A Week to Be Wickedpart #2 of Spindle Cove Series by Tessa Dare / Romance & Love
When a girl trudged through the rain at midnight to knock at the Devil’s door, the Devil should at least have the depravity—if not the decency—to answer.
Minerva gathered the edges of her cloak with one hand, weathering another cold, stinging blast of wind. She stared in desperation at the closed door, then pounded it with the flat of her fist.
“Lord Payne,” she shouted, hoping her voice would carry through the thick oak planks. “Do come to the door! It’s Miss Highwood. ” After a moment’s pause, she clarified, “Miss Minerva Highwood. ”
Rather nonsensical, that she needed to state just which Miss Highwood she was. From Minerva’s view, it ought to be obvious. Her younger sister, Charlotte, was an exuberant yet tender fifteen years of age. And the eldest of the family, Diana, possessed not only angelic beauty, but the disposition to match. Neither of them were at all the sort to slip from bed at night, steal down the back stairs of the rooming house, and rendezvous with an infamous rake.
But Minerva was different. She’d always been different. Of the three Highwood sisters, she was the only dark-haired one, the only bespectacled one, the only one who preferred sturdy lace-up boots to silk slippers, and the only one who cared one whit about the difference between sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.
The only one with no prospects, no reputation to protect.
Diana and Charlotte will do well for themselves, but Minerva? Plain, bookish, distracted, awkward with gentlemen. In a word, hopeless.
The words of her own mother, in a recent letter to their cousin. To make it worse, Minerva hadn’t discovered this description by snooping through private correspondence. Oh, no. She’d transcribed the words herself, penning them at Mama’s dictation.
Truly. Her own mother.
The wind caught her hood and whisked it back. Cold rain pelted her neck, adding injury to insult.
Swiping aside the hair matted to her cheek, Minerva stared up at the ancient stone turret—one of four that comprised the Rycliff Castle keep. Smoke curled from the topmost vent.
She raised her fist again, pounding at the door with renewed force. “Lord Payne, I know you’re in there. ”
Vile, teasing man.
Minerva would root herself to this spot until he let her in, even if this cold spring rain soaked her to the very marrow. She hadn’t climbed all this distance from the village to the castle, slipping over mossy outcroppings and tracing muddy rills in the dark, just to trudge the same way back home, defeated.
However, after a solid minute of knocking to no avail, the fatigue of her journey set in, knotting her calf muscles and softening her spine. Minerva slumped forward. Her forehead met wood with a dull thunk. She kept her fist lifted overhead, beating on the door in an even, stubborn rhythm. She might very well be plain, bookish, distracted, and awkward—but she was determined. Determined to be acknowledged, determined to be heard.
Determined to protect her sister, at any cost.
Open, she willed. Open. Open. Op—
The door opened. Swiftly, with a brisk, unforgiving whoosh.
“For the love of tits, Thorne. Can’t it wait for—”
“Ack. ” Caught off balance, Minerva stumbled forward. Her fist rapped smartly against—not the door, but a chest.
Lord Payne’s chest. His masculine, muscled, shirtless chest, which proved only slightly less solid than a plank of oak. Her blow landed square on his flat, male nipple, as though it were the Devil’s own door-knocker.
At least this time, the Devil answered.
“Well. ” The dark word resonated through her arm. “You’re not Thorne. ”
“Y-you’re not clothed. ” And I’m touching your bare chest. Oh . . . Lord.
The mortifying thought occurred to her that he might not be wearing trousers either. She righted herself. As she removed her spectacles with chilled, trembling fingers, she caught a reassuring smudge of dark wool below the flesh-colored blur of his torso. She huffed a breath on each of the two glass discs connected by brass, wiped the mist from them with a dry fold of her cloak lining, and then replaced them on her face.
He was still half naked. And now, in perfect focus. Devious tongues of firelight licked over every feature of his handsome face, defining him.
“Come in, if you mean to. ” He winced at a blast of frost-tipped wind. “I’m shutting the door, either way. ”
She stepped forward. The door closed behind her with a heavy, finite sound. Minerva swallowed hard.
“I must say, Melinda. This is rather a surprise. ”
“My name’s Minerva. ”
“Yes, of course. ” He cocked his head. “I didn’t recognize your face without the book in front of it. ”
She exhaled, letting her patience stretch. And stretch. Until it expanded just enough to accommodate a teasing rake with a sieve-like memory. And stunningly well-defined shoulders.
“I’ll admit,” he said, “this is hardly the first time I’ve answered the door in the middle of night and found a woman waiting on the other side. But you’re certainly the least expected one yet. ” He sent her lower half an assessing look. “And the most muddy. ”
She ruefully surveyed her mud-caked boots and bedraggled hem. A midnight seductress she was not. “This isn’t that kind of visit. ”
“Give me a moment to absorb the disappointment. ”
“I’d rather give you a moment to dress. ” Minerva crossed the round chamber of windowless stone and went straight for the hearth. She took her time tugging loose the velvet ties of her cloak, then draped it over the room’s only armchair.
Payne hadn’t wasted the entirety of his months here in Spindle Cove, it seemed. Someone had put a great deal of work into transforming this stone silo into a warm, almost comfortable home. The original stone hearth had been cleaned and restored to working order. In it blazed a fire large and fierce enough to do a Norman warrior proud. In addition to the upholstered armchair, the circular room contained a wooden table and stools. Simple, but well made.
