Goddess of the hunt, p.23
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.23

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 23

 

  What, exactly? She’d sat at her dressing table for a long hour, studying her reflection by candlelight, trying to discern that word.

  Wanton?Kissing a man was one thing. A very pleasant thing. Tempting a man to kiss you was another thing, and equally grand. But this … this went beyond anything. She’d hauled a man into an enclosed space, made short work of her clothing, and thrown herself at him so hard she would stick. Lucy had never claimed to be an authority on the definition of ladylike behavior, but she knew the difference between good breeding and … well, just plainbreeding .

  Fool?Perhaps that was the word. Because the letters to spell out “great bloody imbecile” probably wouldn’t fit. If Toby married Sophia Hathaway, Lucy would have no one to blame but herself. She could have spoken with him as they walked back from the woods, but she hadn’t. She should have sent Jeremy away when he burst into her wardrobe, but she didn’t. She hadn’t and she didn’t, and she couldn’t understand for the life of her why.

  Ruined?Lucy knew most people would think so. But she wasn’t concerned about what most people thought. At the moment, she cared only for the opinion of two particular people. Well, perhaps three. She herself was foremost among them. And Lucy didn’t feel “ruined” in the slightest. She felt distinctly, deliciouslyimproved .

  The other word picked at the frayed edge of her mind. She tried to push it away. But it always came back, that word. The simplest label of all, and the most unthinkable yet.

  His.

  Just thinking the word set her to thrumming like a plucked bowstring. Her whole body vibrated with the awful, unbearable truth of it.

  She’d been branded. She was his. Wasn’t that what she truly feared the world would read on her face? Hadn’t his lips written it over her body and his touch burned it into her skin? Even now, she felt his mark, raw and itching under the fabric of her dress. Scored over and over across her flesh.

  His.

  Hiswanton. His fool. His alone, and ruined for anyone else.

  Lucy blinked at the ceiling. Then she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and blotted out the world.

  Damn.

  Damn him. Damn her. Damn, damn, damn.

  It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She wasn’t a thing to be claimed. A quarry to be bagged. She’d never wanted the indignity of a Season in London. The miserable ordeal of being preened and plumed and paraded about theton . The humiliation of waiting for some strutting peacock to cross the ballroom, shove a ring on her finger, paste his name over her own, and stamp “His” on her forehead for the world to read. The abject shame of it if no man even tried.

  She was Diana. She was the goddess of the hunt. She wanted to choose. Shehad chosen, Lucy reminded herself. She had chosen Toby. Familiar features floated up into the darkness behind her eyelids. Golden-brown hair. Chiseled cheekbones and a dimpled chin. Laughing eyes and a generous, smiling mouth. Hers , she willed. All of it,hers . She wanted him with every ounce of her will and every inch of her body.

  Every inch … except the little tingling patch of flesh beneath her left earlobe. That bit of her wanted someone else. Someone else’s lips. Not that generous, smiling mouth, but stern, stony-set lips that melted to fire against her skin. Against that tiny, traitorous inch of her flesh that declared itselfhis . She put her fingers to the soft hollow of her neck, and her pulse quickened under her touch.

  Another piece of her rebelled. A random ridge of collarbone seceded from her will. She ran her fingers along that razor-thin republic that now lived for the weight of a heavy brow and the bracing chill of damp hair, cool and dark as ebony. Not hers any longer, buthis .

  And then her breasts were rising up against the oppression of her bodice. Yearning to be liberated into his hands. She flattened her own palms over them, and her nipples peaked in protest. His, his , they insisted in tandem. Lucy was outnumbered. Her resolve was falling apart, and her body dissolving with it. Her mind was swirling with shadows and shards of latticed light, and she felt the dark secret of his caress burning on her skin. Rekindling that hot ache between her legs. The place where his tender assault had laid waste to her will. The place that so easily, so readily might have beenhis , yearned to behis even now.

  If Toby hadn’t come …Her whole body flushed with the question, burned to know the answer. Her hands strayed lower, smoothing over her belly.

  A light knock at the door yanked her out of the memory and out of the wardrobe … again. She sat up in bed.

  “Lucy, it’s me. ”

  Lucy slid back the bolt and cracked open the door. Sophia stood in the corridor, wrapped in a blue silk peignoir. Her golden hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders in soft waves.

  “May I come in?”

  Lucy opened the door in a silent invitation, and Sophia entered.

  “I came to see if you were feeling better,” she said, flouncing onto the edge of the bed. She eyed Lucy’s stockinged ankle dubiously. Then her gaze wandered up to Lucy’s flushed cheeks. “But I daresay you are,” she said, arching an eyebrow. She smiled. “In fact, you look very well indeed. ”

  Lucy sat down at her writing table and plucked a roll from the dinner tray. She bit off the end and chewed furiously. Lord, but she was hungry.

  “You disappeared this afternoon,” Sophia accused.

  “And so did Lord Kendall. You cannot expect me to credit coincidence. ”

  Lucy took another bite of bread and shrugged.

  Sophia bounced on the edge of the bed. “Lucy! You know you must tell me what happened. ”

  “Nothing happened. ”

  Sophia pouted. “I know the difference between something and nothing,” she said, reclining back on her elbows. “And the look on your face does not come of doing nothing. ”

  “Doesn’t it?” It was just as Lucy had suspected. One look at her face, and Sophiaknew . She would never be able to leave her chamber again. Then she recalled Sophia’s aborted “shocking” tale that morning. “So tell me aboutsomething,” she said, “and I will tell you whether this afternoon fits the definition. ”

  Sophia toyed with the lace neckline of her peignoir. “Shall I tell you about Gervais?”

