A week to be wicked, p.35
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.35

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 35

 

  “One shot each,” the overconfident dandy said, tilting his head toward the bull’s-eye lodged in the center of a freshly plowed field. “Closest to center wins. ”

  “Sounds fair,” Colin said. “You first. ”

  The younger man made a show of cleaning and loading his expensive, polished double-barreled pistol. It was a Finch pistol, Minerva noted with some amusement. Her friend Susanna would have a good laugh at that.

  With pomp and an undue air of gravity, the self-styled dandy leveled his pistol and made his shot. A dark circle appeared on the target, several inches left of center.

  The younger man accepted the smattering of applause with a bow. Minerva rolled her eyes. The ladies of Spindle Cove could shoot better than that.

  Surely Colin could, as well.

  For once, Colin didn’t attempt any showmanship. He merely shook off his coat and swept a hand through his wavy hair. And those two small gestures were enough to make him the desire of every woman, the envy of every man, and the idol of every child in attendance. Good heavens, he was beautiful.

  She was so dazzled by his good looks, Minerva nearly forgot to work herself into a state of sheer anxiety. Before she knew it, he’d stepped up, leveled the pistol, and made his shot. As the smoke cleared, she whipped off her spectacles to stare at the target.

  Dead center, of course.

  The children went wild with whoops and hollers. A few of the older boys tried, unsuccessfully, to lift Colin on their shoulders for a victory salute.

  And Minerva curled her fingers over the small fortune in her hands. Ten pounds. Ten pounds changed everything. Now they were truly back on schedule. They would make it to Edinburgh. Francine would have her day.

  When Colin untangled himself from the jubilant children and turned to her, grinning . . . oh, she could have kissed him. Right in front of all these people.

  But the defeated dandy wanted words with him first.

  “You’re a cheat. ” The young man stared Colin down. “I don’t know what kind of swindler you are, but my father’s the magistrate in these parts. I think he’ll need to have a talk with you. And that five-pound note will need to come along, as evidence. Surely you’ve stolen it. ”

  Stepping back casually, Colin slid his arms into his coat sleeves. “I don’t want any trouble. ”

  The man’s friend stepped forward, brandishing a fist. “Well, you’ve found some. ”

  Minerva knew that in a fistfight Colin could take one or both of these young men easily. But if the dandy were truly a magistrate’s son, a brawl would be a very bad idea.

  And must they always flee a scene in the mayhem of violence and rioting? Could they walk away just this once, with ten pounds in their pocket and some levity in their step? Just this once?

  “Listen,” Colin said, clapping each man on the shoulder. “Perhaps you’re right, and it wasn’t very sporting of me. But surely we can settle this without involving magistrates. How about this—just to prove I’m a decent fellow, I’ll give you a chance to win it all back. Double or nothing. ”

  The dandy sneered at him. “If you think I’m going to—”

  “No, no,” Colin replied, speaking in a smooth, conciliatory tone. “Not you and me. We’ll have our seconds shoot it out. Your man here”—Colin tapped the friend on the shoulder—”against my girl. ” He looked to Minerva.

  Oh, no. Colin, don’t do this to me.

  “Against your girl?” The dandy chuckled.

  “She’ll even remove her spectacles. ” Colin raised open hands in a gesture of surrender. “I told you, I don’t want trouble. You can lead me away in shackles and throw me in the stocks, but you won’t get any richer. There’s five pounds in it for you this way. ”

  The dandy pulled straight and smiled. “All right, then. As you say. ”

  “Double or nothing. ” Colin called Elspeth to his side, picked her up by the waist and set her atop the fence. “Little Elspeth here will hold the purse. ” He took the ten pounds from Minerva and put it in the girl’s hands.

  The young gentleman raided his coin purse and borrowed a few pounds from his friends. Finally, he’d cobbled together his portion and gave it to smiling Elspeth, who knotted it all in a handkerchief.

  He handed his pistol to his eager companion, who quickly proved to be a middling marksman as well. He hit the target, but well wide of the center.

  It was Minerva’s turn. Her nerves did a frantic jig in her stomach.

  “Give us a moment,” Colin said to the gentlemen, smiling. “Let me show her how the thing works. ”

  The men had a good laugh amongst themselves as Colin drew her forward, to the shooter’s mark.

  “Colin, what were you thinking?” she whispered, trembling. “What am I to do?”

  “You’re going to shoot, of course. And you’re going to hit the target, dead center. ” With confident fingers, he removed her spectacles, folded them, and tucked them into his coat pocket.

  He put the reloaded pistol in her hand. Then, approaching her from the back, he wrapped his arms around hers and raised the gun, as though teaching her how to shoot.

  “After you make your shot,” he murmured in her ear, “you grab the purse from Elspeth. I’ll get Francine. And we’ll run, as hard as we can, down that lane. ” He pointed the pistol to the side, indicating the direction. “Don’t stop for anything. Don’t even pause to look back. I’ll catch up to you, promise. ”

  She leaned back, savoring the comfort of his strength and warmth. “But . . . but what if I miss?”

  “You won’t miss. ” He pressed a kiss to her earlobe, then stepped back, releasing her arms. “Go on, then. Make me proud. ”

  Minerva leveled the pistol at the target, giving her eyes time to focus. Her hands trembled. She tried to remember all the tips Susanna and Miss Taylor had given her. Like all the Spindle Cove ladies, she’d learned to shoot—but her marksmanship had never been especially consistent. Mama had made no secret that she found Minerva’s participation in the activity laughable.

