Charlie nearly laughed at the dismay on her kidnappers' faces as they heard that. It seemed they didn't know the sort of man they had done this dirty deed for, or perhaps they worked for the blackmailer and were just picking up the payment for goods delivered. Aye, that made sense, she guessed.
Otherwise the men would have realized that Henry liked his pleasures to excess. He drank, ate, and gambled to excess. He also slept to excess and had been known to take his riding crop to anyone foolish enough to by to disturb his sleep for any reason.
Even a matter like the arrival of his runaway niece and the need to pay off her kidnappers would never be allowed to intrude on his rest.
Uncle Henry never got up before noon and it was barely dawn now. He had probably only been abed for an hour. Charlie supposed that meant that she had several more hours of freedom left Unless Carland was an early riser. She hoped not.
She fervently hoped that he had caroused with Henry throughout the night and would rise just as late.
"You heard what I said," Symes said shortly. "You will have to wait until he awakens."
"The devil take that!" the big-nosed man snarled furiously. "Go wake the bugger up."
"I am not waking him up. And I strongly suggest that you do not either,"
Symes added sharply as the beefy man turned determinedly toward the inn. "Not if you wish to get paid."
That brought the man up short. Whirling back, he eyed Symes narrowly.
"Yer damn right I want to get paid. We've brought the girls and he'll pay for them."
"You brought the girls late" Symes collected pompously. "You were supposed to arrive at least six hours ago. He was up then and would have taken them off your hands and paid you gladly for them then."
"That one was sick. She kept leaping off the carriage to puke by the side of the road," the man complained. "It slowed us down."
Symes shrugged. "That is your problem. Now, you will have to wait."
"Well, what in Hades are we suppose to do with her until he gets up?"
"That is your problem, too. But I strongly suggest you don't lose her."
Turning on those dry words, Symes returned to the inn and hisbed.
"There it is," Tom said as he came to a halt beside Radcliffe.
Their being on foot, it had taken them several minutes to catch up to the carriage. Radcliffe had cursed himself for a fool a dozen times a minute as he had raced along. He should have kept the horses harnessed, then they could have followed right behind them. But he had expected to arrive after his quarry not before.
This explained why they had not heard news of the other carriage during the last day of their travels. They had questioned people each time they stopped to change horses, hoping to learn if they were gaining on them, but had learned nothing. No one had matched the descriptions they had given with that of any group that had passed through. Radcliffe had thought they were merely choosing different inns to stop at to trade horses. Now, he realized that they may have been doing that at first, but somewhere along the way, they had ridden right by them.
His gaze slid over the three men standing by the carriage and talking. He had stopped quite a distance from the carriage and the inn it sat before, not wanting to alert the kidnappers to his presence. But he was close enough to tell that the three men were agitated about something.
"Have they taken her in yet, do you think?"
Radcliffe frowned. "I do not know. I thought I saw someone entering the inn as it came into view, but I could not tell who it was or if they were alone."
"Well, if they have not, we could rush them when they do."
"Aye. That may be the best idea," he agreed, glancing around as Beth joined them. With his longer strides, Tom had passed her some distance back.
"Where is Stokes?"
Beth shook her head breathlessly and Tom answered the question. "He was to follow with the carriage and Mrs." He paused as the hack rattled into view.
Stokes and Mrs. Haitshair shared the driver's bench while her children both hung out the windows, helping to keep an eye out for them.
Stepping into the street, Radcliffe raised his arms over his head and waved until he was sure Stokes had spotted him, then gestured for Beth and Tom to follow as he walked to meet the carriage.
Bessie raised her head and opened her eyes. She had been sending up another prayer. Just in case the first five hunched or so had been misheard.
Now, she glanced worriedly at Lady Charlie, taking in her pallor, the smudges under her eyes, and the dead slumber she was in. Her mistress needed sustenance, as Bessie had told their captors after the nasty man had gone back into the inn, but they had ignored her pleas even for water. She supposed they were too annoyed at having to cool their heels to care about Lady Charlie's welfare.
