A week to be wicked, p.4
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.4

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 4

 

  So he’d finally given in and accepted the clear invitation Mrs. Ginny Watson’s smiles and cocked hips had been making for some time. He’d resisted the young widow for months now, not wanting to entangle himself with a village resident. But he’d be leaving in a matter of days. Why not make his last few nights bearable? Who could it possibly hurt?

  Who, indeed.

  In his mind’s eye, he saw Minerva Highwood. That single tear streaking down her face.

  Poorly done, Payne. Poorly done.

  He should have sent her away at once. He had no intention of marrying Diana Highwood, never had. But Minerva had been cold and wet, in need of some time before the fire. And he’d found it perversely amusing, teasing out her little chain of conclusions to its wild, illogical end.

  Of all the mad schemes to propose . . . a fake elopement to win a geology prize? She’d never win any points on elegance. But Colin had to admit, that kind of girl didn’t knock on his door every night.

  The worst of it was, that seductive claptrap he’d spooned her . . . it hadn’t all been lies. She wasn’t without her peculiar brand of allure. Her dark hair, when unbound and spilling in heavy waves to her waist, was seduction itself. And her mouth truly did fascinate him. For a sharp-tongued bluestocking, she had the most full, ripe, sultry lips he’d ever seen. Lips copied from some Renaissance master’s Aphrodite. Dark red at the edges, and a paler hue toward the center—like two slices of a ripe plum. Sometimes she caught her lower lip beneath her teeth and worried it, as though savoring some hidden sweetness.

  Was it any wonder then, that for several minutes, he truly had forgotten Ginny Watson upstairs?

  Minerva had paid the price for his thoughtlessness.

  This was why he needed to be back in London. There, habitual debauchery kept him out of this sort of trouble. He and his friends roved from club to club like a pack of nocturnal beasts. And when he tired of the revelry, he had no problem finding worldly, willing women to share his bed. He gave them exquisite physical pleasure, they gave him some much-needed solace . . . everyone parted ways satisfied.

  Tonight, he’d left two women profoundly dissatisfied. And he kept vigil with that old, familiar bitch, regret.

  At least his days here were numbered. Bram was set to arrive at the castle tomorrow. Ostensibly, he was making the trip to inspect his militia after several months’ absence. However, Colin knew from his cousin’s express—he had other business in mind. After long months, Colin would have his reprieve.

  Farewell, stone-cold quarters.

  Farewell, torturous country nights.

  In a matter of days, he would be gone.

  “What do you mean, I’m staying here?” Colin stared at his cousin, feeling as though he’d just taken a punch to the gut. “I don’t understand. ”

  “I’ll explain. ” Bram gestured mildly. “This is the normal way with birthdays, see? Amazingly enough, they arrive on the same day, every year. And yours is still two months away. Until then, I’m trustee of your fortune. I control your every last ha’penny, and you’ll stay here. ”

  Colin shook his head. “This makes no sense. He’s surrendered. You just announced it to the whole village. The war is over. ”

  They stood in front of the Bull and Blossom, Spindle Cove’s one and only tavern. After overseeing the afternoon militia drill, Bram had invited all the volunteers to gather for a pint. There he’d announced the latest word from France, sure to blaze across every broadsheet in England tomorrow morning. Napoleon Bonaparte had renounced the throne, and now it was merely a matter of paperwork.

  Victory was theirs.

  Jubilation shook the tavern to its timber frame. Children ran to St. Ursula’s to ring the church bell. The first pint quickly became two, then three. As afternoon faded to twilight, wives and sweethearts filtered in from the village lanes, carrying with them dishes of food. Someone brought out a fiddle. Before long, the dancing would begin. All Spindle Cove—all England—had reason to celebrate.

  By all rights, Colin ought to be rejoicing, too.

  Instead, he felt dead inside. It was an all-too-familiar sensation.

  “Bram, you needed me to oversee the militia in your absence, and I’ve done that duty. ” At no small cost to my sanity. “I’ve even looked out for your damn pet sheep. But if the war is over, there’s no further need. ”

  “Whether there’s a need or not, the militia remains embodied until the Crown decrees otherwise. I can’t just disband it when the whim strikes. ”

  “Then Thorne can oversee it. ”

  “Where is Thorne, anyway?” Bram scanned the environs for his corporal.

  Colin gestured vaguely. “Off doing whatever it is he does. Shaving with a rusted field scythe. Skinning eels with his bare hands, perhaps. He actually likes this place. ”

  “Ah,” said Bram. “But you need this place. ”

  Colin scrubbed his face with both hands. He knew Bram meant well. His cousin truly believed stranding Colin penniless in the Sussex countryside to oversee a local militia was his best chance at redeeming a dissolute existence. What Bram didn’t understand was that they were different kinds of men. Military discipline and rural life may have tamed Bram’s demons, but they were only feeding Colin’s.

  There was no way to explain that in terms Bram could understand. And what was Colin supposed to say, anyhow? Thank you very much for giving a damn, but I’d rather you didn’t? Bram was his only family now. Over the past year, they’d forged a tenuous bond of brotherly affection, and Colin didn’t want to muck that up.

