Goddess of the hunt, p.47
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.47

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 47

 

  She rose up on her elbow, rubbing her eyes with her other hand. “What?”

  “Come with me to London,” he repeated, smoothing a lock of hair from her brow.

  Lucy shook herself, trying to dispel the sleepy fog in her brain. “Now?”

  He smiled. For the first time in weeks, he smiled. Her heart turned over in her chest.

  “No, not now. But soon. I’m having my town house—ourtown house—prepared. Your suite is being redecorated. You’ll have a carriage for your own particular use, and the phaeton, of course. Anything else you wish. ”

  “But—”

  He put a finger over her lips. “Don’t answer yet. I’m getting ahead of myself. ” He reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a velvet pouch. Loosening the knotted string at the top, he said, “I know I’ve been remiss in my duty to you as your husband. I want you to know that’s going to change. ”

  He opened the pouch and emptied its contents into his palm. Filigreed gold and glowing red stones coiled in his hand like an exotic snake. Lucy gasped and clapped a hand to her mouth.

  “To match your ring,” he said, pulling her hand from her mouth and draping the necklace over her palm. “Come with me to London. I’ll make no demands on you, I swear it. Just let me take care of you. Whatever you desire, whatever you need—it will be yours. ”

  Lucy tore her gaze away from the jewels in her hand and looked up at her husband. Drat him. His little impassioned speech was wreaking havoc with all the words she’d practiced so faithfully and waited up late to say. That she didn’t want to go back to Waltham Manor. That the past five days had been sheer agony, and she never wanted to be parted from him again. She would go with him to Cornwall, if he asked it. Or Australia, or the moon.

  But he wanted her to go to London. He wanted to buy her jewels and carriages and take care of her. He would make no demands on her, he said.

  Even if she wanted him to?

  Lucy loved him too much to let him go, even if she wasn’t loved in return. If he had wanted her enough to marry her, then being wanted would have to suffice. So she’d practiced her seductive speech and donned this tarty red negligee of Sophia’s—after all, something similar had worked once before. And now he was here on his knees, with jewels and promises and that beautiful, sincere blue gaze of his. Vowing not to desire her at all. Retreating back into that shell of indifference. Offering her a lifetime of opulent misery.

  She didn’t know how to respond.

  Her fingers tightened over the necklace. The polished stones felt like liquid under her fingertips. “It’s lovely, Jeremy. But I don’t need this. And I don’t need carriages, or a redecorated suite, either. ” His brow furrowed, and his jaw tensed. Lucy sat up. This was coming out all wrong.

  Pulling on his lapel with her empty hand, she slid the necklace inside and let it drop back into his pocket. Then she ran both hands up to his shoulders.

  “Jeremy, can’t you see?” She swallowed hard, meeting his now-troubled gaze. “I don’t need you to take care of me. All I need is—”

  A soft knock on the door interrupted her. The door creaked open a foot, and the head of a ghostly-pale chambermaid poked through the gap.

  “B-begging your pardon, my lord. My lady. ” The head bobbed a bit—a motion Lucy took for a curtsy. “I just thought … that is to say, we believed you should know … that someone ought to inform you …”

  “For God’s sake, what is it?” Jeremy rose to his feet.

  The chambermaid shook. “Her Ladyship’s aunt has gone missing,” she squeaked. Then her head disappeared and the door slammed shut.

  Lucy leapt to her feet. “Oh, no,” she moaned, picking up the red silk dressing gown draped over the sofa’s back. She shrugged into the robe and cinched it about her waist before dropping to the floor to hunt for her slippers. “We have to find her. She doesn’t know this place, and the Abbey is so big. She could be anywhere. And it’s so cold, and she’s so frail. If she gets lost …” She jammed the slippers on her feet and scrambled up to a standing position, only to find herself nose-to-nose—or rather, nose-to-throat—with Jeremy.

  “Don’t worry. ” His hands went to her shoulders. “We’ll find her,” he said simply.

  She nodded, staring stupidly at the open collar of his shirt.

  “The servants have no doubt begun searching the house,” he said. “Stay here and help them. It’s unlikely she’d have made it outdoors, but I’ll take some footmen out to the gardens, just to be certain. ” He tilted her face to his. “We’ll find her. And then we’ll continue this talk. ”

  “All right, then. ”

  Then he was gone. Lucy heard him thundering down the stairs, barking orders to servants as he went.

  She crossed the corridor and entered Aunt Matilda’s suite. It seemed best to first verify that she was indeed missing, and not simply huddled behind the draperies. That had happened once at Waltham Manor—the whole house had been turned upside down before her nursemaid finally found Aunt Matilda squirreled away in the window seat.

  Lucy combed through the chamber, peeking in cupboards and ducking under the bed. Finally she strode to the windows and pulled back the drapes.

  Nothing.

  Or something.

  A flash of white outside caught her eye. She scanned the darkness. There it was again. Moonlight glinting off something pale and wispy, like a ghost. Or an elderly spinster’s shift. She pressed her face to the glass, straining to make out the landscape below. This window looked out over the front of the Abbey; the gardens were behind the house. Aunt Matilda was heading down the gently sloping green that bordered the woods, and the woods hid the narrow, winding valley of the stream.

