"What your brother lacks in accuracy, he makes up for in enthusiasm. He shall improve. He just needs practice," Radcliffe said finally, and Charlie’s chuckles turned into all-out laughter at his attempt at diplomacy.
When Radcliffe smiled faintly at her amusement, Charlie gave him a slightly mocking bow, then took Beth’s arm and steered her toward the room they had dined in earlier, confiding cheerfully as they went, "I am a complete failure as a man, I fear. I could not hit the side of the inn at ten paces."
Beth blinked, then burst out laughing as they reached the table.
Radcliffe followed the pair, smiling like a benign monarch on his charges.
Taking a seat across from them, he listened, his smile glowing as Charles relayed the events of the afternoon, realizing as he listened that rather than be discouraged, the boy had found it all a great adventure.
The twins continued to chat during the meal, coaxing smiles from Radcliffe every so often. Then Beth excused herself and said she was going to rest.
Radcliffe decided that the girl had a very delicate constitution if she must rest so often, but said nothing.
Charlie, on the other hand, watched her sister go with a sigh. Beth expected her to wait until Radcliffe was asleep, steal his pistol, then go to her. But she was beginning to dislike the idea. Radcliffe was nice, and he had gone out of his way to help them. The idea of stealing his pistol, whether she left jewels in exchange for it or not, just did not sit well with her.
She glanced down at her ale and grimaced. On the other hand, they had to get to Cousin Ralphy, and having heard how Radcliffe’s sister had died, she absolutely would not set out without a weapon. The perils of the road were suddenly very believable.
Pushing her ale away, Charlie stood and muttered that she had to tell Beth something, then hurried up to her sister’s room.
"I cannot steal his pistol," she announced, stepping inside and closing the door.
"Good." Beth finished stepping out of her gown and laid it across a chair by the bed, oblivious to Charlie’s sudden frown.
"What do you mean, ‘good’?"
"He is nice," Beth announced firmly, releasing her hair to fall in long waves around her shoulders. "And it would be stealing whether we left a bracelet or not."
Sighing, Charlie sank onto the side of the bed. "I know. Now what do we do?"
"You shall think of something," Beth said complacently, and Charlie was suddenly angry. It had always been that way. Were they in trouble and in need of a plan, Charlie was expected to come up with it and get them out of the hot water. Oddly enough, it had never bothered her before, but now it did. Before she could comment, Beth mused, "It is a shame that we are not in a town or something. We could simply buy one then."
Charlie stared at her blankly for a moment, then suddenly smiled. "Good idea."
Pausing in the act of crawling into bed, Beth glanced at her blankly.
"I shall see if the innkeeper has a flintlock. He is sure to have one. I shall buy it off him."
"What if he does not want to sell it?"
Charlie shrugged and walked to the door. "I shall offer him so much that he will not be able to refuse." She paused, raising a hand to silence Beth as she listened to footsteps come up the stairs. The door to the room she had shared with Radcliffe opened and closed, and Charlie smiled slightly. It meant that she could talk to the innkeeper without worrying that Radcliffe might overhear.
"Wake me if he sells it to you," Beth whispered as Charlie opened the door.
Nodding, she closed the door behind her and headed below.
The innkeeper was a burly, rough-voiced man. Charlie took a seat at a table, accepted the ale the man brought over, then sipped at it as she considered how to approach him on the subject of a pistol. After a moment, she glanced about the room, empty but for her and the keeper, and waved him over.
"Is there something else you’d like, m’lord?"
"Company, if you do not mind, sir. Have a seat."
Eyes widening, the keeper hesitated a moment, then went to fetch a fresh pitcher and mug for himself. Returning, he took a seat across from Charlie, refilled her drink, then poured himself one and they drank in companionable silence for a while.
"I hear it can be dangerous on the roads," she commented finally.
"Aye." The innkeeper nodded solemnly. "I wouldn’t worry none though, m’lord, what with His Lordship wit’ ye. He handles hisself well."
Charlie nodded. "He was teaching me to shoot today."
The innkeeper grinned. He had seen the two of them out in the field. "Ye’ll learn," he said sympathetically.
Charlie glanced up, then smiled wryly. "Aye."
