Sophia believed she’d made progress over the preceding weeks in preparing the duke of Brockenhurst for his first ball—she’d helped with the choice of guests, the invitations, selecting the buffet food and dance music. She had hosted a few balls before during her marriage to Percy and she assisted Nathanial as far as he’d permit her. But when it came to his choice of outfit, he dismissed her, insisting some things he should handle on his own.
She need not have worried. On the day of the ball, he looked dashing in his double-breasted black tailcoat, white breeches, and silk cravat. Standing by his side as they greeted their guests, she begrudgingly accepted the title of dowager duchess for the day to avoid confusion over her role. She wished it weren’t the case and that she truly was the duchess of Brockenhurst once again.
The occasion was grand; the guests many and mostly nobility and wealthy landowners. Sophia floated around the ballroom in a state of euphoria. Eloise was often by her side, having escaped her grandmother’s clutches to visit Attingham.
“I’m so happy,” Sophia declared to her cousin as they completed another circuit. Close by stood Nathanial, who was engaged in conversation with a notable banker.
Nathanial had been approached numerous times by eligible young ladies who were keen to have him dance with them. He declined each offer politely.
His manners had much improved. He’d stopped chewing tobacco and the improper scratching of his body parts and had rediscovered the etiquette of dining. She’d congratulated herself on her subtle lessons.
When another young lady failed to acquire Nathanial as a dancing partner, Sophia’s achievements seemed marred. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t dance. His lack of interest in her favourite activity infuriated her.
She turned to the gaggle of ladies she had collected about her and declared loudly, “We should be grateful his grace has kept away from the dance floor. He would only serve to remind us of his humble past. A man who is accustomed to chasing rabbits is unlikely to have the elegant moves of a dancer. We have been spared the spectacle.” She tittered and few of the other ladies joined her mirth, but most stared at each other in stunned silence.
A few feet away from her, chattering voices ceased. A multitude of eyes descended on her, some curious with raised eyebrows, others narrowed into harsh slits, and quite a few widened in surprise. She appeared to have caused embarrassment to her listeners.
Nathanial’s cheeks had flushed red. He’d heard. She hadn’t intended him to hear her ill-conceived aside. About her, feet shuffled awkwardly and a few of her companions’ mouths twitched, as if uncertain as to why they might have considered smiling at her poor joke.
Sophia quickly attempted to correct her faux pas. “I’m sure his grace is quite nimble on his feet and acquainted with the latest dances. However, his time is considerably occupied by the company of many fine lords and gentlemen. Now, please excuse me, I’ve seen somebody over there I must meet.”
She skirted around lines of dancers in a bid to escape her unwanted audience—weaving between small groups of gossipers before reaching a side door. Just before she could remove herself from the ballroom, Nathanial caught up with her and planted himself between her and the door.
“How dare you,” he chided in her ear. “Have I not done you proud this evening?”
“Yes, very, but you should have danced,” she insisted through gritted teeth.
“Should have?” He pressed his lips closer. “There is no should from you. I decide what is befitting for my first ball. I chose not to dance.”
“You can’t, can you?” she sneered, turning to face him properly. “You don’t know how.”
“I learnt as a boy, but haven’t ever needed to. What difference should it make?”
“You’re a leader, remember, your grace,” she hissed, whispering back. “If you lead a dance, it demonstrates your rank.”
“What will demonstrate my rank is if I take you over my knee and spank you. I’m sure that will show my authority.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“No, I won’t because we both know such behaviour would be frowned upon. However, in private, such opinions are of no consequence.” He took her elbow and raised his voice. “Her grace requires fresh air, I shall assist her.” He marched her out of the room.
“Where are you taking me?” she blurted as he kept up his pace, guiding her away from the ballroom with a firm grip.
“Somewhere I can show you exactly what I mean.”
* * *
“This way.” He led Sophia to his private quarters.
He’d made progress in his transformation, but dancing was too big a leap to make. Hunting foxes in the frozen tundra was nothing close to delicate footwork on a polished floor. He hadn’t the time to learn to do it well and it would not be to the standard Sophia would appreciate. He wanted to impress her, not their guests.
