Goddess of the hunt, p.37
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.37

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 37

 

  Rising from bed, she strode to the window and pulled back the drapes. Brilliant sunlight dazzled her eyes, and—once she had ceased blinking—a breathtaking landscape beckoned. At Waltham Manor, the fields and hedgerows covered the low hills like a rumpled quilt—comfortable, domestic. This place was wild. Craggy bluffs blocked the horizon; a narrow gorge carved a path through the woods. Boulders dotted the countryside, pressing up through soil like giant teeth.

  The landscape called out—nay,demanded to be explored. And who was she to refuse? After hastily donning her riding habit, Lucy spied a velvet purse and a folded paper on the desk. She picked up the purse and shook it gently, eliciting the rattle of coin. The note was from a Mr. Andrews, the steward, and it declared this to be Lucy’s pin money for the coming month. Lucy unknotted the pursestring and emptied the contents onto the table.

  Damnation.

  It was three times the amount Henry gave her in a year. Lucy stared at the pile of notes and coin, resentment welling in her breast. Absurd, she knew. Most ladies would have been delighted to receive such a generous allowance. But to Lucy, the money felt like a test she had already failed. What the devil was she to do with it all? How many bonnets and ribbons could one lady purchase? She backed away from the table, suddenly desperate to get out of doors.

  “Good morning, my lady. ” The housekeeper curtsied in the doorway. “I hope you were able to rest. ” A maid swept in, bearing a silver breakfast tray, which she deposited on a nearby table. The housekeeper continued, “You’ll be wanting to go over the household accounts, His Lordship said. Shall I come back in an hour with the ledgers?”

  Oh, and now Lucy really had to escape.

  She nodded mutely, but once the lace-capped matron had disappeared, Lucy snatched a pair of buttered rolls from the breakfast tray and embarked on an epic adventure.

  Finding her way out of the Abbey.

  Pride, and the need for stealth, kept her from asking the servants for directions; surely Jeremy must have already left the house, or she would have stumbled across him by her third pass down the corridor. Eventually, however, she managed to exit the grand house via a back way—and from across the kitchen gardens and down a dirt lane, temptation winked.

  The stables.

  Thistle would still be somewhat fatigued from the journey, but a leisurely ride was exactly what Lucy desired. Surely Jeremy could not object—she would even ride sidesaddle. But when she reached the stables and began searching the stalls for her sweet, plain-featured mare, Lucy looked in vain. Thistle was nowhere to be seen. When she asked the groom to locate her mount, he directed her instead to a gleaming white gelding with haunches of carved marble and ribbons braided into his mane.

  Ribbons!

  “He’s been groomed jes’ for you, my lady. His Lordship said Paris here was to be set aside for your particular use. ”

  “Did he now?” Lucy gritted her teeth. It was one thing for Jeremy to foist pin money and household ledgers upon her—but to replace her beloved Thistle with this equine dandy? Insupportable.

  “Shall I saddle ’im for you, my lady?”

  “No. That won’t be necessary. ” Fuming, Lucy kicked a loose board at the bottom of the stall.

  Something on the other side kicked back.

  Intrigued, Lucy walked slowly over to the next stall. There stood a magnificent black colt, stamping and snorting and whinnying with restless energy. The animal’s nostrils flared as Lucy held out her hand, and he nosed it roughly before giving her fingers an impatient nip.

  Fiend, Lucy read from the small plaque above the colt’s stall. Perfect. She smiled to herself and turned to the groom. “I’ll take this one out instead. ”

  Jeremy slowed his mount to a walk when he reached the pebbled bank. The river wound through a narrow valley here, tumbling over small rapids under a mantle of fallen leaves. On the other bank, steep bluffs rose from the river’s edge. Rocky outcroppings and lopsided trees covered their face. It all looked much the same as he remembered.

  But it felt different, somehow.

  He’d experienced the same curious sensation, surveying the western fields with Andrews that morning. A field harvested of its barley looked much the same as one harvested of wheat in years previous. A new irrigation ditch here or there scored the soil, but there was nothing so remarkably altered it could account for this feeling he had, of looking on Corbinsdale with new eyes.

  It wasn’t a sense of optimism, precisely. The landscape looked no more smooth or accommodating, now that he’d brought home a countess. So far, marriage itself was a rather rocky affair. But although Jeremy’s mind was still full of problems, they werenew problems. And therefore the world, and these woods in particular, appeared—not better, exactly—but different. He couldn’t dwell on past tragedy when he had a marital crisis to solve in the present, it would seem. Perhaps now he, and Corbinsdale, were ready to move into the future.

  Then a sharp crack jerked Jeremy’s attention to the craggy bluffs. And he found himself right back in a twenty-year-old nightmare.

  “Lucy?” Jeremy did not want to believe that it was his wife, the figure scaling the precipitous outcropping on the other side of the stream. But he would know that russet velvet habit and tangle of chestnut curls anywhere. And really, he admitted with a tortured groan, who else could it possibly be?

  “Lucy!” he shouted again, nudging his horse into the stream. If she heard him, she did not acknowledge the call, but continued picking her way up the rocky slope. Dear God. If she fell from there, with those boulders below …

  She disappeared around the far side of a pointed outcropping. Jeremy’s heart raced as he spurred his mount to give chase. He rounded the corresponding bend in the river …

  And then his heart stopped beating.

  She was climbing up to the hermitage.

