"Aye. Besides, it was not really much of a lie, was it? After all. Uncle Henry was selling you in marriage to Carland," Beth murmured quietly, her gaze moving over her twin sister. She still found it a little startling to see her in men’s clothes. Especially with her br**sts bound so tight they seemed nonexistent. She wondered suddenly if it hurt Charlie to have them all squashed up like that.
It had been Charlie’s idea to dress as a man. A brother and sister traveling alone would not benoticed. Twin sisters traveling alone would have. She supposed they could have traveled as two boys, but Charlie had not mentioned the suggestion, and truth to tell, Beth had not even thought of it until now.
Besides, twin brothers might have been just as memorable as twin sisters. Nay, she decided. ‘Twas better this way. She as herself, and Charlie masquerading as her brother.
It was just the adventurous sort of thing Charlie liked to do. She was the braver, wilder of the two. Beth wasn’t very adventurous at all. She was the sedate one. Well behaved, obedient, well mannered, she did what was expected.
Until she’d found out about Seguin. But she probably would have obediently married the great cow if not for Charlie. Still, Charlie simply couldn’t marry Carland. As the stranger had said, she’d be dead in a month, or in goal for killing him in self-defense. That’s why Charlie had decided to run away to Cousin Ralph to seek protection. And where Charlie went, Beth followed.
They were twins, after all. They’d never been separated in all their twenty years, or not as far as Beth could remember.
Beth glanced up at her sister’s question and nodded as she hooked the bag with her half oftheir mother’s jewels onto the saddle.
"Good. Let us go." Charlie led her horse out of his stall and Beth followed suit, trailing her out of the stable. The pair walked their horses silently around the inn. Beth was staring at the darkened windows, wondering where the stranger had gone, when Charlie suddenly slowed and cursed. Glancing forward, she noted the man standing by a horse on the lane in front of the inn.
"What do you think he is doing?"
Charlie was silent for a moment, then sighed. "I suppose we shall have to ask to find out."
Radcliffe smiled to himself as the pair approached. The girl wasn’t bothering to hide her anxiety and confusion about his presence. The boy was hiding both staunchly behind a stiff exterior.
"I have decided to travel with you to London," he announced when they stopped before him, then nearly laughed at their blank expressions. They obviously hadn’t thought to be so lucky. Deciding to give them a moment to recapture their thoughts so that they could thank him properly, he continued, "It is a three-day journey from here to London. The way is littered with highwaymen and perils of every nature. Since I am headed that way anyway, I thought to avail you of my protection."
Charlie glanced at Beth’s nonplused expression, her own face stiff with fury.
Why the devil hadn’t she considered that the oaf might decide to join them? Why did he even want to? The jolthead was going to ruin everything. She did not for one moment think that he really wanted to help. So, what was he after, she wondered. The answer came to her almost immediately. It wasn’t that hard to figure out, really. She should not have mentioned the jewels. He must have realized that they carried them with them and most likely, he intended to rob them somewhere down the road.
Straightening her shoulders, she glared at him coldly and announced, "Your offer is kind, I am sure, but I am quite capable of protecting my sister."
Radcliffe frowned at the boy’s reaction, then realized that he had pinched his male pride. The pride of young men was a most fragile thing, and while Radcliffe normally would have done his most to protect such tender feelings, now was not the time for it. Not when the boy’s pride might verywell see him and his sister dead. "You are not even carrying a weapon, lad," he pointed out sternly. "If had been a thief, I could have killed you both and taken your jewels in the stables."
Charlie blinked, wondering if the man had read her thoughts as regarding his motives, then shrugged such worries aside. She had more important concerns. Such as finding some way to refuse his offer and avoid raising his suspicions at the same time. "Who are you?"
Radcliffe blinked. "What?"
"Your name, sirrah?"
He stiffened at the insulting address, then arched one eyebrow rather superciliously and reached into his pocket to withdraw a small card which he presented to Charlie.
Stepping forward, she took the card and frowned as she read the name out loud.
"Lord Jeremy William Richards. The earl of Radcliffe." She looked up at him.
