Goddess of the hunt, p.27
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.27

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 27

 

  Lucy reached into a great black sleeve and found one of the old lady’s papery hands. “Her hands are ice. ” She rubbed the chilled, bony fingers between her own.

  She looked around. The men stood at the edge of the terrace, conferring with the servants. Kitty went to Felix’s side and assailed him with questions. Lucy was dimly aware of Henry gesturing with a torch and saying something about a pallet and blankets. Her attention was largely drawn to a tall figure in the shadows behind her brother. A broad-shouldered silhouette framed by white linen that gleamed in the moonlight. She couldn’t see his face, but she could feel his gaze on her, burning through the midnight chill.

  Then Toby emerged from the shadows and strode into the circle of light.

  Oh, thank God, Lucy thought. Thank God she already knew she didn’t love him. Because in the eight years she had spent admiring his physical beauty, Toby had never looked more splendid. He wore a greatcoat that gaped in front to reveal a bare chest. The torchlight bronzed every muscled plane and contour of his torso. His golden-brown hair was windblown and wild. He looked magnificent and pagan, like a piece of garden statuary brought to life. Lucy felt pagan just looking at him.

  Beside her, Sophia gasped. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, my. ”

  Toby brushed past Felix and crossed directly to Sophia. He eyed her from head to toe, his gaze lingering over a few areas in between. “God in heaven, look at you. ” He shook his head slightly and jerked his eyes back to her face. “You must be freezing. ”

  Sophia nodded slightly. Her gaze did its own share of wandering and lingering over his bare chest.

  Toby stripped off his coat and flung it around Sophia’s shoulders. He stood bare to the waist in the bitter night wind, but Lucy could have sworn she saw steam rising from his body.

  “Better?” he asked Sophia hoarsely.

  She nodded.

  “Do you feel warm?”

  “Everywhere,” Sophia breathed. She stared up at him, entranced. “Everywhere … except my feet. ”

  Toby looked down to where Sophia’s bare feet met the cold flagstones. Without a word, he hefted her into his arms and settled her against his chest. The blue silk of her peignoir flowed over his arms like a waterfall, and her golden hair fanned over his bare shoulder.

  “Better?”

  Sophia nodded again and made a small squeaking sound, presumably of agreement. Toby looked into her face and swallowed hard.

  “Oh, bloody hell,” he said, as though it were poetry. And then he kissed her.

  Lucy knew the polite response would have been to look away. Study the cobbled path beneath her feet. Admire the swan-shaped topiary. Stare up at the night sky. But a polite response was beyond her at the moment. She gaped openly. And since no one around her remarked on the flagstones or the hedges or the stars overhead, she assumed she was not alone.

  At last, Aunt Matilda broke the stunned silence. “Lovely. ”

  “Felix!” Kitty prodded her husband in the ribs. “Don’t you think you should do something?”

  Felix snapped his jaw shut and looked to his wife. “Oh, very well. ” He took off his own coat and held it out to her. Kitty shook her head and looked at him as though he were mad. “You don’t mean for me to pick you up?” he asked, his face uncertain. “I’m not sure I—”

  “Not me. ” She jerked her head toward Toby and Sophia. “Them. ”

  Comprehension made its slow journey across Felix’s face. “Right,” he said softly. Then, a bit louder, “Ahem. ”

  Toby and Sophia remained joined at the lips and oblivious to all else.

  Felix raised his voice. “I say, Toby. ” No response. “Toby!” he fairly shouted.

  Toby reluctantly broke the kiss. He kept his eyes closed and his forehead pressed against Sophia’s. “What is it, Felix?”

  Felix shuffled his feet. “Sorry to interrupt, man, but I believe this is where I’m supposed to remind you that’s my sister-in-law you’re … holding. ” He absorbed the pointed look Kitty gave him. “Was there something you meant to ask her?”

  “Right. ” Toby opened his eyes and straightened away from Sophia’s flushed face. He cleared his throat. “Miss Hathaway,” he began, shifting her weight in his arms, “It has been many months now that I have admired your elegance and the beauty of your …” His gaze wandered down her form. “Your character. The attachment I feel toward you transcends …” He looked back up at her lips and paused. “Transcends …”

  Sophia smiled and bit back a small laugh.

  “Oh, bloody hell,” he said again, bending his head to hers and stealing the laughter from her lips. “Marry me?”

  Even if she’d wished to, Sophia could not have uttered a reply. Toby was keeping her lips occupied. Her lips, and—from the looks of things—her tongue, as well. But somehow she managed a muffled squeak of acceptance. Really, Lucy thought, Sophia’s whole body bespoke acceptance.

  “Well, then,” said Felix. “That’s settled. Carry on. ” As if either Toby or Sophia cared one whit for his permission. If they kept up like this any longer, Henry had better send the footmen off for a vicar and special license, instead of a pallet and blankets. Lucy told herself once again that she ought to look away. But from the general silence, it seemed no one else was looking away either.

  But someone was. Someone was looking ather . And the hot intensity of his gaze set Lucy ablaze with conflicting sensations. She felt stripped naked and exposed to the cold. She felt blanketed in warmth. She felt bolted to the stone beneath her, and she felt like running into his arms. In one second, she went numb with shock; in the next, every inch of her body burst into exquisite awareness. His gaze was holding her together and tearing her apart, and Lucy’s heart raced so fast, she feared it would break.

  Her heart was breaking.

  Jeremy watched Lucy watch her life’s dream slip away. No matter how hard he stared, no matter how hard he willed her to look away, she wouldn’t. Her eyes were riveted to Toby’s imbecilic display of ardor and bare chest. She turned deathly pale. Then she flushed. She shivered with cold, but he saw the sheen of perspiration on her brow.

