“Does she indeed?” asked Andrew, with a smile at his sister-in-law who had preceded him into her parents’ parlour and was in the process of embracing each of her relatives in turn.
“Oh, I do, brother,” said Ellie, smiling back at him over her youngest sister’s shoulder as she held her close. “My letters are famously long and detailed. Are they not, Lettie?” she addressed her sister, as she pulled back. “I often wonder if I should have become an authoress.”
“I am not sure whether I would allow that, Eleanor dear,” interjected Andrew’s younger brother James, although he was beaming as he said it. “My dear Mr. and Mrs. Waterford, what a pleasure to see you again. And you too, of course, Laetitia. Tell me, how are you bearing your sister’s absence?”
As Laetitia stepped forward to reply, Andrew was taken aback by the perfection of her countenance. He had heard that Eleanor’s twenty-year-old sister was a much-celebrated beauty, of course, but he had supposed her to be simply ‘very pretty,’ as her older sister was. However, for once, the reports were not exaggerated. Everything—from her smooth, clear skin to her lush blonde tresses—was exquisite, and there was a lively intelligence in her bright eyes that immediately captured his interest.
“I am bearing it very badly, sir, and I hold you fully responsible for stealing her away from me,” replied Laetitia in a sweet but teasing voice, holding out her hand for her brother-in-law to kiss.
James grinned. “I hope in time you may come to forgive me. Now, dear sister, may I introduce you to my brother, Mr. Andrew Hunter.”
Andrew bowed and noted the pretty little curtsey she gave him in response. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Laetitia.”
“Oh, call me Lettie, do,” she implored him. “I have all but begged James to do so but he will not be persuaded. I am sure that if you were to do so, your brother would soon follow suit. We are family now after all and Laetitia is so frightfully complicated a name.”
Andrew smiled. “I shall call you Lettie if that pleases you but you will of course be Miss Waterford out in company.”
“The only Miss Waterford now,” said Lettie, with a pointed look in her sister’s direction. “After my tiresome sister decided to marry a man from Wiltshire of all places and disappear for above four months. Are husbands truly so distracting, sister?”
Ellie laughed but Andrew was a little shocked by Lettie’s impertinence. Her parents made no comment, however, and he was left to assume that this was how she always comported herself. He was surprised, indeed: Eleanor always seemed the very model of propriety.
Perhaps his disapproval had shown on his face for Lettie was now looking at him with amused interest as the rest of the family party moved toward the table to take tea. “Do I shock you, Mr. Hunter?” she whispered.
Andrew frowned a little. She was beautiful, charming, witty… but her disregard for politeness and her seeming delight in causing offence was jarring. “You are less like your sister than I had imagined, Miss Waterford,” he replied, unsmiling. Then he gave a short bow and left her to take his seat at the table.
If Andrew had known the effect his slight admonishment would have on Lettie’s spirits, he may perhaps have reconsidered his response. However, as Lettie was well schooled in hiding any unpleasant emotions behind an amused exterior, he had no indication that he had in any way wounded her as she took her seat next to her father.
“We were disappointed not to see you at the wedding, sir,” said Mr. Waterford, as the parlour maid poured his tea. “You had business in London, I understand?”
“Indeed I did, sir. A relative of mine was very sadly taken ill and I was compelled to visit her in London without delay.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear that,” cut in Mrs. Waterford. “James, dear, you never said that you had a sick relative?”
Andrew spoke before his brother could open his mouth. “She is my aunt, Mrs. Waterford, on my mother’s side and therefore not related to James.” Andrew had not thought that they would need to have this conversation with Eleanor’s family. What details had his sister-in-law’s letters been filled with, if not the fact that he and James had shared only a father, Andrew’s mother having died in childbirth? “My father remarried after my mother sadly passed away and James here was the happy result of that,” he added.
There was a slightly awkward pause and Andrew was excessively grateful to his sister-in-law when she took it upon herself to change the subject.
“And who are we expecting to dinner this evening, Mama?”
“Oh, the whole village of course!” cut in Lettie before her mother could speak. “How exhausting it will be to pretend to be happy to see them all.”
For the second time since he had met her, Andrew found himself frowning at Miss Laetitia Waterford. He hoped she was in jest but he did not yet know her well enough to be able to tell.
“Well, I shall be happy to see everyone, for it has been such a long time since I was home,” replied Eleanor with a small smile.
