Goddess of the hunt, p.49
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.49

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 49


  And then it was gone. His hand was gone. His lips were gone. He leaned on her, pressing his chest to hers, all his weight bearing down on her aching breasts, and she writhed against him, desperate for more. She heard him gasping for breath against her ear, felt him fumbling with the buttons of his breeches. Then she felthim , hot and heavy and jerking with impatience against her thigh. She arched toward him instinctively, but he grabbed her hip, pushing her back down. His other hand tightened over hers, still holding her arm above her head.

  “Tell me you need me. ” His eyes held her, dark and fathomless as the midnight sky.

  “I—” Her voice failed. She couldn’t think how to speak, couldn’t remember how to make her mouth form words. Speech had no meaning. Her lips’ sole purpose was to kiss; her tongue existed to lick and suck. She burrowed her face into his neck and ran her tongue along his throat. He inhaled with a sharp hiss and pressed his thumb deeper into the flesh of her hip.

  “Tell me you need me,” he insisted. He teased her with his shaft, brushing against her, and when he pulled away, a strangled sob wrenched from her throat.

  “Jeremy,” she cried. “Please. ”

  “Tell me. ”

  “I need you. ” God, did she need him. She was nothing but a quivering mass of desire and longing andneed . “I need y—”

  He crushed his mouth to hers, cutting off her words, cutting off her air. He released her arm and grasped her hips with both hands, lifting her up. In one quick, desperate thrust, he sheathed himself inside her, filling her. Filling that aching void of need. She dug her fingernails into his neck and held on tight. He withdrew an inch, tilted her hips, and thrust into her again, burying himself to the hilt.

  Yes. Yes. Yes.

  This was where they belonged. Together, in the dark. In firelit rooms and shadowed gardens and deep, black ebony wardrobes. Fighting themselves, fighting each other. Fighting to get closer. Fighting to become one.

  He braced his head against her shoulder, grasping her hips to thrust deeper still. Harder, faster. Again, again, again. Until the delicious tension threading through her pulled tight and snapped, releasing her into the darkness.

  Then he pulled her back to earth with a tortured groan and a final, anchoring thrust. The power of his release racked through them both, and they quivered together in its aftermath. His fingers bore into the flesh of her hips, and his weight crushed against her breasts, and his shoulders heaved as he fought for breath.

  “Damn it, Lucy,” he said, his voice muffled against her shoulder. “Tell me you need me. ” He turned his head and laid his cheek against her breast. “Tell me you need me, because God knows I can’t live without you. I’ll kill the man who tries to take you away, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you leave. ”

  His hands slid up from her hips to wrap around her waist, laying claim to her, squeezing her to him until she owed him the very air she breathed. “I won’t let you go. ”

  She cradled his head where it lay against her heart. “Don’t,” she whispered, twining her fingers into his hair. “Don’t ever let me go. ”

  He didn’t let her go.

  Somehow, once his ragged breathing and his pounding heartbeat had slowed to a normal rhythm, Jeremy gathered the edges of her dressing gown and pushed the sleeves back up over her shoulders. Without letting go, he pulled her nightgown back over her waist and let it fall below her knees. Holding her against the tree with his body, his shrugged off his coat. Then he gathered her trembling form into his arms and wrapped the coat around her like a blanket. Without letting go.

  He hefted her quivering body with one arm and reached down with the other to pick up his gun. He slung the weapon over one shoulder, tucked her head against his other, and silently struck a path through the woods.

  He was drained physically and weak at heart, and the house was too far away. He carried her toward the low gurgle of the stream. Toward the hermitage. He covered the ground at a steady pace, pausing only occasionally to rebalance her weight in his arms. He cupped her shoulder in one hand and her thigh in the other, and somehow her hand had worked under his shirt to rest flat against his chest. Right over his heart.

  He looked down at her face, cradled against his chest. Her eyes were closed, dark lashes resting against the pale curve of her cheek. In the moonlight, her skin glowed white and pure, and her lips were an ashen pink. Chestnut curls cascaded over his shoulder, and if he bent his head a fraction and inhaled deeply, he could catch the scent of pears wafting from her hair.

  She was beautiful. God, how he loved her.

  And he had never hated himself more.

  Self-loathing weighed his every step, sucking his boots down into the mud. Pulling him down into the earth, to sink through the layers of rock and fire and fall straight down to Hell where he belonged. He’d come back from London pledging to care for her, protect her. If only she’d give him one more chance, he’d never drive her to tears again. All those noble sentiments, and what had he done? He’d pushed her up against a tree and savaged her like the brute he was.

  Lucy needed protection, all right. She needed protection from him.

  They reached the hermitage. Jeremy kicked in the door, splintering the wooden latch inside.

  Something inside him splintered as well. Something painfully close to his heart.

  The air inside the cottage was close and thick. He couldn’t breathe. A desperate panic seized him, the urge to turn and run. He’d avoided this place for twenty-one years, and he’d meant to never visit it again. But now … now he had Lucy in his arms, and she had no one else. He would face this, for her.

  Moonlight filtered in through the open door behind him, slowly illuminating the small room. It looked just as he remembered. A row of lead soldiers keeping watch above the mantel. The fishing tackle strewn across the small table. Two pairs of small, muddied boots by the door. Frozen in the past, all of it. Only a thick layer of dust evidenced the passage of time.

  Jeremy carried Lucy in and laid her down on the rug before the hearth, slipping her hand out from under his shirt. She was asleep.

