Lady Laugherty's Loves

By: Laurel Bennett

One

There were two of them. Yes, two of them. Two of the most debauched and talked-about gentlemen in all of Britain. And they were staying under her roof. When Olivia Ragland had volunteered to host the weeklong house-party at her estate in Hampshire, she’d known one of them would be there. She was married to him, after all. But not that he had invited his cousin and best friend to attend as a guest.

Neither Olivia nor Avery had seen Ellis in more than two years, not since he’d left for his tour of the continent. Or his “whore-mongering journey through America” as her husband liked to refer to his cousin’s trip. They’d only been married for a few weeks when Ellis had announced he was departing. But she knew Avery missed him terribly. They’d grown up together almost like brothers, after all.

The coach rumbled to a stop with a jingle of tack and the door flew open before the tiger could even dismount. Ellis tumbled out, landing solidly on his feet just before he flew at Avery. Avery grunted as Ellis wrapped him in a crushing hug. Ellis’ arrival had been all Avery could talk about for weeks.

They had very similar builds, the same sun-kissed skin, and similar full lips. But that was where their similarities stopped. Ellis’ father had unexpectedly passed away when he was a boy, so he and his mother had gone to live with his uncle, Avery’s’ father. Ellis had been raised with almost every privilege Avery had, aside from the fact that he had no title like Avery’s. Nor a huge inheritance to call his own. But Avery’s father was a generous sort, and Ellis hadn’t done without anything else. Their upbringing was reflected in the way they moved and the way they spoke. But Avery had a sparkle in his eye that Ellis lacked. And Ellis’ brown eyes were in direct opposition of Avery’s blue ones.

When they finally released one another, Ellis cocked his head to the side and regarded her with a quirky grin. “Hello, Olivia,” he said quietly. Her belly fluttered involuntarily. Oh, dear.

Then he held his arms out to her as well. He’d never been one for formalities. He'd always preferred a masculine, back-thwacking hug to a handshake with her husband. But she’d never been so improperly propositioned before. And not before servants, of all things. Yet when Avery gave her a small push at the middle of her back, she found herself falling right into Ellis’ arms.

His hand snaked around her waist and pressed her to him, scandalously close. Olivia placed her hands on his chest and pushed. Yet he held her firmly within his grasp. “You feel like heaven,” he said quietly in her ear. Then he gave her one final squeeze and leaned back to look down at her. She opened her mouth to scold him soundly, but he tipped her chin up with one finger and placed a quick kiss on her lips. Then he released her.

“How was your trip?” she heard her husband ask as they turned toward the manor.

Olivia was stunned. So stunned that her feet refused to take a single step. All she could do was stand there and gape like a complete ninny.

Avery turned back toward her. “Are you coming, Olivia?”

Obviously, he didn’t see anything wrong with his best friend’s display of affection. There wasn’t a scowl on his face. He didn’t stand up for her honor. In fact, he looked more light-hearted than he had in months.

“I’ll be along in a moment,” she finally croaked. “I need to see to something.” And figure out how to take a full breath. Or any breath at all.

As they ambled inside, Olivia fought to direct the servants with Ellis’ trunks.

“You can put them in her ladyship’s room,” her husband called out from the doorway.

“My room?” Olivia asked. Granted, she rarely used it. But still…

“We’ve a full house planned, Olivia. And I can’t think of anyone I’d trust to have the room adjoining ours.” He made a final motion to the servants which put them in action.

Olivia approached them both and tugged on her husband’s sleeve. “May I borrow you for a few moments, while Ellis settles in?” He narrowed his eyes at her. “I’d like to discuss the seating arrangements with you for dinner.”

“Oh, whatever you decide is fine with me,” he said, quite effectively dismissing her, just before he bent and kissed her softly. “I want to show Ellis the stables before it gets dark.”

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