"Oh, my," she breathed with amazement.
"What is it?" the fisherman asked, taking a step forward that stopped short when Tomas stepped in front of him with a deadly expression.
"She's breasts a'right and a fine pair they are, too," the woman announced.
Radcliffe could hear Beth's groan of mortification and felt sympathy pinch his patience. "Will you marry us now?"
The man hesitated. "Maybe I should just be sure and see fer mesel'f"
His words were cut off by Tom's sudden hand at his throat.
"Her word is enef, I guess," he squeaked out, his eyes bugging. "I'll marry 'em."
Tom didn't release the man until Beth was rebound and dressed, and the three people had returned. Then he gave a little squeeze before releasing him.
"Get to it, then."
"Lady Charlie? Lady Charlie!"
Blinking her eyes open, Charlie sat up abruptly, swaying with dizziness as she peered around at the alarm in Bessie's voice. "What is it?" Her voice was a husky croak, but Charlie hardly noticed when she spied Bessie's veiled face.
"What's the matter?"
"Something is going on. Another carriage has arrived and" Her voice died abruptly as the door opened and she turned to peer at it. One moment she was there. The next she was gone. It happened so fast that Charlie almost missed the hands that had reached in and snatched the girl out.
"Bessie," she cried, moving forward only to sag weakly against the closed carriage door as it slammed in her face. Charlie blinked out the window to see the young maid being dragged away toward another carriage. It took her a moment to recognize the crest on the side.
"Seguin," she breathed with dismay, then, "Nay! She is not Beth! She is not!"
Her cry ended on a fit of coughing as her dry, sore throat caught on the cry. By the time she had recovered, the carriage was gone and Bessie with it.
Cursing under her breath, Charlie watched the men make their way back to her carriage and move to the side facing the inn. Sliding along the seat, she peered out to see that they were settling back into a game of dice. She watched for several minutes and when they hadn't glanced toward the carriage once in that time, she decided they must think her too weak to cause them any trouble And five minutes ago they would have been right. But that was before Bessie had been taken. Now, knowing she had got the girl into this mess, Charlie was determined to save her. Determination could give strength to the weakest body.
Turning away from the men, Charlie slid back along the seat to the opposite door, opened it, and slid out.
"What do you mean, she got away?" Symes cried in alarm. "There were three of you suppose to be watching her. Three of you could not keep one girl from escaping?"
"We only turned our backs for a minute. She was weak as a kitten. I don't know how she managed it."
"Telling me that she was weak as a kitten is not improving my opinion of you allowing her to escape," Symes snarled.
"My men are searching for her now. They'll bring her back."
"They had better, and they had best come back with her ere my lord comes out."
"They should be back any minute with her. If you hadna come back out early ye ne'er would have known. Why are ye back anyway? Ye said 'til noon."
Symes heaved a sigh. "Lord Carland is an early riser and insisted on my lord being awoken when I told him that you had arrived with the girl. Of course, now my lord is in a foul temper, one he will most like take out on you should your men not return ere he comes out, or"
"Symes! Where is this carriage you said Charlotte was in?"
"Damn," the beefy man muttered. It was a sentiment echoed by Symes ashe turned with resignation to face Henry Westerly.
"Did you hear that? She has escaped!" Mrs. Hartshair crowed happily.
"That is my Charlie," Beth murmured with pride.
Radcliffe pounded on the wall of the carriage behind the driver's seat and the carriage pulled off. Once they were a safe distance away from the inn, he thumped on the wall again, then got out when it stopped and crawled onto the bench seat. "Did you hear?"
"Aye, my lord," Stokes said. "Am I right in assuming that we are going to try to find Lady Charlie ere they do?"
"Aye, you would be right. Keep your eyes open."
Nodding, the older man urged the horses forward again.
Charlie nearly fainted with relief when she spotted Seguin's carriage. She picked up her pace and hurried forward. She had been walking around for what seemed like hours searching for it while trying to dodge her pursuers.
