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Old 11-15-2015, 05:07 PM   #51
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Wonderful!
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Old 11-18-2015, 02:58 PM   #52
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Thank you so much for such a great story!
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Old 12-03-2015, 01:07 PM   #53
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Chapter 12
“Good to see you again,” Raoul rumbled to Geoffrey, smiling over the brim of his cup.

The fatter man grinned back, raising his own in a silent cheers. “And you. Married life certainly agrees with you.”

Raoul barely repressed rolling his eyes, finally smirking at the man across from him. “Perhaps.”

Harry looked between them, a different sort of smile ghosting around his lips. “Was Kitty surprised?” He had been shocked himself at the change in his brother’s appearance. When they had left him, he had been the picture of a country gentleman letting himself go to pot. When he arrived on their doorstep…! The difference, for such a short period of time, had been staggering.

It was impossible not to compare the two men on either side of him. Although Telford was significantly fatter, Raoul seemed to be doing his damnedest to catch up. When he grinned, a bona fide double chin appeared, and his normally broad shoulders looked narrower as his stomach grew in width.

Raoul chuckled, noting his failed specificity and the direction of his glance. Despite blushing, he did not look particularly contrite as he said, “Terribly so. I doubt she will recover from the shock.” A leer passed over his face before he returned his attention back to his brother. “I am very pleased to see her have such a close friendship with the Belltaunts. Good family, and it will certainly help with you catching Clarice.”

“I am not pursuing her.” The tone was cold, and he shot daggers at Geoffrey, who wore a studiously bland expression as he traced invisible patterns on the table with his forefinger. “I am not,” he insisted.

Raoul raised his cup to his lips, eyeing his younger brother over the rim. “Then you are a stupid puppy.”

Their relationship had not been healed long enough for free banter, let alone insults. Harry had to lock his jaw from a scathing retort. No one else could rile him as quickly or easily as Raoul.

“Harry…” The brothers turned to face him. Geoffrey looked between them, a frown on his face. “I’ve told you before, you should not give up in pursuing her…”

Raoul snorted. “He never pursued a woman in his life on his own before, why would he start now?”

Geoffrey looked confused, as well he might.

“My brother,” Harry enunciated slowly, “Is referring to the frequent occurrences of his mistresses ultimately choosing my bed, after trying his.” He returned his sibling’s hot glare with a cold one of his own. He was in a piss poor mood and in no humour to play games.

“Yes. That.” Raoul bit off, a rictus of a grin contorting his face. “Hmm. Perhaps I should show interest in her. Maybe then that would give you the balls to pursue her.”

The brothers both let out a low growl. Fists clenched, brows furrowed. Their grey eyes glittered, and their teeth ground. Although physically very similar, their expressions were mostly at variance. In this particular instance, they could have been twins. The same lines of anger bisected their broad brows, and their eyes widened in the same manner. Their lips thinned and turned down at the corners, and the tension began to build between them.

Geoffrey wore an odd expression as he glanced between then, but then blinked and shrugged. “Well. This is awkward.” His dry observation broke the tension, and the brothers smiled slightly.

Raoul was the first to speak. Although he had the quicker temper, he was also more ready to step back from an argument. “Forgive me, Harry. It will take me some time to get over the past.”

Harry shrugged, feeling his shoulder twinge from his boxing match earlier. He might as well take advantage of his brother’s membership, he had reasoned, and was now paying the price by feeling pounded to pulp. “You were not wrong,” he mumbled. “I have never been good at attracting women with my own skills, have I?”

Raoul nudged him. When Harry raised his eyes, Raoul shook his head. “That isn’t true, and you know it. I was an ass to bring it up. I’d ask you what had you so damned turned around and confounded, but I know what you are feeling. Nothing gets us turned around like women, eh?”

“The woman does not want me.” Was the terse reply as he looked into his cup. “End of story. Can we cease speaking about her?”

Geoffrey exchanged a glance with the elder brother. “She is giving him mixed messages,” he admitted, clearly reluctant. “It is difficult to know what to do, when a woman gives you both ‘go’ and ‘stop’ looks. He is irritated, and I do not blame him.”

Raoul brightened. “Oh! That reminds me! Speaking of women who irritate - and do far worse than irritate us. Congratulations – I mean, condolences on your loss.” He raised his cup with a decisive nod.

Geoffrey laughed. “Thank you. You know, you have not been the first to do so.”

Harry tilted his head, confused, as his brother leaned across the table and gripped Geoff’s forearm in a tight grip. Raoul cast his friend a profound look of understanding before leaning back as if nothing happened. Geoff looked vaguely embarrassed, but also highly gratified.

What the hell was that about?

The plumpening man then turned his intense gaze to his brother. “Thank you for taking such good care of Kitty,” he added. “I appreciate it more than words can express. But what the hell possessed you to tell her about our Aunt?”

The whisky went down the wrong way, and he spluttered for a moment. The burning sensation crept back up his throat, and he coughed several times to clear it. “I did not – it was Clarice.”

Raoul swirled the contents of his own glass. “I admit, I would love to know what information that woman has about our Aunt. She is a marvel at gossip, and knows everything about anything worth knowing.”

“I’d love to know what you learned first,” Harry chuckled. “What was so important that it caused you to kick us out?”

Raoul’s arms bulged as he crossed them. Although now coated in softness, they were still full of muscle, and the position made him look intimidating. His gaze was fixed on Geoff, who looked as if he was about to make his excuses. “She will just tell him anyway,” he muttered. He sighed. “Our Aunt is involved in some sort of fraudulent activities. The math is not adding up in the books, and the estate is suffering. I did not want Kitty there when I confronted her.”

Harry’s skin prickled at the tone. “And…what happened? What fraud?”

Thick fingers drummed the tabletop. “I don’t know precisely what she is doing,” he admitted. “I never had a great head for finances and business,” he confessed, frustration painting his features. “Kitty is the one who discovered it, so she drew out the problem. I do not know exactly how it works, yet. When I confronted our Aunt about the books and profits...” He laughed.

That laugh sounded hollow and desperate. “She cut off the money to the estate?”

Raoul tapped the side of his nose and pointed at his brother. “Your guess is correct.” Turning to Geoffrey, he grimaced. “We haven’t been in a good way for quite a while. I was supposed to marry an heiress, and be a good blind boy to her activities. My Aunt did not take kindly to my choice of bride, and even less kindly to my asking her to explain some of the transactions I saw.”

Harry ran his hands through his hair, nervous. “Our Aunt is not exactly a nice person – ”

“Rather like your departed wife,” Raoul added in his typical, blunt way.

Geoffrey made a face. “Ah.”

“- So what are we going to do now?”

Raoul grinned. “There are two sons on the estate. And one of those sons is staring at an heiress as a wife. Maybe you should, you know, wrap that up. Nice, neat, tidy. Quick and easy. Problem solved!” And he dusted his large hands as a demonstration of ease.

Memories of Clarice’s observations, her cynicism about money and marriage, made him flush. “I will not marry her for her money.”

The cheshire grin widened. “Of course not, but you have to admit is rather convenient that you have fallen in love with one who just happens to have money.”

His brother was clearly under a misapprehension about this, but Harry could not find the words to express what he was feeling. To explain that to ask for money would be a betrayal of her trust. That it was an impossibility, because the chit as made it abundantly clear that he was not the one she wanted. “Well, with our Aunt out of the picture, the estate will recover on its own, will it not?”

“In a few generations, maybe. Honestly, I think we may have to hire a steward to look after the estate. I know next to nothing about business. Do you? I know nothing about farming, livestock, market pricing, or any of it. Kitty is extremely good at math, clearly, but her only experience with country life were her Uncle’s horses. Marriage is the quickest way out.”

“Then maybe you should have considered that before marrying Kitty.” When anger lit up the other’s face, Harry scrubbed a hand across his own with an irritated noise. “That isn’t what I meant. I am glad you married Kitty, and I will stand behind your choice. All I am saying is; do not throw that pressure on me, simply because you didn’t want to fulfil it yourself.” Geoffrey was smiling at him when he removed his hand from his face. “What?”

“I respect you,” he murmured. “I admit that I married for wealth and connections. It was the worst decision I have ever made. Yes, I was able to buy more and I was invited to bigger events. I got the reward I was seeking. And yet, I would give nearly anything to exchange those years of hell. Money is trouble. You are right. Don’t marry Clarice.”

“Oh, I’d marry her if she’d have me,” Harry snapped, then flushed at their snorts of laughter, and further when he realized what he had been tricked into confessing. “You did that on purpose! You are such an ass,” he accused. He downed his drink, avoiding eye contact.

Always amenable, Geoffrey chuckled. “Yes, in all probability!”

Raoul quickly slid the remainder of his drink through his lips. “Are we done?” he demanded, abruptly impatient and eager to be off. “All this talk of the futures and debts and marriage can wait a few more hours. I want my wife.”

“Lovely sketches, by the way,” Raoul tossed over his shoulder as they exited. “The ones of Clarice in particular.”

“Stay out of my room!” Harry snapped, flushing again. His eyes slid to Geoffrey. There were some sketches in the book that his brother would be apt to misinterpret.

“It is my house, baby brother. All the rooms are my rooms. But, if you can marry Clarice and solve our problems, I am sure we could make that ‘your room’.”

Harry glared at him. Raoul, catching the expression, dropped back several steps and threw an arm around his shoulders. “I tease, Harry,” he added in a more gentle tone. “But they really, are wonderful drawings.”

The waited for teasing about some of his subjects never came. “Really?”

“Mm. You have an artist’s touch for detail.” A wicked smile curved his lips. “I understand that Clarice enjoyed hers.”

Harry blanched. “Raoul, you didn’t.”

“Of course I didn’t!”

Relief made him sag.

“Kitty did.” And his brother grinned.

Harry buried his face in his hands. “Please, just tell me it was one of her face….”

Raoul laughed so hard his hat shifted. “As gorgeous as I find the drawings of her breasts, I doubt Clarice would have felt the same…innate affiliation. Of course she gave her a portrait.” Removing his arm, he clapped him on the shoulder. “Now. Deep breath. Chin up. And get the god damn hell over yourself. Clarice isn’t going anywhere, considering how much Kitty adores her. You can make this easier, or make this harder on yourself. Either you love her and need to act on it, or you let it go, shake it off, and get back to normal.”

“I could go away. Stay out of the way,” Harry protested. Merely raising an alternate option. Not that he did not think he could do one of the proposed.

Raoul shook his head. “Seems for some reason my wife loves you too. She wants you near. And what my wife wants, my wife gets. That is how we keep her happy, you see. Now what does Clarice want?”

“I have no idea.”

