A week to be wicked, p.29
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.29
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 29

 

  He pressed his lips to her ear and whispered, “You do know I’m sorry? For earlier. ”

  She gave a slight nod.

  With a breathy groan, he slid his arm to her waist and gathered her close. She laid her head on his chest.

  He kissed her crown. “Sleep, if you wish. ”

  She released a full-body sigh and melted in his embrace. This easy intimacy between them . . . it made sense, he supposed, given their adventures over the past few days and nights. But still, it came as a surprise.

  He’d been physically intimate with many women, and he’d felt emotionally close to others. But thus far, he’d assiduously worked to keep the two social spheres separate. There were women Colin counted as friends, and then there were women he bedded. Anytime he’d allowed the two groups to overlap, it meant trouble.

  Minerva Highwood had meant nothing but trouble to him, since the very first.

  But by God, he’d returned the favor. As she curled into his chest, she felt so small and fragile against him. In the past four-and-twenty hours, she’d walked untold miles across the English countryside, surrendered all her money at gunpoint, pulled a knife on a highwayman, and entered a house that oozed such Bacchanalian excess as to send a gently-bred virgin screaming. And all this, just one day on the heels of her first proper orgasm.

  Never once had she dissolved into helpless tears. Or begged him to just please take her home. Not one woman in a hundred would handle herself so well in similar circumstances.

  He made a vow to himself, then and there. If he did nothing else right in his life, he would do this: deliver Minerva Highwood to Edinburgh for her scientific presentation. On time, in one piece. And with her virtue intact.

  Some way, somehow, he would make these good intentions come out right.

  He gently stroked her hair and back with his left hand as he gathered his cards with the right. “Sleep,” he murmured again.

  As she shifted in his lap, her thigh rubbed against him. His body’s reaction was immediate, instinctual. Blood rushed to his groin, hardening his cock and loosening his tenuous hold on those cherished principles. He wanted her physically, and he couldn’t pretend otherwise.

  But he must endeavor to hide this other, more visceral reaction—the overwhelming, tenderness rising in his chest.

  The simple, unthinkable fact that he cared.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Once again, Minerva woke in his arms. She was growing accustomed to waking like this—embraced by his heat, his strength, his clove-spiced scent. She didn’t hurry to rouse herself, but hovered in that half-dream world for just a minute longer. Sighing into his waistcoat and hugging his neck tight.

  She trusted this man. He was a known liar and shameless rake, but she trusted him. Enough to fall asleep in his arms amid all this debauchery.

  She blinked at the card table, trying to bring the confusion of cards and coins into focus. How much time had passed? It felt very late. Most of the players seemed to have already retired for the night. Only Colin and Halford remained.

  She stared hard at the heap of shilling pieces in front of them. Had he increased their funds enough to continue their journey? Those coins had numbered twenty at the outset of the game.

  Now she counted . . .

  Four.

  Her heart stopped. Oh, God. How could he? She’d trusted him, and he was losing everything.

  Then she shifted her gaze to the cards in Colin’s hand. What she saw gave her reason to breathe again. His cards looked promising. She couldn’t make them out exactly—not without her spectacles. But she could see they were all red and they were all face cards. Simple logic told her, that had to add up to something good. A pair of knaves, at the least.

  She looked to the center of the table, heaped with coins. More than enough money to replace what the highwayman had taken. Perhaps this was all part of Colin’s plan.

  “A poxy pair of nines, that’s all. ” The duke threw down his cards. “I’m sure you can do better, Payne. ”

  Yes! He could. She curled her fingers around the edge of his waistcoat pocket, faint with excitement.

  Colin held his silence for a time. “Sorry to prove you wrong, Hal,” he said, “but you have me beat. ” He laid his cards facedown on the table before him.

  With a greedy laugh, the Duke of Halford gathered his winnings.

  Minerva’s hand slipped from Colin’s pocket. She was stunned. Aghast. Four shillings. They were down to four shillings now. She had to get him away from this card table before he lost everything they had.

  But how? She couldn’t even speak to him, thanks to his wild tales. These people all believed her to be Melissande, a refugee princess from some tiny Alpine principality. Or, alternatively, an assassin who just might garrote them all in their sleep. And in her spare time, Colin’s mistress.

  His worldly, sensual mistress.

  Minerva bit her lip. Perhaps there was a way to lure him from this betting table without words.

  Adjusting her weight in his lap, she stretched up one hand to stroke his hair. The heavy brown locks sifted between her fingers, stroking like feathers over her palm. With her other hand, she teased loose his cravat knot until the entire length of fabric slid from his neck in a slow, sensual glide. She thought she heard him moan, a little.

  She nuzzled into his neck. The scent of brandy clung to his skin, dark and intoxicating. Without her spectacles, at this close range, he was little more than an unshaven blur. But he was an achingly handsome blur, nonetheless. Craning her neck, she kissed his cheek.

  His breath caught, and she almost lost her nerve to continue. But she’d started this, and now there was no retreating.

  Tilting her head, she pressed a kiss to the underside of his jaw.

  Across the table, the duke gave a dry laugh.

  Minerva’s heart stalled. She froze, lips pressed to Colin’s unshaven throat. What had she been thinking? A brazen seductress? Her? Of course Halford wouldn’t believe it. No one in his right mind would believe it.

