BHM The Rocky Road to Highcastle [BHM, romance, historical]

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Ghostboo

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Author's Note: stupid covid finally got me, so this seemed as good a time as any to start on my next period drama. We're definitely got a slow burn to start, because this one will be much longer than The Honorable. I hope you enjoy!

The Rocky Road to Highcastle
by Ghostboo
In regency England, a hefty Baronet and eccentric young woman have both sworn off marriage. But that was, of course, because they ended up in the same place...

Chapter One - Guy Darby

The evening’s ball was, Guy Darby thought, just as usual as they always were. Highcastle wasn’t a particularly large town, which was part of the reason he’d relocated there in the first place, but it meant these gatherings showed almost entirely repetitive faces. He had no idea why he’d allowed Levi Baxter to drag him out tonight.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” Levi asked from his right, taking a sip of beer. Guy made eye contact with his friend, his deep brown eyes boring into Levi’s brighter blues, before sipping his own beer silently. Levi sighed. “One could argue that nothing would make you happy, Guy. When you’re getting lots of attention from marriageable girls, it’s too much. And now that you’re being left alone, you’re still sulking.”

“Yes,” Guy replied dryly. “It’s almost as if I should have stayed home.”

Guy Darby had moved into his home in Highcastle a little over a year earlier. As soon as his father, the Baronet Darby, had passed away, Guy had entertained no thoughts of moving into his childhood estate. Once the sale had gone through, Guy had taken what servants wished to move with him to Highcastle, where they took occupancy in Stormgrove. He still had his home in London, of course, but that was to remain unoccupied by any but the caretakers for the foreseeable future.

Shaking away the thought before any unpleasant memories resurfaced, Guy dragged a hand up his cheek and into his dark hair. He felt the scruff on his cheeks, but couldn’t muster the embarrassment he ought to have felt for going out in public looking so disheveled. He wasn’t planning on spending time with any partygoers but Levi, so why concern himself?

When Guy Darby first moved into Stormgrove, of course, there was a veritable stampede of mothers trying frantically to make matches for their daughters. A new young man in town with the coin to pay for an estate, and a Baronet no less? They were relentless for months on end. Guy was polite but firm - he would dance one dance with each young woman, then move on. He could see in the girl’s eyes their determination to win over a wealthy suitor, but the feelings besides that were…well, less than ideal.

For Guy Darby may have been a prime marriage candidate on paper, with his age and income written out, but what most noticed first was a different number - in stones. Guy had skewed chubby as long as he could remember, and despite a valiant effort to stay on the trimmest end of the spectrum that he possibly could during his years in London, that had failed in the end. And while he was far from being the only plump man in the area, he was certainly the youngest, and still one of the widest. Most let the older gentlemen, the fathers and especially the wealthy, slide with their stocky forms. They had earned it, after all, over the years. But Guy Darby was still in his prime - why couldn’t he resist the temptation to overeat? And he may have been wealthy, but he wasn’t that wealthy. A king ran a country, but Guy Darby was only a Baronet. What was he thinking?

Guy had heard it all, and seen it echoed in the eyes of the polite but obviously disinterested women in Highcastle. It was a relief that they were now leaving him alone, but as he tugged his too-tight waistcoat away from where his soft stomach pressed into it, Guy still wished he had stayed at home. He could have had his friend over for tea another day, couldn’t he? Why did he need to go out?

Levi Baxter, perhaps an inch or two taller than Guy at 183cm, scanned the crowd before grinning. Levi’s good looks and easy manner meant he was no stranger to attention of his own, especially as his yearly income - while not quite at Guy’s level - was nothing to sneeze at. However, the lanky young man had managed to develop quite the reputation as a rake, with no intention of marrying anytime soon, so most mothers steered their awestruck daughters away from his vicinity at parties. Still, if he wanted to seek them out, he certainly could.

Guy followed his friend’s gaze, then blinked. Once, twice, then instinctively sucked in his middle as best he could against the straining buttons. Of the pair that had just entered the ballroom, Guy recognized one - Nathan Seaborne, a tall, dark-featured young man who was the current topic of scandal in Highcastle. Next to him, though, was someone Guy didn’t recognize - unusual enough, but there was something else about her that made his insides stand quiet. Remembering finally to breath, Guy asked,

“Who is that?”

Levi’s sideways glance to him was brief, thankfully, before he answered.

“Do you recall how I told you about Nathan Seaborne’s problems with his wife? And how they’re using his father’s health as a cover for Nathan moving out of his marital home and back into his family’s?”

“I do,” Guy said. “This whole town can talk of little else nowadays.”

“Well, his father’s failing health is true, at least. Which is why Nathan’s sister, Juliet Seaborne, is back from Scotland.”

“Sister?” Guy tried, and failed, to give a more cohesive answer as he continued to blink in the sibling’s direction. Where Nathan was tall and lanky, Juliet was short and curvy. Nathan’s dark features were in stark contrast to Juliet’s creamy skin and strawberry-blonde hair.

“Not too many similarities, I’ll grant you,” Levi said, but as he did, both Nathan and Juliet grinned at something the other had said and Guy saw the family connection. It was hard to put into words, but the way their eyes crinkled and their smiles lifted up higher at one end matched perfectly despite their differences. “But both are loads of fun. Oi, Miss Seaborne!” Levi lifted his voice to call out to the new guest, and Juliet turned, smiling again as she saw him. Nathan motioned to the other side of the dance floor, and Juliet nodded, before the pair split up and the latter approached them. Guy felt his heart hammer in a strange kind of excitement and panic.

Up close, Guy could see that Juliet’s eyes were a light, sparkling green, that nearly disappeared in a half-moon as she grinned when Levi took her hand. Bestowing a light kiss upon it, Levi used his other hand to offer a sweeping gesture towards the ballroom.

“Welcome home, my friend,” he said as he straightened up. Juliet lifted out of her curtsy and Guy saw she barely came up to Levi’s shoulder, meaning she’d just be hardly above his own.

“Mr. Baxter, you’re too kind,” she replied. “It is certainly….something…to be back.”

“I can imagine,” Levi said. “Miss Seaborne, this is my friend and Highcastle’s newest resident, Sir Guy Darby.”

“Ahh, Sir,” Juliet said, dipping back into a curtsy. Guy bowed his head in greeting, feeling every awkward inch as he tightened his stomach. He still wasn’t used to the sir title, to be frank. It reminded him too much of his father, something he never aspired to be like. “So you must be the Baronet I’ve heard about.”

“I suppose I am,” Guy replied.

“Heard already? Your gem of a mother must be off to the races with your current marital options then,” Levi said with a grin. Juliet groaned.

“Why do you think I’ve waited until now to show my face? Because I wouldn’t come out if she was accompanying us. I really did think I had a little more time to continue to pretend to be looking for a husband in Scotland. But…” Juliet trailed off.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” Levi picked up sympathetically. “How is he feeling?”

“He has good days and he has bad days. It’s worth it to spend the time with him, of course. It’s just…being six-and-twenty and unmarried with a mother like mine in close proximity, you know, is…exhausting.”

“I have only observed, and can only imagine, but you have my sympathies,” Levi said. Guy nodded, wishing he had anything worthwhile to contribute to this conversation.

“Thank you, Mr. Baxter.”

“Knowing you, you must be ready to dance already? I am still finishing up my beer, but perhaps Sir Darby would be so kind?” Levi said, and suddenly Guy found both Levi and Juliet looking at him with hopeful expressions. But instinctively, he found himself shaking his head.

“As delightful a way to pass the time as that sounds, I am not dancing tonight.”

“I see,” Juliet said, the disappointment in her tone hidden behind a cheerful reply - the opposite of what Guy usually heard from girls he turned down. “Well, that’s quite all right. I’ll go make myself available near the dance floor. See who dares.”

“Godspeed, and I’ll certainly take you up on a position on your dance card later,” Levi said. Juliet smiled back and curtsied to him, then to Guy, before making her way towards the twirling pairs on the dance floor. Once she was out of earshot, Levi slowly turned to look at his friend, who was studying the way his feet interacted with the floor.

“Oh, you’re not dancing tonight?”

“I’m…not dressed for it.”

“And how is that?” Levi asked, looking him up and down. Guy, torn between embarrassed and relieved that it wasn’t too noticeable, admitted the truth.

“My suit is too tight.”

“I see,” Levi said after a moment, clearly stifling a sigh. “Well, I’m going to fetch another beer.”

Guy took the opportunity to relieve himself, then take a moment to study himself in the hall’s mirror. His wavy hair was longer than was fashionable, but brushing his hand through it a few times had it falling in a way that didn’t look too terrible, Guy thought. The stubble on his cheeks seemed to add volume to his face, rather than disguise it, but there wasn’t much that could be done about that now. He lifted his face up to see if that hid any of his double chin, patting underneath then dragging a hand down his thick neck. With a sigh, he straightened his suit jacket over the too-tight buttons that he refused to look at directly, then headed back into the ballroom.

Levi had his beer, and was watching the dancing. Guy joined him and was surprised to see Juliet still standing on the edge of the floor, not joining in on the dancing. Meanwhile, the women who had been dancing most of the night still had various partners on their arm.

“Has no one else asked Miss Seaborne to dance yet? Or is she taking a break?”

“No, no one’s asked. I will after I finish this,” Levi said, taking a larger gulp of his beer.

“But why? She seems…” Guy trailed off, not sure how much of his opinion he was able to verbalize. Levi looked at him with a cocked eyebrow.

“Juliet Seaborne isn’t what one would call ‘popular’ in this town. Highcastle isn’t particularly large, as you know. There’s a reason she’s been in Scotland for so long.”

“What reason is that?”