“Well. You should work on that.”
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Old 12-03-2015, 03:08 PM   #54
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It is always SO much easier to give courting advice once you are married and out of the fray yourself!
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Old 12-03-2015, 10:16 PM   #55
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too True!

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Old 12-04-2015, 09:15 PM   #56
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Lovely!
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Old 12-21-2015, 04:56 PM   #57
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Chapter 13

Her heart gave an odd jolt when he appeared in her field of vision, just by her shoulder. Her senses, awakened by the sexual experience she had seen, were hypersensitive. She could feel his proximity and touch like the zap of shock off a blanket in winter. The smell of his cologne mixed with his own musky smell made her own skin tighten, a shiver running through her.

Clarice pulled him aside to speak with him while the others gathered in the hallway. Although he bestowed her with his full gaze and dipped his head to hear her better, he seemed unusually distant. He responded with brief courtesy, but some of the fire seemed to have gone out of him. His grey gaze held less hunger, and more thoughtfulness than before. It seemed to examine, not admire.

The lack of response to her overtures vexed her, especially when she was actively trying to spend time just with him, outside of her game. An internal conference had been called, and the decree had been given that she had in fact been unfair, and she would need more information on him before rejecting him as a suitable partner. Her current suitors were all irritating her, so the transition for the focus of her attention was quite easy.

She even pretended to be off balance and adjust her shoe so that he would allow her to take his arm for balance. The heat through his shirt was tangible, and she could feel the muscles in his forearm flex. The heiress offered a smile to her companion upon straightening. After waiting just long enough to ensure she was back on her feet, he forced those mobile lips into a flat, closed lip smile.

It took her aback. Harry had been many things, but never cold towards her. So when he lowered his arm and moved away to another part of the room without another word, she stared after him in consternation. After standing on her proverbial left foot for a moment, she regained her internal equilibrium. “It makes sense,” she murmured to herself. “He is playing hard to get. Turnabout, and all that.”

The uneasy feeling that the encounter left her with spiked into an unknown, unpleasant sensation when Clarice turned around to find him dancing with some of the most eligible young women in the assembly. Geoffrey’s easy manners and unassuming form had bought him a most unique place in social circles. And now, as a widower, the normally protective aunts seemed to be fussing over him, and his friend. She could read their expressions clearly. A handsome young man wanted to dance with their charge. Danger. And yet, any friend of Telford was sure to be a friend of theirs. Knowing glances were cast the way of the newlywed Nottingham’s. And Telford’s last recommendation had resulted in a marriage…

Etiquette dictated that young men dance at least a few in an evening – but there was no call for him to be enjoying it as much as he clearly did. For the first time in several weeks, that saucy grin was back. It was a kick in the gut to see it after so long, and not directed at her.

All she got from him were cold smiles and absent nods.

“Are you well tonight?” Geoffrey asked softly. “It looks like the wine has soured somewhat – it tastes bitter?”

Part of her wanted to glare at him, while the other part wanted to chortle in delight at his light handed way of calling her out on her sour expression. She had discovered he was a master of conversation himself, and she was thoroughly enchanted by his skill. “Yes. It is the wine,” she replied dryly. “You startled me. I was just watching Harry dance. I was not aware that he was such a good dancer.”

The fat man cast a glance at her, his baby blue eyes meeting hers in a disconcerting way. “Indeed? I thought Harry had asked you to dance on many occasions.”

Another subtle slap to the face, calling her out on her repeated refusals. If the subject had not been so close to home, she would have enjoyed going round and round with him. This time she did purse her lips and eye him. “Was there something, Telford?”

The affable man shrugged, as usual taking no offense. The man had to have thick skin – he had been married to a horrible woman. No barb ever seemed to stick him. “Nothing – I apologize for the intrusion. It is just not often I see you at liberty.”

And yet another needle about her loneliness! She could not help but laugh, taking his arm. “Oh, Geoffrey, you are a true adept in verbal combat, but I fear am too distracted to play with you tonight. Can I defer the banter to another evening?” At his easy nod, she squeezed the flabby arm in gratitude. “Yes, I am alone. My retinue was exhausting me.”

He patted her hand, his smile fading into a look of concern. “You looked singularly unhappy. I came over to see if you were well.”

“Unhappy?” Startled, she considered for a moment. “Yes, unhappy, I suppose…” She glanced at the handsome young man just standing up with another beautiful young woman. Something about the man prompted such trust and honesty. And no news had reached her to imply differently.

Geoffrey followed her glance. “You know I am deeply indebted to you. If there is anything I can do…you will tell me, I hope. Things seem to have burned themselves out…?”

The offer was touching, and she told him so. “But you owe me nothing - I do not even want to speak of it. Besides - you assume the cause is lost!” she cried with false gaiety. “It is all part of the strategy.” The words, oddly, felt like ash in her mouth. Normally, she might have prevaricated about Harry’s interest, but she was too tired. “You cannot always fan a fire, or it burns out of control. Some chastening was necessary for the fire to stay within reason.”

“But fire is a living thing, and can suffocate from lack of air as surely as a man can.”

She jerked her glance up to his fat face, consternation spreading through her. The meaning was clear, and the delivery too direct to be palatable. So, Geoffrey agreed that her distance was ruining her chances of maintaining his interest. Clarice was no fool, and when enough sources of evidence were presented, was forced to yield. “I have heard of their fiery tempers, but they also seem quite capable of turning cool as a glacier. What do you think of the Nottingham brothers?” She asked, emphasising the request for his own personal opinion, and evading responding to his statement directly.

His wide lips stirred, closed, and then opened as he scrubbed his hand down his face. “The Nottingham brothers are a peculiar lot. Good men. Excellent men. Passionate and loyal to a fault. I could not have found a man more worthy of Katherine’s affections. But both men are…volatile. I do not think either of them have had an easy run of it.” He shrugged a little. “They run hot, and burn themselves out. Once a fire has run its course, the only thing left are smouldering embers … that eventually go out.”

Even this unsubtle conversation was exhausting her. She spirits felt low, and her body ached with fatigue. “Tell me truly. What do you think I should do?”

The unusually blunt query made him blink. “Well. I suppose that depends on what you want.”

She groaned, holding a hand to her tight chest. “I am too tired for this, Telford!”

He appeared startled, then quickly brought her a chair. “Sit.”

“Why?” she demanded, raising her chin.

“Because until you do, I cannot, and I am too fat to be standing about for long.”

A laugh burst out of her, and she sunk down breathlessly. “I do not know what I want.”

“That sounds fair enough. May I propose a change of perspective?” When she nodded for him to proceed, he gave a wry little smile over his shoulder as he fetched a chair for himself. “Rather than thinking of it as a mere want, think of it this way. If you do not take action now, I fear there will not be any action that you could take later.”

Clarice snorted, but frowned. “I never act out of fear.”

“Look at it more as - letting the investment opportunity of a lifetime pass you by.”

A smile won out over the gnawing worry she had felt all evening. “I have always adored your way of speaking, Telford. Of course you of all people talk to me of love, couched in the comfortable terms of business. Well then - speak on of this business proposal!”

Sitting down in the chair, he shifted slightly to accommodate his large paunch, instantly catapulting her thought to a specific incident that caused her to flush red. “I wish I could, but I fear that I have very minimal talents in that direction. My steward takes care of most of the day to day. But I will try. All I can speak of are my own experiences.” He looked down at his chubby hands and sighed before speaking. Serious eyes met hers without a trace of their normal good humour. “I have seen hundreds of young women come and go over the years. It is the unfortunate truth that women have a short shelf life while in the marriage market. They need to be acquired before that date. Many make socially eligible matches, and manage to tolerate each other for the rest of their lives.” He paused for a long moment. “I do not like to speak of it, but I know that you a woman of information, so I am sure this is not news. My late wife and I had a very unpleasant marriage - in every regard. I cannot relate to you the pain it can bring, to be attached for life to someone you despise, or who despises you.”

The heiress patted the back of his hand with her fan. “And some make happy matches,” she added, rounding out his speech.

“True. Some make happy matches. The difference between business and marriage,” he said slowly, “Is that in business you have multiple opportunities to invest in or not. Marriage is not like that – it is considered a once in a lifetime event.” His eyes lit as inspiration dawned. “Imagine having to purchase a business that had a lot of capital, but with stewards and workers who you could never get rid of, and who you had no control over. Conversely, imagine buying a business with a willing partner who respected you and wanted to work with you. Which would you prefer?”

“So you are another who says, ‘marry for love’.”

“Love?” He appeared startled. “No. Love, in the romantic sense, is a violent emotion that probably burns out for many. No, I say, ‘where money is no object, marry for mutual affection and respect’.”

“But money is an object – not on my side, but on his. I know the condition of the Nottingham estate.”

“It is hard done by for now, but I am sure we will muddle on as usual,” a deep voice rumbled behind her.

She positively jumped, so surprised that her skin hurt from every single hair trying to simultaneously rise. “Raoul! How long have you been there?” she demanded, turning in her chair to face him. Although she could not appreciate either of the bloated forms near her, they did make her feel positively svelte. And Raoul’s features were close enough to Harry’s to make her chest ache when he smiled at her with affection.

He was not smiling now, but grinning, unrepentant. “I just walked by. Do I look the type to listen at keyholes?” he laid a hand to his heart, looking like a naughty schoolboy.

Yes, she could have told him pertly.

His expression rapidly melted into seriousness, however. “I know your sources of information, so I will not insult your intelligence by trying to claim the estate is fine. We will manage, somehow. But I have another errand. I actually came to tell you that Kitty will be leaving early this evening. Kitty is not feeling quite up to staying. No, nothing is amiss,” he hastened to add. “She just feels worn out, and asked me to make her excuses.”

Normally, Clarice would have smirked at this, knowing full well that they would use any opportunity to be alone together.

However, Raoul’s brows were knit with worry, and he chuffed in annoyance. “She is going to go and sleep, and asked me to leave her in peace. What do you want to know about the estate?” He demanded petulantly, clearly interjecting himself shamelessly into their conversation.

Raoul’s direct manner of speaking was wildly refreshing, and his complete lack of concern over the difference in their sex pleased her immensely. “Actually, perhaps you tell me about your brother instead.”

Raoul pulled a chair over, appearing thoughtful. “Harry? He was always the thinker and the planner when we were children. Not the wild thing that I was. Better in all the subjects, really. I was always escaping out the back door to fish, or get into a scrap.”

Clarice smiled as he laughed fondly at his own antics. “What did he like to do?”

“Do? Why, whatever I was doing!” He grinned as his brother approached. “Right, little brother?”

