When I have a new book come out, I always take reader requests for a free short story about the world or characters. So, here is a short story (~8000 words) set shortly after the end of A Lily Among Thorns.
(A Lily Among Thorns is a London spy story about an embittered ex-courtesan innkeeper and a sweet, unconventional chemist who have to team up to save her business—oh yeah, and England—in the weeks leading up to Waterloo.)
Warning: Contains MAJOR SPOILERS.
This story, at very long last, is for Steph Burgis, who wanted to see more of Solomon’s sister’s relationship with her stuffy fiancé. So here you have the first two weeks of their marriage…which do not go very smoothly.
Note: For those of you who read the book in the Dorchester edition, Solomon’s sister was originally named Susannah. But as my editor pointed out that half the characters in the book had S names, it’s been changed to Deborah. Sorry for any confusion!
The way of a man with a maid
Deborah floated through her wedding breakfast. To be sure, it was Solomon’s wedding breakfast too, since it was that or force him to make yet another journey to Shropshire in a short space, and Lady Serena did not like to leave her business in London so often. But Deborah didn’t mind sharing, even though Lady Serena was a prettier bride than she was, and wore a finer dress. (Although she had been kind enough to suggest that Deborah be married second, so that she might wear the Hathaway earrings at the breakfast.) She didn’t mind anything today. She was married to the man of her dreams. She would spend tonight in her marriage bed.
She savored the words. Marriage bed. Her cousin Arthur was telling her in great detail about the capital surprise at the end of the first volume of Lady Jane’s Pocket, but she let her gaze wander over to her new husband.
She put her thumb on the ring to make sure it was still there. Jonas was so handsome: angular and blue-eyed. He had combed and pomaded his dark blond hair into place for the wedding, but his springy curls had resisted; the result was a rigid wave too lumpy to be handsome, but which inspired an unspeakable affection in her breast.
They were going to share a bed. It would be magical, like summer lightning, and then she would be a woman, with a woman’s knowledge, and she would understand entirely the poetry and the songs and all the jokes no one would explain to her.
There be three things which are too wonderful for me; yea four, which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
Jonas sensed her looking, and met her eyes with a deep flush. Her stomach swooped and slithered.
Jonas carried a candle in one hand, and led her up the stairs by the other. She had been in the shop hundreds—likely thousands—of times in her life, but she had never been in these upstairs rooms, reserved for the grocer and his family. Jonas’s parents had lived here, once. His mother still did, but she had moved her things into the smaller room and was on her way to Much Wenlock to spend a month with her brother, giving the new-wedded couple a chance to settle in.
Deborah followed Jonas into the chief room. It was strange to see her old trunk standing at the foot of someone else’s bed and to know that she lived here now, that this would be her bed for all the rest of her days.
For a moment she thought, But Elijah is leaving for France in a few days and who knows when he’ll come again? Solomon and Lady Serena are going back to London tomorrow. I should be at home talking to my brothers. She didn’t belong here. She didn’t like the pitcher on the nightstand. It was plain white with an ugly scalloped lip, not at all like the whimsical purple-and-gilt one she’d had at home.
He dropped her hand. “Shall I leave you alone to prepare?”
“I’ll need your help with my buttons and laces.” The Gwillams’ single female servant had been given the night off.
He put his hands behind his back, squaring his shoulders with a self-conscious squirm. “I meant…spiritually.”
Deborah was flummoxed. She’d been praying for God’s guidance in her new life since the day of her betrothal, but she had never mentioned conjugal intimacy in her prayers. Jonas was always saying she was entirely too outspoken on any number of subjects, yet to her praying on such a topic seemed…not sacrilegious, precisely, but tactless, like talking of one’s digestive difficulties at dinner. Surely God didn’t want to listen to all her girlish hopes about magic and summer lightning and Jonas’s cock.
“I don’t…do you want a few moments to prepare?”
He hesitated. “Perhaps…perhaps we ought to pray together.”
Maybe it would calm their nerves—for it was clear he was as nervous as she. “Yes, let’s.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, closing his eyes and bowing his head, and she sat beside him.
Taking a deep breath, she turned her thoughts to God. Calm filled her, joy and gratitude and tenderness. Thank You, she prayed silently. Thank You for leading me to this man. Thank You for creating this beautiful world and peopling it, and for understanding it was not good that man should be alone… When at last she opened her eyes, Jonas was watching her solemnly.
She smiled at him. His narrow mouth curled hopefully in return, and he cupped her cheek with his palm. The gesture was a little awkward, but her heart raced happily. When he leaned in and kissed her, her pulse leapt into a gallop, all thundering hooves.
They had kissed many times before, but now there was no need to hold back or restrain themselves. She returned his kiss eagerly, joyfully. His hand slid down to her shoulder, and down…he cupped her breast. Deborah was surprised that flames didn’t erupt beneath his hand. Stupid corset, stupid petticoat, stupid shift—
He snatched his hand away. “I’m sorry.” She grinned at him. Everyone thought Jonas was a prig, and he was a little; but she didn’t mind. She liked being the adventurous one. In truth there was nothing adventurous about her except her taste in books; she was a plump, ordinary girl with only the ordinary share of beauty, and she’d never been more than ten miles from home. She’d never wanted to. But Jonas thought she was daring and a little dangerous, and she loved that. She took his hand and brought it back to her breast. “We’re married,” she said. “You don’t have to be sorry.”
