The Switch (Page 3)

The Switch(3)
Author: Lynsay Sands

She stared at Radcliffe’s back blankly for a moment, then followed him slowly into his chamber. " Ours!"

Radcliffe dropped the bag and pushed it under the bed with one foot, then turned to face Charles, who still stood, bemused, in the doorway. "Come in and close the door, lad. No need to hang about in the hall."

Charlie watched as Radcliffe slipped out of his frock coat, then set it aside.

The man then glanced at the bed as he set to work at the buttons of his waistcoat. "You can have whichever side you want. I am not fussy. The innkeeper’s wife is bringing up something for you to eat. Your sister and I ate while they fixed the rooms."

Tugging his waistcoat off, Radcliffe laid it over a chair, then sat on the bed to work on his jackboots.

Charlie froze, staring rather blankly at the man stripping before her. Who expected to share a bed with Charles Westerly, brother of Elizabeth Westerly.

Which, of course, was only sensible. There were two men and one woman. The woman got one room. The men the other. Only, I am not a man! Charlie screamed silently.

A discreet cough behind her got Charlie’s attention and she glanced over her shoulder to see a short little woman behind her, balancing a tray in her hands.

"Let her in, lad," Radcliffe ordered irritably, and Charlie stepped automatically into the room to let the woman pass. The innkeeper’s wife smiled briefly as she walked over to set the tray on a table in front of the fireplace, then smiled once more as she silently left the room.

Charlie heard the door click shut, but her attention was now fixed on the tray of food. When her stomach rumbled loudly, announcing its hunger, she gave up her position by the door, dropped her bag on the floor, and hurried over to the table.

Out of the corner of her eye, Charlie saw Radcliffe smile wryly to himself as she dropped into a chair and attacked the bread and cheese the woman had brought.

Even as ravenous as she was, Charlie felt compelled to watch Radcliffe move about. Shaking his head, he set his boots aside, then moved over to grab up the bag she had thoughtlessly dropped by the door where anyone might reach in and grab it. Carrying it back to the bed, Radcliffe slid it under, next to the other one, then straightened himself and set to work on doffing his clothing.

Charlie froze in her seat by the fireplace. Her hand, holding a hunk of cheese, paused halfway to her mouth as Radcliffe shrugged out of his shirt.

The morning sun was still only half-visible as it crept up behind the trees outside the window. The room was still dim, the fire in the fireplace the only light from inside the room, but Charlie’s shock quickly gave way to fascination as she watched the firelight reflect off Radcliffe’s arms and chest. The man really was quite beautiful, she realized with surprise, watching the ripple and play of muscles in his arms and across his chest as he worked at the buttons of his breeches.But then they dropped to the floor and Charlie’s eyes became round saucers of shock again before she jerked her face away several shades brighter.

God’s fish! She could not sleep with this man. It was not proper. Whether he thought her a boy or not.

A rustling sound drew her gaze reluctantly back to him. He had turned his back to her and was slipping a nightshirt over his head. Charlie had a lovely view of firm buttocks and nicely shaped legs before the nightshirt dropped into place; then Radcliffe turned back toward her. Charlie’s gaze shot studiously back to her plate.

"Almost done?" he asked, stretching tiredly.

Charlie nodded, gaze fixed grimly on the food before her.

"Any preference as to which side to sleep on?"

She shook her head.

"All right then. Good night." There was the rustle of bed-sheets, then silence.

Charlie hesitated, then glanced up. Radcliffe was settled comfortably beneath the covers, well on his way to sleep. Breath slipping through her teeth, she sank back in her seat with a sigh. She was not hungry anymore. And now that she had satisfied the worst of her hunger, exhaustion was creeping over her again.

Yawning, she rested her chin wearily in her hand and tried to think what to do.

She could hardly sleep here with him. On the other hand, she could not think of a single excuse for why she could not that he might accept. And she was so tired.

Her gaze slid to the bed again and she sighed. After twenty-four hours without sleep, it was looking pretty inviting Even with Radcliffe in it.

