"They are still his to do with as he wishes," Radcliffe sighed, feeling as if he were letting the lad down by admitting such, and not liking it very much at all.
"There ye are, then." The farmer’s barrel chest puffed up with importance.
"So, either ye’ll be paying me sixpence for the beasties or I’ll be breaking this one here’s neck and drowning the rest."
"Sixpence! A minute ago it was a groat."
"That was afore ye attacked me."
The boy glared at the man briefly, then set the squirming mass of puppies down and began digging through the pockets of his jacket, frowning when they came up empty. "I must have lost my money in the water. Pay the man, Radcliffe."
He raised his eyebrows at the order, and the boy grimaced. "You know I am good for it."
Heaving a sigh, Radcliffe dug out a small sack of coins and withdrew a silver one which he handed to the man. The farmer’s fierce scowl gave way to a beaming smile as he accepted it. Then he handed Radcliffe the pup he had been holding, gave a slight nod, bent to snatch up the sack still holding the two dead pups, and turned to saunter away.
Radcliffe watched the man swagger off into the trees with distaste, then saw Charles sigh and glance down at the damp puppies that were presently climbing all over each other in an attempt to crawl up his sodden pant legs and gain his attention.
"Poor darlings," Charles murmured, bending to scoop up two more of them. " ‘Tis all right.That nasty old man won’t hurt you anymore," the lad assured them, cuddling them close to his face, then he caught the raised eyebrows Radcliffe was giving him. Frowning at him slightly as if his behavior were all Radcliffe’s fault, Charles glanced toward the two pups still on the ground, then back to him with arched eyebrows. "Do you suppose you could pick up those two?"
Radcliffe blinked at that. "Whatever for?"
"Well, I can hardly carry all six of them by myself, can I?"
His eyebrows drew down with unpleasant suspicion. "Why would you want to, anyway? You do not plan to keep those mutts, do you?"
"What else did you think I would do?" the boy asked with open amazement. "I can hardly leave them here for that farmer to kill later."
"Well, you are certainly not bringing them back to my home," Radcliffe said with a snort.
"My lord." Stokes’s smile of greeting as he hurried down the hall toward the open front door two hours later turned into a gasp of surprise as six little brown fur-balls suddenly erupted around his feet. Yipping excitedly, they flew past Radcliffe, dashing wildly if a bit clumsily every which way into the entry, legs flying out from beneath them on the polished marble floor as they tried to sniff everything at once.
His mouth was still agape a moment later as each and every one of the creatures suddenly froze. Tails stiff and quivering excitedly, they lifted their noses upward and sniffed the air briefly, then made a mad dash down the hall toward the kitchens.
"Oh, no you don’t!" Charlie cried, leaping past a pained looking Radcliffe and charging after the pups, scooping one after another up into her arms. She grabbed up the last one just as it reached the kitchen door. Turning then with the squirming bundle of bodies caught awkwardly in her arms, she started back down the hall, relieved when a laughing Beth hurried into the house and to Charlie’s side to assist her with them.
"Poor darlings." Beth laughed, taking three of them and cuddling them against her chest. "They must be hungry again."
"I do not know how that is possible," Radcliffe sniffed, irritation marring his expression as he pushed the door closed with a decided crash. "They acted more like pigs than puppies at the picnic. After all the food they ate there, they should be full for a week."
Charlie rolled her eyes at that and Beth laughed. "Hardly, my lord. They were adorable at the picnic. Quite a hit. Why, every woman in attendance descended on you and Charlie when you came out of the woods with the little wonders.
They considered both of you to be quite the heroes, once the story of how you rescued them unfolded."
Charlie’s lips quirked at Radcliffe’s disgruntled expression as he finished removing his gloves and slapped them against his butler’s chest. The action finally startled the servant out of his stunned state. He closed his mouth and quickly caught the gloves, then accepted the hat Radcliffe shoved at him.
Radcliffe had not stuck long to his refusal to take the pups home with them.
What else could he do? They could hardly leave them there in the clearing to be killed. When Charlie had pointed that out to him and left the problem as to what to do with the animalsup to him, he had quickly realized there was little other solution but to return home with them temporarily. He had made that as clear as glass. This was a temporary situation and one he did not appreciate.
