Goddess of the hunt, p.45
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.45

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 45

 

  Deposither?Retrieve her? What was she to him? Just some bothersome parcel to be shuttled about from place to place?

  She stared at her husband. There he sat, His Lordship, positively monolithic at his end of the table. Ever calm and composed. Suggesting their indefinite separation over the fish course, in the same tone of voice he might speak of the weather. Lucy wanted to pick up the plate before her, hurl it against the wall, and watch it smash into as many pieces as her heart.

  Instead, she curled her fingers around the stem of her wineglass and bit her lip until she tasted the coppery tang of blood. “If that’s what you prefer,” she finally managed. “I’ll write to Henry tomorrow. ” She looked into those ice-blue eyes, scanning his gaze for any flicker of hurt or disappointment. Even a flash of annoyance would be welcome. “Perhaps,”—she swallowed slowly—“perhaps I should just stay until the babe is born. ”

  Nothing.

  “If you wish,” he answered, returning his gaze to his plate. Lucy stared at him in disbelief as he casually forked a bite of salmon into his mouth. “I’m going to London tomorrow. ”

  “To London? Tomorrow?”

  “I have some business there with my solicitor, regarding another of the family properties. I’m riding instead of taking the carriage, so I shan’t be gone long. I’ll return on Thursday. ”

  “I see. ” He was leaving for London,tomorrow , to be gone for the better part of a week, and he’d tossed that bit of information at her like one throws a crust to a dog. Lucy supposed she should feel fortunate he’d bothered to inform her at all. Her eyes burned. The dishes swam before her in a miasma of welling tears. She blinked furiously. She wouldnot cry.

  She laid her napkin down on the table. “I expect you’ll want to retire, then. You’ll need an early start. ”

  He drained his wine slowly before responding. “Indeed. ”

  Lucy let him go.

  The next morning, she woke with the dawn. Even so, she stayed abed late and kept to her chambers until she was certain he must be gone. There was no sense in bidding him farewell. After dinner yesterday, any goodbyes they might exchange would feel redundant.

  The Abbey did not seem quieter in his absence—it could scarcely become more silent than before. But for once, it wasn’t the outward silence that oppressed her. It was the stillness inside her that ached. A strange, quiet void that she might have described as hollow, except that nothing echoed there. Each beat of her heart, each word, each breath was instantly dampened, smothered by this weightless burden of silence in her chest.

  And she couldn’t escape it. Couldn’t crawl out from under it or break free of its spell, because she carried it within her. Out on long, rambling walks. Through dark, foggy dreams. Around the vast stone confines of the Abbey, which she took to haunting during the day, wandering through the ancient chambers in aimless fashion.

  One afternoon, while drifting through the music room, she wandered into Aunt Matilda.

  “Aunt Matilda!” Lucy wrapped an arm about her aunt’s indigo-draped shoulders. “Where is your nursemaid?” Familiar scents—spice and chocolate and snuff—opened a cache of fond memories. She felt a sharp pang of homesickness for Waltham Manor. “Never mind,” she said, hugging the old lady close. “I’m glad to see you. ”

  Aunt Matilda wandered over to the pianoforte and opened the instrument. The housekeeper had insisted on having it tuned Lucy’s first week at the Abbey, no matter how much Lucy insisted she didn’t play. Aunt Matilda sat down, touched her fingers to the ivory keys, and launched into a lively reel. Her blue turban bobbed in time with the music, and a helpless giggle burst from Lucy’s throat.

  Music. Laughter. For the first time in weeks.

  The last strains of the reel stretched out into silence, and Aunt Matilda’s hands dropped to her lap. Lucy went to sit beside her on the bench.

  “Thank you, Aunt Matilda. That was lovely. ” The old lady smiled up at her with the same benign expression she’d worn every day in Lucy’s memory. If only Lucy could borrow that unflagging optimism. Lucy grasped her aunt’s papery hand in hers. “What’s to become of me, Aunt Matilda? I’ve changed somehow. And I can’t go back home, I just can’t. I miss the Manor desperately, but I would miss him more. ” She gently laid her head on her aunt’s shoulder. “I miss him now. ”

  A turbaned head settled heavily against hers, and Lucy squeezed her aunt’s fingers. The bony hand lay limp and cold in Lucy’s grasp.

  “Aunt Matilda?” Lucy straightened, and her aunt’s frail body slumped against her own. Lucy lifted the old lady’s head, pressing a hand against her clammy cheek. “Aunt Matilda?”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  “She’ll be all right, won’t she?” Lucy paced the Persian carpet of Aunt Matilda’s suite, endlessly circling the blue-and-gold pattern. “She has to be all right. ”

  Hetta squeezed each of Aunt Matilda’s hands in turn. “Lucy, your aunt is eighty if she’s a day,” she replied from the bedside. “She won’t live forever, you know. ”

  “I know, but—”

  “Shhh. ” Hetta laid her ear to Aunt Matilda’s chest. Lucy ceased her pacing and held her breath until Hetta straightened. “You must face facts, Lucy. Your aunt cannot be expected to live much longer. ”

  Lucy shut her eyes and whimpered softly.

  “But,” Hetta continued, “she isn’t going to die today. So far as I can tell, at least. ” She helped the old lady into a sitting position and plumped the pillows behind her. “In fact, she seems to have suffered no lasting effects from her little spell. ” She began repacking her black valise. “Just make certain that she rests. Give her some beef tea; solid food, if she’ll eat it. She’ll be wandering around again in no time. ”

  “All right. ” Lucy sniffed and swiped at her nose with the heel of her hand. “Thank you for coming. Shall I see you out?”

