Charlie watched the door close behind the woman, then gave the tray of food a shove that sent it crashing to the floor.
Stokes bit his lip and turned away as Lady Elizabeth's eyes widened on her first sight of Lord Radcliffe. This was no time for levity, he lectured himself firmly. There was nothing the least bit amusing about the situation. Still, the sight of His Lordship bewigged and gowned in Mrs. Hartshair's frilly pink dress was really more than a good valet should have to see. Even helping him into the ridiculous outfit had been beyond the call of duty. Stokes had a new respect for the women employed as lady's maids. Truly, their chore in dressing their mistresses was atrocious. There were zonas and boned corsets with laces that Lady Elizabeth had assured him had to be drawn tight, tighter, and tighter still, despite the fact that His Lordship had been woozy from the constriction.
Petticoats and day sleeves, buffens and cuffs, stockings and gaiters. And that had just been the underthings. Then had come the outer; a stomacher, a bodice with its hook-and-eye fastenings, a waistcoat and skirt And with all of that.
His Lordship still looked like himself in a dress, the servant thought with disgust. It seemed that the dress did not make the woman.
"Umm." Lady Elizabeth managed a rather forced smile and backed toward the door.
"I shall return directly."
Radcliffe glanced toward Stokes with a scowl. "She did not look pleased."
"Oh, I am sure she is pleased, my lord," Stokes murmured quickly, afraid the man was simply looking for an excuse to get out of the dress. It had taken Lady Elizabeth a solid hour of talking to convince him that he would have a better chance of rescuing Lady Charlie as a woman than as himself. Then the problem of a dress came into play. Lady Elizabeth and Lady Charlie were shorter than His Lordship by a good ten inches, as was Lady Bessie. Mrs. Hartshair, on the other hand, was only an inch or two shorter than His Lordship. She was also full-figured and round, and while His Lordship was lean and well muscled, he was wide in the shoulders and had need of the extra space in the bodice of the gown.
"Here we are." Lady Elizabeth rushed back into the master bedroom, powder, rouge, kohl liner, and lip color in one hand and a mob cap, Bergere straw hat, and hooded mantle in the other. Dropping the clothing on the end of the bed, she urged Radcliffe to sit in a chair and close his eyes, then set to work.
"Do stop scowling, my lord, you are causing lines in your powder," she muttered several moments later.
"Surely you are done now," was Radcliffe's answer.
"Nearly," she murmured, adding more color to his cheeks, then stepped back and peered at him critically, tilting her head first one way then the other, then the first way again. Her shoulders fell slightly. He looked even worse now than he had before. He looked like Radcliffe in wig, face powder, and a chess.
"Perhaps the hat, my lady?" Stokes suggested encouragingly.
"Oh, aye." Relief obvious on her face, she whirled back to the bed to grab the rest of the gear she had brought in. Moving back, she set the mob cap over his wig, then added the straw hat, setting it at a jaunty angle, then changed her mind and tilted it forward so that it shadowed his face then further still.
Stepping back, she frowned over him, dissatisfied, until Stokes gave a cough, drawing her attention. When she glanced his way, he gestured toward his own chest behind Radcliffe's back. It took her a moment to read his signals, and then her eyes slid back to Radcliffe's flat chest. Of course, that was why he looked so odd! She glanced around the room, then spied the hose lying on the floor and scooped them up. "Here."
Moving to stand before Radcliffe, she began stuffing the hose down his top, arranging and pushing the material until she had to give it up as a lost cause.
She supposed there were quite a few women who had not been in line when God had handed out upper endowments. Tugging the material out, she tossed it aside and took the mantle Stokes now held out, arranging it around Radcliffe's shoulders, pulling it forward to hide his lackluster chest, then tugging the voluminous hood of the cape up to cover his head and hang over half of his face.
"Are you quite through?"
Beth sighed unhappily, but nodded and stepped back. Lord Radcliffe was off the chair at once and striding toward the door. Beth followed quickly, trailing him down the stairs and throwing the women warning looks over his head as Mrs.
