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The switch, p.1
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       The Switch, p.1

          
The Switch
Page 1

  Chapter One

  Lord Radcliffe drew his horse to a halt and stared at the spectacle being played out before him. A young lad in the clothes of the gentry was standing under the front window of an inn, staring up the skirts of a girl hanging out of a second-floor window. The lad seemed to be speaking to the lass as he tried to grab at her feet, but Radcliffe was too far away to hear what was being said.

  Deciding that they were probably trying to run out on their bill, Radcliffe started to urge his horse on to the stables, not really caring enough to get involved. But at that moment, the girl pushed herself off the ledge to dangle from her arms. Radcliffe slowed and stopped again, amused. The boy caught the girl's ankles to keep her from slamming into the building, then stepped under her to offer his aid the rest of the way down.

  Unable to see what she was doing, the girl stepped on the lad's wig with one foot, setting it askew. She nearly lost her grip and tumbled backward to the ground when the obviously irate youth jerked her foot from his head to his shoulder. He then directed the other foot with about as much care.

  Radcliffe chuckled under his breath as the woman suddenly chopped to sit on the boy's shoulders. Her skirts fell over the lad's head as she did, blinding him, and the shift in position unbalanced him enough so that he stumbled backward, then to the side as he fought to push the skirt out of his view. At this point, the woman clutched at his hair for balance, forgetting it was a wig. It lifted from his head with her hands, and her upper body swung backward. The lad, already off-balance, tumbled backward with her. They both hit the ground with soft thuds, hidden briefly in the shadow of the inn.

  "Damn," Charlie muttered, staring up at the treetops above them until a pitiful moan from Beth stirred the cool night air. Sitting up, Charlie surveyed the prone girl with a worried frown. "Are you all right?"

  Elizabeth sighed at the question. Her moan had been one of chagrin, but the concerned face suddenly leaning over her own told her that it had been misconstrued.

  "Fine," she said dryly. She sat up to brush grass and dirt off of her dress.

  Charlie started to help, but Beth waved the attempt away.

  "Your wig is gone," she pointed out.

  Sitting back, Charlie searched the shadows for the errant wig, then slapped it irritably against one leg to remove the grass clinging to it before slamming it back in place. "Is it straight?"

  Beth glanced up long enough to nod, then struggled to her feet.

  "Well. That wasn't so bad," Charlie murmured cheerfully, standing and moving to snatch up the bags they had thrown out the window before descending themselves.

  Beth turned sharply, mouth open to give her own opinion of the debacle, but caught the twinkle of laughter in the coal black eyes that were so like her own.

  She relaxed, grinning back. "A ride in the park," she agreed dryly.

  Laughing softly, Charlie handed her a bag, took the other one, and led the way to the stables.

  "Is he unconscious?" Beth murmured as they entered the tottering old building and spied the stable lad slumped in a comer against a bale of hay. The bottle they had given him was still clasped to his chest.

  "Seems to be. You did put the sleeping powder in there, did you not?"

  Beth nodded silently, but held her breath as her twin carefully approached the boy, then lifted his head and let it drop back to his chest. He didn't even stir.

  Shrugging, Charlie stepped back. "Out like a drunken sot. "

  Her breath rushing out in relief, Beth moved quickly along the stalls until she found the one where her mount had been settled for the night. Murmuring soothingly, she stepped inside to set about quickly saddling him while Charlie did the same for the mount in the next stall.

  Several moments later, Beth was aware at once when her twin suddenly stiffened.

  Going still herself, she glanced up and about, her heart nearly freezing in her chest at the sight of a figure in the shadows by the door. Charlie tossed her a warning look, then affected the accent of the servant class and asked, "Some'ing I can do fer ye, m'lord?"

  One eyebrow rising at the boy's accent, Radcliffe smiled slightly. "It is very bad manners to sneak out without paying one's bill. And stealing horses is a crime. "

  Charlie stiffened, eyes shooting to Beth's face. The girl was as pale as the moon, her expression panicked as their gazes met.

