Goddess of the hunt, p.42
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.42
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 42

 

  “Oh, then I figured out the truth,” she said as they walked out of the room. “I was put on this earth to vexyou. ”

  If breakfast had been a pleasant surprise, dinner that night was a disaster.

  Lucy watched from her end of the table in silence as her husband pushed food around his plate. Grateful the soup course was over, she took a long draught of wine, rinsing her mouth of the lingering film of salt and grease. How Jeremy could abide oxtail broth, she couldn’t guess.

  “Finally grew tired of lobster bisque, did you?” he asked, sawing into a hunk of mutton.

  “Not really. ” Lucy stabbed at a bit of carrot with her fork, but it squirted off her plate and flew across the room. She looked up, mortified. Jeremy’s attention remained focused on his mutton. She dared not look to the left, however, for she felt reasonably certain that the missile had connected with a footman. Fortunately Aunt Matilda was taking dinner in her room this evening, else she might have been the unhappy target. “It’s just that … Well, I thought I should request the dishes thatyou like for a change. ”

  After their conversation in the gallery that morning, Lucy felt like a shortsighted girl who’d just been fitted with spectacles. In preparation for their ride, Jeremy had checked the security of her saddle straps twice, ordered the maid to fetch Lucy’s warmer gloves, and cast her more stern looks than she could count. And all these small actions that would have yesterday seemed simply overbearing, Lucy now understood to be … still overbearing, but protective at base.

  He’d witnessed too much pain already. He didn’t want to see her hurt, too.

  Was it any wonder she hadn’t seen it? Lucy wasn’t at all accustomed to being protected—with two dead parents and a guardian like Henry, she’d learned to fend for herself. Jeremy’s concern was completely unnecessary. But it was also touching, and she wanted, in some small way, to acknowledge it. To thank him for it. Totry .

  “I see. ” Jeremy placed a morsel of mutton in his mouth and chewed. And chewed. Taking a sip of wine, he asked, “And who informed you of my partiality for boiled mutton?”

  “One of Aunt Matilda’s nursemaids. Mrs…. ” Lucy churned air with her hand, as if to conjure the name from the ether.

  “Mrs. Wrede?”

  “That’s it. Mrs. Wrede. I asked her to give Cook the menu, since she said she’s known you for ages. ”

  Jeremy sipped his wine again. “Indeed she has. She wasmy nursemaid. Kept me on a steady diet of broth, boiled mutton, potatoes, porridge …”

  Lucy groaned. What an idiot she was. Mrs. Wrede had given Jeremy’s favorite menu, all right—from when he was five years old. She might as well have poured him milk in place of claret. Propping her elbows on the table, she buried her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry. ”

  “Don’t be. ” He dabbed his lips with a linen napkin. “Truthfully, I’m not very hungry anyway. ” He waved away the remainder of the dishes. “Let’s just skip to dessert, shall we? Let me guess. ” He smiled. “Suet pudding?”

  She propped her chin on her hand. “I didn’t order any dessert,” she said plaintively.

  “No dessert?” He looked stricken. “Why would you do that?”

  “You don’t like dessert. ”

  “On the contrary,” he said, in a dark voice that made her ears tingle. “It’s my favorite course of the meal. I had rather looked forward to dessert. ”

  “But—” Lucy halted, at a loss for a response. What was he saying? That although, in eight years, she’d never seen a morsel of sherry trifle or gooseberry fool pass his lips, he suddenly desired suet pudding? How was she—how was any countess to guessthat?

  She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry. There isn’t any dessert. ”

  He set his napkin aside. “Very well, then,” he said, rising to his feet. “It’s late. You must be wanting to retire. ”

  She stared down at her hands, running her thumb along the callused ridge of her palm. “I said I’d sit with Aunt Matilda. I think she’s a bit homesick. ”

  “Is she?” His voice was quiet. “I see. Then I’ll order some chocolate sent up for you both. ”

  They remained in awkward silence for several moments. Lucy could not bear to look at him. It seemed so wretchedly unfair, how her mood, her existence, her life’s happiness were now linked inextricably with his. And she—of all the intractable chits in England,she— now craved his approval and desperately wished to please him but seemed doomed to fail at even this smallest attempt. He gave her jewels and pin money and even knew to send up chocolate, and what did she offer him? Boiled mutton, when he wanted suet pudding.

  There was only one method of pleasing Jeremy in which she had shown the slightest competence—the act she yearned to repeat, lay awake in bed remembering, dreamt of every night. She’d so hoped that their conversation today, the intimate history and thoughts he’d shared, might lead to intimacies of a different nature.

  But no.

  It was this place, Lucy decided as she lay in bed alone that night. This cold, silent, tomb-like Abbey filled with his family’s ghosts and his own demons. Before coming to Corbinsdale, she had never appreciated how joy permeated Waltham Manor—the way each room echoed with pleasant memories, and the cheerful din of dogs and children and servants who were permitted to hum. In this house, there was no noise, no warmth, no joy. It was an antidote to ardor if ever one existed.

  And outside the confines of the Abbey, the misery only increased. Every man, woman, and child within a ten-mile radius reviled anyone by the name of Kendall. That could scarcely make a man eager to procreate. Perhaps that was why Henry kept getting Marianne with child, Lucy surmised. Good harvest or bad, his tenants adored him for his convivial manner and generosity.

