Goddess of the hunt, p.6
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.6

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 6

 

  His eyes widened. “Lucy. ” He swallowed hard. “That’s too soon to be certain. Isn’t it?”

  She smiled. “I’m certain. ” She leaned forward to kiss the adorably bewildered expression from his face.

  “Good Lord, not in front of the children. ” Disentangling himself from his progeny, Henry rose to his feet. He gave Jeremy a stiff nod. “Jem. ”

  “Henry. ”

  Lucy felt Jeremy tense. Only a few weeks had passed since her husband and her brother had been at one another’s throats, but she’d hoped they would greet one another more charitably than this. Would they never be friends again?

  “How are you, Lucy?” Henry asked, true concern in his eyes. “Well, I hope?”

  “Quite well, thank you. ”

  “Really? You look a trifle pale. ” Henry turned his gaze on Jeremy. “Has he scolded you for changing the upholstery this time? Or perhaps you discovered his dungeon full of bones and ghouls. ”

  “Not yet,” Lucy said. “Henry, you know I’m happy with Jeremy. Must you persist in tormenting him?”

  Henry shrugged. “Of course I must. He’s family now. ”

  Lucy gave him a cool look, but her heart warmed. No, the two men would never be friends again. Now they were brothers, and they would remain so forever, whether they liked it or not.

  “Besides,” Henry continued, “what would you have me say?”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” Lucy replied. “Perhaps, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I forgive you,’ or ‘I’m so thrilled for you both’?”

  Both Henry and Jeremy laughed.

  “What’s so amusing?” she asked, mildly annoyed.

  “For God’s sake, we’re men,” Henry said. “We don’t say things like that. At best, we keep them tucked in the pockets of our best waistcoats, to pull out at weddings and funerals. ”

  A commotion in the corridor headed off Lucy’s response.

  Toby and Felix burst into the room, wearing riding clothes and grim expressions.

  “And speaking of weddings,” Henry said without missing a beat, “what are you doing here? Aren’t you getting married in a few days?”

  “She’s gone,” said Toby. He struggled to catch his breath. “Sophia’s gone. ”

  “Gone?” Lucy untangled her arms from about Jeremy’s neck. “Wherever did she go?”

  Felix leaned on a nearby chair, red-faced with exertion. “My … parents-in-law,” he huffed, “telling everyone … Sophia … is ill … sent to seaside … for her … constitution. ”

  “Perhaps you ought to go with her, man. ” Henry crossed to the bar. “You’re not looking so hale yourself. ”

  “She hasn’t gone to the seaside,” Toby moaned, slinging himself onto the divan. “She’s eloped. We’re on our way to Gretna Green. If we hurry, we might catch them before they reach Scotland. ”

  “Eloped?” Jeremy asked. “With whom?”

  “Some painter. ” Toby threw his head back and covered his eyes with his hand. “A Frenchman, no less. ”

  “What was his name?” Felix wheezed. “Germaine … Jarvis?”

  “Gervais?” Lucy asked. A nauseous feeling curled in her belly. Not an infrequent occurrence of late, but dread compounded the queasy sensation.

  “That’s the one,” Toby groaned against his forearm. “I’ve been jilted for Gervais. ” He straightened and looked at Lucy. “How did you know? I mean, I hoped you might know something. She left you a letter, too. ” He fished a folded paper out of his breast pocket and leaned forward, hand outstretched. Lucy took it from his hand, sliding her thumb under the broken seal. “You’ll forgive me for opening it already,” Toby said.

  “Of course. ” Lucy unfolded the tear-stained missive.

  Ma chère Lucy,

  Remember how it seemed, once upon a time? That if we imagined something and wanted it deeply and believed it with all our hearts, we knew it could come true?

  Well, I’ve decided to give it one last try. This time, I’ve eaten all my porridge. I’m closing my eyes tight … and when I open them, I shall be far, far away.

  I’m quite fond of Toby, but I could never make him happy. Still, he’ll take this rather hard, I fear. Please console him as best you can.

  Ton amie,

  Sophia

  “What the devil does that mean, she ate all her porridge?” Toby asked, throwing his hands in the air. “She must know I’d buy her all the porridge she liked. ”

  “Oh, Toby. ” Lucy shook her head as Jeremy took the letter from her hand. “I wish I could tell you where she’s gone, but I can’t. But I’m certain she hasn’t gone to Scotland with anyone named Gervais. ”

  “But … if not … Scotland,” Felix managed, “where?”

  Lucy shrugged. There wasn’t anything she would put past Sophia. “She could be anywhere. ”

  Toby groaned and sank back onto the sofa, covering his eyes with one hand. “I’ve been jilted. Me! I can’t comprehend it. Every girl in England wants to marry me. ”

  Lucy turned to face her husband. “Poor Toby,” she murmured.

  “‘Poor Toby’ nothing,” Jeremy said curtly. “Console him as best you can?” he read aloud with eyebrows raised. His arm tightened around her waist. “Don’t even think it. ”

  Lucy gasped in indignation. “I would never!” She snatched the letter from his hand and folded it neatly. “And don’t tease. Sophia’s wild imagination may be Toby’s misfortune, but we owe a great debt of happiness to her absurd letters. ”

  “I suppose we do. ” His hand slid to cover her belly. “And a very tiny debt, as well. ”

  Lucy laid her head against his shoulder and tapped the letter against her smile. “I wish Sophia nothing but happiness,” she said thoughtfully. “But cling as she might to those girlhood dreams”—she craned her neck to brush a light kiss against her husband’s jaw—“I am exceedingly grateful that mine didnot come true. ”

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  Becoming a published author is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and it never would have been possible without my family. I’m so grateful to my husband, for his love and support, and to my two children, for their patience with a highly distracted mother. My parents gave me the best gift imaginable by encouraging my early love of books, and my grandparents always believed I’d someday publish one of my own.