“After rejecting nearly every man here who believed he could handle a life with her, it seemed like the best option for Mrs. Seaborne to be able to find her daughter a husband. It wasn’t, clearly, but here we are.”

“‘Handle’ a life with her?”

“I told you that Juliet was fun, and I meant it. But her sense of self is…strong. It’s unappealing for most men who are looking for marriage and just want an easy temperament to go with the pretty face.”

“Well that just seems absurd, Levi.”

“I’m not saying I agree with it. That’s why I said men looking for marriage, which I decidedly am not. She’s a good friend, but many hold grudges for themselves or comrades who were let down not-so-gently.”

“I see.”

“I’m off to her rescue,” Levi said wryly, finishing the last of his beer and setting it down. “And if your unfortunate suit choice provides you enough comfort to merely stand all night, I may recommend staying later than your typical silent early departure.”

“Why is that?”

“Our hosts tonight aren’t too conservative, and when these parties die down, the Seabornes have been known to provide their own entertainment. It’s been a few years, but…well, one can hope.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see. Try and enjoy yourself, Guy.”

This was easier said than done, but despite the biting his pant’s waistline did into his soft skin, Guy took a seat to observe the party around him. He normally would have snuck out by now, but he was curious enough about Juliet Seaborne and what Levi had told him that he stayed even when others began filtering out.

Once the elder members of the party had mostly made their way home, Guy observed Levi and a couple other guests speaking to Nathan Seaborne. With a grin, the young man accepted the English guitar that was offered him by a servant, and made his way to the area where the band had played until their shift was done. Juliet moved to join him, and Guy stood to get a better look.

“Here we go,” Levi told him, smirking as they watched the two set up. Nathan took a seat on a stool, while Juliet found a position where she could see him but still face what guests were left. It was a much smaller group than before, mostly of young adults, but still decently sized. Soon, Nathan began playing, and Juliet sang.

Guy quickly realized what Levi meant when he emphasized fun, but also not exactly popular. The songs the pair performed were bawdy, just occasionally verging on scandalous. The listening group giggled and blushed, and a few even engaged in unofficial dancing, linking arms and spinning around while Juliet sang about whiskey, or life on a sailing ship, or often both. One song featured a story about a racing donkey that even had Guy smiling into his cups.

There were, however, a few partygoers with a markedly different reaction to the music. Guy recognized Felton Pendergast standing near Priscilla Underwood, both openly rolling their eyes. Felton was about Guy’s age, and though Guy had only had a few conversations with him, they had all been noticeably unpleasant. As such, Guy avoided him. Priscilla, meanwhile, was a particularly determined breed of young woman who had tried much harder than many of the others to find and keep Guy’s attentions. From the get-go, Guy could see barely disguised revulsion behind Priscilla’s polite smiles, so he had done the bare minimum to get through their interactions. Still, unlike the others, she did not give up. Money and a title was, it seemed, a top priority for the Underwoods. Guy quickly looked away from the exasperated group.

After the party wrapped up, concluding with a surprisingly touching farewell song that several others joined in for, Guy made his way home. Since he had stayed longer than expected, he was a little tipsier than he meant to be, and he was glad for the promptness of his carriage back to Stormgrove.

He dismissed his servants back to bed as they greeted him, content (and preferring) to undress himself. While he couldn’t see it exactly under the round swell of his belly, he could feel the tight lines that formed where his waistband had been, and he ran his fingers along them absentmindedly. It was a relief to be able to take full, deep breaths again, without pesky buttons to worry about. As he splashed water on his face before bed, Guy avoided looking below the neck as he drew a thoughtful hand across his chin. He was too drunk now, but tomorrow, for certain, he would shave.
 

Ghostboo

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TW: reference to DV in this chapter

Chapter Two - Juliet Seaborne

The bright sun and screech of her mother’s call to breakfast came entirely too early the next morning.

“Mama, it was a ball last night - this couldn’t wait?” Juliet asked as she staggered out of her room, in a state of undress as befit the early morning.

“You want your Papa to starve?” Mrs. Seaborne replied, looking at her daughter with horror. Nathan, who had just exited the room across from hers, smirked at his sister over his mom’s head. “And I suppose you expected one of us to care for your little…farm?”

“They’d have managed,” Juliet mumbled, but saw her point. After breakfast, she did need to promptly water her plants and feed her goats. The Seabornes weren’t especially poor, but nor were they upper class, and this divide caused Mrs. Seaborne great distress that her daughter insisted on doing something as lowly as caring for things on their property. But Juliet, who had resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood even if her mother hadn’t, did so anyway. Her herbs and milk fetched a decent enough price among friends and family that she was guaranteed some spending money, even if she knew she’d have to live off her brother’s properties once her parents were gone.

“As long as you don’t let this scare off your future attendance,” Nathan chimed in, wrapping an arm around his sister’s neck and pulling her towards the table. Juliet nudged him with her elbow, but allowed herself to be dragged with a laugh.

“As long as it’s just us…of course not,” she said, a half-mumble, though not particularly caring if her mother heard. One of the many - MANY - fights they’d had since her move home had been her refusal to attend balls if her mother was there, knowing she’d just be throwing herself onto any available man to try and beg attention for Juliet. It was why this was the first event she’d been to despite being home for well over a month.

“How was the ball?” Mrs. Seaborne asked finally, doing her best to keep her interest somewhat contained.

“It was fine,” Juliet replied, echoed by Nathan’s half-shrug. The family joined the patriarch, Mr. Seaborne, at the dining table. Juliet gave her father a kiss on the head as she did, and he smiled up at her.

“Did you dance with…anyone?” Mrs. Seaborne carefully posited, looking at her daughter.

“Just Mr. Baxter,” Juliet replied cheerfully as the servants began to bring in eggs and toast. That wasn’t strictly true - she’d had a dance or two with others - but she knew that would get her mom off her back. Mrs. Seaborne’s nose wrinkled.

“Mr. Baxter? Really? Well, be careful, please, Juliet. Your reputation is the most important thing.”

“My…oh my God, the most important thing? Nathan, did you hear that?”

“Sure did,” Nathan said, taking a bite of bacon as it was offered to him. “S’pose one of us has gotta have one.”

At that, the table went quiet. It wasn’t often discussed openly in the house, but Nathan’s return to his own bedroom hadn’t preceded Juliet’s arrival by much, and was the cause of much gossip around town. You see, Nathan Seaborne was married - and had been since Juliet had left for Scotland. It was lucky, Juliet often thought, that the rumor mill somehow hadn’t connected that Nathan’s nuptials and not just her mother’s anxiety for her to have her own marriage had led to her departure.

Nathan’s wife was named Esther Primly, and Juliet had seen something dark in her immediately. But she was wealthy enough, and Nathan had fallen hard, so her parents encouraged the union despite seeing the way their son was treated - even in public, even around just their two families. Juliet, however, did not stay silent regarding her opinions on the matter - and was quickly ostracized even from her own family. She was used to being an outcast, but not to those she cared for most, and so the life in Scotland offered with Mrs. Seaborne’s family ahead of Nathan’s wedding day seemed like the simplest solution for everyone involved.

As the years passed, however, the darkness grew - and even a woman as concerned about public image as Mrs. Seaborne couldn’t say no when her firstborn arrived at her doorstep, hoarse and apologetic and nursing yet another injury, asking for shelter. Juliet arrived home not long after. The home purchased for Esther and Nathan was a couple miles away, but Esther had still made the trek a few times to scream, demand the appearance of her husband, and eventually resort to breaking easily accessible items outdoors. However, Juliet had been home the last visit, and at the first shriek from Esther had left, telling her family to lock the door behind her.

It wasn’t spoken of when Juliet was let back in a while later, just slightly dirtied. But Esther, while confirmed alive and well at her home, had yet to return.

So Mr. Seaborne’s illness, while not fictional by any means, was also not quite as far along in its seriousness as the family allowed others to believe. Anything to soften the blow of a - separation. Mrs. Seaborne nearly hadn’t wanted Juliet to come back because of it, believing her social opportunities would be depleted in Highcastle, but in the end, she couldn’t say no to her daughter either. Which is how the entire family found itself eating together that spring morning.
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter Three - Two Weeks Later

“I can’t believe I convinced Mama to stay home and let us use the carriage,” Juliet mused as she and Nathan made their way up the steps of the new home of the Middletons, who were throwing a ball in celebration of their step up in life. Their success in the trades had allowed them to purchase a home large enough for dancing, even if they weren’t technically upper class.

“Well God knows we couldn’t walk,” Nathan said, as the ball was situated on the outskirts of Highcastle. “And her desire for you to find a husband knows no bounds, it seems.”

“I’d have thought it would be better by now,” Juliet said, her voice going a bit quiet as they entered the hall. “But it seems…worse, despite it all.”

“Despite what happened with my marriage, you mean?”

“That is…part of what I mean, yes.”

“You don’t see how that might make her desperation for one of the Seaborne offspring to get it right a little worse?”

“...I suppose I can, now that you say it like that.”

“Try not to let it bother you too much. We all know you’ll be fine no matter what, and no matter what Mother insists will send her to an early grave.”

“I won’t.”

“Good. Let’s have some fun tonight. With the Middletons being in the trades, you may be able to bring out your really Celtic shanties.”

Juliet laughed.

“One can hope.”

They had made it to the ballroom, and Juliet couldn’t help but gasp a little with delight. Like many new to money, the Middletons had spared no expense, and the tall-ceiling room shone with lighting and decorations. The band played a smooth, classical tune, and well-dressed partygoers turned on the dance floor. Juliet grinned as she watched, her smile fading as she wondered if she’d get more than a few dances tonight. Despite her mother’s hope, and her decent looks, she wasn’t exactly a magnet for attention. Being a whole 26 these days and known for unladylike eccentricities would do that.

