A week to be wicked, p.24
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.24

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 24

 

  Rather, he’d found himself beaten, bloodied, and tied to a chestnut tree.

  Staring down the barrel of a gun.

  Chapter Fifteen

  It was a fine day for target practice. Mild, sunny. Not overly breezy.

  Kate Taylor cocked her pistol and stared down the distant bull’s-eye.

  Weekly shooting lessons were the legacy of Miss Susanna Finch, a gentleman gunsmith’s daughter and Spindle Cove’s first patroness. She believed every young lady should know how to defend herself.

  Susanna had married Lord Rycliff last year and was presently staying with him in London. So Kate had taken responsibility for the ladies’ schedule in her absence.

  On Mondays, they had country walks. Tuesday’s sea bathing was on hiatus until summer, of course, but on Wednesdays, they turned their hands to gardening. And on Thursdays . . .

  Bang.

  Thursday was their day to shoot. Here at Summerfield, the Finch estate. Sir Lewis Finch always made the young ladies welcome, offering his finest weaponry and refreshments for their enjoyment. The old man obviously missed his daughter greatly, and took some comfort in hosting her friends. And for her part, Kate couldn’t get enough of being in a family home. Even if it wasn’t her own. She loved soaking up the sense of shared history, old portraits, fond memories.

  Charlotte Highwood tugged at her sleeve. “Miss Taylor, look. Is that the militia?”

  Kate turned her gaze, staring over the open meadow. Indeed, the members of the local militia were dressed in full uniform and marching in formation. Straight for them, it would seem.

  Strange.

  “I didn’t think they had drill today,” Diana said.

  “Neither did I. ” And even if they did, why would they be marching here, toward Sir Lewis Finch’s estate?

  “It’s like a sham battle. ” Charlotte perked with excitement. “Ladies versus gentlemen. Can we fall into a formation of our own? Fix bayonets and charge?”

  Diana tugged her sister’s hair. “Goose. ”

  As the column of red-coated men approached, Kate recognized Corporal Thorne leading them. He wasn’t difficult to make out. He stood several inches taller than most of the men. His shoulders were near twice as broad.

  And his demeanor was a thousand times more unpleasant.

  “Ladies,” Kate called, keeping her voice even. “Weapons down, please. It seems the men have something they wish to discuss. ”

  With a barked command, Thorne brought the men to a halt. Another harsh order, and they’d fallen into a single line, facing the ladies.

  He approached Kate. She grew uneasy, her spine withering in that massive shadow that completely blocked the sun. She hated his effect on her. So the man didn’t like her. What of it? He didn’t like anyone, and why should she care? Why should she allow him to make her feel so small, so powerless?

  “Corporal Thorne,” she said, nodding in lieu of a curtsy. “To what do we owe this . . . interruption?”

  “I mean to conduct an inquiry. Of your ladies and my men. I want to know if anyone has reason to believe that Miss Minerva Highwood and Lord Payne were . . . ”

  “In love?” she finished.

  “Involved. In any way. ”

  Kate shrugged. “I should think the fact of their elopement might serve as ample evidence of their involvement, Corporal Thorne. ”

  He shook his head. “It’s not right. There’s something not right about it. ”

  “Mrs. Highwood has said—”

  “I know that, Miss Taylor. I’m not stupid. ”

  “I didn’t say you were. ”

  “I know what Mrs. Highwood has said,” he said, “and I’ve decided I don’t care. In Lord Payne’s absence, I’m in charge of the militia. And that means, I’m responsible for the safety of this place and every man, woman, and child in it. Including Miss Minerva. If her health, happiness, or virtue is endangered in any way, it’s my responsibility to see her back home. Safe. ”

  “And what if she’s not endangered, but merely eloped, happily?”

  “That’s what I’m here to find out. ”

  He took a few backward steps and called out. “I’m going to walk down this line of my men, and then going to walk up the line of ladies. And I’m going to ask each of you the same question. Prior to their disappearance, did you have any reason to believe Lord Payne and Miss Minerva Highwood were . . . ”

  “In love,” Kate supplied for him, once again. “You seem to have a problem with that word, Corporal. Or is it a problem with the concept?”

  He betrayed no response.

  “I don’t understand that man,” she muttered to Diana. “Either he has rocks in his head or a stone for a heart. ”

  Diana smiled. “I doubt it. If either were true, Minerva would have been taken with him, and not Lord Payne. She does so love rocks and stones. ”

  Corporal Thorne stood before Mr. Fosbury, the Bull and Blossom’s proprietor. “Fosbury. ”

  “Yes, sir. ”

  “Before they disappeared, did you have any reason to believe Lord Payne and Miss Minerva held one another in affection?”

  Mr. Fosbury chuckled. “The two of them? No, sir. That came as a true surprise. ”

  Thorne moved down the line, to the blacksmith. “Dawes. Same question. ”

  The big man tipped a gaze in the ladies’ direction. “No, Corporal. From everything I saw, I would have marked him as fancying Miss Diana. And lieutenant or no, I think he’s a right bastard for leading her on. If you do go after him, I’d ask to join the pursuit. ”

  “Well, that’s . . . kind of him, I suppose,” Kate murmured to her friend. “If unnecessary. ”

  Diana didn’t answer.

