They had had to travel for nearly the whole day before coming across an inn with enough rooms to accommodate them all.
This inn. She tilted her head back on the rim of the bath and peered around the room. It was sparsely furnished with just a bed and, at present, a tub. The room was small, but it was clean. Besides, next to the carriage that she had spent the past two days in, it resembled a chamber in the finest palace.
The opening of the door made her stiffen and peer about as Beth slipped into the room. She and the others had still been filling themselves on the hearty meal the innkeeper's wife had supplied when Charlie had left the common room.
Her stomach, still tender after the traveling sickness she had suffered, Charlie had managed only a few bites before retiring to their room to take a bath.
"My, that looks lovely," Beth sighed, eyeing the bath a bit enviously as she approached.
"It is," Charlie murmured, then began cleaning herself. "I will hurry, but you shall probably need fresh water when I am through. I really needed this bath."
"Oh, do not worry. There is no need to hurry. I have a bath being prepared for me in our room."
"Our room?" Charlie raised her eyebrows. "Are you not staying in here with me?"
"Nay. Tomas and I have the room next door." She blushed prettily, but Charlie hardly noticed as she frowned.
"But I thoughtI mean, Radcliffe could only hire five rooms here."
"Well, Mrs. Hartshair and her children are in one, are they not?"
"And Bessie has one?"
"Then Tomas and you have one, I have this one, and I presume StokesOh! Radcliffe must be bedding down with Stokes," she realized and relaxed, unaware that Beth had stiffened.
"Radcliffe will not be bedding down with Stokes."
She tilted her head up curiously. "Well, then where is he staying? Oh, surely he has not stuck Stokes in the stables?"
"Nay, Charlie" She hesitated, then plunged on. "He will be staying here with you. You are married now."
She blinked at that. "Married? Nay, Beth, Radcliffe just said that to prevent my having to marry Carland."
Beth shook her head. "You are married."
"But I never married Radcliffe."
"Aye, you did."
"Beth, I think I would recall something like that. I never married Radcliffe."
"Nay," she agreed. "I did in your place."
"What?" She peered at her sister blankly, not quite grasping her words.
"I dressed up as Charles, married him, and copied your signature to the"
"What?" Charlie sat up abruptly in the bath, splashing water everywhere.
"He said the two of you were to marry. That you had made love."
Charlie flushed at that, irritation pulling at her expression. "Radcliffe has a big mouth. Besides, both partners must be in love for it to be lovemaking."
"You do not love him?" Beth asked with concern, and Charlie's frown darkened.
"Of course, I love him. What is not to love? The man is a darling. Sweet, generous, adventurous"
"Adventurous?" Beth gasped, interrupting her. "The man is as stuffy as that carriage we rode here in."
"Nonsense. Just look at the adventures we have had since meeting him."
Beth shook her head with a laugh. "Charlie, you are the one who brings about these adventures."
"Mayhap." She shrugged. "But I could not have done so without Radcliffe."
When Beth looked doubtful, Charlie sighed. "He took us under his wing and brought us to London. If he had not, we would even now be moldering away at Ralphy's."
"Charlie, you will never molder. Besides, he only did that out of a sense of duty." When Charlie shook her head, Beth raised her eyebrows. "Nay?"
"Nay, Beth. All he had to do to soothe his sense of duty was warn us, or even give us a pistol. Or he could have dumped us once he saw us safely to London.
Yet he did not; he took us into his home."
Beth was frowning over that, never having considered it herself. "Mayhap you are right, but I still have trouble seeing Radcliffe as adventurous. Just look at the fuss he made about the puppies. He is stuffy."
"He made a fuss over rescuing Bessie and Mrs. Haitshair as well," Charlie laughed. "But that is just talk, a way to try to hide his true nature. How marry times have I told you, never listen to a person's words, watch their actions to see what is in their heart. A person can say marry things they do not mean. For instance, Jimmy and Freddy who you said were betting on who could win the most girls in the ton; do you not think they said things to those girls that they never meant as they set out to win them?"
