A week to be wicked, p.11
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.11
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 11

 

  He shook his head. “Pet, I thought I’d made myself understood. I—”

  “I agree to your conditions. All of them. You can ride out. We won’t travel at night. And the part about the bed . . . ?” A faint wash of pink touched her cheeks. “That too. But we’ll need to leave tomorrow, if we’re going to make the symposium. ”

  He swallowed hard. The part about the bed . . . ? He really wished she hadn’t said that.

  Colin had rules for himself where women were concerned. So far he’d always followed them, and his remaining self-respect dangled on that slim cord. But this was different. She was different, in ways he couldn’t yet define. He usually didn’t find innocence so alluring, but in her case it was sweetened by bold, unabashed curiosity. Given the opportunity, he wasn’t sure he could resist. And weeks of travel would present many, many opportunities.

  Right this moment, he was entertaining a quite vivid fantasy of unwinding that knot in her hair, stripping that drab linen from her body, peeling away any layers of modesty beneath . . . and leaving those spectacles on. So she’d see him. So she’d know just who was making her twist and pant and moan with pleasure. So she’d watch each and every wince of pleasure on his face as he pushed into—

  “Don’t come for me at the rooming house,” she said. “Too much chance of being intercepted. I’ll walk out and meet you by the road. ”

  Colin massaged his jaw, releasing a faint groan. He was a libertine with prodigious experience. She was a naïve bluestocking still tasting her first kiss. This was an exceedingly bad idea. No matter how much he wanted to leave Spindle Cove, no matter how much she claimed to want this journey . . .

  It could not happen. Because now he wanted her.

  “Colin?”

  He shook himself. “Yes?”

  She met his gaze. The vulnerability shining in her eyes plucked at his conscience.

  “Please,” she said. “You will be there, won’t you? You won’t play me another cruel trick and leave me the laughingstock, standing all by myself while the coach passes by?” She swallowed hard. “Should I be worried about you?”

  Yes, pet. That’s just it. You should be worried indeed.

  Chapter Six

  He wasn’t coming.

  Minerva stared off in the direction of the castle. Then she checked her timepiece for the fourth time in as many seconds. Two . . . no, three minutes past six.

  He wasn’t coming.

  She should never have dreamed otherwise. She ought to have known he’d let her down.

  The ground shivered beneath her. A rumble of hoofbeats reached her ears. Here it came, the coach. And it would pass her by. Leave her standing on the side of the road—an awkward fool of a girl, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  Hopeless.

  She stared down the road, just waiting for the black shadow of the coach to crest the distant hill. So strange. The hoofbeats grew louder and louder, but no carriage appeared. By this point, she could actually feel the earth’s low rumble in her shinbones. Still no coach. She whirled, feeling confused and frantic.

  And there he was. Lord Payne.

  Colin.

  Charging toward her on horseback, dashing through the early-morning mist. The wind rippling through his wavy hair. The sight was just like something from a fairy tale. Oh, he wasn’t riding a white stallion, but rather a serviceable, sturdy bay gelding. And he was dressed not in shining armor or regal attire, but in a simple, well-tailored blue topcoat and buckskin riding breeches.

  No matter. He still took her breath away. As he slid from his horse, he was magnificent. Resplendent. Without a doubt, the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.

  And then he spoke.

  “This is a mistake. ”

  She blinked at him. “A mistake?”

  “Yes. I should have said as much yesterday, but better late than never. This journey would be a mistake, of catastrophic proportions. It can’t happen. ”

  “But . . . ” Looking around, she realized he had nothing with him. No valises. No bags of any kind. Her heart sank. “Yesterday, in the cave. Colin, you promised. ”

  “I said I’d be here at six. I didn’t promise I’d leave with you. ”

  Minerva reeled in her half boots. Deflated and numb, she dropped to sit on the edge of her largest trunk.

  He surveyed her baggage. “Good God. How did you bring three trunks all the way up here by yourself?”

  “I made three trips,” she said weakly. Three cold, hard slogs through the mist. For nothing.

  “Three trunks,” he repeated. “What could possibly be in them all?”

  “Why do you care? You’ve just said you won’t go. ”

  He crouched in front of her, sinking to her eye level. “Listen, Michaela. This is for your own good. Did anyone notice we’d gone missing yesterday? Did anyone see us kiss the other night?”

  She shook her head. “No. ”

  No one seemed to suspect a thing. Which ought to have made her feel better, but was somehow the most humiliating part yet.

  “Then you’re safe, so far. And there’s too much at risk for you in this undertaking. Not just your reputation, but your safety. Your happiness. And it all might come to naught. ” He tipped her chin.

  She stared into his eyes. They were red-rimmed and weary. Little lines creased the space between his eyebrows. He hadn’t shaved. From a distance, he’d appeared handsome and dashing, but up close . . . “Goodness. You look horrible. ”

  He rubbed his face. “Yes, well. I had a hard night. ”

  “No sleep?”

  “Actually, I did try to sleep. That’s the problem. I ought to know by now, that never ends well. ”

  Here it came again, that wave of sympathy rolling through her chest. She wanted to touch his hair, but settled for plucking a little burr from his coat sleeve.

