Goddess of the hunt, p.15
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.15

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 15

 

  “No!” Lucy glanced about the room to see if anyone had heard. Fortunately, Marianne had reached a rather lively section of her sonata.

  “No?”

  Lucy swallowed her objection in a great, bitter lump. When had pretending to flirt with Jeremy become pretending to marry him? “My full name is Lucinda,” she said. “Lady Lucinda Trescott sounds much nicer, don’t you think?” She could barely pronounce the name without cringing.

  “LadyLucinda Trescott, the Countess of Kendall,” Sophia corrected. “I hereby invite you to my wedding. But since this letter will not reach you for an age, I also hereby accept your regrets and express my fondest wish that you might have been in attendance. I am certain it will have been a lovely occasion. ”

  Lucy laughed despite herself. Still, she was eager to change the subject. “But what about the pirates?”

  Sophia dipped her quill again and furrowed her brow. “A warning to pirates,” she said sternly. “Although my new husband is one of the richest men in all England, he is also among the most fearsome. If you have any ideas of kidnapping the author of this letter to hold her for ransom, I advise you to abandon them. Blackbeard himself quakes in his boots—”

  She stopped writing and looked to Lucy. “Is it boots, or boot? Did Blackbeard have one leg, or two?”

  “I believe he had two. ”

  “Blackbeard himself quakes in hisboots,” she continued, “at the merest mention of Evil-Eye Jem, the Plundering Earl. ”

  Lucy clapped both hands over her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. “The Plundering Earl? People don’t really call him that?”

  “No, I made it up just now. But he does have the most scandalous reputation. My mother forbade me to waltz with him. Not that he ever asked. ” Sophia glanced toward Jeremy and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Has he tried to plunderyou?”

  Actually, Lucy longed to confide,it was rather the other way around .

  Marianne beckoned Sophia to the pianoforte. Toby approached with an outstretched hand, and Sophia reached to accept it. As she stood, she leaned over and whispered in Lucy’s ear—

  “If I were you, I’d let him. ”

  CHAPTER SIX

  “All Englishmen salute the hound,” Henry belted out in a mocking baritone, nudging his bay into a trot. Felix matched his pace, adding his tenor to the song.

  “Who, when his lady runs to ground, gives dogged chase o’er dell and knolllll …” They pulled their horses to a stop and drew out the note in a two-part harmony that strained the meaning of the word. “To burrow in his vixen’s hole!” they bellowed at last.

  An airborne pinecone knocked the triumphant grin off Henry’s face.

  “Watch yourself, Waltham!” Toby called. “We’ve ladies among us. ”

  Henry looked over his shoulder with an expression of feigned innocence. “Ladies?” His glance fell on Sophia. “So we have. ” He tipped his hat, arching an eyebrow in Lucy’s direction. “My apologies,ladies,” he said sardonically, weighing heavily on the dubious plural. Then he touched his crop to the gelding’s flank, heading into the woods. The pups raced ahead of him, ears flopping in the wind.

  Jeremy saw Lucy wince, and he beat down the surge of sympathy that rose in his chest. Really, what could she expect? For eight years, she’d wheedled her way into the company of gentlemen and demanded equal treatment. On any previous autumn day, she would have paced Henry across the fields, riding astride in borrowed breeches and gilding the profane verses with her clear soprano.

  Now Lucy wished to be a lady. She’d donned a russet velvet riding habit and brown leather gloves, piled her curls on top of her head, and somewhere, somehow conjured up a sidesaddle. It was, he owned, a vast improvement over her jewels-and-silk folly a few days previous. But she couldn’t expect the men to change their behavior as quickly as she changed her clothes. She certainly had no business feeling affronted if they didn’t.

  She sniffed. “I knew I ought to have worn breeches. Do I look so ridiculous, then?” She glanced at Jeremy. “You’ve been staring at me all afternoon. ”

  Staring? He hadn’t been staring. Had he?Damn .

  “Not ridiculous,” he said, accepting the invitation to appraise her form openly. “You look …”Soft. Lovely. Strangely delicate and quite frankly, bewildering . “Different. ”

  She gave him a rueful look. “And those are the words of a besotted man. No wonder Henry’s mocking me. ”

  Jeremy sighed. He wished he could ride ahead with Henry and Felix and leave that pained expression behind. But a besotted suitor, as Lucy decreed, would ride alongside his lady. For once, her notions of courtship proved correct. Toby had not strayed from Sophia’s side since the party departed the stables. The four of them skirted the edge of the woods, the gentlemen flanking the ladies as they rode through the fringe of a mowed barley field.

  With reluctance, Jeremy nudged his mount closer to hers. “Henry is an ass. ” Not the most conciliatory phrase he might have uttered, but it was sincere.

  Shrugging, she tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. “Henry is Henry. And he may be an ass, but he’s also my brother. ”

  “Precisely. ” He lowered his voice. “He should treat your feelings with more care. ”

  “He does care,” she muttered. “He just … isn’t good at it. ” Her chin lifted. “And who areyou to talk about tender feelings?”

  Jeremy meant to reward her cold remark with an equally cold silence, but Miss Hathaway spoke, ruining the effect. “That song the men were singing,” Sophia said. “I don’t believe I’ve heard it before. ”

  “Miss Hathaway, allow me to apologize for Mr. Waltham’s crass behavior,” Toby said in a buttery tone. “We are unused to the company of ladies on these excursions. ”

  Lucy’s nose twitched, and she tossed her head.

  Jeremy trained his gaze on the horizon. He’d learned his lesson. It was useless to offer her soothing words. Lucy always took as she pleased, even when it came to offense.

