BHM Reticules and Retinues by Xyantha Reborn (~BBW ~WG, Historical Romance)

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Undine

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I just read this sitting at my desk at work and now I'm blushing like my life depended on it. Absolutely delicious!
 

atwolfe

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Loved this latest chapter! I actually read this--to quote above comments--"delicious" chapter twice :blush:
 

Xyantha Reborn

- Actually Very Tame!
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Ok, last post for a bit! I was going to hold out so as to not torture you...but blame it on Tad inciting me ;):p :D

(y u so mean, Xy?)

Chapter 11


The remainder of night passed in a blur for Clarice. Every time her mind strayed, she pictured their hands and mouths on each other. The deep sounds of their breathing in that quiet hall. The heavy looks they kept passing back and forth were certainly not helping. And although she kept telling herself that the two men were only vaguely similar, there were certain tones, certain laughs, and certain glances that kept reminding her strongly of Harry.

She was deep in thought about these very similarities when an unusual step made her sit up in bed. Once she was sleep nothing could wake her, but until then, the slightest noise would rouse her. Her mind had been churning relentlessly since her head hit the pillow, flitting between all her realizations and thoughts of a carnal nature. Gazing hard into the silent room, she strained her ears to identify the unexpected noise. Beside her room, the door opened silently on well-oiled hinges, then closed.

Now wide awake, the plump woman eased herself from her blankets, irritated at how heavy she felt. There had been a time as a girl when she could sit upright from the horizontal without the use of her arms. Now, she had to push herself up, and her stomach compressed in the most unsightly way, even under the cover of her clothes. Not to mention that with Raoul there, she had not felt as fat as she normally did. That sense of false security had caused her to drop her guard and overindulge, leaving her feeling bloated, sluggish, and ungainly.

There was a crack between the two rooms, just above her headboard. She had discovered it early one morning when light had been streaming through a slight crack, causing little dust motes to dance above her eyes. Usually, Clarice used it to listen to the maids as they chattered. Now, curiosity drove her to press her eye over the opening, peering into the adjoining room where her friend slept. Her stomach sloshed heavily, and free from the corset it strained down with gravity. Her skin felt tight and tingling, and the heiress stifled the most unbecoming belch.

It was unequivocally wrong to spy on a man and a woman, especially her friend and that friend’s husband. But that knowledge did not turn her gaze as her friend slowly began removing her husband’s jacket. He had padded barefoot across the room, bare necked and free from all clothes except his shirt and pants. Their rumpled appearance and the shadow of a beard on his face was strongly reminiscent of another man.

Clarice swallowed.

“Oh, Raoul…” Kitty murmured, sounding stunned.

She might well be stunned. The man who, a year ago, had been fit and muscular now looked bloated like a hog. Stuffed with excellent food, his stomach bowed out from his chest heavily. It drew the eyes of his wife, who seemed speechless.

“I know, I know, I am sorry.” His face was red even in the light of the lamps. “I got carried away…I spent a lot of time with the tenants…their daughters and wives always had such hearty food …” His voice was muffled as his shirt was drawn over his head. A paler mass of flesh bulged forward, folding over itself. His navel looked dark and deep. Dark hair dusted the soft surface, and it bounced lightly as he sighed. It caused his softening chest to sag, the nipples pointing down at the evidence of his guilt “Their husbands ate so well, it was an insult to not eat properly. It’s tradition to eat with them once a year. And…I wanted to eat it all,” he said. Oddly - almost as if he was pleading with her.

Clarice was fully expecting a firm remonstrance to pass her friend’s lips as his bloated form emerged, but instead, her friend spread her hands across the pale flesh, squeezing lightly. Sliding her hands lower, she hefted its weight. “Good,” she purred, drawing his head down for a deep kiss. “Like I told you - eat until you are full.”

He held her back, swallowing hard. “But I didn’t, Kitty. I didn’t stop when I was full. They put such huge portions down…it tasted so good. I ate until I was full, then I just kept eating. It felt so good, and I didn’t want the tastes to end. I wanted to feel so full that I couldn’t move. I just kept eating until my stomach bulged….there is something very wrong with me, Kitty.” Raoul’s voice was filled with utter dread and shame.