Said little brother cocked a brow. When the subject was reiterated, he shrugged and smiled. Harry’s exertions had not made him any less attractive. The hair on his brow and around his ears curled with sweat, making him look even more roguish than usual. “Well, considering I knew I might as well join in the fun if I was going to be part of the punishment later. Martha would box both our ears regardless of who caused the trouble, remember?”

Geoffrey’s talk of business had her mind working. Business acquisition? Fine. Best to know all she could about the history of the man. “What were your Mother and Father like?” she inquired at the next available opportunity. “You have both spoken of Martha, but never of them.”

Both men’s expressions stilled. Harry looked sombre, but Raoul’s eyes held a hard glint. The older brother eventually said, “Our Mother died young – only a few years after Harry was born. She left our care to Martha – I have some memories, Harry probably has even fewer.”

The younger brother made an odd grimace, still standing. “In her pictures, she is very beautiful,” he added.

Something in his tone caught her notice. She was experienced enough with equivocation to easily spot his non-answer. Neither man volunteered any information about the other half of their parentage, and Clarice understood by their mutual stillness and silence that this was not a topic to be broached lightly. She let the subject drop, but her curiosity was kindled.

The conversation gradually turned on more general family matters, and Raoul inquired about her sisters. In the meantime, Clarice kept attempting to catch Harry’s eye, casting her glance to the dancefloor repeatedly.

The man did not take the hint, studiously ignoring her attempt to solicit a dance from him, and brushing off her attempts to initiate conversation.

Tears of frustration pricked her eyes for a moment, and she threw a glance at Geoffrey, whose round face was full of commiseration and anxiety.

Why would Harry not even look at her? Talk to her? Give her a civil word? He treated her as a stranger. Worse than a stranger. He treated her coldly. Not with contempt, which she could have retaliated against. He did it with a sort of bored air, as if she was no longer found to be entertaining, and her presence no longer valued.

She had never felt so dispirited, lapsing into quiet. Eventually rising, she made vague excuses about her head, blaming her and Kitty’s abrupt departure on some sort of cold. She wandered through the hall to the carriages, feeling numb.

Already, her brain was churning, wondering where she had miss stepped. Where the tipping point had been. What she could have said, or done, to prevent him from so completely rejecting her. Of course he had told her she was going too far, but then all the young men cried wolf while secretly loving the game.

Abruptly, a phrase floated out of her memory. If you believe I am the hunter, why on Earth would I accept a second best prize?

The irony of it was, her mind suddenly realized the inaccuracy of that statement. The best prize was always the one who got away. It was always the second best animal that got snared.

Leaning her cheek against the cool carriage window, she swallowed. She despised the women in Diana’s romance novels, who only realized the depth of their affection after it was too late. Mayhap, if she was more pleasant and approachable, he would be more natural with her again. He was a planner and a thinker, Raoul had said. Perhaps he just needed time and space…
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Old 12-21-2015, 05:07 PM   #58
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Vacation has started with a bam of writing inspiration, so I am finally able to move forward with posting, now that the chapters flow. More to follow...Happy Holidays
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Old 12-21-2015, 05:31 PM   #59
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Yessssssss! Thank you!
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Old 12-22-2015, 06:22 AM   #60
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Thank you, I had a rough day and it was lovely to find out you had updated.
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Old 12-22-2015, 06:58 AM   #61
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Yay for time and inspiration!
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Old 12-22-2015, 08:43 AM   #62
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Chapter 14


It was indeed harder to avoid Clarice now that Raoul was in town.

Raoul went where Kitty did - and often as not, Kitty was near her bosom friend.

Where Kitty was, Geoffrey always seemed to be close by.

…And, like a fool, Harry found himself always around one of the three, and therefore always in proximity to her.

Although he might have been inclined to ignore his brother’s gruff advice, Geoffrey later seconded it in his usual gentle, sensible way. It was hard to argue with someone who never seemed to take umbrage with you, and who studiously acknowledged with all your points, and yet somehow refuted them with logic. Raoul had proposed two options, and Harry was forced to reluctantly agree. It was apparent that he did in fact need to man up and get over this childish infatuation. It was illogical, and Harry had always prided himself on his ability to think clearly and plan ahead. A consultation with himself had proved that he could not feasibly avoid Clarice. Not now, and certainly not as time went on.

And so, he had ceased avoiding her presence, forcing himself to act as naturally as possible.

If he wanted to speak to his friend, he approached and did so with no more notice than was consistent with their relative positions and acquaintance.

If he wanted to ask his sister to dance, he made sure to exchange some words of pleasantry with the gorgeous woman who stood with her, but did not importune her with chatter or requests to dance herself.

If he spoke to her, he responded briefly and politely, not demanding the whole of her notice.

If he was sitting at a table and that said beauty sat down with some of her retinue, he no longer allowed jealousy to move him to another table, but instead stayed to enjoy his drink.

That staying facilitated a more general understanding of her character and mind. And upon more general acquaintance and proximity, the man was forced to admit that Clarice was even more intelligent than he had first thought. And damn if that did not make her even more appealing to his higher sensibilities. She read voraciously – not just the notes and papers of gossip, but the tomes of history, politics, even science. In reading those books, she did not simply sponge up information, vapidly parroted for the approval of the men around her. She examined each piece of information, weighed its probability, and either accepted or rejected the information based on the merit of the author, the contents, and her own beliefs.

Listening to her speak in a quiet but powerful tone was riveting, but watching her roundly destroy the men and women who opposed her views often had him hiding his grin in his cup. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks flushed. Her voice, low and sensual, hardened and took on a cadence that any politician would have respected.

At the end of one such debate, she turned to him. “And what is your opinion?”

“I have no opinion,” Harry responded, looking back into his cup and wishing there was more. She often tried to engage him in conversation now, but just as often he found himself unable to come up with any properly crafted, banal response. He winced at his own wooden tone. Sometimes it was not easy to be as cool as he wanted to be. She tried to speak to him more often now, with a sort of quiet manner that clearly showed he was the friend of a friend only, now. No longer a suitor in any way.

All the better.

She tossed her head. “You must have some sort of opinion in this matter!” She cried. “How can you have no opinion?”

As it appeared Clarice was not just expecting a social nicety, he paused before answering. “I know nothing of the subjects of business. Any opinion I may have is therefore based on no supporting facts, evidence, or experience. I do, however, understand the context you are referring to, and your points to make sense to me. In this, I defer to your greater experience.” Truth be told, he had been more interested in watching the joy on her face, than listening to her key points. An odd expression passed over her face, impossible to interpret. Harry wondered if she had taken offense, perhaps thinking the reference to trade was some sort of subtle dig.

After her attention was solicited by another, Harry wandered over to the cooler airflow in the hallway. The night was pleasant, and he wanted to check on his sister. He had heard her retching again this morning, but she seemed well enough now as she casually waltzed with his brother on one of the balconies. He did not have enough experience to judge if it was normal, but his inquiries were always brushed aside with a snort.

From this angle, he was probably one of the few that could see them, and he sighed as he rubbed his brow, feeling unaccountably lonely. It amazed him how thoroughly the little slip of a girl had his brother wrapped so thoroughly around her little finger. She could summon him across the room with a smile, or have him apologizing with a side look. And yet, somehow never denied him his masculinity, despite yelling right back at him when he deserved it. Maybe it was because she literally ran across the floor to be in his arms, and would excuse herself from a conversation just to make him more comfortable. To find a woman who suited him as much as Kitty did Raoul…

He would be a lucky man indeed.

It was hard not to feel jealous, watching how in love they were. Harry compressed his lips when he felt them pursing, reminding himself that - Geoff was also envying their romance, and that Geoff still harboured a secret flame for his sister. The other man’s pain must be exponentially worse.

It was also rather difficult to ignore all the subtle touches that his sister made. No one else would have noticed how when she touched Raoul’s chest in laughter, it trailed to the top of his stomach. Or when she wrapped her arm around his, she occasionally nudged his plump side with her elbow. Or how when she touched his face, her delicate fingers trailed over the plumpest portions. Or about how she flushed and her eyes lidded if his stomach brushed her. Harry, for his part, noticed and shook his head at the irony of it all. What fortune favoured his brother, and yet denied happiness to men like him and Geoff?

“It is revolting, it is not?”

The voice was recognized despite not turning his head, and the sensation it brought to his skin was far from pleasant. After a few heartbeats wherein Harry tried to master his irritation, he spoke. “I was lost in thought. What is revolting?”

Westmore’s pompous face slid into view. “Watching the puppy love.” He jerked his weak chin at the couple on the dance floor.

“It is indeed quite a sight indeed, to see two people so in love,” Harry admitted, keeping his arms crossed firmly over his chest, and his gaze fastened on his siblings. Revolting was not the word he would have chosen. Painful, enviable, yes.

“Clarice and I were just speaking about that sort of love. My opinion is that it is an over idealized notion, that ultimately evaporates over time.”

“Oh?” he inquired, proud of his sufficiently indifferent tone. Glancing at the beauty hanging on the arm of his interrogator, Harry sketched the briefest possible bow before returning to his previous posture of leaning against the wall with one ankle hooked around the other. It was becoming more easy to be himself, now that he had firmly put all his hopes and fears aside. “I never understood that expression; ‘puppy love’. Of course one loves a puppy. What sort of monster dislikes puppies? That does not mean your love fades. You love a puppy because it is loveable, and loves you. You love it in spite of the fact that it lets loose its bowels in the house, or chews your gloves. You do not love the dog any less once it is grown – you love it as a partner and playmate, rather than a thing you need to protect. It changes, not dies.”

Clarice looked up at him through her lashes. “But - you agree that this level of adoration is not maintainable?”

Harry frowned, wondering where Geoff was. Once he came by, they had some dastardly plans to execute tonight. Something his physical body was aching for. “Not precisely. I think that it changes and grows over time. One can love their child completely, despite it not being the infant it once was.” Abruptly meeting her eyes, he cocked a brow. “Is my brother’s marriage and happiness truly the most interesting topic for you to have chosen? I thought I heard you discussing politics earlier. Quite a jump in subject matter.”

The lips of the young woman curled, although she cocked her head back at him. Clarice did not seem to know what to make of his changed behaviour. She seemed more subdued than he remembered her to have been, if inquisitive. “Indeed. Westmore seems highly interested in politics. We were just discussing the history of the landed gentry, and what we thought the future might hold. Do you have interest in politics?”

“No general interest. Only insofar as they pertain to my values.”

Westmore’s brows rose. “Really? No interest at all?”

“Not particularly,” Harry drawled, again irritated at the man’s mere voice.

Clarice stepped closer, tilting her head and searching his eyes. “What about history?”