  “All the more reason you should want to come with me. ” She tried to make it sound like the only obvious and logical solution, though she knew it really wasn’t. “Before the fortnight’s out, you could have enough money to return to London and live as you please. ”

  He shook his head. “I don’t know how to say this kindly, so I’ll just put it bluntly. Forget about me. Never mind your sister. To the devil with the five hundred guineas. Think of yourself. You’re betting your reputation, your family harmony—your entire future—on a queer-shaped hole in the ground. I’m a gambler, pet. I know a bad wager when I see one. ”

  “So you don’t believe in me. ”

  “No, that’s not it. I just don’t believe in dragons. ”

  “Is that all? You think I’m fanciful?” She stood and began pulling at the fastened straps of her trunk. “This creature was not a dragon. Not a mythical beast of any kind, but a real, living animal. And I’ve based my conclusions on years of scientific study. ”

  After a few minutes’ fumbling, she finally got the trunk open. “Here,” she said, lifting out stacks of journals and setting them atop the other trunk. “All my personal writings and findings. Months of notes, sketches, measurements. ” She held up a thick leather-bound diary. “This entire journal is filled with my comparisons from the available fossil record. Verifying that no similar creature has been recorded to date. And if all that fails to convince them . . . ”

  She pushed aside a layer of fabric padding. “Here. I’ve brought this. ”

  Colin stared at the object in the trunk. “Why, it’s the footprint. ”

  She nodded. “I made a casting, from plaster of Paris. ”

  He stared at it some more. In the cave, in the dark, the “print” had looked like a random, three-pronged depression in the ground. The work of time and chance, not some primeval creature.

  But now in the sunlight, cast in plaster relief—he could see it clear. The edges were defined and smooth. Just as with a human footprint, the toe prints were individual and separate from the sole. It really
looked like a foot. An enormous reptilian foot. The print of a creature that could send a man running and screaming for his life.

  Colin had to admit, it was rather impressive.

  But not nearly as impressive as Minerva herself.

  At last, here was a glimmer of that confident, clever woman who’d visited his quarters. The woman he’d been waiting to see again.

  The brisk morning air lent her skin a pretty flush, and the misty sunlight revealed it to lovely effect. She’d coiled all that dark, heavy hair and tightly pinned it for the journey—save a few fetching tendrils that spiraled lazily from her temple to her cheek. Doeskin gloves hugged her fingers like a second skin. Her traveling gown was velvet. Exquisitely tailored and dyed in a lush, saturated hue that danced the line between red and violet. Depending on how the sunlight caught the velvet’s thick nap, that gown was either the blaring color of alarm—or the hue of wild, screaming pleasure.

  Either way, Colin knew he ought to lower his gaze, back away slowly, and be done with this.

  “I will win the prize,” she said. “If you still don’t believe me, I’ll prove it to you. ”

  “Really, you don’t need to—”

  “It’s not only me who believes it. I know you think I’m mad, but he’s not. ” She rummaged through the trunk’s interior side pocket and withdrew an envelope. “Here, read it. ”

  He unfolded the letter, holding it carefully by its edges. The message was penned in a crisp, masculine hand.

  “ ‘My dear friend and colleague,’ ” he read aloud. “ ‘I have read with great interest your latest reports from Sussex. ’ ” He skimmed the letter. “So on and so forth. Something about rocks. More about lizards. ”

  “Just skip to the end. ” She jabbed a finger at the last paragraph. “Here. ”

  “ ‘These findings of yours are exciting indeed,’ ” Colin read. “ ‘I wish you would reconsider your plans and make the journey to Edinburgh for the symposium. Surely the prize would be yours, without contest. And though it be paltry inducement compared to a purse of five hundred guineas, I would add that I’m most eager to further our acquaintance. I find myself growing most impatient to meet, face-to-face, the colleague whose scholarship I have long admired and whose friendship I have . . . ” His voiced trailed off. He cleared his throat and resumed reading. “ ‘Whose friendship I have come to hold so very dear. Please . . . ’ ”

  Colin paused. So very dear? In correspondence between a gentleman and an unattached young lady, that was practically a declaration of love.

  “ ‘Please make the journey. Yours in admiration, Sir Alisdair Kent,’” he finished.

  He’d be damned. The awkward bluestocking had an admirer. Perhaps even a sweetheart. How quaint. How precious. How unspeakably irritating.

  “There,” she said. “I’m certain to win the prize. Do you see?”

  “Oh, I see. I see your little plan now. ” He took a few aimless paces, chuckling to himself. “I can’t believe this. I’m being used. ”

  “Used? What can you mean? That’s absurd. ”

  He made a dismissive noise. “Please. Here I was so concerned that if I consented to this trip, I’d be using you ill. ” He held up the letter. “But this is all about Sir Alisdair Kent. You were going to pretend to elope with me, on the hopes of seeing him. You’re the one using me. ”

  She snatched the letter from his grip. “I’m not using you. You would come out richer for this, while I would be utterly ruined. I’m offering you the entire prize. Five hundred guineas. ”

  “A fine price for my tender heart. ” He pressed a hand over the offended organ. “You meant to ruthlessly toy with my affections. Suggesting we travel together for weeks. An unmarried man and an unmarried woman, trapped in close quarters for all those days. ” He cocked an eyebrow. “All those nights. You’ll be casting glances at me over those coy little spectacles, driving me wild with all your polysyllabic words. Sharing my bed. Kissing me like a brazen temptress. ”
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