BHM The Honorable [bhm, ffa, historical romance]

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Ghostboo

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Happy Valentine's Day! This felt like the perfect time to release the first half of a little period drama I've been working on. Disclaimer that this tale (and the longer ones I'm planning to put out there in the future) may not always line up as being perfectly historically accurate, but much like Bridgerton, I think it can be more fun that way. Horror and historical romance are my two greatest loves, and since you've already gotten a glimpse into the former with Skeptical, I hope you enjoy The Honorable!

The Honorable
by Ghostboo

Dovecoats Estate - May 23rd, 1901 - Thursday, 8:42 am

As the Baron Angkatell tapped carefully into his soft-boiled egg, a golden center was revealed right as a platter of Vienna rolls appeared by his side. After serving himself one, then another after a moment’s thought, the platter was smoothly offered to the next person at the breakfast table - Lord James Angkatell’s eldest daughter, Rose Angkatell. Rose, at hardly over 150cm tall and waif-thin, refused the rolls with a wave of her small white hand.

“Will Hester be joining us this morning?” James asked, turning to address the estate’s butler, standing right behind him.

“No, my lord,” replied Thomas Allen with the smooth professionalism of a man used to delivering bad news. “I believe the maids that checked on her found her still sleeping.”

“Naturally,” sighed James. “Thank you, Allen.”

“Has Grandmother Shirley spoken to her yet about the importance of decorum while at Dovecoats?” Rose asked with a frown. “Single women should be eating breakfast in the dining room, and that’s all there is to it.”

“I believe Shirley’s exact words were, ‘I can enjoy my vacation, or I can try to control Hester,’” James replied. “‘But I cannot do both.’”

This elicited a snort of amusement from Rose’s younger sister, Louise, as she sipped out of her teacup.

“Did you have something to add, Louise?” Rose snapped, turning her beautiful dark head from looking at her father at the head of the table to glare at her sibling across from her. “Or will you be fine when Hester embarrasses the family in front of Viscount Owen and his family?”

“I’m not certain it matters either way,” Louise answered. She was a stockier, plainer version of her sister, with frizzy mouse brown hair (where Rose’s was sleek and dark), hazel eyes (where Rose’s were deep blue), and a noticeable bump in her nose from profile (where Rose’s formed a perfect button). “It’s not Hester - or me, for that matter - that they’re coming to see.”

“Rose, darling,” James interrupted, trying to divert his oldest from her warpath. “Hester - and Shirley - understand the importance of this visit. I’m certain your cousin will not do anything intentional to make us look foolish.”

“And what about unintentionally?”

“Well, we’ll speak to her about it if the occasion arises. But I do not think the Owens will be so easily dissuaded by something like middle class American conventions. We all have unusual relatives, after all.”

“What if she brings up her…books?”

“I doubt the Viscount and Viscountess are familiar with many American romance novels,” James replied, a bit dryly. “And I believe Hester knows not to bring up the…specifics…of her writing in mixed company.”

“It simply feels inconvenient that they couldn’t come after Grandmother Shirley and Hester board their ship back in a few weeks,” Rose said, her tone lowering into what one might call a “grumble” if it weren’t spoken by such a lovely upper crust British accent.

“The Viscount is extremely busy, especially in this season. We’re lucky they could make it at all, and especially the entirety of the family,” James said meaningfully. “Speaking of - Allen, what is the status of the rooms for the Owens?”

“The Caroline is ready for the Viscount and Viscountess, my lord,” Allen answered. “And I’m told the Armada is nearly there for The Honorable Theodore Owen. I can assure you it will be ready by the time they arrive.”

“It had better be,” Rose said. Louise barely constrained rolling her eyes as she finished up her Vienna roll.

“Rose,” James spoke up, his voice taking on an even more gentle tone. But Rose cut him off before he could continue.

“You needn’t bother, Papa. I know mother will give me the same lecture when I see her, and I can assure you both that I do know the importance of this visit. Theodore Owen will be Viscount one day, and as you have no sons, a strong match is a necessity for the Barony at Dovecoats. I will make a good impression.”

“I never doubted it, my dear,” James replied, but the relief in his voice was palpable.
 

Ghostboo

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Thursday, 4:34 pm

“We missed you at breakfast,” Rose said quietly to her cousin next to her as they stood outside, waiting for the arrival of the Owens near the front entrance of Dovecoats. “And at luncheon.”

“Oh, yes, I was doing some writing,” Hester replied, her voice at a much more normal volume. Rose looked quickly around to make sure none of the rest of the family was paying attention to them. Satisfied, she turned back to Hester.

“And sleeping, from what we were told,” Rose said, the disapproval dripping off every consonant.

“Well,” Hester laughed and half-shrugged. “Mornings…do not always agree with me.”

“I’ve said you can borrow my maid Jane,” Rose replied, exasperated. “And it doesn’t just have to be in the morning. Like, for instance, if you need someone to do your hair before meeting a Viscount.”

At this, Hester did blush. She had realized a little later than she’d intended that the arrival of Dovecoat’s guests was fast approaching, and her hair had not fully dried from her bath. It caused her strawberry hair to appear closer to brown, and the only hairstyle she could think to do on her own was a tight bun, which was usually reserved for the serving class, and gave her a much more austere appearance than she was used to. By contrast, Rose’s sleek dark hair was done in a fashionable updo, with just a hint of waves gracing the side of her head. Her afternoon dress was also perfectly tailored to her, with tiny polka dots on a deep rust color that made Rose’s pale complexion and tiny stature appear much more trendy than sickly.

Hester’s outfit, meanwhile, was a somewhat baggy aquamarine and white day dress. While she was nonetheless partial to it, she always managed to feel a little like a particularly unfashionable bull in a china shop next to Rose. And a lot of that, she knew, was by Rose’s own choice. Although they could not have lived two different lives on the surface, Hester suspected that, deep down, they wanted the same thing. Independence. She saw the flashes in Rose’s eyes when her parents gave her instructions on how exactly her life was going to progress, despite her words of affirmation in response. And now, the time to commit her entire life to a relative stranger just because he was highly born was rapidly arriving.

Still, Hester could only muster up so much sympathy when Rose responded to these inconveniences by lashing out at everyone and everything around her that dared to be a little different.

“I had no interest in attracting any extra attention, Cousin Rose,” Hester said. “But thanks, as always.” Rose merely uttered a scoff, as if the idea that even a perfectly done-up Hester could draw anybody’s gaze from Rose was perfectly absurd. And to be honest, it probably was. Hester might get extra glances due to her unusual hair color and styles or slightly more daring fashion cuts from America, but there was no ignoring Rose’s beauty for long.

Feeling unnerved, as always, about how far she had to look down at Rose (Hester herself was on the short side, and was not used to towering over anybody), Hester turned her attention to her Aunt Shirley on the other side. Or Great-Aunt, to be more specific. Hester’s grandma on her mother’s side was Shirley’s sister, and while she did fine for herself, Shirley had married one of the richest men in New York. Which was why Shirley was the one sponsoring Hester to come with her to Europe, to visit Shirley’s only daughter - Lady Elizabeth Angkatell, James’s wife.

Shirley’s red hair matched Hester’s own, but it was done up in an exciting and poofy hairstyle, with a bevy of accessories like feathers and gems hanging off it. Shirley saw no reason not to let people know exactly how wealthy she was, so her afternoon dress looked akin to many’s finest evening gown, and her jewelry glinted off her chest and arms in the sun. James and Elizabeth had long given up trying to get Shirley to tone down for them or anyone - Shirley only tried harder, determined to prove America the superior land for everything, including appearance. So it was no surprise when she refused to put Hester, her relatively successful if risqué author niece, on a leash either.

They’d all been living in relative peace - Hester cared about by her cousins, despite her eccentricities and scandalous-adjacent career, and despite Rose’s occasional outburst; Shirley being tolerated by James and enjoyed by everyone else - for a little over a month now. But some things, like a promising match for Rose, couldn’t be delayed. The weekend would start with introductions, dinners, and other socializations like rides and a hunt before culminating in a ball - and, hopefully, an engagement for the two family’s eldest children.

Hester had opened her mouth to say something which would likely instigate a fight between Shirley and James - she found one often had to make their own fun like this, at Dovecoats - when the sound of a motor stopped her. Two automobiles were pulling into the long driveway, signaling the arrival of the Owens. Shutting her mouth, Hester caught Louise’s eyes over Rose’s head, and the younger sister offered Hester a wane smile. Rose was already noticeably entering hostess mode - her impeccable posture straightened even more, which Hester hadn’t thought was possible. Rose’s concerned frown tilted itself up into an enticing shy smile, her tiny hands clasped together in front of her. Hester rocked on her heels, her hands held behind her back. Rose shot her a nearly imperceptible look as the cars stopped right in front of them, at which point the chauffeurs hopped out and opened the doors.

“My lord, my lady,” greeted the valet that exited the first car, bowing to James and Elizabeth before the rest of the congregation. “Lord William Owen, Lady Charlotte Owen, and His Honorable Theodore Owen.”

A few things happened at once. A slightly above middle aged couple stepped out of the first automobile, dressed befitting their rank. The Angkatell family all dipped into curtsies and bows in greeting, Hester following suit before she froze in her tracks as her eyes followed the exit from the second automobile. Theodore Owen had taken more time than his parents to get himself out onto the solid ground, and no wonder. The young man’s impressive size meant that exiting the car’s opening was actually a bit of a squeeze, and Hester watched as the valet from the second car held out a hand to offer assistance. Theodore shook his head, his face flushing a little as he finally passed the roundest bit of his middle through the door and was able to fully stand next to his parents. It was this small gesture from him that caused Hester to be struck with her second realization - Theodore was extremely handsome. Yes, his girth grabbed initial attention, but he also had a perfectly symmetrical expression that simultaneously exuded youthful energy and masculinity. His deep brown hair was longer than was conventional, but it formed a perfect swoop of a wave that moved like liquid and always managed to settle in an attractive form, framing his round face and dark brown eyes.

Most men that Hester had met that were referred to by others as “substantial” (or any of its more derogatory synonyms) fell into one of two categories. Half tended to be more or less the same size as other men their age, but were just a bit…puffier. Doughy, Hester had thought. Hardly noticeable from the back. The other half were older men who had filled out with life experience, and tended to be hard in their size, rather than soft. Like a boulder, or, with their jowls, like a walrus. Hester had never had anything resembling an interest in either of these types of men. But something about the way Theodore’s form was both imposing AND soft -

Hester.”

It took her millisecond, but Hester realized that Rose was hissing her name from her deep curtsy on Hester’s left. Another millisecond later, Hester realized she’d been stopped dead in her tracks, barely dipped at all, and openly staring at Theodore Owen - no, no, it was at the family, Hester thought in a brief panic as she dropped as quickly as she could. She’d also been holding her breath, it turned out, and she gasped as she landed her curtsy closer to Rose’s level. Once down there, she saw beneath the polite veneer Rose was seething - which was confusing at first, since Hester hadn’t been standing for that long, right? - but Hester quickly realized Rose’s furious gaze wasn’t about that. Her cousin’s eyes had also found the young heir and his surprising form, and Rose wasn’t pleased.

A moment later, the family straightened as William Owen approached James Angkatell. Shaking hands, the pair greeted one another as Charlotte and Theodore Owen followed. James quickly began going down the line of introductions - “Lady Elizabeth Angkatell, my wife; Shirley Browning, my mother-in-law”; and then - oh -

“Hester Browning, my cousin,” James said, as the quad reached her. Hester was able to see up close how Theodore Owen’s expansive middle could easily fit two of her (normal, but certainly not insubstantial) frame within it as it pressed against his perfectly fitted waistcoat. This caused her more baffling terror, and she dropped quickly into another low curtsy.

“Lord Owen, Lady Owen, Mr. Owen, it’s a pleasure,” Hester said near-frantically, straightening up slowly. Charlotte and William were giving her a curious look, as was Theodore, but the younger man’s was accompanied by a slow smile. Before Hester could blink, they all moved on to the main attraction - Rose.

Hester couldn’t hear much besides the strange roaring in her ears as she tried to subtly watch the interaction. Rose, of course, still had the perfect smile plastered on her face, and her greetings respectful and intentioned, but the stiffness in her posture and hands revealed something perhaps only family would notice was stirring below the surface.

Louise and Hester exchanged another look, Louise’s face amused until she caught the near-panic on Hester’s. The frizzy-haired girl now studied her cousin curiously, but Hester just looked away, cursing her tendency to wear her heart so clearly on her metaphorical sleeve.

By the time the roaring in her ears cleared, it became clear that the group was dispersing to rest before the necessary change to evening clothes for dinner. Hester watched as the Owens headed into Dovecoats, noticing how Theodore moved a bit ruggedly, but still confidently and surprisingly smoothly for one of his girth. She tried to shake this thought away as Louise skipped around Rose to take Hester’s arm.

