Goddess of the hunt, p.20
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.20

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 20


  But these words, her pride would never let her speak.

  As they finally neared the house, Toby asked, “How does your ankle feel? Much improved?”

  She nodded. The throbbing in her ankle had subsided. All that remained was a faint tingling.

  Lucy frowned. Shemust be in pain. She must have broken a bone, and the shock had rendered the rest of her body numb. Because she’d just walked a quarter-mile tucked under Toby’s arm, and as surely as her ankle tingled like mad … she didn’t tingle anywhere else.


  The storm broke that afternoon.

  Jeremy tried to outride it, but the rain caught up with him in the south fields. It was a long, wet, muddy ride back to the Manor. Cold rain drenched his shirt and waistcoat, plastering the linen and silk to his skin. Just as well he no longer had his coat. There was nothing more vile than the smell of damp wool.

  And the cold felt good. The rain felt good.

  He’d ridden off in a blind rage, furious with Henry beyond all reason. And he knew, from years of experience, that the only thing for anger like this was to ride. Ride hard and fast, until he shook off the demon breathing down his neck. Or a cold rain washed it away.

  He was getting damned tired of watching Lucy get hurt. In the space of a week alone, she’d almost drowned in the stream and nearly been thrown by a horse. It was completely irrational, that seeing her tripped up by a bit of cord should send him into a chest-seizing panic.

  But it had. Of course it had.

  Jeremy could walk the seven continents of the Earth and the nine circles of Hell and never hear a more sickening sound than the dull twang plucked from a tripwire. Because in his mind, that sound would always echo with the deafening crack of a gunshot. Followed by the most terrible, haunting sound of all—not a warning, not a scream. Just silence. Years of silence.

  He told himself it could have been anyone. Had it been Sophia, or Aunt Matilda, or even Toby who tripped the snare, he would have reacted the same.

  But that would be a lie. Lucy was different. As he returned to the stables, drenched with rain and drained of anger, Jeremy saw it clearly—exactly why he’d kept her at arm’s length ever since the day Toby nearly shot her head off. Lucy had “impending disaster” written all over her, and Jeremy had seen his share of disaster for a lifetime.

  But Lucy refused to stay at arm’s length. She’d kept nagging him, provoking him, pestering him about fishing lures and chess. And now she’d burst into his room and thrown herself straight into his arms. That safe distance narrowed to the thickness of two layers of linen. And beneath the linen were soft, maddening curves and smooth, golden skin. Lust had roared to life inside him, but something else, too. Something he didn’t care to examine too closely, didn’t wish to name.

  When he finally entered the Manor, dripping rainwater and tracking mud across the parquet floor, Jeremy couldn’t even bring himself to go straight to his chamber and attend to his appearance. No, he had to seeher first. Assure himself that she wasn’t lying abed with a broken ankle or sitting there yet in the woods, chilled through with rain.

  He found her in the drawing room. He found everyone in the drawing room. And judging from their shocked stares when he entered, they all found him quite a sight.

  Felix broke the stunned silence. “Enjoy your ride, Jem?”

  “Quite. ” The room fell silent again—except for the faint sound of dripping.

  Jeremy’s eyes went to Lucy where she sat in the window seat. She looked dry and well enough—and inconveniently fetching, wrapped in a lacy, pearl-gray shawl that slipped off one shoulder. She avoided his gaze.

  Everyone else, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop staring at him.

  “My coat?” Jeremy asked.

  “Gave it to your valet,” Henry said.

  “Right. ” A rivulet of rainwater trickled down his brow. Jeremy dabbed it with his fist, resisting the urge to shake like a wet dog. “Well then, I’ll just go change. ”

  “Don’t take overlong,” Marianne said, having collected her composure. “We’re about to play parlor games. The perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon. Don’t you agree?”

  Jeremy didn’t agree at all, but he gave a politic nod. He’d rather be drawn and quartered than spend the afternoon playing parlor games. They wouldn’t miss him. He’d simply slip up to his chambers and conveniently forget to return. Nothing so simple.

  He shifted his weight, and his foot squished softly in his boot.

  “Just because the weather’s turned,” said Sophia, “it doesn’t mean the men must give up their sport completely. We can still arrange for a bit of hunting. ” She arched her eyebrow in Toby’s direction. Toby’s attention, however, was focused on the window seat. He was looking—staring, really—at Lucy. Jeremy decided there was no reason to beat such a hasty retreat. He’d already ruined the carpet.

  “What are you on about?” Kitty asked her sister.

  “This is a grand old house, and I’ve been desperate to explore it,” Sophia continued. “Why confine our games to the parlor?” Her eyes twinkled, and her mouth crooked in a mischievous smile. “Let’s play hide-and-seek. ”

  At this, Lucy looked up. Her gaze met Toby’s, and then they both looked away in an instant. Damn. Just what had passed between them while he was out racing demons?

  He remembered Lucy’s last words to him in the orchard. The words that had erased his kiss from her lips and turned her soft, supple mouth to stone. I’m going to tell Toby the truth . Surely she hadn’t.

  Lucy’s gaze flickered back up to Toby. Then she turned back to the window, staring out unfocused at the rain. Slowly winding a lock of hair around her finger and raising it to her lips. Thinking. Scheming.

  Surely she hadn’t—yet.

  “A nursery game?” Kitty toyed with one of her bracelets. “Why don’t we just play cards instead?”

