"Good evening, m’lords. You had a good night, I hope?"
"Barrels of fun. Stokes. Just barrels," Charlie commented dryly when Radcliffe merely grunted at the question. Ignoring the man’s obvious curiosity, she gestured toward the young maid, preparing to explain her presence, but Radcliffe beat her to it.
‘This is Bessie, Stokes. She is" He hesitated, a frown tugging at his lips as he debated what to say, then finished simply with, "Lady Elizabeth’s maid."
When the old man raised one questioning eyebrow at the girl’s sudden and late arrival, Radcliffe added, "She came in by carriage today, and had some difficulty on the journey. No doubt she is hungry and tired. See that she has a nice meal and give her a comfortable room."
Nodding, the old savant turned away, leading Bessie down the hall as the door to the library opened and Beth stepped out.
"I thought you would be asleep by now," Charlie murmured with surprise.
"I was asleep," Beth admitted wryly, then held up a book. "I fell asleep reading." Lowering the book, she glanced curiously about the hall. "Did I hear something about a maid?"
"Aye." Charlie glanced at Radcliffe, then whispered, "I shall explain as I walk you to your room."
Nodding, Beth closed the library door and crossed the hall to lead the way upstairs with Charlie trailing behind her.
They both paused on the steps to turn back at Radcliffe’s weary voice.
"I apologize for giving you grief over Bessie. You showed great compassion in involving yourself in her troubles. You er your father would be proud of you, I am sure." On that note, he turned and strode into the library, closing the door quietly behind him.
Beth managed to contain her curiosity all the way up the stairs and along the hall to Charles’s room. Once in the bedchamber, however, she turned on her questioningly. Charlie dropped onto the bed and told her everything. The tale sounded somehow more amusing and less frightful as she told it, so much so that they were both rolling on the bed with laughter as she regaled her with her tussle with the whip-wielding Aggie. Beth showed some dismay over Lord Seguin’s behavior, however, then anger at Aggie’s attempt to force Bessie into such a dishonorable business.
Once Charlie fell silent, Beth sighed and rolled onto her stomach upon the bed to prop her chin in her hands. "You always seem to be the one to have the adventures."
"You could have gone," Charlie reminded her unsympathetically, relaxing upon her back, her hands beneath her head. "I did make the offer."
"Aye, well in truth, I am glad it was you. I should have been terrified in your position." When Charlie remained silent, she asked, "You do not think he really did anything with that girl, do you?"
"Radcliffe? And that prostitute?" Charlie frowned at the thought, finding the very idea troublesome. "Nay," she said at last. "He would not have had the chance."
"Hmm." Beth began to pluck at the coverlet of the bed. "Do you think he was telling the truth when he claimed never to have been there before?"
Charlie shifted irritably and sat up. This was an uncomfortable subject. "I do not know. Are you going to be Charles tomorrow, or am I?"
"Me, please," Beth answered at once, then sat up as Charlie nodded and moved toward the connecting door between bedrooms. "What are you doing?"
"Going to bed."
"But you should sleep in here tonight. You are to be me tomorrow, after all."
"Aye. And we have switched rooms, remember?"
"Oh, yes," she smiled wryly. "I moved my things into your room and yours into here, but forgot about it while I was in the library." Her expression became curious. "What did he say about walking in on your bath?"
"Nothing much. Just that he would apologize," Charlie murmured as she opened the door. "I suppose he forgot tonight."
"No doubt. Goodnight, Charlie."
"Nay," Charlie murmured with a sigh. "I meant.I am Beth now. As of now I am Beth and you are Charles."
Her sister smiled slightly at that. "Then should we not switch clothes?"
"Oh, yes." Pulling the door closed, Charlie began to remove her clothes.
When she got to her braies, she suddenly suggested. "You had best roll up one of our stockings and tuck it in your braies on the morrow Just so the tailor does not notice anything amiss."
"Hmm." Beth sighed as she removed her gown. "It will be nice when we have more than one set of clothes each."
"Tomorrow should take care of that," Charlie agreed dryly. There was nothing more annoying in this life than a fitting. Prior to now, she had always managed to avoid those boring hours of being poked and jabbed at with pins.
