When the carriage stopped, Charlie peered out the window at the facade of the brothel, then descended reluctantly and handed the driver a coin.
"I don't think they're open yet, m'lord," the man commented, taking in the silent and still atmosphere around the building as well. It was as if all its inhabitants and even the building itself were sleeping, or waiting. He shook his head. "They are most like all still abed after last night's business. Are you sure you wouldn't rather go elsewheres?"
"Nay. This is fine. Thank you," Charlie murmured, turning away to walk slowly up to the door. She took a moment to inhale a deep breath before knocking, then managed not to shrink when it was opened by a giant who eyed her doubtfully and rumbled, "We ain't open yet."
Clearing her throat, she lifted her chin and announced with as much arrogance as she could muster, "Radcliffe at your service. I am expected"
His bushy red eyebrows rose at that, but he stepped aside at once.
Charlie could not be sure whether he doubted her veracity in claiming to be expected, or that he did not believe that the slender young lad before him was Lord Radcliffe. She did not care either way. She simply ignored his attitude and stepped inside, eager to get this business over with and return home to her imperfect, but at least mostly pleasant, life with her husband.
"This way." Turning, he led her across the hall and upstairs. Recognizing the room he led her to as the very one she had encountered Bessie in, Charlie hesitated about entering until she spotted the man standing by the window with his back to the room.
Blowing her breath out on a long sigh of resignation, she stiffened her spine and strode into the room with a false air of bravado, then jumped in surprise when the door slammed shut behind her. The man at the window had not even reacted to the sound. After several moments ticked by and he still had not turned to face her, Charlie gave up her feigned indifference and shifted unhappily. "Well?"
"Well," the man murmured and turned to face her, revealing the flintlock pistol he held in his hand.
A jolt of disbelief ran through her as she stared at the weapon. A second rocked through her when she raised her gaze to peer at his face.
"Norwich!" she gasped, her gaze shifting between his face and the pistol he held as it dropped limply to his side. The pistol looked vaguely familiar to her, though she'd had no occasion to have seen it before now. One hardly displayed guns at balls and soirees, and those were the only places Charlie had ever had occasion to meet up with the brother of the man Radcliffe's sister had married.
"What are you doing here?"
He stared at her blankly, then down at the weapon he held and away toward the window, a frown furrowing his brow. "I" He hesitated, then grimaced and gazed back at her, giving a short laugh that ended on a sigh. "You know why I am here."
"A spot of blackmail?" she suggested dryly. "It was you all along, was it?"
He shrugged slightly. "London living is quite expensive."
"How did you know who we were?"
"I have a passing acquaintance with your uncle. I was even at your country estate once. It was a very brief stop," he added when he spotted her doubtful expression. "He owed me some money and I came by to get it. I was not there long enough to be properly introduced, but I did spot you and your sister returning from the village as I left in my carriage." Sighing, he moved several steps to the right to set his pistol on one of the bedside tables, then leaned back against the wall beside it, crossing his arms over his chest and his legs at the ankles in a semi-relaxed manner as he continued. "Still, I did not recognize you at first. It had been well over a year since I saw the two of you. Then, too, it was clever of you to disguise yourself as a boy." He complimented her with a sudden grin that, under other circumstances, she would have found charming.
"Not ingenious enough if you recognized us."
"Oh." He waved a hand airily. "That was not your fault, really. After all, it helped that I knew Radcliffe had no relatives. That led me to wonder who you were. And still, I may not have figured it out had you changed your names."
Charlie sighed at that. Their names had been the weakest part of the entire plan. But after having already given them to Radcliffe, they had decided that Charlie and Elizabeth were common enoughas were most royal namesand that they could get away with it. Besides, the off-chance of recognition had seemed less likely to give them away than using alternate names and slipping up by calling each other by their real names, or by forgetting and not answering to the fake ones. Still, if it had not been for the fact that they had never been to London and that few people had ever come to the estate since their parents' deaths, they would never have chanced it.
"You really should have let Radcliffe keep this meeting."
Charlie glanced sharply at him, made extremely waiy by the regret and weariness in his tone. "Aye, well, he was not available. He was not even home and the letter did say that if he did not show up, you would tell the entire ton.
Besides, why should he pay you off? We had him fooled as well."
"Did he really notknow you were a woman?"
She shook her head solemnly. "Do you think he would have dragged me off to a brothel had he realized I was a woman?"
"Good point," he said wryly, and shook his head. "This was where I first saw you, you know."
Charlie tilted her head at that. "Really?"
"Aye. I saw you creeping out of one room and slipping down the hall checking each door until you slipped into this one. What were you looking for?"
"Radcliffe," she murmured, recalling that night.
"I realized you were a woman right away."
Charlie gave a start at the claim, then shook her head, not bothering to hide her disbelief. "Oh, aye. The rest of London was fooled, but not you."
He merely shrugged. "It is all in the presentation, I suspect. Had I first met you at the theater or a ball like everyoue else, I may have been fooled. But I first saw you in a brothel." When she merely stared at him blankly, he continued, "The women here wear all manner of costume to please their customers, and when I first saw you it was from behind as you backed out of the room down the hall."
She arched her eyebrows. "So?" .
"Your hips are far too generous and shapely to be a boy's. Quite pert and attractive, actually, and as I have never found a man's behind attractive, you had to be a woman." He grinned wickedly again as she flushed, but continued, "I thought perhaps you were a new girl playing a role for one of the men."
"I see." Charlie cleared her throat. "Then when we were introduced to you as Radcliffe's cousinswhen you knew he had no familyyou put two and two together and decided to blackmail us."
"You make me sound quite dastardly," he murmured with a grimace.
"Are you not?" she asked archly.