She incited such contrary emotions in him: disappointment and desire. As he escorted her away from the crowds, she muttered protests, but her heart wasn’t truly in them. She must know she’d gone too far. What she also had shown had been her continuing weakness: her excessive pride and need for praise from an audience of social climbers.
They’d achieved much in the last few weeks. The walks, the carriage rides about the parks, the trips to the assembly rooms in Salisbury to listen to music. He had enjoyed her company. However, now and again, she’d frowned, made a condescending remark, which reminded others of his long absence and lowly occupation. She’d said those things with too much amusement.
He wasn’t ashamed of his past. What saddened him was her need to make entertainment out of it.
Tonight, that would end, once and for all.
He shut the door of his study behind him, leaving her abandoned in the middle of the room. “We don’t have much time. We will soon be missed. Therefore, I propose we do this with all haste and without fuss.”
“Spank you.” He positioned a straight-backed chair next to her and sat down.
“Nathanial, please, this is ridiculous.” She couldn’t look at him; her dark eyes darted about the room, skipping over his presence. He needed her attention.
“For the duration of this, you will address me as my lord.”
She snapped her focus on his face. “What? And what is this?”
“Your punishment. Did I not ask you weeks ago when we agreed to further our friendship for you to treat me with respect? Did I not state your dedication to my repatriation required dignity and respect on your behalf? Not more snide remarks or asides.”
“Yes,” she murmured. He’d reminded her of the conversation on the way back from Oxford, and as her recollections sank in, her defiance shrank away.
“Yes, what?” He placed his hands on his hips.
“Yes, my lord.”
“You have a tendency to feisty exuberance with your tongue. I often wonder if your grandmother, the comtesse, sent you to Attingham to keep you out of mischief.”
Sophia’s eyes widened and her skin blanched—he was correct in his appraisal. “What did you do?” he asked.
She shook her head frantically. “Please. It is of no relevance.”
“Did you deserve your banishment?”
She gave a small nod.
“Then let me clear all of your past misdeeds with this punishment. Then we can start afresh. It is time, Sophia, to educate you. Agreed?”
Another small nod.
“Yes, my lord. I would like to start over.”
“Lift your skirts and lower your underwear.”
She gasped and stood frozen to the spot.
Should he force her? Should he drag down her drawers, propel her over his knee as he’d dreamed of doing many lonely nights? But this was no longer a flight of fancy. He was faced with a real situation and it demanded he behaved with restraint and dignity, regardless of how he’d imagined it. He had to discipline both his body and uncouth tongue, holding back his desire to have her strip naked or bend over a chair, giving him a perfect view of her… no, he had to focus.
“Sophia,” he said gently. “When I’ve finished spanking your bottom, we will return to the ball. I assure you, you will be able to complete your duties as hostess this evening without fear of pain. Some discomfort maybe. You should trust me.”
“What if I cry?” she whispered.
“I shall dry your tears, kiss them away, and make sure you leave this room looking beautiful. My opinion of you has not changed. I am still falling in love with you and probably reaching the end of that tumble even after this evening’s unfortunate event. Do you understand what I’m saying? I wish for us to find a way to deal with your inappropriate outbursts and rudeness. I may have improved my manners; now it is your turn. Your drawers, Sophia, remove them.”
* * *
Her stiff fingers woke up as she bent over to lift up her skirts. She pulled on the drawer string and released her knickers, letting them tumble down her legs and caress her calves. She stepped out of the leg holes and stared at the silk drawers left on the carpet.
She could have run out of the study and locked herself in her bedchamber. Instead, she obeyed him because the change in him—driven by her expectations—had been due to her encouragement. What he exemplified in his demeanour was his dominance shining through. Perhaps he always had it, but the trait hadn’t been demonstrated until that day. Today, at the ball, he had revealed himself to be a duke at heart, a man at ease with himself and accomplished in his bearing. Sophia had failed to aspire to her rank and when there had been no need, she had deliberately debased Nathanial. Nothing he had done had brought shame on himself.
Nathanial planted his feet firmly apart, spoke his string of commands, and she carried out each one without hesitation, drawn to the allure of his stern voice and her wish to please him with her remorse.