He drew in a shuddering breath, looking at her hand over his. “Good. Because I’m not really.” He squeezed a little, beneath her fingers, and the way he smiled made it a private joke, like stealing a strawberry off her plate or whispering I love you in her ear before she realized he was in the room.
“I love you,” she told him.
“I love you too.”
He fumbled over her buttons, cursing very mildly at the knot of her laces. Her garters were entirely beyond him at the moment and Deborah had to unhook them herself. She felt like Bathsheba, like Delilah, like Judith: Jonas was so overcome with lust for her that his fingers shook. She pushed his coat off his shoulders and unbuttoned his waistcoat. His breeches she opened by feel, because they couldn’t stop kissing. He pulled his shirt over his head, delayed only for a moment by a button catching in his hair, and they were both naked.
She had vertigo. Not in an unpleasant way, but it was all happening so fast. A moment ago they’d only ever kissed, and now they were naked. She had never seen a man’s…genitals, and now Jonas’s male part bobbed awkwardly along his thigh, scarcely a foot away. It was strange and pink, wrapped in bulging veins, and she felt as if she ought to be more impressed with it than she was.
She looked down at her own body, seeing with crystal clarity the awkward way her breasts hung, the indelicate size of her nipples. Her stomach was so pale, her skin surely not as smooth as it should be—
Jonas leaned over and blew out the candle. At once the room was pitch black.
“Jonas,” Deborah started to protest, but he put a hand on her shoulder and slid it up to her face, kissing her again. She felt a tugging beneath her. “What—?”
He made a muffled sound of frustration. “Here, shift over.” Realizing he was trying to pull back the quilt, she stood. It was a warm night, but nevertheless, utterly naked in the dark, she felt a slight chill. The boards beneath her bare feet had a different texture than the ones at home.
Hearing a swishing sound, she felt for the bed with one hand. Bare sheets. She attempted to climb in, and her knee connected with…something. “Jonas?”
“I’m fine,” he said hastily. “It was just my th-thigh.”
She lay down on the bed. “Come here,” she murmured, trying to reclaim that Delilah feeling from earlier. And for a moment, when he climbed on top of her and they touched skin to skin, all up and down their bodies, his arms a cage on either side of her head, she was overcome. Her breasts tingled—
Something was poking at her, between her legs. Oh Lord, his cock was poking at her. She had thought they might…well, she didn’t know what. Something. But she spread her legs wider and tried to brace herself.
Nothing happened, except for an uncomfortable shoving feeling.
“Sorry,” Jonas said. “Forgive me, I have to…” There was a long, long pause, while Jonas presumably tried to work up the courage to finish his sentence and Deborah tried to work up the courage to ask him to.
Suddenly there were fingers prodding at her most intimate places. She went rigid, her muscles clenching. Now that his hand was down there, she realized that she was…dripping. Smearing something on his clean fingers. Was that normal? Did it disgust him?
“I’m sorry!” Jonas sounded mortified.
She realized with an awful embarrassment that her channel had eluded him, and now he was feeling for it. Was it not where it was supposed to be? More likely he doesn’t know where it’s supposed to be, she reminded herself. He was new at this too; he had saved himself for his wife. “It’s all right,” she said.
His finger wormed its way inside her. Though it didn’t hurt, it was not at all a comfortable feeling, someone’s finger where there had never been anything before. He withdrew it quickly, but she barely had a moment to be grateful before his member was pushing into her.
He shoved, a sharp rending feeling. She made a small sound of pain, and he stopped at once. “Did I hurt you? Should I light the candle and look for blood?”
Heavens, she had forgotten that there might be blood! She ought to have put down…something, between them and the sheets. What if she ruined the mattress?
“I suppose this is the punishment of Eve,” she said as lightly as she could. “Perhaps you’d better get it over with.”
He kissed her again, but somehow now it didn’t feel exciting. It felt intrusive, someone else’s mouth in her way when she was trying to breathe. The pain was not much worse than a good hard toe-stubbing, and yet his lips had become wet and alien and she’d lost the knack of responding to them.
He pushed into her all the way and thrust: once, twice. Pausing, he drew breath as if he would say something—but he didn’t, only continued, in and out, gasping, until she felt him shake and shudder. He must have spilled his seed inside her.
He drew out. That hurt too, her body aching around the space where he had been as if it wanted him and rejected him at the same time.
“Thank you,” he said, his lips brushing her brow. He settled down in the bed next to her. That was it, then. That was the great secret everyone made such a fuss over.
It was only the first time, she thought, trying to cajole herself back into happiness. It will get better. Mama said it might be strange and painful the first time.
“Do you need anything?” Jonas sounded frightened.
She had to be strong. She loved him, she was being foolish, and she couldn’t let him know that she was close to weeping from disappointment. “No.” She picked up his hand and kissed it. “I love you.”
He let out a breath, pulling her close against him. “I love you too.”
She tried not to tense. Being a girl with no sisters, she was accustomed to sleeping alone. It will be better tomorrow night, she told herself. She told herself that for hours before she could fall asleep.
Deborah went to the vicarage for dinner the next day. Elijah opened the door, giving her a conspiratorial smile, as if now she’d been initiated into a club of which all the best people were members. “Well, if it isn’t the blushing bride.”