He gave an ironic little bow, then relaxed as he saw the recognition on their faces and the way the brother and sister exchanged glances again. "You know the name."
"You knew our father," Charlie countered.
"I never met him," Radcliffe corrected. "But we did correspond on occasion. We were partners in several ventures."
Charlie nodded solemnly and did not correct Radcliffe’s polite phasing.
Partners was a bit of an ambitious word to use for the investors who threw in with Radcliffe. The man was a genius, according to what her father had always told her. He had the Midas touch. Any investment he made paid back in at least triplicate. Everyone knew this and everyone wished to invest with him, but he was a choosy fellow. Very few people were invited to invest with him, and if one was not invited, one did notinvest. As for it being a partnership, there really was none. The investors often had no idea where their money went, and fewer still really cared so long as it paid off. Radcliffe did all the thinking in the investments; those who he invited along simply rode on the coattails of his genius.
She turned the card over in her hand thoughtfully. Lord Radcliffe would hardly need the jewels they carried. While they were a small fortune, they were nothing compared to the wealth he enjoyed. "Why would you trouble yourself to help us?"
Radcliffe raised an eyebrow at the blunt question. "As I said before, you are not even carrying a weapon, lad. But, if I am right, you are carrying your mother’s jewels." He grinned when Charlie stiffened. "As I thought. One highwayman and the two of you are paupers at your uncle’s mercy."
Charlie winced considering that prospect, and Radcliffe’s expression softened.
"I am headed that way anyway. I see no harm in offering my company as a deterrent to thieves."
Charlie hesitated a moment, then grabbed Beth’s hand and urged her a safe distance away, dragging their horses behind them.
"What are we going to do?" Beth hissed as Charlie stopped and faced her.
"We go with him."
"He is right, Beth. We could be robbed on the road. I did not think of taking a pistol."
Sighing, she shrugged. "He is protection. It is one tiling to go to Ralphy with our inheritance. It would be quite another to show up penniless."
"But he is heading the wrong way," Beth pointed out after a hesitation.
"I know." Charlie thought for a moment, then grinned suddenly. "That might be to our advantage, though. As I pointed out earlier, our uncle will hardly look in London, or even in that direction for us." A soft laugh slipped from her lips.
"We shall go that way with Radcliffe; then when he stops to rest, I shall steal his pistol and we will head for Ralphy’s."
Beth looked uncertain. "But, Charlie, he is offering to help. I cannot like the idea of stealing his pistol as repayment. He"
"I shall leave him one of Mother’s bracelets.That should pay for the pistol three times over." Her gaze slid back to the man in question. "He must have been on the road most of the day and this evening. He shall probably stop at the next inn, or the one after. There we will make our escape. And that will give us most of the night to travel."
Nothing in life is simple. Charlie came to that conclusion as the first faint fingers of dawn began to streak the sky. She had expected Radcliffe to lead them to the next inn and stop for the night. Instead, they had passed more inns than she would wish to count and they were still on the road.
Glancing at her sister, Charlie frowned and reached out to touch her arm gently.
Beth had nodded off and was in great peril of tumbling from her horse. At Charlie’s touch, she snapped awake and peered wearily around.
Charlie offered her a sympathetic smile, then turned to glare at the back of the man riding in front of them. They had ridden through the night without incident, not even catching sight of anyone on the road, let alone being confronted by highwaymen or ne’er-do-wells.
Charlie was beginning to think that all that talk of the perils of the road was just a bunch of bunk, and that they should have conked the great goon over the head and set out in the direction they had originally intended, pistol or no.
Now she was not sure what to do. The horses were fair done in from a whole day and night’s travel and Charlie herself was having some difficulty staying awake in the saddle. Add to that the fact that they had now added an extra day’s travels to their journey, and she fairly wanted to gnash her teeth in frustration.
When her mount suddenly drew to a halt, Charlie blinked and stopped glaring at the person she held wholly responsible for her misery, then peered about.
Her eyes widened when she saw that they had turned a bend in the road and were now halted in front of an inn.