Oddly enough, the longer she walked, the stronger she felt. She suspected it was the fresh air that was doing it, that and the water she had scooped from a pail in the stables when at one point she had ducked in there to avoid her kidnappers spotting her.
"There she is!"
Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted the two men running toward her.
Cursing roundly, she ducked into the building, spotting Bessie at once. The maid stood before a man in a blue coat, and beside Seguin who held her arm firmly with one hand while he bent to sign something with his other.
"Wait!" Charlie cried hoarsely. "Stop! Bessie, do not sign it!"
"You again!" The man in the blue coat scowled as she hurried forward.
Charlie hardly noticed, her attention on Seguin and Bessie as the lord straightened from signing his name. "You cannot force her to many you.
She is not Elizabeth."
Seguin rolled his eyes impatiently. "Who the devil are you? Never mind, I do not care and it does not matter. I shall not fall for your tricks. She tried the same argument with me already, boy. Besides, 'Tis too late, 'Tis done.
The ceremony is over and we have both signed. She is my wife."
"He made me sign," Bessie wailed miserably just as the door crashed open behind Charlie.
Charlie was just beginning to struggle against the hands that suddenly arrested her when the door crashed open again and Uncle Henry's voice rang out. "I see that you found her. At least you had the sense to bring her here."
Charlie sagged in defeat as she was turned to face her uncle, his man Symes, and a grim looking Carland who now sauntered toward them. "You see, Carland, I told you all would be well. You can many the chit now without delay."
"Nay. He cannae," the fisherman snapped, drawing all eyes. "I'll not marry her to anyone else today."
"The devil you say." Uncle Henry beetled his eyes at the man.
"The devil I do say. I canna marry someone who's already married, and she is already married"
"You mean to say that that is Charlotte?" Seguin gasped, grasping the implication of what the fisherman was saying. "Why, she looks like a boy." His lecherous old eyes moved to his bride with new possibilities shining in them.
"Do you wear breeches too, my dear?"
"She is not already married," Uncle Henry snapped impatiently, ignoring Seguin's lascivious wonderings.
The fisherman's eyes narrowed, his mouth firming into a straight line.
"Aye, she is. I presided over it myself not more than twenty minutes ago."
Charlie gave a start at that, her eyes widening incredulously. He must be talking about Beth, she thought. But that made no sense. Her sister should have been married several days ago and be back in London by now.
"Henry?" Carland murmured in a threatening tone.
"Well, it just is not so," her uncle gasped. "It cannot be."
"Can it not? Twenty minutes ago is about when we learned she had escaped."
"Aye, but" He was sputtering in his panic. "Who could she have married?"
Charlie gaped at Radcliffe who now filled the entrance to the little building.
What was he doing here? And why did the man in blue think? Oh! Of course. He had paid the man off, she thought, then noticed with surprise that Tomas and Stokes were flanking him. She caught a quick glimpse of a slender lad behind them.
'That's him!" the fisherman agreed. "I hitched these two to each other not a quarter of the hour ago. It's registered right here all good and proper."
"Henry," Carland growled.
Blanching at the cold fury on Carland's face, Henry turned to Charlie.
"Why, you little" he began, raising his fist to hit her.
Radcliffe was there before he could finish either action or words, grabbing his fist in his own much larger one and startling the older man into silence.
"You will not speak to my bride that way."
Henry reacted first with alarm, then a certain craftiness entered his eyes and he even managed a conciliatory smile as he glanced toward Carland. "All is not lost. They may have married, but they could not have possibly consummated it yet. We can take her back to London and have the king dissolve what was done.
Then you can marry her yourself."
"You will not be taking her anywhere," Radcliffe corrected, crushing the hand he held. "And the wedding was consummated before the fact. She is no longer a virgin."
Uncle Henry must have already been paid and spent the money Carland had promised for the privilege of marrying her, Charlie decided when her uncle winced in pain. Still, the man continued to plead with Carland. "He is lying. He must be.