Solomon and Lady Serena had been expected to dinner too, but they hadn’t arrived, and for once Mr. Hathaway shrugged indulgently and smiled slyly at his wife instead of looking at his watch and harrumphing about punctuality. Everyone knew they must be still in bed. Probably they had had a hearty luncheon brought to their room to keep their strength up, before falling on each other again like ravenous beasts. Probably Lady Serena had never in her life had a man blow out a candle when she took her clothes off.
Deborah did her best, but evidently she didn’t manage to blush and glow enough through dinner, because Elijah pulled her aside afterwards. “Are you all right?”
She gave him a broad smile. “Of course! Why wouldn’t I be?”
Her brother only looked more worried. Drat. Well, he was the spy, not her! She despised dissembling and dishonesty, anyway. Elijah ran his fingers through his hair and grimaced in embarrassment. “He didn’t—didn’t hurt you, did he, Debo?”
She felt hot all over, and there was a lump in her throat. He couldn’t really expect her to talk about this with him! He was her brother, for Heaven’s sake.
But he’d noticed something was wrong and he’d asked. He was looking at her the way he used to before he died—before they all thought he was dead, that is—and she’d missed that look so much. She’d missed having a protective, worldly-wise older brother who only winked at her when other people said she was improper. Maybe if she asked him—
No. No, she couldn’t possibly. But she wouldn’t lie. “It’s supposed to hurt the first time,” she said, trying for airy.
His lips tightened. “I’ll beat his face in if he wasn’t kind to you.”
Oh Lord, she was going to cry. She refused to cry. “How dare you?” She forced the words past the lump in her throat. “How dare you threaten him? I used to go to his shop when we were in mourning to get away—” from the sound of Mama crying, she’d meant to say, but Elijah looked so sad all of a sudden, and it was too cruel and she couldn’t. “You don’t know anything about how kind he was to me, when you—” She couldn’t catch her breath to finish the sentence.
Elijah shoved his fists into the pockets of his green coat.
“That coat is a hundred years old, if you aren’t careful you’ll rip the pockets right out.”
He huffed a laugh, but the corners of his mouth were still sad. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I was young and stupid.”
Why are you going away again? she wanted to ask, but she couldn’t. She thought he would probably say that Corfield was dull as ditchwater and Paris was exciting. It was true, but it made her feel awfully small and unimportant. She hugged him instead. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“So am I.” He looked at her indecisively, his mouth twisting. “Debo…I don’t pretend to know too much about women. Spying doesn’t leave much time for looking for a wife. But I imagine I know more than you or Jonas. And I remember how frightening it was, not to know anything, not to have been told anything about something so…” He shook his head. “Something so large. You probably have married friends you’d rather talk to than me. But if you have anything you want to talk about, and you want to talk to me, I’ll always answer you.”
Embarrassment stopped her tongue. She felt hot and itchy, and part of her wanted to tell him everything even though she knew it was unthinkable. Another part was furious, because if he’d been here for the last two years he’d know that only one of Deborah’s friends was married, and that she had a new baby and you couldn’t expect to talk to her for more than an half a minute at a time. “Thank you.” She couldn’t seem to say another word.
The door opened, and Solomon and Lady Serena tumbled in, laughing and out of breath. “Are we late?”
“Yes, I’m afraid I was just leaving,” Deborah said, and made her escape.
It wasn’t better that night. It was worse, because it wasn’t the first time and it hurt much less and she had to accept that she simply wasn’t enjoying herself. What was wrong with her? Everyone enjoyed this.
All day, everyone had given her that welcome-to-the-club smile. They all expected her to be floating on a cloud of remembered ecstasy. Where was the difficulty? She loved Jonas…didn’t she? She couldn’t be wrong about that, could she? She couldn’t have made a terrible mistake?
I feel nothing when you’re inside me, she tried to imagine telling him. I feel bored, and a little frightened. I wish it would be over.
Of course she couldn’t say that, but what could she say? It would hurt him so much. And what if the problem was with her, anyway? What if she was cold? There were such women, who simply didn’t enjoy lovemaking. Weren’t there? People whispered of it sometimes when men took mistresses: that you couldn’t blame him because his wife was one of those cold women and denied him her bed. What if she was one of those, and poor Jonas was saddled with her forever?
More than once in the nights that followed, Deborah opened her mouth to say something, but every time Jonas whispered, “Shhh, the servant will hear,” or stopped her with a kiss.
During the day, she learned to weigh out spices, to neatly tie a paper parcel, and to add a purchase to a household’s account. She made dinner and told jokes to customers and Jonas even laughed at them. Things were just as they had always been between them, except that she found herself dreading nightfall. The weight of everything she wasn’t saying pressed down on her, harder and harder until one morning, after she’d been married about a week, Jonas stole a kiss behind the flour barrels and she didn’t enjoy it.
She didn’t even want her husband to kiss her anymore. How could she tell him that, and how could she hide it? They were supposed to be one flesh, and here she was holding back her body and her heart from him.
If they were one flesh, why didn’t he already know? How could he not see it?
Everything went wrong that afternoon. She gave a customer credit when she ought not, spilled a ladleful of treacle, and burned the soup because she forgot about the thin place in Jonas’s pot.
Jonas found her sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing her heart out. “What’s wrong, beloved?”
“I b-burned the soup. It’s s-scorched th-through. We c-can’t possibly eat it. No one could eat it. A p-pig couldn’t eat it.”