His neck heated at her odd tone, and being forced again and again to admit to ignorance. “Not a whit.” History and politics – history in particular - were so painful that even the mention of them often caused him to yawn. Honestly, if he could sit down for more than a quarter of an hour to read, he would. Any longer than that timespan and he often awoke with said book covering his face.

“Business?”

“Completely ignorant, as I mentioned earlier,” he confessed, even as he sighed internally. “Although that particular subject does interest me.” As in, I must now learn it…

She appeared taken aback by his complete lack of traditional knowledge. And unaccountably disappointed. “And you said before you are not much of an equestrian, and do not hunt. What do you do? What are your interests?”

Harry pushed himself away from the wall with forced casualness. Although her tone was not accusatory, it was difficult not to interpret the words as anything other than scornful. Her cocked eyebrow at his silence did not soothe, either. “If I had known I was going to undergo such an intense cross questioning, I would have taken the time to brush up on my lessons. Sadly, I did not. Interests? I have interests in books of a certain stamp. I enjoy company, good friends and family. I enjoy listening to intelligent people. I also enjoy…the finer things in life, which is what I am about to do, once Telford comes back.” And he named the establishment. Harry could not have said why he did it, but instantly regretted it the moment it slipped through his lips.

“Isn’t…that a…” she seemed shocked, eyes widening and mouth falling open “Oh Harry…You would not!”

He raised his brows, looking down at her as if daring her to comment. “Would I not? I am a single man with no tie of affection preventing me. And every inducement to enjoy life. What are my actions to you?”

Clarice’s eyes bulged, and she spluttered incoherently for a moment.

Even Westmore appeared shocked. “Easy on, man,” he grumbled, his face reddening. “There are things that are not to be spoken of in front of the ladies.” Whatever his intention was, it came across as highly condescending. “Women are emotional, and delicate. They do not have the intelligence to understand the more carnal aspects of men’s natures. We do not want to shock Miss Belltaunt! She does not have a man’s constitution, and needs to be protected. Isn’t that right, my dear?”

Harry laughed – a quick bark of amusement that he could not suppress. The idea of coddling Clarice Belltaunt because she was incapable was ludicrous. The only other person who so fully actualized the word ‘capable’, was Martha. He was still gazing at Clarice’s face, and saw the expression she made at those words. She might have been floored and shocked by Harry’s own intention of going whoring, but she was deeply offended by Westmore’s words. Her pupils narrowed and her eyes slashed towards Westmore even as her round face turned away. Her plump lips compressed, even while the upper curled in clear derision. Her red tongue slid across the bottom of her upper row of teeth, and finally she smiled.

It was not a nice smile, and made the hairs on Harry’s nape and forearms rose.

“Westmore?”

“Yes my dear?” He asked, gallant and assured. He seemed well satisfied and pompous, confident that his words had been appreciated. Her next words clearly came as a blow.

“Leave us.” He spluttered a few protests, but Clarice’s wide, clear eyes remained unblinkingly on his face. The expression and predatory stillness with which it was given was eerily similar to the look Martha would give the dogs when one ventured past the door while she was cooking. “I have business to discuss with the Nottinghams.” And she simply stared at Westmore silently as he continued to protest. Her stillness effectually banished him, and he retreated with a scowl and a glare.

“We do?” Harry inquired calmly once the annoying man was out of sight. His traitorous heart began thudding as she took one of his hands in both of hers.

She looked up into his eyes. “Please. Do not do this,” she begged.

He pulled his hand free, though he wanted to chafe the fingers. They were cold even under the gloves. “You are not my moral compass,” he growled, feeling out of sorts and crotchety. He had not been with a woman since Edith, and he was feeling bitterly disappointed in himself for allowing his fancy to so overcome his sense since meeting Clarice. And for blurting out such a crass thing. Westmore was right – some things were just not spoken of in polite society. “What right do you have to ask me such a thing? What claim or interest can you possibly have on me?”

Her lips opened, and she licked them before they closed with a tremor. She dropped his hand and swallowed hard. “I…You are right, of course…”

It was the first time she had stammered or looked crushed. Her face fell, and she bowed her head. The look she cast over her shoulder as she walked away was so hurt that he took half a step in her direction to recall her.

He had not meant to upset her. There had been no call for him to lash out at her like that. She had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. He felt like a monster, and a complete fool to boot.
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Old 12-23-2015, 05:58 AM   #63
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It's great how you manage to believingly portray the tensions between a man and a woman who both do not want to acknowledge they're interested in each other, Xyantha.

Also - you do a good job with the period elements, which imo are incredibly difficult to write. Language and cultural mores have changed so much, but probably even more so the machinations of daily life. Even pro-authors - or mainly those who do period drama for the screen - constantly have to be on the watch for eliminating ahistorical elements (like the infamous Evian plastic bottle on the Downton Abbey fireplace mantlepiece....)

Not to be mean or picky - but simply because the glitch struck me in your otherwise perfect setting...


Quote:
Originally Posted by Xyantha Reborn View Post


and touch like the zap of shock off a blanket in winter.
If I remember correctly from the 1st book, the setting is England app. 1810-40, or not?

Then Clarice would not have known the sensation you describe as she would have had only woolen blankets (or some with also flax interwoven) and shoes with leather or wood soles.

The static shock you can get in winter from blankets is because they are synthetic fibers which can become statically charged through friction. In rare cases this also works with pure wool materials, like when you walk over it with thick rubber/plastic shoe soles or with rubber soles on synthetic carpeting.

As said, you're doing fantastic writing in emulating the spirit of the times - this is just the insane historic demographer in me getting kicks out of detail picking like this. So please don't be mad - take it as a bout of intellectual masturbation on my side.

Have great writing vacation & happy holidays!
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Old 12-23-2015, 07:15 AM   #64
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It is funny, because that detail had caught my attention too. But I was pretty sure that there were ancient references to static shocks (albeit maybe less than today), so figured that it wouldn't be an unheard of experience. I think you'd be more apt to see a spark between a very dry wool blanket and metal than to yourself (wool and both human skin and hair tend to take on a positive charge, so it would be rare to get that much charge differential between them -- but either might still ground out to metal I think?)

But very small quibbles aside, I have really loved these latest two chapters. Good job showing the interesting feedback loop between them!
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Old 12-23-2015, 08:31 AM   #65
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Thanks, I appreciate the feedback!

My hubby is a stickler for history details in his own field so I can definitely appreciate the notice to detail! I know that static is less in natural fibres, but I know it does occur. To me, I guess the argument is the difference between saying something is "water resistant" and "hydrophobic"; some things are less LIKELY to have the imbalance of electrical charges that cause static than others, but that does not mean it is physically impossible for it to occur. In the example above, a water resistant thing can still become wet. In animals which are hydrophobic, it is impossible for them to become wet because their body actually physically repels the water.

I know I still get static shock off my natural fibre blankets (after walking across a natural porcelain floor while being undressed). And oh MAN the static(!) if you have animals, who carry around a body full of their own 'natural' fibres. I did look on a few sites and although they site natural fibres as reducing/keeping down on static, I wasn't able to find any reference that natural fibres eliminate static or are physically incapable of interacting in the electron transfer.

So, although perhaps not common, to say that she had never, ever experienced a static shock is probably inaccurate.

I probably should have said "...and touch like the zap of shock off a cat in the middle of winter" like Tesla's story of his cat.

Edit: no offense taken by the way!!! I am flattered that you are interested enough to care, really! It actually brought back fond memories of gaming discussions / debates of if hobbits were related to elves, and us pulling out the book to confirm, hehe.
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Old 12-24-2015, 03:37 AM   #66
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Great job, as always! I can't wait to read the next addition.
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Old 12-24-2015, 10:05 AM   #67
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Chapter 15


“Oh, it was so wonderful to be out last night!” Diana cried as she threw herself onto the sofa and kicked her little slippered feet in esctasy. “Did you see the way that Raoul Nottingham was looking at Katherine? It was like he wanted to just…eat…her…up!” And she squealed in delight. “It was almost too much to take!”

Clarice closed her sandy eyes. “Di, I did not sleep well. I have a lot on my mind. Can you please lower your voice?”

“Sorry,” was the contrite response. She did try to lower her voice, but it quickly rose again in excitement. “And then, when he thought no one was looking, he kissed her! Oh, how he kissed her! I think he is quite handsome. But not nearly as handsome as Harry. Harry is so trim and fit. Did you see him? He was quite dashing. He looks so much like his brother – and yet not so. Not just because he is not ao round. His eyes are softer, and he does not seem like he is about to bite as much as Raoul does. Harry does seem to have lost interest in you, hasn’t he? Are you happy now?”

The run-on flow of words halted, and Clarice kept her eyes closed. Not particularly. In fact, one might say that Clarice and happiness were currently estranged from one another. As the air grew hotter, it also grew thicker, more pungent, and less wholesome. It made it difficult for her to breathe, and she found herself waking up at night, feeling as if she could not get enough air into her lungs. Not to mention that her mind was in a perturbed state. She found herself unable to fall into the waiting arms of slumber, and once there, tossed and turned restlessly.

“Clarice, I want a new dress,” Paulina snapped as she swept into the room.

“Why would I be happy?” the heiress asked, ignoring the intrusion. The fun she normally had, the pleasure she normal took from all the revelry and games was like a grinding irritation against her frayed nerves, and she found herself more blunt and snappish than usual. Which helped her keep her promise to her friend.

“Clarice, maybe you did not hear me. I want a new dress,” she emphasized the demand with a stamp of her foot.

Clarice had in fact heard the request, but had been too out of sorts to immediately respond civilly. Paulina had reverted to her irritable, demanding ways, and it took every bit of control she had not to box her ears and scream at her sibling. “No.” She told the young woman before turning her attention back to Diana.

Diana was too good natured and flighty to take offense to Paulina’s fits of temper and pique, and so continued readily. “Well, it isn’t as if you were interested in him. Not really. I mean, I know you have fun playing your little games, and I know that he seemed to really get worked up - and that pleased you. But it also seemed to upset you too. Which I don’t understand. But I think you were more upset than happy. So now that he isn’t bothering you anymore, you must be pleased!”

Paulina’s pretty face and neck began to mottle dangerously – a sure sign of a fit of temper brewing. “But I want it!”

“You may want it until the land becomes the sea – you will not be getting another this season,” she responded coolly, thoughts turning inward. Raoul’s presence seemed to increase her friend’s confidence. Kitty had pulled her aside and, with a serious expression, asked her to cease teasing Harry. If she was not interested, to make the cut clean. But Clarice found herself oddly reluctant to cut him loose, and found herself staring in fascination at his lips and hands, wondering what it would be like for someone as handsome as he was to touch her with the same passion that Raoul had lavished on Kitty.

