When the behemoth crumpled to the floor in a heap, she tossed the holder aside, bent to snatch the keys from his limp hand, then straightened to eye Radcliffe impatiently. "Well? Are you coming, or had you intended to wait there for midnight?"
Closing his gaping mouth, Radcliffe got quickly to his feet and stumbled forward. The moment he had stepped through the door, she pulled it closed and locked it, then pocketed the keys and hurried toward the stairs. They were halfway down them when Norwich appeared at the bottom. Much to Radcliffe's amazement, Charlie continued down even as Norwich stepped back and raised his gun to await them. At the bottom of the stairs, Radcliffe moved quickly to place himself protectively before his not-quite-legally-married-wife andfaced the man.
Norwich frowned at him with annoyance as he raised his gun and aimed it, then said, "I do not know what is the matter with you two. Why can you not simply do as you are told? Things would be so much easier if you did so."
"Oh, yes, that would be nice, would it not?" Charlie snapped over Radcliffe's shoulder. "Then you could give nice little orders like die and we would just drop at your feet."
Norwich frowned at her, then raised an eyebrow at Radcliffe. "Sassy little thing, is she not?"
"I prefer to think of her as passionate."
Norwich's eyebrow rose further. "Really? Well, I can hardly wait to experience her full passion."
"Not in this lifetime, Norwich," Radcliffe snarled.
"He is right," Charlie said calmly when the man chuckled derisively at the threat. "I am afraid the game is up. Your plan never would have worked in any case. Radcliffe and I are not even really married Beth is the one who married him in Gretna Green."
"Your sister married Mowbray."
"Aye. Four days prior to our arrival in Gretna Green she married Tomas, then the morning your men rode into Gretna with us, she dressed up as Charles and married Radcliffe. It was not a legal marriage. If you kill Radcliffe, all you will get from marrying me are a couple of paltry jewels. Most of them have been sold and the money invested." When he started to shake his head with patent disbelief, she shrugged. "If you do not believe me, ask Beth. She is standing right behind you."
He laughed openly at that. "If you expect me to believe" His voice died as something hard poked him in his lower back.
"Well, hello, Lord Norwich. Fancy meeting you here," Beth trilled cheerfully, then nudged him a little harder in the ribs with her weapon. "You will give up your gun to Lord Radcliffe, will you not?"
Radcliffe took the pistol as it suddenly hung limply in the other man's hand.
Beth waited just long enough for him to point the weapon at the villain, then rushed around him to hug her sister. "I did it, Charlie! I saved you. I saved you. And I did it with a candlestick," she half-laughed and half-gasped, pulling away to hold up her weapon. "Oh, it was marvelous. What a rush of sensation! I have never felt so frightened or so truly alive. Do you know, I do not think I shall ever be afraid of anyone again," she said, then laughed and hugged her again. "I did it."
"Aye, you did." Charlie smiled at her widely. "Where are the others?"
"Right here, my lady," Stokes said, pushing a bound-and-gagged Aggie down the hallway toward them withBessie and Mis. Hartshair following.
"But how did you know they were all here?"
Beth asked Charlie in amazement.
"I saw you all climb out of the carriage and crawl through the first-floor window from the room upstairs," Charlie explained. "I was trying to decide at that point whether 'twould be better to block the door, break the window, and climb out, or lure Little Willy into the room, knock him out, and risk the stairs. Seeing you come in made me decide to try the stairs. I hoped you would arrive in time to help with Norwich."
"And I did!" Beth's face was as bright as a candle flame with pride and Charlie could not help but laugh.
"Aye, you did. You were marvelous."
"I was, was I not?" she marveled breathlessly.
"Aye, and I never again want to hear you say you are a coward. It took great courage to face him down with naught but a candlestick. You could have been killed. Why, all he had to do was glance over his shoulder andBeth?"
Reaching out quickly, she caught her twin as Beth crumpled to the floor in a dead faint.
"What time is it?"
