Goddess of the hunt, p.40
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.40
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 40

 

  He squinted at the distant target, then eyed her dubiously. “You can’t hit that. ”

  “If I miss, I’ll owe you a shilling. And if I hit the mark—”

  Albert snorted.

  “If I hit the mark,” she repeated coolly, “you must accept a half-crown. ” She took the scrap of leather from the boy’s hand and bent to select a suitable stone from the path. “It’s a wager, then?” she asked, fitting the stone to the sling.

  He nodded. Lucy glanced briefly at Miss Osborne, who appeared to be watching the exchange with great amusement. Lucy felt a brief pang of conscience. Striking wagers with obstinate boys probably didn’t befit the Countess of Kendall. But hang it all, the “fine lady” routine didn’t seem to be fooling anyone. It certainly wouldn’t buy Mary more bread.

  Miss Osborne’s gaze met hers. Lucy shrugged and smiled. She took aim at the apple, set the sling in motion with a flick of her wrist, and released.

  The apple exploded in a cloud of white pith. Albert’s mouth fell open.

  Lucy dug a half-crown from her reticule. She handed it and the sling back to the slack-jawed boy. “If it’s pride you’re concerned about, Albert—next time, take the charity. It will cost you less. ”

  Albert blinked. He looked down at the coin and the sling, then the fence, then back at Lucy. Flashing an amused glance in Lucy’s direction, Miss Osborne reached out and tweaked his ear.

  “Albert, I believe the words you’re searching for are, ‘Yes, my lady. ’”

  “You have a problem. ”

  Jeremy looked up from his letter, surprised. Why he should be surprised, he didn’t know. After their argument that morning, he’d spent the day expecting—hell, even anticipating—the imminent descent of Lucy’s wrath. At least, he noted from her determined stride, her ankle appeared to have mended.

  “I have a problem?” he repeated.

  “A serious problem. Your tenants hate you. ”

  He sat back in his chair. She wanted to talk about his tenants? “Yes, I know. ”

  “No, I mean they truly hate you! When the name Kendall is spoken, old people spit on the ground. Mothers threaten their children with your name. ‘Do as I say, or I’ll have Lord Kendall come and take you to the poor-house. ’ Peopledespise you. ”

  “And you see this as a problem. ”

  “Of course! Don’t you?”

  He sighed, laying his quill on the desk. “A problem is something I can attempt to remedy. This—this is more of a reality. If it makes you feel any better, it’s my father they truly hated. Me, they intensely dislike. So far. ”

  “I went visiting tenants today, and the children shrank from me in fear!”

  “You went visiting tenants? With whom?”

  “Miss Osborne, the doctor’s daughter. And an escort of outriders. ” Her green eyes flashed. “My lord. ”

  Jeremy rubbed his temples. He’d known that would come back to haunt him. “Listen, Lucy, about this morning …”

  She cut him off with an impatient wave of her hand. “I met two children today who are orphaned, most likely. Their mother is most certainly dead, and their father has been transported to Australia. Can you guess his crime?”

  Yes, he thought. He had a reasonably certain idea.

  “Trapping one miserable partridge to feed his ailing wife and their children. One bird, worth a sentence of transportation. ” Indignation burned red on her cheeks. She bit the fingertip of one glove and pulled it off.

  He rose from his chair and rounded the desk to stand beside her. “Lucy, my father was a very harsh lord. He was especially unforgiving toward poachers. It’s regrettable, but there’s nothing that can change it now. ”

  “But your father is dead,” she said, peeling off her other glove. “You’re the lord now. Certainly you’d never go making orphans of poor children, just for the sake of a partridge. ” She untied her bonnet and flung it onto a nearby chair. “Yet the tenants still fear you, despise you. Why don’t they understand that you’re nothing like your father? That you’re a kind and generous and not at all hateful man?”

  Jeremy leaned against the desk, his head spinning. He felt drunk, giddy. Maybe it was the fact that his wife kept shedding articles of clothing like an opera dancer. He stared, utterly rapt, as she untied her pelisse with nimble fingers and tossed it carelessly on the mounting heap of garments. It was too much to hope that she might continue with her boots, her stockings, her gown, and her shift. But a man could dream.

  Then again, perhaps it was her words that had set the room whirling. Kind , had she called him?Generous? During the course of one day, he’d gone from “addle-brained brute” to “not at all hateful”? If this trend continued, by tomorrow she’d be spouting poetry. And somehow, most strange and dizzying of all those descriptors were those so casually uttered words, “nothing like your father. ” As if she could know.

  “It bothers you that much, what the tenants think of me?”

  “Of course it does!” She sagged against the desk next to him. “Because if they hate you, they hate me!”

  He chuckled. Ah, yes. He ought to have known there was a sensible reason behind this veritable outpouring of affection.

