Goddess of the hunt, p.7
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.7
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 7

 

  “S’all right,” he said, chuckling. “I likes my girls with plenty o’pluck. ”

  Desperation clawed at her insides. It wasn’t simply the insult of this lout’s hands on her breasts that had her panicking. She’d forfeited her genteel reputation the moment she left home. But his fingers groped closer and closer to the one thing she dared not surrender. If he found it, Sophia doubted she would escape this tavern with her life intact, much less her virtue.

  Her attacker turned his head, angling for a better look down her dress. His grimy ear was just inches from her mouth. Within snapping distance. If she bit it hard enough, she might startle him into letting her go. She had all but made up her mind to do it, when she inhaled another mouthful of his rank sweat and paused. If her choices were putting her mouth on this repulsive beast or dying, she just might rather die.

  In the end, she didn’t do either.

  The repulsive beast gave a yawp of surprise as a pair of massive hands bodily hauled him away. Lifted him, actually, as though the brute weighed nothing, until he writhed in the air above her like a fish on a hook.

  “Come now, Bains,” said a smooth, confident baritone, “You know better than that. ”

  With an easy motion, her rescuer tossed Bains aside. The brute landed some feet away, with the crunch of splintering wood.

  Sagging against the bar with relief, Sophia peered up at her savior. It was the tall, auburn-haired gentleman she’d spied earlier. At least, she assumed him to be a gentleman. His accent bespoke education, and with his dark-green topcoat, fawn-colored trousers, and tasseled Hessians, he cut a fashionable silhouette. But as his arms flexed, the finely tailored clothing delineated raw, muscled power beneath.

  And there was nothing refined about his face. His features were rough-hewn, his skin bronzed by the sun. It was impossible not to stare at the golden, weathered hue and wonder—did it fade at his cravat? At his waist? Not at all?

  The more she peered up the man, the less she knew what to make of him. He had a gentleman’s attire, a laborer’s body … and the wide, sensuous mouth of a scoundrel.

  “How many times do I have to tell you, Bains? That’s no way to touch a woman. ” His words were addressed to the lout on the floor, but his roguish gaze was fixed on her. Then he smiled, and the lazy quirk of his lips tugged a thin scar slanting from his jaw to his mouth.

  Oh yes, that mouth was dangerous indeed.

  At that moment, Sophia could have kissed it.

  “The proper way to touch a woman,” he continued, sauntering to her side and propping an elbow on the bar, “is to come at her from the side, like so. ” In an attitude of perfect nonchalance, he leaned his weight on his arm and slid it along the bar until his knuckles came within a hair’s width of her breast.

  Mouth of a scoundrel, indeed! Sophia’s gratitude quickly turned to indignation. Had this man truly yanked one lout off her just so he could grope her himself? Apparently so. His hand rested so close to her breast, her flesh heated in the shadow of his fingers. So close, her skin prickled, anticipating the rough texture of his touch. She wished hewould touch her, end the excruciating uncertainty, and give her an excuse to slap the roguish smirk from his face.

  “See?” he said, waggling his fingers in the vicinity of her bosom. “This way you don’t startle her off. ”

  Coarse laughter rumbled through the assembled crowd.

  Retracting his hand, the scoundrel lifted his voice. “Don’t I have the right of it, Megs?”

  All eyes turned to a curvy redhead gathering tankards. Megs barely looked up from her work as she sang out, “Ain’t no one like Gray knows how to touch a lady. ”

  Laughter swept the tavern again, louder this time. Even Bains chuckled.

  Gray. Sophia’s heart plummeted. What was it the bald man had said, when she asked for Captain Grayson?Gray’s in the back .

  “One last thing to remember, Bains,” Gray continued. “The least you can do is buy the lady a drink. ” As the tavern-goers returned to their carousing, he turned his arrogant grin on Sophia. “What are you having, then?”

  She blinked at him.

  What was she having?Sophia knew exactly what she was having. She was having colossally bad luck.

  This well-dressed mountain of insolence looming over her was Captain Grayson, of the brigAphrodite . And the brigAphrodite was the sole ship bound for Tortola until next week. For Sophia, next week might as well have been next year. She needed to leave for Tortola. She needed to leave now. Therefore, she needed this man—or rather, this man’sship —to take her.

  “What, no outpouring of gratitude?” He cast a glance toward Bains, who was lumbering up from the floor. “I suppose you think I should have beat him to a pulp. I could have. But then, I don’t like violence. It always ends up costing me money. And pretty thing that you are”—his eyes skipped over her as he motioned to the barkeep—“before I went to that much effort, I think I’d at least need to know your name, Miss …?”

  Sophia gritted her teeth, marshalling all her available forbearance. She needed to leave, she reminded herself. She needed this man. “Turner. Miss Jane Turner. ”

  “Miss… Jane … Turner. ” He teased the syllables out, as if tasting them on his tongue. Sophia had always thought her middle name to be the dullest, plainest syllable imaginable. But from his lips, even “Jane” sounded indecent.

  “Well, MissJane Turner. What are you drinking?”

  “I’m not drinking anything. I’m looking for you,Captain Grayson. I’ve come seeking passage on your ship. ”

  “On theAphrodite? To Tortola? Why the devil would you want to go there?”

