A week to be wicked, p.15
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.15
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 15

 

  For all the nights she’d spent weeping into her pillow in that drafty, austere attic dormitory, pleading and bargaining with God for a mother of her own . . . Occasionally, Mrs. Highwood’s behavior made Kate thankful for unanswered prayers. Not all mothers were blessings, apparently.

  “Begin again at the coda, Charlotte,” Kate told her young pupil. “Mind the rhythm here. ” She tapped the sheet music with a slender pointer. “Your fingering’s all wrong when you hit that run of sixteenths, and it’s slowing you down. ”

  Reaching over Charlotte’s wrist to demonstrate, she said, “Begin with your index finger, see? And then cross under with your thumb. ”

  “Like this?” Charlotte imitated the technique.

  “Yes. Two times slowly, for practice. Then try it up to speed. ”

  As Charlotte repeated the passage, Kate heard a series of subtle cracks from the direction of the bar.

  They came from Corporal Thorne. He sat with his rugged profile to them, his only companion a pint of ale on the bar. Whether the repetitive scales, the shuffling of cards, or Mrs. Highwood’s shrill pronouncements were to blame, Thorne was clearly unhappy to be sharing the establishment with anyone.

  As Charlotte started on her second repetition of the same passage, Kate watched the grim, enormous boulder of a man grimace at his ale. Then he brought his hands together on the counter and began to crack the knuckles of his left hand. One by one. Deliberately. In an ominous, vaguely threatening manner that suggested he might crack something—or someone—if the plodding musical exercise continued.

  “Make that three times, Charlotte,” Kate said, straightening her spine.

  Thorne was an intimidating presence, to be sure—but he would not put an early end to their lesson. Repetition was essential to music practice, and the ladies had every right to be here in the Bull and Blossom. It was both their tea shop and the gentlemen’s tavern.

  Just as Charlotte hit her stride with the coda, playing fluently at tempo, the doorbell jangled and Pauline returned from her errand.

  “Well, girl?” Mrs. Highwood asked. “Where is she?”

  “Miss Minerva wasn’t there, Mrs. Highwood. ”

  “What? Not there? Of course she’s there. Where else would she be?”

  “I’m sure I couldn’t say, ma’am. When I told Miss Diana you were looking for her, she—”

  At that moment, Diana burst through the door.

  The waxed playing cards slithered to the table as Mrs. Highwood looked up mid-shuffle. “Take care, dear. You’ll give yourself an attack. ”

  “She’s gone,” Diana said, swallowing hard and drawing a slow, deep breath. She held up a piece of paper. “Minerva’s gone. ”

  Charlotte stopped playing. “What do you mean, she’s gone?”

  “She left a note. It must have fallen off the desk. I didn’t find it until just now. ” Diana smoothed the paper and held it out, preparing to read.

  As if they were in church rather than the tea shop, the ladies rose from their chairs in unison, preparing to hear the reading. At the bar, even Corporal Thorne perked subtly.

  “ ‘Dear Diana,’ ” the flaxen-haired beauty read from the note, “ ‘I am sorry this will come as such a surprise. You, Charlotte, and Mama are not to worry in the least. I am safe, traveling north with Lord Payne. We have eloped to Scotland to be married. We are . . . ’ ” Diana lowered the paper and looked to her mother. “ ‘We are desperately in love. ’ ”

  The silence was profound.

  Charlotte was first to break it. “No. No. There must be some mistake. Minerva and Lord Payne, eloped? In love? It’s not possible. ”

  “How can they have been gone since morning?” Kate asked. “Did no one notice?”

  Diana shrugged. “Minerva’s always out exploring the cove and cliffs. It’s not unusual for her to disappear before breakfast, only to appear again just as dark’s settling in. ”

  Kate gathered her courage and addressed the elephant in the room. “Corporal Thorne?”

  He looked up.

  “When was the last time you saw Lord Payne?”

  The big man frowned at the bar and swore. “Yesternight. ”

  “Then it must be true,” Diana said. “They’ve eloped. ”

  A new concern pinched at Kate’s heart. She crossed to Diana and touched her arm. “Are you terribly disappointed?”

  Diana looked puzzled. “In what way?”

  Kate tilted her head toward the still-stunned Mrs. Highwood. “I know your mother had such hopes for you and Lord Payne. ”

  “Yes, but I never shared them,” she whispered. “He’s charming and handsome enough, but my feelings for him never went beyond friendship. I often thought it would come as a relief, actually, if he were to marry another. But I never dreamed that Minerva . . . ”

  “Minerva detests the man,” interjected Charlotte. “She’s told me so, many a time. ” She snatched the letter from Diana’s hand. “I cannot believe she’d elope with him. I would easier believe she’d been kidnapped by pirates. ”

  Kate lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Sometimes apparent dislike can mask an underlying attraction. ”

  “But for months now, they’ve done nothing but bicker,” said Charlotte. “And half the time, Lord Payne can’t even recall her name. ”

  “He did ask her to dance the other night,” Diana pointed out.

  “That’s true, they did dance,” Kate said. “But rather disastrously. Still, who could have guessed this?”

  “No one. Because it’s not right. ”

  Corporal Thorne shoved back from the bar and rose to his feet, nearly bashing his head on the exposed, black-painted rafters. In heavy strides, he crossed to join their group. “Payne’s up to something, I warrant. I’ll go after them. If I ride out now, I can reach London by morning. ” He looked to Diana. “If they’re anywhere on the Great North Road, Lord Rycliff and I will find them and bring your sister home. ”

  “No!”