  A centuries-old cottage perched on a rocky ledge, the hermitage had been built by the Abbey’s monks as a place for solitary prayer and reflection. Fashioned from stones and built to hug the sloping terrain, the tiny dwelling looked like a natural part of the bluff itself. A thin chimney leaned mostly heavenward. Two glazed windows were dark with grime. To anyone else, it must present a harmless, even a romantic picture. No doubt Lucy would think it an irresistible invitation to explore. There had been a time Jeremy had thought so, too.

  But not anymore.

  He slid down from his horse, landing in knee-deep icy water, and began scaling the bluff in pursuit. “Lucy!” he called up at her, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Lucy, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

  She heard him this time and looked up sharply. Jeremy cursed his idiocy. He should never have drawn her attention away from her feet. She stepped on a loose rock and lost her footing, swaying perilously above him. Dread hollowed out his chest. Arms flailing, Lucy caught herself on a jutting lip of rock.

  “Stay right there!” Jeremy ordered. Good God, let her listen , he half-cursed, half-prayed as he resumed his own climb. For once in what seemed fated to be an abbreviated life, give Lucy the sense to follow a simple command.

  At last he reached her side, huffing for breath and weak with fear. And his wife had the audacity to look cool and calm and unjustly beautiful, flashing him the sweetest smile he’d seen in three days. “Hullo, Jeremy. Isn’t it a lovely day?” She tilted her head up at the hermitage. “Let’s explore it together, shall we?”

  “No. ”

  Lucy blinked, obviously surprised by the vehemence of his reply. Jeremy swore. He took a breath and tried again. “It’s in disrepair,” he offered lamely. “It may be unsafe. ”

  “Oh, I’m certain it’s fine. All fashioned of stone like that? It looks like it’s been there for ages already. I doubt we could topple it if we tried. ”

  Jeremy summoned his sternest voice and The Look to match. “I said,no. ” This time, she frowned. Good. At least the message was sinking in.
“There’s nothing of interest up there, I promise you. But if you must see it for yourself, you’ll have to wait for another day. I’ll have Andrews see to its condition first. No one’s been up there in years. ”

  Twenty-one years, to be exact. Not since he and Thomas had played there as children. Not since the small cottage had been the staging ground for fishing expeditions and military campaigns and the occasional Arthurian quest. Not since the night two boys stole out of the Abbey to retrieve a forgotten treasure from the hermitage, but only one returned.

  A sharp whinny drew Jeremy’s attention to the stream bank below. He watched that devil of a black colt go charging off through the woods, dragging the reins behind him. Never to be seen again, no doubt. He turned to his wife. “You rode …that horse … here?”

  “Well, I would have ridden Thistle,” she replied hotly. “But it appears she’s been declared unsuitable for a countess. ”

  “Fiend is eminently unsuitable, and you know it. It’s a wonder you weren’t thrown. ” He glared at his wife. Her riding habit gaped in the center, and he could glimpse the smooth globe of one breast overflowing her bodice with each angry breath. The exact sort of observation he ought to avoid. Averting his eyes, he took Lucy by the hand, guiding her back down the slope. “Where are your escorts?” he demanded.

  “You mean those two grooms you employed to trail ten feet behind me and drive me absolutely mad? I bribed them to leave me alone. ” She gave him a smug look. “I used my pin money. ”

  “Well, I hope you gave them enough to buy bread all winter,” he replied, helping his wife ease her way around a boulder. “Because you’ve just cost them their posts. Lucy, you willnot go riding—or walking, or driving, or anything else—unescorted. You willnot saddle horses other than those I’ve approved. Or you will not go out at all. ”

  She made an indignant gasp as he lowered her to the riverbank. “You can’t just keep me locked up in that Abbey, like the villain in some melodrama!”

  “Oh, can’t I?” He whistled through his teeth, and his horse splashed through the river to his side. “I’ll stop playing the villain, Lucy, when you stop playing the fool. ” She winced, the fire in her eyes doused with dismay. A small stab of guilt caught him between the ribs, but he wasn’t about to stop now. Not when he was finally getting through to her. Lucy needed to understand that he was not jesting, and he was not going to chase her down from cliffs every day of their marriage. His heart just couldn’t take it.

  He grabbed his mount’s reins and looped them over the pommel. “Can’t you do something … somethingfeminine for once? You’ve unlimited funds, a whole staff of servants. Plan the dinner menus. Redecorate the house. Embroider a cushion or two. Take the carriage into the village and buy something you don’t need. Learn to be a lady, for God’s sake!”

  Silence.

  Those green eyes trained on him like two flintlock rifles. Twin patches of crimson blazed on her cheeks. Her lips parted—no doubt to deliver a scathing retort—and in the instant before he lost himself completely and silenced those lips with his own, Jeremy wrapped his hands about his wife’s waist and heaved her up on his horse. Then he swung himself into the saddle behind her, took the reins in one hand and his wife in the other, and dug his heels into his horse’s flanks.

  “I’m taking you home. Now. ”

  Lucy was numb with shock.

  Well, not completely numb. She would have liked to have been completely numb—and then she might have conserved all her concentration for anger, instead of being so annoyingly distracted by the sensation of Jeremy’s arm lashed about her waist, or his chest pressing warm and strong against her back.

  She hadn’t realized how much she’d been craving his touch.

  Lucy couldn’t even decide whether she was more angry with him, or with herself. He hadn’t said anything new or surprising—he’d only said it all a bit louder than he had in Henry’s study. He wanted her to change, to become a genteel lady. It angered her, even saddened her, but this much she already knew.
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