The Switch (Page 10)

The Switch(10)
Author: Lynsay Sands

"There, that should do."

Turning back to the room, she glanced about. "Do you have any belongings you wish to take with you?"

Bessie hurried over to the bed, knelt, and dragged a small battered traveling bag out from beneath it. Straightening, she saw the way Charlie was holding a hand out to take it and briefly clutched it to her chest as if all the wealth in the world were in it. Which was probably true. At least to the girl. The small satchel probably held everything the chit owned. "Come, come, we haven’t all night."

Sighing, Bessie reluctantly gave up the bag, then gasped in honor when, after shaking it to be sure there was nothing breakable in it, Charlie dropped it out the window.

"What’re ye doin’?" The girl rushed forward, nearly knocking Charlie out the window as she tried to spot her bag below.

"We are leaving," Charlie explained simply, turning sideways to the window and lifting one leg over the sill.

"Through the window?" Her dismay was more than obvious.

Straddling the ledge, Charlie faced her calmly. "Well, I would pay Aggie for your stay here, but I haven’t a pence on me just now. I shall have some tomorrow. Shall I leave you here and return for you when I have the proper funds?"

The girl’s expression was answer enough.

"Right. Then the window it is. I shall go first. Once I am below, sit on the ledge here as I am doing, then lower yourself until you hang by your hands as far as you can and let go. I shall endeavor to assist you from below.

Understand?"

"Aye, but" She glanced down at her gown and Charliecould almost read her thoughts. She wasn’t happy with the idea of a man looking up her skirts, no matter the purpose. Well, Charlie could sympathize, but she wasn’t about to confess her sex to put the girl’s anxieties at ease.

"Did you wish to try the stairs?" she asked a bit archly, impatient to get it over with. As she expected, Bessie’s mouth snapped closed on any further protest.

"Charles!"

Both of them jumped at that hiss from outside. Charlie peered down at the alley below, aware of the suddenly stiff girl leaning forward to peer past her. It was Radcliffe, of course. What the devil he was doing in the alley was a question she did not have the answer for. That he was furious was obvious, however, and she sighed with resignation. Charlie had rather been hoping to keep this little episode to herself. Rescue the lass, send her on her way, and go wait in the carriage for his returnthat had rather been her plan. All well, the best laid plans and all that, she thought philosophically with another sigh.

"Who is that?" Bessie asked anxiously.

"Who is that?" Radcliffe hissed up at the same moment as he spotted Bessie peering out the window beside her.

Rolling her eyes, Charlie glanced from one to the other, but was saved from deciding who to answer first by a sound from the door. It was a muttered curse coming from the hallway. Charlie recognized the colorful comment as being from Aggie, and grasped the window ledge for balance as Bessie suddenly clutched her arm with claw-like fingers, her face blanching.

"Oh, God." The girl barely breathed the word.

"What the devil did I" came the irritated murmur from the other side of the door, then in a much louder voice: "Glory! Get over here! Did ye see a key in this door earlier? I’m sure I left it in the lock."

"Can’t say as I noticed," came a young prostitute’s bored voice.

"Charles." Radcliffe’s hiss came to them clearly from below.

Charlie released the window ledge to wave Radcliffe to silence as Aggie muttered again from outside the door. "Well, it’s not in any of my pockets. What the devil could I have done with it?"

"Maybe ye lost it during that tussle ye had with the boy," the other voice murmured with amusement, and Aggie spat a most unladylike curse.

"Damn lad. Yer probably right. I’d best go check the room."

"Maisey’s in there with Lord Seguin."

"Oh, aye." A sigh heaved outside the door. "Lord Seguin and his odd games. It’s to be his last visit before he leaves town, too. He wouldn’t appreciate my interrupting."

"Wait ’til he’s left then." Charlie could almost hear the shrug in the younger woman’s voice, then there was a knock at the door.

"Bessie?" The voice was sweet, sickeningly so, with an underlying note of malice. "He’s here. And as soon as I find the key I’m coming to prepare ye for him. And don’t get yer hopes up that I won’t find it neither. ‘Cause I’ll just have one o’ the men break down the door if I don’t. He’s paying me enough to replace a thousand doors."