  “That won’t be necessary,” Hetta said briskly, standing and smoothing the wrinkles from her fawn-colored skirt. “I know my way. I know this house better than you do, I’d wager. ”

  “How so?”

  “I practically grew up here. ” Hetta draped her pelisse over her shoulders and tied it in front. “My father was the late Lady Kendall’s personal physician. Didn’t you know?”

  Lucy shook her head.

  “That was the whole reason he moved our family from London,” Hetta explained. “To treat Lady Kendall’s ‘nervous condition. ’”

  “Nervous condition?” Lucy handed Hetta her bonnet.

  “Well, that would be what my father called it. He always was rather generous. ‘Incurable grief,’ the Lady herself would have said. ” Hetta knotted the bonnet ribbons under her chin. “Personally, I was inclined to think of it as ‘insufferable moaning,’ but then—I never was the sympathetic type. ”

  She picked up her gloves from the bedside table. “Anytime her ladyship went into one of her fits, my father would be summoned to the house. Twice, three times a week. Sometimes daily. I didn’t mind—he’d bring me along and I’d explore the Abbey while he bled her or dosed her with sedatives. ” She lowered her voice. “Have you found the naughty tapestry yet? The one with all the depictions of sinners in Hell, being …sinful? ”

  Lucy shook her head. She wasn’t interested in tapestries—not at the moment, anyway. “Lady Kendall had fits? What sort of fits?”

  “Oh, all sorts of fits. The more dramatic, the better. A word, a look, a sudden change in the weather—the slightest provocation sent her into hysterics. And then she would go on and on, crying for hours until my father could calm her. I don’t know how he had the patience to treat her for eight years. And she’d been that way for ages before we even came here. ” She stepped away and began pulling on her gloves.

  A chill crawled down Lucy’s spine. She thought of her own helpless bout of tears, and Jeremy’s panicked reaction. Was it any wonder he had left for London? He must have thoug
ht she was becoming another hysterical female. Perhaps shewas becoming another hysterical female.

  “My father said one must feel sorry for her,” Hetta continued. “She had a fragile constitution, he said. She married a very harsh man, and then she lost a child. ” She looked up at Lucy with a wry smile. “But as I said, sympathy isn’t my strong point. So if you’ve a mind to develop a nervous condition of your own, you’d better send for my father. The best you’d get from me is a smart slap across the cheek and a slug of brandy. ”

  “I think I need both. ” Lucy sank down on the side of Aunt Matilda’s bed. “I don’t know what’s to become of me, truly. ”

  Hetta looked at her sharply. “Oh, no. Don’t ask me for counsel, Lucy. I’m brilliant with poultices, but I’m not at all accustomed to giving advice. ”

  “Believe me, I’m not accustomed to needing it,” Lucy replied. She looked up at the whimsically painted ceiling, where gilt-haired cherubs peeked down at her from billowing white clouds. “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here. ”

  With an air of resignation, Hetta sat down next to her. “Your husband seems to think you do. If you want to know what you’re doing here, I suggest you ask him. Unless you came with pots of money,”—she eyed Lucy dubiously—“he must have had some reason for marrying you. ”

  “I didn’t come with any money. ” Lucy picked at the lace trim of her sleeve. “He had to marry me. I bullied him into it. ”

  Hetta burst into laughter.

  “No, really,” said Lucy. “I was perfectly shameless. ”

  Hetta only laughed harder.

  Lucy began to feel a bit indignant. “I’m telling you the truth! I threw myself at him like … like a wanton dairymaid!”

  At length, Hetta caught her breath and wiped her eyes with a gloved hand. “Lucy, please. First, your husband is an earl, ridiculously wealthy, and—if you won’t mind my noticing—not unpleasant to look at. He couldn’t have remained unmarried this long without learning to deflect unwelcome advances. Even from wanton dairymaids.

  “Second,” Hetta continued, cutting off Lucy’s objection, “Lord Kendall does not strike me as a gentleman who would be bullied into anything. Quite the reverse. Surely you’ve noticed that he need only flash that glare of his to send people scurrying. He’s considered more than a bit intimidating. ”

  “Well, I’m not one to be bullied, either,” Lucy said. “And he can’t intimidate me with that Look. Believe me, he’s tried for years, but I just know him too well to believe there’s anything behind it. And if you think he’s pleasing to look at when he’s glowering …” She sighed. “You ought to see him when he smiles. ”

  Hetta looked at her for a moment, eyebrows raised. Then she rose to her feet and gathered up her valise. “Well, that’s a relief,” she said, already heading toward the door. “You didn’t need my advice, after all. ”

  “I’m glad you’re here,” Toby said, sipping his Madeira. “You can give me a bit of advice. ”

  “Advice?” Jeremy snorted. “Why would you want my advice?”

  “Well, you’re a married man now, aren’t you? Don’t you want to give me a speech about the duties of matrimony?”

  Jeremy sighed. He should have known better than to come to the club. Of course, Toby would be in Town making wedding arrangements. Jeremy had perfectly good whiskey at the town house. Why had he not simply stayed at home?

  “Toby, if you still don’t know how to perform your marital duties, you need more than my advice. I can recommend you to a few capable tutors, if need be. ”
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