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

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Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
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Chapter Nine

The following Saturday resulted in a role reversal as Guy cast his eye around the large sitting room he and Levi were in, looking for someone. That evening was a dinner party at the fine home of the Smiths, which meant rather a smaller gathering than a ball - but still an excellent opportunity to socialize and dance.

Levi, in one overstuffed red armchair, eyed his larger friend in a matching seat as he swirled his tumbler of whiskey.

“We both know she’s not here yet,” Levi drawled. “And that she’s sure to find us as soon as she is, whether you keep looking frantically about or not.”

“Who?” Guy asked innocently, blushing as he watched Levi roll his eyes dramatically back into his head. The pair both took a sip of their whiskey, one exasperated, one embarrassed.

“There’s no need to have any shame around me, Darby.”

“I know not of what you speak, Baxter,” Guy replied airily, swirling his own whiskey as he cast another sweeping gaze around the room before returning them to Levi. His friends eyebrows were raised so high they nearly disappeared into his hair.

“Fine, then. Why were you late again?” For cocktail hour was nearly over, with Guy having arrived nearly twenty minutes after the start. He had found Levi with a relieved smile, then observed the rest of the partygoers with surprise.

Guy was unable to hide the blush that crept up from his snug collar and to his cheeks at Levi’s question. To start the evening, the first suit his valet had tried to outfit him with didn’t even come close to buttoning. The second suit had gotten buttoned, but at Guy’s first breath, the tight vest’s second button from the bottom along with his pant’s button had burst off in protest. He was now in his green suit from the Middleton’s ball, but to his horror, had found the previously perfectly fitted suit now had noticeable puckering and pulling at the buttons on his widest bits.

Guy had mumbled something about being more aware of laundering needs to his household before rushing to get to this evening’s dinner party. He may still have made it on time, if not for another…inconvenience…that he refused to reflect on even momentarily. Now, instinctively, he sucked in a breath while tugging the slightly too-tight vest and undershirt away from his belly.

“I…lost…track of time,” Guy finally replied, his tone easy, but his words another obvious lie. Levi, who had observed his friend’s nervous adjusting to accomodate for his size at the question, merely nodded.

“As you say, Guy.”

But Guy ignored him as his dark eyes lit up, following a small blonde frame that had appeared in the doorway to the sitting room where they all drank. Juliet Seaborne’s lips were closed in a tight line, her eyes flashing, and the reason for her mood and late arrival became clear not long after.

Following Juliet into the room was, of course, her brother Nathan. But behind Nathan, already twittering at the evening’s decorations, was an older lady who shared her son’s dark features - Mrs. Seaborne. Guy hadn’t seen her for a few months, so it took him a moment to confirm, but while she stood next to Nathan the dots were easily connected.

Catching sight easily of Guy’s wide frame next to Levi’s tall one, Juliet practically stomped her way over - while still managing to smoothly gather herself a glass of red wine. She took an impressive gulp of it she reached the armchairs, allowing herself to lean against the side of Levi’s seat.

“Miss Seaborne,” Levi greeted with an incline of his head at the same time as Guy stood as quickly as he was able - unfortunately not the easiest feat to accomplish out of his overstuffed armchair with his snug clothing.

“Juliet,” Guy said as he did, bowing his head slightly. “How are you?”

“Please, no need to get up on my account,” Julie said, her voice appreciative but still dry as her lips tightened further. A glance over to where Nathan and Mrs. Seaborne stood near the fireplace, the latter openly staring at her daughter and the men she was with, elicited an audible groan. “I am…here.”

“How’d that come about?” Levi asked, his gaze flicking to Juliet’s family, then back up to her face. Guy gestured an offer to Juliet to sit in his seat, but she shook her head tightly. So carefully, Guy returned to the chair - keeping his stomach held in tightly as he gently tugged his shirt away from clinging to his round form yet again.

“You both know I swore to not attend any balls or gatherings unless my mother stayed home,” Juliet said from between her teeth, clearly resisting glaring over towards the fireplace. Both Guy and Levi nodded. “Well. I overplayed my hand. She saw how much…fun I’ve been having. So when someone let slip I danced three times with the same man last week-” Guy, being that man, couldn’t help but half-smile at the memory. “-mother took the opportunity to declare Nathan an unfit chaperone, and that she would be coming along tonight whether I liked it or not.”

Juliet took a deep inhale through her nose, the fire in her eyes flickering dangerously.

“I tried to call her bluff and say I would stay home, and she just…said okay. I don’t know how she knew I would eventually give in!”

Levi risked looking from Juliet’s furious face over to Guy’s round one with a cocked eyebrow. Guy avoided his gaze and Juliet, luckily, didn’t seem to notice.

“So here we are now,” Juliet concluded darkly, finishing her glass of wine and crossing her arms with a scowl.

“Julie-e-et!” A lilting call from across the room turned the heads of the trio. Mrs. Seaborne, either not realizing the two men watched her too or not caring, mimed uncrossing arms and pointed at her face to showcase a smile, then looked expectantly at her daughter. Juliet all but bared her teeth before whirling back to face the chairs.

“You should just kill me now,” Juliet said. “I ought to have stayed home and read. I’m just…” her green eyes flicked to Guy’s dark ones, softening just a little. But she quickly looked away and shook her head. “…just stupid, I guess.”

“Kill you and miss all this fun? I think not,” Levi said cheekily, raising his glass at Mrs. Seaborne. Mrs. Seaborne blinked in horror at the attention from the town rake and looked quickly to the paintings on the walls.

“Hell born babe,” hissed Juliet, whipping out an insult that meant Levi was both immature and evil.

“That he is,” Guy agreed, unable to hide a grin at the banter. “But I’m sure we can get through the evening without too much bloodshed.”

“I’m not,” Juliet grumbled.

“Guy knows alllll about dealing with problem parents out in society,” Levi said casually. “He can help.”

At mention of his father, Guy instinctually stiffened, sucking in his belly even harder than he had been. Juliet noticed, tracing her gaze up and then down her friend’s round form, her brows furrowing slightly in concern. Guy’s memory, meanwhile, ran back a reel of some of his father’s greatest hits, including one of the last conversations they had: “Do you think anyone is going to respect the Darby name when it’s carried on by a puff guts?” Followed by a sharp jab to Guy’s smaller-than-now-but-still-soft midsection.

Guy took a breath, purposefully relaxing his stature, but before he could speak a bell chimed to signal that dinner was ready. Levi stood and offered Guy a hand, which he took gratefully to help keep his balance as he followed. Unlike most men Guy knew, Levi didn’t go on to crack a joke about his weight as Guy rose. Didn’t mockingly act like he was being pulled over, didn’t let out a purposefully exaggerated grunt of exertion. It was one of the things Guy was most thankful for in their friendship.

As was proper, Guy offered Juliet his arm to escort her into the dining room. Juliet took it with a half-smile as she joined the group on the walk towards the meal, ignoring her mother’s hiss to stand up straighter.

The half-smile broke into a full, broad grin as they found their place settings. Juliet’s name card was next to Guy’s, and she sat with relief as Nathan took his seat on the other side of her. Their mother was also next to Nathan, and Levi was directly across from Guy and Juliet. He offered the pair a wink as he sat, and moments later, the first courses were deposited to the middle of the table.

Just within reach, Juliet saw a steaming roast hare, cabbage salad, potato and leek soup, salmon, and a plate of asparagus decadently drizzled in butter. Recalling her conversation with Guy at last week’s ball, Juliet nearly squeaked with excitement at the sight. Enthusiastically, she began to add various portions of the offerings to her plate, depending on what looked good.

“What sauce is that, Levi?” She asked her friend, who was drizzling his roast with a delicious looking deep red color.

“Port wine,” Levi replied. “Here.” He passed it to her and Juliet added some thick sauce to her salmon, a bit to the salad, and even a splash in her soup.

“Here is the port wine sauce, if you care for it,” Juliet said to Guy, her voice starting off chipper before trailing a little. Guy was collecting his food slowly, one might even say uncertainly, and so far only the cabbage salad and salmon was on his plate. But within his reach on the other side of the table, Juliet could see plum pudding and chicken confit. “Did you see the asparagus, too?”

“Yes,” Guy replied, meeting Juliet’s eyes briefly before he gave a small smile and allowed himself to collect two pieces of the long green vegetable. He eyed the port wine sauce skeptically, but hungrily.

“Are you all right, Guy?” Juliet couldn’t help but ask as her friend hesitated. Guy licked just the middle of his plump lips, thinking to himself before answering.

“To be frank, this is my first dinner party in…awhile. And my very first in Highcastle. They’re not…always where I am comfortable.”

“Oh,” Juliet said. “Well, what made you decide to come to this one, but not the others?”

Guy lifted his dark eyes to meet Juliet’s, and there was a moment of silence before he replied softly: “I don’t know. Why did you come to this one despite your promise regarding your mother?”

Juliet flushed. Guy didn’t break their eye contact, so despite the pink heat on her cheeks, neither did Juliet. Guy took pity on her after a moment, and continued, “Like I mentioned last week, Juliet, I don’t tend to indulge in front of so many people.”

“This is hardly ‘so many people’, sir,” Juliet said, her voice a little hoarse as she matched Guy’s low volume. “Me, Levi…Mrs. Patterson on your right, who is plenty busy with her own plum pudding…”

Guy flicked his gaze to his right, stifling a laugh.

“And doesn’t it feel better when you do?” Juliet continued. “The champagne and salmon rolls at Griffinhead Hall, the toast triangles at Wolfbriar…that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“You are perhaps a a terrible influence,” Guy said wryly, eyeing the creamy soup in front of him before giving in to scooping himself a bowl.

“If that means you’ll eat, you know, at a dinner party, then I’ll take it,” Juliet retorted. “Everyone requires food, after all. No one minds.” After a pause, she allowed a glance of her own to her left, past Nathan. “I mean, my mother will - if she sees me going for seconds - but I trust us to be sly about it.”

At this, Guy did snort.

“My father would too,” he admitted, reaching for the port wine sauce. “Often well before seconds, unfortunately.”

“Before?”

“I might have taken what he deemed to be too large of a bite, or added a few too many varieties to my plate, or seemed to enjoy it just a bit too much - and he’d signal the footman to remove my utensils. I’d still have to sit there for the entirety of the rest of the meal - with no way to consume it.”

Juliet’s mouth dropped open, which she covered with her free hand as she stared at Guy with wide eyes.

“But why?”

Guy turned his head slowly to meet Juliet’s eyes, at which point his gaze flicked down and over his rounded form. When it flicked back up, he cocked an eyebrow in an obvious, but silent, retort - we both know you can see why.

Juliet did break eye contact first this time, her pink cheeks shining as she looked back to her plate to choose the perfect bite. Collecting a piece of asparagus, a piece of salmon, and cabbage all on the end of her fork, Juliet declared: “what an insufferably horrible man.” Before stuffing the bite into her mouth.

Guy grinned, helping himself to some of the rest of the food on the table.

“Yes, and that is putting it kindly. Care for some pudding or confit?”

“Yes, please!” Juliet replied enthusiastically as Guy added a delicious looking portion of each to her plate. As she was sure no one else listened at the moment, she added, “Thank you, Guy.”

“Mutton?” Nathan offered from her other side, and Juliet shook her head even as she still took the plate from her brother. He watched her in confusion as she turned to offer it to Guy.

“Mutton?”

“Oh, absolutely. Thank you.”

Juliet added a more than generous portion to Guy’s plate, ignoring his curious cocked eyebrow. She set the plate in between her and Levi, who made eye contact with Guy with a similar question on his face. Guy gave a nearly imperceptible shrug as he added a veritable lake of port wine sauce to the mutton and dug in.
 
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Ghostboo

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After the second course, with highlights including raspberry cake, turkey, crawfish, shepherd’s pie, beefsteaks, and the richest white wine & butter sauce Guy had ever tasted - and then a third course, a cheese and fruit forward dessert spread - a couple hours had passed since they had arrived. Guy shifted back in his seat, trying to subtly make more room for his stuffed middle as he felt it bite into his pants's snug waistband. No amount of breathing and tightening would hide the strain the buttons of his vest were under now, so Guy merely tugged forward the sides of his dinner jacket, hoping to at least make it less visible.

“Wasn’t that just delicious?” Juliet mused as their plates were cleared away and glasses of port appeared in front of them. Guy heard Nathan chime in an affirmation from the other side of Juliet, and Guy nodded his own - despite the very slow rub he was giving his belly with his thumb on Mrs. Patterson’s side of the table. Port arriving meant dancing was soon, and Guy knew he needed to digest a little more before he’d be able to hold his own on the dance floor.

“Take your time with the port,” their host Mr. Smith said from the head of the table, standing to display the now informal nature of post-dinner socializing. “The musicians are setting up for dancing in the front room, and shall play until the wee hours!”

Juliet clapped twice, gleefully, not noticing as her mother stood from the other side of Nathan. Mrs. Seaborne walked between the chairs of her two children, took a sip of her port, then announced: “I’m ready to go home.”

Guy saw Nathan blink up at his mother in confusion, Juliet’s head turning slowly, furiously, to look at the older woman standing above her.

What?

“I’m ready to go home,” repeated Mrs. Seaborne, her tone lilting and carefree, ignoring the way her daughter spoke between her teeth.

“Stay for one dance, Mama? You know we can’t walk home if you take the carriage,” Nathan asked carefully, looking between his sister and mother. Mrs. Seaborne bouncily shook her head.

