Unfortunately, he did not talk to her anymore. Not the way he had when he had thought her to be Charles. They'd had grand discussions and debates then. He had discussed various investments with her, listening to her opinions as if they were valid. Now he tended to take on a rather condescending air and humoring attitude with her, no matter what she said. And he simply refused to speak of business at all.
Charlie could not stand it. She thought if he gave her one more of his "What-a-precious-little-creature-you-are" smiles, she would throw something at him. The only place he treated her as an equal anymore was in bed.
Unfortunately, Radcliffe seemed to have a problem with concentrating upon financial affairs in bed. He could not be there long without becoming distracted by her less-intellectual assets and in turn distracting her.
Charlie glanced around to see Stokes framed in the salon doorway. "Aye?"
"Lady Seguin, the countess of Chiltingham, is hereto see you."
Relieved to have something to distract her from her thoughts, Charlie hurried forward and flew past him into the hallway.
"Bessie!" she greeted affectionately; then her smile died as she saw the other girl's tear-filled eyes and tightly clenched hands. Rushing forward to clasp those cold, work-worn fingers, she frowned anxiously. "My dear! What is it?"
"Oh, I cannot stand it!" Bessie cried miserably. "They are all a bunch of cruel, nasty vultures picking at me. Talkingabout me behind my back, and even in front of me, calling me a country cow and"
Her voice broke on a sob and Charlie hugged her tightly, silently cursing the whole of London society for having behaved so predictably. Elizabeth had been filled with trepidation on the trip back to London, afraid of the scandal that would erupt once the ton knew of their antics. Charlie had assured her sister at the time that all would be well. She had suspected that, with both men being members of the peerage, added to the fact that most of London wished to get in on Radcliffe's investments, no one would say much about their scandalous behavior. And she had been right. Rather than being condemned, they had been touted as romantic heroines. At least openly. Bessie had not been as lucky.
Charlie had feared that she might not, and she had been correct in her worry.
Polite society would never forgive one of the working class for daring to step above themselves so.
Despite the fact that no one knew that Seguin had married the girl by mistakeboth Carland and Uncle Henry had kept their mouths shut to datethe ton would not forgive the former maid for marrying a member of the nobility.
Tongues were wagging overtime and rumors were rampant. There were whispers that she had blackmailed him into marrying her. Others whispered that Seguin had married the girl to spite Beth when he had found out that she had married another.
And there was even speculation as to whether the family would contest the marriage and try to have it dissolved. But in the meantime, Bessie was settled uncomfortably in Seguin's townhouse, under constant siege by visitors as the curious arrived at her door to inspect her as if she were some sort of animal in a cage.
A knock at the door drew Stokes away from where he had been hovering by Charlie and the sobbing Bessie. She watched him open the door to answer it and caught a glimpse of a small boy on the step; then the lad handed Stokes a message and fled.
" 'Tis for His Lordship," he announced catching Charlie's questioning glance as he turned back. "I shall place it on the desk in the library."
Nodding, Charlie turned Bessie toward the room she had just come out of.
"Would you bring us some tea in the salon afterward, please, Stokes?"
When he nodded, she led Bessie into the room, urged her into a chair, and sat down to peer at her unhappy face with concern. "Is it as bad as all that, Bessie?"
"It is simply horrid. I would rather clean bedpans than put up with the nasty old biddies who arrive at my door every day."
"Oh, dear." Charlie patted her hand, trying not to grimace at the idea of cleaning bedpans. The girl was in an awful state. "Why do you not simply instruct your butler to announce that you are not in?" she suggested gently as Stokes entered with the tea tray, then blanched in surprise when Bessie raised a suddenly furious gaze to her.
"I have!" the new countess told her bitterly. "He will not listen. He takes great delight in watching me squirm with humiliation at the tender mercies of those women. No one in Seguin's house listens to me. My lady's maid does not even pretend to answer my summons. The cook will not speak to me, and if I eat at all it is cold bread and cheese slapped down on the tableby a surly old woman who is some sort of servant, though I know not what. There does not even appear to be anyone who cleans the place, at least not since I have arrived. The townhouse is cold, draughty, dust is collecting and" She shuddered. "It was all rather unattractive to begin with. As time passes with this neglect, it becomes quite hideous."
