She tiptoed downstairs and the soft soles of her slippers cushioned each carefully placed step. Now and again, she paused to listen. As she descended the servants’ stairs, the music had grown louder, although muffled by the enclosing walls of the ballroom.
She dared not use the main staircase for fear she might be caught. Regardless of the risk, she could not face another day in isolation, hidden out of sight in the rooms she occupied upstairs.
Reaching the last step, she released her grip on her skirt, allowing the crumpled fabric to settle, and she smoothed out the wrinkles with trembling hands. The dress was quite dull and almost funereal in colour. She’d worn countless unadorned garments over the last few months. In recent weeks, she’d replaced the black gowns with dark shades of indigo, blue, and green—none of those depressing dresses were decorated with jewels or trimmed with lace.
Her wardrobe had been supervised by her grandmother—Maria, Comtesse d’Orbec, an émigré, one of many aristocrats who had escaped France following the revolution. The meticulous comtesse had taken it upon herself to control every aspect of her granddaughter’s life. That authority extended to a strict interpretation of mourning protocols. Maria had insisted her granddaughter should endure the full twelve months of bereavement since the passing of Percy, the duke of Brockenhurst, of which six weeks remained.
Having successfully negotiated the narrow stairwell, she peeped up and down the corridor, and then crossed to the door opposite. Holding her breath, she turned the knob and gently persuaded the door to open. To her great relief, the antechamber was empty. The room served as a back entrance to the ballroom, but was rarely used. She closed the door behind her and with her pulse now racing, she edged towards one of the two remaining exits.
She only wished to watch, nothing else. She’d not been to a ball in months, nor danced, nor conversed with anyone bar her family and closest friends. She felt quite forgotten by society.
There was a potted shrub on the balcony terrace. A largish bush and it would serve as a shield to hide behind while she observed the guests through the ballroom windows—the lines of men and women dancing, smiling, and chatting.
She’d almost made it to the balcony when the door to the ballroom opened. She scuttled backwards, but there was nowhere to hide.
The young man squeezed himself through the gap and closed the door. He had his back to her and she froze, not sure in which direction to run. He sighed heavily, then tugged on his cravat and started to turn towards her. She had no time to escape.
He clutched his hand to his chest. “Good grief, you scared the life out of me.”
“My apologies.” She gathered her skirt, ready to bolt out of the room and back upstairs.
“Please don’t… go, I mean, not on my account.” He leaned his back against the wall. He’d a mop of red hair, flushed cheeks to match, and numerous little freckles about his nose. A drop of sweat trickled down his temple. “It’s too hot in there.” He gestured to the ballroom door.
“Oh.” Men were encumbered with jackets, while she would have worn a short-sleeve dress—if she’d been allowed to attend. She slid a foot along the floor, not wishing to appear rude, but eager to escape. “I wouldn’t know,” she muttered.
“Of course. Sorry. It must be frustrating—footmen get to serve, but maids are banished. I’m not surprised you want to take a peek.”
He thought her a maid! How plain she must have become in the last few months to be mistaken for a lowly servant. She opened her mouth to correct him, but instead snapped her jaw shut. He was a decent-looking young man, but probably younger than herself. The ball appeared to have quite overwhelmed him.
“Is it your first?” she asked.
“Why, yes. Is it that obvious?” He chuckled. “I’m not accustomed to dancing. My older brother encouraged me to come.”
“I would have thought a fine gentleman as yourself would enjoy the company of ladies and the frivolity of the occasion.” She couldn’t resist taking his innocent nature for a little fun ride. She’d experienced long hours of boredom and had been desperate for youthful company in the place of her tedious aunts and cousins. She stepped forward.
The young man blushed and cleared his throat. “Naturally, I do… it’s just the heat.” He picked at his neck cloth with frantic fingers.
“Let me help with the bow.” She walked up to him and he straightened up, his eyes widening. She reached up to touch his tie. My, she noted, he was taller than he looked and broader about the shoulders. His fashionable breeches highlighted his narrow hips.
“Thank… you. I can manage,” he blustered.