“No, Nathan. No, I don’t feel well at all, and will be departing immediately. So, unless you and your sister can find another way to get home…” at this, Mrs. Seaborne’s hazel eyes slowly landed on the plump form of Guy Darby next to her daughter. “…we all need to depart immediately.”

Levi, who had ridden his horse from his estate not too far away, watched the interaction with fascination.

Mother,” Juliet hissed, at the same time as Guy spoke up.

“I can give your children a ride home, Mrs. Seaborne.”

All eyes turned towards him, Juliet whipping around to stare as Mrs. Seaborne broke out in a triumphant smile. Levi looked between them all, sipping his port. Nathan raised his eyebrows high into his dark hair, but said nothing.

“Oh, Sir Darby, I couldn’t put you out like that,” Mrs. Seaborne said, placing a hand on his upper arm. Guy smiled uncomfortably back at her, knowing he was being played, but still not willing to let Juliet go home before they’d had at least one dance.

Exactly as Mrs. Seaborne hoped.

“It isn’t an inconvenience at all. I insist,” Guy said, his tone gracious enough that Mrs. Seaborne beamed. But there was a concern beneath the calm that only Levi and Juliet picked up on, the pair looking at their friend in worry. Guy ignored them.

“Thank you so, so much, sir. We must host you at our home for dinner this week to express our gratitude,” Mrs. Seaborne replied, her grip on his upper arm tightening until he answered.

“That is unnecessary, but I would be honored.”

“Tuesday, sir?”

“As you wish.”

Looking so triumphant she might have been exiting a conquered battlefield, Mrs. Seaborne let go of Guy and turned to her children.

“I will see you at home. Nathan, I trust you to keep a close eye on our Juliet. Juliet, darling…” but something in her daughter’s face caused Mrs. Seaborne to pause, force a smile, and merely pat her on the shoulder. “Be good. Farewell, all.” And she drifted away to say her goodbyes to the host.

Juliet shook her head, and Guy leaned even further back in his chair as he wrapped his arms around his decadents-stuffed belly, setting his linked fingers over his straining buttons.

“Fun,” Levi said, grinning as he finished up the last of his port. Juliet merely groaned, setting her head in her right hand as she placed her elbow on the table.

“The night is young, sister,” Nathan reminded her, catching Guy’s eye with a smirk. Music was being struck up from the other room, and most of the party had emptied out to either dance or to drink in the drawing room.

“Give me five minutes, Juliet,” Guy said, his tone informal in their smaller group. “And I’ll be in dancing shape.”

“Just five minutes?” Nathan asked slyly, giving Guy a cursory once-over. Guy didn’t let anything show on his face, but he did test out drawing in his belly button closer to his spine with a deep breath. No dice, as he was still incredibly full. He would have admitted the point was fair, but Nathan spoke up again as he looked at his sister - apparently seeing something in her face that convinced him to reluctantly backpedal. “As you say.”

Closer to fifteen minutes later, Guy led Juliet in a waltz around the front room. It was much smaller than the ballrooms of the last few events, so Guy had to keep an eye on their spacing as he held her close to avoid bumping into others. This caused his overstuffed belly to be pressed almost entirely into her much flatter middle, and Guy did his best to focus on his breathing, and not that sensation.

At least from here she can’t see the buttons, he thought ruefully.

“Guy, I am…truly sorry about my mother and her imposition,” Juliet said as they twirled. “I don’t want her to think she can get away with things like this, so…I will be making good on my promise going forward. I shall just stay home if she insists on going to events.”

“No,” Guy said, gently but firmly, as he shook his head. “I meant what I said to her - it is no imposition. And if you call your mother’s bluff and are left at home, before you know it, the season will be over. I would…ah…” he tripped over his thought and paused, then slowly concluded, “I would hate to think of you sitting out the remainder of this year’s dancing just to make a point.”

“You would, huh?” Juliet said wryly, daring to tease Guy as they swirled around Levi and his dance partner.

“I am compassionate that way, yes,” Guy ribbed back. “And I suppose I might, perhaps, also miss your company.”

“I see,” Juliet said with an affectation of solemnity. “Well, we had best not risk that.”

“No, better not.”

Juliet laughed, ducking her head enough that more strawberry hair brushed Guy’s neck and against the chest of his suit. He held a breath and slowly lowered her into a dip as the song ended.
 

Ghostboo

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Throughout the evening, Guy and Juliet danced twice, and Juliet and Nathan regaled the room with three bawdy party songs, before they decided to call it a night. Or, more realistically, a very early morning. Levi bid the trio farewell as he climbed aboard his saddled horse, and the others waited for Guy’s carriage.

As it pulled up, Guy felt a hard lump in his throat that it was difficult to swallow past. He gestured Juliet and Nathan forward as the footman opened the carriage door for them, and Guy took the opportunity to speak to the coachman about the first stop they needed to make in order to drop off the Seabornes.

But that was quick work, and soon, it was Guy’s turn to enter. He swallowed hard again, smoothing a hand down his round front as he inhaled. Guy made eye contact with his footman, whose face remained neutral, but his eyes were knowing.

Years ago, one of the first investments Guy made with his business earnings was a carriage. It was beautiful, sturdy, and most importantly, made for him. The interior was large and comfortable, the entrance into it a double door opening on each side to create the most spacious possible opening. Even someone double Guy’s size would be able to squeeze in.

But that was not the carriage here tonight. Earlier in the week, his custom made carriage had broken an axel going over a pothole in the road. Guy had been certain that it would be fixed by the weekend, but no such luck. The custom size meant it had to be sent for in London, and he was still waiting. Which meant that the carriage he used to get to - and now from - the dinner party was an ancient vehicle that had once belonged to his father. And it had been out of style and comfort even before Guy was a child, with cramped seats and a narrow entrance. Not something most people would think about, but Guy didn’t have that luxury. Which he was reminded of earlier that evening, when his love handles stuck firmly on the outside of the carriage door on his way in to sit down.

Horrified, Guy had tried to twist to the side to free himself, but the confident propelling of his body towards the interior of the carriage meant that he had wedged himself firmly between an upper fat roll and the lowest, roundest part of his belly. Swearing loudly, Guy had tried to just push his way in as is, but the rocking that caused in the rickety carriage brought up a different sort of terror. Finally, the footman had helped him get fully in - with one firm hand pushing on a love handle, the other on his back, and Guy squirming and sucking his middle in as best he could. It had taken nearly 10 minutes.

Once they’d arrived at the dinner party, Guy had taken his time to extricate himself - approaching the door as much to his side as he could manage from inside a carriage. It did work better, as the footman only had to offer a light tug on Guy’s arm as the Baronet reached the fattest part of his middle to get him free. Since they were late, no one was around, but if they had been, Guy hoped it would’ve just looked like the footman was helping hold his arm for balance.

But now Guy was post-lavish meal, and remembering with sharp clarity why he had started out so hesitantly with his consumption. Barely a word from Juliet, though, and he had given in to his basest desires. And now he was about to face the natural consequences of his actions.

“Will you need a…hand, sir?” His footman asked delicately as Guy took the two steps up the side of the carriage to its entrance, the structure already creaking under his weight.

Guy murmured in reply: “Probably, though proceed with care if I do. I’d rather not knock over the carriage - or stumble through and squash my guests.” He exchanged a wane smile with the man, and then ducked his head inside.

To the left of the door Juliet sat, scooched as close to the far wall as she could. She offered Guy a smile. Nathan sat across from her, taking up more space in the middle of the bench.

Guy inhaled through his nose, then out his mouth, and made a quick calculation. He pivoted so that his left shoulder entered first, his front facing Nathan, his back to Juliet. He brought his left arm in next, steadying himself on the wall next to the door, before slowly scooting forward to pass his chest inside. The temptation to just throw himself forward and get it over with, and stopping the growing curiosity in the Seaborne’s faces, was overwhelming - but he resisted. If he forced himself forward and got as wedged as he had earlier in the evening, he’d be trapping his companions in the carriage for who knows how long.

After his chest had passed through, Guy placed his left hand carefully on the curve of the widest part of his belly that still sat outside of the door, then squashed down. Combining this with a deep, compressing breath, he began to force his waist into the gap. Unfortunately, as expected, with a stomach now full of food, his progress stopped much earlier than it had when he was getting out to enter the dinner party. A couple inches of his waist pooched over the frame and into the carriage, while the rest was wedged outside.

Guy stifled a sigh and began to work the back end of his belly with his right hand. Compressing his fat, giving a firm push, then pulling it through with his left hand. That actually worked well enough to squeeze several small sections to the other side, and Guy continued the routine as he kept his eyes diligently glued to the top right corner of the carriage. Juliet and her brother stayed silent, though the former’s eyes widened slowly as the latter smirked.

After a minute, Guy needed to exhale, and so he paused in his work - knowing the extra puffing out of his middle with the breath he took would halt him firmly anyway. He was almost halfway through, his belly fat cut neatly down the middle by the frame of the door. Guy opened his mouth, prepared to make a sheepish excuse to his unexpected audience, when he felt a firm shove against the plush middle of his side from the exterior of the carriage.

“Oof,” he grunted in surprise, the push from the footman causing his left foot to step forward into the carriage in order to regain his balance. It wasn’t much, but the force had squeezed just about another inch of Guy through. The end was in sight, causing Guy to abandon his methodical plan and instead lean into shoving the rest of the way through the carriage door. His left hand planted firmly on the wall, Guy began to push hard. He tried to keep his breath held, but another quiet groan escaped him as he squeezed, wriggling just slightly in the confinement of the frame to try and speed it along.

One last push from the footman on the side of Guy’s hip had the Baronet finally, fully into the carriage. Though the squirming, shoving, and final steps had caused the carriage to rock as Guy sat beside Juliet - not precariously, but still noticeably, as the vehicle also jostled forward to begin its journey across Highcastle.

Guy let out a shaky breath, hoping the red flush of his cheeks wasn’t as noticeable in the darkness of the late night. He could feel Juliet’s eyes on him, but he didn’t dare look back yet, afraid of what might read in them. With the cramped seats, the entire right side of her body was pressed against his left, and he diligently tried to ignore the heat that radiated from her.

“So…” Nathan said after a few minutes of silence, his lanky legs spread out far enough that they nearly touched Guy’s across the carriage. His tone was knowing, and Guy instinctively tensed. “Good dinner, huh?”

“Nathan,” Juliet said, her voice a warning.

“What? It was, obviously,” Nathan replied breezily. “I’m simply making conversation. But if that’s not what we wish to discuss…hmm, how about…Sir Darby, tell us, just between friends - what are you doing with a carriage two sizes too small?”

Nathan!" The horror in Juliet’s voice caused Guy to cringe imperceptibly as she kicked out at her brother’s legs. Nathan gleefully laughed, dodging her attempts.

“My usual carriage is out for repairs,” Guy replied honestly. “This backup is…not ideal.”

“I should say not, sir,” Nathan said back cheerfully, despite the glare on his sister’s face. “Is it always that difficult, or was this time just the luck of tonight’s feast?”

Guy’s blush deepened, betraying his otherwise calm expression. Juliet tried another kick, which finally landed on the side of Nathan’s calf. Her brother let out a groaning chuckle, and pulled them as far out of her reach as he could.

“A little of both, I suppose, Mr. Seaborne.”

“Well, for a minute there I thought I would have to pry you out with a shoehorn, so thank goodness-”

Stop it,” Juliet hissed, cutting off her brother as Guy’s heart continued to pound with embarrassment.

“All right, all right,” Nathan huffed, rolling his eyes as he leaned back in the carriage seat. “I was only kidding around, having a laugh between friends.”

“Has Sir Darby actually said that you are friends, Nathan? Because if not, I believe you owe him an apology.”

“Well…no, but…why would you give someone who wasn’t a friend a ride home?” Nathan sputtered.

Finally, for the first time since they had entered the carriage, Guy and Juliet looked at each other. It was dark, but Guy still didn’t sense any horror or disgust in the deep green pools of Juliet’s eyes, just exasperation with her brother. Guy cracked a relieved smile as he turned back towards Nathan.

“I understand, Mr. Seaborne. It is all right. I’m all right, you’re both all right, and that’s all that matters,” Guy said, sincere now that it seemed his biggest fear - judgment from Juliet - was not coming to pass. “It is rather amusing, after all. But I will stand by how that dinner was well worth it.”

Both Seabornes grinned at this, and Guy felt some of the tension in his muscles and bones relax. He sat back, realizing that he had been curled slightly forward in an attempt at a shrinking pose. He stretched his left arm around the back of the carriage seat - and which happened to be behind Juliet’s shoulder. He didn’t touch her, but he saw her smile grow before she quickly turned to look out the window.

A few minutes later, Juliet and Nathan were deposited outside their family home - Nathan exiting first, with a salute at Guy.

“Godspeed, sir,” Nathan said in mock solemnity, to which Guy just playfully rolled his eyes and waved him along. With more room in the carriage now, Juliet stood up to make her own exit, Guy shuffling back to get out of her way as much as possible.

“Thank you, Guy, for the ride,” Juliet said, her voice coming out a little more hoarse than the casual note she had been aiming for. “I’m not sure I would have…if I were in your position.”

Guy blushed, but knew she didn’t mean it as an insult. She was looking at him shyly, even admiringly, and it felt as though all the mortification from earlier had lifted away.

“What else are friends for?”

“I hope to find out,” Juliet replied, a flush rising up her own neck as she seemed to realize what she had just said. “See you on Tuesday?”

