Goddess of the hunt, p.43
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.43

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 43

 

  “Who will step forward to test his skill?” she asked.

  “I will. ” A tall, burly fellow with a bushy ginger beard stepped forward, and the crowd erupted. He raised his arms, spurring the cheers to an even louder pitch. A good portion of the guests began chanting his name. Lucy couldn’t quite make it out, but it sounded like “Hanson. ”

  A wiry youth was thrust forward into the center of the room by his laughing friends. A third pushed his way through the crowd, a dark, stocky man with huge mitts for hands and a grave mien.

  “Excellent,” Lucy shouted, raising her hands for silence. She motioned to the servant, who distributed bows and arrows to the three men. “Your mark will be here,” she said, sweeping to the end of the hall near the entryway, opposite the straw targets. “Each man will have three arrows, and the best accuracy overall will earn the purse. ”

  The men took their places and began fitting their arrows to their bows.

  “But my lady,” the man called Hanson called out, “I don’t know that the purse is sufficient reward. Don’t you think,”—he looked to the crowd for support—“you should sweeten the pot?” The assembly broke into wild applause.

  Lucy frowned, bewildered. “What do you suggest?”

  “To the winner goes a forfeit, my lady. ” He fixed her with a lascivious grin. “A kiss. ” The crowd whooped and resumed chanting his name. The ginger-haired ruffian pumped his fist in the air, egging them on.

  Lucy sized up the competitors. None of them looked particularly kissable, but she didn’t know how to refuse without seeming rude. A little peck on the cheek couldn’t do any harm, she supposed. She met Hanson’s eyes. It was a challenge he’d laid down, she realized. A dare. And Lucy never backed down from a dare. She lifted her chin. “Very well. ”

  The guests roared their approval so loudly, she worried the Abbey roof might collapse.

  “On my signal, then,” she called, cupping her hands around her mouth. The crowd hushed as the men drew back their bows. “Fire!”

  Two arrows sailed into their targets, both landing wildly off-center. The third target remained unmarked. Lucy looked back to the dark, stocky man and saw he had not yet fired. Instead, he leaned back, releasing the arrow up and to the right.

  The shaft soared up toward the rafters. The guests gasped and scrambled for cover, elbowing one another out of the way. Then the arrow reached the zenith of its arc and began its descent. Somewhere in the throng, a woman screamed.

  Thwack.

  The missile collided with the mounted head of a stag, piercing it straight through one glassy eye.

  The crowd erupted into its loudest cheers yet. Several men stepped forward to clap the rogue archer on the back.

  Hanson, not to be outdone, fitted another arrow to his bow and shot. The shaft buried itself in the leathery hide of the bull elephant trophy. The tenants went wild, stamping and howling with glee.

  Now all of the men were refitting their bows, and Lucy began to grow more than a bit alarmed. Not because she cared one whit for the late earl’s prized collection, but because the longer this went on, the greater the likelihood that someone would get hurt.

  “Gentlemen!” she cried. “Stop!”

  But then the dark, stocky man sent another arrow sailing into the mouth of a boar, and Lucy’s cries were drowned out by the thunderous wave of applause. She marched across the hall to stand directly in front of Hanson. If he could incite the masses to this fervor, she reasoned, he could quell them.

  She was right. He lowered his bow. With a wave of his arm, he silenced the crowd.

  “You must stop this,” she said firmly. “Someone could get hurt. ”

  He smirked, eyeing her from head to toe with a leer that made her skin crawl. “Well, my lady. Does that mean you’re ready for your kiss?”

  The tenants exploded into the loudest roar yet. Whoops and whistles resounded from the rafters. Lucy’s cheeks burned with rage. Hanson stepped toward her, and the din grew louder still. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of shrinking away. He was only a bully, and she knew how to handle bullies. Bullies, as a rule, feed on fear. Refuse to flinch, and they quickly grow bored.

  She would not flinch.

  As Hanson approached her, however, and she was forced to crane her neck to maintain eye contact, she admitted with some trepidation another trait bullies typically shared.

  They were big.

  He pursed his revolting, bearded mouth and made a disgusting smacking noise. She grimaced. If that was what passed for kissing with him, she pitied Mrs. Hanson.

  The crowd, however, did not share her revulsion. They whooped and hollered louder than ever, until the Abbey walls seemed to shake with the effort of containing their tumult.

  Do not flinch, Lucy told herself. Do. Not. Flinch .

  A loud crack rent the air.

  Hanson flinched.

  The tenants went dead silent. One hundred heads swiveled to face the hall’s entrance. Jeremy stood in the arched doorway, a rifle at his shoulder.

  One hundred heads swiveled the other direction, tracing the angle of his shot. A cloud of smoke rose from the snarling tiger mounted above the massive hearth. The acrid scent of singed fur filled the air. As the smoke dissipated, Lucy watched a round, black hole appear in the exact center of the tiger’s head, like a third eye.

  Jeremy lowered his gun and strode to the center of the room. Each footfall echoed off the stone floor. He stopped, standing eye-to-eye with Hanson.

  “Get away from my wife,” he said quietly, pronouncing each word as a distinct, murderous threat. Then he turned his ice-blue glare on the crowd. “And get out of my house. ”

  No one moved. No one breathed.

  “Now. ”

  The crowd emptied the hall faster than water pours through a sieve. Within the space of a minute, Jeremy and Lucy stood completely alone in the center of the hall.