Hartshair and Bessie turned to see them descending. Catching the warning, both women managed to contain their humor and merely watched wide-eyed as His Lordship stomped down the steps in the tight, frilly, too-short dress. He was at the door to the street when he paused and tugged his skirts up slightly to peer at his feet. Turning back to face them, he frowned. "Shoes."
Lady Elizabeth glanced down with distress at his strong masculine legs amongst so many pink frills and released a choked sound. Whirling away, she fled to the salon. Stokes hurried after her. He thought her distress was over the fact that there certainly would not be one pair of lady's slippers or even clogs in the house that would fit His Lordship, but when he entered the room, far from finding her crying as he had feared, he discovered her laughing into the back of the settee, her entire body shaking with the effort to do so silently.
" 'Tis all right," Radcliffe cried, hurrying into the salon after them. "I shall just wear my jackboots. No one will see them under my skirts."
When Lady Elizabeth's shoulders began to shake even more furiously at that.
Stokes promptly positioned his body to hide hers as he turned to face Radcliffe.
He barely managed to maintain his solemn demeanor as he nodded in what he hoped would be taken as agreement, then sagged with relief as the Earl of Radcliffe hurried out of the room in search of the boots. Turning back to his mistress's sister, he found her recovering from her lack of decorum and wiping tears of mirth from her eyes.
"He will be noticed at once," she sighed, her humor goneas if it had never been.
"Aye. But mayhap not recognized." "We must hope not."
"He has a better chance dressed so than as himself," Stokes said solemnly.
"Mayhap we can just persuade him to try to keep his back to anyone he encounters and to slouch a little so that he does not appear so large."
"Aye," she sighed, getting to her feet.
"I am ready." Radcliffe stomped into the room then, his jackboots peeking out from under the pink skirts with every step. "Come, we have wasted enough time."
Skirts flying, he whirled to lead the way out of the room.
"That is the room they kept me in, if you will recall, my lord," Bessie murmured, pointing at a window on the second floor of the building as the driver directed the carriage down the alley beside Aggie's establishment. "They are probably keeping her in there. From what I heard while I was there, that room is kept for the express purpose of holding unwilling guests."
Radcliffe shook his head. "Nay, she cannot be there, Bessie, else she would have just crawled out the window as the two of you did that night."
"If she was able," Elizabeth murmured with a frown. When he blanched at her words, she quickly added, "They may have tied her up or something, my lord."
"Oh, aye." Relaxing the teensiest fraction, he suddenly yanked his skirt up to check to be sure that his pistol was still in the pocket sack that hung under the petticoats, then quickly tugged it back down with irritation when he saw the women blush and turn away. It was beyond him why women wore what they did. He was laced in so tightly that he could hardly breathe, and weighted down with so much material he could hardly move. Women were a lot stronger than men gave them credit for. Unfortunately, most of that strength appeared to be wasted on carting about their clothes.
"How are you going to get in?" Stokes asked anxiously.
"I shall try the windows first, I think," Radcliffe said with a frown as he straightened out his skirts. "I fear using the front door would be too much of a risk."
"Aye," Stokes said, then, "My lord, you er your purpose may be better served did you tiy to er keep your face turned away from anyone you encounter."
"Aye," Elizabeth agreed encouragingly. "And mayhap if you tried not to look quite so tall, you might be able to avoid some unwanted attention."
"And if anyone does approach and question you, you might merely cover your face with a handkerchief and titter."
Radcliffe blinked at that suggestion from Bessie. "I do not have a handkerchief."
"Oh!" Whipping one from her sleeve, Beth handed it to him as he got out of the carriage. "Good luck, my lord. I know you shall save her."
"Titter," Radcliffe muttered as he pushed the window open on the first empty room he found on the main floor. "What the devil is a titter? And how the hell am I supposed to try not to look so large?" Shaking his head with disgust, he held the window open with one hand as he sat on the ledge, then swung one leg after the other over the sill and into the room. Standing, he let the window slide closed, then took a moment to brush the wrinkles out of his skirt and yank at the bottom of his bodice to straighten it before hurrying across the room.
