A week to be wicked, p.6
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.6

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
Page 6


  “No. But the last one was brought on by dancing. ” She shook her head. “Why must I always be the one to look out for Diana’s well-being?”

  “Because I’m looking out for yours. Ungrateful thing. ”

  Mama’s gaze pierced her. As a girl, Minerva had envied her mother’s blue eyes. They’d seemed the color of tropical oceans and cloudless skies. But their color had faded over the years since Papa’s death. Now their blue was the hue of dyed cambric worn three seasons. Or brittle middle-class china.

  The color of patience nearly worn through.

  “There are four of us, Minerva. All women. No husband, father, or brother in the portrait. We may not be destitute, but we lack true security. Diana has the chance to catch a wealthy, handsome viscount, and I won’t allow you to stand in her way. Who else is going to save this family? You?” She laughed bitterly.

  Minerva couldn’t even summon a response.

  “Oh, he’s coming,” Charlotte squeaked. “He’s coming this way. ”

  Panic fluttered in Minerva’s breast. Did Payne truly mean to propose tonight? Any man with sense would. Diana was always beautiful, but tonight she looked radiant, dressed in an emerald silk gown with ivory lace trim. Her flaxen hair glowed incandescent in the candlelight, and her ethereal composure gave her the air of a lady.

  She looked like a viscountess.

  And Lord Payne looked every inch the powerful lord. The man strode across the room toward them, cutting his way through the crowd in a straight, unswerving path. People leaped out of his way, like startled crickets. His gaze was intent, determined, focused on . . .

  On her. On Minerva.

  Don’t be a ninny.

  It couldn’t be. Surely it was just a trick of her spectacles. He was coming for Diana, naturally. Obviously. And she hated him for it. He was a horrid, horrid man.

  But her heart would not stop pounding. Heat gathered between her breasts. She’d always wondered what it would feel like to stand on one end of a ballroom and watch a handsome, powerful man make his way to her. This was as close as she’d ever come to it, she supposed. Standing at Diana’s side. Imagining.

  Suddenly anxious, she looked to the floor. Then the ceiling. Then she chided herself for her cowardice and forced herself to look at him.

  He drew to a halt and bowed, then offered a hand. “May I have this dance?”

  Minerva’s heart stalled. The book slipped from her hand and fell to the floor.

  “Diana, pass me your reticule,” Mama whispered. “Quickly now. I’ll hold it while you dance. ”

  “I don’t believe that will be necessary,” Diana answered.

  “Of course it’s necessary. You can’t dance with that bulky reticule dangling from your wrist. ”

  “I’m not going to dance at all. Lord Payne has invited Minerva. ”

  “Invited Minerva. Of all the ideas. ” Mama made a disbelieving, indelicate snort. Which became a strangled gasp, when the woman looked up and finally noticed that Lord Payne’s hand was indeed outstretched to Minerva. “But . . . why?”

  He said simply, “Because I choose her. ”


  Oh God. Truly? As in, had Minerva truly just said that aloud?

  At least she’d stopped herself from voicing the rest of the thoughts running through her addled brain, which went something like, Truly? That whole determined, dangerous saunter across the room was for me? In that case, would you mind going back and doing it all over again? Slowly this time, and with feeling.

  “Miss Minerva,” he said, in a voice smooth and dark as obsidian, “may I have this dance?”

  She watched, mute and entranced, as his ungloved hand clasped hers. His grip was warm and strong.

  She held her breath, feeling the eyes of the whole village on them.

  Please. Please, don’t let anyone laugh.

  “Thank you,” she forced herself to say. “I would be most . . . relieved. ”

  He led her to the floor, where they queued up for the country dance.

  “Relieved?” he murmured with amusement. “Ladies usually find themselves ‘delighted’ or ‘honored’ to dance with me. Even ‘thrilled. ’ ”

  She shrugged helplessly. “It was the first word that came to mind. ”

  And it had been honest, at the time. Though as she took her place across from him and the first bars of the music began, her relief evaporated. Fear took its place.

  “I can’t dance,” she confessed, stepping forward.

  He took her hands and twirled her round. “But you’re already dancing. ”

  “Not very well. ”

  His eyebrow quirked. “This is true. ”

  Minerva curtseyed to the wrong corner, colliding with the lady her to her left. Offering the woman a breathless apology, she overcorrected—and stomped on Lord Payne’s foot.

  “Good God,” he said through gritted teeth, holding her close to his side as they moved forward and back. “You weren’t exaggerating. ”

  “I never exaggerate. I’m hopeless. ”

  “You’re not hopeless. Stop trying so hard. If we’re going to manage this, you must let me lead. ”

  The dance parted them, and Minerva was left reeling. She tried to convince herself this meant he’d agreed to her plan. He would take her to Scotland, because he chose her. He chose her over Diana. Why else would he offer to dance with her, but to create the impression of some attraction between them? But her thoughts were quickly plowed under by thunderous footfalls and wild fiddling.

  She bumbled her way through another series of steps. Then came a lovely few measures where she didn’t need to do anything but stand still and clap.

  Then it was forward again. To him.

  He pulled her close. Indecently close.

  “Say ouch,” he murmured.

  She blinked up at him. What?

  He pinched the tender underside of her arm, hard.

