A week to be wicked, p.37
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.37
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 37

 

  Love me.

  Love me, and let me love you.

  The words burned on her tongue, but Minerva couldn’t give them voice. What a hopeless coward she was. She could pound on his door at midnight and demand to be respected as an individual. She could travel across the country in hopes of being appreciated for her scholarly achievements. But she still lacked the courage to ask for the one thing she wanted most.

  To be loved, just for herself.

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Somewhere, a dog howled in the night.

  Colin sat up with a start, shaking and drenched in sweat. He flung open the door of the shepherd’s hut and drew greedy gulps of the fresh, cool night air. As his pounding heartbeat slowed, he leaned his brow on his wrist and swore violently.

  Light, soothing caresses trailed up and down his back. Her touch didn’t ask questions or make demands. It simply let him know he wasn’t alone.

  “Can I help?” she eventually asked.

  He shook his head. “It’s nothing out of the usual. Just took me by surprise. The last few nights, I haven’t woken at all. I’d almost begun to think . . . ”

  “That I was your cure?” He heard a wry smile in her voice. “I think I hoped so, too. But I suppose it was a foolish notion. ”

  “Not foolish. ” He exhaled, running his hands through his hair and gathering his wits. “It’s just this place, I think. ”

  “It’s too small and dark. We can take our blankets and lie under the stars. Or we can just give up sleeping altogether and walk toward the road. ”

  “No, no. It’s ages before dawn yet. I can go back to sleep, but I think . . . ” He fumbled for his discarded neck cloth and wiped the sweat from his brow and neck. “I think perhaps I’d like to talk. ”

  The words came as a surprise to them both. They didn’t pretend that he had the weather or coaching routes or any other topic on his mind. She knew instantly what he meant.

  “Of course. ” She sat up. “Shall I light the lamp?”

  “No. Don’t bother. ” With the door open, some moonlight shone through the opening. He could discern the silvered outline of her profile, and the concerned glint in her dark eyes. That was enough.

  He drew her down beside him, nuzzling in her thick, jasmine-scented hair. He was unsure how to begin. He’d never spoken of that night with anyone, not in detail. But years of keeping his silence hadn’t seemed to help matters. Perhaps it was time to try talking instead. He had to do something, if he was ever going to put this behind him. To seize control of his days and his nights, and weave them into some semblance of a normal, boring life.

  He wanted that kind of life. He wanted Minerva to be part of it.

  “It will be unpleasant to hear,” he warned her. “Are you certain you won’t mind?”

  She snuggled against his chest. “You lived through it, Colin. I can find the strength to listen. ”

  “Perhaps we should wait for daylight. ”

  “If you want to wait, we can wait. But I’m ready now if you are. ”

  He took a deep, slow breath and then plowed straight in. “I’ve no idea what caused it. The accident, I mean. We were coming home from a visit with some neighbors. It wasn’t a long trip. We had no footmen with us, only a driver. I’d fallen asleep on the rear-facing seat. My parents sat together, across from me. I remember listening to them talk and laugh about something. My mother was teasing my father for his overindulgence, I think. I drifted off to the sound of their voices. And then I woke sometime later. To screams. ”

  She slipped her arms about his torso. “You must have been so confused. ”

  “Completely. I had no idea what was happening. It was dark, and we’d careened off the road. I’d fallen from the seat. Somehow, I learned that the carriage had overturned and I’d landed atop the door. I’d cut my head on the latch. ”

  “Here. ” She felt for the scar on his temple.

  He nodded. “Other than that, I seemed to be unharmed. But I was terrified. The darkness was so complete. Like wearing a blindfold. And the smell of blood . . . ” His gut clenched, and he paused to master his composure. “It was so thick. Smothering. I called for my mother, and she answered. Her voice was weak and strange. But she just kept telling me over and over that all would be well. That I must be brave. That surely someone would come to help us soon. I wanted to believe her, but I knew she was unable to move. ”

  “Where was the driver?”

  “Severely injured. He’d been thrown from the driver’s box some distance back, but we couldn’t know it at the time. We only heard the horses in agony. Theirs were the cries that woke me. ”

  “And your father?”

  “Dead. ”

  “You knew that already?”

  “No, but my mother did. The way they’d landed . . . ” He drew a shaky breath. “This is the unpleasant part, pet. ”

  “Go on. ” She stroked his shoulder. “I’m listening. ”

  “There was a spike of some sort. To this day, I’m not certain whether it was part of the carriage or something in the ditch. A bit of fence, perhaps a branch . . . but they were impaled on it. The both of them. It went all the way through my father’s chest and then into my mother’s side. ”

  She shuddered in his embrace. “Oh. Oh, Colin. ”

  “It gets worse, I’m afraid. As long my mother kept talking, I knew she was alive. And even when she couldn’t speak anymore, her breathing was so raspy and loud. But when even that stopped . . . I went utterly mad. I panicked. I wanted out. I screamed and beat on the carriage walls until I think I went unconscious. And then—” He choked back his emotion. He’d come this far. He had to get it all out now. “And then the wild dogs found us. Drawn by the noise and the scent of blood. They finished the horses. I passed the first half of the night screaming to get out, and second half praying they wouldn’t get in. ”

  “Oh God. ” He felt her tears, hot and wet against his skin.