"There are no buts," Charlie interrupted, then sighed. "All right, look at it this way. Radcliffe made a fuss about Bessie, but when it came down to it, he is the one who announced that she was to be your lady's maid and actually hired her on. Do you think someone like Lady Mowbray would have had her as a lady's maid?"
"Oh, good Lord, no." Beth's eyes were wide. "Bessie had no training. Lady Mowbray would not put out good money for an unskilled servant."
"Exactly. And the same goes for Mrs. Hartshair. Yet Radcliffe hired both of them despite his grumbling. Even taking in Mrs. Hartshair's children. And then there are the puppies. He could have denied me the money to save them and said it was for the best, or even have paid the farmer, insisting he keep them and use the money for their care. But he did not. He speaks like an old curmudgeon, but his actions negate that." She glanced down at the water briefly, then added, "No stuffy old curmudgeon could possess the passion he does, either."
"You do love him," Beth said with relief.
"Then you will not try to contest the marriage?"
She gave a bitter laugh. "How could I? Uncle Henry would just try to force me into marriage with someone else, and Lord knows who he would find this time since I would be ruined."
"You do not sound happy," Beth murmured worriedly.
"Would you be happy to be married to Tom, loving him yet knowing he did not love you?"
"Oh, Charlie, he must love you! How could he not?"
"Spoken like a true sister," Charlie murmured wryly, then admitted, "He told me he did not love me."
"He told you?" she gasped in honor.
"Well, he told Charles," she explained on a sigh. "I asked if he loved hermeand he said, 'I do not' "
"Oh, Charlie." Her sister's eyes filled with sympathetic tears.
Swallowing a sudden lump in her throat, Charlie stiffened her back a bit and glanced away. "You had best get going. Your bath should be ready by now."
Beth hesitated, then seeming to recognize Charlie's need to be alone, she nodded reluctantly and moved slowly toward the door. "Goodnight."
"Good night," Charlie murmured as the door closed, then heaved a sigh and proceeded to wash her hair.
Radcliffe raised his hand to the door, then paused and drew it back, leaving the door unopened. Oddly enough, he was suddenly inexplicably nervous.
This was his wedding night, but it would not be his first night with Charlieso that was not the reason behind this sudden nervousness. Nay. He suspected the source of it was his uncertainty as to how his new bride was reacting to the knowledge that they were now married. He had no idea what to expect. Was she happy about it?
Content? Resentful? She had been silent during the ride from Gretna. And he had been unwilling to ask her thoughts on the subject. Was she angry that Beth had married him in her name? Would she greet him with a shy smile, orwhip something heavy and nasty at his head as soon as he entered the door?
Radcliffe smiled wryly. He doubted that most men suffered such worries on their wedding night, but then, they did not have wives like Charlie. Beautiful, bold, charming Charlie. He suspected that his calm, quiet days in the country were over. Life had suddenly become an adventure. Even going to his bed now carried some element of peril with it.
Did he wish for those serene times back? Radcliffe recalled the harmonious days that had blended into one another ere encountering Charlie and Elizabeth, then each wild escapade he had enjoyed since their arrival in his life. He chuckled softly to himself. He had thought it amusing when Clarissa had hung all over "the boy" like a limpet. Knowing that she had really been a girl made the memory even more amusing. Then he recalled Charles on the farmer's back, fighting for the lives of those puppies, and he marveled at her courage. Then there was the time when she had been tied to the bed at the brothel with the whip-wielding Aggie straddling her He began to chuckle aloud again, then blinked with consternation. Good Lord! He had taken his wife to a brothel he realized with dismay. And that was how his wife found him, standing before the door, his eyes wide, his mouth open in a round "O" of alarm.
