Goddess of the hunt, p.17
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.17

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 17


  “I hadn’t forgotten. ” Jeremy reached into the pocket and withdrew the red object ball. He placed it on the spot and stalked the perimeter of the table, deliberating his best shot. “Nothing happened. ”

  Toby laughed. “Come on, Jem. I know the difference between nothing and something, and that was definitely not nothing. ”

  Jeremy kept silent and leaned over the table to size up his shot.

  “You didn’t speak to her once during dinner,” Toby continued, “and she never so much as glanced at you. We’re in the drawing room all of ten minutes before she retires early, and you develop a sudden passion for billiards. Two people never work so hard at saying nothing unless they are avoidingsomething . Come on, Jem. What were you thinking?”

  Toby’s tone was glib, but each smooth word pricked Jeremy’s conscience. He primed the cue between his knuckles, sliding it back and forth. Hesitating.

  Damn. Whathad he been thinking? The answer to that question was plain. He hadn’t been thinking at all. He’d kissed Lucy. Not once, but twice—and he’d goaded her into kissing him back. He had known she’d be too stubborn to back down, and he’d taken advantage of it. Taken advantage ofher . He’d pressed her up against that tree and savaged her like a brute. Then, in a moment of either utter madness or just plain idiocy, he’dallowed people to see . Not merely allowed it. Insisted on it. Made a public exhibit of his reprehensible behavior. Loomed over her like a buck guarding his doe in rutting season, staking a claim to his female.

  An animal. He’d been reduced to an animal. For the better part of a week, Lucy had picked at the threads of his self-control with every saucy look and reckless act, and his gentlemanly restraint had frayed perilously thin. Now the fabric of politesse was ripping apart, exposing the lust-crazed beast that lurked beneath. The naked, sweating beast that hungered, thirsted, craved, demanded, would not be denied.

  Good Lord. Even engaged in self-recrimination, he was tearing off his clothes.

  He pulled back the cue, the muscles of his shoulder straining against the seams of his shirt. Ivory cracked against carmine. The balls spun out into futile trajectories, missing the pockets completely.

  Lust. It had to be lust. That was the only possible explanation for this behavior—this complete lapse of conscience and control. It could be the only name for this need that quaked through him whenever she was near. The need to possess her. Claim her in some primitive, irreversible way and send every other man on earth straight to the devil, with Toby leading the procession.

  But there was something else. There had to be, much as he hated to admit it. If simple lust transformed him into a panting, feral creature whenever he came within ten paces of the chit, then logic argued for a simple cure. Increase the distance between them. Leave. It couldn’t be more straightforward. Saddle his horse and ride off for London with the dawn. Find some comely little courtesan with chestnut hair and gold-green eyes to paw and pummel until his lust was slaked.

  It wouldn’t work, Jeremy knew. He couldn’t even muster the desire to try. He’d been saddling his horse at dawn every morning, and he couldn’t reach the border of Henry’s lands without feeling a visceral tug pulling him back to the Manor. And then there had been that terrifying moment in the orchard. Not the yawning black minute when he’d been convinced she was dead. The true panic had started when he found her alive, and this need had roared to life as well. The need to snare her, trap her, pin her to a tree, anchor her with his body, and above all keep herstill . Keep her from bolting off breakneck and dragging him along by that blasted satin ribbon now cinched around his gut.

  This wasn’t a blind, mindless craving for anything woman and willing. This was needing with a name. It was a force beyond lust. It was Lucy.

  He wanted Lucy.

  Lucy wanted Toby.

  And Jeremy didn’t want to talk about it.

  “Don’t mistake me,” Toby continued with grating nonchalance. “You’ve done an admirable job keeping Lucy distracted, and I do appreciate your sacrifice. But there’s no call to get carried away. A little kiss—it’s nothing to one of our usual set of ladies in Town. Harmless. But Lucy’s different. She’s not been out in society. You don’t want to risk her feelings. ”

  Jeremy couldn’t believe his ears. Surely Toby—theton’s most ruthless flirt—did not mean to lecture him on the delicate sensibilities of young ladies. Surely Toby was not attempting to enlightenhim on the distinctions between Lucy and every other lady in England. Lucy is different . If there was one truth in Creation on which Jeremy needed no further convincing, it was that one. “Since when,” he asked in measured tones, “do you care about Lucy’s feelings?”

  “Of course I care about Lucy’s feelings. No one wants to see Lucy hurt. That’s what this was about, remember?”

  Jeremy swore and let his cue clatter to the table. “This was aboutyou,” he seethed, “and your vain, infantile, self-absorbed determination to finish your holiday before getting engaged. ” He tugged on the front of his waistcoat and attempted to compose his expression.

  Toby crossed to a side table and uncorked a decanter of brandy. “Calm down, Jem,” he said, pouring two generous glasses. “I expect I’m just jealous. ”

  “Jealous. ” Jeremy choked on the word. “You can’t possibly mean you—”

  “Ridiculous, isn’t it? I haven’t even kissed her yet. Me . I’ve kissed a hundred girls if I’ve kissed one, and I’ve yet to share a tender moment with the lady I mean to marry. ”

  Sophia. The blood rushed back to Jeremy’s knees. He meant Sophia . “I thought you said a little kiss was nothing to a lady of theton . Harmless. ”

  “A kissis harmless. But if I start with one kiss, I’m not certain I’ll stop—and I can’t vouch for her safety then. ”

  Jeremy cocked an eyebrow at his friend and accepted the drink offered him. “Running a bit low on self-control, are you?” Thank God he wasn’t the only one. He eyed his glass suspiciously. Perhaps there was something in Henry’s brandy. Hehad gotten his wife with child three times in five years.

