A week to be wicked, p.5
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.5
 

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 5

 

  “That debauched, aimless existence you had in Town . . . You call that ‘happy’?” Bram frowned. “Christ, man. You can’t even be honest with yourself. ”

  Colin made a fist and checked the urge to use it.

  He lowered his voice as Finn emerged from the tavern. “The boy has his things all packed, Bram. You can’t disappoint him. ”

  “Oh, I won’t disappoint him. I’ll leave that to you. ”

  Ouch.

  Finn crutched his way over to join them. “Well, my lords?”

  Colin could tell the youth was struggling not to look too hopeful. That was Finn. Whether he’d lost a game of darts or his whole left foot, he always put a brave face on disappointment. He was stronger than he let on, had more ambition than anyone guessed. This boy would truly be someone, someday. And he deserved better than bloody Flintridge School for Boys.

  “Finn, there’s been a change of plans. We won’t be going to London this week. ”

  “W-we won’t?”

  “No,” Colin said. “You’ll be going to Town with Lord Rycliff instead. ”

  Bram turned to him, stunned. “What?”

  “As we agreed would be best. ” Colin shot his cousin a pointed look.

  In return, Bram threw him a gaze that would pulverize walnuts in their shells.

  “But . . . I thought I’d be staying with you, Lord Payne. ” Finn looked to Colin, confused. “We were going to set up bachelors’ lodgings in Covent Garden. ”

  “Yes, well. My cousin and I agree you need a wholesome family environment. For a while, at least. Isn’t that right, Bram?”

  Come on, man. You can’t refuse. Don’t be an ass.

  His cousin finally relented. “We’ve just moved into the new town house, Finn. Susanna will be glad to have her first houseguest. ”

  Colin drew Finn aside. “I’ll be along this summer, don’t worry. Just in time for boating on the Thames. ” He leaned in to murmur, “And the boxing, never you fear. There are tickets to a prize match in your future, if I hear good reports from your tutors. ”

  The youth smiled. “All right then. ”

  Bram said, “Get your things, Finn. Meet me at the mews, and we’ll see them stowed in the carriage. We leave at dawn. ” The two of them walked off together, making plans that didn’t include Colin.

  He tried to tell himself it had all worked out for the best. If he’d taken Finn to London himself, Colin would have found some way to cock it up. Bram was right. Every time he tried to do something good, it had a way of going bad.

  Strolling away from the tavern and onto the green, Colin brought out the flask from his breast pocket. He uncapped it and tossed back a quick draught. It burned going down—as did the knowledge that it would be the first drink of many. Already, night was drawing her purple spangled veil over the cove. How he’d survive the next few months without pickling his brain, he didn’t know.

  A group of ladies approached, walking across the green on the path that led from the Queen’s Ruby to the tavern. No surprise that the rooming-house residents would be enticed by the strains of dancing music. Colin faded into the shadows of the chestnut tree, feeling unequal to polite conversation at the moment.

  As the ladies drew closer, he recognized them.

  The Highwoods. The widowed matron took the fore, and her three daughters followed. First Charlotte, then Diana . . . finally, the lagging Minerva, her face predictably buried in a book. The evening breeze flirted with their skirts and shawls.

  If he wanted to leave Spindle Cove, he did have options. Here came two of them now.

  He could marry Diana.

  Or he could run away to Scotland with Minerva.

  Fine options, those. Would he prefer to destroy one sister’s reputation, or ruin the other’s future happiness? To be sure, he wanted to leave this place. But he’d rather do so with some shred of decency intact.

  Colin tossed back another swallow of liquor.

  Diana Highwood would make some man a lovely bride. She was beautiful, elegant, refined, good-hearted. She could hold her own in the ton, no question, and she’d tolerate Colin’s excesses better than most. Which meant her sharp-tongued, bespectacled sister was absolutely right.

  Diana deserved better.

  As for the bespectacled sister in question . . . As he stared at the group crossing the green, Colin scarcely recognized her as the girl who’d visited him last night. The bold, witty young woman who’d let down her hair by his hearth and spoken with such captivating self-assurance. Where had that girl been, all these months?

  More to the point, where was that girl now? The sprigged muslin gown she wore was neither flattering nor hideous. It could best be described as wholly unremarkable. As she walked, her shoulders were hunched, as though she could curl into herself. Taken together with the book shielding her face, she’d done her level best to disappear.

  Mrs. Highwood barked, “Minerva! Posture. ”

  Colin shook his head. Considering the constant abuse she took from her mother, was it any wonder she wanted to hide?

  Last night, she’d ventured out of that shell. She’d slogged all the way to the castle in the rain, pounded on his door until he let her in, and then offered to ruin herself to protect her sister. And what reward did she get for her pains? Humiliation. Derision. And more scolding from her mother.

  He’d never dreamed he’d say this about the bluestocking who’d spent the past several months skewering him with sharp glances and cutting remarks. But it was true.

  Minerva deserved better.

  Colin capped his flask and jammed it in his pocket. He might have to wait a few months to make his amends to Finn Bright. And even then, he’d never be able to replace the youth’s foot.

  But he was going to settle this business with the Highwoods.

  Tonight.

  Chapter Three

  When Minerva lost herself in a book, her late father had once remarked, a man needed hounds and a search party to pull her back out.

