Charlie rolled her eyes and groaned. "Clarissa. I was using a metaphor."
"An example," Charlie explained impatiently. "I do not truly wish to dash about the woods after you. I am saying you must pretend that you do not care for me."
She blinked in dismay. "But I do like you."
"I know that, but you should pretend that I do not. You should ignore me, give me the cut direct, do whatever you think necessary to convince me you are not the least bit interested in me."
"But what will you be doing while I am ignoring you?"
"Me? IWell, I shall be admiring you from afar."
She did not look the least pleased with the idea and seemed about to protest, so Charlie blurted out, " ‘Tis all the rage. It’s considered most romantic."
"Romantic?" She perked up at that.
"Aye, I shall write love poetry about my broken heart."
"And send them to me?" she asked excitedly, bringing a frown to Charlie’s face.
"Nay. I am no good at poetry. They shall be horrible and morbid, so I shall crumple them up, throw them into the fire, and suffer most horribly."
"Suffer?" she asked in alarm. "Oh, Charles I do not wish you to suffer."
"Our parish priest says suffering is good for the soul," Charlie told her firmly, taking the girl’s arm to lead her back in the direction from which they had come.
"Oh," she murmured as they paused on the edge of the woods. "Well, if you think this is for the best."
"It is definitely for the best," Charlie assured her laconically, then added, "And you must promise me that you shall stay away from anyone named Jimmy or Freddy."
"As you wish, Charles," she murmured dutifully.
"Good girl," Charlie muttered, peering through the bushes at the people beyond.
"No one appears to be looking now. You go on back to the picnic. I shall wait a moment, then follow so as not to attract talk."
"Yes, Charles." Turning, she stepped into the clearing.
Charlie watched her go with a sigh of relief, then moved to lean against the trunk of a tree and wait the appropriate amount of time necessary before returning herself.
Radcliffe moved through the picnickers, his gaze searching the laughing, chatting people for Charles. He had not seen the boy for quite some time and was beginning to worry. More than he really should, he realized on a sigh and shook his head at his own behavior.
As much as he told himself he should concentrate on the sister and avoid the boy altogether, he could not help himself. The moment Charles had traipsed into the breakfast room that morning and beamed a cheerful smile at him, he had realized how impossible the task would be. There was just something magnetic about the boy. Endearing even. He had enjoyed a rousing conversation with the lad at the table about the current political situation and laughed heartily at his wit.
That was not so bad, but when their hands had met as they both reached for the marmalade at the same time, Radcliffe had felt a shock of awareness run through him that had sat him back in his seat with dismay.
It was most distressing. One day he found himself taking advantage of the sister who was supposed to be under his protection and the next he was feeling things for the brother that he had never felt for any member of the male sex in his life. It was all beyond his understanding, and he had decided that it would simply be best if he kept his distance as much as he could from the twins. And he truly would have given both brother and sister a wide berth today had he not already agreed to take them on this picnic. Still, he had managed to avoid them nicely up until now, leaving them in the company of the other young men and women that had been invited on this picnic and placing himself with the older set. He would still be there, talking economics and politics, had Charles not gone missing, he thought with irritation as he reached the spot where Beth stood chatting amicably with Tomas and Clarissa Mowbray.
"Where is Charles?" he asked without preamble, and the threesome turned in surprise at his interruption.
"Charles?" Beth repeated blankly, then glanced about. "Oh, well He was here not long ago, he must have"
"He went for a walk in the woods."
Radcliffe glanced sharply at the young Mowbray girl when she blurted out that answer, and she immediately blushed guiltily under his gaze. "Where?" he demanded.
"In the woods. He umm, wished to get away from the crowd for a bit. No doubt he shall return shortly."
Radcliffe frowned, considering whether it was necessary for him to hunt the boy down, then sighed unhappily. It seemed the wiser thing to do. The lad was in his care, after all. Besides, after the fiasco at Aggie’s he did not trust the boy to have the sense of a gnat. No one else he knew could have ended up tied to the bedposts by a whip-brandishing old whore. The boy, he thought to himself, may very well be lost.
