Goddess of the hunt, p.28
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.28
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 28

 

  “Mine. ”

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  Lucy uncovered her face. No . He hadn’t just—

  Oh, but he had.

  Jeremy stood next to Henry, letter in hand, wearing an expression more grave and determined than she had ever seen him wear. And that was saying something.

  Felix grabbed the letter out of his hand, laughing. “Good one, Jem. As if you’d ever be Lucy’s dear little radish. ”

  “Rabbit. ” The low threat in Jeremy’s voice would have sent a hare bounding for its hole. He took the letter back, but in the next instant Henry had snatched it again.

  “Oh come now, stop joking. ” Henry smoothed the paper against the front of his coat and then held it before his face. “You honestly expect us to believe that Lucy is … your littlecabbage?”

  Jeremy clenched his jaw. He briefly closed his eyes and opened them again. “I’m rather fond of cabbage. ”

  “Really?” Felix asked. “Terribly bland stuff, I’ve always thought. Of course, it’s not so bad when stewed with a bit of salted pork. Or pickled in brine, that’s all right, too. But—ow!”

  Kitty removed her elbow from her husband’s side.

  Lucy finally caught Jeremy’s gaze. “What. Are. You. Doing?” she mouthed.

  He gave her a serious, inscrutable look. Then he turned away.

  Lucy shook her head. She couldn’t understand it. Jeremy had just sentenced himself to a lifetime of merciless teasing. Henry, Toby, Felix—they would never let him live that letter down. Endless rabbit jokes would be made at his expense. Countless dishes of cabbage would be served up for his benefit. But Jeremy had taken it anyway. He had purchased that letter at the cost of his dignity, and Lucy knew he would rather have walked through fire. It was either the most utterly idiotic act she’d ever witnessed, or the most breathlessly romantic.

  Perhaps both.

  Henry perused the letter in his hand. “Your touch, your kiss, make me yours in every way,” he read. He looked up from the paper and regarded Jeremy with a skeptical expression. “You say this is your letter, Jem. I don’t suppose that means you intend to answer for it?”

  Jeremy nodded. Lucy’s heart thumped wildly in her chest. Answer for it? Whatever did Henry mean? Surely they wouldn’t be so idiotic as to fight? Orduel? The idea froze the marrow in her bones. She clutched her shawl with both hands. Jeremy couldn’t shoot a pheasant from six paces. Not even one that was already dead.

  But Henry’s look to Jeremy was incredulous, not murderous. And, Lucy assured herself, even if he did believe Jeremy had compromised her, Henry would never challenge him to a duel. It just wouldn’t be sporting.

  Henry folded the letter with an odd air of leisure, all trace of joking gone from his voice. “You’re really accepting responsibility for this? And all the implications?”

  “I’m accepting responsibility forher. ” Jeremy crossed to stand beside Lucy, so close she could feel his radiant, masculine heat. Then, in a lower voice, he added, “It’s about time someone did. ”

  Henry’s eyes sparked. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

  Lucy desperately wanted an answer to the exact same question. And the answers to a few questions of her own. She grabbed Jeremy’s cuff and tugged until she pulled his gaze down as well. His eyes pierced her with their clear blue intensity, robbing her of the breath to manage anything above a whisper. “What are you doing?”

  He took her by the elbow and turned her slightly away from the group. “I’m sorry, Lucy. I know this isn’t what you wanted. But it’s the only way. ”

  “What’sthe only way?”

  Jeremy’s only answer was to wheel her back to face Henry. The two men stared at one another in silence. Lucy finally excavated a shred of courage from the pit of her belly, then summoned the tone to match. “Will one of you please tell me what the devil is going on?”

  Jeremy’s hand slid down to grasp hers. “We’re getting married,” he said, never taking his gaze from Henry’s.

  “What?”Lucy tried to untangle her fingers, but he only tightened his grip. Yanking her close, he tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. Lucy watched, stunned, as her fingers curled over his forearm of their own accord. As if they belonged there.

  Jeremy finally looked down at her. “We’re getting married,” he repeated. His voice rumbled through her body, sending little shivers along her skin that had nothing to do with cold.

  “Married?”Lucy felt all the blood rush from her head. The more he insisted on repeating this ridiculous notion, the easier it became to imagine. But that didn’t make it right. If only they could speak alone, she could explain that the letter was all lies and claret. Sophia’s reputation, Toby’s engagement—nothing stood to be damaged, save Lucy’s dignity. And surely Jeremy wouldn’t think that a cause worth proposing marriage.

  Not that he had exactlyproposed anything.

  She dug her fingers into his arm, clutching the idea desperately. “But … But don’t I have something to say about it? Shouldn’t we have a moment alone? I don’t recall accepting any proposal!”

  “It’s a bit late for romance, Lucy. ” Henry held up the folded letter and fixed her with a reproachful look. “It would seem you’ve already granted your consent. ”

  Say something, Lucy prodded herself. This was the moment to tell the truth. She had only to tell Henry, and everyone else, that the letter implied nothing more than two fanciful girls drinking too much wine. Sophia certainly wasn’t going to come out and say it—she probably thought this turn of events would make Lucy ecstatically happy.

  But it didn’t. Did it? Surely “ecstatically happy” would feel more like summer sunshine, or a shower of rose petals. Not like a hedgehog digging burrows in her stomach. Happiness wasn’t the reason Lucy felt herself melting against Jeremy’s arm. It was just that the night was cold, and he was warm.