Pushing herself away from the table, Charlie stumbled to the bed and stared down. It was a rather large bed. Very large. Lots of room. Why, she bet she could sleep in it quite easily without ever touching Radcliffe. Aye. She’d just sleep on top of the sheet, she decided, pulling the cover aside and slipping carefully beneath it. She’d sleep fully clothed too On top of the sheets and fully clothed. ‘Twas proper enough.

Radcliffe was already up when Charlie awoke. He had donned his breeches and was just finishing washing out of the basin by the fireplace. Charlie watched the play of muscles in his back for a minute, then sat up, reaching up to check that her wig was still on straight. She probably would not have even thought to check it if it were not for the fact that her head was itchy. After so many hours of wearing it, the damn wig was becoming almost painful As was the binding around her chest, she realized, reaching down to scratch at that now, too.

"You are awake."

Giving up her efforts to scratch the bound flesh of her chest through her clothes, Charlie glanced up to see Radcliffe watching her as he donned his shirt. She stared back, taking in his facial features with some interest.

Most of the time since they had met had been spent in near or complete darkness. She really had only managed to catch a glimpse of his shadowed face here and there.

Even last nightwell, early this morning, she supposedin this room, the light had been dim, not lending itself to a true view of his features. She was interested to note now that he was quite an attractive man. His eyes were a rather striking pale gray and shone with intelligence and what appeared to be good humor this day. His nose was straight if a bit hawkish, and his lips were neither generous nor overly thin. His hair was dark, so dark as to be black, and fell off his face in short waves. He was not nearly as old as she had assumed the night before, and that made her frown somewhat as she slid her feet off the bed.

"You fell asleep in your clothes?" He seemed more amused than surprised.

Shrugging, Charlie stood, wincing as her muscles complained of the night’s activities. She was not used to such long hours of riding. "We packed no clothes. There was no room, what with the jewels," she said by way of explanation, moving up to the second basin of water and washing her face.

"Hmm. I shall lend you a nightshirt for tonight, then," Radcliffe proclaimed, moving over to collect his boots from the side of the bed.

Charlie didn’t respond to the offer. She had no intention of being there to accept it. If she was right, Radcliffe would decide not to travel today. It was already mid-to late-afternoon by her guess and there was no real need to set out before the next morning. It was safer to travel during the day anyway. Or so he had said. Tonight, once he was asleep, she would take his pistol, Beth, and the bags, and they would headfor Ralphy’s.

"We shall stay here tonight and set out in the morning," Radcliffe suddenly announced, verifying her thoughts. When Charlie’s only answer was a quick nod as she dried her face, Radcliffe did not bother to explain further.

A light tapping came at the door. Charlie glanced at Radcliffe, then walked over to open it and find Beth standing there. The concerned expression on her face gave way to relief the minute she saw her sister.

Stepping into the hall, Charlie closed the door and urged Beth back toward her own room.

"The innkeeper’s wife said that you two had shared a room," Beth whispered with concern as they went inside.

"It would have looked odd ifI had not."

"Aye, but"

"I slept fully clothed," Charlie quickly assured her. "And on top of the linens."

Beth nodded but bit her lip. "What are we going to do now?"

"Radcliffe plans on staying here until tomorrow. We shall leave in the middle of the night like last night."

"Not through the window again?" Beth did not even try to hide her distress at the idea. Charlie sighed and shook her head.

"Nay. We shall try the stairs this time."

"When?"

"I shall come for you as soon as he is asleep. Why do you not try to get some more rest? It is going to be a long night." She waited until Beth had moved to the bed, then slipped back out into the hall as Radcliffe left the room they had shared.

"Is she all right?" he asked with concern. "She seemed a bit pale."

Charlie shrugged. "She did not sleep very well last night. Worrying too much. I told her to get more rest."

Nodding, Radcliffe started down the stairs, Charlie right behind him. "She is very much like my sister," he said suddenly, bringing Charlie’s gaze to curiously study his own.

"What is her name?"

He was silent for a moment, his expression brooding; then he shrugged.

"Mary."

"Is she married?"

"She was."

"Was?" ; "Still is, I guess, but she and her husband are both dead."

