Goddess of the hunt, p.12
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.12

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 12


  Toby noted Jeremy’s sullen expression. “Don’t look at me like that! It’s not my fault, you know. If you find Lucy’s ‘antics’ so annoying, why don’tyou distract her?”

  “Please. ” Jeremy tipped his glass to drain the last of his brandy, then lowered it slowly. Henry was giving him the most distressing look.

  “That’s not a bad idea,” Henry said.

  “What’s not a bad idea?” asked Felix.

  “Jem distracting Lucy. ” A mischievous grin spread across Toby’s face.

  “Oh, no. ” Jeremy rose from his chair and stepped behind it, as though the wing-backed barrier of civility might shield him from their lunacy. “If by ‘distract,’ you mean—distract—and if by ‘Lucy,’ you mean Henry’ssister … the answer is no. No. ”

  “Relax, Jem,” Henry said. “We’re not suggesting you court her in earnest. Just pay her a bit of attention. Take her on an amble through the garden. Read her one of Byron’s poems. ”

  “And don’t forget the pie. ” Felix was enjoying this far too much.

  “You can’t be serious, Henry. ” Henry had never been a model guardian, but this strained the definition of the term. “Are you honestly suggesting—invitingme to play loose with your sister’s affections?”

  “Her affections?” Henry laughed. “As ifyou could engage Lucy’s affections. It’s nothing so dreadful. Her pride’s been bruised, and she wants a bit of admiring. Just do your best to stand in for the vicar’s spotty son. ”

  Good Lord, had Henrymet his sister? Lucy was many things, but easily dissuaded was not one of them. She’d invested eight years in this misplaced adulation, and if Henry thought a few pretty words would snap her out of it now, he was a bit late on the draw.

  “You’ll not touch her, of course,” Henry added, his voice deep with mock warning.

  A bit late on that one, too.

  “Come on,” Toby pleaded. “Do a man a favor. I’d do it for you, were our situations reversed. ”

  “I don’t doubt you would,” Jeremy said. “But oddly enough, Toby, I’ve never aspired to your example of conduct. ”

  They were closing in on him, all three of them wearing expressions of great amusement. Jeremy began to feel a bit desperate. “It won’t work,” he protested.

  “Are you so out of practice then?” Toby taunted. “You typically cut quite a swath through theton , but not this season. Perhaps you’re just not up to the task?”

  Jeremy’s hands were fists at his sides. His right itched to connect with Toby’s jaw. The left had distinctly lower ambitions. “Myability is not in question. ”

  Henry clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. “Good. Then it’s settled. ”


  “Come to call me a fool again?” Lucy asked from behind her book. “Or perhaps you’ve devised a fresh insult?”

  Jeremy pulled a chair up to the hearth. Aunt Matilda dozed on a nearby divan, her turbaned head slumped to her chest. The turban’s indigo plume dangled in front of her nose, and each rattling snore set it dancing in the breeze.

  After this afternoon’s dousing, Lucy had traded her ruined silk gown for a simple dark-green dress with—thankfully—a modest neckline. Her hair was braided into a thick rope of chestnut that tapered to a gentle curve at her waist. A leather-bound volume hid her face from view. She had maintained this studious attitude ever since the group retired to the drawing room following dinner, but Jeremy hadn’t seen her turn a single page.

  He maneuvered a chess table into the space between them and began arranging the pawns in neat rows. “I did not come to insult you. Quite the opposite. ” He leaned forward across the game board, as though preparing to spill a great secret. “I’ve come to seduce you. ”

  She peeked at him over the top of her book. Her eyes flared momentarily before narrowing to slits. “I prefer insult to ridicule. ”

  He shrugged and continued arranging the chess pieces. “Perhaps I simply want a game of chess. ”

  She snorted in disbelief and glanced over toward the card table, where the Hathaway sisters were on the verge of bankrupting all three gentlemen. “Henry put you up to this, didn’t he?”

  Jeremy’s fingers tightened around a black rook.

  “I don’t want your pity, Jemmy. ” Lucy snapped her book closed. “And what’s more, I don’t need it. ”

  She met his eyes directly, and the force in her gaze nearly knocked him off his chair. Her green eyes were clear and alive with intelligence, not red or brimming with tears. He shook his head, chiding himself for underestimating her resilience. Lucy had not sequestered herself to nurse her wounded pride or lament her disappointed hopes. She was plotting her next move.

  “I’m not here to pity you. Nor am I acting at Henry’s behest. ” Jeremy placed the last pieces on the board. “I have my own reasons to speak with you. ”

  She rotated the chessboard to situate the white pieces before her. Winding her braid around her right hand, she advanced a pawn with her left. She glanced up at him through thick, curving eyelashes. “To apologize?”

  To apologize, indeed. Lucy ought to be thanking him. He intended to bring a swift end to this absurd scheme of her brother’s. At dinner, he had suffered winks from Henry, grins from Toby, Felix’s jab to the ribs—even Marianne’s sly expression when she seated Lucy at his elbow. Well, Henry could make accomplices of every last footman, for all Jeremy cared. He’d be damned if he’d spend his holiday reciting Byron in the garden, simply to coddle their consciences. Neither did he intend to stand watch in the corridor each night, or keep fishing Lucy out of danger. If neither Henry nor Toby were man enough to simply tell her the truth, Jeremy would.

