Goddess of the hunt, p.2
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.2
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         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 2

 

  “You can’t possibly expect me to call you ‘my lord,’ Jemmy. ”

  Jeremy sighed, abandoning any effort to soothe. “Then let us be perfectly plain. Toby is going to marry Miss Hathaway. ”

  “But he can’t! It isn’t fair!”

  He snorted. “Spoken like a girl, Lucy. ”

  She ignored him. “I’ve always known I would marry Sir Toby Aldridge, ever since the day we first met. ”

  “That’s absurd. The day you first met, you were twelve years old. ”

  “Eleven. ”

  “Eleven, then. And Toby shot at you. ”

  “He didn’t shoot at me. He shot at a partridge I startled. He didn’t know I was there, because—”

  “Because you were following us after Henry forbade you,” Jeremy finished impatiently. “Yes, yes. I remember it clearly. ”

  Too clearly, he added in silence. He remembered everything about that day in painful detail. The glaring afternoon sun, the acrid odor of gunpowder. But he especially remembered the sounds. How could he forget? A frantic staccato of wingbeats, the crack of Toby’s gun, a piercing shriek. The dreadful silence as all four of them charged through knee-deep brambles, only to find Lucy sitting in a clearing, unharmed and unrepentant.

  Ensuing years had proven that near miss to be the beginning of a pattern. Lucy Waltham was always flirting with disaster, and therefore Jeremy had always avoided Lucy. He didn’t want to be in the vicinity when disaster inevitably struck.

  With a sniff, she reached out and took the glass of whiskey from his hand. Her fingertips grazed his wrist. So much for safe distances.

  She rested her chin on one knee and stared morosely into the amber-brown liquid. “What does Sophia Hathaway have that I haven’t?”

  “Besides impeccable breeding, accomplishment, and a dowry of twenty thousand pounds?” He extended his hand to retrieve his drink.

  She downed a generous swallow of whiskey before relinquishing the glass. “She doesn’t love him. ”

  “More girlish fancies. This is marriage. Love is hardly required. They get on well enough, and their families will approve. She has wealth but no title; he is a baronet. It’s a fortuitous match for them both. ”

  “Fortuitous?”She narrowed her eyes. “Only you would speak of marriage as a prudent business arrangement. ”

  “It isn’t only me. It’s society. Love matches like your brother’s—they are the exception, not the rule. Ladies who insist on romance end up disappointed. You’d realize the truth of this, if only you—”

  “If only I what? If only I were cold and jaded, like you?”

  Jeremy clenched his jaw. “If only you had paid the slightest attention to any of those governesses Henry hired for you. If only you’d had some model of female behavior, aside from an overburdened sister-in-law and a senile aunt. If only you had a modicum of sense. ”

  “If only I were like Sophia Hathaway. ”

  “You said it. Not me. ”

  She crossed her arms. “Well, I don’t care what you—or society—say. I’m going to marry for love, and that means I won’t marry anyone but Toby. I refuse to believe he could marry anyone other than me. He loves me. I know it, even if he doesn’t yet. ”

  “Lucy, the matter is all but settled. I expect he will propose any day. ”

  “Then I shall have to act tonight. ” She rose from the chair and began pacing the floor. Her brow was furrowed, and she toyed absently with a lock of her hair, catching it between her teeth. It was a warning sign he’d learned to heed. Lucy always fidgeted with her hair when she was scheming.

  She usually wore her hair up—for convenience, not fashion. But they hadn’t yet invented the hairpin or bonnet that could contain Lucy’s curls. They were forever working loose at the edges and winding between her fingers, finding their way to her lips. Now her hair fell in heavy waves down to her waist, rippling like a thick, luxurious pelt as she prowled the carpet’s knotted fringe. She turned and swept back across the room, fluid fabric wrapping around her curves.

  Curves. Great God. When had Lucy grown curves? Lucy was always a collection of bony, awkward angles, held together by sheer force of will. Now that hard frame of determination was cloaked in soft, supple, womanly curves. And sheand her curves were parading about his bedchamber in a state of undress. At the ungodly hour of—he stole a glance at the clock on the mantel—two o’clock. The impropriety of the entire situation struck him with sudden force.

  “You shouldn’t be here. It’s late, and you’re … upset. Go back to your room and get some sleep. We can speak more on this tomorrow. ”

  “Tomorrow may be too late,” she said. “I can’t take that risk. I’ll have to do it tonight. ”

  “You’ll have to do what tonight?”

  “Seduce him, of course. ”

  Jeremy stared at her, dumbstruck. A log settled in the fire with a loud crack, and a flurry of red sparks shot out from the hearth.

  Lucy stopped before the mirror. She untied her dressing gown and opened it, surveying the simple linen nightgown beneath with a dissatisfied expression. “Silk and lace would be better, I suppose, but I haven’t anything finer. ” She made a quarter turn and looked askance at her reflected profile. Thrusting her shoulders back, she smoothed her nightgown tight against her torso until every swell and peak of her flesh strained against the sheer fabric.