“Tuesday.”

“Goodnight, Guy.”

“Goodnight, Juliet.”

Even the struggle that came from the final squeeze out of the carriage once he finally got home couldn’t put a damper on Guy’s spirits.
 
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fiestyMad

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Jan 14, 2019
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Michigan
I’ve been meaning to read this, and WOW it so fantastic! I love the tension and shy attraction between these two. You’ve written this so beautifully. I cant wait for more :)
 

Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
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Chapter Ten

“Juliet, would you sit down,” Mrs. Seaborne hissed as her youngest did another lap around their front sitting room, lightly touching and occasionally adjusting each decorative item as she passed them.

“Nope,” was all Juliet replied, not even glancing at her mother as she turned the vase on the end table a quarter clockwise, then gently fluffed the flowers within it. This was the fifth time she had done so in the last twenty minutes.

“Juliet, a lady is content to sit with her needlepoint, or book, or music until her gentleman caller arrives. Where he can witness her rising gracefully from a chaise,” Mrs. Seaborne insisted, gesturing to the old but still attractive green lounger in the corner of the room that Juliet had been instructed to sit on.

“Okay,” Juliet said. “I suppose I am not a lady then.” At the bookshelf, she pulled out a shorter volume and placed it closer to the end, more in line with the rest of them of its height. Mrs. Seaborne sighed, loudly.

“Mother,” Nathan spoke up from an armchair facing away from the window. “At some point you have to accept that attempting the same tactics over and over despite finding it yields the same results is, in fact, your own fault.”

Mr. Seaborne, in the chair next to Nathan, snorted a little behind his paper. Mrs. Seaborne gave her son and then her husband a wounded look, not noticing as Juliet exhaled and slowly sank onto the green chaise. Her eyes had caught movement outside the window, and soon, Guy Darby’s stocky form was revealed - approaching their front door.

Juliet picked up the book next to her that she was re-reading, Northanger Abbey, and stared determinedly at the page. Then she put it down. Then she picked it back up again, staring even harder. Then her mother let out a high gasp, causing Juliet to put it back down for good.

“Oh, God,” she whispered, unheard by the rest of her family as Mrs. Seaborne clapped her hands together.

“He’s here! Mr. Seaborne, he’s here! Juliet-” Mrs. Seaborne cut off as she saw her daughter sitting stiffly rather than continuing to pace the room. “-good.” Still, she couldn’t resist reaching out and brushing some of her youngest’s reddish gold hair out of her face - causing Juliet to swat at her intruding hands.

“Mama!”

“Sorry, dear. Just trying to make sure everything is perfect.”

“I’m always perfect,” Juliet mumbled, again unheard by anyone else in the room as the presence of Sir Guy Darby was announced and everyone rose to their feet. For the not so formal dinner, Guy was in day half-dress, which was more casual than Juliet had seen him before. The color palette of his suit was beige and deep brown, with the collar undone, preventing any squeezing of his neck and chins that the more formal wear tended to cause. Still, it was impossible to miss the way his waistcoat struggled to contain all of his middle - despite Guy tugging his tailcoat towards his front and holding it together with his hands in an effort to try and disguise it.

“Welcome, Sir Darby, welcome!” Mrs. Seaborne spoke up first, beaming at their guest. Mr. Seaborne and his daughter exchanged a look.

“Hello, Seabornes,” Guy said, giving the room a somewhat shy half-smile. “Thank you for having me.”

“Dinner should be ready any minute now, and they will call us when it is,” Mrs. Seaborne assured. “But if you’d like to sit in the meantime - there is room next to Juliet?”

“Certainly,” Guy said, crossing the room as the family sat in near-unison. Juliet’s cheeks were pink, her gaze on the carpet as she scooted to the curved back of the chaise lounge to make room for Guy. But as her friend sat, she looked up to catch his eye, offering a matching half-smile.

“We’re glad you could make it,” Nathan chimed in. “We had such fun at the Smiths - and on our journey home - after all.” Before their parents could catch it, Nathan winked at Guy and Juliet, who each blushed a little redder.

“Oh, Nathan,” Juliet said, making sure she held her brother’s mischievous eye with a warning look. “We both know you always have fun.”

“I do what I can,” Nathan shrugged.

“It’s nothing special, but I do hope this can serve as start to a proper thanks for taking Nathan and Juliet home,” Mrs. Seaborne added.

“Further thanks are unnecessary, Mrs. Seaborne, but I was still pleased to make time to spend the evening with you all.”

A bell rang out, and Mrs. Seaborne was the first to her feet.

“It’s dinner time! Come along, Mr. Seaborne,” she said, helping her husband up from his elbow and leading the way out the door. Nathan followed, casting a sly glance back at his sister and Guy.

“Truth be told, this is also my first casually attended dinner,” Guy said as he and Juliet stood to follow. “Levi and I usually just do tea, and…well…we haven’t for a while.”

“A while?”

“Since this waistcoat fit properly,” Guy admitted, brushing his hand along the straining fabric as he averted his eyes from Juliet’s. “I need to get in to London to be outfitted with more options, but…there’s been quite a lot to do.”

“I can imagine,” Juliet agreed. “I wouldn’t concern yourself overly, though. You look quite nice as it is.”

Brow slightly furrowed, Guy looked up at Juliet as though expecting to find a teasing expression on her face. But she just smiled, sincerely, and took his arm.

“Hurry up,” Nathan said, poking his head back into the room. “Or there are going to be decisions rapidly made without you.”

“Ope,” Juliet squeaked and shuffled more quickly towards the door, Guy following along with a low laugh.

In the dining room, five places were set at the table in front of tall wooden chairs with curved handles. Which were nice enough looking, but were also quite old, being from even before the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Seaborne. Juliet took a seat across from Nathan, with the seat in between her and her father at the head prepared for Guy.

But as Guy went to join them in their seats, he encountered a problem - the love handles at the curve of his belly that had protested so at the door to the carriage also bumped up against the wooden armrests of the chair, not allowing him to squeeze in any further. Guy rose slightly and tried one more time to sit, in case it was a fluke, but he quickly shot up when his waist folded again over the chair’s restraints, refusing him passage.

“Apologies for the inconvenience, Mr. and Mrs. Seaborne,” Guy said levelly, despite the warm flush on his exposed neck. “But I may require a different - larger - seat for during dinner.”

“Oh! Of, of course. Cecil…” Mrs. Seaborne shot to her feet and pushed into the kitchen to confer with the family’s limited staff, while Juliet stood back up out of her seat next to Guy. She subtly knocked her elbow into his while looking away, succeeding in eliciting a rueful smile from their guest. Moments later, his dining chair was being swept out of the room.

“How unlucky, Sir Darby!” Nathan grinned from across the table, leaning back in his seat. “First the carriage, now this?”

“One might make the argument that spending time with you Seabornes is a curse,” Guy replied wryly, before Juliet could unleash hell onto her brother. His words sparked a low, surprised giggle from Juliet and appreciative smirk from Nathan.

“You may have me there,” Nathan said as a low chair, free of arms, was brought into the dining room and deposited in front of Guy. It was a soft seat from the front room, covered in deep red, and Guy sat on it carefully as Juliet followed, sinking into her own seat. The dining chairs had the seats themselves so much higher, however, that Juliet’s eyeline was set just a couple inches below Guy’s - unlike the nearly full head length that was usual for the pair while standing.

“My God,” whispered Juliet out of the corner of her mouth as plates of food began to appear from the kitchen.

“What?” Guy asked, his tone equally subdued.

“You’re just so short. I had no idea.”

Guy snorted with laughter, which caught Mrs. Seaborne’s attention.

“Are you comfortable, Sir Darby?” She trilled nervously.

“Mmm, very,” Guy said, transforming his laugh into a low cough to compose himself. “Thank you.”

Juliet did her best to hide her grin as she took a plateful of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and mixed greens. Guy followed suit, filling up his plate approximately the same amount as Juliet, but deliberately taking his time before eating from it. The table occupants were all close enough together that Juliet couldn’t risk another sidebar, though, so she just snuck Guy an encouraging smile or two as he slowly, carefully, ate his meal.

A little while later, they had mostly wrapped up consuming the simple yet tasty food over small talk and idle gossip at the table. Guy, though, still had some scraps of chicken and half a serving of mashed potatoes left on his plate. Of what was already a small portion for a man his size, Juliet thought. She caught Guy’s eye, and he raised his eyebrows at her mildly concerned expression. But before any more silent communication occurred, Mrs. Seaborne spoke up.

“Juliet, Nathan, shall we retire to the sitting room for now? Mr. Seaborne and Sir Darby can stay here for now with a glass of port, and chat…”

“What? Why would I go with you? I’m a man too,” Nathan said, his brow furrowing.

“Well, Nathan, consider that Sir Darby may require a moment alone with Mr. Seaborne-” hissed Mrs. Seaborne out of the corner of her mouth. Juliet, distracted by something as she stood, didn’t seem to hear her - but Guy did. And on instinct, he shot up out of the low red chair - the only one in the room he could fit into - as he felt blood rushing into his ears at the implication.

“Sir Darby?” Mr. Seaborne asked, his tone curious. Guy turned towards the patriarch and put on a tight smile as the family looked at him.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I actually need to be going,” Guy said, the regret in his voice genuine despite the fear that swirled in his chest. “But it has been lovely.”

Already? Are you sure?” The naked devastation in Mrs. Seaborne’s voice caused both her children to look at her in exasperation.

“Mother, Sir Darby is a Baronet, as you may remember,” Juliet said dryly. “He has better things to do than while away the entire evening with us.”

“Not better, I assure you,” Guy added. “Just…necessary, for now. But I owe you my thanks for this excellent meal.”

“Well…you are welcome any time,” Mrs. Seaborne said, the disappointment in her tone laced just slightly with a pout.

“You are,” added in the more sincere Mr. Seaborne, nodding at the Baronet who stood above him. Guy, who had grown to genuinely like Juliet and Nathan’s father over the course of the last couple hours, returned the gesture with appreciation.

“May I walk you out?” Juliet asked him, and Guy nodded, offering her an arm. The pair exited the dining room, then out the front door, hearing the scramble of the rest of the family behind them as they softly closed the door. “They’ll all be peering out the front room windows. Likely without even an attempt at subtlety. I apologize.”

“No need,” Guy said, waving the apology away with a rueful smile. “I understand.”

“I do appreciate you coming. Did you get enough to eat?”

“Yes. And it was quite good, I promise. I just…need you to do me a favor.”

“Anything.”

“Please go back inside before I have to load into my carriage,” Guy said with a soft wince, gesturing to the vehicle they had all ridden in the other night. It was out of sight of the front windows, luckily, but visible to anyone standing outdoors.

“Oh, no, heavens! Your regular carriage isn’t fixed yet?” Juliet said, a slightly playful laugh accompanying her words as she half-covered her mouth with her hands.

“Unfortunately, no. I would call this night, again, worth it - but I also knew I had to be careful regarding my consumption,” Guy replied ruefully, giving Juliet a half-smile as she stood before him. Nerves and regret coursed through his body, but he tamped it down.

I can’t…talk to her father…before knowing how SHE feels.

And I’m not ready to find that out for certain yet.


Something crossed Juliet’s face that Guy couldn’t read, but it was gone almost as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a smile. Her linen day dress was such a light blue it nearly matched the beige on Guy’s attire, and it brought out the seafoam notes in the outer edges of her eye. It was nearly enough to break Guy out of his fear and silence, but Juliet spoke before he could fully convince himself.

“Well, then, I’ll see you in two weeks for the Crowley ball?”

“You will. I look forward to it. Have a good night, Juliet.”

“Goodnight, Guy.”

As the large Baronet crossed down the front path to his carriage, Juliet hesitated, more than a little tempted to spy on him squeezing his way into the too-small aperture. But she had promised him anything for a favor, and so, with a small sigh, she opened the front door and returned to her family.

Her mother was, of course, wildly vacillating between what had gone wrong that evening and intense optimism. Perhaps he had seen Juliet nervously pacing, and didn’t want such unladylike behavior in a wife. Then again, maybe he really did have to go, and they just needed to try again soon. Should Juliet have worn a more elegant gown? Had she really been her wittiest tonight? Was there someone else? Or was he waiting for a grander occasion?

“Mother, enough. Please,” Juliet said finally, her voice strained with exhaustion. Before exiting the room to give herself a well-deserved break, Juliet caught her reflection in the mirror against the wall. Once again, the feeling crossed her face that had flared up outside with Guy - and again, Juliet forced it down and out of sight of her expression.

She wasn’t even willing to admit to herself that she was, if truth be told, a little disappointed.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Eleven

Juliet took a shaky breath in through her nose, then out through her mouth, as she tuned out her mother’s chattering about the lovely estate of the Crowley’s from behind her. She had been more than inclined to stay home, lean into her initial refusal, teach her mother that she couldn’t push Juliet around from a set boundary - but.

Guy would be here. At one of the last balls of the season. Fall and winter would yield an occasional dinner party or two, perhaps even a wedding reception to stop by for the luckiest attendees, but the near weekly occasions to socialize would be firmly over.

And the dancing, Juliet reminded herself. The time to regularly dance was coming to a close. Even if she only ever had one partner in mind these days.

“All right, sister?” Nathan asked, his tone an impressive balance between casual and concerned at her shoulder. Juliet nodded, albeit slowly, as she took in the room.

There.

