The Switch (Page 6)

The Switch(6)
Author: Lynsay Sands

"Feeling better? Shall we get back in the carriage now?"

Charlie closed her eyes at that prospect, groaned, then pushed herself away from the carriage to kneel in the grass again. Beth was immediately beside her, murmuring soothingly as she held her sister’s trembling shoulders as she was sick.

Radcliffe watched the brother and sister from beside the carriage and sighed.

Things had not been going very well for the last two days. He had been suffering horribly from a hangover when he had finally managed to get the brother and sister to breakfast and then to depart the day before. Much to his disgust, despite the amount the boy had imbibed, Charles had not seemed to suffer the same problem. He had been grossly cheerful throughout yesterday’s ride, smiling and happily chatting away to his sister, while Radcliffe had felt as if his head were splitting in half. He had been more than grateful when they had arrived at the inn at which they’d spent last night.

Radcliffe had immediately hired a messenger from the nearby village to ride into London and fetch back his carriage. He had then joined the twosome for supper before retiring early to bed to nurse his head, only to awaken in the middle of the night to find the lad once again wrapped around him like a second skin.

Unfortunately, he had also found, much to his dismay, that he’d been quite enjoying the experience.

Disentangling himself, Raclcliffe had slipped from the bed and spent the rest of the night sitting in a chair, gazing fretfully into the fire. The experience had only convinced him more than ever that he must visit a brothel the moment he arrived in London.

With dawn had come the arrival of his carriage. Unfortunately, the driver had hit a nit in the dark on his hurried journey and had only just managed to make it to the inn ere the front wheel had split. After making arrangements for it to be fixed and follow them to the city, Radcliffe had gone to the nearby village to hire a carriage. This small, rickety old trap had been all he had been able to come up with. Riding in it was tantamount to torture. He was sure his very teeth had been shaken loose after the first hour. Should he open his mouth, every tooth housed within was likely to tumble right out.

Now he had a sick boy to contend with. Worse yet, the boy’s violent reaction to the ride was raising a rather similar response within himself. Radcliffe was positive should he stand there another moment, he would be kneeling in the giass losing his own breakfast. Cursing abruptly, he whirled away and paced off along the road in search of fresh air.

"There, there," Beth cooed, smoothing her hand over her sister’s back soothingly as Radcliffe marched away.

Charlie groaned as the last of her stomach’s contents left her body, then collapsed backward away from the mess to lie on the ground miserably.

After a moment, she opened her eyes to peer solemnly at her sister. "I am dying," she announced stoically.

Beth smiled faintly at the dramatic announcement and shook her head.

"Nay, love.

‘Tis merely the traveling sickness."

"Traveling sickness?" Charlie frowned. "What the devil is that?"

" ‘Tis what Mother called it. Father had it too. He could not bear to ride in an enclosed conveyance. Why do you think they did not care to travel?"

Charlie’s eyes widened, then narrowed on her sister. "Why are you not ill then?"

Beth shrugged. "I suppose I inherited mother’s more stalwart constitution."

"We are twins, Beth. Identical in every way, no?"

"Apparently not so identical as all that." Sighing, Charlie sat up slowly to glare at the carriage. " ‘Tis that damned contraption. What a hellish invention it is."

"Aye. It is most uncomfortable," Beth murmured on a sigh, then glanced at her once more. "Do you think you could keep down the potion now?"

Charlie nodded and drank from the vial Beth lifted to her lips. Hoping the liquid would settle in her stomach, she did not rise then but remained where she sat, her gaze moving along the empty lane. "Where has Radcliffe got to?"

Beth shrugged mildly. "I suspect he has gone to find his own little patch along the road. He was looking rather green himself."

Surprised pleasure flooded Charlieat that. "Really?"

"You need not look so pleased at the prospect,"

Beth chastised dryly and Charlie grimaced.

"And why should I not? The man has been a perfect beast to me for the past two days. Have yon not noticed?"

"Aye, I have. I was wondering what it is you have done to the poor man to cause such irritation."

"Done to him? Why, I have done nothing," Charlie denied in surprise, but Beth’s doubt showed and she frowned. "I have done nothing, I tell you. He woke up like that the morning after drinking with the innkeeper. I thought mayhap he reacts to drink like Uncle Henry does."

