Goddess of the hunt, p.25
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.25

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 25


  But Sophia would be heartbroken. And ruined.

  The room was cold and drafty, but Lucy began to flush. Her brain felt warm and muddled. Something was wrong with her. She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. Perhaps she was ill. She must be taken with brain fever, because she couldn’t think at all. She couldn’t think what to do, and this was a situation that definitely required her to dosomething . Didn’t it?

  Lucy felt herself falling into halves, her will divided. The sensation was wholly unfamiliar and greatly alarming. This was worse than brain fever. This was indecision. Indecision was not in her makeup. She had always known what she wanted, and she had always known how to get it. She didn’t stand waffling in drafty rooms in the middle of the night when she could be warm and snug in her bed, dreaming sweet dreams that would soon become realities.

  But then again, she’d never held her future in the palm of her hand. If she felt indecision for the first time now, it could be because this was the first real decision she had ever faced. And wasn’t this what she had always desired? To choose?

  Lucy considered her options. She thought about posting the letter. She thought about shoving it under Toby’s door. She thought about throwing it into the fire and watching it curl into ash. She mentally walked through each alternative, hoping one would simply feel right.

  But none of them felt right, or even simple.

  A week ago, she would have known what to do. A week ago, doubt was as foreign to Lucy as friendship, or a kiss. Before, every piece of her—heart, mind, body, soul—lived for one purpose. For one person. But then she’d stolen into another man’s bedchamber, and then Sophia had flounced into hers—and in between, a hundred terrible, wonderful things had happened. Suddenly, every piece of her—heart, mind, body, soul—had grown bigger, stronger, with needs and wants and demands of its own.

  And that one purpose—that one person—was no longer enough to hold all the pieces together.

  She let herself think the unthinkable words. Let them bubble up from deep inside her and seep quietly through the cracks in her resolve. Only here, in the dark, where she could change her mind and take them all back with no one the wiser.

  I’m not in love with Toby.

  Her heart kept beating. The candle kept burning. The earth did not open and swallow her whole. She tried the words again, aloud this time, but softly. Just a whisper, swirling through the air like candle smoke.

  “I’m not in love with Toby. ”

  It was so easy. Too easy. She nearly laughed aloud with the absurdity of it. The relief of it. Lucy felt as though she’d spent years clinging to a rope for dear life, dangling and twisting in the air with each fickle breeze—only to finally let go and fall all of two inches to land on solid ground.

  Or solid ebony.

  Her gaze shifted to the doorway. Through the doorway and across the corridor, to the shadowed alcove that hid her wardrobe. Only it wasn’t her wardrobe any longer, she knew. It wastheir wardrobe.

  She had nowhere left to hide.

  And even though she half expected it—even though it made perfect, unquestionable sense—when Jeremy rounded the doorway, saw her, and halted mid step, Lucy was caught completely unprepared. If she had known how the sight of him would send a shock wave rolling through her body, she would have grabbed the desk. If she had anticipated how splendid he would look—wearing a black coat thrown carelessly over an open shirt, his dark hair so touchably tousled—she would have lit more candles. And if Lucy had had the faintest inkling that this man would turn her plans to chaos and her will to water and her knees to absolute porridge, she would never have crept into his room and kissed him that night, less than a week past. She would have done it years ago.

  Her shawl slipped to the floor.

  Jeremy’s heart lurched in his chest.

  She wore the same dress. Even in the dim glow of a single candle, he recognized it. He would know it in the dark. The same light-green muslin he had hungrily peeled from her body and then re-laced with sharp tugs of regret. At the realization, his body reacted quickly, violently. His mouth went dry. His chest grew tight. His breeches, as well.

  She wore the same dress. She had not bathed. All the places he had touched, all the places he had kissed—something of him lingered still. On her. Inside her.

  She hadn’t washed him away.

  And God, she had never looked more beautiful. Flickering light kissed over her cheeks, her brow, her lips. Her hair tumbled over one shoulder in a chestnut cascade. Her skin drank in the candlelight and glowed. Or perhaps the candle drank in her beauty and burned.

  “Oh,” she said finally. “It’s you. ”

  “Were you expecting someone else?”

  “No. ” Her gaze flitted away for an instant, but then came home to his. “Not really. ”

  Jeremy wanted to step closer, but his feet wouldn’t move. He’d come here intending to leave, but he knew he couldn’t do that either. He would stand on this bit of ground until the candle guttered or the sun rose or the manor walls crumbled to dust at their feet.

  He wasn’t going anywhere.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice smoky with warmth.

  She wanted to know what he was doing here. Jeremy paused, considering his response. It didn’t seem wise to tell her exactly what he was doing there, at that precise moment. Picturing you naked , should he say? Or perhaps,recalling the exquisite softness of your lips against my skin? She probably wouldn’t care to hear,cupping my hands around the memory of your breasts .

  He cleared his throat and flexed his hands at his sides. No, it was probably wise to confine his answer to what he hadmeant to do here. Before the sight of her, and the dress she hadn’t changed, had changed everything. “I was going to leave a note for Henry. ”

  “You were going to leave Henry a note. ”

  He nodded.

  “But now you’re not. ”

  He shook his head. “I’m not. ”

  “What changed your mind?”

  “You’re here. ” It was part of the truth. The whole of it being,you’re here, and I can’t bear to be anywhere else .

