Goddess of the hunt, p.35
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.35

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 35

 

  “Henry, wait. ” Henry halted in the doorway. Jeremy took a deep breath. “You’re right. This is my fault. I’ve behaved in an unforgivable manner toward you both. ” He cast Lucy a brief glance, then looked back at Henry. “I am sorry. I’d undo it all if I could. ”

  His words hit Lucy like a punch to the gut.

  Henry turned to look Jeremy in the eye. “And to think,” he said, “for a moment there, I looked forward to calling you brother. ”

  Wincing, Jeremy leaned on the desk again. Lucy stared at him, her slippers fixed to the carpet, her voice muted by shock and anger and hurt. And somehow, this bitter silence between the three of them felt worse than an argument, more punishing than blows.

  Finally, in a weak voice, Jeremy ended it. “I’m sorry, Lucy. ”

  Shaking her head slowly, Lucy backed away. “Like you said, Jeremy—it’s too late. ”

  She brushed past her brother’s outstretched hand and fled the room. But Jeremy’s words followed her down the corridor, echoing with every crack of heeled slipper on parquet. I’d undo it all if I could .

  Lucy reeled to a halt, collapsing against the paneled wall.

  They’d shared a night of unfettered passion. She’d discovered undreamt pleasure in his arms. And after the pleasure, a quiet, blissful peace. He’d made her feel desired and cherished and safe. Beautiful, for the first time in her life. He’d stroked every inch of her body, and he’d touched her heart.

  And he’d undo it all if he could.

  She rushed up the stairs to her room, slamming the door behind her. She pressed her hands flat against her belly, desperate to quell the sobs rising in her throat. She wouldnot cry.

  He’d never claimed to love her, she reminded herself. He’d only said that he wanted her. And now he’d got her. Her , Lucy—an incorrigible hoyden with no title or connections or dowry worth noting. Not even a painted tea tray. He’d wanted her, and he’d had her, and now he had to marry her. Not for himself, but in case there was a child.

  It was too late.

  Oh, what a fool she had been! Teasing him all this time with kisses and retorts, chipping away at that cool veneer, thinking she discerned something hidden inside him. Something intriguing, irresistible. A fierce, fiery passion only she could bring to the surface.

  Even worse, she’d imagined he discerned a secret side to her. Not the impertinent girl, but a woman with whom he wished to share his life. A lady, fit to wear silk and jewels. And, against all evidence to the contrary, some hidden quality that made her worthy of the title countess.

  But he didn’t, because he didn’t love her. She loved him, and he didn’t love her. He’d undo it all if he could.

  She wouldn’t.

  Lucy drew a deep, deliberate breath. Despite the hollow despair spreading through her body, she knew she would do it all again. She’d become a brazen seductress, just as she’d planned from the start. She’d trapped herself a husband. He was hers now, and she’d be damned if she’d let him go.

  And so, a half-hour later, she stood before the vicar in a borrowed dress and her mother’s earrings, uttering the phrases “I do,” and “until death us do part,” with weaker spirit than she typically ordered the curricle. Jeremy, his face drawn and pale, scarcely looked at her. Henry, standing behind him, refused to meet her eyes at all. The vicar, presumably grieved for his spotty son, maintained an attitude of pious melancholy as he mumbled his way through the rite.

  When Jeremy took her hand and slid a thick gold band over her finger, Lucy felt all the blood rush from her head. Breathe , she ordered herself. She had never been the swooning sort, and this wasn’t the time to begin.

  She inhaled deeply, drawing inspiration. I love him .

  She exhaled slowly, her heart deflating. He doesn’t love me .

  Back and forth, breath to breath, the tandem truths cycled through her for the remainder of the ceremony. Inhale; exhale. I love him; he doesn’t love me .

  Then the vicar blessed their clasped hands, invoked the power of everything holy, and declared them man and wife. Jeremy’s hand tightened over hers by the slightest degree. Lucy glanced up and met his blue eyes for the briefest instant, and her litany was disrupted by the tiniest word.

  I love him.

  He doesn’t love me—

  Yet.

  Jeremy could scarcely look at her. Even pale and trembling and presumably angry as hell, Lucy still took his breath away. And breathing was difficult enough at the moment, with his gut still knotted around the impression of Henry’s fist.

  How had this gone so horribly wrong? For the past two days, Jeremy had been telling himself he would make Lucy happy, protect her from Henry and Toby and other insensitive idiots. But now he realized that was a lie. The truth was, he’d been crazed with lust and spurred on by anger, and he hadn’t been thinking of her happiness at all. He’d insisted on their betrothal, insisted on this lightning-fast ceremony, never pausing to consider Lucy’s wishes. She’d come to him last night apprehensive and doubting, seeking comfort in physical pleasure. He’d known it. Hadn’t he spent years doing the same? He should have conquered his lust and sent her away. But he hadn’t, and now Lucy would pay the price.

  A fresh twinge of pain twisted his gut. Insensitive idiot .

  When the vicar had done his worst and the thing was finished, Jeremy leaned in to kiss his bride. But as he drew near, Lucy’s lower lip quivered. And at the last moment, he brushed his lips against her cheek instead. He wished so desperately to take her into his arms, kiss the frown from her lips, and somehow make everything right.

  But after the papers were signed and terse congratulations offered around, it was Henry she sought out. Henry who consoled her. Brother and sister drew away from the rest and huddled in quiet conference for some minutes’ time—at the end of which, Henry pulled her into a grim embrace.

