Goddess of the hunt, p.8
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.8
 

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 8

  But no one would be jesting to say Lucy downed meals that would put a farm laborer to shame. Lucy lived hungry. She devoured every day. This appetite for life required a steady supply of actual food. She nicked hot rolls from the kitchen, rang for cold chicken at midnight, and spent long afternoons grazing in the orchards. And she never missed breakfast.

  Marianne and Aunt Matilda were already at table when Lucy entered the breakfast room. Lucy leaned over to kiss Aunt Matilda’s papery cheek. The old lady responded by taking a loud slurp of chocolate.

  No one knew exactly how old Aunt Matilda was—Aunt Matilda least of all—but Lucy thought she was eighty if she was a day. She also thought Aunt Matilda the most beautiful woman she knew. Lucy’s grandfather had built his fortune farming indigo in the West Indies, where Aunt Matilda had spent her youth. She still dressed head-to-toe in yards of the deepest indigo blue. Her spine had not curved one whit with age, and she kept her chin held high to balance a formidable turban. She smelled of ocean breezes and exotic spices and snuff.

  Henry turned from the buffet bearing two plates. He froze momentarily, eyes wide in disbelief, before setting one plate before his wife. “Lucy, what on earth have you done to yourself?”

  “Henry, hush,” Marianne said. “I think Lucy looks lovely. ”

  “Yes, lovely,” Aunt Matilda warbled.

  Lucy smoothed her palms over cool silk as she made her way to the sideboard. The dress had been made up by a London modiste nearly three years ago, for what was to have been her first season in Town. That was before Marianne learned she was with child for the second time. The gown had languished in Lucy’s closet through that confinement, and then another—a bit of shimmering silk promise amid yards of everyday muslin. The pale blue fabric matched the shade of a starling’s egg, and creamy lace edged the cap sleeves.

  Her figure had rounded considerably in the three years since the dress had been fitted. Her breasts strained against the bodice, pulling the fabric taut. The neckline dipped scandalously low for morning.

  It would do perfectly.

  She really ought to wear silk more often. The gown flowed around her body, gliding over her skin like water. She touched a hand to her neatly coiled hair. Her maid had nearly dropped the hairbrush when she’d requested a more elegant style than her usual simple knot. The jewels were perhaps a bit much for breakfast. Her mother’s opal earrings pinched on either side of her head. They were far heavier than she’d anticipated. Surely her earlobes would sag to her shoulders by noon.

  But no matter. If jewels were required to outshine Sophia Hathaway, Lucy would drape herself in diamonds.

  She had seated herself at the table when Felix entered the breakfast room with Kitty on his arm. Sophia followed a few paces behind. Both ladies were attired in simple frocks of sprigged muslin. To Lucy’s mind, they might as well have been wearing frogged blue uniforms with tasseled epaulettes. They were hostile invaders.

  The enemy.

  “My, my. ” Kitty eyed Lucy with amused disdain. “I had no idea breakfast at Waltham Manor was such a formal affair. ” She turned to Marianne. “Forgive me, Mrs. Waltham, I see we are underdressed. ”

  “Not at all,” Marianne replied. “Won’t you be seated? Do you take tea or coffee? Or chocolate, perhaps?”

  “What a charming breakfast room. ” Sophia settled into a chair opposite Lucy. “Such a delightful view of the park. ”

  Kitty slid into the next seat down and unfolded her napkin with a ruthless snap. “The windows face full west,” she said. “It must be unbearably warm in the afternoon. ”

  Lucy smiled. “How fortunate then, that we take breakfast in the morning. ”

  Kitty’s eyes narrowed. She tapped her knife against her plate and spoke over Lucy’s shoulder, addressing her husband. “Felix! Toast!”

  Poor Felix, to be saddled with such a shrew for a wife. Lucy could not imagine enduring a lifetime of breakfasts across the table from Kitty’s pinched face. The very thought curdled her cream.

  She glanced over her shoulder at Felix. He traveled down the buffet, heaping food on his breakfast plate, humming a little tune as he went. Humming! His parents had certainly been prescient when they selected his Christian name. His sanguine temperament never faltered. If any man could smile through life with Kitty by his side, it was Felix.

  Lucy cast a sidelong glance at Sophia, who was daintily stirring sugar into her tea. Sophia was a softer version of her sister. They shared the same golden hair and fair complexion. But where Kitty’s nose tapered to a point, Sophia’s sloped elegantly. Kitty’s blue eyes had an icy glint, but Sophia’s sparkled with warmth. She was, Lucy grudgingly allowed, beautiful.

  No one would call Lucy beautiful. At least, no one ever had. Her cheekbones were too wide, her chin too pointed. Her skin was tanned and olive, not fashionably fair. She did have a few pleasant features, she thought. Her eyes were large, and fringed with long, dark lashes. Her teeth were straight. Nothing that would inspire poetry. In fact, she rather sounded like a prize mare.

  Sophia accepted a plate of toast from Felix and picked up her butter knife. She held the solid silver in a dainty grasp, as though it might snap in two. With her perfectly buttered points of toast and her neat little nibbling bites, she looked the picture of feminine delicacy.

  Lucy looked down at her own plate, piled high with eggs and ham, rolls and preserves. She lifted a forkful of eggs to her mouth and chewed unrepentantly. Battling Sophia Hathaway would require strength and wit, silk and jewels—and a hearty breakfast.

  “Good morning, Jem,” Henry said.

  She looked up from her plate to see Jeremy entering the room. She nearly choked on her eggs.

  His black hair was windswept, and he was dressed for riding, in a dark brown coat layered over an open-necked shirt and buckskin breeches. There had been a time when the men never bothered with neckcloths at Waltham Manor. In fact, they made a great show of tossing their cravats into the fire upon their arrival each October. But that was before Henry married Marianne. Since the addition of a lady to the party, the gentlemen dressed for meals punctiliously.

