Goddess of the hunt, p.36
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.36

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 36

 

  Lucy had more than enough space. Too much space, she thought to herself the next morning, as the carriage rattled down the road. The way was mottled with ruts and stones, and she bounced off the barouche sides like a billiard ball. Aunt Matilda lay flat on the seat across from her, sleeping through the entire ordeal as only the very young or impossibly old are able to do. If Jeremy had not insisted on riding with the liveried outriders, he might have been next to her, holding her tight against his solid frame. Not that she wished him to.

  Lucy scarcely understood her own behavior of the last four-and-twenty hours. Ever since the argument with Henry, she’d been operating in a state of near-panic. She’d barely made it through the ceremony. Afterward, she’d clung desperately to her brother, embracing him with a girlish adoration she thought she’d long outgrown. His sudden tenderness surprised her, as had his offer to come for her whenever she wished. Lucy hadn’t known whether to bless him for his kindness or curse him for his obvious belief that her future held little but misery.

  When the time had come to depart from Waltham Manor, she’d panicked by trying to take as much of it with her as possible. Clothing she never wore, books she never read, and all of these creatures, both furred and turbaned.

  Then she’d balked at her husband’s company on their wedding night. She thought of his expression last evening as they parted—that intent gaze that made demands, even as his words released her. She’d seen the wanting in his eyes, heard the deep undertone of desire in his voice. The memory made her shiver even now.

  Shiver, and frown. She apparently passed Jeremy’s exacting standards whenever they approached a bed—or a desk, or a wardrobe, or a tree. Why did he want to alter her behavior in every other regard? He wanted the real Lucy in the bedchamber, it would seem, but everywhere else, he wanted her to change.

  She ought to have listened to him from the first. A man doesn’t want to stoop to love , he’d said. He wants to reach higher, stand taller. He desires something more than a woman—an angel; a dream .

  Lucy sank into the barouche cushions with an ironic laugh. If he thought she would blithely assume the role of a demure countess, he would have to think again. It would never work. She’d learned that much from chasing Toby, at least. If Jeremy had wanted an elegant lady, he ought to have married one. It was too late now, indeed.

  She stroked the plump tabby sprawled across her lap. If only she could stop loving him. Take back her heart, by sheer force of will. But her will had no say in the matter, it seemed. Love pulsed in her blood, filled her every breath. Inescapable, irreversible. Something had changed inside her, and she would never be the same.

  Nothing would ever be the same. Not her life, not her home, not her relationship with Henry. And that circle of friendship that had formed each autumn, surrounding Lucy with security and affection—it was broken forever. What did she have left?

  Nothing, save the smallest, most irrational glimmer of possibility. She shut her eyes, recalling that instant during the wedding ceremony when Jeremy’s hand had closed warm and strong over hers, and she’d felt a strange flutter inside her chest. A winged bit of optimism, rising up through despair.

  She thought it might be hope.

  Lucy opened her eyes and sighed. She’d never had any talent for hoping. But this seemed the time to learn.

  The roads were dry, and they made good time on the second day of their journey. Still, the days being short in late autumn, it was full dark by the time they reached Corbinsdale Abbey.

  The assembled house servants greeted them with polite applause. The housekeeper, Mrs. Greene, stepped forward.

  “My lord,” she said, curtsying. “My lady. Welcome to Corbinsdale. ” Jeremy watched the matronly housekeeper eye Lucy with curiosity. He cleared his throat. Her gaze jumped back to him, a bit guiltily. “The chambers are all prepared, my lord. ”

  “My lady’s aunt has come to stay with us. ” Jeremy indicated Aunt Matilda. “You may put her in the Blue Suite. She will require two nursemaids. ”

  Mrs. Greene’s eyes widened, but she composed herself quickly. “Very well, my lord. Dinner is ready to be served whenever you wish. ”

  “In one hour, then. ” He dismissed the housekeeper with a nod.

  Jeremy ushered Lucy and her aunt up the stairs. As they gained the landing, a score of footmen leapt into action below, hurrying to carry their trunks and belongings up the service stairs. By the time they climbed the last of the steps and turned into the corridor, a maid awaited them at the entrance of the Blue Suite. Aunt Matilda’s trunks were already lined up by the door. A footman snapped the last dustcover from a settee as they entered the room.

  “My goodness,” said Lucy. “How efficient. ”

  With hands clasped and turban level, Aunt Matilda inspected her new surroundings. The windows were hung with dark blue velvet draperies, and the furniture was upholstered in blue-and-white toile de Jouy. Screens painted with pastoral scenes of nubile shepherdesses flanked the large hearth. “Lovely. ”

  Jeremy offered Lucy his arm and steered her across the corridor. “These are our chambers,” he said, ushering her into the sitting room. A fire crackled in the fireplace, throwing a muted amber glow over the French mahogany furniture and medieval tapestries. “This sitting room is shared. My apartment is to the right, and your chambers are through there. ” He indicated the door on his left. Lucy nodded, wide-eyed. “I’ve had a lady’s maid hired for you. The best available in London. ”

  “I see,” she said quietly. Jeremy scarcely recognized the expression on his wife’s face. If he didn’t know it to be impossible, he would say Lucy looked overwhelmed.

