Radcliffe was too shocked at the situation at first to react, but when the man's beefy hands slid down to cup his buttocks through his skills and squeeze, he suddenly found the ability to titter. At least, the choked sound that slid from his lips sounded like a titter to him. Or perhaps a twitter.
Having been just about to plow his fist into the face of the man before him in a desperate bid for freedom, Radcliffe nearly thanked God aloud for that timely call up the stairway. "Little" Willy suddenly stiffened, then heaved a resigned sigh as the shout came again, more impatiently this time.
"I'd best go ere he wakes up the rest of the house," the man rumbled unhappily.
"No doubt he's just wantin' to be sure that I sent his letter with the stable lad, but he won't leave off till I tell him so myself."
Giving Radcliffe's pink-clad bottom a friendly squeeze that made him jump and bite his tongue to keep back the curses on the tip of his tongue, the man pulled away, mumbling, "Yer losing weight, Darlee. Yer bottom's tight as a drum.
Ye need to eat more. I'll bring ye a little snack when I come back. Then I'll have to examine ye real close to see where else ye've lost weight," he murmured playfully, moving toward the door.
"The hell you will," Radcliffe muttered as soon as the door closed behind the other man. Hurrying forward, he opened the door a crack to see Little Willy lumbering down the stairs. The man was a giant. His fists were nearly as large as his head, which was admittedly small for his body. Radcliffe supposed he should be grateful that those fists had only squeezed his behind. Had the man hit him with one of them, he probably would have killed him with the first blow.
Radcliffe sighed at his own thoughts. Dresses, he decided, were hard on a man's ego. They affected his confidence poorly. Any other time he would have thought the man was large but slow on his feet and that he could easily have outwitted him. In the dress, all he could think was that he would trip himself up with his own skirts and be lucky to survive. He had to find Charlie, get her out of there, and get the damn thing off. Then he would lecture his wife soundly on never ever getting herself in such a dangerous predicament again for all the good that would do.
Sighing, he eased out into the hallway and closed the door. He had never found himself in situations like this before Charlie had sauntered into his life, he groused to himself as he headed toward the next room. All, well. At least he would never need fear his life becoming boring. Charlie would see to that, and without even trying, he suspected. Pausing at the next door along the hall, he checked the knob to see if it turned, a frisson of excitement running up his spine when it did not. She must be in there.
"Charlie?" he whispered. "Are you in there, Charlie? Can you hear me?"
"Jeremy?" Her heart leaping, Charlie rushed to the door, pressing her face against it eagerly.
"Jeremy? Is that you?"
"Aye. Are you all right? They have not hurt you?"
"Nay. I am all right."
Radcliffe glanced around to be sure he was alone, then hissed, "Why have you not escaped out the window then? Are you tied up?"
"Nay, I am not tied up. But they have nailed the windows shut. I have been trying to pry the nails out with a candleholder, but it is going very slow,"
she admitted with vexation, then sighed. "I take it you found the letter after all?"
"Howdid you get in without being seen?"
"I came in a window downstairs."
"Thank you," she breathed through the door. "Thank you?" he murmured with confusion.
"For caring enough to come and try to save me," she explained. "But now you must leave. At once," she ordered firmly. "Norwich will kill you if you are caught."
"Norwich?" He scowled, now understanding why he had thought the voice below sounded familiar.
"Aye. He wasthe blackmailer. But this last message was merely to get you here so that he might kill you."
"Kill me? Why the devil should he wish to do a thing like that?"
Her voice was sad yet anxious. "It is a long story, my lord. Suffice it to say that he is insane." She sighed again through the door, then insisted, "Please, my lord, you must leave at once. He really will not hesitate to kill you."
"I am not leaving you here."
"Well, you cannot get me out. The door is locked and the window nailed shut.
Breaking through either way would create enough noise to bring the household running. Unless you've brought an army with you, I really suggest you leave right now."
"An army," Radcliffe murmured, thinking of Stokes, Bessie, Elizabeth, and Mis.
Hartshair and her children in the carriage below. They had all insisted on coming, and not wishingto waste the time on arguing, Radcliffe had agreed so long as they all stayed in the carriage.
"Aye?" He glanced at the door. Her voice had seemed to come from much lower along the door this time.
"What are you wearing?"
His gaze shot down to the keyhole and he knelt swiftly to see her eye peering out. She had a beautiful eye, he thought now. It was odd that he had forgotten that. Both her eyes were beautiful. Large, usually twinkling with some inner amusement, and a deep coal black color that looked like a starry night.
he murmured huskily.
"Are you wearing something pink with ruffles?" she squawked in disbelief, knocking him squarely out of his gentle musings on her beauty.
Scowling, he stood abruptly. "It was your sister's idea."
"Beth? Beth put you in pink ruffles?"
"It is a disguise," he managed to state with great dignity. "She thought that I might be able to avoid detection longer as a woman than as myself."
"It is a dress?" she squawked. "You are wearing a frilly, pink dress?"
"It is a disguise" Radcliffe snapped, then frowned at the muffled chuckle that came through the door.
"Now you know why I was the one who came up with the plans." She laughed, then, before he could respond, sighed, "You do care for me, then."
"What?" He knelt at the keyhole again, peering in at her one eye. "What do you mean,I care for you?"
"Well, that is the only reason a man might be persuaded to don a dress.
To save someone he cares for."
"That is tripe. Good Lord, woman, I chased you clear across England and into Scotland in an airless little trap with Stokes, Tomas, Beth, Mrs. Hartshair and her children, yet that does not impress you with my feelings? I put on one stupid frilly dress and suddenly you think I might care for you? I do not care for you madam. I would not dress so for someone I cared for. I love you!"