  Her heart was breaking, and there wasn’t anything he could do. She wasn’t his sister. She wasn’t his betrothed. She wasn’this , and that was the whole damned problem.

  Any of the others—they could have done something, but they didn’t. No one cared. Toby, self-absorbed ass that he was, had shuffled his feet for weeks over this proposal, waiting for his perfect moment, only to choosenow , of all times. Felix, who ought to have tossed Toby’s self-absorbed ass into the fountain for mauling his sister-in-law, had the nerve to laugh. And Henry—oldest friend or no, Jeremy hated him. He was no excuse for a guardian and only a poor imitation of a brother. His sister’s heart and hopes were being ripped to pieces in front of him, and he was either too stupid to notice or too insensitive to care.

  Two footmen hastened toward the fountain, bearing a pallet between them.

  “Come on, then,” Henry said. “Let’s get back to the house. I’m freezing my stones off out here. ”

  Lucy and Marianne took Aunt Matilda by either arm and helped her onto the pallet. As the footmen carried her away, a scrap of white fluttered to the ground.

  “What’s this?” Kitty bent over and picked it up. She turned it over and lifted the broken seal. “There’s no name. ” She unfolded the letter, and Jeremy felt his gut twist into a knot. Her eyes began to scan the page, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh goodness. ” Her eyes widened.

  “What is it?” Felix asked. He tried to look over her shoulder, but Kitty turned away. She read further.

  “Oh my,” she said, her lips curling into a feline smile.

  Felix grabbed the paper from her hand. He held it at arm’s length and knitted his brows. “My … dear … little …radish?”

  “No, no. ” Kitty grabbed the paper away from her husband. “It
says ‘rabbit,’ not ‘radish,’ you simpleton. ”

  Felix shrugged. “Looks like ‘radish’ to me. ”

  “Oh, Felix, that is clearly a ‘b. ’ My. Dear. Little. Rabbit,” Kitty read aloud, jabbing her finger at each word.

  Jeremy looked at Lucy. Lucy was looking at Sophia. And Sophia was clinging to Toby’s neck in wide-eyed terror. She bit her lip and gave Lucy a barely perceptible shake of the head.

  “Give me that,” Henry said testily, leaving Aunt Matilda to his wife and reaching toward Kitty. Kitty reluctantly put the letter into his outstretched hand. Henry took it and shook the creases from the paper with a flick of his wrist. He lowered his torch to provide better reading light. “No wonder you can’t decipher it. This is Lucy’s handwriting. But it’s rabbit. Definitely rabbit. ” He shook the paper again.

  Jeremy looked back to Lucy. Now hers was the expression of wide-eyed terror.

  “My dear little rabbit,” Henry read in a booming voice. “Forgive me, my darling. Darling?” He shot an amused glance over the paper and continued. “I regret our quarrel more than you could know. Sir Toby is nothing to me. You alone are—” He stopped reading and looked up at Lucy, eyebrows raised.

  “Henry, stop,” she pleaded.

  “You alone are my love,” he continued with a smirk, affecting a girlish tone.

  “Henry,” Marianne warned.

  Lucy looked to Jeremy, panic written across her face. Jeremy ran both hands through his hair. Damnation, this was like watching a rider thrown from a horse and being powerless to stop it. Helplessness roiled in his stomach like bile. What could he do? He couldn’t very well tell Henry it was Sophia’s letter. He would have to explainhow he knew it was Sophia’s letter, and he’d ruin two ladies in the space of one minute. Even he wasn’t that great a rake.

  “I cannot forget you,” Henry continued in his high, mocking voice. “I think of you constantly by day, and your face fills my dreams each night. ”

  Jeremy frantically tried to recall the exact contents of the letter. Perhaps it wasn’t as damning as he remembered. Perhaps Henry would simply laugh and chalk it all up to girlish fancies.

  “I long for you,” Henry crooned. “I long for your …” His grin faded. His mouth thinned to a line. “I long for yourtouch?”

  Jeremy groaned. Damned they were.

  Henry skimmed the remainder of the letter, muttering more damning phrases as he read. “I remember the warmth of your hands … When I taste wine, I remember … I shall await you tonight … Make me yours in every way …Cabbage!” Henry held up the paper and shook it at Lucy. “What’s the meaning of this?”

  “Henry, please,” she begged, shooting a glance toward Sophia. “Can we discuss this inside?”

  “No, I think we had better discuss this now. ”

  Lucy shook her head. “Henry, you don’t understand. It isn’t real. ” Her voice grew shrill with desperation. “It isn’t even mine!”

  Sophia burrowed her head into Toby’s shoulder. Kitty clutched Felix’s arm with glee.

  Lucy buried her face in her hands. Her shawl slipped off one hunched shoulder, and Jeremy watched the ridge of her neck shiver into gooseflesh. Damn Henry. She was cold and heartbroken, and Jeremy was incensed. It was all mixed up inside him—this need to protect her; the desire to possess her. Anger and lust wrestled in his chest, spurring his heart into a furious rhythm. He wanted nothing more than to go to her. Cover her. Warm her. He had no coat, but he had his body. He had his hands and his lips and his tongue.

  “Well if this letter isn’t yours,” Henry demanded, “then whose is it?”

  Jeremy strode forward, calmly took the letter from Henry’s hand, and said the only word that mattered. The word that had been echoing through his mind and his heart and an ebony wardrobe for the better part of a week.
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