A week to be wicked, p.3
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.3
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 3

 

  “So you’ll just return to Spindle Cove unmarried, after weeks of travel with me? Don’t you realize you’d be . . . ”

  “Ruined in good society? I know. ” She looked into the roaring fire. “I’m willing to accept that fate. I had no desire for a society marriage, anyhow. ” No hopes of one, to put it finely. She didn’t relish the thought of scandal and gossip. But could it really be so much worse to be cut off from fashionable society than to feel forever squeezed to its margins?

  “But what of your sisters? They’ll be tainted by association. ”

  His remark gave her pause. It wasn’t that she hadn’t thought about this possibility. To the contrary, she’d considered it very carefully.

  “Charlotte has years before her debut,” she said. “She can weather a bit of scandal. And as for Diana . . . sometimes I think the kindest thing I could do for my sister is ruin her chances of making a ‘good’ marriage. Then she might make a loving one. ”

  He sipped his wine thoughtfully. “Well, I’m glad you’ve worked all this out to your satisfaction. You have no compunction ruining your reputation, nor those of your sisters. But have you given a moment’s thought to mine?”

  “To your what? Your reputation?” She laughed. “But your reputation is terrible. ”

  His cheeks colored, slightly. “I don’t know that it’s terrible. ”

  She put her left forefinger to her right thumb. “Point the first. You’re a shameless rake. ”

  “Yes. ” He drew out the word.

  She touched her index finger. “Point the second. Your name is synonymous with destruction. Bar fights, scandals . . . literal explosions. Wherever you go, mayhem follows. ”

  “I don’t really try at that part. It just . . . happens. ” He rubbed a hand over his face.

  “And yet you worry this scheme would tarnish your reputation?”

  “Of course. ” He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. He gestured with the hand holding the wineglass. “I’m a lover of women, yes. ” Then he lifted his empty hand. “And yes, I seem to break everything I touch. But thus far I’ve succeeded in keeping the two proclivities separate, you see. I sleep with women and I ruin things, but I’ve never yet ruined an innocent woman. ”

  “Seems like a mere oversight on your part. ”

  He chuckled. “Perhaps. But it’s not one I mean to remedy. ”

  His eyes met hers, unguarded and earnest. And a strange thing happened. Minerva believed him. This was one snag she never would have considered. That he might object on principle. She hadn’t dreamed he possessed a scruple to offend.

  But he did, evidently. And he was baring it to her, in an attitude of confidence. As though they were friends, and he trusted her to understand.

  Something had changed between them, in the ten minutes since she’d pounded on his door.

  She sat back in the chair, regarding him. “You are a different person at night. ”

  “I am,” he agreed simply. “But then, so are you. ”

  She shook her head. “I’m always this person, inside. It’s just . . . ” Somehow, I can never manage to be this person with you. The harder I try, the more I get in my own way.

  “Listen, I’m honored by your invitation, but this excursion you suggest can’t happen. I’d return looking like the worst sort of seducer and cad. And justly so. Having absconded with, then callously discarded, an innocent young lady?”

  “Why couldn’t I be the one to discard you?”

  A little chuckle escaped him. “But who would ever believe—”

  He cut off his reply. A moment too late.

  “Who would ever believe that,” she finished for him. “Who indeed. ”

  Cursing, he set aside the wineglass. “Come now. Don’t take offense. ”

  Ten minutes ago, she would have expected him to laugh. She would have been prepared for his derision, and she wouldn’t have allowed him to see how it hurt. But things had changed. She’d accepted his coat and his wine. More than that, his honesty. She’d let down her guard. And now this.

  It cut her deep.

  Her eyes stung. “It’s unthinkable. I know that’s what you’re saying. What everyone would say. It’s inconceivable that a man like you could be in—” She swallowed. “Could be taken with a girl like me. ”

  “I didn’t mean it that way. ”

  “Of course you did. It’s preposterous. Laughable. The idea that you might want me, and I might spurn you? I’m plain. Bookish, distracted, awkward. Hopeless. ” Her voice broke. “In a geologic age, no one would believe it. ”

  She wriggled her feet into her boots. Then she pushed to her feet and reached for her cloak.

  He rose and reached for her hand. She pulled away, but not fast enough. His fingers closed around her wrist.

  “They would believe it,” he said. “I could make them believe it. ”

  “You horrid, teasing man. You can’t even remember my name. ” She wrestled his grip.

  He tightened it. “Minerva. ”

  Her body went still. Her breath burned in her lungs, as though she’d been fighting her way through waist-deep snow.

  “Listen to me now,” he said, smooth and low. “I could make them believe it. I’m not going to do so, because I think this scheme of yours is a spectacularly bad idea. But I could. If I chose, I could have all Spindle Cove—all England—convinced that I’m utterly besotted with you. ”

  She sniffed. “Please. ”

  He smiled. “No, truly. It would be so easy. I’d begin by studying you, when you aren’t aware of it. Stealing glances when you’re lost in thought, or when your head’s bent over a book. Admiring the way that dark, wild hair always manages to escapes its pins, tumbling down your neck. ” With his free hand, he caught a damp strand of her hair in his fingertips and smoothed it behind her ear. Then he brushed a light touch over her cheek. “Noting the warm glow of your skin, where the sun has kissed it. And these lips. Damn. I think I’d have to develop quite a fascination with your lips. ”

  His thumb hovered over her mouth, teasing her with possibilities. She ached for his touch, until she was miserable with it. This . . . unwanted wanting.