  Alternatively, a low-hanging tree branch could do the trick.

  Thwack.

  “Ouch. ” Pulling up short, Minerva rubbed her smarting temple and adjusted her spectacles with one hand. With the other, she kept her page marked.

  Charlotte gave her a pitying tilt of the head. “Oh, Min. Really. ”

  “Are you injured?” Diana asked, concerned.

  Ahead of them, their mother wheeled and gave a despairing sigh. “Minerva Rose Highwood. For all your unnatural love of education, you can be remarkably stupid. ” She walked over and grasped Minerva by the elbow, tugging her across the village green. “I will never understand how you came into being. ”

  No, Mama, Minerva thought, trudging her way along the path. I doubt you ever will.

  Most people didn’t understand her. Even before last night’s humiliation, she’d long reconciled herself to the fact. Lately, it seemed the one who best understood Minerva wasn’t a person at all, but a place. Spindle Cove, this seaside resort for young ladies of gentle breeding and, well, interesting character. Whether sickly, scholarly, or scandalous—the young women here were all misfits of one kind or another. The villagers didn’t care if Minerva dug in the dirt, or wandered down the country paths with the breeze whipping through her hair and an open book before her face.

  She’d felt so at home here, so comfortable. Until tonight.

  The closer they drew to the tavern and the revelry within, the more her sense of dread increased. “Mama, can’t we go back to the rooming house? The weather’s so dire. ”

  “It’s mild, compared to last week’s rain. ”

  “Think of Diana’s health. She’s just recovered from a cold. ”

  “Pish. That was weeks ago now. ”

  “But, Mama . . . ” Desperate, Minerva cast about for some other excuse. “What of propriety?”

  “Propriety?” Mama held up Mi
nerva’s ungloved hand, displaying the earth embedded under her fingernails. “You would speak to me of propriety?”

  “Yes, well. It’s one thing to frequent the Bull and Blossom in the afternoon, when it’s a ladies tea shop. But after dark, it’s a tavern. ” Minerva wouldn’t mention where she’d been last night.

  “I don’t care if it’s an opium den. It’s the only hope of dancing in ten miles,” her mother replied. “And Payne is certain to be there. We’ll have a proposal tonight. I feel it in my bones. ”

  Perhaps Mama felt it in her bones, but Minerva’s reaction was more visceral. Her heart and stomach switched places, jostling inside her.

  As they approached the tavern door, Minerva buried her face in her book. Be they novels or histories or scientific treatises, books were frequently her refuge. Tonight, the book was her literal shield, her only barrier against the world. She didn’t dare leave Diana alone tonight, but she didn’t know how she could bear to face Lord Payne again. Not to mention the hidden lover who’d laughed at Minerva’s foolish hopes. His “friend” could have been any woman in this crowded room. And whoever she was, she might have already related the story to everyone else.

  As they entered the establishment and made their way through the throng, Minerva was certain she heard someone laughing.

  Laughing at her.

  This was the worst result of that disastrous midnight visit. For months now, Spindle Cove had been Minerva’s safe haven. Now she’d never feel comfortable here again. The echo of that cruel laughter would follow her down every country path and cobbled lane. He’d ruined this place for her.

  Now he threatened to ruin the rest of their lives.

  You could be calling me “brother” by Sunday.

  No. She couldn’t let it happen. She wouldn’t. She’d stop it somehow, even if she had to hurl her book at the man’s head.

  “Oh, he’s not here. ”

  Charlotte’s plaintive comment gave her hope. Minerva lowered her book and scanned the crowd. The militia volunteers filled the establishment, splashing bright red and gold against the lime-washed walls. She dipped her chin and peered over the lenses, focusing on the distant side of the room, where men and women crowded at the bar.

  No Lord Payne.

  Her breath came easier. She pushed the spectacles back up her nose, and she felt the corners of her mouth relax into some semblance of a smile. Perhaps he’d experienced an attack of conscience. More likely, he’d stayed behind in his turret to entertain his easily amused lady friend. It hardly mattered where he was, so long as he wasn’t here.

  “Oh, there,” Mama said, swiveling. “There he is. He’s just come in the back way. ”

  Drat.

  Minerva’s heart sank when she caught her first glimpse of him. He did not look like a man who’d experienced an attack of conscience. He looked dark and more dangerous than ever. Though he’d only just come through the door, he’d instantly changed the room’s atmosphere. A palpable, restless energy radiated from his quarter, and everyone could feel it. The whole tavern went on alert. An unspoken message relayed from body to body.

  Something is about to happen.

  The musicians struck up the prelude to a country dance. Around the room, couples began pairing off.

  Lord Payne, however, was in no hurry. He raised a flask to his mouth and tipped it. Minerva swallowed instinctively, as though she could feel the liquor burning down her own throat.

  He lowered the flask. Capped it. Replaced it in his pocket. And then his gaze settled, hot and unwavering, on the Highwoods.

  The little hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

  “He’s looking at you, Diana,” their mother murmured with excitement. “He’s sure to ask you to dance. ”

  “Diana shouldn’t dance,” Minerva said, unable to take her eyes off him. “Not a reel like this. Her asthma. ”

  “Pish. The sea air has worked its benefit. She hasn’t had an attack in months now. ”
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