Goddess of the hunt, p.50
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.50

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
Page 50


  Then tonight … God. Tonight, he’d shot at a twelve-year-old boy.

  A bitter compulsion forced him toward the open door. He had to leave. He had to get far away from her, before he hurt her again.

  Lucy blocked his path. “Jeremy, this is madness! You can’t honestly mean to go hunt down a child. ”

  He grit his teeth and flexed his hands at his sides. Of course he didn’t mean to go hunt down a child. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but he did all the same. He was his father’s son. He was cold and cruel and heartless, and it wasn’t safe for him to stand here and belabor the point. He had to leave, and he had to leave now.

  “Lucy, just get out of my way. ” She planted her feet wide and crossed her arms defiantly. He clenched his jaw and glared at her. “Move. Now. ”

  “Why are you behaving like this?” Lucy’s hands balled into fists. “Listen to yourself—scowling and making ridiculous threats. Why? Because your father treated his tenants that way?” She jabbed a finger into the center of his chest, poking at the raw, open wound that was his heart.

  “Don’t do this. ”Jab .

  “You are not your father. ”Jab .

  “You’re good and kind and generous. ”Jab, jab, jab .

  “Jeremy,” she sighed. “For God’s sake, you can’t even bring yourself to shoot a blasted partridge. You wouldn’t hurt anyone. You’re just not that sort of man. ” She flattened her hand against his chest, lightly stroking the linen of his shirt. Her voice softened as she met his gaze.

  “If you were, I wouldn’t love you. ”


  He stared at her in silence, his expression inscrutable. If it weren’t for his heartbeat pounding hard against her palm, Lucy might have mistaken him for stone.

  Or ice.

  “It’s freezing in here. ” She kicked the door shut and leaned against it. If he planned on going anywhere, he’d have to get through her first.

  “You’re wrong,” he said. His voice vibrated through her palm, sending shivers up her arm to curl around her neck.

  “No, I’m not. It’s cold as Hades. Look. ” She huffed a breath into the space between them. It swirled into frosty vapor.

  “You’re wrong aboutme. ”

  “Oh. Well, I’m not wrong about that, either. ”

  He shook his head. “Don’t make me out to be kind, or generous, or anything approaching good. Of all people, you should know better. In all my life, marrying you was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done. I told your brother, I told myself—I wanted to protect you. Take care of you. ” His voice lowered as he closed the distance between them. “I lied. ”

  His flinty gaze roamed over her face, her body. Hot breath tickled her ear as he leaned in close. “I wanted you. More than I’ve wanted anything in my entire life. I wanted you so much, I couldn’t see straight. Couldn’t sleep at night. ”

  His voice shook, and Lucy trembled along with it. She sank against the door, borrowing its strength.

  “I knew you wanted to marry for love. But I wanted you, and I didn’t care. And tonight,” he whispered fiercely, running a finger down her throat. “I’ve wanted you like that ever since that afternoon in the orchard. I wanted to press you up against that tree and spread your legs and rut with you like an animal. So tonight I took you, and I hurt you, and I didn’t care. ”

  His finger stroked down into the valley between her breasts. Lucy sucked in her breath. He pulled his hand away, made a fist, and slammed it against the door behind her. The force of the blow rattled her teeth.

  “So don’t make me out to be a good man. I’m an addle-brained brute, just like you said. I’ve hurt you inside and out, and don’t you dare love me. ” He pounded the door again. “Don’t you dare. ”

  He fixed her with a burning gaze. Lucy was grateful for the door behind her holding her up, because without it her knees would surely buckle. She couldn’t let him see. She couldn’t fall to pieces, because he needed her to be whole.

  “Oh, Jeremy. You know I can’t back down from a dare. ” Forcing her lips into a half-smile, she reached up to smooth a lock of hair from his brow. He closed his eyes for a moment, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. She longed to fall into him and press her lips against it, but she settled for cupping his cheek in her palm.

  “I love you, Jeremy. And the only way you could hurt me is to walk out that door and leave. ”

  He straightened. His hand shot to hers where it cradled his cheek. “The only way I could hurt you?” He pulled her hand away and turned it over between them. Lucy looked down. Bruises covered the skin of her wrist. “Look,” he said gruffly, giving her arm a shake. “Look at how I’ve hurt you. ”

  She looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “I’d imagine the back of your neck doesn’t look too pretty, either. ” When his face didn’t soften, she said, “Jeremy, they’re just a few bruises. I’ve suffered far worse from falling out of a tree, much less being loved against one. ”

  His pale blue eyes were chips of ice. Lucy shook her head slowly. “You’ve been trying to frighten me away with that glare for years now, Jeremy. It’s never going to work. You think I didn’t know that there was something beneath that cool surface? Of course I knew. I always have, in some way, or else I wouldn’t have been forever provoking you to get at it. ”

  “No. ” He shook his head. “Lucy, you don’t know—”

  “Yes, I do. ” She placed her hand against his chest. “I know you. I know what’s in there, because it’s in me, too. There’s passion and loyalty and pride and desire and a hundred other things. And not all of it’s good, and none of it’s gentle. It’s fierce and wild and so intense that it scares you. You’re afraid to let anyone see. ”

  Lucy fisted her hand around his shirt and pulled until he met her gaze. “Don’t let it scare you. ” She swallowed. “I see it. All of it. And it doesn’t scare me. ”

  She slid her hand inside his shirt, splaying her fingers over his heart. “Inside here, there’s a warm, generous, loyal, compassionate man. His tenants are going to respect him. One day, our children will adore him. ” His eyes softened, and he drew a sharp breath as if he would speak.

