A week to be wicked, p.19
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.19
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 19

 

  Minerva shrugged. “I suppose it must be tested. ”

  “Well, there you have it. I always fail tests. ”

  She gave him a pitying look. “Yes, of course. We both know that’s why you never earned high marks in maths. It had nothing to do with a lack of effort. You simply couldn’t pass the tests. ”

  He didn’t answer. Just leaned back in his chair, propped his hands behind his head, and regarded her with an inscrutable expression. Whether his was a gaze of annoyance, admiration, appreciation, or anger, she could not have guessed.

  With a sigh, she rose from the table. “We might as well sleep. ”

  The suite had two connecting bedchambers–to keep up appearances for the Fontleys. But they both knew they’d only use this one. She crossed the room and began unbuttoning her spencer. She felt his eyes on her as she shook the garment from her shoulders, pulled her arms free, and set it aside. Didn’t he have manners enough to look away? Her body warmed under his appraisal, growing light and hot as a cinder swirling through the smoky air.

  She turned away from him and reached to loosen the hooks down the back of her gown.

  “Allow me,” he said, suddenly behind her.

  She froze for a moment, seized by the instinct to shrug away. But this dress had stubborn fastenings. She would appreciate a little help.

  “Just the hooks,” she said.

  “Of course. ”

  Brushing some loose strands of hair aside, he began at the base of her neck. He loosed the hooks slowly, one by one. She crossed her arms over her chest, holding the gown in place as her neckline began to gape.

  “How did you know?” His voice was a gentle murmur, sliding over her neck.

  “Know what?”

  “ ‘Barbara Allen. ’ How did you know it’s my favorite ballad?” The husky intimacy in his voice undid her.

  “Isn’t it everyone’s favorite?”

  His soft laugh in response was warm, authentic. “Did we just find something in common?”

  “We have all kinds of things in common,” she said, feeling the familiar stupidity descend. Here it came, the inane babble. “We’re both humans. We both speak English. We both understand what a logarithm is. We both have brown hair, two eyes . . . ”

  “We both have skin. ” His fingertips grazed her exposed shoulder, and sensation rippled down her arm. “We both have hands. And lips. ”

  Her eyes squeezed shut. She held her breath for a long moment, before realizing she’d braced herself for a kiss that wasn’t coming. She cursed him, cursed herself. She needed to put all thoughts of his kiss out of her mind. It was just—she couldn’t stop picturing the way he’d stared at her while she was singing downstairs. The way he’d moved toward her, scything his way through the crowd.

  The way he’d laid that man flat, and bled for her.

  She cleared her throat and stepped forward, still facing the wall. “Thank you for your assistance. Will you turn, please?”

  “I’ve turned. ” The floorboards gave a weary creak of confirmation.

  Minerva swiveled her head, stealing a glance in the mirror to make sure. She almost wished she would find him stealing glances at her, too. But evidently he’d seen enough last night. He remained with his back to her as she drew her gown down over her hips and stepped out.

  Once she’d stripped down to her shift, she dove under the bed linens and turned her face to the wall. “It’s safe now. ”

  “Safe. ” He made a wry, disbelieving noise. “For whom?”

  She tried to feign sleep as he moved about the room, removing his boots, casting watch and cufflinks aside. Stirring the fire. Making all sorts of unapologetic, manly sounds. Men never hesitated to declare their presence. They were permitted to live aloud, in reverberating thuds and clunks, while ladies were always schooled to abide in hushed whispers.

  The bed creaked loudly as he dropped his weight next to her. His arm brushed against her back. Just that slight contact set her whole body humming. As he settled into the bed, she was so aware—so clearly, perfectly aware—of every part of him. Every part of her. Everywhere their bodies touched, and everywhere they didn’t.

  “Will you be able to sleep?” she asked, after a few minutes.

  “Eventually. ”

  “Did you want to talk?” she asked the wall. She felt like a coward, unable to turn and face him.

  “I’d rather listen to you. Why don’t you tell me a bedtime story? One you read as a child. ”

  “I didn’t read any stories as a child. ”

  “I don’t believe that. You always have your nose in a book. ”

  “But it’s true,” she said quietly. “When I was a girl, it took them ages to realize my farsightedness. Everyone thought I was just mischievous at best or dull witted, at worst. My mother chided me for frowning, for daydreaming. Diana would always be reading tales from her storybooks, but no matter how she tried to teach me, I couldn’t make sense of the letters. We had a nursemaid who sang ballads as she went about her work. I used to follow her everywhere and listen, memorizing as many as I could. They were my stories. ” She closed her eyes. “Eventually, a governess realized I needed spectacles. When I first put them on my face, I can’t even tell you . . . it was like a miracle. ”

  “Finally seeing properly?”

  “Knowing I wasn’t hopeless. ” A knot formed in her throat. “I’d believed there was something incurably wrong with me, you see. But suddenly, I could see the world clear. And not only the parts in the distance, but the bits within my own reach. I could focus on a page. I could explore the things around me, discover whole worlds beneath my fingertips. I could be good at something, for once. ”

  She didn’t know if he could understand, but this was why the symposium was so important to her. Why Francine meant everything. This was why, a few mornings ago, she’d opened up the trunk that held her trousseau and swapped out those bridal fantasies for new, scientific goals. Minerva had never been the daughter her mother would have wished. She was different from her sisters, and she was reconciled to the fact. She could live with being a hopeless excuse for a fashionable, elegant lady . . . so long as someone, somewhere, respected and admired her just for being her. Minerva Highwood, geologist and bookworm and . . . and after tonight, sometime troubadour.

