Goddess of the hunt, p.39
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.39

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 39

 

  “What’s your name?”

  “Hetta Osborne. ”

  “I’m Lucy Waltham … Trescott. ”

  Miss Osborne regarded Lucy with raised eyebrows. She then glanced around the bedchamber. Drapes yanked from their windows lay in heaps on the floor. The furniture was pushed into a jumble near the hearth.

  “I’m redecorating,” Lucy said lamely.

  “So I see. ”

  No, she didn’t. She couldn’t possibly see. No one could understand what had possessed Lucy to go careening about her suite like a madwoman, pulling drapes from the windows and tapestries from the walls. Lucy didn’t understand it herself. She only knew that after a week of her self-imposed seclusion, she’d dreamt of a fog. A thick, dark, choking fog that filled her lungs and wormed into her ears and tightened around her neck—and when she’d awoken tangled in the bed linens, she’d been seized by a desperate craving for light. Bright light and fresh air.

  Miss Osborne circled her ankle in one direction, then the other.

  “Really, it feels perfectly fine,” Lucy said.

  The pain in her ankle had subsided shortly after her fall. Her encounter with Jeremy—from that, she would require a bit of time to recover. First, from the sight of him wrapped in his dressing gown, the wedge of naked chest framed by dark blue fabric; his bare, sculpted legs below the hem. It was obvious that he wore little beneath the robe. If anything. Did he sleep nude, Lucy wondered? Of course, he had done so the night she’d slept beside him, but … even alone? And in nights to come, how would she be able to sleep at all for wondering?

  If the sight ofhis legs wasn’t distracting enough, then he’d hitched up her own robe and touched her ankle in that exciting, possessive manner. Oh, and the marvelous displays of brute strength—tossing aside the chair, picking her up as though she weighed nothing, looming over her on the bed. Bright light and fresh air were instantly forgotten. He was what she’d been craving.

  “Did that hurt?” Miss Osborne asked suddenly.

  “No. Why do you ask?”

  “You moaned. ”

  Lucy felt a blush rising on her cheeks. “Did I?”

  Curse the man, even as he’d berated her she couldn’t focus on his words. She’d been too busy fantasizing. She’d wanted to slide her hands inside that gaping robe, reach around his broad shoulders, and pull him down on top of her. Until the end of his diatribe, when he’d brought up that “my lord” nonsense. So infuriating. And infuriatingly arousing. Lucy squeezed her eyes shut and exhaled her frustration.

  “There’s nothing wrong with you. ” Miss Osborne let her ankle drop to the bed. She threw Lucy a sideways glance as she picked up her gloves. “Not with your ankle, at least. ”

  Lucy sat up and regarded the young woman at her bedside. Miss Osborne wore a patterned frock and curry-colored spencer. A few pins held her dark-blond hair in a simple knot, and she wore no jewelry or ribbons. She couldn’t have been much older than Lucy, but she projected an enviable air of capability. She tugged on her gloves with precise, efficient movements.

  “Why don’t you stay for tea?” Lucy asked. “You’ve come all this way. ”

  “Thank you, no. ” Miss Osborne stood, picking up a small black valise. “I’m already behind schedule, and it’s a long walk back. I’ve a confined woman to visit and a seeping wound to dress. There are some people in the county with real injuries, you realize. ”

  Lucy smiled. At last, someone in Corbinsdale who did not regard her with veiled disdain. Miss Osborne held her in open contempt. What was better, she hadn’t even curtsied or called her “Lady Kendall” once. And she’d just offered Lucy the one remedy she needed most—an escape.

  “If you can wait for me to dress,” Lucy said, “I’ll drive you. ”

  If Miss Osborne held Lucy in contempt, she regarded the lacquered phaeton and team of perfectly matched black ponies with complete derision. Not to mention the pair of liveried outriders trailing a polite distance behind. Still, she did not seem to begrudge the offer of a ride. And when Lucy gave the team full rein to thunder down the road, she could tell Miss Osborne’s respect for her increased tenfold. From “next-to-nothing” to “perhaps-a-mite. ”

  It felt wonderful to be outdoors at last, inhaling the crisp autumn air. Lucy drew the phaeton to a halt before a small crofter’s cottage. Four children came running out, followed by their rotund, waddling mother. Lucy rummaged behind the phaeton seat for one of the baskets she’d asked Cook to prepare. A smile warmed her wind-chilled face. Even Jeremy could not find fault with this outing. This was what Marianne had done, visiting the tenants with baskets of food and sweets for the children. Lucy felt more like a countess already.

  She turned back to the children, anticipating the squeals of joy her treats would no doubt elicit. They were nowhere to be seen. Miss Osborne had alighted from the phaeton, and everyone had gone inside the cottage without her.

  Well.

  Lucy clambered down from the carriage, basket threaded over her arm, and made her way to the cottage door. She swept into the room, smiling beneficently. From their seats at the cottage’s small table, Miss Osborne and the confined woman regarded her warily.

  “We haven’t been properly introduced,” Lucy said, shooting Miss Osborne a look of her own, “but I’m Lady Kendall. ”

  The pregnant woman gaped at her.

  “And I brought you a basket,” she added brightly. She swung around, holding the basket out to the children. “There are sweets inside,” she tempted, dangling the basket in front of her.

  The children shrank away, huddling into the corner with expressions of abject fear. The smallest one, a tow-headed boy who couldn’t have been above two years old, clutched his sister’s leg and began to cry.

  “All right,” said Lucy, slowly backing away. “No need to get upset. I’ll just leave it on the table, see?” She deposited the basket on the table.

