A week to be wicked, p.28
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.28
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 28

 

  “Yes, your grace. ”

  Halford sent the ladies on their way with a resounding smack to the backside. Then Minerva felt the duke’s gaze slide to her. Her skin crawled.

  “Now,” he said, “let’s see to your baggage. Aren’t you going to introduce her, Payne? Don’t believe I’ve seen this one before. ”

  “No, you haven’t. ” Colin trailed a reassuring touch down her back. “Melissande is new. ”

  Melissande? She briefly closed her eyes to avoid rolling them.

  “Not your usual sort, is she?” the duke asked.

  “I’ve always enjoyed variety. She may look innocent, but in the bedchamber she’s very surprising. ”

  “Is she, now?” The duke spoke to her. “Well, then Melissande. Surely my friend will have told you, we’re all friends at Winterset Grange. Aren’t you going to show your host a bit of appreciation? Perhaps you could start with a kiss. ”

  Her stomach lurched.

  Colin’s arm tightened around her waist, lashing her to him and forbidding her to move. He said easily, “You’ll have to excuse her. She doesn’t speak a word of English. ”

  “Not a word?” The duke chuckled. “Parlez-vous francais?”

  “No French, either. She hails from some tiny Alpine principality. Can’t even recall the name of it. They have their own dialect. ”

  “Hm. ” The duke considered. “Fortunately, pleasure is a universal language. ” He swept a finger over Minerva’s bared shoulder.

  She glared at him, seething. Duke or no duke, ruse or no ruse, symposium or no symposium—Minerva refused to abide such treatment. Even if she lacked a proper lady’s beauty, accomplishments, and social graces, she was a gentlewoman and a free-thinking individual. She had her dignity.

  When Halford’s presumptuous touch trailed downward, teasing toward her décolletage, she bristled—and smacked his hand away.

  Then she bared her teeth and gave a little growl. Violence was a universal language, too.

  “Watch yourself, Halford. ” Colin tensed. No good humor in his voice now, only threat. “This one’s not to be trifled with. A friend of my cousin’s in the War Office asked me to keep on eye on her. There are rumors, suspicions. The Crown’s intelligence suggests she’s either a princess in exile or a cold-blooded assassin. ”

  The duke gave a bark of laugher. “Judging by that bruise on your jaw, my wager’s on the latter. But speaking of wagers, come along. Everyone’s in the card room. ”

  The duke turned on his heel—his bare heel, for he seemed to be wearing nothing beneath the banyan—and padded down a long corridor.

  Colin and Minerva lagged several steps behind.

  “Now I’m a cold-blooded assassin?” she hissed. “Where do you come up with these things?”

  He shushed her, purposely slowing his paces so that they’d drop even farther behind. “It’s called improvisation, remember? I had to offer some explanation for your behavior. ”

  Ahead of them, the duke called out to a friend as he turned a corner.

  Once Halford was out of sight, Minerva stopped dead in the corridor, wrenching out of Colin’s embrace. She didn’t understand how he could do this to her—be so protective and self-sacrificing one moment, and then so patronizing the next.

  “I do not deserve this,” she whispered. “Just because I made the mistake of accepting your . . . attentions . . . last night, that does not make me a whore. How dare you lump me in with those debased women?”

  “Believe me, those women would not call themselves debased. And what makes you think they’re whores? Perhaps they’re ladies, every bit as pedigreed and well-bred as you, who understand what you don’t. How to enjoy themselves. How to have a good time. ”

  “What?” She jabbed a finger in her own chest. “I understand how to enjoy myself. I understand how to have a good time. ”

  He cocked his head and drawled, “Oh, of course you do. ”

  “How dare you. ” Now she jabbed the same finger in his chest. “How dare you bring me to this place and subject me to that leering, grabby duke. ”

  He grasped her wrist and lowered his voice. “How dare I, indeed. ”

  She didn’t have to see his expression to know he was angry. The fury radiated from him.

  “How dare I risk my life to save yours, when you all but threw yourself to the highwayman. How dare I bring you to a comfortable house, where we can find food and a night’s shelter after a day of rambling woods and fields. How dare I. ”

  His hands slid up her shoulders and stopped halfway between her head and neck. As though he were trying to decide whether to kiss her or throttle her.

  She would put up a fight, either way.

  “We’re going to go into that card room now. We will eat, drink, and play their game. As soon as we’re able, we’ll slip upstairs and have a good night’s sleep. I swear to you, you’ll leave this house tomorrow morning with both your virtue and that disapproving personality intact—tucked safe inside your little shell—so long as you do two things. ” He gave her head a little shake. “Stay close to me and play your part. ”

  “The part of a cold-blooded assassin? I could get inspired for that. ”

  “The part of my lover. ” His fingers slid up and through her hair, dragging exquisite sensation over her scalp. “Search deep inside this clever mind, and try to see if you can’t dredge up the imagination to pretend. To convince those around us that you find something in me to admire. That against all odds, you actually prefer my company to a clod of dirt. ”

  The ragged hurt in his voice took her by surprise. So here was the reason for his changing moods and erratic behavior. Somehow, in attempting to guard her own fragile emotions, she’d managed to make him feel lower than dirt.