  Radcliffe noted the silent exchange and wished for better lighting in the stables. He'd bet a lot of money that the girl was a beauty. His eyes were straining to make out her features in the darkness when the lad spoke up again.

  "We are not stealing. The horses are ours. "

  The false accent was gone, he noted absently, glancing at the boy.

  Obviously gentry, as he had suspected "And your bill?"

  "Taken care of. "

  Radcliffe raised one doubting eyebrow. "Then why not leave by the door like most people?" he asked, noting the couple again exchanging glances.

  Charlie was trying to decide just what to tell the snoopy hitch in their plans when Beth suddenly moved out of the stall and into the stream of moonlight coming through the stable doors.

  Noting the look of appreciation that immediately entered the stranger's eyes, Charlie peered at the girl now too, curious to know what the man found so attractive. Beth was pretty enough. Straight nose, good teeth. Her eyes were her best feature, large and blue-black, while her hair was an unremarkable brown.

  All of which described Charlie as well. Not surprising, since they were twins.

  But it was doubtful that the man had noticed that fact yet.

  "We were forced to leave through the windows to escape my uncle," the girl said.

  Radcliffe arched an eyebrow. "Why would you need to escape your uncle?"

  Noting yet another exchange of glances between the young couple, Radcliffe smiled wryly. "Or need I ask?"

  "I beg your pardon?" she murmured uncertainly.

  "You need not explain. 'Tis obvious you are about to head for Gretna Green. "

  "Gretna Green?"

  Charlie could have kicked Beth for her look of astonishment. If the saying were true that everyone loved a lover, they might have had a better chance of the man not interfering in their escape plans. He'd obviously thought they were eloping.

  Instead of leaving him with that mistaken impression, however, Beth gestured toward Charlie.

  "Charlie is my twin"

  "Charles," Charlie corrected quickly, stepping forward to join her in the light.

  Beth blinked, then nodded slowly. "Aye. Charles is my twin brother. "

  Radcliffe's eyebrows shot up as he looked the boy over. Except for the white wig, the two were identical. Well, of course there were the obvious physical differences. Where the girl's chest was ample, the boy's was not. After his initial surprise had passed, Radcliffe's eyes narrowed with some suspicion. "Why would the two of you need to flee your uncle in the dead of night?"

  "Our parents died four years ago," the lad answered this time. "Our uncle took over our care. He has done his best to run the family estates into the ground, and now wishes to replenish his coffers by selling Beth off into marriage.

  To Lord Carland. "

  Radcliffe stiffened at that name, shocked. Carland was a brutal bastard.

  He had been through three wives already. The first haddied in childbirth. It was said that a beating had sent her into labor, and may have had something to do with her death as well. The second wife had killed herself. The third had plunged to her death down the stairs of the family's country estate. There was much speculation as to whether she had had some assistance from her husband in that plunge.

  Whatever the case, not one of his wives had lasted a year, and no one would even consider allowing their daughter to marry the bastard now. But from this pair's description, their uncle was more concerned with his coffers than his kin.

  Were they telling the truth?

  "What are your names?" he asked abruptly.

  There was a pause as the two exchanged glances once again.

  "Charles and Elizabeth Westerly. "

  Radcliffe searched his memory briefly, then nodded as he recalled having heard of Nora and Robert Westerly. Happy couple. They'd had twins, though he had thought they were girls. The family members had spent most of their time on their country estate and hadn't cared much for town life. The parents had died four years ago in a carriage accident. Robert's brother Henry Westerly had supposedly taken over the care of the twins and the running of the estates.

  There had been some rumors of late that he was running through the money quickly in gambling, and from what the boy had just said, he had, and intended to make it up by selling his niece into a marriage that would likely result in her death.

  Radcliffe wasn't at all surprised to hear that Carland was willing to pay for a bride. The man needed an heir, else his estate would be left to some distant nephew. His gaze slid over the girl and he sighed. She was a delicate little creature. Other than her over-endowed chest,she was thin to the point of frailty everywhere else. He did not think she would last a month with Carland.