  Lucy surveyed her husband from the feet up. His typically polished Hessians were muddied to mid-calf. Her gaze wandered up the mile-long, muscled columns of his thighs. His shirt, she noticed, was rumpled and wet. The pungent odor of wet wool suggested his dark blue coat was likewise damp. He wore no cravat, and dark hair curled in the notch of his open shirt. Stubble shaded his throat and jaw.

  His cold glare awaited her when she finally met his eyes.

  She would not flinch.

  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

  “I,” he forced out, “am preventing a riot. The more appropriate question would be, what the hell do you thinkyou’re doing?”

  “I’m convincing the tenants to like us, you imbecile. And now you’ve gone and ruined everything!”

  A harsh bark of laughter tore from his chest. He turned and stalked away, flinging his rifle to the ground.

  Lucy clenched her fists in exasperation. She looked up at the still-smoking tiger. “How did you make that shot?”

  “What?”

  “You’re a terrible marksman. You can’t shoot a pheasant at six paces. How did you make that shot?” She tilted her head up at the striped, three-eyed beast.

  He brushed past her in silence and stalked out of the room.

  Gasping with indignation, she rushed after him.

  “Don’t you walk away from me,” she called, chasing him up the stairs. She caught up to him in the corridor. “As you just so charmingly pointed out to all our guests, I am your wife. ” She followed him into their sitting room. He turned toward his rooms, but she rushed around him and blocked the door.

  “Lucy,” he warned, his voice a dark growl, “don’t push me right now. ”

  “Or what? You’ll glare at me? Oh, dear. I may swoon. ”

  He fumed at her in silence. Exasperating man. Tall, dark, brooding, exasperatingly attractive man. His hair was plastered to his head in damp, black locks. His shirt clung to the hard muscles of
his chest. But the heat of his body radiated through the layer of cool damp, bathing her in heady, leather-scented steam. She melted against the door, suddenly remembering the whole reason behind this evening’s debacle.

  She loved the addle-brained brute.

  Lucy drew a deep breath and composed herself. “Jeremy, it wasn’t meant to happen like that. You were supposed to come back in time for dinner. ” She stroked the wet lapel of his coat. “Where have you been, anyway? I was worried sick. ”

  She was worried sick.

  Jeremy shook his head in disbelief. Lucy couldn’t know the meaning of the phrase. It was a very good thing he’d missed his dinner, or he surely would have lost it by now.

  He’d ridden home through cold and wet, but—as always—thoughts of her had kept him warm. After a week of increasingly pleasant days as husband and wife, Jeremy’s patience was at an end. This, he had vowed, would be their first equally pleasant night. Then he’d come home to a scene that chilled his blood—tenants on the verge of a riot, men shooting up his hall, a filthy, hulking brute poised to assault his wife—andshe was worried sick. Standing there in a devil-red dress and looking up at him with guileless green eyes andpetting him like a cat. As if she were never in any danger from that mob. As if she were in no danger from him. With every bone and muscle and sinew in his body, he wanted to grab her. To hold her close or to shake her silly, he didn’t know. But he trembled with the sheer effort of restraint. He’d been holding too much in, for far too long, and he felt perilously close to exploding.

  Her slender fingers curled around his lapel. “Is it the expense you’re angry about? You needn’t be. I used my pin money. ”

  The expense? Now she thought he was concerned about the expense. She was so utterly wrong about so many things, he didn’t know how to begin to set her straight.

  “Lucy, listen to me. ” She tightened her grip on his lapel. “A bridge was out, and I got caught in the rain. I don’t give a damn about any expense. And just because I don’t hit a pheasant, it doesn’t mean I can’t shoot. ” Her brow wrinkled with confusion, and she opened her mouth to speak. He jabbed a finger under her chin, cutting her off. “And now that I’ve answered all of your nonsensical questions, you’re going to answer some of mine. What the devil were you thinking? That getting the tenants good and drunk would just magically solve everything?”

  She blinked. “Well … yes. Why shouldn’t it? You were supposed to be a kind and generous host, and then they would see that you’re nothing like your father. And then they would like us, and you would …” Her voice trailed off as her gaze slanted to the floor.

  “Well you were wrong, on several counts. I’m very much like my father, in too many ways. In every way that matters to them. This evening confirmedthat perfectly. And those people did not come here tonight to like us. They came to take from us. They will eat our food and drink our ale, not because they enjoy your gentle company, but because they feel it’s owed them. Because it’s Kendall food, and Kendall drink. They shot at those trophies because they belonged to my father. And those men wanted to …” The vile words stuck in his throat. “Kiss you—and no doubt more—simply because you belong to me. ”

  She laughed. A harsh, bitter sound.

  He cupped her chin in his hand, his fingers pressing into her cheeks. “It’s not a laughing matter. ”

  “Isn’t it?” Her green eyes glimmered. “If only they knew. They could kiss me a thousand times and not take anything from you. How can they steal something you’ve already thrown away?”

  He pulled his hand away from her face. What the hell did she mean by that? Confusion swirled in his mind, and its mate, anger, coursed in his blood.

  “Good night,my lord. ” She brushed past him, heading toward her chambers. He grabbed her elbow, whirling her to face him.

  “Not so fast,my lady,” he said, closing the distance between them. He struggled to keep his voice calm, but raw hurt frayed the edge of his words. His threadbare patience was nearly worn through. He had waited for her, so patiently, at no small cost to his sanity. He could continue to wait, if he knew she would one day turn to him. But if she meant to reject him, he wanted to hear it now. “I believe you owe me a forfeit. You did promise a kiss to the best shot, did you not?”
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