“Shall I grab us beverages?” Nathan asked as they approached the dance floor, and Juliet nodded. As she watched the dance floor longingly from the edge, she saw movement in her peripheral vision, and turned.

It took her a moment, but she recognized the young man moving towards her. It was Mr. Baxter’s friend, Sir Guy Darby, the Baronet. In juxtaposition from the last ball, his face was clean shaven, affording a view of a round - but handsome - expression, with full lips, a firm nose, and high cheekbones. His thick eyebrows were mostly hidden by a wave of brown hair above darker brown eyes than Juliet had seen before, and of course, he cut an imposing figure in the ballroom. Even in Edinburgh, she hadn’t encountered many young men of his stature, so he seemed particularly large and impressive in the small gatherings of Highcastle. Tonight, he moved with much more ease than he had before, Juliet thought, his suit an extremely fashionable dark green and white coloring that flattered as best it could. Obviously, some changes had to be made to the typical style that suited the thin, triangular shape most men tried to achieve - his vest covered his entire round belly, for example, rather than being allowed to stop two inches above the bottom.

“Miss Seaborne,” Guy said, offering her a slight bow as he finally made it to her side. Juliet curtsied, not trying too hard to disguise the curiosity in her face. Their last interaction had been brief, and his disinterest in interacting had seemed - to her - very clear.

“Sir Darby, it is good to see you again.”

“I wondered if you might do me the honor of a dance? If you are not currently engaged, that is.”

“Oh!” Juliet had to admit she was surprised. “You’re dancing tonight?”

A slight flush of red appeared on Guy’s high apple cheeks as he looked quickly down at the floor, then up at her face.

“I am. Last time I was…not prepared. And I hope you will forgive me if I was rude. But I was looking forward to dancing tonight, if…you would like to.”

“I would actually,” Juliet said. “Mr. Baxter may have told you I love to dance, but I don’t always get the opportunity. My brother is fetching drinks now, but…well, he can hold onto it until we’re done, I believe.”

“I think so,” Guy said, looking relieved as he offered Juliet a hand. The music swelled low, and the current pairings glided off the dance floor to find their new partners. Guy gently led Juliet out, once there was another couple already at the head.

“Not prepared to be in the limelight?” Juliet asked, grinning to show she was mostly joking. Guy half-smiled back.

“I am a bit out of practice. Not that I think I am easy to miss wherever we stand, but…no need to amplify it.”

“Wherever in line you are most comfortable, I am happy to dance,” Juliet answered honestly. Guy offered a slightly wider, grateful smile before the music swelled up. It was a much jauntier tune than the last dance, and despite holding his stomach muscles tight, Guy felt himself jiggling heartily along with his bouncing.

Next to ever-tightening clothing, there’s nothing to call attention to a new stone or two quite like dancing, Guy thought wryly as he spun, stopping in position and clapping in tune to Juliet and the line of girls dancing. Next the lines approached, and each dancer put their arm around the waist of their partner to spin. Guy flushed deeper as he felt Juliet’s arm dig slightly into his soft middle, her fingers lightly holding onto a not unimpressive love handle as they spun. Still, as he caught Juliet’s eye, he saw none of the usual disgust or determination to get through the dance in one piece. He just saw a light, sparkling joy at the movement, accented by a half-moon crinkle of her eyes as she smiled when she saw him looking at her. All too soon, Guy had to let go of Juliet’s soft but trim waist as they spun to opposite sides of the room.

As they strode back together in tune with the music, linking arms, Juliet spoke.

“How are you enjoying life in Highcastle, Sir Darby?”

“Quite well, Miss Seaborne,” Guy said, mostly honestly. It was better than being in London or at the estate where he grew up, anyway. “How are you enjoying being back?”

“I’m…ambivalent about it, to be honest.”

The volume of the music began to lower, and Guy offered Juliet his arm to walk off the dance floor together. She took it.

“May I ask, what has been one of the positives?” Guy asked after a brief pause.

“Well, this,” Juliet said, then gestured to the dance floor in explanation. “Dancing, I mean, getting to see and spend time with people…”

As they moved towards the edges of the dance floor, Felton Pendergast passed by them, going the other way to join the next dance. A young lady that Juliet didn’t know was on his arm. Juliet opened her mouth to continue, but instead felt a jostle as Felton subtly knocked his shoulder into hers, snorting as he did so, then moving on with a smirk.

Guy steadied her, staring after Felton.

“Was that…?”

“The other end of the spectrum, however, is also people,” Juliet said, gritting her teeth as she looked away from Felton. Guy didn’t, however, and she felt him start to take his arm from hers and move back in the direction of the dance floor.

“Sir Darby,” Juliet said, injecting some urgency into her voice as she held tighter to his arm. “It isn’t worth it. Let us keep talking, please.”

Guy hesitated, then allowed himself to be steered back in the other direction.

“If you insist, Miss Seaborne.”

At the outskirts of the dance floor, the pair ran into Nathan, holding two glasses of a light red colored punch.

“Here you are, sister,” Nathan said, and Juliet accepted it.

“Mr. Seaborne,” Guy greeted, and the two men bowed at each other.

“Sir Darby.”

From her vantage point next to Nathan, Juliet could take in Guy Darby’s full form again. It was, she had to admit, rather surprising. His face may have been round, but his chubby cheeks and slight double chin would still have looked at home on a man half his size. Guy Darby’s weight seemed to settle almost entirely at his midsection, the impressively soft swell of it offsetting broad shoulders and sturdy legs. Juliet hadn’t seen anything quite like it, but the overall effect was far from unpleasant.

“Not to pry, Miss Seaborne, but why does Pendergast seem to have such a dislike for you?”

Juliet and Nathan shared a grin.

“Honestly, Sir Darby? He was my very first proposal rejection. And I do not believe his vast pride will ever allow him to move past it.”

“Felton Pendergast asked you to marry him?” The shock in Guy’s voice was palpable. Nathan and Juliet laughed.

“I’m going to try and avoid taking your surprise as an insult, Sir,” Juliet teased.

“Oh, no, I promise you that it isn’t. He just seems…”

“Completely incapable of positive human connection of any kind?”

“I believe that is exactly what I meant, yes.”

Nathan looked from his sister to Guy and then back again.

“I believe I hear Mr. Cole calling me. Will you excuse me?”

From across the room, Levi Baxter watched as Nathan walked away from the pair, but didn’t make a move to join them himself. Instead, he sipped his beer, then turned his attentions to the pretty young woman next to him.

“So when did this happen?” Guy asked, the playful note in his voice surprising even himself.

“Nearly ten years ago now,” Juliet replied, her exasperation evident. “Heaven forbid anyone in this town try to move forward regarding any situation.”

“A bit of a theme, then?”

“Not quite as badly as Fenton Pendergast, but, yes, it happens.”

“And you said…your first proposal rejection?”

“Yes,” Juliet laughed. “You want to know how many in total?”

“Only if you wish to tell me,” Guy said innocently, trying to hide his avid curiosity. Mostly unsuccessfully.

“Not as many as people make it sound here, I promise you. There was Mr. Pendergast, then three others before I left for Scotland. Two more in Scotland, if I’m being fully transparent, but you mustn’t let that slip to my mother or anyone who might tell her.”

“Your secret is safe with me,” Guy said, his voice tinged with awe.

“It’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds, I assure you. Many of these gentleman would ask nearly anyone vaguely woman-shaped, and could not have paid less attention anytime I opened my mouth. Any interaction was merely sizing me up and down, like a brood mare.”

Guy wrinkled his nose at the thought. Juliet, unable to help herself, grinned.

“Apologies for the brash language, but I’m prone to the truth over decorum.”

“No need for any apology to me, Miss Seaborne.”

“How about you, Sir Darby? Ever extended a marriage proposal yourself?”

Though he should have seen this question coming, Guy’s chest tightened.

“Not here in Highcastle, no.”

Juliet cocked her head, hesitated, then went for it.

“And before Highcastle…?”

“Once, yes. It…put me off the activity for…the foreseeable future.”

“I see,” Juliet said. “I find that more than understandable, though I imagine many local young women and their mothers have not?”

Guy couldn’t help but let out a half-laugh at the memory of the literal swarm of women surrounding him at events in his early days in Highcastle.

“One could say it was a bit of a bloodbath to start.”

“I can imagine.”

A pause came over them, and Guy decided he ought to fill it before Juliet took the opportunity to ask any more dangerous questions.

“Where were you in Scotland?”

“Edinburgh! I absolutely loved it, and my cousins were more than happy to let me fill my time with learning worthy ventures. Not simply wifely duties like embroidery and piano but botany, zoology, philosophy, history…”

As Guy listened to Juliet discuss her time away and passions, he got himself a drink of his own. This punch is surprisingly warming, he thought, ignoring the accompanying nervous flutter of his heart as Juliet spoke.

The evening wore on, with Juliet and Guy dancing one more time, when enough time had passed that it became more socially appropriate. In the wee hours of the morning, the pair finally broke company as Juliet and Nathan were encouraged to play their music - with tonight’s setlist including two stories of marriage gone wrong, and two sea shanties - one, about life on a pirate ship, noticeably raunchier than the other. Guy couldn’t stop smiling.

“Regret coming out again, I’m sure?” Levi asked him as the party concluded, leaning against a pillar as they waited for their coaches. Guy felt a blush start at his collar, certain his friend had seen Guy’s grin moments earlier as he bowed farewell to the Seabornes.

“Actually, no, I don’t,” Guy answered defiantly. “This was an enjoyable evening.”

“Well, I did notice you making a true effort for it to be so,” Levi pointed out. Guy shrugged, answering noncommittally:

“Perhaps that’s it.”
 