Beth considered that briefly. "That would explain his moodiness yesterday. But what of today?"

Charlie shrugged with a distinct lack of interest. "Mayhap his hangovers last two or three days."

"Hmm. He" Beth began, pausing as a carriage came around the bend and rolled toward them. It came to a stop behind their own carriage and an elderly woman, a young girl, and a man some few years younger than Radcliffe himself stared at them curiously from inside for a moment before the door opened and the man got calmly out.

A sudden indrawn breath from Beth drew Charlie’s gaze. Her sister’s eyes had become wide and rather dazed. Eyebrows rising, Charlie got to her feet, offered a hand to her sister to help her rise, then turned to face the man now pausing before them.

"Is there some way I may be of service?" the stranger asked, offering Beth a charming smile.

Despite the fact that the question was addressed to Beth, Charlie was the one to answer. Her sister did not seem capable of responding just then. She was gazing at the man rather dreamily and Charlie could not for a minute understand why. He was attractive enough, she supposed, frowning at his sandy brown hair and strong features. Her gaze dropped to take in his figure. Long and lean. Not bad, but not her sort. "Kind of you to offer, but other than switching carriages with us, there is nothing you can do."

When the man blinked at that rather blankly and managed to tear his eyes away from her sister to toss a perplexed glance her way, Charlie grimaced and explained. "We are traveling with our cousin," she said, stumbling over the words. "Unfortunately, his carriage broke down and we were forced to rent this conveyance to make the remainder of the journey."

The man peered dubiously at the rattletrap waiting at the side of the road, then took a step forward to glance inside, his eyebrows rising as he turned back.

"Did your cousin remain behind with his carriage?"

"What? Oh. Nay. He wandered off up the road a ways for a breath of fresh air. He shall return directly, no doubt."

"Ah." He nodded solemnly, his eyes returning to Beth once again. He seemed to hesitate. Just as he would have opened his mouth to speak, the younger of the two women, a girl really, came stumbling out of the carriage and hurried forward to clutch at his arm.

"Goodness, Tomas, we must offer to share our carriage with them. They cannot rattle into town in that. It must be most uncomfortable. Do offer a lift to them, Tomas. Do." She ended her breathless little plea with a brilliant smile directed straight at Charlie. When she followed that up with a fluttering of the eyelashes that could only be called coquettish, Charlie shifted uncomfortably and suddenly found great interest in her shoes. The chit was flirting with her for gosh sakes. Amazing! "Would you" Tomas began, and Beth took an eager step forward.

"Oh, that would be lovely."

Charlie grimaced at the breathlessness in her sister’s voice and glanced up to see her and Tomas grinning widely at each other like a couple of star-struck fools. A sudden clamp of fingers around her arm then drew Charlie’s attention to the young girl who was suddenly pressed close to her side, smiling up at her from beneath long eyelashes.

"Shall we walk up the road a ways and find your cousin?"

There was a definite predatory look in those eyes, Charlie decided grimly, raising her hand immediately to disengage the claws clutching at her. "I would not think to trouble you so. I shall fetch him back myself."

"That will not be necessary."

They all turned as the man in question made his return known.

"Radcliffe!" Tomas’s surprise was obvious. "I did not realize that you were this pair’s cousin." Stepping forward, he held his hand out in greeting. Radcliffe accepted that hand and nodded pleasantly back.

"Mowbray. Good to see you."

"Aye. We came across your conveyance and stopped to see if aught was wrong. Your cousins explained that your carriage had broken down and you were forced to rent this rattletrap." He gestured toward the carriage in question. "We offered to share our carriage with you for the remainder of the trip, if that is acceptable?"

Radcliffe hesitated. His gaze slid to Charles, then to the girl who was even now slipping her hand persistently back onto the lad’s arm. Noting Charles’s annoyance and the way he seemed to be trying to tell him by his expression that the ride should be refused, he nodded solemnly. "That would be most appreciated," he answered, deciding it would be good for the boy to enjoy a bit of female attention. Whether he liked it or not.

***

"And so Maman had a whole new wardrobe made for my coming out. She thinks I should be engaged in no time. What do you think, Charles?"