Lettie let out a little laugh. “You may be happy for both of us then, Ellie.”
Eleanor turned to her husband and squeezed his hand, smiling. “Indeed I shall.”
Not for the first time, Andrew felt a sense of longing as he saw the silent communication passing between his brother and sister-in-law. If he could have but half their felicity in marriage, he would be very much pleased.
“That man is James’s brother?” exclaimed Annabel. “Lettie, you are surely teasing me!”
“Indeed I am not!” whispered Lettie to her friend. “Have you ever seen two siblings so dissimilar to one another?”
Lettie and Annabel were standing together near the fireplace, a little way removed from the main group of friends and acquaintances laughing and talking and drinking in the Waterfords’ candlelit drawing room.
“How dull and serious he looks,” murmured Annabel, narrowing her eyes at the gentleman on the other side of the room. “Although I must confess his bearing and figure are all very fine and—if he might but smile—one could consider him reasonably handsome.”
“And he is a little taller than James,” Lettie added.
“His hair is darker,” Annabel conceded, tucking a light brown curl behind her ear. “What of his fortune?”
“Considerable, when you add in his mother’s estate. Or so Ellie says.”
Annabel gave her a considering look. “Would you say yes?”
It was a question they often asked one another with regards to one gentleman or another and Lettie laughed. “Oh, Annabel, I am under no illusion that he would ever ask. It seems he is seeking a woman just like my sister and as you are well aware, my dear friend, I have neither her sweetness of temper nor her sense of propriety. What a disappointment I would be to such a man!”
They laughed together, unaware that they were being observed by the very gentleman they were discussing.
“Oh, Lord! Do not look,” said Annabel, lowering her voice, “but that awful Marianna is heading in our direction.”
“Oh, how tedious,” muttered Lettie with a little sigh. “Is there no one else here that she might descend upon instead?”
“Miss Waterford and Miss Linfield!” exclaimed Marianna, almost swishing the train of her pink dress into the fire in her haste to greet them. “What a good joke! I do believe you did not hear me coming.”
Annabel and Lettie exchanged long-suffering glances before giving Marianna a half-hearted curtsey. “Miss Abbott, how good to see you,” said Lettie. “Do mind your dress; I should hate to see it consumed in flames.”
Annabel hid a snigger behind her fan and a look of uncertainty crossed Marianna’s face. “Oh… oh, but it should be more of a shame if your dress were to be burned, Miss Waterford. What a beautiful shade of blue it is. I do declare it is the exact colour of your eyes.”
Lettie blinked at her. “Perhaps it might be, my dear Miss Abbott, if my eyes were blue and not in fact brown.”
Marianna’s doughy face flushed a blotchy red, as Annabel laughed openly. Lettie felt a slither of remorse; Marianna was not an equal opponent and this was not a fair contest of wits. She might have a slightly irritating personality but she was well-meaning at heart. Lettie felt the all too familiar sinking sensation of having let herself down. She was just about to enquire after Marianna’s family as a way of changing the subject when Mr. Andrew Hunter appeared at her side, with a singularly severe expression on his face.
“Miss Waterford,” he said, his voice hard and cold. “Will you do me the very great honour of introducing me to your friend?”
To say that Andrew was shocked at Lettie’s behaviour would be something of an understatement. He could scarcely believe the scene he had witnessed between Lettie, her cruel-faced friend, and the unfortunate young lady he was now standing beside. Indeed, if Lettie were his responsibility, he would at this very moment be having some very stern words with her about such behaviour.
For the first time since he had met her, Andrew noted that Lettie looked a little flustered. He was glad of it; perhaps there was some hope for her character yet.
“Of course, sir,” she said at once, bobbing a curtsey. “Miss Marianna Abbott, Miss Annabel Linfield, may I introduce my sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Andrew Hunter.”
Andrew bowed at each lady in turn, although his eyes narrowed slightly when his gaze settled on Annabel’s smirking face. He supposed she was pretty enough, with her light brown hair, slim figure, and wide dark eyes but there was too much cruel humour in her face for Andrew to think her a beauty. How unfortunate that Lettie should have chosen such a young lady to be her particular friend.
“Miss Abbott,” he said, turning away from Lettie and Annabel. “I believe I had the pleasure of conversing with your father a few moments ago. He tells me that you are creating a rather marvellous tapestry in his drawing room.”