  “There is no need for apology,” Sophia replied. “I should like to learn the words, that’s all. ” She arranged the folds of her emerald-green skirt over her mount’s dappled flank. Her face brightened as she turned her horse into the woods. “Oh, look! Have they found one?”

  None of Tuppence’s whelps had succeeded as yet in sniffing out a fox, but it appeared one brindled pup had managed to surprise a squirrel. Both hound and quarry scuttled underfoot, causing Lucy’s mare to rear and buck.

  Jeremy lunged to grab the reins, but Lucy didn’t need his assistance. With a quick jerk on the bit and a soothing word, she had the horse calmed within seconds. She repositioned herself in the saddle. Her velvet riding habit slipped easily across the leather, making a little shushing noise that Jeremy found anything but calming.

  Lucy turned and caught him staring. She arched an eyebrow.

  He cleared his throat. “Since when do you ride sidesaddle?”

  “Since this morning. ”

  “This morning? No wonder your horse is skittish. ”

  “Thistle isnot skittish. I’ve ridden her astride, bareback, and standing up. I expect I can ride her sidesaddle. ” Lucy patted the mare’s neck and ruffled her gray mane.

  “Standing up?”

  Jeremy supposed he must appear sufficiently shocked, because she smiled for the first time all day. “Only once,” she said, her green eyes teasing. “On a dare. And it was years ago. The steward’s son—”

  Her voice trailed off as her eyes fixed on something behind him. Jeremy turned to follow her gaze. He saw instantly what had captured Lucy’s attention. Toby and Sophia had dismounted in a small clearing some paces away. A shaft of sunlight pierced the trees, bathing the couple in luminous gold. Toby was working something between his hands, and Sophia sat on a fallen tree, looking up at him with a radiant expression. They exchanged smiling words that Jeremy could not hear, and then Toby held his creati
on aloft for a moment before placing it gently atop Sophia’s head.

  A crown, woven of ivy.

  Toby took Sophia’s hand and kissed it. Jeremy swore under his breath.

  “Lucy—” he began, turning back to her.

  Or to where she hadbeen . He caught only the cracks of snapped twigs and a glimpse of russet velvet and gray mare disappearing through the trees. Jeremy turned his horse in pursuit, leaning over the stallion’s neck to duck a low-hanging branch.

  Lucy urged her mare on, riding hell-for-leather across the barley field. Bent low over the mare’s neck, her chestnut curls blown loose and streaming behind her, she burned a path across the field toward a gap in the hedgerow. Jeremy was tempted to let her go. Let her ride out all the hurt and come back calmer.

  But then he remembered that little shush of velvet slipping over leather. The sound echoed in his ears and crawled down his neck, setting every hair on end. It wasn’t called a breakneck pace for nothing. One misstep—one stone in a barley field—could send her flying.

  Jeremy nudged his horse into a gallop. In a flat-out race over open country, her mare was no match for his mount, and the gap between them narrowed.

  Then he saw the stile.

  A low wooden fence bridged the gap in the hedgerow. Beyond it, a steep slope led down to the orchards. It would be a difficult jump for any rider, under the best conditions. For a rider in a holy fury, on a skittish horse, riding sidesaddle for the first time in her life, it was certain disaster.

  Jeremy hauled on the reins, pulling his horse to a halt in the middle of the field. “Lucy! Stop, damn it!”

  He groped for a more impressive threat to hurtle in her direction, but it was too late. She pushed the mare into a jump. Jeremy heard the hollow clatter of hooves clipping wood. Then horse and rider disappeared from view completely.

  His stomach gave a sick lurch. Panic twisted in his chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. For one black, unending moment, his heart refused to beat. Then it roared back to life at a thundering gallop, and he dug his knees into the horse’s sides until his stallion matched the pace.

  The top rail of the stile had been knocked from place. Jeremy’s mount easily cleared what remained of the fence, landing with a dull thud on the other side and careening instantly into a headlong skid down the rocky slope. The moment his horse found solid footing, he dismounted. Lucy was nowhere to be seen.

  The orchard was laid out in neat rows of trees that formed a crosshatch of leaf-paved avenues. He plunged into the grove, searching through empty branch-framed corridors until he glimpsed Thistle, grazing riderless beneath a distant pear tree. He strode toward the mare, expecting at any moment to trip over a lifeless heap of russet velvet. It seemed an age since he’d drawn a breath. His brain felt woolly. The edges of his vision grayed.

  Then he saw her.

  She stood with her back to him, resting one shoulder against the trunk of a tree. Just relaxing in the orchard, perfectly serene, as if she hadn’t just watched Toby crown Sophia his goddess. As if she hadn’t just nearly broken her neck. As if Jeremy weren’t about to vomit his breakfast on his boots.

  “Oh, Jemmy,” she said, “how do you do it?”

  He hadn’t the faintest notion what she meant. How did he dowhat? At the moment, he was not entirely certain how he managed to stay upright. The leaden weight of anxiety that had been crushing his chest had sunk through his gut, churning the contents of his stomach. Now it seemed to hang somewhere in the vicinity of his knees, making his legs weak, unsteady. He picked a tree near hers and sagged against it.

  “How do you do it?” Lucy turned and pressed her back against the tree, staring up into the canopy of orange leaves. “How do you go through life and just—notcare?”

  That did it. He was going to throttle her. Fist his hands in that russet velvet, crush her close, wrap his hands around the delicate, golden skin of her throat—and throttle her. Right after he leaned against this pear tree for a while.
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