Goddess of the hunt, p.44
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.44

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 44

 

  She swallowed and glared up at him. Ever so slightly, she leaned into his body. The firm swell of her breasts brushed against his chest. “I did. One kiss. ”

  “One kiss. ”

  He grasped her face in his hands, angled it back, and brought his mouth down on hers. Hard. She squirmed against him, but he held her close, tangling his fingers in that tightly coiled hair. Her lips were pressed together, and he ran his tongue over them in a desperate plea. Open to me , he willed. Take me in .

  Then suddenly, her hands shot under his coat and slid up his back, pulling him tight against her soft, supple body. Her lips parted to release a breathy moan.

  It was all the invitation he needed. He thrust his tongue in her mouth and drank in that moan. Drank deeply, tasting her essence—golden and cool and sweet and wild, like ripe pears and honey. His mouth moved over hers again and again, and she welcomed his tongue with her own.

  She moved closer. Wriggling into his coat, flattening her breasts against his chest, tilting her hips against his. He worked one hand between their bodies to knead her breast. She sighed against his mouth. Her hands moved to his shoulders, cleaving his wet coat from his body and tugging it down. Without breaking the kiss, he let his hands fall to his sides, and she yanked the coat from his arms.

  One kiss. One kiss that would never end. Not if he could help it. He cupped her face in his hands and held her mouth firmly against his as they sank down together. Down to their knees, then down to the carpet.

  Then she was under him. So yielding and sweet, his body ached with desire. Her fingers worked beneath his shirt, burning trails of fire over the chilled flesh of his back. And words tumbled through his mind, so many words he longed to say. Beautiful andlovely anddear andheart andplease . Andwe andus andours . Andhelp me andhold me andtake me in . Anddon’t let me go andnever andnever andnever ever leave .

  But he couldn’t say them. He couldn’t risk breaking this kiss. This one kiss that was everything. He pulled up her skirts in a rustle of silk and cambric, fumbling through the layers of petticoats and finding the slit in her drawers. She was hot and wet and clasping around his fingers, and the words changed tohurry andwant andneed andoh God andnow .

  He tore open his breeches and slid into her, and she whimpered against his mouth. He withdrew and thrust again. She bit down on his lip. He stayed in her, grinding slowly against her. Then she threw her arms around his neck and opened her mouth to his tongue. And she wrapped her legs around his hips and opened herself to him.

  He lost himself in her mouth and her arms and her legs and her tight, wet embrace. Again and again and again. He felt her arching and tensing and convulsing around him, and when she cried out against his mouth, he took it all in. Tasted her pleasure. Felt it surge through him, send him over the edge intoyes andyes andbliss andheaven andthank you andalways andmine .

  He kissed her gently now, savoring the sweetness of her tongue. The smooth, plump curve of her lower lip. The corners of her mouth, which tasted curiously of salt.

  Salt and bitterness. Like tears.

  Jeremy broke the kiss and raised up on his elbows. She was shaking against him and covering her face, but she couldn’t hide the truth.

  Lucy was crying.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  Lucy couldn’t stop the tears.

  She tried. She fought them with every ounce of her will, but she couldn’t stop them. It was too much. Too many emotions battled inside her—relief, frustration, desire, anger, joy—churning in that dark confusion of her mind. And then in one bright moment, they were all swept away in a wave of exquisite pleasure. Followed by that flood, that same strange, powerful deluge she’d experienced the first time they’d made love. A roaring tide of emotion that surged from her heart and swept through her body—and this time, it overflowed.

  Oh, and they were terrible, the tears. So wet and messy. So helpless and weak. No dainty, ladylike tears, these. No slow, trickling drops of emotion punctuated by a delicate sniff. Lucy’s eyes spilled buckets, and her nose ran. Her shoulders shook, and her chest heaved. She pressed her hands to her face, to no avail. There were eight years’ worth of tears inside her, and she’d been strong enough to store them away one sniffle at a time. But damming all of them at once—impossible.

  “Lucy. ” His voice sounded muffled, far away. “My God, Lucy. What is it?”

  Even if she knew what to tell him, she couldn’t have managed to speak. She could scarcely catch her breath. Sobs racked her body, and hot tears spilled through her fingers, channeling down to her ears. He withdrew from her gently and rolled away, and she cried even harder, bereft of his warmth and strength. Feeling empty and hollow and cold. She curled away from him onto her side, hugging her knees to her chest.

  “Don’t cry, Lucy. I can’t bear it. ” His anguished whisper tore at her heart. Strong fingers smoothed her hair, but she shrank from his touch. And she hated herself for pulling away, but she couldn’t help it. She was too exposed, too raw, and even the most tender caress rasped against her skin. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’ll do anything. Don’t cry. ”

  He’d do anything, he said. But he’d already done too much. He’d made her love him so completely, the love would not be contained. He’d breached every last one of her defenses, and now there was nothing left to keep him out. Nothing left to hold back the tears.

  And these tears, they were everything Lucy had tried so hard, for so long to avoid. Vulnerability. Helplessness. She couldn’t stop herself from crying any more than she could keep herself from loving him—and what he did, with the tears or the love, was completely beyond her control. She was down on the floor, curled into a ball, sobbing into her hands. Defenseless and weak and utterly at his mercy.

  And then he confirmed what she’d always known. Nothing good ever came of tears. Quietly, wordlessly, he rose to his feet and left her.

