A week to be wicked, p.34
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.34

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 34


  He knew she was right, but something in the girl’s gap-toothed smile tugged at him.

  “What’s your name, pet?” he asked the girl.

  “Elspeth, sir. ”

  “Well, Elspeth. ” He leaned down close. “I’m afraid we can’t buy a fortune from your mother. I’m a rather fragile soul, you see. I’m not sure I could bear up under the revelation of my future loves and children, much less the date of my own death. So why don’t I tell your fortune instead?”

  “My fortune?” She narrowed her eyes with precocious cynicism. With her tongue, she worked a loose front tooth back and forth. “How are you going to tell my fortune?”

  “Oh, easy as anything. ” Colin drew a penny from his pocket and placed it in the girl’s hand. “I see a sweet in your future. ”

  Elspeth smiled and closed her hand around the penny. “All right then. ”

  As she scampered off, he cupped a hand around his mouth and called after her, “A sweet, remember. Don’t go making me a charlatan. Be sure not to spend it on anything else. ”

  He turned to find Minerva staring up at him.

  “It is true,” she asked, “what you told her just now?”

  “What did I tell her just now?”

  “That you fear the future. ”

  His chin ducked, as if he were instinctively dodging a blow. His brain rang, as though he’d failed to evade it. “I didn’t say that. ”

  “You said something quite like it. ”

  Had he? Perhaps he had.

  “It’s not that I fear the future. I just find it’s best not to form expectations. Expectations lead to disappointments. If you expect nothing, you’re always surprised. ”

  “But you’re never really satisfied. You never experience the joy of working toward a goal and achieving it. ”

  He sighed heavily. Must she always be so damned perceptive?

  Doesn’t it grow tiresome? she’d asked him last night, referring to his live-for-the-day, Devil-may-care, insert-blithe-motto-here lifestyle.

  Yes, it did rather grow tiresome. Colin envied men like his cousin, who had their sense of duty and purpose whittled so sharp, it could balance on a rapier’s edge. Men like Bram woke up each morning knowing exactly what they meant to accomplish, and why, and how. Hell, Colin envied the men he’d worked with this morning, thatching a cottage roof.

  And he envied Minerva her scholarly dedication and discoveries. More than she could ever suppose.

  “If you’re asking me, don’t I want to do something useful with my life . . . ? Of course I do. But I’m a viscount, pet. There’s a responsibility inherent in that. Or there will be, once I finally gain control of my accounts. Mostly, my task is to stay alive and not cock things up. I can’t risk my life purchasing an officer’s commission, or sign on with a pirate crew for larks. ”

  “Aren’t lords supposed to manage their lands?”

  “Who says I don’t?” He threw her a look. “Believe it or not, I go through pots of ink every month, ensuring that my estate is well managed. And I do my part to keep it in excellent condition by staying far away, myself. ” He shrugged. “I know some gentlemen develop intellectual interests or political pursuits to occupy their time. But what can I say? I’m not a specialist. I’m passably good at a thousand things, but I don’t particularly excel at any of them. ”

  “Jack of all trades,” she said thoughtfully.

  “Well, something like that. If I could engage in trade, which I can’t. ”

  They were silent for a few moments.

  “You do have talents, Colin. ”

  He gave her a lascivious wink. “Oh, I know I do. ”

  “That’s not what I meant. ”

  “Let’s see. I’m good at lying, drinking, pleasuring women, and inciting tavern brawls. ” Pulling up short, he stopped before a booth with a toss game. “And this. I’m good at things like this. ”

  He picked up one of the round wooden balls, tossing it into the air and catching it in his hand. Testing its weight as he rolled it from palm to fingertips and back.

  “How do I play?” he asked the woman behind the table.

  “Three pence for a try, sir. You throw the ball in the baskets. ” She waved to a large basket right up front. Behind it, a series of similar baskets were lined up—in gradually diminishing sizes. “A pitch in the first basket earns you an apple. Next basket, an orange. Then peaches, cherries, grapes. ” She swept to the end of the row and pointed out a tiny woven basket, probably smaller than the ball itself. “Hit the last, you’ve won yourself a pineapple, direct from the Sandwich Islands. ”

  Right. Colin smirked. The stumpy, shriveled pineapple on display looked to have come from a fruitier’s glasshouse, via several weeks’ travel around the English countryside.

  Easy enough to see how the game worked. In essence, players traded three pence for an apple. If they had a bit of skill, they took away an orange, as well.

  Clearly, no one ever won the pineapple.

  He laid three pennies on the table. “I’ll have a go. ”

  The apple came easily, as it was supposed to do. He handed the shiny round fruit to Minerva, who’d taken a seat on the trunk. “Go ahead,” he urged. “Life’s uncertain. Eat it now. ”

  By the time he’d won her the orange and a trio of fine, ripe peaches, Colin had amassed a small crowd of children. As he sized up his toss for the cherries, he slid a glance to the side and instantly gathered where they’d come from. Little Elspeth had joined Minerva on the trunk. Peach juice dribbled down her chin as she bit into the fruit from one side, carefully avoiding her loose tooth. Apparently, the penny sweet hadn’t been enough for her. She’d come back for more, and she’d brought all her friends.

  When he’d tossed and won, Colin passed the net of cherries to Minerva for distribution. “One apiece,” he called to the gathered boys and girls. “No spitting the stones. ”

  From the cheer that rose up, one would think he’d passed around gold coins.

