A week to be wicked, p.46
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.46
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 46

 

  She melted inside.

  “Just trust me to get you there,” he said. “And then make me proud. ”

  “This?” An hour later, Minerva stood on the Riverchase front steps, dressed in her best remaining traveling habit, made of a dark green twill. She hoped she looked optimistic, if she didn’t quite feel it. “We’re journeying to Edinburgh in this?”

  She peered into the misty dawn. In the drive sat the highest-sprung, most richly upholstered and gaily-painted phaeton she’d ever seen in her life. The narrow seat, built to accommodate only two persons—one driver, one passenger—must have hovered at least six feet from the ground. The little sporting carriage was hitched to two of the finest, most perfectly matched black warmbloods Minerva could imagine. They looked more like racing stock than coaching beasts.

  “That can’t be safe,” she said.

  “It isn’t exactly the family model. ”

  “We’ll glow in the dark. ” She winced as the first ray of sunlight hit daffodil-yellow lacquer.

  “It’s garish and flashy and reckless, yes. ” Colin tugged on a bit of leather tack, testing its strength. “But it is the fastest conveyance to be had in England. Won it in a game of cards, a few years back. ”

  “You won it. But do you know how to drive it?”

  He shrugged and smiled. “We’ll find out. ”

  Minerva approached the phaeton with no small degree of trepidation. But she forced the nerves down, determined to be brave. Colin was putting all his faith in her. She had to make this worth it.

  With a groom’s assistance, she managed to climb into the seat. The team danced with impatience, and the phaeton swayed on its springs. Minerva’s head spun.

  Don’t look down, she told herself.

  Of course, the next instant she looked down. Did such prohibitions ever work?

  Hoisting himself into the seat, Colin landed next to her. He pulled down the brim of his hat and gathered the reins. “Seventy-three miles. That’s the distance to Edinburgh. If the weather holds, we can cover twelve miles an hour, easily, in this phaeton. Fifteen, if I press. With any luck, we’ll arrive by noon. We can do this, Min. We really can. ”

  She nodded. “You do . . . ” Threading her arm though his, she swallowed hard. “Colin, you do know how to drive this thing, don’t you?”

  He smiled. “You keep asking me that. ”

  “You keep refusing to answer. ”

  He turned his gaze to the road and flicked the reins, nudging the team into a walk. “I don’t like to ride in carriages. Driving is a different matter. ”

  Once they’d rounded the turn in the drive, Colin snapped the reins and gave the horses their head, urging them into a canter.

  They didn’t canter. They flew.

  “Oh!” The wind took her startled laughter and whipped it across the sprawling grounds of Riverchase.

  This must be what a bullet feels like.

  Powered by those two majestic, elegant animals, the phaeton rocketed down the straight gravel drive like the angels’ divine chariot. The seat was so lightly sprung, Minerva scarcely felt the ruts in the road.

  When they reached the end of the drive, Colin slowed the team and guided them onto the main road with skill and ease. He looked as though he’d been born with reins in hand.

  She leaned closer, forced to shout over the roar of wind and hoofbeats. “Teasing man. You do know how to drive it. ”

  “Four-in-Hand Club!” he called back, giving her a sly wink. “All the rage in Town. ”

  Laughing, Minerva clapped a hand over her bonnet, was too exhilarated by the rush of wind and speed to complain. Yes, of course. The rascal was a member of every club that would have him. Gentlemen’s clubs, boxing club, gambling club, adventurers club. Why not a driving club, too?

  That was his life, in London. All those clubs. All those friends. All those glittering, opulent amusements.

  All those women.

  As they raced northward, her mind spun faster than the phaeton wheels.

  His suggestion of a public courtship thrilled her, to be sure. Attending balls and operas on the arm of the dashing, handsome Lord Payne? The thought alone made her heart skip beats. And she believed him when he said he cared for her. He wouldn’t lie about that.

  He’s driving breakneck to Scotland for you, she told herself. Of course he cares.

  Then again . . . just a few days ago he’d devoted an afternoon to thatching a cottage roof. He’d thrown himself into the menial labor with strength and enthusiasm and good humor. But he hadn’t pledged to spend the rest of his life doing it. Was his sudden attachment to Minerva just a product of the extreme circumstances?

  And if she was doubting his attachment, maybe he doubted her love.

  Or maybe he simply doubted her. Perhaps he doubted she could make a proper viscountess, and who could blame him? For God’s sake, think of that enormous, beautiful house and estate. Who would ever think Minerva could be its mistress? She’d already left the drawing room a shambles and dripped rainwater all over the entry carpet. The servants would hate her.

  She couldn’t help but worry over a hundred separate things. Colin must be worried, too. He’d admitted his uncertainty. That’s why he wanted to wait.

  Waiting was wise, she reasoned. Delaying an engagement was the sensible, prudent course of action.

  So why did it terrify her?

  They stopped thrice to change horses and take refreshment, always hurrying back to the road at the first possible moment. The landscape rolling by was green and lushly curved. A recumbent goddess, awakening from her winter sleep.

  The wind, by contrast, was a cold, cruel witch.

  Minerva huddled under a woven rug for warmth, but the chill clawed straight through it. When the road straightened and he could spare some slack on the reins, Colin drew her close, putting his arm about her shoulders. She nestled into his side, comforting herself with his familiar warmth and scent. Watching his gloved hands guide the team with arousing, confident motions.