  He left her all alone.

  Jeremy had to leave. It was a matter of self-preservation.

  He stormed through his antechamber and into the sanctuary of his bedroom, barely managing to slam the door shut before crumpling against it.

  A stronger man would have stayed—would have gathered her into his arms and held her tight and kissed the tears away. But he wasn’t a strong man at that moment, in his heart. When Lucy shrank from him and wept, twenty-one years of strength peeled away, leaving only a vulnerable boy. An eight-year-old boy who’d witnessed the sudden, violent death of his brother. A confused, grieving child who needed a mother’s comfort, but found only tears. Tears that poured salt and shame over raw, open wounds.

  And it hurt. God, did it hurt.

  Jeremy slammed his fist against the door, once. Twice. But the pain splintering through his bloodied knuckles did nothing to dull the agony twisting in his chest.

  How many years had it taken, before he could enter a room without his mother weeping? How many times did she turn from him in tears, begging his nursemaid or tutor to take him away? Take him out of her sight, because she couldn’t look at him without seeing Thomas.

  Thomas was the fortunate son.

  Thomas would never feel this gnawing visceral agony, knowing his very existence caused heartache and pain. Knowing that when she looked at him, she saw only someone he wasn’t. Someone he could never replace. What was a boy to do, when a simple word or a laugh dropped into the air so innocently could land in a deluge of bitter tears?

  He spoke softly, trod lightly, stayed out of his mother’s sight. He never laughed or ran or played too loudly, for fear of disturbing her fragile peace. He escaped the house and went riding, hard and fast across the open countryside. He went off to school and surrounded himself with friends, taking comfort from their jollity even when he did not share it. He occupied his mind with books and studies, to keep unpleasant thoughts at bay.

  The boy grew into a man. And between Cambridge and London and his friends’ invitations, h
e rarely came home. He found gratification in the arms of women who would quite willingly shed their clothes, but never shed a tear. Women who gave of their bodies but withheld their hearts. Women he could never love.

  Women he could never hurt.

  But when Lucy turned from him and wept, she resurrected that boy. She brought back all the hurt. And that wounded, grieving eight-year-old child—he didn’t know how to protect, or console. He only knew how to survive.

  Tread lightly. Speak softly. Stay out of sight.

  Leave.

  In the following weeks, they were like two spirits haunting the same house. While Lucy went about her daily routine, Jeremy disappeared. Into his study, sometimes. More often to places out of the Abbey. He always returned for dinner, always on time. He made the minimum of conversation courtesy required, speaking in cool, measured tones.

  There were no more kisses.

  Although she and her husband barely spoke, Lucy found some solace in an entirely novel form of communication.

  Letters.

  She received weekly letters from Marianne. Chatty, rambling missives filled with all the homely details of life at Waltham Manor. The latest escapades of the children or the servants or the dogs. Even in the Abbey’s oppressive stillness, Lucy could hear laughter and music in those letters. She read them so many times, the paper wore thin at the creases.

  Sophia sent rapturous, effusive reports of her engagement and wedding plans, penned in perfectly looping script. On first reading, Lucy scanned the lines with a broad grin. The second time through, her smile would inevitably fade. Sophia’s accounts of her betrothal and betrothed were unflaggingly cheerful. Too cheerful. Lucy suffered the niggling sensation that something must be wrong. After all, experience had shown Sophia to have a rather vivid imagination where letter-writing was concerned. One need only ask Gervais.

  The identity of Lucy’s most faithful correspondent came as a great surprise. Henry wrote to her two or three times a week. He had little to say in these missives—a few random remarks on the weather, or an update on the winter wheat crop. Perhaps a few words about the hounds. But the message beneath those few hastily scrawled phrases was clear. Lucy responded to each letter with her own assortment of off-hand observations, always the same answer writ between the lines.

  Yes, Henry. I miss you, too.

  She was learning to measure her happiness by small sources of comfort. Any day that brought a letter was a good day, in relative terms. The particular day that brought two letters, both brimming with exciting news, stood out as a banner occasion.

  “We’ve received our invitation to Toby and Sophia’s wedding,” she told Jeremy at dinner that evening. “It’s to be in December. ”

  “That soon?” He did not appear to share her excitement. “Did you wish to attend?”

  “Why, yes. Of course. ”

  He took a slow sip of wine. “Very well, then. ”

  Lucy pushed a bit of potato around her plate. “I was thinking … perhaps we could stop at Waltham Manor for a visit, after the wedding. ”

  Silence.

  She fortified her resolve with a sip of claret. “It’s just that, I also had a letter from Marianne today. She’s increasing again. I’ve always been there to help during her other confinements, and I’m a bit anxious for her. The first few months are always the hardest. And we will be passing through the neighborhood. ”

  Jeremy shook his head slightly. “Your brother and I did not part well. I think a visit would be ill-advised. ” He cleared his throat and picked up his fork again. “Besides, I can’t be absent overlong. Estate business, you realize. ”

  Lucy let her fork clatter to the table. “Estate business. Yes, of course. ” She could taste the acid in her voice, and she knew he had to hear it. “Well, it was only an idea. ”

  Jeremy sat back in his chair and regarded her. The cool detachment in his gaze froze Lucy’s heart. “Perhaps,” he said calmly, “you would prefer to visit on your own. I can deposit you at Waltham Manor after the wedding. The carriages will be available to retrieve you whenever you wish. ”
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