"We shall stop here to rest." Radcliffe dismounted, wincing. He, too must be feeling the stiffness in his legs and seat that Charlie was. He unhitched his traveling bag and walked to the horse where Beth sat half-asleep in the saddle.
When she merely stared down at him in a kind of exhausted stupor, Radcliffe’s features softened.
"Come along, little girl," he said gently, holding up his arms to assist her.
"We shall have you tucked up in a nice warm bed in no time."
Beth roused herself enough to slide off of her mount, but gave a startled cry as her legs collapsed beneath her. Charlie moved forward, but her sister’s fall was forestalled when Radcliffe caught the girl in his arms.
"See to the horses, Charles," he ordered, turning away. "I shall rent two rooms and see your sister settled in."
‘"See to the horses, Charles,’" Charlie mimicked irritably as she watched the man carry her sister away. Sighingas they disappeared into the inn, she slid off her own mount, then gasped and gripped the saddle grimly as her own legs played her false. Leaning against her horse, she waited as the pain and weakness slowly ebbed, then took a shaky step away. Much to her relief, her legs held this time.
Letting her breath out on a sigh, she grabbed up the reins of all three horses and led them toward the stable beside the inn at a hobbling gait.
"His Lordship said ye’d be needin’ me help."
Giving a start at those words, Charlie paused at the door of the stables and glanced back to see a boy approaching. He was no older than twelve. His hair was rumpled and his clothes a bit disheveled. It was obvious he had just awoken, and Charlie was briefly swamped with envy, until she realized that the sooner she finished with the horses, the sooner she could rest as well.
Offering him a weary smile, she handed over the reins of Radcliffe’s mount, then led her own and Bern’s mounts into the stables. She deposited Beth’s horse in one stall, pausing long enough to unhook the bag of jewels from the saddle horn.
It chopped to the ground with a crash, and she grimaced as she grabbed the handle in both hands and staggered out of the stall with it. Depositing it in the next stall, she then led her own mount into it and quickly unhooked the bag he carried as well. She then turned her attention to unsaddling him.
She watched the stableboy out of the corner of her eye as she worked. He was quick and efficient, unsaddling, brushing down, watering,and feeding Radcliffe’s mount all before Charlie had even finished brushing down the first horse.
Of course, she was so tired, she was clumsy and slow; she excused herself.
When the boy finished with Radcliffe’s mount and then moved on to Beth’s beast, Charlie sighed with relief that it would not be her chore. As it was, the boy finished tending the second horse just as she finished her own. Charlie bent then to grab up both her and Beth’s bags, but groaned at their combined weight and let them drop. She could not carry them both; she simply could not.
Charlie was considering simply sinking to sleep in the straw with the bags as pillows when the boy approached her again.
"Need a hand, m’lord?"
Glancing up at those words, she sighed her defeat. "What is your name?"
"Well, Will Sunnier, truth to tell I am all in just now and I would appreciate a hand."
Grinning at the thought of the tip to come, he stepped into the stall and hefted one of the bags, eyes widening in shock at the weight of it. "Gor! What ha’e ye got in here, m’lord? Rocks?"
"Basically," Charlie muttered dryly, hefting the second bag and leading the way out of the stables.
Will followed her into the inn, waited patiently as she got directions, then followed her upstairs to the room the innkeeper had given her sister.
At the door to Beth’s room, Charlie set down her bag and dug two coins out of her pocket.
"Just set that down there. Will," she murmured, holding out the coins.
"And I thank you for your help."
Eyes widening at the generous tip, the boy thanked her brightly and disappeared back the way they had come. Charlie then opened the door before her, glancing at the bed where her sister lay in exhausted slumber. Sighing in pleasure at the thought of herself sleeping, she bent to pick up one of the bags. She was straightening with it in hand when the door to the neighboring room opened and Lord Radcliffe peered out.
"Ah. There you are. I was just coming to look for you." Stepping to Charlie’s side, he picked up the other bag and turned away. "Come along. The innkeeper directed you to the wrong door. Our room is this one."
"Our room?" The words echoed through Charlie’s brain like the crack of thunder.