Goddess of the hunt, p.24
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.24

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 24

 

  “Truly?” Lucy wrinkled her nose. “Just once?”

  “But if only Sir Toby would show me a glimmer of hope. ” Sophia drew her legs onto the bed and crossed them under her. “Just one gesture of pure, unfettered romance. That’s all I wish. Tear off his coat. Fold me into his arms. Sweep me off of my feet. But no, never, not once. I was so hoping the moment would come this afternoon. I didn’t hide at all, you know. I counted ten and went straight back to the drawing room. ”

  “Really? And what did you do?”

  “The most shameless things imaginable. I offered to help him count. He only smiled. I said, ‘We mustn’t have you peeking,’ and then I leaned over the divan until my bosom nearly fell out of my dress. And he put his hand over his eyes! I went to him and took his hand away and kept it in my own. I was ever so brazen, and what did he say? What topic sprang first to his mind?”

  “Geometry?”

  “Worse!You !”

  “Me?” Lucy’s head spun. Or perhaps the room was spinning around her. Whichever the case, she wanted it to keep whirling forever. She tipped her wineglass to her lips and drained the remaining liquid.

  “Yes, you. He just gave my hand a little squeeze and said, ‘Let’s go find Lucy. ’ In that moment, I truly hated you. ” Sophia glared at her, then turned her gaze on the half-full decanter at Lucy’s elbow. “Do you intend to drink that all by yourself? I wouldn’t hate you nearly so much if you’d share. ”

  Lucy smiled. Sophia Hathaway was welcome to hate her all she wished. So long as Toby didn’t. She refilled the wineglass anyway and handed it to Sophia, who swallowed the contents in one long draught and then held out the glass for more. “You’re still ahead,” Sophia replied to Lucy’s look of amusement.

  Lucy poured again, her thoughts swirling like wine in a glass. Toby felt no passion for Sophia. Sophia cared nothing for Toby. And Gervais … Gervais was the answer to a prayer. A sign from above. It would be wrong to ignore a sign, Lucy told herself. Wicked indeed.

  “Oh, Gervais,” Sophia lamented into her second glass of claret. “If only I could … oh, but it is impossible. We live in different worlds. ”

  “Nothing is impossible, if you want it badly enough. You must write to him. ” Lucy pushed aside the dinner tray. She opened the drawer of the writing table and drew out a sheet of paper and a quill.

  “Write to him?” Sophia looked up sharply. “A letter? What an idea. I couldn’t possibly. ”

  “Why not?” Lucy uncorked a bottle of ink.

  “It’s only … he’s not … I reallycouldn’t. ” Sophia chewed her thumbnail. “Oh, but I must. ”

  “You must. ” Rising from her chair, Lucy held out the quill.

  Sophia shook her head. “No, you write. My hands will tremble. ”

  “All right. ” Lucy sat back down and dipped the quill in ink. “How do you begin?”

  “Mon cher petit lapin,”Sophia dictated.

  “If I’m going to do the writing, it will have to be in English. My French is abysmal. ”

  “Very well,” Sophia sighed. “My dear little rabbit. ”

  Lucy did not move her quill. “Surely you’re joking. ”

  “Not at all. ”

  “Yourrabbit? And a ‘dear, little’ one at that? Are you certain you wouldn’t prefer to begin with something a bit less … furry? ‘Dear Gervais’ seems a likely choice. ”

  “But it’s what I always called him,” Sophia insisted. “And if the letter is in your hand, and in the wrong language, he has to know it’s truly me somehow. ”

  Lucy shrugged. “My … dear … little … rabbit,” she said, scrawling the words as she spoke. “And then?”

  “Forgive me, my darling,” Sophia continued, reclining again on one elbow and gesturing grandly with her wineglass. “I regret our quarrel more than you could know. Sir Toby is nothing to me. You alone are—”

  “Just a moment,” Lucy interrupted. “You’re speaking too fast. ” She wrote furiously. “You … alone … are … All right, go on. ”

  “You alone are my love. I cannot forget you. I think of you constantly by day, and your face fills my dreams each night. I long for you. I long for your touch. When I close my eyes, my body remembers the warmth of your hands. ” She paused to take a large sip of wine. “When I taste wine, my lips remember your kiss. ”

  “Ooh, that’s very good,” Lucy said, dipping her quill.

  “Thank you. It just came to me. ” Sophia studied her glass of claret. “This is very good wine. ”

  “Go on, then. ”

  Sophia paused a moment before speaking. “Doubt not the depth of my feeling, nor the constancy of my love. Come to me, I beg you. Make me yours in every way. ”

  Lucy smothered a small laugh.

  “What?” asked Sophia.

  “It’s only … I thought he had already done that. Made you his in every way. ”

  Sophia tossed her head. “Oh, Lucy,” she said knowingly. “There are ever so many ways we hadn’t tried yet. ”

  Lucy’s eyes widened. She turned her attention back to the paper.

  “I shall await you this night,” Sophia continued, “and every night thereafter. ” She waited for Lucy’s quill to cease scratching. “All my love—no, wait. All myundying andeverlasting love … Yours and yours alone … Signed, your little cabbage. ”

  “Dear Lord. ” Lucy looked over her shoulder at Sophia. “First rabbits, now cabbage?”

  “It sounds lovely in French. ”

  “I suppose I’ll take your word for it. ”

  “It does. Ton petit chou. ”

  Lucy shook her head. “Cabbage it is. Or rather, cabbage you are. ” She blew lightly over the paper until the ink was dry, then folded it. “The direction?”