  “Ouch!” she exclaimed. “Why would you—”

  He slid an arm around her waist. Then flexed it, causing her to stumble. Her spectacles went askew.

  “What’s that, Miss Highwood?” he said loudly, theatrically. “You’ve turned your ankle? What a pity. ”

  A few moments later, he had her stumbling through the Bull and Blossom’s red-painted front door. They made it a few steps away from the entrance. He rushed her so, her slipper caught on a rock and she tripped in earnest.

  He caught her just before her knee hit the turf.

  “Are you hurt?”

  She shook her head. “Nothing bruised but my pride. ”

  He helped her steady herself. But he didn’t release her. “That didn’t go as I planned. I didn’t realize your . . . difficulty with dancing. Had I known, I would have—”

  “No, this is fine. This is good. The dance, our leaving it. You . . . embracing me in plain view. ” She swallowed hard. “It’s all good. ”

  “It is?”

  She nodded. “Yes. ”

  His arms felt good indeed, wreathed about her waist. And the complex, fiery warmth in his hazel eyes was swiftly melting her intelligence to slag. One more minute of this, and she’d be a certifiable simpleton.

  She cast a glance at the door. Surely someone would follow them. Or peep out the window, at least. Weren’t they the least bit concerned for her reputation? Or her ankle, if nothing else? Someone needed to see them together, if they were going to make a convincing elopement. Otherwise, this dangerous, confusing embrace would be for nothing.

  “Why?” she asked, unable to help herself. “You could have Diana. ”

  “I suppose I could. And if I decided marry her, you could not stop me. ”

  Her heart pounded so fiercely in her chest, she was sure he must feel it. “But you chose me tonight. Why?”

  An ironic smile tugged at his mouth. “You want me to explain it?”

  “Yes. A
nd do it honestly, not . . . ” Not like last night.

  “Honestly. ” He mused on the word. “Honestly, your sister is lovely, elegant, demure, kind. It’s easy for a man to look at her and imagine a whole lifetime stretched out before him. Wedding, house, china, children. It’s not an unappealing prospect. But it all looks very settled and fixed. ”

  “And when you look at me? What do you see then?”

  “Honestly? When I look at you . . . ” His thumb stroked her lower back. “I think to myself something like this: God only knows what trials lie down that path. ”

  She twisted in his embrace, pushing against his arm. “Let me go. ”


  “So I can hit you. ”

  “You asked for honesty. ” He chuckled, but kept her close. “This . . . this struggle is precisely my point. No, you don’t fit the beautiful, elegant, predictable mold. But take heart, Marissa. Some men like to be surprised. ”


  She stared at him, horrified. And thrilled. And horrified at being thrilled. “You. Are. The most—”

  A bell jingled. The Bull and Blossom’s door swung open, and a handful of giggling village girls tumbled forth, riding a wave of music and warmth. Minerva’s breath caught. If the girls turned this way, she and Payne would be seen. Together.

  “Surprise,” she whispered.

  Then she pressed her lips to his.

  Chapter Four

  Surprise, she said.

  Surprise indeed.

  Sweetness. That was the first surprise. He’d heard so many tart words from these lips . . . but her kiss was sweet. Cool and sweet, with a hint of true decadence beneath. Like a sun-ripened plum at the height of summer. Ready to fall into his hand at the slightest inducement.

  The falling. That was surprise the second. As she leaned into the kiss, she fell into him. He tightened his arms around her waist, pulling her close.

  Their bodies met.

  But that wasn’t the right word. Their bodies had “met” some months ago, that night in the Summerfield gardens. Now their bodies renewed the acquaintance. The sense of intimacy was immediate, startling. The jasmine scent of her hair cocked a trigger, deep inside him. A memory stored not in his mind, but in his blood.

  Which brought him to surprise the third.

  Pleasure. Triumph. Damn, he’d been wanting this. He hadn’t known it. Would have gone to his grave before admitting it. But a part of him had been wanting this. Badly, and for quite some time. He wasn’t learning her through this kiss, so much as confirming long-suspected truths. That for all her unfeminine interests and education, she was pure woman beneath. That she didn’t feel prickly and stubborn in his arms, but warm and pliant, her curves molding to his strength.

  That he could make her melt. Sigh. Tremble.

  That one taste of her wouldn’t be enough.

  He ran his tongue over her closed lips, seeking more. It had been ages since he’d kissed a girl simply for kissing’s sake, and he’d forgotten what a pure, heady pleasure it could be. He wanted to sink into that cool sweetness. Get drunk on it, bathe in it. Utterly lose himself in a fathoms-deep kiss.

  Open. Open for me.

  A little sound escaped her. Something like a squeak. Her lips remained sealed under his.

  He tried again, lightly dragging his tongue toward the corner of her mouth. Slowly, reverently—the way he knew a woman enjoyed being licked, just about anywhere.

  Finally, her lips parted. He swept his tongue between them, tasting her. God, she was so sweet and fresh. But utterly still. Unmoving. Unbreathing. He paused to sip at her plump lower lip before trying again. He pressed a little deeper this time, swirling his tongue before retreating.

  The sweet sigh of her breath whispered against his cheek. It was a confession, that sigh. It told him two things.

  First, she had no earthly idea how to kiss him back.

  But, secondly? She wanted to. She’d been waiting for this, too.

  As they broke apart, a sense of mutual disbelief wavered in the air.
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