Goddess of the hunt, p.48
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.48
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 48

 

  What she saw surprised her so greatly, she reeled anew. “Albert?”

  The boy stepped forward, dim moonlight delineating a baffled countenance. “Your highness?”

  “What are you doing here?” This they spoke in unison.

  Neither rushed to answer.

  Lucy took advantage of the mutual silence to size up her attacker. The sling that dangled from his hand told her the source of her pain. What a ninny she’d been. Thinking how fast Aunt Matilda was moving—of course she could never walk so quickly. Those footsteps hadn’t been old lady-sized; they were boy-sized. And it hadn’t been her aunt’s shift Lucy had seen fluttering in the distance; it had been Albert’s oversize, tattered homespun shirt.

  He was swimming in it, that shirt. It must have belonged to his father.

  His father, transported for … And Lucy realized she didn’t need him to tell her what he was doing here. She already knew.

  “You’re poaching!” she accused.

  The boy maintained his sullen silence.

  Lucy stepped toward him. “So you won’t take Kendall charity, but you’ll steal from your lord as you please?”

  “He ain’tmy lord. ” Albert turned his head and spat. “Anyway, it’s his fault my father’s in Australia. How else are me and Mary supposed to eat?”

  “It’s not Lord Kendall’s fault; it was his father’s. And you’re old enough to work, aren’t you?”

  Albert strode boldly forward. He crouched beside her and picked up a small rock. “I do, when there’s work to be had. Planting time. Harvest. But now—there’s no farmer as needs me now. ”

  She watched him pocket the small stone. The rock that struck her shoulder, she concluded. As he stood, Albert eyed her silk-clad form with an expression that had turned unmistakably adolescent.

  “What the devil are you wearing?” he asked.

  Lucy chose to ignore the question. She also chose to wrap her arms about her chest and change the subject. “Do you really fell much game that way?” She nodded at the sling and stone he’d pocketed away.

  Albert shook his head. “I’m not really a good shot with it. ”

  “You hit me well enough. ” The throbbing in her shoulder attested to the veracity of that statement.

  “Well, yes. ” The boy paused, squinting up at her. “But I was aiming for your head. ”

  “Oh. ” Lucy suddenly felt a bit dizzy. She folded her legs under her and sat on the ground. “What do you do then, take from the traps?”

  Albert didn’t answer. She saw him flex one hand at his side, as though shaking off an ache or pain.

  “That’s how you hurt your hand,” she said. “Before. ”

  He walked a few paces away and leaned against a tree.

  “You ought to be more careful, you know,” she scolded. “A wound like that can fester easily. My father died from a wound like that. ”

  He shrugged. “Folks die for all sorts of stupid reasons. ”

  “True. But that’s not an excuse to go around acting stupid. ”

  The boy snorted.

  It was a fortunate thing he had poor aim, Lucy decided, because her brain had just produced a rather brilliant idea. “Come to work at the Abbey. ”

  “What?”

  “Come to work at the Abbey,” she repeated.

  “Like hell I will. ”

  She frowned. “Why not? I’ll ask my husband—I’m sure there’s some work he can find for you. You’ll have steady income, and you won’t have to go wandering about the woods at night. ”

  “No!” Albert’s voice grew suddenly deep. He straightened and marched toward her where she sat on the ground. “Don’t you tell him anything about me. He’ll find me work, all right. In the poorhouse. ”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. ” The ground beneath her was icy cold, and Lucy hugged her legs to her chest. “He isn’t like that, I swear. He’s very understanding. ”

  Albert scoffed. “I heard how understanding he was at that party of yours. ”

  “That was … different. Just allow me to speak with him. Let me help you. ”

  “Thanks, your highness, but I don’t need your help. ”

  Her hands clenched in frustration. What would it take to get through to this boy? She wasn’t just trying to be superior. Shecared about him, the stubborn ingrate. “I will tell you what you need,” she said, her voice clipped. “You need to put your sister’s welfare before your own pride. You need to stop running about the woods at night, where who knows what peril could befall you. And you need to learn some propriety. In private, you can curse me however you wish, but to my face, you will address me asmy lady !”

  There was a shocked silence. And the majority of the shock was on Lucy’s side. Albert might have been wondering where that rant had come from, but she knew its precise source. She was echoing Jeremy, of all people. Was this how he felt, too? Concerned for her safety, desperate to help, but frustrated beyond measure when she refused to let him?

  And how many times had she refused him?

  Lucy’s heart squeezed. He truly cared for her. He always had. And all this time,she had been the stubborn ingrate.

  Albert was still looming over her, his hands balled into fists at his sides, looking rather uncertain as to what came next. She tried to make her tone soft and soothing. Motherly. “Albert, listen …”

  But what they heard next was anything but soft or soothing.

  “Lucy, don’t move. ” Jeremy’s voice thundered from somewhere unseen.

  Followed by the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked.

  “Get down!” Lucy cried, lunging forward.

  A shot cracked through the dark.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  Lucy tackled Albert about the knees. He fell to the ground, and in the same instant a shot whistled overhead.

  She released his legs. “Run!” she whispered. “Run all the way home, and don’t stop for anything!”

  Albert scrambled to his feet and dashed off into the trees. A few seconds later, Jeremy thundered by in breathless pursuit.