Strange. She swiveled her gaze. Didn’t an infamous rake need a bed?
Finally, she looked up. The answer hovered overhead. He’d fashioned a sort of sleeping loft, accessible by a ladder. Rich drapes concealed what she assumed to be his bed. Above that, the stone walls spiraled into black, cavernous nothingness.
Minerva decided she’d given him ample time to find a shirt and make himself presentable. She cleared her throat and slowly turned. “I’ve come to ask—”
He was still half naked.
He had not used the time to make himself presentable. He’d taken the chance to pour a drink. He stood in profile, making scrunched faces into a wineglass to assess its cleanliness.
“Wine?” he asked.
She shook her head. Thanks to his indecent display, a ferocious blush was already burning its way over her skin. Up her throat, over her cheeks, up to her hairline. She hardly needed to throw wine on the flames.
As he poured a glass for himself, she couldn’t help but stare at his leanly muscled torso, so helpfully limned by firelight. She’d been used to thinking him a devil, but he had the body of a god. A lesser one. His wasn’t the physique of a hulking, over-muscled Zeus or Poseidon, but rather a lean, athletic Apollo or Mercury. A body built not to bludgeon, but to hunt. Not to lumber, but to race. Not to overpower unsuspecting naiads where they bathed, but to . . .
He glanced up. She looked away.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” she said.
“You didn’t wake me. ”
“Truly?” She frowned at him. “Then . . . for as long as it took you to answer the door, you might have put on some clothes. ”
With a devilish grin, he indicated his trousers. “I did. ”
Well. Now her cheeks all but caught fire. She dropped into the armchair, wishing she could disappear into its seams.
For God’s sake, Minerva, take hold of yourself. Diana’s future is at stake.
Setting the wine on the table, he moved to some wooden shelves that seemed to serve as his wardrobe. To the side, a row of hooks supported his outerwear. A red officer’s coat, for the local militia he led in the Earl of Rycliff’s absence. A few finely tailored, outrageously expensive-looking topcoats from Town. A greatcoat in charcoal-gray wool.
He passed over all these, grabbed a simple lawn shirt, and yanked it over his head. Once he’d thrust his arms through the sleeves, he held them out to either side for her appraisal. “Better?”
Not really. The gaping collar still displayed a wide view of his chest—only with a lascivious wink instead of a frank stare. If anything, he looked more indecent. Less of an untouchable, chiseled god and more of a raffish pirate king.
“Here. ” He took the greatcoat from its hook and brought it to her. “It’s dry, at least. ”
Once he’d settled the coat over her lap, he pressed the glass of wine into her hand. A signet ring flashed on his little finger, shooting gold through the glass’s stem.
“No arguments. You’re shivering so hard, I can hear your teeth chatter. The fire and coat help, but they can’t warm you inside. ”
Minerva accepted the glass and took a careful sip. Her fingers did tremble, but not entirely from the cold.
He pulled up a stool, sat on it, and fixed her with an expectant look. “So. ”
“So,” she echoed, stupidly.
Her mother was right in this respect. Minerva considered herself a reasonably intelligent person, but good heavens . . . handsome men made her stupid. She grew so flustered around them, never knew where to look or what to say. The reply meant to be witty and clever would come out sounding bitter or lame. Sometimes a teasing remark from Lord Payne’s quarter quelled her into dumb silence altogether. Only days later, while she was banging away at a cliff face with a rock hammer, would the perfect retort spring to mind.
Remarkable. The longer she stared at him now, the more she could actually feel her intelligence waning. A day’s growth of whiskers only emphasized the strong cut of his jaw. His mussed brown hair had just a hint of roguish wave. And his eyes . . . he had eyes like Bristol diamonds. Small round geodes, halved and polished to a gleam. An outer ring of flinty hazel enclosed cool flashes of quartz. A hundred crystalline shades of amber and gray.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Enough dithering. “Do you mean to marry my sister?”
Seconds passed. “Which one?”
“Diana,“ she exclaimed. “Diana, of course. Charlotte being all of fifteen. ”
He shrugged. “Some men like a young bride. ”
“Some men have sworn off marriage entirely. You told me you were one of them. ”
“I told you that? When?”
“Surely you remember. That night. ”
He stared at her, obviously nonplussed. “We had ‘a night’?”
“Not how you’re thinking. ” Months ago now, she’d confronted him in the Summerfield gardens about his scandalous indiscretions and his intentions toward her sister. They’d clashed. Then they’d somehow tangled—bodily—until a few cutting insults severed the knot.
Curse her scientific nature, so relentlessly observant. Minerva resented the details she’d gleaned in those moments. She did not need to know that his bottom waistcoat button was exactly in line with her fifth vertebra, or that he smelled faintly of leather and cloves. But even now, months later, she couldn’t seem to jettison the information.
Especially not when she sat huddled in his greatcoat, embraced by borrowed warmth and the same spicy, masculine scent.
Naturally, he’d forgotten the encounter entirely. No surprise. Most days, he couldn’t even remember Minerva’s name. If he spoke to her at all, it was only to tease.
“Last summer,” she reminded him, “you told me you had no intentions of proposing to Diana. Or anyone. But today, gossip in the village says different. ”