  “It wouldn’t take long. Soon everyone around us would take note of my interest,” he said. “They’d believe my attraction to you. ”

  “You’ve been mercilessly teasing me for months now. No one would forget that. ”

  “All part of the infatuation. Don’t you know? A man might engage in flirtation with disinterest, even disdain. But he never teases without affection. ”

  “I don’t believe you. ”

  “You should. Others would. ” He placed his hands on her shoulders. His gaze swept her body from boots to unbound hair. “I could have them all believing I’m consumed by a savage, visceral passion for this enchantress with raven’s-wing hair and sultry lips. That I admire her fierce loyalty to her sisters, and her brave, resourceful spirit. That I’m driven wild by hints of a deep, hidden passion that escape her sometimes, when she ventures out of her shell. “ His strong hands moved to frame her face. His Bristol-diamond eyes held hers. “That I see in her a rare, wild beauty that’s been overlooked, somehow, by other men. And I want it. Desperately. All for myself. Oh, I could have them believing it all. ”

  The rich, deep flow of words had worked some kind of spell on her. She stood transfixed, unable to move or speak.

  It’s not real, she reminded herself. None of these words mean a thing.

  But his caress was real. Real, and warm, and tender. It could mean too much, if she let it. Caution told her to pull away.

  Instead, she placed a light, trembling touch to his shoulder. Foolish hand. Foolish fingers.

  “If I wished,” he murmured, drawing her close and tilting her face to his, “I could convince everyone that the true reason I’ve remained in Spindle Cove—months past what should have been my breaking point
has nothing to do with my cousin or my finances. ” His voice went husky. “That it’s simply you, Minerva. ” He caressed her cheek, so sweetly her heart ached. “That it’s always been you. ”

  His eyes were sincere, unguarded. No hint of irony in his voice. He almost seemed to have convinced himself.

  Her heart pounded in her chest with violent force. That mad, hammering beat was all she could hear.

  Until another sound intruded.

  Laughter. A woman’s laughter. Trickling down from above, like a cascade of freezing water. A brisk, dousing shock.

  Oh God.

  “Bloody hell. ” He looked up, to the sleeping loft.

  Minerva followed his gaze. From behind the draped bed hangings, the unseen woman laughed again. Laughed at her.

  Oh God. Oh God.

  How could she have been so stupid? Naturally, he wasn’t alone. He’d all but told her as much. He’d taken forever to open the door, but he hadn’t been sleeping. He’d paused first to . . .

  To put on trousers.

  Oh God oh God oh God.

  The whole time. Whoever she was up there, she’d been listening the whole time.

  Minerva groped numbly for her cloak, jerking it on with shaking fingers. The fire’s smoky heat was suddenly cloying and thick. Suffocating. She had to leave this place. She was going to be ill.

  “Wait,” he said, following her to the door. “It’s not how it looks. ”

  She cut him a freezing glare.

  “Very well, it’s mostly how it looks. But I swear, I’d forgotten she was even here. ”

  She ceased struggling with the door latch. “And that’s supposed to make me think better of you?”

  “No. ” He sighed. “It’s supposed to make you think better of you. That’s all I meant. To make you feel better. ”

  Amazing, then, how with that one remark, he made a mortifying situation thirteen times worse.

  “I see. Normally you reserve the insincere compliments for your lovers. But you thought to take on a charity case. ” He started to reply, but she cut him off. She glanced up at the loft. “Who is she?”

  “Does it matter?”

  “Does it matter?” She wrenched the door open. “Good Lord. Are women so interchangeable and faceless to you? You just . . . lose track of them under the bed cushions, like pennies? I can’t believe I—”

  A hot tear spilled down her cheek. She hated that tear. Hated that he’d seen it. A man like this wasn’t worth weeping over. It was just . . . for that moment by the fire, after years of being overlooked, she’d finally felt noticed. Appreciated.

  Wanted.

  And it had all been a lie. A ridiculous, laughable joke.

  He pulled on his greatcoat. “Let me see you home, at least. ”

  “Stay back. Don’t come near me, or my sister. ” She held him off with a hand as she backed through the door. “You are the most deceitful, horrid, shameless, contemptible man I have ever had the displeasure to know. How do you sleep at night?”

  His reply came just as she banged the door closed.

  “I don’t. ”

  Chapter Two

  He didn’t sleep that night.

  After Minerva Highwood stormed off into the rain, even a dissolute, soulless rake like Colin couldn’t simply continue where he’d left off. He roused the widow from his bed, put her in her clothes, and saw her back to the village. Once he’d satisfied himself that Minerva had made it home safe—by glimpsing her muddied boots outside the rear door of the rooming house—he returned to his quarters at the castle and uncorked a new bottle of wine.

  But he didn’t sleep a wink.

  He never did. Not at night, not alone.

  God, he hated the country. All the sunshine and sea air in Sussex couldn’t make up for the dark, quiet nights. Lately, Colin thought he’d give his left nipple—bollocks were never up for negotiation—for a decent night’s sleep. Ever since Fiona Lange had left the village, at best he’d been able to cobble together a few hours in the early dawn. For most of the winter, he’d taken to drinking himself into a nightly stupor. But his body, already taxed from lack of rest, was beginning to fray from the volume of liquor required. If he wasn’t careful, he’d become a habitual drunk. He was too young for that, damn it.
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