  Jeremy walked over to them.

  “Lucy,” Henry was saying, his green eyes dewy with emotion, “if you are ever unhappy, you have only to say the word. You’re always welcome at Waltham Manor. Write to me, and I’ll come for you at once. ” He shot a look at Jeremy. “Your home will always be here. ”

  “Her home is Corbinsdale now. And we’d best be underway. ” Ignoring Henry’s stony glare, Jeremy addressed his wife. His wife . “Can you be ready to depart in an hour?” She nodded. “Then I shall see to the carriages. ”

  Two and a half hours later, Lucy finally emerged from the Manor. Jeremy noted with disappointment that she had changed from the ivory silk gown into a sage-colored frock and brown pelisse. More suitable for traveling, he supposed. But far more interesting than the type of fabric that covered her arms were the two parcels wriggling beneath them. She held a squirming puppy tucked firmly in each elbow.

  Behind her followed a seemingly endless procession of footmen. Each came bearing a trunk or a tower of hat-boxes; save one hapless fellow, who clutched a snarling cat. A groom suddenly appeared from the direction of the stables, leading Thistle by the reins. And just when Jeremy began to think his bride intended to bring every blessed creature from Waltham Manor along for the journey, out came the most curious bit of baggage yet.

  “You’re bringing your Aunt Matilda?” The old lady doddered out from the Manor. Lucy thrust a wriggling puppy into Jeremy’s hands, freeing one arm to wrap about her aunt.

  “Of course I’m bringing her. I can’t very well leave her here, can I? You know Henry’s incapable of minding her properly. ”

  “Yes, well …” He didn’t know how to object. He could point out that they hadn’t discussed this matter. But then, he hadn’t given Lucy any opportunity to discuss anything. He cleared his throat. “Your aunt is quite welcome, of course. I was only surprised. ” He looked down at the pup gnawing a hole in his new glove. “And the dogs?”

  Lucy tossed her head. “They’re all the dowry I have, I’m afraid. I’m given to understand t
hey’ll make excellent foxhounds. They’re from Henry’s best lines. ”

  He handed the dog to a liveried groom. “With the trunks,” he directed.

  “Oh, no!” she cried, clutching her own canine bundle to her chest. “They must ride with us, of course! Else they’ll be terribly frightened. ”

  “Lucy, the barouche is not six months old. The upholstery is still like new. ”

  She lifted her chin. “And …?”

  He heaved a deep breath. “And … I suppose it’s large enough to accommodate a few pups. And a cat. And your aunt. ” He paused. “But not your horse. On that point, you cannot move me. I’m afraid Thistle will have to walk. ”

  At that, her lips curved a fraction. Jeremy’s heart swelled in his chest. He would do anything to make Lucy smile again.

  But he couldn’t. As the carriage trundled down the lane, taking them away from Waltham Manor, he watched all the joy drain from her face. She craned her neck to catch a last glimpse of the rambling Tudor façade, then turned back to him.

  “Is it a long journey, to your estate?”

  “If the roads are dry, we should arrive in time for dinner tomorrow. ”

  She blinked. “Tomorrow?”

  Jeremy swore silently. She’d likely never been outside a twenty-mile radius of Waltham Manor, and here he was hauling her off to a place she’d never seen. He ought to have taken her to Town. She would have been only a half-day’s journey from home. But he’d been absent from Corbinsdale so long already. If he took her to London, he’d only have to leave her there while he attended to the estate. And he didn’t want to leave her.

  He didn’t want to be parted from her at all. He wished he’d purchased a smaller carriage, so she wouldn’t be so damned far away, seated across from him on the black tufted upholstery. He despised frail, little Aunt Matilda for taking what ought to be his place, next to her. He hated the furry beast curled in her lap, enjoying her fingers’ soft caress. And even were he seated beside her, he would resent the very fabric of their clothing for coming between her skin and his.

  An inch of space between them would be one inch too many. The only thought preserving his sanity throughout the interminable journey was the thought of holding her in his arms that night, with nothing—not an inch of space or stitch of clothing—between them. He planned, in excruciatingly vivid detail, how he would kiss and stroke her until her cheeks bloomed pink again and the saucy sparkle returned to her eyes. Perhaps this wasn’t the marriage she’d wanted. Perhaps he couldn’t give her everything she deserved. But Jeremy vowed to lavish upon her that which he could offer—material comforts and physical pleasure. And it damn near killed him when they arrived at the coaching inn that evening and his wife declared her intent to spend the night—their wedding night—sleeping beside her aunt.

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered at the door to their suite. “I didn’t realize we’d be stopping overnight. You know how she wanders. I need to stay with her. ”

  “Are you certain? I can put two footmen in the corridor. Four, if you wish. One of the inn’s serving girls can stay with her. ” Jeremy realized he sounded a bit desperate. He didn’t really care.

  Lucy bit her lip, avoiding his eyes. “We’re in a strange place. She might wake up and become confused. I can’t leave her alone. ”

  You can’t leave me alone, he wanted to argue. Never in his life did Jeremy expect to envy an ancient, turbaned invalid. But damn it all, he did. He was besottedand jealous. “Of course,” he forced between his teeth, straining the childish petulance out of his voice.

  Of course.

  She didn’t want to be near him. He couldn’t get close enough to her, and she desired nothing but separation. It wasn’t as though he could blame her. He’d rushed her into this marriage and whisked her away from her family and home. She needed time, Jeremy told himself. She needed space.
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