Charlie glanced curiously at Radcliffe, wondering how he was responding to the other couple’s behavior after having shared that kiss with who he thought was Beth in the library. But he appeared not even to notice; his gaze instead was watching Charlie herself with amusement as she sidled cautiously away from the amorous Clarissa.
"Shall we go in?"
Charlie glanced around to see her sister smile sweetly at Tomas and place her hand on the free arm he now raised toward her. Mowbray then reached up to clasp that small hand, dropping the hold he had on his sister as he walked Beth to the doors.
Stifling a sigh of disappointment, Charlie managed not to wince as Clarissa’s claws closed around her arm again, drawing her forward. "Come, you will enjoy the show."
"Somehow I doubt that very much," Charlie muttered, then glared at a laughing Radcliffe. "Come along, Radcliffe. You would not wish to miss the show."
"No indeed, I wouldn’t," he agreed with amusement, following slowly behind and peering from Beth to Charles as he went. He had noticed the attraction between Beth and Tomas and had awaited a sense of disappointment or jealousy, but there was none forthcoming. In fact, despite that passionate embrace in the library, he found his attention once again being dragged back to the brother. For instance, just now he had noticed the sweet upside-down heart that his behind made in the breeches he wore.
Charles did not have a man’s behind, he realized, glancing around at the other male patrons with a frown. Not one of the other men present had as nice a behind. None of them made him want to keep looking, or drew his eye the way Charlie’s pert little bottom did. He did not know whether to be relieved by that or further distressed. What the devil was the matter with him? He had never even looked at another man’s body before, not really. Certainly not like this. Yet now, this boy this stripling, drew his attention and desire like no woman ever had.
There, he had said it. He desired the boy. Good God, he was losing his mind, he realized with dismay. He had no desire to be with a man. He did, however, fervently wish that Charles were a woman. His gaze slid to Beth. She was, for all intents and purposes, a female version of Charles, and he had felt incredible passion with her in the library. But he did not now. It was all very confusing.
Radcliffe pushed such thoughts away as he overheard Tom inviting them on a picnic the next day. "A small affair," he was saying. "But we would love to have you there."
"Is it not lovely?" Beth breathed happily.
"Charming," Charlie muttered, disgruntled, not even bothering to glance about the grassy glen they had disembarked upon. The theater the night before had been a hellish experience thanks to one Clarissa Mowbray and her calf-like infatuation. Today was going no better, since she had once again found herself finagled into being Charles.
"Oh, Charlie, do not be such a grump. It is a lovely day for a picnic and"
"Aye, well, if Clarissa paws me one more time I swear I shall" Her words came to an abrupt halt as Beth gave a tinkling laugh.
Catching sight of Charlie’s narrowed eyes, Beth stifled her laughter and tried for an apologetic look that fell decidedly short of sincerity. Sighing, she shook her head in wry amusement, then murmured, "She does seem quite taken with you."
"Taken with me?" Charlie harrumphed in disgust. "She is like a particularly virulent branch of ivy. She clings to me at every opportunity. Truly the chit isOh, drat," she muttered as she spied the girl in question making her way determinedly toward them. Charlie had spent the better part of the hour-long journey doing her best to avoid Clarissa Mowbray. An impossible feat when trapped on a barge with a hundred other people. Still, Charlie had given it a go, repeatedly disengaging the hands that clawed at her sleeve and fleeing with little concern for politeness.
Clarissa had neither seemed to notice nor care that Charlie was showing a distinct lack of interest in her charms. Truly, the girl seemed to have no self-esteem at all. She was certainly lacking in dignity. She had literally chased Charlie about the ship like a puppy chasing its master. It was all rather embarrassing as far as Charlie was concerned. And terribly wearing as well. If Clarissa ever did find a husband, Charlie suspected the man would be brought down by sheer lack of energy. The girl would wear him down until it seemed easier to give in than fight any longer. Charlie decided she had best do something about the determined lady or she was going to spend a decidedly uncomfortable afternoon.
‘There you are!" Clarissa exclaimed as if they had not been playing hide-and-seek for the last hour. Latching firmly onto Charlie’s arm, she positively beamed with triumph. "Goodness, you are as slippery as a fish.
