A week to be wicked, p.27
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.27
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 27

 

  So wretchedly unfair. Thirty seconds’ toilette, and he looked better than she could have managed with hot tongs, curling papers, and the assistance of two French lady’s maids.

  “Am I presentable?” he asked.

  “You’re every bit as unjustly handsome as always. ”

  He cocked his head and peered at her. “Now, what can we do about you?”

  She snorted. What indeed. “Likely nothing, my lord,” she said acidly.

  “Well, you can’t go in looking like that—all pinned and laced and buttoned up. Not if you’re meant to pass as my mistress. ”

  “Your . . . ” She lowered her voice, as though the cypresses had ears. “Your mistress?”

  “How else am I to explain your presence? I’ve been friends with the Duke of Halford for years. I can’t tell him you’re my sister. He knows very well I have none. ” His hands went to the buttons of her traveling spencer. Beginning at the one nearest her throat, he slipped them loose, one by one. “First, we need to do away with this. ” When he had the two sides divided, he pushed the garment from her shoulders and shook loose the sleeves. All the while, Minerva stood there numbly, not even knowing how to protest.

  He folded her jacket and tossed it aside. “This won’t do either,” he grumbled, eyeing her shot-silk traveling gown. “You should have worn the red today. ”

  Minerva bristled. “What’s wrong with this gown?” She liked this gown. It was one of her best. The peacock blue suited her coloring, or so she’d been told.

  “It’s too modest by far,” he said. “You look like a governess, not a mistress. ”

  Modest? She stared down at the silk. The bodice fit close across her bosom, and the empire waist cinched her tight around the ribs, flaring to a full, draped skirt. It was a form-fitting, curve-emphasizing silhouette—one that had felt positively daring, in the seamstress’s fitting. The sleeves, especially. They puffed a bit at the shoulder, then gathered with a ribbon garter just at the top of the arm. From there, they hugged her arms tight, all the way down to the wrist.

  He reached for one of those ribbon bows, worrying the lace between his fingertips before skimming a light touch all the way down to her cuff. A heady sensation slid through her, coasting on the sheen of silk.

  See? These sleeves were cunning, sensual sheaths of fabric. Nothing modest about them at all.

  “Perhaps this will help. ” He closed his fingers about the cuff and gave it a ruthless yank.

  “No, don’t!”

  And just like that, the cunning sleeve was gone. His sharp tug made a rent in the seam below her ribbon ties, and he frayed the rest of it loose with devious fingers. Within moments, he had the entire sleeve destroyed and he’d set to work on the other.

  In the end, he left her with abbreviated puffs of fabric covering her shoulders. Two little apostrophes of silk, where full parentheses had been.

  After standing back a moment to look at her, he untied one of the ribbon bows and left its ends dangling.

  “Why would you do that?”

  His eyebrow arched. “It makes a suggestion. ”

  “The suggestion being that I’m loose?”

  “Your words, not mine. ” He framed her waist in his hands, and spun her around—so that she faced away. His hands went to the row of hooks down the back of her dress. Beginning at the base of her neck, he undid them one by one.

  “Now this is too much,” she protested, trying to wriggle away. “I won’t be made to look slatternly. ”

  He held her tight. His breath fell hot and rough on her neck. “You’ll be made to look the way I wish you to look. That’s the point of a mistress, after all. No doubt Sir Alisdair Kent likes his women looking prim and demure, but you chose me as your travel partner. I have a reputation to maintain. ”

  He unhooked her dress to the midpoint of her back, just between her shoulder blades. Then he worked the widened neckline over the slopes of her shoulders, shimmying it down to a most indecent latitude. The edge of her chemise was exposed, making a lacy ruff of white to frame her exposed cleavage.

  After whirling her back to face him, he surveyed his handiwork. Minerva flushed with shame. He’d taken her perfectly respectable traveling gown and turned it into an off-the-shoulder ensemble befitting a pirate wench.

  And he wasn’t through with her yet. He lifted his hands to her hair and began plucking the pins from her failing chignon. If she weren’t faint with hunger and terrified of being stranded penniless in the Midlands, she would not have stood for such treatment.

  This went beyond teasing. Could he . . . could he possibly be envious?

  “Really, Colin. I’m sorry if you resent my regard for Sir Alisdair. But humiliating me this way is hardly going to earn you my good opinion. ”

  “Perhaps not. ” He pulled the last of the pins free and shook her hair loose about her face. “But I’m convinced it will add greatly to my personal satisfaction. And it will save us both a great many prying questions. ”

  He removed the spectacles from her face and folded them, tucking them inside his breast pocket.

  “I need those. ” She reached for them.

  He caught her wrist. “No, you don’t. From the moment we walk through those doors, you’re not leaving my side, do you hear? Believe me, you don’t want any of Halford’s guests thinking I mean to share you. ”

  Share her? What sort of den of iniquity were they entering?

  “For my part,” he said, “I’ll behave as if I’m your slavish, besotted, jealous protector. ”

  She bit back an unladylike laugh. “Now that will be the role of a lifetime. ”

  “And you . . . ” He tipped her chin with a single fingertip. “You had better play your part to perfection, my pet. ”

  “My part? I don’t know how to be a mistress. ” Certainly not among dukes. She became an absolute pudding around powerful men.