Glutton. Clarice recognized the description as the exact feeling she got from food. The hypersensitivity to taste and smell, the luxurious texture and swirling heaven in her mouth. The feeling of pleasure from eating her fill…and beyond. To recline in bed and eat until you were so full that…

Clarice gave a little shudder, finding herself stroking the side of her stomach and the inside of her thigh. Yes, she knew that feeling all too well. Her stomach, normally flabby to the touch, was firm with food and irresistibly heavy. Her thigh was soft and giving, padded like the lushest of pillows. She looked down, seeing billowing flesh covered in white cloth.

“Nothing is wrong.” Her friend had slipped from her clothing, and was gently swaying the bottoms of her breasts against the belly below them. “Nothing,” she repeated in a breathy purr.

Jealousy flared, quickly suppressed. Unlike Clarice, who bulged in obscene places, her friend curved in all the right places. And no man had ever looked at Clarice that way – her friend was gorgeous, the epitome of a full figured woman, lush and tempting.

Her husband seemed to agree, looking greedy as he ran his hands from Kitty’s breasts, down to her hips, and onto her bottom. As his pants were eagerly worked from his hips, his member sprung forth, nestled amidst a mass of dark hair.

Clarice snapped back with a gasp, feeling her cheeks heat. The footman had not stood there – he had only pulled off his pants, facing away from her, just before climbing atop the maid. Almost as quickly, she pressed her eye back. Kitty was straddling him as he reclined on the bed, feet still planted fully on the floor. She could not even bring herself to feel ashamed as she watched her friend writhe with abandon as he palmed her breasts and stroked her hips.

He wasn’t the only one doing the stroking. Her eager hands grasped and fondled at his stomach as if it were a big breast itself.

Abruptly a squealing growl erupted, audible even to Clarice in the next room. Raoul flushed. “I suppose I am still hungry…”

Snatching up the container of biscuits from the bedside table, Katherine eased herself up and down his shaft. “Well, we cannot have that…” she panted, popping off the lid slowly.

Her husband’s nostril’s flared at the scent, and he snagged a pillow to put behind his head, accepting the offering, chewing it slowly while he stared up at her. “Bad girl,” he growled at last, smacking her bottom lightly.

“Bad boy,” her friend shot back, slapping the side of his stomach in kind. She squeaked in laughter as his hips bucked into her, slipping another bite between his lips. “Be a good boy and finish your dinner and I may just let you come to fulfillment,” she gloated down at him.

Raoul looked vulnerable as he chewed his way through the entire container. “I’m going to be as fat as Telford,” he managed, gasping as his wife’s tempo increased with the last bite.

They were so quiet that Clarice couldn’t quite make out what she said it return.

His eyes bulged, but it was too late for words. His neck chorded, the muscles in his thighs flexing as his head fell back against the pillow. After a gasping moment, he raised his head to look at her. “Kitty? Are you serious?” His stomach growled again, and he flushed dark red with mortification. “Silence, beast!” he ordered it.

“I don’t know. It…just came out.” She mumbled, disentangling herself and laying down beside him. One small hand began lightly stroking his chest. “You know I adore your body.”

“I know it,” he admitted reluctantly. “I just do not know how, or why.” After a groan and a heave, Raoul stood upright with a crack of his back. As he moved to the wash basin his stomach bulged and swayed.

“I am not the only one,” was her defensive answer.

Raoul snorted, finishing with cleaning himself. He carefully carrying the wash basin to the bed, luxuriously cleaning his seed from her thighs. “Oh? And who else shares your predilections, my dear?”

“It does not matter,” she muttered, flopping back on the bed. “Have you seen Harry?”

Raoul was pulling his shirt on, but made a noise of dissent. “I came straight here. Harry told me where you could be staying. Why?”

“Just curious…He thinks Clarice is a goddess incarnate.”

“Blasphemous, my dear,” he chided half-heartedly. “Clarice is an intelligent woman, with a good family. She is quite pretty, despite being rather full blown. If you are trying to intimate that Harry shares your views…a man can be attracted to a woman despite her weight, not because of it.”