Leaning forward, the innkeeper refilled her drink, and Charlie glanced down in surprise. She had not realized that she had been drinking so quickly.
Determining to slow down her consumption, she asked, "Have you got a pistol?"
"Oh, aye. A fine piece, m’lord. Care to see it?"
Charlie nodded eagerly and the barrel-chested man maneuvered himself out from behind the table and hurried from the room. Charlie sipped at her drink as she waited, perking up when the man returned, pistol in hand.
"There." He set the flintlock pistol on the table with care, then poured more ale for them both as Charlie picked up the weapon. It seemed a fine piece; thirteen inches long with cut steel stock inlays. Her eyes widened as she noted the initials R. N. on the hand-carved stock, guessing correctly that an innkeeper would not be able to afford such a fine piece.
"Got it from a lord," he announced, noting her interest in the initials.
"Couldn’t pay his bill. Got caught up in a game of chance with some other customers at the inn. Lost all his money. Caught him trying to sneak out in the middle of the night. He gave me the pistol rather than find hisself arrested."
"Bad business, that. Sneaking out of an inn in the middle of the night."
Charlie nearly overturned her drink at those words and glanced up sharply to find Radcliffe standing over her, laughter in his eyes.
"I thought you had gone to bed, my lord," she commented irritably, shifting on her seat and handing the innkeeper the pistol back.
"We slept all day," Radcliffe pointed out, taking a seat at the table and waving the innkeeper back to his when he started to rise. "Do not leave on my account.
I thought to join you both."
"I’ll just get ye a glass, Yer Lordship," the innkeeper said happily, hurrying away from the table.
Charlie watched him go with a sigh. The man was overjoyed at this turn of events. It was not often, she supposed, that two members of the gentry sat to drink with him. It was a shame she could not share in his pleasure, but right that minute, Charlie wished Radcliffe anywhere but there.
"It is less than a day’s travel to London from the next inn we shall stop at."
Charlie glanced at Radcliffe as he continued.
"I am going to send a messenger on from there to fetch my hack. It is enclosed, and I think it would be better if you and your sister are not seen arriving.
You can stay at my townhouse and I shall introduce you as my cousins. That should give you a little bit of time before the lie is discovered and your uncle finds out your whereabouts. With any luck, we shall have her married off before then."
He was silent for a moment, then went on with his plans for them, "I shall take you to a jeweler I know the day after we arrive. He will give you a fair price for your mother’s jewels. I would not recommend cashing them all in right away, though. Just enough to pay for wardrobes and make a few investments should do. I was heading to town myself to invest in a venture. You might want to consider it. It is a bit risky, but if all goes well, it might be very profitable."
Charlie merely sat blinking at the man, a little stunned at all he was saying.
He was offering a lot more than protection, and what he was offering was astounding. His home, protection, and aid. With his help, she could build a fortune and many Beth off to a nice safe man that she liked If she really were Charles and not Charlie, she reminded herself and sighed. Of the two of them, Beth was not the one who was really in peril. She would have been miserable married to Seguin, but she would have been well cared for.
The real danger was to Charlie herself, and she could hardly find a husband as a man.
Sighing, she shook her head regretfully. It had been a nice thought, but she could not risk Beth having a coming out. Even with a fake name. Their safest option was to flee to Ralphy. That in mind, she determined to wait until Radcliffe went to bed, then to approach the innkeeper about his gun.
"The boy seems a bit under the weather, m’lord," the innkeeper commented with amusement. "Not used to strong drink, I’d be sayin’."
Radcliffe glanced at Charles’ rather blank expression and smiled wryly.
"And I would say you were right," he agreed dryly, reaching out quickly to catch the boy by the scruff of the neck when he suddenly lurched forward in his seat with every appearance of being about to slam face first into the table top.
"He’s done gone and passed out," the innkeeper laughed.
"Aye." Sighing, Radcliffe straightened, still holding the boy’s head up, then lifted him in his arms.
"A skinny little feller, isn’t he?" the innkeeper commented, glancing over the boy lying limply in the man’s arms. "Looks a lot like his sister. Acts a lot like her too. He’ll be a fine man once he’s grown, though."