And yet, all of her efforts to entice him seemed to have fallen flat. The irony was…that he was actually someone who, the more she got to know him, the more she wanted to be with him. They shared no common interests that she could tell. And yet, being with him felt comfortable. When they did speak, he always spoke to her as if she was a man. Not like Westmore. Her lip curled in derision at the thought.

Paulina had clearly been threatening her while she was in her reverie, because as Clarice emerged she gave a shriek of frustration and swept her arm across the desk.

The oldest of the three sisters made no effort to catch the delicate vase, and did not flinch as it smashed on the floor. To many, such behavior would have shocked. Unfortunately, this was not new. “Are you done?” she asked, voice becoming even more frigid, and she cocked an eyebrow expectantly. “The money for this week is now going to replace the damage you caused.”

Of course the fit was not done. Meeting with no real emotion only seemed to inflame Paulina, and she began wrecking the study. The chair was knocked over, the drawers pulled out and the contents dumped before being flung aside.

Diana made an uncomfortable noise and gathered her skirts closer about her, as if by making herself smaller, she could avoid a part in the whole affair. After another vase crashed near her, she fled with a squeak.

“The money for next week is now going to charity.”

Paulina began snatching up her notes and papers, shredding them and stomping on them.

It might have been distressing to see her sister work herself up into such a frenzy, but Clarice had never felt an emotion so closely akin to hatred as she did at that moment. She had no sympathy, no empathy for her sibling. All of her emotion had been drained through the night as she thought of Harry entwined in the arms of a…a…harlot! Harry had spoken truly – what claim did she have on him? What right did she have to feel proprietary?

If the sight of him laughing down at the faces of those young women had been painful, the fitful dreams she experienced were agonizing. Her mind, still vividly recalling Kitty and Raoul entwined, easily substituted a faceless whore for her friend, and just as easily reduced Raoul’s bloated form to one more pleasing.

Soft, pale arms entwined around his neck, and Harry kissed the woman as he thrust into her…She had woken up covered in sweat and with a blazing head ache. And she had been unable to fall back asleep, instead staring at the empty spot of the bed next to her, feeling lonely despite the houseful of people around her.

The end result of his complete deterioration of affection was painful enough, but dulled in comparison to the agony of knowing that, for a time, he could have been hers. That it was directly through her actions that he had been driven away. It was one thing to have missed an opportunity. It was something completely different to have squandered one.

Paulina paused in picking up the last piece of paper. “Who drew this?” She laughed – a mocking sound. “How much did you have to pay them to fabricate such a portrait? However much you paid them – they deserved it. They took quite the artistic liberty with this sketch. Are those really supposed to be your eyes? And they certainly drew you more slim than you are.”

Her sibling could have wrecked every object in this room, or in Clarice’s bedroom with relative impunity. Having no special ties to objects, their destruction or replacement was no pain – except in those instances where the object had historical value, and was irreplaceable. There had only been a few causes of that level of damage before Clarice and her Mother became savvy and had removed them from the house.

Yet somehow her sibling had snatched up the only thing she treasured. Of course, Clarice tried to repress the gasp, to subdue her immediate lurch forward to reclaim it. Too late. Her sibling saw it all.

Another laugh escaped her, and with a flourish, she ripped it down the middle. “It does not suit at all. I know what a fan you are of accuracy.” Another rip made it into quarters. “And this does not capture your spirit or look at all. Maybe if you stopped eating for a year, and were not such a bitter harpy.” And she began shredding the pieces into thumb sized pieces.

The older woman had been initially immobilized from shock, then frozen with overwhelming rage. “Paulina. Get. Out. Of. My. Room.” Each word was bit off, and Clarice rose. Taking her sister by the shoulders, she spun her around to propel her from the room. Suddenly, there was a blow and a shattering sound against the side of her head, and a temporary blackness overcame her vision, accompanied by a firefly swirl of lights behind her eyes.

When her vision cleared, Paulina was staring at her with a face full of consternation. If that had been all, the incident would have ended there. But suddenly, satisfaction stole over her sibling’s face, and she spat, “Stupid heifer. You think any man would want you?”

It was just last night that Raoul and Harry had been talking about boxing, and the correct way to hold one’s hands. Faster than thought, faster that reason, her plump fist shot out and caught Paulina right in the nose. She had not meant to hurt her – she had not meant to do it at all, but blood immediately gushed and her sister screamed.

It took only moments for half the house to arrive. Her sister, who was by this time writhing on the floor in hysterics, was immediately carried away to her own room. Her father arrived moments later. After assuring himself of no serious danger, he strode back into Clarice’s study. “What the blazes is going on?” he snapped, looking more angry than she had ever seen him.

Clarice had not moved, and was staring around in a sort of daze. More than one attempt was needed to clear her throat. “Paulina had a fit of temper. She destroyed my study – ”

“So you broke her nose?” He demanded incredulously. “Clarice, all of the things in this house are replaceable. I thought you knew that. To escalate to physical violence…” He trailed off, looking ashamed for her.

The injustice of the accusation made tears start to her eyes. The left side of her face still felt numb, but in a tingling way that promised a fair amount of pain later. “Papa, you should know me better than that!” she cried, trying to calm herself. There was nothing her father detested more than an emotional woman.

He raised both hands to halt further conversation. “I do not want to hear another word. Clearly I put too much responsibility on your shoulders in asking you to assist her managing her money. It has been too much for you.”

To be accused of striking her sister in cold blood left a bad taste in her mouth, but to be accused of weakness made her stagger in pain. She had to dig deep - deeper than she had ever gone before to find enough inner strength to keep her face from crumpling like her soul was. “I disagree.”

He continued as if she had not spoken. “Your mother is on her way here. I will leave this…unfortunate situation to her capable hands. I had thought you were all old enough to function under her guidance, but it seems that this is not the case.” He steepled his hands over his nose. Inhaled, exhaled, met her eyes. “I expected better from you,” her father murmured in a low tone before he exited, his shoes crunching bits of pottery beneath them.

When he had gone, Clarice sunk down and gathered up the shredded bits of paper in hands that trembled. The portrait was, of course, destroyed beyond recognition or repair. Natalie, her maid, broke her out of her shock by placing warm hands on hers. “Come miss. It’s time to clean you up and make you lovely again. I’ll take that paper for you. We will have this all cleaned up in no time at all!”

Again would imply that she had been before. Too tired to argue, she allowed herself to be stripped as a hot bath was drawn for her. The bustle of cleaning next door began, and she listened with low energy to the tinkle and crunch of pottery, and the rustling of papers. “Natalie, could you please have a note sent to Kitty and ask her if she would like to walk in the park today?”

“Of course. But you have a cut on your cheek. It needs cleaning first. I think you are going to have a bruise here,” she added a few minutes later. “It is already going dark. What did she hit you with?”

Clarice smiled, even though the gesture made her cheekbone ache. “I don’t know. Did I really break her nose?”

A little giggle escaped her before Natalie swallowed the noise. “Apologies. That was uncalled for and not proper at all.” She hesitated, but then rushed on. “It isn’t my place to say, but I think a right proper spanking would have set her straight years ago. And a broken nose is what she deserves for striking you, the little minx!”

It was a little out of line, but also more than a little true. And the allusion to her strike being retaliatory rather than the initiator of violence made a rush of gratitude rise up. At least some in the house knew her character. “Let’s not speak of it anymore. If my cheek is cleaned, can you send that note to Kitty?”

“Of course, but are you sure you want to go out with it like this?”

“I will apply come compound, and if I wear a hat low enough, I think it will do just fine.”

Natalie looked doubtful but immediately rose, dried her hands, and went to do as she was bid.

Her cheek was not the only thing hurting – her right knuckles felt like they had punched something hard. At the memory, she grinned despite her best efforts. She had wondered why some men enjoyed physically striking another. If the satisfaction she felt was any indication, she had her answer.

Sniffing, Clarice touched her cheek. “I hope her nose heals crooked,” she confided to the steam as she sunk into the water. “Don’t think about it,” she warned her mind, who immediately took the opportunity to loop continually around the two most painful things in her life. She could not help but feel abandoned both my her Father and Harry, although for different reasons, and in different ways. From one thought to the other and back, it bounced relentlessly without any progress.

Natalie had returned. “John has just been out, and he said he saw the Nottinghams walking to the park. He took the liberty of delivering the message to them rather than leaving it at the house. Katherine said she would love to see you.”

“Excellent. Thank you. Can you please help me get dressed quickly? I want to be out within half an hour.” I want to be with the only person who still seems to love me. Kitty, dearest, I hope you can raise my spirits.

A sudden thought occurred to her. “Which of the Nottingham’s were with her, do you know?”

“Just her husband, I believe.”

At least she would be able to avoid that particular torturer this afternoon...The idea of looking at Harry's face right now was unbearable.
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Old 12-24-2015, 10:08 PM   #68
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I am so happy that Clarice broke Paulina's nose. Bitch got served.

Looking forward to reading more.
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Old 12-26-2015, 12:58 PM   #69
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Chapter 16

“I missed you,” Kitty murmured as she hugged her and kissed her cheek. “Come, take my arm.” As they stepped away from the men, she cast a penetrating look under the other woman’s hat brim. “You look terrible!”

Clarice let her head gentle rest against Kitty’s for a moment. “Thank you – you are too kind, as always.”

Katherine smiled with warmth. “You know what I mean. What on earth is wrong?”

“Is ‘everything’ an appropriate answer?” Clarice sighed heavily, then winced as her chest gave a twang. “I am the one who should be asking you that – you left early yesterday.”

The other woman made a dismissive gesture. “Nothing to concern yourself with. I have not seen my father since my marriage, and he was just being – ” She exhaled through her nose. “Well. I needed some space, that is all.”

“Did Harry get home safe last night? He isn’t here with you?” The question slipped out, and she could have stamped her foot in vexation.

A mildly curious glance was sent her way, but Kitty nodded. “Of course. He came home with Geoffrey later in the evening. He said he had a headache, so was going to stay home until it passed. I daresay he will be here soon. Are you sure everything is well with you?” She asked again.

Eager to divert her concern, Clarice patted her hand. “As well as it can be. I am afraid I had a spat with my sister this morning, and I am not feeling quite right. I don’t know what to do with her.”

“Paulina?” was the hazarded guess.

“Mm. I fear that our parents gave her too much freedom as a child. She is not handling the responsibilities of womanhood well,” she added delicately. “She needs someone to rein her in. Is it wrong that I hope she finds a terrible husband?”

Kitty bit her lip. “Then, perhaps it would be best to let Westmore continue his pursuits?”

“Westmore?” she exclaimed, flabbergasted.