“How are you feeling, cousin?” Louise asked, leading Hester forward. As they reached the entrance hall, and Hester watched the Owens led off to a separate wing from her own bedroom, she quickly pulled away from Louise.

“Excuse me,” she said, offering no other explanation before fleeing. The last thing she heard before vanishing into her room’s hallway was a large sigh by Rose, and the start of a presumed criticism of Louise as an outlet for the eldest Angkatell child’s frustrations.
 

Ghostboo

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Thursday, 7:12 pm

Hester took another decidedly unladylike, but necessary, mouthful of her drink. The spice of gin and vermouth burned as it ran down her throat, but she barely noticed. Her hair had dried enough to justify her favorite style - a half up crown braid, and half down with the curls tamed as close to waves as she could get it. As most women wore their hair entirely up, especially in England, Hester was used to getting a few raised eyebrows, which she usually didn’t mind. Tonight, though, that wasn’t an issue. Their entire company had gathered in the library for cocktail hour, and if Hester had thought anyone had noticed her intense burst of feelings earlier, she was rapidly realizing everyone was much too busy with their own problems to pay attention to anything else.

Standing in the middle of the room, in front of the fireplace, Hester slowly looked to her left and right, taking in the scene. Nearest to the door, and on Hester’s left, was Theodore and his mom, Charlotte, quietly sipping their drinks. Theodore had changed into his black tie evening suit, like all the men, and it was a fit that would have flattered and disguised pudge if he had been built like the “doughy” men Hester had known. But when your most obvious trait by far is an expansive belly, there isn’t going to be any hiding it, only ensuring a good fit and fashionable cut. Which he did in spades. Hester tried not to stare, and tried not to focus on the thought that she couldn’t remember ever being quite so fond of buttons before.

As she turned away to her right, deeper within the library, there was Rose and her father James, deep in discussion. In front of the fireplace in the middle of the room with her was the Viscount William Owen, cheerfully chatting with Lady Elizabeth and Louise Angkatell. They hardly seemed to notice the tension that felt as though it could be cut by a knife to Hester, though Louise was looking more cheerful than Hester could ever remember seeing her.

Forcing herself to take a more reasonably sized sip this time, Hester looked back over towards the door as it opened to accommodate two footmen carrying serving plates of bite-sized, pre-dinner food. Theodore, being nearest to them, reached out towards the platter that seemed to be carrying cucumber canapés. Lady Charlotte turned quickly towards him, and while Hester couldn’t hear what was said, she saw Theodore flinch slightly as he withdrew his hand without a canapé.

“Charlotte,” called William right after. “Come and tell Lady Elizabeth about the violinist we hired for my last birthday! I’m afraid I need some help recalling the details.”

“Coming, William,” Charlotte said, gliding to the fire with her drink in one hand, and, as the footman passed by, a canapé in her other.

Despite being nearly done with her drink, Hester’s mouth felt dry. Theodore was now alone near the shadows of the front door, despite being the young man this entire weekend was geared towards. Meanwhile, his intended Rose continued to heatedly discuss the situation with her father across the hall, while his family enjoyed the food Theodore apparently wouldn’t have access to. The awkwardness was more than a tipsy-adjacent Hester could bear, and after a few more unbearable moments, she found herself making her way over to Theodore’s side of the room.

“Hello,” Theodore said, and Hester was surprised both by the realization that she was right in front of him, and by the timber of his voice. This was the first time she’d heard him speak, she realized, and his voice was deeper and steadier than she’d expected.

“Hi,” Hester said, immediately kicking herself for her informality. “Mr. Owen. What do you think of the cocktails?”

“Oh, it’s quite good, Miss Browning,” Theodore replied. “At Ainswick we only drink wine. Our butler Samson will not learn cocktails, he quite refuses.”

“Oh,” Hester said, surprised at the thought of an English butler putting his foot down about something like that. “Well I think even you or I could make one of these - it’s just a mix of two liquors. And the second is nearly optional, if I remember correctly.”

“That’s very optimistic of you,” Theodore said, his dark eyes crinkling a little in the corners. “What if I was useless at counting above one?”

“That is a good point,” Hester said. “Your accents all make you sound brilliant to Americans. You could get away with just about anything.”

“That’s quite good to know,” Theodore replied, smiling as he brought his martini glass to his lips. His dark eyes met Hester’s light green ones, and something about everything in that moment caused Hester’s heart to skip a beat, and she fully lost what she had been about to say. As she often did when she was nervous, Hester began saying the first thing that came to mind - which unfortunately, due to her mind jumping to Theodore’s inevitable betrothal to Mary and whether or not it would happen THIS weekend or later, turned out to be -

“So have you ever been engaged?”

Theodore stared at her, his dark eyes blinking, and Hester began to feel as though her heart had dropped into her stomach and was being rapidly dissolved. But a moment later, Theodore laughed.

“You really are American, aren’t you?”

“That I am,” Hester said, smiling weakly in relief. “And incredibly nosy. But feel free to tell me to…well, be satisfied with no answer. Or even to just leave.”

“You’re a little ways from banishment,” Theodore replied wryly, adding after a brief hesitation, “I was engaged once, a few years ago.”

“And why…?”

“Now that you will have to be satisfied without, for now. What about you, then? Engagements?”

“This side of the Atlantic, or mine?” Hester asked, keeping her face straight. She was rewarded with a grin from Theodore, who, in addition to all his other positive attributes, had teeth that were perfectly straight and stainless.

“Both, Miss Browning.”

“Oh, well…neither. For both sides.”

“Is that so,” Theodore said, after briefly opening his mouth and closing it like he was going to say something else. “And why…?”

“There have been a couple offers, and even a round or two of hopeful planning,” Hester admitted, smiling a little at Theodore’s echoing of her response. “But…I make enough from my writing to more or less support myself. My own parents married later in life, and are quite progressive, even for Americans. They’ve encouraged my independence, and as a result - I decided early on that I would rather live my own life, come what may, than shackle myself to always having to answer to someone mediocre.”

Theodore stared, but this time, his face didn’t break into a laugh. His expression morphed from startled to curious, and Hester felt her insides squirm as she did her best to meet his gaze.

“I’m sorry, was I rambling? I do that, sometimes. Or…a lot of the time,” she added hesitantly, and at this, Theodore did smile.

“Not at all. What sorts of books do you write? I’m not certain if Lord Angkatell mentioned.”

“Oh, well, he wouldn’t,” Hester grinned. She hadn’t been lectured into staying quiet about her work, exactly, but she suspected that was because the Angkatells had never actually read one of her books. Romance novels could mean Jane Austen classiness, or they could mean…well, her own thrilling end of the spectrum. “They’re romance novels. So not exactly prestigious. But I firmly believe in fellow women getting the opportunity to read about nice things happening to them, and not just the tragedies of high literature.”

“That makes perfect sense. And what about your parents? They sound wonderful, what do they do in America?”

“My father is a businessman, and my mother is a nurse. We’re rather aggressively middle class, especially compared to life at Dovecoats,” Hester said, looking around at the expansive library and the books that likely cost more than her family home altogether. “But I still had a comfortable upbringing, and plenty of privileges. Especially thanks to Aunt Shirley.”

“Ah, yes,” Theodore said. “Your aunt does seem a bit more than aggressively middle class.”

“She certainly is,” Hester laughed. At this same moment, Rose and her father split up from their position deep in the room. James headed towards the group at the fireplace, while Rose stalked her way to Hester and Theodore. Her well-trained expression was pleasant, but Hester, after daily interactions with her cousin, recognized the storm behind her eyes.

“Good evening, Mr. Owen,” Rose greeted, dropping into a brief curtsy. Theodore nodded back.

“Good evening, Miss Angkatell.”

“Hester,” Rose said, giving her cousin a searching glance before turning back to Theodore. “Has she been regaling you with tales of her bodice-rippers?”

Hester almost choked on her martini.

“Not in any specifics,” Theodore said, looking amused as he glanced between Rose and Hester. “And she certainly didn’t use that term, though I like it. Offers a perfect explanation for its definition.”

“Mmm,” Rose murmured what sounded like an affirmation, but Hester sensed disappointment behind it. Had her cousin been hoping for a scandalized reaction?

A footman stepped near their group with the second plate of pre-dinner bites. Hester looked and saw they were oysters, on a bed of ice. Without hesitation, she reached out and snagged one, thanking the footman as she admired the caviar added to the shell by the Dovecoats cook. Neither Rose nor Theodore moved to take their own.

“Oh, no, thank you,” Rose said primly, waving away the footman. As he departed, she continued. “I overindulged this week. I could feel it in the tighter fit of my gowns this evening. I must be extra cautious this weekend, to make up for it.”

At this, both Hester and Theodore stared at Rose. The tiny heiress was clad in a grey and black dress that had obviously been tailored perfectly to her figure, emphasizing how there was not an ounce of fat on her frame. Aside from her rather annoyingly well-endowed chest, which was called attention to in only classy glimpses by Rose’s seamstress. The idea that this was Rose at “overindulged” - or that a single oyster would have put her over some sizing ledge - seemed equally absurd to the pair she stood before.

Hester, who was much more pear shaped than her cousin, drew a hand down the side of her emerald green dress. It was one of her favorites, and one of her more daringly form-fitting styles, but she rather regretted the fit beside Rose. The green brought out the color of her eyes, and the fabric accomodated her impressive hips like many styles did not, but the fact remained that it had been purchased in a shop - not made specifically for Hester. She did what she could with what she could afford, but it was certainly a noticeable difference from the perfectly tailored and coiffed styles of the rest of the room.

Before Hester could burst into another ramble as a deeply uncomfortable silence settled on the trio, the gong signaling dinner went off in the next room.

“Thank goodness,” Rose said. “I would have hated to spoil my meal.”

“Yes,” Hester said seriously as they walked through the door that the butler opened for them. “It’s unfortunate I won’t be able to eat a thing now that I have a whole oyster in me.”

Rose didn’t roll her eyes, but she did meet Hester’s gaze with a hard look. Past Rose’s glare, Hester saw Theodore hide a smile as he set down his martini glass on a footman’s tray, doing his best to squeeze past without bumping into anyone. He mostly succeeded.
 

Ghostboo

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At the dinner table, Hester found herself between Theodore Owen and her cousin, James Angkatell. Rose was obviously on Theodore’s other side, with Theodore’s father, the Viscount William, on Rose’s other side. Lady Elizabeth began the meal talking to Lord William from his right, leaving it open for Rose and Theodore to converse. But Rose kept her gaze steadily forward, not seeming to notice both Theodore and Hester giving her sidelong glances from her left. Hester tried to keep track of both Rose’s behavior and what her cousin James was trying to say from her left, but found his murmured commentary all ran together as she nodded and sipped her wine.

This was already shaping up to be a long weekend.

The first course, a cold and refreshing green soup that Hester was especially partial to, was brought out. She dug in with gusto, enjoying the flavor of cream and fresh greens as they hit her tongue. It had even caused a pause in James Angkatell’s stream of consciousness from her right, allowing Hester a moment of peace.

She was about halfway through her bowl when she realized Theodore wasn’t eating, not really. Hester watched him out of the corner of her eye and saw him raise the spoon one time, then set it back down. He was staring hard at the soup, seemingly lost in thought, but didn’t raise the spoon again.

“Do you not like peas, Mr. Owen?” Hester asked, making sure her conversational tone was low enough that no one else would catch it. “The cook here is wonderful about incorporating preferences, if you’d like me to pass anything else along…?”

“Oh,” Theodore looked up at her, surprised. A similar flush that she’d seen cross his face during the struggle out of the automobile that afternoon rose on his cheeks. “No, not at all. I…” For the first time since they’d started conversing, Theodore looked uncertain. “Well, I’ll eat just about anything, to be fully honest. And this is very good.” He looked as though he might say more, but instead he took another small spoonful of soup.

“I don’t think your mother can see you from here,” Hester said, knowing it was a completely impertinent shot in the dark, but deciding to take the risk if it helped. As Charlotte was next to Lord Angkatell, she would have to truly crane her neck to see what was going on with her son and his plate. At these words, Theodore looked back at Hester with wide eyes before his brow furrowed.

“Is it that obvious?”

“I saw her speaking to you, when the canapés went around,” Hester admitted. “I apologize again for the American brashness. But the food here really is so delicious, and I would hate to see you miss out on it.”

Theodore seemed to be weighing something in his mind before finally sighing with an air of finality. Hester wasn’t certain if that was a good or bad sign. Taking another cursory glance around to ensure no one at the table was paying them any attention, Theodore spoke.

