Goddess of the hunt, p.33
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.33

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 33

 

  Lucy chewed her thumbnail, cringing. “Is it so obvious?”

  “Of course it is! It’s written all over your face. ” Sophia jabbed a finger into Lucy’s arm. “You,” she accused, “are truly in love. ”

  “Oh. ” Lucy’s hand dropped to her lap. “Oh, that. ”

  In love? With Jeremy?

  “Don’t try to deny it,” Sophia said. “You’re a terrible liar. You must let me give you lessons in deceit someday, Lucy. It’s a more useful accomplishment than embroidery, by far. ”

  Lucy had no wish to deny it. She’d had every intention of falling madly in love with him soon. She’d simply been waiting for a spare moment to make up her mind to do it. The same way she’d decided on Toby. She would set her mind and will to the task of loving her husband. Beyond reason, beyond argument.

  But she hadn’t set her mind to this. Her will had not even been consulted. Whatever this was she was feeling, it came from some fundamental layer of her being. Beneath reason,beneath argument. She loved him in the same way that her lungs drew breath, or her heart pounded in her chest. And indeed, now that Lucy was aware of it, every breath and heartbeat resonated with the elemental truth.

  I love Jeremy.

  Her whole body flushed with a giddy awareness. Lucy wondered which part of her had known it first. Her hand, when he’d kissed it that night in the garden? Her arms, when she’d pulled him into the wardrobe? Her lips, perhaps, when he’d kissed her under the pear tree? Or maybe even her feet, when they’d steered her to his door that night and not Toby’s?

  She bent her head and grinned, flexing her toes inside her slippers. Clever, clever feet.

  Sophia sniffed. Lucy looked up to see her friend’s eyes welling with tears.

  “Oh, it’s nothing,” Sophia said, shaking her head. She looked up at the ceiling and pressed a knuckle to the corner of her eye. “I just always cry at weddings. Don’t you?”

  “No,” Lucy answered honestly. “But then, I don’t cry. Ever. ”

  Sophia sniffed again and straightened her shoulders. “Well, then,” she said, brightening. “I’m glad I did not buy you handkerchiefs for a wedding present. ” She stood up and reached for a paper-wrapped parcel. “You’re going to love this. ” Her grin widened as she undid the knotted twine. She removed the paper and unfurled the contents in a dramatic cascade of scarlet silk.

  “It was made up for Kitty before her wedding, but she thought it tawdry and vulgar. Fit for a trollop, she said. ” Sophia dangled a flame-red negligee. “I, of course, thought it perfect. ” She pressed the scrap of a nightgown up to her body and posed before the mirror. The neckline plunged in dramatic fashion, and on one side a wide slit climbed nearly to the hip. Black lace formed the thin shoulder straps and edged the hem of the whole scandalous affair. “There’s a matching dressing gown, too. ”

  Entranced, Lucy reached out to touch the shimmering fabric. It flowed over her fingers like water.

  “Poor Felix, hmm?” Sophia raised an eyebrow and lowered her voice. “And fortunate Lord Kendall. He’s going to rip it off you, I just know it. And when I see you next, I want to hear every thrilling detail. ”

  Lucy laughed. She would miss Sophia’s elegant brand of madness. “You know, I have a gift for you, too. ”

  “Really?”

  Lucy went to her chest of drawers. She pulled open a drawer, cast aside a great tangle of stockings, and pried up the false bottom to reveal the hidden cache beneath.

  “You’re going to love this,” she said, flashing Sophia a sly smile as she carefully removed her prize. “It’s a book. ”

  * * *

  “Are you taking her to Corbinsdale, then?” Henry propped a boot on his desk and leaned back in the chair. He riffled through the papers Jeremy’s solicitor had prepared.

  Jeremy nodded. “Until the Season starts. ”

  “Lucy will prefer the country anyhow. She’s not coming to you with any dowry of note, but at least she won’t cost you much. You’ll not need to spend vast sums on jewels or gowns. ” He chuckled. “I can’t picture Lucy swanning about a ballroom. ”

  Jeremy yanked on his cuff. “Perhaps you could, if you’d ever allowed her to attend a ball. ”

  Henry shot him a look over the sheaf of paper. He resumed reading in silence.

  While Henry read, Jeremy set his mind to the task of dressing Lucy for her first ball. It seemed a safer occupation than what he’d been doing for the past half hour, which was picturing Lucy naked. He’d held her bare body for the better part of the night, and only a few papers and a vicar stood between him and the enjoyment of Lucy’s nudity for the better part of a lifetime. One would think he’d be able to rein in his thoughts and his arousal for the intervening hour. One would be wrong. And the fact that he faced Henry over his desktop—the same burled walnut desktop he and Lucy had nearlypolished three evenings previous—wasn’t helping matters.

  He closed his eyes briefly. There was no safe place to let his gaze linger. The rolls of smooth vellum recalled her skin. One glance at the post, with its round, red, bumpy seals, and his thumbs itched for the feel of her nipples. And the tableau of quill dipped into inkwell led his mind to places that were patently obscene.

  No woman had ever done this to him. Jeremy had known lust. He’d known wanting. He’d known the sweet release of thwarted desire at long last fulfilled. And on its heels, he’d known the inevitable languor. Boredom. The sluggish satisfaction that lingered for days or weeks—until a fresh conquest stirred his blood.

