A week to be wicked, p.39
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.39
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 39

 

  “Slim evidence, on its own. You forgot to leave behind that false journal. ”

  “That’s true. And the real diary was less than complimentary to your character. ” She cast him a cautious glance over her wineglass. “But that wasn’t all I left behind. There was something else. ”

  “Oh, really?” Intrigued, he leaned forward. “What?”

  “You, um . . . ” Blushing, she took a large gulp of wine. “You might have written me a letter. ”

  Chapter Twenty-five

  “Corporal Thorne!”

  Samuel Thorne paused in the act of lifting his shovel. He’d know that voice anywhere.

  Damn it. Not her. Not now.

  “Corporal Thorne, I—” Miss Taylor turned a corner and stopped short when she caught a glimpse of him. “Oh. There you are. ”

  Blast. Weren’t gently bred ladies supposed to have some rules of decorum that prevented them from surprising half-dressed men at their labor? How the hell was he supposed to greet her with mud streaking his shirt and sweat matting his hair to his scalp?

  Throwing aside the shovel, he hastily wiped his face with a bit of sleeve. He jerked his collar closed.

  She didn’t even have the good sense to avert her eyes. She just stared at him, wide-eyed and curious. He had half a mind to pull the shirt over his head, cast it aside, and say, Here. Look your fill. This is what years of thieving, prison labor, and battle do to a man.

  He almost chuckled at the thought. Oh, she’d run screaming then.

  She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt your . . . digging. ”

  “Why are you here, Miss Taylor? What can I do for you?”

  She waved a paper clutched in her hand. “I’ve come to prove it to you. The truth of the elopement. I have here a love letter, addressed to Minerva Highwood from Lord Payne himself. Miss Charlotte found it in Minerva’s stocking drawer. ”

  “Impossible. ” Thorne would swallow nails before he’d believe Payne to be in love with Miss Minerva Highwood. It still ate at him, that he hadn’t chased after the couple that very first night. But what was he to do, when the girl’s own mother forbade it?

  Now if only Miss Taylor would let the topic rest. He suffered enough torment in her presence already, without this added deviling.

  She approached and offered him the letter. “Read it for yourself. ”

  Good God. Now she meant to test his alphabet. Thorne eyed the envelope. A queasy feeling curdled in his gut. He knew his letters reasonably well—better than most men of his station—but he needed time and concentration to sift through a missive of that length. And he’d have an even harder time of it, trying to read with a raging beauty hovering over his shoulder. How was he supposed to put two sounds together in her presence?

  He held up his grimy hands in excuse. “You’ll have to read it to me. ”

  She shook open the paper. “ ‘My darling beloved Minerva,’” she read aloud.

  And that was the last bit he heard. Oh, she kept reading. And he kept listening. But he wasn’t hearing the words anymore—just her clear, bright voice.

  So strange. She had music in her voice, even when she wasn’t singing. The melody hummed in his body. Not in a pleasant way. It hurt. The same way it would feel if he drove his shovel full-strength into soil and met unyielding rock instead. The shock of it reverberated all through his bones, his teeth.

  His heart.

  And now he hadn’t a damned idea what the hell she was reading anyway. He would have had better luck staring stupidly at the paper himself.

  “Enough. ” He held up a hand. “Payne did not write that. ”

  “He did. He signed his name. ”

  Thorne cocked his head and stared at the address on the paper’s reverse. “That’s not Payne’s handwriting. ” That much he could discern without effort.

  “What?” She flipped the paper back and forth.

  “It’s not his hand. I know it’s not. ” Wiping his hands on his breeches, he strode over to the turret Payne had been using as his personal quarters. He unlocked and opened the door, proceeding straight to the small writing desk.

  He rifled through a stack of papers until he found one in the right penmanship. Then he handed it to her. “See?”

  She held up the two and compared them. “You’re right. It is different penmanship. ”

  “I told you so. He didn’t write that letter. ”

  “But I don’t understand. Who else would write this, then sign it with Lord Payne’s name?”

  He shrugged. “A cruel joke, perhaps. To build up her hopes. Or maybe she wrote it herself. ”

  “Poor Minerva. ”

  He watched as Miss Taylor’s bottom lip folded beneath her teeth. Then he forced himself to look elsewhere.

  She said, “But somehow, it seems to have worked out anyway. They did elope together. ”

  He snorted, resisting the urge to tell her everything he’d learned from Mrs. Ginny Watson the other day. When confronted, the young widow had told him all about Miss Minerva’s midnight visit to Rycliff Castle. Thorne knew the truth now, beyond all doubt.

  Payne and Miss Highwood had not eloped.

  They would, however, end up married. He would ensure that much. If Payne dared to come back from this jaunt a bachelor, he would not remain so long. He’d walk Miss Minerva down the aisle of St. Ursula’s if Thorne had to prod him at knifepoint. Protecting the women of this village was his duty, and he took it seriously.

  Which was exactly why he kept his mouth shut now.

  Miss Taylor didn’t need to know the particulars of all Mrs. Watson had told him. If it pleased this girl to believe in true love and tales that ended happily for all concerned, Thorne would carry all manner of unpleasant truths to his grave. After all, this secret was hardly the first. Just one of many he’d vowed to keep, for her happiness’s sake.

  She sifted through the papers.