In the northwest corner, Guy and Levi sipped their cups and chatted, though the former’s dark eyes were firmly set on the arrival of the Seabornes. Even from across the room, Juliet could see his suit was new, undoubtedly a rush job from Highcastle’s tailor. He wasn’t nearly young or skilled enough to refurbish an entire wardrobe, but a suit or two for the season - that was doable. And clad from head to toe in a perfectly fitted, pale brown full dress suit, Guy looked beyond plump and incredibly handsome.

Juliet, in a silky lilac gown she had brought back from her time in Edinburgh, felt her uneven breath hitch at the sight. She didn’t bother to engage in the social niceties on the way as she beelined in their direction, Nathan trailing just long enough to peel away and snag a drink. Mrs. Seaborne watched, then headed off to friends - or at least acquaintances - of her own, smirking triumphantly.

“Gentlemen,” Juliet greeted her friends as she reached them, dipping into a low enough curtsy that both Levi and Guy grinned.

“M’lady,” Levi replied teasingly as both he and Guy bowed.

“You look…lovely, Juliet,” Guy breathed, pausing only to collect himself as he teetered on the edge of a less than socially acceptable compliment. He was rewarded with a grin from his friend, even with his more subdued word choice.

“Thank you, Guy. This suits you quite well too,” Juliet replied cheekily, swiping a hand briefly over a shining new button on his light brown vest before dropping it back down to her side. If Guy hadn’t felt her touch, he might have thought he had imagined it.

“Can I fetch you a drink?”

“Only if your own is so full that a dance will be impossible in the next few minutes,” Juliet replied. Levi grinned into his cup, and Guy followed suit, but with a light flush of his skin along with it.

“Would you look at that,” Guy said, his tone with a smooth yet fake wonderment in it. “I don’t believe it is. Levi?”

“Oh, was I involved in this? Could’ve fooled me,” Levi added, eliciting an annoyed nudge from Juliet’s elbow.

“I’m happy to dance with all my friends, of course,” Juliet said, though she didn’t bother to force her gaze from doing anything but tracing up and down Guy’s exceptional form even as she stood by Levi.

“Mmm hmm,” Levi said, his blue eyes rolling.

“Levi,” Guy said, also not moving his own stare from Juliet’s curvy lilac form, “could you hold this.” But there was no question in his words as he put his cup into his friend’s chest and offered Juliet an arm to take to the dance floor as the music lulled to set up for the next number.

The dance was intimate, but suspiciously quiet for such a long turn of the ballroom. Both of the partners took a few deep, steadying breaths, seemingly building to something, then instead of speaking what was on their mind, exhaled and moved smoothly into the next dance motion over the course of the next half hour. Unable to break eye contact, they hardly seemed to notice the occasional whisper and raised eyebrows around them as they finally stepped into a large dip for the finale.

I’m going to find out tonight, Guy thought as he looked into Juliet’s deep green eyes beneath him, remembering all the crumpled letters filled with the deepest truths of his heart that he had thrown away this week. He didn’t want the uncertainty of waiting for a written response. He’d rather know for certain here and now.

“Are you ready for a drink now?” Guy asked as they exited the dance floor, arms wrapped around each other’s. “I was hoping we could speak, perhaps in private.” He inclined his head towards an offshoot of the ballroom, where two armchairs rested unoccupied in between a grandfather clock in the corner before the hall veered off in another direction. It wasn’t a scandalous location, as they’d be well within everyone’s eyeline, but they’d also be able to see anyone approaching their conversation - from either direction - from a ways away.

“Yes,” Juliet breathed, her grip on Guy’s soft arm tightening imperceptibly. “I…yes. Let me get them. I’ll be right there.” She slipped away with a final glance, heading to the punch table on the other side of the room while Guy moved towards the chairs, his smile unshakable.

Rather than sitting in the slightly darker hallway, Guy hesitated outside the entrance to it, waiting for Juliet to get their drinks. A few steps behind would have taken him to the armchairs, and on the other side of his right arm as he faced Juliet on her errand was an open area with tables and cards. A low wall, just barely tall enough for Guy to see over, separated him from the gamers.

As Guy watched Juliet wait in line for their drinks, a voice he recognized rose up from the card tables.

“He is, of course, a bit fatter than we would have chosen for our only daughter,” Mrs. Seaborne spoke, her tone slurring just enough to make her eager consumption of the drinks without much of the party’s food evident. “But as they say - every 1,000 pounds per year takes a stone off, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Well, perhaps, though we both know it's more than a 'bit',” sniffed another woman around Mrs. Seaborne’s age. “I’m not sure my girl Beatrice could have borne his size, in the end.”

“Oh, please, Ida,” sniffed Mrs. Seaborne. “Beatrice could have borne being a Lady just fine. It’s not my fault she couldn’t play the part as well as Juliet.”

A moment of silence occurred, presumably as the table watched Juliet finally achieve getting the drinks.

“I mean, think of the way she looks at him,” Mrs. Seaborne said, the pride radiating through her voice. “You can’t teach that sort of acting. It’s just…innate skill.”

Her tablemates grumbled inaudibly as Juliet practically skipped her way to Guy, who was frozen directly on the other side of the wall from her mother. Mrs. Seaborne and company must not have seen her approach, though, as Juliet’s mother continued - this time well within earshot of her daughter.

“Worry not, girls. When I am the mother of Lady Darby, you shall still be invited to tea. I shall even ensure there is some food left behind for us. I’m certain Stormgrove will have enough."

Juliet’s smile faded slowly as she approached and realized what she was hearing, the ladies at the cards table beyond them all sharing the type of giggle that usually accompanied particularly vicious gossip.

“Oh…God. Guy, I’m…” as she spoke, Juliet took another step towards Sir Darby with her left foot. As she did so, however, Guy reflected her in the same moment by taking a step away, backing up with his right foot. Juliet marked the deliberate gesture, and froze.

“You don’t…” she stared at him, only catching his dark eyes for a moment before he looked away, first down at the rug, then over to the right down the hall, where another exit lay. But it was long enough eye contact to see they were filled with a deep hurt. Juliet, clearly rattled, gestured to the nearby hallway chairs, offering Guy the drink in her left hand. “Sit with me. You know that isn't...it's...let's talk. Okay?”

“There’s…” Guy took a final, definitive step away from Juliet, holding up his arms as she attempted to offer him the drink. “…there’s nothing for us to talk about any longer. I need to be getting home.”

“Guy,” Juliet said, his name a frantic breath on her exhale as she started to realize what else he might have heard before her arrival. “Wait. Please.”

But before she had finished the last syllable, Guy had bowed shortly and concluded, “have a good rest of your night, Miss Seaborne.”

And then he was gone.
 
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lurksville

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Ugh you’re killing me! You made me unlock 2 accounts to be able to sign in here after however many years. Please update for us!!!! Lol. Seriously though. You’re a fantastic writer.
 

Ghostboo

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I fully realize as someone who claims to hate the miscommunication trope IRL that I am being a monstrous hypocrite by leaving you guys on the hook like this. I'm so sorry!!! Huge life changes on my end have interrupted my writing flow, even though I know exactly where it's all going. I promise, it's in the works and it might take a little longer than we all wanted but I will not live up to my name and ghost you!!! Your kind words are always sincerely appreciated and genuinely help with my motivation to keep it up, so thank you again. I will be back ASAP!
 

sams uncle

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I fully realize as someone who claims to hate the miscommunication trope IRL that I am being a monstrous hypocrite by leaving you guys on the hook like this. I'm so sorry!!! Huge life changes on my end have interrupted my writing flow, even though I know exactly where it's all going. I promise, it's in the works and it might take a little longer than we all wanted but I will not live up to my name and ghost you!!! Your kind words are always sincerely appreciated and genuinely help with my motivation to keep it up, so thank you again. I will be back ASAP!
You don't have to apologize! We will take it when we can get it
 

Ghostboo

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Welcome back!!! Things have been absolute madness IRL but are finally - hopefully - starting to settle down. I so appreciate everyone's patience! Please grab yourself a cookie and/or hot cocoa before settling in to read, you deserve it for waiting so long!

Chapter Twelve

Guy sat at the desk in his London townhouse, composing a letter. It was standard business fare, and he was able to put pen to paper on nothing but pure instinct. Which was all he had really, since his head for the last several weeks had been filled with fog at best, searing pain at worst.

He sat in one of his brand new day suits, still able to feel the heavy weight of his belly in his lap - but at least the fabric had room to contain it, for now. A bevy of updated clothing had been delivered just recently, an investment at his London tailor. He had gone for measurements his second day back in the city, barely able to stand up straight but having to fulfill the meetings he had sent ahead for. A letter composed just after the Crowley’s ball had informed his other household of his imminent arrival, a need for new clothes for the change of season and business matters being the explanation offered. The tailor’s light tutting at the extra inches added and poking at Guy’s fleshier parts had barely registered past his all-encompassing exhaustion.

Due to the more intimate nature of a townhouse in the city, Guy was actually able to hear the knock on his front door from his office. Brow furrowed, Guy finished his sentence, then laid down his quill. He didn’t recall scheduling a meeting for this evening, but he didn’t remember a lot of things in his current state. He also didn’t know many business associates who would hammer on his door quite so intently. Sipping lightly on a three-quarters-empty glass of whiskey that had been by his side near constantly since he arrived back, Guy waited for his guest to be announced.

But that didn’t happen. Guy could hear the protesting voice of his butler scrambling alongside lengthy footsteps - and he clearly lost the race, for the form that filled his office doorway wasn’t his butler, but the lanky and fiercely glaring figure of Levi Baxter.

“Apologies, sir,” Mr. Ross, the London butler, ground out as he skidded in behind Levi. “Mr. Baxter simply barged in.”

“It’s all right, Ross,” Guy said, though he couldn’t help but feel a little nervousness break through his brain fog at the shining outrage in Levi’s blue eyes. He debated getting up to greet his friend, but quickly decided against it, having another sip of his whiskey instead. What would’ve been the point, after all? What was the point of anything?

“Leave us,” Levi snapped, and Ross got a confirming slight nod from Guy as well before he departed and closed the door behind him. In the meantime, Levi traced his friend’s seated form with his gaze. “Darby. You look…deflated.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

“No.”

“Well, as someone reminded at every turn how inflated I am, I shall still take it as one,” Guy replied, working to keep his voice steady. Levi just snorted, and Guy pivoted. “I wasn’t expecting to see you in London.”

“No? What were you expecting to do here?”

“Business,” Guy mumbled into his glass.

“Really?” The question wasn’t sincere. It was exasperated.

“What is it that you want from me?” The weariness went bone-deep in Guy, and that came through in his flat words.

“I want. To know. What. You’re. Doing. Here.” Every one of Levi’s words became more and more precise, his forefinger and thumb pressing together on his right hand as he punctuated the air with them, moving closer to Guy.

“I’m…recovering. Okay?” Guy leaned back in his chair, begrudgingly releasing a real answer as he avoided his friend’s eyes.

“From what?” At this, Guy did meet Levi’s gaze with a disbelieving one of his own. Was he truly going to pretend he didn’t know? Levi scoffed at this. “So you overheard Mrs. Seaborne being an insufferable back biter,” he said, utilizing slang that referred to one who slanders someone to others, but not to their face. “It’s happened to the best of us. And especially to Juliet.”

Guy looked away again, more firmly this time.

“You didn’t hear what she said. But it made her daughter’s intentions clear.”

Levi blinked at his friend.

“‘Intentions’? What did she say?”

A long pause followed this inquiry. Guy ground his teeth, slowly realizing Levi wasn’t going to fill the silence and take back his request. With a slow exhale, he spoke.

“Just the truth, Levi. Wrapped in horrid entitlement, of course, but still. That I am too plump to be desirable to anyone, including Juliet, but that thanks to her powers of deceit she was closing in on her prize - me - nonetheless.”

“You think that is the truth.” Levi’s voice stayed flat, not straying into a real question. “So you believe Juliet is just like Caroline?”

That was more or less exactly what Guy thought, but his disassociation since he had run away had kept him from examining it too closely. A pounding started behind his right eye as he took another swig of whiskey. There had been signs with Caroline, his almost-fiancée - cringes as she brushed against his roundest parts, hints wrapped in socially acceptable suggestions regarding his food consumption, judging looks as the weight that he had kept off for years began to creep back as his comfort increased, and more.

With Juliet, there had been none of that. Ever since Caroline, Guy had been hyper-vigilant on picking even the most subtle judgments out. Just about every woman in Highcastle was guilty of at least one. Not Juliet Seaborne, though. Not even a hint.

“Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, until the Crowley ball,” Guy said stubbornly, partially to Levi and partially to himself.

“I’m sorry, Darby, but have you always been actually very stupid?”

Guy just glared at him. Levi matched it, then continued.

“I need to know, as a friend. Do you love her? Truly? Or was this just a flight of fancy and subsequent disappointment for your ego?”

Startled by the lack of mincing in his words, Guy tried to swallow a flush back down his thick neck.

“Why does it matter?”

“I don’t ask you for much. But Darby, please, be honest with me here.”

Guy was forced to acquiesce to the point - Levi may have pushed Guy out of his comfort zone when he felt he needed it, but he still never judged his friend for what he seemed to need to do to heal. For some reason, to Levi, this was different.

“Yes,” Guy finally said, his voice so dry it was practically a whisper. Swallowing, wishing for the first time in weeks that he had water instead of whiskey, Guy accompanied it with a nod. “I do. Truly. And I don’t blame her for…for doing what she had to do. But I still had to get away.”

