Flushing even darker and feeling rather foolish, Charlie straightened away from his chest. She peered up at him, her breath catching briefly as she took in the expression on his face and the nak*d hunger in his eyes as they dipped over the mounds of her br**sts where the corset she wore and the cut of the gown pushed them together and up like a pair of ripe melons about to tumble from a basket.
Aware of little prickles of awareness tingling along the back of her neck and across the bare flesh of her chest, Charlie swallowed and started to take a step backward, only to bump up against the side of the chair she had just left and nearly fell once again. Radcliffe grabbed for her arm once more to steady her, thenquite without conscious intentfound himself tugging her gently forward, his lips dropping to cover hers.
Charlie went still as Radcliffe covered her month with his. At first her stillness was due to surprise, but she remained that way out of curiosity.
She had spent her whole life in the country, with Beth as her only playmate and friend. In truth, other than her father and her uncle, Radcliffe was the first man she and Beth had spent any time around He seemed a decent enough fellow.
Staid. Masterly. Trustworthy. And she had always wondered about kissing a man.
Who safer, then, to do a little experimenting with than Radcliffe?
She was just getting the hang of this business of kissing, she thought, when Radcliffe suddenly changed the rules on her. One moment their lips were swimming across each other’s, the next she felt his tongue licking at her lips like a cat at his paw. When she opened her mouth in protest, the kiss changed tune entirely. It went from the sweet, warm embers of a banked fire as their lips first meshed, to the roar of a full-blown blaze as his tongue invaded her mouth and he began almost to devour her.
Charlie liked it. A lot. There was no thought in her head of stopping him; all she wanted was to get closer. Clutching at his shoulders as his arms went around her, she pressed against him, opening her mouth further under the onslaught of his kiss. It was marvelous. She never wanted it to end and certainly would not have asked that it should. Until he breathed the name "Beth" against her lips.
It was as if someone had opened the front door and the door to the library at the same time, allowing a cold stiff breeze to rush into the room and up her spine. Radcliffe wasn’t kissing her. he was kissing Beth. A jumble of emotions crashed down on her. Disappointment,jealousy, resentment. Had he kissed the real Beth before? Like this? She stiffened in his arms, preparing to pull away, but before she could, a sound near the door made Radcliffe himself pull back.
Flushing with embarrassment, Charlie glanced at the butler’s expressionless face, muttered her excuses, and fled the room, running upstairs without encountering anyone. She paused in the upper hallway, leaning against the wall and closing her eyes. Her heart was thundering in her chest, her breath coming in gasps, and she had no wish to explain herself to her sister.
Beth. Radcliffe’s moan echoed in her head. Had he kissed her just so before?
Nay. Surely her sister would have said something had that been the case.
Wouldn’t she have? Charlie frowned at the thought. Mayhap Beth would not. They had shared all their secrets through their lives, howbeit this oneWell, Charlie had no desire to share this experience with Beth, so perhaps her sister in turn would not have wished to share it with her. Had he kissed Beth just so?
"There you are!"
Charlie straightened guiltily as her sister appeared suddenly before her.
"Goodness, I was about to search the house for you," she announced, grabbing Charlie by the wrist and dragging her into the room that was "Elizabeth’s."
"You would not believe the fun I had today," Beth exclaimed excitedly, pausing to push the bedroom door closed before dragging Charlie to the bed. "We went to the jeweler’s. A Mr. Silverpot. Can you imagine? What a funny little man he was.
I swear his stomach was as large and round as a pot. And his hair was silver, too. Not white or gray, but silver. Is that not amusing? But he was very nice and he gave us loads of money for Mother’s diamond and emerald set.
See?" She whipped a bag of coins out as she spoke, a very heavy bag that jingled merrily.
"Radcliffe wanted to lock it away, but I convinced him to let me show you first," she announced as she opened the bag and tipped its contents onto the bed.
When Charlie’s eyes widened at the number of coins, Beth laughed and hugged her.
"Is it not wonderful? We are rich. Mr.Silverpot said that the stones were the finest quality he had ever seen and he would be most grateful to buy more of Mother’s jewels if they were of similar quality. We shall have the finest gowns in all of London with this."