Usually she would show up late, then claim that since she and Beth were the same size and Beth was already being measured for it, there was no sense in wasting time measuring her as well. Beth could see them both fitted out. That argument had worked wonderfully for years now. In this case it would not. If she was to be Elizabeth on the morrow she alone would have to suffer the dressmaker’s attention. Perhaps she would get lucky and it would go quickly.
* * *
Charlie should have realized by now that Lady Luck was not exactly feeling generous towards her. After all, had she not found herself engaged to a murderous brute, at the mercy of a whip-wielding harridan, and clobbered over the head by a falling lady’s maid all within the last week?
She supposed she should not be surprised then that the seamstress kept her all the day through, tucking, measuring, pinning, and prodding. By the time the woman announced her chore finished and gathered her cloths and workers together to depart, Charlie was nearly ready to break down in tears of relief. She considered lying down for a nap, for as boring as her day had been she could not help but be wearied by it, but decided to relax in the library with a book and a cup of tea. After asking Bessie to fetch her some of the soothing liquid, she retired to the library and walked idly along the rows of books, pulling one from the shelves, leafing through it in a desultory fashion, then slipping it back and moving to find another. Charlie was not big on reading. She was more a doer than a reader of others’ doings. In the end, nothing really tickled her fancy and she was relieved when Bessie arrived with the tea to distract her.
Moving to sit in the chair by the fire, she watched Bessie pour her a cup from the service she had brought. The girl was wearing a plain gray gown that had seen better days but was clean and serviceable. She was also looking far more cheerful today and less as if the world could be coming to an end at any moment.
When the maid straightened and offered her a warm smile before heading for the door, Charlie forestalled her leaving with a quick question."Have you settled in nicely?"
Bessie paused and turned back, smiling widely. "Oh, aye. Thank ye, miss. Mr.
Stokes is most kind, as is the rest of the staff. Well, except for cook, but Joan, the housekeeper, she told me he is the, er, temporaritalNo, that’s not it." Pausing, her brow puckered slightly and she hesitated, then tried again.
"Temperamental?" Charlie suggested, and the girl’s face brightened at once.
"Aye, that’s it. He’s the temperamental sort, she said. Though I think he’s just mean. Everyone seems scared stiff o’ him. Even Stokes steps lightly around him, if ye know what I mean." She tilted her head to the side thoughtfully and murmured, "He’s like Lord Kentley’s valet where me mum works at Woodstock. He’s a nasty old sot ’cause he knows he can be. No one would dare dress him down fer it Except perhaps Lord Kentley himself, but then the valet would ne’er be, er, tempermeanal with him"
Charlie frowned slightly at that news. She had heard quite a bit of banging and shouting coming from the kitchens earlier, mere moments after Beth and Radcliffe had left, in fact, and had wondered what was about. The answer seemed to be that the cook had been having some sort of outburst. She wondered if Radcliffe realized that his cook behaved so when he was not about. The man’s meals were passable at best; he was hardly in a position to make harassing the staff acceptable behavior. She would have said as much to Bessie, but just then they both heard the front door open.
Turning, the maid moved to open the library door, allowing Beth’s excited voice to float in to Charlie moments before her flurried footsteps echoed up the stairs. Bessie closed the door then and turned back to beam at her. "Lord Charles is home."
Eyebrows rising slightly, Charlie nodded. "So he is."
"He is such a nice man and ever so handsome," Bessie went on, adoration obvious in her eyes. "I’ll be forever grateful for his saving me from Aggie’s. I don’t know what I would have done had he not."
"Aye, well," Charlie began uncomfortably, but paused when Radcliffe entered the room.
"Oh!" He halted in the doorway upon spotting them. "I am sorry, I did not realize anyone was inhere."
Relief adding warmth to her smile, Charlie beamed at him. " ‘Tis all right, I was just about to have a cup of tea. Would you care for some?"
Radcliffe hesitated, then nodded.
"I shall fetch another cup," Bessie murmured, hurrying from the room.
Radcliffe watched her go, then moved to join Charlie. "She seems a nice enough lass. How is she working out?"
