A week to be wicked, p.40
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.40
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 40

 

  “Something like that. ” He chuckled. “No, it’s just . . . ” His voice went thoughtful. “I always felt that you could see me, somehow. In a way no one else did. That with those fetching little spectacles, you could peer straight through me. And you made no secret of the fact that you despised what you saw, which marked you as far cleverer than most. I couldn’t rid myself of this fascination with you. Your sharp gaze, your enticing mouth, your complete invulnerability to all my charms. If I treated you poorly—and I know I did, to my shame—it was because I always felt rather hopeless around you. ”

  Her spine snapped straight. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

  She poked her head around the dressing screen and stared at him. He lay on the bed, freshly shaven and washed, legs crossed at the ankles and arms propped behind his head. His posture said, Yes, ladies, I truly am this handsome. And I don’t even have to try.

  “You,” she said. “Felt hopeless around me? Oh, Colin. That is too much. ”

  “It’s the truth. ” His gaze was sincerity itself.

  Minerva took refuge behind the screen. She was surprised her pounding heartbeat hadn’t knocked it over.

  “I never despised you,” she said. “Just so you know. ”

  It was his turn to make a sound of utter disbelief.

  “Very well, I may have despised you a little. But only because . . . ” She sighed, unable to deny it any longer. “Only because I was so wretchedly infatuated with you. I didn’t want to be, but I couldn’t help it. All you had to do was glance my direction, and my heart would go all fluttery. Every time I tried to say something witty in your presence, it came out shrewish or dull. I’ve always considered myself an intelligent person, but I vow, Colin—no one has ever made me feel so stupid. ”

  “Well. That’s . . . oddly gratifying. ”

  She laughed a little at the memories, and at herself. “And all the while, everyone in Spindle Cove would talk about what a perfect match you made for Diana. I heard it at the tea shop, at the All Things, around the fire of an evening . . . Just underscoring again and again, no one would ever pair you with a girl like me. And that much I could have lived with, but the prospect of being your sister-in-law?” She swiped at a welling tear with her wrist. “I love my sister. I’ve always tried not to envy Diana her sweetness or elegance or beauty. But I would have envied her you, and the thought made me ill. So if we’re vying for the crown of Most Hopeless, I do think I had it won. ”

  After a long silence, he clapped his hands together. “I hope you’re ready to trade that crown for a five-hundred-guinea prize. I see our post-chaise out the window. It’s nearly ready. ”

  She emerged from behind the dressing screen. “How do I look?” She turned and fretted in the mirror. “Will the gown do?”

  He came to stand behind her, settling his strong hands on her shoulders and waiting until she went still. “The gown will do. You, on the other hand . . . ”

  She . . . ? Wouldn’t?

  Out of self-preservation, she tried to twist away from their reflection. His hands tightened on her shoulders, forbidding her to move. She watched him carefully, cautiously in the mirror as his gaze wandered her form.

  She couldn’t take the suspense. “For God’s sake, Colin. What’s wrong?”

  “You’re beautiful, Min,” he said, in a tone of wonderment. As if his own words took him by surprise. “Lord above. You’re stunning. ”

  She huffed a protest. “I’m not. You know I’m not. ”

  “What makes you so sure?”

  “No one’s ever called me so before. I’m twenty-one years old. If I were beautiful, surely someone would have noticed by now. ”

  He seemed to think on this for a moment, dropping one hand to straighten the trim on her sleeve. “It is hard to imagine anyone overlooking beauty on this magnitude. Perhaps you weren’t beautiful until very recently. ”

  A nervous laugh rose in her throat. “I’m sure I haven’t undergone any dramatic transformation. ” She searched her own reflection, just to make sure. The same wide brown eyes stared back at her, encircled by brass wire rims. They anchored the same rounded face and funny, heart-shaped mouth. Her skin had freckled and tanned over recent days, but other that that . . . “I’m the same as I ever was. ”

  “Well, I’m not,” he said simply, still drinking in her reflection. “I’m altered. Destroyed. Utterly laid waste. ”

  “Don’t. Don’t tease me. ” I can’t bear to be hurt like that again.

  “I’m not teasing you. I’m complimenting you. ”

  “That’s just it. I don’t want compliments. I’m not fanciful that way. ”

  “Not fanciful?” He laughed. “Min, you have the wildest imagination of anyone I know. You can look at a queer-shaped hole in the ground and see a vast, primeval landscape overrun with giant lizards. But it’s too much to believe you’re beautiful?”

  She didn’t know what to say.

  He mused, “Maybe ‘beautiful’ isn’t the proper word. It’s too common, and the way you look is . . . rare. You deserve a rare compliment. One sincerely meant, and crafted just for you. So there will be no doubt. ”

  “Really, you needn’t—”

  “Hush. I’m going to compliment you. Honestly. No raven’s-wing nonsense. You needn’t say a word in return, but I will insist you stand there and take it. ”

  She watched him in the mirror as his brows drew into a frown of concentration.

  “Once,” he said, “years ago, I heard this fellow speak at the Adventurers Club. He talked about his journeys into the Amazonian jungles. ”

  Minerva didn’t like where this excursion was headed. She had the dreadful feeling he was going to compare her to some strange carnivorous plant. One that lured its prey with garish red flowers and the scent of decaying meat.