  “But not me,” she added.

  His face shut down. “Not you?”

  “No. ” She shook her head and smiled. “I’m in love with the addle-brained brute. ”

  She trailed her fingers over his bare chest, feeling hot sweat and hard muscle and a fierce, thumping heart. “You know, you’ve a very inflated opinion of your charm if you think you convinced me to marry you against my wishes. I wanted you, too. That day in the orchard. Earlier tonight. Every minute in between. I wanted to marry for love, and I did. I loved you the day I married you. I love you now. ” Her voice quivered. “I will love you always, and …”

  “Lucy,” he groaned, pressing his thumb against her lips. “Stop. Just stop. ”

  “Stop?”She brushed his hand away. What did he mean? Stop speaking? Stop loving him? Lucy didn’t intend to do either. “You stop,” she said, her voice suddenly bold. Using the solid strength of the door behind her, she pushed against his chest with both hands. He stumbled back a step.

  “Stop arguing with me. ” She pushed him again, backing him up to the table. He sank his weight down on it, losing a good four inches of height in an instant. His legs sprawled wide, and Lucy stepped between them.

  She met those ice-blue eyes, now situated just a few inches above her own. “You want to hear that I need you?” He nodded—a bob of the head so slight, she doubted he did it consciously. “Jeremy, I do need you. I need you desperately, andthat scares me. I don’t need your money, or your gifts, or even your protection. I needyou . And right now, for the love of all that’s holy, I need you tostop interrupting . I need you to look me in the eye and hear me when I say I love you. And damn it, Jeremy—I need you to believe it. ”

  He opened his mouth to
speak. She clapped a hand over his lips and lowered her voice to a growl. “Stop. Interrupting. ”

  He shut his eyes, sighing with resignation against her palm. Lucy withdrew her hand. She allowed her thumb to linger over the curve of his lower lip. “Look me in the eye,” she said softly.

  He did.

  With the full force of that Look burning into her, she whispered, “Hear me. ” She put her hands on his shoulders, bracing him. “I love you, Jeremy. ” His weight shifted under her, and she tightened her grip. “Believe it. ”

  Then Lucy held his gaze, dug in her heels, and waited.

  Stop this, his eyes commanded, his stern brow creasing for emphasis. I forbid you to love me. Get away. Move. Now .

  She shook her head slightly. “You know that Look doesn’t work on me. I’m not going anywhere. ”

  Blue bewilderment crept into his gaze. “Why?” His voice was rough, demanding. “Damn it, Lucy, why? I’ve given you no reason to love me. ”

  “I don’t need a reason. But you’ve given me many. Because you want to make me happy and keep me safe. Because you know me in the dark. Because when I’m near you, every bit of me comes alive. Because I make you come alive, too. Because … justbecause. ” She firmed her chin. “Because I do, and you can’t stop me. ”

  Then his brow softened and his gaze turned pleading, and Lucy’s heart ached.

  “Don’t ask this,” he said, his voice a soft rasp. “I don’t know what to do with those words. I don’t remember the last time I heard them, if I ever did, and …”

  “And they scare you. I know. ”

  He swallowed. “I’ll do anything for you, Lucy. I’ll give you whatever you wish. Let me take care of you. Let me buy you things. Ask me anything else, but don’t ask this. ”

  “But this is all I want. ” She dug her fingers into his shoulders. “This is all I need. And I’m scared, too, because I need it so much. I don’t need you to say it back, not now. But I need you to hear it, and believe it, and be strong enough to bear it. ”

  She would never know how long they stood there, gazes locked. Moments. Minutes. Perhaps hours.

  But Lucy wouldn’t back down, and she wouldn’t release him. She held his shoulders and held his gaze. Until, at last, he drew in a slow breath and heaved a rough sigh. She felt his muscled shoulders roll under her hands, as though shrugging off a heavy weight. Strong hands reached out to encircle her waist. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. And it was a fortunate thing that he held her waist tight, because her knees buckled the instant those brilliant blue eyes met hers.

  Now this … this was a Look. One even Lucy could not ignore. With all the force that his usual glare demanded distance, this Look reached into her heart and pulled, tugging her close.

  Then his jaw softened, and his lips parted, and his deep voice echoed what his gaze already said. Three little words that set Lucy’s heart pounding and her blood singing with joy.

  “Say it again. ”

  “I love you, Jeremy. ”

  He still felt it, that wince of doubt. The urge to push her away. She said it so simply. As though there was nothing easier, more natural in the world. The words themselves hung in the air, so tiny, so bare. Jeremy felt as though she’d thrust a frail, delicate, birdlike thing into his big, clumsy hands, charging him to keep it safe. And God forgive him, his first impulse was to shove it away. He would destroy it, surely. In his desperation, he would grasp it so tightly it would break into a thousand pieces—and his own heart would break along with it.

  But then she smiled at him, so sweetly. Her cheeks dimpled with that infectious, impish joy, and he knew he could never push her away. Not her, not her love. He would prove to her—and prove to himself—he could be strong enough. He would be the man she believed him to be. He could cradle that frail, delicate love in his hands and guard her heart as though it were his own.
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