If you would just call your men and"
"I need a goddamned heir, Henry. You know that. I'll not take the chance of her carrying another man's brat. I want my money back."
Her uncle was beginning to look quite sick with panic when Symes suddenly moved forward, tugging a sack from his doublet. "Lord Seguin gave me this as agreed when he collected Lady Elizabeth, my lord."
Uncle Henry nearly fell upon the man with relief. "Oh, Symes! How clever of you to think of that now. Here you are, Carland." He took the sack from his man of affairs and handed it over. "Seguin was paying the same amount for Elizabeth that you were for Charlotteso it should all be here."
"It had better be," Carland said coldly, pocketing the bag.
"Did I hear my name?"
Charlie turned to find Beth now standing in the entrance. She was dressed in the lavender gown Charlie had packed away in the satchel for her to be married in.
If it had been her sister she had glimpsed dressed as a boy earlier, she must have changed faster than she had ever done before in her life. Still, that didn't startle Charlie nearly as much as the fact that her sister was backed by Mrs. Hartshair and her children. Good Lord! Was everyone here?
"Elizabeth." Uncle Henry breathed the name in honor.
"Elizabeth?" Seguin gaped from her to the veiled woman he had just married.
"Who? Who are"
"I tried to tell you," Bessie wailed.
"So did I," Charlie murmured archly. "Seguin, meet your bride, Bessie my lady's maid. Though, I guess she is a countess now."
"L-lady's maid?" Seguin choked, clutching his upper arm as if it pained him.
Finally released from the cruel grasp he had had on her since collecting her from their kidnappers, Bessie ripped the veiled hat from her head, revealing her red hair and powderless face.
"Do not panic," Henry cried earnestly, talking as fast as he was thinking in an effort to get out of this mess. "We can clear this all up. Your marriage to the chit cannot be legal if she signed Beth's name. We can still marry you to Elizabeth."
"Nay. He cannot. I married Elizabeth right here in this room not four days ago,"
Tom announced with satisfaction.
"Aye." The fisherman nodded in verification, then glanced down at the papers both of the newlyweds had signed. "Besides, she signed the name Bessie Roberd.
Is that yer name?" When Bessie nodded miserably, he shrugged. " 'Tis all legal, then. You two are married."
"But I thought she was Elizabeth!" Seguin cried, nibbing his arm faster. "It was under false pretenses."
The fisherman shook his head. "She told ye her name twice or three times ere I commenced the ceremony. I heard her tell ye. There weren't no false nothin'.
'Sides." His eyes narrowed. "Ye had to threaten her to get her to marry ye in the first place, ye'll not be cryin' off now."
"H-Heniy, you b-bastard! This is all your fault." Segin gasped, staggering a couple of steps toward the pale man with murder in his eyes before pain replaced it and he suddenly switched the hand that had been clutching his arm to his chest. Swaying briefly, he growled another curse, then collapsed on his face.
They all stared wide-eyed as Radcliffe stepped forward and rolled the man over.
After bending to press an ear to his chest, he straightened and shook his head.
Carland gave a harsh laugh at the pronouncement. "You are the luckiest bastard I know, Henry."
When the other man merely peered at him blankly, Carland hefted the sack of coins he held. "Now you do not owe him his money back." Pocketing the sack, he turned and sauntered out of the building.
"Mmmm," Charlie murmured with pleasure as the warm, silky water closed around her body. It felt like days since she had been clean. It had been days, she realized with a sigh, but firmly turned her mind from such thoughts. She did not want to think of her kidnapping, that horrid carriage ride, or the scene in the fisherman's hovel. She had been more than happy to turn her back on Gretna, literally. Charlie had left Gretna Green mounted before Radcliffe on a horse. He had purchased the animal for the return trip at the livery where he had changed horses upon arriving and, much to her relief, had insisted that she ride with him. Aside from her nasty reaction to traveling, there simply had not been enough room in the carriage for everyone. Even with just Tomas, Beth, Bessie, and Mrs. Hartshair and her children inside it had looked terribly crowded.