“Skirts raised. Bend over my lap. Hands on the floor. Good. You will keep as still as possible. I shall be swift.”
Having found herself head down and bottom raised, she waited with trepidation as he lifted her petticoats over her waist. A cool rush of air stroked her bare skin. She gasped and bit down on her lower lip. Those orgasms she had conjured up while fantasising about spanking were banished. This was no game of self-pleasure.
Whatever she imagined was nothing compared to the reality. The sound was louder than she had anticipated and it echoed about the room. In her daydreams, she’d felt no pain nor smarting strings as her bottom was repeatedly smacked. But with each slap of his hand, she jolted and the need to keep her hands flat on the floor became apparent. He held her about the waist, keeping her skirts tucked up while he maintained a steady rhythm back and forth between each buttock.
“Oh, ow!” she grunted, unable to keep up with his rapid pace. She panted instead and squeezed her eyes shut. He paused and rubbed each cheek for a few seconds, and she briefly wondered if it was over. Another brace of smacks began, and they answered her unspoken question. She pressed her toes into the carpet and her shoes slipped off.
With the burning sensation growing, Sophia attempted to sway her hips from side to side in a vain hope it would catch him off guard.
“Stop that,” he warned, tightening his grip around her waist.
She kicked her legs up and down, drumming on the floor. “Ow!” she hollered as he aimed his smacks lower, closer to the apex of her thighs.
He stopped again and she tried to push herself up, but he held her down. He tracked his fingers around her heated rump—he seemed to be examining his efforts. She groaned, uncontrollably, when the tips of fingers slid between her cheeks and down her bottom hole, and then he touched her slit. He grunted, muttering something to himself, and withdrew his fingers when they had been so achingly close to slipping into her opening.
She shuddered, holding her breath as he stroked up and down each buttock and down the back of her thighs, evening out the pain until her rear seemed to be one inflamed mass of discomfort—although the worst of the burning sensation had dissipated.
“Now to complete your punishment.”
She gasped, and looked over her shoulder at Nathanial. A few beads of sweat rested on his eyebrows and his expression was concentrated and focused on her bottom. He licked his lips—they looked dry, like her own. “More?” Her voice wavered.
“More.” He lifted his hand and she closed her eyes.
The slap struck both cheeks simultaneously. Nathanial had big hands. She rocked, back and forth, trying to guess the timing of his spanks, hoping to lower her hips deeper into his lap as if to avoid his hand. A futile gesture. He went faster, giving her no time to react either with her body, voice, or mind. Eventually, she couldn’t focus on anything and she hung her head down, gasping for air. Would she truly be able to walk out of the room and maintain her poise? He’d promised her!
“Argh!” The low cry left her lips and it heralded the arrival of tears. She released a sob and with it came many others as she wept.
“Sophia, get up,” he said softly.
She’d not noticed he’d stopped. With wobbly legs, she rose and he helped her up. She fought him for a few seconds as he dragged her onto his lap, this time to sit upon his knee. Her resistance didn’t last long and she buried her face in his shoulder. He stroked her back, long sweeps of his hand, as if he was cooling it down on her silk dress. Perhaps his hand stung as much as her poor bottom.
“Now, let me wipe the tears off your face.” He reached into his pocket to retrieve a handkerchief.
“You said, you said,” she hiccupped. “You would kiss them away.”
“I did, didn’t I.” He touched her chin with his forefinger and tilted her head up. “There’s one here, just below your eyes.” He kissed it with his soft lips. “Another here.” He pressed his lips to her other cheek. “And here.” He covered her mouth with his, and she responded in kind, enjoying his moist warmth and the flicker of his tongue.
The pain in her bottom was forgotten. Her heart pounded behind her ribcage. She couldn’t believe she desired his warm kiss after he’d spanked her bottom so hard.
“There,” he murmured, releasing her mouth. “We must return. Let me help you with your drawers. Or perhaps, you might be more comfortable with them off.”
“Nobody will know,” she said.
“No, just us two. This was meant to be a first show of affection, this ball, wasn’t it? And I have neglected that duty. I might not be ready to dance with you and I know that is what you truly desire and was the source of your petulance, but for tonight, you will walk about on my arm and feel the heat in your bottom.” He smiled, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. “Well?”
