Goddess of the hunt, p.9
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.9

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 9

 

  “Oh, how delightful!” Sophia fairly jumped in her seat. “I’ll bring my watercolors. ”

  “Miss Hathaway is a very accomplished painter,” said Toby. “Just the other week, she showed me a cunning little tea tray she’d adorned with … roses, was it?”

  “Orchids. ” Sophia blushed.

  “Do you sketch, Miss Waltham?” Kitty asked in a smug tone.

  “Oh, yes. I adore sketching. And painting. I shall bring my watercolors, too. ” She knew one of those governesses had left behind some paints somewhere. Perhaps in the old schoolroom. Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud, rasping slurp.

  “Lucy, pour Aunt Matilda more chocolate,” said Henry. “She’s sipping air again. ”

  She rose from her chair, lifting the chocolate pot with as much grace as she could muster.

  “I never knew you were an artist, Lucy,” Toby said.

  Lucy leaned forward as she filled Aunt Matilda’s cup, giving Toby a view of her brimming décolletage. She made her voice low and breathy.

  “Oh, but Sir Toby,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes like mad, “there are ever so many things you don’t know about me. ”

  Her mother’s opal earring slipped from her ear, landing in Aunt Matilda’s cup with a splash.

  “Don’t laugh, Jemmy. Don’t you dare laugh. ”

  Drat. Given the endless parade of governesses that had marched through Waltham Manor, Lucy was forced to admit that she ought to have paid the tiniest bit of attention to one or two of them.

  Jeremy stood over her shoulder, looking down at her easel. Her work of the past hour had resulted in a tolerably good likeness of a mud puddle.

  She had meant to capture the autumn glory of a distant oak tree, its orange-red foliage branching across a clear blue sky. She had begun by coating the entire paper with a lovely wash of brilliant blue. It was an excellent sky. Bold, cloudless, and indicative of untapped creative genius. No mundane tea tray, no matter how cunning, could possibly hope to touch her sky.

  But then she’d started in with the orange. Only, when she laid the brush to the still-wet sky, she did not get orange, but brown. Worse yet, the brown would not stay put in nice little leaf-like shapes. Watery brown rivulets streaked the paper like muddy tears. The more she attempted to fix it, the more hideous it became, until the entire painting was nothing but a soggy mess.

  “Don’t. You. Dare,” she ground out.

  He bent low over her shoulder, as if examining her work. There was something vaguely unsettling in the way he loomed over her, his broad shoulders blotting out the sun. She felt the sudden impulse to shrink away—or shrink closer.

  “I would not dream of daring. ” The solemn bass of his voice resonated deep in her body, thrilling her in an intimate, unexpected fashion. An unwelcome fashion. “And neither should you. Daring only invites disaster. By all means, stick to watercolors. ”

  She looked up sharply. Their faces were but a hand’s breadth apart. Too close to gauge his expression. She saw only a collection of features. Black hair sweeping over a heavy brow. Full lips. A strong, square jaw. Blue eyes.

  Bold, brilliant blue.

  Lucy shut her paint box with a defiant snap. Proper, staid, insufferable man. Stick to watercolors, indeed.

  “You’re going about this all wrong,” he said coolly. “A silk gown, watercolors … do you honestly believe they’ll catch Toby’s attention?”

  “They worked forher. ” Sophia sat a few yards in front of them, near the edge of the stream. She bent over her own easel, where a study of cattails arching over the riverbank appeared delicate, detailed, and remarkably dry.

  “You’re not her. ”

  “I can’t believe you would presume to advise me on courtship. I haven’t noticed you bringing a wife around. ”

  “That’s because I don’t wish to marry. ”

  She gave a sardonic laugh. “Oh, I see. Bachelorhood is your choice. It has nothing to do with your dearth of charm. ”

  “This from the girl whose concept of a romantic overture is a bullet whistling overhead. ”

  She leveled a paintbrush at him. “Don’t bring up marksmanship. You’re the worst of the four in that pursuit, too. But I suppose it’s by design,” she said. “You simply don’t wish to shoot the pheasants?”

  A strange expression crossed his face. One Lucy had never seen before. A flash of blue surprise, quickly crushed by his heavy brow. When he spoke, icicles hung from his words. “Believe what you will. ” He straightened to his full height. “Do what you will. It’s none of my concern. ” He stalked off to rejoin the gentlemen.

  Lucy was tempted to throw her paint box at his head. She would have hit her target, too. Unlike him, she knew how to aim.

  Sophia interrupted her vengeful thoughts. “Are you finished painting, Miss Waltham? May I see?”

  “Of course,” Lucy replied, still quietly seething. She jerked the paper out from under the easel clips and held it aloft between her thumb and forefinger. And then she let go. “Oh dear. ” An obliging breeze dropped the painting into the stream. “What a shame. No matter. I can paint another just as lovely in a trice. ”

  She had no desire to attempt another painting, now or ever. She folded her easel with harsh snaps, until the edge of her frustration dulled.

  Sophia had returned to her work, dabbing at her painting with light, feathery brushstrokes. Kitty, having declared the sun too strong, sat cloistered in the shade of a beech tree upstream. Little Beth’s latest bout of colic had kept Marianne in the nursery. Marianne was always in the nursery.

  Blast refinement. Lucy yearned to lie back against the bank and gaze up at the sky. To flatten her spine against the ground until the grass towered above her, the cool earth warmed under her back, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears like a drum. She had to settle for leaning back on an outstretched hand. Her gaze, however, slipped straight to its natural resting place.

