“I see I’ve bored you into oblivion by going on about the books I am reading.”
Laurence blinked and looked up to see Matthew Hastings staring at her most earnestly from across the table.
“Not at all, Hastings. A bit of woolgathering. My apologies for being rude. You were saying again?”
In the end, Laurence found it to be a most enjoyable evening, the conversation flowing as easily as the wine. They discussed current events, debated politics, and discovered a mutual disdain for snuff. Like Laurence, Hastings had been raised in a city, but had hopes of building a house in the countryside one day.
“Nothing huge, just a place where the air is clean and the boys can have some space to run about,” Hastings confided as they relaxed over glasses of brandy. “Although I suppose by the time I get around to actually doing it, they will be old enough to be giving me grandchildren.”
Laurence knew little about children but quite enjoyed seeing how animated Hastings became when talking about his sons.
“You have two boys, as I recall,” she said. She was just being polite, of course. She didn’t really care, did she? Surely not.
“My elder son Samuel is smart as a whip—takes after his mother, that’s for sure. Can be a bit too serious at times, so his brother is constantly needling him, but he is tops in his class at school. And nearly as tall as me these days,” Hastings said, his eyes shining with a mix of pride and laughter. “Lucas is the younger by two years and also growing like a weed. When he was just a tiny lad and would go missing, we’d always find him up in a tree or messing about where he shouldn’t be. He and his schoolmates claim to have invented a new type of football where they pick up the ball and run with it, if you can imagine that. He’s so mad for it that he can barely be persuaded to go to class these days. He’s a handful, that one.”
“He’s the one who takes after his father, then?” Heath asked, rather surprised at herself for posing such an impertinent question to someone who was nearly a stranger to her. Hastings did not take offense.
“There might be a bit of truth in that,” he said with a mischievous grin that lit up his blue eyes like sparklers, giving her the oddest fluttery feeling in her chest.
Get a grip on yourself, Laurence Heath, or this man is going to think you’re a total bufflehead.
Hastings did not inquire about her own lack of family. He, like all the other partners, no doubt believed Laurence was entirely devoted to his career with no room for an outside life. Not having a family had never much bothered her before, and it wasn’t as if she’d had any choice in the matter. The guiding decision of her life had been made by her mother when she was born.
All in all, things hadn’t turned out badly, had they? Thanks to her mother’s resourcefulness, Laurence led a very comfortable life doing meaningful work that she greatly enjoyed. She had never been the sort of person to waste time on regrets. So why were Matthew Hastings’s shiny blue eyes now causing her to reconsider things?
When the dishes had been cleared away, Laurence raised the matter that had brought them to dine together in the first place. “Say now, Hastings, wasn’t there some sort of legal tangle you wanted to discuss?”
“Indeed,” Hastings replied, launching into a detailed description of Lord Worrell’s woes. Laurence listened intently, offered a few comments here and there, and confirmed to Hastings that he was taking the correct approach in resolving the situation.
They finished their drinks and, as the evening was mild, walked the short distance back to Laurence’s townhouse.
“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you allowing me to stay with you, Heath,” Hastings said. “It’s been a godsend given how busy I have been at the firm. I will do my best to try to find time this week to search for a new place.”
“No need, Hastings. You are welcome to stay here as long as you like,” Laurence said, realizing that she meant it. Sharing a glass of port in the evening or a meal at the breakfast table in the morning with another person made her feel…well, less alone.
Before his arrival she had not realized she felt this way. When he left, as he would eventually, would she be lonely? Perhaps the answer was to get a dog. She had never been overly fond of animals, but she knew people who were mad for their pets. Yes, a dog could be just the thing.
Or maybe Matthew Hastings might be persuaded to stay a while longer. That seemed the better option, actually.
“Stay as long as you like,” Laurence repeated, wanting Hastings to know she was sincere. “The house is absurdly large for one person. With you about, Martin and Mrs. Campbell can finally earn their keep.”
Hastings smiled. “You’re doing an outstanding job persuading me that my imposition on your household is serving the greater good.”
As they came inside the house, Laurence found she wasn’t quite ready for the evening to be over. “Shall we adjourn into the library for a nightcap?” she said as Martin relieved them of their coats.
“That sounds just the thing,” agreed Hastings.
“Bring us a bottle of port, Martin,” Laurence said to her manservant. “The DaSilva. It’s been quite a day.”
They settled companionably into chairs on either side of the fireplace and somewhere around the third glass of spirits found themselves engaged in passionate debate about contract law theory.
“Mansfield ruled in Carter that where the burden was on the insured to disclose a material fact, any concealment of that information voids the contract,” said Hastings, but Laurence gave no ground.
“You’ve totally missed the buttonhole on that point, Hastings. A concealment need not be active. When it arises because of a mistake, the contract could also be voided. Any other view is absurd,” she said.
Instead of responding with another verbal volley, he smiled, catching her entirely off guard. “You know what’s really absurd?”
She blinked. “Canning denouncing Brougham as a liar in Parliament?”
He threw his head back and laughed. “Nay. The fact that you and I have spent the better part of an hour arguing about theories of contract law that most people outside our profession have no idea even exist and would have no clue to the purpose even if we explained it to them.”
She stared at him. He had such a lovely laugh. The sound of it rolled across her entire being, warming her and making her suddenly long for things that could never be. When was the last time she had laughed like this? She couldn’t remember. Maybe never.
When she didn’t respond right away to his quip, his smile faded and an abashed look crept into those vivid eyes. What shade of blue were his eyes, anyway? She couldn’t put her finger on it, but suddenly longed to fling herself into their depths nonetheless. She was becoming obsessed. She needed to calm herself.
“Has my levity offended you, sir? If so, I offer my most humble apologies.” The penitent tone in his voice snapped her back into awareness. “I have grown so relaxed in your presence that I fear I may have overstepped my boundaries.”
“Offended me? No, not at all,” Laurence blustered. “Always good talking to a fellow scholar of the law.” She looked up at the clock. “My word, it’s nearly midnight. Been a very trying day. Good night, Hastings.”
“Good night, Heath. Sleep well.”
Despite her claims of fatigue, Laurence tossed and turned restlessly in her bed. Perhaps having a houseguest wasn’t such a good idea after all, for her evening with Matthew Hastings had left her feeling quite unsettled. When she rolled over for the umpteenth time, her hand accidentally brushed against that part of her body that had always been forbidden. Instead of pulling back as she normally did, she hesitated.
Laurence had been born a virgin and expected she would die one. That certainty had not stopped her from wondering what it would be like to be with a man who would do all the things she’d heard her classmates make vulgar jokes about during their school days. The man of her imaginings had always been a rather vague figure, but he was suddenly coming into focus. And she realized, as she thought about that mysterious place between her thighs, it was Matthew Hastings whose hands she envisioned there.
She was more than two score old, her mother and father were both long dead, and there was nothing to stop her from exploring her own body behind locked doors in the darkness of her bedroom. She had been a dutiful child, had worked hard to achieve all that her parents had asked of her and more. Surely God would forgive her this tiny sin.
Tentatively, she put a finger against her most sensitive flesh and rubbed. The sensations shot through her body as if she’d been struck by lightning. She knew she should stop but somehow couldn’t, and she did it again. Then a third time, and then so many she lost count, clenching her legs together against the delicious pressure. She had become wet there—how had that happened? She knew she was moving toward something but had no clue what it might be. And then an image of Matthew Hastings flashed before her eyes, and the incredible tension that had been building within her suddenly snapped as the most intense waves of pleasure swelled through her body.
She lay there, panting softly in the darkness.
How on earth would she face Hastings on the morrow?