A week to be wicked, p.22
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.22
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 22

 

  It took hours.

  The next town couldn’t be far, Minerva had reasoned. A few miles at most. But Francine hampered their progress. They kept stopping to rest, to change sides, to readjust the weight. And though Minerva kept telling herself the low shadow of cottages and a church would surely appear over the next rise, or just around the next bend in the road . . .

  They walked for hours. Nothing.

  Coaches and carriages passed them regularly. But either they were full to capacity or they’d been warned in the previous town to avoid a pair of charlatans walking north. Even if one of the coaches had slowed, it wouldn’t have helped. Colin wouldn’t ride in one. No, they had to walk for miles, hoping to find some village where she could find space in a carriage and he could rent a fresh horse. Who knew how far that would be?

  The sun was high overhead, and she was growing faint. They’d never even eaten breakfast. Fatigue and hunger conspired within her, whispering to each other in irritable voices. Thirst thickened her tongue.

  She drew to an abrupt halt by the side of the road. “That’s it. I won’t go any farther. ”

  He put down his side of the trunk. “Very well. We’ll rest. ”

  “No. I don’t want a rest, I want a coach. Perhaps one will stop for me, if I’m alone. I’ll stay here. You can keep walking. ”

  He shook his head. “Out of the question. I know you don’t have a high opinion of my character. But if you think I’d abandon an unprotected gentlewoman by the roadside, you’re mad. Do you know what kinds of brigands loiter along these coaching routes?”

  “Yes, I believe I do know. ” She stared at him pointedly.

  “So I’m a brigand now. ”

  “You landed us in this predicament. ”

  He stepped back. “You think this is all my fault?”

  “Of course it’s all your fault! I didn’t ask you to tell the Fontleys all those wicked lies. I didn’t ask to be made a party to your incorrigible behavior. I didn’t ask you to teach me any . . . lessons. ”

  “Oh, of course not. You merely showed up at my door in the middle of the night and begged me to take you to Scotland. ” He jabbed a thumb in his chest. “You kissed me outside the Bull and Blossom. You dragged me into a bloody cave. I didn’t ask for any of that. ”

  “You’re ruining this journey,” she all but shouted. “You ruin everything. ”

  “Well, I beg your pardon, but I believe you signed on to be ruined!”

  Her hands clenched in fists. She tried to calm herself. “We made a simple agreement. You take me to Edinburgh. I give you five hundred guineas. I don’t recall any negotiations about lying or singing or . . . or moaning. ”

  “No, I threw those in the bargain for free. You’re welcome. ” The infuriating man walked in a slow circle, swinging his arms. “We’ll rest a few minutes. And then we’ll continue walking. The next village can’t be far now. ”

  “I will not be moved from this spot. ”

  He came to a halt behind her. His hands gripped her shoulders. “You will be,” he muttered, “even if I have to forcibly move you. ”

  “You wouldn’t dare. ”

  “Oh, yes I would. ” His hands massaged her neck and shoulders muscles—not tenderly, but in the way a manager might loosen a boxer for a fight. It felt maddeningly wonderful.

  Crouching, he swiveled her so that she faced the road ahead. “Yes,” he whispered in her ear. “I will push you, pull you, rattle you as I see fit. Because you’ve a sparkling wit lurking beneath that dull exterior. Because you can sing, but you don’t. Because you’ve a fiery passion inside you, and it needs release. Because you can keep walking. You just need someone to push you over that next horizon. ”

  Surely it was the effect of hunger and fatigue, not his rough, intimate voice. But she trembled, just a little.

  “Those are rather ironic words,” she said, turning her head to face him. “From a man who won’t even ride in a coach. ”

  His hands tensed.

  “Ho, there!”

  On the road beside them, a carriage rolled to a halt. A young woman with a gaily beribboned bonnet called to them from inside.

  “My goodness, what misfortune has befallen you? Do you need assistance? Can we offer you some help?” She opened the door. “It’s just my sister and our companion with me, you see. Plenty of space. ”

  Minerva rose from her trunk and looked to Colin. “Well? Must I push you?”

  “No,” he said grimly. “I’ll ride. Just until the next town. ”

  Minerva assessed the young woman in the carriage. She looked about the same age as Diana, and her bonnet and carriage marked her as a lady of some wealth. Judging by the fact that she was stopping to offer rides to strangers, she must be either exceptionally kind or rather stupid.

  More likely, she was simply the sort of privileged, high-spirited girl who couldn’t imagine anything bad happening to her—because nothing truly bad ever had.

  “You’re so kind to stop for us,” Minerva said, dropping a curtsy. “I’m Miss Sand, and this is . . . my brother. We’ve had quite the misadventure this morning, I’m afraid. If you could only take us to the next town, we’d be so grateful. ”

  “So we’re still brother and sister?” he murmured, lifting her trunk.

  “Yes,” she whispered back. “But keep it simple. No more missionaries. Or cobras. And most importantly, no more . . . you know. ”

  His eyes were hard as he looked her up and down. “Believe me. You needn’t worry on that score. ”

  Minerva absorbed the swift, ruthless stab to her pride.

