Goddess of the hunt, p.34
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.34

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 34

 

  Henry scowled. “Leave off with the nobility, will you? I know that ridiculous letter wasn’t yours. ” He rose from his chair and rounded the desk, making the apex of their small triangle. His voice softened. “Jem, you’re my best friend. Lucy, you’re my only sister. I know each of you better than anyone else does, I’d wager. And I know you’d drive each other utterly mad. ”

  Lucy’s expression went from stunned to outraged. “Henry … I can’t imagine what you mean. ”

  “Of course you can! You’ve been sniping at each other for eight autumns now. Do you expect me to believe that would suddenly change?” Henry took a step toward his sister and lowered his voice. “And if Jem will forgive me for saying it, Lucy—all these years, you’ve been sniping at his amiable side. You think he’s overly sober here at Waltham Manor? That’s your future husband onholiday . Here, he’s a bit cold. The rest of the year, he’s a veritable glacier. ” He cast a withering look in Jeremy’s direction. “There’s more to him than you know, Lucy. ”

  It was a true enough statement. True enough that Jeremy wasn’t at all certain how to reply. He just stood there, frozen, waiting for Lucy’s response.

  Her brow wrinkled as she shifted her gaze back and forth between them. “I’m certain there is,” she said. “And I’m equally certain there’s more to me than he knows. What confuses me, Henry, is how that concernsyou. ”

  Henry strode back to his desk. “Damn it, Lucy, of course it concerns me. Don’t you realize that most men would jump at the chance to marry their sister off to an earl? I’m trying to do what’s best for you. ”

  And that was the crack that broke the ice.

  Jeremy gave a harsh laugh. “Well, that would be a novelty. Come on, Henry. You’ve never done what’s best for her. You ought to have sent her to school, taken her to Town, given her exposure to culture and society. She’s years overdue for her debut. And now you claim to know what’s best for her?” He walked to Lucy’s side and laid his hand on the small of her back. It was vital, somehow, to touch her that instant. Claim her. He fancied she leaned against his hand slightly.

  “Lucy has never had the opportunities or security she should have had,” Jeremy continued. “I can provide for her. I can take care of her. ”

  Lucy bristled away from his touch. “Who says I need anyone to take care of me?”

  Henry ignored his sister, keeping his steely glare locked on Jeremy. “Oh, yes. You have money. Is that what you’re saying? You don’t need to remind me that you could buy and sell Waltham Manor with the spare change under your barouche seat cushions. And any other lady would be thrilled to attach herself to your bank account. But this is Lucy we’re discussing. She doesn’t care about jewels or silks or luxuries. ”

  “How would you know?” Jeremy demanded. “You’ve never offered her any luxuries. Perhaps she’d like to go about dripping in jewels. Perhaps she’d enjoy the life of a countess. ”

  “Oh, would she?” Henry turned to his sister, a wry smile spreading across his face. “Do you really want to be a countess, Lucy? Think about it carefully. A countess can’t spend all afternoon climbing trees in the orchards. A countess can’t take the hounds out for a romp and come back with muddied skirts. A countess doesn’t go fishing. ”

  Lucy frowned. “I should think a countess can do as she pleases. ” She looked to Jeremy. “Can’t she?”

  Jeremy sighed. This wasn’t the best time or place to have this conversation, but he supposed it would have to happen eventually. “No, Lucy. Henry is right. Corbinsdale is … well, it’s not Waltham Manor. You can’t behave there the way you’re accustomed to behaving here. ”

  “What do you mean?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Why not?”

  Jeremy’s hands flexed at his sides as he groped for the best way to explain. Marrying her meant taking her into his protection. Not just providing for her materially, or rescuing her from weeks of watching Toby fawn over Sophia—he meant to keep her physically safe. He still hadn’t recovered from watching her trip a measly snare three days ago, let alone that breakneck ride through the orchard or her bath in the river. The thought of Lucy set loose on Corbinsdale land, with all those bluffs and boulders, not to mention the tenants … well, Jeremy couldn’t think it. It was unthinkable.

  “You’ll be too busy,” he said. “You’ll have a household to manage, servants to oversee. The Abbey’s a very large estate. ”One of the largest in England , he refrained from adding.

  “Yes, but it’s been running quite smoothly without a countess for years now, hasn’t it? And surely even a countess can take her horse out for a good gallop once in a while. Or take a stroll through the woods when the mood strikes. ”

  Jeremy’s hands balled into fists. If there was one thing Lucy was never going to do, it was wander Corbinsdale Woods at her leisure. He’d lost far too much to that godforsaken forest already. His knees felt oddly weak, but he made his voice firm. “No, Lucy. A countess can’t. Notmy countess, anyway. ” And even though he knew it wouldn’t faze her in the slightest, he threw in The Look for good measure.

  Lucy recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “Well,” she said quietly. “Perhaps Henry is right. Perhaps I’m not cut out to beyour countess at all. Maybe we should forget all about it. ”

  Now it was Jeremy’s turn to wince. Forget all about it? Impossible. He could outlive Methuselah himself and never forget last night. The tickling warmth of her breath against his ear; the satiny feel of her thighs wrapped over his hips. The miraculous joy of pouring his seed deep inside her, making her forever his.

