A week to be wicked, p.33
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.33
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 33

 

  “You don’t mind the wagon?” she asked him.

  He shook as head. “Not so long as it’s open. ”

  All the other farm workers crowded in, and just before the rear gate was latched, a half dozen pink, squirming piglets were added to the mix. One of them found its way to Minerva’s lap, rooting adorably in the white folds of her overskirt, where the keen little creature knew she’d saved some cheese from their luncheon.

  “Are we all traveling to Grantham?” Minerva wondered aloud, feeding the piglet a morsel of cheese.

  The young woman seated across the wagon stared at her, as though she were a simpleton. “It’s fair day, isn’t it?”

  Ah. Fair day. This would explain the air of excitement. And the piglets.

  As the wagon started off down the road, the girls in the wagon shifted and coalesced, forming a loose knot. They whispered to each other, shooting furtive glances at Colin and Minerva.

  Minerva could tell they were speculating on their relationship. Wondering whether or not this handsome stranger was available. After a bit more whispering and nudging, they seemed to nominate a bold-looking brunette to find out.

  “So, Mr. Sand,” she said, smiling. “What takes you and your lady friend to the Grantham fair?”

  Minerva held her breath, foolishly hoping to be claimed as something other than his sister. Something more than a mistress.

  “Business,” Colin said easily. “We’re circus folk. ”

  Circus folk?

  “Circus folk?” several of the girls echoed.

  “Yes, of course. ” He lazily riffled a hand through his hair. “I walk the tightrope, and my lady here . . . ” He stretched his arm around Minerva, drawing her close. “She’s a first-rate sword swallower. ”

  Oh my God.

  Minerva clapped a hand over her mouth and made helpless snuffling sounds into her palm. “Caught a bit of straw dust,” she explained a few moments later, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes.

  She slid a look at Colin. The man was unbelievably shameless. Incorrigibly handsome. And—oh, heavens. She was a feather’s brush away from falling hopelessly in love with him.

  “A sword swallower,” the brunette echoed, casting a skeptical glance at Minerva.

  “Oh yes. She has a rare talent. You must believe me when I say, I’ve spent several years in the circus world, and I’ve never seen her like. You should have seen her performance just last night. Sheer brilliance, I tell you. She has this way of—”

  Minerva elbowed him, hard.

  “What?” He caught her by the chin, turning her face to his. His eyes danced with amusement. “Really, pet. You are entirely too modest. ”

  She took a long, dizzying tumble through his warm, affectionate gaze. And then he kissed her. Not quite on the mouth, not quite on the cheek. Just at the corner of her smile.

  The wagon hit a rut in the lane, jolting them apart. Minerva laid her head on his shoulder and sighed with happiness.

  Across the wagon, the rest of the women sighed with disappointment.

  Yes, girls. Go weep in your aprons. He’s taken. For today, at least.

  Minerva laced her hand with Colin’s and gave it a squeeze of thanks. Along with all the blissful pleasure he’d so masterfully coaxed from her body, he’d now introduced her to an entirely new sensation.

  So this was how it felt to be envied.

  “Well,” said the brunette, “you never do know who you’ll meet along the Great North Road, do you? Just yesterday, my brother said one of his friends passed time with a long-lost prince. ”

  Everyone in the wagon laughed, except Minerva. Colin’s arm tightened around her shoulders.

  “No, really,” the girl went on. “He was a prince, traveling in common clothes. ”

  Beside her, another young woman shook her head. “Your brother’s spinning tales again, Becky. Imagine, a long-lost prince in disguise, traveling this stretch of road. What’s he doing? Coming to the fair?” She giggled. “I’d never give that tale any credit. ”

  “I don’t know. ” Minerva smiled to herself, nestling closer to Colin. “I could believe it. ”

  “Well. ” The brunette arched an eyebrow. “If this prince does exist—he’d better hope he doesn’t meet with my brother’s friends. They’ve a score to settle with His Majesty. ”

  Chapter Twenty-one

  There was no leaving Grantham tonight. Not for love, money, giant lizards, or whatever fool motive was now driving Colin on this quest.

  Every wagon, coach, and pony cart in the county must have been rolling into town for the fair. None of them were leaving.

  He fought his way through the jostling throng of horses and carts, back to where he’d left Minerva. As a cartload of crated chickens rolled out of his way, he caught sight of her through the flurry of white feathers.

  He stopped dead in his tracks, transfixed. Admiring.

  She sat atop her precious trunk of course, chin propped in her hand. She’d allowed her spectacles to slide down toward the tip of her nose, so she could peer over them—as she always did when regarding something more than a dozen paces distant. Her long dark hair tumbled about her shoulders in fetching waves, and the late afternoon sun gave it warm, reddish highlights. With her teeth, she worried that plump, sweet bottom lip, and her toes tapped in time to some distant music.

  She was lovely. Just the picture of a wide-eyed country lass, taking in the fair.

  “Nothing,” he said, approaching her. “Perhaps we’d have better luck later this evening. ” He cast a look over his shoulder, toward the bustling green. “For the meantime, we might as well see the fair. ”

  “But we haven’t any money. ” She pushed her spectacles back up on her nose and held up a thin gold coin between her fingertips. “This one sovereign must stretch all the way to Edinburgh. ”

  He took it from her and slipped it in his breast pocket. “It costs nothing to look. And we’ll need to eat something, sometime. But we’ll be frugal. ”

  “A frugal brother and sister?” she asked, peering up at him. “A frugal gentleman and his mistress? Or frugal circus folk?”