  “He was an entomologist, this fellow. ”

  Oh God. Worse! Insects. He was going to compare her to some giant hairy-legged jungle insect. One that spat venom, or ate small rodents.

  Calm down, she told herself. It might be a butterfly. Butterflies were pretty. Even beautiful, depending on the variety. She heard they came big as dinner plates, in the Amazon.

  “Anyhow, this fellow had spent all this time with the natives, in the thick of the jungles, hunting down hard-shelled beetles. ”

  “Beetles?” The word came out as a whimper.

  “Can’t remember, to be honest. I slept through much of his talk, but what I recall is this: this native people he lived with, deep in the jungle—their language had dozens of words for rain. Because it was so common to them, you see. Where they lived, it rained almost constantly. Several times a day. So they had words for light rain, and heavy rain, and pounding rain. Something like eighteen different terms for storms, and a whole classification system for mist. ”

  “Why are you telling me this?”

  His touch skimmed idly down her arm. “Because I’m standing here, wanting to give you a fitting compliment, but my paltry vocabulary fails me. I think what I need is a scientific excursion. I need to venture deep into some jungle where beauty takes the place of rain. Where loveliness itself falls from the sky at regular intervals. Dots every surface, saturates the ground, hangs like vapor in the air. Because the way you look, right now . . . ” His gaze caught hers in the reflection. “They’d have a word for it there. ”

  Entranced by his touch and his warm, melting tone, she watched her own eyes go glassy in the mirror. She leaned back a fraction, resting against his chest. His heartbeat pounded against her spine, echoing through her chest like some distant drum.

  “There’d be so many words for beauty there,” he went on, bringing his lips close to her ear and dropping his voice to a murmur. “Words for everyday showers of prettiness, and the kind of misty loveliness that disappears whenever you try to grasp it. Beauty that’s heralded by impressive thunder, but turns out to be all flash. And b
eyond all these, there’d be this word . . . a word that even the most grizzled, wizened elders might have uttered twice in their lifetimes, and in hushed, fearful tones at that. A word for a sudden, cataclysmic torrent of beauty with the power to change landscapes. Make plains out of valleys and alter the course of rivers and leave people clinging to trees, alive and resentful, shaking their fists at the heavens. ”

  A hint of sensual frustration roughened his voice. “And I will curse the gods along with them, Min. Some wild monsoon raged through me as I looked at you just now. It’s left me rearranged inside, and I don’t have a map. ”

  They stared into the mirror. At each other, at themselves.

  “I’ve fallen in love with you,” she said, with quiet resignation. “If I appear changed somehow, I can only imagine that’s why. ”

  She watched him carefully for his reaction. His face became a mask, frozen in time. Eternally handsome and emotionless.

  And then, finally . . . a hint of a roguish grin cracked at the corner of his mouth. “Oh, Min—”

  “Stop. ” She stood tall, putting distance between them. She just knew he was going to make some jesting remark to dispel the tension. Oh, Min, don’t fret. You’ll get over it soon. Or, Oh, Min, think of poor Sir Alisdair.

  “Don’t you do that. ” She turned away from the mirror, toward him. “Don’t you dare make a joke. It took a great deal of courage to say what I did. And you don’t have to speak a word in return, but I will insist you be man enough to take it. I won’t have you making light of my feelings, or making light of yourself—as if you’re not worthy of them. Because you are worthy, Colin. You’re a generous, good-hearted person, and you deserve to be loved. Deeply, truly, well, and often. ”

  He looked utterly bewildered. Well, what did he expect, after the power he’d given her? He couldn’t compare a woman to a torrentially beautiful monsoon, and then look surprised that he’d gotten wet.

  “You reckless man. ” She laid a touch to his cheek. “You really should be more careful with those compliments. ”

  “So it seems. ”

  She sighed and straightened his tattered lapels. “I know you have this idea that we’ll marry in Scotland. To satisfy honor, I suppose. While you’ve given me this momentary burst of courage, I’ll tell you this. I will not marry you to satisfy honor. ”

  “You won’t?”

  “No. ” Difficult as it was, she forced herself to meet his gaze. “I will only marry you if you love me, and if you can allow me to love you. ” A bittersweet smile curved her lips. “That first night in the turret, you gave me a taste of how it would feel to have your love. It was the most thrilling sensation I’ve ever known. For a moment, I felt as though anything—absolutely anything—could be possible. When it turned out to be false . . . it crushed me, Colin. More than I care to admit. I would rather die a spinster—poor, ruined, scorned, and alone—than suffer that heartbreak daily. ”

  Regret creased his eyes at the corners. “That’s just it, pet. I start with good intentions, but . . . the people around me get hurt. ”

  So there it was. Her emotion-swelled heart was beating on borrowed time.

  Seeking consolation from the man who’d soon break it seemed stupid indeed, but she did so anyway. She let her forehead lean against his shoulder. He put his hands on her arms, rubbing lightly up and down. His chin rested square and heavy on her head.

  “I will get you and Francine to Edinburgh in one piece. ” He pressed a firm kiss to the top of her head. “If I can promise you nothing else, I promise you that. ”

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  For the love of tits.
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