“And you think what she had to do was pretend to care for you too, due to the impediment your body presents?” Levi asked, his voice slow, clarifying. Guy nodded, tugging his shirt’s collar away from his warm neck, becoming especially aware of the round curve of his stomach against his thighs. Levi stared at this, his mouth set in a line, then he seemed to decide something as he gave a firm nod and spoke again.

“Right. Guy, this passage of information will likely be the death of me, so I need you to bloody well listen.”

Guy blinked, trying to arrange his exhausted face into an expression of active engagement.

“Do you recall when you and Juliet both got well into your cups during my ball at Griffinhead?”

“Of course.”

“Do you remember when she and I spoke privately, over near the champagne?”

“Yyyyes,” Guy said slowly, not because it wasn’t true, but out of surprise. Both Levi and Juliet had expertly dodged any reference to that conversation that Guy tried to make, despite his curiosity. He assumed that Levi had told Juliet about his brother and Caroline during that time, but hadn’t a clue about the rest.

“Well, she told me - under absolute pain of death, mind - that your size was not only not a hindrance, but a preference.”

“W-what?”

“Did you think I’d let you keep longing after a woman who was only interested in wealth and a title? Again? That I wouldn’t get to the immediate truth of the matter? Give me a little credit as your friend, Guy. And Juliet was in no position to be playing any games or weaving any falsehoods. Not that she does anyway, but that girl would have given up the nation’s secrets that night if pressed. Champagne does wonders for loosening the tongue.”

“But-” Guy’s mind churned impossibly slowly, unable to process this information. All he could think, and as a result, all he could say, was: “but - that isn’t normal.”

“Ha!” Levi barked a laugh. “My mistake, I thought you were in love with Juliet Seaborne? Or did you find some normalcy there that I had yet to uncover after two decades?”

“She wanted to marry Pendergast,” Guy protested, clinging to any proof to the contrary that he could muster. “He isn’t a large man.”

“Come off of it. Caroline was a tall lady- does that mean you couldn’t possibly appreciate Juliet, despite her being on the short side? I said she had a preference for a stocky gentleman, not a demand.”

“No,” Guy said slowly, spears of logic piercing through the clouds in his mind and unearthing something that felt an awful lot like regret. His chest tightened as he swirled his whiskey, not drinking it. “Levi, are you…have you…” it wasn’t fair to demand certainty from his friend, or anyone but the source herself. So Guy changed course. “How did you know that I’d left?”

“I came to see you the next morning,” Levi said. “Figured you could use some company after your quick exit. But you were already gone to London. On my way back through town I ran into Juliet, walking to you.”

Guy felt a pang of horror. He tried not to show it, but Levi seemed to pick up on something anyway, and began speaking more gently.

“When I told her you were gone, she…” Levi hesitated, and Guy flushed, wondering what his friend was debating telling him or not. “Well, she…had some feelings. As I’m sure you can imagine.”

Guy nodded, mutely.

“She asked me to throw this away before she turned back,” Levi said, and at that moment Guy noticed what Levi was holding in his other hand. It was a slightly crumpled envelope, stained brown with splatterings of dirt. “I thought I could do that here just as well as anywhere else.” With that, Levi tossed the envelope into the trash can next to Guy’s desk. Guy stared at it, his heart slamming in his ears. Looking up, he saw Levi looking back at him, expectantly. Guy slowly leaned over to take the slightly dirty paper out of the bin, which satisfied Levi enough to cause his lanky friend to take a seat in an armchair on the other side of the small office. A flask appeared out of Levi’s inner jacket pocket, the man taking a swig as Guy opened the envelope with shaking hands.

Dear Guy,

It would be more than understandable if you were officially skeptical of my status as any kind of decent wordsmith or conversationalist. I am feeling that way myself, now. I have attempted to write this letter no less than 6 times after your departure from the Crowley’s, and each one varied from truly abysmal to just not quite right. It’s 4 A.M. or so, and I must be awake to deliver the final product at a reasonable hour. Which leads me to realize I have been wasting my time by not being fully transparent. I have never been dishonest, and can vow I never will be, but each iteration of this letter danced around the true heart of the matter. Which is, so to say, mine.
This evening, I had hoped to discuss in person the nature of my affections. As that did not come to pass, I will have to admit here, on my word of honor, that my care for you these past months has grown to love. My feelings are strong, and true, and yours. I dearly wish that the interference which caused your departure tonight has not ruined the chance of a positive reception to this confession, as I must admit until that moment I sensed these feelings may not be mine alone.
If I am incorrect in this assumption, I hope you will not hold it too firmly against me. Your friendship means more to me than any I have found in Highcastle, and any relationship may be built to suit the needs of every individual in it. If your feelings do not involve the sort of care and romance that I have invoked in these words, I understand, and would request a gentle letdown. Perhaps with an assurance or two of my more agreeable traits, even if they are exaggerations. With this, I believe we could move forward to a lifelong friendship despite my foolishly being swept away in the darkness of your eyes.
If I am not incorrect, however, I believe I would achieve a euphoria heretofore unknown to humankind. Entire city streets may be taken out by the sheer force of it. (Highcastle could use the opportunity to update its infrastructure, I imagine.)
I would hope you could join me there.
I await your response with the appropriate amount of anticipation.

All my love,
Juliet Seaborne


The slight hiccupping laugh at some of her phrases died in Guy’s throat as he gripped the letter.

“Levi.”

“Mmm.”

“I have to go back.”

“I would say so.”

“Right now.”

“And what, burst into her bedroom in her family’s home in the middle of the night?”

“I…maybe.”

Levi gave an approving chuckle as he slowly stood from his armchair. He crossed the room to offer his stout friend a hand, which Guy took to get unsteadily to his feet.

“Go to bed, Guy. Sober up and depart in the morning. Your coachman and horses and head will thank you.”

Begrudgingly, Guy nodded a silent agreement before stepping out of his office, Juliet’s letter still firmly clenched in his free hand.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Thirteen

After an extremely restless night, Guy set out as early the next morning as he was able to rouse the appropriate staff for it. He and Levi shared a coach back, which made for a likely less agonizing trip than it would have been otherwise.

It was waning into the late afternoon in Highcastle by the time Guy had dropped off Levi, changed into one of his new, well-fitted day suits without the wear of travel on it, and made his way to the small home of the Seabornes.

As the sun dipped lower in the sky from autumn’s inevitable approach, Guy knocked on the door. A young, lanky servant that Guy recognized from his dinner at the Seabornes answered. Guy bowed his head, briefly, and said:

“Sir Guy Darby, to see Juliet Seaborne.”

“Cecil, who is it?” called the familiar voice of the family matriarch, Mrs. Seaborne, before Cecil could reply. Guy couldn’t see much over Cecil, but he did catch Mrs. Seaborne’s approach and see her dark eyes widen in shock. “Sir Darby…I…”

“Sir Darby is here for Miss Seaborne. Shall I fetch her, Mrs. Seaborne?”

“No, Cecil. No. I’ll do it. She’ll probably need…well.” Mrs. Seaborne tried to force a smile as she nervously waved Cecil off. “I can speak to her.” Guy caught Cecil raising a skeptical eyebrow, but the man bowed and gave the two the front room. As the door to the kitchens shut, Guy took a step into the foyer, one hand resting softly on his broad stomach, the other slowly clenching into a fist and then releasing again in unspoken anxiety.

“Sir Darby, I owe you the most humble and sincere of apologies,” Mrs. Seaborne said, with what Guy started to realize with horror was genuine tears behind her eyes. “I may not be certain what you overheard at the Crowley’s, but I know I was a foolish old woman in her cups who had no business speaking about anyone or anything. I am truly sorry.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Seaborne,” Guy said, his voice calm but firm. He wasn’t quite ready to confirm forgiveness - not with things still so up in the air with his first priority. “Is your daughter home?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Seaborne said, giving a final sniff before seeming to take control of herself. “She is. I will fetch her for you. It may take…a moment or two. Would it please you to wait in the parlor in the meantime?”

Guy briefly nodded his confirmation before Mrs. Seaborne led them into the room. Nathan was reading the paper while seated in the low armchair that Guy had used for their dinner all those weeks ago, and when he saw their guest, his dark eyebrows shot nearly to his hairline.

“Nathan, Sir Darby is here to see Juliet. I’m off to get her now - will you keep him company in the meantime?”

“Sure, Mother,” Nathan replied, his almost too-casual tone disguising something. “Are you certain you wouldn’t like me to go get her, though?”

“No, I can do it,” Mrs. Seaborne replied with a firm determination. “Give me just…just a few moments.” And she was gone.

Guy broke off eye contact with Nathan after a few precarious seconds, sitting after a brief hesitation on the green chaise lounge he had shared with Juliet during his last visit. He planted his feet firmly, leaning forward and folding his arms over his wide belly that spread over his lap, hands interlaced. He took a deep breath and tried to quiet the roaring terror in his chest and ears.

“You’ll forgive me for saying so, Sir Darby, but I hope you bring happy tidings on this day,” Nathan said after a few minutes of silence. Guy looked at him with some surprise. It may have been an obvious question, but he still couldn’t resist asking:

“Why is that, Mr. Seaborne?”

Nathan sighed.

“My sister hasn’t spoken a word to my mother since the night of the Crowley ball. It has made the energy in the house…tense at best. Unbearable at worst. I only know bits of what happened, but…I’m ready for an end to it all.”

“She hasn’t spoken…?”

“A word, not one, that’s correct. When we got home that night Juliet informed my mother - and likely half the town, with her volume - that she had ruined her life, and Juliet would never speak a word to her again. And she hasn’t. It’s been exhausting.”

“I…do bring good tidings. I hope. Though that will be up to Juliet. Or perhaps to your mother.” Guy couldn’t help the slight edge of resentment that crept into his last sentence.

“That’s all I can ask, I suppose. Though - as absurd as she acts sometimes, I still hope you can find it in you to forgive my mother too.”

“Why do you say that?”

Nathan hesitated so long that Guy considered getting up and going to wait in the foyer again. But finally, Nathan spoke, his voice quieter and more uncertain than Guy had ever heard it.

“There are…not many parents out there who would accept a child coming back into their childhood home after getting married. No matter what happened behind closed doors, or what was on the line in that marriage. I…I will never stop owing my presence and safety here to my mother.”

Guy was immediately transported into a hypothetical where his father had survived past Edward and Caroline getting married, and the forever sneer on his face that would have inevitably twisted into disgust if Guy had tried to express any kind of feeling about it. Or, god forbid, a world where Guy had married Caroline in the end and been - inevitably - miserable.

What did you expect, puff guts? The outrage with just the right hint of amusement to make Guy feel 6 years old again that his father specialized in rang through his head. Guy had never really known his mother, who had passed away in childbirth with Edward when he was 5. Maybe she wouldn’t have treated him so, but it was irrelevant in the end.

He forced himself back into being present with Nathan, and saw, beneath the usually confident veneer of his love’s brother, a shaken boy who had managed to save himself in a way few in his situation had. Even parents who weren’t actively heinous like Guy’s wouldn’t often look kindly on a son running from his wife - no matter the issues at home.

“I understand,” Guy told him, his voice firm and sincere. Nathan caught his eye with a tight smile when Mrs. Seaborne re-entered the room, clearly even more flustered than she had been.

“Nathan? Could…could you help me for a moment, please?”

“Certainly,” Nathan said, his usual casual confidence sliding back on as he stood. “We’ll be back shortly, Sir Darby.”

But they weren’t - not really, not to Guy. With no one to talk to for entire minutes on end, Guy’s heart hammered so hard he was worried it might burst out of his body before he got a chance to say his piece.

Finally, he heard Nathan and Mrs. Seaborne outside the room.

“She says ‘tell mother that if Sir Darby wants to see me, he can come out and tend to the animals too’,” Nathan said dryly. “‘I am not stopping for him or anyone.’”

“Oh, God, Nathan, what do we do? Do we send Sir Darby home and tell him to come back later, when we know she’ll be in evening dress? I already told him she was home but I thought she’d listen, oh…how do we make this right?”

Guy debated interrupting their discussion, but Nathan quickly assured her that they should offer Guy the choice. As they re-entered the parlor, a nervous Mrs. Seaborne trailed her son, biting her lip.

“Sir Darby, my sister is very…committed to her chores, especially lately,” Nathan said, and Guy couldn’t help but blush at the implication. “She expressed that you would be welcome to join her outside with the animals, or, of course, you could come back at another time.”

“You’d be welcome for dinner, and Juliet would be all cleaned up, that would be no trouble at all,” Mrs. Seaborne babbled, her fingers clutching anxiously at her skirts. “We can add a seat - or, well, you know, that seat, and…” Guy bowed his head at them in thanks.

“I am happy to join Miss Seaborne outside and help,” Guy said. “Will you show me the way, Mrs. Seaborne?”

Nathan offered Guy a grateful smile as Mrs. Seaborne hesitantly took Guy’s proffered arm and led him through the house to the back door.

“Just through here,” Mrs. Seaborne said. “But…I warn you, Sir Darby, she is truly not in a fit state to entertain a Baronet. I love my daughter, but… I don’t always understand her.” Her voice had started off hesitant, and only continued on a downward spiral until her last words were barely above an uncertain whisper.

“Please don’t trouble yourself worrying about your daughter’s state,” Guy said. “I may have been born into a title - but that should not require my friends to rearrange their lives and appearances for me. I would rather they didn’t, in fact.”

Mrs. Seaborne, still clearly nervous, looked at least somewhat relieved.