  Lucy rushed down the stairs and out the massive, open door. There were no footmen about. Jeremy must have led them all around back, to the gardens. She grabbed a carriage lamp from its hook beside the door and started off across the green. There was no time to go off in search of the men. By the time she found them and pointed them in the right direction, Aunt Matilda could be wandering lost in the woods, or worse—plunging into the icy stream.

  Lucy caught a glimpse of fluttering fabric again, just at the border of the woods. She cupped her hand to her mouth to call out, but decided to save her breath. As Sophia had once so helpfully pointed out, it made little sense to shout at a deaf lady. Instead, she doubled her pace across the green, her silk slippers crunching over frosted grass. She hurried to the copse of trees she’d seen Aunt Matilda approaching and plunged into the forest.

  She swung the lantern around, scanning through the trees. Nothing. She looked down. There were footprints, of sorts. Small depressions in the ice-crusted mud about the size of a woman’s foot. She followed the trail, holding the lantern aloft with one hand and clutching the neck of her dressing gown with the other.

  Heavens, but Aunt Matilda moved quickly. It seemed impossible that Lucy would not have caught up with her by now. She could hear the gurgle of the stream already.

  The footprints ended at a rocky outcropping. She approached it cautiously, a bubble of dread rising in her throat. The stream’s low gurgle became an ominous roar below. Holding on to a branch with one hand, she swung her lantern out over the edge with the other, peering down into the gorge. Praying she wouldn’t see a tattered scrap of muslin shift somewhere down below.

  Her shoulder exploded with pain. Lucy pitched forward with a scream. The lantern sailed from her hand and tumbled down, landing in the river with a splash.

  The whole world went black.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  Jeremy didn’t find Aunt Matilda.

  Aunt Matilda found him.

  Having started the footmen searching the garden, Jeremy rounded the front of the house. Aunt Matilda greeted him in the entrance hall, barefoot and dressed in a shift nearly as translucent as her skin.

  She was shuffling her feet around the parquet
floor and humming a lively tune. When she looked up and saw Jeremy, she paused just long enough to utter a single word. “Lovely. ”

  “Lucy,” he called, ushering the old lady up the stairs. “Lucy! I’ve found her. ” He looked into the sitting room as he passed their suite. “Lucy?”

  No response.

  Jeremy shrugged off a whisper of anxiety. Casting a pointed look at a maid down the corridor, he steered Aunt Matilda into the Blue Suite. The maid hurried in after them, quickly assuming care of the elderly lady.

  “Where is Her Ladyship?” he asked the maid brusquely.

  “I … I don’t know, my lord. I believe I saw her heading downstairs. ”

  “Downstairs?” That made no sense. If Lucy had gone downstairs, why hadn’t she found her aunt? Jeremy turned to exit the room, but something stopped him. The damn drapes were all pushed to the sides. No wonder the old lady went wandering off. The draft must be ice-cold. He crossed to the window and reached with both hands to gather the blue drapes together.

  Then he saw it.

  A tiny light, winking at him from the edge of the woods. Bobbing and weaving through the darkness. Like a fairy light.

  But Jeremy didn’t believe in fairies. What he believed, with a sick certainty, was that when it came to wandering into danger, his wife clearly took after her aunt.

  He bolted from the room and took the stairs at a run, for the second time that evening. This had already seemed the longest day of his life, but every second now felt an eternity. He barely mustered the patience to duck into the study and grab up his gun before charging out into the dark.

  Damned fool chit. He watched the flickering light recede into the woods, and he redoubled his pace. He was running now, the heavy necklace in his pocket slapping against his chest with every step. How was he supposed to cherish and protect his wife when she kept hurling herself into harm’s way at every opportunity?

  And she didn’t need him, she’d said. She didn’t need him to take care of her. Well, he thought bitterly as he began weaving through the trees, someone had to. She sure as hell couldn’t take care of herself. When he caught up to that flickering light that kept teasing him in the distance, he would have a thing or two to say about taking care. And his wife would bloody well listen.

  Jeremy came to a halt. He’d lost track of the light. He scanned the woods in the direction he’d seen it last. The night was overcast, but the clouds were thin enough that the moonlight filtered through them as a faint, silver glow. He blinked, his eyes slowly adjusting to the murky dimness. He stared down at the ground until his boots came into focus, black wedges against the leaf-strewn mud.

  His breath was heaving in his chest. Perhaps if he rested another moment, he could gather it enough to call out. But it wasn’t only the exertion that had him gasping for air. Panic seized his lungs like a vise. He hadn’t been out in this part of the forest at night in years.

  Twenty-one years.

  He’d lost so much to these cursed woods already. And now he’d lost sight of that damn light. The cold wind whipping through the trees felt like death itself, and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t call out. It was all he could do to keep standing.

  The faint babble of the stream reached his ears, and he turned instinctively toward the sound. He stumbled forward a few paces, then stopped again to scan for the light. To listen.

  A scream rent the air.

  Lucy’s shoulder hurt like hell.

  But she couldn’t stop to wonder what it was that had struck her, or where the devil it had come from—because at the moment, she was a bit preoccupied trying not to fall headlong into a ravine.

  Her other arm—the uninjured one—clutched a tree limb, and there she clung until her slippers found purchase on the rocky outcropping. Even once she had regained her footing, she held on to that tree branch for several deep breaths. Then slowly, cautiously, she released the branch and turned around.
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