four, to eye Stokes questioningly. "Charlie?"
"Aye, my lord. It seems she was taken ill. She had er passed up her breakfast on one of the fellows. They stopped here to trade horses and let the fellow clean up. They also purchased some laudanum. Presumably they are hoping to make her sleep the rest of the way so that she causes them no more trouble."
"How long ago was this?"
"They apparently arrived nearly six hours ago, but had trouble finding and purchasing the laudanum so that they only left four hours ago."
"If weleave right away, we will have gained two hours on them," Tom said with excitement.
Radcliffe nodded, but wasn't quite as excited by the fact. They were still four hours behind them, and with Charlie in a laudanum-induced sleep, there was little likelihood she could slow them down further. Their only hope of catching them before reaching Gretna was if the other carriage lost a wheel or something.
A roar went up from the man in the back that was quickly echoed by those at the front as they glanced around to see Charlie swaying in the open door of the carriage. They managed to bring the hack to a halt just as she leapt to the side of the road.
Sinking to her knees, she proceeded to toss up the latest dose of laudanum she had been given. Actually, she did not mind being sick this time and hadn't since the first time they had forced the laudanum on her. She'd had every intention of sticking her finger down her throat to bring up the drug the first time they had forced it on her, but had hardly needed to. They had barely set off in the coach again when she had felt her stomach roil. They had just made it around the first bend in the road when she had felt it charging up her throat. Just as the tincture Beth had given her on the way to London had refused to stay down, so had the laudanum. Charlie had been getting sick at regular intervals ever since, forcing them tostop repeatedly, much to their captors' disgust.
It was a shame Bessie was not right and that Radcliffe wasn't chasing after them. Then at least, this bout of misery she was having to endure would be working to their advantage by allowing him to catch up to them.
Unfortunately, there was no way he could know that they had been kidnapped and where they were headed.
"Not much farther now."
"Aye. But will we be in time?" Radcliffe nibbed a weary hand over his face.
Tomas was driving again. Stokes was in the cabin with Beth and the Hartshairs, resting. They had been taking turns, one man sleeping, one driving, and one keeping the driver company. Every six hours of the last nearly forty hours they had switched roles. Now they were not even an hour away from their destination.
Radcliffe would have been relieved to have the nearly two-day trip done with were he not so terrified that at this very minute Charlie might be being forced to marry Carland. That worry made the last hour of the trip pass like days for Radcliffe. By the time they arrived, he was so wound up that he was off the carriage before it had even come to a standstill.
Striding into the stables, he quickly found the man in charge, learned that no one fitting Charlie and Bessie's description had arrived at his establishment, arranged for the care of the horses, then hurried back outside. "They did not stop here. We shall have to ask around."
Charlie opened her eyes slowly, and groaned.
The world was still rocking. Was this hell not over yet?
"M'lady?" Bessie repeated, bending to peer down at her.
They were once again on the floor of the carriage. Actually, the floor of the carriage was where Charlie had spent the last night and day of this trip. It was where the men had deposited her after her last bout of sickness, and Charlie, too weak and miserable to bother moving, had stayed there. Bessie had joined her in an effort to make her more comfortable. Charlie was positive no one in England had a better maid than Bessie.
"M'lady? I think we are nearly there."
Charlie raised her head to peer out the window, her gaze finding a small grove of firs in the near distance. She had heard enough to know that that was the landmark to look for. "Aye. We have arrived."
"What are we going to do?"
Charlie peered at her through the pre-dawn darkness. Unfortunately, Charlie had no idea what they would do, but as she had gotten the girl into this mess, she tried to rouse herself to some sensibility. Pushing herself weakly to a sitting position, she then dragged herself up to sit on the bench seat and sighed as fresh air blew in the open window to brush soothingly across her face.
"We will await an opportunity, then make our escape," she said with more bravado than faith. Weak as she was, it would have to be one wing-ding of an opportunity for them to escape.
Bessie either had more faith in Charlie than she deserved, or was too polite to show her doubt.
She said nothing as she shifted from the floor to sit on the bench seat opposite her mistress.
"What news?" Beth asked anxiously as the three men finally returned.
"Nothing," Radcliffe admitted unhappily. "We" He paused as a carriage rolled quickly past, the clip-clop of the horses' hooves too loud to talk over.
Surrounded by the three men, Beth peered toward the carriage through an inch of space between Tom and Radcliffe, then clutched at her husband's arm, a choked gasp slipping from her throat.
"What is it?" Tom asked worriedly.
"Charlie," she breathed, staring after the carriage. It was heading north.
The only direction the men had not yet checked. "I saw Charlie in that carriage,"
she explained, then frowned. "She looked ill. She was terribly pale."
Turning soundlessly, Radcliffe was after the carriage like a shot. Tomas hesitated long enough to glance toward the stables. "Trade our horses for new ones and have them harnessed to the carriage, Beth. Then follow us," he instructed, only to frown when he turned to glance at his wife and found she was gone, running down the street behind Radcliffe, her pert little behind jiggling with each step she took in the tight breeches.
"I shall take care of it, my lord."
"What?" Tom glanced at Stokes blankly, then blinked and nodded. "Oh oh, fine.
Good. Do that. Thanks." Then he was gone, too, chasing after his wife's jiggling behind.
Charlie blinked her eyes open weakly, startled to find that she had fallen asleep again, and sitting up! How on earth could she sleep at a time like this?
The answer was simple enough, she realized unhappily. Nearly two days of heaving with no water or food being offered could do that to a body. Her gaze slid to Bessie's worried face and she sighed. "Never fear, Bessie, once they realize that you are not Beth, they will let you go."
Biting her lip, Bessie shook her head. " 'Tis not me I am worried about, m'lady."
All Charlie could manage was a grunt at that. Then she turned and peered out the window to the inn they had stopped before. The inn where her uncle and Carland waited, no doubt, she thought with despair. It was beginning to look as if she would be marrying the brutal bastard after all, and she shuddered at the thought of the wedding night ahead. She imagined Carland touching her as Radcliffe hadNay. Not like Radcliffe. Carland had no gentleness in him. He would touch her in the same places, but in a far different manner.
Maybe she would be lucky and he would beat her to death early on in the marriage, she thought fatalistically. If she had been feeling better, Charlie would have been ashamed of such thoughts, but she wasn't feeling better.
She felt half-dead. She was weak, exhausted, dry asdust. She also felt terribly sorry for herself. And to think she had been furious just the morning before that Radcliffe had wanted to marry her out of pity and guilt. That morning and her arrogance now seemed a lifetime away. Today, she would have taken him had she had to pay him. Come to that, she'd pay the nearest farmer to allow her to marry one of his pigs to avoid marrying Carland.
Raised voices drew her gaze to the man who had approached the inn. He was returning with another man, this one still in his night rail. Charlie recognized him at once as Symes, her uncle's man of affairs.
"Put your veil back on, Bessie," she murmured as they drew near. She would keep the girl with her as long as she could.
Charlie had never had much use for Symes, having witnessed several of the petty cruelties he had inflicted on the rest of the staff over the years, so she did not bother greeting him when he peered through the carriage window. His glance slid swiftly over Bessie in her veil and gown, then stopped on Charlie, eyes widening at her male garb, then narrowing on her pale face and sunken eyes.
Pulling his head back out, he turned on the men. "What the deuce did you do to her? She looks half-dead!"
"She don'ttravel well," one of the men snapped. "Now, where's our money?"
"You will have to wait until His Lordship wakes up."