“She offered a reminder to proceed lightly on food this weekend. As though the aesthetics of restraint would change anyone’s mind, once they’d seen me.” His tone was dry, but Hester would have bet money that he was amping that up to hide his hurt. “Still, it’s not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s from a place of care, and I understand, but it does make it more difficult to truly enjoy. No matter how good it is, unfortunately.” He emphasized this by scooping up a bit of soup, then letting it run out of his spoon and back into the bowl. Hester bit her lip, resisting the urge to chime in - IS it from a place of care? Really?

“If you like, I can loudly observe how terribly rude it is to not fully indulge in the food the cook prepared for this weekend,” Hester finally said conversationally, taking another spoonful of her own soup. “That’s a great motivator for the British, right? Manners? I bet she couldn’t say a thing after that.”

“Perhaps we’ll leave that option for when things get a bit more dire,” Theodore said, after giving Hester another baffled stare followed by a chuckle as he realized she wasn’t serious. Hesitantly, he had another scoop of his own, and this time seemed to really take the time to experience what the flavors were. “It really is good.”

“I told you,” Hester said triumphantly. She took another spoonful of her own and she was done with the soup, and just in time for the footmen to begin to clear in order to bring the next course. “Mr. Owen, if I may, have you ever tried talking to your mother about it?”

“What do you mean?” As his own soup bowl was cleared, Theodore leaned back in his seat and gave Hester his full attention. She tried not to squirm under his dark gaze or notice the way his soft belly pressed into the table, just a little, when he tilted forward to take a drink of wine.

“I suppose I mean - have you asked her to stop?” Theodore raised a single dark eyebrow in a perfectly skeptical British expression. So Hester plowed forward. “What if you told her that, while the care is appreciated, the execution is not? That you can manage your own affairs? Even just for this weekend. Why not enjoy yourself as you normally would? Isn’t the alternative rather like tricking someone into marriage?”

It was the first time either of them had addressed Theodore’s reason for being at Dovecoats, and his eyebrows shot up close to his lovely hairline. Hester felt herself flush, realizing she had likely allowed herself to go much too far with her rambling.

“Just be straightforward and honest? That is the most American advice I’ve ever received, Miss Browning,” Theodore said wryly, his brows lowering as he studied Hester. He seemed to take pity on her blushing form, however, because he continued: “I will think about it. Thank you.”

“Mmm,” Hester said, hoping the sound that came out of her mouth sounded like a pleasant affirmation. Her nerves meant that as the fish course was put in front of her, she had shoved a large bite immediately into her mouth. It was a white fish on top of a pesto sauce, with pickled radishes exploding acid on top of the fresh salty taste. She chewed hard as Theodore grinned, then took his own large bite. He seemed to enjoy the flavors just as well, and Hester found herself feeling better.

In what felt like the blink of an eye later, through 5 more courses of easy conversation, Hester realized they were wrapping up with profiteroles for dessert. As she took a bite and felt the cream of the chocolate-covered puff land on her tongue, she listened to Theodore discussing his favorite tenant on his family’s land. Typically she found discussions from the upper classes incredibly boring at best, but Theodore spoke of the farmer with genuine care and humanity.

“Before I had to invest more time in learning the duties of a Viscount, I helped him a bit with the pigs,” Theodore said, popping one entire profiterole in his mouth at once. Hester tried not to stare. He swallowed a mere chew or two later, and continued. “I was rather lean at the time from all the labor, at least comparatively - but when I needed to devote more of the day to my studies, of course, that changed.” Theodore paused, ensuring once again that none of the table was tuning in. Hester, at this stray back into particularly personal territory, felt breathless. “I was scolded by my parents and teachers for it, but truly, when I was no longer given the time to work outside, what did they expect? Most of running an estate is done at a desk. And eating less food because of it seems, well…” Theodore studied another profiterole at the end of his fork, as though debating whether or not to eat it.

“Like life is entirely too short?” Hester suggested.

“Not everyone agrees,” Theodore said, smiling ruefully before putting down the fork. “Though I suppose that is what I meant, yes.”

“‘Everyone’ is sometimes very stupid,” Hester said, before eating her own second profiterole. She was quite full, but felt she had to back up her point. After a moment’s hesitation, Theodore followed suit, eating his last chocolate-covered puff. “If the way someone chooses to live their life makes them happy and isn’t hurting anyone else, but it falls marginally outside expectations, suddenly everyone feels they have the right to offer criticism. And if I could make one lesson abundantly clear to the world - it’s that no, you don’t. And to please cease talking to me.”

Theodore laughed.

“I suspected you may understand,” he said. “You’re not quite like anyone else I’ve met.”

“No, I’m usually not,” Hester said, feeling color return to her cheeks, but in less of a frantic way. It was in more of a slow, pleasurable wave. “I suppose you’re not quite like anyone I’ve met either.”

“Shall we agree to take those as positive observations?”

“Certainly.”

The ringing of a bell signaled the end of dinner, and therefore the retreat of the women to the drawing room. The butler, meanwhile, began to offer post-meal cigars to the men at the table.

“Good night, Mr. Owen,” Hester said, trying to get up as smoothly as possible. Of course, she knocked into both her chair and the table, rattling it a little. She guessed her face turned the same copper as her hair as Theodore smiled up at her.

“Good night, Miss Browning. I shall see you tomorrow.”
 

Ghostboo

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Lady Charlotte excused herself for bed right as the women reached the drawing room, citing the long day of travel. Lady Elizabeth offered reassurances, and all bid her a good night. As soon as she left the room, Rose’s smile melted off her face, and she collapsed with a sigh on the couch.

“It’s been the most shattering day,” she declared, a glass of port seeming to materialize in her hand.

“Oh, darling, don’t say that,” Elizabeth said. “It may not have been quite what we were expecting, but…”

“Please, Mama. We can say ‘him’. We all have eyes, after all.”

I had heard whispers about him,” Louise said. “I was unsure why you all seemed so shocked when they arrived.”

“Honestly, Louise, there is no way you heard anything I didn’t, and you know it,” Rose snapped. “Stop being so self-important. It makes you look ridiculous.”

Hester blinked as she stared between the sisters.

“Darling, be fair, please,” Elizabeth pleaded. “This isn’t your sister’s fault.”

“Whose fault is it? Yours, I suppose, for not properly vetting our visitors?”

“Well, I imagined…I suppose we all did…that the ‘large’ references meant…height and such. Not quite…”

“Does someone’s size have any bearing on what they’d be like as a husband?” Hester asked, baffled by the roundabout passive conversation happening around her. “Or as a Viscount?”

“Don’t be so American, Hester,” Rose retorted. “One can be too open-minded.”

“Darling, I know you’re disappointed. But we have the rest of the weekend to go. Can you try, at least?” Elizabeth tried to rest a hand on her daughter’s tiny arm, but Rose brushed her off.

“He is very nice, Rose,” Hester said, and everyone looked at her in some surprise at the sincerity in her tone. “I would…I would give him a chance, if I were you.”

“And yet you aren’t me, and would do well to keep that in mind,” Rose bit out. Hester turned away, hoping her hair falling in her face would distract from her cheeks flushing red at the implication.

“You should be thanking Hester,” Louise broke in before their mother could. “Can you imagine if, instead of her talking to him and helping you out, our guest of honor for the weekend was frozen out of conversation completely? And yet you’re supposedly the well-mannered one.”

Hester suspected that Rose’s sister was enjoying this all a bit too much. She met her Aunt Shirley’s gaze, who had kept unusually quiet during this entire exchange. Shirley sipped her port, raising an eyebrow at her niece just meaningfully enough to cause Hester to quickly look away.

“Fine,” snapped Rose, giving in as she often did once the majority of the room was against her on something. It didn’t happen too often, but Hester noticed that Rose wouldn’t typically fight if everyone else was in agreement on an issue. “I shall endeavor to look past the negatives of a future where I need to roll my husband in and out of our home. Will that suit you all?”

“Whatever you can do, darling, we so appreciate,” Elizabeth soothed, and Hester avoided snapping back at Rose by shoving a piece of post-dinner cheese in her mouth. She was a guest, too, after all, and she was realizing rather intensely how much of it wasn’t her place.

The Honorable Theodore Owen was here for Rose Angkatell, not some smut writer from Bar Harbor. If that didn’t work out, he would leave forever. Seeing her new friend at family reunions may be better than nothing, Hester thought. She would do what she could to help.
 
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Ghostboo

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Friday, 8:38 am

As James Angkatell was taking his serving of two poached eggs on a wide scone, Hester Browning burst into the dining room. Her red hair was hastily piled on top of her head, and her peach dress was wrinkled, a fact she’d tried to hide with an orange waist scarf. It didn’t quite succeed.

“Hester!” James said cheerfully as the rest of the table blinked at her in surprise at the unexpected and late entrance. Rose sat next to her father, with Louise across from her. Theodore was next to Rose, several eggs and scones on his plate, while his father William was across from him, next to Louise.

“Good morning everyone,” Hester said, slowly and unsteadily walking her way to the seat next to Theodore. Louise smirked at her in a rather knowing way, which Hester diligently ignored. “I apologize for my tardiness.”

“Don’t give it another thought, cousin,” Louise sang.

“It’s just good to have you,” James added, spearing his scone and signaling the beginning of being able to dine. Theodore immediately, enthusiastically tucked into his eggs, while Rose, who only had fruit on her plate, gave Hester a side-eye as she sipped her tea.

“Thank you,” Hester told the footman breathlessly as she took a scone. Normally she wasn’t hungry right after waking up, but it was difficult to resist savory breakfast scones. They never got these ones for tea, only the sweet sort. “How did everyone sleep?”

“Quite well,” William Owen answered.

“Wonderfully.”

“Not terribly!”

“Very well.”

“Dreadfully, I’m afraid.”

This last bit was added by Rose, of course. She ate a blackberry as the table looked to her.

“And how did you sleep, Miss Browning?” Theodore asked, turning to address Hester.

“Oh, I…” Hester avoided Rose’s dark stare, thinking about her anxiety-tinged dreams of wandering through distant halls full of decadent meals, with the last room covered in trifles that Theodore was enjoying very much in especially thin attire before he looked up and noticed her - and she snapped awake early, feeling extremely hot. “I…slept just fine. Thank you, Mr. Owen.”

Theodore smiled, but as he turned back to the food on his plate, he caught his father’s gaze. After a brief hesitation, Theodore put down his fork and turned to Rose.

“How is your breakfast, Miss Angkatell?”’

“Adequately fulfilling,” Rose replied primly, not quite meeting Theodore’s eyes as she turned her body to respond, then quickly swiveled forward again.

“Mine is delightful,” Louise said from across the table. She dragged a piece of scone through the egg yolk. “Nobody does cheese scones quite like our cook, Mrs. Bright.”

Rose looked very much as though she wanted to say something to her sister, but in mixed company, she resorted only to a tense sip of her tea. Louise grinned, first at Rose, then at Hester.

“I’m very glad to hear it, Miss Angkatell. And Miss Angkatell,” Theodore said, addressing both sisters with a smile. Before returning to his own plate, very briefly, Theodore caught Hester’s eye out of the corner of his own. Hester was torn between laughing and screaming in response to the intense tingling that broke out all over her body, and instead, she just froze. She was released as Theodore’s gaze fully tracked down to his plate, and she let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding before taking another mouthful of her own rich breakfast.
 
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Ghostboo

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Friday, 11:17 am

“Are you looking forward to riding?” Hester asked Theodore as they stood near the Dovecoats stables. The rest of the household that planned to ride to the other end of the estate was standing a little closer to the treeline, including Rose and her father. At the end, there would be a picnic luncheon.

“I suppose so,” Theodore said slowly. “To be honest, I’m a bit nervous for the well-being of the horse chosen for me - I’m rather an unduly heavy burden - but my father was firm that I should join.” Because Rose would be taking part, seemed to be the unspoken conclusion as Theodore glanced over at the other group.

Hester had actually heard Rose and Lord James having a similar conversation right after breakfast. Or argument, rather. Rose was insistent that riding should be postponed until after their guests had left, to save the horses the pain of having to carry such a large rider. But James did his best to calm her down, and Hester more or less echoed his words now to Theodore.

“I wouldn’t worry about that. Dovecoats has a couple bay stallions that could easily carry you and me. I tend to take my riding rather leisurely, anyway, if that pace would make you feel better. Though…Rose enjoys racing above all else. But she’s also barely any weight at all for the horses, so I imagine it’s easier.”

She was rambling again, but Theodore didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t cut her off, just watched with a half-smile on his invitingly plump lips until Hester clamped her mouth shut.

“I imagine that would be, yes,” Theodore says. “But a leisurely ride sounds wonderful. No need to put any excessive pressure on my horse, or on my unfortunate riding attire. The valet accidentally packed last season’s.”

