Goddess of the hunt, p.26
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.26

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 26

 

  Then he pulled away. He leaned over her, bracing himself on his hands. Candlelight illumined one side of his face. He looked half man, half dangerous shadow—and Lucy wanted him all.

  “Touch me,” she whispered. God in heaven, touch me before I burn straight through this desk .

  He winced. “Do you hear something?”

  Lucy heard many things. She heard her heart hammering in her chest and her pulse thundering in her ears. She heard his ragged, panting breaths. She ground her hips against his. There. She heard a groan.

  He shut his eyes and clenched his jaw. And then Lucy heard it, too. Footsteps above them. Not just a few, but many. Footsteps thundering down the stairs. The creak of the third step.

  “Not again,” she said, covering her face with her hands. “This is becoming ridiculous. ” She unwrapped her legs from his waist, and he stepped back. “Well?” she asked, sitting up. “What do we do?”

  He shrugged, running a hand through his hair. “You could hide under the desk. ”

  “Are you daft? This is my house. I’m not hiding under the desk. If anyone’s hiding under the desk, it’s going to be y—”

  He clapped a hand over her mouth. His voice was low and gruff, and she felt it rumble through her, down through her chest and between her thighs. “Hide, don’t hide. Do as you wish. But whatever you do, you’d better do it quickly. ”

  He removed his hand. They looked at each other.

  Lucy gave herself a shake. She opened her mouth to swear at him, but he cut her off again. This time with a kiss, raw and possessive.

  “Don’t,” he said, his voice husky as he tore his lips from hers. “Don’t hide. ”

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  When Henry entered his study, Jeremy was seated at the desk, sharpening a quill by the light of a single candle. Lucy sat perched on a corner of the desktop, studying a paper by the glow of a few red coals. If Henry had been an observant guardian, he might have taken exception to the fact that his friend and his sister were alone in a room at an ungodly hour of night, studiously avoiding one another’s gaze. He might have noticed that their clothing was rumpled and their hair mussed and their breathing labored. He might have seen that the paper in Lucy’s hand was blank.

  But Henry was not observant. He wasn’t even much of a guardian.

  “Oh, good,” he said. “You’re both awake. ”

  Lucy stared at her brother. He had breeches pulled on under his nightshirt and a loose-fitting greatcoat slung over all. His dark brown hair stood up at wild angles.

  “Jem, come with us,” Henry said. “Lucy, go find Marianne. She’s checking the house. ”

  Lucy looked at Jeremy. He merely blinked at her, his expression blank.

  “Come on then,” Henry said impatiently. “She can’t have gotten far. The rain’s stopped at least, but this wind is the devil’s own bitch. ”

  “Aunt Matilda. ” Lucy and Jeremy spoke as one.

  Jeremy followed Henry’s lead, pausing at the door to cast Lucy a parting glance, intense and unreadable. She wrapped her shawl about her shoulders and took up the candle before venturing out into the corridor.

  Marianne greeted her at the bottom of the staircase. Sophia was descending the steps, the hem of her blue silk peignoir skimming above her bare feet.

  “How long has she been missing?” Lucy asked.

  “We don’t know for certain,” said Marianne. She knotted the sash of her dressing gown with brisk tugs. “Her nurse left her at ten, and it’s well past midnight now. Henry’s taken all the men out in search of her. ”

  “Two hours. ” Sophia shivered. “She could be halfway to the village by now. ”

  Lucy glared at Sophia and placed an arm about Marianne’s shoulders. “I’m sure she’s no such thing. She’s probably just ambled into an unused room and gone to sleep. We’ll find her. ”

  “I’ll keep searching down here,” Marianne said. She turned to Sophia. “Miss Hathaway, would you be so kind as to search the upstairs rooms with Lucy?”

  “Of course,” Sophia answered. “I’ll wake Kitty as well. ”

  “Thank you. ”

  Lucy mounted the stairs two at a time, with Sophia scampering up behind her. She headed down the East corridor, where the guestrooms were located. Most of them were in use at the moment, but a few surplus chambers remained untouched. Perhaps they would find Aunt Matilda curled up between a divan and its dustcover.

  “Lucy!” Sophia grabbed her elbow as they entered an unused chamber. Lucy shook her off and began lifting the sheets from the furniture and checking in the cupboards.

  Sophia cornered her by a bookcase. “Lucy, where did you go? What did you do with the letter?”

  Lucy paused. It took her a moment to remember which letter Sophia meant. It took her another few moments to recollect its current home—the breast pocket of Jeremy’s coat, snugly tucked between the layers of fabric, nestled against his hard chest. It then took her a long minute to recover from that image.

  “You didn’t put it with the post, did you?” Sophia grabbed her by the shoulders. “Tell me you didn’t post it. ”

  “Why? Didn’t you want me to?”

  “Of course not!”

  “But what about Gervais? How is he going to know to come for you if he never receives the letter?”

  Sophia let out a strangled sigh. “Gervais is never going to come for me. Gervais doesn’t exist. ”

  “What?”

  “He doesn’t exist. I made him up. My real painting master is a balding prig called Mr. Turklethwaite. I’d lighten my tea with paint before I touched his forearm, let alone any other part of his body. ” Sophia shuddered.