  “Oh, don’t sell yourself short. I think you’ll do very well indeed. You see, a mistress is a sharp, savage little creature. When it suits her, she can make a man feel as though he’s irresistible, desirable, endlessly fascinating. The only man in the world. ” He leaned closer, lowered his voice to a dark whisper. He was too near for comfort or clarity, just a blur of male ferocity. “She moans as if she means it. And when she’s got what she wanted, she’ll make it bitingly clear that the man means nothing—absolutely nothing—to her at all. I think you were born to that role. Don’t you?”

  “No, I don’t,” she said, her voice wavering. “How dare you suggest that I’m some sort of . . . Last night was all your idea. ”

  “I know it. ”

  “And I can hardly be the first woman to pass an enjoyable night in your arms and want little to do with you the following day. ”

  “Of course not. You’re merely the most recent in a long, distinguished line. And don’t harbor any illusions you’ll be the last. ”

  “Then why are you so angry? Why am I singled out for such cruel retribution? What wound can I have possibly caused you, save a miniscule twinge to your pride?”

  He stared at her for a long moment. “I don’t know. ”

  Then he reached up with both hands and pinched her cheeks. Hard.

  “Ow!” Reeling, she clapped her hands over them. “What was that for?”

  “You need a blush on those cheeks if you’re to play my trollop, and we haven’t any rouge. ” One of his arms shot around her, gathering her close. He traced her bottom lip with his thumb. “And these lips are looking entirely too pursed and pale. ”

  Bending his head, he caught her mouth in a harsh, bruising kiss. His tongue thrust between her lips, making a thorough, claiming sweep of her mouth. Then he caught her bottom lip and gave it a teasing, puppyish tug with his teeth. He left her mouth swollen, stinging with pleasure and pain.

  She dug an elbow into his side, using all the strength in her arm to lever some distance betw
een them. He released her, and she stumbled a few steps back.

  She touched her fingertips to her mouth, checking for blood. “Are you satisfied now?”

  He released a long, frustrated breath. With some distance between them, she could better make out his expression. It was one of lean, wary hunger.

  “Not even close, Min. ” He bent to pick up the trunk. “Not even close. ”

  Chapter Eighteen

  If Winterset Grange looked austere and forbidding from the outside, its interior resembled something out of Ancient Rome at its peak of debauchery and excess.

  Being without her spectacles was both a hindrance and a blessing. Everywhere Minerva turned, she saw blurred depictions of flesh. Paintings of lascivious nudes covered the soaring walls, stacked bosom-to-backside three tiers high. Decadent sculptures winked out from alcoves. Some ambitious decorator had splashed gold leaf over everything.

  The sculpture nearest Minerva appeared to be Pan, cavorting and twisting atop a Corinthian column. If she squinted, she could make out the fine silver and rosy veins of the stone. Italian, most definitely.

  “Such lovely marble, to be so misused. ” She ran her fingers over the cool, smooth stone. Then withdrew her hand immediately when she realized the cylindrical protuberance she’d grasped was not a horn, nor a pipe.

  Casting about for a safe place to rest her gaze, she looked to the wallpaper. A traditional, pleasant gold-and-white toile pattern of couples dancing. Or were they?

  She squinted and peered closer, forcing the pattern into focus.

  No, the couples weren’t dancing.

  “Payne! It is you. ” A man sauntered across the hall to them, dressed in a lazily tied banyan. He seemed young—near to Colin’s age, she’d imagine—and he brought with him an air of cultivated dissipation and the vague scent of opium smoke. He was flanked by two women even more scantily clad than he—one smooth and fair, the other titian-haired. Minerva couldn’t make out the women’s expressions, but their sensuality was a palpable force. She felt their gaze on her, cool and prickling.

  This mousy girl can’t be one of us, she imagined them thinking.

  I’m not, she wanted to shout. She had this brief, vivid vision of giving Colin, his debauched friend, and these two loose women a good dressing down, smashing priapic Pan to the floor, whirling on her heel, and—

  But she had no money. Nowhere to go, and no means of getting there. She didn’t even have her spectacles.

  So Minerva lifted her chin and cocked her hip. She shuffled closer to Colin and moved to prop her arm on his shoulder. Of course, with her vision so hampered, she misjudged and propped her arm on air. She stumbled and fell into him instead, splaying one arm over his chest and trying for all the world to look as though she’d meant to do that.

  She didn’t think anyone was fooled.

  One woman began giggling. The other laughed out loud.

  Minerva wanted to sink through the floor.

  “Ladies,” the man she presumed to be the Duke of Halford said, “you remember my good friend Payne. ”

  “But of course,” one of them cooed. “We’re old friends, aren’t we?”

  Now Minerva wanted to sink through the floor and die there. She understood Colin was angry, but how could he do this to her?

  Colin inclined his head. “Always a pleasure, Hal. Sorry to arrive unannounced. Hope you don’t mind the imposition. ”

  “Never an imposition! But gods, you did appear from nowhere. I didn’t even hear your carriage in the drive. ” The man relinquished his hold on one of the ladies and gave Colin a genial punch on the arm. “The butler told me you’d arrived, and I didn’t believe him. Last I heard, that cousin of yours had you on a short leash. ”

  “I’ve slipped it, apparently. ”

  “Good for you. Your timing couldn’t be better. Prinny’s expected to pop round later this week. Girls, go find that puckered housekeeper of mine and tell her to ready Payne’s usual suite. ”
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