"Very well. She is quite competent as a lady’s maid"
"Good," he murmured, settling into the seat across from her before actually looking at her. When he did, his gaze seemed suddenly arrested.
Charlie shifted uncomfortably under his sudden intense stare. "Is something wrong?"
"Wrong?" he murmured faintly, then seemed to snap out of his almost dazed state and smiled brilliantly. "Nay. Nothing is wrong. You look quite lovely today."
"Thank you, my lord," she murmured selfconsciously.
"There is something different about you somehow."
Charlie stilled in surprise at that comment. Could he tell the difference between her and Beth? she wondered a bit frantically. Nay, he could not.
Only their mother and father had ever been able to tell them apart. To everyone else they were identical. Her gaze dropped to her lap under his continued stare, and she blinked at the lavender material, understanding making her relax. "It is simply the new gown. I have worn the same one for days now."
"The gown," he murmured, his gaze chopping to it now. The gown she wore was a plain lavender frock with white piping. It was simple, but clean and fresh and a nice change from the yellow muslin she had been forced to wear for the last few days.
"Hmm. It is a lovely gown. But" He was silent for a moment as his eyes slid back to her face taking in her features, aware of the small changes taking place within his body. He had waited for days for just these blessed reactions to overtake him, terrified each time these tingles had attacked him while with the brother, despairing when he had felt nothing but lukewarm admiration when with the sister. Now, today, everything had switched. He had just spent hours with Charles, silently marveling at the easy amusement and even almost affection that were all he had felt toward the lad that day. And now, alone with the sister, he felt the tingles of awareness, the slight increase of his heart rate, and the shallow breathing that he had heretofore experienced only around the brother and upon espying the girl leaving her bath. This seemed to prove his earlier theory true. He was really attracted to the girl.
Thank God, he thought, grinning suddenly as he peered at her in the new gown, his mind casting back to the night before when he had barged into Charles’s room only to find Beth standing nak*d in a tub of water. He was having much the same reaction to her now as he had had then.
"Madame Decalle sent back to her shop for it when she realized that I had only the one gown," she blurted out as his eyes roved slowly over every detail of her figure in the gown. "She was making it for a duchess someone or other who was of a size with me."
Catching the confusion and discomfort on the girl’s face now, he managed to dim his smile slightly as the memory of the bathing vision prompted him to murmur, "I must apolo"
The opening of the door as Bessie returned made him halt and he waited patiently, smiling at the maid as she set another cup on the tray and poured tea into it. She then smiled at them both and slipped quietly from the room.
Charlie took a sip of her tea, then asked, "Did you and my brother accomplish all you wished today?"
Nodding, he picked up his cup. "We visited the jewelers to transfer some of the jewels into cash, stopped in at the tailor’s for a quick fitting, then dropped in at the club." He raised an eyebrow at her. "Did your fittings go well?"
Charlie’s mouth twisted wryly. "Not as well as my brother’s, I can see.
Lady Decalle arrived directly after you left and was not finished with me until just moments ere you returned. I spent the entire day being poked and prodded by the woman."
"Oh, dear. It sounds trying." She appeared somewhat irritated when he sounded more amused than sympathetic.
Charles’s sister smiled sweetly, then tilted her head to the side, asking innocently, "Did you not start to say something about having to apologize?"
His amusement faded at once. "All, yes," he sighed. "I did. Yesterday, when I burst into the room while you were"
She arched one eyebrow at his hesitation, but could not help a slow blush that crept up her neck as she recalled her nudity when he had burst in on her bath.
"Well, I fear I was rude in not knocking. I had not realized that you and Charles had switched rooms and I It was most rude of me to barge right in like that. I am terribly sorry for catching you in such a state."
"Aye, well," she interrupted him at last and set her cup on the table. She was as embarrassed as he by this apology and the memory of his seeing her so.
Standing, she made to skirt the table between them, suddenly almost eager to slip from the room. Gentleman that he was, Radcliffe stood at once, and when she caught the toe of her slipper on the base of a table leg in her rush and stumbled, he stepped quickly forward to catch her against his chest.