Hester had resisted saying anything, almost as well as she had resisted staring for too long. All of Theodore’s clothing up until now had been perfectly fitted, but when he arrived outside Dovecoats to prepare to ride, his difference from his other outfits had been obvious. The usually intentionally loose fit of riding pants clung to his thick thighs (which Hester could now see were a fascinating combination of strongly muscular AND soft - understandable, from carrying all his weight, she had realized). The buttons on his checkered shirt strained around the thickest part of his waist seemingly whenever he forgot to keep it sucked in - the flash of white undershirt every once in awhile feeling like it would blind Hester - and the whole thing was covered by a riding jacket that she imagined had ceased to button awhile ago.

“If you’re uncomfortable, I can provide a distraction while you run and hide,” Hester offered. Theodore half-smiled, but studied her with an expression that seemed to mask concern.

“If you don’t wish for me to slow you down…”

“Oh, no, that’s not it at all! I love taking the longest time to enjoy the forest path’s sights and sounds. There’s no need to be concerned about me.”

“Then the offer to sacrifice yourself is appreciated, but politely declined,” Theodore said, his smile growing a little before they noticed a pair of horses being led to them. Hester’s was a grey foal who was being positively dwarfed by the reddish-brown stallion next to her, picked and saddled by the staff for Theodore.

Hester accepted a hand up, and two staff stood by Theodore to assist. But to Hester’s surprise, Theodore got up on the bay stallion on his own, rather smoothly. Besides the jiggling on his middle that the sudden motion caused, of course, but Hester was determined not to think about that.

Ahead of them, Hester saw Rose say a short word to her father before breaking away on her sleek black mare into the forest. James and William were chatting as they followed her, at more of a canter, but still a decent pace. Hester steered her horse in the direction of the forest path, and began to trot towards the treeline. Theodore gently nudged his own steed, and followed. The bay stallion wasn’t going to be left behind a foal for long, however, and it quickly caught up to Hester.

It was cooler in the trees, and Hester breathed out a sigh at the freshness of the air. She noticed Theodore looking at her curiously, and she took a risk.

“Could I admit something to you?”

“Certainly.”

“Today was the first day I’ve made it down to breakfast in weeks. One of the only times of my entire trip to Dovecoats.”

“Really,” Theodore looked fascinated now, and Hester kept her gaze at his eyes or ahead. NOT at the slight wobble of his belly as his stallion diligently trotted. “And why is that?”

Hester wasn’t sure if he meant why today was different, but she decided to answer as though he meant why she usually missed it. The answer to the first one was a bit too impertinent.

“Honestly, I feel much more…alive, at night. Mornings have never been a particular friend of mine. And I don’t have a lady’s maid, or accept help from anyone else’s, so I have to do everything - dressing, hair - by myself.”

“Why don’t you accept help from lady’s maids?” Theodore asked, before quickly adding, as though he realized something: “I do like your hair as you do it, of course. I’m just curious.”

“Hair is hard work, which is why I usually leave it down,” Hester said, hoping Theodore didn’t notice her blush. She knew he was just being polite. “But I can’t stand Aunt Shirley’s lady’s maid, and most others balk when they realize…well…this may be overly pert and I’m sorry if it is, but I don’t wear a corset. I don’t like being pressured into anything uncomfortable, even if it is decorum. So I just do it on my own and skip the whole hooplah.”

Theodore seemed to be doing his own work to keep his gaze steadily on Hester’s face, keeping his expression steady.

“I see.”

“I know I’m not fashionably thin on my own, and it gives the unflattering lumps and all sorts of issues Rose likes to point out, but wearing it feels…not just physically uncomfortable, it's...I don’t know…”

“Like tricking people?” Theodore suggested, calling back to their discussion the night before. Hester breathed out in relief, ignoring the tingling on her skin.

“I think it may be that, yes.”

“I can understand that,” Theodore said. “Though admittedly I am personally girdled just to fit into this getup.”

Hester looked over at him, and he caught her eye with a raised brow, and she couldn’t help bursting out laughing. He quickly followed suit.

“Mr. Owen, you…” Hester tried to find the societally, and still emotionally, appropriate phrase. “…are not what I expected.”

“Oh yes, Miss Browning?” Theodore said, his tone still amused as his laugh tapered off. He appeared to be running through similar options in his mind. “This…trip…isn’t exactly what I expected either.”

“Shall we agree to take those as positive observations?” Hester asked, putting on her best attempt at a British accent to mimic Theodore’s words from last night. He grinned, and echoed her own response.

“Certainly.”
 
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Listen, I am somehow both deeply looking forward to the delicious slow burn of this and also ACTIVELY DYING already.
It’s so so good, you’re a sensational writer.
 

stevita

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Loving the bouncy dialogue, arc words, and Hester and Theodore in general! I can't wait to see them get closer...but if I know you, Rose is going to wreak some havoc before then.
 

Ghostboo

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Part 2 is here! I know it's comparatively pretty short and low stakes, but I do have plans for a much longer and more intense period drama once my brain de-scatters on those plotlines. I hope you still enjoy the rest of The Honorable, and thanks so much for reading!

They were the last ones to the clearing at the edge of Dovecoats estate, where two long white tents and tables had been set up for luncheon. The rest of the household was already there, milling about with drinks in hand as footmen carried trays of fresh vegetables. A couple staff members began to move towards Hester and Theodore, but both were off their horses before needing any additional assistance. They handed off the reins with smiles.

“Goodness, I’m hungry,” Hester said, eyeing the trays just out of reach.

“It doesn’t feel like much when you’re doing it, but once you stop riding…” Theodore agreed, taking a few large steps to pick two toothpicks covered in basil, fresh tomato, and mozzarella cheese off a platter. He offered one to Hester.

“Thank you, Mr. Owen,” she said, at the same time that Charlotte Owen called:

“Theodore!”

“I best…well. Excuse me,” Theodore said, giving Hester a tight smile before walking closer to the tents, and the critical eye of his mother. He kept the toothpick tight in his fingers, eyeing a tray as though he may put it down before snapping back to Charlotte’s attention.

Feeling light headed, as though she weren’t quite there, Hester drifted towards her family. Louise, Rose, and Elizabeth all stood to one side of a table, and watched her approach.

“Did you have a pleasant ride?” Rose asked, her tone even, but Hester still could’ve sworn she found storm clouds behind her cousin’s eyes.

“Oh, yes. You know me…I need to stop and look at every plant and fungi there is.”

“Fungi,” Rose said. “Of course.”

The dry skepticism was obvious, and Hester blinked. It was true, though. Theodore had been awfully considerate about her attention diverting when she noticed especially interesting patterns of moss, or life in the form of birds or another species growing on a tree. He’d always wait for her to finish looking, and listen as she explained about what they were, or what she theorized they could be. No one had ever been that patient on a ride with her before, most were using it entirely to get from Point A to Point B and nothing else.

As a tense silence took hold of the group of women, Hester looked over at Theodore and his mother. He was speaking to her, gesturing lightly with the toothpick of food in his hand, and Hester could see that Lady Charlotte looked somewhat taken aback. As a bell rang at the end of the long white tables, Charlotte nodded at her son before quickly steering Theodore to a specific seat in the middle of the table. Hester hopped out of the way as Elizabeth did the same, putting Rose in the seat next to Theodore. By the time everyone had settled in, there was only one chair left near the end of the table, which Hester slowly took.

“You seem to be having a good weekend,” Louise said coyly from the next seat over. Hester picked at the garden salad in the bowl in front of her. The dressing was bright and acidic on top of mixed greens, but she was still having a hard time enjoying it.

“Not as good as you,” Hester replied, half-honestly, half-jokingly. Louise beamed.

“You know me,” she said, echoing Hester’s words from earlier. “Hard not to enjoy things not going Rose’s way. It happens so rarely.”

“I wonder why that is.”

“Because she’s spoiled?”

“Or one of God’s chosen. I just hope…no one gets hurt.”

Louise followed Hester’s gaze to Rose and Theodore at the other end of the table. They seemed to be chatting well enough, even if Rose’s posture was still overly stiff.

“Me too. But Rose would’ve found a problem with any gentleman who showed up. She always does. This one just happened to have a more…obvious flaw than the rest.”

“Maybe her being inhumanly tiny is the ‘flaw’,” Hester retorted, stabbing a large forkful of lettuce on her plate and shoving it in her mouth. Louise looked at her in surprise.

“Goodness, Hester. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t actually mean that. No one’s flawed, is my point. I think both ends of the spectrum are fine.”

“Clearly.”

“He would make a lovely addition to the family, Louise. If…Rose could see past it. He’s a good friend. It’s just unfortunate. That’s all.”

“It is?”

“I don’t know,” Hester muttered, eating another bite of salad. Her train of thought was getting away from her, and she clamped her mouth shut after swallowing the greens. She wasn’t going to let Louise and her British wordplay trick her into saying anything she didn’t want to.

Louise, to her credit, didn’t push it.

After lunch, the men all ended up returning home in the cars with the women who didn’t ride. Hester had been hoping for Theodore’s companionship on the ride back, but Rose had said something in his ear, and he had confirmed he’d be riding back in the car with his father and Lord James.

“I don’t wish to exhaust the horse,” he said, giving a tight smile as Rose nodded in approval.

“Rose, you’ll keep an eye on Hester? I want you two making it back safely,” Lord James had added, and Rose had confirmed she would with an angelic smile.

Of course, the moment the cars drove off, Rose kicked her horse into a canter above what Hester felt comfortable doing.

“I assume you won’t take so long, with less distractions this way,” Rose said before disappearing. “I’ll see you back at the house.”

Hester wanted to yell after her that the distractions were the forest, which were still there, thank you very much. Theodore was just along for the ride. But Rose was gone.
 

Ghostboo

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Friday, 7:23 pm

Oh please don’t let that be right, Hester thought as she stared at the clock on the wall of her room, blinking sleep out of her eyes.

After arriving back at Dovecoats from the ride in mid-afternoon, most of the household was getting changed for tea. Hester had gone to her room, staring into the small closet at her afternoon-appropriate dresses until she had felt her eyesight beginning to blur.

Bath first, she had told herself, scrubbing her soft skin until all the dirt of the ride was gone. Her coloring was pale, though not quite as pale as Rose. Freckles dotted out in wide expanses on her shoulders, the result of the springtime sun.

Once clean and staring at her clothes in just a towel, Hester had realized she wasn’t any more motivated to dress for tea (and watch Theodore and Rose thrown awkwardly together).

Just a quick rest, she thought decisively. Others will be doing it. I don’t need to make it to every teatime.

Unfortunately, a “quick rest” had apparently turned into several hours, when coupled with Hester’s restless night’s sleep and early morning.

Oh damn, damn, DAMN.

After throwing on her easiest evening gown - no buttons, just a slip-on black dress with long, loose sleeves - Hester splashed some water on her face to try to clear some of the obvious weariness from her expression. It didn’t work, she still looked like a mess. Attempting to drag a brush through her hair just seemed to make her red locks bigger and angrier, so Hester finally added a touch of hair tonic to tame the flyaways and just left it down completely. With a final, desperate look in the mirror, Hester fled downstairs to join the rest of the family in the library.

Trying to burst into the room a little less dramatically than she had at breakfast, Hester snuck in behind a footman entering carrying a tray of olives. She saw most of the elder members of the household gathered near the fire, including Lord and Lady Angkatell and Lord and Lady Owen. On the other side of the room, near a desk with a few miniature replicas of old sailing ships, stood Theodore, Rose, and Louise. Aunt Shirley hovered in a corner between the two groups, casting an eye between them as she seemed to try to keep invested in both conversations.

Slinking up to the group with her younger cousins, Hester saw that Rose was also wearing a black gown, though hers was fitted in a way that made her waist appear impossibly tiny. Even Louise’s deep red dress was cut to draw the eye from her broader shoulders and towards her curves, looking fashionable and happy. Hester shook out her sleeves, feeling simultaneously like she was drowning and enormous in her loose dress.

“Good evening, Miss Browning,” Theodore greeted Hester, as he was facing the door and caught her approach before the others. Hester returned his broad smile, diligently keeping her eyes on his face and not his own rounded form in black tie apparel.

“Nice of you to join us,” Rose said, sipping pink bubbles out of a round champagne glass.

“Yes, my…nap got a bit away from me,” Hester admitted. “Was there any particular reason no one woke me up?”

“We suspected you could use the rest,” Rose replied, her dark blue eyes meeting Hester’s light green ones with a knowing challenge. “We didn’t want to get in your way.” Hester rather suspected that Rose meant the opposite, but she didn’t rise to it.

“That’s very considerate,” Hester said simply, accepting her own champagne glass and a stuffed mushroom as they passed by.

