A week to be wicked, p.16
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.16
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 16

 

  A sound rasped from his throat. A raw, anguished, almost inhuman moan.

  “No,” he muttered. Then more forcefully, “No. Won’t let you. Get back. Get back, you bloody bitch. ”

  She winced. She’d never heard him speak in such a savage tone.

  Oh God. Oh, Colin. What are you facing in there?

  Desperate to do something—anything—to pull him out of that dark, terror-stricken place, she resorted to a trick he’d taught her on the dance floor. She slid her fingers to the vulnerable underside of his arm and pinched him, hard.

  He jerked and startled, sucking in a deep, gasping breath. Like a drowning man who’d just surfaced.

  “Colin, it’s me. It’s Minerva. I’m here. ” She twisted in his slackened embrace and rolled to face him. She stroked calming touches over his brow. “You’re not alone. It’s all right. Just take deep breaths. I’m here. ”

  He didn’t open his eyes, but the tension in his body ebbed. His breathing slowed to a normal rate. Her overtaxed pulse gratefully took the excuse to slow, too.

  “I’m here,” she repeated. “You’re not alone. ”

  “Min. ” His voice was like a rasp rolled in cotton-wool. Rough and soft all at once. His fingers caught a lock of her hair, and he twisted it between his fingertips. “Did I frighten you?’

  “A little. ”

  He muttered a curse and rolled her close to his chest. “Sorry, pet. All’s well now. ” His chest rose and fell with a deep breath. “All’s well. ”

  Remarkable. After that episode he’d just experienced, he was the one soothing her. And doing a very good job of it, too. His fingers grazed her temple in deft, calming strokes. The relief of knowing the crisis had passed . . . it left her sapped and boneless. Weak.

  “Do you need anything?” she mumbled, pressing her brow to his chest. “Brandy, tea? Would it . . . would it help to talk?”

  He didn’t answer, and she worried she’d offended his pride.

  He pressed a kiss to her crown. “Just sleep. ”

  So she did as he told her. She curled into his strength and let his slow, steady heartbeat lull her back to sleep.

  When Minerva woke next, it was daylight.

  And she was alone.

  She sat bolt upright in bed. Weak sunlight filtered in through the room’s single, grimy window. In the daylight, the room looked even shabbier than it had the night before.

  After donning her spectacles, Minerva looked around. All of her things were still there. But she saw no sign of Colin. Not his boots, not his coat, not his gloves, not his cravat hanging over the chair back.

  Her stomach lurched.

  He couldn’t have gone.

  She scampered from bed and began searching the table, the chest of drawers. Surely, he would have left a note, at least. When she found none, she hurried to wash and dress as quickly as possible. Rationally, she knew he was probably just downstairs, but she’d feel much better when she laid eyes on the man himself.

  Fortunately, the moment Minerva descended to the breakfast room, Colin rose from his chair to welcome her. “Ah. There you are. ”

  He’d bathed and shaved. She could see that his hair was still damp behind the ears. The worst of yesterday’s travel dust had been brushed from his coat, and it made a respectable dark-blue contrast with the snowy white of his fresh shirt and cravat. Someone had blacked and polished his boots to a healthy shine.

  He looked well. Truly well. Not just handsome, but vigorous and strong. After feeling him groan and tremble beside her last night, this came as profound relief. She’d been so worried for him.

  “Colin, I . . . ” Strangely overwhelmed, she put a hand to his lapel.

  “I do hope you slept well. We’ve been waiting on you. ”

  Her head jerked in surprise. “We?”

  “Yes, dear sister,” he said loudly, taking her hand in his. “Allow me to introduce the Fontleys. ”

  Dear sister? She gawped at him.

  “This is Mr. Fontley and Mrs. Fontley. ”

  He turned her, with all the finesse of a clockwork gear turning a porcelain dancer in a music box. Minerva found herself curtseying to a kindly-looking couple. Silver frosted the gentleman’s thinning hair, and his wife smiled from beneath a tidy lace cap.

  “The Fontleys have offered you space in their carriage. They’re traveling north as well. ”

  “Oh. I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance,” Minerva said, with genuine feeling.

  With a hand placed to the small of her back, Colin swiveled her to face the other side of the breakfast table. “And here are their children. Mr. Gilbert Fontley and Miss Leticia. ”

  “How do you do?” Gilbert, a young man just on the cusp of adulthood, rose from his seat and made a gallant bow.

  “Please call me Lettie,” the bright-eyed girl said, offering Minerva her hand. “Everyone does. ”

  Lettie possessed the same sandy hair and flushed complexion as the rest of her family. She looked just a few years younger than Charlotte. Twelve, perhaps thirteen.

  Gilbert brought a chair for her, and Minerva sat.

  Mrs. Fontley smiled. “We’re so pleased to have you joining us, Miss Sand. It’s our honor to escort you to your relations in York. ”

  Miss Sand? Relations in York? She shot Colin a look full of questions.

  The teasing rogue didn’t answer.

  Mrs. Fontley stirred her tea. “I think it’s so beneficial for Gilbert and Lettie to make the acquaintance of young people like yourselves. Doing such good in the world. Gilbert has his eye on the Church, you see. He’ll be at Cambridge this autumn. ”

  Gilbert spoke up. “Miss Sand, your brother has been telling us about your missionary efforts in Ceylon. ”

  “Oh, has he?” With an air of utter incredulity, Minerva looked to the “brother” in question. “Pray tell. What tales of our good deeds have you been relating, Colin?”