  Warm. And strong. Oh, and distractingly handsome. Her gaze climbed the edge of his jaw, shadowed with night and stubble. His full, strong lips, dusky in the moonlight. She watched his breath curl into vapor where it met the cool air. Like a kiss dissolving into the night.

  Lucy shook herself. She had to object. The very idea was nonsensical. Whatever misplaced notions of duty or propriety had spurred Jeremy to claim that letter—what had they to do with her? She wasn’t a lady. Certainly not the sort of lady an earl would marry. She wasn’t elegant or accomplished or wealthy. Her only tenuous claims to beauty were wide eyes and straight teeth. If she hadn’t come downstairs with that letter, none of this would have happened. He would have left Henry his note and then …

  And then he would have left entirely.

  His belongings were already packed. She shivered anew, the memory of those two valises chilling her to the bone. If she protested now, there would be no second chance. He would leave. And by the light of day, he would surely realize the absurdity of this very scene. He would shudder to think he’d nearly married a dowerless hoyden.

  Say something, her mind screamed. But her voice just wouldn’t obey. Lucy’s grip tightened over his arm. She wasn’t ready to let him go.

  Looking askance at the others, Henry approached Jeremy and lowered his voice. “You’re certain this letter belongs to you, Jem? It wouldn’t do to let a simple misunderstanding decide the rest of your life, you know. For God’s sake, you’re anearl. ”

  “Yes,” Jeremy replied, his own voice firm. Firm, and deliciously dark and determined, and strong enough to drive all objections straight from Lucy’s mind. “I’m an earl. And Lucy will be a countess. ”

  Silence.

  Lucy felt everyone staring at her. No one said a word. Really, she thought. It was more than a bit rude. From the way they all gaped at her, one would think he’d announced something truly shocking. Something like, “Lucy is a spy for Napoleon,” or “Lucy only has six months to live,” or “Lucy has decided to take up the harp. ”
r />   She forced her chin out. Well, now she couldn’t possibly protest. Now it was a matter of pride.

  Marianne recovered first. “Two engagements in one night. How exciting!” She rose from the edge of the fountain and crossed to Lucy’s side. “How wonderful,” she said, kissing Lucy on the cheek.

  The others mumbled words that sounded vaguely congratulatory.

  “And when will the blessed event take place?” Henry asked.

  “Friday,” said Jeremy.

  “Friday! ThisFriday? Two days from now?” This outburst would have mortified Lucy much less had it not come from her own lips.

  “Friday,” he repeated, eyes still fixed on Henry. “I’ll ride to Town in the morning for the license. ”

  Henry wore an expression Lucy had never seen cross his face. Not mocking, not doubting, not cynical or wry. Simply blank. “Very well. ”

  “I’ll need an early start, then,” Jeremy said, looking around the group. “If you’ll excuse me. ” The men nodded.

  Jeremy unlatched Lucy’s hand from his arm and turned to her. Determination carved a deep furrow in his brow; his eyes shone so sincere, they were heaven’s own blue. And Lucy suddenly realized that without saying yes—without even being asked—she’d somehow become engaged. To be married. To him.

  The whole of her life up until this evening, the enormity of her future—all of it clamored for admittance to this brief swatch of time, resonated in the tingling heat of his skin against hers. Lucy’s breath caught in her chest. Her pulse pounded a dull roar in her ears, and every beat echoed a lifetime. This one thrilling, terrifying moment stretching into forever.

  “Take care, Lucy. ” Jeremy bent his head and brushed a warm kiss against her fingers. “I won’t be long. ” Then he let go of her hand and walked back toward the house, leaving her alone.

  Lucy realized, too late, that she ought to have said something in the way of farewell, or at least met his eyes before he turned away. She ought to have watched him go and cemented the memory in her mind. But she hadn’t thought of any of those things. She’d been too preoccupied staring stupidly down at her hand. The hand he had kissed.

  And when at last she was back in her bed, staring up at the ceiling and wishing she’d pulled from him some kind of reassuring glance, or said a single word to him a bit kinder than“Friday,” she blew out the candle, rolled onto her side, and laid her cheek against that hand. And then she did the most silly, girlish, ridiculous thing imaginable.

  She kissed it back.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  Two days passed.

  Very slowly.

  There were a few hours that rushed by in a rustle of silk and sewing pins. The task of packing her belongings filled a half-dozen trunks and most of an afternoon. But even when her hands were occupied, the frantic workings of Lucy’s mind stretched each second into an eternity. Past, present, future—her brain tried desperately to grasp all three at once and bind them together into something that resembled certainty.

  She relived every minute she’d spent in Jeremy’s company—every argument, every glance, every meal.

  Every kiss.

  She tried to imagine what he might be doing that very moment—riding to London, procuring the license, meeting with his solicitors.

  Soaking in his bath.

  Then her mind ventured forth into the uncharted void of the future and wandered there for hours. Springtime in London, summer by the sea, winters at Jeremy’s estate—the location of which Lucy dearly wished she could recall.

  A year’s worth of nights in bed.

  Every minute—waking or asleep—Lucy guessed and second-guessed everything that had occurred in the past week and everything that lay ahead. In her memory Jeremy looked so improbably handsome, she feared disappointment when he actually appeared. He’d been so determined that night in the garden, but would his resolve survive two days’ separation? She expected his return any moment and imagined that event in a thousand ways, wonderful and not.
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