He sat down on the floor next to her and pulled her to him. “It’s all right. I’m a grocer. I’ve a barrel of dried peas in the next room.”
She sobbed harder. “I’m sorry I’m a terrible wife.”
“You’re not a terrible wife.” He rocked her a little, dropping kisses on the top of her head. “You’re a splendid wife. You’re the best wife in the world.”
“That isn’t true.”
He took her face in his hands and looked her in the eye. His tawny curls pressed in around his serious face like a crowd at an accident. “It is. Always.”
She took her courage in both hands. “Jonas, why do you always blow the candle out when we…when we…? Do you…?” Don’t you want to look at me? Why don’t you touch me? Is making love to me only an obligation? “Do you not think I’m pretty?” She waited for his answer in an agony of shame.
“Of course I think you’re pretty.” He sounded shocked. “I hope you won’t think I value your face higher than your soul, or that I married you on that account so that I might…might enjoy…” He could not seem to finish the sentence. “Deborah, you’re the prettiest girl in Shropshire.”
It should have comforted her, when she’d spent the week tormented by self-doubt. Instead, abruptly, she was swallowed up by anger and resentment. “Then what is the difficulty? Why shouldn’t we marry to enjoy dot dot dot?” she demanded. “You seem determined not to enjoy it!”
He stood in a rush, color high in his cheeks. “What is that supposed to mean?”
She scrambled to her feet. “You know very well what. You might as well be a bull and I a cow, for all the time and attention you give me!”
His jaw dropped, and his spine went rigid so quickly it might have made a twanging sound. She felt hot and miserably shaky. As usual, she had lost her temper and said the worst thing she could have. But she couldn’t quite muster an apology.
“There is no call to be crude,” he said stiffly.
She tried to gather in her temper, yard by yard, as she had once seen a balloonist stuff a bright ocean of silk into a small sack. “I’m sorry, Jonas. You know I love you. We’re new at this. It isn’t to be wondered at that it would take some time…I used to love it when you kissed me, and touched me. Perhaps if we—”
The blood drained from his face. “Used to?”
She froze in horror. “I didn’t—I didn’t mean that. Jonas, I only—perhaps we might ask someone for advice—”
“Maybe you’d enjoy it if you’d just relax. You lie there like a stone and make me do everything, and I don’t know what you want.”
“I should relax? When you come to me at night, you’re so stiff we could use you as a fence post, and I don’t mean your—” She faltered, unable to say the word to him.
By now Jonas was white as the ugly pitcher upstairs. “That smell is making me sick!” He seized the soup pot and slammed out of the house.
“Don’t walk away from me!”
But he did. She nearly ran after him, but she couldn’t shout at him about this in Mrs. Millichamp’s yard, where he was certainly feeding her soup to the pig. Instead she sat down, her anger and nerves building until she thought the chair would shake apart. The moment he came back through the door, she burst out with, “I don’t know what I’m doing either, but you don’t see me—”
“Yes,” Jonas said, his voice rising, “you think we ought to ask for advice! Whom do you propose we ask, precisely, and how am I to look them in the face ever again after you’ve told them all about how my lovemaking repulses you?”
Of course his masculine pride must come before everything. She put her chin up. “My—my brother Elijah said—”
“Your brother? As if he hasn’t made it obvious that he despises me even more than the rest of your family.”
“What are you talking about? No one despises you.” She was conscious that they did all think him a bit dull, but—she’d never imagined he noticed.
“Of course they do! I suppose they think you could have caught a gentleman and sat about drinking tea and twiddling your thumbs, instead of being a grocer’s wife and doing honest work.”
Deborah’s head very nearly went off like fireworks. “How dare you accuse my family of being snobs? My father’s brother is a shopkeeper!”
“Your father’s brother owns a fashionable shop on Bond Street. That’s hardly the same as a provincial grocer. It was clear from the first day we went walking together that he didn’t think I was good enough for you.”
“That isn’t it at all. Father doesn’t care about anything like that.”
“What is it, then? I’ve run myself ragged trying to please him. I went to his showy services, I—”
“You told him he ought to get rid of Solomon’s pipe organ. The most beautiful thing in the whole church!”
His jaw set, and he opened his mouth to tell her for the seven-millionth time that it was Romish and that holy words need not rely on stage-properties and orchestras.
Deborah gave up entirely on regaining control of her temper. “He just thinks you’re a prig,” she said nastily. “Perhaps because you are one. For Heaven’s sake, Jonas, are you really so puritanical you can’t touch your own wife without blushing?”
His mouth trembled. “You’re a snob too. I never pretended to be anything other than what I am. I suppose you’d like me better if I’d gone to university and could preach in Greek like your father, or if I’d fornicated with half of Constantinople and your sister-in-law besides, like his lordship Byron! Would you like me to be taller, too? You care everything for style, and naught for substance!”
“I can never talk to you about anything,” she snarled, her voice contorting like a serpent with rage. “Every time I try, you end up shouting at me about something entirely different.” She’d never cared one fig that Jonas was an inch or two shorter than she was, even though it made her look twice as big and fat as she really was. It wasn’t her fault that he cared. “Your sermons don’t need Greek, they need a little clear thinking!”
If looks could have killed, Deborah would have been cold on the floor. She didn’t care.
I don’t care, she repeated defiantly to herself. A small voice at the back of her head asked if maybe she had been a snob to Jonas about his lay preaching.