  Jeremy leapt to his feet, upending what remained of his whiskey onto the carpet. In a matter of two paces, he crossed the room and stepped between Lucy and her scandalous reflection, grabbing the edges of her dressing gown and wrapping them firmly about her waist. The third button of her nightgown was undone, and the thin fabric gaped to reveal a crescent of golden skin. He forced his gaze up to her face. “Don’t tell me that … thatthis is what you’re practicing. ”

  She nodded. The cool intensity in her gaze told Jeremy that, ridiculous as the idea might seem to him, Lucy thought seduction an entirely sensible plan. He put his hands on her shoulders and willed authority into his voice. “Lucy, Toby does not love you. ”

  “Yes, Jemmy, he does. ”

  “What makes you so sure? Has he given you any reason to hope?”

  “I wasn’t aware that hope required a reason, any more than love. In case you have forgotten—I have no talent for hoping. I don’t hope. Iknow . Ibelieve . Iexpect . I know that Toby loves me. I believe we belong together. ” She jabbed a finger into the center of his chest. “And I expect you to understand. ”

  Jeremy groaned. How was he supposed to reason with a girl—awoman , he corrected—who put no stock in reasons? “Lucy, Toby is quite fond of you. ” He realized he was still holding her by the shoulders. Retreating a step, he let his hands drop to his sides. “But fondness isn’t love. Besides, what would you know of seduction?”

  “Oh, I have a book. ”

  “Abook?” He pulled a hand through his hair. “Good Lord, Lucy, I am not going to ask you where you obtained such a book or what pearls of wisdom it might contain. ” She opened her mouth to interject, and he silenced her with an outstretched hand. “In fact, I beg younot to tell me. Suffice it to say, I hope you will not heed the lessons of whatever lurid novel you’ve managed to get your hands on. ”

  “I’ll admit book learning has its limitations. ” She regarded him cagily, her gaze searching his.

  “That’s one way of putting it. ”

  She inched closer. “Reading is certainly no substitute for practical experience. ” She drew nearer still.

  “But … wait … Lucy, you can’t possibly—” And then he blurted out a question directed more at God in heaven than at Lucy herself. “Why me?”

  “You mean besides the fact that there’s no one else? You’re so proper, Jemmy, so cold. There are icebergs in the North Sea with less frost on them. If I can thaw you out, I’ll have no problem seducing Toby. ”

  “I assure you, you could not ‘thaw’ me,
even if I wished to be … thawed. Which I don’t. ” He retreated a step. Then two.

  “Try to resist, by all means. I like a good challenge. ” She closed the distance again, her eyes lit with mischief. “I’ve learned to snare grouse and angle for trout. Is catching a husband really so different?”

  Yes, Jeremy meant to insist, but somehow his jaw would only move up and down noiselessly, in a rather good imitation of—well, of a trout.

  And then she caught him by his shirt and reeled him in, catching him up in that net of chestnut curls and kissing him within an inch of his life. Her lips attacked his with the same steely determination. But when she threw her arms around his neck and fell against him, the rest of her was soft, pliant, yielding. Silky strands of her hair slid over his forearm. Lush curves molded against his chest.

  Before he could gather his wits to protest, she pulled away suddenly and studied his face.

  “Well? Is it working?”

  It was a simple question. And as Jeremy’s mind recited the reasons why his answer ought to be an emphaticno , other regions of his body were decidedly sayingyes . Good Lord, he was only a man. A man who, it seemed, had wasted the past several months not kissing anyone, and whose body was veritably leaping at the chance to end the reign of self-imposed monasticism. He shook his head firmly in the negative, hoping she would overlook the ragged breathing that argued otherwise.

  Lucy was undeterred. She shot up for yet another attempt, but Jeremy caught her face in his hands. Her cheeks flushed soft and warm beneath his palms.

  “Have you gone mad? This is not going to happen. It cannot happen. ”

  “Well, of courseit cannot happen. ” Her mouth spread into a grin, and her cheeks dimpled under his thumbs. Jeremy was seized by an unpardonable urge to trace those little laughing hollows with his fingers, explore them with his lips.

  “Have no fear, Jemmy, I have no plans forit . Thenyou would have to marry me, and that would not do at all. ”

  “It most certainly would not. ” He studied the face cupped in his hands. Her skin drank in the firelight and glowed like burnished gold. Her eyes danced with reflected flame, daring him to look closer, draw nearer. Who was this woman, and what had she done with Lucy? She felt like a stranger to him, and that was a dangerous thing. A stranger was fair game, for kissing … and more.

  Jeremy began a short list of the reasons why Lucy was not—most definitelynot —fair game.

  Point one, she was the sister of his oldest friend.

  Point two, his oldest friend was a crack shot.

  “Listen to me,” he said, giving her head a little shake. “If you have questions about … about the marriage bed, you ought to take them up with Marianne. Or you should wait for your wedding night, when your husband—who willnot be Toby—can enlighten you. There will be no lessons on fishing for husbands or ensnaring men. ”

  She smiled. A smug, maddening smile that Jeremy longed to shake right off her face.

  “Do you understand me?” he demanded.

  “Yes. ” She pressed her lips together briefly before they parted again in laughter.

  “Then damn it, why are you laughing?”

  “Because I think itwas working. ”

  That damned impish grin again. But this time he saw not the impudent smile, but rather what composed it.

  Lips.

  Full, sweetly bowed lips, flushed deep red with kissing and laughter. Lips that begged to be covered with his own.

  He closed his eyes to the temptation, sliding his hands back to fist in her tumbled hair, as if by taming those curls he could control her. Control himself. But—sweet heaven. It was like plunging his hands into liquid silk, and behind his eyelids he saw those strands of exquisite softness stroking every inch of his skin.
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