Indeed. Clarice thought, nodding sharply. At least one of the pair was sensible.

“But yes. I think you are right. His preferences always swung to the plump when not – ” his mouth snapped shut, and an dark expression came over it, only lifting when his wife sleepily dragged her foot along his thigh.

…when not in bed with your lovers. Clarice shook her head. It wasn’t a well-known fact, but then…her repertoire of information was not limited to the obvious.

“Raoul? We need to talk more about Harry…your Aunt…everything.”

“We will, little kitten. Tomorrow. I promise. Do you know how Margaret Belltaunt knows me? No? Hmm.” After a soft kiss and a few murmured endearments, the man retreated back to his own room. Alert to the noise, Clarice could hear his subtly footfalls retreating down the hallway. Her friend settled down to sleep, and Clarice sat back from the opening, exhaling heavily.

The blocks of her existence had not shifted, but Clarice felt herself fundamentally changed. As profoundly as metal put to fire, or as surely as a river diverted from its natural course. As critical as decrypting a key message. Nothing about her was altered, except her own soul. Nothing would ever be the same, after this. That had not what they were taught – to suffer a man’s touch in order to bear his children.

Sitting as she was on her heels, her stomach brushed the tops of her thighs. Curious, she ran a gentle finger around the edge of her navel as she had seen Kitty do. Was Harry like Kitty? Would he touch her so? Her hands slowly eased each tie open, then cupped the underside of her right breast. Her nipple was tight and pebbled with the cold, and she tweaked it lightly, shuddering. Would he want her so desperately? Her palms slid down the expanse of her stomach, gently feeling its heft. Her thumb scraped the hair covering her mount, and she shivered. Something told her to pet herself there as he had seen Raoul do, sliding his thick thumb along the glistening folds of her womanhood. But she felt clumsy and stupid – not to mention as fat as a whale - so quickly withdrew her hand.

The rational part of her knew that the sort of intensity that she had witnessed could not possibly last the length of their lifetime. And yet, she craved it. It did not matter that it had never figured into her plans before – she now demanded it with the same impetuosity that Paulina did a new dress. No wonder her friend had looked rather aghast at her cooling brushing her advice aside. For discounting any passion as an annoyance.

She had thought…Clarice sighed. “I don’t know what I thought,” she murmured aloud. Nothing like that, that was for certain!

Now, her already extensive list of requirements had another dimension. He must also adore her the way that Raoul did Kitty. And he must be physically attractive. Although it was highly hypocritical, the idea of Raoul’s hoggish form thrusting above her made her shudder. No. It was bad enough that one of them would be fat. She wanted to crave his touch and presence, not just have him like her.

So: she wanted a highly educated man, of a good family, with good money and connections. He had to be intelligent, socially adept, and a master of knowledge. He had to understand the ins and outs of business, and he should be a family man. He should be calm, in command, fit and handsome. Able to hold a debate with her one day and then listen to her advice the next. To respect her judgement and decisions. Because although he needed to be business minded and in control, he couldn’t be in control of her. He could not have any extreme vices such as excessive smoking, or drinking, or eating. But he could not be a prude.

And, now, to top it all off, he must be so enamoured with her that he must completely lose all sense of proportion, control and intelligence around her. Even she knew that those characteristics were mutually exclusive, and that she was looking for a man who didn’t exist.

An hour later, she was still up. Her eyes were fastened on the ceiling, and big, soft tears slowly slipped from her eyes, trailing down each cheek and pattering the pillow lightly. Other than a deeper than normal inhale and a trailing, controlled exhale, no sound was made.

She would never get what she wanted.

“I hate my life. I wish I was dead,” she whispered passionately into the darkness.
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
And I'll thank Kitty and Raoul for inciting Clarice :)

Also, a natural sort of spot to pause the story. Sure waiting will be torturous, but at least I can recognize the artistry in pausing it here while cursing the pause :p
 

Xyantha Reborn

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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.”
 

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
It is always SO much easier to give courting advice once you are married and out of the fray yourself!
 

Xyantha Reborn

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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…
 
 

Xyantha Reborn

- Actually Very Tame!
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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 ;)
 

Thistle

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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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