  She laid heavy emphasis on his name. His real Christian name. After all, if he were truly her brother, she ought to call him by it.

  Now, let’s see if he could remember hers. And use it, consistently.

  She propped her chin on her hand and stared at him, smiling.

  He smiled back. “I’ve just been telling all about our time in Ceylon, dear . . . M. ”

  M. So this was how intended to solve his memory problem. Not by actually remembering her name, but by reducing her to an initial. Magnificent.

  “Miss Sand, he’s been telling us all about your years of missionary work, ministering to the poor and unfortunate. Feeding the hungry, teaching little children to read and write. ”

  Lettie’s eyes went wide. “Did you really spend your schoolgirl years curing lepers?”

  Minerva set her teeth. She couldn’t believe this. Of all the false identities to assume. Missionaries curing lepers in Ceylon? “Not actually, no. ”

  “What my dear sister means”—Colin slid his arm around the back of Minerva’s chair—”is that it wasn’t all hard work, all the time. We were children, after all. Our dear parents, may God rest their souls, permitted us ample time to explore. ”

  “Explore?” Gilbert perked.

  “Oh, yes. Ceylon’s a beautiful place. All those lush jungles and mountains. We’d leave our family hut early in the morning, me and M, with just a bit of bread in our pockets. Then we’d spend our whole day out adventuring. Swinging from vines. Devouring mangoes straight from the trees. Riding elephants. ”

  Minerva looked around at the Fontley family. She couldn’t believe that anyone would believe this ridiculous story. Elephants and mangoes? But they all stared rapt at Colin, a mix of wonder and worship in their matching blue eyes.

  Well, at least this was some balm to the sting she’d incurred that night in the turret. She wasn’t his only dupe. Clearly, he employed this talent for willful, wild exaggeration regularly. And with consistent
success.

  “You’d wander the jungle all day long?” Lettie asked. “Weren’t you afraid of being eaten by tigers? Or getting lost?”

  “Oh, never. I might have worried, if I were alone. But there were always the two of us, you see. And we had a little system. A game we played whenever we went out adventuring. If we lost sight of each other in the dense jungle undergrowth, I’d just call out, ‘Tallyho!’ and M would call back . . . ”

  Colin turned to her, eyebrows raised, as though waiting for her to put the final link on this epic chain of balderdash.

  “You’re cracked,” she said.

  He slapped the table. “Exactly! I’d call out, ‘Tallyho!’, and she’d call back, ‘You’re cracked!,’ blithe as anything. And that’s how we’d keep from being separated. ”

  Each and every member of the Fontley family laughed.

  “What a clever game,” the beaming patriarch said.

  “Nothing will ever separate us, will it, M?” Colin reached for her hand and squeezed it, gazing fondly into her eyes. “I think I’ll never feel such kinship with another soul as I do with my dear sister. ”

  Across the table, Mrs. Fontley sighed. “Such good young people. ”

  As the footmen secured her trunks atop the Fontley carriage some time later, Minerva took the first possible opportunity to draw Colin aside.

  “What are you doing?” she hissed in his ear.

  “I’m making them feel comfortable,” he murmured in reply. “They’d never allow you to travel with them if we told the truth. ”

  “Perhaps. But must you make the stories so absurdly exaggerated? Curing lepers and riding elephants in Ceylon? How do you even come up with such things?”

  He shrugged. “It’s called improvisation. ”

  “These are decent people. It’s wicked to tell them such horrid lies. ”

  “We’re traveling under false pretenses. On the premise of a false engagement. Using false names. And this was all your idea. This is hardly the time for moral scruples, pet. ”

  “But—”

  He raised a hand. “If my entertaining the Fontleys with a few exaggerated tales counts as wicked, I suggest you learn to embrace wickedness. For at least the remainder of the week. Their offer of transport is a true boon. It will save a great deal of money and perhaps preserve your reputation, as well. You have a chaperone. ”

  She knew it was true. “That’s all very well. But now I’m the one who must ride in a carriage with them for days, living out your absurd fictions. ”

  “Exactly. So why not have fun with it?”

  “Fun?”

  He took her by the shoulders and waited for her to meet his gaze. Minerva did so, with no slight reluctance. It was impossible to think clearly when she looked into those brilliant hazel eyes.

  “Live in the moment, M. This is your chance to crawl out of that shell. There’s an interesting, confident girl in there somewhere. She comes out for a peek every now and then. Try being her, for just a few days. You won’t progress very far on this journey otherwise. ”

  Minerva bit her lip. She wanted to think there was an interesting, confident girl inside her, and that, at last, someone saw that girl clearly. But for all she knew, he was working the same trick he’d played on the Fontleys. Puffing her up with false praises. Telling her just what she wanted to hear.

  Lying to her. Again.

  “It’s only a few harmless exaggerations. ” He walked her slowly toward the carriage. “Think of it like running down a slope. If you attempt to slow down and choose your steps, you’re bound to trip up and stumble. But if you simply let yourself run with the story, everything will come out fine. ”

  “Are you ready, Miss Sand?” Mr. Fontley said. “Mrs. Fontley and the children are already inside. ”

  Minerva nodded.

  Colin handed her into the carriage. Once she’d taken a seat beside Lettie and arranged her skirts, her “brother” closed the coach door and popped his head through the open window.
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