  “Stop!” Lucy struggled to her feet and grabbed her husband by the arm. “He’s gone. You’ll never catch him. ”

  Jeremy pulled his arm away and swung his gun over his shoulder. “Oh, I’ll catch him all right. ” He moved in the direction Albert had fled, and she grabbed his arm again.

  “Wait! You can’t just leave me here alone. ” She could play the helpless lady, if necessary. She hugged herself and shivered, only partly for effect.

  Jeremy pulled to a halt, staring off into the woods with frustration. Then he turned back to her reluctantly. “No, I won’t leave you. ” He fixed her with a fierce look. “Damn it, Lucy. What the devil were you thinking?”

  “I saw him from a distance. I thought he was Aunt Matilda, so I—” she gasped. “Aunt Matilda!”

  “She’s fine,” Jeremy said impatiently. “I found her in the entrance hall. She may be old and senile, but at leastshe knows better than to go wandering out in the woods at midnight, dressed in …” His eyes swept over her silk-clad curves with a possessive gaze that mingled anger and desire. “You have to stop behaving in such an imbecilic fashion. I can’t always be around to save you. ”

  Lucy felt pride, hot and rebellious, surging within her. He cares for me , she reminded herself. She just needed to calm him down, let him know she was all right. “Jeremy, I’m sorry I alarmed you. But I didn’t need saving. ” She wrapped her dressing gown tight across her chest. Bloody hell, it was cold. “It wasn’t how it looked. I had the situation in hand. ”

  “In hand. ”Jeremy let the gun slide from his shoulder and flung it to the ground. He stalked toward her with a strange expression, his eyes black as midnight. His breath came uneven and ragged, breaking up his words. “You had the situation in hand. Alone in the woods. In the dead of night. With a violent criminal. ”

  She
swallowed. “He wasn’t a criminal. Not a violent one, at least. ”

  It was as though he didn’t hear her. He approached her slowly, step by deliberate step, until his chest grazed hers. She could taste desire on his breath. The blue of his eyes was swallowed by black, and a wild intensity radiated from him. A fierceness she’d only glimpsed before, he kept it so deeply buried. Now it seethed to the surface, exuded from him in potent waves, sweeping over her body. And her body roused to it. Craved it. Her skin came alive with exquisite awareness, every hair standing on end.

  Lucy didn’t know how to calm him down.

  She didn’t want to.

  “Dressed in a few scraps of silk and lace. ” He hooked a finger under the collar of her dressing gown and pulled, exposing one shoulder to the night. She felt his finger graze along her collarbone, press against the hollow of her throat, then trace the column of her neck to her chin, lifting her face to his. “But you didn’t need saving. You had the situation … in hand. ”

  “Yes,” she breathed. He moved forward again, his chest pushing against hers. Her back collided with the trunk of a tree.

  He grabbed her wrist and wrenched her hand from its grip on her dressing gown. “In hand,” he repeated, interlacing his fingers with hers. He tightened his grip until the bones in her wrist ached. In one swift motion, he pulled her arm up over her head and pinned it to the tree with his own. Her dressing gown fell open to the waist. She gasped at the rush of cold night air that assailed her throat and drew her nipples to hard peaks against her nightgown.

  With his free hand, he palmed one breast through the shivering silk. He drew his thumb over her nipple. She gasped again, this time with pleasure.

  “You didn’t need saving,” he said, sliding his thumb over the silk in tiny, maddening circles. Waves of sensation flooded through her, heat rippling beneath the gooseflesh that covered her neck, her belly, her thighs. Lucy bit her lip and closed her eyes. “Look at me,” he growled. “Look at me, damn it. ” He gave her nipple a sharp pinch. Her eyes flew open.

  “You don’t need my money. ” He tore at the strap of her nightgown until the fragile lace gave way. The silk slid down, baring one breast.

  “You don’t need my gifts. ” He covered her breast with his warm, heavy hand, teasing the taut peak of her nipple, rolling it under his thumb until a tiny cry escaped her throat. He pressed his body against hers, pinning her to the tree with his weight. The heat of his arousal pulsed against her belly.

  “You don’t need my protection,” he said through gritted teeth. His hand shot to her thigh, gathering up fabric, hitching up the hem of her nightgown in impatient tugs. His eyes bored into her.

  “Damn it, Lucy, you are going to need me. I will make you need me. ” He lowered his head to her breast, drawing her nipple into his mouth.

  Pleasure surged through her—hot, white light arcing through the darkness. His tongue flickered over the sensitive peak, making her writhe with a sweet, torturous ache. One of her hands remained pinned above her, but she reached for him with the other, digging her fingers into his neck.

  His hand tightened around her hip, then snaked beneath the silk of her nightgown, pushing it up to her waist. He curled his hand under her thigh and lifted it, wrapping her leg over his hip. Icy cold rushed under the silk, over her thighs and between her legs. Then he pulled his hips back slightly, swept his hand over the crest of her thigh and plunged his fingers into the gap between them.

  There was no more cold, only fire. Liquid heat coursing through her veins, churning in her belly and that space between her legs. He slid a finger into her. Then two. His touch was rough and artless, but she was slick and ready, and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. His thumb found her most sensitive bit of flesh, and her mouth fell open in a startled cry. He clamped his mouth over hers, filling it with his tongue. Lifting her with his fingers and working her with his thumb until she nearly came apart.
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