  "Where are you going?" he asked abruptly, gesturing impatiently when the boy stiffened at the question, suspicion tightening his mouth. "I am not going to tell on you. I would not wish to see your lovely sister in Carland's hands either. She would be dead in a week. "

  There was no doubting his sincerity. There was loathing in the man's eyes even as he said Carland's name. Still, Charlie hesitated to tell him the truth, that they were going to stay with their cousin Ralphy, a relative on their mother's side that Uncle Henry did not know existed. Lies were the only alternative.

  Oddly enough, the plan that came tripping out wasn't half-bad.

  "London. "

  Radcliffe's eyebrows rose yet again. "Relatives there?"

  "No. "

  "It takes money to live in London. "

  Charlie grinned "Uncle Henry went through our father's family fortune, but our mother turned her fortune into jewels years ago. She left them to us in her will. "

  "And your uncle did not try to cash them in or. . . "

  "He would have if he could have found them," the lad interrupted smugly.

  "But he couldn't. Mother and Father hid them years ago, in case of an emergency.

  Other than our parents, only Elizabeth and I knew where they were, and we conveniently forgot to mention that they had told us. "

  Radcliffe's mouth quirked at that; then he sobered. "He will find you in London. "

  "Eventually," Charlie agreed. "But by then Beth will be married off to someone in the ton. "

  "And you?"

  "I shall be living well off of investments made once I have sold my share of the jewels," Charlie lied nonchalantly.

  "You intend to give your sister a season by selling some of the jewels?"

  The boy nodded.

  Radcliffe frowned. "If you give her a season, your uncle shall hear about it and know where to find you. "

  "As I said, eventually, but he will not look in London first. He shall head back to the family estates, then check with relatives on my father's side. "

  "Why would he not look in London first?"

  "Because that is where he was taking us. He would hardly think we had run off in the middle of the night to beat him there. "

  Radcliffe nodded at the sense in those words. Even Beth looked impressed with the reasoning, and Charlie grimaced at her slightly. She was supposed to already know of this plan. If she was not careful, Radcliffe would see it for the lie it was.

  "What of Carland?" Radcliffe asked.

  Charlie glanced toward the man. "Carland does not go to London. Most of the ton refuses him admittance. My uncle was taking us to London to purchase a trousseau for Beth, then we were to continue on to Carland's estates. "

  It was a sound plan forthe most part, Radcliffe decided. What the boy lacked in brawn, he more than made up for in brains, it seemed. However, there were weak points in every plan and this one was no exception. For instance, if they planned on living off of a treasure of jewels, they obviously had the jewels with them. Probably in the bags, he decided, remembering the way they had carried them: one each, two-handed, as if they were heavy. All it took was a highway robbery to turn them into paupers at their uncle's mercy again, and he would guess the foolish boy was unarmed. Aside from that, there were all sorts of complications that could arise in London. Theft, of course, or a jeweler could cheat them if they went to the wrong one. And that was only the start of it.

  Radcliffe tried to shrug away his growing concern for the pair, but it would not vanish. He would have to help them, he supposed, but couldn't for the life of him figure out why he felt the compulsion. His gaze rested on the girl briefly, but he mentally shook his head. No, it was not that he was enamored especially of this girl. Oddly enough, he suspected he was going to do it because of the boy. There was a certain stiffness to the lad that spoke of fear, pride and courage all mixed in together as he stood protectively by his sister. He was taking a lot on himself to rescue her, trying very hard to be a man, though Radcliffe doubted that the pair was more than fifteen or sixteen.

  "You had best finish saddling up. Time is passing. You will wish to be far and away from here come the morning. " With that, the man turned and left the stables.

  "Do you think he will tell?" Beth asked anxiously as they listened to his fading footsteps.

  Shrugging, Charlie walked back into the stall to finish saddling the mount.

  "It does not matter. It might be good if he does, since the plan I gave him was a lie. But mount up quickly anyway. If he wakes everyone up, I do not wish to be here. "

  Nodding, Beth hurried back to her mount, then giggled nervously. "Where did you come up with those lies?"

 
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