  Sophia gave an address which Lucy dutifully transcribed. She turned to Sophia, lifting the decanter and one eyebrow, and Sophia eagerly held out her glass. Lucy poured out half the remaining wine into the glass. The rest she drank directly from the decanter.

  “Ànotre santé,” said Sophia, raising the glass to her lips. “Et à l’amour. ” She drained the glass and let it slip from her hand as she reclined fully. “I do believe I’m drunk. ”

  Lucy laughed. “I do believe you are. ”

  Then Sophia rolled over onto her stomach and buried her face in her forearm. Her shoulders shook. It took Lucy more than a few moments to realize she wasn’t laughing, but sobbing.

  “Sophia?” Lucy sat down gently on the bed. She reached out and patted her shoulder awkwardly, searching her mind for some comforting words. Blast . Yet another area in which her comportment was lacking. She wasn’t particularly accomplished in comfort—neither giving nor receiving.

  “Oh, Lucy, what shall become of me?”

  “Why, you’ll elope with Gervais. You’ll have your little cottage by the sea. Painting, making love. Rabbits, cabbage. You’ll be brilliantly happy. ”

  “If only I could believe you. ” Sophia raised her head. Her eyes and nose were red. She sniffed loudly.

  “Believe me,” Lucy said. She stretched out next to Sophia on the bed, lying flat on her stomach and stacking her arms under her chin. “You don’t want to marry Toby anyway. If he catches the slightest cold, he takes to his bed and moans as if he’d succumbed to the putrid fever. He’d take your dowry and spend it all on new boots. Or lose it at cards. He’s hopeless at cards. ”

  “Oh, don’t go making me like him!” Sophia smiled and wiped her cheeks. “It all seemed so different once, didn’t it? When we were girls? As if only we imagined something and wanted it deeply and believed it with all our hearts, it would come true. ”

  She pulled back the counterpane and nestled under the sheets. “When I was a girl,” she said, flipping her golden hair over the pillow, “I had a porcelain doll called Bianca. And I always knew that Bianca could become real. If only I minded my nursemaid and ate all my porridge and bel
ieved it with all my soul, she would one day spring to life. She would walk and talk and play with me like a real girl. ”

  Her brow wrinkled. “She never did, of course. But it’s funny—I’m still not sure why. There’s the obvious answer—because Bianca was never more than a piece of china and a few scraps of cloth. But somehow I remain unconvinced. Perhaps it was just because I never ate all my porridge. ”

  Lucy pulled back the other edge of the counterpane and crawled beneath the covers. “When I was a girl, I used to think that if I closed my eyes tight and wished hard enough, I would open them and find myself in Tortola. ”

  Sophia shut her eyes and nuzzled into the pillow. Her voice grew thick with wine and sleep. “You were braver than I. I thought Venice. ”

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Lucy cracked open the door and peeked out into the corridor. The footman stationed opposite Aunt Matilda’s chamber sagged against the wall, powdered wig listing at a sleepy angle. She coughed quietly, but the footman did not move. If she strained her ears, she could discern the faint rhythm of his snoring.

  She stepped into the corridor and gently shut the door behind her, leaving Sophia to her wine-soaked dreams. Moving as swiftly as possible without extinguishing her candle, she padded down the hall. She kept her gaze trained on the threadbare carpet until she reached the head of the stairs.

  Her slippers brushed lightly over timeworn wood as she descended the stairs in surefooted silence. With a nimble hop, she bypassed the third step from the bottom. It creaked, she knew—and even louder than usual in damp weather.

  She paused at the bottom of the staircase. The rain had slowed as the night wore on, but the wind howled fierce as ever. An icy draft swirled over her neck. She clenched the letter between her teeth for a moment, pulling her shawl tight around her shoulders. Sometimes Waltham Manor seemed constructed of lace, rather than stone and mortar.

  She ducked into Henry’s study. The fire had banked to ashy coals that blanketed the room in a faint red glow. Lucy placed the candlestick on the burled walnut desktop. She stood still for a few moments, blinking and waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. An oval, gilt-edged tray came into focus before her, as well as the handful of sealed envelopes that awaited tomorrow’s post.

  Lucy pulled open the top right drawer of the desk and began to rummage through it. The drawer brimmed with quills and ledgers and rumpled correspondence. Finally her fingers closed around the bit of sealing wax she sought. She held it over the candle until the red wax softened and oozed, and then she dripped a large red seal over the paper’s flap.

  She held the letter flat in the palm of her hand and blew lightly over the cooling wax. This was it. Her future. Lying right there in the palm of her hand, disguised as an innocent scrap of paper and a few scrawls of ink. She leaned over to place it on the salver with the rest of the post, but something made her pause.

  What if Gervais didn’t come?

  Lucy straightened and clasped the letter to her chest.

  Perhaps his noble instincts would win out. Perhaps he didn’t love Sophia any longer. Perhaps he had moved to another address. Once the letter was posted, the letter was gone. Her future would be in the hands of a French painter with a penchant for cabbage. To hear Sophia tell it, those hands were rather capable—but still.

  She needn’t post it, Lucy realized. Simple misdirection would serve her purpose far better. She had only to show the letter to Toby, and his plan to marry Sophia would be banished instantly. Her twenty thousand pounds would have all the allure of twenty thousand sharp sticks in the eye. No painted tea tray could alter that fact.
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