Goddess of the hunt, p.19
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.19
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 19

 

  She charged off across the green, vaguely conscious of Sophia trailing behind her. “Aunt Matilda!” she called, crunching into the undergrowth. The sound of snapping twigs drew her to the left, and she pushed deeper into the wood, her eyes searching the path ahead for any glimpse of indigo.

  “Does she do this often?” Sophia dodged a low branch.

  “Yes,” Lucy replied testily. “Whatever Henry is paying her nurse, it’s three times too much. Really, how difficult can it be to keep one doddering old lady in place? It’s not as though she’s especially quick on her feet. ”

  Lucy spied a blue turban bobbing through the trees ahead. “There she is. ” She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Aunt Matilda!” The turban kept bobbing.

  “I don’t think she heard you. ”

  “No, she never does. She’s completely deaf. ”

  “Oh. Then why do you shout at her?”

  Lucy bristled with irritation, but she held her tongue. She redoubled her pace on a leaf-strewn game trail, leaving Sophia to struggle through the brush on her own. Really, she would humor Sophia up to a point, but she would not be made to look stupid.

  “Oof!”

  An unseen something caught her ankle, sending her sprawling onto the forest floor. Her fingernails dug into spongy moss. She didn’t need Sophia to make her look stupid, she thought ruefully. She made a right idiot of herself on a regular basis.

  She rolled over gingerly. Her ankle was caught on—or rather, caughtin something. She tugged against the resistance, and a sharp twinge of pain was her reward. Lucy sat up and pulled up the hem of her skirt to investigate. A slender cord looped around her ankle above the boot; a little noose drawing tighter with every motion she made.

  “Blast,” she muttered as Sophia rushed to her side.

  “Lucy, what is it?”

  “It’s a snare. ” She yanked at the noose, working her fingers under the cord. “Do you see Aunt Matilda?”

  “No … Oh, yes. ”

  “Would you kindly go after her, please?”

  “I don’t think it’s necessary. ”

  “Whatever do you mean?” Lucy unlaced her boot and slipped it off, then began easing the noose over her stockinged heel. “Of course it’s necessary. We don’t want to lose her. I’ll be right along. ”

  “We won’t lose her. She’s already found. ”

  Lucy looked up from her foot in exasperation. A cutting retort twitched on the tip of her tongue. Couldn’t Sophia dispense with the coy remarks? It wasn’t as though Toby were around, after all.

  Oh. But he was.

  Toby and the other three men were walking toward them. Henry led the way, Aunt Matilda’s arm tucked firmly in his. Felix and Toby chatted companionably as they followed. Jeremy brought up the rear.

  “Hullo, Lucy. ” Henry came to a halt and loomed over her. “Did you need rescuing, too?”

  “No,” she huffed, finally sliding the loop of cord off her toes and jamming her foot back into her boot. “It’s a snare, is all. I had my eye on Aunt Matilda, and I didn’t watch where I was stepping. ”

  “Who’s setting snares in this part of the woods?” Felix directed his question at Henry.

  Henry shrugged. “Tenants, I suppose. ”

  “Poachers, you mean,” Jeremy said. His voice was low and terse.

  “If you call a man a poacher who traps a hare to feed his family from time to time,” said Henry, “then I suppose they’re poachers. I’m of a mind to turn a blind eye, myself. ”

  “It isn’t me who calls them that. The law does. ” The gravity in Jeremy’s voice pulled it down to a growl. “This is your land. If you turn a blind eye to the law, you encourage lawlessness. People—” he pointed at Lucy without turning his gaze, “get hurt. ”

  Henry made a dismissive snort. “The law would send a man to Australia for the sake of a few miserable animals. Should I have all my farmers transported because I begrudge them a few hares? This isn’t Cambridge, and I’ll thank you to end the lecture. As you said, it’smy land. And Lucy’s fine. ”

  Jeremy’s hand curled into a fist at his side. “How do you know Lucy’s fine?” he demanded. “You haven’t asked. And you should—”

  Lucy cut him off. “Actually, no one’s asked. ” She took the hand Felix offered and scrambled to her feet, brushing dirt from the sleeves of her spencer. “But Lucy is fine. The only person Henry should be sending to Australia is Aunt Matilda’s nurse. Really, Henry. This makes the third time this month. ”

  Everyone turned to stare at Aunt Matilda, who had taken advantage of the pause to forage in the folds of her skirt for her snuffbox. Sophia went to her side and placed an arm around the old lady’s shoulders.

  “She doesn’t even have a cloak, the poor dear. ”

  Aunt Matilda snorted and sighed her way through a pinch of snuff. “Lovely. ”

  Jeremy shrugged off his coat and thrust it at Sophia. With a parting glare at Henry, he turned and stalked off in the direction of the stables. Lucy was glad to see the back of him. And not because his broad, muscled shoulders looked so irritatingly splendid rippling under the crisp linen of his shirt. She knew he was furious with her over the incident in the orchard. He’d scarcely glanced in her direction since the previous afternoon. If he had any sense, he ought to be furious with himself. Being seen together was his grand idea. But angry with her or angry with himself, he had no reason to pick nonsensical rows with Henry. Poachers, her foot.

  Ouch. She winced as she shifted her weight. Her foot.

  Sophia draped Jeremy’s coat over Aunt Matilda’s shoulders, and the frail spinster disappeared into its large proportions. She looked like a column of brown wool topped by an indigo turban.

  “We’d best get her back to the house,” Felix said. “The wind’s picking up. It looks like rain. ” He led the way back toward the Manor. Henry and Sophia followed, shepherding Aunt Matilda between them.