Charlie remained silent as she followed him into the inn’s tavern. Once they were seated at a table, she glanced at his face. Itlooked as hard as granite now, not in the least approachable. No doubt he used that expression to let people know that no more questions were wished. With this realization, she began to relax for the first time since meeting this man. She felt some of her discomfort slip away and some control return.

It was only then that she realized that she had felt slightly out of control since the man had crept up on her and Beth in the stables. It had been a strange and uncomfortable sensation for her, but as she realized just how human Lord Jeremy Radcliffe was, she felt some control return. It was an odd thing about her and Beth. They looked alike, talked alike, and even shared a lot of tastes, but each of them had a different sort of talent when it came to dealing with people. Beth was good with handling illnesses of the body. She could look at a person, know what was physically ailing them, and what to give them to help. She had a certain flair for healing a body.

Charlie, on the other hand, had an instinct for people’s motivations. She knew the pain they felt and what they needed to talk about. She could also tell when someone was hiding their true self. She’d taken an instant dislike to Uncle Henry, for instance, despite his seemingly kind and gentle nature when he had first arrived after their parents’ death. Beth had been blinded by his facade and been taken in by him, until he had started to show his true self. And while Beth had been terribly hurt to find Charlie’s instincts proven true about the man, Charlie hadn’t been surprised at all. Now that instinct was attuned to Lord Radcliffe, and what she was sensing was that he never talked about his sister or her death And he needed to.

Her tone nonchalant, she asked, "How did they die?"

Radcliffe’s face darkened. For a moment she thought he might tell her to go to hell and mind her own business, but then he answered, the words tumbling out as if they had been waiting a long time to escape. "They had come to visit me. They lived on the next estate and had ridden over on horseback for the day. A highwayman had been working the area, but no one had been hurt yet, just robbed, petty thefts really. My sister and her husband stayed for dinner. It was dark when they left. I suggested I have my carriage take them back" He paused.

Something flickered overhis face. Regret? Pain? Anger? "I should have insisted."

Guilt. Charlie sat back with a sigh, positive that it was guilt that Lord Radcliffe felt when he spoke of his sister. But why? "Was she younger than you?"

"Aye," he sighed and drank from his mug. "What of your parents?"

"They died when we were both younger. I was eighteen then. Mary, twelve."

"You raised her? Took care of her until she was married?" Charlie guessed, and he glanced at her in surprise.

"Aye. How did you know?"

Charlie shrugged. "Who else would do it? You have mentioned no one else," she murmured absently, her thoughts on what she had learned. His guilt was because he had grown up taking care of his sister. He felt that he should have insisted more that they take his carriage. Mayhap he even thought that he should have accompanied them. He seemed to feel that he had failed them somehow.

Such feelings were no doubt also behind his offering of protection to herself and her sister. After all, he had said himself that Beth reminded him of Mary. Last night must have seemed similar to him to the situation that had seen his sister’s death. A man and a woman alone on the road. Traveling at night.

Aye, now she understood his offer to help them.

Radcliffe frowned. He was likely irritated and embarrassed with himself for revealing so much. Charlie could sense that she had elicited from him information he hadn’t offered anyone in years. Suddenly impatient, Radcliffe glared into his drink briefly, then glanced up. "Can you shoot? Or has no one taught you?"

Charlie’s hesitation was answer enough, and Radcliffe got to his feet. "No doubt your uncle wouldn’t have bothered. Any man who would sell his niece to Carland would hardly be bothered with whether his nephew can defend himself."

He gave Charlie a small smile. "Come along," he ordered gruffly.

Scrambling from behind the table, Charlie hurried after him.

"Where have you been?" Beth rushed forward as Charlie and RadclifFe entered the inn two hours later.

Charlie caught the concern on her sister’s face and grinned, but it was Radcliffe who answered. "I was teaching your brother to shoot."

Beth’s eyes widened incredulously. "Really? How did it go?"

Charlie began to chuckle when Radcliffe hesitated. She knew that she was not exactly what one would call a natural. She had not hit a single target.

Surprisingly, Radcliffe had not lost his patience with her ineptitude. He had been terribly encouraging, telling her when they finally gave up that she would improve with practice. Lots of practice.