“You look like a witch,” Louise giggled from behind her nearly empty drink.

“Louise!” Rose scolded, but Hester laughed herself as she looked down at her black gown, picturing the entire aesthetic with her wild hair and not exactly being able to argue. She took a bite of the still-hot mushroom, feeling the umami flavor mixed with a bit of creamy spice from the filling hit her tongue.

“Well, that was always my professional backup plan,” Hester replied.

What was?” Rose asked, inserting just enough of a scandalized tone to elicit a grin from Theodore - which he quickly hid behind sipping from his own cocktail.

“Village witch. You know, take the cottage on the outskirts of town, let the vines grow over it, terrify just enough children that they spread the word…” Hester tried her drink, feeling the bubbles of the champagne mixed with the sweetness of grenadine and tartness of lemon juice fill her mouth. It was quite good. “If books didn’t work out, it sounded like a peaceful enough existence.”

“I understand you’re joking, Hester, but we are in mixed company.”

“Oh, don’t be concerned about me,” Theodore chimed in. “I personally think Miss Browning would make an excellent village witch. When I come into my title, I’m happy to keep an eye out for open positions in the area.”

Hester grinned as Theodore offered a wink so subtle that she may have imagined it. Rose turned her scandalized expression towards the hefty young man, but before anyone could speak up in response, the gong for dinner was rung. Hester swallowed the rest of her mushroom and another sip of the champagne cocktail, realizing after missing tea that she was absolutely ravenous.

She shouldn’t have been surprised, but Hester couldn’t help but feel her heart sink when she realized the evening’s arranged seating had been changed around from yesterday. Theodore was between Rose and Lady Elizabeth, and Hester was at the other end of the table, with her Aunt Shirley.

The evening’s soup course provided a welcome distraction in the form of a rich seafood bisque, but as the edge began to get taken off of her hunger, Hester couldn’t help but find her gaze drifting over to Theodore’s end of the table more and more. Theodore and Rose were exchanging words, their expressions hovering between neutral and pleasant, with small smiles exchanged, and Hester wished she were just a little closer so that she could hear what they were saying.

“You may want to put your eyes back in your head, dear,” Aunt Shirley said. At these words, Hester dropped her spoon, which clattered like a gunshot into the bowl and splattered soup on each side of her place settings.

“I apologize, I slipped,” Hester told the table as they all looked at her in surprise, her face inevitably turning the color of her and Shirley’s hair. She dabbed at the soup on the tablecloth with her cloth napkin, while the butler of Dovecoats approached her.

“We’ll take care of that after dinner, miss,” Allen said. “You needn’t concern yourself with it.”

“Thanks, Allen. I’m sorry again.” Hester slowly put her napkin back in her lap.

“It was only a suggestion,” Shirley said as Allen stepped out of earshot, watching her great-niece. Hester struggled to meet her eyes.

“I was just…I’m still tired. I was staring into space,” Hester said, her protestations sounding weak, even to her.

“Yes, well, you were rather transfixed with the movement of ‘nothing’s spoon.”

Hester took a gulp of wine, her cheeks burning. She could barely taste it, though she could feel that it was a refreshingly light offset to the bisque. Shirley’s wry expression morphed into concern, and Hester knew what she was going to say before she said it.

“Hester….”

“I know, Aunt Shirley. I won’t be disappointed,” Hester said, furiously ignoring the twisting of her heart. “He’s just a friend. I want to help before we go back to America, that’s it. I know my place.”

“Oh, your ‘place’…don’t be so English,” Shirley replied with an exasperated wave of her hand. Hester wondered if she was doomed to be forever trapped in-between, both too English and too American for either group. “That isn’t what I meant.”

“What did you mean, then?”

“Just to be careful, I suppose,” Shirley said, after a sigh and a drink out of her own wine glass. She also watched Theodore and Rose for a moment, thoughtfully. “I’d tell any young lady the same. Heiress or title or no, feelings are difficult.”

“Okay,” Hester said hesitantly as her soup bowl was taken away. Shirley placed her hand on top of Hester’s and gave it a comforting squeeze on the table, and Hester offered her aunt a half-smile. Shirley returned it, nodded, and then turned back to her wine.

During the simple salad course winding down the meal, Lord James began to go over the plans for the next day’s morning grouse hunt.

“Now, as a reminder, Lady Charlotte will accompany me - Louise will go with Lord William, and Rose with Mr. Owen. Breakfast will be served a little early, so adjust accordingly. Elizabeth will stay behind to help direct set up for tomorrow evening’s ball, of course.”

“Cousin James, may I attend the hunt?” Hester asked as he seemed to be nearing the end of the discussion.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Hester. All the spots are filled. We didn’t realize you wanted to go, and we ironed out all the details at tea,” James replied. “But you may have your breakfast in your room tomorrow, whenever you wake up.” He phrased this as an especially exciting treat - since normally, Hester’s sleeping in meant she didn’t get served breakfast. But she was often fine with that, snacking to tide her over until luncheon.

“Thank you, I understand,” Hester said, masking her disappointment with a smile. She refused to look at Rose smirking out of the corner of her eye.

That night in the drawing room, sipping on a heavy port near the fireplace, Hester continued the not insignificant work of ignoring Rose’s glances towards her as her cousin discussed Theodore’s kindness and their conversations at teatime and dinner.

“I suppose you were right, Hester,” Rose said, finally forcing a look from her cousin. “I owe you thanks.”

Hester smiled tightly from behind her glass of port.

“Give it a rest, Rose,” Louise said from nearby. “We all know what you’re doing.”

“How on Earth would you know what I’m doing, when you’ve never received even a scrap of attention from a man?” Rose replied sweetly. “The weight of this entire family is on my shoulders to marry. What possible comparison could you have?”

Despite the intensity of the words behind Rose’s sticky tone, Louise only rolled her eyes. She was clearly more than used to it. Elizabeth spoke up, as she always did, to try to divert Rose’s attention. Hester waited for Louise to look her way to meet her cousin’s eyes.

“Thank you,” Hester mouthed. Louise just smiled wanly and lifted her glass a fraction of an inch at Hester.

Shirley, standing a little further off from the others, just watched it all unfold.

After everyone had departed for bed that night, Hester tried her best to get more sleep. Despite her nap…or perhaps because of it…she was still exhausted. But all she did was toss and turn in the dark until she got up and lit a candle to do some writing. Unfortunately, she was supposed to be closing in on a happy ending, which she always found to be the trickiest part of romance novels. And in her current state, all she could write was more drama and discord. Competition for the attention of the rugged Montana cowboy that had vanished chapters ago popped back up, family disapproval dominating conversation, and so on until Hester finally threw away the pages and blew out her candle. She laid back down and stared at the ceiling.
 

Ghostboo

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Saturday, 10:49 am

One upside to being left behind for the hunt that morning was a truly slow wake up. Hester hadn’t experienced the luxury much on her trip, since she always felt at least a little bad about missing breakfast and tried to make herself as productive as possible the moment she opened her eyes. Today, though, she took her time.

It was a beautiful sunny day out, so Hester dressed in a sleeveless forest green linen day dress. Her hair was swept up into a loose bun to keep it off her neck, with curly red tendrils framed her face. Retrieving a large woolen blanket from the trunk in her room, Hester gathered up the pages of her novel as well as another book off the shelf and headed downstairs.

The staff were more than happy to supply her with a few sandwiches and a carafe of coffee before she headed outside. A few hundred yards from the main entrance of Dovecoats there was a large tree that provided some - though not total - shade. Hester enjoyed the romantic aesthetic of the sun glints that shone through the shape of the leaves, though, so she set her blanket beneath it and began to read.

Hester’s comfort book that she had brought out with her was Jane Eyre, much to the surprise of anyone who had actually read HER novels. Hester’s writing was closer to a lighthearted Anna Karenina than the gothic tale of the adventures at Thornfield Hall, but Hester loved reading stories different from her own. The horror didn’t make it to her own pages because she meant what she said - she wanted to give women a break from that, in real life and fictionally. But she couldn’t help enjoying it herself.

Besides, she imagined Mr. Rochester himself of the “strong features” as being a large man himself. And it helped her fully understand the heroine Jane on that score.

After a couple chapters and a cup of coffee, Hester was feeling calmer and more ready to try tackling her own story again. She rolled from her back onto her front, setting the pages out in front of her as she propped herself up on her elbows. She set down Jane Eyre as a spot to write on, using the fountain pen to bring her new ideas for her character’s happy ending to life.

“Is this the magic of a novelist in action?”

The deep, steady, amused voice shocked Hester out of her working reverie. Her head turned quickly to the left, where she saw Theodore standing just outside the border of her large blanket. He was shading his eyes from the sun, and smiling down at her. A little ways behind him, Hester saw the rest of the hunting party heading into Dovecoats, with the slight dark figure of Rose staring over in their direction as she walked.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say magic…that’s my other job, remember?” Hester tried not to fixate on how much larger Theodore looked from this position. Staring up at him illuminated in the sun called excellent attention to the solid width of his legs, the strong yet soft expanse of his chest and arms, and most importantly, the gentle gravity of his deep, round belly. “Would you like to join me? I can’t finish these sandwiches and coffee on my own.”

“Are you certain you don’t mind? I’m not interrupting?”

“Of course not. Please.”

Theodore hesitated, then made his way onto the blanket. It was somewhat slow going to get down next to Hester, but like getting onto the horse, Hester was impressed by his flexibility. His legs curved under each other, and while he did collapse somewhat near the ground, it wasn’t nearly as awkward as even Hester was sure she looked when she went to sit.

Hester capped her fountain pen and sat up carefully, gathering her papers before pouring Theodore his own cup of coffee and opening the basket of sandwiches and offering them to him.

“Thank you, Miss Browning.”

“How was hunting, Mr. Owen? Did you bring back many grouses?”

“My father and Lord James certainly did,” Theodore said. “But I’m hopeless at shooting, always have been.”

Rose must have loved that, Hester thought, remembering how her cousin considered her own shooting skills to be exemplary. This must have shown in Hester’s face, for Theodore continued.

“I could feel my conversation companion getting more and more frustrated as the time went on, so I offered to let her shoot at the next drive. But that was, it seems, also the wrong thing to do. She was rather scandalized.”

“Well, if I’ve learned anything during my time in England, it’s that the only thing worse than a man being mediocre at something is…offering to let a woman try it,” Hester laughed. “We may be better at it than you, and that just won’t do.” She elongated the last word into a British pronunciation as best she could, deewwww.

“Heaven forbid,” Theodore said wryly. “Now, how is your writing going? Do you need a second set of eyes on anything?”

“It’s going well. And I’ll share it eventually, but…I’m afraid if I showed you my work now, then you and your family have a much higher likelihood of leaving this weekend early in a whirl of scandal - far beyond simply implying a woman could hunt a grouse - and then Rose would never forgive me,” Hester said, only half-kidding as she put her book’s pages back in her basket.

“I imagine she’d get over it,” Theodore said, his tone taking a turn for the even more dry. “Though, I’m especially intrigued now. Your marketing for your work must be exceptional.”

“I just have to go with whatever the publisher’s decide, I’m afraid,” laughed Hester. “And I’m usually underselling - it’s how I’m even able to come stay with my much more respectable side of the family.”

“It’s a new century,” Theodore replied, waving his hand dismissively. “If relations and the world can’t handle some women daring to experience pleasure by now, then what on Earth are we doing?”

“I quite agree,” Hester said, surprised, and ignoring the tingling that rose up at Theodore’s use of the word pleasure. “Though not everyone does.”

“I believe someone told me recently that - mmm - ‘everyone is very stupid sometimes’, so…”

“They sound incredibly wise. What an excellent point.”

Theodore grinned and took a bite of his sandwich, and Hester followed suit. Hers was a cucumber and cream cheese on white bread, while she had given Theodore the roast beef on thick brown bread. After a few moments of thoughtful chewing silence, Theodore spoke.

“I had a conversation with my mother yesterday.”

“Oh yes, Mr. Owen?”

“Yes, I - ” Theodore hesitated, and Hester began to wonder if something was wrong. But he looked at her, and continued in a more serious tone: “would it be quite impertinent if I requested for you to call me Theodore? Or even Theo? You can certainly say no, but as a friend, it would make communication much simpler.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Hester breathed. When Theodore looked at her curiously, she elaborated. “I rather despise being called Miss Browning, so if I agree, then you must call me Hester. And make everyone happy.”

“All right then, it’s agreed, Hester.”

“Thank you…Theo. So. How did the conversation with your mother go?”