"Surely the women are not still inside the carriage, Radcliffe? They must have taken them inside the inn as soon as they arrived."
"Aye." Radcliffe sighed unhappily at Tom's words. The seven of them had sat cramped inside the carriage for well over an hour. He, Mrs. Hartshair, and Stokes were wedged on the bench seat on one side, and Tomas, Beth, and the two children crowded onto the other. They had been watching the three men play dice beside the carriage for the entire time. Not one of the men had even glanced at the carriage. Charlie and Bessie must already be inside. Which merely made things more difficult.
"What are we going to do, my lord?" Beth asked anxiously.
"We will have to find out where they are and get them out."
"They will be guarded," Beth murmured. "And that guard would most likely be Symes." At their questioning glances, she explained, "Symes is my uncle's man of affairs. He is only about my size, but he is a dead shot and he is never without his flintlocks. He probably sleeps with them under his pillow."
"Then there are Carland and Seguin to consider," Tom said. "And Lord knows how many men they may have brought with them."
"What are you suggesting?" Radcliffe snapped furiously. "That we give up?
Just leave Charlie to Carland?"
"Nay. Of course not," Tom assured him. "We just need a plan. We shall get her out and save her."
"We may not need to get her out to save her," Beth murmured. When Radcliffe turned on her questioningly, she added, "I was recalling on the way here how Charlie and I used to switch places all the time. Most often it was just for fun, but sometimes it was to get out of doing something we did not wish to do."
"I do not see how that is relevant here, Beth," Tom said gently.
She turned to peer closely at Radcliffe. "You said in London that the two of you were to be married?"
Radcliffe winced as he recalled his arrogance while making the announcement to Charles, but nodded.
"Well, if you were married to her, Carland could not do so."
"Exactly. So we must get her out" he began, pausing when she shook her head.
"Not if we made the switch again."
"Now hold on!" Tom cried in dismay. "The idea here isn't to get Charlie out of danger and put you into it."
"I would not be in danger," Beth assured him calmly.
"You had best explain," Radcliffe said, feeling as confused as Tom looked.
"You could marry me" Beth began, but Tom's head nearly hit the roof of the carriage as he sprang upright in his seat.
"The devil you say! I will do many things tosave your sister, but giving you up is not one of them. You are my wife."
"Aye, but if he married me as"
"As Charlie" she had meant to say, but Tomas didn't give her the chance before interrupting irately. "Now see here, I have heard just about enough of this talk. You are married to me,and that is that!"
"Er my lords, I believe you may be misunderstanding what Lady Elizabeth is trying to say," Stokes said quietly.
"Misunderstanding?" Mrs. Haitshair snorted in disgust, then took it upon herself to explain the matter. "She's saying she could marry His Lordship as Lady Charlie."
When Tomas and Radcliffe stared at the cook blankly, she shook her head. "Look at her. She is wearing the same clothes as Lady Charlie. She looks like Lady Charlie. She even sounds like Lady Charlie. She could pretend to be Lady Charlie while you. Lord Radcliffe, marry her. She can say 'I do, sign her name"
Pausing, she glanced worriedly at Beth. "You can copy her signature?"
When Beth nodded, she relaxed and continued, "Then, once the ceremony is over, you can walk straight into the inn and demand your wife back' "My God." Tomas sank back on the seat, wonder on his face. "It may work."
"I do not know." Radcliffe frowned, then shook his head. "Nay. They already have Charlie, and the wedding will be registered with today's date. They will know that she could not have married me."
"That will not matter if she is me," Beth pointed out, and both men immediately looked confused again. Realizing that they had not quite grasped the concept of switching, she explained patiently. "If after the wedding, I continue to pretend to be Charlie and we confront Uncle Henry claiming that Charlie is me, Beth, it will work."
"Oh, I see!" Tomas exclaimed. "We will tell them that Charlie is you, and since you and I married four days ago, they cannot force her to marry Carland.
And since Charlie, whom you will be playing, will have just married Radcliffe, they cannot force you to many Carland either. You will both be safe."