  He brought out a pawn to meet hers. “I’ve come to tell you the good news. Toby will propose marriage to Miss Hathaway at the end of the holiday. ”

  “Thatis the good news?” She moved a bishop across the board, claiming a black pawn. “I can scarcely contain my joy. Please excuse my display of wild jubilation. ”

  “At theend of the holiday, Lucy. Weeks from now. Any attempt to prevent the engagement would be futile”—he continued speaking over her objection—“but if you insist on trying, you have ample time. There is no need to commit a brazen act of seduction. Or subversion. ”

  “On the contrary. ” The corners of her lips curled in an impish grin. “With so much time at my disposal, I can commit more brazen acts than ever. ”

  “And do you suppose brazenness is a quality Toby seeks in a wife?”

  His barb hit home, and Lucy’s mouth thinned to a line. She glanced over at the card players. “Whatdoes he see in her?”

  “As I told you, she is beautiful, accomplished, and—most importantly—wealthy. ”

  “And these are the qualities that inspire a man to the heights of passion? A large dowry and cunning tea trays?”

  “No, they are not the qualities that inspire a man to passion. They are the qualities that inspire a man to propose. ”

  Lucy studied the chessboard, twining the curled end of her braid around her fingers and touching it against the corner of her mouth. Her tongue flicked out from between her parted lips, drawing on a strand of hair. Jeremy shifted in his seat.

  “We seem to be back where we began,” she said.

  “How so?”

  “I have no dowry or tea tray to inspire a man to propose. Therefore, I shall have to summon the qualities that inspire a man to passion. ” She looked up at him, green eyes dancing with reflected firelight. “And those would be?”

  If he were being honest, Jeremy would be forced to tell her that the saucy gleam in her eye was a powerful start. And that the way she kept teasing that stray chestnut curl with her tongue—nibbling it, sucking it, drawing it into her mouth—had him feelinginspired indeed.

  But Jeremy had no particular desire to be honest. In fact, he heartily wished to change the subject. And if he managed to change Luc
y’s mind in the process, so much the better. “It isn’t only Miss Hathaway’s dowry,” he said. “I believe Toby does feel a genuine attachment to her. ”

  Lucy looked disbelieving. She moved her bishop across the board. “You can’t expect me to believe it was love at first sight. ”

  “Not at all. More like the second. ” This captured her attention. She leaned forward slightly in her chair. Jeremy bent over the chessboard and lowered his voice. “Toby was first introduced to Miss Hathaway at a dinner party at Felix’s house. She was every bit as lovely and charming as you see her now. She made trifling conversation at dinner and played the pianoforte afterward, quite capably. Toby took no notice. ” He moved a knight into play.

  “And the second time?”

  “The second time we were all in company, we met at a ball. On that occasion, Miss Sophia had a bevy of admirers surrounding her before the first set. Toby was instantly enthralled. For weeks afterward, he spoke of nothing but Miss Sophia Hathaway. He was quite insufferable. ”

  Lucy looked nonplussed. “So you’re telling me Henry should host a ball?”

  He sighed. “I’m telling you to stop flinging yourself at Toby’s feet. A man doesn’t want to stoop to love. He wants to reach higher, stand taller. He desires something more than a woman. He wants an angel. A dream. ”

  “A goddess?”

  “If you will. ”

  Her voice grew wistful. “Toby always called me a goddess. His Diana. Goddess of the hunt. ”

  “She was the goddess of chastity, too,” he scoffed. “But no matter. You’re beginning to comprehend the principle. The allure of the unattainable. You’d be foolish to keep flashing your … yourcharms at Toby so brazenly. Men want what it seems they can’t have. ”

  And God help him, he was a man. He wanted what he could not have. That must be the reason Jeremy felt himself growing stiff at the mere mention of Lucy’scharms . Lucy was unattainable, he reminded himself for what must have been the nineteenth time that day. And whatever strange allure she held, it logically proceeded from that fact. Not from her enticing, womanly curves, or her golden, petal-soft skin. Not from the obvious challenge of her flinty spirit or the veiled invitation in her smoky voice. And most definitely not from her lips—those lush, bowed, dusky red lips that Jeremy now knew to be formed for something wholly apart from stinging retorts. Sweet, sensual kisses that stirred a man’s blood and tasted of wild, ripe fruit. Forbidden fruit.

  It was all too true. Men want what it seems they can’t have .

  Lucy leveled her green gaze at him. “Jealous. ”

  He groaned inwardly. Not that word again. He was not—not—jealous. He began piecing together an objection, but she spoke first.

  “I comprehend you perfectly. I need to make Toby jealous. ”

  He stared at her. Not comprehending.

  “You said yourself that he never looked twice at Sophia until she showed up with a throng of suitors. That’s what I need. A suitor. A throng of them would be preferable, but I suppose one will have to do. ” She wound the braid around her finger and began toying with it again. “Too bad the vicar’s son is off to Oxford. He’s positively mad for me. ”

  She stared at the carpet, brow furrowed. Then she raised her head and locked gazes with him. “It will have to be you. ”


  “I know, I know. It sounds ridiculous, but there’s no one else. It’s nothing so terrible. Just pretend to court me for a while. Until Toby realizes he loves me. ”

  “I could court you forever, and that plan would never work. ”

  Lucy sank back in her chair and folded her arms. She exhaled forcefully. “I suppose you’re right. ” She regarded him with an expression that struck Jeremy as uncomfortably close to disdain. “No one would ever believe it. ”
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