Anjula

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Ugh I love it. Always a sucker for some good historical romance and your writing style is simply delicious. Can’t wait for more!
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter Four - Juliet Seaborne

The next morning was extremely reminiscent of the morning after her first ball out, but Juliet found herself in a surprisingly good mood when her mother’s voice woke her. Hopping out of bed, Juliet joined her family in the dining room, even beating Nathan out of his room as she greeted her mother.

“How are you feeling this morning, Juliet?” Mrs. Seaborne asked her daughter as they exchanged cheek kisses.

“Quite well, Mama, thank you.”

Quite well? Was it a…good night?” A sparkle lit up in Mrs. Seaborne’s hazel eyes that caused Juliet to have to resist rolling her green ones. Still, her mother was clearly at least trying to tamp it down herself.

“It was fine, Mama. Nathan and I had a nice time.”

“Speaking for me now?” Yawned her brother’s voice as Nathan’s door opened. Juliet smirked at him as he crossed the hall and took a seat at the dining table, next to their father at the head.

“Sparing no detail on your shenanigans,” Juliet retorted. But despite the dry teasing in her voice, the room tensed a little, both Mr. and Mrs. Seaborne looking to their son in concern. Nathan straightened up at this, his gaze moving from Juliet to their mother.

“She’d hardly have had time to observe any, with all the dancing she was doing,” Nathan said, his tone breezy, but his stare firm. Juliet’s teeth clenched as their mother looked from Nathan to her.

“Were you really, Juliet? Was-”

Three voices spoke over each other as Mrs. Seaborne continued speaking, while Juliet and Nathan tried to interject.

“-there a particularly fine dancer in the bunch?”

“Not really, Mama. Just like Nathan wasn’t really into shenanigans-”

“Twice with the same gentleman, in fact.”

There was a pause as Mrs. Seaborne gasped, her hand grasping the chair next to her husband, who sighed silently. Juliet glared at Nathan as she took the seat next to him, breakfast items beginning to emerge from the kitchen. Mrs. Seaborne slowly took her seat on the other side of her husband, eyes wide as she spoke.

Twice, Juliet? Don’t you recall how I spoke of your reputation? Oh, heavens, was it with…with Mr. Baxter?”

“God, no, Mama,” Juliet said.

“Language!”

“I apologize. But it was very paced out, no one noticed, I swear it. And it wasn’t…” Juliet trailed off, firstly because she was uncertain where her mind was taking her, and secondly because she saw her mother open her mouth to ask again, then close it slowly as she looked to Juliet’s left, blinking.

Following her mother’s gaze, Juliet saw Nathan looking at their mother with puffed-out cheeks, his elbows splayed in demonstration of a larger form than his own gangly one. Juliet felt an uncomfortable heat spread across her cheeks, her chest tightening and opening abruptly as she slammed her own elbow into Nathan’s, knocking the air out of his cheeks. He snickered as Mrs. Seaborne gasped again, finally caught up.

“Oh, the…the…the large man! The Baronet! The Baronet, Mr. Seaborne!” Delighted by this turn of events, Mrs. Seaborne turned to her husband, who smiled wanely.

“Perhaps, dear.”

“Yes, it was,” Juliet admitted, turning her furious gaze from her brother after a moment. “Sir Darby is a decent dancer and conversationalist, that is all.”

“Well done, my darling,” Mrs. Seaborne said. “I have never seen Sir Darby dance with a young lady more than once!”

“We may be friends, Mama. I am not some insincere ninny desperately plying him for a proposal, which must be a relief,” Juliet said, burying her face in her drink glass.

“Well, my dear, when there’s money and status involved, you want to be cautious not assign yourself to merely a-”

“I only wish to be his friend.”

The sharp tone in Juliet’s words silenced the table, finally. Nathan slowly took a bite of toast, the crunch of which broke the tension.

“Well, at least it was the Baronet and not Mr. Pritchitt,” Mr. Seaborne said, naming one of the only other overweight men in town - an elderly businessman on the other side of Hightower. Juliet, despite herself, snorted.

“Mr, Pritchitt and I may very well have even more in common, Father,” Juliet said. “One never really knows, do they?”

“Any and all that get along with my daughter are welcome at our dinner table anytime,” Mr. Seaborne offered back sincerely, smiling at her joke. With a wink, he added, “we’ll find the food necessary…somehow.”

Blushing again, Juliet looked down at her plate as Nathan snorted and her mother tried to catch her gaze. Ignoring them both, she diligently cut into a fresh egg and tried as hard as she could to keep her mind in blissful blank.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Five

To say the ball at the Griffinhead Hall estate was lavish would be an understatement. It was currently unoccupied, and while Guy had looked at it for a possible leasing when he moved to town, it was arguably much too expansive for a single man. Stormgrove was nothing to scoff at, of course, but Griffinhead Hall was a behemoth.

So naturally, when a weekend appeared unoccupied on the summer calendar, several heads in town came together to rent the space for a grand ball. This included Levi, and since ALL gentlemen involved seemed to have purchased more than enough alcohol and food just on their own, Levi kept his friends well stocked in their cups.

Standing with Levi and Juliet under a gorgeously carved archway near the entrance of the room, Guy stifled a hiccup from the bubbles in his champagne, placing a hand on his round belly on instinct. It was still soft, but noticeable stuffed with the lavish offerings tonight he had found himself unable to say no to, especially as the drinks flowed. He flushed as Juliet looked at him, dropping his hand to his side hastily.

“It’s a magnificent party, Levi.”

“Truly, Mr. Baxter! What a lovely display,” Juliet joined in, smiling shyly at Guy. They had danced an hour or so before, and Guy was having trouble remembering why a second dance within the party’s recent memory would be so scandalous. The societally acceptable closeness was so rare to experience, and always a highlight - even when it required hands or whole arms wrapped around his overly thick waist, Guy thought, with a slight heat on the tips of his ears. He smiled back at Juliet, who had yet to shrink away from even his biggest, softest bits. She must be a great actress, or, well…

Levi looked back and forth between his friends, then seemed to decide something.

“Could you use another drink?” Levi asked, gesturing towards Juliet’s near-empty goblet. The short girl swayed just slightly, looking down in surprise, then just barely nodded before Levi began to sweep her away. “I’ll escort you! Stay here, Guy, we’ll be back shortly.”

Guy nodded, trying to ignore the roil of jealousy in his gut at the sight of his handsome friend with a careful arm around Juliet. He sipped at his wine and cast an eye around, wondering if he could locate more of the creamy cheese and salmon rolls that had been offered earlier in the evening.

Across the room, Levi stopped Juliet and himself at the table that housed the triangular structure made entirely of glasses of champagne. Juliet picked one and made to take a step back towards Guy, but Levi held up a hand in silent request, and she stopped.

“How is it, Miss Seaborne, being back?”

“It’s…still fine, Mr. Baxter,” Juliet replied, looking at her friend curiously over her drink. “Is that truly what you brought me over here to ask me?”

Levi, clearly feeling caught, glanced across the room at Guy.

“You must be more sober than I realized.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” laughed Juliet. “I just know you, and I know this backwards society, and so I doubly know when you are cloaking something. Even when somewhat in my cups.”

“Okay, then…how is it making new friends? Say, with Sir Darby?” Levi subtly inclined his head across the room, which Guy, on the hunt for snacks, did not notice.

“That has also been fine, Mr. Baxter,” Juliet said, stiffening a little with caution. “Why do you ask?”

“Settle down, I am not your mother,” Levi said dryly. “There are just…a few things about Guy you may not know.”

“Is this a - warning?” Juliet asked, blinking in surprise.

“Quite the opposite, Miss Seaborne. Do you know why Sir Darby moved to Highcastle?”

Juliet shook her head, her brow furrowing as she sipped more of the perfectly balanced champagne.

“I’ve heard everything from merely summering to running from a scandal wherein he attempted to seduce a high-ranking London politician’s mistress. Knowing this town, I took all of that information with no value.”

“As well you should,” Levi chuckled. “No, back in London, Guy planned to get engaged to a young woman he had grown fond of. He had no plans to leave the area, to run an estate the way his father did. The last Baronet Darby was…not a kind man.”

“Oh,” Juliet said, surprised. “I see.” She felt a strange flutter in her chest at this new information, and she finished the glass of champagne she had in her hands to tamp it down. “He did mention an offer of marriage extended back in London, yes.”

“Well, speaking of not kind…clearly, that engagement did not work out. For what may be obvious reasons.”

Juliet frowned. She looked from Levi to Guy across the room, then back again. As she did, another glass of champagne seemed to magically appear in her hand. She accepted this readily, and sipped in concern before she spoke.

“Are you…is this…is Sir Darby in some way unkind? I haven’t-”

“Oh, no, not him. Look again, Miss Seaborne, and tell me truthfully, as a friend - there’s nothing you can think of that might cause another young lady to reject a romantic arrangement from a well born man?”

Cautiously, Juliet pivoted to face the other side of the room again. Guy had located a table lined with delicacies prepared for the guests to partake in between dances, and he was fully profile to Levi and Juliet as he bent down to decide which treat would join him. Even from across the room, Juliet could observe the strain on the middle buttons of his deep blue vest - especially from that particular angle - as he rounded over the table, selecting a thinly carved cucumber wrapped with prosciutto and held together by creamed cheese. As he straightened up, Juliet watched the treat pop between his full lips, at which point his free hand briefly slipped a thumb between his waist and his pants, instinctually seeking some relief from the tight fit. After taking only moment to tug the waistband away from the round curve of his belly, Guy cast one last look at the food table, then turned away.

Juliet diligently ignored the burn in her face as she pivoted back to Levi.