“Yes, my lord. I would love to walk about on your arm.”
* * *
“Now, remember, only use the balls of your feet, unless you are standing still.” Sophia stretched up and angled her feet apart. “Like so, light and graceful, arms flowing naturally at your sides.”
“Yes, yes, this much I know.” Nathanial spoke with impatience, his foot tapping on the floor.
“You asked for this lesson,” she huffed. “For weeks you’ve refused to practise.”
“Apologies. Go on. I shall endeavour to be the perfect pupil.” He straightened up, copying her pose.
“Now, a jeté is a leap from one foot to another.” She showed him, hopping sideways. “Assemble, you leap from one foot to both, and a hop is obviously back on the same foot. See?” She repeated each of the steps. “The heels come down after.” She sank lower.
She watched Nathanial try out each of the moves and was surprised to see he was lighter on his feet than she imagined. Not a heavy man, but tall and muscular, he had the ability to hold his body in line, unlike some men who swayed from side to side when they hopped.
They faced each other across the vast ballroom of Attingham. The wooden boards shone with polish, gigantic portraits and gilt mirrors hung from the walls, while above their heads the painted ceiling portrayed a lost time of myths and legends, which involved a large number of naked people. Sophia averted her eyes and kept them on the rather splendid figure of Nathanial.
He wore shoes, dusty coloured breeches, and a shirt. She’d given up on expecting him to wear jackets indoors or cravats, and even footwear. When they were alone, his outer clothing disassembled with speed and she often find items lying about the various rooms, discarded and forgotten.
“Let’s refresh your memory of the chasse step. It’s a travelling movement.”
He pursed his lips and shrugged. “I vaguely remember it.”
She clapped her hands together, chiming a beat for them to follow. “Like this: left foot forwards, take the weight, right foot follows with a light skip and it never takes the lead, always the left foot…” She halted halfway across the floor. A smirking Nathanial hadn’t moved. “What?” she snapped, planting her hands on her hips. “Was I not clear?”
“You led with your right, not your left.” He pointed at her feet.
“No, I did not.” She glared back and returned to her starting point. “See, I extend my left foot…What!” she shrilled, as Nathanial doubled up with laughter.
He came back up, grinning from ear to ear. “That, my dear, is your right foot. How can you have possibly have learnt to dance without knowing your left from right?”
“I… I copied what the others did. I’ve not had to instruct another before now.” She held out her hand. “This is my right hand, yes?”
Nathanial walked around her and approached from behind. He slid his palm down her arm, caressing the bared skin of her forearm, sending ripples of shivers down her spine, until he captured her outstretched wrist. “Let me help you remember. This is the hand I spanked your bottom with—my right hand.”
She gasped, mortified. “Nathanial, don’t, please. You’re embarrassing me,” she whispered. They were alone, but servants always lurked nearby, ready to spring into action if summoned.
“There is no need to feel embarrassed. I’m sure the memory of that evening will help you recall I spank with my right. So this,” he waved her arm up and down, “is your right side, including your foot.” He swung the arm out to the side and then swooped it back, mimicking the way he’d spanked her.
“This is not helping. You’re distracting me. You wanted to learn to dance, why after all these weeks you want to know now—”
He pressed into her back and kissed her neck, tickling her at first, then making his attentions firmer and using the full form of his mouth. Sophia sighed, unable to finish her sentence. She felt it, the hardness in his breeches and the stiff rod poked her bottom through her dress. She couldn’t resist leaning back into his arms, allowing him to gather her closer. “Oh, gracious,” she murmured, panting, aware of her sex and its ache for fulfilment.
In the past few weeks since the night of the ball, they had come to an agreeable arrangement. She subtly helped his adjustment to life as a duke, filling in the blanks of his knowledge and ensuring he understood the politics of high society. At mealtimes, they discussed the state of Attingham and the other properties the duchy owned, including vast areas of London. The estate’s income astounded Nathanial, who had survived for years on little money and before that, his father’s modest stipend.
He nuzzled her hair and draped his arms about her waist, lifting her bosom up. “Because this weekend, we have guests.”