“And regarding whatever may have transpired in the past - I consider it just that, Mrs. Seaborne. In the past. We have all of us said things we may regret in the throes of drink and company, and it should not define us. Your words were your own…but my actions were my own. You did not force them by any means.”

The relief on Mrs. Seaborne’s face was palpable, and Guy felt a very slight lightness in his chest amongst the fear. Even if things were too far gone with Juliet, holding on to hate or blaming others for his hysteria would do Guy no good moving forward.

“You’re a good man, Sir Darby,” Mrs. Seaborne said quietly, patting his arm as her eyes swelled up again. “I hope my daughter knows just how much.”

“I suppose we will find out now,” Guy said, his tone easy but his heart hammering as he opened the door. Mrs. Seaborne drifted away as Guy stepped tentatively out and down a few steps to reach the rest of the backyard.

The base of the stairs was a mix of low grass and dirt, leading out to two enclosures further into the backyard. The one on the left had five ducks milling around, while the one on the right was emptying of its goats. Juliet stood stiffly next to the fence, helping the goats out and in the direction of wild growth of grass and other plants further out in the yard. There was a smattering of trees around, but for the most part, you could take in all the land around you. The goats, as they trod their way down a clearly well-worn path, began to graze.

Juliet herself was in a plain brown day dress. Hints of a white chemise would flash near her wrists, collarbone, and the hemline of her dress. A white apron was tied around her waist - and several obvious goat hoof prints were tramped on it in dirt. Her blonde hair was tied back in a simple knot, and if not for the rigidity of her movements, Guy would have thought he had caught her completely unawares. It took his breath away as his heart swooped, reminding him of two things.

One, she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

Two, this might not be a happy ending.

After all, when it mattered, he had run.

Juliet dropped silently into a brief curtsy, avoiding his gaze. Guy took another step forward and bowed back, taking his time to give it proper depth despite the way his large belly bunched in the middle. When he straightened up, Juliet had already moved on to raking just inside the goat’s pen. She still didn’t look at him.

“Thank you for seeing me,” Guy said, and with no immediate response from Juliet, took a step closer to the pen. “May I help?”

“There is only one rake,” Juliet replied. “I would say you could scatter corn for the ducks, but I wouldn’t want them to get too attached.” It was a silly thing to say, and Juliet’s wry tone of voice seemed to convey her knowledge of that, but she still didn’t meet Guy’s gaze. He blinked, swallowed, and breathed shakily.

“Juliet, I read your letter,” Guy said, finally getting to the root of it as he took another step towards the goat pen. Juliet’s eyes widened as she set the rake to the side.

“How…?” But her widened eyes quickly narrowed. “Baxter.”

“Yes. A friend who may very well follow his word to the letter, if not the spirit,” Guy said, half-smiling with his dry words.

“Is that the only reason you returned?” Juliet asked. “Because I wrote that before you left.” She looked away before the end, the slightest hint of a crack appearing in her last word. Guy swallowed and took another step towards her.

“It isn’t. No. I had begun to realize well before that I reacted…inappropriately.”

“Because you believed I was only spending time with you for your money and title. Despite what I had told you about my own experiences being left for just that.”

Guy swallowed.

“I…didn’t. Not really. After Caroline, I had built up so many defenses against anything like that happening again - so at the first sign of danger, they sprang back up. Despite having little to nothing to do with you.”

At this, Juliet actually, cautiously, caught his eye.

“And yet, you ran, rather than actually engage in a conflict that would have taken a mere moment to clear up.”

“I did. And it was perhaps the single biggest mistake of my life, and I do not assign that lightly. It is more than understandable that it would paint for you an answer of the lack of worth I assign our friendship - but that is not the case. It is the single most meaningful one in the world to me, Juliet. And so I would have you tell me if…if there is no hope. If your feelings have changed since the letter, in perpetuity. If they have not…I would give the rest of my life to making it up to you. To staying, and getting everyone and everything you care for attached, ducks included. But only, of course, if you were not just willing but happy to accept my offer.”

“What offer?”

“My…” Guy’s mouth felt incredibly dry, but he swallowed and continued anyway. “…offer of marriage.”

“What offer of marriage?” Juliet asked, her eyes flicking from Guy’s standing form to the ground they stood on, then back up. A ghost of a smile danced at the corners of her lips.

Without hesitation, Guy knelt, the combination of dirt and mud near the animal pens getting on his pant legs. Despite their being new and with a hefty price tag, he couldn’t make himself care.

“Juliet Seaborne,” he said. “Will you marry me?”

Juliet’s eyes swept in the stocky view of Guy Darby on his knees, and he watched her green eyes fill up with tears. She sniffed, half-smiled, and stepped out of the pen.

“Well now I wish I was in slightly nicer attire,” she said, the frog in her throat causing her joking words to be thick with emotion. “I hate it when my family is right.”

“That had better be a yes,” Guy grinned back, causing Juliet to laugh-sob before tugging him to his feet.

“Of course it’s a yes, you addle-pate. Come here.”

Guy learned a lot in that moment about the strength of the jolt one could get from the perfect first kiss, and how it could make you truly weightless. Juliet may have been pressed softly into his belly, no dancing movement to distract from its sheer size and pliability, but it was so obvious that she was meant to be there that the embarrassment stayed at bay.

“I love you, too, you know.” Guy’s first words as they broke apart rumbled from a deep part of his chest that he hadn’t often felt before now.

“Yes,” Juliet grinned, burying her slightly dirty red face in his new day suit as she held each side of his jacket tightly. “I know.”
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Fourteen

“This is better,” said Juliet, striking an elegant pose that showed off her intricately wrapped hair and deep blue gown. “Can we pretend we got engaged while I looked just like this?”

“As you are always, in perpetuity, the most beautiful woman in the room - we did get engaged while you looked just like this,” Guy replied, cheekily but honestly, wrapping an arm around Juliet for a quick, scandalous squeeze. She grinned back at this as Levi groaned across from them.

“Kindly save it, you two. You don’t have that much longer to wait.”

“A fortnight may as well be a lifetime,” Juliet replied with exaggerated drama, laying her free hand upon her forehead to showcase just how terrible the thought was. The men both laughed, and all three sipped their champagne.

Tonight was the ball in honor of Juliet and Guy’s engagement, thrown at Levi’s estate. The two weeks since the proposal had been a whirlwind - obtaining “permission” from Mr. Seaborne (though both men chuckled at the notion that anyone’s opinion but Juliet mattered in the end during their talk in the study. Mr. Seaborne had gone on to caution Guy what Juliet had already warned him - her dowry was insubstantial, though she’d likely insist on bringing all her animals and herb gardens. Guy had assured her father in response what he’d already told Juliet - he easily had enough to take care of them both, and didn’t need anything more than what she wanted to make her happy at Stormgrove.) - getting Guy’s wedding suit and Juliet’s trousseau ordered - planning for the fall event, the intimate wedding ceremony itself and the much larger reception following - and both Guy and Juliet felt they had barely had a moment to breathe.

Not to mention, the very hastily stolen kisses in between these appointments were not nearly enough to keep the fiancés satiated.

“I’m off for another glass,” Levi said, draining the remainder of his champagne. As he departed, Juliet considered her own, half-full one.

“I believe I may need a biscuit or two before I partake any more. Would you like one, Guy?”

Guy hesitated, shifting his heavy weight from the ball of one foot to the other. The tip of his tongue caught an errand drop of sparkling wine on his plump lower lip, then disappeared again. He caught his fiancée’s slowly concerning gaze, then looked down into his own drink.

“Have you eaten this evening already?” Juliet asked, her voice even but slightly lower in volume. Guy hesitated again, prepared to lie to attempt to stick to his goal of reducing prior to the wedding, but his hunger and anxiety that Juliet may see through him won.

“No, I haven’t. But I’m not…too terribly hungry.”

Juliet cocked her head, the exasperation in her face clear.

“If you’re going to be prepared to dance the remainder of each dance with me this evening, as we are now permitted by social decorum - you’re going to need to keep your strength up, Guy.”

“Oh, you needn’t be concerned about my strength,” Guy replied, flashing Juliet a wry smile. “I would never allow anything to interfere with my societal duties…for dance.”

The pair exchanged a slight flush and matching grins before Juliet took his thick, soft arm and began to steer them towards the back refreshment room.

“I should never have doubted. Still. Perhaps just one.”

Guy, much more prone to eating his feelings than forced restriction, nodded in agreement and relief.

Of course, the refreshments were sized for grazing at a party, so Guy actually finished two biscuits and a roast beef sandwich in the refreshment room before even pausing. After the sandwich, he hesitated as he brushed a few crumbs off his deep blue suit front - a jacket that matched Juliet’s own attire - and saw the accompanying jiggle. Still, a sincere and encouraging smile from Juliet as she nibbled on a cream cheese and cucumber sandwich of her own halted his embarrassment in its tracks. Guy even gave in to his bubbly motivated indulgence and grabbed another sandwich, this one turkey and berry.

“You’ve certainly outdone yourself, Levi,” Nathan told their host, who smirked and dipped his head in thanks.

“We truly cannot thank you enough,” Mrs. Seaborne added eagerly. “Although I believe it’s time for us to make our exit.” At this, she took the arm of Mr. Seaborne, Nathan and Juliet’s father. He had made a rare appearance for the evening, though the exhaustion on his face was clear, and he smiled wanly.

“Quite right, my dear. Nearly bedtime. Thank you indeed, Mr. Baxter.”

“Nothing is too good for our Juliet and Baronet,” Levi quipped back, and the group chuckled before Nathan and Juliet’s parents made their way out of the refreshment room and towards the exit.

After the departure of the elder Seabornes, Juliet and Guy returned to the dance floor. They had already opened the ball, as was customary for it being in their honor, and stayed for a few turns after. But they had eventually peeled away to chat with friends and family, and indulge in the many delicacies and imbibements provided. Still, they had been itching to get back into dancing, an opportunity for more closeness amongst the crowd.

About three quarters of the way through the reel, though, something caught Juliet’s eye near the entrance to the ballroom. She looked once, then twice, then a massive third time, losing her balance. Juliet was by no means the most graceful girl on the dance floor at any given time, but she was reasonably sure-footed, and could easily laugh off her missteps. In this moment, however, she tripped so thoroughly that Guy had to catch her in such a way that it was lucky they were already engaged.

“Juliet?” He asked, one hand on her shoulder and one gently under the swell of her breast to keep her steady as the dancers continued around them.

Juliet whispered, seemingly to herself: “Esther.”

The name tickled in familiarity at the back of Guy’s mind, but he couldn’t place it after a night of champagne and other names crowding his mind. Concerned by the stumble and the look on her face, Guy kept Juliet close with the strong, soft crook of his bicep as the dance concluded. But once it had, Juliet peeled herself out from Guy’s arms - one hand uncurling his elbow, the other pushing off the round apex of his belly - and headed off like a shot in the direction of Levi. Baffled, Guy followed.

As the pair approached Levi - Juliet in the lead, Guy right behind - they could pick up on the host’s words.

“Mrs. Seaborne,” Levi was saying with a particular kind of smoothness, “what are you doing here?”

Guy was even more confused as he pulled up alongside his fiancée. Hadn’t Mrs. Seaborne left? Once next to Juliet, he saw who Levi was speaking to - and it was not Juliet and Nathan’s soft, dark-featured mother. Instead, he saw a young brunette of nearly skeletal gauntness, with a pale, short stature and harsh curls framing her face. From afar, one could arguably call her looks appealing, though up close Guy saw something lurking in her dark eyes that made him hold especially still.

Triangulated between the young woman and Levi was Nathan, who was leaning against a table with a terrified exhaustion. In this moment, Guy remembered who “Esther” was.

“I’m here to celebrate my sister-in-law’s engagement, of course,” Esther said, her voice so high and child-like that Guy blinked, assuming it must be a joke. But she continued with the same pitch. “I may not have received an invitation, per se, but if my husband is invited, I have no doubt I am too. You would never be so callous as to intentionally leave me out, Mr. Baxter.”

Levi cast a gaze behind him at Juliet and Guy, the flash of uncertainty visible only to his friends. He really couldn’t ask her to leave without inciting a scandal, despite all the whispers around them already picking up on the scene itself. Juliet, however, did not have the same reservations.

“You’re not welcome here, Esther,” she said flatly. Guy, who had never heard or seen that level of intensity from his fiancée - even when discussing her mother’s missteps - looked down at her and touched a couple thick fingers lightly to her back. “You know perfectly well you were, specifically, not invited.”

“But we have good news,” mewled Esther, her eyes sparkling with that terrible darkness as she moved towards Nathan and wrapped an arm in his. Juliet took a large, purposeful step forward - and was partially blocked by Levi, who half-stepped into her path, and partially held back by Guy, who took ahold of his fiancée’s shoulder. The friends exchanged a concerned glance, though Juliet didn’t appear to notice.

“Get out, Esther,” Juliet ground out from between her teeth. Every time she said her sister-in-law’s name, it may as well have been a curse.

Acting as though Juliet hadn’t said a thing, Esther’s smile grew as she looked at Nathan. Guy was even more uncomfortably reminded of a skeleton as Esther put a hand to her concave middle.

“We’re going to have a baby.”

“Ha!” Juliet shot out before the final syllable had even been uttered. “Incredible attempt, Esther, truly. But Nathan has been living with us at our family home for nearly six months now. You know it, I know it, everyone here knows it.”