“Well enough, I suppose. And rather quickly. When we arrived from our ride, you probably saw me approach her. She inquired whether I was certain I needed the hors d'oeuvre in my hand, and I told her it may not be a need, but a want. And then, like you suggested - that her care was appreciated, but the execution unnecessary. That as a marginal change in my public food consumption was unlikely to alter the outcome one way or the other, I simply wished for us all to enjoy the weekend together.”

“Oh, wonderful, Theo!” Hester finished her sandwich and clapped a couple times. “I know that can’t have been easy for everyone’s British sensibilities - how did she take it?”

“Fine, it seemed. Lunch was called immediately after, and she stayed rather quiet, which is an improvement from criticizing. Of course, she could have just been worried that Rose would overhear on my other side, or that she is planning to use the reprieve to bargain for a stricter diet after the weekend.”

“That’s true. Still, I’m - wait, ‘Rose’? Is she calling you Theo now, too?” This wasn’t any of Hester’s business, but she couldn’t help blurting it out as her brain whirred to catch up.

“Oh - well, ‘Theodore’ seems to be her preference, but - yes. She offered use of her Christian name during the hunt today, so I reciprocated,” Theodore replied, breaking eye contact with Hester to tug at the loose strings of the wool blanket beneath them. He also took the time to finish his own sandwich.

“That’s nice,” Hester said, hoping her encouraging tone came across despite the force she had to put behind it. Of course it was nice. It was progress! Perhaps Rose would come around, and Theodore would join their family.

“I suppose,” Theodore said, his dark eyes looking up with a half-smile from the blanket. Hester ignored the melting feeling in her legs. “But the conversation with my mother could not have been more perfectly timed, really. As the last picnic luncheon I had attended is where my engagement ended, so I was not going to be in a position to gently receive any more negativity.”

“Really?”

“Unfortunately, yes. It was more intimate than the one yesterday - a bit more like this, actually - but is still an unpleasant memory.”

“Did you eat the last deviled egg?” Hester asked, knowing it wasn’t her best joke, but unable to hide her curiosity. Theodore still rewarded her effort with a smirk.

“Perhaps not the last, but certainly the most.”

“Who was she?”

“Celeste was our neighbor. Which, as you know from the size of these estates, meant we saw each other occasionally, but not constantly. We formed a connection when I was still in school, and while I was getting plump from inactivity, I wasn’t…much more than that, at the time.

She was pretty and kind, and her parents enthusiastically encouraged a marriage to a future Viscount. Mine were…ambivalent. Celeste’s family had money, though no connections to a title of their own. Still, it could have been a worse choice in their eyes, so they left well enough alone.

I wanted to wait to marry Celeste until I had a firm grasp on my work moving forward, and we could get a place of our own. This took a couple years, and in that time I grew…well, just, grew. And with every stone, Celeste became more distant. I took this to be understandable frustration at the delay in our future, and I attempted to help her patience with gifts of jewelry, chaperoned trips…whatever I could think of.

But once I was ready to forge our life together and tried to move forward with the wedding, she actually balked harder. It took…longer than it should have for her to admit the truth, and for me to see it. On a picnic just outside London, Celeste told me that I had grown into a man she did not have interest in marrying. That if I could not control my size, she had serious doubts about my ability to control an estate, or her happiness.

She went on to marry the…third or fourth son of an earl two counties over, I believe. Even a life where she was all but guaranteed to never come into a title sounded more appealing than one with me.”

“Well, she sounds like a perfect nightmare,” Hester said matter-of-factly after a stunned pause. Theodore, who had been speaking frankly, half-smiled with just a hint of sadness.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been engaged again, but at my parent’s insistence, I’ve certainly been featured on the marriage mart circuit. And Celeste’s views on my abilities and appearance seem to be shared by a great many eligible young women. I hesitate to say whether it’s a flaw, or in any way their fault.”

“Theo, when we first met, you called me optimistic. But I’m rapidly learning that that’s really you. Of course the girl who would say that sort of thing to you isn’t ‘kind’! And they may be ‘eligible’, but any girl who shares that sort of sentiment is actually a blithering idiot.”

“I suppose I may be an optimist,” Theo said slowly, cautiously. His dark gaze seemed to hold space for confusion, and something else. “But… I understand their choice, that’s all. Hester, are you saying you don’t?”

That’s exactly what Hester was saying, but she wasn’t exactly in a position to explain how much.

“I…I understand that societal convention says men have to somehow be simultaneously lean and strong. In the same way I ‘understand’ that women are expected to be perfectly smooth yet curvy. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, or think anyone who stubbornly buys into that appearance only while punishing anyone who dares to fall outside of it is in the right.”

As her last word hovered in the air between them, the sound of Dovecoats’s heavy front door opening pulled their attention. Lady Elizabeth took a few steps out, and raised a hand in greeting.

“Hester!” She called. “Could you come inside and give me a hand with something?”

“Coming, Cousin Elizabeth,” Hester responded, and Elizabeth turned back inside. “I suppose I must…”

“Yes, I ought to as well,” Theodore said. Hester got to her feet, leaning against the trunk of the large tree.

“Lots to do before tonight.”

“Yes, the ball.”

“Yes.”

A moment of silence lit something in Hester as Theodore looked at her.

“Hester…”

“Yes?”

“I hate to ask, but…could you give me a hand up? That’s the trickier part.”

Hester resisted laughing and crying, and just smiled.

“Of course.”

“Now, I don’t wish to pull you down…” Theodore seemed to be musing half to himself as he looked around.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. See? The tree has our back,” Hester said, using one hand to loop around a hefty lower branch while reaching out the other to Theodore, grinning. He looked at her in surprise, then smiled hesitantly back as he got into a better position. He placed both feet out in front of him with his knees up, pressing into his round, squishy belly. Reaching out with one hand, he clasped Hester’s free one to pull himself to his feet.

Hester felt faint, but diligently held on. Theodore’s hand was soft yet strong, and the tingling that erupted where they touched rapidly spread through the rest of her body. She knew that Theodore was likely trying his best to just use her for balance as he heaved himself to his feet, but she still felt enough of his considerable weight that she had to hold on to the tree branch a little tighter to steady herself.

“Thank you,” said Theodore, his round cheeks a light red color as he looked away from Hester’s eyes. Up close, Hester could see the color accentuate Theodore’s own freckles, which scattered lightly across his nose like stars. He began to brush at his pants, and then at his middle, shaking off the crumbs from their snack. Hester’s knees went weak as she saw his plush belly wobble under his hands and well-fitted hunting shirt.

Still, she quickly collected herself, and Theodore helped Hester gather up her belongings. They made their way inside quietly, each managing to only glance at the other when they were looking away. Once in the entrance hall, Theo offered Hester a quick bow of his head.

“I’ll see you tonight, Hester.”

“Thank you for the company, Theo,” Hester said after a brief pause where she made sure to hold back exactly and entirely what she truly wanted to say. Theodore smiled, and headed towards his bedroom’s wing.

“What did you need, Cousin Elizabeth?” Hester asked after a few minutes of looking through the hustle and bustle of the staff putting together the decorations and set up for the evening’s ball.

“Hmm?” Elizabeth, who was a friendlier-looking and significantly taller version of her daughter Rose, looked down at Hester through her glasses. “Oh…could you check with Rose? I think she had something she needed help with. She’s in the drawing room.”

Hester found Rose, Louise, and her Aunt Shirley all sitting in various corners of the drawing room. Louise was working on embroidery, and Shirley had a glass of what Hester suspected wasn’t just tea as she talked with Rose.

“Hello,” Hester said. “I’m sorry to interrupt. Rose, your mother said you might have something you need my help with?”

“I don’t,” Rose said, turning on the stiff couch to face her cousin. “I simply wanted to ensure you had time to rest and prepare for the ball tonight.”

“Ah.” Hester kept her gaze level with her cousin, but didn’t push back on the obvious challenge. She thought about her dress for the evening - a light green (yes, that color again, but with her fiery red hair her options were far more limited than most) and gold stitched ballgown that laced up the back. It took quite a bit of time and effort to get into, and so Hester avoided confrontation in order to ask a favor. “Rose, could I take you up on your offer to borrow Jane for a bit tonight? Before or after you’re using her? I could use a little help with my dress.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Hester,” Rose said, her tone clearly conveying how far from sorry she truly was. “But Jane will be far too busy tonight doing my own dressing and hair. It is a ball, you know.”

“I’d heard,” Hester sighed. “All right.”

“I can come help you, Hester,” Louise spoke, looking up from her embroidery. “Honestly, Rose.”

“Honestly, Louise, I’d think you’d need all the time you could get on your own appearance.”

“Didn’t you just say that you needed your lady’s maid all night?”

“There’s a difference between necessity and responsibility. What are you smiling at, Grandmama?”

Shirley had been smirking heavily into her cup, and looked up as she was addressed.

“Oh, just pleased that I no longer have to go through the trials and tribulations of being young,” Shirley said, meeting Rose’s gaze levelly. She raised it to lock eyes with Hester as she added, “and fascinated to see how this weekend turns out.”

“Thank you, Louise,” Hester said finally, turning to her cousin. Louise offered her a smile, and Hester felt simultaneously relieved and claustrophobic in this room. “Could you come get me for tea time too, please? I’m going to take my things up.”

“Of course, Hester.”
 
Last edited:

Ghostboo

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Saturday, 3:38 pm

Tea was usually a less formal affair than other meals, and with the Angkatell’s ball looming that evening, it was even more so. Louise came to get Hester as promised, though it wasn’t as necessary as Hester had thought it would be. She was too antsy to rest much, and had spent the down time working on her novel. As she wrote in that the romantic interest’s happiness manifested in a softer frame, she debated how much of a tantrum her male editor would throw about it.

Women like MUSCLES, Hester. Height, strength, and a LEAN build is going to get us female readers.

Is it, Ross, really? Is that what we ALL like? Mmm.


Hester had a little fun imagining the flabbergasted response Ross Bryson of Bryson Publishing would have to that.

Once in the drawing room for tea, Hester saw Theodore was already seated next to Rose on a couch. Theodore’s size combined with it only being a seat for two people meant that they looked awfully cozy, and Hester turned away. Right into Louise’s eyes, who was looking at her apologetically. Trying not to scream, Hester sat in an armchair across from Aunt Shirley and accepted a cup of tea and a plate of crisp lettuce wrapped around ground turkey, bean sprouts, and a creamy, spicy sauce.

“It’s good to see you, Hester,” Lord James spoke cheerfully from his seat near the window. His wife, Lady Elizabeth, was across from him, though the elder Owens were absent. Likely resting, before the ball. “Now remember, everyone: guests should begin arriving for the big night by 6 or so, so I’d recommend getting any rest or extra dressing requirements out of the way once you finish your tea.”

Hester saw Theodore turn his head and say something to Rose that no one else could hear, and her cousin covered her mouth to laugh. Hester bit down on her teacup with an audible “clang”. Wonderful! That’s wonderful. WONDERFUL.

“What exactly did that cup do to you?” Shirley cocked a red manicured brow at her great-niece.

“I don’t know, Aunt Shirley.”

“Well, there are probably better ways to deal with it, no?”

“Yes, Aunt Shirley.” Hester resisted grinding her teeth on the words, and shoved another lettuce wrap in her mouth. It was crispy and well-seasoned yet rich with the sauce, but she barely tasted it.

It wasn’t too long before everyone’s tea was more or less finished, and people began to filter out of the room. Shirley left first, after giving Hester a quick pat on the knee that Hester wasn’t certain whether it was supposed to be comforting or critical. James left next, and minutes later was Elizabeth, whom Rose began to follow.

“Rose,” Theodore spoke up from his seat. “Do you mind if I have a quick word? We can take a turn outside, or…”

“You may talk in here! Just don’t take too long,” Elizabeth burst back in to respond, apparently not out of earshot yet. She gave her eldest daughter a gentle push back into the room, and beckoned at Louise and Hester. “Come along, girls. Let’s give them a little privacy.”

Hester felt a wave of nausea so strong she covered her mouth in case her entire tea tried to make a hasty exit. That didn’t happen, but nor did the feeling subside much. It was like her heart had splashed into her stomach and made war on absolutely everything in it.

“Come on, Hester,” Louise said quietly, taking her cousin by the arm. Hester couldn’t look her in the face, but allowed herself to be pulled up and led to the door. “Let’s go get ready.”

As the trio stepped out of the room, Hester saw Rose return to the couch next to Theodore. She gripped Louise’s arm tighter as her heart faltered again. Elizabeth closed the door behind them, grinning.

“I’d better wait here, girls, and make sure they don’t get too carried away after the engagement. Oh! I can’t wait to tell James…if you see him, will you tell him to come find us?”

“Of course, Mama,” Louise said, continuing to walk with Hester. Once they were out of Elizabeth’s earshot, Louise asked, “will you be all right, Hester? You’re very pale.”