  She stiffened. Her eyes narrowed. “Well, I’ll clear out then. Leave you to your note. ” She pushed back from the desk. Catching the paper between her teeth, she crouched down to gather her shawl.

  He was at her side before he realized he’d taken a step. “Don’t. ”

  She stood up, swinging the shawl around her shoulders. With the paper still grasped in her teeth, she flipped her hair out from under the pearl-gray wool of her wrap. Finally she took the paper back with her hand. “Don’t what?”

  “Go. ”

  A strand of hair was caught in her mouth, and she blew it out with a gust of breath. Jeremy smelled wine. “Iam going. You’ve no need to growl at me. ” She started to turn from him, but he caught her wrist.

  “Don’t. Go. ” He forced the words from his throat.

  Her face softened. “Oh. ”

  She looked at his hand where it gripped her wrist. He released her abruptly. He wanted to grasp far more than her wrist, yearned to pull her into his arms. But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t watch her flee from him again.

  “I only mean,” he said, straightening his coat, “you came here for some reason, I presume. ”

  “I was going to post a letter. ” She held up the folded paper.

  “You were going to post a letter. ”

  She nodded.

  “But now you’re not. ”

  She tapped the letter thoughtfully against her bottom lip. “Actually, I hadn’t quite decided. ”

  Without thinking, he reached out and took the letter from her hand. If she kept tapping it against her lip like that, he would have to kiss her. No decision involved. He just would. Of course, now that he held the paper in his own hand, Jeremy realized he scarcely needed the tapping letter as provo
cation. She was too close. So close his mouth ached to taste her. She would taste like wine. He thought about taking a step back. He didn’t.

  “You don’t write letters,” he said, sliding his thumb across the uneven wax seal. The sensation instantly recalled the puckered satin of her nipple. His breath hitched. He ought to step back. He couldn’t.

  “I don’t write letters. It’s Sophia’s. She’s in love. She wants to elope. ”

  “With Toby?”

  Lucy bit her lip. “No. ”

  He broke the seal and unfolded the paper. She made no effort to stop him. He perused the contents quickly and refolded the letter before shoving it inside the breast pocket of his coat. “You can’t do this, Lucy. I won’t let you. ”

  “Why not? If Sophia’s in love with another man, doesn’t she deserve to be happy? If she’s in love with another man, doesn’t Toby deserve to know?”

  Her eyes were guileless green, but Jeremy saw red. “Don’t pretend this is about them. You don’t give a damn about what Toby or Sophia deserve. This is all about you. You think that if Sophia’s out of the picture, Toby will turn to you. He won’t. ”

  Her eyes glimmered, and she lifted her chin. “Why wouldn’t he? Because I’m not elegant and accomplished? Because I have no dowry?”

  “Because,” he said roughly, grabbing her by the shoulders. The soft wool of her shawl slid under his fingers. “Because I won’t let him. ”

  He inched toward her, closing the distance between them until the lapels of his coat grazed the bodice of her dress. He waited. She didn’t pull away. Slowly, tenderly, he slid one hand from her shoulder to her neck, tangling his fingers into her hair and cradling the back of her head. He made a small circle with his thumb, stroking the silken flesh behind her ear. She sighed somewhere deep in the back of her throat, and the sound made him weak. Her wine-stained lips parted, and her tongue darted out to moisten them.

  He bent his head to hers, and her eyes widened. “Oh, don’t. ”

  Jeremy recoiled as if stung. He released his grip on her shoulder. His hand went slack in her hair. He pulled his head away.

  Then her hands were around his neck, tugging him back down.

  “Don’t let him. ”

  * * *

  Lucy dragged his lips onto hers. Had it truly been only hours since she’d tasted them last? It felt like months. Years.

  And it felt right. So right. Damn the letter and everyone else. This, this alone was right.

  His lips were firm and warm on hers, but motionless. And closed. One of his hands hovered over her shoulder, the other somewhere behind her head. Lucy could feel their warmth, but not their weight. Not his touch. He was hesitating, she knew. Fighting the kiss, fighting his desire. She could feel the struggle in his chest as it rose and fell against hers.

  She pulled his bottom lip into her mouth, sucking gently. He groaned somewhere deep in his chest, and the sound made her bold. She caught his lip between her teeth and nipped. Harder.

  His lips parted. At last. She slid her tongue into his mouth, tasting whiskey and relief. She burrowed into his open coat and pressed her breasts against his chest. And when his hands still hesitated, she grabbed hold of his shoulders and jumped. Hopped straight up off the floor—and never came back down, because he caught her in his arms. Just as she’d known he would.

  Oh, yes. Finally. One strong arm wrapped around her waist. One hand cupping her head. His lips, moving over her mouth again and again. His tongue, caressing hers. Every inch of his hard, heated body pressed against her, supporting her weight. Heaven. It was night and dark, and his kiss was pure heaven, but Lucy didn’t see stars. She saw clouds. White, feathery clouds and blue, blue sky. Blue like his eyes. Her feet would never touch the ground again. She would float on this cloud for the rest of her life. Longer than that.

  She hooked her legs around his waist. His hand slid down to cup her backside, and he pulled her tight against his groin. She still didn’t see stars. Shebecame a star, free-falling through dark desire, exploding into white-hot light and flame. He lowered her down onto the desk, his hips still locked with hers. He was kissing her neck now, running his tongue up to her ear.
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