“I don’t-” well, that would be a lie. The girl who normally prided herself on her quick wit looked pleadingly at her friend, as the bubbles from the champagne felt like they popped through her head. “Or…I can’t- can’t say it.”

Not if I’m wrong, she thought. And immediately become like every other person in this miserable town.

Levi nodded, his expression neutral. “Okay. Well, as you may - or may not - have guessed, she rejected the offer of marriage due to Sir Darby’s size.” Levi paused, seeming to study Juliet’s face for a reaction. She just squirmed imperceptibly, blushing harder. “In addition, this young lady went on to be married less than two months later - to Sir Darby’s younger brother, Edward.”

Wine-filled Juliet couldn’t help it - her pink mouth immediately dropped open in shock. After a brief moment of gaping at Levi, who gave no indication that this was any kind of a joke, Juliet covered her open mouth and cast another glance across the room. This time, Guy actually caught her glance, his expression going from mildly cheerful to concerned at the look on her face. Whipping back around, Juliet dragged her hand from her mouth up to the side of her face - determined to hide her shock and red-tinted skin - and demanded of Levi: “She what?”

Levi half-smiled, and shrugged. “Unfortunately, Edward has many of Guy’s good qualities - the hair, kindness, height, even their faces are nearly identically aligned. While conveniently missing 5 or more of his brother’s stone.” Levi patted his own firm midriff to ensure the meaning wasn’t lost. “So it was an obviously understandable choice.”

“Obv-? Understandable?” Juliet sputtered, the red on her face burning with fury now, not embarrassment. She was so caught up in the moment that she didn’t notice Levi watching her reaction closely, even slyly, a smile tugging on the corner of his lips as he saw her outrage.

“Do you not think so?” He nudged, his gaze flickering from Juliet to Guy.

No! Who would? WAIT,” Juliet snapped as Levi opened his mouth. “I know who would. God above.”

“So, you’re saying - if you could trade your perfect man who had but one flaw for a similar man missing that flaw - you wouldn’t?” Levi was clearly goading her, but Juliet either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

“‘Flaw’,” Juliet snorted, then leaned closer to her friend, her expression dark. “What I am about to say to you cannot be repeated under any circumstances. Including pain of death. Or I shall be the one administering it. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Levi said, his eyes sparking in fascinating as he leaned in as well. “We are.” Both briefly glanced across the room again, finding a still-concerned Guy covering it by way of conversation with an older gentleman with a handlebar mustache. Luckily, Guy missed this conspiratorial look from his friends as Levi and Juliet turned back to each other.

“I would take a man like Sir Darby - a man with a, a fuller frame, if you will - over an underfed pole of a man any day.”

“Reeeally,” Levi dragged out the word, studying his friend as she shook her head in determination.

“Yes. Yes. I’d even…maybe even over an average shape. Or a powerfully muscular form.”

“Not muscular? But if it isn’t simply for the preference of them being larger, then why…?”

“Who wouldn’t enjoy softness at the end of a long day?” Juliet replied, half-shrugging. But this conclusion to her confession seemed to make Juliet realize exactly how bare she’d laid herself, and she straightened with wide eyes.

“Well, I know many a man who’d agree with that,” Levi said, casting a glance over Juliet’s curves to make his point. “- but it’s not often women. Interesting.”

“Levi,” Juliet said, the alcohol and rush of her confession spurring forward one of only occasional uses of her friend’s Christian name. “Please. Not a word. To anyone.”

“I gave you my word, Juliet,” Levi replied, his voice low and comforting as he briefly placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let us rejoin our friend. Another drink for the journey?”
 
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Ghostboo

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Not long after the trio had reconvened, Levi was called away by one of his co-hosts to assist with an aspect of the party. As he departed, an upbeat string melody glided from the dance floor, and Guy saw Juliet brighten along with the notes.

“Would you like to dance?” He asked, holding out a hand, palm-up. Juliet put her small, pale hand on top of Guy’s plumb, tanned one - then hesitated.

“I don’t think…”

“…that it’s been enough time since our first? You may be right, I apologize for the impertinence.”

“No, no! I don’t care about that,” Juliet laughed, her grip on his hand tightening rather than releasing. She leaned in a little, lowering her voice. “Truly, after so much of Mr. Baxter’s champagne - I’m not certain I could stay composed enough on the dance floor.”

“He has certainly been more than generous with it,” Guy laughed, keeping his hand raised as he now realized Juliet was using it to keep her balance. “What if we took a turn over to the newly vacated armchairs?” He gestured to a corner near the hall’s fireplace, where several large, plush chairs had been abandoned by the older gentlemen previously using them to discuss business and idle gossip. It was getting late, and many of the more aged partygoers were ready to head home.

“Yes, please,” Juliet nodded, carefully moving her hand from Guy’s own to wrap around the crook of his proffered elbow. “That sounds perfect.”

Upon reaching the warmly lit corner, Guy deposited Juliet gently into a large purple armchair next to the fire - or tried to, at least, as she stumbled the last few inches and did a bit of a flop into the seat. She gripped Guy’s sleeve while it happened, which she quickly released as they both burst into brief, quiet laughter. Juliet covered her giggles with her hand as Guy took a seat in the deep maroon chair closest to her.

“Goodness, I’m sorry about that. When I break decorum, I try to at least do it on purpose, not…under the direction of being a trifle disguised.”

“Nothing to apologize about, Miss Seaborne,” Guy said, brushing his forearm through the air as though to sweep away her words. “I’m a bit in my cups as well, and if anything, you make these evenings more fun.”

“Oh, well, thank you,” Juliet said, casting her eyes down and then towards the fire. Guy couldn’t tell if her skin was pink from the alcohol, the warmth of the flames, or his words. Still, his champagne bravery pushed him onward.

“Did you enjoy this sort of thing, balls and the like, in Edinburgh?”

“I did,” Juliet said carefully, propping her chin up on her hand attached to the elbow that rested on her chair’s arm. Guy leaned forward to hear her responses better, his gut spreading out on his lap and squashing between his thighs and chest. With the bubble pop of alcohol in his mind, though, he didn’t notice nearly as much. “While I don’t always love large gatherings, I do enjoy dancing. As long as there’s that and…at least one person I can converse properly with…the evening is usually a success. Edinburgh nearly always had both, while Highcastle…”

“Not as much,” Guy offered, and Juliet smiled wanly.

“Not as much. Though, lately…it’s certainly been better.” Juliet moved her gaze from Guy’s to face the fire again, with Guy certain the pink on her cheeks had arrived before the flames shone on them. After a moment’s hesitation, Juliet continued. “And you, Sir Darby? Did you enjoy your time in London society?”

“I did,” Guy mirrored Juliet’s response, down to the brief pause. “For a while.”

“What did you like about it?”

“I would…get to spend time with the woman I intended to marry,” Guy admitted, catching Juliet’s green eyes before looking down at the ground, then back up. “This was, of course, before she wed my brother Edward.”

Guy was not overly surprised to see Juliet’s reaction, a few blinks and a brief look back at the fire; much more reserved than most. He had suspected what her gaping stare earlier in the evening was about.

“Levi told you.”

“He…he mentioned it. As I'm sure he mentioned the troubles with my own brother to you. Still, I’m sorry to hear, Sir Darby.”

“You needn’t be, Miss Seaborne. Caroline…well, I believe she assumed a family fortune was included with all the Darbys. But the money I made on my own, prior to inheriting the Baronetcy. Edward, for all his good looks and good nature, comes with comparatively very little. My guess is her regret on that score rivals any hurt she may have caused.”

“I may not have a sibling of the same sex, but still - I cannot fathom doing something like this to my family.”

“In Edward’s defense, I am not certain he knew the extent of our…or, sorry, my…affections. He is younger than I, and Caroline can be…rather persuasive.”

“How much younger?”

“Five years.” Guy’s tone, previously matter-of-fact, took a subtle turn for the melancholy. Juliet placed her hand on his wrist, her fingers touching the border between his shirt cuff and skin, just briefly. “I know if my father had been in a position to change the birth order, make Edward his heir…he would have.”

“Well, your father also left you and the younger Mr. Darby a broke legacy, so I’m not certain how much weight his opinion truly holds.”

“A valid point,” Guy said, his smile rueful, but grateful. He was careful not to dwell on his father’s criticisms, but when they so closely mirrored Caroline’s, it was hard not to think of them both when insecurities about his larger-than-most form surfaced.

“Would hearing one of my biggest near-engagement regrets lift your spirits, Sir Darby?” Juliet sat up, her head no longer resting on her hand as she glanced surreptitiously out into the room to make sure no one else was listening.

“Perhaps,” he said, his smile growing a bit. “What have you got, Miss Seaborne?”

“Well…do you recall my mentioning a previous rejection of Mr. Pendergast?” Both turned to scan the party, finding Felton Pendergast snickering in a crowd of young men watching a trio of young women - likely in their first season - with clearly leering glares.

“How could I possibly forget?” Guy said, his disturbed nose crinkle mirroring Juliet’s own. She hesitated, but eventually spoke with great haste.

“The truth is, at the time, I had actually wanted to marry him.”

It was Guy’s turn to gape.

“You had…? Pendergast?”

“Oh, I know. Trust me, I know. But I was 17 at the time, with practically no experience handling true attention from gentlemen. He figured out a handful of the right things to say, and, well…” Juliet shrugged helplessly, trying to cover her embarrassment. “I was also just quite stupid, to put it plainly.”

“I sincerely doubt that has ever been true.”

“Your flattery is noted and appreciated, sir, but it is standing up against rather glaringly obvious evidence to the contrary.”

The pair shared another glance in Felton’s direction, then burst into laughter, quickly turning back inward towards the fire.