  Lucy was stunned. “But, the letter …”

  “Wasyour idea!” Sophia exclaimed in a loud whisper. “I thought you were suggesting a bit of fun, just like you proposed writing that letter to the pirates. I thought you understood. ” Her face softened. “All that talk about wishing for something so hard it would come true … Lucy, I thought youunderstood . ”

  “I do,” she said, thinking of her own infatuation with Toby. Lucy took her friend’s hand and squeezed it. “I do understand. Oh, but how did you ever invent such a sordid tale in the first place? The sketching, the … thepainting! The rabbits and cabbage!”

  “Thewine. ” Sophia rolled her eyes. “And, so long as I’m being momentarily honest, the envy. ”

  “Envy?”

  “Yes, of course, envy! You’re getting kissed under trees and worked over in cupboards, and I’m getting lessons in geometry!”

  Lucy smiled despite herself. This probably wasn’t the moment to tell Sophia she’d just been kissed to distraction in Henry’s study. “But if Gervais isn’t real,” she asked, “then whose address did you give?”

  “Mymodiste’s. ” Sophia cringed and let go of Lucy’s shoulders. “Oh, I’ll be ruined,” she moaned, putting one hand over her eyes.

  “Don’t be ridiculous. Your name wasn’t on the letter. It isn’t even in your hand. ”

  Sophia uncovered her eyes. “You’re right. But how brilliant! Madame Pamplemousse sells more gossip than gowns. That letter will end up in the scandal sheets, and all of England will be mad to find out who wrote it. We’ll be the talk of the drawing room all winter long. We’ll be infamous!” She grabbed Lucy’s hand in hers. “Oh, tell me you posted it!”

  “I didn’t post it. ”

  “Well give it to me, then. I’ll post it myself. ”

  “I can’t. ” Lucy brushed past her and exited the room. She went down the corridor to the next room. The latch rattled in her hand. It was locked. She turned around and jumped at the sight of Sophia’s nose three inches from hers.

  “What do you mean, you can’t? Where is it?”

  “Er …”

  Lucy was saved by a series of male shouts emanating from the courtyard. She crossed the corridor and entered the first o
pen room. She hurried to the window and wrenched it open. Footmen scurried about in the courtyard, brandishing torches and shouting directions to one another.

  Sophia put a hand on Lucy’s shoulder and leaned over her, craning her neck. “They must have found her. ”

  Lucy turned from the window and started back toward the door. She froze in her tracks. This was Jeremy’s room. She looked around. The fire was banked and growing dim. The bed had not been slept in; the counterpane remained unwrinkled. There were no personal objects to speak of. No book lay on the bedside table. No flask awaited filling at the bar. No discarded cravat hung from the corner of the mirror. Only two objects in the room evidenced his occupancy.

  Two valises, standing at attention by the door.

  He was leaving.

  “Well, come on then. ” Sophia tugged at her elbow, and Lucy followed numbly.

  Of course, Lucy thought as they hurried down the corridor. Of course he was leaving. Why else would he be leaving a note for Henry in the middle of the night?

  “What’s all this, then?” Kitty stepped into the corridor, rubbing the sleep from her eyes with one hand and clutching the neck of her dressing gown with the other.

  “Aunt Matilda,” Sophia called over her shoulder as they breezed past. “She’s wandered off again. All the men are out searching for her. ”

  Lucy and Sophia started down the stairs, and Kitty hurried after them. “Wait!” she called.

  Sophia stopped, and Lucy halted likewise. They stared at Kitty.

  Kitty huffed. “Well, I’m not going to be left here all alone. ” She planted one hand on her hip and leaned against the banister.

  “Come along then,” Lucy said with a shrug, resuming her progress down the stairs. Really , she thought. Kitty was insufferable. One would think she’d missed her invitation to a garden party.

  Lucy led the sisters out through the manor’s massive front door. Cold seized her instantly. The wind whipped straight through her thin shawl and dress. Moonlight filtered through a lace of clouds overhead, and she blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dim silver glow. She hugged her arms across her chest and hastened to follow the line of torch-bearing footmen into the garden. She turned slightly and noticed Marianne had joined the other ladies.

  Dread shivered through her as they wove through the garden behind the bobbing beacons of flame. Dread and shame. Because although she ought to have been consumed with fear for Aunt Matilda, the true source of Lucy’s dread was the sight of those valises in Jeremy’s bedchamber. He was leaving.

  Her slippers were wet through, and her feet felt like blocks of ice shuffling under her. They prickled with pain. The rest of her was numb. He was leaving, and the wintry wind felt like an ocean breeze in Tortola compared to the chill wrapped round her heart.

  The footmen wound their way through the garden hedges, finally gathering around a circular flagstone terrace with a fountain at its center. Oblivious to the cold, the fountain’s nymph and satyr cavorted in their perpetual summer, their bronze bodies weathered to a muted green. Seated at the fountain’s edge, Aunt Matilda shivered inside a vast black coat. Jeremy’s coat.

  Lucy and Marianne rushed to Aunt Matilda’s side.

  “Poor dear,” said Marianne, wrapping an arm about the old lady’s shoulders.

  Lucy grabbed her aunt into a fierce embrace and held on longer than she’d planned. Her usual Aunt Matilda smell, tinged with spice and chocolate and snuff, mingled withhis scent. Lucy buried her face in the lapel of the coat, breathing in leather and pine and sweet reprieve. He might be leaving, but he hadn’t left yet. He couldn’t leave without his coat.

  “How long do you suppose she’s been here?” Sophia asked, looming over Lucy’s shoulder. “She must be freezing. ”
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