A week to be wicked, p.23
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.23
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 23

 

  “Oh, it’s no fairy tale,” Colin said. “Don’t envy us our sudden elevation. If we are royalty, our lives will cease to be our own. We’ll have duties, won’t we? We’ll have to leave England—our beloved homes and friends—behind. And then there’s abandoning the hope of love. ” His expression went somber. “A prince can never expect to find love. ”

  In unison, the sisters pressed their hands to their hearts.

  “He can’t?” Cordelia asked.

  “No, he can’t. ” With an air of thoughtful sincerity, he leaned forward. “You see, if I remained just poor, simple Mr. Colin Sand of Sussex, I could take a fancy to a pretty girl I met while traveling. Ask permission to court her. Take the time to become better acquainted. Share with her all my dreams and fancies and secrets, and learn hers. Bring her sweets and bouquets. ” He cast a wistful glance out the coach window. “Like any man, I’ve enjoyed my youth, sown my wild oats. But deep down, I always wanted that tender romance with the right girl. Someday. ”

  Good Lord. He spun these tales so convincingly, even Minerva had to remind herself it was all fabrication. She’d once made the mistake of believing those lies. It’s you, Minerva. It’s always been you. She could still hear the mocking laughter ringing off the turret walls.

  This time, at least, she could have been the one to laugh. The young Misses Gateshead were so far gone, they’d all but tripped over the horizon.

  Such charm was a talent, she had to give him that. Twenty minutes in the same carriage, and he had two well-bred gentlewomen utterly enamored with a reluctant prince who’d turn down the riches of the world for a chance at true love. Their hearts, souls, smiles, and virtues could be his for a single, smoldering gaze. They’d probably queue up to take turns.

  Minerva suddenly realized that he’d never unleashed his full seductive potential in Spindle Cove—at least, not with Diana. A strange surge of gratitude took her by surprise.

  “If I’m a prince,” he said, smiling in that disarming, bashful way—the way that revealed his single dimple as though it were a secret vulnerability only the love of a good woman could cure—“I of course will do my duty. I will do my best. But sometimes, I think it might be a relief to find it’s all just a grand mistake. ”

  The coach lurched to a sudden halt.

  “Oh,” exclaimed Emmeline, falling forward. “What’s that?”

  Minerva looked out the window for the first time in several minutes. This stretch of road passed through a wooded area. Perhaps they’d come to a turnpike, or the road was muddy ahead.

  Without warning, the door of the coach opened, just a crack.

  In the opening, the barrel of a pistol gleamed.

  “Stand and deliver. ”

  Chapter Fourteen

  Colin very nearly laughed. Not out of amusement, but irony. It was really, truly absurd that part of him welcomed this turn of events. That he’d rather face a highwayman at gunpoint than ride one minute longer in this hellish, suffocating coach. Even spinning outlandish claptrap and enjoying the company of three ladies couldn’t distract him from the too-close walls and the too-warm air. When the carriage had lurched to its unexpected stop, Colin had gone a bit wild inside.

  He’d wanted out.

  At the sight of the pistol, he’d almost begged, Yes, shoot me. End this misery.

  Until that pistol turned in Minerva’s direction, and clarity descended. Now Colin wasn’t panicked.

  He was pissing angry.

  He cleared his throat, drawing the bastard’s attention. “If you must point that thing at someone, point it at me. ”

  The highwayman obliged him and threw a canvas pouch through the open door. “Pass the sack. Coin, jewels, watches, rings. All of it goes inside. ” An ominous click sounded as he cocked the pistol. “And quickly. ”

  The Misses Gateshead cowered together with their companion.

  Colin retrieved the canvas pouch from the floor. As he teased the drawstring open, he spoke to the ladies in his calmest, most reassuring tone. “It’ll have to be done, I’m afraid. We’ll do as he asks, and then we’ll continue on. Everything will be well. ”

  Damn it all. Colin knew handing over the valuables was the only safe and responsible choice. Except for a knife buried deep in his boot, he was unarmed and at a distinct disadvantage. Presumably, the robber had associates holding the carriage driver and footmen at gunpoint, too. Any heroics Colin might attempt would doubtless end in someone’s injury or death. With four ladies in the carriage, he couldn’t take the risk. Still, he hated giving in. He cursed his own thoughtlessness. Why hadn’t he brought a pistol on this journey?

  The answer was simple. Because he hadn’t expected to actually leave on this journey. He’d tried to cancel the whole thing, that first morning by the road.

  He should have tried harder.

  With shaking fingers, the trio of ladies removed their lockets, bracelets, rings, and hair combs. He shook the few coins he carried from his own pocket.

  “What about her?” The robber thrust his pistol in Minerva’s direction.

  “She’s not wearing jewels,” Colin said, angling himself between the pistol and her body.

  “What about that reticule?”

  Colin held out the canvas bag. “The reticule, Min. ”

  “But . . . ” Her dark eyes were wild with apprehension. “But it has all my—”

  All her money. All their money. Yes, Colin knew. And from the look in her eyes, he knew she would likely do something very stupid to save it, if he didn’t take command of this scene.

  “Give it here,” he said firmly. “Now. ”

  Her face blanched to the color of parchment as she unlooped the reticule from her wrist and dropped it in the canvas bag.