Charlie jumped slightly as Stokes, who had come to a standstill at Bessie's outburst, slammed the tea tray down on the table with a crash. Spying the outrage on his face, she knew he was angry on Bessie's behalf and sympathized with him. Stokes had very definite feelings in the matter of how servants should and should not behave. Apparently he did not approve of the behavior of Bessie's new servants. Clearing her throat Charlie leaned forward and patted the other girl's hand again. "Then you must make some changes."
"What? How can I change things?" she asked in dismay.
"For one thing, you must stop thinking of everything as Seguin's. He is dead.
The townhouse is not Seguin's home any longer, it is yours," she pointed out gently as Stokes set the teacups before the women, nodding his agreement with his mistress as he worked.
"And the servants are no longer Seguin's staff, but yours. If they will not listen to you, you must replace them. Just as, if you are unhappy with the gloomy atmosphere of the house, you should change it."
"You make it sound so simple," Bessie marveled.
"It is simple," Charlie assured her gently, but Bessie continued to look uncertain.
"But what if his family has the marriage undone? What if"
"But what if they do not?" Charlie interrupted. "Bessie, you cannot live your life on if and but. Right now you are Lady Seguin, the countess of Chiltingham, and they are your staff. Only you can do something about the way they treat you."
Unable to contain himself any longer. Stokes burst out, "Lady Charlie is absolutely right. You should clean house. Remove every single servant who will not attend you as you require and bring in new people."
Charlie bit her lip to hide a smile as she considered the change in her husband's valet and butler. Now that he was married, Radcliffe had mentioned expectations to spend a bit more time in London. He had considered hiring on a proper household staff to take the burden off of Stokes and Mrs.
Hartshairwho was presently filling both positions as cook and lady's maid to Charlie.
Stokes had made his opinion of that suggestion quite clear. While he had no argument with hiring another young girl to act as lady's maid for his mistress and take that chore off of Mrs. Hartshair, he had no desire to have the house filled up with extra servants he would have to chase about. They had Fred in the stable, a woman who came in the afternoons to keep the place clean and tidy, and unless they felt the need to throw a soireeat which point extra temporary help could be brought inthat was all they needed. He was not so old that he could not tend to his lord's garments and answer the door once in a while too, Stokes had assured them rather huffily.
Charlie suspected the truth was that the man feared losing out on some of the news and gossip he was presently privy to, should someone be hired to assist him. He quite liked things the way they were.
"I believe I know of a book that may help you," Charlie murmured now, turning her attention back to Bessie's problem. "It is a book on how to manage an estate and large staff by a duchess Someone-or-Other."
"Oh, aye." Stokes nodded enthusiastically. "I believe I know which one you mean and I am sure His Lordship has a copy in the library. Shall I fetch it for you, my lady?"
"Nay. I will," Charlie said. "That way I can check to see if there are any other books she may find useful. Why do you not sit down and see if you cannot think of any words of wisdom that may assist her yourself."
Nodding, Stokes sat down with a serious air and faced the young woman, absently reaching for his mistress's unused teacup as he began to lecture her on how a proper staff should behave. Charlie managed tohold back her chuckles until she was out of the room. It was hard for her to recall the rather stiffly upright servant that had been Stokes when she had first arrived with Beth. She had not really noticed the changes that had taken place in the man over time. At least, not until the trip home from Gretna Green. He had seemed to break loose from the shell of propriety that had cloaked him so thoroughly before.
Charlie placed the responsibility for his very definite loosening up at Mrs.
Hartshair's door. The man was obviously besotted with the woman. And he positively doted on her two children. Mrs. Hartshair seemed to have a glowing affection for the man as well, and Charlie thought it was all rather marvelous.