  She thought of insolent Albert, and the satisfaction of turning his expectations inside-out. And Jeremy—the pain of losing his brother compounded by the loss of his parents’ affection. The whole of Corbinsdale was an orphaned estate. Lucy recognized that familiar combination of outward defiance and silent craving for affection everywhere she went—in the tenants, the staff, her own husband. Maybe she couldn’t change the drapes or plan the menus like a proper lady, but she knew something about relating to surly orphans. She was one herself, after all.

  Perhaps, Lucy thought to herself, she did have some hidden, buried potential to become a true lady. Maybe Jeremy didn’t see it, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t unearth it herself. She might not be the sort of countess he wanted. She certainly wasn’t the sort of countess Corbinsdale expected. But maybe, just maybe, she was exactly the sort of countess theyneeded .

  And then it came to her—just drifted down from the embroidered canopy over her bed, as if dropped by a passing angel or revealed in a dream—the Idea. The way to solve both problems at once, to bring this house to life and make the tenants adore her husband. The brilliant Idea that would work her into Jeremy’s good opinion, his bed, and his heart.

  An Idea this perfect could not possibly go wrong.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  And it would not have gone wrong, had Jeremy not been late for dinner.

  Lucy sat in the Abbey’s great hall, drumming her fingers on the empty plate that ought to be her husband’s. Her mood alternated between anxiety for his safety and fury with him for returning home so late. He had not missed dinner one night since their marriage. Now this night, of all nights, he was late. The night she’d been planning so carefully for days.

  It had been remarkably easy. She’d simply mentioned to Jeremy at breakfast one morning that she’d like to invite a few guests for dinner. Perhaps on Friday next? He’d been so pleasantly surprised, he’d called in the housekeeper immediately and instructed her to obey Lucy’s every command.

  Of course, this probably wasn’t quite the dinner party he’d imagined.

  Where could he be? She tried to think, but between the musicians and the small army of serva
nts and the clatter of cutlery, forming a coherent thought proved difficult. Lucy smiled. The deafening roar from this evening would echo through the Abbey for days. Perhaps weeks. Farewell to cold, sinister silence.

  A chicken bone sailed through the air, causing her to dodge left. Her guests seemed to be enjoying themselves. She’d given up waiting for Jeremy a half-hour ago and ordered dinner to be served. One didn’t keep upward of a hundred guests waiting about hungry. You could only let them sit around drinking ale for so long before an acceptable delay became simple rudeness. This might have been Lucy’s first time hosting a party, but she knew that much.

  She nibbled a bit of roast beef from her own plate. She’d ordered simple fare for the meal, and plenty of it. The long tables lining the center of the room were laden with platters of roast meat, boiled potatoes, game pies, puddings and sausages, and bread with fresh-churned butter. The men, women, and children lining the long tables seemed to have no complaints. Food was disappearing at a prodigious rate, and serving girls bearing flagons of ale kept up a steady procession from the kitchen to the hall.

  Hetta Osborne pushed her way through the merriment. Lucy’s smile widened. “I’m so glad you could come!” she shouted above the cacophony.

  “My father!” Hetta yelled back, tilting her head toward a silver-haired man wearing spectacles and a black tailcoat. He bowed, and Lucy curtsied in return, holding up the skirts of her new gown. Themodiste had finished it just yesterday—all silk, in a poppy-red shade that her maid calledcoquelicot , with gold braiding at the waist and a low, square neckline that enhanced the curve of her bosom.

  “Albert and Mary?” Lucy mouthed.

  Hetta shook her head. “They wouldn’t come. Albert had a message for you if you care to hear it. He said, ‘Tell her highness she can take her … ’” Her voice trailed off in the din.

  “I can’t hear you!”

  “Just as well. ” Hetta crossed to Lucy’s side and shouted in her ear, “Youshould be glad we came—I doubt this evening will end without at least a few injuries!”

  Lucy laughed. So the men were a bit drunk. And a few of the women, too. Hungry tenants were unhappy tenants. People well-fed and in their cups tended to look more favorably on their hosts. It was all part of the plan.

  As were the servants who began clearing the tables away from the center of the room.

  “What now?” Hetta asked.

  “Games, then dancing. ”

  “Games?”

  “Contests of strength and skill. Arm-wrestling … lifting …”

  The servants began piling straw bales at the far end of the hall, under the ever-watchful eyes of the late earl’s mounted trophies. Two footmen entered bearing targets, and a third followed with bows and arrows.

  “Archery?” Hetta shouted. “Indoors?”

  “Well, we can’t very well have them shooting rifles, now can we?” Hetta stared at her. “Next year,” Lucy explained to mollify her new friend, “we’ll have the harvest home at the proper time of year. Outdoors—with canopies and booths and hoops for the children. ”

  The guests moved to the sides of the hall, buzzing with excitement. Lucy once more searched the crowd for Jeremy, in vain. She reluctantly swept to the center of the room. This was supposed to be his moment, drat him.

  The crowd fell silent. A hundred pairs of eyes fixed on her. Lucy cleared her throat, suddenly feeling a bit anxious. She ought to have had some of that ale herself.

  “Thank you for coming,” she began. “It is my honor to welcome you as guests to Corbinsdale Abbey. I hope you enjoyed your meal. ”

  Enthusiastic applause and cheers echoed off the hall’s vaulted ceiling. Lucy smiled.

  “I apologize for the delay in His Lordship’s arrival, but I’m certain he will be joining us soon. In the meantime, we have prepared a few contests to entertain you before the dancing begins. We will begin with archery, and the champion will be rewarded handsomely. ” She pulled out a small purse and shook it, rattling the coin within. The crowd whooped.
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