  “There. ” Colin pushed the heavy bag at the highwayman. “Take it and begone. Before I change my mind and crush your miserable, reeking face with my boot. ”

  “Not so fast. ” The robber flashed his pistol in the direction of Colin’s signet ring. “Your ring. ”

  “Won’t come off. ” Colin demonstrated, tugging at the gold band. “If you want it, you’ll have to take the finger. ”

  The ladies gasped at this suggestion, drawing the highwayman’s notice. From beneath his wide-brimmed hat, sharp eyes scanned the compartment.

  His pistol pointed in Francine’s direction. “What’s in the trunk?”

  “Nothing,” Minerva jumped to answer. “Nothing at all. ”

  Bollocks. Wrong answer, pet. That trunk’s contents were of no value to anyone, save Minerva herself. And a few dusty scientists, perhaps. But with her hasty denial, she’d just given the impression that the trunk was filled with gold doubloons. Now the robber would not rest without taking it, and Minerva would not surrender.

  He leaned toward her. “Min, it’s not worth your life. ”

  “It is my life. Without it, I’ve done this all for nothing. ”

  “Give me that,” the highwayman ordered, holding the pistol steady with one hand and reaching for the trunk’s handle with the other.

  “No,” Minerva cried, holding it back. “Please. ”

  Colin’s heart careened in his chest. Good Lord, the girl would get herself killed.

  “Leave the trunk,” Colin said. He turned to the highwayman. “Leave the trunk, and you can have me. ”

  The robber’s lip curled. “You’re not my sort. But perhaps I’ll take the trunk and the girl. I like ‘em spirited. ”

  It took everything Colin had not to slam his fist into the man’s throat, that instant. Pistol or no pistol, he could pulverize the blackguard. He felt sure of it.

  But there were others, he reminded himself. Outside the coach. An untold number of men, most certainly armed. He couldn’t risk them firing on the ladies.

  Colin steeled his jaw. “What’s the girl worth to you? A few minutes’ fun? I’m worth a fortune in ransom. ” He flas
hed his signet ring and brought out his most aristocratic accent. “Thousands. Let the ladies pass unmolested, and I’ll come with you. No struggle. ”

  He watched greed and suspicion wrestling in the robber’s eyes. The man wanted to believe Colin, but he wasn’t sure he could.

  And then, from the opposite seat, Miss Cordelia Gateshead gave Colin the best, most timely gift he could ever hope to receive.

  The girl clasped her hands together and sighed, “Oh, your royal highness. You mustn’t. ”

  Well. That sealed the bargain nicely.

  As Colin made ready to leave the carriage, he pinned Minerva with a stern glare. “Listen to me,” he whispered fast and fierce. “You go to the next town. You find a safe inn. You send word to my cousin, and then you bloody well stay there until he arrives. Do you hear?”

  Her eyes shimmered with fear. “But, Colin—”

  “No arguments, damn it. Just do as I say. I need to know you’re safe. ”

  She nodded. Her bottom lip trembled, and he couldn’t resist soothing it with a brief, if rather unbrotherly, parting kiss.

  “God be with you, Prince Ampersand,” said Emmeline Gateshead, weeping into her handkerchief. “And with the people of Crustacea. ”

  As Colin alighted from the coach, he assessed the scene. As he’d suspected, the highwayman had associates. Two that he could see, both armed. A stocky man held the horses by their leads and had a pistol trained on the driver. The third, youthful and lean, stood several paces to the rear, keeping a musket shouldered and cocked.

  The first highwayman nudged Colin with a pistol to the back. “Look what I have here, boys! It’s a prince. ”

  “That don’t look like a prince. He’s got too many teeth. ”

  “Whoever he is, let’s get him away from the road. ” The stocky man released the horses’ leads and nodded to the driver.

  The Gatesheads’ coach jolted into motion, and Colin rejoiced to see it carrying all four—five, if he counted Francine—innocent females well away. He took his first deep breath since entering that godforsaken conveyance some miles back. So long as Minerva was unharmed, he could endure whatever came next.

  If she’d been hurt in any way, he could not have lived with himself.

  Still prodding him along with the pistol, the highwayman pushed him toward the woods.

  “My cousin is the Earl of Rycliff,” Colin said, as they crunched over ferns and wove through stands of coppiced hazel. “He’s trustee of my fortune. Send him a letter sealed with this”—he wiggled his signet ring—“and he’ll arrange for whatever ransom you demand. ”

  Possibly. Or, his cousin might send them a letter back saying, “Go ahead, do me a favor and send the scoundrel to the devil. ” Depended on Bram’s mood that day. It didn’t really matter, as Colin had no intent to remain in the brigands’ custody that long. These were petty thieves, not kidnappers by trade. They’d surely slip up and give him a chance to escape. Perhaps before the morning was out.

  Or perhaps not.

  Once they’d made their way well into the woods, his captor spun him about. He struck Colin across the face with the pistol. The blow sent his head whipping sideways and his brain reeling off to some sparkling, painful place.

  All three of the men closed around him.

  “A prince, eh?” The stocky one made a fist. “Don’t be expecting the royal treatment from us. ”

  Colin straightened. Thanks to years of boxing at the club, he knew how to weather a few blows. He also knew he couldn’t put his fists against three armed men. But he would not cringe or beg. “I’m actually not a prince. I’m a viscount. If that helps. ”

  It didn’t help. But it did earn him another blow, this one to the gut.

  And so, as it happened, by the time the morning was out, Colin had not found an opportunity for escape.
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