Goddess of the hunt, p.46
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.46
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 46

 

  “You know I don’t meanthat. ” Toby chuckled. “I mean, don’t you have some profound wisdom to impart on the care and feeding of a wife? Everyone else has. Felix won’t give up on the subject. He’s become quite insufferable. ”

  Perhaps Jeremy ought to be talking to Felix. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I shall maintain my sufferable silence. ”

  “Suit yourself. ” Toby drained his Madeira. “I’m surprised to even see you here. Cutting the honeymoon a bit short, aren’t you?”

  “I had business,” Jeremy grumbled into his whiskey. He was not interested in discussing his business, estate or personal, with Toby. “I return home tomorrow,” he added, lest Toby extend any unwelcome invitations.

  Toby winked at him. “Eager to get back, I’ll expect. ”

  Jeremy didn’t know what to say. The truth of it was, he had no business being in London. He ought to be at home, as Toby kept insinuating, honeymooning with his new bride. But life with Lucy was killing him, one dinner at a time. He’d gotten exactly what he’d demanded—a sedate, proper wife—and he couldn’t have been more miserable. She scarcely seemed to eat anymore, and certainly not with any enjoyment. She dressed in new gowns and wore lace gloves; her hair was always perfectly coiffed. Jeremy couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her hair tumbling down to her waist in that clamor of chestnut waves. Neither could he recall a cross word from her since …Since .

  Jeremy sipped his whiskey and swallowed the bitter taste of tears.

  And then had come the eventuality he’d been dreading since their wedding day. She wanted to leave him.

  So he’d left her first.

  London offered no end of diversions to keep his mind off Lucy. But his thoughts were with her more than ever. Or rather, she was with him, in his thoughts. Everywhere Jeremy went, he saw sights he wished he could show her, experiences he felt certain she would enjoy. Balls, opera, the theater, Vauxhall. Oh, and why stop with the traditional amusements for ladies? Knowing Lucy, she would not be satisfied until she’d attended her share of boxing matches, too.

  “Shouldn’t you be with your intended?” Jeremy asked, wishing to change the subject. “You know, taking her to the theater or having dinner with her family?”

  “Oh, Sophia hardly has time for me these days. I scarcely see her, unless she’s dragging me off to shop for lace or select blooms for her wedding posy. I’m telling you, Jem, you did things right. License, vicar, man-and-wife. It all happened so fast, I could scarcely believe it. Not that I was surprised, mind. ”

  Jeremy looked askance at him. “You weren’t surprised?”

  “Of course not. I knew that was not ‘nothing’ between you and Lucy in the orchard, no matter what you said. Then there were Sophia’s little hints. And that letter sealed things nicely. But I knew even before the letter—else I wouldn’t have proposed to Sophia the way I did. ”

  Jeremy shifted in his chair. “What do you mean?”

  “Come on, Jem. Do you honestly think I would have done that in front of Lucy if I thought she were still in love with me? What kind of boor do you make me out to be?”

  Jeremy wasn’t certain what to make of anything at the moment. He drained his whiskey, hoping for answers at the bottom of the glass.

  “No, I knew,” Toby continued. “I’ve charmed many a young lady, Jem. Thousands, I’d guess. It’s not the sort of achievement that lends meaning to a man’s life, but it’s the one talent I’ve got. I know exactly the moment I have them hooked. That pretty blush spreads across their cheeks, and they look up at me through their eyelashes, lips pursed just so. It’s a thrill, every time. But just as I know the instant they fall for me, I can tell—with most distressing certainty—the precise moment they pick themselves up. ”

  He motioned to the waiter for another drink. “After you had your little row with Henry that day in the woods, I walked Lucy home. Somewhere between the woods and Waltham Manor, she grew out of loving me. And I don’t mind telling you, I didn’t take it well. Eight years, she’d been mad for me—suddenly over. ” He cast a guilty look at Jeremy. “I was a bit jealous, I expect. ”

  Jeremy stared at him.

  “But it all came right in the end,” Toby finished, accepting a fresh glass of wine from the waiter. “You and Lucy, me and Sophia. You should come to Kent for a visit next Easter. See the bluebells and all. ”

  Jeremy leaned forward in his chair. “Toby, even you must have noticed, Lucy wasn’t precisely thrilled to marry me. I … Henry … er, the circumstances forced her into it. She had no choice. ”

  “No choice?” Toby laughed. “I was there at the wedding, Jem. I don’t recall seeing Lucy bound or gagged or dragged to the altar. And that’s the only way anyone could persuade that girl to recite vows against her will. ” He chuckled into his glass. “Lucy, ‘forced’ to marry. A good laugh, that. ”

  Jeremy had only downed one glass of whiskey, but his head was swimming. He couldn’t comprehend what Toby was saying. He was a bit afraid to even try. Even if—and he mentally emphasizedif —Lucy had indeed grown out of Toby and somehow grown intohim , it meant only one thing. That Jeremy had managed to cock things up even worse than he’d thought previously.

  “Say, Toby,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “What do you plan to do when the charm wears off on Sophia? What ifshe grows out of you?”

  Toby’s face grew solemn. “I don’t like to think about it, Jem. ” He shrugged, and a shadow of that rakish grin crept back to his face. “I expect that’s what jewels are for. ”

  It was a damned fool thing, carrying jewels on horseback at night. Aside from the obvious hazards of riding in the dark—the risks of becoming unseated, laming the horse, or losing one’s way entirely—highwaymen were always a threat. To be sure, thieves would little expect a lone rider to be carrying a small fortune in gems, but desperate men would not hesitate to kill him for his horse alone.