"Exactly!" Beth smiled at him widely.
Though his head was spinning, Radcliffe was hopeful. "Will Charlie know to pretend to be you?"
Beth nodded firmly. "She and I have done this sort of thing often enough that she will catch on at once to what is happening."
"Shall I take us to the priest, my lord?" Stokes asked.
"All, well, he is not a priest really. Well, perhaps he is, I am not sure,"
Beth murmured uncertainly, and Tomas covered her hand and squeezed gently as he explained, "You will be taking us to a fisherman. Stokes. He performs the marriages around here."
Radcliffe accepted that news with equanimity. He had sustained so many shocks in short order that he felt sure he was now immune to them Until he got a good look at the fisherman. A portly fellow, wearing a blue chess coat of indiscriminate age, he eyed them solemnly at first, pushing a huge gob of tobacco about inside his cheek until he understood that he was to many Radcliffe to Beth who, of course, was still dressed as Charles. The man nearly choked on his draw.
"Oh, nay! I'll no' many ye to a boy. 'Tis a sin aginst God and all creation.
Marriage is a sacred rite between a man and a woman, not something to be twisted by yer sort."
Radcliffe flushed with embarrassment as he realized what the man was thinking.
Tom appeared consumed with the effort not to laugh. Stokes was looking nonplused and quite unsure how to handle this situation, and Mrs. Hartshair was busy soothing and rocking her son, who had stumbled getting out of the carriage and scraped his knee. That left Beth to set the man straight. "I am a woman, sir,"
she announced dryly, whipping the wig from her head with a great flourish that did not impress the man at all.
"What, and greasy hair is to fool me into thinkin' yer a girl?"
Beth's hand raised to her hair in alarm. She had not had an opportunity to bathe since the night they had planned to spend at the inn on the way back to London from Gretna Green the first time. Bathing was the first thing she had done on reaching the inn, doing so even before joining Tomas for a meal below.
Thank goodness, she thought now, for she had spied her uncle on returning below.
Luckily, he had not spotted her, and she had quickly hurried back upstairs, sending a note below with a maid explaining the situation to Tomas.
Intelligence being one of the things she loved about Tomas, he had used his and done a bit of eavesdropping on Uncle Henry's conversation with Carland before meeting her in their room to relate what he had heard. Their plans to rest the night at the inn had been put aside at once for the need to warn Charlie. Beth had not had an opportunity to bathe since.
Sighing, she plopped the wig back on her head and glanced toward the tall, thin woman who had answered the door to their knock and who may or may not have been the man's wife. "Is there a room where we may have some privacy?"
When the woman looked uncertain, the man scowled. "What are you wanting with her?"
"I am going to prove that I am a woman," Beth explained patiently.
"And how wid ye be plannin' on managin' that?"
Beth flushed, but raised her chin and announced with great dignity, "By showing her my breasts."
The rude little man burst out laughing at that as his gaze dropped to the area in question. "What for? I can see plain as day ye havena got any."
"They are bound," Beth choked out with no little embarrassment.
"Sure they are," he muttered with patent disbelief. "You can show her well enough there in the corner."
When Beth hesitated, he sneered again. "What? Changed your mind now that you canna threaten her into sayin' what ye want?"
Tomas lost his temper at that and grabbed the man by the front of his shirt, preparing to punch him. The man merely smiled and shrugged. "Hit me if ye like, but see if ye can get anyoue to marry yer friends here that way."
"Tom," Beth munnured in astrained voice. "Mayhap you could give your cape to Mrs. Hartshair. She can hold it up for privacy for me."
Reluctantly releasing the man, Tomas shrugged out of his cloak and handed it over, and Mrs. Hartshair followed Beth to the corner the man had indicated and held it up for her as the woman followed. She waited patiently as Beth quickly and with as little thought as possible shrugged out of her doublet, vest, and shirt. The woman's eyes sparked with interest when she saw the cloth binding Beth's chest, but she said nothing until Beth had unwound the cloth, freeing her aching breasts.