  “Frugal sweethearts. ” He extended a hand to her. “Just for today. All right?”

  “All right. ” Smiling, she put her hand in his, and he pulled her to her feet.

  Ah, the sweet, unveiled affection in her eyes . . . it warmed his heart, and then wrung it fierce. A better man wouldn’t play this ‘sweethearts’ game with her when he knew very well it couldn’t lead to more.

  But he wasn’t a better man. He was Colin Sandhurst, reckless, incorrigible rogue—and damn it, he couldn’t resist. He wanted to amuse her, spoil her, feed her sweets and delicacies. Steal a kiss or two, when she wasn’t expecting it. He wanted to be a besotted young buck squiring his girl around the fair.

  In other words, he wanted to live honestly. Just for the day.

  He hefted Francine’s trunk and balanced it on his right shoulder, offering Minerva his left arm. Together they moved through the crowds and past the church. They walked down the rows of prize livestock brought for show, giving the pigs and stoats ridiculous names, then debating which deserved the ribbon and why.

  “Hamlet must get the ribbon,” Minerva argued. “His eyes are the brightest, and his haunches the most fat. He also keeps himself quite clean for a pig. ”

  “But Hamlet is a prince. I thought you bestowed your greatest favor on knights. ” He pointed. “Perhaps you’d prefer Sir Francis Bacon over there. ”

  “The filthy one wallowing and grunting in the mud?”

  “I understand grunting is a mark of porcine intelligence. ”

  “Please. ” She gave him a look. “Even I have standards. ”

  “Good to hear. ” He added under his breath, “I think. ”

  They wandered down rows of booths displaying as exotic an array of wares as one could hope to fi
nd in the English Midlands—everything from oranges to ormolu clocks, French bonnets to scented bootblack. Colin wished he could buy her one of everything, but settled for spending sixpence on a length of blue ribbon to match her gown.

  “In case you’re wanting to tie back your hair,” he said.

  “Did you want me to tie back my hair?”

  “Not at all. I quite like it down. ”

  She shook her head. “You’re nonsensical. ”

  He made a show of bristling in mock offense. “You just don’t know how to take a gift. ”

  “A gift?” She laughed and nudged his side. “You bought it with my money. But thank you. ” She kissed his cheek.

  “That’s better. ”

  For a shilling and scattered pence, Colin purchased their supper—a small pitcher of fresh milk and two meat pies. They found a clear place on the green and sat facing each other on the trunk. Minerva spread out her handkerchief as a makeshift tablecloth.

  “I’m so hungry,” she said, staring at the food.

  He handed her one of the pies. “Then have at it. ”

  She bit into the crescent-shaped pastry, slowly sinking her teeth through the layers of flaky crust. Her eyelashes fluttered, and she gave a moan of pleasure.

  “Oh, Colin. That’s marvelous. ” She swept her tongue over those ripe, sultry, pouting lips.

  He stared at her, suddenly helpless to move or speak. Raw, animal lust gripped him, and gripped him hard.

  He had to feel those lips on him again. Had. To. This wasn’t a mild expression of preference. This was an imperative. His body was insistent. To continue his existence on this earth, he now needed the following: food, water, shelter, clothing, and Minerva Highwood’s lips.

  Sending him a coy glance through her dark eyelashes, she took a sip of milk. Then she licked her lips again.

  Correction. He needed food, water, shelter, clothing, Minerva Highwood’s lips, and . . . Minerva Highwood’s tongue.

  Memories of the night before flashed through his mind. He didn’t even try to force them back. No, he let them surface, taking time to engrave each carnal, erotic moment on his memory. Each blissful moment must be recorded, so he could mentally relive that scene in months and years to come. Out of not just desire, but need.

  Those lips. That tongue.

  “Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked.

  “No. Er . . . yes. ” He shook himself. “Eventually. ”

  Colin bit into his own pie. It was good and savory, still warm from the oven. He enjoyed it. But not nearly as much as he enjoyed viewing her enjoyment.

  Remarkable. He’d wooed lovers with jewels and Venetian lace, taken them to view operas from the most lavish box in the theater, fed them oysters and sugared berries from silver trays. But he’d never known the sort of pure, honest pleasure he felt right here, right now. Devouring meat pies with Minerva Highwood in the middle of a country fair.

  Licking her thumb clean, she tilted her head to regard the sky. “It’ll be twilight soon. Should we try our luck finding transport?”

  “Probably. ”

  They picked up Francine and carried her between them, ambling toward the carriage mews and stables. As they went, they passed a row of booths and carnival games.

  A small girl yanked at Colin’s coat front. She was waifish but bright-eyed, dressed in a patched yellow dress.

  “Won’t you and the lady have your fortune told, sir?” The girl indicated a tent a few paces away. “My mum tells fortunes for a sixpence. She can see the future, clear as looking through a glass windowpane. She’ll tell you everything you want to know about your life, love, and children. Even the day of your own death!” She all but chirped this last.

  Colin smiled, setting down the trunk. “Well, that’s a tempting offer. ”

  “Colin, we can’t,” Minerva whispered in his ear. “We’ve only eighteen shillings to our names. We can’t be wasting any of it on fortune-tellers. ”
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