  Well, he had lusted for Lucy. He had wanted her with a feverish need beyond anything he’d ever experienced. And now, he’d known the sublime joy of her body. Twice. He’d reveled in the sweet music of her love cries while he made her come. Thrice. She’d held nothing back from him, showed him no fear. Only innocent passion and an unblinking trust that made his heart ache with the beautiful mercy of it. He’d meant to be gentle, and he had managed it—somewhat—the first time. But the second time … Sweet heaven above, the second time. Her passionate response and keening cries had stripped him of all gentleness, and he’d thrust into her tight, slick embrace again and again until he lost himself completely.

  And he was anything but satisfied. As for languor or boredom, Jeremy suspected those two words had been permanently removed from his vocabulary. After she’d left his bed, he’d nestled against the linens where her warmth and her sweet scent lingered, and he’d dreamed of her in brilliant, luminous color. He’d awoken hard and aching for her, as if they’d never made love. He’d tasted every inch of her, but he only hungered for more. Jeremy doubted he could ever get enough of her.

  But starting in—he glanced at his pocketwatch—about forty minutes, he’d make it his life’s ambition to try.

  “You really mean to do this, don’t you?” Henry waved the sheaf of papers at him.

  “Hmm?” Jeremy shook himself out of his reverie.

  “All these past two days, I’ve been waiting for you to flinch. Cry off. But you really mean to do it. ” Henry sighed heavily and tossed the papers on the desk. “I can’t let you, Jem. ”

  “You can’t let me what? If there’s some problem with the settlements, it can be easily remedied. ”

  “I’m not quibbling with the settlements, man. I can’t let you marry Lucy. ”

  Jeremy stared at his friend, dumbstruck.

  “This is absurd,” Henry continued. “I’m looking at these papers—properties, trusts, titles … You can’t honestly mean to do this. ”

  Jeremy didn’t give a damn about papers. Or titles, or property, or trusts. The only thing he wanted was to slide back into that hot, silken heaven where none of it mattered. Where he forgot it all. Where he forgot his own name, until she gave it back to him in breathy moans.

  Henry let his boot fall to the floor and hunched forward over the desk. “Jem, I know I asked you to show Lucy a bit of attention. I didn’t mean for yo
u to go marrying her. She’s a good girl, but she’s not the sort of wife you’d want. ”

  Jeremy felt violence rush through him in a blur of red, pounding in his blood. He checked the powerful urge to run Henry through with his own letter opener.

  “You’re an earl,” Henry continued. “You’re supposed to marry a lady from an established family. Someone with money, connections. You’ve held off marriage longer than any of us. I don’t suppose it’s simply because you hadn’t found the right penniless country chit. ”

  The violence surging through Jeremy’s blood took on the potent charge of panic. Sweat beaded under his cravat. He willed his voice to remain steady and took a slow, deep breath. “Henry, I’m betrothed to Lucy. I’m going to marry her. ”

  A light knock preceded the gentle creak of the door. A familiar voice asked, “Marianne said you wanted to see me?”

  Jeremy stood and turned, just in time to watch Lucy float into the room in a cloud of ivory silk. And then he forgot how to breathe entirely.

  He noticed her hair first—the profusion of dark coils crowning her head, and the dangling tendrils that teased his gaze lower. To her cheek, where a rosy blush drifted under translucent gold. Along the delicious slope of her bare neck. Down to where her gown’s neckline ought to be. Down lower, to where her neckline actually was—where ivory silk clung to warm, sweet flesh like a dream.

  Jeremy would have thought she could never look more beautiful than she had the night previous, in his bed. And indeed, she didn’t, not quite. But damned close. And there was a completely different thrill to this beauty. It affected him in a strange new way. Lucy looked her most glorious when naked and well-loved, of course. But that was a private display for his eyes alone. This morning, she would stand at his side before man and God alike, radiant as an angel. No one could look at her and not be struck by her loveliness. This wasn’t desire, swelling up in his chest, replacing the breath in his lungs.

  It was pride.

  “Good morning, Jeremy. ” She smiled at him, a coy twinkle in her eye.

  Jeremy nodded in reply, not trusting his voice. But inwardly, he agreed that it was, indeed, a very good morning. For the first time since she’d left his bed, he began to imagine something other than passion-filled nights—a lifetime of pleasant mornings. And when he thought about starting each day like this, hearing those words drop sweetly from her lips, knowing that smile was for him alone—this particular morning got even better. “Good” did not begin to describe it.

  Henry stood. “Lucy, I’m glad you’re here. Come in, take a seat. ”

  She shook her head, smoothing the skirt of her gown. “I’ll get wrinkled. ”

  “Suit yourself. ” Henry shrugged and dropped back into his chair. “But you needn’t be concerned about the dress. I’ve just been explaining to Jem that I’m going to do you both a favor and put an end to this farce right now. ”

  “What do you mean?” Lucy asked. “What farce?”

  “This!” Henry gestured toward them both. “This engagement! This wedding!”

  Lucy threw Jeremy a stunned glance. Jeremy cleared his throat. “Henry, I don’t think—”

  Henry waved off his objection. “I’ve thought it all through. No one even knows you’re engaged, but the eight of us. Felix and Toby can keep their ladies quiet, I think. Lucy’s reputation needn’t suffer. I’ll take her to Town in the spring, and she’ll have her Season. You’ll both be free to marry when and where you choose. Everyone’s happy. ”

  Happy? Was the man daft? Jeremy couldn’t quite name the sick feeling rising in his chest, but he felt tolerably certain it wasn’t happiness. “Henry, listen. I’ve no intention of crying off. I’m going to marry Lucy. I have an obligation to her, and to you. ”
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