Charlie was to find a home for the beasts as quickly as possible. And they were not to be allowed to make a nuisance of themselves.
Charlie had promised to keep the pups in her room and out of the way until she found them homes, then happily helped him carry thelittle fur-balls back through the woods to the picnic. As Beth said, the women in the party had descended on them at once when they had reappeared with the pups, cooing and sighing over the furry little monsters. Charlie had been more than aware of Radcliffe’s discomfort under the avalancheof attention and had not been surprised when he had extricated himself from the crowd and slipped off to join a group of older men to watch the foofaraw from a safe distance, leaving Charlie to deal with the attention and the puppies both.
Not that she’d had much difficulty with the puppies. She’d had more than enough volunteers to aid in minding and feeding the little creatures. In fact, the other "ladies" had nearly come to blows as they’d fought over who got to hold, pet, and feed them. The pups had been fed the choicest bits of squab and dishes of pigeon pie by every female there. Still, they were puppies. Energetic, happy, bounding everywhere to the delight of the picnic guests, and they now appeared already to be eager for more food.
"Come along, Beth. Let us take them upstairs, then raid the kitchen for them."
Shaking his head in disgust, Radcliffe turned on his heel and strode into the library, no doubt headed for the bottle of port that waited there, Charlie thought with amusement. She led Beth upstairs.
* * *
"Oh, my lady. Just look at the gown Madame Decalle sent today," Bessie cried excitedly, holding up the gown she had just unpacked as Beth led Charlie into "Elizabeth’s" room. "It arrived only moments ago. Is it not lovely?"
Beth paused in the door, three puppies in her arms and her eyes wide with a combination of dismay and alarm as she stared at the gossamer gown.
Shoving the door closed with one foot, Charlie pushed past her stunned sister and set the puppies she held on the floor before walking over to survey the dress with a smile. "It is lovely, is it not, Bessie?" she murmured, smugly, then glanced toward Beth with amusement. "Faith, Beth, you have amazing taste,"
she complimented, laughter in her eyes as her sister stared at the burgundy gown.
Beth had a preference for prim pastels and classic cuts. And as Beth had always been the one to stand as model for their gowns, Charlie had allowed her to choose the styles. They had spent the past several years dressed in pink, baby blue, white, and cream gowns with necklines that could be called nothing less than respectable.
Charlie’s taste, in comparison, was much more dramatic. Had she been concerned with fashion and the like through those years, she would have leaned more toward deeper, more vibrant colors, and far more daring styles. Of course, she had not been concerned. Now that they were on the marriage market, however, it seemed to her that it was time to "dress the window." The gown she had chosen was in the height of fashion, as low a dcolletage as could be worn and still be thought respectable, and a jaunty little hat to top it off. Simple, stylish and sexy as the devil, she hoped. It was obvious to her that Beth was taken aback at the gown.
"Charlie! How could you"
"Bessie?" Charlie interrupted "Please go down and see if cook has anything for the puppies to eat. And a bowl of milk for them, too," she added as the maid set the gown down and moved to leave the room.
"What have you done?" Beth whispered once the door had closed behind the girl, moving to stand by the bed to gape down at the gown.
Charlie shrugged with unconcern. "I chose clothes."
"Are they all like this?"
"Of course not. They are all different styles and colors."
Charlie’s eyebrows rose at the menace in Beth’s voice. "Emerald green, crimson"
"Crimson!" Beth dropped onto the bed, her hands raising to cover her face.
"Oh, God!" She pulled her hands away to stare at her sister in honor. "Is this punishment for making you stand for the measuring?"
"No, of course not!" Charlie threw her sister a dirty look, then spread the gown out. "Really, Beth. Just look at it. It is lovely. How can you think it a punishment? Why, ‘Tis a beautiful cut,the color vibrant, the sheen to the material lovely."
" ‘Tis loud"
"Nonsense!" Charlie glowered at her for the insult to her taste, then sighed.
"Look, if you must know, I have always found your taste in gowns rather well, to be honest, quite dull."
"Dull!" Beth stood up, dismay on her face.