  He crossed his arms. “What, are you snooping now?”

  “No,” she protested. “Well, maybe. Goodness, he writes a great many letters to his stewards. ”

  “Listen, I have a well to dig, and—”

  “Wait. ” She plucked a paper from the stack. “What’s this?” She read aloud. “ ‘Millicent . . . Madeira . . . Michaela . . . Marilyn . . . ’ And this is written in his hand. ”

  “So? It’s a list of names. ”

  “Yes. A list of women’s names, all of them beginning with M. ” A flush rose on her throat. “The letter means nothing, but this . . . this is proof. Don’t you see?”

  “No, I don’t. Not at all. ”

  “Lord Payne always acted as though he couldn’t remember Minerva’s name. Calling her Melissa and Miranda and every other ‘M’ name under the sun. But he must have done it on purpose, don’t you see? Just to tease her. He even went to the trouble of writing out this list. ”

  “That proves him even more of an blackguard, to my mind. ”

  She clucked her tongue impatiently. “Corporal Thorne. You really don’t understand a thing about romance. ”

  Thorne shrugged. She was right. He understood desire. He understood wanting. He understood loyalty and bone-deep devotion that stretched back to a time before this woman’s earliest memories.

  But he didn’t know a damn thing about romance.

  She ought to thank God for it.

  There she went, right now—flashing him a fearless smile. No one smiled like that at Thorne. But she’d always been this way. Cheerful, in the face of everything. Singing like a little angel, even when she stood at the very gates of hell.

  “Don’t you know?” she said. “Apparent dislike often masks a hidden attraction. ”

  He felt his face go hot. “Not in this case. ”

  “Oh, yes. This list doesn’t prove Lord Payne’s a blackguard. ” She tapped the paper against Thorne’s chest. “It proves he was smitten. ”

>   Chapter Twenty-six

  “I demand to know what was in this letter. ” Wearing a devilish grin, Colin chased her up the coaching inn staircase.

  Minerva cringed. She never should have mentioned it. “Can we move past this, please? You plagued me all through dinner. I’ve told you, I don’t recall. ”

  “And I told you, I don’t believe you. ”

  “It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe me. ”

  She opened the door to their chambers. While they’d been eating downstairs, a manservant had been dispatched to fetch a few gentlemen’s necessities for Colin. And the finest secondhand gown three pounds could purchase had been laid out by the maid. A surprisingly lovely muslin frock—ivory, block-printed with tiny pink sprigs.

  A banked fire smoldered in the hearth. And the bed, heaped with pillows and quilts . . . oh, how Minerva’s road-weary body yearned to sink into that bed and stay there for days.

  “I’m going to change before our post-chaise is ready. ” She ducked behind a dressing screen in hopes of hiding from this conversation.

  “Then I’ll have a shave. ” She heard him cross to the washstand. “But I’m going to keep on deviling you, until you confess everything. Did I compose pages of description? Compare your eyes to Brighton diamonds?”

  “They’re Bristol diamonds. And no, you did not. ”

  “Aha. So you do remember the contents. ”

  She huffed out a breath. “Very well. Yes. I do remember. I remember that letter word for word. ”

  Water splashed in the basin, and she heard the scratch of his shaving brush against his stubbled jaw. The familiar scent of his shaving soap filled the air. It smelled of cloves.

  “I’m listening,” he prompted.

  Behind the screen, she picked at a ragged fingernail. “You wrote that you’d been studying me, when I wasn’t aware of it. Stealing glances when I was lost in thought, or when my head was bent over a book. Admiring the way my dark, wild hair always manages to escapes its pins, tumbling down my neck. Noting the warm glow of my skin, where the sun has kissed it. You wrote that you’re consumed by a savage, visceral passion for an enchantress with raven’s-wing hair and sultry lips. That you see in me a rare, wild beauty that’s been overlooked by other men. Sound familiar?”

  “Oh, you didn’t. ” He muttered a curse and tapped his razor on the washbasin. “You couldn’t have remembered everything I said that night. ”

  “Certainly I could. And what better words to fill a forged letter from you? They were all yours, after all. ” She sniffed. “You wrote that I was the true reason you’d remained in Spindle Cove all those months. And the letter ended with the sweetest words. ‘It’s simply you, Minerva. It’s always been you. ’ ”

  He was quiet for a long time. For as long as it took her to undo fourteen hooks at the back of her abused blue silk gown and pick loose the knots of her corset laces and unbutton all the tiny closures of her shift. For as long as it took for him to finish shaving and cross the room in slow, measured footfalls.

  She heard a creak as he flung himself on the bed. “God, I was such an ass. ”

  She didn’t offer any argument to the contrary.

  “And do you know the most ironic thing about it, Min?”

  “What’s that?”

  “I always liked you. ”

  Minerva paused in the act of tying her garter. She allowed herself one moment of absurd, heart-pinching hope before making a loud sound of disbelief. “Please. ”

  “No, really,” he insisted. “All right, perhaps I didn’t always like you. ”

  See? She yanked her petticoat laces tight.

  He went on, “But you have to admit, there was something between us from the first. ”

  “Something like antagonism, you mean?” She stepped into the new gown and bounced on her toes, tugging the fabric over her petticoats and stays. The fit was rather tight. “The hostility of two barn cats fighting in a sack?”
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