“So then what happened to this…love story for the ages?” Guy asked, and Juliet groaned through her laughter and swatted at him.

“Hush, sir, don’t make me regret my confession. I had at least enough of my wits about me to tell Mr. Pendergast that I would give him an answer by the end of the week, and while I was leaning towards a yes, I spoke to my friend Elizabeth, who reminded me of my youth and relative freedom compared to married life. Brought me about to the realization that if Mr. Pendergast truly cared for me, he would understand a temporary delay in our union while I finished the schooling I desired, did some traveling, and grew a bit more into who I was. And Sir Darby,” Juliet’s voice taking a turn for the mock-serious. “You shall never guess what happened next.”

“Well…did Pendergast understand completely, and your engagement is set to occur any day now?”

Juliet sputtered out a laugh so hard that the closest partygoers, a couple middle-aged men a few meters away, looked over in surprise. Guy offered them a banal smile as Juliet composed herself.

“Nearly, Sir Darby, nearly. But in reality, I saw his true side in that moment I gave my answer, the sheer fury and entitlement for exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it. And I knew then that my foolish teenage ‘not yet’ was actually a ‘no’. I have felt nothing but relief and some lingering horror at what might have been since.”

“Thank goodness for Elizabeth, then,” Guy said. “I don’t believe I’ve made her acquaintance yet, though.”

“Elizabeth got married a few years ago,” Juliet replied, her face neutral, but her tone masking a feeling. “She then moved over to the valley with her husband, Mr. Beterman.” Many of the locals referred to the nearby village of Starline as “the valley”. It resided a few leagues away situated in a low lying area with pretty views, but high groundwater.

“I see. Have you seen her since you’ve been back?”

“Not yet - I hope to soon.”

Both Guy and Juliet glanced over to Pendergast’s group again, watching him call out to a nearby young lady. She responded quietly, her face plastered with the easily recognizable if I’m polite perhaps he will go away smile most women had to do at one point in her life. Juliet shook her head in disgust.

“Were you ever tempted again? Or did Pendergast - understandably - do you in on the thought of marriage completely?” Guy asked, half-smiling at Juliet as he caught her gaze. Juliet’s disgruntled stare faded as she thought.

“Once,” she replied, slowly. “In Edinburgh. There was never a proposal, though I thought there might be.”

“Oh?”

“He was a soldier in a regiment stationed in town. We met at a ball, and - I thought we got on well. Better than I do with most, anyway. And he was very handsome and all that.”

Guy swallowed, glancing down at where his heavy belly rested in his lap. He sat up at this, the tightening of his stomach muscles likely imperceptible to all others. He started to clasp his hands around his round middle, but as he realized that would likely call attention to what a strain it was to encircle it - he dropped them to his sides and looked at Juliet.

“So what happened?”

“He married another. A local heiress. It was…sudden,” Juliet said, trying and not entirely succeeding in keeping her tone even.

Guy nodded in understanding.

“His loss.”

“You know, Sir Darby, I’m not so certain it was. His wife is far from homely, and now he gets to live in comfort from a dowry that would rival the yearly income of most of the men in this room combined. I can hardly fault him for that.”

“Well,” Guy replied, “I can.”

The pair looked at each other for a moment, and something flickered behind the light green of Juliet’s eyes - something that vanished behind a crinkling as she allowed herself to laugh at Guy’s firm tone.

“Well, if you’re sure I can’t dissuade you.”

“No, Miss Seaborne. My mind is quite made up.”

As they continued laughing and talking, the rest of the room - even the grotesque stylings of Mr. Pendergast - seemed to fade into the background.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Six - Juliet Seaborne

“I’M NOT HUNGRY,” was all the Seabornes could hear from Juliet’s room as Mrs. Seaborne continued to knock. Juliet, who had done her chores while still drunk in the early hours of the morning, buried her head under her pillow.

“ACTUALLY, JUST LEAVE ME SOME BREAD AND THEN GO AWAY PLEASE.”

The rest of the Seabornes eventually complied, all varying degrees of amused and concerned.
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter Seven

Feeling as though she had learned her lesson on over-imbibing, Juliet waved away the offer of a glass of punch. It was two weeks after the ball at Griffinhead, and tonight’s festivities included a gathering at Wolfbriar, a nearly as large (if not quite as lavish) estate further on the edges of town. It was home to a wealthy older woman and her middle aged son, along with his wife - the Epholts. No children had come of the latter union, so eventually Wolfbriar would pass to a more distant relative. In the meantime, though, the Epholts enjoyed their solitude - aside from one ball put on in the summer, and hosting one dinner party in the winter. Nothing else.

The ceilings on the lower floor where the dancing took place were impressively high, with tall, broad windows facing out into the forest beyond Wolfbriar. The last twinklings of twilight allowed the dancers in front of them to see the shapes of the trees outside, and a set of double doors off to the left of the dance floor led onto a broad balcony overlooking the grove beyond. Juliet was on the other side of the dance floor, however, and her green eyes only briefly touched on the beauty outside before sweeping over the dancers and other partygoers. Again.

After the punch was swept away, a tray of toast triangles covered in whipped cheese and topped with pickled summer vegetables was brought by. Juliet absentmindedly took one with zucchini, while the rest of the group she stood with took their time selecting the best looking pieces. This included her brother Nathan, Levi, and a couple young women eager for the chance to converse with the latter.

“I had better not,” the short brunette between Juliet and Levi finally declared, withdrawing her hand from hovering over the platter. “After partaking in a tartlet when we first arrived, I should be more conscious of my figure now. Especially as I have yet to dance,” she concluded, batting her dark eyelashes up at Levi in an obvious hint. Juliet heard enough to slide her eyes over to the (perfectly thin, obviously) girl in disdain before popping the entire loaded piece of toast in her mouth at once.

“Oh,” Juliet breathed as the flavors hit her tongue. Nathan stifled a laugh as the other girls looked at her with some alarm. “That is delicious,” she concluded after she had swallowed the treat. “I should let…” her voice trailed off as she scanned the room again, still not seeing what - or who - she was looking for. “I wonder…”

Nathan and Levi exchanged an amused, if exasperated, glance.

“Well, Miss Bonny, why don’t we remedy that?” Levi said loudly, offering the girl next to him his arm as he gestured at the dance floor. She beamed and accepted it, allowing herself to be led away.

“Would you care to join this dance?” Nathan asked the other girl, a lean, taller brunette with coppery streaks through her hair. Her hazel eyes widened as she realized she had been left alone with the Seabornes - a lower middle class family steeped in scandal - without the social clout that Levi Baxter’s presence offered.

“Oh, I believe I hear my mother - apologies, Mr. Seaborne, but perhaps-” she cut herself off, to her credit, before she uttered what would undoubtedly have been a lie. With a swish of her skirts, she had disappeared out the door to another room of the house.

“Of course,” Nathan said firmly, quietly. Juliet finally halted her hopeful seeking gaze and turned to her brother.

“Sorry, Nathan,” she said, her volume matching his own as she patted his shoulder. “Just ignore them, if you can.”

Nathan shrugged.

“It’s irritating, but…a natural consequence, I suppose.” He and his sister stood quietly for a moment, each contemplating aspects of his ill-advised marriage. “And I just hope the fallout does not continue to affect you, too, Juliet.”

“Nathan, I was the loudmouth affecting you and your standing until my departure. So there is nothing to apologize for. People interested only in ladder-climbing are more prone to ignore us now? Oh, no,” she replied, her last few words dripping with sarcasm. “As long as we have a true friend or two for a dance and good conversation at these gatherings, we will get by more than just fine.”

“Speaking of,” Nathan said wryly, lifting his head to gesture with his chin towards the opening to the room by way of the front door. Juliet, who had been facing him and subsequently away from the door, whirled to look.

Guy Darby had planted a few feet into the entrance as others swirled around him, their trim and fancy bodies getting to and from the dance floor. He didn’t move with them, though, as he surveyed the room from his vantage point. His dark hair had gone beyond waves into actually forming curls, and the apple of his round cheeks were flushed a light red, as though he had rushed inside. His suit was a fashionable grey, the jacket slightly lighter in color than the vest, which had clearly been made recently enough to fully cover his round form. Which wasn’t disguised, but it was comfortable, and Juliet’s breath caught as their eyes locked.

Guy’s face broke out in a smile at the same time as Juliet raised an arm in greeting. Nathan very briefly rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, but Juliet missed it as she pulled her arm back down in a rush, blushing as Guy began to make his way towards them. The crowded space along the dance floor meant he had to turn to the side to squeeze past groups of people more than once, and even still he needed to pause to offer an apology when the swell of his belly bumped into a man who took an unknowing step back into Guy’s path.

Eventually, though, Guy found his way to where Nathan and Juliet stood. Guy straightened his jacket after brushing past so many people, while Juliet smoothed a hand down the skirt of her light green gown, a near identical match to the color of her eyes.

“Good evening, Mr. Seaborne, Miss Seaborne,” Guy greeted. His eyes lingered on Juliet as he added, “you look well.”

“As do you, Sir Darby,” Juliet replied.

“Good evening,” Nathan murmured at the end of his sister’s words, glancing off to the side before adding, “I believe I’m due for a refill on punch. Please excuse me.”

Juliet smiled at her brother as he departed, Guy declining his head in a nod of farewell with a half-smile of his own.

“Shall we get you a drink of your own?” Juliet asked.

“That is quite alright for now. After the indulgences at Griffinhead, I may keep to water this evening.”

“I have been thinking just the same, Sir Darby,” Juliet laughed. “It was fun though, wasn’t it?”

“Extremely, Miss Seaborne.”