"Aye." Radcliffe headed for the stairs. "There will be extra coins when I pay tomorrow.Thank you for your company and the ale."
"Yer welcome, m’lord. My pleasure."
Radcliffe carried Charles up to their room, glancing curiously at the boy’s face as he moved. The resemblance between the twins was rather amazing, and now that the innkeeper had mentioned it, they did act a lot alike. The boy could be almost missish on occasion. It was probably from spending so much time in Beth’s company, he supposed, rearranging the boy in his arms to open the door to their room. He would shed those ways easily after some time in male company, no doubt.
It had become obvious from the conversation at dinner that the brother and sister spent most, if not all, of their time together. That was unsurprising when the only other kin around was their uncle.
Kicking the door closed with one booted foot, Radcliffe walked to the bed and set the boy gently upon it, aware of an odd sense of relief as he did. He did not feel at all comfortable touching the lad. He had noticed it that afternoon while teaching him to shoot. An odd sense of awareness had fired through him at one point when he had positioned himself behind the boy, one hand on his shoulder, the other on his hand to help him aim. His mind now shied away from the memory, just as he had physically removed himself from the nearness to Charlesat the time.
Radcliffe had a healthy sexual drive and had taken many women to his bed, or theirs as the case had been. He really was quite taken aback by his reaction to this slim, young lad. It was probably the boy’s resemblance to his sister, he decided suddenly, relieved at the simple explanation It had been two weeks since he had broken off with his latest mistress. No doubt his abstinence of late, plus the boy’s amazing resemblance to his sister, had caused a confused reaction inside him.
The convoluted explanation made perfect sense to him. Despite the fact that he had not noticed any such reaction to touching the girl when he had carried her into the inn upon their arrival, he decided that it was really Beth that he was attracted to. He had always had a weakness for soft curves, and the girl had an excess of those. She was who he truly was reacting to when he touched her brother.
He was so desperate to believe that, he might verywell have taken the girl to his bed, except that he was not interested in marriage just yet and the girl was not the sort to be trifled with. Especially not when she was supposed to be under his protection. He supposed he would just have to make a visit to a brothel once they arrived in London. Everything would be all right then.
His gaze fell upon the boy sleeping in their bed and he nodded. He would take Charles with him. The lad would probably appreciate the initiation into manhood.
Radcliffe didnot question how he knew that the boy was an innocent in matters of the flesh, he just accepted the knowledge. He also did not question why he was unwilling to strip the boy and prepare him for sleep. He simply turned and walked to the other side of the bed and began to undress himself. He had removed his coat and shirt and was reaching for the fastening of his breeches when he hesitated. His gaze shifting to the sweet-faced boy in the bed, he decided to leave his pants on and avoid a nightshirt that night. He did not question that decision too closely either as he put out the candle, then crawled into bed, careful to arrange himself so that no part of him touched the boy under the linens.
Radcliffe was dreaming of his last mistress, Lena. They were cuddled up in bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. She was murmuring sweetly to him, her full lips brushing kisses across his chest as she reached down with one hand to cover and caress his manhood.
Sighing pleasantly, he opened his eyes and hugged the woman a little closer, then stiffened. The woman in his arms was not a woman at all. It was a sleeping Charles Westerly. The hand he had dreamt was caressing him was actually the boy’s knee thrown over him with abandon as he slept. The lad was wrapped about him like he was a warm whore on a cold night, and worse yet, Radcliffe himself was responding to the proximity in a way that no whore would. He was as hard as a poker.
Cursing roundly, he struggled out from beneath the boy in a fit of panic, gained his feet, and turned back to glareat the lad as if it were his fault.
Startled awake by the jostling and bouncing, Charlie sat up abruptly, glancing about with alarm.
"What? What is it?" the boy cried. Charlie was barely awake, but had apparently caught Radcliffe’s panic like a communicable disease and cast about for an explanation. The lad’s first thought must have been that they had been robbed.
Rolling onto his stomach, he leaned off the bed to peer under it, visibly relaxing when he spied the bags still there. Dragging one out, he yanked it open, then sighed as he saw that the jewels had not been stolen.