  “Mrs. Crowley-Cumberbatch. Miss Hathaway. ” He made a terse bow in their direction. Apparently scandalized by his dishabille, the sisters repaid his greeting with averted eyes, busying themselves with their tea and toast.

  “Lucy. ”

  Jeremy fixed her with a dark look, full of reproach. A hot blush singed the tips of her opal-adorned ears. For a moment, Lucy felt as though she were sitting in the breakfast room wearing only her nightgown—or less. But if he meant to shame her, he would be sorely disappointed. Her lips tingled, and she slowly wet them with her tongue before flashing him a bold grin. He quickly looked away.

  Oh, what fun it was to vex him. He made it so easy to do. Hunting and fishing were all well and good, but truly, Jemmy-baiting had always been her favorite autumn sport. Lucy viewed his staid countenance as an unending challenge. A smooth, thick-shelled egg that begged to be cracked. Any rearrangement of his features constituted a victory, be it a wince, a scowl, or that rarest of expressions—a smile. A smile that showed teeth counted double.

  Last night had shown her an entirely new way to bedevil Jeremy Trescott. Not with girlish pranks, but with womanly wiles. Oh, yes. She’d cracked the egg last night, but good. His expression of befuddled desire was far more amusing than a wince or a scowl, or even a smile that showed teeth. That last kiss had to count at least ten.

  She lifted her cup of chocolate to her lips. Closing her eyes, she pressed her tongue against the cool china rim, remembering the power of a proper kiss. Drinking in the hot, sweet richness, feeling delicious warmth spread down her throat and pool in her belly. And lower. She sighed into the cup. If Jeremy’s kiss could rival chocolate, Lucy shivered to imagine how it would be to kiss—

  “Toby!”

  Lucy sputtered against the rim of her cup. She returned it to the saucer and
picked up her napkin, dabbing her lips hastily.

  “Good morning, ladies. ” Toby made a gallant bow in the direction of Sophia Hathaway. He wore a dove-gray morning coat and striped waistcoat. His snow-white cravat was perfectly tied. Lucy melted in her chair like butter on toast.

  “Good morning, Aunt Matilda. ” He caught her wrinkled hand and kissed it. “You’re looking lovely this morning. ”

  “Yes,” the old lady replied. “Lovely. ”

  Lucy sat up in her chair. “Good morning, Sir Toby. ” She held out her hand.

  “Good morning, Luce. ” Their eyes met, and his pleasant smile widened into a grin. Then he took her hand—andshook it.

  Lucy sighed. This might prove more difficult than she’d anticipated. She tilted her head to one side, dangling one opal earring like a fishing lure. She’d confirmed last night that men were not so different from trout as they might like to think.

  “How wonderful it is to welcome you back to Waltham Manor, Sir Toby. ” She patted the seat of the chair next to her. “Please, do take a—”

  “Thank you, I will,” Jeremy said, sliding into the chair and plunking his plate down next to hers. Lucy clenched her teeth and took hold of her butter knife. Yes, men were like trout. And Jeremy was one she dearly wished to fillet.

  “What,”he asked, in a voice so deep it was nearly inaudible, “are you wearing?”

  “I might ask you the same,” she murmured behind her cup. “Lord Kendall. ”

  “I thought you had forgotten my title. ”

  “Forgotten it? Me? Perhapsyou mislaid it. I’m certain I saw it lying about somewhere. Right next to your cravat. ”

  His jaw tensed. “I was out riding. When I learned you were already at table, I thought it unwise to delay my own repast. ” His derisive glance wandered from her earrings to her neckline. “It appears my concern was warranted. ”

  “When did you appoint yourself Toby’s protector? He’s a grown man, is he not?”

  Toby returned to the table with coffee and toast. He sat down next to Sophia Hathaway and murmured something Lucy could not hear. Sophia smiled demurely and fluttered her eyelashes. The eggs scrambled in Lucy’s stomach.

  Jeremy reached for a dish of marmalade, obstructing her view. “Have you considered,” he asked, “that it may not be Toby I’m attempting to protect?”

  Before Lucy could summon a sufficiently indignant response, Felix interrupted. “What’s our sport today, Henry?”

  “It’s a fine, warm day,” Henry replied. “I thought a spot of fishing?”

  “Just the thing!” said Felix. “Will you join us, Lucy?”

  Lucy felt Kitty and Sophia staring at her. Well-bred ladies, evidently, did not fish.

  “Oh, no! I assure you, Mr. Crowley-Cumberbatch, I have given up those hoyden pursuits of my youth. ” She turned to Toby. “I haven’t been fishing in ages. I can’t remember the last time. ”

  “Really, Luce?” Toby sounded incredulous. “Henry—is it true?”

  Henry sawed away at a slice of ham. “If you count six days as ‘ages,’ then I suppose it’s true. But if you can’t remember six days back, Lucy, and you’ve forgotten Felix’s Christian name, I’m concerned for you. Perhaps you’ve been spending too much time with Aunt Matilda. ”

  “Henry!” said Marianne. “Don’t say such things in front of the poor dear. ”

  “Oh, she has no idea. ” He leaned over and shouted in Aunt Matilda’s ear. “Lucy’s given up fishing, Aunt Matilda! She’s going about dripping in silk and baubles. Next she’s going to paint her face and run off to become an actress! Won’t that be lovely?”

  Aunt Matilda slurped her chocolate. “Lovely. ”

  Lucy smiled and tightened her grip on her knife.

  “Since the day is so fine, perhaps the ladies would enjoy a picnic by the stream,” said Marianne.
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