  Toby.

  He was wearing his hair a touch longer this year. The thick, golden-brown waves just kissed the collar of his coat. Each autumn, the features of his face appeared more chiseled, more permanent in their perfection. He still moved with the sure, lithe grace that Lucy had always envied. Bronzed by the sun and aglow from within, Toby radiated masculine beauty.

  She watched with envy as the gentlemen cast their lines, waded in the icy stream, joked and laughed with one another. Would it always be this way, from this year forward? The men enjoying the same easy camaraderie, with Lucy exiled to the margins of their attention? She plucked a stone from the grass and flung it into the stream. They’d passed so many pleasant autumns here, just the five of them. Why did the men have to ruin it all by getting married? First Henry, then Felix. And now Toby.

  Her heart seized. She couldn’t lose Toby. Eight years she’d loved him, ever since that first afternoon. Jeremy had it all wrong. Toby shooting at her had nothing to do with it. It was everything that followed, once the cloud of gunpowder cleared. Henry had yelled at her; Jeremy had glowered at her; Felix had probably made a joke. But Toby hadbowed to her. Her ears still ringing from the shot, she’d barely registered the words of his gallant apology. But for the first time in months, someone had spokento her, rather thanat her orabout her.

  Toby had coaxed Henry into letting Lucy stay instead of sending her home. He’d fashioned a wreath of ivy and crowned her his Diana. Her, Lucy Waltham, a reed-thin girl with tangled hair and an ill-fitting mourning dress. A goddess.

  And that afternoon, for the first time since long before her mother died, Lucy had felt happy. Not just happy. Weightless with bliss. Since that day, she’d never imagined loving anyone else. It wasn’t an emotion she could slip into and out of, like a silk gown. Adoration wove through the fabric of her being like a golden-brown thread. Without it, she would surely unravel.

  The thread pulled tight around her heart. Toby strode up the bank toward her, h
is expression intent. He reached her side, went down on one knee, and addressed her earnestly. “I have a question for you, Lucy. ”

  She swallowed hard and nodded.

  Toby reached into his pocket and withdrew something small and shining. He held it in his outstretched palm for her examination.

  “Will this fly do for October, do you think?” He pulled a tackle box from behind his back and opened it. “Or would you suggest another?”

  She buried her face in her hands. Flies . She was ready to promise him her heart, her life, her soul’s devotion—and he wanted her opinion on fishing lures.

  “Lucy?”

  “Oh, Toby,” she sighed, uncovering her face. “That’s a may-fly. It won’t do at all. ” She took the tackle box from him and began sifting through the assortment of artificial flies.

  Sophia climbed the bank to join them. “How perfectly lovely!” she exclaimed, looking into the tackle box. “What are they made from?”

  “This and that,” Lucy answered. “Bits of wool and down. Hair from a dog or a calf. Feathers. ” She plucked a dazzling blue fly from the box and laid it on her palm. “This one I made with peacock feather, and a bit of iridescent shell. ”

  “You made these?” Sophia took the peacock-feather lure and held it up to the light for examination.

  “That’s our Lucy,” Toby said, smoothing a lock of hair from his brow. “So very clever. So very …”

  “Cunning?” Lucy suggested.

  “Cunning. Exactly so. ”

  His nimble smile tugged at Lucy’s heart. That was Toby. Never reproachful, never cross. Was it any wonder she adored him? With a single, effortless word or glance he could put her whole world to rights. To bask in that warm, brown gaze was to feel singled out, special. As though the sun shone for her benefit alone.

  Blushing, she returned her attention to the tackle box. She plucked out a small fly and held it out to Toby between pinched fingers. A plump bit of black wool formed the body, and the tiny wings were fashioned from a single mallard feather.

  “This is what you need,” she said. “A thorn-tree fly. It may be less fancy, but the trout find it irresistible. ” She placed it in his outstretched hand, allowing her fingers to glide across his palm. Toby’s gaze met hers. His eyes flashed with surprise, and perhaps—curiosity?

  “Toby,”she whispered, leaning closer. Daring him to do the same. His gaze dropped to her lips, and Lucy waited in breathless agony until—sweet heaven—his fingers curled tight around hers. So close, so close.

  And then—disaster.

  “Might I have a go?” Sophia turned from her examination of the peacock fly.

  Toby dropped Lucy’s hand. He turned those brown eyes on Sophia, and pink bloomed across her porcelain cheeks. Lucy went cold. She’d always known Toby had the power to makeher feel special. But evidently he made Sophia feel special, too.

  “You wish to try angling, Miss Hathaway?” he asked.

  “Yes, if you will teach me. ”

  “I’d be delighted. ”

  He helped Sophia to her feet and offered his arm as they walked down the bank. Lucy watched through narrowed eyes as Toby attached the peacock fly to the hook and demonstrated the proper casting technique. He then handed the pole to Sophia, guiding her hands into position. They stood side-by-side, her shoulder pressing against his arm.

  Sophia’s line went taut, and she gave a startled cry as her pole dipped. Toby moved quickly to stand behind her and encircled her in his arms, placing his hands over hers to steady the fishing pole.

  Lucy jumped to her feet. She could not bear to watch this—thisdisplay any longer. She turned away, walked a few paces, and then turned back in the next moment. Sophia recast her line under Toby’s guidance. She hung on his every word and copied his movements, gazing up at him with rapt attention. Lucy rolled her eyes, but Toby appeared—gratified. Pleased. Taller.
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