  “Oh, no,” said Henry, looking from Kitty to Sophia. “I can’t afford it. One more afternoon of cards with you ladies, and one of you will own Waltham Manor. ”

  “I think it’s a capital idea, Sophia,” said Felix. “But I warn you all—I know just the place to hide. You shan’t find me for days. ”

  “The larder?” Lucy asked, still staring out the window.

  “Wh—?” Felix colored. “No. I wasn’t thinking of the larder at all. How absurd. ” He picked up the poker and stirred the fire, muttering an oath into the flames. “The larder, indeed. ”

  “Then it’s settled. ” Sophia drew straws from the tinderbox and began cutting them with her penknife. “We have only to choose a seeker. ” She bunched them together in her fist and offered them around. She started in Jeremy’s direction, but he warned her off with a slight shake of his head.

  His refusal did not appear to offend Miss Hathaway. When she offered the straws to Toby, however, she shifted her hand slightly. A different sort of look passed between the two. Jeremy was not the least bit surprised when, once the last of the straws had been handed round, Toby held up the shortest one.

  “Ah, Toby,” said Henry. “I always suspected your straw was the shortest. ”

  Marianne kicked him under the table. “Henry! We’re in polite society!” She cast an apologetic glance at Kitty and Sophia. The sisters schooled their expressions to innocence.

  “We’re about to play a nursery game,” Henry grumbled, rubbing his shin. “Just trying to get in the spirit of things. ”

  Sophia clapped her hands together. “Let’s begin, shall we? Sir Toby, you must count to one hundred—very slowly, mind. We must have ample time to find our hiding places. ”

  “Don’t concern yourself, Miss Hathaway,” said Henry, lurching out of his chair and pulling down his waistcoat. “Very slowlyis the only way Toby can count. In fact, I doubt he’ll make it to one hundred without losing his place and beginning again at least twice. ” Marianne dug an elbow in his ribs
. “Ow!”

  Toby smirked. “I’d come over there and thrash you, Waltham, but I shan’t waste the effort. Your wife’s doing the job admirably. ”

  “I shall be hidden before Toby counts ten,” Lucy said, rising from the window seat. She sidled up to Toby with a pointed look and a little smile. “With a sore ankle, I can’t stray far. I expect I shall be terribly easy to find. ”

  Jeremy winced. Flirtation did not become Lucy in the slightest. She employed feminine wiles with all the subtlety of an elephant stamping a waltz. If Aunt Matilda herself failed to comprehend that invitation, he would have been surprised.

  He told himself he shouldn’t care. The rest of the party might be preparing to commence this childish diversion, but he was through playing games. Lucy wasn’t his sister or his admirer. She wasn’t his problem. She wasn’t hisanything , he told himself sternly. She wasn’t his at all.

  Toby stood flanked by Lucy and Sophia. Both ladies regarded him expectantly, pulling his attention in two opposing directions. He cleared his throat. “I suppose we all understand the object, then. ” His glance flitted from one lady to the other. He looked like a man being stretched on a rack.

  Devil take it. Jeremy turned on his soggy heel and quit the drawing room, heading swiftly for the stairs.

  “That’s cheating, Jem,” Henry called after him. “But don’t think your head start will do you a bit of good. You’re leaving a trail of rainwater. ”

  Lucy waited in her wardrobe.

  She had always thought of it as her wardrobe, even though it had actually belonged to her father. Even though it wasn’t in her chambers, and it held none of her clothing. The wardrobe sat in an alcove of the first-story corridor, facing the door to Henry’s study, and it was usually empty—except when she occupied it.

  She leaned against the wood paneling at the back of the cabinet. Lacy ribbons of light filtered through the latticework at the top of the doors, dappling the pear-green muslin of her frock with spots of gold. She shut her eyes and inhaled deeply, drinking in the secret scents that never faded—teasing hints of spice and tobacco and sea salt and rum. The smells of Tortola, as she dreamed it must be.

  Her father had brought back the cabinet from the West Indies, when he came home to Waltham Manor. Lucy could never imagine how a ship had managed to stay afloat carrying the monolithic wardrobe. As a girl, she’d had to grasp the carved handle with both hands and lean back on her heels just to wrench open one massive door.

  The wardrobe’s exterior was carved with vines and leaves and flowers that blossomed across the surface in sinuous, pagan patterns. Lucy would swear that they grew and shifted ever so slightly with time. Inside, however, the ebony panels were solid and smooth. Like polished stone, but warm to the touch. A deep, black cave shot with arrows of light.

  Countless hours she’d spent closeted there. Hiding from nursemaids and governesses. Evading blame for mischief she’d wrought. Listening to Henry and his friends drink and talk well past the hour of her bedtime. Waiting for her mother to die.

  Even as she grew older and taller, the space inside the wardrobe never seemed to shrink. There was always room for two. Two of her. There was Lucy—troublesome, orphaned, hoydenish Lucy—and there was the other girl. The better girl. The girl who would push open the ebony door and walk out onto a white, sandy shore in Tortola, swinging hand-in-hand with her mother on one side and her father on the other. The girl who was beautiful and elegant, with fair skin and yellow hair and perfect, unskinned knees. The girl who was really a princess, asleep—waiting for her golden-haired prince to come and wake her with a kiss.

  Lucy sighed. She was almost twenty and no longer a girl. Her parents were dead, and she would never see Tortola. Her skin was olive, and her hair was brown, and she’d skinned her knees yet again that morning. And if her golden-haired prince didn’t come for her today … he never would.
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