"You have asked that question twenty times, Radcliffe," Tomas pointed out with exasperation as he checked his timepiece once again. " 'Tis four minutes after the hour."
"They are late."
"Women are always late. I do not know why you are worrying yourself so.
I am not worried"
Radcliffe grimaced at that. "You are already married Whether you go through with the service again today or not, you will still be married to Beth. Charlie and I are another matter entirely."
"But the two of you sorted it out. She has agreed to marry you. Has she not?"
"Aye." He looked slightly heartened, but then worry crept across his face again.
"But what if something has happened?"
"Something like what?" Tomas asked curiously.
"Who can say with Charlie? She attracts trouble like no woman I have ever known."
"True," Tomas agreed morosely, worry plucking at his own brow now as well. "And Beth has taken on that rather unfortunate trait herself lately. Ever since that incident with Norwich, in fact."
Radcliffe nodded solemnly. It was true; the once quiet and sensible Beth had become more like Charlie, thrusting herself into the path of injustice at every turn and making her husband crazy with it. Much to Radcliffe's amusement,the Mowbray home, too, now sported an array of waifs and strays she had rescued from one predicament or another. Though he would never reveal his secret amusement to his friend. And Tomas was correct in saying that it all harked back to the incident with Norwich and her disarming the man with naught but a candlestick.
It seemed her words of that day had been true, despite the faint that had followed the incident; she truly was no longer afraid of anyone.
As for Norwich himself, the last they had seen of the man was when the authorities had taken him and Aggie away. He had been squawking that he was the son of a king at the time. What had happened to him since was anyone's guess.
Aggie had suffered a heart attack in prison and had not survived to stand trial, and when Radcliffe had made inquiries about the prosecution of Norwich, he had been told not to worry, the matter had been handled. He had heard various rumors, but suspected that the man had been locked away in Bedlam where he could cause no further embarrassment to the royal family.
"Damn," Tomas muttered suddenly, drawing Radcliffe from his thoughts.
"Now I am worried too."
Exchanging gloomy glances, the two men began pacing the front of the church under the watchful eye of the minister and the four hundred restless guests cramped into the church. Every single member of the ton had wanted to be present at this "renewal of vows" between Charlie and Radcliffe and Beth and Tomas. They all thought it terribly romantic. Of course, none of them realized that it would be the first time Charlie would get to say her vows and that their earlier marriage might not be quite legal.
Charlie had insisted on it being one year to the day after their supposed marriage at Gretna Green, just so that there would be no confusion over wedding anniversaries. Beth and Tomas had understood and agreed to the date. Of course, that had been before they had learned that Charlie was pregnant and that her due date was just a week after the date set for this "renewal of vows." Radcliffe had tried to convince her that they should push up the wedding date.
There was no way he wanted the child born prior to the wedding and possibly being a bastard because of it. Still, Charliecharming, exciting, sweet, stubborn Charliehad said nay. They would continue as planned and hope the baby did not come early.
"How did you convince her to remarry you?" Tomas asked curiously, drawing Radcliffe from his thoughts.
Making a face, he admitted, "I had to draw up a contract stating that I would never again condescend to her. That I would discuss business with her on a daily basis were she interested, and"
He sighed unhappily. "And that I would take her to my club dressed as a man."
Tomas gave a start. "What?"
"Shh," Radcliffe cautioned, glancing nervously around to be sure that they had not been overheard. No one seemed to be paying attention to them. Most of the guests were casting expectant glances toward the back of the church, hoping to spot the brides who should have been there by now. Glancing back to Tomas, he nodded. "She was quite adamant about seeing the club. It seems she was jealous of Beth's getting within those 'hallowed halls'her words, not mineand she was determined to see inside for herself."
"Have you taken her there yet?"
"Nay, nay. I managed to put her off for quite some time, and then by the time she lost her patience with my stalling, she was with child and did not think the smoky atmosphere would be good for the baby. I am hoping by the time it is born and she is up and about again, she will have forgotten" A faint shriek from outside the church made him pause and stiffen in alarm. "That sounded like Charlie."