No, she hadn’t. She loved his preaching! His sermons weren’t very good, but she adored them anyway, just as he loved her drawings and cartoons: not because of any great skill in their making, but because they were an extension of their cherished creator. When Jonas preached, his soul hovered in the air above his head, and it was beautiful. Her father had a theatrical bent, that was all. He had spent painstaking, passionate decades learning how to create an effect in his audience. Jonas…
Jonas is self-centered and pays no attention to anyone but himself, she thought spitefully.
“I think…I think I should sleep in my mother’s room tonight,” Jonas said. “I would hate to importune you with attentions you find so distasteful.”
“I think you should,” she flung at him. “And I think you should make your own dinner too.”
It was hardly Deborah’s first quarrel with Jonas. She didn’t think it was even her worst. But it felt the most like disaster. One week a bride, and already she’d ruined everything. She cried herself to sleep. Strange, how being alone in bed felt lonely now, when before it had seemed so natural.
Jonas woke her with warm toast slathered in butter and cinnamon and sugar. There was a tall glass of lemonade too, just as she liked it: so sweet she knew he must have used another sixpencesworth of sugar in it.
“Sweets to the sweet,” he said when she thanked him.
“I wasn’t very sweet last night.”
“No more was I.” He tore off a corner of her toast and ate it. The gesture filled her with emotion. This was marriage: sharing breakfast in bed, quarreling and reconciling, and she was so very glad to be doing it with him. “Wrath has always been my besetting sin. Can you forgive me?”
“Of course. Can you—” He nodded before she even finished the sentence. She leaned in to kiss him, and he kissed her back. Her stomach swooped and her breasts ached, and she was so terribly relieved that she could still feel this, could still feel as if she would die if he didn’t touch her.
But he broke the kiss for another bite of toast, saying nothing about the subject of their argument. That night, when they went to bed, he rolled away to look at the wall and didn’t touch her at all.
“Jonas—” She could hear the quiver in her own voice.
“I’m tired,” he said, sounding defeated. “I’m just very tired today.”
It was clear that Deborah needed to do something about this, because Jonas wouldn’t. Elijah’s words kept coming back to her, his offer to be her confidant fresh in her ears. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t tell him any of this.
Her mother, then? She shrank from that too. She wouldn’t be able to get the words out with her mother’s warm hazel eyes on her face.
There was someone else, though, whom she thought she could tell. Someone who would know the answer to any question she might have. “I want to write to my brothers this morning,” she told Jonas. “I’ll be down soon.” Her hand trembled as she took up the pen, but she willed it still, writing My dear Lady Serena with a flourish. She sat and stared at it. Black on white, undeniable. Jonas would be so angry.
She pressed her lips together and wrote on.
I hope you won’t think me a dreadful Nuisance for pestering you in this way. And I hope I won’t make you Uncomfortable yet again. But I need a Woman’s Advice, and I hope you will be kind enough to give it me.
I love my husband very much, but I find I do not take the pleasure in the Act of marriage that I ought. I attempted on one occasion to unburden myself to him, but I only succeeded in wounding him Very Deeply. Even were he ready to do anything I asked, I should not know how to Ask, or what to Ask for. I have been brought up in Ignorance, I think, more than I flattered myself I had, and—I cannot say more. I blush to think of what I have already committed to paper. What ought I to do?
Please help me.
Yours, very aff.ly,
She stared at the paper in horror. Had she really written Deborah Hathaway? She scratched out the entire closing and wrote below, Yours, very aff.ly, Deborah Gwillam. Would Lady Serena guess the error she’d made? She scribbled out past where her words had been, hoping it would look as though she’d crossed out a whole line. Oh, she was being ridiculous.
PS, she wrote, please do not tell my Brother the Contents of this letter.
PPS, kindly Burn it.
She took it straight to the post office so Jonas wouldn’t see that it wasn’t addressed to Solomon.
For days she waited anxiously. Jonas still didn’t touch her at night, not even to put an arm around her or pull her close. She thought he was only hurt and embarrassed, but what if…what if she had given him a disgust of her? What if he had decided she was a sluttish, insatiable creature and he could not bear to be near her?
Or…maybe once a woman called a man a prig and told him his sermons were confused, his cock could never stand for her again.
A letter came on the fourth day. Jonas’s eyes narrowed. “Who is that from?”
“It must be from Solomon.”
“It’s a woman’s hand.”
“Perhaps he asked Lady Serena to address it for him.” She knew it sounded mad. She’d have to tell him what she’d done sooner or later. “I’m going to read it.” She ran upstairs before he could ask her anything else. With shaking hands she broke the seal.
Dear Mrs. Gwillam,
I apologize for the late reply. I have been wrestling with myself how to answer you. In the event—I have burned your letter, and I must exact a solemn promise that you will burn this one IMMEDIATELY upon reading it.
I do not have a confiding nature. I wish I could open my heart to you more fully. What I can say is that, while I understand why you thought me a suitable person to advise you, I myself learned only recently how pleasurable pleasure can be. I cannot instruct you what to do, because there is no simple or infallible way to share a bed.
I can tell you that laughter, honesty, kindness, and patience will get you farther than anything. I know how difficult it is to speak on this subject, but with your husband, you must. Womanly shame and male pride are the greatest enemies to mutual pleasure. If he cannot listen to you, he cannot please you.
Don’t take it to heart if you don’t enjoy everything. No one enjoys everything.