Charlie cursed and grabbed at the wig on her head as another branch caught at it, then released her hold on the item to swat at a bug buzzing near her face.
She had never been much of an outdoors sort. Truly, as boring as the picnic had proven to be up to now, she would much rather be back in the clearing, seated at a temporary table,dining on squab and pigeon pie than struggling her way through this thick underbrush headed for heaven knew where. And she certainly would have been, had she not heard a distressed cry just as she’d been about to reenter the clearing. Charlie could not ignore such obvious fear, even when it was that of an animal, and when the cry came again, she had given up the idea of returning to the picnic and started in the direction from which the cries appeared to be coming. They had led her away from the picnic, but closer to the river’s edge, she realized as she set her foot down and found it sinking in spongy, damp ground.
Pausing, she stepped back, frowning at the damage to her shoe, then glared at the branches of the bush before her and continued forward once more as the whining became a panicked sort of squealing, whimpering, and mewling.
After a moment the frantic cries were suddenly muffled and Charlie stiffened, the silencing of the sound alarming her more than the actual squeals had. Her throat tight with anxiety, Charlie lunged through the brush and nearly stumbled to her knees in surprise when the undergrowth gave way abruptly to another clearing.
This one was much smaller than the first and held a leathery-faced farmer who was in the process of tossing a squirming sack into the river.
"Nay!" she cried in alarm, but it was too late, the sack was already tumbling through the air toward the water. Without thinking about it, Charlie sped forward, hurtling into the water after the bag. She was quick on land, but the water seemed to drag at her feet, making each step an effort. Still she continued determinedly forward, a frustrated curse slipping from her lips as the sack dropped into the water some ten feet in front of her and immediately sank below the surface, the river swallowing it up, silencing the crazed mewlings the sack emitted.
It seemed like hours to Charlie, but was probably only seconds as she waded to where the sack had landed. Unconcerned that she was soaking herself and ruining a brand-new suit,she bent forward to feel about for it. Relief coursed through her as the top of the sack brushed against her fingers and she was able to grasp it, tugging it quickly out of the water. Holding it aloft, she turned and began to wade out of the water, chanting a prayer under her breath that she had been quick enough.
Reaching the shore, she dropped to her knees on the soft turf, ignoring the farmer who was moving closer as she quickly worked at the knot holding the top of the sack closed until it gave. She tugged the bag open and peered fearfully inside, gasping at the handful of soaking, silky, dark brown puppies that lay inside. She reached quickly in for the top pup, catching him by his back paws and lifting him out of the sack. She had barely moved him clear of the sack when his upside-down position moved him to retch up the water he had swallowed.
Murmuring soothingly, Charlie laid him on the grass and quickly grabbed up the next pup, this time giving a little pat and shake to help urge him on when the pup did not immediately toss up the river water as the first had. Once her urgings had worked, she set the pup aside and reached for the next in the sack.
She repeated the action six more times and managed to save six of the eight puppies. The last two were beyond help and no amount of effort on her part would revive them. Giving up on the last pup, Charlie set him by the first one that had died and sighed unhappily. She stiffened when the farmer, who had stood silently by throughout, shifted and spat on the ground near the two corpses.
"Aye, well, them two’s beyond help, but ’twas a fine attempt jest the same, m’lord."
Eyes narrowing to slits, she raised her head slowly and glared at the man, taking in his sun-baked skin, jowly cheeks, and the gray peppering his red hair.
"An’ sure enef it was, m’lord. A fine effort. A mighty fine rescue iffen I do say so. Ye saved six out o’ the eight of ’em. Now, let’s see, that’d be Well, I guess a groat would about cover it, seeing as how there’s only six of ’em."
Charlie shook her head in bewilderment. "What?" she asked, glancing distractedly down as one of the six pups she had been able to save struggled weakly to its feet and shifted closer to her before collapsing onto its belly and settling down to some serious licking of her fingers as if in gratitude.
"For the pups," he explained as if to a simpleton, drawing her gaze back to his solemn face. "You rescuing them an’ all, I figured on yer wantin’ to buy ’em."