  “I’m sorry,” he said quickly, holding her tight. “I’m sorry. ” He knew well what a disturbing picture it made. Which was precisely why he’d never shared it. Not with anyone. He hated that such a gruesome tableau would be seared on her imagination. “I shouldn’t have told you. ”

  “Of course you should. ” Sniffing, she lifted her head. “You did absolutely right. To think, you’ve been keeping that to yourself all these years? I’m the one who should be sorry. ” She worked her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. “Colin, I’m sorry. They’re pathetic words, and they’re not enough. But I’m so, so sorry. I wish with all my heart you hadn’t suffered so. But I’m glad you told me everything. ”

  He buried his face in her hair. For a moment, he feared he would weep. And then he realized, if he did weep—even noisily, messily, uncontrollably—she wouldn’t shrink from him. She probably expected him to shed some tears. These soft, sweetly fragrant arms would hold him as long as he needed to be held.

  So he decided to let the tears come.

  And then they didn’t. Odd.

  For whom should he cry? For his parents? He’d grieved their loss, yes. And he missed them still. But mourning only lasted so long. It was the horror of that night that had lingered. The fear. And the shame.

  The deep, buried, unvoiced shame.

  “For years,” he said quietly, “I thought it was my fault. That if I hadn’t fallen asleep, it wouldn’t have happened. ”

  She gasped. “But that’s nonsensical. ”

  “I know. ”

  “Of course it wasn’t your fault. ”

  “I know. ”

  “You were a child. There was nothing more you could have done. ”

  “I know. And as a grown man, I understand that, rationally. But . . . ” But he’d never managed to rid himself of the notion. It was as though he needed someone else to confirm his innocence. Someone very intelligent and logical. Someone he could trust to al
ways give him the unvarnished truth.

  Someone like Minerva.

  “It wasn’t my fault,” he said.

  “No,” she answered. “It wasn’t. ”

  Sweet, darling Min. From the first, this was what he’d loved most about her. Her certainty.

  She pressed a kiss to his jaw. He took a deep, slow breath. Remarkable, how much lighter he felt. As though without her arms anchoring him, he might simply float away.

  “Do you know something?” he asked drowsily. “I’ve always thought my parents’ death was like something from a ballad. They loved each other so very much. Even as a boy, I could see it. It seems almost fitting that they met such a poetic end. Always together, united even in death. As tragedies go, you must admit—it’s a rather romantic one. ”

  She was quiet for a long time, but he knew she wasn’t sleeping. Her fingers teased through his hair.

  He’d almost drifted off when he heard her reply.

  “If you write the verse, I’ll sing it. ”

  Minerva didn’t sleep any more that night. Her heart and mind were too full. And somehow, she knew he’d sleep more soundly if she kept the vigil for him.

  As the first rays of dawn seeped into the hut, she stretched her left arm. First overhead, drawing blood to her numbed, stiff fingers. Then habit and necessity drew her arm to the side, where she groped for her spectacles.

  With an incoherent murmur, Colin turned in his sleep. He threw a leaden arm over her torso, and his fingers fumbled for her breast.

  Oh, heavens. Her heart froze for a moment, refusing to beat. Then it underwent a rapid, prickling thaw. It hurt, the way snow-numbed fingertips stung, when thrust in a basin of warm water. Breathing suddenly required conscious thought.

  She reached for her spectacles every morning, first thing. Because she could make no sense of the day without them.

  Colin reached for her.

  She couldn’t “heal” him. No woman could. Events that far in the past just couldn’t be undone. But perhaps he didn’t need a cure, but . . . a lens. Someone who accepted him for the imperfect person he was, and then helped him to see the world clear. Like spectacles did for her.

  An hour from now, the idea would seem absurd. But these first misty rays of morning forgave all kinds of foolishness. So just for a moment, she let herself dream. She let herself imagine how it would be to wake like this every day, feeling essential to him. The last thing he touched at night, and first thing he reached for every morning—out of familiarity and a desire to feel whole.

  By the time he stirred with wakefulness, pressing kisses to her cheek, she wanted it so keenly, so desperately, some raw, throbbing part of her heart was already mourning the disappointment.

  She turned away from him, onto her side—not wanting to explain how she’d managed to make herself so overwrought even before breakfast. He nestled behind her, cradling her body with his own. The pose emphasized all the contrasts of their physiques. The hard contours of his chest pressed along her back. The coarser hair of his legs rubbed against her smooth thighs.

  Beneath the linens, his hands roamed her curves with hot, possessive intent. Cinching an arm about her waist, he drew her close. His arousal pulsed against her lower back.

  “Min,” he breathed, nuzzling the curve of her neck. “I need you again. Can you take me?”

  She nodded her assent. But before she could turn to face him, he’d cupped and lifted her leg, shifting position behind her. His hardness wedged between her thighs.

  She tensed, uncertain.

  “It’s all right. ” He kissed her neck as his fingers slid down her belly, working their way to her cleft. “Let me show you. ”

  He caressed her intimate flesh with skill and patience. Until she was not only ready, but desperate for him.

  “Love me,” she begged. Because she could speak the words right now, without risking too much.
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