“Still, I hope you don’t mean all indulgences. The food here this evening is just spectacular.”

Guy’s cheeks, which had cooled off during his time standing still, lifted back into a light red blush.

“Ah…I suppose I did mean all indulgences. I usually don’t partake as much as I did at Griffinhead, but the champagne, it’s…”

“Persuasive?”

“Precisely.”

“Unfortunately, in the face of good food, so am I. And with the Epholts only opening their home twice a year, they truly put everything they have into their food for the ball. The appetizers are to die for - I may need to insist we at least compare vegetables from the cheese on toast going around.”

Guy cocked his head to the side a little, looking at Juliet curiously. The light swell of flesh from his double chin covered the top of the left side of his collar as he did so. After a brief moment where their eyes met and her own creamy cheeks lit up in a cool pink blush, Guy replied.

“Well, I do need to keep my energy up for a dance or two. Once my dinner settles, I promise, we can compare.”

He offered Juliet his elbow as he looked towards the now-emptying dance floor, and she took it even as she sighed.

“You sound like Miss Bonny. No one needs to earn their food. You can just…enjoy it, without balancing with a dance or other exertion.”

“Trust me, I’m familiar with that practice,” Guy replied as he walked them towards where the musicians looked to choose the next dance, his dry words coming out a bit sharper than he intended. Juliet looked over to his face in concern, her grip on his soft arm tightening almost imperceptibly. Guy tried to flex the muscle in his arm just as imperceptibly back, and spoke again with a much softer tone. “I just mean that anyone who sees me is bound to know that I do enjoy my food without always… balancing. Because of that, I try to avoid doing so in front of so many others, generally.” Before Juliet could reply, he asked, “who is Miss Bonny?”

Juliet nodded at Levi and the short brunette as they exited the other side of the dance floor. She spoke next as she stood across from Guy in the line that was forming for the reel.

“Another leech,” she said dryly. “Suffering through the company of Nathan and I with her friends for a shot at Levi. Once he deigned to offer a dance to one, the rest scattered like we were primed to burst all over them.”

Guy laughed at the mental image this conjured.

“As a fellow friend of Levi, I know exactly how that goes. I’m sorry to have missed it with my tardiness - Stormgrove turned out to be a good deal farther from Wolfbriar than I expected.”

“Not at all,” Juliet waved off, dipping into a curtsy as the musicians began to play. Across from her, Guy bowed as deeply as he was able - his impressive belly getting in the way early enough that it was well before his head and shoulders became parallel to the floor.

He quickly straightened up, though, for the first move of the reel was that the line of women would skip over to the line of men and spin around them - with one hand and arm planted firmly on their waists to guide their way. So Guy ensured he was upright and frantically holding in a breath to tighten the muscles in his broad stomach by the time Juliet got to him. Her hand came to rest where her index finger was right atop his belly button, the others placed along the curve of his middle where it swelled over his grey pants. Guy flushed and mentally cursed, knowing this was by far his widest and softest point, and his attentions towards sucking it all in would make a minimal difference there - if at all.

As the women took their turn around the men, Juliet’s hand followed, gently sinking into his soft flesh. First her narrow upper arm, then her fingers, trailed along the swell of his love handles that pooched out but were - luckily - hidden quite a bit by his suit jacket.

But not hidden from this touch, Guy thought, mostly in dismal but also with a shiver of…something? He didn’t look at it too closely as he kept his attentions towards thinking as thin as possible and keeping himself from turning too red in embarrassment.

As Juliet skipped back to the other side, though, Guy didn’t see any of his own negative self-talk reflected there. In fact, Juliet was grinning, uninhibited joy in her expression and nearly-hidden half moon eyes. It caused an interesting conflict of an uptick in Guy’s heartbeat, while also a cooling sensation washed his innards with relief.

It was now time to reverse - the men stepping around the women, who held their hands together to create a chain for the men to duck under. But the average space between dancers was - of course - plenty big for the average male dancer, but not Guy. He had only a moment to decide how to squeeze through with minimal damage, and with his comfort with Juliet, landed on leaning in to her to avoid brushing against the girls he didn’t know to either side. First, he ducked his head beneath their arms. Then he easily constricted his broad shoulders as he turned to the side in preparation for the rest of his body to follow. His hand lightly landed on Juliet’s own waist, as the rest of the dancers did with their partners. But the light press was soon followed by his broad, soft belly applying more pressure to it as he squeezed through the first gap, letting out a gasp as he reached the backside of the dance line and could stop sucking in momentarily.

His fingers traced the narrowest part of Juliet’s waist, which he could almost swear he felt artificially tighten beneath him with a breath from her. But that would be silly - Juliet was the perfect mix of narrow yet soft, the ideal for any body. She was far from the thinnest girl in the room, but only the especially craven sorts of idiots cared about anything like that. She had nothing to hide.

Following his fingers, Guy did the same on the other side - a quick duck of his head beneath the held hands, an expert narrowing of his not unimpressive shoulders, then a hopefully quick squeeze of the rest of his broad frame. To keep from bumping into the girl next to Juliet, however, Guy did have to press just about all of his soft belly into her side, constricting his hand between her waist and his own. His breath was held in a valiant attempt to keep his frame just a little less stocky, and soon, he was through.

“Apologies,” he murmured in her ear before crossing back, shyly refusing to specify why.

As Guy danced to the other side of the room with the other men, Juliet realized she had been holding her breath through the entire move. Her skin felt warm and tingly, her insides cool and tight as she exhaled, wide eyes meeting Guy’s wary ones. She couldn’t stop the smile that broke out again, though, and he returned it with a relieved one of his own.

“Nothing to apologize about,” she finally got out as they began to clap for the couple at the end to dance down the line. Guy half-nodded as they watched the approaching dancers, only looking across the dance floor at the other when they thought it was safe to do so.

They often misjudged, though, and caught each other’s gaze with a blush and quick advert of the eyes.

By the end of the dance, both were out of breath as they began to exit the dance floor.

“Goodness,” laughed Juliet. “I may need a drink after all. I’m not sure water is enough to help quench me after that.”

“I know what you mean,” agreed Guy with a broad smile. “I think that may go very well with the toast I’m eager to try-”
 
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Ghostboo

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“My turn!”

At the edge of the dance floor, a tall, thin blonde had appeared at Guy’s arm, fingers lightly pressing into his inner elbow as she gave him a sticky sweet smile. Guy and Juliet froze, blinking at the unexpected arrival.

“Miss Underwood,” Guy said slowly.

“Your…turn?” Juliet asked flatly, taking in Priscilla Underwood’s expensive blue gown, cut tight and low. Priscilla didn’t even glance at the shorter girl, keeping her blue eyes boring straight into Guy’s.

“It has been far too long since we had a dance, Sir Darby. I know you had taken a break from the activity, and who could blame you with all the…” Priscilla paused, seemed to realize her initial term was unsuitable, then continued: “swarms that insisted on it. But now that you’re back to it, I believe it is my turn to be asked.”

It was beyond a bold statement to make, and Juliet couldn’t help but gape, quickly covering her mouth with a hand as she stared. And Priscilla didn’t even wait for Guy to say the words - she slowly, subtly, began to steer him away from Juliet and back towards the dance floor.

“Miss Underwood, wait, please,” Guy said, planting his feet. One slight tug on his arm proved useless to move the entirety of his weight, and Priscilla sighed, pausing with him.

“Yes, Sir Darby?”

“I had promised Miss Seaborne a drink. I cannot go back on my word in order to escort you to the dance floor.”

“Oh, Miss Seaborne understands! Don’t you, Juliet?” Priscilla said, the high ring of her voice clearly insincere to the girl who had known her for many years as they both pivoted back to look at Juliet. “Please, Sir Darby, just one dance. I’ve waited so patiently, and I know you’re a gentleman.”

Guy felt himself hesitate, weakening. As rude as Priscilla was being by all but demanding an invitation to dance, it would be just as rude for Guy to brush her off. And one dance wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

But as Guy opened his mouth to acquiesce, he caught sight of the disappointment in the eyes and tight lips of Juliet Seaborne. As he took it in, he recalled the last time he had danced with Priscilla. Many of the other women in town had accepted by that point that he would not extend any interest in them beyond the single dance their mothers arranged for them, and he was mostly, relievingly, left alone. But Priscilla and Mrs. Underwood had approached him and wheedled out a dance - an answer for every excuse, from the drink in his hand to the soreness of his knees.

The judging trace of Mrs. Underwood’s gaze up and down his form had Guy finally extending an invitation to her daughter just to get out from under it. On the dance floor, during a reel similar but not identical to the one he and Juliet had just done, Guy caught a distinct wrinkling of Priscilla’s nose as soon as her fingers touched his soft middle. For the rest of her turns, she’d kept them hovering just above, only occasionally touching the fabric of his suit.

If he gave in now, if he allowed himself to be led to the dance floor under the illusion of having asked her to dance, he was condoning this behavior. He was sending a message to the money and title hungry young women and mothers of Highcastle that he wasn’t a hopeless mark for the marriage mart. That a strong arm - not a kind word like the companionship of Juliet - would be enough to get him to do exactly what they wanted. And that would be the entirety of his evenings again - dodging decidedly uninterested but desperate attentions instead of getting to spend them with his friends.

“No,” Guy said, carefully but firmly extracting his arm from Priscilla’s grip as he turned and crossed back part of the way to where Juliet was standing, eyes wide. As he planted his feet and looked back to Priscilla, he saw the finely crafted social mask she’d been wearing dissolve into a shocked fury at the word. “Miss Underwood, as I told you, I will be accompanying my friend Miss Seaborne to get a drink. I am not available to dance with you tonight. Doing so at all is an exception, not a rule.” He bowed his head at her just slightly, losing sight of the simmering rage in her eyes as he did so. “Please have a good rest of your evening.”

