Closing his eyes, the boy took a couple of deep breaths, then turned back to glance at Radcliffe, who still stood by the bed, glaring down at him almost furiously. Bewilderment obvious on the boy’s face, he rolled again onto his back, straightened the wig on his head, and sat up. "What?"
Blinking, Radcliffe stared at the boy for a moment, then glanced grimly away.
The lad was totally oblivious to what had happened. One look at the lad’s lap was enough to tell him that Charles had not been the least aroused by the encounter, asleep or no.
Turning his back to the boy, lest he notice Radcliffe’s own arousal, he grabbed up his shirt and shrugged quickly into it, muttering, "Bad dream," by way of explanation.
He finished dressing quickly, though he could feel the boy’s bewildered gaze boring into his back. Once finished, Radcliffe snatched his bag and headed for the door. "Wash up, then wake your sister. We leave as soon as we have eaten."
He closed the door behind him with a slam.
Shaking her head over the peculiarities of men, Charlie glanced down at the bag she had dragged out from beneath the bed. Closing it quickly, she moved to the washbasin to clean up, her mind going over the night before. She had been determined to outsit Radcliffe downstairs, then haggle with the innkeeper for the pistol. It would seem thatshe had failed miserably. She could not remember much of the later part of the night. The innkeeper had kept refilling her glass and she had kept drinking. She had not meant to, but somehow every time she had turned around she was swallowing more ale. She did not even remember coming up to bed last night. She supposed the fact that she had come to bed meant she had been unable to purchase the pistol.
Sighing, she glanced briefly at the closed door,then tugged the wig off of her head. Scratching at her scalp with both hands, she movedback to her bags to dig out a hairbrush. Seated on the side of the bed, she tugged her waist-length hair out of the back of her shirt, undid the tie that secured it in one long tail at her neck, then ran the brush through it. It felt greasy to the touch, and she imagined it looked even worse, but she was not surprised. She had worn that blasted wig for two days and two nights, her head sweating something fierce under it. Still, that had not been nearly as uncomfortable as the tight binding around her br**sts, and her hair itching at her back beneath the shirt.
Charlie would have loved to release her br**sts from their bondage. Even just long enough to take a really deep breath or two. She would have liked to wash her hair and enjoy a nice long bath as well. But any of the above options were far too risky to attempt. Radcliffe could return at any moment.
Thinking about the man made Charlie sigh unhappily. The fact that she had not managed to purchase the pistol or slipaway with Beth had not really struck her on first awakening. Now it did. That meantanother day’s travel away from their intended destination.
Setting the brush aside, she retied her hair and pulled the collar away from her skin far enough that she could slip the braid of hair back into her shirt.
She could not say she was really sorry about being unable to escape.
Radcliffe had been kind to them. She did not feel right about sneaking out on him in the middle of the night.
A tap at the door made her stiffen briefly, then Charlie quickly resettled the wig on her head and stood as the door opened, relaxing when Beth’s head poked around it.
"Oh, good. You are alone." Slipping inside, she moved to Charlie’s side as she stood.
"I was unable to obtain a pistol," Charlie began apologetically.
"Good," Beth said abruptly. When Charlie blinked in surprise, she shrugged. "I did not really wish to run out on Lord Radcliffe. Besides, it has occurred to me that London may be the better destination for us just now after all. Think on it. How much better would it be to arrive at Ralphy’s with actual funds rather than just jewels? And with Radcliffe’s assistance, we are sure to get a fair price for Mother’s jewels. Later we can make our way to Ralphy’s if we must."
Charlie’s gaze narrowed at that. "What mean you by ‘if we must’?"
"Well" She pursed her lips slightly. "It does occur to me that we might like a coming out."
"Beth, we could not possibly!" Charlie gasped in dismay.
"What do you mean, why not? The answer is obvious. The moment Uncle Henry heard of our appearance in London, he would"
"Why must he hear?"
"How could he not?" Charlie snapped impatiently.
"He would not hear if we did not give our true names," Beth pointed out simply.