I wanted to show you a spot a little further along the river, but you slipped away."
Charlie remained silent as she was dragged off, sparing merely a glare for her laughing sister, then concentrated on negotiating her way through the crowds of people as Clarissa led her away from the still disembarking guests.
The Mowbrays’ idea of a small picnic was piling sixty people on a barge along with nearly as many servants, then transporting them downstream to a suitably grassy spot for a light luncheon at temporary tables and chairs. Had Charlie realized it was to be such a hullabaloo, she would have politely declined and spent the day at home. Well, perhaps not; as boring as she found this outing, pacing about Radcliffe’s townhouse seemed worse. At least this way she could see how Radcliffe and Beth interacted with each other. Not that today’s adventure was disclosing anything of interest. Radcliffe had been greeted and drawn into a crowd of rather staunch looking older men the moment they had arrived, while Beth and Charlie had been swallowed up by the younger set.
Her gaze slid to Radcliffe now. He was still standing with the older men.
Not one of them was less than twenty years older than him, and she frowned as she recalled Beth telling her that he had done the same thing the day before at the club, leaving her in the company of the young bucks and wandering off to discuss business matters with his elders. She was coming to the conclusion that he had quite forgotten how young he was.
How young was he? she wondered suddenly and frowned as she peered at him. He did not yet look thirty. She would put him at twenty-eight or so. That made him eight years older than herself and Beth. Yet he acted at least twice that.
Sad, really. A shame.
A gasp drew her attention back to Clarissa as the girl stumbled over an uneven patch of land. Charlie steadied her with a hand at her elbow that the girl quickly clutched and squeezed warmly.
"Thank you, my lord." Clarissa half-whispered the words of gratitude, her gaze adoring until Charlie shook her hand free and indicated that she should lead the way.
It didn’t take long for her to realize that Clarissa didn’t have a clue where she was going. There was no path to follow and they were stumbling through the woods like two lost bulls. It was obvious there was no "spot" Clarissa wanted to show her, or actually Charles. She had just wanted to get him alone and it did not take much thought to figure out why. Charlie had to give the girl credit, she was a bold bit of fluff. Still, her boldness was likely to get them in trouble.
"Clarissa," she said at last, catching the girl’s arm and drawing her to a halt.
"We should head back."
"Oh no, the spot is just ahead," Clarissa murmured almost urgently, and Charlie shook her head with irritation. The girl was a worse liar than Beth.
"Enough," she snapped, turning back the way they had come. "It is obvious you do not know where you are going, and I have no wish to get lost in the woods today."
"Oh, but" Clarissa caught her arm desperately, drawing her to a halt, pleading nak*d on her face until she glimpsed the irritation in Charlie’s expression.
Once she did, she dropped her hold at once and peered down at the ground unhappiness falling about her like a cloak. "I am sorry, Charles. ‘Tis obvious you had no desire to walk with me."
Charlie shifted uncomfortably. Clarissa looked so pitiful. It was obvious she was desperate to be liked. Unfortunately, sheseemed to have no idea how to go about it. Feeling most of her irritation slip away, Charlie sighed. "It is not that I would not enjoy a walk with you,Clarissa. But it is not proper for a young girl to be alone with a er young man," she explained uncomfortably, wondering how she got herself into these situations. "The man might take advantage. That is why parents insist on chaperones. As your mother should have," she added dryly.
"My mother couldn’t be bothered," Clarissa muttered, then added earnestly, "And I was rather hoping you might take advantage. I would not mind. Really."
"What?" Charlie gasped, scandalized, and Clarissa blushed butnodded anyway.
"Truly. If you wish to kiss me I would not mind. I was rather hoping you might like to." On that note, she closed her eyes and tipped her head up in anticipation.
Charlie stared at the girl in dismay for a moment, then shook her head and started walking back through the woods toward the other picnickers. She had taken a mere few steps when Clarissa opened her eyes to see her escaping. Like a bulldog with a bone, she was after her at once.
"Wait,you cannot go back. Are you not going to kiss me? I" Her words shuddered to a halt when Charlie whirled on her in a temper, her patience spent.
