A week to be wicked, p.8
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       A Week to Be Wicked, p.8

         Part #2 of Spindle Cove series by Tessa Dare
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Page 8


  He could die here.

  Perversely, his greatest fear was that he wouldn’t. That his lungs would somehow learn to do without air, and he would simply remain down here—trapped in an endless, dark, watery silence. Reliving that hellish night forever.

  This is death. I am alone.

  But he wasn’t alone. Her grip locked around his arm, like a manacle. Her other hand closed around his wrist, and she gave a hard pull. He shot through the remainder of the rock tunnel and surfaced, gasping, on the other side.

  More darkness greeted him. There was air to breathe, but he had to work for it.

  “It’s all right,” she said. “You’re through. ”

  “Jesus,” he finally managed, pushing water off his face. “Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. For that matter, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. ” Still not enough. He needed to reach back to the Old Testament for this. “Obadiah. Nebuchadnezzar. Methuselah and Job. ”

  “Be calm,” she said, taking him by the shoulders. “Be calm. And there are women in the Bible, you know. ”

  “Yes. As I recall it, they were trouble, every last one. What is this place? I can’t see a bloody thing. ”

  “There’s light. Give it a moment, and you’ll see. ”

  He tilted his head. Light shone through a few lacy openings in the rock overhead. Meager white pinpricks against a blanket of jet.

  She grasped his chin and swiveled his face away from the light, down to meet hers. “Don’t look directly at it, or your eyes will never adjust. Just focus on me and take slow breaths. That’s it. In . . . and out. ”

  She spoke in a calm, soothing voice. Likely the same tone she employed to soothe her sister through a breathing crisis. Colin’s pride bristled. He didn’t need coddling. But he quite enjoyed the smoky, entrancing quality of her voice and her tender touch against his cheek. His pounding heart began to slow.

  Eventually the white specks overhead diffused to a faint, milky glow that illuminated her features. Soft, dark calf eyes with inky lashes. Rounded cheeks and pale skin. Those lips, wet with seawater.

  “You see me now?” she whispered.

  He nodded. And it was surely that brush with death coloring his perception, or perhaps the dim light—but he found her lovely.

  “I see you. ” Sliding his arms around her waist, he pulled her close.

  “What happened? Did you lose your bearings underwater?” She pushed a damp strand of hair from his brow. “Should I be worried about you?”

  What a question, asked in such a sweet, husky voice. Something made him delay answering.

  “No. ” He dropped a firm kiss on her brow. “No, pet. Don’t spare a moment’s concern for me. ”

  He released her then, and she drifted away.

  “This way, then. ” She led him to a shelf of rock, and he gave her a boost as she struggled onto it. It felt good to retake the strong, manly role. It also felt good to cup her thigh.

  Once they’d both pulled themselves onto the ledge, she felt her way along the cave’s wall and reached into a high niche to withdraw some sort of box. From it, she took a candle and tinderbox. The flare of warm, waxy light revealed the cave, letting him know that it was just as small and suffocating as he’d suspected. But that candle’s glow also created a small, intimate space within its golden circumference. Colin thought he would be content to stay within its borders for the foreseeable future.

  Shadows played over her face as she retrieved and put on her spectacles. She held the candle up to the rocky wall at his back.

  “So what is this place?

  “A cave of wonders. Look. The entire exposed surface is a compressed layer of fossilized marine life. ” She skipped her fingertips over the rugged surface. “I’ve spent hours making casts and rubbings and drawing sketches. Chipping away specimens where I can. Here’s an echinoid, see? Next to it, a trilobite. And just a few inches over, this is a fossilized sea sponge. Look. ”

  Colin looked. He saw rocks, bumps, and bumpy rocks. “Fascinating. So this is the topic of your paper for the symposium? Echy-things and troglodytes. Hard to see how they’d be worth five hundred guineas. ”

  “They’re not, not on their own. But this is truly priceless. ”

  She crawled sideways back into the cave, some half-dozen feet. Because she seemed to expect it, he followed. The farther back they went, the more the cave shrank around him, constricting his lungs. Even though he was dripping with seawater, a fine sheen of sweat pressed to his brow.

  “See here?” she asked, lifting the candle. “This depression in the stone?”

  He focused on it, glad for any distraction. “I suppose. ”

  “It’s a footprint,” she said, in a hushed, reverent tone. “Untold ages ago, some creature walked in the mud here. And the print was preserved, compressed into stone. ”

  “I see. And this excites you because . . . footprints are rare?”

  “Fossilized footprints are rare. And no one’s ever recorded a footprint like this one before. There are three toes spread wide, see?”

  Colin did see. His entire boot could have fit in any one of the individual “toe” impressions.

  “It’s like a lizard’s foot,” she said.

  “With a footprint that size, that deep? That would have to be one bloody large lizard. ”

  “Precisely. ” Even in the dark, her eyes gleamed with excitement. “Don’t you see? Mr. James Parkinson has published three volumes of fossil plates, from vegetables to vertebrates. He’s documented dozens of larger animals, including an ancient alligator and a primeval elephant. But this footprint doesn’t meet any description found in his volumes. This is evidence of an entirely new creature, unknown to modern science until now. A giant prehistoric lizard. ”

  Colin blinked. “Well. That is most . . . remarkable. ”

  A giant prehistoric lizard. This was the great scientific discovery that was guaranteed to win five hundred guineas. She wanted to travel all the way to Edinburgh to argue the existence of dragons. No scientists in their right minds would award a prize for that.