And a final word—pardon me if I speak what you already know. A woman’s greatest source of pleasure is a small place, above where a man puts his cock by an inch or so. I believe most women require to be touched there, should they desire to spend.
If you have more questions I will answer them. I hesitated to give any details you might later wish you did not know, when we find ourselves in company together.
If your husband isn’t kind to you, pray tell me and I will send Solomon to pummel him.
Quite as if Solomon had ever pummeled anyone in his life! But Deborah thought there was something sweet in Lady Serena, with the eyes of love, painting her mild husband in her own fierce tints.
Then followed a curious mess of inky scratchings-out, and below that,
Your affectionate sister,
Deborah realized with a shock of delight that perfect Lady Serena had forgotten her new last name too.
“What are you laughing about?” Jonas demanded, sticking his head in the room.
His lips thinned. “What’s in that letter?”
“I wrote to Lady Serena,” she said, heart in her mouth. “I asked her advice about—”
“You did what?” Jonas reached out as if he would rip the letter from her hand, but when she drew back, he turned and leaned his forehead against the wall. “You told Lady Serena that I don’t know how to please a woman, and she sent you back an amusingly sarcastic letter, and now next time I see her she’ll…”
She straightened her shoulders. “Jonas, I know this is painful, and difficult to speak about, but Lady Serena says that womanly shame and male pride are the two greatest obstacles to mutual pleasure.”
He didn’t pound the wall, only set his fist upon it. “Oh, well, if Lady Serena says so,” he said, so muffled she almost didn’t hear him.
“Jonas, please. No more silence. Don’t kiss me to make me stop talking. Let’s just—”
“This isn’t modest,” he said despairingly. “I can’t believe you wrote to your sister-in-law and told her things that should be sacred between a man and his wife.”
“Is it immodest for a man and his wife to share pleasure?” she demanded. “Is it immodest, or does it merely discomfit you? I know you think me sluttish and forward but I love you! It isn’t wrong of me to want this. It isn’t—”
He made a rude noise. “So what did Lady Serena have to say? Did she draw diagrams? Did she tell you how Lord Byron does it?”
Deborah crumpled the letter in her fist. “You’re changing the subject again,” she said steadily, instead of shouting at him. “I won’t sit here and listen to you insult my brother’s wife, who has been nothing but kind to both of us.” She took the letter into the kitchen and burned it, and went out for a walk.
It was hot and bright, more than she liked, but she had no desire to return. She wandered down the streets to where crab-apple trees bordered country lanes, and then across the fields and up the hill, to where a craggy rock overlooked the countryside. Breathing in the smell of heather, she stood atop it and put up a hand to shield her eyes.
Her father’s stone church and its steeple were the prettiest thing in the landscape, and what she had always before let her eyes dwell proudly on. But today she looked past it until she found the village green. That must be the grocer’s shop, just there. Yes, it was, for there was the crooked brick chimney of the tobacconist’s next door.
Unexpectedly, her heart rushed out to the little shop, everything in her rolling itself down the hill and home to Jonas. She followed after it as quickly as she could.
Jonas was packing weekly deliveries into crates; when he saw her he turned and went into the kitchen. She hesitated a moment, unsure if he meant her to follow, but he looked back and tilted his head to say he did. So she went, wondering if they would just exchange apologies again, and let things go on as they had been.
He knotted his fingers together, regarding the floor very soberly where, Deborah saw with a pang, she had failed to clean away drops of grease from the stone. “I believe God gave you to me to correct my faults.”
Her heart smote her. “No, Jonas, please don’t say that. I want to bring you joy, not, not—”
“You do,” he said earnestly. “You will. You had the right of it. I have been proud and ashamed. I’ve feared the truth, when the truth would have set me free. I’ve searched my soul today, I have prayed, and I found that you have asked me for nothing it would be wrong to give you.” He looked up, his eyes bright blue and blazing into hers. “Shame came with the Fall. There is no need for it between a man and his wife.”
Her knees were weak. “Do you mean that?”
He held out his hands, and when she put hers in them he looked as relieved as she felt. Pulling her to him, he said low in her ear, “Let me show you how much.” He tugged her towards the stairs.
“But—now? In daylight?”
“Why not?” he said bravely.
She smiled, but she was nervous. What if she still didn’t enjoy herself? Ought she to lie, to encourage him? Would he give up if this didn’t go as they hoped?
Undressing, this last week, had begun to seem a dull prelude to unhappiness. By the time she drew her shift over her head, her stomach was in knots. But Jonas shifted his weight uncertainly from foot to foot, cock dangling, and she found she could be brave one more time. “Lie down.” She pushed him gently towards the bed, and he fell back against the sheet with a small, apprehensive laugh.
Do you really think I’m pretty? she wanted to ask, but that wasn’t quite right. She ought to say what she meant. “Tell me I’m pretty again. Please.”
“You’re…very pretty.” He stumbled over the words, his eyes on her body. “I think doing this in daylight was one of the better ideas I’ve had. I mean—that you’ve had, really. That is, unless you…” He glanced down at himself with a grimace.
She climbed on top of him. “I’ve been picturing you without your clothes for months. Only I wasn’t very good at it, because I haven’t seen very many naked men. You decidedly don’t disappoint.” She kissed him, her dangling breasts just brushing his chest. “I’d like to touch you, if you wouldn’t mind?”