"Buy them?" she repeated in disbelief. "Are you mad?"
One rust and gray eyebrow arched at that. "Yer not wantin’ to buy them?"
When Charlie merely glared at him, fury and indignation making it impossible to speak, he shrugged and stooped to snatch up the bag she had discarded.
"Well, what’d ye go to all this trouble fer then? Ye jest made more work fer me.
Now I’ll be havin’ to drown ’em again." So saying, he scooped up the pup who had been licking her fingers and plopped him back in the bag.
"The devil you will!" Charlie roared and made a grab for the bag.
Radcliffe had gone quite a distance with no sign of Charles and had just decided Clarissa had been mistaken when a string of curses and shouts broke out from the woods ahead. He picked up his pace and soon found himself stepping into a clearing where a startling sight met his eyes. At first he merely stood gaping at Charles and a burly farmer playing tug of war with a squirming sack.
The size of the farmer foretold who the winner of the battle would be, and Radcliffe wasn’t the least surprised when the lad’s hands lost their grip on the sack and he tumbled onto his behind in the damp grass. Radcliffe’s mild amusement turned to shock when the farmer then bent to grab up some puppies, and Charles regained his feet and launched himself onto the man’s back.
Roaring in surprise and pain as Charles grabbed up handfuls of the man’s hair and tugged viciously, the fanner dropped the bag and the pups and straightened abruptly, swatting at the boy as if he were a swarm of bees on his back.
Charles deftly avoided the first hand that swatted at him, but the second one caught himupside of his head. The boy released a shriek of pain, but held determinedly on to his position.
The blow had more effect on Radcliffe, however, who launched forward, bellowing, "What the devil goes on here?"
The twosome froze. The farmer stilled in mid-blow and glanced guiltily toward him, while Charles heaved a sigh of relief and swiftly slid from the man’s back.
"Radcliffe," the lad gasped and took a step toward him, his relief obvious.
He seemed to catch himself then, and glanced from Radcliffe to die farmer, then down at the squinning bag at his feet. Distressed yowls came muffled from inside it.
"What is going on here, Charles?" Radcliffe asked as the lad bent to open the sack and scoop out a furry bundle from inside.
"Leave my dogs alone," the farmer growled as Charles quickly began snatching up the pups nearest.
"Yours!" he snapped back. "You threw them away."
"Aye. And I’ll be doing so again should ye not pay for ’em!"
"The devil you will!" Charles snarled and glared at the man.
"The devil I won’t!" The brute moved toward the lad then and the boy danced quickly behind Radcliffe, struggling to hold on to the four squirming bodies he had managed to gather. The farmer stopped at once, apparently unwilling to accost a member of the nobility that was not attacking him. Suddenly, frustration crested on the man’s face, and he whirled and moved to snatch up one of the two remaining pups. Lifting the animal, he held the body in one beefy hand and took the head with the other.
"No!" Charles shrieked, stepping out from behind Radcliffe when the farmer made asif to break the poor animal’s neck. The man paused and arched an eyebrow in enquiry, and Charles turned to glare at Radcliffe, pleading, "Do something!"
Sighing, Radcliffe glanced from his annoying charge to the farmer, then back.
"How can I do anything when I do not know what is happening?"
"Can you not tell? Good God! This, this man"
Radcliffe’s eyebrows rose at the way the word was said and nearly laughed since the boy was insulting his own sex, but managed to restrain himself as the lad continued.
"tied these poor creatures in a sack and tossed them into the river to drown. I rescued them and managed to revive six out of the eight of them. Now he expects me to pay for the six who lived or he will throw them back into the water.
Tell him he cannot do that. Tell him." Charles turned to glare at the farmer with an obvious combination of satisfaction and spite, nodding with grim triumph as he awaited Radcliffe’s proclamation. That triumph died, transformed into dismay when Radcliffe finally spoke.
"I am afraid he can."
"They are his dogs," he answered solemnly.
"His? But he threw them away to drown. He tried to kill them. They would be dead now but for me. II found them."