Goddess of the hunt, p.11
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.11

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 11


  “You’re jealous,” she repeated, in an icy tone that cut straight through the heat of his desire. Her eyes flashed with fury. “You’re a cold, unfeeling, heartless man. And you have no idea what it is to care for something—someone—so deeply. To be willing to admit it, to yourself and to the world. To make a complete and utter fool of yourself, if necessary. Real love takes real courage. I have it, and you don’t. And you’re jealous. ”

  She brushed past him and stalked off toward the house. Jeremy stared after her, numb with shock.

  “I take it Lucy’s made a full recovery. ” Henry covered the last few paces to stand at Jeremy’s shoulder. “What was that all about, then?”

  Jeremy wished he could say. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other; then shifted it back. “Henry, I think we need to talk. ”

  “I think so,” said Henry, eyeing him with amusement. “Explain to me, kindly, why my little sister is lecturing you on love. ”

  The gentlemen convened their council over a bottle of fine brandy. Jeremy had drained one glass and was already pouring himself a second while his friends still savored their first sips. “Something has to be done about Lucy,” he announced in a firm voice intended to convince no one more than himself.

  “I’ve been trying to do something about Lucy for years now,” Henry said, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on his desk. “I’ve quite given up. ”

  “Did I miss something?” Felix asked. “What’s the matter with Lucy?”

  “Besides the fact that she’s forgotten how to swim, fish, and dress appropriate to the weather?” Jeremy topped off his glass and sank into the chair closest to the fire. His shirt was still damp, and Lucy had absconded with his coat. “She fancies herself in love. ”

  “Aha,” said Henry. He turned to Felix and whispered loudly, “Apparently she and Jem had some sort of lovers’ quarrel. ” Both men erupted in laughter.

  Toby chuckled into his glass. “Lucy and Jem? Nowthat’s amusing. But better Jem than that spotty son of your vicar, Henry. He wrote her some perfectly dreadful verses last year. ”

  “The vicar’s boy was writing Lucy verses?” Henry sat up in his chair, suddenly sobered. “Why does no one tell me these things?”

  “I thought you knew. ” Toby shrugged. “And as I said, they were dreadful. Even if they weren’t, Byron himself couldn’t touch Lucy’s heart, unless he came bearing pie along with his poems. ”

  “Let’s ring for tea and sandwiches, shall we?” Felix asked. “I’m famished. ”

  “It wasnot a lovers’ quarrel,” Jeremy interrupted. “Lucy isnot in love with me. ” He turned to Toby. “And neither is she in love with the vicar’s son, you idiot. She’s in love with you. ”

  “Still?” Toby sipped his brandy. “Blast. I was hoping she’d taken a liking to someone new. ”

  “You hoped no such thing. ” Jeremy set his glass down with a forceful clatter. “You know you encourage her. Just like you encourage everything in a skirt between the ages of thirteen and thirty. ”

  “Jem,” said Henry, “in case you haven’t noticed, Lucy’s been mooning over Toby for years now. Calf-love, that’s all it is. ”

  Jeremy groaned. “Henry, in case you haven’t noticed, Lucy’s not a girl anymore. She’s grown out of calf-love. She’s—” He stopped himself, edging away from that sentence as if it were a dangerous cliff.

  Henry laughed. “Surely you’re not calling my sister a full-grown cow?”

  Jeremy took a breath and began again, slowly. As though speaking to a cow. “Lucy knows Toby is planning to marry Miss Hathaway. ”

  Felix let out a low whistle. “That is a problem. ”

  “Which one of you told her?” Toby asked, sounding faintly peeved.

  “It wasn’t me,” Felix said.

  “Icertainly didn’t. ” Henry frowned. “Are you sure she knows, Jem?”

  Jeremy paused. He couldn’t very well tell them how he knew that Lucy knew. There was no good way to tell Henry that his sister had visited his bedchamber in her dressing gown. There was no way at all to explain what had happened next. “There are four ladies in the house,” he said with a shrug. “You know how ladies talk. She must know. And now that she knows—”

  “She’s jealous,” Felix finished.

  “Exactly. She’s jealous. ” Jeremy took a triumphant swallow of brandy, pleased to finally hang that label where it rightly belonged.

  “So she’s jealous,” said Henry. “I don’t see why there’s any call todo something about it. ”

  Jeremy shook his head. Could there be another man so thick-skulled in all England? How Henry had managed to get through Eton and Cambridge, Jeremy couldn’t guess. Actually, the answer was obvious. By sticking close to Jeremy. Not that Jeremy had begrudged him the assistance. Since their first year at Eton, Henry had been a friend.

  Jeremy’s choice of friends had given his father fits, if one could call the slight twitch of the jaw that preceded a monotone lecture a “fit. ” He could still hear the cool disdain in his voice. Warrington , he had intoned after Jeremy’s first year at Eton,it escapes me utterly why you should choose to surround yourself with that collection of miserable, low-born scamps. Who are their fathers? Tradesmen? Farmers? Not a title among them, save a mere baronet. You are in every way their superior, and if you tolerate their company at all, you should at least insist they address you by your title .

  But that was just it. Jeremy had not wanted to consort with other boys of his rank, nor be addressed as “Warrington”—the title that, in Jeremy’s ten-year-old mind, still belonged to his older brother. Why should he suffer constant reminders of Thomas’s death, when he could play with boys who knew nothing of it? Boys like Henry, Felix, and Toby.