He hesitated before nodding. She reached down and tentatively wrapped her fingers around his cock. He hissed in a breath. “What should I do?” she asked.
He put his hand over hers and stroked up and back, up and back. Then he let his hand fall. She imitated his movement, watching his features tense and contort with pleasure.
After a few strokes, he turned his face away. “I must look ridiculous,” he said, trying to laugh again, and she understood in that moment that none of it had had anything to do with her at all, that he really had just been terribly, torturously embarrassed. They both had been.
“You don’t,” she assured him. “And anyway, Lady Serena says that laughter is one of the four most important things between two people.”
He winced at this reminder of the letter, but he asked, “What are the others?”
“Honesty, kindness, and patience.”
He smiled, startled. “A very Christian answer.”
She tightened her fingers, and his head fell back. Confidence surged through her. She could make him spill his seed straightaway if she wished to, with only her hand.
He took her breasts in his hands. Oh. She was deliciously aware suddenly of their weight and size; spreading his fingers he couldn’t get round them. His hands hesitated there, still and unmoving, for four long strokes, and then he squeezed. That curious wetness began to gather between her legs.
“I want—may I—maybe it’s odd—”
“Anything,” she said.
He put his hands to her waist and pulled her up him, and then he took her breasts in his hands and buried his face in them. His hair tickled her chin, and it did seem odd, but it seemed sweet too, almost innocent—until he lifted his head and began to kiss her breasts, and it was wicked. He put his mouth to every inch of them except her nipples, and then, with a nervous glance at her, he put it there too.
She moaned very loud, and he flinched, mouth spasming, but he didn’t stop. He suckled her until she was more on fire than she’d ever been, whimpering his name. Her arms trembled, and her legs. She rolled, tugged him until he was on top of her, and it was feverishly exciting all over again. His manhood fell into the juncture of her thighs, and she remembered what else Lady Serena had said.
“Jonas.” She couldn’t manage to say it above a whisper.
“Lady Serena also said…” Why this was the hardest to say, she didn’t know. Maybe because it was so specific.
He looked down at her. She was breathing hard and no doubt red-faced, and her nipples were wet with his spit. For a moment she shrank inwardly, but his mouth curled smugly. “Yes?”
“She said that women have a center of pleasure that isn’t…it isn’t inside,” she said haltingly. “It’s above where you…where you enter me. She said if you touch it, that will…help me.”
He blinked. “Really?”
She shrugged, feeling silly. But he moved off of her, gazing between her legs with…she couldn’t help laughing. “You look like a boy who’s been told to eat his gruel.”
“Sorry.” He made a rueful little face that reminded her how very much she adored him, and bent his head for a closer look. She squirmed, because that part of her did not seem…well, it didn’t seem calculated to remind him how much he adored her, that was certain. His fingers, slick with her wetness, skimmed up from her channel, and then down again. Once more he tried it, pressing harder this time. It felt wonderful, but she didn’t distinguish any particular spot—
“Is that it?” he asked, and circled—
He slid his finger over the spot again, up and down, his fingernail catching on it.
Her hips bucked.
He blinked, a smile spreading on his face. “And you didn’t know about it either?”
She shook her head.
“Have you never…have you ever spent?”
That, she knew, was what he did when he spilled his seed. “I would know if I had, wouldn’t I?”
“You’d know,” he said with conviction.
She was angry for a moment at the ease of men’s enjoyment, at how he’d been feeling this intense, brilliant pleasure for years and she was only discovering it now.
He rubbed at the mysterious spot with his finger, and she forgot everything else. She was incredulous at how good it felt. This was what she had imagined, what she had occasionally dreamed of at night: this urgent, building physical joy.
Jonas, kneeling beside her, was hard, his cock standing stiffly out from his body. She ought to ask if he wanted to enter her, but he looked wondering and proud at her pleasure, so she decided she didn’t have to. She spread her legs wider, panting. It embarrassed her that he was watching her. Her face must be ridiculous. She had no idea how much time had passed.
How much more could there be? What could be more? This was already delirious, unimaginable, unlike anything she had ever felt before. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“You look so beautiful.” Jonas’s voice was hoarse. “I knew something was wrong. I knew it should be like this. I thought it must mean—well, I thought if you really liked me, you’d feel this. You’re going to like what comes next.”
Every brush of his finger drowned her in wonder. She floated, amazed. How had she never known? Oh, and he would make her feel this every night, maybe some mornings too—
Her sensations were suddenly, shockingly more, higher. She flew upwards, disbelieving, her breath catching in her throat and her body straining. Then she fell into…something, a sharp dizzying drop like a kestrel furling its wings. The inside of her channel began to ripple, waves of bliss expanding and swallowing her all the way to her toes and fingertips. Her moan stuttered and stumbled in her throat.
She lay on the bed, dazed, her insides still rippling every now and again.
“You’ve definitely never felt that before?” Jonas asked.
“I think I’d remember.”
He beamed and covered her again with his body, kissing her.
Her body felt lazy and open. “You should…you know. If you want to.”
He opened his mouth, then shut it and nodded emphatically, guiding himself into her at once.
Oh. That…wasn’t bad. It was nice, actually. “Mmm,” she said. “I like that.”