She flicked the bow with her fingertip. “Poor thing, it’s far too tight about your neck.” She jutted her chin up and smiled. “Allow me.”
“Yes,” he murmured, his cheeks glowing, “too tight.”
She sneaked a glance below and she saw something twitch in his breeches. Looking back at his face, his gaze upon her couldn’t be more obvious—he’d located her bosom and was tracking its rapid rise and fall. Dare she touch him, do more than threaten a minor disrobing? Perhaps, she should pucker her lips and tempt him further. How naughty, but what harm would it do? He believed her to be a maid and he’d be gone later, none the wiser at her deception. Just a little peck of his lips or a gentle touch of his hand on her waist. It would make up for months of cold, uneventful mourning.
The music intensified along with the sound of many shod feet prancing up and down the ballroom. Then the laughter penetrated, accompanied by the ceaseless hubbub of background conversations. The cacophony of noise failed to distract her and she lifted her hand to his chin and touched it with the farthest tip of her finger. Barely anything of her had made contact. He dropped his jaw, parting his lips.
“Sophia!” The voice of her grandmother shrieked, ripping across the room.
Sophia jumped, scrambling away from the young man, creating necessary space. It was too late. Maria, clothed in all her finery, had filled the doorway and behind her moved the swaying, swirling throng of dancers.
Somehow, in her haste to be kissed, Sophia had not noticed the door to the ballroom opening. Neither had she witnessed when her grandmother had crossed its threshold. Sophia shrank into the shadows of the antechamber, avoiding the prying eyes of the guests whose heads bobbed behind Maria’s shoulders. With her eyes popping out of her head and her lips pressed together into a fine line, her grandmother looked furious.
Maria turned on the youth. “How dare you, young man. How dare you touch my granddaughter!”
“Granddaughter,” he stuttered. “The duchess!” Now, thought Sophia, he truly looked overcome with heat and perspiration. He clutched his hands together as if to implore. “I didn’t know. She said she was a maid.”
“I did not!” retorted Sophia. She bit down on her lip, because neither had she introduced herself properly.
“Sophia, did you deceive him?” Her grandmother redirected her dagger eyes at Sophia.
“Not on purpose,” mumbled Sophia.
“Regardless. Fitzwilliam, that is your family name, is it not?” she snapped at the crimson-faced man and he nodded. “I am most surprised at your behaviour. Your brother I know well and he would not approve. As for you, granddaughter, you were about this Fitzwilliam person in a most demonstrative fashion—unchaperoned, too. You should be cloistered in your rooms in sad reflection, praying for the soul of your beloved Percy.”
Sophia wanted to scoff at the mention of beloved, but it would be pointless; instead she uttered a low, grumbling, “I suppose.”
Fitzwilliam backed away farther, his lower lip trembling. “I must humbly apologise for such atrocious conduct on my behalf.”
“Indeed.” Maria glared at him, then back at Sophia. “As for you, I’ve a good mind to have you soundly thrashed.”
“Grand-mère!” screeched Sophia. Behind her redoubtable grandmother, the dancers had paused. The altercation was becoming a spectacle. Thankfully, the rise in muttering voices brought her austere grandmother to her senses. Maria glanced over her shoulder at the hovering, unwanted audience. She closed the dividing doors and gave them privacy.
“Very well,” Maria snorted. “What were you thinking, Sophia? Coming down here?” She snapped open her fan and waved it before her face briskly.
Sophia pressed her feet together, hung her head, and avoided the glare of her grandmother’s eyes, while Fitzwilliam cowered against the far wall, stunned into silence. “I was… bored,” admitted Sophia.
“Bored!” boomed Maria.
“Poor choice of words.” Sophia scrunched her hands together into a ball. Perhaps, she decided, she should take her chastisement without comment.
“And you, young man, will make no mention of this oversight of yours. In the future, do not assume all unattended females lurking in side rooms are maids. You may go.”
“Yes, my lady.” He bowed and scurried to the door, slipping through the gap in the same manner in which he’d arrived.