  Minerva was pressed and jostled from all sides, but she flashed him a wide smile as she opened the net. “Don’t you want one?”

  He shook his head. Her smile—genuine, adoring—was the best reward he could imagine.

  “Grapes next!” called one boy. “Cor, I’ve never even tasted a grape. Not in all my life. ”

  The stout woman behind the table crossed her arms. “Greedy little beggars. Go on with you. He won’t win the grapes. ”

  “We’ll see. ” Colin rolled the wooden ball in his hand, assessing. The basket he needed to hit was some ten paces back, and approximately the size of a saucer. If he lobbed it too directly, the ball would glance off the basket’s edge. His best shot was a high arc, to send the ball sailing up and then directly down.

  He lofted the ball high in the air. The children held their breath.

  And a few moments later, Colin was handing round clusters of red grapes. They were seedy and a bit shriveled. Half on their way to becoming raisins, in some cases. But a boy who’d never tasted a grape before wouldn’t know to complain. The children popped them into their mouths and made a contest of outdoing one another’s sounds of delight.

  “The pineapple!” they all called next, jumping up and down. “Win us the pineapple!”

  Colin’s mouth tugged sideways. The pineapple basket looked about the size of a teacup. He wasn’t sure it was even possible to fit the wooden ball inside it, let alone do so from a distance. “Don’t get your hopes raised, children. ”

  “Oh, but I’ve dreamed of pineapples. ”

  “My mum’s a housemaid. She’s tasted ’em. Says they’re like ambrosia. ”

  “You can do it, sir!” Elspeth cried.

  Colin tossed the wooden ball to the plucky girl. “Rub it for luck, pet. ”

  Smiling, she did so and handed it back.

  He gave Minerva a wink and a shrug. “Here goes nothing. ”<
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  Then he eyed the basket, sized up his shot . . . and threw the ball.

  Chapter Twenty-two

  As the wooden ball sailed through the air, all the hopeful children clutched their hands together and held their breath. Minerva held her breath along with them. And she didn’t even care for pineapples.

  Go in, she willed. Go in.

  It didn’t go in.

  When the ball bounced off the basket’s rim and thudded to the ground, she couldn’t resist joining the collective groan of disappointment.

  Colin shrugged and pushed a hand through his air. “Sorry, lads and lasses. Did my best. ” He was good-natured in defeat. A gracious loser, as always. But she could tell he was disappointed, too. Not over his bruised pride, but on account of the children. He wanted to give them a treat to remember, and who could blame him?

  Thrusting caution and frugality aside, Minerva pushed her way to the table and addressed the booth’s mistress. “How much for the pineapple? Will you take three shillings?”

  The woman’s eyes flared with greed, but her mouth was firm. “It’s not for sale. ”

  “I’ll have a go, then. ” A well-dressed young gentleman stepped to the fore. He looked to be the local version of a dandy—probably the son of some country squire, unleashed on the fair with a generous allowance of pocket money and an inflated sense of self-importance. He was flanked by a couple of friends, both of whom looked eager to be amused.

  “Sorry, gents. ” The stout woman crossed her arms. “This booth is closed. ”

  “Pity,” said the suave-looking young gentleman, casting a superior glance at Colin. “I’d rather looked forward to showing this fellow up. ”

  His friends laughed. Meanwhile, the children gathered around Colin, as if they’d claimed him for their own and must come to his defense. It was terribly sweet.

  “Well,” said Colin amiably, “you’re still welcome to have a go. If it’s a contest of marksmanship you’re after, one can be arranged. With targets and pistols, perhaps?”

  Excitement whispered through the assembled children. Apparently, the promise of a shooting match was an effective balm to their disappointed pineapple hopes.

  The young man looked Colin up and down, smirking. “I warn you, I’m the best shot in the county. But if you insist, I should be glad to trounce you. ”

  “Then you should be glad to take my money, too. Let’s place a wager on it. ”

  “Absolutely. Name your bet. ”

  Colin rummaged through his pockets, and Minerva grew alarmed. He might well be an excellent shot, but surely he wouldn’t risk all their money.

  “Five pounds,” Colin said.

  Five pounds?

  “Five pounds?” the young gentleman echoed.

  Minerva couldn’t help herself. She went to his side, whispering, “Five pounds? Are you mad? Where do you mean to come up with five pounds?”

  “Here. ” From his innermost pocket, Colin drew a small, folded square of paper. “Just found it in my coat pocket. Must have been there for months. I’d forgotten it. ”

  She unfolded the paper and adjusted her spectacles. It was indeed a bank note for five pounds.

  Five pounds. All this time she’d been fretting over how to stretch their shillings and pence, and he’d been carrying five pounds in his pocket. The impossible knave.

  “You can’t risk this,” she whispered. “It’s—”

  “It’s a wager. ” The dandy pulled out a coin purse and shook loose five sovereign pieces. He dumped them into Minerva’s hand. “Five pounds. ”

  Oh dear. She didn’t have a good feeling about this.

  They made a veritable parade, the whole group of them trooping to the edge of the fairgrounds, where a shooting contest could safely be staged. Dusk was gathering by the time a straw-stuffed target had been mounted, and a sizable crowd had amassed to watch—not just the children, but adults, too.
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