  “I’m sorry, Lucy, but their opinion of me is not likely to improve anytime soon. ” He stood and crossed to the window, looking out over the uneven landscape. “You have to understand, this isn’t Waltham Manor. There, a man can toss a handful of seed at the ground and reap a bountiful harvest five months later. This is hard land. Rocky soil, unevenly watered. The wheat harvest failed this year. Last year, the barley. I’m attempting to do now what my father ought to have done years ago—improve the land, rotate the crops. Irrigate the dry areas, drain the wet. But in order to make the reforms, we’ve had to coerce the tenants to cooperate. They resist change. It means more work for them, at increased risk. So they’ve been told they must farm by the practices the steward proscribes, or I will revoke their lease. ”

  He turned back to Lucy. “You can well imagine, that makes me rather unpopular. In the end, they’ll reap the benefit, but for now … for now, they hate me. ”

  Lucy sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “They hateus. ”

  Her brow furrowed with frustration, and her lips pursed in a sulky pout. Jeremy thought to remedy both conditions by crossing the room and taking her mouth in a long, deep kiss. Instead, he leaned against the windowpane. Because there she’d gone again, setting the room awhirl with the tiniest word.

  Us.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  “So this is our breakfast room. ”

  Jeremy looked up from his newspaper, eyebrows raised. He was obviously surprised to see her, but—Lucy fancied—pleasantly so. “Our breakfast room,” he said with a bemused expression. “Yes. I’m glad you finally decided to search it out. Perhaps later you’d care to tour the rest of the house?”

  She smiled. “I think I would. ” After all, it wasn’t as though she could keep to her suite forever. Yesterday’s outing hadn’t quite matched her expectations, but Lucy’s first taste of a countess’s responsibilities had not been entirely bitter. In fact, she felt rather hungry for more.

  She plucked a pastry from the buffet and circled the room slowly, pausing to study a portrait hanging above the mantel. It appeared to be a vague likeness of her husband. His general figure seemed about right—broad shoulders, erect posture. Those heart-stopping blue eyes were captured rather well. But Jeremy’s hair was black as jet, not that auburn color. And his jaw—the artist had his jaw all wrong. Far too rounded.

  “This is a terrible likeness of you. ”

  His coffee cup clinked against its saucer. “That’s because it’s not me. ”

  “Well, who is it then? It can’t be your father; the clothes are too modern. ”

  “My brother. ”

  She wheeled to regard her husband where he sat at the table, calmly salting an egg.
As if he’d simply asked her to pass the butter. “You have a brother?”

  “Had. I had a brother. He died when I was a child. ”

  Lucy looked up at the young man in the portrait. “How old was he?”

  “When he died? I was eight, and he was eleven. ” Jeremy’s hand paused, suspending a tiny spoon in midair. “Nearly twelve. ”

  “But this is a portrait of a young man, not a boy of eleven. ”

  “Yes, well. You can blame my mother’s fancy for that. She never really stopped mourning Thomas. ” He replaced the spoon in the saltcellar and picked up his fork. “That was his name. Thomas. ” He took a bite of egg. He chewed it slowly. Lucy ground her teeth in frustration.

  Finally, he swallowed and looked up at her. She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Please, continue. ”

  “She—my mother—commissioned a new portrait of him every year. Until she died, of course. So she could look on him as he might appear, had he lived. ”

  That, Lucy’s stomach decided, was a perfectly nauseating idea. Yet it didn’t seem to affect her husband’s appetite in the slightest. He reached for another piece of toast. Lucy swallowed around the lump in her throat. “And when did your mother die?”

  “Four years ago. ”

  She calculated on her fingers. “So if you’re nine-and-twenty, like Henry … About twenty-one years your brother’s been dead, minus four … That means there areseventeen portraits of Thomas in this house?”

  Jeremy scraped butter on his toast. “Not including those painted before his death. The actual total is probably above twenty. ”

  Good Lord, Lucy thought. There were probably fewer portraits of the Prince Regent in St. James. For that matter, St. Paul’s cathedral probably had fewer paintings of Christ. “What did he die of? A fever?”

  “No, he was … It was an accident. ” Jeremy set down his knife with a dull clatter. His brow furrowed. “It’s a long story. ”

  “Well, and it will seem longer still if you force me to wring it from you, drop by drop. It would be far easier on us both if you just had out with it. ” She walked back to the table and stood over his shoulder. He stared down at the toast in his hand, impassive. “I’ll find out eventually, you know. Don’t make me go asking the servants. ”

  “You really wish to hear it?” His voice darkened. He dropped the toast onto his plate and flexed his hand.

  Lucy rolled her eyes. “No. Please don’t tell me. I’m enjoying the gothic suspense. ” She sighed and placed a hand on his elbow. “Yes, Jeremy. I really wish to hear it. ”

  “Very well, then. ” He rose from the table, grabbed her by the hand, and fairly dragged her from the room.

  He strode purposefully down the long corridor. His paces were so long, she was forced to take three steps to his one. He pulled her down the corridor, through the entrance hall, down an interminably long passageway, and finally into a narrow, marble-tiled gallery, where a row of massive, gilt-framed portraits seemed to simply fade into the distance rather than end. When Jeremy halted at the gallery’s midpoint, Lucy nearly collided with his back.

  “That,” he said, turning her around, “was my father. ” He let go of her hand and stepped toward the large, square painting.

  Lucy followed his gaze. The portrait must have been painted when his father was near Jeremy’s age, or perhaps a bit older. The same stony features marked his face, edged by faint creases that would deepen with age. The man’s jaunty, cocksure pose contrasted with his serious expression. He wore a black coat emblazoned with gold braid and buttons and held a tricorn hat tucked under one arm. His other hand rested flat on the head of a tiger.
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