  Everyone swiveled to face the source of this objection: Mrs. Highwood. The woman remained frozen in place, palms pressed flat to the table, staring straight ahead. Kate wasn’t sure the matron had blinked once since Diana read the letter.

  “No one is going after them,” the older woman said. “I’ve known from the first, Lord Payne would be my son-in-law. My friends always tell me, my intuition is unparalleled. ” She pressed a hand to her bosom. “Of course, I thought it would be Diana who’d catch his eye, lovely as she is. But it seems I discounted Minerva’s cleverness. ” Blue eyes gleamed. “I can’t imagine what the cunning girl did to snare him. ”

  “Surely Minerva’s the one who’s been snared,” Charlotte argued. “I tell you, she never would have run off with Lord Payne. She might have been kidnapped!”

  “I doubt she’s been kidnapped, Charlotte,” Diana said. “But Mama, you must admit that this turn of events is highly unexpected. ”

  “Unbelievable, more like. ” Thorne crossed his arms. “He’s up to no good. ”

  “Perhaps he’s in love,” Kate argued. “Like the letter says. ”

  Thorne shook his head. “Impossible. ”

  “Impossible?” Kate was highly annoyed on Minerva’s behalf. “Why is it impossible that a man should fall in love with an unlikely girl? Perhaps Minerva’s not the prettiest girl in the room. But maybe Lord Payne saw something of beauty in her curious mind, or her independent spirit. Is it truly so unfathomable, that an imperfect girl might be perfectly loved?”

  The Highwoods looked away in awkward silence, and Kate knew she’d said too much. This was about Minerva, not her. Their situations weren’t the same. Minerva might not be the prettiest girl in the room, but she was still a gentlewoman of good family and modest fortune.

  Kate was alone and poor, atop being cursed with physical imperfection. No dashing lords had proposed to elope with her, nor even asked her to dance. But foolish as
it might be, she held fast to the hope of love. She’d been holding on to that hope all her life, after all. She could scarcely uncurl her grip now.

  “Minerva is my friend,” she said simply. “And I’m thrilled for her. ”

  “If she’s your friend, you should be concerned. ” Thorne’s glare was intense. “She needs rescuing. ”

  Kate hiked her chin and gave him her profile. Her imperfect, port-wine-stained profile. “Shouldn’t that be her mother’s decision?”

  Mrs. Highwood grabbed her elbow. “Yes, Miss Taylor has the right of it! We should be celebrating. Imagine—my awkward, prickly Minerva, eloped with a viscount. Some might call it unexpected, unbelievable. But unless someone convinces me otherwise . . . ” A smile spread across the woman’s face, making her look ten years younger. “I call it a miracle. ”

  Chapter Nine

  Minerva woke in the night.

  Tangled with him.

  She knew a moment of pure, paralyzing terror, until she recalled exactly where and when she was . . . and with whom. Once she’d remembered that she was in a London coaching inn, and the heavy leg so casually thrown over both of hers belonged to none other than Lord Payne . . .

  Then the true fear set in.

  He sighed in his sleep, nestling closer. His arm cinched tight about her waist.

  Oh, God. His arm was about her waist.

  And that wasn’t the worst of it. He was all over her, and she was all . . . under him. His scent and warmth covered her like a blanket. His chin rested heavy on her shoulder, and his nose jutted against the soft place beneath her ear. Yes, the embroidered sheet still formed a soft, pliant barrier between their bodies. But aside from that, they were so closely intertwined, they might have been one creature.

  She stared up at the ceiling. Her pulse pounded in her throat. The desire to move was unbearable, and yet she didn’t dare stir.

  For untold minutes, she lay still. Just breathing. Staring into the darkness. Listening to the frantic beat of her heart and feeling the soft heat of his breath against her neck.

  And then, suddenly, his whole body turned to stone. His grip around her waist tightened to a painful degree, making it difficult to breathe. The leg thrown over hers went rigid as iron. His warm breath ceased washing against her neck.

  He began to tremble. So violently, he shook them both.

  Minerva’s heart rate doubled in both speed and intensity.

  What should she do? Wake him? Speak to him? Remain still and simply hope this . . . episode . . . passed?

  This dreadful sense of helplessness wasn’t new. She felt the same whenever Diana was stricken with an asthma attack. Minerva could never do much to ease her sister’s suffering during a breathing crisis, except to stay at her side and keep her calm. To let her know she wasn’t alone.

  Perhaps that would help him. To know he wasn’t alone.

  “Colin?”

  He drew a harsh, rattling breath. His muscles were coiled as tightly as springs.

  One of her arms lay trapped at her side, pinned by the weight of his body. But she had the use of her other hand. She raised trembling fingers and laid a cautious touch to his forearm. With the fire banked, the room had long gone cold. But his skin was damp with sweat.

  “Colin. ” She traced her fingers up and down his forearm in long, calming strokes. She wished she could caress other parts of him—his scalp, his back, his face. But unless he loosened his tight hold on her body, this was as much of him as she could reach.

  Her attentions didn’t seem to be helping. He shook violently now, and his breathing was erratic. His heartbeat hammered against her shoulder.

  This was so much worse than in the cave. There, he’d been mildly agitated. Now he seemed to be struggling for his very life.
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