"Stop hounding me, you silly little girl. Whatever is the matter with you?
Have you no pride at all? Or has that gone the way of the wind along with your sense?
You shall be ruined ere you even have your coming out at this rate. Hoping I would take advantage of you, indeed! You are lucky I am not one of those fellows that are taking bets on seeing how many girls they can ruin this season, or you would be ruined already."
When Clarissa paled, tears springing to her eyes, Charlie suddenly felt an idiot. The silly chit was annoying, but she was also innocent and young and Well, hell, that was reason enough for her foolishness. Truly, Charlie supposed most girls in the first bloom of womanhood were equally silly, it was just that usually they had someone to look out for them. Clarissa seemed sadly lacking in that area. Which, Charlie supposed, explained her seeming desperation for someone to pay attention to her.
Shifting uncomfortably as one big fat tear after another rolled down the girl’s pale face, Charlie sighed and reached out to pat her awkwardly on the shoulder.
"Do not cry, you are safe with me. I am not taking bets on ruining girls this season," she murmured a bit laconically, sighing when Clarissa suddenly threw herself against her chest, weeping copiously all over the new waistcoat the tailor had delivered only that morning.
"I am an idiot," Clarissa cried in self-loathing, and Charlie frowned.
"Nay. Nay, you are not an idiot, Clarissa. ‘Tis just that you must be more careful; all men are not gentlemen. And you certainly must never suggest they take advantage of you." She shuddered inwardly at the thought of what would have happened if the girl had thrown herself at someone likethe Jimmy and Freddy that Beth had been telling her about.
"That was stupid of me," Clarissa admitted with a sniffle. "I am always doing stupid things. It is why no one likes me."
Charlie scowled. "You are not stupid, Clarissa, and I am sure a great many people like you."
"Do you think so?" she asked hopefully.
"Do you like me?"
Charlie forced a smile when Clarissa pulled away to peer up at her. "Of course."
"Then you may kiss me." So saying, she tipped her head up once more, lips puckered and eyes squinted closed.
Charlie pushed her away at once. "You have not heard a word I said!"
Clarissa’s eyes blinked open at once. "Aye, I did, and you said I was safe with you, so why can you not kiss me? You said you liked me, Charles!"
Charlie sighed at her reasoning unhappily, then, for want of a better excuse, muttered, "There is such a thing as being too enthusiastic, you know."
Clarissa peered at her uncertainly, but Charlie wasn’t too concerned. It seemed to her that she had struck on a way to help keep Clarissa safe and get the girl to leave her alone at the same time. "Truly," she averred, nodding her head.
"Think of a fox hunt. The fox is released to run and hide and the hunters chase after him. The hunters chase because the fox runs. Sometimes they will chase for hours and hours. The longer the chase, the more exciting the victory when the animal is caught. Is this not so?"
"Aye," she agreed uncertainly.
"And were the fox not to run at all, but to simply stand there and allow itself to be caught, where would be the sense in the hunt? It would be no fun, would it?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Well, there you are then." She nodded firmly, sure she had explained it so that the girl understood.
"So, you are saying that you refuse to kiss me and do your best to avoid me to keep me chasing you?"
Charlie blinked at that, her mouth chopping open briefly before she gasped, "Nay! Good Lord, you are impossible. You are the fox."
"But I am not running."
Charlie rolled her eyes and took a deep breath before gritting out, "That is the point. If you wish people to chase you, you should be running in the other direction."
"But I do not wish for people to chase me. I just want you to like me."
Charlie sighed at that, wondering what unlucky fates had decided she should be Charles today and not Beth. "Clarissa, my dear. Men, such as er myself, prefer a chase. It is more interesting and er exciting. We like to"she shrugged helplessly"chase."
Clarissa hesitated, then asked, "You mean to say that were I to run, you would give chase?"
"And you would like that?"
"Well" She shook her head unhappily, then straightened her shoulders and sighed resolutely. "If ‘Tis what you wish, Charles." Pausing, she glanced consideringly at the bush that surrounded them, then glanced back. "Which direction shall I ran in?"