“Yes. You have not been yourself lately, but I understand you gave him a tongue lashing of sorts, because he seems to have left off you and turned his attention to your sister. And she does not seem as if she wants to refuse him.”

At first, Clarice’s outraged feelings prevailed, and she mentally railed against the fickle man. Not that she really had liked or even tolerated his company with ease. That realization made her relax, and the ideas that soon followed made her chuckle evilly. Her sister could plague and torture the man to death, for all she cared. And Westmore could have his ‘prize’ – he would soon learn his error.

Her friend was giving her a mildly spooked expression. “You look positively wicked! Are you not upset?”

She felt positively wicked. “No, I think they deserve each other.”

A gasp escaped, then Kitty giggled. “Oh, that is so cruel!”

“Have you met either of them?” Clarice asked dryly. “No. This fight with my sister…” she trailed off. “Let us just say that my father is being irrational about it. He has sent for my mother, and she will be here within a fortnight, I assume.”

“I envy you, to have a mother you can turn to,” was the wistful reply. Green eyes rose to meet hers. “But you do not seem pleased.”

The pond was just around the corner, and they strolled towards it, arm in arm. Clarice gently pinched the bridge of her nose before speaking. “Mama and I have never rubbed along smoothly. She tries, she truly does, but she finds all my ways and interests singularly unfeminine and unladylike. We have absolutely nothing in common. Mama is bound and determined for our family to keep moving upwards socially, whereas Papa is determined to see us continue to do well financially. Once she comes, she will begin scolding me and pressuring me to find a husband. It’s a trial on the nerves. It isn’t just that which vexes me,” she added to her friend. “It’s just…” she blushed to allude to it. “Paulina can have atrocious fits of temper. She wrecked my study, and then struck me.”

Kitty gasped as Clarice tilted up the brim of her hat to show the steadily darkening bruise across her cheekbone.

“I admit, I did lose control enough that I did strike her back. I should not have. I should have called for help, I suppose. Of course, Paulina has been telling a different tale. And without a witness, it is our words against each other. Normally, Papa would side with me, but he seems to be accepting her story whole cloth!” She balled her fist, then winced, flexing it. “It just seems so out of character for him. I do not know what to make of it.”

Her friend kissed her uninjured cheek as they stepped onto the small dock that jutted out among the reedy water. “Just give him time. Your father is a rational man both from what you have told me and what I have seen myself.” A voice called out, and her friend turned her head to look.

Turning to glance herself, the heiress felt the world lurch as her friend’s grip released.

There was not even time to scream for help. There was the slightest sensation of the sky shifting, and then her stomach was in her throat. The cry that no one heard ripped out of her mouth, muffled by the green water. That water was shockingly cold compared to the warm air. That shock - along with a long habit with regular contact with air - made her gasp instinctually

That cold, green water rushed into her mouth and down her throat. Panic set in, and she struggled against the fabric fetters dragging her down, as well as the screening of it that wrapped around her head and arms. The weeds touched her face and arms like spiders webs, and she jerked back only to have more touch her.

Trashing with her arms only seemed to wave the weeds around her, and her legs were heavily encumbered by the shroud-like fabric floating about her body. Looking down, all she could see was a hazy field of green and black. Tantalizingly close above her the bright streaming sunlight sliced into the water.

Something physical seemed to snap in her chest, and she realized that she was about to die in full view of a park of people. She would not even die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Maybe her body would not even be found for weeks, until it bloated to the surface. Had anyone seen them fall in? The men had been around the bend, out of sight. Every motion, every frantic jerk caused pain to pulse in her chest. Her lungs palpitated weekly, pain fluttering with each pulse of her heart.

There was a rushing motion beside her, and the feeling of sudden weight. “For god’s sake!” A male voice rasped in her ear suddenly. “Breathe, damn you!” Her back was unceremoniously thumped several times.

The pain in her chest exploded, and something was on her face, suffocating her. A person wrenched her hastily to the side, holding her there despite the pain the position caused. Another hard thump to her back caused her to empty what, to her, appeared to be half of the pond. Each hack caused agony to go through her, and she found herself crying. It was illogical, and she desperately wished she could cease, as each exhale and inhale hurt worse than the last. She was not dead, just wet through, there was no reason to weep like a ninny.

Hands were smoothing back her hair from her face, and wide grey eyes peered into hers. “You are hurt. Where?” he demanded breathlessly. Harry was sopping wet, his dark hair plastered about his head and curling around his ears and brow. His clothes were equally drenched, and he ripped his useless cravat off and threw it to the ground as he gasped in air. He twisted around abruptly, addressing someone out of sight. “Good. Yes. Of course.” The man returned his intense glance to her person. “Clarice, love, tell me where it hurts.”

Clarice tapped her chest lightly as sobs racked her body harder. Ah God, how could she stop this unintentional, self-inflicted torture of crying?

“We need to get you looked after, do you understand?” he said, staring into her eyes. “I will not importune you too long, just make sure you are seen too.” He overrode her protests. “We cannot keep you here on the cold ground, or you will catch sick. I am going to get you home, and we will send a message for your Father to come home to you. Do you understand?”

The words kept coming at her, but all she could do was listen. There was a lot of muffled shouting and running of feet. She could hear Raoul cursing foully in the background. The pain in her chest flared and ebbed, but there was no escape from it. Her breathing seemed too shallow, and she struggled to inhale.

“For God’s sake, Clarice!” Although muted in volume, it almost sounded like a cry of pain. After a furtive glance around, the man quickly slit the stays in her corset. “Why the hell do you women wear these torture devices?” He quickly put the small knife away, mumbling something under his breath.

It did help - a little - but she seemed to be having a panic attack as much as anything.

He seemed to sense it as well, giving her space and yet stroking her cheek lightly. “Just breathe. In and out. Nothing else matters, do you hear? Just in and out. There’s a girl. There’s my girl.”

Laying here, staring up at him, Clarice was reminded of another of their meetings where he calmed her. Just as then, his comforting presence and stoic looking down mien calmed her. His calloused thumb gently swept her cheek, and he occasionally paused to shift a piece of hair that was plastered to her face. The pond was cold, but the gentle breeze seemed to be cooling her further. “Is Kitty hurt?” she chattered eventually.

He shook his head slightly, averting his intense gaze. His exposed Adams apple bobbed as he swallowed. “She is wet through and shocked, but should be fine. You, on the other hand, are in pain and we need to get that fixed, eh? Now, let’s get you home.” Carefully balancing, he slipped his arms around her in order to heft her.

“I’m far too plump for you to lift,” she protested. And yet weakly, for she did not know if she could walk.

“Nonsense. You, too plump? Hardly.” And with a slight grunt, he levered himself into an upright position. “See? Good God, woman,” he suddenly groaned.

The pain made her woozy for a moment, and Clarice clutched at his neck. “For heaven’s sake, do not drop me! I told you I am too heavy!”

“You are perfect. I just have a discomfort of my own to deal with, now.” His voice was husky as he carefully settled them into the coach.

He was incredibly careful, but each step still sent shots of pain through her chest. A deep inhale seemed to hurt as much as a deep exhale, and she tried to breathe as shallowly as possible. “Because of me?” she asked in a resigned tone as she rested her tired head against his.

“Erm. In a way, yes,” he admitted, shifting her on his lap. He slapped the roof with the palm of his hand, and they were off.

The heiress met his eyes. “I am so sorry I am making you uncomfortable. If there was something I could do about it, I would.” She murmured gently. He was holding her against the bump and sways, and she could not help but feel intensely grateful for his care. Even if…no. She could not think of that now, or she would begin weeping like a child again.

His tanned face reddened, and he choked slightly, coughing to recover himself. “Raoul has Kitty,” he mumbled instead of replying. His eyes dropped down to her body as the carriage gave a particularly jarring lurch.

Clarice could feel what this eyes were fastened on. Her overfed body jiggled with the motions of the road. The pain in her chest was still there, and panged if she inhaled too deeply or exhaled too hard. Even with that distraction, it was hard to ignore the heat from his body. Equally difficult to ignore was the feeling of his muscles against her softness, the contrast as blatant as black against white. A memory of Kitty’s feminine form intruded, reminding her that she was far from that epitome of womanliness. Another intruded of this man entwined in the embrace of another woman, and she swallowed. “I am sorry,” she murmured again.

Harry swallowed. “For what?” He seemed dazed.

They rolled to a stop before she could answer, and he shook himself out of whatever reverie he had fallen into. “No apologies are needed. For anything.” Carefully maneuvering them both out of the carriage, he kicked the front door. “Where is the misses’ chambers?” he demanded of the footman, who quickly recovered from his shock and led the way.

She cried out in pain when the footman tried to share the burden of her weight, Harry shook his head. “Leave her to me,” he ordered. “I have her.” And he did. The strength in his body was astounding. Although he was breathing heavily and his arms trembled, he never flagged or hurt her with rough hefting. He carried her carefully, not as if she was a sack of potatoes.

It was the first time she had heard anything similar to that harsh directive that was reminiscent of his brother’s tones, and Clarice blushed slightly. The tone of command became him very nicely. He mounted the stairs to her room and carefully settled her on a couch. A warm bath was already being drawn, and the women were on hand to get her out of her wet clothing. “Thank you,” she called out to Harry, who she heard rapidly retreating to the door.

“My pleasure,” he responded softly. “I…” His voice trailed off. “You will be in good hands. I have to be off to see how my sister fairs. Although with a guardian like Raoul, I am pretty sure she will be loved half to death with attention! Good evening, Miss Belltaunt. I am sure Kitty will be by soon to see how you are faring…”
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Old 12-26-2015, 12:59 PM   #70
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I hope to post a few more chapters today! Need sustenance, however...
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Old 12-26-2015, 01:40 PM   #71
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I am a long time "lurker" and have never comented on any posts here. However, your story is the most enjoyable piece of writting I have seen here. I eagerly look forward to your next chapter.
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Old 12-26-2015, 02:01 PM   #72
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Chapter 17

“What is it, Thomas?” Clarice demanded of their long-time friend and physician. “You have such a serious look, one would think I was dying! It does hurt quite a bit - but what could have you looking so glum? Will it take long to heal? When can I be back on my feet?”

The man finished closing her bedroom door, sitting on the side of the bed. He cast a glance at her maid, who took herself off to the dressing room where she could pretend not to hear. Once alone, the older man lifted one of her plump hands in his dry, wrinkled ones. He patted it softly, looking absentminded with worry. “How long have you been having that pain?”

The heiress blinked. “Well, the sharp pain has been since this afternoon, when I inadvertently took a swim. You mean the dull ache in my chest I was telling you about? Oh, I don’t know. Months, maybe? Why?”