  “Thank you, my lady. ” The pregnant woman’s reply was barely audible, and her eyes remained downcast.

  “You’re welcome. ” Lucy clasped her hands in front of her. “Miss Osborne, I suppose I’ll wait in the carriage. ”

  The young lady’s gaze did not turn from her patient. “Yes, that would probably be best. ”

  A quarter-hour later, Miss Osborne returned to the phaeton with her little valise. Well, Lucy thought. That had not gone entirely as planned. She refused to show her disappointment in front of Miss Osborne, however. Of course the children would be terrified of an elegant lady who was a stranger to them. Given the fact that the previous Lady Kendall had died several years ago and been in declining health even longer than that, the children could not know how a proper countess behaved. On her next visit, they would all be tugging at her skirts.

  They drove on to the next cottage. This time, Lucy did not allow Miss Osborne to leave her behind. She grabbed up the basket and followed the young woman up to the tiny, thatched-roof dwelling. She knocked on a door, and they were admitted to a small, dank room. The light that struggled through the single window revealed the room’s two occupants. A boy, no more than twelve or thirteen years of age, held the door open with a bandaged hand. On the narrow straw-tick bed, a young girl sat quietly, her legs crossed beneath a threadbare brown wool skirt.

  “Albert, Mary. This is Lady Kendall. ”

  The door slammed shut behind them. Lucy wheeled about to regard the boy.

  “What?” he asked, registering Miss Osborne’s disapproval. “Surely her royal highness here don’t expect me to bow?”

  “How is your hand?” Miss Osborne asked, changing the subject.

  The boy shrugged, still staring up at Lucy. “Better, I suppose. It still hurts like the devil, but it don’t seem to be festering. ”

  Miss Osborne set her valise on the small table and opened it. “Let’s have a look at it, then. Come sit. ” She beckoned him with a tilt of the head. Albert obeyed, ey
eing Lucy with all the suspicion and scorn a twelve-year-old boy could muster.

  Lucy decided to focus her charitable efforts on Mary. She crossed the room—a matter of only two paces, it being a small room—and sat on the bed beside her. The child’s mousy hair hung around her face in wild, tangling curls. Big brown eyes stared out at Lucy from a thin, pale face.

  Lucy smiled. Mary mirrored the expression with a gap-toothed grin.

  “How old are you, Mary?”

  The girl kept smiling.

  “She don’t talk,” Albert called from the table. He winced as Miss Osborne prodded his wound.

  “But she understands me. Don’t you, Mary?”

  Mary nodded. She held up one open hand, her bony fingers fanned wide.

  “You’re five?”

  The girl nodded, and her smile spread wider still.

  Lucy uncovered the basket on her lap. “What luck! I have a special biscuit here baked just for a five-year-old girl. ” She held out a circle of shortbread. “Do you like biscuits, Mary?”

  The girl snatched the treat from Lucy’s hand and lifted it to her mouth.

  “Don’t eat it, Mary. ” Albert’s voice was tight with pain. “It’s a Kendall biscuit. It’s probably poison. ”

  “Poison! Wherever would you get such an idea? Of course it isn’t poisoned. ” She couldn’t understand where these ridiculous notions had originated, but they began to grate on her nerves. It was one thing for Lucy to think disparaging thoughts about her own husband, but quite another to hear him maligned by complete strangers.

  Lucy turned back to the girl. “You go ahead, Mary. Eat it right up. ” The girl clutched the biscuit in her hand, uncertain. “Or,” Lucy said gently, “you may wait to ask your mama and papa first, if it will make you feel better. ”

  “They haven’t any parents. ” Miss Osborne dabbed at Albert’s wound with a rag soaked in pungent liquid.

  Albert gritted his teeth. “My father ain’t dead. ”

  “Perhaps he isn’t. But he isn’t here to settle the matter, now is he?” Miss Osborne wound a strip of clean linen over Albert’s palm. “You may eat the biscuit, Mary. ” She silenced Albert’s objection with a look. “It isn’t poisoned. ”

  Mary devoured the biscuit in a flash, then held out both hands for more. By the time Miss Osborne finished dressing Albert’s hand, Mary had downed three biscuits, a hunk of hard cheese, and most of a cold chicken leg. Lucy wished she’d brought a bigger basket. The child was clearly underfed. She glanced at Albert. He looked rather scrawny, too.

  As they rose to leave, Lucy fished in her reticule for a shilling and held it out to Albert. “Here,” she said. “Buy yourself some biscuits. Mary ate them all already. ”

  Albert snorted. “No thank you, your highness. ” He walked to the door and held it open, pulling himself up to what approached a manly height. “I don’t take Kendall charity. ”

  Lucy raised her eyebrows. “Oh, you don’t take Kendall charity?” She approached the boy, staring him straight in the face. The flinty defiance in his eyes never wavered. Lucy checked the smile tickling the corners of her lips. Eight years ago, she might well have viewed an identical expression in a mirror. “Well then,” she asked cagily, “will you take a Kendall wager?”

  She plucked an apple from the basket on the table and walked outside. She beckoned to Mary, and the girl scampered happily after her. “Mary,” she whispered, placing the apple in the girl’s palm, “would you kindly run and place this on the fence there?” She tilted her head toward the stone border edging a nearby oatfield. “Quickly now, and there’s a shilling in it for you. ”

  The girl did as she was bid, and Lucy rewarded her as promised. “There’s a shilling well-earned,” she said loudly, shooting the older boy a look. She straightened and faced him, holding out her hand. “Now, about that wager. Albert, may I borrow your sling?” She nodded toward the leather strap protruding from his pocket.
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