  “I’m in torment,” Toby said, pulling a grimace. “Seeing her every day, living under the same roof … You couldn’t possibly understand. ”

  You’d be surprised.

  “She was uniformly enchanting in Town, of course. But there, she was one of a dozen beautiful ladies in any given salon or ballroom. Here … here, she sparkles like a jewel among coals. ”

  Jeremy rolled his eyes. If only Lucy could hear herself compared to a lump of coal.

  “Thank heavens for geometry,” said Toby.

  “Geometry? What has geometry to do with anything?”

  “That’s what I think of when I feel myself losing control. When she’s right there, and so tempting … I turn my mind to geometry. You know—theorems, proofs, all that. ”

  “Yes, I understand geometry,” Jeremy said. “What I don’t comprehend is whyyou should claim to understand it. You’re worthless at mathematics. Always were, even at Eton. ”

  “Precisely. Old Fensworth held my ballocks over a flame all fifth form. Always hated me, the miserable, arthritic cur. To this day, I can’t think about geometry without breaking into a cold sweat. That’s why it’s the perfect cure for ardor. ”

  Jeremy considered whether this geometry cure might work for his own situation. The trouble was, he’d always been rather good at geometry. Latin, on the other hand …

  “And we’re always together, and too frequently alone,” Toby continued, ruffling his hair with one hand. “If Miss Hathaway knew the thoughts running through my head, she’d be … terrified, I imagine. Sophia is a delicate flower. Innocent. Refined. I can’t very well drag her off into the bushes for a tumble. ” He shot Jeremy an accusatory glance over his glass.

  It was the orchard, not the bushes, Jeremy longed to retort, but he didn’t think it wise. Neither would it be wise to point out that he had nottumbled Lucy
, when without Toby’s well-timed interruption he might have done just that.

  “A lady of her breeding doesn’t allow such liberties,” Toby continued. “Nor should she. Sophia Hathaway is an angel. Pure as the driven snow, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t dare even kiss her before we are engaged. ” His lips curved in a sly smile. “And therefore we may become engaged quite soon. ”

  “That tempting, is she?” Miss Hathaway met every accepted standard of beauty, but Jeremy failed to see the attraction beyond aesthetic admiration. But then, he and Toby had never shared the same taste in women. And suddenly, Jeremy found himself exceedingly grateful for that fact. “What about the sport?” he asked. “I thought you were determined to exhaust every covey in Henry’s woods before you would even contemplate bending a knee. ”

  Toby frowned. “It was never about that, Jem. It’s just that becoming betrothed is quite a step, you realize. A rather momentous decision, as decisions go. And for once, it’s actually my decision to make. ” He swirled the brandy in his glass thoughtfully. “Consider our lives. We didn’t choose to be born. Our titles were destined for us before we could utter our Christian names. We certainly didn’t select the time or manner in which we inherited them, or we wouldn’t have done so yet. ”

  Jeremy tipped his brandy. Toby didn’t know the half of it. His title had been destined for someone else entirely. Jeremy ought to have been an earl’s second son. Instead of reading up on crop rotation, he should have been deflecting bayonets at Waterloo. Or chasing an opera singer around the Continent, squandering the family fortune along the way.

  Toby continued, “We’ll have precious little to say about when our children are born, or even how many we’ll have. We won’t choose the hour or day that we die. ” He drained his glass and set it down.

  “We have this choice to us, though—whom we marry, and when. I’ve a mother and three older sisters, each more unnaturally competent than the last. They’ve never needed me to carry any burden besides the title. This may very well be the first choice in my life of any import, and considering the nature of marriage, it’s like to be my last for a goodly length of time. My engagement is my decision to make. And it may be damned selfish of me, Jem, but I’m not going to make that decision for anyone else’s convenience. Not Lucy’s, or yours, or even Miss Hathaway’s. There will come a moment—and perhaps rather soon—when I simply know it’s time. When I can’t live another hour without securing Sophia’s hand. That’s when I’ll propose, and not a blasted minute before. ”

  Jeremy stared at his friend. There must be something in the brandy, he thought. For a moment there—almost a solid minute—Toby had soundedthoughtful . “You’re right,” he said finally, taking a slow sip from his own glass. “That is damned selfish of you. ”

  Toby’s face cracked into a wide grin. He picked up his billiard cue and reset the balls. “You know, being in love isn’t half bad, Jem. I can’t imagine why I avoided it so assiduously all those years. ” He took a wild shot that missed both balls completely.

  “Can’t you?”

  “Must be the brandy,” Toby replied with a sheepish smile. The smile faded, and his gaze sharpened. “You never answered my question. About this afternoon. What do I tell Henry?”

  Blast. Jeremy had hoped he’d forgotten that question.

  “You tell Henry nothing. ” He picked up his cue and chalked it, trying to keep his tone light. “There’s nothing to tell. Lucy’s not infatuated with me, she’s furious with me. That’s why we’re not speaking. The little game is over. ”
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