A week to be wicked, p.13
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.13
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 13

 

  Her heart squeezed. “Oh no. Oh no. ”

  Across the table, Colin looked up from his food.

  She fanned through the pages in dismay. “Oh no. Oh God. I couldn’t possibly be so stupid. ”

  “Don’t limit yourself. You can be anything you wish. ” To her annoyed glance, he replied, “What? You complained that I hadn’t been teasing you. ”

  She stacked her arms on the table and rested her head on them. Slowly raising and lowering her brow, thunking her forehead against her wrist. “So. So. Stupid. ”

  “Come now. Surely it’s not that bad. ” He put aside his cutlery and wiped his mouth on a napkin. Then he slid his chair around the table, so that he sat beside her. “What can possibly have you so upset?” He reached for the journal.

  She lifted her head. “No, don’t!”

  Too late. He already held it in his hands. He flipped through the pages, skimming the text.

  “Please don’t read it. It’s all lies, all foolishness. It’s a false journal, you see. I stayed up all night writing it. I meant to leave it behind, to give my mother and sisters the impression that we’d been falling in l—” She bit off the foolish words. “That we’d been carrying on for some time now. So they’d believe in our elopement. But obviously, I made a mistake. I brought the false journal with me and left the real one at the Queen’s Ruby. ”

  He lingered on one particular page, chuckling to himself.

  Minerva’s face burned. She wanted to disappear.

  “Please. I beg you, don’t read it. ” Desperate, she made a wild grab for the journal.

  He held it back, rising from his chair. “Oh, this is brilliant. Utterly brilliant. You sing my praises so convincingly. ” He cleared his throat and read aloud in an affected tone. “ ‘My mother always says, Lord Payne is all that her future son-in-law should be. Wealthy, titled, handsome, charming. I confess . . . ’ ”

  “Give it here. ”

  She chased him, but he backed away, scrambling over the bed and continuing from the other side.

  “ ‘I confess,’ ” he continued in that tone of declamation, “ ‘I was slower than most to admit it, but even I am not immune to Payne’s masculine appeal. It’s so difficult to recall the defects in his character, when confronted so closely by his . . . ’ ” He lowered the journal and drawled, “ ‘By his physical perfection. ’ ”

  “You are a horrid, horrid man. ”

  “You say that now. Let’s see how your tune changes when you’re closely confronted by my physical perfection. ” He strolled back around the bed, toward her.

  Now Minerva was the object of pursuit.

  She walked in reverse until her back collided with the wall. Like a child with nowhere to hide, she closed her eyes. “Stop reading. Please. ”

  He flipped through the book as he ambled toward her. “Good God. There are whole pages of description. The roguish wave of my hair. My chiseled profile. I have eyes like . . . like diamonds?”

  “Not real diamonds. Bristol diamonds. ”

  “What are Bristol diamonds?”

  “They’re a kind of rock formation. On the outside, they look like ordinary pebbles. Round, brownish gray. But when you crack them open, inside they’re filled with crystals in a hundred different shades. ”

  Why did she bother? The man wasn’t even listening.

  “ ‘No one around us could guess our connection,’ ” he read on. “ ‘To the observer, it would seem he only speaks to me to tease. But there is a deeper sentiment beneath his teasing, I know it. A man might engage in flirtation with disinterest, or even disdain. But he never teases without affection. ’ ” He speared her with a look. “Those are my words. That is blatant plagiarism. ”

  “I’m so sorry. Falsehood doesn’t come so easily to me as it does to you. ” She threw up her hands. “What does it matter? The words were a lie when you spoke them, and they were a lie when I wrote them. Don’t you understand? It’s a false journal, all of it. ”

  “Not this part. ” He pointed a single finger in the center of a page. “ ‘We have kissed. He has bade me call him by his Christian name, Colin. ’ ”

  He fixed her with an inscrutable look. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she found herself swaying toward him. For a dizzying moment, she thought he might kiss her again.

  She hoped he would kiss her again.

  But he didn’t. And she was sure she heard someone, somewhere laughing.

  “Yes, it’s true,” she said. “You’ve bade me call you by your Christian name. And yet, you can’t even recall mine. ” She wrenched the book from his hand. “I think you’ve more than made up for lost time now. In fact, I’m certain you’ve exceeded your teasing quota for the day. ”

  “I can’t borrow against tomorrow’s?”

  “No. ” She snapped the journal shut and tucked it firmly back in the trunk.

  “Come along. Don’t be upset. You said yourself, it was purposely ridiculous. ”

  “I know. That’s not what has me so upset. ” Not entirely. “It’s the fact that I left behind the other diary. The real one, with all my latest measurements and observations. ”

  “I thought you had reams of findings. ”

  “I do. But my presentation will be weaker for not having those. ”

  He paused. “How much weaker?”

  “Oh, don’t worry. ” She forced a smile and patted the plaster cast in the trunk. “Your five hundred guineas are assured. So long as we still have this. ”

  “Well,” he said. “Thank heaven for Francine. ”

  Colin sighed heavily and pushed a hand through his hair. What the hell was he doing? When she’d made her little ultimatum by the road, she’d left him no choice but to accompany her. Simple decency demanded it. But he’d spent the entire day expecting her to come to her senses. To call off the whole mad journey and demand he return her to Spindle Cove, straightaway. Thus far, however, her determination had not wavered. And some strange force wouldn’t let him leave her side.