“Oh, indeed, sir!” replied Marianna, beaming up at him and clasping her hands together. “I am recreating a scene from one of my favourite novels…”
Andrew allowed the girl to prattle on, asking questions occasionally, nodding in the correct places and tactfully bringing the conversation to a close once a reasonable amount of time had elapsed. As Marianna bounded off happily in search of further conversation, Andrew turned his attention to Lettie and Annabel. The former looked caught between amusement and contrition, while the latter had an expression of barely concealed contempt on her face.
“Well done, sir,” declared Annabel with a cold smile. “What considerable skill you must possess in the field of resisting boredom.”
Andrew did not return her smile. “I believe it befits all people of respectability to treat others with kindness and civility. Misplaced superiority and scathing contempt, however, befit no one. Miss Waterford, may I request a moment of your time?”
Andrew held his patience as Lettie turned to her friend with an arch look on her face. “Oh, dear, I do believe I have angered poor Mr. Hunter already, Annabel. Might you leave us for a moment so that I may beg his forgiveness before he and his brother steal my sister back to darkest Wiltshire and never allow her to return?”
Annabel curtsied. “I shall be happy to seek out more amiable company, dearest Lettie,” she replied with a pointed look in Andrew’s direction. “Do not allow him to keep you for too long,” she added over her shoulder, as she swept away across the room.
“I’m afraid my friend sees little use for manners,” said Lettie as Andrew led her to a quiet corner of the room. “She is quite amusing, however, and we cannot all be as perfect as my dear sister.”
“Enough, Lettie.” Andrew’s voice was low and firm and he saw Lettie’s eyes widen in surprise.
She was quick to recover, however. “Why, Mr. Hunter, how intimate we have become on so short an acquaintance! I must confess I am not accustomed to being scolded by men I have only just met.”
“I would wager you are not accustomed to being scolded at all and it is this that has affected your character so appallingly.”
Lettie laughed but Andrew noted that her cheeks had turned pink. “How quickly you have sketched my character, Mr. Hunter. I am, by your reckoning, nothing short of despicable. Indeed, I wonder why you are wasting your time with this scolding.” She tilted her head and smiled. “Have you perhaps developed an attachment to poor Miss Abbott and wish to reprimand me for offending her?”
Andrew was visited by a strong urge to turn Lettie around and land a hard smack on her bottom. Never had he met a woman so strongly in need of a good spanking. He had no doubt that a trip over his knee would put an immediate stop to her impertinence.
But he resisted. They were in company and it was not his place in any case.
“Miss Waterford, your behaviour this evening has been a disgrace to your family and I am grieved that you have been allowed to develop your character in such a shallow and mean-spirited direction.”
She gave a little shrug, still smiling sweetly. “I see no need for you to feel grief, Mr. Hunter. I am of no concern to you and our connection is of a trifling nature. You may rest assured that I do not seek your good opinion.” Her words, however, were betrayed by her countenance, which had become even redder and Andrew noticed that her lower lip was trembling.
“Your sister holds you in high esteem,” he replied. “And as I trust her judgment, I must assume that there is something in your nature, besides your beauty, that is worth esteeming. That is why I am grieved.”
“And what would you have me do?” she asked, still smiling and tilting her head so that anyone looking in their direction might assume that they were simply discussing the weather or some other subject of trifling importance.
“Treat others with kindness and respect. Hold your tongue if you are tempted to cause someone pain with your words. Put your considerable intelligence to good use rather than squandering it on mockery and contempt.”
Lettie looked at him then—really looked at him—and Andrew glimpsed something in her expression that wasn’t teasing or pretension or cynicism. “Mr. Hunter, do you behave this way toward everyone you meet?”
Andrew opened his mouth to say ‘only you’ but instead he simply said, “No.”
“Why me?” she breathed, still staring at him.
Andrew had no answer for that—at least not one that he was able to formulate into words—and so he simply replied, “Remember what I have said,” gave a bow, and walked away.
Such was the agitation (albeit invisible) of Lettie’s spirits that she barely slept at all that night and was awake by dawn the next morning. As someone who habitually slept late—who was, indeed, notorious for it—this was simply unprecedented.