  “I’m a governess. I’m to be employed, near Road Town. ” The lies rolled effortlessly off her tongue. As always.

  His eyes swept her from bonnet to half boots, stroking an unwelcome shiver down to her toes. “You don’t look like any governess I’ve ever seen. ” His gaze settled on her hands, and Sophia quickly balled them into fists.

  The gloves. Curse her vanity. Her maid’s old dress and cloak served well for disguise—their dark, shapeless folds could hide a multitude of sins. But as she’d dressed herself for the first time in her life that morning, her fingers shook with nerves and cold, and Sophia had assuaged their trembling with this one indulgence, her best pair of black kid gloves, fastened with tiny black pearl buttons and lined with sable.

  They were not the gloves of a governess.

  For a moment, Sophia feared he would see the truth.

  Balderdash, she chided herself. No one ever looked at her and saw the truth. People saw what they wanted to see … the obedient daughter, the innocent maiden, the society belle, the blushing bride. This merchant captain was no different. He would see a passenger, and the promise of coin.

  Long ago, she’d learned this key to deceit. It was easy to lie, once you understood that no one really wanted the truth.

  “Lovely, aren’t they? They were a gift. ” With a gloved flourish, she held out her letter. The envelope bore the wear and marks of a transatlantic voyage. “My offer of employment, if you’d care to examine it. ” She sent up a quick prayer that he would not. “From a Mr. Waltham of Eleanora plantation. ”

  “Waltham?” He laughed, waving away the letter.

  Sophia pocketed it quickly.

  “Miss Turner, you’ve no idea what trials you’re facing. Never mind the dangers of an ocean crossing, the tropical poverty and disease … George Waltham’s brats are a plague upon the earth. One your delicate nature and fine gloves are unlikely to survive. ”

  “You know the family, then?” Sophia kept her tone light, but inwardly she loosed a flurry of curses. She’d never considered the possibility that this merchant captain could claim an acquaintance with the Walthams.

  “Oh, I know Waltham,” he continued. “We grew up together. Our fathers’ plantations shared a boundary. He was older by several year
s, but I paced him for mischief well enough. ”

  Sophia swallowed a groan. Captain Grayson not onlyknew Mr. Waltham—they were friends and neighbors! All her plans, all her carefully tiered lies … this bit of information shuffled them like a deck of cards.

  He continued, “And you’re traveling alone, with no chaperone?”

  “I can look after myself. ”

  “Ah, yes. And I tossed Bains across the room just now for my own amusement. It’s a little game we seamen like to play. ”

  “I can look after myself,” she insisted. “If you’d waited another moment, that revolting beast would be missing an ear. ”

  He gave her a deep, scrutinizing look that made her feel like a turned-out glove, all seams and raw edges. She breathed steadily, fighting the blush creeping up her cheeks.

  “Miss Turner,” he said dryly, “I’m certain in that fertile female imagination of yours, you think sailing off to the West Indies will be some grand, romantic adventure. ” He drawled the phrase in a patronizing tone, but Sophia wasn’t certain he meant to derideher . Rather, she surmised, his tone communicated a general weariness with adventure.

  How sad.

  “Fortunately,” he continued, “I’ve never known a girl I couldn’t disillusion, so listen close to me now. You’re wrong. You will not find adventure, nor romance. At best, you’ll meet with unspeakable boredom. At worst, you’ll meet with an early death. ”

  Sophia blinked. His description of Tortola gave her some pause, but she dismissed any concern quickly. After all, it wasn’t as though she meant tostay there.

  The captain reached to retrieve his felt beaver from the bar.

  “Please. ” Sophia clutched his arm. Heavens. It was like clutching a wool-sheathed cannon. Ignoring the warm tingle in her belly, she made her eyes wide and her voice beseeching. The role of innocent, helpless miss was one she’d been playing for years. “Please, you must take me. I’ve nowhere else to go. ”

  “Oh, I’m certain you’d figure something out. Pretty thing like you? After all,” he said, quirking an eyebrow, “you can look after yourself. ”

  “Captain Grayson—”

  “Miss. Jane. Turner. ” His voice grew thin with impatience. “You waste your breath, appealing to my sense of honor and decency. Any gentleman in my place would send you off at once. ”

  “Yes, but you’re no gentleman. ” She gripped his arm again and looked him square in the eye. “Are you?”

  He froze. All that muscle rippling with energy, the rugged profile animated by insolence—for an instant, it all turned to stone. Sophia held her breath, knowing she’d just wagered her future on this, the last remaining card in her hand.

  But this was so much more thrilling than whist.

  Goddess of the Huntis a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2009 by Eve Ortega

  Excerpt fromSurrender of a Siren by Tessa Dare copyright © 2009 by Eve Ortega

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. , New York.

  BALLANTINEand colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  eISBN: 978-0-345-51511-7

  www. ballantinebooks. com

  v3. 0

  CHAPTER TWO

  Lucy Waltham’s appetite was insatiable.

  Henry liked to jest that when she married, he would provide her a dowry of two cows, six pigs, and two dozen chickens—just so her husband could keep her fed. It was only a joke, of course. In all likelihood, her dowry would be worth far less.

 
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