  In writing this book, I was blessed to have two brilliant critique partners who helped me every step of the way: Courtney Milan and Amy Baldwin. Several other writers, readers, and friends read early drafts of the book and provided invaluable feedback. Lindsey, Sara, Lenore, Maggie, Michelle, Susan, Pamela, Kalen, seton, Darcy, Elyssa, and Lacey—I am indebted to each of you.

  Many thanks to my amazing agent, Helen Breitwieser, and to the entire team at Ballantine, especially my editor, Kate Collins, and her assistant, Kelli Fillingim.

  Thank you to Kelly and Brian, for all the Starbucks, sympathy, and Internet savvy.

  I wouldn’t be writing historical romance if not for the works of Jane Austen, and the inspiring creative environment fostered by her many online fans in the Lounge, the Gardens, and the Tearoom.

  Finally, I want to acknowledge the wonderful network of friendship and support that grew out of the 2006 Avon FanLit competition and to thank Mary, for all her encouragement and advice.

  Read on for a preview of the next tale of

  romantic escapades from Tessa Dare

  SURRENDER

  OF ASIREN

  GRAVESEND, DECEMBER 1817

  In fleeing the society wedding of the year, Sophia Hathaway knew she would be embracing infamy.

  She’d neglected to consider how infamysmelled .

  She paused in the doorway of the fetid dockside tavern. Even from here, the stench of soured ale accosted her, forcing bile into her throat.

  A burly man elbowed her aside as he went out the door. “Watch yerself, luv. ”

/>   She pasted herself against the doorjamb, wondering at the singular form of address implied in “luv. ” The man’s comment had clearly been directed towardboth of her breasts.

  With a shiver, she wrapped her cloak tight across her chest.

  Taking one last deep breath, she sidled her way into the dank, drunken confusion, forbidding her gray serge skirts to brush against anything. Much lessanyone . From every murky corner—and for a squared-off tea caddy of a building, this tavern abounded in murky corners—eyes followed her. Suspicious, leering eyes, set in hard, unshaven faces. It was enough to make any young woman anxious. For a fugitive young lady of quality, traveling alone, under the flimsy shield of a borrowed cloak and a fabricated identity …

  Well, it was almost enough to make Sophia reconsider the whole affair.

  An unseen someone jostled her from behind. Her gloved fingers instinctively clutched the envelope secreted in her cloak. She thought of its brethren, the letters she’d posted just that morning, breaking her engagement and ensuring a scandal of Byronic proportions. Seeds of irrevocable ruin, scattered with the wind.

  A cold sense of destiny anchored her rising stomach. There was no going back now. She could walk through far worse than this shabby pub, if it meant leaving her restrictive life behind. She could even endure these coarse men ogling her breasts, so long as they did not glimpse the secret strapped between them.

  Her resolve firmed, Sophia caught the eye of a bald-headed man wiping a table with a greasy rag. He looked harmless enough—or at least, too old to strike quickly. She smiled at him. He returned the gesture with a completely toothless grin.

  Her own smile faltering, she ventured, “I’m looking for Captain Grayson. ”

  “’Course you is. All the comely ones are. ” The gleaming pate jerked. “Gray’s in the back. ”

  She followed the direction indicated, moving through the crowd on tiptoe in an effort to keep her hem off the floor. The sticky floorboards sucked at her half boots. Toward the back of the room, she spied a boisterous knot of men and women near the bar. One man stood taller than the others, his auburn hair looking cleaner than that of his company. A brushed felt beaver rested on the bar nearby, an oddly refined ornament for this seedy den.

  As Sophia angled for a better view, a chair slid out from a nearby table, clipping her in the knee. She bob-bled on tiptoe for a moment before tripping forward. The hem of her cloak caught on her boot, and the cloak wrenched open, exposing her chest and throat to the sour, wintry air. In her desperate attempt to right herself, she clutched wildly for the wall—

  And grasped a handful of rough linen shirt instead.

  The shirt’s owner turned to her. “Hullo there, chicken,” he slurred, his breath rancid with decay. His liquor-glazed eyes slid over her body and settled on the swell of her breasts. “Fancy bit of goods you are. By looks, I would have priced you beyond my pocket, but if you’s offerin’ …”

  Had he mistaken her for some dockside trollop? Sophia’s tongue curled with disgust. Perhaps she was disguised in simple garments, but certainly she did not lookcheap .

  “I am not offering,” she said firmly. She tried to wriggle away, but with a quick move, he had her pinned against the bar.

  “Hold there, lovely. Jes’ a little tickle, then. ”

  His grimy fingers dove into the valley of her bosom, and Sophia yelped. “Unhand me, you … you revolting brute!”

  The brute released one of her arms to further his lascivious exploration, and Sophia used her newly-freed hand to beat him about the head. No use. His fingers squirmed between her breasts like fat, greedy worms burrowing in the dark.

  “Stop this,” she cried, making her hand a fist and clouting his ear, to no avail. Her efforts at defense only amused her drunken attacker.
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