  His chest constricted with anguish. Every struggling breath felt like a sob. The stale air was thick with loss and love—these two inexorably connected forces that it seemed, for him, would never divide. He was doomed to lose whomever he loved, and he was doomed to do it here.

  But there was plenty of time to mourn tomorrow. The next day. The lifetime after that. Right now, his wife was cold. He pushed thoughts aside, setting his body to mechanical tasks. Focusing on simple goals. Light. Warmth.

  After closing the door as best he could, he heaped her with furs and placed a folded blanket under her head. He stacked the fireplace with tinder and wood. Once the draw of smoke from a single lit branch assured him the chimney was clear, he added the burning twig to the rest of the kindling. The fire caught quickly, snapping and sparking and filling the room with sweet, smoky warmth and an amber glow. He knelt beside her, watching her chest rise and fall with every breath. Drawing a grateful breath of his own when the color returned to her cheeks and her lips. He reached out to caress her cheek, and she stirred, nuzzling into his touch. Cupping her face in his palm, he brushed his thumb across her lower lip.

  He would hold this moment forever. Hold her face in his hand, her lips grazing his thumb in a secret kiss. When she woke up, it would be over. She would gather up her hounds and her cat and her senile aunt and leave, taking everything good in his life along with her.

  She stirred again, shifting under the blankets. Her eyes fluttered open.

  “Jeremy?” His name flowed from her lips slow and thick and sweet, like honey. It wouldn’t last, he told himself. She’d be cursing him soon.

  “Don’t move. ” He pulled his hand away from her face. “Just rest. ”

  She slid one arm out from under the blankets and rubbed her eyes with her fist. She might as well have driven her
fist straight into his gut. Red, angry bruises blossomed along the skin of her wrist. Bruises from where he’d grabbed her arm and pinned it to the tree. Bile churned in his stomach. He’d hurt her, and not just there. He had to see.

  He lifted the blankets gently, casting them to the side. She made a small sound, but he placed a finger on her lips.

  “Let me look at you,” he said, drawing aside the edges of her dressing gown. She nodded drowsily.

  The red silk nightgown clung to her body in tatters. Jeremy tore the remaining strap of lace and drew the fabric aside. He steeled his jaw, swallowed hard, and forced himself to take a good, long look at what he’d done.

  There were little marks on her neck and shoulder, where he’d kissed and sucked and bitten her flesh. Between her legs she was swollen and red, where he’d wedged himself and rutted like a beast.

  “Turn over,” he choked.

  She obeyed in silence, and he forced his gaze to wander her body from the feet up, noting every scrape and scratch the tree bark had wrought on her perfect, golden skin. The marks were sparse on her calves and the backs of her thighs, but her back was a crosshatch of red streaks. He followed the curve of her spine up.

  And then he saw it, and his breath caught in his chest.

  A round, angry welt on her shoulder blade. A deep-red circle of raised, swollen flesh. This was no scratch. This was nothing he had done. He traced the wound with his fingertip, and Lucy winced.

  “He did this to you. ”

  She nodded.

  Jeremy stood up. He picked up his coat and shrugged into it before looking about for his gun.

  “What are you doing?” she asked, rolling onto her side and propping herself up on one elbow. “Where are you going?”

  “I’m going to kill him. ” Where had he put his damn gun? “I’m going to find that bastard and shoot him dead. ”

  She sat up, grabbing the red silk dressing gown and pulling it on. “Jeremy, no. You can’t. ”

  “I assure you, I can. ” He must have left the gun outside. He put his hand to the door, but suddenly she was there, pulling on his sleeve.

  “He’s only a boy, Jeremy!” With a sharp yank on his arm, she wheeled him to face her. She repeated gently, “He’s only a boy. ”

  Only a boy.

  The words ripped through him like a shot. Jeremy choked on a curse. Lucy reached for his other hand, but he recoiled from the touch. He couldn’t even look at her. “How—” His voice was a rusty creak. He swallowed and tried again. “How old?”

  “Twelve. Thirteen, perhaps. ” Jeremy stared mutely at Lucy’s hand where it clutched his arm. Her grip softened. Her voice, as well. “I tried to explain to you earlier. His name is Albert. His father’s been transported for poaching. His mother is dead. He has a five-year-old sister to look after, and they’re hungry. I took him by surprise in the dark. He can’t be blamed for injuring me. ”

  He shook her hand from his arm and turned away. He ran his hands through his hair, then slammed the table with his fists. An earthenware mug crashed to the floor. Behind him, Lucy gave a startled cry.

  Damn him. Another crash.

  Damn him. Damn him to hell. He pounded the words into the table again and again. He wasn’t even certain which “him” he meant. His father, himself—it didn’t matter. They were one and the same. Both destructive. Both damned.

  For twenty-one years, he’d feared this moment. For twenty-one years, he had known it would come. Jeremy had lived his life to distance himself from his father’s mistakes. That quiet, cold cruelty that made enemies of his tenants, a wretch of his wife, and a ghost of his eldest son.

  Even as a boy, Jeremy had tried to resist. He’d tried to cheat fate. If his father said “Turn left,” Jeremy went right. If his father urged, “Go faster,” Jeremy slowed down. None of it mattered in the end. He was right back in the same damned place, paying for all the same sins. The tenants despised him, even before he’d chased them all off with a gun. He was pushing his wife up against trees and driving her to despair.
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