A week to be wicked, p.17
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.17
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 17

 

  “I’ll be riding nearby, M. Never fear. If you have any need of me whatsoever, you know what to do. ” He flashed a smile and called out, “Tallyho!”

  In unison, Lettie and Gilbert called back, “You’re cracked!”

  With a little groan, Minerva buried her face in her hands.

  “It’s always been like this between me and M,” Colin said. As they walked through a little wooded area, he pushed aside branches so she could pass. “Ever since we were in our cradles. ”

  “Truly?” Lettie asked. “Even as babies?”

  Minerva rolled her eyes. How did he have the energy to keep manufacturing this poppycock? She was exhausted. By the time they’d stopped for luncheon and a change of horses, she’d been running down his figurative slope all morning, churning out one vague falsehood after another to satisfy the Fontleys’ boundless curiosity. She’d hoped to find some brief escape by declaring her intent to walk and stretch her legs.

  But of course, Colin would decide to accompany her. And Lettie and Gilbert would jump to follow.

  “Oh yes,” Colin continued, leading them all on the path. “My sister and I have always had this deep, unspoken connection. We have whole conversations without exchanging a word. ”

  He looked to her then. She held his gaze.

  He was right. They could have a whole conversation without exchanging a word. And the conversation they had right now went like this:

  Colin, shut it.

  I don’t think I will, M.

  Then I’ll make you.

  Really? How?

  I’m not certain, but it will be slow and painful. And I won’t leave any evidence.

  “She saved my life once,” he told the young Fontleys.

  “Who?” Lettie asked. “Miss Em?”

  “Yes indeed. She delivered me, single-handedly, from death’s clutches. It’s a grand story. ”

  Striding through the ankle-high grasses, Minerva choked on a laugh. Oh, I’m sure it is.

  “Do tell us. I’m certain the tale does Miss Sand great credit. ” Gilbert looked to Minerva with admiration in his eyes. And quite possibly a glimmer of infatuation.

  Oh dear. Of all the times for a young man to finally take a fancy to her.

  “Well, it all started deep in the jungle,” Colin said. “While we were out exploring one day, I was bitten by a rare, highly venomous beetle. ”

  Lettie’s eyes sparked. “And Miss Em cut open the wound and sucked out the venom!”

  “No, no. She couldn’t do that. The poison was too fast acting. ”

  “So she dragged you back home, to get help?”

  “I’m afraid not. ” Colin shook his head. “I was too heavy for her. ”

  “So I left him dying and went home for dinner,” Minerva said cheerfully. “The end. ”

  Gilbert laughed. “Of course you didn’t. You ran for help, didn’t you?”

  “She did,” Colin said.

  They’d reached the stream’s edge. Colin propped one foot on a fallen log.

  “And I’ll wager,” said Lettie, flouncing down next to his boot, “that she dashed like mad all the way home, and then made it back just in time. Bringing along some native doctor to cure you with his mystic chanting and powders. ”

  Smiling at the girl’s imagination, Colin shook his head. “No. Actually, by the time she returned with help, it was too late. She couldn’t heal me. I had died. ”

  Everyone went silent.

  “But . . . ” Lettie frowned. “But that can’t be. Here you are. ”

  “What happened?” Gilbert asked.

  Yes, what happened? Minerva almost added herself. Even she was breathless to learn what came next, when he’d lay dying in the jungle after a rare Ceylonese beetle bite.

  Nothing happened, you ninny. It’s all a lie.

  Colin cleared his throat. “Well, I can’t tell you precisely what happened. Because I slumped unconscious on the jungle floor, and I don’t remember anything after that. I’d fallen into a deep coma, it seems. The signs of life were so faint, my own family believed I was dead. They prayed over me, prepared my body and put it in a wooden coffin. And the next thing I knew, I woke up underground. In the dark. Buried alive. ”

  “Cor,” Lettie cried, clinging to his boot. “Whatever did you do?”

  “I cried. I wailed. I clawed at the planks sealing me in until my fingernails were torn to bloody nubs. I despaired and trembled. I screamed until my throat was raw. ” His voice had taken on a strange quality. He looked up, searching Minerva’s gaze. “And somehow, she heard me. Didn’t you, M? You heard me, calling through the darkness. I was alone and frightened. But in the dark of night, you heard the anguished cries of my heart. ”

  Minerva swallowed back the lump rising in her throat. She didn’t like this story anymore. She wasn’t sure what Colin was playing at. Obviously this description of his boyhood self, trapped and screaming in the dark, was meant for her. It would seem he hadn’t forgotten last night’s episode. He remembered it. All of it. And now he wished to . . . what, precisely? Thank her for her help? Mock her for her concern?

  He asked, “Do you want to tell the next bit, M?”

  She shook her head. “No. I don’t. ”

  He turned to the children. “She came running out to the burial site, began digging through the dirt with her bare hands. When I heard those noises . . . well, I thought at first I’d truly died, and the hounds of hell were scratching at my coffin. ”

  Lettie squeaked and bit her knuckle.

  “To this day, I have no fondness for dogs,” he said.

  “Oh, how sad. ”

  In her memory, Minerva heard the echo of his savage cries. Get back, you bloody bitch.

