A week to be wicked, p.18
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.18
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 18

 

  More than that, he was proud.

  When the ballad’s lovers met their inevitably tragic end, and the crowd broke into enthusiastic applause, Colin clapped along with the rest. “That’s my girl,” he murmured.

  Though she wasn’t, really. He had no right to claim her. To think that all this time—every day that he’d resided in Spindle Cove—this had been inside her. This glorious, soul-stirring song. The courage to unleash it before a crowd of strangers. The sweetness to calm him in the night, when he clawed his way back from hell.

  How had he never seen any of this? How had he never known?

  The Fontleys—and everyone else—shouted for another song. Minerva shook her head, demurring.

  “Just one more,” Colin called to her, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Sing my favorite. ”

  She gave him a look of strained patience, but she relented.

  Another key struck. Another quietly hummed pitch.

  Another moment of sheer revelation.

  She’d warmed to it now. The singing, the attention. Her voice gained strength and confidence. She sang with her eyes wide open, and she sang directly to him. Well, he’d asked for that, hadn’t he? And it was the best not-an-actual-birthday gift Colin had ever received. Those sultry, ripe lips held him in thrall. Every time she drew a quick breath between phrases, her breasts fairly jumped for his attention.

  If her first song had touched his heart . . . well, this one stroked him a ways lower.

  It occurred to Colin that he should probably take pains not to be caught slavering over his own “sister. ” But a glance around the place told him he wasn’t the only male in the room so affected.

  Gilbert Fontley, in particular, was very bad off.

  Without taking his eyes from Minerva, the young man leaned toward Colin. “Mr. Sand, do you think it’s possible to fall in love in the space of a single day?”

  He smiled. “I wouldn’t know. I only fall in love at night. Never lasts beyond breakfast, though. ”

  Gilbert sent him a confused look. “B-but . . . But I thought you—”

  “We all have our demons, Gilbert. ” He clapped the young man on the shoulder and leaned close. “A word of advice. Cleave to the bosom of the Church. ”

  Minerva finished her ballad, and this time he could tell no amount of calling or applause would persuade her to sing again. Even as everyone in the room leaped to their feet, shouting encouragement, she replaced her spectacles and began to make her way back to the table.

  Colin pushed back his chair, meaning to welcome her back with some words of sincere praise. But as she started across the room, a large, unshaven man holding a tankard lumbered into her path. He engaged her in some sort of conversation. Colin couldn’t make out their words over the din, but he didn’t need words to understand what was happening.

  That disgusting lout wanted his girl.

  And Minerva wanted nothing to do with the disgusting lout. The brute put a grimy paw on her arm, and she stumbled in her effort to pull away. Her spectacles went just slightly askew. That small detail—that tiny evidence of her disquiet—was enough to make Colin see twenty shades of red.

  He punched to his feet, craving blood.

  “Sir, unhand me. ” Minerva tugged against the revolting brute’s grip. His breath reeked of ale and garlic. His body reeked of . . . other things, better left unnamed.

  “Jes’ another song, love. ” He held her elbow with one hand and pawed at her waist with the other. “Come sit on my lap, give me a private performance. ”

  His hand brushed her bottom.

  Minerva recoiled. She felt dirty. Other women might know how to deflect this kind of unwanted attention, but she didn’t. This never happened to her.

  Then she caught sight of Colin, cutting a path to her through the crowded room. His stride was almost easy, unconcerned. But as he drew close, she could view the tense set of his jaw and the cold fury in his eyes.

  He nudged the drunken lout with his arm. “Excuse me,” he said, “but is that your hand on my sister?”

  The burly man straightened and adopted an affected, aristocratic tone. “I rather think it might be, guv. ”

  “Well, then. ” Colin clapped him on the shoulder. “This is my hand on you. ”

  He drove a full-force punch straight into the lout’s gut. Then followed it with a smashing blow to the face.

  Minerva’s hands flew to her own mouth, covering her startled cry.

  The man didn’t even reel or blink. He simply went down. Hard. Taking an entire table and the accompanying glassware with him. The sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood crashed through the room, drawing everyone’s attention.

  Colin stood over the brute, shaking out his hand and breathing hard. The look on his face was one of barely restrained fury.

  “Don’t touch her,” he said, his voice like cold steel. “Ever. ”

  He put a hand to Minerva’s elbow and, with a nod in the Fontleys’ direction, ushered her from the room. As they left, the dining room erupted into chaos. She flinched at the sounds of chairs scraping across floors, and angry voices lifting.

  She distinctly heard Mr. Fontley shout, “How dare you molest that young lady. ”

  And then Gilbert’s reedy tenor. “You’ll burn in hell for that. She’s a woman of God. ”

  They both paused on the bottom riser of the stairs. And broke into simultaneous laughter.

  “We’d better get upstairs,” she said.

  “Are you well?” he asked, stopping her in the upstairs corridor. His gaze scanned her from head to toe. “He didn’t harm you in any way?”

  “No. No, thank you. ” She swallowed. “And you?”

  He unlatched the door. “Best birthday ever. ”

  They tumbled through the entry of their suite, laughing. As Minerva went to light the lamp, Colin slung his weight into a chair.

  “You,” she said, “are unbelievable. ”

  “Come now. ” He grinned up at her. “Admit it. That was fun. ”

  She felt the corner of her mouth tip, despite her. “I . . . I never do that. ”

  “You never do what? Sing ballads in a public house? Inspire tavern brawls?”