  “Colin, if you want to leave Spindle Cove, you have options. You know the trust ends if you marry. The right wife could be good for you. ”

  He quietly groaned. Again and again, he’d witnessed this phenomenon with his friends. They got married. They were happy in that sated, grateful way of infrequently pleasured men with a now-steady source of coitus. Then they went about crowing as if they’d invented the institution of matrimony and stood to earn a profit for every bachelor they could convert.

  “Bram, I’m happy that you’re happy with Susanna and the babe on the way. But that doesn’t mean marriage is a good thing for me. In fact, I think it would be a very bad thing for the woman I happened to marry. ” He tapped his fist against the building. “Listen, I need to go to Town. I made a promise to Finn. ”

  “You promised Finn what, precisely?” Bram looked through the window, scanning the assembled militiamen for the fifteen-year-old drummer boy.

  “I lost a bet to him, see. At stake was a pair of boots. I’d hand over my own Hobys, but they’re several sizes too large yet. So I said I’d take him to London for a new custom pair. And then I figured we’d make some trips to schools, so we can have that sorted out before autumn term begins. ”

  Bram shook his head. “I’ve already found Finn a school here in Sussex. Flintridge School for Boys. ”

  “Flintridge? What about Eton? We told his mother we’d give him the best. ”

  “The best for Finn. Flintridge offers an excellent education, closer to home. Besides, the Brights own a dry-goods shop, and you want to send him to Eton? You know he’d feel out of place. ”

  Colin knew all about Eton and feeling out of place. He’d arrived there a young tragedy at the age of eight. Freshly orphaned, still reeling from the loss of his parents. At that time, small for his age. He would have been a favorite target even without the nightmares. The nightmares just added verbal taunts to the bullies’ arsenal. He could still hear their mocking falsetto.

  “Mother!” they’d squawk down the corridors. “Mother, wake!”

  The first year had been torture. But he’d done well in the end.

  “I know the adjustment won’t be easy,” Colin said. “But I can teach Finn how to hold his own. He needs to see a bit more of the world, lose that wide-eyed country wonder. He should have a tutor, so he’s not lagging behind in his stud
ies. And if I outfit him with a fine pair of Hobys and take him round to the boxing club, he can dazzle the impressionable boys and kick the obstinate ones in the arse. ”

  Colin stared through the window of the Bull and Blossom, to where Finn Bright leaned against the wall, grazing elbows with his twin brother, Rufus. From their shocks of white-blond hair to their gangly arms and mischievous smiles, the Bright twins were identical. Or at least they had been, until last summer—when an artillery blast had taken Finn’s left foot.

  “It was an accident,” Bram said, reading his thoughts.

  “One I might have prevented. ”

  “I could have prevented it, too. ”

  Colin tapped a finger against the window. “Look at him. He’s healed, but he’s restless. The weather’s growing warm. He sees the rest of the youths his age all running off to play cricket, work the fields, chase the girls . . . It’s sinking in, for the first time, what this means. What it will mean, for the rest of his life. I know you have to understand. ”

  Bram had taken a shot to the knee in Spain, over a year ago now. He’d kept the leg, but he still walked with a limp, and the injury had ended his career in field command. One would think his resistance to the idea should soften.

  One would be wrong. Bram’s expression looked every bit as soft as granite.

  “Colin, you shouldn’t have made the boy such promises. You’re always doing this. I’ve no doubt you meant well, but your good intentions land like mortar shells. Again and again, you fire off that mouth of yours, and the innocents around you get hurt. ”

  Colin winced, thinking of Minerva Highwood last night. That single tear streaking down her face.

  “This is precisely why I can’t release you any funds,” Bram went on. “You’ll spin a fine tale about wholesome days spent mentoring Finn, and by night I know you’ll end right back in the clubs and hells. ”

  “Damn it, how I spend my nights is my own concern. I can’t stay in this place, Bram. You have no idea. ”

  “Oh, but I do. I have a very good idea. ” Bram stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I’ve commanded regiments in battle. Do you think I don’t know what witnessing death and bloodshed does to a man? The nightmares, the restlessness. The drinking. The shadow that lingers years, even decades later. I’ve known many a battle-shocked soldier. ”

  As he absorbed his cousin’s meaning, Colin’s pulse pounded. Naturally, Bram knew about the accident. Almost everyone in his social circle knew about the accident. But the rest were well-mannered enough to understand—Colin didn’t discuss it. Ever.

  He said, “I’m not one of your battle-shocked soldiers. ”

  “No. You’re my family. Can’t you understand? I want to see you move past this. ”

  “Move past it?” Colin laughed bitterly. “Why hadn’t I ever thought of that?” He slapped his forehead. “I’ll simply move past it. What a bloody brilliant idea. Here’s one for you, Bram. Just straighten up and stop limping. And Finn . . . well, Finn can just grow a new foot. ”

  Bram sighed. “I won’t pretend to know exactly what it is you need,” he said, “but I know you won’t find it in the gaming hells and opera houses. These next months are my last chance to turn you around. After your birthday, the accounts, properties, Riverchase . . . they’ll all be yours for the keeping. Or for the losing. ”

  Colin sobered, instantly. “I would never risk Riverchase. Never. ”

  “You haven’t even been there in years. ”

  “I’ve no wish to go. ” He shrugged. “Too quiet. Too remote. ”

  Too many memories.

  “You’ll need to manage the place,” Bram said.

  Colin countered, “The land stewards have managed it well enough for years. They don’t need me there. And I’m happy living in Town. ”
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