A week to be wicked, p.2
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.2

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

 

  “Does it?” He twisted his signet ring. “Well, your sister is lovely and elegant. And your mother’s made no secret that she’d welcome the match. ”

  Minerva curled her toes in her boots. “That’s putting it mildly. ”

  Last year, the Highwoods had come to this seaside village for a summer holiday. The sea air was supposed to improve Diana’s health. Well, Diana’s health had long been improved and summer was long gone, yet the Highwoods remained—all because of Mama’s hopes for a match between Diana and this charming viscount. So long as Lord Payne was in Spindle Cove, Mama would not hear of returning home. She’d even developed an uncharacteristic streak of optimism—each morning declaring as she stirred her chocolate, “I feel it, girls. Today is the day he proposes. ”

  And though Minerva knew Lord Payne to be the worst sort of man, she had never found it in herself to object. Because she loved it here. She didn’t want to leave. In Spindle Cove, she finally . . . belonged.

  Here, in her own personal paradise, she explored the rocky, fossil-studded coast free from care or censure, cataloging findings that could set England’s scientific community on its ear. The only thing that kept her from being completely happy was Lord Payne’s presence—and through one of life’s strange ironies, his presence was the very reason she was able to stay.

  There’d seemed no harm in allowing Mama to nurse hopes of a proposal from his lordship‘s quarter. Minerva had known for certain a proposal wasn’t coming.

  Until this morning, when her certainty crumbled.

  “This morning, I was in the All Things shop,” she began. “I usually ignore Sally Bright’s gossip, but today . . . ” She met his gaze. “She said you’d given directions for your mail to be forwarded to London, after next week. She thinks you’re leaving Spindle Cove. ”

  “And you concluded that this means I’ll marry your sister. ”

  “Well, everyone knows your situation. If you had two shillings to rub together, you’d have left months ago. You’re stranded here until your fortune’s released from trust on your birthday, unless . . . ” She swallowed hard. “Unless you marry first. ”

  “That’s all true. ”

  She leaned forward in her chair. “I’ll leave in a heartbeat, if you’ll only repeat your words to me from last summer. That you have no intentions toward Diana. ”

  “But that was last summer. It’s April now. Is it so inconceivable that I might have changed my mind?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Why?” He snapped his fingers. “I know. You think I don’t possess a mind to change. Is that the sticking point?”

  She sat forward in her chair. “You can’t change your mind, because you haven’t changed. You’re a deceitful, insincere rake who flirts with unsuspecting ladies by day, then takes up with other men’s wives by night. ”

  He sighed. “Listen, Miranda. Since Fiona Lange left the village, I haven’t—”

  Minerva held up a hand. She didn’t want to hear about his affaire with Mrs. Lange. She’d heard more than enough from the woman herself, who’d fancied herself a poetess. Minerva wished she could scrub her mind of those poems. Ribald, rhapsodic odes that exhausted every possible rhyme for “quiver” and “bliss. ”

  “You can’t marry my sister,” she told him, willing firmness to her voice. “I simply won’t allow it. ”

  As their mother was so fond of telling anyone who’d listen, Diana Highwood was exactly the sort of young lady who could set her cap for a handsome lord. But Diana’s external beauty dulled in comparison to her sweet, generous nature and the quiet courage with which she’d braved illness all her life.

  Certainly, Diana could catch a viscount. But she shouldn’t marry this one.

  “You don’t deserve her,” she told Lord Payne.

  “True enough. But none of us get what we truly deserve in this life. Where would God’s sport be in that?” He took the glass from her hand and drew a leisurely sip of wine.

  “She doesn’t love you. ”

  “She doesn’t dislike me. Love’s hardly required. ” Leaning forward, he propped an arm on his knee. “Diana would be too polite to refuse. Your mother would be overjoyed. My cousin would send the special license in a trice. We could be married this week. You could be calling me ‘brother’ by Sunday. ”

  No. Her whole body shouted the rejection. Every last corpuscle.

  Throwing off the borrowed greatcoat, she leaped to her feet and began pacing the carpet. The wet folds of her skirt tangled as she strode. “This can’t happen. It cannot. It will not. ” A little growl forced its way through her clenched teeth.

  She balled her hands in fists. “I have twenty-two pounds saved from my pin money. That, and some change. It’s yours, all of it, if you promise to leave Diana alone. ”

  “Twenty-two pounds?” He shook his head. “Your sisterly sacrifice is touching. But that amount wouldn’t keep me in London a week. Not the way I live. ”

  She bit her lip. She’d expected as much, but she’d reasoned it couldn’t hurt to try a bribe first. It would have been so much easier.

  She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. This was it—her last chance to dissuade him. “Then run away with me instead. ”

  After a moment’s stunned pause, he broke into hearty laughter.

  She let the derisive sounds wash over her and simply waited, arms crossed. Until his laughter dwindled, ending with a choked cough.

  “Good God,” he said. “You’re serious?”