The man seemed to search for words for several long minutes before speaking. “Clarice, you have broken several ribs. I am not surprised given your fall today that you sustained some injuries. Luckily you were snatched out fast enough that you will not have long term damage on that front. Although that young man probably treated you too roughly. Now, because of those ribs, it is imperative we keep you from catching chill. No coughing, no strain.” He inhaled, exhaled, and drummed his fingers on her bed spread. “You are a young, healthy woman, and your bone should be healed within the next three to six months. That is how long I would suggest waiting until wearing anything constricting around the chest, even if fracture is healed. Three to six months, except…”

Clarice had been staring at him intently as he spoke. At the last sentence, her expression quivered, then went utterly still at the last word. “…Except?” she prompted, voice overly calm. She fisted some of the sheets in her hands, waiting for his words with baited breath.

“I spoke with several of your friends and family, and they describe you experiencing difficulties breathing over the past few months. A hard time drawing breath even while at rest, and even more difficulty when dancing. Your father said he has twice seen you unable to breathe for several minutes together.”

An exasperated expression replaced the one of worry. “Of course I have trouble breathing, Thomas. I am a fat woman squeezing into the latest fashion. It is no different than what we spoke of before.”

He continued to give her a grave expression, ignoring her flippancy. “We spoke years ago about your difficulties breathing. And I strictly advised against you living in the city, as you may recall. The poor air does no one any good. And I specifically told you to avoid stresses with the family, and to leave this business nonsense to your father. Now…”

She affected a laugh. She fiddled with the blanket. She swallowed a sip of tea to cover her nervousness. His expression was unchanged. “What are you saying, Thomas? Out with it.”

“If you continue to live in the city, subjecting yourself to the unhealthy environment… If you continue to live a highly stressful life, not resting and eating properly… If you continue to force your body and restrict your heart and lungs… You may die.”

A brief, hysterical laugh burst from her throat, halted by a gasp of pain. “Very amusing, Thomas!”

His expression, if anything, became even more somber. “No more stress. No more city. No more corsets. With healthy living, you may live a long life yet. I do not know how to state this more clearly than I am about to. If you cannot breathe, you cannot live. Air is essential to life, as I am sure your episode today taught you. Most people breathe easily, naturally. Your body has trouble with that, and is clearly exacerbated by the stresses on your mind. One of these days, you will be unable to breathe enough air into your lungs, and you will die.”

She seemed struggling to get past the first part of his message. “Thomas, without my corsets, I cannot appear in public.”

His wrinkled face wrinkled further, corners of his lips turning down.

“Without being in the city, I cannot stay abreast of the current situations.” Clarice stared him, trying to impress the severity on him.

He looked down at his shoes.

“Thomas, without keeping up on news, how can I help Papa with business?” With each observation, her voice had increased in force, and she pushed herself into a sitting position despite the fiery sensation of pain it caused.

The last question was uttered with such intensity that he looked miserable. “I am no businessman, my dear. I cannot comment on anything other than your condition – and you have my opinion.”

Clarice’s eyes were darting, and she pressed a hand into her ribs as her breaths shortened. She snatched it away when she noticed his seeing eyes fasten on gesture. Abruptly, her demeanor became placating, and she tried to control her breathing. “You are right, of course. I will, as you suggest, spend more time in the country, and I will avoid such tight fitting clothing. I will tell Papa in the morning. He does not need to be troubled with the details,” she added with a brief laugh. The sickly smile slid off her face as her friend looked away. “You didn’t tell him,” she gasped. “Oh, please say you have not told him.”

“I had to, Clarice.” He stood, taking his hat in his hand. “I’m sorry. This is a matter of your life, and I could not in good consciousness withhold that information from him.”

She stared up at his thin form, panic setting in. “You know how Papa can be,” she gasped. “He will overreact, he will not be rational! As calm and intelligent as he is, he does not understand, he does not consider…!”

“You need to cease this type of histrionics if you are to heal. It is a done thing, Clarice,” he added, now turning his hat by the brim in nervous hands as he repeated her father’s instructions for her near future. “All I can hope is that someday you understand and forgive me.” He paused, waiting.

If he was hoping that a kind smile would part her lips, and that an understanding hand would be extended after that speech, he was sorely mistaken. A trembling hand was brought to her lips, and unshed tears rose in her eyes as she stared sightlessly out the window. She did not seem to sense him leaving the room, or of her maid entering and speaking to her in a low tone.

*~*~*

Geoffrey and Harry tried to help as best as they could. Which, given the circumstances, amounted pretty much to keeping innocents out of the way, and being on hand to help if it were needed. Raoul’s temper, riled up with his worry, had exploded into a fever pitch.

“He is just worried,” Geoffrey murmured to him again, pale brows raised. Occasionally, he jerked his head back at a particularly loud noise, causing his thick double chin to bulge. “Oh my.”

Harry sighed and cast him a look. “I understand that, but I do not particularly appreciate him taking out his ‘worry’ on us.” He scrubbed hands across his face, wondering how long it had been since he shaved.

“The news was a shock,” the fat man reminded him. “Each person deals with shock and worry in different ways. Some shut down, others rage.”

“Yes – and I think we both know which one my brother experiences. Thank you for staying with us.”

Geoff patted his hand, smiling affably. “How could I leave you, when Kitty is in danger?”

In Harry’s unprofessional opinion, the danger did not seem too severe. His sister’s growing irritation seemed to agree with his assessment. She stoutly refused to drink the goat’s milk thrust on her, and ignored Raoul’s attempts to coddle her.

“I am pregnant, not a cripple!” She chose to snap at that moment as she moved past the upper hallway. “I just fell into some water!”

Below, the two men exchanged a lopsided grin.

“So you are going to risk the life of our son by being stubborn?” Raoul roared back.

Kitty had a decent volume to her own voice as she responded, “First of all, it probably is not even a boy, so stop saying that! Secondly, if the child is so weak it cannot live if I stand up on my own, good riddance!”

The fat man beside Harry cringed inadvertently as a roar of frustration sounded, and something heavy crashed above them.

“Go ahead! Yell and throw our things! I am sure that is just fabulous for the baby! I know that I personally just LOVE being yelled at! It makes me feel SO relaxed and at ease! I am so glad my husband is here to make this easier!”

Both men heaved a sigh of relief as Raoul’s temper flattened instantly. “I’m sorry my love, I’m just worried…” His voice was remorseful, and full of contrition as all his frustration fled.

“I understand that,” Kitty sighed, immediately relenting as well. “And I am not asking run a race or do anything excessive. But use your common sense! Would you confine a pregnant dog to one room? Would you stall rest a pregnant mare? Hmm?”

A note of laughter entered the deep voice. “And here I thought you disliked being compared to a mare.” His tone grew more serious. “Will you please just let me help you?”

A deep sigh heaved. “Fine,” she acquiesced, sounding bitter about even that small concession.

Harry cast a half grin at his friend from the safety of the main floor. “She is the only one who can tame him. Well. And Martha,” he added as an afterthought. “I still can’t believe Kitty is carrying. They have only been married a few months!”

The round face split in a grin. “You know it only takes once, my friend, yes?”

A snort of laughter escaped him. “What I mean is, it is all happening far too quickly for a stodgy man like myself to adapt to. And it was not as if she was showing. Is showing,” he corrected. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder before leaning closer. “Part of me disbelieves the whole thing. That the physician is mistaken, and that this will all end up just being nonsense. Although, our family has never been traditional, so I suppose my shock should be reserved for when we follow the rules of society! Martha is just trying up loose ends, then she will be on her way. I will feel so much better once she is in the house.”

“You respect her a great deal.”

He ducked his head, grinning. “Martha wasn’t just the cook. She was our nursemaid, and she helped bring both of us into the world. She used to tell us ‘I helped bring you into this world, and so help me God, I will help take you out of it if you don’t stop!’” He stared into the amber depths of his drink, smirk fading. “I can’t really remember my mother. Just her face when we were brought out for visits. It was Martha who taught us, disciplined us, tucked us in at night. I will not feel right in my own skin until she is here to take it all in hand.”

Heavy steps sounded on the stairs, and Raoul appeared. He looked flustered, irritated, abashed, and absent minded. His round face was red, his neck cloth hanging loose under his plump chin, his coat half unbuttoned. “So god damn stubborn! Cannot believe she is pregnant,” he mumbled, sinking down onto the edge of a chair and blinking at nothing.

“You know it only takes once, right?” Harry repeated Geoff’s words, sharing a smile with the other man.

Raoul’s face spasmed in what might have been a smile or a grimace. After several minutes of sitting and blinking at the floor, he roused himself with a shake of the head, scrubbing a hand down his face. “Thank you for staying with us. I should be getting back upstairs.”

“I am family,” Harry replied simply. “I will stay until you need me.”

“And so are you,” Raoul said after a moment, looking at Geoffrey. “I thank you as well.”

Geoff, for his part, appeared highly uncomfortable with that statement. “Ehhrrm,” he managed at last.

Raoul, who did not know about Geoff’s deep affection for his wife, reached out a hand and clasped the fatter man in a companionable grip. “I will never forget your assistance. Without your help, I might not have my wife - and a son on the way.”

“Daughter!” Kitty yelled over the banister, laughter in her voice. “Any news from Clarice?” she called down, sounding fretful.

Geoff grimaced when Raoul left the room, looking as if he deeply regretted whatever assistance he had offered.

Or, at least, that is how Harry interpreted his sour expression. Harry shook his head at the called query before remembering his sister could not see him. Rising, he walked into the hallway. “Nothing yet. We should wait until tomorrow before we expect any news. It is too late to expect anything now.”

Kitty looked vexed, throwing a poignant glance his way before allowing her husband to guide her back to her room. “Tomorrow, then, I will expect some news.”

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Old 12-27-2015, 08:59 AM   #73
Xyantha Reborn
- Actually Very Tame!
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by redrider77 View Post
I am a long time "lurker" and have never comented on any posts here. However, your story is the most enjoyable piece of writting I have seen here. I eagerly look forward to your next chapter.
I'm so glad you are enjoying it! I think that enticing lurkers enough that they come out to post is one of the best compliments
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Old 12-27-2015, 08:59 AM   #74
Xyantha Reborn
- Actually Very Tame!
 
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Chapter 18


“Harry, are you occupied this afternoon?”

Harry put the book aside. He had not been reading it anyway. His brain was too busy traversing the pacing path that he would not allow his feet to travel. “No, why?” he asked, although he had an inkling of the coming request.

“Can you and Geoffrey pay Clarice Belltaunt a visit? None of Kitty’s notes have been answered, and she is growing frantic. I cannot keep her calm and if we do not get a response soon I am afraid she is going to try to climb out of a window to go see the woman herself.”

