A week to be wicked, p.41
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.41
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 41

 

  Colin considered himself a patriot and a devoted servant of the Crown. But by God, right now he hated England. This damnable country, plagued with endless rain and cursed with muddy, rutted, barely passable roads.

  Their first day out from York had gone well. Smooth transitions when they changed horses. He passed a few brief stints inside the coach, but spent most of the journey riding next to the postilion. The roads and weather had stayed fair. His hopes had run high.

  Then, today, the rain had started. And it had kept on. And on.

  At one coaching stop, they had waited an hour before a fresh team was available. The road conditions were so poor in stretches, their pace slowed to a crawl.

  And all along, a clock ticked down inside Colin’s mind. Every hour of slow, inching progress set them further and further behind schedule. The delay was making him wild inside.

  He had to get Minerva to her symposium on time. He’d promised. If he couldn’t see this journey through, how could he ask her to trust him with the rest of her life? Good intentions and pretty compliments weren’t enough. He had to prove this to her, and to himself.

  All was not lost yet. They still had enough time to reach Edinburgh, but their cushion was dwindling. There was no more room for error. When they’d taken luncheon a few hours ago, Colin had told himself—from here on out, everything needed to go right.

  Some fifteen miles after that, they were stuck.

  The crisis had started at the last coaching inn. There were no horses to be hired, and—due to the rains and mud—no horses expected to come available. Colin had used all his powers of persuasion and a significant sum of money to convince the postilion to forge ahead with the same team—promising him if he turned onto a side road, Colin knew of a place some miles distant where strong, fresh horses could be had.

  And that would have worked brilliantly, if they hadn’t lurched into a rut halfway there, burying two of the wheels spoke-deep in mud.

  Colin tried to lighten the weight. It didn’t help.

  He went round the back of the coach and pushed with all his might as the postilion whipped the horses. It didn’t help.

  Now soaked with rain and covered in mud, he struggled to hold despair at bay. This could be accomplished. It wasn’t too late. They might have been able to pull free with a fresh team, but these poor beasts were simply exhausted. After discussing matters with the postilion, he helped the man unhitch the team and returned to Minerva.

  “What’s going on?” she asked, opening the door to speak with him. “Is he walking away with the horses?”

  “Yes. They’re too tired to pull out of this mire, so he’s going to switch them for new. I told him of a place nearby. We’ll just wait here until he returns. ”

  She eyed him closely. “Wait here?”

  He nodded.

  “In the rain?”

  He tilted his face to the sky. “I think it’s clearing a bit. ”

  “In that case. ” She opened the door and stepped out from the post-chaise, immediately sinking ankle-deep in mud. “I’ll wait outside with you. ”

  “No, no,” he urged. “Get back in the coach. The rain’s not really clearing at all. ”

  Raindrops dotted her spectacles. “So even that was a lie?”

  Bloody hell. “I was trying to sound optimistic. ”

  “Why bother?” Staring down the road, she shook her head. “Colin, you have to admit it’s—”

  “Don’t. ” He knew what words were coming, and those words would have destroyed him. “Don’t say it. ”

  “I’m merely stating facts. Even if the postilion returns, we’ll still be hours behind schedule. And with this rain—”

  “Don’t say it. ” He grabbed her by the upper arms, turning her to face him. The rain had plastered little wisps of hair to her cheeks. “It’s not over, Min. I made you a promise. I will get you and Francine to Edinburgh in one piece. ” He slid his hands up and down her arms, chafing them over the fabric. This scrap of cloth the innkeeper had sold them was much too thin for this weather. “Now get back in the coach before you catch your death. ”

  She started to reply, but the distant slap of hooves against mud interrupted her. Colin turned in surprise. A carriage was approaching, drawn by an impressive team of four.

  “See?” he said, releasing her. “I told you. Look, here comes our salvation now. ”

  As the coach drew closer, Colin stood to the side of the road, waving his arms. The driver slowed the team.

  One glass window swung open, and a face peered out. A kind-faced woman with graying hair and a lace cap. Wonderful. Colin was a wild success with silver-haired ladies.

  This particular one narrowed her eyes and said, “You. ”

  Damnation. Really, what were the chances?

  “Why, Mrs. Fontley,” he said, forcing a grin. “How lovely to see you again. And fortunate, too. As you can see, we’re in a bit of a muddle. ”

  “You ought to be in prison, you villain. ”

  “I say. ” Mr. Fontley’s face squeezed into the frame. “You have quite a lot of nerve, Sand. If that is your real name. ”

  “It’s not, actually. I lied to you in London, and that was wrong. But I’ll tell you the truth now. I’m a rather useless insomniac viscount, but”—he gestured at Minerva—“my companion here is a brilliant geologist. There’s a symposium, you see. We need to get to Edinburgh by tomorrow, so she can present her findings about giant lizards and possibly alter our understanding of the world’s natural history. ”

  Mrs. Fontley squawked in disbelief. “Lizards? First cobras, now lizards. ”

  “No, no. This is nothing like the cobras. I swear on my life, this time I’m telling you the absolute truth. ”

  Mr. Fontley signaled the driver with a knock on the roof. “Onward. ”

  “Please. You can’t leave us here. ” Colin grabbed the door latch.