She tensed, unable to hide her shock. “Who?”
“Your grandmother, uncle and aunt, a pair of cousins, my mother—”
She pushed his arms aside and spun around. “Nathanial! What are you up to?”
He smiled. “I know, I’ve been secretive. I told Mrs. Debden not to tell you.” He ran a finger down the side of her face and she squirmed at the soft touch.
“I don’t like surprises,” she pouted.
“You’ll like this one. We’re going to dance together for the first time in front of family and a few friends.”
“Because that would be the appropriate thing to do at an engagement party.”
Sophia’s jaw dropped and her legs seemed to lose all stability. Nathanial reached out and grabbed her hand, drawing her back towards him. “Engagement,” she whispered.
“Yes.” He held onto her hand as he slipped down onto one knee. “My dear Sophia. Have you not realised how well matched we are together?”
She shook her head, tears pricking her eyes. “I know we have had good times these last few weeks. I have tried hard not to draw attention to your… habits and you have been most kind towards me, allowing me to stay.”
“We have come to an understanding, and yes, there is much to do to ensure we remain courteous to each other, but I believe we will be good for each other.” He kissed the back of her trembling hand. “Marry me, Sophia, and once again you will be the duchess of Brockenhurst.”
“Yes, oh, yes,” she blurted, her heart bursting in her chest with the pace of beats.
Nathanial rose, embracing her tight to him. “I love you,” he murmured into her ear.
“I love you.” She raised her chin up for him to kiss her lips, delighting in the warmth of his lips before she broke free. “Now, my lord, we must continue your dance lesson. I can’t possibly have grand-mère witness you stumbling about the ballroom. Dancing is very important to my grandmother. I’m sure she measures all men by their ability to court on the dance floor.”
“Then I will endeavour not to disappoint. Now, where were we?” He wiped away a solitary tear, which had left the corner of her eye. He pulled a face, noting her rigid shoulders. “You are happy, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes. I’m stunned, too. I had not thought you would offer so quickly. After that night, when you spanked me, I felt the love you spoke of and your desire for me, but believed we would not be compatible. We are, though, aren’t we?”
“You must continue to behave, no haughtiness or sneering down your nose at me. I do confess, a few times over the past weeks I have come close to having you back over my knee.”
“Oh,” she sulked. She knew of which occasions he spoke. She’d particularly overstepped the boundaries when they’d visited Salisbury for dinner at the earl of Mountford’s. She had attended at Nathanial’s side as his companion, and in no other capacity. But when he’d leaned across the dinner table to speak to somebody opposite, instead of confining his conversation to his two neighbours on either side of him, she had scowled, shaking her head at him, hoping to draw attention to his mistake. Then when he’d appeared to ignore her, she’d had loudly apologised on his behalf. He’d tensed, narrowing his eyes, but he had not repeated his error. Afterwards, in the carriage returning to Attingham, he had warned her not to draw attention to his indiscretions in such a silly fashion. “You made the matter worse, not better.”
That had upset her, because he had been right; nobody else at the table minded his slip-up. To help settle the situation, the earl had asked Nathanial to tell his hunting tales, which the duke happily recounted, omitting the gorier aspects and making life in Canada exciting and full of adventure. Perhaps because he had left the evening on a high note, he’d not spanked her. Strangely, she often wondered over the subsequent days, if that might have cleared the air quicker. She had struggled to find a suitable way to apologise to him without affecting her pride. She hated saying sorry, as it always made her feel small.
Those occasional blips had marred their progress, but Nathanial never seemed to begrudge either of their transgressions. What he continued to demonstrate was his dominance. They had slid from her leading him, suggesting where and what to do, into very different roles. Now, with each passing day, Nathanial took charge, determining their social calendar, the pattern of the hours together. Sophia had been left with the formal roles of the mistress of the house, what she’d been trained to perform from her young years. From the fringes, she fought to curb her tongue and allow Nathanial to shine in the rank that was his birth right. Hers came by marriage and once again, she would be the duchess of Brockenhurst.
She pointed her nose up, and spoke with renewed confidence. “I shall be a picture of good behaviour.”
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