For one of the first times that weekend when asked about her feelings, Hester was fully transparent.

“I feel like I’m turning to stone.”

”Oh dear. I’m sorry,” Louise said as they reached Hester’s door. “I’ll come by after I’m done and help you get dressed for the ball tonight. You enjoy dancing, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then we’ll have a wonderful evening dancing,” Louise said firmly. “You’ll forget all about Theodore Owen for a little while, and I’ll forget all about how smug Rose will be with getting her way and a new prospective title.”

“You’re quite the optimist,” Hester said, remembering sadly the echo of that sentiment earlier in the day, but about Theo. “Thank you, Louise. For all of it. I’ll see you later, okay?”
 

Ghostboo

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Unfortunately I've run out of time to edit the rest for publishing right now - but it's written and will be up later tonight or tomorrow! :D
 

Ghostboo

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Saturday, 8:49pm

In the end, without Louise, Hester almost certainly wouldn’t have left her room again that night. She managed a bath on her own, but the thought of putting any additional effort into her appearance - for what, exactly? - made her feel exhausted. Once clean enough, she had put on a dressing gown and lay on her bed, trying to proofread through her novel even as all the words did was blur in front of her eyes.

When Louise had arrived back at Hester’s room a little before 6, done up in a stunning midnight blue gown with her hair tamed into an updo, she found Hester still in that fetal position.

“Oh, cousin,” sighed Louise.

“Perhaps I’m not well enough to attend.”

“Don’t speak like that, Hester. Do you know how many men that have come to court Rose that I’ve fallen in love with? At least two. And they never look at me twice even when Rose rejects them. I know it’s hard, but…we’re going to enjoy ourselves anyway. All right?”

“Louise…I’ve never felt this way before.”

“Never?”

“No. And…I did think…that he saw me. Really.”

Louise sighed again, but Hester knew she wasn’t angry or frustrated. She opened Hester’s closet, scanned for a moment, then pulled out the ballgown. Hester thought about protesting, wearing something simpler - but she knew Louise would never let her get away with that, so she just sat up.

“We will have fun tonight, you and me,” Louise said firmly. “Even if I have to kill Rose to make it happen.”

“Why do I feel like you’d take just about any excuse for that?”

“Because you’ve been in a room with us for more than two seconds,” Louise laughed, offering Hester her hand. “Come on now, cousin. Getting knocked down is fine, but we must get up again.”

Not long after, Hester was laced into the dress. The gold leaf accents brought out the spring highlights in her hair, and the green silk shape brought attention to Hester’s hourglass. Still, from the neck up, she looked sad and bedraggled.

“Come sit,” Louise gestured for Hester to take a seat at the vanity in her room. The three-paneled mirror showed Hester’s pale complexion from multiple angles, and Hester closed her eyes in protest. “Listen, I’m going to work on your hair, while you try to get yourself some color. Okay? Pinch your cheeks and your lips. I’ll try to find a bee to sting them if I have to.”

Hester smiled weakly at the joke and began - though it felt rather silly - to tap at the high point of her cheeks. It didn’t take long for pink spots to appear, and for Hester - to her surprise - to begin to look and feel less sickly.

“I don’t know too much about hair styling, but I believe I can manage what you usually do,” Louise said, as she brushed. “With the braid?”

Hester confirmed that sounded good, and not too much later, the pair were ready to join the partygoers whose noise and music drifted from downstairs. Hester did a slow turn at the fuller length mirror, appreciating that she still looked like her - with messy hair half up, half down, and her usual green - but just a little lovelier, flushed and fancy.

“Thank you again, Louise.”

“Think nothing of it. Thank me by having a good time tonight. Now let’s go find dance partners.”

The ball was set up primarily in the great hall, with a couple rooms offshooting to areas with food or seating for talking. The band played in the back of the great hall, filling the estate with lively string music as the partygoers performed near-perfect choreographed steps to the beat. Hester had never seen Dovecoats so full of people.

Some of the dances were the same as in America, and some Hester had needed to ask Louise and Rose to teach her. She wasn’t perfect at either sort, but it was true that she loved to dance, and that shone through if nothing else.

Louise had introduced Hester to several large groups of people standing on the edge of the dance floor, and it wasn’t long before each had a partner for a waltz. Hester was also lucky that she really only spied Theodore or Rose in occasional blurred glances, and only once when they were together, over the course of the first couple hours.

Near the end of that time, though, Hester saw Theodore and Rose dancing together across the floor. Rose was in a magnificent grey-blue dress that shimmered with every twirl, and Theodore’s impressive size cut an opening for them on the dance floor wherever he spun. Hester’s heart skipped a beat, but she turned her attention fully back to her partner and scolded herself. For shame, Hester Browning. He is going to be a member of the family, whether you like it or not. So you better learn to like it. It won’t be a constant reunion, but you know seeing him sometimes will be better than never, even if he IS married to your cousin. Hester nodded firmly at this, and her dance partner looked at her curiously.

“Is everything all right, miss?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

After a couple more dances, Hester decided she was ready for a drink. She helped herself to some punch in the next room, trying and failing to pace herself as she utilized a small lace fan to try to bring down the heated flush on her face from the dancing.

Inevitably, though, she could still feel the flaming red across her complexion when Theodore entered the room.

“Hester!” His broad grin as he approached caused another skip, and then an ache, in her heart. “There you are! I’ve been hoping to find you.”

“Oh,” Hester replied, forcing a weak smile. “Well, here I am.”

Theodore looked at her curiously, but didn’t allow himself to be diverted from what was clearly a mission.

“I’ve heard you love to dance - and I believe I even saw you out on the floor earlier. Would you do me the honor?”

“I…” Hester was about to bow out by way of her drink, but she realized immediately that the cup in her hand was empty. Resigning herself to at least a song’s worth of pain, she said, “sure, Theo.”

Hester allowed herself to be led to the dance floor as the current song wound down. She tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to not fixate on how good Theo’s hand felt holding her own. She dreaded what that would mean for the overall closeness of a dance. She had learned long ago that there was nothing quite like it for calling attention to chemistry, or to a lack thereof.

Tonight was no different. As Theo took her in his arms, Hester had to clamp her teeth firmly together to refuse escape to a slight whimper. His grip was firm and confident, his biceps clearly well developed under a layer of fat. Which, speaking of, there was so much to be had on his belly that there was no way to avoid it pressing, just a little, into Hester’s own torso. Every spot that touched her, through clothing or no, tingled like frantic stardust.

“I must apologize for all the forced intimacy,” Theo said, looking down ruefully at where the hang of his belly met Hester’s trimmer waist. “It’s a necessary evil to ensure we don’t take up so much space that we knock out every other couple on the dance floor.”

“As fun as that particular option sounds, I really don’t mind.”

“And you mean that, don’t you? You aren’t just being polite,” Theodore said, seemingly half speaking to Hester, half to himself. The music began to swell, and with it, Theodore moved in an expert curve. Hester stumbled a little, but quickly got in the rhythm.

“Of course. I don’t really do that.” Theo looked at her curiously as they twirled, and Hester elaborated. “I don’t believe in being purposefully impolite, by any means. That’s an unkindness few deserve. But I won’t lie for the sake of decorum. I can dance around it. But I won’t say what I don’t mean.”

“The perfect blend of American and English, then.”

“I try.”
 

Ghostboo

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A moment of silence passed as Theodore spun Hester around another couple. Hester tightened her grip on his shoulder as he did so, feeling the way her fingers sunk in a few breathtakingly soft centimeters until they hit firm muscle.

“How is your book coming along, Hester? I hope I didn’t interrupt the flow too much this morning.”

“Not at all. It’s…coming…slowly. I have difficulty with happy endings.”

“Really? I would have guessed that would be your favorite part.”

“I enjoy reading them, absolutely. But when it comes to my own…sometimes they feel just out of reach.”

There was another pause as Theodore cocked his head just slightly at Hester. She looked away, down at their feet, pretending to need a reference to steady herself.

“That’s unfortunate,” he said, a little softer. Hester knew she was just imagining things, but she could have sworn he held her tighter as they maneuvered past other dancers.

“It’s all right. I’ll get something out on the page and the publisher will adjust it as needed. I just don’t have too much of a frame of reference of my own - but I can always use other’s. Perhaps Rose will help me, if I ask nicely,” Hester said, a little wryly. Theodore’s expression developed even more curiosity as he looked at her.

“Rose?”

“Well, yes. Preparing to be married to a future Viscount after a whirlwind romance. Who wouldn’t love to read about that?”

The music swelled, then began to die down. The couples on the dance floor slowed with it, and began to slowly disperse. Theodore, however, stayed still, not releasing Hester as he stared at her.

“Hester…do you think Rose and I are engaged?”

“Aren’t you?” Hester looked back at him, just as baffled. Theodore finally seemed to realize he was the last one with his hands still around his partner, and he dropped them, his face lighting up in a slight blush. Hester diligently tried not to count the freckles that illuminated on his cheeks. Still, they both stayed on the dance floor as the rest of the partygoers swirled around them.

“No,” Theodore said emphatically, shaking his head and even laughing a little. “Good gracious, no. We are not compatible. We spoke and agreed after tea this afternoon, and then broke the news to our parents.”

Hester’s brain was having trouble wrapping itself around the news being presented to her, though she realized she hadn’t actually seen the elder relatives yet that evening. No Lord and Lady Angkatell, or Lord and Lady Owen.

“Really? How did they take it?”

“Not terribly well on my end, but with the ball coming up, they didn’t have too much time to complain. I imagine once we get home I’ll receive an earful about stepping up my diet restrictions. They’re unlikely to believe it’s a genuine incompatibility and not just my size, though, of course, that doesn’t help.”

“But it doesn’t hurt, Theo. Not for the right person.”

“That’s opti-”

“Don’t just say it’s optimistic. It isn’t. It’s my experience,” Hester interrupted, frustrated. She could feel herself abandoning respectability, but couldn’t make herself care. The relief at this news and the panic at the impending end of the weekend overwhelmed her, and she continued, rapidly. “I know…it might seem like I’m just trying to make a play on Rose’s coattails. I’m not. You’re a future Viscount, Theo, and I’m a theoretical bodice-ripper. I have no delusions or expectations about this. But I think it’s important for you to realize that there are women out there who do - or who will - love you as you are. And I’m sure at least some of them are highly born and well bred. Please, don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of your parents and their ideal but judgmental future daughter-in-law. It’s unnecessary, and frankly, would be a shame because you’re incredible now.”

The silence from him was deafening, despite the noise and chatter of the party around them. Theodore’s incredulous dark eyes stared into Hester’s green ones, but this time, she refused to look away. She stood by her words, even if she had just humiliated herself and her family. If they weren’t going to be joining in matrimony anyway, what was the problem? It was all the truth.

“Come with me, please,” Theodore said finally, taking Hester’s hand and leading her away from the dance floor as the next waltz started up. Hester, dumbfounded, allowed herself to be dragged away.

“Where are we going?”

“Somewhere with a little breathing room. To talk.”

So Hester did her best to keep up with Theodore’s long strides as they exited the grand hall. They made it into the long hallway between a stairwell to the upper floors, and the library. But as Theo turned to speak, they quickly realized that there were others who’d had a similar idea. As words floated out of the library’s open door, footsteps also called attention to the fact that Rose and Louise were making their way down the stairs. Theo, Hester, Rose, and Louise all stared at each other as the latter duo made it to the same landing, at which point they all turned their attention to the speaking from the library.

“Can you speak to her again? We’ll, we’ll talk to Theodore too,” Lady Charlotte was saying. The slight slur in her words indicated an above and beyond appreciation for the evening’s punch, Hester thought.

“Rose is…rather determined,” James’s voice rose in response.

“Yes, but, but, what if we can promise her a diligent weight loss regime for Theodore until the wedding? If we plan for, say, three months from now…that’s several stone he can take off, at least!”

Theo dropped Hester’s hand, his fingers nervously playing with the buttons on the front of his waistcoat. He stared into the library, while Hester stared at him.

“Once Rose makes up her mind…” Charlotte was tentatively adding.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Rose muttered, striding across the hall to enter the library. “We’re here, Mama. Papa.” She gestured in a quick, tense motion for Theodore and Hester to join her. They did, slowly, and Louise came up with them. Hester saw that Theodore’s father William was there too, as well as her Aunt Shirley, lurking as always in a corner with a drink. Started faces looked at the newcomers as they joined.

“Hello all,” James said, sounding, Hester thought, actually nervous. “We were just…discussing the news.”

“Theodore, darling, don’t you think you gave up a tad quickly?” Charlotte was asking, trying (and failing) to whisper as she crossed the room to take hold of her son’s upper arm. Her hand couldn’t wrap more than halfway around it, and both Theo and Hester stared at the way her fingers sunk into him. “Rose is a beautiful and accomplished young lady, so of course she has reservations. Couldn’t we all work together to improve the circumstances?”