“You have gone too far, Sophia. Sneaking about, fooling that… fool. Flirting! I mean it—a thrashing would do you good. I’m tempted to summon your uncle Pierre and have him do the deed here and now.”
Sophia pressed a hand to her mouth. Surely, her grandmother wouldn’t carry out such a threat? Uncle Pierre was her half-uncle, and along with her aunt Frances, had escaped France leaving behind their father, the Comte d’Orbec, in the bastille. The comte had lost his life to the guillotine. Maria, having arrived in England with little money, had secured her future by marrying a wealthy baron, bringing up Pierre and Frances with their younger half-sister, Adaline—Sophia’s mother.
Her grandfather, whom Sophia adored, had suffered with ill health for years and the baron rarely emerged from his chambers. His stepchildren, now married with their own families, had become completely anglicised, but remained obedient to their mother. Pierre seemed especially weak-willed and Sophia didn’t doubt if summoned he would carry out his mother’s wishes. She detested him and the idea of bending over his fat thighs and having his meaty hands all over her was too much to bear.
“Please, grand-mère, I promise to be good. I’ve done everything you asked. Kept in plain clothing, attended church regularly, avoided the distractions of theatre and music. I’ve read all those sombre poems you insisted I read. I only wanted to watch from the balcony, out of sight.” She bowed her head lower, hoping her contrite expression would soften her grandmother’s opinion of her. She regretted agreeing to Maria’s advice for the mourning period of a year, especially as she had not anticipated it to present challenges. How could she demonstrate to others her dignified portrayal of grief in near isolation?
“Very well, since you are unable to resist the gaiety of balls and parties, I shall help you. You will return to Attingham House and you will remain there until your mourning period is over. Then, I shall arrange for you to come out and assist in your search for a new husband.”
Sophia gaped. “Attingham! That huge, empty… I’d be quite alone.”
“You can take a female companion. Your cousin Eloise is good company.”
“Eloise!” Sophia found her cousin most tedious and unimaginative, although kind at heart.
“Attingham is where the dowager duchess belongs. It is Percy’s family seat and home.”
Sophia shivered. “Please don’t call me dowager. I’m twenty-two.”
Maria’s fan fluttered faster. “Yes. Attingham. Away from temptation. Then, once the new duke arrives—”
“He’s been found?” Sophia had heard the distant cousin of Percy’s had left England many years ago following the untimely death of his betrothed. Sophia knew little about him and with Percy unable to procure his own heir even after three marriages, the family’s agents had been sent far and wide to locate the elusive second cousin—the mislaid heir to the dukedom of Brockenhurst.
“So, it’s decided. Now, return to your room.”
The chatter next door had increased in volume. If there was gossip spinning about the ballroom, it would be too late to stop its journey—the damage was done.
Sophia marched back upstairs, stomping rather than tiptoeing. In her bedchamber, she threw herself onto the bed and stared up at the canopy. She probably deserved a spanking for failing in her endeavour to escape her confines.
She ached inside, not through ill health, but neglect and a constant neediness. Her marriage to Percy had been brief, a little more than a year and the courtship a few weeks beyond that. He had died unexpectedly, according to most who knew him, except Sophia had believed it to be inevitable. Percy liked to eat and he indulged as a man of great wealth might—in dish after dish of rich exotic food. While she had picked at hers, carefully selecting the tastiest morsels, he had romped through his courses with relish, then retired to play cards or drink port. His only exercise had been to ride out with the hunt or shoot pheasants in the copse.
When he clutched at his chest one day, his eyes rolling back into his head, she had rushed over, but by the time he’d hit the floor with a thump, there was little she could do to help.
The choice of husband had been hers. She would be the first to admit it; although her grandmother had introduced her to Percy, it was Sophia who had decided to put aside his age—twice her own—and concentrate on his redeeming features, which included charm, some degree of wit, a pleasant enough face, and kindness. He had tried hard to welcome her to Attingham House, to assist her in adapting to life as a duchess, and when her parents had announced their intention to live in the West Indies on a plantation, he had brought her even finer clothes to make up for their sudden absence.