Silence greeted those words. When it drew out with no response from inside the room, all sweetness left Aggie’s voice.

"Bessie! Did ye hear me, girl?"

"A-aye," Bessie gasped in reply when Charlie nudged her.

Grunting in satisfaction at what sounded like fear in the quavering voice, Aggie muttered, "Maybe I should interrupt Maisey and Lord Seguin after all.

Himself doesn’t like to be kept waiting, and I doubt the chit is like to cooperate."

"Do as ye like, but he’s been in there with Maisey for five minutes or so already. A couple more minutes and he’ll be coming out on his own anyway."

"Aye." Aggie gave a harsh chuckle. "Maisey says he’s faster than a cook crackin’ eggs."

The voices faded as they moved off, and Charlie and Bessie both sighed in relief.

"Charles!"

Muttering under her breath, Charlie turned and peeredout the window.

"What?!"

she hissed back.

"What the devil are you doing?!"

"I shall explain later. Go fetch the carriage to the mouth of the alley."

Radcliffe hesitated, then opened his mouth tosay something, but Charlie interrupted him. "Please," she hissed.

Sighing, the man turned away and moved up the alley muttering to himself.

"Who is he?"

Charlie shook her head at the would-be-maid’s question. "Later," was all she said, then she tossed the girl a reassuring smile, slid her second leg out the window to join the first, turned so that she lay on her stomach across the ledge, and lowered herself carefully out. Once she was hanging by her hands only, she let go and dropped to the ground, wincing at the jolting of her bones as she landed.

The grass outside the inn window several days previous had made for a much softer landing than the cobblestone here. The drop also hadn’t been quite as far, she saw as she peered up through the darkness at the oval that was Bessie’s pale face. She was already seated on the ledge.

Offering her a reassuring smile, Charlie stepped forward to stand directly beneath the window and waved at her, telling her to get a move on.

However, the girl either forgot the instructions or misunderstood the wave, for rather than turn and rest on her tummy to lower herself carefully out, she suddenly plunged off the ledge, plummeting straight at the horrified Charlie.

Before she could get out of the way or even move, the full impact of the girl’s body was clobbering her over the head and tumbling them both to the ground.

Chapter Seven

"Oh, Lord! I’m ever so sorry!"

Charlie heard those words through a sort of haze and a ringingin her ears.

Not only had she broken Bessie’s fall with her body, she had also conked her head rather nastily on the cobblestone ground as she had collapsed beneath the girl’s weight. Most painful. Horrendous really. Was she seeing double?

"Oh, gad! Oh, please say yer a’right? I’m sorry. I slipped. I was turnin’ to lower mesel’ out the window just like ye said, but my hand slipped and I fell and I hit you and"

"Shhh," Charlie hissed, pressing her hands to either side of her head a bit desperately.

"Oh, o’ course. I’ll be drawin’ attention I will and we’ll be caught am I not quiet."

Charlie grimaced She had not even considered being overheard. Her shushing had more to do with the way the girl’s voice was adding to her pain than any other concerns she should have. Shifting her legs carefully, Charlie began to rise, grateful for Bessie’s efforts to assist as the young girl caught her arm.

"Yer none too steady on yer feet, me lord," Bessie murmured with concern, dragging Charlie’s arm over her shoulder and taking most of her weight as she steered her to the wall. Leaning her there, the girl peered at her worriedly.

"Yer pale as a ghost too. Ye took a nasty knock."

"Aye," Charlie sighed, raising a hand to probe tentatively at the back of her head. "There is a bump but no blood," she announced as she found the area.

The other girl’s face relaxed somewhat. "Thank goodness for that."

"Aye," Charlie murmured, the clip-clop of horses hooves drawing her gaze to the mouth of the alley in time to see Radcliffe’s carriage pull up. Straightening her shoulders determinedly, she eased away from the wall. "We had better go."

Nodding, Bessie rushed off to collect her bag from where it had landed when Charlie had thrown it out the window. When she returned, Charlie took her arm and they made a mad dash for the carriage.

Radcliffe threw the door open as they reached it, and Charlie nearly stuffed the poor girl inside. Clambering in behind her, she tugged the door closed with a snap and collapsed onto the bench seat beside Bessie with a relieved sigh. When several moments passed in silence without the carriage moving, she opened one eye to peer at Radcliffe.