Charlie smiled at her enthusiasm, then helped her collect the coins and return them to the bag as Beth continued, "We went to the tailor’s from there.
What a fancy-pants he was. Goodness! Were his nose stuck any higher in the air, he would be sure to bump it against the doors he walked through. And he had the most dreadful habit of nudging my stocking every time he measured my inseam Which he insisted on doing three times."
Charlie glanced automatically toward the crotch of Beth’s braies, her eyes widening in shock. "Beth!"
"What is that?" She pointed at the lump in the girl’s pants and Beth followed the gesture, then frowned in confusion.
" ‘Tis a stocking. You said to roll one up and put it down my braies."
"Aye, butGood Lord, ‘Tis a perfectly round ball. It looks like you have a grapefruit in your drawers," Charlie said with exasperation. "Could you not haveI don’t knowshaped it to look a bit more natural?"
"Well, how was I to know what would look natural? ‘Tis not as if I walk about gaping at a man’s nether regions."
Charlie sighed, then gave a burble of laughter. At Beth’s questioning glance, she shook her head. " ‘Tis no wonder the tailor kept nudging you. He was most like trying to figure out whether you were deformed, or just sporting a melon down there."
When Beth didn’t join in her laughter, but merely looked dejected over her mistake, Charlie quickly changed the subject. "What did you do after you left the tailor’s?"
"We went to Radcliffe’s club," she murmured, brightening at once.
"His club!" Charlie exclaimed jealously and Beth nodded.
"Oh, aye! It was Well, it was just marvelous. All these men looking important and officious, servants everywhere and Goodness, Charlie, men do not act nearly so stiff and polite when women are not around. Why, they were positively boyish! Joking, and laughing and having a jolly good time. I met all sorts of nice young men. Radcliffe made a point of acquainting me with as many of the fellows our age as possible. He said it would be good for me to make some chums.
He left me with a bunch of them while he spoke with some business acquaintances.
It was jolly fun and a good opportunity to size them up. Oh, that reminds me, should you meet a dark-haired fellow named Jimmy or a blond named Freddy, give them a wide birth. They are having some sort of competition to see who can seduce the most young women of the ton this season and are taking wagers on it.
From what was said this afternoon, they have ruined nearly half this season’s females already."
She nodded firmly when Charlie gaped at her, then lay back on the bed with a sigh. "I am positively exhausted, yes indeed, what a day." She stretched, smothered a yawn, then glanced at Charlie to ask politely, "How was your day?"
"My day?" Charlie reached behind her to grasp the corner of a pillow.
"Well, my day was just great. While you were gallivanting about having a marvelous time, I was being poked and prodded by a Madame Decalle. Does that not sound amusing?"
she asked sweetly, then clobbered the grinning girl over the head with the pillow and slid off the bed with disgust.
Laughing, Beth pushed the pillow aside and rolled onto her stomach to prop her chin on the heels of her hands. "It serves you right for all those years of allowing me to serve as dressmaker’s doll," she announced unsympathetically.
Then her eyes widened as she finally actually looked at her sister. Sitting up abruptly, she slid her feet off the bed and stood to rush forward. "You are wearing a different gown! Do not tell me this Decalle woman finished a dress already?"
"No, of coursenot," Charlie murmured as her sister moved around her in a circle. "I promised her extra money if she worked quickly, but even so she could only promise a gown a day, starting tomorrow if she hired another couple of workers."
"She was preparing this for someone who had similar measurements to us. When she realized that ‘Elizabeth’ only had one dress, she sent for it immediately."
"Is that not marvelous?" Beth tugged here and there at the material. "This person does have the same measurements. It fits you perfectly."
"Aye, well, actually the lady was a bit taller and larger in the waist, but Madame had one of the girls take it in as we plodded through her book of designs."
"Book of designs?" Beth frowned at that. "What did you choose?"
Charlie’s eyebrows rose. "Why the sudden interest? You were not the least concerned when you left this morning."
"Well, in my excitement I fear I forgot you have no experience at such tasks."
Charlie smiled slowly at the other girl’s obvious trepidation. "Aye, well, never fear, dear sister. Beth shall love her gowns; after all, she chose them.