Sophia had proudly walked alongside Percy, and had been happy to be called his wife in the knowledge he had brought her wealth, a little fame, and much indulgence.
Unfortunately, he had proved to be rather disappointing in bed. She had no true idea what to expect when she first married him—a common situation for virgins—but she had assumed it would last longer than a few minutes and involve some exchanges beyond grunts and groans.
Returning to her present misfortune and with a deep sigh, Sophia dismissed her late, but unremarkable husband from her mind, and returned to the current problem—her disgruntled grandmother. Maria had never threatened her before with a spanking. It had come as a shock to hear the word spring out of her mouth, not once, but twice! Thankfully, the spanking had not materialised. She cringed at the image of Uncle Pierre’s hands, which were covered in warts.
However, young Fitzwilliam’s hands had been a different matter. What would have happened if a younger man had taken her over his knee and spanked her bottom?
Sophia squirmed on her bed, trying hard not to let her mind wander down paths it should not take.
It was no good. It had happened too easily—the excitement of almost being touched by a man had set off a wave of delightful sensations about her body and they originated from her sex. She fidgeted, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, frustrated by her meandering thoughts. What if Fitzwilliam had been a little older, even broader across the chest, stouter in his arms and less unsure of himself? What if he had followed her upstairs, informed her with a stern voice that her grandmother had been correct in her admonishment—she had tricked him.
Sophia slid her hand over her breasts, feeling the rigidity of her nipples; down she roved, dipping into her cinched waist until she came to the apex of her thighs. Keep going, she urged. Bending her knees, she reached down and found the hem of her skirts, all of them, including the petticoats, and dragged them up over her thighs and above her waist. She undid the cord about her waist and wriggled her hips. With a sudden burst of feverish abandonment, she drew her drawers down, uncovering her mound.
She slipped three fingers between her folds. So wet already and she grinned, pleased with her accomplishment. A pity no man was there to witness her eagerness. She glided her fingers along her slit and parted her labia. Back and forth, she rocked her hand, delving between those swollen lips and eventually she slid two fingers inside her soaked pussy.
“Oh, my,” she moaned.
No, not Fitzwilliam, not any longer, he was not worthy of this! She wanted somebody older, demanding and firm of hand. This new imagining took shape and she pictured the scene. This time when commanded to the bedroom she would be naked, her clothes discarded, and she would meekly face her disciplinarian. She’d plead with him, and he would shake his head and point at his lap. Over he would toss her, forcing her head down and gripping her tight about the waist with his muscular forearm.
She dismissed the idea of pain, dwelling instead on the sound of his smacks raining down on her poor writhing bottom, which would bounce up and down in time to his spanks and all the while, he would utter stern words of disapproval.
Sophia rubbed her clit harder and, unable to contain her vivid daydream, she rolled onto her stomach, hitched down her drawers to unveil her bottom to the cool air and continued to grind her clitoris onto the heel of her palm, whilst her other hand squeezed a generous arse cheek, pretending it was sore and red hot.
“Oh, sir, please, no more,” she moaned.
Her imaginary assailant, a man whose body she’d rapidly undressed—allowing her to feel his stiffened cock under her hips—had grown in stature to the size of a brawny workman.
What kind of man would take a woman over his knee and spank her?
Did it matter? Nobody ever would. She humped up and down, attempting to slap her bottom and when she managed to elicit a stinging sensation, her clitoris burst alive and she came abruptly and with a strength that surprised her.
She pressed her mouth into her pillow and smothered a cry. On and on the ridiculous orgasm blossomed, until exhausted and hot, she melted into the bed. With some effort she extracted her drenched fingers and laid them on the pillow, watching her juices trickle over her knuckles. What an amazing experience, she concluded. It wasn’t the first time she sought to pleasure herself, but it had been the most successful and if she felt a pang of shame, she quickly dismissed the emotion, as she always did, ensuring it remained her guilty pleasure to endure.
She’d have to do it again. Perhaps it would help pass the time away as she spent the last six weeks of her mourning at Attingham House.