"Can we go now, please?" she asked politely.

Radcliffe’s response was to cast a suspicious glance toward Bessie, then turn back to arch an eyebrow at Charlie.

Sighing, she sat up and murmured politely, "Bessie, this is Lord Radcliffe.

Radcliffe, this is Bessie Beth’s lady’s maid," the last came on an inspiration.

She and Beth did need a lady’s maid. They also needed one they could be sure would not give away their secret should it accidentally be uncovered. And Charlie was pretty sure that Bessie was grateful enough for her assistance this night that she would keep the secretshould she accidentally discover it. It seemed a perfect arrangement Radcliffe didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic with this orchestration of events, however. "Lady’s maid?" he asked archly.

Charlie turned wary at his tone. "Aye."

"Charles, I brought you here tonight to sample some of Aggie’s offerings.

Here.

On the premises. Not to drag one of her girls home to sample her at your leisure."

"It is nothing like that," Charlie snapped, aware of the way Bessie had stiffened beside her in suspicion.

"She is one of Aggie’s girls, is she not?"

"Nay."

"Charles," he growled in a warning tone, and Charlie shifted impatiently.

"Does she look like a prostitute to you?"

Radcliffe glanced reluctantly at the girl, taking in her plain dress, fresh face, and long, undressed hair.

"She is a country girl," Charlie said when he remained silent. "She is from Oxfordshire. She came to London to find a job as a lady’s maid."

"How did she end up at Aggie’s, then?"

"Because your dear friend Aggie lured her back to that brothel of hers under the pretext that it was a home for runaways. She fed her, offered her a bed for the night, then locked her up in a room to force her to work for her."

Radcliffe frowned at that but had the good grace not to claim that Aggie would not do such a thing. Instead, he rapped on the roof of the carriage, signaling the driver that he was ready to leave. Charlie and Bessie both relaxed somewhat as the carriage started to move,taking them away from the possibility of the carriage door suddenly opening to reveal a furious Aggie, eager to snatch back her victim.

Charlie cast one last reassuring smile at the girl, then leaned her head back on the carriage seat and turned her face to the window to peer out at the passing night. They had ridden in silence for some time when Radcliffe finally shifted and muttered, "She is not my friend."

Charlie sniffed at that. "You could have fooled me."

"She is not. I have never even been in that establishment before," he said irritably. "Though I don’t know why I’m bothering to say so."

She glared at him. "Well, then why the devil would you go there tonight?

And why drag me along with you?"

"I thought you would enjoy it," he snapped.

Charlie snorted. "Oh, aye. I have always fancied the idea of being tied to a bed and whipped." When Bessie gasped, her eyes going round, Charlie managed a stiff smile and reassured her quickly, "It did not go so far. She tied me to the bed, but Radcliffe came ere she used her whip."

"Oh, blessed saint, she is a wicked woman."

"She is a spongy, swag-bellied bawd," Charlie replied with disgust, then bent a glare on Radcliffe. "I notice that while you stuck me with her, you managed to lance yourself a lovely little bit of fluff. I suppose that Glory person was just your way of passing the time while I enjoyed myself?"

Before he could deny it she went on, "Next time you wish to take me somewhere I might enjoy myself, my lord, might I suggest you try one of the clubs or coffee houses? I only tell you this so that I do not find myself somewhere equally enjoyable next time, like oh, I do not know say a castle dungeon or bedlam."

"I take your point," Radcliffe growled.

Grunting in response, Charlie turned to peer out the window again, determined not to say another word to the man tonight. A brothel for God’s sake! Wait until Beth heard about this. Her eyes were slipping closed, her mind beginning to drift as she heard Radcliffe ask Bessie where she came from. Already knowing the answer, Charlie allowed their voices to combine with the gentle jostling of the carriage to lull her to sleep.

"Wake up, Charles. We are here."

Opening her eyes, Charlie peered dully at Radcliffe. Her brain was throbbing painfully and it took her a moment to recall even who Charles was. Sighing wearily as recollection returned, she waited as Radcliffe disembarked, then helped Bessie out of the carriage, before stumbling after them and up the path to the front door, which was even now opening to reveal Radcliffe’s butler.