  But then, Jeremy was a rather desperate man himself. And anyone who tried to touch the necklace coiled neatly in his breast pocket would meet first with the cold steel of a pistol. Caution would tell him to stop at an inn, complete his journey tomorrow. But caution be damned. It didn’t matter that it was dark, or late, or dangerous. It was Thursday, and he had a promise to keep.

  He had several promises to keep, in fact, and he intended to start making good on them.

  He’d told Henry he would give Lucy the opportunities she’d never had. He’d promised Lucy he would do his best to see her happy. And he’d vowed before God that he would honor and cherish his wife all the days of his life. Yet he’d fled to London, running away from those promises like an eight-year-old boy.

  Yes, she had turned from him and wept, and it had hurt. It had damn near killed him. But tears didn’t dissolve duty. Perhaps he could never give her what she truly deserved, but that fact didn’t excuse him from trying.

  He would do what he should have done from the first. He would bring Lucy to London. She would be within a half-day’s journey of Waltham Manor—she might visit her brother and Marianne as often as she wished. He would present her at court and introduce her to society. They would attend as many balls and operas and exhibitions as she desired. She might even find a reasonable use for her pin money. And Jeremy could finally take up his seat in Lords. His obligations to his wife weren’t the only duties he’d been dodging. Perhaps he could even do some good there, work toward outlawing the use of mantraps. That would be a more fitting tribute to Thomas than any fabricated portrait.

  He tried not to dwell on Toby’s words the night before. It was too much to hope that Lucy might love him. He told himself it didn’t matter whether she did or not; his duty to her remained the same. Despite all this, Jeremy was feeling giddily optimistic. Which, for him, was an entirely foreign sensation. But not an unpleasant one. Not in the least.

  It was a full day’s ride on horseback from London to Corbinsdale Abbey, if one
started with the dawn and changed horses halfway. If, however, one waited for the jeweler’s shop to open, then spent the better part of an hour waving away trays of tawdry baubles before the officious clerk brought out the best wares, then wasted yet another quarter-hour while one’s purchase was wrapped—the journey home stretched into evening, and the dark made for slower progress still.

  But it was Thursday, and he’d told Lucy he’d be home on Thursday. And somehow, keeping that casually uttered promise became as important to him as honoring his wedding vows. It might not make a difference to her whether he returned tonight or never, but it did to Jeremy. Just as the necklace weighing down his breast pocket was less a gift to her than it was a symbol to him.

  She was his jewel. Rare, precious, beautiful, and possessed of an inner fire that it was a crime against nature to dull or hide. He would expect nothing of her, make no demands. That base, brutish lust would not escape his control again. But he would protect her, and cherish her, and place her in the setting that allowed her to sparkle brightest. He hoped that setting would be London; he intended to use whatever powers of persuasion he could muster to plead that case. If Lucy still wished to return to Waltham Manor, he would buy up the surrounding land and build her a manor house of her own, with a stable full of docile mares and the finest French chef his English coin could hire.

  It was nearing midnight when Jeremy finally reached the Corbinsdale stables. Lucy would surely be abed, he thought, handing his reins to a sleepy groom and making his way up to the house. Mounting the stairs two at a time, he considered whether he ought to rouse her. Certainly not in his present state, he thought ruefully. A day of hard riding on dusty roads did little to recommend a man when his object was persuasion. He would have a bath drawn, and then he would wake her. He hadn’t looked on his wife in five days, and he didn’t think he could wait until morning to see her again.

  He didn’t have to wait another minute.

  Jeremy entered the sitting room to find his wife curled up on the ivory damask sofa, asleep. He quietly crossed the room to stand before her. She did not wake. He sank down on the carpet next to his wife, his legs suddenly weak. He couldn’t blame physical exhaustion, or mental fatigue. Lucy was just so damned beautiful, it brought him to his knees.

  She lay on her side, one hand slid between the sofa’s creamy upholstery and the golden skin of her cheek. Thick, dark eyelashes fluttered fetchingly as she dreamed. Her hair was unbound, rippling over her shoulder and glowing almost red in the firelight. And what she was wearing—dear God. It was a very good thing Lucy was asleep, because anything tender or honorable or gently persuasive in him instantly went up in flames.

  A thin strap of black lace looped over the enticing curve of her exposed shoulder, and Jeremy’s eyes followed it down, and down, to where plunging black lace framed the valley between her breasts. Red silk skimmed over the flat planes of her belly and the rounded swell of her hip, then diverged in another V of lace. The narrow slit began at the crest of her thigh, then widened as it wandered down the side of her leg. The silk fell away completely just below her knee, exposing the sweet curve of her calf as it tapered to her ankle.

  Her ankle flexed.

  A sleepy sigh pulled his gaze back up to her face. To heavy-lidded emerald eyes and slightly parted, sweetly bowed, dusky red lips.

  “Jeremy?”

  Lucy blinked again. Perhaps she was dreaming. She often dreamt of him like this, coming to her fresh from the stables—rumpled and unshaven, cool wind clinging to his hair and clothes. And sometimes, in her dreams, he murmured her name in this same reverent whisper and reached out like this to gently touch her cheek.

  “Come with me to London. ”

  But never in her dreams did he saythat .
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