Charlie rolled her eyes at that. "Oh, aye. I am sure that fake names would do the trick. Just exactly how many twins do you think there are in England, Beth?
And how many of them do you believe are our age and likely to have a coming out this year? And how many have brown hair and midnight eyes?"
"Why must we tell them we are twins?"
"You do not think they would notice?" Charlie asked dryly.
"Nay. I do not Charles."
Charlie stiffened at that, comprehension dawning over her. It was followed quickly by a pain that she hid by turning away. "I see. You would like me to continue this charade so that you might have a coming out," she murmured unhappily.
"Charlie," Beth whispered, reaching to touch her arm, but her twin jerked away.
" ‘Tis all right."
"Nay. You misunderstood. I thought for us both to find a husband."
Charlie gave a harsh laugh at that. " ‘Twould be hard for me to attract a husband as a man, sister."
"Not if we took turns at being one." When Charlie stared at her blankly, Beth explained, "We could switch back and forth. One night you be the brother and I will be the sister, and the next we’ll switch. That way we can encourage whomsoever we choose. We can eventually tell the truth when we are sure of the men in question."
Charlie stilled at that and faced her. "You would take turns at being a boy?"
Beth nodded solemnly, her lips quirking slightly after a moment to ruin the effect. "Truly, it does seem that you get to have more fun as a boy, Charlie."
"Fun?" Her eyebrows shot up at that.
"Aye. Well, just look. Yesterday Lord Radcliffe took you shooting. Then last night, you got to stay up all night drinkinguntil you passed out drunk."
"Passed out drunk?" Charlie stared at her sister, horrified.
"Aye. The innkeeper’s wife told me all about it. Her husband told her that you drank near a gallon of his grog, then passed out like a fish. Lord Radcliffe had to carry you to bed."
"Oh, no." Charlie sank on to the side of the bed with dismay.
Beth watched her curiously for a moment, then commented, "You do not appear to be suffering for it today, though, do you?"
Charlie blinked at her words, then glanced at her with surprise. "Nay, I do not.
I feel right as rain this morning."
"Hmm. Uncle Henry always complained of a pounding head the morning after overindulging."
"Aye," Charlie agreed with a grimace. The man had been bad enough to live with at the best of times, but he had been impossible while suffering a hangover.
"Father never suffered the morning after, though, did he?"
"Nay." Beth smiled brightly. "I do so want to try getting drunk."
"Beth," she chastised with more amusement than true reproach.
"Well, and why not? You always have all the fun." Beth said the words teasingly, then sighed suddenly and admitted. "I do grow tired of being the sensible one at times, you know."
Charlie started to protest at that, then recalled her annoyance of the other night when Beth had naturally expected her to come up with a plan that would solve all their problems. Those had been their natural roles. Charlie had always come up with one hare-brained scheme after another, and Beth, with her sensible nature, had approved or disapproved. Should Beth disapprove, Charlie would scrap a plan. Should she approve, they had always carried itthrough. Charlie realized now that she had depended as much on Beth’s sensibility as Beth had depended on her risk-taking and scheming. This was a nice change. "Everyone must try on a new pair of slippers once in a while," she murmured.
Beth blinked at that. "What?"
"Do you not recall the story that Mother told us when we were little? About the princess who had a lovely soft pair of slippers? Her cousin came to visit her one day with a pair of bright red hard shoes with shiny silver buckles. They were obviously too small for the princess. Still, she insisted on trying them out and wore them until her feet were blistered before giving them up to return gratefully to her lovely soft slippers. Mother said the moral of the story was that everyone must try on a new pair of shoes once in a while, if only to find that they prefer their own slippers in the end. I wonder if this is not exactly what she meant."
Beth smiled. "Mother was very clever, was she not?"
"Aye. So was Father." Charlie sighed. "I miss them both very much."
Sinking onto the bed beside her, Beth slipped her hand into hers and squeezed gently. "So do I."
They were silent for a moment, then Charlie stood abruptly. "Well. Then we shall go to London, turn our jewels into money, buy a new wardrobe, and find ourselves a couple of husbands." Smiling, she glanced at her sister. "My goodness, Beth. I do believe you have come up with your first hare-brained scheme. Think you it will work?"
