IN FOR A PENNY short story

I have a tradition that every time I release a book, I celebrate by posting a free short story based on a suggestion from a reader about the characters from my previous book. This story was written for the release of A Lily Among Thorns, and it is for Jenni Simmons, who wanted to see more of Percy and Louisa’s love story.

Four times Percy Garrett didn’t kiss Louisa Ambrey,
and one time he did

1. December 1814

“Take the living, Percy,” said Mr. Garrett.

“I don’t want the living!”

“Lord Bedlow will find a curate to hold it until you’re of age. Until you’re ordained. It’s a good income for you for the rest of your life. Show some sense, for God’s sake!”

“I’m not a preacher, Father.”

“What are you, then? A Greek? You think I haven’t heard how you make up for the deficiencies in your allowance at university? That any son of mine would—”

“I’m not a Greek. Greeks cheat. I win because I’m better.” Gentlemen didn’t cheat. He hadn’t cheated since he was twelve. He was eighteen now, and wished with a sick shame that he’d never done it, or at least—the shame curled upwards in his stomach, like smoke—that Nev and Thirkell didn’t know about it.

Mr. Garrett looked like one of Lord Bedlow’s precious Holbeins, his face defined by deep lines, stern and sorrowful and trapped in a world that no longer existed. “You’re breaking your mother’s heart. She cried herself to sleep last night on your account. And Lady Bedlow—”

Percy’s heart swelled rebelliously. “Oh, she did not! If she’s so ashamed of what I’ve become, let her tell me herself! It’s you who hates it, after you encouraged me to make up to Nev when we were kids. And it’s not my fault Lady Bedlow doesn’t like me, either!”

“Her son—”

“She doesn’t give a damn about her son! She doesn’t give a damn about you, either, so why you should—”

Mr. Garrett drew himself up. “You will not talk about Lady Bedlow that way under her roof.”

Percy’s mouth set. “Very well. You know, it was I who talked Nev and Thirkell into coming here for the Christmas holidays. We were asked to Thirkell’s and Nev wanted to go, but I wanted to see you and Mum and Annie. Next time I won’t bother.” He stormed out of his father’s office, trying to remember which guest-room he and Thirkell were sharing. When he’d lived here, he’d had to share a cramped, airless room with James, the undercook. He never, ever, wanted to live here again.

The housekeeper and some of the maids were decorating for Christmas all up the main staircase. (In the past, Percy might have taken the servants’ stair. He refused to do that anymore.) Boughs of greenery curved around the banister and a branch of mistletoe hung in the arch between the landing and the first-floor corridor.

Twelve-year-old Lady Louisa Ambrey happened to be walking through the arch when Percy reached the top of the stairs. “Ha, now you have to kiss me!” Her round face was gleeful.

He thought of how furious Lady Bedlow would be if she saw Percy Garrett kissing her daughter, even just a peck under the mistletoe, even if the daughter in question were still in braids and a pinafore. He almost did it. Then he snapped, “My father would be turned off without a reference, you selfish brat,” and strode past her into the corridor.

2. April 1816

Percy sprawled in a chair and tried not to look at his father’s corpse in its casket. His mother had said it was a great honor for Lord and Lady Bedlow to let Mr. Garrett lie in state in their drawing room. This had been his father’s home for over twenty years. Where else would his wake be held?

It was late, almost midnight; his mother and sister had gone to bed. Percy couldn’t sleep, because he kept thinking about money. His father’s savings had been small; it was up to Percy to support his mother and sister now.

He took a deck of cards out of his pocket and practiced shuffling. It wasn’t a practical skill—a gentleman was careless about everything, including cards. Looking competent meant looking like a Greek. But here where no one could see, the cards flowing through his hands made him feel competent. It helped him remember that he’d done all right this far. If he just bought fewer new coats and went without dinner on occasion, played one or two more games a week, he could contrive to send enough money home. Couldn’t he?

His mother wanted him to come with them to live near her brother in Bury St. Edmunds. He didn’t want to. He should have asked Nev and Thirkell to come to the funeral with him. They had offered, and he had said no. He hadn’t wanted to be a bother. He hadn’t wanted them to see him cry. He hadn’t wanted them to realize how much his family now depended on the money he was only able to earn at cards because they took him about with them. He couldn’t bear for them to think of him as some sort of hanger-on, when they were his friends—his dearest in the world. He couldn’t imagine moving to Bury St. Edmunds and never seeing them again.