  “Any of it. I never do any of it. I never even do this. ” She reached for his hand, turning it over in the light. “Oh, you’re bleeding. ”

  “It’s nothing. Just a scratch. ”

  Perhaps, but Minerva hurried to fetch the washbasin and soap. She needed something to do. Otherwise, this restless, coursing energy she felt would spill out in other ways. Dangerous ways.

  Even as she gathered the materials, her hands trembled. The man was a devil. Mayhem personified. She never knew what wild tale he’d spin or what ill-considered action he’d take next. Over the course of their journey, he could put everything at risk—her reputation, her safety, her scientific standing.

  Perhaps even her heart.

  But she had to admit . . . he did make things fun.

  Returning to the table with a clean handkerchief, she examined his wound more closely. He was right, it was just a scratch along his knuckles. But he’d incurred the injury defending her. Minerva wanted to kiss this brave, wounded hand. She settled for dabbing it with a moist cloth.

  She touched his signet ring. “I wager that man will be wearing your family crest on his cheek for weeks. ”

  He laughed a little. “Good. He deserved far worse. ”

  “I couldn’t believe how easily you laid him flat,” she said. “And he was so big. Where did you learn to fight like that?”

  “Boxing club. ” He stretched his fingers and winced a bit. “All the London bucks are mad for boxing. Gentleman Jackson’s and so forth. The better question is . . . ” His voice darkened. “Where did you learn to sing like that?”

  “Like what?” She kept her head bowed, examining his wound.

  “Like
. . . that. I’ve been living in Spindle Cove more than half a year now, and I’ve attended countless numbers of those wretched salons, not to mention all the informal soirees at the rooming house. Church on Sundays. I’ve heard Diana sing many times. I’ve heard Charlotte sing many times. For God’s sake, I’ve even heard your mother sing. But never you. ”

  She shrugged, tearing off a strip of linen for a bandage. “I’m hardly an accomplished songstress. All I know are the ballads I learned as a girl. Once I grew old enough, I shirked my music lessons whenever possible. I hated the bother of practicing. ”

  “I won’t believe singing’s a bother to you. And I won’t believe you never practice either, as easily as the words came to you downstairs. ”

  Minerva felt herself blush. She did practice, when no one was about. Singing to herself when out on her rambles. But since singing to oneself looked about as odd as reading while walking, it wasn’t something she’d admit to him. “I leave the singing to Diana. ”

  “Ah. You don’t want to outshine her. ”

  She laughed. “As if I could ever outshine Diana. ”

  “Diana is rather shiny, I suppose. Golden hair, luminous skin. Sunny disposition. All things radiant. Perhaps you couldn’t outshine her. ” He cocked his head and regarded her from a new angle. “But Min? You could outsing her. ”

  “We’re sisters. Not competitors. ”

  He made a dismissive noise. “All women are competitors, and sisters most of all. Ladies are perpetually jockeying for position, sizing themselves up against their peers. I can’t tell you how often I’m enjoined to comment on which lady is the prettiest, the wittiest, the most accomplished, the lightest on her feet. And who solicits these opinions? Always women, never men. Men could not care less. About those comparisons, at least. ”

  She eyed him warily. “What comparisons do men discuss?”

  “I’ll answer that some other time. When I’m not bleeding and at a disadvantage. ”

  Minerva wrapped the bandage tight. “We’re not talking of callow young ladies in society. We’re speaking of Diana. I love my sister. ”

  “Enough to hide your one talent, just so she won’t suffer by comparison?”

  “My one talent?” She cinched the bandage, and he grimaced with pain. “It’s hardly my one talent, or even my best talent. ”

  “Ah. Now I see how it is. ” He nursed his bandaged hand. “You’re every bit as competitive as the rest of them. Only you’re vying for a different title. That of least attractive, least congenial. The least marriageable. ”

  She blinked at him. He’d doubtless meant the words to tease her, but something in them rang rather true.

  “Perhaps I am. ” She folded the surplus linen and replaced it in her trunk. “I’m committed to my studies, and I’m not sure I ever want to be married at all. Not to the sort of man my mother would wish, anyhow. So yes, I’ve always been content to let Diana be the prettiest, the most elegant, the kindest. The best singer. She’s welcome to have all the suitors. ”

  His eyebrows lifted. “Except me. ”

  “You’re a special case. ”

  “I’ll take that as a compliment. ”

  “You really shouldn’t. ”

  And he really shouldn’t look at her that way. So intensely. Searchingly.

  “Why didn’t you marry long ago?” she blurted out. “If you don’t want to sleep alone, marriage would seem the logical solution. You’d have a wife beside you every night. ”

  He chuckled. “Do you know how many husbands and wives actually sleep in the same bed after the honeymoon?”

  “Some marriages are affectionless arrangements, I’m sure. But more than a few are love matches. I can’t imagine you’d have trouble getting women to fall in love with you. ”

  “But if I married, I should have to keep a woman in love with me. Not just any woman, but one particular woman. For years. And what’s more, I should have to stay in love with her. If by chance I met the woman I wanted to try this with—and I haven’t yet, after years of sampling widely—how could I ever be certain of achieving that? You’re the scientist. You tell me. How can love be proved?”
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