  Corporal Thorne continued down the line, interrogating each of his men in turn. The vicar, a few farmhands. After the eighth or so staunch denial, Thorne slid Kate a brief, smug glance. A look that said, I told you so.

  She merely raised her eyebrows in reply.

  “Hastings,” he barked, moving on to the next man. A fisherman, by trade. “Before they run off together, did you have any reason to believe Lord Payne and Miss Minerva Highwood were involved?”

  Hastings squared his shoulders. “I did, sir. ”

  Thorne pulled up short. He’d already started moving on to the next militiaman. But in the wake of Hastings’s reply, the hulking officer turned. He turned only his head, not his body. The motion struck Kate as menacing and unnatural.

  He said, “What was that, Hastings?”

  Even Hastings looked unnerved. “I . . . I said I did, sir. Have reason to believe the two of them was carrying on. ”

  “Why? What? How?” He fired the questions like howitzers.

  Kate laughed nervously. “One question at a time, Corporal. Allow the poor man some opportunity to answer. ”

  Oh, and the look he gave her then. It was pure dark, demanding threat. Well, Kate threw it right back. She was not one of his soldiers to be disciplined. Even without fortune or family, she was a gentlewoman. He had no power over her.

  She thrust her hand behind her back, lest he see it trembling.

  Hastings found his voice. “I saw them together in the cove. Just a few days ago, as I was headed out with my nets in the early morning. Miss Minerva was in her bathing costume, and Lord Payne was stripping down to his breeches. ”

  “A swim?” Diana said. “In April?”

  “I don’t know what they done afterwards. I just know what I saw. ” Hastings shrugged. “And when I come back in, a few hours later, they were just leaving. ”

  “I know it’s not my turn yet,” Rufus Bright called from the end of the line, “but I saw them together too. ”

  “When?” Kate and Thorne spoke in unison, much to their shared dismay.

  “The other night, when I was standing watch at the castle. Sometime after . . . ” Rufus shot a glance at the women and tugge
d his collar. “Sometime after midnight, I saw Miss Minerva leaving Lord Payne’s quarters. Alone. ”

  Charlotte shrieked, then clapped both hands over her mouth. Diana tried to soothe her sister.

  “Why didn’t you say something that night?” Thorne demanded. “You let her walk home alone, unprotected?”

  “Well, you have to admit it weren’t the first time he’s entertained a lady visitor after dark. ”

  Oh dear Lord.

  Kate strode forward. “Corporal Thorne, isn’t this enough? You wanted evidence. I believe Hastings and Rufus have given you ample proof. Now can we conclude this public inquisition, before we unearth more details that prove unnecessarily embarrassing to the Highwood family?”

  The big man released a slow breath. “You really think Payne will marry her. ”

  “I do,” she answered.

  “Well, you’re right on that score. He will marry her. I’ll see to that. The only question is whether he’s doing it willingly now, or whether he’ll marry her when he comes back”—the big man cracked his neck—“at the point of my pistol. ”

  Chapter Sixteen

  God preserve him from incompetence.

  As he sat on the forest floor, arms wrenched behind his back and tied around the trunk of a chestnut tree, Colin felt a pang of wistful nostalgia for the Spindle Cove militia. They might have been a sorry group of volunteers at the outset, barely able to march in time—but this band of fool highwaymen made them look like a crack infantry unit by comparison.

  First the thieves had argued for a good half hour over whether to believe he was a prince, a viscount, or a charlatan. Then they’d argued for a similar length of time over what to do with him. Colin, of course, had plenty of suggestions—each of which earned him another cuff across the face.

  So far, these criminals had proven skilled at only one thing: Tying knots.

  Finally, they’d decided to report back to their leader—some boss of their thieving gang, apparently. And so they’d tied Colin to the chestnut tree and left their youngest, most anxious-looking member to watch over him. The young man sat about ten feet distant, keeping a pistol trained on Colin’s chest.

  It wasn’t the boy with the gun that troubled Colin, it was the ropes lashing him to this tree. He hated feeling confined, couldn’t abide being bound to anything.

  Stay calm. You’ll be released. Eventually.

  He was simply too valuable to kill. But the longer he remained tied here, the captive of the robbers’ indecision, the longer it would take word to reach Bram. And the longer Minerva would be on her own, alone and penniless.

  The thought of her huddled frightened and hungry in a strange village . . . it made him shake with impotent anger. He raged and strained against the chafing ropes.

  Enough with patience. There was no waiting this out. He had to escape.

  “Why you?” Colin asked his captor, trying to sound calm.

  “What’s that?”

  “Why’d they leave you in charge of a valuable hostage? You look barely old enough to shave. ”

  “I’m nineteen this summer. ” The robber scratched his jaw. “Reckon Grubb and Carmichael wanted to be the ones to tell the boss. They’re probably fighting over it right now, who gets to tell the tale. ”

  “Ah. ” Colin tilted his head. Behind the tree, he struggled and pulled against the ropes binding his wrist. No slack. Damn it, if only he could reach the knife in his boot . . .

  “So,” he said, “this . . . Grubb and Carmichael, was it . . . wanted the glory for themselves?”

  “That’s how I see it. ”

  “I’m sure you’re right. ” He nodded. “Very astute. But you know, you probably shouldn’t have told me their names. ”

  The younger man’s eyes went wide. He cursed unimaginatively.

  “Don’t worry. I’m sure Grubb and Carmichael won’t kill you. ”
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