  “Colin . . . ” She stroked his lapel. “I can convince them I like you. That won’t require imagination. ”

  This thumb traced her jaw, and his voice went husky. “Won’t it?”

  “But no one will believe we’re lovers. You heard those women laugh. You said it yourself, back in Spindle Cove. No one will believe you want me. ”

  With a groan, he slid his hands down her back. Cupping her backside in two hands, he lifted her and pressed her into the nearest alcove. The possession in his manner thrilled her, and so did the press of his hard, muscled body against hers.

  He pressed a kiss to her ear. “What if I said I was an idiot that night?”

  “Then I would agree. ”

  “What if I told you everything’s changed?” He kissed her neck. “That in the past four-and-twenty hours I’ve wanted to murder three different men just for daring to touch you—one of them a duke. That I am desperate with longing, consumed with wanting you. As I’ve wanted no other woman in all my debauched, misspent life. ”

  His tongue traced her pulse, and her breath caught. “Then I would doubt you,” she breathed.

  Why?”

  “Because . . . ” Because I doubt myself. “Because I know how easily you lie. ”

  He clutched her bottom, bringing her pelvis flush with his. His hardness ground against her, sending pleasure rushing through her veins.

  “Feel that?” he growled.

  She nodded. Good Lord, how could she not?

  “I’ve been hard for you for days, Minerva. Since before we even left Spindle Cove. If you believe nothing else, believe this. ” He rocked against her. “This doesn’t lie. ”

  Colin was done pretending.

  He ushered Minerva into the card room. After he’d greeted the half dozen familiar faces assembled about the green felt tabletop and introduced his feisty foreign mistress-or-murderess Melissande, he took his own chair.

  And taking Minerva by the hips, he put her on his lap. Nestled her sweet little backside on his left thigh, draped one arm about her shoulders, and let his hand dangle directly over her breast. With lazy motions, he traced the delicate border
where her altered neckline chafed against her exposed décolletage.

  “Stay close,” he whispered, nuzzling her ear. While he was in the neighborhood, he took the chance to catch her tiny earlobe with his teeth.

  In sum, he made the two of them very, very cozy. Not to create appearances for Halford’s sake. Not to prove a point to her, or to anyone.

  Simply because he wanted her. And he was done pretending otherwise.

  “Well, Payne. ” The duke reached for the deck of cards. “The game is brag. ”

  Colin surveyed the coins and gambling tokens scattered on the table. “Stake me a sovereign’s worth, will you? I’m not carrying much coin on me. ”

  “But of course. ” The duke slid him two stacks of shillings, each ten pieces tall.

  Minerva tensed in his lap.

  “Hush,” he murmured against her hair. “Trust me. ” She should understand this was necessary. A few hours at the card table earned their board and keep.

  She made a doubtful noise in her throat. But she kept still.

  “Be a good host, Hal, and have one of these liveried jackanapes fetch my lady food and wine? She could do with some nourishment. ”

  “So could you, from the looks of you. ”

  “Yes, well. ” Colin grinned. “We’ve quite exhausted each other over the past few days. ”

  The gamblers around the table laughed heartily. The duke merely waved for servants to bring refreshments and began to deal the cards. Halford was always all business, in the card room.

  Colin turned his attention to the cards. Minerva turned hers to the food.

  She took care of him, in small ways. While he concentrated on the hand he was dealt, she had his glass filled with claret. Now she prepared for him a slice of roast pork, sandwiched between two halves of a buttered roll. In the process, she dabbed a bit of butter on her thumb. She put her thumb to her mouth and sucked it clean. Colin knew she didn’t intend the motion to be coy or provocative. Which made it arousing as hell.

  He’d noted this about her, ever since that first night in the turret. There was an earthy, natural sensuality in her, but it only emerged when she felt confident. Or when she’d had a little wine. He wondered what it would take to coax this Minerva out into the world, permanently. She would need a steady supply of assurance, he supposed. Perhaps her participation in the Royal Geological Society could give her that, to some degree. But the right man could do far more. The right man could plant seeds of confidence, deep inside her, and nurture them to healthy, robust vines that reached and stretched, offering sweet, bountiful fruit.

  The only fruit she cared for at the moment was the plate of grapes and apricots before them. Filling her famished belly was clearly her primary goal, and she went about it with energy—devouring wedges of cheese and slices of ham. When a passing servant offered her a tray of bite-sized tarts, she abandoned her wineglass with an eager gasp and reached for a tart with either hand.

  She popped one in her mouth and offered the other to him.

  Rather than take it with his fingers, he grasped her wrist to hold it steady. Then he devoured the morsel of pastry directly from her fingers, letting his tongue swirl over her fingertips. She sighed, and the little sound was more honey-sweet and sinfully delicious than a jam tart could ever hope to be.

  Halford cleared his throat. “It’s your bet, Payne. ”

  Colin shook himself and sent a shilling wobbling toward the center of the table. “Yes, of course. ”

  He played, they ate. When they’d both consumed their fill, Colin waved for servants to remove the plates and trays.

  Minerva made herself comfortable in his lap. Her fingers curled into the fringe of hair at his nape, toying idly. She stroked up and down the tendons of his neck, soothing away the tension coiled there. Little brushes of kindness he didn’t deserve.
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