  And there it was. She washis now. It didn’t matter a whit whether she cared for him or not; whether she wanted to be a countess or an actress or a spy for the Crown. She was his, and he wasn’t letting her go.

  “It’s too late,” Jeremy said quietly. “Isn’t it, Lucy?”

  He watched her eyes flare with comprehension. Then Henry stepped between them. “No, it’s not too late,” he said. “You see? Already it’s starting. Jem, you live to order people around. Lucy, you can’t abide being told what to do. Perversely enough, I happen to care deeply for you both. And I’ll not see you shackled in a miserable marriage just to satisfy propriety. ”

  “Miserable or no, we’re getting married. And it’s nothing to do with propriety,” Jeremy said pointedly. “Nothing at all. ”

  Henry yanked down the front of his waistcoat. His eyes narrowed. “I could withhold my consent, you know. She isn’t of age. ”

  Jeremy exhaled slowly and tried a less subtle approach. “Henry, you can’t. You don’t understand. Lucy is compromised. ”

  “We just went through all that. Forget the damn letter. We can quell any idle chatter. Hardly anyone in theton even knows her name, let alone cares enough to gossip about her. ”

  Jeremy stepped closer, until they stood toe to toe. He spoke slowly and clearly, his voice a near-whisper. “Henry, listen to what I’m telling you. Lucy is compromised. ”

  Lucy rushed to his side and clutched his sleeve. “Jeremy, please don’t—”

  Without turning his gaze from Henry, Jeremy shook off her grip. “Lucy is compromised by me. We must marry. She could be with child. ”

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  Lucy watched her brother change colors as he absorbed this information. His tanned, weathered face first blanched, then flushed bright red. Finally—slowly—he turned to her. She couldn’t bear to meet his gaze.

  “Oh, Lucy. Really? With … withhim?”

  Eyes averted, she hugged herself and gave a small nod.

  Henry swore, pacing off toward the window. “Here? In my house? When the devil did this happen?”

  Jeremy sighed. “I could answer that, but I don’t think you really want to know. ”

  Henry swore again, redoubling his pace. “How did this happen?”

  “And with three children, you ought to know that much already,” Jeremy said. When He
nry stopped short and glared at him, he added, “I’m marrying her, Henry. I’ll make things right. ”

  “Make thingsright? I … You …” Henry moved to Lucy’s side. “God, Lucy. I can’t even find words. I’m so …” He clenched and unclenched his hands. “So …”

  “Angry,” she supplied, staring into the carpet. “Disappointed in me. ”

  “Sorry. ” His hand gripped her shoulder, and she looked up into shining green eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought him close to tears. “Lucy, I’m just so damnably sorry. This shouldn’t have happened. ”

  Shocked, she accepted his rough, one-armed hug. “Henry, that’s … that’s sweet of you. ” Nowthere was a sentence she’d never expected to utter. “But I’m glad you’re not angry, because I’m perfectly—”

  “Oh, I’m angry. Just not with you. ” Releasing her, he turned to Jeremy. “She’s my sister. And I thought you were my friend. For God’s sake, what kind of man compromises his friend’s sister?”

  One who is shamelessly seduced. Lucy bit her lip. Perhaps she ought to defend Jeremy, but how could she begin to tell Henry the truth?

  Henry’s hands balled into fists. “So help me, Jem. I’ve a powerful urge to …”

  Jeremy widened his stance. “Just do it. ”

  And before Lucy had any chance to protest—or to consider whether she even wished to protest—Henry drove his fist squarely into Jeremy’s gut. Lucy flinched with the sick thud. Bile rose in her throat.

  Jeremy put his hand on the desk and leaned over it, taking shallow breaths. “Feel any better?” he rasped, addressing the carpet.

  Henry stalked off toward the window. “No. ”

  “Well. ” Jeremy sucked in another breath. “That makes two of us. ”

  “Three. ” Lucy choked on the word. She didn’t know which of the two men she hurt for more. Neither could she decide which one deserved the greater share of her anger. She only knew this argument was careening toward disaster, and if it didn’t stop now, things could never be the same. “Please stop this,” she said, “before you say things you can’t take back. ”

  Henry stared out the window, his gaze unfocused. “Something’s just occurred to me, Jem. I could kill you. ”

  Lucy closed her eyes. “Like that. ”

  “It’d be within my rights to call you out,” Henry continued in a cool tone. “Everyone knows you can’t aim worth piss. I could shoot you where you stand. ”

  Lucy’s heart stalled. “Henry, no. ”

  Jeremy spoke over her protest. “Yes, you could. But I’d ask you not to. Not for me, but for Lucy. In case there’s a child. ”

  Henry said nothing. He tapped a finger against the window’s frosted pane.

  Jeremy straightened. “I’ll take care of her, Henry. The way she deserves. ”

  The way she deserves?Lucy stifled a bitter laugh. Did shedeserve this humiliation? Did shedeserve to see the two men she loved, best friends since boyhood, turned against one another in violence? Worse—to know she was the force driving them apart?

  Henry fixed Jeremy with a cold stare. “You bastard. You dare suggest she’ll be better off with you, because you can buy her fine gowns and rings and carriages? You’veruined her. She’ll have to marry you now. You’ve left her no choice. But don’t dare look down your nose at me and act like you’re doing the Waltham family a grand favor. ” He walked to the door and opened it.
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