  “Are you all right, Lucy?” Toby asked. “You’re not hurt at all?”

  “Of course not. ” She took a firm step forward, and her twisted ankle exploded with pain. She faltered, but suddenly Toby was there, shoring her up with his arm.

  His arm, stretched across her back. His hand, curled around her waist. His everything, right there up against hers.

  If her ankle weren’t throbbing, Lucy would have jumped for joy. She was brilliant. Had she truly chided herself for tripping in that snare? Had she honestly felt shamed to have triggered a device designed to trap small-brained rodents? Well. She had never been more wrong. Stepping in that little noose was the cleverest thing she’d done in an age.

  “My ankle … It seems I’ve twisted it. ” Lucy tried another step. The pain felt less intense this time, but she winced dramatically for effect.

  “Just lean on me. ”

  In a perfect dream, she would have been swept off her feet and carried back to the Manor. But this wasn’t a dream, she reminded herself with every pain-hobbled step. This was live, waking, in-the-flesh reality, and what was more—it was herchance .

  She had so much to tell him. Where to begin? She dreamt up and discarded a series of bold declarations.

  Toby, I’ve loved you since I was a girl. Too much in the past, she told herself. Talk about the present.

  Toby, you can’t marry Sophia Hathaway. Probably best not to mention the enemy. Focus on the future.

  Toby, make me your wife and you’ll never be sorry. I’ll warm your bed, and I’ll give you beautiful babies, and we will never—well, hardly ever—disagree. Lucy chewed her lip. Perhaps a bit too forward?

  Figuring outwhat to say was only half the problem. The other half being, carving out a moment to say it. Toby was nattering on incessantly as they made their slow progress toward the house.

  “It’s a bit of luck we decided to cut our hunting short this morning,” he was saying. “We were over toward the eastern edge of
the woods, and the sky kept growing darker. A proper storm brewing, Henry thinks. This wind has a boar’s teeth, I’ll say. Odd time of year for it. Not unheard of, mind you. Was it three years ago we had that snow just before fox season began? Maybe just two. ”

  Lucy opened her mouth to tell him it had been four, but she never had the chance.

  “Yes, it’s fortunate we headed back when we did. Exceedingly so. Imagine,” he said, “you might have been here in the woods with a wayward aunt and a twisted ankle and rain about to fall …”

  Now the topic of weather was getting somewhere. Yes , she thought, nodding enthusiastically. Imagine the peril . She would have been perfectly fine, of course, but a few protective masculine instincts could never go astray.

  “Imagine,” he said, “poor Miss Hathaway wouldn’t have known what to do. ”

  Poor Miss Hathaway!Lucy groaned.

  Toby’s steps and speech drew to a halt. “I’m so sorry. Am I walking too fast?”

  “No … Well, yes. It’s just—” She looked up at him. He gazed down at her. His eyes were clear, patient brown with just a hint of gold—and nothing at all of glass. She licked and pursed her lips, but his gaze never slipped from hers.

  “Do you find me pretty?”

  The words were out before she could stop them. Out and echoing through the woods, ricocheting off the trees, ringing through the silent space between them. She couldn’t take them back. Wouldn’t wish to, if she could. Toby’s brow wrinkled in surprise. Tension knotted in Lucy’s stomach.

  “Why … yes, of course. ” He cleared his throat. “You’re a very pretty girl, Lucy. ”

  There. He’d said it. She was pretty. Sir Toby Aldridge found her pretty. Lucy was perfectly satisfied. She’d never need to hear it again.

  “Really?” Once more wouldn’t hurt.

  “Really and truly. ” The words flipped off his tongue so lightly, she despaired that he didn’t really mean them. But then he cupped her chin in his hand, and his gaze wandered slowly over her face. Lucy held her breath.

  “You’ve the most lovely eyes,” he said quietly. “And that hair—” He smiled and tucked a curl behind her ear. “A man could get lost in that tangle and never find his way out. ”

  Their lips were just inches apart. So close. If she only craned her neck a bit … and then he would bend his head a fraction …

  Oh, but would he? She couldn’t tell. He’d been chattering on like a bedlamite, but he hadn’t spoken one syllable of geometry.

  “Next Season,” he said, “you’ll go to London, and you’ll have a pack of suitors nipping at your heels. Henry will have to fend them off with a stick. ”

  “And you?”

  “Me?”

  “Where will you be next Season?”

  “Right there with you. ” He brushed a finger down her cheek and smiled. “I’ll bring my own stick. ”

  Then he turned his gaze to the path and began walking again. Though her ankle felt nearly well, Lucy clung to him more tightly than ever.

  They walked along in silence. The sky was growing dark. A bitter wind bit through the fabric of Lucy’s spencer, but a smile warmed her face. Next Season, Sir Toby Aldridge would beat her admirers away with a stick. The very thought was ridiculous and barbaric and the most romantic thing she’d ever heard. Of course, the question remained … would he be bludgeoning half theton for the sake of brotherly affection or out of jealous love?

  Right now, it didn’t matter. Next Season could go hang. Toby had called her pretty, and his arm was tight about her waist. Right now, this felt like all she had ever wanted.

  Oh, Toby, the truest words came to her now,you’re the only person in the world who makes me feel perfect just as I am. Who never scolds or reproaches or wants me to change. And if you marry Sophia Hathaway, I fear I’ll go my whole life without ever feeling this way again . She gripped his coat tightly. Toby, if I lose you, I’m afraid I’ll lose me, too .
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