“Do they?” Esther said, her surprise clearly feigned as she looked around at the room. “Does anyone but my husband and I truly know where Nathan has spent all of his nights in those six months? Hmm?”

“Please,” scoffed Juliet, but her scornful laugh faded quickly as she took in her brother’s appearance. He was clearly wilted, but wouldn’t pull away from his wife’s grip. And there must be a reason for that. “Nathan?” Juliet said, her voice low and pleading in a way that Guy had only heard once before - when he was preparing to leave the Crowley’s. It was a beg, as clear as Juliet knew how without saying the words aloud, to be assured that what Esther was implying wasn’t true.

But Nathan couldn’t give her that. For all the shame he had to be feeling surrounding his actions with his wife, Guy could see that Nathan still wouldn’t dishonor Esther by lying. Despite the fact that everyone in the small gathering would know how much she deserved it.

“If you’ll excuse us,” Nathan said, his voice equally low, unable to meet their eyes. “I should find my wife some refreshments.”

Beaming, Esther allowed herself to be led away by the downtrodden steps of Nathan Seaborne. As soon as their backs were to them, Guy felt the entirety of Juliet’s weight press into his side, and he caught her around the waist as quickly as he was able to keep her from sliding to the floor.
 
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Ghostboo

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Chapter Fifteen

“He wouldn’t,” Juliet murmured for perhaps the eighteenth time from her slump in an armchair in the corner of the room. Guy leaned against the back of it, and Levi slouched across from her in the other. Their eyes all followed Nathan and Esther from across the room. Once again, Juliet followed these words with a groan. “Oh, what a fool.”

“Being a man, Juliet, is…is often difficult,” Levi offered. Juliet glared at him, and Levi raised up his hands innocently. “It is! And even when you hate a woman, well…some of us can be persuaded into foolish choices by…certain means.”

“How terrible for you in a world built entirely around your sex,” Juliet bit back. “I simply don’t understand. After all she’s done and after all the help we gave…”

“I think it’s likely good you don’t understand,” Guy chimed in carefully. “But there are still those out there who are… rather adept at manipulation. I certainly wouldn’t have seen myself or, afterwards, my brother Edward, buying into the falsehoods Caroline was peddling, but…here we are.”

The group fell momentarily quiet.

“Must our happiness come at the expense of our brother’s?” Juliet asked finally, in a near-whisper.

“I’m rather certain they’re not related,” Levi said dryly.

“But for both to fall prey to these insidious women…it can’t be mere coincidence!” Juliet argued, her voice raising wildly. She shrank back into the chair as a few eyebrows raised in their direction. “What can we do?”

Levi and Guy exchanged another look over Juliet’s head. Neither wanted to put voice to the hopelessness of the situation. She may not have looked it, but if Esther was pregnant and Nathan had been visiting their marital bed, that was it. His life was forfeit.

Moments later, Juliet straightened up, her eyes widening at the entrance to the ballroom. Guy took in her movements, then opened his mouth to inquire about it - but before he could, she was off like a shot across the room. She didn’t even bother to skirt the edges of the dance floor, instead choosing to cut right through as confused dancers dodged her movements.

Guy and Levi watched her plow powerfully forward before stopping in front of a couple looking uncertainly around the large ballroom. The woman was a few inches taller than Juliet, and sturdy, with a plain but warm face and medium brown hair. The man next to her was about the same height, if not shorter, his stature about average despite jowls beneath his chin betraying his slightly more advanced age and softness than that of the woman beside him.

After a few words exchanged, Juliet launched herself into the woman’s arms, where she was held tightly.

“Who is that?” Guy asked. Levi, who was a bit nearsighted, squinted from his chair.

“Oh…Mrs. Beterman? I invited her and her husband, but I wasn’t certain if they’d make it.” Guy looked just as confused, and Levi elaborated. “Elizabeth Beterman?”

“Oh! Yes!” Guy recalled the discussion of his fiancée’s childhood friend, who had moved out to the valley with her husband. After a few more moments, Juliet untangled herself from her friend’s embrace and began to tug her around the ballroom - the opposite direction from where Nathan and Esther stood - and towards Guy and Levi.

Levi stood as the group approached, Juliet clearly on the tail end of filling in Elizabeth on the events of the night. Mr. Beterman, behind them, had his mouth set in a thin line.

“And, well, it’s…” Juliet took a deep breath, then realized she had reached the armchairs in the corner with her friends. “Pardon me. Elizabeth, this is my fiancé, Sir Guy Darby. Guy, this is Elizabeth and her husband, Mr. Beterman.”

“It’s a pleasure, sir,” Elizabeth told him sincerely, dipping into a curtsy. Guy bowed his head in response, and turned to do the same to Mr. Beterman, whose gaze was sweeping over him disapprovingly.

“It’s lovely to meet you both,” Guy said. “I have heard wonderful things from my fiancée.” This was at least true of Elizabeth, and Guy could see why, as kindness permeated her expression in a way few did.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Pleasure, sir,” murmured Mr. Beterman in an echo of his wife, his head bowing just a moment too late.

“Anyway, Elizabeth…she’s here, I imagine she’s telling everyone…” Juliet jumped back into the situation at hand with gusto. “I just…I don’t know what to do. And, to be frank, she also looks terrible.”

Both Guy and Elizabeth glanced back at where Esther was curled around Nathan across the room.

“She has lost quite a few stone, hasn’t she?” Elizabeth said.

“Exactly! From arguably overweight to under, and we’re meant to believe she’s pregnant?”

“Elizabeth, please remember that gossiping is a sin,” Mr. Beterman spoke up from behind his wife.

“It isn’t gossip, Mr. Beterman,” Juliet retorted, speaking up before her friend. “It’s my life.”

“Nonetheless, Miss Seaborne, it is my job as a vessel of the Lord to be on the lookout for spiritual pitfalls in everyday life. For example, pride,” Mr. Beterman continued, his gaze landing knowingly on Levi - then moving on to Guy and his stocky frame. “And gluttony.”

Guy blinked, more than a little surprised to be so openly judged by a man that was not lean himself. Juliet’s jaw dropped.

“Personally, I commend the young lady for bettering her physical form,” Mr. Beterman continued, apparently finding no irony or hypocrisy in weighing in. “Even if some of her other choices may have been…questionable.”

Elizabeth spoke up before the obvious, shivering rage in Juliet could do so.

“Darling, could you fetch us something to drink?”

Beterman looked at his wife suspiciously.

“Just water,” she assured him. “It was a long journey. Please?”

“You’ll find the water in the back of the refreshment room,” Levi offered. “In the proper place for a humble beverage.”

A smirk twitched on the corner of Guy’s plump lips, which he covered with a drink from his own cup of ale. Mr. Beterman either didn’t notice the snark or didn’t care, as he turned and finally left on the errand at his wife’s request.

“Apologies,” Elizabeth said, her voice calm. “My husband is very devoted to his work in the priesthood, and…the safety of my soul.”

“You have the very best soul,” Juliet snorted. “And if he can’t see that…”

“Juliet, please,” Elizabeth said quietly. Juliet allowed herself to be silenced on the matter with a sigh, one of her hands holding onto Elizabeth’s, the other slipping behind Guy to rest lightly on his love handle opposite her.

Guy blushed, but didn’t move away.

“I should get my own congratulations out of the way,” Elizabeth said, her voice thoughtful with a hint of something else that Guy couldn’t parse out. Juliet looked at her friend, brow furrowed. “If you would all prefer to wait here…”

“No, what? No,” Juliet interjected firmly. “We’re going with you.”

Guy and Levi exchanged a look at the finality of the statement that apparently included them all. Juliet dropped her grip on Guy's pudge, but kept her hand lightly in Elizabeth’s as her friend led them across the room and towards Nathan and Esther.

As the pair saw them approaching, Nathan’s gaze dropped back to the floor again, in clear shame. Esther, who was mid-discussion with another partygoer, fully turned towards the group with a wide, terrifying smile. Her dark eyes glittered in a way that reminded Guy of the shells of the beetles that infested his London townhouse in summer - it elicited an involuntary shiver from his round form.

“Mr. Seaborne,” Elizabeth said, curtsying gracefully as she stopped in front of them. The other partygoer stopped talking to Esther, but drifted just far enough behind her that she would still be able to hear everything happening. “Mrs. Seaborne.”

“Mrs. Beterman,” Nathan replied quietly. “It’s wonderful you were able to make it out to celebrate Juliet and Sir Darby’s engagement - my sister must be thrilled.” He caught Juliet’s eye just briefly before looking away. Juliet’s green eyes shimmered with a new wetness, and Guy stepped closer to her, his thick fingers touching gently on her spine in comfort.

“Oh, yes,” Esther said. “Elizabeth Beterman! It has been awhile, hasn’t it?”

An ironic statement, considering Guy had yet to see Esther at any gatherings during the entirety of his time in Highcastle. But he stayed quiet, his attention on his fiancée.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” Elizabeth said, her voice quiet, but firm. “Which is a bit surprising to hear, Mrs. Seaborne - as no, it has not been awhile.”

Levi, Guy, Juliet, and Nathan all exchanged various expressions of confusion. Meanwhile, Esther’s tight smile shrank a tiny amount.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Beterman. Our household is nestled just nearby, in Highcastle, while you and Mr. Beterman are off living God knows where.”

“We are in Starline, Mrs. Seaborne. As you well know.”

Speaking of Mr. Beterman, Guy noticed the priest with two cups of water heading their way, his brow furrowed in apparent concern at their move.

“After all,” Elizabeth continued. “You’ve been coming to the valley for…almost six months now, if I had to put a number on it? Our neighbor, Mr. Elwood, has certainly seemed to enjoy your evening visits. I believe the last one was a little under a fortnight ago?”

Esther’s already pale face had gone deathly white, her shrunken smile frozen in place as the glittering in her eyes faded to a harsh glare. Everyone else stared at Elizabeth, equally shocked, as Mr. Beterman arrived with the cups just as Elizabeth spoke her final words.

“Mrs. Beterman?” He said with slow concern, holding out her glass of water. Elizabeth accepted it with a demure smile.

“Thank you, darling.”

“You lie,” Esther finally stammered out, her voice a low hiss. The nearby eavesdropping partygoer behind Esther regarded the exchange with wide eyes, a hand over their mouth. “You have no…no proof. Nothing.”

“No?” Elizabeth said. “I suppose I do not. Simply my word, and the word of my husband, the well respected priest of the valley parish.” She turned, touching her husband’s forearm gently. “Darling, with God as our witness, when was the last time you saw Mrs. Seaborne visit next door?”

Mr. Beterman flushed, his mouth setting in a thin line. He was clearly not happy to be involved in this situation, in this gossip, but he was also a man of God - and could not be called upon to lie.

“It would have been just under a fortnight ago, Mrs. Beterman.”

“And the first time?”

“Perhaps half a year.”

“And what time of day were those visits?”

“Usually just after sunset,” Mr. Beterman said from between his gritted teeth. “I would…be asleep before her departure.”

“Thank you, darling,” Elizabeth said, sincerely. Her husband avoided her gaze, the hand gripping the cup turning white.

The eavesdropper behind Esther allowed a shocked, sputtering laugh to escape. This seemed to break Juliet’s sister-in-law out of her frozen stature, and before the rest of them could move, she had hurled her glass of punch to the ground with a resounding crash. The group leapt out of the way, but splatterings of pink-tinted punch still landed on Elizabeth’s dress and the hem of Nathan’s pants.

“You heinous gibface,” Esther spat, the insult for an unattractive person rolling off Elizabeth’s back with a mere finch. “How dare you.”

This time, Esther’s move was anticipated, and before she could spring forward at Elizabeth or Juliet, Levi had bridged the gap and clamped her hands together behind her back, holding them firmly. Nathan, from now a few paces away, had a conflicting expression of relief and exhaustion as he took in the scene.

“Never come near our family again,” Juliet said, taking a step forward that Guy mirrored as he made sure to keep his fingers pressing reassuringly into his fiancée’s side. “But best of luck convincing Mr. Elwood to raise your bastard with you.”

“Please, I’m not truly pregnant, you fool.”

“You just would have had to make sure you were, sooner rather than later,” Levi said knowingly, raising his eyebrows at the group before beginning to move Esther towards the front hall and exit. “What a gambit.”

“Enjoy your life with the largest jollocks I’ve ever seen, sister,” Esther called over her shoulder at Juliet, Guy flushing at the extremely rude term for a fat person he had only been the subject of once or twice before. It didn’t help that the distance between them now meant quite a few other partygoers could hear, raising their eyebrows at the words and then taking in Guy’s stature and reaction. “Truly, what a prize.”

The deep, furious sarcasm spat back were the last words the group heard of Esther, who finally pulled herself out of Levi’s grip and stormed towards the door. Her following shriek was unintelligible, but presumably something about her exit, as it was immediately followed by a door slam.

“What a nightmare,” murmured Juliet, turning slightly to take Guy’s hand that had pressed into her back into her own grip. They exchanged small, wane smiles before Juliet whirled on her brother. “What were you thinking? What kind of foolishness would possess you to re-enter your marriage bed ever again?” As she spoke, she batted her hand against Nathan’s arm. Nathan flinched - not from any sort of physical pain, but from the truth in her words.

“I have no excuse, sister.” As he continued into a longer form apology, Guy overheard the hissing voice of Mr. Beterman from his left.

“What possessed you? Getting involved in this sort of scandal, Mrs. Beterman, it’s…beyond gossip. Look!” He gestured furiously to the punch splatter on the bottom of her gown. “That was God. Giving you an immediate sign that this was the wrong course of action. Why don’t you ever consider your soul the way I do?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Beterman. I did what I thought was best.”

