Goddess of the hunt, p.13
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.13

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 13

 

  Jeremy couldn’t decide which facet of this disturbingly familiar conversation should perturb him more. To begin with, there was the repeated insistence that, heedless of his own feelings or principles, he must perforce strike up a counterfeit courtship with Lucy. Then there was the fact that he once again came in second to the vicar’s spotty son in his desirability for this appointment. Most galling of all, however, seemed the general skepticism of his ability to convincingly woo even a country-bred innocent.

  His pride spoke ahead of his judgment. “You could not be aware of it, Lucy, but I do have a certain reputation. The others here, they are used to watching me seduce ladies in Town. They expect it. It will strike no one as surprising, should we take up a flirtation. ” This was mostly true. Of course a flirtation would not strike Henry, Toby, or Felix as surprising, since they had all insisted he begin one.

  Lucy sat up in her seat. “Jemmy—are you trying to tell me you’re a rake?”

  She burst into laughter. Had she not been laughing athim , Jeremy would have thought it an altogether pleasant sound. “I don’t believe it,” she said, shaking her head.

  She reached toward the chessboard, and he caught her hand in his. “Believe me,” he whispered. “When I wish to be, I can be very convincing. ” He followed the seam of her fingers with this thumb, tracing slowly upward until he reached the soft cleft below her knuckles. He watched as her eyes widened and her lips parted. Then he stroked the spot lightly—a quick, circular caress—and she made a little sound, half gasp and half sigh.

  That little sound—that tiny, panting breath—was very nearly his undoing. Jeremy knew that sound. It was the tumbler of a lock falling in place, the charged crackle between lightning and thunderbolt, the hiss of a candlewick the instant before it comes alive with flame. An incomplete sound. A sound that promised—and begged for—more. Lust blazed through him, and he dropped her hand as if burnt.

  Lucy crossed her arms and sank into her chair, her eyes studying his face. Then she smiled—a sly, kittenish curling of the lips that looked to be the devil’s own grin.

  Jeremy swore inwardly. He ought to rise from his chair that instant and walk away. It was true that Henry and Toby had urged him to do exactly as Lucy suggested, but he had no duty to oblige them. Lucy was not his sister. She was not his admirer. But through some absurd twist of fate and fishing line, she had become his problem.

  Because he knew Lucy. She would go after Toby, with or without his help. The alternative to this ruse, in her eyes, involved a certain high-necked shift and bold flashes of bare, golden skin. And Jeremy found he didn’t like that alternative. At all.

  “So you’ll do it,” she said slowly. “You’ll pretend to court me. ”

  “Pretend,”he stressed, sighing heavily. “Yes. ”

  Lucy smiled.

  She liked this plan. She liked it very much. It made perfect sense. Seeing Toby with Sophia Hathaway had propelled her to new heights of jealous desperation. It had propelled her into a river. If any ploy could make Toby see her in a new light, this one could. And better still, the plan offered a source of amusement in the bargain. A chance to needle Jeremy to distraction.

  She viewed Jeremy’s expression—his usual stern, sober veneer. An irresistible challenge. Yes, she liked the plan very much.

  She allowed a few moments to pass in silence. Time to crack the egg. “So, Jemmy—just how in love with me are you?”

  She was rewarded with an expression of sheer panic. Oh, this was going to be fun.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “And I accept your apology,” she teased. She captured his knight with her rook. “Check. ”

  He stared at her with an expression of utter bewilderment. One would think he’d never played chess before.

  She took pity on him. “It’s just that, if you’re to be my suitor, I’d like to know exactly what level of devotion I can expect. Are you merely admiring? Thoroughly besotted? Completely and utterly lovestruck?”

  He exhaled with obvious relief. “Let’s not get carried away,” he growled, moving his king out of danger. “Besotted should do. ”

  “Besotted it is, then. ” She repositioned her rook.

  “Check. ” She leaned closer and whispered, “I do believe a besotted suitor would let me win. ”

  “Never. ” He captured her rook with his queen.

  The smug set of his jaw charmed his lips into the curve of a smile. Lucy was strongly tempted to stick out her tongue at him. She doubted, however, that sticking out one’s tongue was how a lady treated a besotted suitor. At least, not when prompted by a fit of petulance. In a moment of passion, however … sticking out one’s tongue appeared to bede rigueur . Her face flushed with warmth.

  There was a burst of applause from the card table. Lucy turned to watch as Sophia laid the winning card and raked in the pile of tokens from the middle of the table. Toby took her hand and kissed it before leaning closer to murmur something in Sophia’s ear. Something that made her smile and blush bright pink. Roses on porcelain, with a halo of gold. An angel. A dream.

  “It’s your move,” Jeremy prompted.

  “I don’t feel like playing anymore. I’ll finish beating you tomorrow. ”

  He followed her gaze to the table, where Toby and Sophia’s heads were bent close together as she examined the cards in his hand. “Lucy, you have to accept—”

  She cut him off with a look. She picked up her book and held it out to him. “Here. Read to me. ”

  “Read to you? You must be joking. ”

  She tossed the book at him, and he caught it instinctively. “Abesotted man would read. ”

  He glanced at the cover. Smirking, he read the title aloud. “Methods and Practice of Leporine Husbandry? Lucy, tell me this is notthe book. ”

  “No, it is notthe book. ” She wrapped her shawl about her shoulders. “It is merely thefirst book I picked up. ”

  He shook his head. “I suppose I should be grateful it isn’t Byron. ”

  He opened the volume at random and began to read in a slow, steady voice. Lucy leaned against the side of her chair, pressing her cheek against the upholstery. Her eyelids fluttered shut. The room melted away. Exhaustion claimed her, and she slipped into that drowsy place between wakefulness and sleep. There, in that half-dream world, she could almost recapture those few blissful minutes from earlier that day, when the same deep voice had rumbled through rough fabric. When she had imagined herself to be safe and protected, wrapped in the arms of the man she loved.