  He ushered her toward her chambers. “Why don’t you take some time to refresh yourself and change for dinner? You must be hungry. ”

  She smiled, looking a bit herself again. “Hungry isn’t the word. I’m famished. ”

  He laughed. “Well, then. Be quick about it. ”

  Forty minutes later, Jeremy emerged into the sitting room, bathed and dressed in a black evening suit. He stood in the doorway, gazing at his wife. Lucy sat in an upholstered armchair, staring absently toward the fire, her chin propped in her hand. She wore a gown of pale yellow silk, and her hair had been brushed and twisted into a simple knot. In this attitude, unaware of her observer, she looked lovely and unguarded and utterly forlorn.

  A wave of anguish surged in his chest. This was their first night in their new home as husband and wife, and the medallion-shaped carpet between them might as well have been an ocean. For the first time in his life, Jeremy wished he possessed some facility for charm. He couldn’t help but imagine that a few well-phrased words, spoken in a smooth, conciliatory tone, would put everything to rights. But Jeremy hadn’t a clue which words those might be.

  He sighed. Toby would have known.

  Lucy noticed him then and stood, a forced smile tightening her face. With a mute nod, Jeremy offered her his arm. He was glad he could offer her that much, at any rate. The security of marriage, a well-appointed home, a fine meal. Not everything a wife might wish, but things any woman needed.

  He escorted the two ladies downstairs to the dining hall. As they entered, Lucy swallowed audibly. The long, rectangular table was laden with silver, china, and gilt-edged crystal. A half-dozen liveried footmen lined either side of the room. Jeremy steered Lucy toward the end of the table. A footman drew back her chair. As she began to sit down, the servant pushed the chair toward the table. Lucy collapsed into the seat with a startled yelp. She flushed bright pink. The footman faded back into the wainscoting.

  Jeremy decided to help Aunt Matilda into her chair himself, situating her at Lucy’s left elbow. He then traversed the length of the table to take his seat at the opposite end. He nodded to a servant, and the soup was served.

  “What sort of soup is this?” She dipped a spoon into her bowl warily. “I didn’t know soup came in this shade of red.


  Jeremy tasted it. “Lobster bisque,” he confirmed.

  He watched as Lucy took a cautious sip from her spoon. She swallowed slowly, running her tongue over her bottom lip. Then she looked up at him, true delight shining in her eyes for the first time that day. “Oh,” she sighed in a breathy voice. “Oh, Jeremy. ”

  Jeremy very nearly dropped his spoon.

  She took another bite. “Mmmm,” she purred, closing her eyes in ecstasy. “This is divine. ”

  The napkin in his lap stirred.

  By the time Lucy moaned her way through her second bowl of soup, Jeremy was in a state of hard, aching arousal. He was certain his face must be lobster red. But it didn’t end there. Lucy expressed her delight over each successive course with unrestrained enthusiasm. And there were seven courses. Jeremy wasn’t certain whether he wished to throttle his French chef, or double his wages. He barely managed to choke down his own meal, his appetite for food eclipsed by an entirely different sort of hunger.

  Then came dessert.

  Jeremy never ate dessert. He therefore had nothing to do but watch his wife eat dessert—some confection of cherries and cake and chocolate from the Devil’s own recipe book.

  “Oh my God,” she exclaimed, upon taking her first bite. “Oh, this is heaven. ” She licked a bit of cream from the corner of her mouth. “Jeremy, you must taste this. ” She leaned forward, giving him a full view of her bosom.

  He motioned to the servant for wine.

  Good Lord. If it weren’t for the footmen lining the walls and her Aunt Matilda sitting beside her, Jeremy would have crawled down the table, yanked his wife from her chair, and had her right there, next to the saucer of clotted cream. He downed his drink quickly, hoping the liquid in his glass could douse the fire in his loins.

  That was an imbecilic notion, he chided himself a moment later. One didn’t throw spirits on a blaze. When Lucy squealed around another mouthful of chocolate, twelve servants and one senile aunt began to look like surmountable obstacles. The raw, animal lust in him was roaring to life, feeding on wine and breathy moans of delight, growing stronger by the minute.

  He had to conquer the Beast. She was fatigued and heartsick and away from home for the first time in her life. She’d refused him last night, and he would not—he told himself sternly—he wouldnot make demands on her. Henry would be only too happy to take her back to Waltham Manor the instant she asked. If Jeremy pushed her now, he just might push her away forever. No, Lucy was anything but missish or tentative, and she was no longer innocent, either. When she wanted him—ifshe wanted him—she would come to him. Just as she had before.

  By what supreme force of will he pieced together enough gentlemanly reserve to calmly escort his wife back to her chambers, Jeremy could not say. And she could never know what effort it cost him, to school his voice to diffident calm and casually bid her good night. But it left him weak. Weak in his bones, in his mind, in his heart.

  “You must be tired. ” He unwrapped her hand from his arm. “Rest as long as you like in the morning. I’ll see that you aren’t disturbed. ”

  “Thank you,” she answered, a wry note in her voice. “I suppose I’ll sleep easier that way. Knowing I shan’t be disturbed. ”

  And there it was, his dismissal. Quick and curt and razor-sharp. He brushed a quick kiss across her cheek. A tiny taste, sweeter than any French chef’s concoction could ever aspire to be. “Sleep well, then,” he said.

  At least one of them would.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  Nothing ruined a perfectly fine autumn morning like waking up as a countess.

  Lucy sat up in the enormous, canopied bed and stretched her arms languidly. She had not made much investigation of her suite the night before. The room had been rather shadowy, and her mood likewise dark. Even this morning, light struggled through the window glass. Heavy pewter-toned drapes absorbed all the warmth and energy from the sunlight, permitting only feeble illumination of the chamber. The room seemed cloaked in an indoor fog.
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