  Through the window, Mrs. Fontley beat at his fingers with a folded parasol. “Get away from our carriage, you vile people. ”

  “Gilbert!” Minerva rapped at the coach’s front window. “Gilbert, please. Can’t you convince them to help us?”

  The youth pressed his fingertips to the glass and gave her a sorrowful look. “I’ll pray for you. ”

  The driver whipped the team into motion, and Colin had to pull Minerva away lest she be caught under the wheels. As the coach departed, the footmen tossed down two rectangular objects. They landed in the center of the road with a sick thud, spattering them both with mud.

  Minerva’s trunks.

  Colin stared at them, trying to laugh. He couldn’t. None of this was amusing anymore.

  Pushing rain off his face, he turned to Minerva and found her watching him.

  “Don’t bother,” he told her. “I know what you’re going to say. ”

  “You do?”

  He nodded. “You’re going to say that this is all my fault. That if I’d never lied to the Fontleys, they would have helped us just now. ”

  She didn’t say anything. Just crossed her arms and looked at her boots, encased in mud.

  “But then I would say to you,” he went on, “that if I hadn’t lied to the Fontleys, we would have never come this far at all. ”

  She frowned at him. “Do you often have arguments with yourself?”

  “And then you’ll say, ‘But Colin . . . ’ ” He raised his voice in a lilting imitation of hers. “ ‘If only we had taken the mail coach, we’d already be in Edinburgh. ’ And on that score, you would be right. ”

  “Please don’t put words in my m—”

  He waved her off. “You’re shivering. Did you have a cloak in one of those trunks?”

  She shook her head. “I’m fine. ”

  “Damn it, don’t tell me you’re fine. ” The rain picked up strength, and he had to raise his voice to shout through it. “You’re wet, and getting wetter. You’re here, a
nd not in Scotland. You’re . . . ”

  You’re with me, and not some better man.

  “So don’t tell me you’re fine, Min. ”

  “Very well,” she finally shouted back, balling her hands into fists. “I’m not fine. I’m disappointed and heartbroken and m-miserably cold. Are you happy now?”

  God damn it. He pushed both hands through his hair and stared down the road. Such a simple thing, a road. Just a strip of dirt running from one place to another. And everyone else in the civilized world, when they wanted to travel from one place to another, would simply get inside a blasted carriage and ride there. Any other man in England could have already delivered her to Edinburgh.

  Any other man would be waiting out this downpour with her in a safe, dry place.

  He strode to the post-chaise door and held it open. “Get inside. ”

  Minerva gave up arguing and got inside. Colin joined her, shutting the door behind them. It was a tight fit, what with three occupants. Francine had been riding inside the cab ever since the rain began.

  Once he’d wrestled out of his wet coat and draped it over her lap, Colin unknotted his neck cloth. He slid the length of fabric free, using the drier bits to swab his face and neck.

  She watched him with concern.

  “I’m fine,” he said. “It won’t be long. I gave the postilion explicit directions. He’ll return soon, and we’ll be on our way. Everything will be fine. ”

  “Then what are you doing with the pistol?”

  As she looked on, he retrieved the gun from under the seat and began to load it with ball and powder.

  “Simple precaution,” he said. “Stuck like this, we’re a sitting target for thieves. ”

  She didn’t know how to interpret his dark mood. This was more than just the closeness of the carriage. He seemed to be blaming himself for everything, the weather included. And she was angry with herself for letting him goad her into heaping yet more recriminations. None of this was his fault.

  “Colin, this entire journey was my idea. I’m sorry to have put you—”

  “We don’t need to discuss it. ” He recapped the powder horn.

  She tried to respect his wish for silence, but it wasn’t easy.

  After a minute, he said lightly, “It’s just a shame it’s not better weather. His fingers drummed against the windowpane. “All sorts of impressive crags and boulders in this area. You’d be in heaven. ”

  She flicked a glance at the window and the square of gray downpour it held. “So you’ve journeyed this way before. ”

  “Oh, countless times. ”

  Countless times? That made no sense. She thought he’d avoided the country, ever since . . .

  “Oh dear. ” The chilling realization sank into her bones. She reached for his hand. “Colin. We’re not close to your home?”

  The silence confirmed what he wouldn’t say. Her heart pinched. So this was why he knew where the postilion could find fresh horses. He’d simply sent the man to his own estate.

  “Was it very near here?” she asked. “The accident?”

  He drew a slow breath that seemed the product of great effort. “Actually, no. It wasn’t terribly near. ”

  But neither was it terribly far, she imagined.

  Overwhelmed with emotion, she nestled close, lacing her fingers tight with his. He was in a cramped, stuffy carriage with her, with night coming on, stuck on the very same roads that had claimed his parents’ lives and destroyed his innocence.

  This was as close as Colin Sandhurst could come to walking barefoot down the brimstone avenues of hell, and he was doing it for her.

  For her.

  She clutched him tighter still. Thank you, she wanted to say. Thank you for believing in me. For braving this for me. If I didn’t love you so madly already, I surely would now.
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