  “Once I learned to read,” she said, “they couldn’t tear me away from books—still can’t. But I’d already outgrown the fairy tales. ”

  “Well,” he said, sounding drowsy. “That was a fine bedtime story. Downtrodden girl. Kindly nursemaid. Happy ending. The fairy tales are pretty much all like that. ”

  “Really? I was under the impression most of them feature a handsome, charming prince. ”

  The silence was prolonged. And miserable.

  “Well, yours does have a knight,” he finally said. “Sir Alisdair the Colleague. ”

  “I suppose. ” Hoping her voice didn’t betray any disappointment, she curled her fingers in the bed linens, drawing them close.

  His weight shifted beside her. “You know, I’ve been wondering something. If that diary that so rhapsodically extolled my charms was the false one . . . what on earth did the real one say?”

  Chapter Eleven

  Kate Taylor cringed into her water goblet. This just didn’t seem right.

  Across the dining table in the Queen’s Ruby, Charlotte flipped through a small leather-bound book. “This and that . . . something more about rocks . . . ”

  “Keep looking,” Mrs. Highwood said. “It’s Minerva’s only diary. She must have mentioned him somewhere. ”

  Mrs. Nichols, the rooming house’s aging proprietress, directed the servants to serve dessert. As an apron-clad serving girl placed dishes of syllabub before each plate, Kate exchanged glances with Diana. She knew they had to be sharing the same mix of curiosity and mortification.

  Naturally the elopement had been the talk of Spindle
Cove, and Kate was as eager as anyone to learn the particulars of Minerva’s unlikely romance. But reading her diary aloud at the dinner table? It did seem rather tasteless.

  “Really, Mama,” Diana put in. “Is it necessary to read Minerva’s journal? Aloud? Shouldn’t she be allowed some privacy?”

  Mrs. Highwood considered. “Ordinarily, I would never snoop. Would I, Mrs. Nichols?”

  Mrs. Nichols shook her head. “Never, Mrs. Highwood. ”

  “But in this case, the circumstances justify some investigation. Don’t they, Mrs. Nichols?”

  “Of course, Mrs. Highwood. ”

  “That Corporal Thorne keeps insisting he should chase after them, or at the least, alert Lord Rycliff. He seems to be under the mistaken assumption that Lord Payne is up to some sort of devilry. But I would never believe that of him. Would you, Mrs. Nichols?”

  “Absolutely not, Mrs. Highwood. He’s an excellent young man. Always praises my pies. ”

  “Oh, here. Here’s something about a grand discovery,” Charlotte announced, opening the journal wide to a middle page.

  Everyone at the table perked.

  Charlotte scanned a bit further. “Never mind. It’s about lizards. ”

  “Lizards!” With a groan, Mrs. Highwood pushed away her serving of syllabub. “I don’t know how in the world she managed to snag him. ”

  “She didn’t snag him, Mama. I keep telling you, she’s been snagged. ” Charlotte flipped another page. “If she liked him, wouldn’t she have confessed it to her own diary? I know I’d fill whole books with poetry if a man so handsome as Lord Payne took a fancy to me. ”

  Kate accepted a slender glass of cordial from a serving tray. “Perhaps Minerva just isn’t given to poetry. ”

  “But she ought to say something favorable, at least. See, look. She only just mentions him here, halfway through. And clever as she’s supposed to be, she can’t even spell his name. P-A-I-N, she has it. ”

  Kate smiled down at her lap. Somehow, she doubted Minerva had written it that way by mistake.

  “Never mind about the spelling, child,” Mrs. Highwood urged. “Just read it. What does she say?”

  Charlotte sipped her lemonade in preparation. “ ‘As today was Thursday, we were made to suffer Lord Payne’s presence at dinner. I don’t know whether to attribute my acute indigestion to his presence, Mother’s fawning, or Mrs. Nichols’s eel pie. It was a most disagreeable evening, all around. ’”

  “Is that dated last summer?” Diana asked.

  Charlotte shook her head. “Last week. ”

  Kate knew this would be the moment to defend poor Mrs. Nichols’s eel pie. But really, the stuff was indefensible. By mutual, silent agreement, everyone took a spoonful of syllabub instead.

  Then a sip of cordial.

  Then syllabub again.

  “Well, there must be more. ” Mrs. Highwood waved her spoon at Charlotte. “Read on, dear. ”

  “I am reading on. ” Charlotte flipped through the remainder of the diary pages. “There isn’t much else to read. It’s all rocks and shells and lizard prints. The only man she mentions regularly is some scientist. Sir Alisdair Kent. She seems to admire him a great deal. When she spares a word for Lord Payne, it’s never kind. ” She snapped the journal closed. “I told you she doesn’t love him, Mama. She’s been taken against her will. You must allow Corporal Thorne to find them. ”

  Mrs. Highwood reached across the table. “Give it here, child. ”

  She took the journal from Charlotte, flipped it open to the last written page, held it at arm’s length, and peered at it. Her frown of concentration quickly melted to an expression of delight.

  “Aha. Here we are. An entry dated just three nights past. ‘Distressing news at All Things. It’s rumored that Payne will propose to D. The vile, deceitful man. After all he promised me last summer. I cannot allow it. ’ And then, a few days later is her last entry. The day after the dancing, my dears. ” Mrs. Highwood arched a brow. “ ‘Payne now convinced. Plan sealed with kiss. We leave on the morrow. ’”
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