  “I tried to call out, but couldn’t. The air was growing more and more close, and I could scarcely take a breath. As the sounds drew nearer, I managed to suck just a gasp of air into my lungs. Enough to call out one word. ” He paused dramatically, then whispered, “Tallyho?”

  The children held their breath.

  “And you can guess what sweet magic I heard in return. ”

  “You’re cracked,” they replied in hushed unison.

  “Exactly,” Colin said. “She’d saved me from the very clutches of death. My dear, daring sister. ”

  Their eyes met, and Minerva had to look away. She didn’t know what to feel, but she felt . . . something. And she felt it deeply.

  Gilbert turned to her. “How brave you were, Miss Sand. ”

  She fluttered a hand. “Not really. ”

  “She’s too modest. Always was. ” Rising from the fallen log, Colin playfully chucked her under the chin before leading the way back to the road. “Just wait until you hear about M and the cobra. ”

  Chapter Ten

  “And that”—Colin tapped his fork against his now-empty dinner plate—”is the story of the cobra. ” He sat back in his chair, feeling satisfied.

  All the Fontleys turned their gaze from him and looked to Minerva, awed.

  Minerva glared at him. “I am not a snake charmer. ”

  “Of course not. Snake charmers need a flute. ” He turned to the Fontleys. “I tell you, she had the creature entranced with her sweet voice alone. It wouldn’t leave her side after that day. The scaly thing slithered in her footsteps, all over Ceylon. We made a pet of it. Named it Sir Alisdair. ”

  Under the table, something sharp jabbed him in the thigh. He covered his yelp of pain with a cough.

  Colin knew he’d pay for this later. But he couldn’t resist provoking her. Never had been able to resist it, ever since they’d first met. Today, of all days, he wanted to draw her out, push her beyond those boundaries she’d erected.

  He wanted to be surprised.

  And more than that—he wanted to keep the attention on her. Because if he gave her the chance to direct conversation, he knew she’d steer it in an unpleasan
t direction. One that involved last night. He didn’t want to discuss last night. In his own, circumspect way, he’d told her all she needed to know. As much as he’d ever told anyone.

  “Miss Sand,” Gilbert Fontley said, “how can we convince you to sing?”

  Shock flared in her eyes. “You can’t. ”

  “Mr. Fontley is quite the lover of music,” their mother said, patting her husband’s arm. “As am I. Miss Sand, we would be so pleased to hear you. Do oblige us, dear. There’s a pianoforte, just there. ”

  “But . . . ” She swallowed hard and said weakly, “I couldn’t possibly. ”

  Colin watched her as she surveyed the inn’s crowded dining room. In a village as small as this one, the inn’s dining room also served as the village public house. There were probably above thirty souls in the room, equally divided between travelers passing the night and local men enjoying a pint with the fellows. A good crowd.

  Young Miss Lettie joined the campaign. “Oh please, Miss Em. Do sing for us. ”

  “Come on, M,” Colin said jovially. “Just one or two songs. ”

  Minerva’s jaw tightened. “But brother, you know I gave up singing. After that horrific incident with the . . . millipede and the coconut and the . . . the stolen rubies. ” Before he could press for details, she jumped to add, “Which we have sworn a pact on our parents’ graves to never, ever discuss. ”

  He smiled. Now she was catching the spirit. “That’s true. But it’s my birthday. And you always make an exception on my birthday. ”

  “You know very well it’s not—”

  “It’s your birthday, Sand?” Mr. Fontley exclaimed over her. “Well, why didn’t you say so? We should drink to your health. ” The older gentleman called the serving girl and ordered sherry for the table.

  As glasses were passed around, Minerva said pointedly, “But brother, you never drink spirits. ”

  “I do on my birthday. ” He raised the glass in salute, then drank.

  He heard her growl.

  “Won’t you sing, Miss Em?” Lettie pleaded again. “I so long for a bit of music. And it is Mr. Sand’s birthday. ”

  Soon all the Fontleys joined in the encouragement.

  She turned to him and said simply, “Colin. ” Her wide, dark eyes held a frantic plea for reprieve. Don’t make me do this.

  He felt a twinge of conscience, but he wouldn’t intervene. He’d come to recognize that look in her eyes. Her eyes always caught that wild, desperate spark just before she did something extraordinary.

  “Fine,” she said. “I’ll sing. ”

  She lifted the sherry glass in front of her, drained it in a single swallow, and set it down with a decisive clink. Then she flattened both hands on the tabletop and pushed to her feet.

  In slow, determined strides, she walked to the pianoforte. She removed her spectacles and held them folded in her hand. She pressed her finger down on a single piano key and, closing her eyes, hummed the pitch.

  And then she opened her mouth and sang.

  Well. She sang very, very well.

  Surprise.

  The crowded room went so quiet, so quickly, Colin could practically hear the jaws dropping. The song she’d chosen was an old, familiar ballad. No fancy scales or operatic trills. Just a simple, straightforward melody that suited her clear, lyrical voice. It wasn’t a song fit for a musicale, or even one of the Spindle Cove ladies’ salons. But it was perfect for a small country inn. The sort of tune that didn’t gavotte, didn’t mince around. That didn’t bother dazzling the ear or engaging the mind, but went straight for the guts.

  And the heart.

  Good Lord. It was a bloody fool thing to think—let alone say—but her song arrowed straight for his heart.

  No way around it. Colin was charmed. As charmed as a Ceylonese cobra.
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