He should have taken the living.

Mr. Snively was a slimy worm whose condolences couldn’t have sounded more insincere if he’d tried. Even Percy could have done better than that. He imagined himself wearing a country parson’s streaky black suit, white collar, and round hat. It wasn’t an inspiring image.

“I should have taken the living,” he told his father’s body—now, when it was too late for his father to hear him, or for him to change his mind. Mr. Snively had the living. Mr. Snively would read the funeral service for Percy’s father, and Percy would spend it concentrating on hating that weaselly voice, so that he wouldn’t cry.

Percy put his cards back in his pocket. He approached the casket as if it were a nervy horse, holding out one hand. When he touched the smooth wood he stopped, and laid his hand flat upon it. He wanted to apologize: for never coming home, for not being a better man, for not making his father proud of him. But he looked at that dead face, painted like a grinning doll, and couldn’t manage to believe with even one atom of his being that his father could hear him. Perhaps it was just as well he had avoided the priesthood.

“I’m sorry,” he said anyway. He used to feel lighter even before his father answered, just from having got the words out. He didn’t feel lighter now. This was how it would be for the rest of his life: no matter what he wanted to tell his father, he couldn’t, even if it was just a headline in a newspaper that would have made Mr. Garrett laugh, or a new method for growing potatoes. Percy swallowed, ignoring the press of tears.

“Evening, Percy,” Louisa said behind him, sounding more hesitant than he’d ever heard her. He snatched his hand back and turned, hoping she hadn’t heard him. She hovered in the doorway, her eyes red-rimmed.

“Good evening, Lady Louisa.”

She frowned. “Louisa.”

He opened his mouth to refuse, and then realized that his father had no position to lose anymore. “Good evening, Louisa.”

She smiled and came towards him, taking his arm and leaning her head on his shoulder—she was tall for a fourteen-year-old girl. Her skirts pressed comfortably against his leg. “I’m so sorry. He was always very kind to me.”

Percy remembered that the last time he had spent an evening in the steward’s room with his family, his father had said the Bedlows neglected Louisa shamefully, and that Lady Bedlow let her run wild and then chided her for being wild. Percy thought she would have been wild anyway, but he would never turn down another reason to dislike the Bedlows. “He liked you.”

She sighed. “I know you’d quarreled with him, but—he was very proud of you, you know. He showed everyone the Prize you won for Latin.”

“I—” He started crying, abruptly. Why did you have to say that? he thought. I was doing so well. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and tried to turn away. But Louisa put an arm tightly around his shoulders and said, “Hush, there, there,” kindly and importantly, and patted his arm with her other hand, like a little girl playing at being a mother. She didn’t care if he cried. He rested his forehead on the smooth wood of his father’s casket and sobbed. Even if his father couldn’t hear him, she could. That was something, anyway.

“You should be in bed,” he said at length.

“That’s certainly what my mother thinks,” she said, a wry note in her voice, and he laughed shakily. “Do you—want to be alone with him?”

He shook his head. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the stairs.” His mother had found a spare bed for him with Martin, one of the footmen, but he thought he would sleep on the couch in his father’s office.

At the foot of the stairs, she held out her hand, smiling at him. It was an awfully grand gesture for a schoolgirl, but it fit her; she was a girl for grand gestures. He bent over her hand as if she were a great lady. He ought to kiss it, really—she’d like the old-fashioned glamor and daring of that.

Father would disapprove, he thought, and didn’t do it. “Thanks, Louisa.”

She nodded awkwardly. She didn’t seem to know what part to play now. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said finally.

He smiled for the first time in what felt like days. “I’m counting on it.”

3. July 1817

Percy soaked up the last of his soup with a piece of Gaston’s brioche and tried to ignore Lady Bedlow’s stream of pouting complaints.

“But Nate, this is the first time we’ve seen you since we came down from town. Surely you can stay another few days. I don’t see what is so very urgent about the opening of an opera.”

“Mama, this is the first time they’ve done Artaxerxes in London since the Covent Garden revival four years ago,” Nev said impatiently. “I explained that.”