  Good friends, the three of them, but Henry most of all. Henry didn’t allow him to sit brooding in his club when there was a prizefight to see, any more than he allowed him to stew at home over a failed wheat harvest when there were trout to be netted. Without stooping to methods so grating as cheerfulness, Henry simply refused to indulge his darker moods. But the same qualities that made him a valued friend made Henry a miserable excuse for a guardian. Now that Jeremy began to see what that blithe irreverence was costing Lucy, his humor was growing black indeed.

  “You know how persistent Lucy can be when she sets her mind to something,” he said testily. “She’s going to throw herself at Toby at every opportunity. This afternoon she missed and hit the river instead. She’s like to do herself in, and take a few of us with her. ”

  “And what, precisely, do you recommend I do?” Henry asked.

  “Not you,” Jeremy said. “Toby. ”

  “Oh, no. ” Alarm flared in Toby’s eyes. “I’m not havingthat conversation with Lucy. I take no pleasure in breaking young ladies’ hearts. ”

  The other three stared at him.

  “Well, I don’t,” he said defensively. “Of late. ”

  “You don’t have to break her heart. ” Jeremy was becoming exasperated. “At least, not to her face. You just have to propose to Miss Hathaway. Once you’re engaged, Lucy will be forced to give up this absurd notion of seduc—distractingyou. ”

  “I shall be perfectly happy to propose marriage to Miss Hathaway,” said Toby. “At theend of our holiday. ”

  “Why the end?” asked Felix. “Kitty’s been after me daily, asking when you’re finally going to propose to Sophia. She thinks you’ve got the gout, you’re so reluctant to bend a knee. ”

  “I may as well be infirm, for all the fun I’ll have once I’m engaged,” Toby said. “I can’t very well bag a bride in the morning and a pheasant that same afternoon. Once I’ve asked for her hand, I’ll have a hundred things to do. Go apply to her father in Kent. See my solicitor in Town. Make appointments with my tailor. Retrieve my grandmother’s ring from Surrey. I’ll be running all over England like a Norman invader, and that will spell the end
of all amusement. ”

  “What rot,” Henry said. “Felix and I are both married, as you see, and we manage a bit of sport despite it. ”

  “Yes, but you’remarried,” Toby replied. “A married woman likes nothing better than to be left alone. A betrothed woman won’t leave a man be. I’ll be obliged to take ambling strolls in the garden and read poetry over tea, when I ought to be tramping through the woods, taking nips off a flask of whiskey. ”

  “Courting can be a sport in its own right,” Felix said with a sly smile.

  Toby countered, “Yes, but blushing virgins are always in season. ” He rose from his seat and went to stand by the window, gazing out over the park. “Miss Hathaway is an enchanting creature. I admire her beauty and esteem her character. I may even love her. But this autumn is my last gasp of bachelorhood, and I mean to enjoy it. While there are still coveys in Henry’s woods, I have no intention of proposing marriage to Sophia Hathaway. ”

  “And what about Lucy?” Jeremy asked.

  “Oh, don’t worry. I shan’t propose to her, either. ”

  Jeremy regarded his friend through narrowed eyes. Toby’s brand of reckless charm wore well on a youth of one-and-twenty, but it ill became a gentleman nearing thirty. Not that the young ladies had ceased swooning in his direction. Falling in love with Sir Toby Aldridge was still a rite of initiation for debutantes. But this wasn’t another simpering heiress they were discussing. This wasLucy .

  He turned to Henry. “Aren’t you the least bit concerned for your sister’s welfare?”

  “Of course I’m concerned for her welfare. I’m her guardian. ”

  Jeremy snorted.

  “You’re making too much of this,” Henry said. “So Lucy is infatuated with Toby. It’s an all-too-common affliction. One many a girl has survived, with no lasting ill effects. ”

  “Unless you count near-drowning. ”

  “She’s mistaken Toby’s kindness for some deeper emotion,” Henry continued, ignoring Jeremy’s remark. “It’s entirely understandable. She ought to have had her season by now, and fallen in and out of love a dozen times. As it is, she’s a complete innocent. ”

  Jeremy snorted again. Obviously Henry did not know aboutthe book .

  “She feels left out,” Henry went on. “She’s surrounded by ladies who are either happily married or engaged. ” He waved off Toby’s interjection. “Nearly engaged. She wants a bit of romance all her own. ” Apparently satisfied with this deduction, Henry saluted his own ingenuity by pouring another round of brandy. “It will pass. ”

  Jeremy felt creeping tendrils of madness winding around his brain. It will pass? Henry couldn’t possibly know how wrong he was. And Jeremy couldn’t possibly tell him. “And in the meantime?” he asked. “You just allow her to keep up these … these antics?”

  “Jem has a point there,” said Toby. “I can’t very well have Lucy hanging all over me if I’m meant to be courting Miss Hathaway. A bit awkward, that. ”

  Henry shrugged. “I don’t see what else there is to do. ”

  “Perhaps you should invite the vicar’s son to tea,” Felix suggested.

  “Impossible,” said Henry. “He’s off to Oxford. ”

  Jeremy shook his head. This conversation was becoming nonsensical. He glowered at Toby. Selfish ass . So cocksure of captivating any and every woman’s affections. Of course he saw no reason to rush a proposal. The idea of Miss Hathaway refusing him would never cross his mind. It would serve him right if she did.
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