The Hartshairs deserved a good man in their lives after what the late Mr.
Hartshair had put them though. Charlie could not think of anyone nicer or more stable than Stokes.
Slipping into the library, Charlie quickly found the book in question.
Snatching it off the shelf, she set the heavy tome on the desk and returned to browse the shelves for any other books that may be of service in this situation. Once she had three more books selected, she returned to the desk to collect the first one, only to freeze as her gaze encountered the message that Stokes had placed on the desk where his lord would spot it upon his return. The note had been rolled up and tied with a bloodied ribbon. Just as the blackmailer's missives had been. The skin prickling at the back of her neck, she set the books down gently on the sideof the desk, then picked up the message and quickly removed the ribbon, sinking onto the desk chair as she read the words written there.
If you wish to discover the identity of the person who has been blackmailing your bride, come to Aggie's at eleven.
Charlie lowered the note to glance at the bracket clock on the wall by the door.
Why, that was in just ten minutes! Radcliffe was not even home. He would never see the message and get there in time to Frowning, she shook her head. Why would he need to anyway? They were married now.
Besides, the secret of her and Elizabeth's escapades was well known among the ton and had been forgiven. Well most of them anyway, she thought with a grimace and glanced down at the rest of the message.
If you do not show up, I mil assume that you will not mind all of London knowing that your wife visited a brothel ere your marriage.
Charlie groaned as she read that. That little adventure was the only one that the ton was not aware of. She could well imagine the furor that would arise should it come out that Lady Radcliffe had been a patron of a common bawdy house.
Crumpling the letter in her fist, she threw it angrily across the room and stood to hurry around the desk and out of the library. When a glance into the salon showed her that Mrs.Hartshair had joined the little advisory discussion around the tea tray and that her own presence was not being missed, Charlie swerved toward the stairs and rushed up them.
Despite her assurances to Radcliffe, Charlie still had one of the outfits she had worn during her stint as Charles. She had not understood on their return home why he would insist that she destroy them all, but had merely murmured her consent and handed them over to Stokes to get rid of as he saw fit except for the outfit she now dug out of the chest at the foot of the bed. She suspected now that it may have been her husband's hope to avoid something like this from occurring. Radcliffe was very good with details and would not have overlooked the fact that the blackmailer who had sold her back to her uncle was still out there and may contact them again. Charlie had not thought of that. She had assumed that now that she was married, she was safe. She supposed that her husband, in his own way, had been trying to protect her. But would he really rather risk her being ruined than to have her dress as a man again to meet a blackmailer and save herself?
Probably, she thought with a wry grimace as she stripped out of her clothes. Men could be so irrational at times! Grabbing up the strip of cloth, she quickly bound her breasts, grimacing at the necessary discomfort. Then she donned the male clothes, tied her hair at the nape of her neck, slid it down the back of her shirt, and slapped the now ratty old wig on her head.
Moving to the small chest on the bedside table, she used the key that hung around her neck to unlock it and quickly scooped out a handful of coins.
Charlie then hurried from the room, ran down the stairs and straight out the front door without a word to anyone. They would have just tried to talk her out of going, and she would have had to waste a lot of time convincing them that she was doing the right thing. Charlie did not have that time to spare. She could not risk the blackmailer's giving up on Radcliffe's arrival and going elsewhere with his information.
She wasn't worried about this information getting out so much on her own behalf.
Nay. Her main concern was for Radcliffe. The scandal that would erupt should the story of her antics get out would be a humiliating price to pay for having tried only to rescue her from a horrible life, or more likely death, with Carland.
He deserved better. She owed him better. And she would see that he got it, she thought determinedly as she flagged down a hack and climbed inside after shouting out her destination to the driver.
It was a very short ride to Aggie's. She recalled it as having been longer the first time, but that may have been due to the circumstances. Then, she had been anticipating a night at the club or someplace equally entertaining. She had been impatient to arrive. Today, she was full of trepidation about going there.