Lady Bedlow harrumphed. “I know you’re not really so unfeeling,” she said. “It’s only that you too much consider the wishes of others in making your plans.” She glared pointedly at Percy, which was doubly unfair since—while it was true that Nev might have been willing to wait until later in the week to see his favorite opera—it was Thirkell’s mistress, not Percy’s, who was a member of the Lyceum’s chorus and had insisted they be there for opening night.

Lord Bedlow, Nev, and Thirkell all rolled their eyes and grinned at Percy. Over by the sideboard, out of the line of sight of any of the family, Martin the footman did the same thing and added in a rude gesture. Percy smothered a laugh.

Louisa, though, set down her fork with an angry clunk. “Stop it, Mama.”

Lady Bedlow frowned at her. “Hush, Louisa. Children should be seen and not heard.”

“I’m almost sixteen,” Louisa snapped—looking, indeed, very grown-up with her hair piled on her head and her pearls around her neck. Her mother had only just started allowing her to dress for family dinners, and she took full, even excessive advantage of the privilege. “And Percy is our guest, and you’ve been abominably rude to him all evening.”

Percy wanted to sink. Louisa never knew when to keep her mouth shut. Of course, he reflected, her mother would have preferred she always do so, so she’d never had much of a chance to find the happy medium.

Lady Bedlow pushed her chair sharply back and stood. “Why don’t we leave the gentlemen to their port,” she said in steely tones.

Louisa flushed. “But Mama, I—”

“Let her alone, Mama, you have been sniping at Percy all night,” Nev said.

Lord Bedlow put a hand on his wife’s arm. “At least let her finish her pudding, Clary.”

Louisa,” said Lady Bedlow. Louisa snatched a last bite of trifle and got sullenly to her feet, following her mother out the door. Percy felt sick; he knew Louisa was about to get a tongue-lashing on his account.

Nev sighed. “I guess we’d better skip the claret. Mama will just keep at her until we show up.”

Percy and Thirkell pushed their chairs back, but Lord Bedlow waved his hand. “Oh, you know your mother. In a few minutes she’ll have forgotten all about it and be fussing about something else. I wish Louisa wouldn’t provoke her. We’ll go soon enough. But I’ve just laid in a case of a rare kind of port—garrafeira, the dealer called it. It’s all grapes from a single harvest, and then they take it out of the barrels after a few years and put it in glass. This one’s almost thirty years old, and I think you’ll agree it’s something special…”

The port was, indeed, something special, and in the end the gentlemen never made it to the drawing room at all. Percy didn’t know how he’d got stuck hauling Lord Bedlow up the stairs. Well, actually, he did. Nev might be shorter than Percy, but he was more athletic, so it made sense for him to take Thirkell, who was quite a bit taller and heaver than the Earl. He sighed. “Come on, my lord. Just a few more.” Lord Bedlow mumbled something and almost tripped over the next stair.

Percy was occupied with keeping his hold on the banister and trying to heave Lord Bedlow’s arm more firmly across his shoulders. He didn’t hear Louisa coming until she caught up with them, slipping Lord Bedlow’s other arm across her own shoulders and putting her arm round her father’s waist with—Percy thought with a pang—the ease of long practice. This wasn’t the first time Louisa had helped her father up the stairs.

“Come on, Papa,” she said. “Let’s get you to bed before Mama sees you.”

It was a good thing he didn’t have to concentrate as hard on not dropping Lord Bedlow after that, because his arm was round Lord Bedlow too, which meant Louisa’s side was pressed tightly against his hand, which meant he could feel the shape of her corset through her dress. He could feel where the quilting stopped and her bust began. Louisa had never had a bust before. She was Nev’s little sister. He wasn’t supposed to think about her bust. But there her left breast was, pressing against his hand, and suddenly he couldn’t think about anything else. It’s just the port, he told himself.

“Here we are,” Louisa said, opening Lord Bedlow’s door. “Let’s get to the bed. Frye, are you there?” They dumped the Earl on top of his coverlet, and his valet joined them by the side of the bed. “Help Papa with his boots, won’t you?” Louisa smoothed her father’s hair back from his forehead. “He’ll have a dreadful head tomorrow.”

