Goddess of the hunt, p.41
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.41
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 41

 

  An honest-to-God tiger. A snarling, untamed, orange-striped beast. Lucy knew next to nothing about painting, but she recognized effective artistry when she saw it. When she felt it in her blood. The painting was mesmerizing. She could see the tiger’s striped fur bristling, sense the raw power rippling through its muscles. To stand before this painting was to sense danger and peril and irrational fear. And to feel a surge of resentful gratitude to this arrogant man, whose dominant pose and ice-blue glare seemed the only things keeping her from being devoured whole.

  She edged closer to her husband.

  “The tiger you see there now resides in the great hall, mounted above the hearth. My father shot it in India and brought it back—it, and a bull elephant’s head. He was an avid hunter, my father. He had the woods around the Abbey stocked with all variety of game. Not just partridge and pheasant, but boar and stag. ” He looked over his shoulder out the window. “This is one of the last woods in England where one can still hunt stag. ”

  He turned back to the portrait. “Hunting was everything to him. Therefore, hunting would mean everything to his sons. He put a rifle in my hand before I could properly hold a spoon. He took me and my brother on daylong shooting trips and drilled us in marksmanship. ”

  “Marksmanship?” Her shoulders lifted with laughter. “You must have been a grave disappointment, then. ”

  “I was. In many ways. ”

  The shift in his expression was subtle, but unmistakable. A slight crease pulled on his brow, and his jaw tightened by an infinitesimal degree. Lucy wanted to bash her head against the wall. She was an idiot. An unfeeling, heedless, mutton-brained ninny. She resolved not to speak another word.

  “I’m sorry. ” Well, besides those two.

  “Don’t be. ” His face hardened further. “I took great delight in disappointing my father. I had no great fondness for him, nor for shooting. But Thomas loved both, and I idolized Thomas. The two of us would steal out of the house at all hours to go tramping through the forest. ”

  He turned around and walked toward a bank of tall windows, his slow footfalls echoing off the polished marble. Lucy followed, looking out on the round, hedged garden and the dense woods beyond. The trees climbed the distant bluffs like spectators in an arena, waving autumnal banners of amber and red.

  “We weren’t the only ones tramping through the forest. The well-stocked woods proved irresistible to poachers. Some came in organized gangs, trapping game for market in London or York. And then there were the tenants, who simply desired a bit of meat for their tables. My father resented both groups equally. Any poacher apprehended on Kendall land received the maximum penalty allowed by law—jail, hard labor, even transportation. He ordered his gamekeeper to set mantraps and spring guns. ”

  Lucy’s stomach knotted. Henry had described to her the cruel methods some landowners employed to deter poaching. Mantraps, like the smaller traps used to catch game, were spiked metal jaws designed to snap around a man’s leg. An encounter with a man-trap could leave a man maimed, if he was lucky. If he was unlucky, the wound would fester and he’d die. Of course, death was the entire object of a spring gun—a loaded rifle rigged up to a tripwire. A poacher, or anyone, who stumbled over the wire would be shot instantly.

  Lucy had a sick feeling she knew where this story was headed. She might as well spare him the difficulty of saying it. “So which was it, with Thomas?”

  “A spring gun. ”

  “And you were with him?”

  He stared out the window, unblinking. “Yes. ”

  She quickly renewed her vow of silence. Any words she might manage to utter would be most unladylike. She tried to imagine being eight years old and watching her brother shot down like an animal. Then she shook herself, cursing her imagination.

  It was as though he heard her thoughts. “I didn’t see it happen. ” He cast a sidelong glance at her. His voice grew gentle. “It was dark, and I had fallen behind him. I only heard the shot. ”

  The words had the ring of a merciful lie. Lucy suspected he said them only to soothe her feelings. Bless him, it worked. A bit. But the very idea still tied her stomach in knots. “And then?”

  He turned to her with a blank expression. “And then he died. ”

  She shook her head. “No, I mean after that. You said it was a long story. There are twenty portraits of Thomas in this house. His death can’t be the end of the story; it’s just the beginning. ”

  He turned back to the window and exhaled slowly. His broad shoulders shrugged beneath his coat. She was quickly learning to recognize that motion. A shrug, for Jeremy, was not a lazy rise and fall of the shoulders. It was a powerful action—an explosion of brute strength, barely checked. And when his shoulders heaved, she could practically hear the rusty creaking of armor about them. The heavy, plate-metal shell that a child constructed to shield himself from pain. Lucy knew the armor. She carried a fair bit of it herself.

  She also knew the armor had chinks. “It’s a long story,” she repeated levelly. “And yes, Jeremy. I really wish to hear it. ”

  He pierced her with an icy gaze. Lucy refused to blink. If he thought he could scare her off with that Look of his, he was mistaken. “And then …?”

  He looked out the window. “And then everything changed. My father had always been stern. Whatever heart he had, it died with Thomas. After my brother’s death, he only doubled the mantraps and authorized his gamekeepers to shoot trespassers on sight. ” He shook his head. “I resented him for Thomas’s death. He resented me for being the one who survived. But he could no longer ignore me, once I was the heir. He redoubled his efforts to mold me in his image, and I resisted his every attempt.