Turning, he hurried toward the back of the church with Tomas on his heel.
Crashing through the church doors, they both froze at the top of the steps and gaped at the spectacle taking place on the street below. Charlie and Beth, in all their wedding finery, were in the midst of attacking what appeared to be a sheet vendor. Flowers were flying through the air as they both pummeled the man with their bouquets and shouted at him furiously.
"Have I mentioned, Radcliffe, how little I appreciate the effect your wife has had on mine?" Tomas murmured suddenly, and Radcliffe glanced at him with amazement.
"My wife? Good Lord, Tomas, you cannot blame Beth's sudden change on Charlie.
They grew up together, for God's sake. After twenty years of influence, she was not like this."
Tomas frowned. "I had not thought of that. What do you suppose did it, then?"
Radcliffe grinned slightly. "The only new thing in her life is you."
Tomas was gaping over that truth when Stokes slipped out of the church to join them. "Oh, dear. Lady Charlie and Lady Beth are hardly in the condition for that sort of behavior."
Radcliffe and Tomas glanced back to the activity in the street. The man had turned away, it seemed, and tried to climb up on the bench seat of a wagon, only to have one of the women launch herself at his back. She appeared to be attempting to climb him like a mountain, and despite her advanced state of pregnancy, was doing a bang-up job of it. Meantime, the other "bride" was now stomping on his toes, kicking him in the shins, and yanking his hair for all she was worth. The vendor was squealing like a pig.
Both men started forward at once, grim determination on their faces.
Radcliffe went automatically for the woman on the man's back, unhooking her from the vendor and carrying her several steps away to set her down. When she turned to face him, he blinked in surprise. "Elizabeth?"
"You are letting him go. Stop him!" Beth cried, running forward even as Charlie slipped from Tom's grasp and rushed toward the man.
Cursing in unison, Radcliffe and Tomas hurried forward, latching onto their wives' arms and urging them away before grabbing the vendor by his arms as he tried to climb into his wagon once more. Dragging him back to the ground, they turned him about to face the panting women.
"Now." Radcliffe frowned over the women's disheveled and breathless state. "What is going on?"
"He was beating that child," Charlie gasped furiously, reaching up to straighten her veil.
"What child?" Tomas frowned, and his wife answered.
"The boy in the back of the wagon."
Leaving the vendor where he was, both men moved to the wagon to peer in at the child cowering there. There was no mistaking the marks he bore as anything but bruises from a vicious beating. Radcliffe reached in to lift the child off the filthy strips of leather he lay on.
"Here now. Put him back. He's mine." The vendor rushed forward.
Radcliffe arched a brow coldly. "Yours?"
"My nephew, I got him when his parents died. I'm apprenticing him.
Teaching him to be a cobbler and he's mine to deal with as I see fit. Besides, he deserved the beating. He done gone and run off on me. O'course I beat 'im when I spotted 'im here and caught him back."
"I would run off, too, if you beat me," Charlie snapped. "Not all those bruises are new."
Radcliffe and Tom peered from each other to the face of the miserable child Radcliffe held. The boy was thin, too thin, bruises old and new decorated his pale skin, and he had a hopeless expression on his face that no child should have. Shifting impatiently, Radcliffe glanced at the cobbler. "I will buy him from you."
"Radcliffe," Charlie gasped in honor. "You cannot buy a child."
"Aye, he can," the cobbler said quickly. "How much?"
"We shall discuss that in the office of my solicitor tomorrow morning at eight o'clock." While Charlie listened grimly, he gave the address to the man, then handed the child to Stokes, took Charlie's elbow, and started them up the steps to the church. They were halfway up before he realized that Charlie was being unexpectedly quiet. Glancing at her narrowly, he frowned at her tight-lipped expression. "Are you all right?"
"Aye," she said quickly, pressing a hand to her burgeoning stomach.