  “Perfectly serious. Leave Diana alone, and run away with me. ”

  He drained the wineglass and set it aside. Then he cleared his throat and began, “That is brave of you, pet. Offering to wed me in your sister’s stead. But truly, I—”

  “My name is Minerva. I’m not your pet. And you’re deranged if you think I’d ever marry you. ”

  “But I thought you just said—”

  “Run away with you, yes. Marry you?” She made an incredulous noise in her throat. “Please. ”

  He blinked at her.

  “I can see you’re baffled. ”

  “Oh, good. I would have admitted as much, but I know what pleasure you take in pointing out my intellectual shortcomings. ”

  Rummaging through the inside pockets of her cloak, she located her copy of the scientific journal. She opened it to the announcement page and held it out for his examination. “There’s to be a meeting of the Royal Geological Society at the end of this month. A symposium. If you’ll agree to come with me, my savings should be enough to fund our journey. ”

  “A geology symposium. ” He flicked a glance at the journal. “This is your scandalous midnight proposal. The one you trudged through the cold, wet dark to make. You’re inviting me to a geology symposium, if I leave your sister alone. ”

  “What were you expecting me to offer? Seven nights of wicked, carnal pleasure in your bed?”

  She’d meant it as a joke, but he didn’t laugh. Instead, he eyed her sodden frock.

  Minerva went lobster red beneath it. Curse it. She was forever saying the wrong thing.

  “I’d have found that offer more tempting,” he said.

  Truly? She bit her tongue to keep from saying it aloud. How lowering, to admit how much his offhand comment thrilled her. I’d prefer your carnal pleasures to a lecture about dirt. High compliment indeed.

  “A geology symposium,” he repeated to himself. “I should have known there’d be rocks at the bottom of this. ”

  “There are rocks at the bottom of everything. That’s why we geologists find them so interesting. At any rate, I’m not tempting you with the symposium itself. I’m tempting you with the promise of five hundred guineas. ”

  Now she had his attention. His gaze sharpened. “Five hundred guineas?”

  “Yes. That’s the prize for the best presentation. If you take me there and help present my findings to the Society, you can keep it
all. Five hundred guineas would be sufficient to keep you drunk and debauched in London until your birthday, I should hope?”

  He nodded. “With a bit of judicious budgeting. I might have to hold off on new boots, but one must make some sacrifices. ” He came to his feet, confronting her face-to-face. “Here’s the wrinkle, however. How could you be certain of winning the prize?”

  “I’ll win. I could explain my findings to you in detail, but a great many polysyllabic words would be involved. I’m not sure you’re up to them just now. Suffice it to say, I’m certain. ”

  He gave her a searching look, and Minerva marshaled the strength to hold it. Level, confident, unblinking.

  After a moment, his eyes warmed with an unfamiliar glimmer. Here was an emotion she’d never seen from him before.

  She thought it might be . . . respect.

  “Well,” he said. “Certainty becomes you. ”

  Her heart gave a queer flutter. It was the nicest thing he’d ever said to her. She thought it might be the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.

  Certainty becomes you.

  And suddenly, things were different. The ounce of wine she’d swallowed unfurled in her belly, warming and relaxing her. Melting away her awkwardness. She felt comfortable in her surroundings, and more than a little worldly. As though this were the most natural thing in the world, to be having a midnight conversation in a turret with a half-dressed rake.

  She settled languidly into the armchair and raised her hands to her hair, finding and plucking loose her few remaining pins. With slow, dreamy motions, she finger-combed the wet locks and arranged them about her shoulders, the better to dry evenly.

  He stood and watched her for a moment. Then he went to pour more wine.

  A sensuous ribbon of claret swirled into the glass. “Mind, I’m not agreeing to this scheme. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But just for the sake of argument, how did you see this proceeding, exactly? One morning, we’d just up and leave for London together?”

  “No, not London. The symposium is in Edinburgh. ”

  “Edinburgh. ” Bottle met table with a clunk. “The Edinburgh in Scotland. ”

  She nodded.

  “I thought you said this was the Royal Geological Society. ”

  “It is. ” She waved the journal at him. “The Royal Geological Society of Scotland. Didn’t you know? Edinburgh’s where all the most interesting scholarship happens. ”

  Crossing back to her, he peered at the journal. “For God’s sake, this takes place less than a fortnight from now. Marietta, don’t you realize what a journey to Scotland entails? You’re talking about two weeks’ travel, at the minimum. ”

  “It’s four days from London on the mail coach. I’ve checked. ”

  “The mail coach? Pet, a viscount does not travel on the mail coach. ” He shook his head, sitting across from her. “And how is your dear mother going to take this news, when she finds you’ve absconded to Scotland with a scandalous lord?”

  “Oh, she’ll be thrilled. So long as one of her daughters marries you, she won’t be particular. ” Minerva eased her feet from her wet, muddy boots and drew her legs up beneath her skirts, tucking her chilled heels under her backside. “It’s perfect, don’t you see? We’ll stage it as an elopement. My mother won’t raise any protest, and neither will Lord Rycliff. He’ll be only too happy to think you’re marrying at last. We’ll travel to Scotland, present my findings, collect the prize. Then we’ll tell everyone it simply didn’t work out. ”

  The more she explained her ideas, the easier the words sprang to her lips and the more excited she grew. This could work. It could really, truly work.
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