  She slid an arm about his waist, hugging him tight. It didn’t matter what happened today, or tomorrow. This—just this—was worth everything.

  They neared Edinburgh just as the midday sun reached its zenith.

  “Almost there,” he said, climbing back into the seat after stopping to ask directions of a tradesman. “Ready for your grand moment?”

  “I . . . ”

  I don’t know, I don’t know. They don’t know I’m a woman. I’ve lost all my notes and sketches. They won’t believe me about Francine without the evidence. And after traveling seventy miles in a single morning, my hair must be a perfect fright.

  They’re all going to laugh. Oh God. I just know they’ll all laugh.

  Terror had her insides knotted. But she refused to give her fears a voice. She’d promised Colin she wouldn’t speak ill of herself again.

  “I think so. If you’re with me, I’m ready for anything. ”

  He drew the horses to a halt, right in the middle of the street.

  “Are we there?” she asked, looking about.

  “Not quite. ” With a single gloved fingertip, he turned her face to his. “But I didn’t think I should do this on the doorstep of the Royal Geological Society. ”

  He bent his head and kissed her. Right there in the street and with such sweet, tender passion, all her worries receded, pushed aside by the swelling emotion in her heart.

  “Better?” he asked, gathering the reins.

  She nodded, feeling her confidence return. “Thank you. I needed that. ”

  Another few minutes’ travel down crowded, cobbled streets, and Colin pulled the team to a stop in front of a stately brick edifice. He tossed the reins and a coin to a waiting boy before rounding the phaeton to help her alight.

  “Hurry, now. You’re just in time to make a fashionably late entrance. ”

  Arm in
arm, they raced up the steps. Minerva was so occupied trying not to trip over her skirts, she didn’t notice a doorman—or anyone, for that matter.

  Until a deep voice drew them to a halt.

  “I beg your pardon. Just where do you think you’re going?”

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Minerva winced. She should have known it couldn’t be so simple.

  “We’re here for the geology symposium,” Colin told him. “And we’re running late, due to a travel mishap. So if you’d kindly step aside . . . ”

  The bearded man stood firm. He thumped a paper clipped to a writing board. “I’m sorry, sir. But admittance is for Society members only. ”

  “I am a member. ” Minerva came forward. “I’m a member of the Society. My name’s M. R. Highwood. It must be on your list. ”

  “You?” Behind his gray beard, the man flushed an unseemly shade of red. “You would claim to be M. R. Highwood?”

  “I would do more than claim it. I am Miss Minerva Rose Highwood. I can’t believe the name would be unfamiliar to you. My findings have been published in no fewer than five issues of the Royal Geological Journal in the past seventeen months. ”

  “Really, Min?” Colin’s hand brushed the small of her back. “Five times? That’s brilliant, darling. I’m so proud. ”

  She blushed a little. At least someone appreciated her accomplishment. Someone marvelously handsome and kind and intelligent and, against all odds, purportedly devoted to her.

  This pompous oaf standing before her, waving his silly list . . . he couldn’t intimidate her. Not anymore.

  “Madam, there must be some misunderstanding. The members of this Society are all gentlemen. ”

  “There has definitely been a misunderstanding,” she said, smiling patiently now, “but the misunderstanding isn’t mine. For the past two years, I’ve paid my dues and submitted my findings and engaged in written correspondence as a full member of this organization. I have never claimed to be male. If the membership made the mistaken assumption otherwise, I cannot be responsible for it. Now will you kindly allow me entrance? I have a paper to present. ”

  “I don’t think so. ” He pulled up straight and turned to Colin. “We cannot allow this. Unless she has some—”

  “Excuse me, why are you talking to him?” Minerva interrupted. “I’m standing right here, and I can speak for myself. ”

  The man sighed heavily. “My dear girl, I—”

  “I’m not a girl. Nor am I ‘dear’ to you, unless—” Good Lord, she hoped this red-faced prig wasn’t Sir Alisdair. Sir Alisdair had seemed so much more reasonable than this. “Listen, Mr. . . . ?”

  “Barrington. ”

  “Mr. Barrington. ” She smiled with relief. “I’m here to present my findings at the symposium. I’m an esteemed member of the Society, with an impressive record of scholarship, and I have something of value to contribute to these proceedings. I also happen to be female. I’m a woman who knows a great deal about rocks. I suggest you find the stones to deal with it. ”

  Beside her, Colin choked on a laugh. “Well done, love. Brava. ”

  “Thank you. ”

  Mr. Barrington looked decidedly less amused. “This symposium is restricted to members of the Royal Geological Society and their guests. And as membership is restricted to gentlemen, so this door is barred to you. ”

  “Come now. ” Colin intervened. She recognized him bringing forth his most commanding, lordly tone. “We can settle this some other way, surely. I happen to be rather fond of joining clubs. Now, what must a man do to become a member of your Society?”

  “There’s a lengthy application process. A letter of inquiry must be made, including a personal statement of research interests and any relevant publications. References must be provided—three, at the minimum, and no more than—”

  “Yes, yes. Here’s my application, if you’d be so good as to take dictation. I’m Colin Frederick Sandhurst, Viscount Payne. As for geological interests, I’m told my estate sits atop the largest vein of usable granite in all Northumberland. For references, I name my cousin, Lord General Victor Bramwell, the Earl of Rycliff. Second, my dear friend the Duke of Halford. And thirdly . . . ”
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