Charlie blinked at the tug at her arm and glanced at the girl rather blankly.

Clarissa Mowbray was a slender, sweet-faced, and sandy-haired girl, but she had not stopped babbling since Radcliffe had accepted her brother’s offer of a ride.

She had rattled on about sundry unimportant trivial things all throughout the transfer of luggage from the rented conveyance to the Mowbray carriage, pausing only long enough to make the seating arrangements. She had managed so that she was crowded onto the one bench seat between Charlie and Radcliffe, while her brother was seated between Beth and the older woman on the other side.

The older woman, as it turned out, was Lady Gladys Mowbray, the widowed mother of Tomas and Clarissa. The woman was hard of hearing, which had become obvious as Clarissa had shouted the introductions. It also explained why she did not rein in her daughter’s chatter. Charlie was just miserable enough at that point to decide that Lady Mowbray had most likely gone deaf in defense against the girl’s prattle. Charlie normally would have been ashamed of such catty thoughts, but she was finding it hard enough to breathe with all of them crammed into that small space, without the silly chit hogging all the air inside the stifling carriage to propel her witless gibberish. Charlie was positive that she was going to faint from lack of oxygen.

"I am sure he agrees with your mother’s prediction," Beth murmured now, glaring at her sister for not answering immediately. "Is that not right, brother?"

"Oh, aye. No doubt," Charlie muttered dryly, glaring out the window.

"I do not recall ever having heard that you had cousins."

There was a brief electric silence at Lady Mowbray’s words. The woman had been silent as a stone for the past several hours of the journey, and Charlie would not have minded had she remained so. The woman’s comment sent a shock of fear running down her neck. Turning sharply, she glanced at Radcliffe to see how he would respond to the question. Much to her relief, he looked completely unruffled and even managed a small smile and shrug.

"Elizabeth and Charles are second cousins to me by marriage."

"I see." The way Lady Mowbray was peering from Radcliffe to herself made Charlie shift uncomfortably. She remained that way throughout the rest of the journey, fighting off the effects of traveling sickness and avoiding Lady Mowbray’s speculative gaze as Clarissa babbled on about nothing. It was a great relief when they finally reached London and were dropped off at Radcliffe’s townhouse.

They were greeted at the door by a tall, slender, gray-haired man who exuded an impermeable air of dignity. Radcliffe introduced him as Stokes, asked him to show Beth to a room and arrange a bath for her, then gestured for Charlie to follow him. He led her into the library, saw her seated, then spent several minutes outlining what he had decided they should do to prepare for Beth’s coming out.

Charlie listened impatiently, her mind distracted by thoughts of finally removing the horrid wig, stripping off her clothes, unwinding the torturous binds, and sinking into a tub of warm, soothing water. When Radcliffe finally finished, she agreed to his suggestions with alacrity and escaped the room to find Stokes waiting to lead her upstairs. He showed her to a room, informed her that her sister was in the adjoining one, and left her alone with a brimming tub of hot water.

Charlie had just finally removed the last of her boy’s clothes and stepped into the tub of water when the door suddenly opened. Gasping, she dropped under the water, submerging herself in an attempt to hide from whomever it was, only to come springing up, splashing water everywhere a moment later when someone tapped on her head. She was wiping her eyes and casting frantically about for an explanation when she recognized Beth’s soft laughter. Irritationwas Charlie’s immediate reaction.

"Do not do that," she hissed, glaring at her twin angrily. "I near to had a heart attack. I thought it was"

"I am sorry, dear," Beth managed to murmur through her chuckles.

Sighing, Charlie relaxed in the water, her gaze moving over her sister’s clean pink cheeks and nearly dry hair. "You were quick about your bath."

"Hmm," she murmured, sinking onto the end of the bed. "I was so tired, I feared I might fall asleep in the tub. I rather rushed through it."

Charlie nodded in understanding. She herself thought she might sleep in the warm, silky water if given half a chance.

"Shall I help you with your hair?"

"Aye. Please," Charlie murmured, sitting up slightly as her sister knelt by the tub.

They were both silent for a while as Beth worked on her hair and Charlie worked on the rest of herself, removing the dust and filth from their days of travel.