Pausing at the door, he pressed an ear to it to listen briefly, then eased it open and peered out. It was early afternoon and yet it seemed the women were all still abed. Slipping into the hallway, he pulled the door gently closed and hurried as quickly as a man could in a dress that kept catching at his boot spurs, toward the stairs. He had just set foot on the first step when a door further down the hall opened.
Cursing under his breath, he rushed silently up the stairs.
Radcliffe froze on the fifth step at the shout from below. The voicewas a man's and it sounded vaguely farmliar. Trying to place it in his mind, he continued up the stairs more warily until he heard the madam's voice answer from the back of the house. "Aye?"
"Send me Little Willy. The letter is ready to go to Radcliffe."
Standing on the stairs, Radcliffe hesitated. He still could not place the voice below and that annoyed him, but what had made him stop was the sudden thought that he could confront the villain right now and have done with it. His gaze moved up the last few steps to the hallway that stretched out before him, however, and he frowned. He really should rescue Charlie first. Once she was safely away from here, he could tend to the man below. If he tried ere seeing her safe and something happened, he would never forgive himself. Nodding to himself, he continued quickly up the stairs and along the hall to the room Bessie and Charlie had climbed out of so marry nights ago.
Reaching for the door handle, he twisted it carefully, not really surprised when it turned easily. Had they locked Charlie in this room, she simply would have climbed out the window as she had when she rescued Bessie. Still, he pushed the door open and peered about to be sure she was not tied to a chair or something.
The drapes were closed, casting the room in deep shadow, but from the light spilling through the doorway around him, he did not think that there were any bound and gagged figures in the room. He hesitated, then sighed and slid inside, pushing the door half-closed behind him as he hurried to the windows and yanked the drapes open. Light now filled every corner of the room and still there was no sign of Charlie.
Sighing, he turned back to peer out the window at the alley below, a frown tugging at his brow. He saw at once that he was in the wrong room. The window Charlie and Bessie had climbed out of was the next one over from the one he was at.
Muttering under his breath, he reached up to grab the edges of the drapes, snapping them shut again just as the door squeaked further open behind him and a voice called softly, "Darlee?"
Radcliffe swallowed a curse at that low rumble behind him, and went completely still, hoping that the dim light from the hallway did not reach him where he stood by the now closed drapes. No such luck, he realized as the man spoke again, sounding closer.
"I did not think you would be back until later. Lord Ascomb usually keeps you through the night and well into the next when he hires your services."
If anyoue does approach and question you, you might merely cover your face with a handkerchief and titter. Bessie's words sounded in his head and Radcliffe frowned. How did one titter? What was a titter? The word made him think of high, twittering sounds. He did not think that he could manage something like that.
Then the man pressed against his ruffled backside and rumbled, "Willy's missed ye."
Willy? Radcliffe's eyes widened incredulously. This was Little Willy? Good Lord! He had thought the "little" part had referred to Willy being a child. He should have known better. This was a brothel, after all. It probably referred to the size of hisRadcliffe's thought died as the man slid his hands around his waist and began to slide them up toward his nonexistent bosom. That was too much for Radcliffe. He was not about to stand around being groped by a fellow named Little Willy.
Tugging sharply away, he whirled to face the fellow, prepared to do battle, but the size of Little Willy brought him up short. The man was half a head taller than Radcliffe and at least twice as wide. At least he looked that large in the dimness of the room. He also was not hampered by a woman's skirt, Radcliffe thought gloomily, preparing to be soundly trounced. Fortunately, it was dark enough in the room that Little Willy could not make out Radcliffe's features. At least that was what he assumed when, rather than rear back in outrage at recognizing him for a man, Little Willy took on a pouting air.
"All, now, Darlee, don't be like that. Ye always return from Lord Ascomb's in a huff and I know he don't use you right, but I'll be gentle as always and help ye forget." On that note, the man tugged Radcliffe firmly into his embrace, ignoring his sudden struggles as he buried his face in his neck and slid his arms around him.