  “Payne,” the duke said, “perhaps you’d care to sit out this round? It would seem the fetching Melissande needs putting to bed. ”

  Colin’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “She can wait. ”

  “Perhaps,” the duke replied, with a knowing chuckle. “But can you? I’ve never seen a man’s knuckles quite that shade of pale. ”

  Exhilaration swarmed through her body. Halford did believe it. Colin was affected. She was a seductress. But she still hadn’t succeeded in her goal—pulling Colin away from the card table.

  Minerva redoubled her efforts. She wove her fingers tight into his hair. She licked his neck, dragging her tongue from his pulse to his earlobe. With the tip of her tongue, she traced his ear’s every whorl and ridge.

  “Upstairs,” she whispered. “Take me upstairs. Now. ”

  Colin’s hand fisted in the back of her dress, stealing her breath with a swift yank. But the sharp, secret rebuke only inflamed Minerva’s rebellious nature. Whose idea had it been for her to play this role? He had no right to complain. Besides, a part of her was enjoying this. Judging by the hard, heated ridge pulsing against her thigh, a part of him was enjoying it, too.

  This doesn’t lie.

  She kissed his collarbone, dropping her fingers to his shirt closures. Slipping loose one, then two, and snaking her fingers inside to caress his smooth, muscled chest.

  The duke observed, “You’re getting rather low in your stack, Payne. Since you’re so uninterested in enjoying Melissande yourself, perhaps you’d care to make a friendly wager. I’d lay a great deal of money against such obvious and abundant . . . charms. ”

  Minerva had to work, very hard, not to betray her understanding with a sour look. Or a violent heave of her stomach.

  Colin tensed as well. “Tread with caution, Halford. ”

  “Why? It’s not as thou
gh she can understand a word we say. ” The duke shuffled and dealt the cards. “One hand, one winner. You put your girl on the table, and I’ll toss in one of mine. Whoever wins can enjoy double the amusement tonight. ”

  Every muscle in Colin’s body went instantly hard as stone. One of his hands balled in a fist. The other went to the pistol tucked at his hip.

  Minerva’s blood turned icy in her veins. These protective impulses were all well and good, but the last thing she needed was for Colin to start trouble with the duke. They’d be cast out from Winterset Grange—running through the night this time, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

  A matter of minutes stood between them and disaster. But she could tell from his stormy expression, Colin wasn’t thinking more than ten seconds into the future.

  Lifting Minerva off his lap, he pushed to his feet. He leveled a finger at the duke. “Don’t you ever—”

  Smack.

  Minerva slapped him, square across the face.

  Colin blinked at her, clearly stunned.

  She lifted her shoulders. He’d left her no choice. She had to stop the men’s argument somehow. And Colin couldn’t start a fight with the duke if she started a fight with Colin first. So . . .

  Smack. She used her left hand this time, whipping his head the other direction.

  Then she stood back, seething as dramatically as she imagined a dark-haired Alpine princess-assassin with hot blood could possibly seethe. Adopting a nonspecific accent—something halfway between Italian and French—she narrowed her eyes and said, “Yoooo. Bass. Tard. ”

  His brow wrinkled. “What?”

  Oh, for God’s sake.

  “Yoo!” She shoved at his chest with both hands. “Bass. Tard. ”

  Rising from his chair, Halford laughed. “I believe she’s calling you a bastard, friend. You’re in for it now. Seems the wench understands a bit of English after all. Whoops. ”

  At last, Colin caught on. “B-b-but Melissande, I can explain. ”

  She circled him, snarling. “Bass. Tard. Bass. Tard. ”

  When he spoke again, she could tell he was struggling not to laugh. “Calm down, pet. And whatever you do . . . please, I beg you, don’t go into one of your fits of wild temper and uncontrollable passion. ”

  Incorrigible rogue. She had no doubt he meant that as a dare.

  Well, then. She would accept it.

  Minerva reached for a glass of claret on the table. She downed most of it in a single gulp, then dashed the remainder straight in Colin’s face. Wine splashed them both. Ruby-red rivulets streaked down his stunned expression.

  With a little growl, she threw herself at him, catching him by the shoulders and wrapping her legs over his hips. She licked the wine from his face, running her tongue over his cheeks, his chin . . . even his eyebrows. And then she ended her madwoman mistress performance with a slow, deep, savage kiss on the lips that had him moaning into her mouth and clutching her backside in both hands.

  “Upstairs,” she growled against his lips. “Now. ”

  At last, he carried her from the room. And kissed her until they were halfway down the corridor. There he stopped, apparently unable to hold back the laughter one moment more. He pressed her to the wall and wheezed helplessly into her neck, shaking with laughter.

  Well, she was glad someone found this amusing.

  Still laughing, he set her on her feet and tugged her up a flight of stairs and down a side corridor. He flung open the door of a suite, obviously familiar to him. In decor, it suffered the same excess of gold leaf and dearth of good taste as the rest of Winterset Grange.

  “Oh, Min. That was excellent. ”

  “That”—she banged the door shut—”was humiliating. ”

  “Well, it was a first-rate mistress performance. ” He shrugged out of his coat, set aside the pistol, and began unbuttoning his waistcoat. “What the devil was that, with the . . . the licking, and the wine? And how on earth did you think to—”

  “It’s called improvisation! Running down the slope and all. ” She thrust her hands through her wild, unbound hair, making a frantic survey of the room until she found Francine’s trunk, tucked neatly beneath a scroll-legged side table. “I had to get you away from the card table before you lost all our money and ruined everything. We already owe him sixteen shillings from my sovereign. Aren’t debts of honor supposed to be paid immediately?”
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