It was difficult to suppress his smile. He has known he would love his sister when they first met, and his instincts had been proven correct. Katherine was a singularly strong willed woman, and the idea of her escaping out a window when her will was thwarted was too visible in his mind. But his brother looked too harrowed and concerned for mirth, so he subdued his expression and cast his sibling a searching look. “Come, Raoul, is it really that dire?”

“They said she almost lost the baby. She needs rest, quiet, and relaxation to recoup her strength, or she may lose it yet.” The idea justly terrified him, and he tapped his foot with absent impatience at his impotency. “She had sent several letters and has not even received an acknowledgement. She is growing frightened for her friend – she needs to be at rest!”

Harry nodded. “I will stop by with Geoff this afternoon,” he assented as he rose. “Or, at least I will. I assumed that Geoff would be free, but he has been occupied the past few days.”

*~*~*

“Papa, please, be reasonable!” Clarice cried. “You cannot be serious. What have I done to deserve this punishment?”

“Only you would consider this a punishment,” Mr. Belltaunt murmured in bemusement as he shook his head. “We have large properties with multiple areas of speciality. It is too much work for us to handle alone at this point. We would have needed to transition some of the day-to-day work to stewards at some point – and with your health failing, this was the best time to do it. You must be able to see the reasonableness of this arrangement.”

“No! I do not!” the young woman shot back. “This is a terrible time to transition any power or decision making to any third party! This decision is being made emotionally, solely on the advice of one man! Who, by the way, may have experience, but has stopped investing in his own mind decades ago!”

Brows lowered. “If you were more rational, you would not be accusing me of making emotional decisions. And you would not be insulting Thomas. When has he ever given us poor advice? Stop attempting to cast the blame on others and listen.” He paused until he saw her settle her attention on him. “In the past several weeks you have single handedly alienated several families with your behaviour, you have assaulted your sister, and now you are having histrionics and lashing out merely because I am taking away a burden from you - because your health is important to us. I believe my decision is correct.”

“What behaviour? And managing our finances and helping to broker agreements was never, ever a burden!” Clarice nearly howled. “I love being involved with the business, Papa! Please do not push me aside! Having nothing to do will kill me!”

“Kill you. I see.”

Her heart rung words were clearly the nails in the coffin; his calm voice had a note of disdain to it. Clarice swallowed her cry and tried to catch her breath. “Please – ”

“Enough!” he snapped, slapping a palm down on his leg.

The slap made her jump and stare at him with wide eyes as he continued.

“Thomas is a family friend as well as being an expert in his field. You want to talk about killing you? The stress that you are under will certainly do the deed. I know you may be bored for a time, but there are other pursuits you can take up. Knitting, sewing, arranging flowers – ”

Clarice was shaking her head so hard that a lock of hair slipped loose. “No, no, no, no, no!” she cried. “I am not ill! Why will neither of you believe me!”

“Because not only has Thomas given me his opinion, but I have seen it with my own eyes. What is going to happen when one of these days you really, truly cannot catch your breath? Do you expect me to sit here and watch you kill yourself slowly? Or watch you suffocate on a ballroom floor? No. As a parent sometimes we have to make decisions that may not please our children, but are in their best interests. I do not want to hear another word on this subject, am I understood?”

Not another word? Fine.

“Clarice, I expect an answer.”

Silence was the only response he received, and Clarice turned her face away from him, brimming with self loathing and hatred.

“Answer me, child!”

“I understand you perfectly,” she finally muttered. “Have there been any letters, or visitors?” she asked next, eyes still averted.

“None, child. Now, get some rest.”

*~*~*

Raoul cast an eager glance at his brother through the open doorway. Rising silently, the man padded into the hallway. His shirt billowed around his soft form as they stepped into Harry’s room. “Well?”

Harry let out his pent up breath, leaning against the door. “According to the footman, she is not receiving any visitors. But he had an edge to him that makes me think something is amiss. I even dropped a few questions by several other families who I know she is in regular contact with. They have heard nothing as well, so at least she is not just shunning us. She appears to have shut herself up completely.”

The older brother made a face that perfectly summarized the way Harry felt. “Horse shit,” he muttered. “There is no way in hell that Clarice Belltaunt has voluntarily shut herself up. That woman would walk ten miles through a rainstorm to arrive at a party, and she would have the foresight to have dry clothes waiting for her on arrival. Shut herself up? Why? Because she took a tumble into a pond? No. She must be very ill."

“I don’t know,” the younger said, biting his lip. “I saw her father out, but he refused to speak about it. I don’t know what to do at this point!”

For a long moment, Raoul chewed his lower lip, patting the sides of his stomach absently as he thought. “You were the one who fished her out of that pond. What was wrong with her?”

“I think it was her chest. But she occasionally winces like her chest bothers her. I know that even after she should have caught her breath back, she was wheezing like she could not breathe. It wasn’t the first time I have seen that,” He muttered, rubbing his forehead. “I was just coming up the path when it gave way. Kitty had the foresight to jump off, but Clarice went down hard, and I think I saw her hit one of the supports on the way down. I even tried catching her Father when he was out, but he said she was well, but simply not taking visitors.”

It had all happened so fast. One of the supports had given out, and the girls had been thrown into the pond. Luckily Kitty had gotten herself back to shore quickly, so the decision on who to save had been taken from his hands. The hundred yards to the edge of the dock had seemed like sixty miles, and by the time he dove in to save her his legs were trembling like a newly born foal. It had been years and years since he had ran a footrace, and his legs still hurt.

She had been so quiet, so docile in his arms. Clarice had seemed content just to be held – except for the obvious discomfort she had been in. Once he had slit open that horrid contraption and thrown it aside, a bounty of soft, womanly flesh had appeared under his gaze. It was a lucky thing that she had been injured, or he would have been unable to resist the temptation of covering one of those luscious breasts with the palm of his hand, feeling the taut nipple that thrust forward under the fabric. Everywhere his arms had touched her, softness nestled against him.

Her bountiful breasts had always drawn his gaze, but the feeling of her plump bottom swaying against his thighs and groin had made him stiffen until he ached. And although he had known she was plump, he had never imagined that the curve from her gently swollen stomach to her sex would be so god damn enticing. Once home, he had sketched several pictures, determined to never forget that moment. The way that a drop of water clung to her spiked eye lashes. The way that the fabric tried unsuccessfully to hide her tight, pointed nipples. He would never forget the expression on her face. How her eyes had looked so soft and luminous. They seemed to hold affection and trust in them. More likely a momentary hero worship, he cuffed himself. And of course she had to trust you. You took off her clothes, and went alone in a carriage. For God’s sake, you were in her room! Was she still in that room, pale and hurting? Having her in his arms had felt like the most natural thing in the world. The idea of her continuing to be in pain was nearly driving him mad.

“It will all turn out,” Raoul murmured, clasping his shoulders. “And if you try to say that you do not care, I swear to God that I will lay you flat, here and now.”

Surprised, Harry exhaled the breath he had been holding, releasing the jaw muscles he had not known were clenched. “Of course I am worried about her.” Who wouldn’t be? Beyond anything else, this was completely unlike her. She might be deathly ill. “What do we do now?”

*~*~*

There was a small, irrational part of her which had hoped to be struck dead. The future was ruined, bleak, hopeless; death would be far easier than living. But she was denied that mercy, only able to temporarily retreat into the haze that the laudanum provided. Her thoughts occupied quite a bit of her time, and they were not conducive to the mindset that Thomas and her Father wished her to have.

Thomas had determined that there was no physical reason for her lethargy. His recommended course of treatment included regular bleedings. She hated being bled with a passion, but mindful that any protestation would be considered hysterical, she quietly submitted. Watching the red drip down her arm with each heartbeat was actually rather soothing.

It had been several hours since anyone had been in her room, and a sudden rap made her blink.

“May I come in?” her Father asked from behind the door. “Are you decent?”

She would never be decent again. Without a corset, how could she appear in public?

Her father closed the door behind him, appearing awkward. “I understand that Thomas has spoken to you about your health, and about what we need to do in order to maintain it.”

Yes. He had informed her of his betrayal…Was there something else?

There was silence except for the distant tramp of feet, and murmuring voices.

After a moment, and a cough, he continued. “I understand how upset you must be. I know how much you love the city. But life will not be over. There is still an abundance of country life you can enjoy.”

Even in the country, some sort of corset was still required of the local gentry. Dances would be prohibited. She would be housebound. Shunned. Sequestered and forgotten. And, that was not even the worst of it.

“Clarice. Look at me. I am sorry for putting so much pressure on you. I should have understood that you are only a woman, and that my expectations were unreasonable. This is all being done for your own good.”

Resentment flared, as well as something eerily close to hatred. The weak minded fool, allowing a tottering old man to solely govern his views towards his own flesh and blood! Stillness rung heavily around them, and Clarice wondered when he would leave. His presence irked and unsettled her. It was much easier to day dream when he was gone.

Closing her eyes, she once again dipped into the memory of Harry’s arms around her. His affectionate, looking down gaze. The way he would grin sometimes when she said something particularly saucy. She might have offended a few people, but she had been unable to stop herself from showing off in front of him. He had looked almost proud, a grin occasionally flitting across his face at a particularly pointed repartee.

No one in his family had ever tried to subdue her like her family was. She tried to imagine Raoul or Harry allowing Kitty to be bled. Their nearly identical expressions of protective rage appeared in her mind’s eye. No, never. Raoul had threatened to break Westmore’s nose for even looking at Kitty. She had not been meant to hear that, but she had stepped behind a curtain to breathe in the night air, and the two men had stopped right beside her.

Harry might not have any interest in business, politics, and so forth, but he always nodded at the points she agreed with. He never tried to put himself forward as knowing more than he did, and accepted other’s points calmly. Unlike Raoul, he never allowed anyone to fluster or upset him. His cool disdain of their attempts was wondrous to see.

She could understand why Harry might be loathe to see her again. He had gotten more than an eyeful of her hideous body. That certainly extinguished whatever ardour of his he had once felt. But why was Kitty so long in coming? Harry had said she was fine. And even if she was ill, Kitty would most certainly have sent Raoul or Geoffrey to inquire. Or at least a note. Why had she received not a single note?

When her Father finally did leave, she stared at the closed door until her eyes burned. Slowly, sinking deeper into the bed, she shifted carefully to avoid hurting her ribs. Letting her gaze fall to one side, she caught sight of a familiar shape.

The bottle of laudanum taunted her, and she idly wondered how many drops would bring her from temporary pain relief…to the relief of utter oblivion.
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Old 12-28-2015, 07:46 AM   #75
Lucy Gold
 
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The story is absolutely exquisite. But, may I ask the meaning behind the title?
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