"Of course I do. Why do you think I married you?"
"To save me from Carland."
"I could have simply bought your uncle off, or sent you to the Americas to achieve that end," he said with disgust. "Tying myself down to you for the rest of my life was not necessary."
"But the morning after we umm' er'd " she said at last for want of a better word. "You told me you did not love me."
"You were not even awake when I left you."
"When you thought I was Charles," she explained.
He was silent for a moment, then said, "I recall your asking about love, and my starting to say that I did not think it an important consideration at that point, but stopped to consider my feelings. I was very confused at that time. I had feelings for Charles that I thought wholly inappropriate, and feelings for Beth sometimes but not others. It was not until I learned of the switching you and your sister were doing that I sorted everything out and realized that all of my feelings were for you."
"Then you do love me?"
"Would I be kneeling on the floor in pink ruffles if I did not?"
"Oh, Jeremy, I love you too," she sighed, tears pooling in the one eye he could see. "I wish I could hold you."
"You will," he said firmly. "I will get you out of there, but first I have to"
Radcliffe stiffened at that low nimble and turned to stare over his shoulder at the giant standing over him. He had not heard the man approach.
"Yer not Darlee." Radcliffe saw the fist coming down toward his head like a hammer, but didn't have a chance to duck out of the way before pain exploded in his head and unconsciousness overtook him.
It was cold water splashing in his face that dragged him back to reality.
Swimming up through the swirling fog in his brain, Radcliffe blinked his eyes open, closed them, then opened them again to squint at the blurry images around him, attempting with difficulty to bring them into focus. Charlie was the first thing he saw, or Charles, he supposed, taking in her breeches and waistcoat as well as the fact that she was seated on the floor, cradling his head in her lap.
Then he saw that she was glaring at the second blur furiously, and he squinted at it until it shaped itself into Norwich, who stood above them. An empty pitcher was dangling from one of the man's hands.
"Finally," the other man sighed impatiently. "Really, the two of you are quite tiresome. First, she shows up instead of you, then you come early. I told you midnightcan neither of you read? Nice frock, by the way," he sneered, turning to stomp toward the door. "You have a little over six hours until midnight.
Enjoy them. They shall be the last you have together."
"Bastard," Charlie hissed as the door closed behind him, then turned to look down at Radcliffe with concern. "Are you all right?"
"Aye," Radcliffe sighed, sitting up with her help and peering around, his hand moving automatically to nib his aching temple.
"Mayhap you should stay lying down for a bit," Charlie murmured anxiously, but he shook his head and forced himself to his feet where he swayed woozily.
"I do not have that luxury. I have to figure out a way to get us out of here."
"I shall do that, you just rest," she insisted, taking his arm to steady him.
"Dammit Radcliffe, I amwearing the breeches now. Sit down before you fall down," she snapped.
"You are wearing the breeches? What the devil is that suppose to mean?"
"Whatever you want it to, now just sit down." Charlie gave her husband a gentle push that made him drop weakly onto the foot of the bed, then moved to the windows to inspect her handiwork from earlier. She had been working on one of the nails with a silver candlestick holder when Radcliffe had knocked at the door and called out her name. "What are you doing?"
Glancing around, she saw that Radcliffe had stumbled weakly over to join her and now stood swaying like a sapling in a stiff breeze beside her.Frowning, she took his arm and urged him back to the bed. "Will you just sit down and let me deal with this? I have enough to worry about without having to keep you from falling on your face."
"I will not fall on my face," he snapped irritably, shrugging her hand off.
"And I am your husband; you do not order me about."
"Is that right? Well, I have news for you, Radcliffe. Youare not my husband."
"I am so."
"Are not. You married Beth."
"She may have stood in foryou, but it is your name on the register."
"But not my signature. We are not married."
He was stumped briefly by that, then scowled. "Well, we shall rectify that situation. The moment we are out of here I will arrange a proper wedding."
"Good for you, be sure and send me an invitation, I will see if I can not show up to witness it."
He stared at her in bewilderment, wondering whether the injury to his head had not done more damage than he had initially thought. "What is going on?
The last thing I recall before being knocked out was our admitting our love for each other, yet now you seem to be saying you will not marry me. What did I miss here?"
Sighing in frustration, Charlie nibbedher hands over her face wearily and shook her head as she crossed back to the window. "You have not missed anything. I missed it. I love you, Radcliffe, but I am not sure that I wish to spend the rest of my life with a man who treats me like an inferior."
"I would never treat you like an inferior."
"Well, you certainly do not treat me like an equal anymore."
"Oh, that is nonsense."
"It is not nonsense. Ever since you found out that I was not really a Charles, you have been treating me like some sort of hothouse flower that does not have a thought in her head and might expire from the effort should I try to place one in it."
"I have not," he denied hotly.
"Oh, really? Well, when was the last time that you discussed business with me?"
"It is not polite to discuss business in mixed company, besides women cannot understand the intricacies of" His voice trailed away, his face flushing with guilt as he realized what he was saying.
"Funny that I seemed to understand it well enough as Charles, but am not even good enough to discuss it as Charlotte."
"I had not realized" he began faintly, dropping to sit on the bed with dismay.
"What? That you saw women as lacking? That you have been treating me like a tickle-brained jolthead?" she asked dryly, then moved to pick up a candelabra and positioned herself beside the door. Before Radcliffe could ask her what she was about, she let out a bloodcurdling scream and raised the holder over her head as a key jiggled in the lock. The door flew open, a wide-eyed Little Willy stepped in, and she brought the heavy holder down on his head with enough gusto that Radcliffe half-suspected that she was working out some of her anger at him on the poor man's skull.