  “Gervais?” Sosomething had a name.

  “He was my painting master. And my tutor in the art of passion. ” She sighed and laid flat on the bed. “Divinely handsome. Lean and strong, with jet-black hair and silver eyes and long, sculpted fingers. I was madly in love with him. Perhaps I still am. ”

  Lucy choked on her bite of roll. She poured herself a glass of claret and threw back a healthy swallow. Then another. When she had drained the glass, she drew her knees up to her chest and coiled into her chair. Sophia was still lying flat on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her bare feet dangled over the edge, and she flexed her ankles idly.

  “Well?” Lucy prompted. “Surely you don’t mean to stop there. ”

  “It all started with sketching,” Sophia said to the ceiling. “I was doing a study of Michelangelo’s David. Just a little charcoal sketch from a plate in a book. I couldn’t quite capture the muscles of the forearm, and I became so vexed. Gervais tried to explain it to me, but he couldn’t put the words into English, and I failed to comprehend his French. Then suddenly he stood up, stripped off his coat, and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. He took my hand and placed it over his wrist. He dragged my fingers over every inch of his forearm, tracing every tight cord of muscle and sinew. He was so solid, so strong …”

  Sophia rolled over onto her side, propping herself on one elbow. “You will think me wicked, and I don’t care. You will be right. I am wicked. I wanted to rip off his shirt and touch him all over. ”

  Lucy did not think Sophia wicked at all. Given her own similar reaction in the wardrobe, she thought Sophia wholly sympathetic. In fact, the pattern of behavior was vastly reassuring. Sophia wasn’t to blame, and neither was she. Clearly the sight of a well-muscled
forearm incited a woman to utter depravity. How else to explain the invention of cuffs?

  “And did you?”

  Sophia’s mouth crooked in a half smile. “Not then. Only much later. ” She traced the counterpane’s brocade pattern with her fingertips. “I sketched him, you know. All of him. ”

  “All of him? Even—”

  “Yes, even. And I let him sketch all of me. ”

  Lucy clapped a hand over her mouth and laughed into her palm. And Toby thought Sophia’stea tray was cunning? This took the term “accomplishment” to a whole new level of meaning. “You didn’t. ”

  “Oh, but I did. ” Sophia placed her hand over her heart. “And after he sketched me, he painted me. ”

  “You mean a portrait? Or a miniature?”

  “No, no. He did not paint my likeness. He paintedme . I took off all my clothes and stretched out on a bed, and he stroked every last inch of me with paint. He said I was white and smooth, like a blank canvas. His canvas. He painted little vines curling over my belly …” Sophia’s fingers drew a twining circle over her stomach. Then her hand traced over the curve of her breast. “And flowers here—lavender orchids. ” She shut her eyes and sighed. “I feigned the grippe and refused to bathe for a week. ”

  Lucy gaped at her in awed silence. Questions stuck in her throat. When Gervais had been stroking Sophia with paint, had he stroked herthere? And had she felt the same unbearable, wondrous ache that Lucy had felt … still felt even now? And had Mr. and Mrs. Hathaway never heard of chaperones?

  Sophia rolled flat on her back again and clasped both hands over her heart in the throes of romantic agony. “Oh, Gervais,” she sighed. “He loved me. He did. Je t’aime , he would say. Je t’adore, ma petite . He said it over and over again while he …”

  Sophia’s voice trailed off, and Lucy wanted to scream. “While he what?”

  Sophia threw her a superior look. “Don’t you know?”

  “Er … yes, well. ” Lucy blushed. “I mean, were you discovered?” Good heavens, and here Lucy had thoughtshe was ruined. A bit of fumbling in a wardrobe was nothing to a torrid affair with a tutor. And with a Frenchman! Society would never forgive Sophia that, were it ever known. Her twenty thousand pounds could go hang. Were such a scandal ever made public, no gentleman of theton would have her.

  The hairs on Lucy’s neck stood on end. Toby wouldn’t have her .

  “Oh, no,” said Sophia. “We were never discovered. We quarreled, and I sent him away. ”

  “Quarreled? Over what?”

  “Sir Toby had asked permission to court me, and my parents were overjoyed. I was desperate. I told Gervais I wished to elope. We might have a little cottage by the sea. Spend our days painting and our nights making passionate love. Our own piece of paradise. ” She shivered. “But Gervais refused. ”

  “But why, if he loved you?”

  “He doubted my devotion. He said that I would live to regret marrying him, that the pain of scandal and poverty would overshadow our joy. I told him he was wrong. I pleaded and begged and shouted and kissed … but I could not move him. So I sent him away. ” She put her hands over her face. “Oh, Gervais!” she whimpered. “Mon cher, mon amour . Forgive me. ”

  Lucy poured herself another glass of claret.

  Sophia uncovered her eyes and flung her arms out to either side. “I have tasted passion, Lucy,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact. “And now that I have—I do not know how I shall endure a bland society marriage. Take a lover, I suppose. But the very idea seems so … gauche. ”

  “You feel no passion for Toby,” Lucy said, taking a careful sip.

  “How could I? He professes to care for me, but then he scarcely looks at me. A kiss on the hand, a pretty phrase here or there … all so measured, so proper. Nothing of true desire. ” Sophia sat up. “I have no grand expectations. I do not expect the sort of raw, animal passion I knew in the arms of Gervais. That can only come once in a lifetime. ”
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