Charlie had quickly finished her bath after Beth's departure thenwith the dirty clothes she hadworn for two days as her only other optionhad wrapped the bed linens around herself in the Roman style and moved to sit before the fire to work on drying her long, damp tresses. Her hair had been perhaps half-dried when she had first heard the doorknob jiggle.
Her heart slamming against her chest, she had turned to stare at the door wide-eyed. When nothing had happened and the door had remained closed, she had relaxed slightly and gone back to finger-brushing her hair before the fire, only to pause again a moment later as a soft chuckle had reached her through the door. She'd had no trouble recognizing Radcliffe's distinctive laugh.
Thinking he was talking to someone in the hall, Charlie had continued to work with her hair, but when she'd heard no hint of another person's voice and Radcliffe's laugh came once more, curiosity had got the better of her and she had hurried to open the door. Now she stared at his rather horrified expression and frowned uncertainly.
Why was he looking at her like that? Did he find her that unattractive or "I took you to a brothel!"
Charlie blinked as that comment exploded from his lips, then relaxed and glanced curiously up and down the hall. "Are you alone, my lord?"
"What? Oh, aye," he murmured distractedly as he stepped into the room and closed the door.
"Then what were you laughing at?" Charlie asked curiously, trailing him across the room, the excess material of the linens she wore bailing behind her.
"I was notOh, well" He frowned at her. "Did you not hear? I took you to a brothel, for God's sake."
"Hmmm," Charlie murmured, taking in the pale tinge to his skin. "And a gaming hall too."
He blanched further at that, then his eyes widened to great wide holes in his head "Good Lord, we slept together in the same bed the very night we met!"
"I was above the linens while you were under them, if it makes you feel better."
She had moved to the fire and was holding her hands out toward it as if they were cold, her expression impossible for him to read. Gripping his future firmly in both hands,he murmured, "And is that how you wish to sleep tonight as well?"
She glanced about sharply at that, then followed his gaze to the linen she wore draped around her in what he suddenly realized was a most fetching and seductive manner. After the briefest of hesitations, she met his gaze again, holding his eyes with her own as she calmly reached up and undid the toga-style affair. It dropped to the floor without even a whisper of sound, and she raised her chin defiantly. He may not love her, but he wanted her, and, with her usual gusto for life, she would take what it had to offer.
Radcliffe swallowed. His wife did not say a word. But then, she did not need to.
Her actions were answer enough, he supposed as his gaze slid down over her generous breasts with their proudly erect nipples, across the gentle swell of her stomach, along the curve of her hips to her well-shaped thighs and calves before sliding back up to her face.
"My beautiful, bold, charming Charlie," he breathed his thoughts of earlier aloud. Her action, her stance, and her proud bearing seemed to epitomize her personality. Bold and passionate. Dear God, I am the luckiest of men, he thought faintly, then lifted a hand, holding it out to her. "Come here."
When she stiffened, then hesitated, he thought they were about to begin the war of wills that was surely to come, for she was not one who would be ordered about. But instead of standing her ground and demanding that he come to her, she took several steps forward, erasing half the distance between them, then stopped, her eyes challenging.
Her message was clear. She would meet him halfway but that was as far as she would go. Carland would have beat her for her defiance on the spot.
Radcliffe merely smiled and removed the rest of the distance between them with a couple of short strides.
Let other men battle for obedience, he decided as his arms closed around her warm soft body. He had Charlie. That was his last sensible thought before his wife's arms slid around his neck.
Charlie peered down at the ring she was twisting on her finger and sighed.
Her wedding ring. Radcliffe had given it to her at the inn they had stayed in after leaving Gretna Green. That had been two weeks ago. For two weeks she had lived the life of a supposed married woman. She thought of it as supposed because she was not at all sure that their marriage was legal, since she had neither attended it nor signed the register. Despite that, Charlie actually did feel married And it was just as miserable as she had feared it would be. Not that Radcliffe treated her badly. He merely treated her as she imagined most of the husbands in London treated their wives. He was kind and gentle, even concerned.