  “This footprint,” she said excitedly, “changes everything. Everything. ”

  He could only stare at her.

  “Don’t you see?” she asked.

  “Not . . . really. ”

  Unable to take the closeness any longer, he made his way back to the larger mouth of the cavern. He sat near the shelf’s edge. Black water lapped at his fingertips.

  He looked up. “Is there some other way out of here?”

  Dropping to sit across from him, she exhaled. “I should have known this wouldn’t work. You’re right, the whole elopement business was a stupid idea. I thought maybe if you had a chance to see it, you’d understand the implications. And you’d see how certain you are to take home five hundred guineas. But apparently, you’re incapable of grasping the scientific significance. ”

  He made a conscious decision to let the insult slide. “Apparently I am. ”

  “Not to mention, I expected you’d contribute something to the journey other than snide commentary. But I see I was wrong on that score, too. ”

  “How do you mean?

  “You know. Brawn, if not brains. Protection. Strength. But after that situation with the tunnel . . . I can’t be dragging you kicking and flailing all the way to Scotland. ”

  “Now wait just a moment,” he interrupted. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice a half octave. “I have strength of all sorts in abundance. I box. I fence. I ride. I shoot. I am the first lieutenant of a small yet plucky militia. I’m certain I could bodily lift this giant lizard of yours and toss him off the nearest balcony. I just don’t have any patience for underwater tunnels. ”

  “Or caves. ” To his offended silence, she replied, “Don’t deny it. I can tell how hard you’re breathing. ”

  “I’m not—”

  “For heaven’s sake. You’re fogging
my spectacles from here. Do you have a fear of small spaces?”

  “Not a fear of them,” he said.

  Her silence communicated skepticism.

  He muttered, “A dislike. I dislike small, dark spaces. ”

  “You should have mentioned this before we entered a cave. ”

  “Well, you didn’t give me much opportunity. ”

  “Shall we go back out the way we came?”

  “No. ” In this larger chamber, with the benefit of candles, the cave wasn’t so bad. But he was not swimming through that tomb of a tunnel again. “You say the entrance is above water at low tide? Then I’ll wait for low tide. ”

  “That could be hours. People will wonder what’s become of us. ”

  He marveled at the “us” in that sentence—that it hadn’t even occurred to her she might swim back and leave him there alone. He’d noticed this about her, over the months. She couldn’t even contemplate the idea of disloyalty. Which was why she so disdained him, he supposed.

  She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh dear. We’ll have to go to Scotland now. If anyone notices we’ve disappeared together this morning . . . if anyone saw us kiss last night . . . if your lover decides to gossip . . . ” She lowered her hand. “Separately, those things might go unobserved, but all three of them? In all likelihood, I’m already ruined. ”

  “That’s an extreme conclusion,” he said, ignoring that each separate event looked rather damning. “Let’s take this one crisis at a time. How many candles do you have?

  “This, and one other. ”

  Colin did a swift mental estimate. Three, four hours of light, perhaps. More than enough. A violent shiver wracked his body. “Are you chilled?” He could think of worse ways to pass a few hours than huddling with a woman for warmth.

  She reached into a rocky niche. “I keep a blanket here. ” Crouching beside him, she shook it out and draped it over them both. She kept a buffer of several inches between their bodies.

  The warmth seeped through his wet clothing. “I don’t suppose you keep any whiskey here?”

  “No. ”

  “Pity. But still—candles, blanket. You must spend a great deal of time in this . . . place,” he said, after fumbling several moments for a more diplomatic word than “hellhole. ”

  He felt her shoulders lift in a shrug. “Geology is my life’s work. Some scientists have a laboratory. I have a cave. ”

  A dozen mocking rejoinders jostled for prominence in Colin’s mind, but he sensed that teasing her on this point would leave him too vulnerable. She was a scientist. She had a cave. And he was an aimless aristocrat who had . . . nothing.

  She said, “I had it all sorted out. There’s a stagecoach that runs between Eastbourne and Rye. It passes by on Tuesdays and Fridays, just around six. If we walked to the main road, we could flag the coach down. Take it to the next town, and from there go north. We’d reach London tomorrow night. ”

  Ah, to be in London tomorrow night. Bustle. Commerce. Society. Clubs. Glittering balls and gilded opera houses. Skies choked with coal dust. Lamps shining in the darkened streets.

  “From there,” she said, “we’d catch the mail coach. ”

  “No, no, no. I told you the other night, a viscount doesn’t travel on the mail coach. And this particular viscount doesn’t travel in any coach. ”

  “Hold a moment. ” The candle bobbed. “How did you think we’d be traveling to Edinburgh, if not by public coach?”

  He shrugged. “We’re not traveling to Edinburgh at all. But if we were, we’d have find some other conveyance. ”

  “Such as what? A magic carpet?”

  “Such as a private post-chaise, with hired postilions. You’d ride in, and I’d ride out on horseback. ”
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