Goddess of the hunt, p.10
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.10
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 10

 

  What was it about helplessness men found so attractive? She supposed they must enjoy the illusion of superiority. Well, Lucy did not feel the least bit helplessor inferior, and her pride rebelled against the notion of feigning either state.

  Oh, but she was going to do it anyway.

  She took up a spare fishing rod and baited the hook with a thorn-tree fly. Jeremy observed her with a smug expression, which she pointedly ignored. She stepped gingerly onto a slender peninsula of rocky riverbed and cast the line into her favorite spot—a slight bend in the stream, where the waters gathered in a deep pool before braving the course of small rapids downstream. The pool’s calm surface gave no hint of the fallen tree that she knew lurked beneath the water.

  Lucy reeled in the line until she felt resistance. She leaned back and pulled, snagging the line on the underwater obstacle. Her boots scrabbled for purchase on the rocks, and she braced her heels.

  “Help!” she called over her shoulder, in Toby’s direction.

  Felix came to her side. “Caught a big one, have you?”

  She nodded, making a show of struggling with the imaginary catch. “Toby! Kindly help me reel it in?”

  Jeremy came up behind her. “I don’t suppose you want my assistance?”

  “Certainly not. ” She sidestepped onto a large boulder. What was keeping Toby? He was certainly taking his time in disentangling himself from Sophia Hathaway. Lucy leaned back again, battling the phantom fish with all her might.

  Henry joined the group and assessed the situation. “Your line’s caught, Lucy. That’s all. ” He took a knife from his pocket and pulled it open.

  “Henry, no!” She frantically attempted to right herself.

  Too late.

  With a flick of the knife, Henry cut the line. Caught off-balance without a counterweight, Lucy pitched, reeled, and ultimately splashed headlong into the stream.

  Cold. Freezing cold water. Ice-cold mortification.

  Icy shock seized her ribcage like a vise, squeezing the air from her lungs. Lucy could not bring herself to care. She would gladly drown. Here, in the spot where she and Toby had passed so many pleasant afternoons. It would be a fitting end to her young life and vain hopes. For who in his right mind would marry such a perfect ninny?

  Then several strong, meddlesome hands hauled her out of the water. Lucy went limp. There could be only one thing worse than dying of shame.

  Surviving it.

  She kept her eyes tightly closed as the men dragged her onto the bank. She heard voices. Henry, Sophia, Toby, Kitty, Felix, Jeremy. They all spoke at once.

  “Fetch the blanket. ”

  “Is she alive?”

  “Henry, you ass. ”

  “She’s breathing. ”

  “I wouldn’t have imagined she weighed so much. ”

  “Lucy, wake up. ”

  She allowed her eyelids to flutter briefly—just long enough to glimpse Henry’s face hovering above her. His eyes were troubled; his mouth a thin line. She shut her eyes again. More voices.

  “What shall we do?” Toby asked, as strong fingers brushed her hair from her face and throat. Lucy quickly disguised her sigh with a cough. Toby was touching her throat .

  “Leave her be,” Henry ordered. “She’s my sister. I’ll see to her. ”

  The touching ceased. Drat Henry. His brotherly affection always surfaced at the worst possible moment.

  “Poor thing,” Sophia said.

  “Should we remove her boots?” Felix asked.

  Silence.

  “They say that, you know. ” Felix again. “If you’re drowning, you ought to remove your shoes. ”

  “I think that only helps while one is actuallyin the water,” Kitty said.

  “Lucy, wake up now. ” Henry gave her a rough shake. “Stop playing around. I swear you’ll be the death of me, if I don’t kill you first. ”

  “You very well may have killed her this time. ” Jeremy’s voice was gruff, and nearer than she would have supposed.

  “Henry, just step aside. Let’s get her back to the house, warm her up. ” Oh, now that sounded promising. Toby’s voice warmed her from the inside out, like whiskey.

  Lucy felt a pair of strong arms lifting her, tucking her body against a broad, muscled chest. Powerful strides carried her up the bank and across the uneven ground.

  She sighed and nuzzled into his coat, breathing in the deliciously masculine scents of leather and pine. Eyes closed tight, she mentally cataloged the position of each of his ten fingers on her body. A five-pointed star cupped her right shoulder; the other five formed a crescent curving around her upper thigh. The flexed muscles of his arms were thick ropes running across her back and under her knees, binding her to him.

  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been carried. She must have been a girl, and a small girl at that. It had always been a matter of pride, for Lucy, to choose her own path. Whether walking or riding or driving the gig—she decided just how far she went and in what direction, and she found her own way back. Eventually.

  But there was something strangely pleasant about surrendering to this strength, her eyes closed, her body limp in his arms. He could have been carrying her anywhere, or nowhere. But wherever he was going, Lucy was willing to be taken. She pressed her ear to his chest and listened for the distant rhythm of his heartbeat, beating faster to match his determined pace. Beating for her.

  He trudged down an incline, and her body sank lower in his grasp with each step. Her cheek slipped from the rough wool of his lapel to the smooth linen of his shirt. His fingers bit into the flesh of her thigh. He broke stride briefly, tossing her body into a new, stronger grip.

  “Oh!” she cried, falling against his chest with a soggy thud.

  He stopped.

  “Lucy?” His voice rumbled through his chest like distant thunder. It sounded different this way. Deeper. Darker. Slightly dangerous.

  “Mmmm?” She kept her eyes shut tight and her cheek plastered to his chest.

  “Are you finished playing Ophelia, then?”

  No. It couldn’t be. Her eyes flew open, and cool blue eyes met her startled gaze.