  Colin didn’t know what the hell that force was. He was here in a coaching inn with her, so he couldn’t very well call it honor or duty. Protectiveness, perhaps? Pity? Sheer curiosity? He knew one thing. It damn well wasn’t five hundred guineas.

  From her trunk, she unpacked a stout roll of something white.

  “What do you have there?” he asked.

  “Bed linens. I’m not sleeping atop that. ” She indicated the dingy straw-tick bed.

  As he watched, she unfurled the roll atop the sagging mattress, stretching and leaning in her efforts to spread the crisp, white linen to all four corners of the bed. Colin noted the edges of the sheet were neatly hemmed, and embroidered with a delicate, stylized pattern that he couldn’t quite make out.

  She reached for a second roll. The coverlet, he assumed. This one featured the same repeating border. In the center, the fabric was emblazoned with an odd, roundish design the size of a dog-cart wheel. While she smoothed the creases, he cocked his head and stared at it. The careful, embroidered stitches delineated a coil of some sort. It looked rather like a halved snail shell, but the interior was divided into dozens of intricate chambers.

  “Is that a nautilus?” he asked.

  “Close, but no. It’s an ammonite. ”

  “An ammonite? What’s an ammonite? Sounds like an Old Testament people overdue for smiting. ”

  “Ammonites are not a biblical people,” she replied in a tone of strained forbearance. “But they have been smited. ”

  “Smote. ”

  With a snap of linen, she shot him a look. “Smote?”

  “Grammatically speaking, I think the word you want is ‘smote. ’ ”

  “Scientifically speaking, the word I want is ‘extinct. ’ Ammonites are extinct. They’re only known to us in fossils. ”

  “And bedsheets, apparently. ”

  “You know . . . ” She huffed a
side a lock of hair dangling in her face. “You could be helping. ”

  “But I’m so enjoying watching,” he said, just to devil her. Nonetheless, he picked up the edge of the top sheet and fingered the stitching as he pulled it straight. “So you made this?”

  “Yes. ” Though judging by her tone, it hadn’t been a labor of love. “My mother always insisted, from the time I was twelve years old, that I spend an hour every evening on embroidery. She had all three of us forever stitching things for our trousseaux. ”

  Trousseaux. The word hit him queerly. “You brought your trousseau?”

  “Of course I brought my trousseau. To create the illusion of an elopement, obviously. And it made the most logical place to store Francine. All these rolls of soft fabric made for good padding. ”

  Some emotion jabbed his side, then scampered off before he could name it. Guilt, most likely. These were sheets meant to grace her marriage bed, and she was spreading them over a stained straw-tick mattress in a seedy coaching inn.

  “Anyhow,” she went on, “so long as my mother forced me to embroider, I insisted on choosing a pattern that interested me. I’ve never understood why girls are always made to stitch insipid flowers and ribbons. ”

  “Well, just to hazard a guess . . . ” Colin straightened his edge. “Perhaps that’s because sleeping on a bed of flowers and ribbons sounds delightful and romantic. Whereas sharing one’s bed with a primeval sea snail sounds disgusting. ”

  Her jaw firmed. “You’re welcome to sleep on the floor. ”

  “Did I say disgusting? I meant enchanting. I’ve always wanted to go to bed with a primeval sea snail. ”

  She wasn’t impressed. “I worked hard on this. The calculations were intricate. I counted hundreds of stitches to get every last chamber right. ” She ran a fingertip over the ridges of thread, spiraling out from the center. “It’s not just a haphazard pattern, you realize. Nature adheres to mathematical principles. Each chamber of the ammonite’s shell expands on the last, according to a precise, unchanging exponent. ”

  “Yes, yes. I understand. It’s a logarithm. ”

  Her head whipped up. She adjusted her spectacles and stared at him.

  “You know,” he said, “this design begins to appeal to me after all. Sea slugs aren’t the least bit arousing, but logarithms . . . I’ve always thought that word sounded splendidly naughty. ” He let it roll off his tongue with ribald inflection. “Logarithm. ” He gave an exaggerated shiver. “Ooh. Yes and thank you and may I have some more. ”

  “Lots of mathematical terms sound that way. I think it’s because they were all coined by men. ‘Hypotenuse’ is downright lewd. ”

  “ ‘Quadrilateral’ brings rather carnal images to mind. ”

  She was silent for a long time. Then one of her dark eyebrows arched. “Not so many as ‘rhombus. ’ ”

  Good Lord. That word was wicked. Her pronunciation of it did rather wicked things to him. He had to admire the way she didn’t shrink from a challenge, but came back with a new and surprising retort. One day, she’d make some fortunate man a very creative lover.

  He chuckled, shaking off the sudden grip of lust. “We have the oddest conversations. ”

  “I find this conversation more than odd. It’s positively shocking. ”

  “Why? Because I understand the principle of a logarithm? I know you’re used to speaking to me in small, simple words, but I did have the finest education England can offer a young aristocrat. Attended both Eton and Oxford. ”

  “Yes, but . . . somehow, I never pictured you earning high marks in maths. ” She reached both hands behind her back, undoing the closures at the back of her gown. As if she’d forgotten he was even there, or felt no compunction about disrobing in front of him.
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