Was she truly such an awful specimen of humanity that a man could declare her ‘mean-spirited’ and ‘shallow’ on so brief an acquaintance? Had her character truly developed ‘appallingly,’ as Mr. Hunter had so angrily stated? Did she deserve to be scolded by a near stranger for such a trifling misdemeanour? Thoughts of this nature swirled around in Lettie’s mind as she stared up at the canopy of her bed and her room grew lighter and lighter around her. It was vexatious indeed and her usual talent for suppressing unpleasantness appeared to have deserted her. Perhaps it was simply exhaustion: one could not expect to be in top form with merely an hour or so of sleep under one’s belt, after all.
Ellie would know what to do.
Indeed, she would. Ellie had been Lettie’s one true confidante as she was growing up. Mama disliked hearing of discord or disharmony and Papa considered the trifling concerns of a daughter beneath him but where she had been ill-equipped in terms of parents, Lettie had been most fortunate when it came to her sister. Kind-hearted, sensible, and wise, Ellie was the perfect advisor in all matters and Lettie would never admit just how desperately she had missed her these past four months. Her sister was the only person with whom Lettie could truly be herself and that was a gift that had been very painful to lose.
“I must speak with her at once,” whispered Lettie to herself, throwing back the covers and bounding out of bed. Still in her nightgown and with bare feet, Lettie darted out of her room, travelled the familiar distance along the corridor, and burst through Ellie’s door.
She froze on the threshold, struck dumb by the sight before her.
She had forgotten… Oh, how could she have forgotten that Ellie was married now?
Lettie had never seen so much bare skin on display. For the split second that she stood in shock in the doorway, she saw it all. Waists and thighs and bulging calf muscles. Full breasts pressing up against a bare chest. Naked arms wrapped around long, smooth backs. So much skin! Yards and yards of it ordinarily hidden beneath dresses and petticoats, jackets and shirts, stays and chemises, stockings, garters and bows.
To Lettie, it looked as though they were attempting to consume one another. Each pressed hard against the other, again and again, as though they wished to force themselves into each other’s bodies and become one shuddering, writhing being.
Their eyes were tight shut and the room was full of their gasping and sighing. Such was their… Lettie wondered if ‘concentration’ was the word… that they did not even notice as their unannounced guest hurried backward out of the room and pushed the door closed as quietly as possible.
Heart pounding and with her spirits in disarray, Lettie turned to scurry back to her own empty bedchamber and instead ran straight into Mr. Andrew Hunter who was just that moment emerging from his own room.
“Forgive me, Miss…”
Lettie saw the gentleman’s eyes widen as he took in her state of undress and she found herself dearly wishing that she had simply slept in as usual this morning.
Miss Laetitia Waterford in her nightgown was truly a sight to behold. Although Andrew knew that he ought to be disapproving at such a lack of propriety on her part, his gaze could not help but linger on her flushed cheeks, her beautiful golden hair falling loose down her back, and the adorable expression of mortification in her wide brown eyes.
“No, no, forgive me, sir,” she said with a hurried curtsey. “I will retire at once.”
And, without another word, she turned on her heel and all but sprinted away down the corridor. A few moments later, Andrew heard the muffled thud of a door being firmly closed.
What an intriguing creature she was! At once, ironic and sweetly impertinent, whilst at the same time innocent and almost vulnerable. She had looked so much younger in her white nightgown; she could have been a gentle, barefoot maiden in a fairy tale fleeing a ravening monster rather than a rich gentleman’s daughter with beauty, fortune, and a respectable family name to recommend her.
Feeling himself stirring, Andrew retreated to his own room and also closed the door. Leaning back against it lest a servant attempt to enter, he reached down into his breeches and closed his hand around his hardening cock. Closing his eyes, he saw himself take Lettie by the hand and lead her into this very room… pull her close and feel all the softness of her body through the thin material of her nightgown… run his hands over her bottom, her thighs… squeeze her breasts and rub her nipples with his thumbs. He saw her brown eyes widen in shock and arousal… heard the desperate little whimpers she made as he drew up the hem of her nightgown and his hands found her bare skin… felt her warm wetness as he pressed his fingers between her thighs…
Andrew gasped and gritted his teeth, his hand working furiously as the scene played out in his mind. He knew it was dishonourable to have such lewd thoughts about a respectable young woman, and yet that only seemed to make the pleasure all the more potent. He saw Lettie lying back on his bed, naked with her thighs wide open, and the knowledge that it was very wrong for him to be imagining such a thing only spurred his efforts on.