He laughed without humor. "Not as dastardly as I am going to be," he muttered under his breath, then took up his pistol again.
Charlie's gaze dropped to the pistol automatically, taking in the cut steel stock inlays and the initials on the butt. 'The inn."
He frowned at her softly spoken word. "What?"
"That is where I recognize your pistol from," she explained. "An inn on the way into London. The innkeeper showed it to me. He said that he had gotten it off of a fellow who had gambled all of his money away to another patron at the inn and had tried to sneak out on his bill. That pistol looked just like yours. In fact it had initials on it," she recalled, and frowned as she tried to recall what those initials had been.
"Aye," Charlie murmured uncertainly. Radcliffe had told her that Norwich's name was George, after the king.
"The R is for Robert. My brother," he explained. "Robert Norwich. They were his.
A matched set, you see. They passed on to me when he died and I kept them for sentimental reasons, which is why I did not simply hand over one of the guns to the innkeeper in lieu of payment, rather than risk the embarrassment of being caught fleeing in the night."
"You must have loved your brother deeply."
"Oh, good Lord, no, I loathed him," he laughed, then scowled at the gun in his hand. "I shall have to go back to that inn and fetch back the other one once I have Radcliffe's money."
Charlie shook her head slightly in bewilderment. "Why? You have just said that you loathed your brother. Why would you want his pistols? And how can you have a sentimental attachment to them if you disliked him so?"
"Because they are what I killed him with."
Charlie stared at the man before her with honor. "You?"
"Killed him," Norwich repeated slowly as if for the benefit of a simpleton.
"Aye. With his own pistols. Can you imagine? It was the crowning moment of my life to date. I can still see the expression on his face as clearly as if he stood before me now." He peered off into space for a moment, savoring the image in his mind, then sighed. "All well, that is the trouble with life. Such pleasures are long awaited and sadly fleeting when they finally arrive."
Charlie shifted impatiently. "May we get back to the part about your killing your brother?"
"Oh, were we not finished with that conversation? I thought we were. What is it you wish to know?"
Charlie took a deep breath, trying to sort the questions barraging her mind. "I was told he was killed by bandits."
"Well, I could hardly go riding back to the house shouting I shot him, I shot my brother.' " He shrugged. "There had been a bandit working in the area; he made an easy target for laying the blame."
She hesitated. This was the question she found hardest to ask, even though she knew what the answer must be. "And his wife? Radcliffe's sister?"
"Ahhh. Mary. Sweet Mary. Aye, I killed her too."
"How could you?"
He held up the pistol in his hand. "A matched set, remember? Two pistols, two bullets, two dead"
"Nay, I mean, he was your own brother. And she..."
"Actually, he wasnot my brother." That brought her up short. "Not ?"
"Nay. The old Norwich was not my father either. He merely gave me his name For a price." He enjoyed her uncertain curiosity briefly, then explained, "My mother was the king's mistress. She became pregnant and he, already being married, paid Norwich to marry my mother and save her from scandal. 'Tis why I was named George. For my father."
He grinned at her wide-eyed expression. "You see, you have the honor of speaking to a man who, under other circumstances, would have been a king, or at the very least a prince."
"And the king paid Norwich to"
"Aye. A dowry just this side of a king's ransom. Still, I don't think Norwich would have been persuaded even by that if it had not been the king asking.
He really had no need of money, and by all accounts he had loved his first wife dearly and was not looking for a replacement. Still, how does one say no to the king?"
"I do not suppose one does," she murmured, eyebrows furrowed as she tried to absorb all she was learning. "Is that why you killed Robert, because he was Norwich's son and"
"I killed him for money," he interrupted with amusement. "I hated him because he was himself. He was" Norwich shook his head, frustrated by his inability to put his thoughts into words. "He was perfect. Handsome, strong, charming, intelligent. He was the apple of his father's eye. He could do no wrong.
Women loved him, men admired him. He always made me look bad."
Becoming agitated, he paced a few steps, then turned, exclaiming, "Me! A king's son. Yet next to him I appeared insignificant. Never as good. Never as smart. Never as handsome. Even my mother doted on him. And he inherited everything on the old man's death. He became a duke, while I, a king's son, was titleless, landless,"
he muttered bitterly, then paused and straightened, drawing in a deep draught of air before continuing almost smugly, "But I showed him.Oh, yes. I planned a way to get it all. The land, the title, the wealth. Even his wife."
"You did not" Charlie clamped her teeth on the question, but he was able to work it out for himself.
"Rape her?" He scowled. "Good heavens, no. What do you take me for?"
Charlie could hardly answer that one. Good God, the man had admitted to murder and blackmail, butshe was supposed to know he drew the line at rape?
"Nay, as I said, I had a plan to get it all. Unfortunately, Mary rather messed that up by getting with child." He shook his head with disgust. "I had intended to kill Robert. Of course, I would be there to comfort the grieving widow.
Then, shortly afterward, I had intended to kill Radcliffe. Since he had no other relatives, something I had looked intowhich is why I knew you and your sister could not be his cousins, by the wayMary would have been his sole heir. Then, while she was reeling from both losses in quick succession, I had intended on marrying her, making it all mine" He heaved a deep sigh and paced across the room. "It was a perfect plan But then one morning, shortly before my plan was to go into motion, Robert announced that Mary was with child." Pausing at the fireplace, he suddenly swept his hand violently along the mantel sending a pendulum clock and several candleholders crashing to the floor. Charlie jumped, then eyed him warily as he turned to face her.
"An heir would have ruined everything, of course. I lost my temper," he announced with a charming grimace. "And in a fit of pique and fury I decided to kill her as well. Shortly after they left to go to Radcliffe's, I searched out Robert's pistols, loaded them, and rode to a spot halfway between both estates.