  “My mother—” He turned back to the portraits and nodded toward a painting of a delicate-featured lady wearing the lace-trimmed sleeves and powdered curls that were the fashion some thirty years past. “She had always been fragile. Thomas’s death destroyed her. She took to her chambers and went into permanent mourning. She couldn’t bear to look at me, because I only reminded her of the son she’d lost.

  “My father only spoke to me to criticize. My mother couldn’t speak to me without bursting into tears. And I …” That shrug again. “I was sent off to school. ” He firmed his jaw and cast her a sidelong glance. “It’s not such a long story after all. But there you have it. No need to go asking the servants. ”

  Jeremy turned and locked gazes with her, clearly awaiting her reaction.

  Her reaction. Several reactions battled within her for prominence, and they all involved an explosion of physical energy. The first was an irrational impulse to simply turn on her heel and run. Run away and hide. Her second thought, equally childish, was to pick up the china vase from a nearby table and hurl it against the wall. The third reaction that sprang to mind was to run at her husband, climb him like a tree, and kiss him until he forgot his own name, much less the fact that he belonged to this ghastly assortment of relations.

  But none of these seemed the appropriate reaction for a countess. Moreover, she knew none of them were the reaction Jeremy needed. His eyes were clear and unwavering. Daring her to run away or fly into rage. Forbidding her to pity him. And were their situations reversed, Lucy knew pity to be the last reaction she would wish.

  So she fought against all three impulses and a good dozen more for an age. And then, because the still air around them and the silence between them threatened to suffocate her, she spent all that hard-won equanimity to purchase a single, round syllable.

  “Oh. ”

  His mouth softened slightly. She had the terrible suspicion that he might be priming his lips to impart another grim detail. Desperation loosened her tongue. “Is that all, then?”

  He blinked.

  Lucy forced a smile into her voice. “No raving bedlamite locked away in the turret?”

  He slowly shook his head.

  “No bastard children peeling onions in
the scullery?”

  The corner of his mouth quirked. “No. ”

  “Well, then. And here I was expecting something truly dreadful. ”

  His face relaxed. Relief washed through her. They couldn’t have been standing more than a dozen inches apart. It was twelve inches too many, but she settled for narrowing the gap to two. Lightly threading her arm through his, she pivoted him back to face the portrait of his father.

  “When I was a girl,” she said, “I used to lie on the floor and stare up at my father’s portrait. I would look up at him for hours, just listening. ”

  “Listening?”

  She nodded. “He told me long, fantastic stories. About his childhood, or mine. Sometimes about Tortola. ”

  “But …” Jeremy’s gaze clouded with confusion. “Didn’t your father die before you were born?”

  “Oh, yes. ” When he continued to simply stare at her, Lucy decided to humor his lack of imagination. “I have found,” she said quietly, “and perhaps you have, as well …”—she tilted her head toward the row of portraits—“these things have a way of speaking to me, whether I wish it or not. And it’s more comforting by half to imagine they have pleasant things to say.

  “For example,” she continued, pulling him toward a portrait of a frightfully ugly gentleman dressed in Navy regalia, “your father is telling me that he was greatly relieved, on the day you were born, to see that you did not have your great-uncle Frederick’s ears. Like bat-wings, those ears. Positively terrified him when he was a child. ”

  She turned to the portrait of his mother. “And your mother says she was simply glad you didn’t come out all puckered and orange, because she ate nothing but jellied quince for the whole of her confinement. ”

  Jeremy shook his head. “Lucy, when you asked earlier if there was a bedlamite locked in the turret—I didn’t realize you meant to apply for the position. ”

  She ignored him and pasted a sweet smile on her face. Gently tugging Jeremy’s arm, she led him down the row to yet another portrait of Thomas. “Now this handsome young man is complaining that it’s dreadfully difficult to haunt twenty portraits at once. He’s begging us to pare down the number to three or four. ”

  “You may do as you wish, Lucy. You’re mistress of this estate. It’s your house now. ”

  “Mine?” She tightened her grip on his arm. “Oh, dear. I had been under the rather comforting impression that it wasours. ”

  He looked down at her, the corner of his lips slightly crooked. It was the barest suggestion of a smile, and the most wonderful thing she’d seen in the past week. “So it is. ”

  He placed his hand over hers where it lay on his arm. “I believe I’ve had enough ofour house for one morning. Would you care to go riding? I imagine Thistle would enjoy the exercise. ”

  “I can ride Thistle?” She lifted an eyebrow. “But must I have a complement of footmen trailing along behind me?”

  “No. ” His smile widened. “You’ve no need of an escort, if you’re with me. ”

  “Oh. ” Lord above, at that moment he looked dizzyingly handsome. But somehow Lucy managed to grasp a few strands of thought and braid them into a realization. “Well, that makes more sense now. ”

  “What makes sense?”

  “Why you never wanted me along, on the shooting trips. ” She leaned against his arm as they turned to leave the gallery. “All that talk about my being just a girl, it being unsafe—imagine, you truly meant it!”

  “What, did you think I was just being severe?”

  “Yes, of course,” she replied with a shrug. “For the first year I knew you, perhaps two—I thought you were put on this earth simply to vex me. ”

  His eyebrows lifted. “And after two years?”
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