He didn’t look back as he turned and offered Juliet his arm, who took it without a word as they headed back into the throng of people on the outskirts of the dance floor.

“Oh!” A few silent but warm moments had passed with the two walking before Juliet paused, and Guy stopped with her. “Look, this is what I was talking about!” The tray of toast, cheese, and pickled vegetables was resting on a table set against the wall of the room. Juliet tugged him over and spread her arms wide, as though unveiling her own creation.

“I had the zucchini, but I’m certain they’re all delicious. What’s your favorite summer vegetable?”

“I find it difficult for anything to triumph over asparagus, but this beet option here…” Guy took up the piece with the deep maroon vegetable on top and studied it. “I’m intrigued. I’ll have to give this a try.”

He did, and was not disappointed. The earthiness of the beet and the tang of the pickling went exceptionally well together. Juliet, meanwhile, popped a sweeter version topped with raspberry into her mouth and closed her eyes with pleasure.

“So far, there are no misses! Shall we each try the asparagus now?”

Guy nodded, and they both took one in hand. This time, Juliet consumed hers in two bites, cleaving it neatly in half while she nodded and gave a pleased shake of her shoulders before taking the other half. Guy tried not to blush as he chewed the entire piece of toast he had stuffed into his mouth, enjoying the cheese, the crunch, and the pickled asparagus all together.

Before he had swallowed it all, however, a familiar voice reached them. He saw Juliet stiffen a little as they each slowly turned their head towards a group at the other end of the table, where Priscilla Underwood was now standing with Felton Pendergast and his usual lackies.

“-just trying to be polite,” Priscilla was saying, her tone shrill and sorrowful. But Juliet caught the sly glance Priscilla made in their direction, and her teeth ground against each other as she finished her bites of food. She cast a look at Guy, who just blinked at the group across from them and didn’t look back. Felton was clearly comforting Priscilla, his voice soothing as it reached the pair, even if they couldn’t make out the individual words. But that soon changed.

“You know you don’t want to dance with Darby, anyway, Priscilla,” Felton said, his voice raising as it oozed slick, nasty confidence. “Or even be nearby when he is. The whole floor and ceiling may come down, as I doubt a single estate in Highcastle is equipped to be so tromped on by anyone weighing in at 20 stone.”

Priscilla and the rest of the group around Felton let out appreciative laughs. Juliet, for all the tightness that had been gripping at her spine since they heard Priscilla nearby, could feel Guy well and truly freeze beside her. The stillness was eerie. On instinct, she took a step forward, towards the group. She didn’t realize Guy had broken out of his pose until she felt a soft hand on her shoulder.

“Miss Seaborne,” he said, his voice deep and quiet. She met his eyes, brow furrowed in concern. “Please,” was all he concluded with, shaking his head just slightly. Juliet let out a breath and stopped at his request, looking down at their feet on the ground.

“I need to get some air,” Guy added, straightening up and tightening his stomach muscles. “Please excuse me.” His voice was firm and neutral, but with something lurking beneath as he bowed his head - much deeper than he had for Priscilla - and headed towards the double doors that led onto the balcony.

Juliet just watched.
 
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Ghostboo

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It might have been five minutes later, or thirty minutes later. Juliet couldn’t have said for certain, as she just traced a circular path around the room, avoiding any and all eye contact. But however long it was, when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she grabbed two glasses of champagne off a table - took a deep, steadying breath - then headed out those double doors.

Guy was now the only partygoer on the balcony, likely due to the evening’s inky blackness that blotted out nearly all of the surrounding beauty of the estate’s landscape. Light from the candles inside spilled out to illuminate the balcony itself, but not beyond. Still, Guy was looking out into the dark, his thick arms resting on the curved ivory railing while his soft belly was squashed gently in half by it as he leaned forward.

Juliet moved closer slowly, uncertainly, allowing the clicking of her low heeled boots to be the announcement of her arrival. Guy turned when she was about halfway between the door and the railing he stood at.

“Would you like a drink?” Juliet asked, feeling foolish for not having something better, more reassuring, more confident, prepared to say. She took a few more quick steps then paused, looking searchingly at Guy’s round face for a reaction.

It took a moment, but Guy’s dark eyes took in Juliet’s worried expression, and he slowly allowed himself a small smile.

“Sure. Thank you.”

Juliet closed the rest of the gap and handed him the glass of champagne. They each took a sip, then Juliet moved to stand against the railing next to him.

“I hope…you know, Sir Darby, that Felton Pendergast is no more than death’s head upon a mop-stick. And that anyone listening to anything he has to say is rarely better, and actually often worse.”

Guy exhaled a soft laugh out his nose, taking another sip of champagne as he avoided Juliet’s eyes.

“That may be, Miss Seaborne. But he wasn’t entirely wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am 20 stone. Perhaps even one or two more, by now,” Guy admitted, cringing subtly to himself as he faced the number head-on. He kept his gaze determinedly out at the nearly black treeline while Juliet blinked at his side.

“Oh,” she said, her voice without the dismay Guy was expecting. Still, she trailed off until she spoke up again, softer this time.

“What would you think of calling me Juliet? Assuming what you said to Priscilla Underwood was correct, and not simply an excuse to get out of her clutches - which would be more than understandable-”

“That you are my friend?”

“Yes,” Juliet said, even softer this time. “That I am your friend.”

The moment of heavy silence was terrifying, but Guy cut it with a broader smile this time as he finally turned to face her.

“I would be honored to do so, Juliet. And the same offer is welcome to you, of course.”

“But you’re a Baronet,” Juliet sputtered, which Guy merely smirked and raised his eyebrows at.

“I am also just - Guy Darby.”

“Perhaps among friends, then…Guy.”

“Deal.”

The pair fell into a comfortable silence in the cool night air, with Juliet’s gaze tilting up at the sky. After a moment, Guy felt a shiver from her direction.

“Are you cold? Should we go…?”

“A bit, but…it’s so lovely out,” Juliet mused, and the pair glanced back towards the double doors. They were within easy sight, making this meeting far from any kind of scandalous, but luckily no one seemed to be paying much attention to them. Guy seemed to make a decision, and quickly removed his suit jacket.

“Here,” he said, offering it to her. “For stargazing.”

Juliet looked as though she might argue, but instead she stared at the grey jacket in his hands then up to Guy’s face and bit her lip, nodding. Guy slipped it around her shoulders, watching ruefully as it completely dwarfed her. At least his new vest and undershirt fit properly, and not as snugly as many of the current options in his closet.

“Do you have a favorite constellation?”

“Oh,” Guy said, impressed and surprised by the question. “I…well, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve given it as much thought as I should have. Perhaps the Great Bear? Or is that…?”

Juliet smiled over at him.

“It’s a classic. Nothing wrong with that.”

“What about yours?”

“Cassiopeia. Look here - if you turn and start there - ” Juliet put a gentle hand on Guy’s arm to spin him around, facing the sky with their bodies pointed at the house now. She moved closer and pointed up so that he could follow her finger. “Then two - three - four - five. The ‘w’.”

Guy was distracted by the subtle wisps of strawberry blonde hair that brushed his thick neck as he kept his gaze determinedly up at the sky. It took a moment of concentration, but at his third sweep along Juliet’s motion, he saw it - the sparkling letter W in the sky.

“Would you look at that,” he murmured, enough admiration shining through that Juliet glanced back - and saw just how close she was. Blushing, the shorter girl shuffled quickly back to her own section of the smooth ivory railing. “What makes it your favorite, Juliet?”

“Well, Guy, it’s easy to find, with a great backstory. What’s not to like?”

“A fair point. What’s the backstory?”

“Cassiopeia was a queen, and had a daughter, princess Andromeda. They were placed in the sky as punishment by Poseidon, who had heard Cassiopeia brag that she - or Andromeda, or maybe both - were more beautiful than the sea nymphs that often assisted Poseidon.”

“Hm,” Guy mused. “Seems like a bit of an overreaction, but at least we get these stars now.”

Juliet laughed.

“Yes, the Greek gods were rather astoundingly petty. Much like if you gave Priscilla Underwood or Felton Pendergast immortal power.”

She smirked over at Guy, who half-smiled back, unable to keep from remembering the overheard words from earlier. A nervous hand brushed along the side of his grey vest, pushing lightly against the pliable mass of his stomach until it reached his other hand at the apex. His fingers interlocked, and he held his widest overhang - where Juliet’s fingers had traipsed early in the evening - in the cup of his hands.

“I would say we should go dance again,” Guy mused. “But I suppose I should worry about our reputations - and the state of the floor.”

“Okay, sir, 20 - or even 22 - stone is not too much for a dance floor. You know that.”

Guy just half-shrugged, keeping an eye and a crooked smile on Juliet as she slowly took his coat off her.

“And you may well know I pride myself on being a decent wordsmith - but I could spend years on it and not be able to come up with the perfect combination that captures how truly little I care about anyone in that room’s opinion of my ‘reputation’.”

Guy found himself startled into laughing out loud, dropping his hands to take the coat back.

“So yes, I’m ready to dance - unless you’re worried about your own reputation and what other leeches it might bring out of the woodwork.”

“After how flawlessly I handled Miss Underwood? I feel I could take in the world,” Guy declared, his tone teasing despite some amount of truth behind his words. After shrugging on his coat, he offered Juliet an arm, which she took as they faced the door.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Eight

The next morning Mrs. Seaborne got up early as always, prepared to wake her children and hear about the ball at Wolfbriar. But as she came from her room into the dining room, she discovered Juliet was already awake - singing softly, happily to herself as she arranged flowers in the vase on the table.
 

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