  Jeremy.

  “I thought Henry was jesting this morning, when he said you planned to pursue the stage. You have the madness bit mastered, but the drowning? That’s a bit rich. There are fish in that stream that could take swimming lessons from you. ”

  “I didn’tmean to fall in. ” She wriggled in his arms. “Put me down. ”

  “No. ” He pulled her back against his chest and resumed walking at a brisk pace.

  “I said, put medown!” She beat against his shoulder with her fist.

  “I said, no. You wanted to be rescued. ”

  “Not by you!” Lucy jabbed her elbow into his ribs, levering her arm to increase the space between them. “Jemmy, I do not need to be carried. ” She growled with frustration. “Put. Me. Down. ”

  At last he complied without ceremony, fairly dropping her into the mud. To her added irritation, Lucy missed his warmth immediately. She hugged herself against the chill and looked around to get her bearings. The house’s familiar Tudor façade winked at her through the Manor’s iron gates. In the distance, the rest of the group crested a distant rise.

  Jeremy shrugged out of his navy wool coat and draped it over her shoulders testily. The front of his shirt was wet. The thin linen clung to his chest, revealing every muscled ridge and hardened plane she had so recently—so mistakenly—molded her body against.

  “You’re making a fool of yourself, Lucy. ”

  If her teeth hadn’t been chattering so fiercely, she would have flung his coat back at him, along with a few choice curses. Leave it to His Lordship to dispense chivalry with a generous dose of condescension.

  His disapproving glances at her drenched gown and sodden tangle of hair were wholly unnecessary. She didn’t need him
to tell her she looked a fool. Standing in the autumn breeze, dripping river water into her nankeen half-boots was a small clue. She was soaked to the bone with humiliation.

  And why should he care?

  She firmed her chin and glared at him. “You’re jealous. ”

  CHAPTER THREE

  Jealous?Jeremy wanted to laugh. It seemed hemust laugh. To provoke Lucy, to distract himself—it didn’t matter which. He only knew that if he didn’t muster an ironic little laugh soon, or at least another insult, he might do something truly embarrassing. Like shake her, or kiss her, or just plain crumple to the ground with relief. He couldn’t stop reliving that moment, when Lucy had tumbled into the stream and his stomach had plummeted with her.

  Worse, he couldn’t help noticing how she looked wet.

  She looked furious and fiercely beautiful. Like a water nymph ripped from the river and set dripping on firm ground. Her hair had worked free of its pins once again, and the wet locks hung down her shoulders like thick, curling vines. Her face was pale, but her eyes glowed green like an ocean in a tempest, and her quivering bottom lip matched the shade of a frosted plum.

  And that was the end of her. Lucy did not exist below the neck. Jeremy refused to glance further downward, because he knew what he would see. Wet, all-but-transparent silk clinging to full, high breasts, a sleek belly, rounded hips … he didn’t have to look. He could picture her body well enough. Had pictured it through a sleepless night. He’d saddled his horse at dawn that morning, ridden breakneck across fields in hopes of leaving that image behind—only to find the same temptations served up to him over breakfast. It was useless. Even if his mind could forget the sight of those sweet, maddening curves, his body recalled every inch of her as she felt pressed up against him.

  He would not look. Would. Not .

  Even though she was breathing hard, and he knew her chest would be likewise heaving. And even though she was cold and wet, and her nipplesmust be—

  His eyes slipped.

  Oh, God. They were.

  Jeremy clenched his jaw and looked toward the horizon for some distraction. Ah, yes—Henry, her brother, making his way across the green. Henry would serve nicely.

  What the devil had come over him? This was what came of spending the entire Season in Town without bedding a woman, for no earthly reason. Had he been expecting to receive a plaque from the Ladies’ Society for the Promotion of Abstinence? The silver cup awarded for Reformed Rake of the Year? Whatever his perceived reward, Jeremy had spent the last few months polishing his self-control to a sterling luster. Unfortunately, he seemed to have left it in London.

  And now, this water-witch—thisLucy —stood before him, accusing him of being jealous.

  Lusting? Yes. Addled? Clearly. But jealous? Most certainly not.

  Never before had Jeremy been happier tonot be the recipient of a lady’s affections. God forbid this hoyden-turned-siren unleashed herself in his direction. He doubted he would survive the experience.

  Jealous. What a ridiculous notion. To prove the point, he conjured a vivid mental image of Lucy standing in her nightgown, craning up on tiptoe to kiss Toby, twining her fingers in his hair. He watched detached, a mere observer of a ribald opera revue, as in his mind’s eye Lucy fell against Toby’s chest. She parted her lips, Toby deepened the kiss, and Jeremy felt nothing. A bit of annoyance, perhaps—because Toby was kissing her all wrong. She arched into him and dug her fingers into his shoulders and made little writhing circles with her hips. Jeremy felt … almost nothing. Only the faintest suggestion of something. A flea bite. A tiny sting. Then in his mind, he heard Lucy give a breathy moan of passion, and somewhere deep and low in his body, something snapped. He was no longer an observer of the scene, but taking control of it. Taking control of her. His lips were covering hers. His tongue was teasing hers. His fingers were snaking between the buttons of her nightgown to curve around—

  Good Lord, Henry walked unforgivably slowly. What did it take to light a fire under the man? His sister had nearly drowned.

  Lucy was still glaring at him, letting that word—jealous—hang in the air, unchallenged. He ought to muster a defense. He ought to set her straight. He ought to take her inside and lay her down by the fire and strip her out of those wet clothes.
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