Though I must confess, Madame Decalle was a bit dismayed at one or two of the choices."
On that note, she turned on her heel and quickly left the room, hurrying down the hall toward the stairs. She actually made it halfway there before Beth regained herself enough to come after her.
"What do you mean, dismayed? What did you choose?" she asked anxiously, grabbing her arm to stop her.
"You shall see," Charlie murmured, slipping free and continuing forward.
"ButOh, wait! I forgot to tell you. We have been invited to the theater tonight."
"We have?" Charlie paused to face her sister, her gown swirling about her legs as she did. "By whom?"
"Tommy." When Charlie stared blankly, Beth colored and clarified, "Tomas Mowbray. He invited us to share his box with him and his sister Clarissa."
"Hmm." Charlie glanced at her in the newly tailored men’s clothes. The outfit was rather sharp. Radcliffe’s doing, no doubt. The man had impeccable taste.
Charlie’s eyebrows flew up. "Well, what?"
"Well, do you not think we should go? I told him I was not sure at the time because we only had the one gown and he had already seen me in it, but now that Madame Decalle has provided a second gown well, it does seem the thing to do.
To meet other prospective husbands," she pointed out hopefully.
"Aye, of course we must go. The idea is to get married, after all, and we cannot manage that should we not go out and about. Besides, I have been bored to tears all day. It will be nice to get out for a bit."
"Good." Beth’s relief was obvious as she suddenly snatched Charlie’s arm up and turned her back toward the bedroom, dragging her along. "Come along then."
"We must change," Beth explained, dragging her into the bedroom.
"Into what? I told you this was the only gown Madame Ducalle had available. Do you not think this will suit?"
"Oh, it will suit. I meant switch clothes back to my being Beth and your being"
"Now just a minute, Beth. I am not going to the theater as Charles. I thought you wished to be the brother for the day."
"Well, I did, aye, I did."
"I thought you had funat the club and the"
"I did, but I" She looked uncomfortable, and Charlie’s gaze narrowed "Why do you not tell me more about Tomas Mowbray?" Her sister’s flush was answer enough and Charlie sighed. "I see," she murmured It seemed her sister had taken a liking to the man and wished to be Elizabeth around him.
"I am sorry," Beth began unhappily. "If you wish to continue as Beth for the evening, then surely you should. The full day was the agreement, after all."
"Do not be silly," Charlie eluded, reaching up to begin undoing the dress she wore. " ‘Tis just the theater."
"Thank you, Charlie," Beth murmured gratefully.
" ‘Tis all right," she responded, then sighed slightly as she realized she would now suffer several hours of Clarissa’s tender mercies.
Charlie sighed as she recognized the voice moments before she spotted Clarissa Mowbray making her way toward where she, Beth, and Radcliffe stood.
Tomas Mowbray was hard on the girl’s heels, doing his damnedest to keep up with her as she charged through the mob.
"Tom said you were coming tonight. I was so happy at the news," Clarissa gasped as she latched her hands onto Charlie’s arm.
"Aye, well, I’m sure," Charlie murmured uncomfortably, doing her best to escape the girl’s clutches, but finding the task extraordinarily difficult.
"Mowbray," Radcliffe greeted Clarissa’s brother with amusement as the breathless man reached them.
"Lord Radcliffe." Tomas smiled wryly at the man, then grabbed his sister’s arm to tug her away from Charlie. Between that and Charlie’s own efforts, they managed to remove her grasp. "For God’s sake, Clarissa, leave the fellow alone,"
he muttered irritably, then tossed an apologetic smile Charlie’s way.
"Sorry, friend. She’s always been rather like a bull terrier. I expect it’s from competing for attention with Mother’s dogs." Ignoring Clarissa’s irate gasp at that, Tomas turned his gaze to Beth, his smile widening as it fell on her in the lavender gown. "Lady Beth. You look a sight."
"Thank you, my lord," Beth murmured shyly. "And thank you for inviting us to join you tonight."
"My pleasure." He grinned widely, seemingly oblivious to the frantic tugging Clarissa was trying in an attempt to free herself.