“Mother, you can just say my size. We know that’s what you mean.”

“Well, since you now bring it up, I hope it’s okay to say - we could have a chat with chef about decreasing portions and sweets again, couldn’t we? There was that salad that you loved-”

“I have never loved a salad,” Theo said flatly, stepping out of his mother’s grip. “Merely tolerated. And Mother, Father, perhaps I didn’t make this clear, but - I don’t want to marry Rose.”

Rose made a slightly offended noise, and Theo turned to her apologetically.

“It’s absolutely nothing personal, Rose, you know that.”

“I know,” Rose begrudgingly admitted. “I don’t want to marry you either. But still.”

“Theodore, how can you say that? I understand if your feelings are hurt, but the way to handle rejection isn’t to project. It’s to work on yourself, at least for the next time. We can-”

“‘We’ aren’t going to do anything,” Theo said firmly. “What I want is to marry Hester.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Hester, who had been feeling more or less invisible from her position to the side and behind Theo, observed every eye in the room fall on her. Each expression was a varying degree of shock, horror, and amusement - except for Theo, who looked startled at his own outburst.

Then, all at once, the room erupted.

“Is this a joke?”

“A novelist from America?”

“I’m sure she’s NICE but - what are you thinking?”

Meanwhile, someone was just exhaling a delighted “ohhHHHHhhhhhh” as a soundtrack to the rest of the babbling. Hester shrank back a little, her ears ringing. Theo took a step in front of her, just a human shield, and tried to speak over the din.

“She also doesn’t have to. Of course. If she doesn’t want to.” He gave Hester an apologetic look before turning back to the crowd. “But if she did agree, then I would be the luckiest man on Earth, and I am absolutely certain of that.”

“Please be reasonable, here.”

“I don’t understand what happened!”

“We should have been keeping a closer eye, and that’s OUR fault, but-”

As the words began to crescendo, Hester jumped as someone touched her elbow. She looked over to see Louise taking hold of her arm.

“Come on,” Louise said. “We don’t need to hear all this.”
 

Ghostboo

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Hester, feeling rather faint, once again allowed herself to be led out of a room. Louise took her through a few hallways, to an area of Dovecoats that Hester wasn’t even sure she’d been in before. The noise of the ball was still audible, but it was much more muffled than even from Hester’s bedroom. Louise opened a door that led into a small study, with a desk and maps on the wall, and led them both inside.

“Wait here,” Louise told her, turning around and leaving without another word.

Slowly, feeling like she was in a dream, Hester sat on the small leather couch that was up against one wall. Theodore wanted to marry her - he wanted to marry her? But could he, even? Did he have any idea what kind of scandal that could entail? Heart pounding in a way she didn’t think she’d ever felt before, Hester put her head in her hands, her thoughts buzzing a million miles an hour.

It could have been a couple minutes or a couple hours later when the door opened again. Hester looked up, expecting to see Louise come to collect her and likely deliver bad news - The Owens all left in a huff, or Theodore agreed to marry Rose, or I’m being sent back to America NOW, or…

But instead of Louise, Hester saw with surprise that it was her Aunt Shirley standing in the entrance. And as she moved into the room, a much larger shadow filled the doorway - Theodore was following her. Hester clapped a hand to her mouth, then quickly got to her feet, brushing at her dress with her free hand to hopefully clear it of any wrinkles that had sprung during her time seated.

“All right, now, properly this time, young man.” Shirley was wagging a finger at Theodore, and he was nodding, looking abashed under the older woman’s gaze.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll give you kids a minute.”

And with that, Shirley was gone. Theodore turned to Hester, a hesitant smile on his round face. Hester worried her frantically pounding heart might actually burst, and she’d die with no idea of what Theodore wanted to say.

“I must apologize for all that. I didn’t mean to announce my intentions to the whole room. Or…well, I would have. But I had planned to talk to you about them first.”

“So you meant it?”

“Of course I did. I’ve never met anyone like you, and I know I never will again. You deserve to have this done properly. So, Hester Browning…”

Theodore started to bend one knee, and Hester panicked. Rushing across the room, she grabbed his forearm and pulled him back up to his feet.

“Wait, Theo, wait,” she said, and she watched Theodore’s hopeful expression collapse in a restrained dismay. It caused her heart to break, and she sped up her words. “I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing. I mean, your parents were right. I am a novelist - and a smutty one, at that - from America. I bring no respectability and…well, some money, but not Dovecoats money.”

“I’m actually looking forward to visiting America, or even splitting our time, if you would like. And I don’t need any more money, Hester. Respectability is frankly overrated. Your advice about living life according to our own terms is one of the things I love most about you. I don’t need a high born English wife who’s going to fold in horror at the first sign of anyone laughing at us because of how I look. Which already happens plenty on my own, and will doubtlessly continue after I marry. I don’t need a wife who agrees with them just to make my parents, or anyone else but you, happy.”

“But, Theo, I don’t know the first thing about being a Viscountess.”

“You can learn, or not. Participate in what interests you, and sit out for what doesn’t. Either way, hopefully it won’t come up for a long time. My father isn’t that old”

Hester’s hand that gripped Theo’s forearm moved down slowly until she was holding his hand. They looked at each other, and Hester’s breath shallowed as Theo’s gaze traced her face.

“Do…we have to live with your parents?”

“Good lord, no,” Theo responded with a laugh and quick shake of his head, as though forcing the thought out of his mind.

At this, Hester took a step forward and rested her other hand on Theo’s chest. She felt his round belly press into her own mostly flat one, and swallowed. Playing with a button beneath his double chin, Hester’s head tilted up, and Theo closed the gap to kiss her.

It did not disappoint. His plump lips were as soft as pillows on Hester’s own, and he provided the perfect balance of pressure and movement. Hester had kissed other men in America - some for fun, and some because she thought she would marry them - but she had never kissed someone and known, for certain, that this was it.

“Okay,” Hester said breathlessly, a few heart-racing minutes later, taking a half step back from their deep embrace. She didn’t let go of Theo’s hand, though, and even left her other hand tracing down the buttons on Theo’s shirt until she hit his waistcoat. Hardly allowing herself to inhale, she pushed gently on the round brass buttons that sat on his widest part, and felt the soft give of his belly beneath it. Theo didn’t stop her, but he did watch her with wide eyes, and Hester felt that deep beneath the plush fat on the surface, Theo tensed the muscles in his stomach to provide a slightly harder surface for her to press on. “You can kneel now.”

Hester had just said “yes” to Theo’s question, furiously trying to blink back the tears in her eyes, when the door burst open again.

Shirley and Louise stood there, with the former shaking her head and the latter grinning madly as Theo accepted Hester’s hand as assistance to get to his feet. He didn’t let it go once he stood.

“Thank heavens. I was worried we’d be walking into a scene that would require a much more expedited wedding than any of us had planned.”

“Were you? Then why didn’t you knock?” Hester retorted, laughing in a mixture of giddiness and relief as she leaned into Theo’s soft bulk. Shirley opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again.

“Well, are you properly engaged now?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yes, Aunt Shirley.”

“Then let’s get back to the party. We have some celebrating to do.”
 

Ghostboo

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Sunday, 8:19 am

Hester had made it to her second breakfast in weeks, and it was unfortunately only because all the Owens were leaving on the 9:30 am train. Most everyone was holding their teacups close, relishing in the caffeine after a long evening. Hester was too, but her exhaustion absolutely had a backseat to her giddiness.

After exiting the study the night before as a newly engaged couple, Theodore and Hester had danced the night away. Hester wasn’t certain what exactly had occurred in the library after Louise had taken her away, but Theo had mentioned Aunt Shirley speaking up from her normally quiet corner, and all the other elders had, surprisingly, listened when she demanded respect for Theo and Hester and their choices. She’d swept Theo away after that and brought him straight to Hester after conferring with Louise in the hall.

James and Elizabeth were the first family that Theo and Hester saw after a few dances, and they had approached them hesitantly. But the heightened emotions from the library seemed to have left them, and a relatively calm conversation ensued. They asked if it was official, Theo and Hester said yes. Elizabeth smiled and James offered his congratulations, shaking Theo’s hand firmly. They seemed genuinely pleased.

“I admire your family, and I’m happy to have them join ours in whatever way makes everyone happiest,” James said. “And you picked a good one.” Hester misted up before hugging her older cousin.

A couple hours - and apparently a couple cups of coffee for Lady Charlotte later - Theo was able to track down his parents. He asked Hester to give him a few moments of privacy, just to gauge their state of mind - but after a couple minutes together in a corner of the great hall, Theo motioned her over to join them.

“We owe you an apology, dear,” Charlotte said. “We were just so surprised - on top of being disappointed that we wouldn’t be joining the Angkatell’s family - that we didn’t stop to consider how you are still part of them, and a lovely girl in your own right.”

“I know I’m not an Angkatell, or the daughter of a lord - but I adore your son and will work to make him happy. And hopefully, with that, I can also make you proud.”

“I’m sure you will, dear. Thank you,” Charlotte said, giving Hester a hug. William smiled and nodded in agreement, and a heaviness that had been weighing on Hester even after the delight of the engagement and dances lifted.

They saw glimpses of Rose during the dance, but didn’t get a chance to talk to her until the next morning. So as Hester sat next to her cousin during breakfast, she couldn’t help turning to her and asking the final question that had been weighing on her mind.

“Rose…are you really fine with me marrying Theo?”

“I don’t particularly care one way or the other,” Rose said, sipping out of her teacup.

“But…if you never wanted to marry him…why…?” Hester tried to think of a polite way to inquire why Rose had been so consistently, openly competitive. Rose saved her from the need, smirking.

“I just wanted to make sure you were serious, Hester. It was a lark.”

“Ah. Of course.”

“Mama and Papa can make suggestions, but I won’t marry until I am ready,” Rose continued, meeting her father’s eyes with a challenge. “And everyone shall simply have to manage that as they see fit.”

“We will, Rose,” James said. “Whatever you decide, we will be fine.”

“Really?” For a moment, Rose’s haughty facade slipped and she looked at her father anxiously. “What if I never marry a Viscount? Or even another Baron?”

“Yes, Rose, that will really be okay. We will figure it out.”

I could marry a Viscount,” Louise said from across the table. Rose turned to her, and Hester braced for her harsh words.

“Perhaps,” Rose said instead, simply. “So long as we don’t entertain them while our wildly exciting single American cousins are here anymore.”

This elicited a laugh from nearly everyone at the table, including Theodore from next to Hester. He squeezed her hand briefly, then went back to enjoying his collection of fresh baked croissants.

Later, most of the household gathered outside to say goodbye to the Owens. William and Charlotte were in deep discussion with the Angkatells over whether the wedding reception should take place at Dovecoats, or at Ainswick. Theodore regularly reminded them it was up to the bride, and Hester regularly pointed out she didn’t mind much one way or the other. As long as it was Theo she was marrying, in the end.

“I’ll keep an eye out for homes we can move into to start out, and can send for you to look with me when I have it narrowed down,” Theodore said, holding both Hester’s hands as they stepped a little ways away from the group. “Hopefully by then we’ll have received a letter back from your parents, and will know when they can make it over for us to select a wedding date.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Hester agreed. “Just keep in mind I grew up in a modest cottage near the shore; I don’t require a grand estate with more bedrooms than I can count.”

“I assumed,” Theo said, smiling. “But I shall find a place with a good study for you to work in. That’s non-negotiable.”

“Thank you, Theo,” Hester said, genuinely touched. Even when the men back in America had made noises about marrying her, they either ignored her career completely or made comments about when she’d inevitably drop writing in order to raise their family. That was not Theo’s plan, it seemed, and Hester was more grateful than ever that her previous interests never worked out.

“Goodbye for now,” Theo murmured as his parents moved towards their car, and the rest of the household filtered back inside. He tilted up Hester’s chin with one hand and kissed her, softly at first, then subtly with more passion. Hester responded enthusiastically, one hand gripping his strong shoulder, the other smoothing along his round, soft side. She felt Theo inhale to try and tighten his form, but there was still quite a bit of plush for her to enjoy. As they started to break away, she took a brief but firm squeeze of his love handle under his jacket before stepping away with a grin, cheekily. Theodore blushed.

“Goodbye for now,” Hester echoed, taking a step back to lean against the outer wall of Dovecoats. Rather than head inside with her family, she waited to watch the reverse of the first moment she had seen Theo stepping out of the car. But this time, he had to contort and flatten himself as best he could to squeeze INTO it.

Someday, soon, she’d tell him just how much she really enjoyed that view.

The End
 

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