“I shall take care of his lordship, Lady Louisa,” Frye said. “You go on to bed. Mr. Garrett, if you wouldn’t mind assisting me with his lordship’s boots.”

Percy’s mouth set. Frye had always liked to put on airs and behave as if he outranked Percy. But there was no call to summon a footman from his work when Percy was already here, so he smothered his annoyance at Frye and his disappointment that he wouldn’t get to talk to Louisa again, and braced Lord Bedlow on the bed so the valet could pull his boots off. “Good night, Louisa,” he said, and was surprised at how far his heart sank when the door closed behind her.

She was waiting in the corridor when he came out the door. She’s Nev’s little sister, he reminded himself again. She’s still in the schoolroom. “Thank you for defending me at dinner,” he said. “But it wasn’t necessary.”

Immediately she stiffened, her chin coming up. “Stupid me, thinking it was.”

“Louisa,” he said in frustration, “your mother can’t hurt me. We’re leaving tomorrow. There’s no sense you getting a peal rung over you for nothing.”

She looked away. “That’s what Papa always says. He says I provoke her, and if I would just ignore her as he does, we wouldn’t always be squabbling. But I can’t do it.” Her grown-up hairstyle was coming down on one side from helping to carry Lord Bedlow.

“I know,” he said. “I was always squabbling with my father too.”

“It’s strange not having him about,” she said, and Percy’s eyes stung abruptly. It was terribly strange. He’d been feeling it the whole three days they’d been here. “How are your mother and sister?”

“They’re very well, thanks.”

“You’ll tell me if there’s anything I can do to help them?” She said it so seriously. She always wanted to help, when she couldn’t even help herself. She would make a splendid mistress of someone’s estate someday.

The thought made him at once proud and furiously angry. “Of course,” he said steadily.

She put her hand on his arm, and he was seized with a sudden violent urge to kiss her. He could see it clearly, her wide mouth curving under his, his hands clutching her waist so tightly he could feel the bones of her stays through her petticoats. Her disarranged hair would tickle his ear.

She swallowed nervously, as if she could read his mind; her throat moved. He wanted to kiss her there too.

She is Nev’s little sister, he thought ferociously. And you are the worst sort of cad to be thinking about this.

She moved closer, tilting her head up to look at him, and he jerked away. “Good night, Louisa,” he said with the invisibly false smile he’d practiced all his life for the Bedlows. “Sleep like a top.” And he even managed to chuck her under the chin like an affectionate older brother.

4. August 1819

“Hullo,” Louisa said.

Percy looked up from Lady Bedlow’s—Lord, it was strange calling Nev’s wife that—Lady Bedlow’s neat list of laborers whose cottages needed repairs. Louisa stood in the doorway of his office, carrying a tray with a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a knife on it. His heart hopped in his chest like a startled rabbit. He tried to keep his smile distantly friendly. “Hello, Louisa. I’m sorry, Lady Bedlow went out with Nev to see that sick girl from London settled. She should return in an hour or two if you want to come back.” Louisa had been by three times that week for dinner with him and Lady Bedlow. He told himself she was visiting her sister-in-law. He was fairly certain it wasn’t the truth.

She frowned, looking suddenly tired and unsure. Louisa had never used to look tired. Was that all growing up meant, after all? Feeling more and more wretched until you couldn’t hide it anymore?

“You don’t really want to get rid of me, do you?” she asked.

He knew what he should say. But he couldn’t. She was the only thing here that still felt like home. He set the list in a ledger to keep his place and closed it. “No,” he said, giving her a crooked, tiny smile that wasn’t distant at all. He hoped it was still just friendly.

She beamed at him, coming and setting the tray down on the desk.

“You should call in one of the maids.”

“Don’t be silly, no one cares for chaperones in the country,” Louisa said, which wasn’t really true, but it was close enough to true that Percy let himself accept it. It was such a relief to be alone with her: away from the servants he couldn’t be quite comfortable with; away from Nev’s anxious little wife who wanted to be his friend but was his employer, and whom he couldn’t help resenting even though he would have liked to be able to be her friend too; away from Nev who treated him like a stranger. Neither fish nor fowl, that’s what he was now. That’s what Nev had made him before giving him up like a bad habit.