"Yes. All those pale pastels that melt into nothingness and high decolletage."
She wrinkled her nose. "They were all rather tedious, you know."
Her sister’s mouth worked briefly, then snapped shut and she suddenly stood straight and tall, her expression cold. "I see. Well. I am sorry to have burdened you with my tedious taste all these years."
Charlie smiled faintly. "It was not a burden, Beth. Had that been so, I would have chosen my own gowns long ago."
"Why did you not?"
Shrugging, Charlie touched the burgundy gown reverently, a pleased smile touching her lips at how well her choice had turned out. She answered distractedly, "There seemed little reason to bother. It was not as if anyone actually saw me in them out in the country."
At her sister’s outraged gasp, she glanced at her sharply, suddenly recognizing the insult she had dealt. She shook her head at once. "Now, Beth, do not take it so. ‘Tis just that our tastes differ somewhat"
"You are right, of course. I just never realized how much." Her mouth firming, Beth peered at the gown. "I cannot wear this, Charlie. I would not feel comfortable."
"Whyever not? Our coloring is perfect for burgundy."
"Perhaps in your opinion, but I prefer the pastels. Besides, I can tell from just looking at it that the neckline is indecently low."
" ‘Tis not indecent. ‘Tis all the rage."
"Mayhap, but I could not possibly wear it. I would feel uncomfortable. On display. I prefer a more understated style with nice"
"Pastels," Charlie finished for her dryly. "Beth, you are on the marriage market now. ‘Tis no time to play the shrinking violet, unless you wish to be a wallflower. You must display your wares."
"I cannot do it. ‘Tis not my style. I will not wear it."
Before Charlie could think of what to say to that, Bessie returned carrying a silver salver. The excitement on the young girl’s face distracted both sisters from their discussion.
"You will never believe it," the girl cried, setting the tray down and grabbing a handful of paper scraps off of it to rush to them. "Look, just look! They are invitations to balls and such. Master Stokes says that a couple of them came this morning, but that the door knocker has been banging nonstop since ye returned from the picnic."
‘This one is for a ball at the Hardings’. Tonight!" Beth cried, opening one.
‘They were at the theater last night, Charlie. Tomas pointed them out to me."
Smiling at her sister’s excitement, Charlie took out one of the invitations to read. "The Seawoods are having a ball tomorrow evening and we are invited,"
Charlie murmured with a small perplexed frown. "Who are the Seawoods?"
"They were at the picnic today. Their daughter, Lily, was one of the women helping you with the dogs," Beth answered distractedly as she read another invitation. "Oh look, the Wullcotts! They were at the picnic too. And here is one from the Fetterleys. Oh, Charlie, we are a success! We shall be married in no time."
"You shall," Charlie collected quickly.
"Oh, aye." Beth glanced self-consciously at Bessie, then away.
Picking up another invitation, Charlie opened it, then froze.
"What is it?" Beth asked, aware of her reaction at once.
"Bessie, please arrange for a bath to be brought up for each of us, and ask cook to prepare an early dinner."
"Aye, sir." Bobbing, the girl left the room and Charlie handed the note she had opened to Beth.
" ‘I know who you are" Beth read with dismay. " ‘If you do not want me to tell, you will have to pay. Bring’ My God!" She lifted horrified eyes to Charlie.
"What are we going to do?"
Standing, Charlie paced to the window and peered blindly out. She stayed like that for a moment, then suddenly turned back. "We are going to the Hardings’ ball tonight Then tomorrow, I shall see Mr. Silverpot to cash in some more of Mother’s jewels. Tomorrow night you shall have Radcliffe escort you to the Seawoods’ ball. I shall claim to be too tired to attend and will meet this person to pay them off."
Beth bit her lip. "Charlie, I do not like the idea of your meeting this person alone. It could be dangerous."
"Aye, but one of us has to keep Radcliffe busy," Charlie pointed out with a sigh.
"Well" Standing, Beth moved to the connecting door of the rooms. "I suppose I should start getting ready. You said the tailor sent some new clothes around?"
Charlie’s eyebrows rose. "Aye. Did you not wish to be Elizabeth tonight?"