He thrust gratefully, already almost where she’d just been. He was using her body for his pleasure, but she discovered that that was enjoyable too, when she felt pleasure of her own. Their eyes met, and suddenly his cock inside her, the way it nudged and slid in jerky, hopeful bursts…it felt like communication. As if their bodies were speaking to each other. Her mind wandered, but companionably: not bored but only too comfortable and intoxicated to concentrate.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Jonas said, breathlessly amused. “We have to go downstairs and make up the rest of the deliveries after this.”
She hummed agreement, enjoying immoderately the way his motions reverberated in her body. “And we’re nearly to the bottom of the tea canister. It has such a lovely label, I thought we might put it in the window.”
He went still for a moment and spent, raining shuddering kisses on her mouth. Now that she had felt it herself, she was surprised at how different his paroxysm seemed to her. It heated instead of distressed her. She kissed him back, curling her fingers in his hair, and he didn’t roll away but stayed inside her a little longer, his cock resting sociably in her channel.
“Thank you,” he said, just as he had the first time, but everything was different.
“There be three things which are too wonderful for me,” she began, not knowing how else to explain the awe she felt.
“Yea four!” he chimed in with a droll air of eagerness. For some reason that set them both to giggling, and even when he did roll away to lie beside her, she could feel her blood in his veins, her bones in his body.
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18 thoughts on ““The way of a man with a maid”: A LILY AMONG THORNS short story”
Oh, I love that! I love how very human your characters always are, and how compassionate you are in your portrayal of them even in their very worst or most painful moments. Every line of that story felt real! And I am so glad Deborah and Jonas got their HEA. 🙂
Thank you so much! Lack of judgment as a narrator is something I strive for, so it’s good to hear I’ve succeeded here. And thank you for a great prompt! <3
This is everything I wanted and more.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the idealized sex that’s more common in romance; it’s just that there are so many interesting ways for sex to be, and “good” is only one of those ways.
So many little moments in this rang intensely true: Deborah’s quiet, miserable bitterness at the family dinner the day after her wedding night; her embarrassment in writing the letter to Serena; Serena’s embarrassment in writing back; Jonas’s outraged humiliation on learning she’d discussed their problems with someone else.
Also, great orgasm description! I loved the plummeting kestrel image. I find that to be one of the hardest things to write with any originality, and this felt both true and fresh 🙂
there are so many interesting ways for sex to be
That’s part of why I love writing shorts and secondary romances, because you can do so many different types of relationships and characters that might not be able to sustain an entire romance plot…
So many little moments in this rang intensely true
:DDDD I am so, so happy you liked it! (And yes there is plenty of embarrassment and humiliation to go round in this story. It’s funny how that’s an emotion that can so immediately connect me to a character, maybe because it’s an emotion that’s so intensely physically FELT? or maybe because it’s an emotion that we so often attempt to conceal.)
And yes, orgasm is SO HARD TO DESCRIBE! I always dread getting to that part of a scene…because unlike the rest of the sex which has infinite combinations of actions/feelings/etc, there just isn’t much to give it variety except the description itself. An orgasm is always an orgasm.
o/ This comment made my day, thank you!
WOW! That was a great mini story, I look forward to reading your other books.
Thank you so much! I had a great time writing it.
I loved everbody’s story….Serena and Solomon; Isiah and Rene; and Deborah and Jonas. I would even enjoy reading about the elder Mrs. & Mr. Hathaway. But, more than anything I would love to read about what happens after Isiah gets to Paris. Any plans for writing their story?
You know, I’ve been asked this a lot. I don’t really have any plans to write more about them. I feel like there’s nothing left but the HEA for them, you know? But I was thinking about it today and I did end up writing a little funny short something…hope it satisfies. 🙂
That was awesome! Sigh…
Not sure if you’ll see this comment, but FYI I did finally write a Paris epilogue for the most recent edition of LILY! (The one with this cover: http://www.roselerner.com/bookshelf/lily-among-thorns/)
Humorous and poignant, and feeling real. I think this must have been the first believable portrayal of “first time” I’ve read.
Thank you so much! It was great fun to write something a little different from what I normally do. <3
Oh, gosh, that was just delightful! I love how you make all your characters unique and distinct. And this is an issue I don’t see a lot in romance, the case where neither partner is sexually knowledgeable or experienced and thus their first time is underwhelming. I love seeing the way they work through it, and also seeing how they fight before they start to work through it. And I loved Deborah’s letter to Serena and Serena’s letter back.
I’m not terribly articulate in my commentary, I guess. But this story gave me a welcome case of the warm fuzzies.
Thank you! Warm fuzzies are what I always aim to provide. And I’m realizing that I kind of love writing fights! There are a lot of them in my next book (although only one sexually inexperienced character :).
That was SO CHARMING! And hot, and sweet, and all the things I hadn’t sought out for a while but turned out to be missing when I saw them again. Thank you so much for sharing. Your writing always captures so beautifully how love/attraction/etc isn’t about some unyielding ideal but about the specific, unique dynamic between two characters. I bought ‘A Taste of Honey’ a while ago but hadn’t got round to reading it—this has put it right at the top of my to-read, and I’m kind of smug past me saved it so now-me has something new of yours to read. I’ve missed your work. Have a great day!
Aw, thanks!! I’m so glad you enjoyed it–it’s always fun getting to write shorts with minor characters because I can be a bit messier with them. I don’t know if I’d want to spend a YEAR writing Jonas, you know? But I loved getting to spend this little bit of time with him and Deborah and their weirdness. I hope you like “A Taste of Honey”!