  “Just slide your trunk here, in the compartment,” the young lady directed. “There’s no more room up top, I’m afraid. Cordelia will bring a half dozen hatboxes on every journey. ”

  After Minerva climbed into the carriage and took a place on the rear-facing seat, Colin lifted the trunk inside and slid it back as far as possible. Finally, taking one last deep breath as though he were preparing to submerge himself in the sea, he entered and settled his significant bulk beside her. His legs were nearly folded double.

  “Carry on, John Coachman!” the young lady called.

  As the carriage jolted into motion, Minerva felt Colin’s muscles go rigid as iron. She knew that familiar pang of sympathy for him—but truly, he had no one to blame for this situation but himself. And it would only be a short ride.

  He’d survive.

  “I’m Miss Emmeline Gateshead. ” The beribboned young woman stuck out her hand, and Minerva shook it. “This is my sister, Miss Cordelia Gateshead, and our companion, Mrs. Pickerill. ”

  Minerva made her polite greetings to all three. She might as well have saved her breath. All three young women were instantly riveted to Colin. No surprise. The man drew female attention like a sponge draws water.

  “And what takes the two of you north?” Miss Gateshead asked. “I didn’t quite catch your names. ”

  “Oh. ” Minerva was suddenly panicked. “Well. We . . . ”

  “Don’t tell us! We’ll guess,” Cordelia said, smiling. “It will help to pass the time. ” She tipped her smile in Colin’s direction. “Are you an officer, back from the war?”

  “No, miss. I’m no hero. ”

  Minerva would have said the same, a few minutes ago. But now she wasn’t so sure. From the moment they’d entered the coach, she’d been aware of the tension in Colin’s body. Now, her spectacles had begun to fog over from his shallow breaths. But no one else in the carriage suspected his struggles. He was enduring the torture quietly, manfully.

  Perhaps even heroically.

  “Pity, for you’d look so fine in uniform. ” Emmeline’s remark prompted a chastening harrumph from her companion. “Did you come from Town?”

  “We came through it,” Minerva answered. “But home is rather further south. On the coast. ”

  Cordelia gasped. “I know. He’s a
pirate!” The younger lady collapsed into giggles.

  Emmeline turned her head and regarded Colin askance. A coquettish lilt stole into her voice. “Well, I would believe it of him. He does have that roguish air. ”

  Miss Gateshead, you have no idea.

  “Perhaps a spy. ” This, from Mrs. Pickerill.

  Minerva’s annoyance neared its boiling point. She couldn’t take any more of this silliness from the women, and Colin’s quiet misery had her truly concerned. Now he seemed to have stopped breathing entirely.

  “Why don’t you just tell them the truth, brother?” Perhaps it would help him to talk. He did love spinning outlandish tales. And if he were speaking, he’d simply have to start breathing.

  He cleared his throat. “Oh, I don’t like to say. ”

  Mrs. Pickerill looked suspicious. “It’s simple enough, isn’t it? Names, destination. ”

  “Yes, of course,” Minerva jumped to agree, casually sliding her arm through Colin’s. “But it’s not a matter of how we are,” she improvised. “It’s who we might be that complicates matters. ”

  “And who might you be?” Miss Cordelia Gateshead inched forward on her seat.

  “Do tell them, brother,” Minerva urged. “It’s so very diverting. And I think what we need right now is a little diversion. ”

  She gave his arm a surreptitious squeeze. I’m here. You’re not alone.

  He nodded. “Well, you see . . . the truth of the matter is . . . ” He put his hand over Minerva’s. “We might be royalty. ”

  Every lady in the coach gasped, Minerva included. Well, she’d asked for this. At least there’d be no cobras or lepers this time.

  “Royalty?” Miss Gateshead sat tall. “How astonishing. ”

  “That was our reaction, when the solicitors found us. ” Colin began to sound himself again. His incorrigible, devilish self. “But it’s recently come to light that our father was possibly descended from the line of Prince Ampersand, ruling monarch of Crustacea. ”

  “Crustacea,” Cordelia echoed. “I’ve never even heard of it. ”

  “Neither had we!” he exclaimed. “We had to dig out the atlas from our father’s library and dust it off when we received the letter last month. A very small principality, apparently. High up in the mountains, along the border of Spain and Italy. The entire economy is based on the export of calendula and goat cheese. ”

  Minerva bit back a laugh. Any imbecile with an atlas knew Spain didn’t border Italy. And good luck growing calendula on a mountaintop.

  “What did the letter say?” Cordelia asked.

  “You see, some months ago, tragedy struck the tiny alpine paradise. The entire Crustacean royal family was wiped out by a particularly virulent strain of violet fever. ”

  “I’ve never heard of violet fever. ”

  “Neither had we,” Colin said. “We had to break out father’s old medical tomes next. Didn’t we, M?” He patted her hand. “It’s very rare. But almost always deadly. ” He clucked his tongue. “A true tragedy. It wiped out the prince, the queen mother, all the royal children. Unless they want to hand over the realm to this vile, sniveling, warty usurper called . . . ” He looked to Minerva. “Sir Alisdair, was it?”

  She snorted.

  “They had to find someone in the royal line. They searched far and wide, and then they found us. So we’re off to the ancestral family home, you see. To retrieve our birth records and the family Bible and such. By this time next month, you could be looking at the prince and princess of Crustacea. ”

  Emmeline sighed. “It’s like a fairy tale. ”

  Yes, Minerva thought. Just like a fairy tale. Absolute rot, from beginning to end.
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