Beth shrugged. "It cannot hurt to try. We can always flee to Ralphy if it does not."
"Hmm." Charlie nodded, then smiled. " ‘Tis almost too perfect. Radcliffe offered to keep us and introduce us as cousins last night."
"Did he?" Beth’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘That was nice."
"Do you think we should tell him that we are both girls?" Beth asked, looking worried.
"Not if you want to do any of those ‘fun things’ a man gets to do."
Beth nodded solemnly. "Then we must keep it a secret."
"So when did you wish to make this switch?Now?"
Beth hesitated, then shook her head and murmured, "Mayhap when we reach London."
Charlie’s eyes lit up with amusement at that. "Afraid to share a bed with Lord Radcliffe? He is hardly likely to pounce upon you as a boy."
She smiled slightly at that, but shrugged. "Still, I am content to wait."
"As you wish, Beth."
The opening of the door brought them botharound to peer at Radcliffe as he glared in at them. "What is taking you two so long? Come, we must eat and be on our way."
"Aye, my lord." Charlie smiled at him widely, then bent to retrieve one of their bags from beside the bed. Beth moved to take the other, but Radcliffe was there before her.
"I shall take that, child. Do nottrouble yourself. ‘Tis quite heavy. Come along, downstairs we go. The sooner you both breakfast, the sooner we can leave.
Tomorrow you shall enjoy the comfort of a carriage ride into the city."
"It sounds lovely," Beth murmured on the way out the door, and Charlie smiled at her gentle words. Aye, it would be lovely to enjoy the comfort of a carriage after the days they had spent plodding along astride hard saddles, the dust kicking up in their faces. It would be heaven.
Carriages were the invention of the devil.
Charlie came to that conclusion within the first hour of the ride. She had never been far from home. Her parents had not been fond of travel and had preferred to spend their time at home with their daughters. Her parents had therefore only owned two carriages. The one they had been riding in the night they died had been destroyed in the accident that killed them. Uncle Henry had sold the other in this last year as the family’s money had dwindled. Charlie was grateful for the sale of the carriage now, as they hit another rut in the road and she was nearly bounced to the floor. She would never own one of these infernal inventions.
Grabbing at the seat, she ground her teeth together and prayed they did not have much farther to go before London. They had been traveling for what seemed like days, and she was positive should they not reach the city soon, she was in dire peril of vomiting all over their esteemed host. She could not stand the airless little box the three of them were crammed into much longer.
Catching Beth’s concerned expression, Charlie forced a reassuring smile for her sister’s benefit, then closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself anywhere but inside this hard, airless hack, bumping and jostling along the rutted road.
Surely no one got into one of these conveyances willingly, she thought desperately, opening her eyes again and grabbing frantically for the door handle.
Seeing her intent, Beth cried out in warning, drawing Lord Radcliffe’s attention. Glimpsing the green tinge in Charlie’s face and the way she was scrabbling at the door, Radcliffe shouted a warning to the driver, relieved when the carriage halted. Charlie got the door open and stumbled out of the cab.
She knelt in the grass to the side of the carriage and tossed her breakfast out on the roadside. Radcliffe appeared behind her.
Glancing around at that dismayed gasp, Charlie saw Radcliffe take Beth’s arm and urge her back toward the carriage, but her sister was having none of that.
Opening the small bag she always carried dangling from her wrist, Beth slid out a small vial and knelt beside her. "Here, Charlie, take this. ‘Twill settle your stomach."
Charlie took one look at the tonic her sister held out toward her, and turned to retch some more. Rather than be discouraged, Beth waited patiently for the course of vomiting to end, then pressed the vial on her sister again. This time, Charlie accepted the vial and even managed to swallow some of the concoction.
She then got shakily to her feet and stumbled back to lean weakly against the carriage.
Charlie heard Radcliffe clear his throat. The man had turned away from the roadside and stood with his hands clasped behind his back as he waited for Charlie to regain herself. After a short time, he glanced at her questioningly.