Louisa cut him a slice of fresh bread and a piece of cheese and handed them to him. Gaston’s bread and cheese from the Greygloss dairy. He bit into it, and was almost overwhelmed by the familiar, simple taste. Perhaps this was his home after all.

Neither fish nor fowl—maybe Percy couldn’t swim or fly, but looking at Louisa, sitting on the edge of his desk with her hair glinting chestnut in the sun, he felt as if his feet were planted on firm ground.

He gestured towards the bread. “Don’t you want any?”

She shrugged. “I’m not hungry.”

He frowned. “Another fight with your mother?” He didn’t like the unhappy set of her mouth, these days. He didn’t like her in black, either. It wasn’t her color.

Louisa made a face. “However did you guess? It was nothing new. She’s at me about Sir Jasper again.”

Percy didn’t like the idea of her with Sir Jasper, either. He hated the idea of her with Sir Jasper. “You should talk to Nev about it.”

“He wants me to marry Sir Jasper too.”

Percy snorted. “He hasn’t changed that much, Louisa. You should talk to him. He’ll back you.”

“The way he backs you?” Louisa demanded. “I don’t think so. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it. Have you heard about the demonstration in Manchester next month for parliamentary reform?” He hadn’t, so she proceeded to tell him about it. He leaned back in his chair and watched her and listened.

And then he wasn’t listening anymore, he was just hearing the pitch of her voice and looking at her mouth, her splendid mouth—

“You’re the only thing that makes my life here bearable,” she said abruptly.

He stilled, his throat going dry. “I—” Oh, God. He was glad, wasn’t he? Glad that Louisa wasn’t surrounded by friends and family. That she was alone too. Meanly, terribly glad to have her all to himself, to be as necessary to her as she was to him. A wave of shame swept over him. He could kiss her, and she would probably let him. But she was Nev’s little sister, and young and stupid and alone.

He was painfully conscious that there was another reason. If he kissed her and Nev found out, he’d lose his position. And then he’d have to give back that five hundred pounds. He’d already set most of it aside for his sister’s dowry. She was getting married next month. “Louisa—”

“Never mind,” Louisa said, her face crimson. “I didn’t mean it. I–I have to go.” She rushed for the door—but she was always braver than was good for her. Braver than him. At the door, she turned back. “I’ll be in the folly at midnight. If you don’t come, I’ll know that—well, I’ll know.” She whirled away and fled down the corridor.

5. Midnight

He eased the door of the folly open and crept inside, holding his dark-lantern up as high as he could. Was she already here? Evidently not. He sat down on the circular steps that curved along the wall and shut his lantern. He wouldn’t want anyone passing by to realize there was someone here and come investigate. The moon was bright enough he could have probably done without the light, but one never knew when it would grow cloudy; it was prudent to be prepared.

Prudent would have been not coming, of course. Everything up until now had been innocent. Even telling him he was the only thing that made her life bearable could have been an innocent expression of friendship. But girls—not even impetuous Louisa—didn’t ask their friends to meet them at midnight in abandoned follies. (He was sure he wasn’t deceiving himself; she had meant more. The way she had blushed—she must have meant more.)

And, of course, a gentleman didn’t meet a girl alone at midnight unless he was planning to be ungentlemanly. But then, Percy had never really been a gentleman, had he? He was proving that, by being here.

It wasn’t too late. He could still leave, and she would never know—He stayed where he was.

He heard a rustling of the grass and then footsteps on the steps. Her footsteps. Her boot-heels clicking on the stone. Probably those little leather half-boots that turned down at the top to show off her ankle. He wanted to kiss her ankles. He shut his eyes. He was over the Rubicon now.

She pushed open the door. She hadn’t brought a lantern. “Are you there?” she whispered.

“We don’t have to whisper,” he said, standing up. “There’s no one about.”

She sagged against the door-jamb. “Oh,” she said, a quiver in her voice. “You’re here. I thought you wouldn’t come. You shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have asked you. Oh Percy, I’ve tried not to be selfish. I know what you stand to lose. But I can’t stop thinking about you. About—about your mouth—it’s indecent. I’m indecent. What you must think—God, say something, can’t you?”

“I don’t think I can.” And then he was pressing her back against the stone and crushing her mouth under his.


Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the story. If you’re interested:

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