  A mostly blind girl, armed with a pistol? Mama would say. My dear, the gentlemen already keep their distance. There’s no need to frighten them off with guns.

  Minerva took a deep breath and tried to banish the sounds of laughter.

  “Francine,” she whispered, “this is for you. ”

  And just as she began to squeeze the trigger, a voice called out about the crowd’s hushed silence—freezing her finger in place and turning the blood in her veins to ice.

  “That’s him, right over there!”

  No. It couldn’t be.

  “Go get him, boys!” the voice shouted. “There he is! It’s Prince Ampersand of Crustacea!”

  Stunned, Minerva lowered the gun and looked to Colin.

  “Shoot,” he said, eyes wide and fierce. “Now. ”

  “Right. ”

  With a sudden, stone-cold certainty, Minerva raised her arms, took aim, and fired the pistol. Without pausing to see how her shot had landed, she grabbed the money from Elspeth and ran. The children’s wild cheer of triumph told everything she needed to know. What she’d already known, in her bones.

  She’d hit dead center. Just as Colin had said.

  Grinning to herself, she ducked her head, pumped her arms and legs, and raced down the lane.

  Her breath and heartbeat pounded so loud, she could barely hear her own boots slapping the dirt. But soon she became conscious of another set of footfalls behind her. She didn’t dare slow or turn to ascertain whether they belonged to Colin. She just kept running like the Devil was on her heels.

  And it occurred to her, as she made that mad dash down the lane—clutching a blazing hot pistol in one hand and a fistful of money in the other—that this surely must mark some turning point in her life. Really, there was no going back from this.

  Today, all her mother’s judgments had been proved false. S
he wasn’t plain, but pretty. She wasn’t distracted and awkward, but confident and a crack shot.

  Most of all, Minerva was not hopeless. She had twenty pounds. She had an important scientific discovery.

  And she had Colin, the most handsome, charming devil in England, coming fast on her heels. Save for the ransom-minded highwaymen and angry magistrate’s son chasing after them . . .

  Life had never been so good.

  “This way,” he called, overtaking her as they neared the town’s borders. He had Francine lifted in his arms, leading the way as he turned down an alleyway. They clattered down the narrow, shadowy corridor, then found an arched passage that led through the churchyard wall and out into the countryside.

  Carrying Francine between them now, they ran into the sunset. Only when they’d covered two meadows, vaulted a stile, and crested a hill did they pause for breath and dare to look back.

  They saw no one.

  “How did you get away?” she asked.

  “Elspeth and her army. They provided a diversion. But we’re not safe yet. ” Panting, he nodded toward a nearby hut. “Over there. ”

  It wasn’t a dwelling proper. Just a cramped shelter for shepherds to sleep in while their flock grazed these fields. Tonight, it was empty. Likely all the sheep had been penned somewhere so the shepherds could enjoy the fair.

  Colin had to stoop to fit through the small doorway. Inside, they found just a small cookstove, a lamp, various crooks and other shepherding implements . . . and a narrow cot.

  Still breathing hard from exertion, Minerva found a flint and lit the lamp. “Do you want to know something?” As the yellow light warmed the space, she turned her gaze to Colin. “Today is my birthday. ”

  He laughed. “Really?”

  “No. Not really. ” She giggled helplessly. “But if it were, it would have been the best one ever. Colin, you were unbelievable. ”

  “You were amazing. ” He took her by the waist. His chest rose and fell with a resonant sigh. “You are amazing. ”

  His words of praise gave her gooseflesh. But as he pulled her close, a strange round obstacle squished between them.

  His brow wrinkled in confusion.

  “Oh,” she said, laughing. Pulling back a bit, she fished the obstacle out of her overskirt pocket and held it up for his view. “I saved you a peach. ”

  He looked at the peach. Then he looked at her.

  “Minerva. ”

  Awareness tingled over every inch of her skin. The hunger in his eyes, the smoldering heat between their bodies . . . this wasn’t a lesson, or an experiment to satisfy scientific curiosity. It wasn’t pretense of any sort.

  This was real.

  He bent his head by slow degrees, teasing out the moment. Making her reach for him, stretch for him, ache for him. Until finally, his hand slid to cradle her neck and he took her mouth in a deep, passionate kiss.

  She let the peach slip from her fingers and tumble to the straw-covered ground, the better to fill her hands with him. They kissed and grappled, tangling tongues and weaving their fingers into each other’s hair. It seemed they couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t kiss deeply enough, couldn’t press enough skin to skin.

  Her nipples came to tight points. She felt the hard ridge of his erection, jutting against her belly. And her mind slowly caught up to what their bodies already knew. There was only one way to satisfy this need. Only one means of achieving the closeness she craved.

  “Minerva. ” He slid his tongue from her throat to her ear. “I want to make love to you. ”

  Just at the words . . . that bold, unequivocal statement of intent . . . fire raced through her veins. Hot, powerful, consuming.

  There were a dozen reasons why she might refuse him. But they were all someone else’s reasons. Her mother’s, her peers’, society’s. She’d already left all those expectations behind. If Minerva consulted herself, there was no question. Her body craved the feel of his skin against hers. Her ever-curious intellect was eager to experience physical passion, with him. And her heart . . .
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