“It’s the influence of this…friend. Miss Seaborne. She’s always led you down the wrong path. I had hoped this marriage may be a step in the right direction, but, well…it’s clearly going to be nothing but a life of excesses.”

“Mr. Beterman,” Guy finally spoke, turning to the pair. The priest blinked at him in surprise, unaware he had been listening. “Do you truly think that God cares about…my eating a bit more than others do during the average day? Is that honestly a priority?”

“Gluttony is a deadly sin, Sir Darby,” Mr. Beterman replied, tracing his judgmental gaze so that it lingered on the widest part of Guy’s middle. Subtly, Guy sucked it in. “I would say yes, he cares. It is, after all, my job to know what he cares about.”

“Well, yes, but…” Guy’s dark eyebrows knitted together as he thought. “Surely there is a difference between all-out hedonism and just…enjoying a bit extra? Not at the expense of anyone else, mind, but…because it…feels good?”

“We are not meant to do what feels good, Sir Darby. We are supposed to be humble and repentant, and live our lives as He would. Which does not include growing fat and lazy on whatever indulgences you can get your hands on.”

“Mr. Beterman,” Elizabeth spoke up, her voice low and concerned. But she was interrupted by Juliet, who had tuned in to the conversation at some point.

Pardon me?”

“I’m going to fetch the carriage, Mrs. Beterman,” Mr. Beterman said after a dismissive glance at Juliet. “We have tarried long enough”

“Darling, we just arrived-"

“And we won’t be staying any longer with your dress soiled. We will be returning to the inn.” At that, Mr. Beterman strode off across the ballroom, his short frame quickly disappearing into the crowd.

“I’m…not lazy,” Guy said to Elizabeth, somewhat bewildered by the exchange, but still feeling the need to defend himself.

“No one is! What on earth is his issue, Elizabeth? He’s not exactly trim himself, after all…” Juliet trailed herself off as her friend gave her a look. “I’m sorry. I know that’s irrelevant. I just...miss you.”

“I miss you too, Juliet. I’ll call by your house tomorrow evening, when Mr. Beterman is in church.”

“Won’t he expect you there?”

“I’ll be sick, if need be,” Elizabeth admitted, giving her friend a rueful smile. “We’ll spend some time together before I return to the valley.”

Juliet gripped her friend’s hands, kissing both her cheeks.

“You saved us tonight. I can never thank you enough.”

“Perhaps not, but I will allow you to try,” Elizabeth said, her voice nearly a whisper, and both women were overcome by giggles for a moment.

“‘Till tomorrow, then,” Juliet said.

“Let’s get a drink, sister,” Nathan said, steering her towards the refreshment room.

“I will walk you out,” Guy said, offering Elizabeth his arm. She took it with a grateful half-smile, and the group split in opposite directions.

“I am sorry,” Guy continued as they carefully made their way across the room. “If this evening has made your home life more difficult. But it is deeply appreciated.”

“I know,” Elizabeth said, her voice even with just a tinge of a sigh. “It is worth it. Nathan should not have to spend his life shackled to that…well. Anyway. Juliet is a large part of my chosen family, even if she…doesn’t fully understand the rest of it.”

“You mean Mr. Beterman?”

“I do. Juliet…does not understand marrying for any reasons other than love,” Elizabeth said, slowly, peering at Guy’s expression. He blushed a little, and hid away the smile that still arose at the reference to his fiancée and her feelings towards him. “She has always known, if nothing else, that she could thrive in Nathan’s properties. Or in Scotland, with her other family. But…I am the only child of my parents, and was already nearing thirty when Mr. Beterman proposed. It would have been foolish to say no.”

“I understand,” Guy replied, even as he knew that he truly didn’t. Being born as a woman was an entire other life than anything he had ever been familiar with. He might learn about the struggles, though he would never experience them firsthand.

“I’m glad, Sir Darby,” Elizabeth said. “And I’m glad that you will be the one for my friend. She deserves the best, and I see that here.” They had reached the entrance to the ballroom and paused. Guy blushed a little more, pleased.

“Thank you, Mrs. Beterman. That means a lot, particularly from you.”

“Good. And…I may have chosen Mr. Beterman for better or worse, but I AM sorry about his comments regarding your lifestyle and…size. It was untoward and, in my opinion, incorrect.”

“Oh,” Guy said, exhaling a slight laugh as he tightened his abs again at the thought. “Yes, well…it isn’t a particularly large leap that I do engage in gluttony from time to time, and…he IS a priest. I shall…endeavor to not take it personally.”

“Please do. I look forward to seeing you again, Sir Darby.”

“And you, Mrs. Beterman. Have a good night.”

As Elizabeth departed, Guy pivoted to peer across the room. He almost immediately caught eyes with Juliet, exiting the refreshment room, and saw her grin without abandon. The tension and anxiety in Guy’s chest and gut loosened in a way he had never experienced before as he grinned back.
 

Ghostboo

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Chapter Sixteen

From his position at the high table, in the gardens of Stormgrove, Guy Darby took another of many looks to his right. His dark eyes took in the sight of Juliet next to him, her strawberry hair braided on top of her head and her skin flushed with champagne and excitement - perfectly balancing out the white of her gown. His brand new wife felt his eyes, as always, and she turned to catch his gaze - grinning as she did so. Their hands met under the table, gripping briefly in excitement and disbelief before turning back to greet more of their guests.

It was the evening of their wedding day, and lanterns lit the seating and decorations around Stormgrove’s gardens for the reception. The ceremony itself had been small, just Juliet’s family and Levi with a few more of their friends in the church. But afterwards, Guy had opened his - well, their, now - home to the entirety of Highcastle. The promise of good food, good drink, and good gossip had brought out most of the town.

And good it was. Juliet had made it clear to Guy that if they had nothing else, that she would love to see as many delicious options for food and drink as possible for their celebration. Guy had hesitated only briefly before agreeing - not due to the expense, which was negligible to him. He simply wasn’t sure if he could resist over-indulging in front of not only his new wife, but the entire town, if there were a bevy of favorite foods offered.

That wasn’t an unreasonable concern, it turned out. Guy had been dressed in his formal wedding suit with no issues that morning - it had been just recently ordered, and fit him like a glove. But as he leaned a bit further back in his seat, Guy realized he was trying to make more room for his ever-expanding middle, which he had kept consistently full with grazing from the plates that went around during the reception. Between the various sampled wines weakening his inhibitions, and the deliciousness of every dish that came their way, Guy had more or less been putting something into his mouth ever since they arrived back home. And now, the previously well-fitted waistline of his pants was digging in to his soft middle rather irritatingly.

Waiting until he was sure no one was looking, Guy slipped a thumb between his thick waist and the grip of his pants, attempting to stretch it out just a little. Almost the entirety of his large hand disappeared immediately beneath the large shelf of his belly, sitting heavily mere centimeters from the table in front of him.

Just as he had assured himself that he should take it easy starting now, Guy’s traitorous other hand helped itself to another bite of the duck in thick orange sauce that resided on the plate in front of him. It was instinctual, and he had swallowed it before he even realized what was happening. Blushing, Guy allowed his pants to snap offendingly back against his gut as he adjusted to sitting back up straight. Unfortunately, this led to his widest point pressing gently into the table, sinking a couple centimeters into his soft skin. Taking a deep breath, Guy resisted squirming in discomfort as he quickly had to admit that attempting to suck it in while this full wouldn’t help, and gave in to leaning back again.

This was all over in a manner of seconds - but he still felt his wife’s eyes trace over him during a lull in conversation, curious. Guy offered her a slightly bashful smile, linking his fingers together and resting them just above his belly button. It may call attention to his girth, but it also called his attention to his girth, and he was therefore able to at least briefly pause his snacking.

“How are the newlyweds?” Levi’s familiar voice popped up to Guy’s left, and he turned to greet their friend with a smile.

“Incredible, of course,” Juliet replied, somewhat cheekily.

“You certainly look to be enjoying yourselves,” Levi said, and Guy blushed - though Juliet merely offered Levi a cheers with her champagne glass, not seeming to take his words with the same weight.

“Well, we couldn’t have done it without you,” Guy admitted, uncupping his broad belly to offer Levi his hand in thanks. Levi took it, though shrugged humbly even as they shook.

“It was hardly anything.”

“I’m fairly certain that wouldn’t be true if it had been required to assist anyone else here,” Juliet laughed, gesturing at all their guests in the garden. Levi surveyed them with a raised eyebrow, then smirked with agreement.

“I do not often like to help people - particularly these people - so I suppose I must give you that one, Lady Darby."

“Oh!” Juliet clasped her hands over her mouth, briefly hiding the shining red of her cheeks. Though Guy caught the slight dampness in her green eyes - that had also risen up earlier, during their vows - before she blinked it away. “It’s just so lovely to hear, I…”

“Who knew Guy Darby could be the one to reduce you to a blushing maid, Juliet Seaborne?” Levi said, clasping his much rounder friend on the shoulder. Guy smirked up at him briefly before reaching to take his wife’s fingers in his large, soft hand. “I never would have guessed it.”

“Just because I myself am strange and unusual doesn’t excuse me from the excitement of womanhood, Levi,” Juliet retorted, twisting her fingers into a slight squeeze on Guy’s grip. “Love comes for us all eventually, and I imagine you should be on the lookout now.”

“Kindly spare me for awhile,” Levi said, snagging a scone with clotted cream and strawberries off a passing tray and taking a bite. Guy resisted the temptation to squeeze out of his groom’s chair to snag one of his own, but he needn’t worry - Juliet stood and grabbed two, one for each of their plates. “I’m not sure I’m quite done yet.”

“Done…?” Juliet asked, and Levi merely raised his eyebrows cheekily. Juliet wrinkled her nose. “Nevermind! Nevermind.”

“Speaking of…” Levi seemed to pick out someone in the crowd below, and patted Guy’s shoulder twice before letting him go. “I ought to go and say hello to Miss Smith; excuse me.”

Juliet rolled her eyes and waved off Levi in farewell. Guy couldn’t help but grin at the warmth that spread through him - watching his closest friend’s antics while full of delicious food and drink, holding the hand of his wife.

Wife.

Wow.

“Do you have a favorite dish so far?” Juliet asked, taking a tentative bite of the scone off her plate. “I think it may be the pheasant for me, though that could be because I have never actually had it before. But the cream sauce served with the cod was incredible. What do you think?”

“Oh, I think…that they are all quite hard to resist,” Guy admitted, eyeing his own scone but still feeling the way his pants dug into his especially round, full middle with exasperation.

“That is certainly true! And thank you again, for indulging me. I know you would have been fine with a few sandwiches, and this means a lot.”

“It’s truly nothing,” Guy said, raising his wife’s hand up to kiss it softly. “I was happy to oblige. And…I suppose my favorite would have to be either the mutton in plum wine sauce, or…also the pheasant. We can have it served again for Christmas, if you like?”

“Oh, could we?” Juliet nearly vibrated with excitement, and Guy, who had never seen her so thrilled despite it all, exhaled a slight laugh. “I keep…thinking I may wake up from it all, you know?” Juliet continued, a little more softly. “It’s difficult to believe this is to be my life. With you.”

“I know what you mean,” Guy said, finally giving in to his urges and reaching for the scone. “Assuming, at least, that you don’t mean this as a nightmare scenario.”

“No! No, certainly not,” Juliet laughed. “I believe it’s about time to cut and serve our cake, are you ready?”

Guy, who had eaten the not-insignificant scone in two bites, stifled a cough.

“Our cake?”

“Our wedding cake! I had a chocolate and buttercream made for everyone to partake in, and your groom’s cake is blueberry and vanilla. Is that right? You had mentioned a love of that flavor over the summer sometime, and I hope I ordered it correctly.”

“Oh! Y-yes, that sounds delicious, Juliet. Thank you.”

“Oh, good,” Juliet said with some relief, motioning to a servant who appeared to have been standing by for the confirmation that they were ready. “I’m glad I got it right. Growing up viewing my mother as the proper example of domesticity, I have always…feared I would not be good at it.”

“Whether you are or not makes no difference to me,” Guy replied honestly. Juliet had stood in preparation for the cake-cutting, and he began to squirm his own way out of his chair. The bride & groom’s seating were high-backed, well made chairs - but the low arm rests were still, just a little, tight for a post-meal Guy's dimensions. “I have survived just fine without a wife thus far, and whatever must be outsourced, can be. I don’t expect you to change or adapt in ways that you are uncomfortable with. We shall learn the best life for us both together.”

With this conclusion, Guy’s pressure on the armrests finally popped his plump form out of the seat, which had been carefully wriggling back and forth to ease the departure. He hoped it was subtle enough that no one noticed - including his wife, who offered him a sincere smile and a hand to steady himself. He took it, with a grateful and embarrassed smile of his own.

“Thank you, Guy.”

“I love you, you know.”

“I love you too, you know.”

They smirked at each other as the massive wedding cake was deposited on the table in front of them, along with a knife to share in the cutting.

Together, they cut a thin slice of the cake - the rich chocolate inside laced with fudge, and covered in a decadent white buttercream with fondant roses. They fed each other a small piece of it, signaling the beginning of the rest of the cake to be cut and distributed. Guy diligently ignored the handful of whispers and subsequent giggles when he took his mouthful of cake from Juliet’s small fingers, as he saw his wife didn’t seem to notice.
 

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