  It was a very pretty dream.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, Jem. ” Henry fell in step alongside Jeremy, his worn Hessians treading briskly through fallen leaves and shriveled ferns. “It’s a question I’ve been pondering for quite some time, and—well, you know I value your opinion. ”

  He pulled up, gripped the brim of his beaver, and turned to Jeremy with a serious expression. “Does this hat make my face look round?”

  Behind him, Felix and Toby doubled with laughter.

  “Jem, d’you suppose,” Felix wheezed, “that pink ribbons would suit me better, or lavender?”

  “Oh, definitely lavender,” Toby answered, schooling his expression to one of mock sincerity. “I’m sure Jem would agree that ginger hair and pink ribbons are a horrid combination. ”

  Jeremy steeled his jaw and inhaled slowly through his nose. “I am carrying a loaded rifle, you know. ”

  “No good, Jem. We all know you piss with better aim than you shoot. ” Toby brushed by him, digging an elbow into Jeremy’s side as he passed. “You’re no marks man. But clearly you missed your calling in millinery. ”

  “Need I remind you,” Jeremy said, his grip tightening around his gun, “that this wasnot my idea? I recall someone pleading with me to do a man a favor. ”

  “And I hereby nominate you for sainthood,” said H
enry, clapping him on the back. “You’re a better man than I. No humanitarian cause could possibly entice me to escort three ladies bonnet shopping. ”

  Good Lord, thought Jeremy. He would never live this down. And his friends didn’t know the half of it. They’d only seen him driving the barouche back from the village, buried under tittering ladies and pink hatboxes. Thank God they hadn’t seen him hunched over a tiny tea table laden with dainty cream-filled cakes, or holding up three lengths of satin ribbon—one in either hand, the third caught in his teeth—just so Lucy could stand back three paces and compare them from afar.

  And it didn’t end there. The events of the past three days formed a chain of small degradations. New links were added hourly, as Lucy spun ridiculous fantasies of how a besotted man ought to behave.

  A besotted man, according to Lucy, would gather hundreds of hawthorn berries from a thorny hedgerow, happily sacrificing several hours and a nearly-new coat for the distant promise of tart, seedy jam.

  A besotted man, evidently, would sit by his lady’s side at the pianoforte and turn pages for her—even if the only tune his lady knew was a vulgar drinking song, which she played from memory at a dirge-like tempo for nearly an hour straight.

  A besotted man would share his brandy.

  A besotted man would pet the cat.

  A besotted man wouldsmile .

  And a besotted man would give up a perfectly fine afternoon of sport to take the ladies shopping.

  How had he let the ruse get so out of hand? He was the Earl of Kendall, for God’s sake. He employed six-and-twenty footmen—in London alone—to heed his every command. Now he catered to the whims of a despot in dotted muslin. Being in league with Lucy was a fate far worse than truly being besotted. Bedraggled, bedeviled, beleaguered—he felt each in turn, and often all three at once.

  A dozen times a day, Jeremy resolved to break off this farce of a flirtation. He could never quite bring himself to do it. His friends’ ribbing and his own bruised pride notwithstanding, the plan was working admirably. Aside from purchasing an obscenely ugly bonnet, Lucy had not, to his knowledge, committed any further reckless acts. She had not invaded Toby’s bedchamber.

  But Jeremy couldn’t keep her out of his.

  As if Lucy’s capricious demands weren’t punishment enough by day, the true torment began at night. At night, she drove him utterly mad—in dreams. Indecent, immoral, exceedingly vivid dreams. Dreams of creamy flesh and berry-stained lips. Dreams of satin ribbons and silky skin, sliding under both hands and caught in his teeth. Dreams of brandy-scented breath coming hot on his neck and bawdy lyrics urging him on. Dreams that aroused him so powerfully, they roused him from sleep, slick with sweat and aching for release.

  Damn it all, a man of nine-and-twenty should have long outgrown this sort of adolescent panting. Jeremy thought hehad outgrown it. As a youth, he’d enjoyed his share of frantic fumbles with chambermaids and village girls. Then it was off to Cambridge, where they’d all studied gambling and wenching with greater diligence than philosophy or physics. Add in a year spent sampling the delights of the Mediterranean. Then it was back to Town, back to theton .

  Time, his father had charged him, to settle down and select a bride. He needed to produce an heir, secure the line—and the promise of an earldom and one of England’s most sizeable fortunes meant Jeremy might look as high as he pleased. A suitable bride, in his father’s opinion, would have been a lady of fair face and delicate breeding, from established lines and old money. A handsome catch.

  A trophy.

  As usual, his father had been disappointed.

  Jeremy attended the requisite balls, the musicales, the dinner and card parties. And he pursued ladies, yes. Eminently unsuitable ones. Willing widows, mostly, with no wish to remarry. The occasional talented actress, an elite courtesan or two. Every conquest held a double thrill—satisfying his own desires while thwarting his father’s.
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