In his mind, he buried his cock in her wetness, covered her naked body with his own and thrust into her firmly.
Andrew groaned aloud as his seed spurted over his hand, his cock pulsing in time with his climax. As his breathing gradually returned to its usual rhythm, he looked about the room in something of a daze. Good Lord, this was not how he had envisaged starting the day!
The necessity to attend once more to his own personal cleanliness resulted in Andrew sitting down to breakfast at the same time as the rest of the family, rather than pursuing his original plan to eat alone and head out into the grounds for an early morning walk, his preferred method of starting the day. It was not that he disliked company; rather that he had always felt that there was a time and a place for lively society and that one’s own company was invariably preferable when it could be got.
“Why, good morning, Mr. Hunter!” said Lettie brightly, as he took his seat at the table. “Or should I say ‘good morning again’?” she added with a rueful little smile, which Andrew found perfectly adorable. At the same time, he felt it rather improper for her to be bringing up their earlier encounter in the presence of the entire household. What conflicting emotions she roused within him!
“What is this?” asked Eleanor with a little laugh, as she leaned across the table to pick up a bread roll.
“Forgive me, Ellie, but I am afraid I forgot we had guests,” said Lettie before Andrew could open his mouth, “and was wandering the corridors in my nightgown this morning. Poor Mr. Hunter got rather a shock, I fear!”
“Oh, Lettie!” exclaimed Eleanor, giggling. “How I have missed your silliness! Wandering the house in your nightgown indeed! I must apologise on my sister’s behalf, brother,” she said to Andrew, though she still appeared close to laughter. “I can assure you that I have tried my very best with her, over many years, and can only assume that silliness is now set within her character.”
However, this criticism was spoken with such warmth and affection that Andrew was not surprised when Lettie simply smiled at Eleanor and declared that it must be true if her dear sister believed it to be so.
Once again, Andrew was astonished at the lack of reaction on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Waterford. It seemed they had no concerns at all about their unmarried daughter leaving her room in a state of undress. Indeed, Mrs. Waterford at once launched into a conversation with her daughters about the evening’s ball.
“Lettie, you will wear your lilac dress to the Assembly Rooms tonight, will you not?”
“Oh, Mama, I will never understand your fixation on that particular dress!” she replied, with an expression of mock exasperation on her face that Andrew could not help but find charming.
“Lettie, as I have told you before, I was wearing lilac the day I met your father. It is a lucky colour.”
Lettie’s soft lips curved into a mocking smile. “If you insist, Mama. Although I declare I know of no new gentlemen in the area and so I fear the lucky lilac may be in vain.”
“You never know,” replied Mrs. Waterford, turning her attention back to her breakfast now that she was assured of her daughter’s acquiescence.
“And what of your dress, Ellie?” asked Lettie. “Is there a lucky colour for married women?”
Andrew was pleased to see his sister-in-law smile and shake her head a little. The communication was clear: enough now, Lettie. To her credit, the younger sister held her tongue and then she too turned her attention to her breakfast.
“I trust you slept well, sir?” said Mr. Waterford, now that the women were quiet.
“Very well, thank you, sir,” replied Andrew, who was still surprised at the man for not taking more of an interest in his daughter’s affairs.
“Do you care for fishing? James and I were considering it for today’s sport and you would be very welcome to join us.”
“I thank you, sir, but I prefer more active pursuits,” said Andrew with a patient smile. “I fear I do not have the temperament for sitting still.”
“That is something of an understatement!” cut in James, with a grin at his older brother. “If Andrew is not out riding, then he is off walking for miles on end, or else practising his swordsmanship. I even visited him unexpectedly one morning and found him rearranging his drawing room furniture with the poor housekeeper standing by in some consternation! Sit still? My brother? Not for fifty pounds!”
James’s outburst caused no little merriment around the breakfast table and Andrew accepted it with a tolerant smile. And though he would never confess to it, he had felt a sense of intense gratification at the sight of Lettie’s eyes widening in admiration at his brother’s words. Though she might try to hide it, in that moment he had seen that she was impressed; that this was a side to his character that she thoroughly approved of. He had not realised until now that he actually craved her good opinion.
“And does your love of constant activity extend to dancing, Mr. Hunter?” asked Lettie, her tone sweet and teasing once again.
“It does indeed, Miss Waterford,” he replied with a small smile.
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, how pleased the local ladies will be!”