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Read 4 Chapters Of The Gentleman's Guide To Vice And Virtue

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Read the first four chapters of THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE below, and then head over here because this epic book is out now!

 

CHESHIRE, ENGLAND

17——

1

On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve slept together or simply slept together.

Percy’s still got all his clothes on from the night before, albeit most in neither the state nor the location they were in when originally donned, and while the bedcovers are a bit roughed up, there’s no sign of any strumming. So although I’ve got nothing on but my waistcoat—by some sorcery now buttoned back to front—and one shoe, it seems safe to assume we both kept our bits to ourselves.

Which is a strange sort of relief, because I’d like to be sober the first time we’re together. If there ever is a first time. Which it’s starting to seem like there won’t be.

Beside me, Percy rolls over, narrowly avoiding thwacking me across the nose as he tosses his arm over his head. His face settles into the crook of my elbow as he tugs far more than his share of the bedclothes to his side without waking. His hair stinks of cigars and his breath is rancid, though judging by the taste rolling around the back of my throat—a virulent tincture of baptized gin and a stranger’s perfume—mine’s worse.

From the other side of the room, there’s the snap of drapes being pulled back, and sunlight assaults me. I throw my hands over my face. Percy flails awake with a caw like a raven’s. He tries to roll over, finds me in his path, keeps rolling anyway, and ends up on top of me. My bladder protests soundly to this. We must have drunk an extraordinary amount last night if it’s hanging this heavily over me. And here I was starting to feel rather smug about my ability to get foxed out of my mind most nights and then be a functioning human by the next afternoon, provided that the afternoon in question is a late one.

Which is when I realize why I am both utterly wrecked and still a little drunk—it isn’t the afternoon, when I’m accustomed to rising. It’s quite early in the morning, because Percy and I are leaving for the Continent today.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Sinclair says from the other side of the room. I can only make out his silhouette against the window—he’s still torturing us with the goddamned sunlight. “My lord,” he continues, with a brow inclined in my direction, “your mother sent me to wake you. Your carriage is scheduled to leave within the hour, and Mr. Powell and his wife are taking tea in the dining room.”

From somewhere near my navel, Percy makes an affirming noise in response to his uncle and aunt’s presence at breakfast—a noise that resembles no human language.

“And your father arrived from London last night, my lord,” Sinclair adds to me. “He wishes to see you before you depart.”

Neither Percy nor I move. The lone shoe still clinging to my foot surrenders and hits the floor with a hollow thunk of wooden heel on Oriental carpet.

“Should I give you both a moment to recover your senses?” Sinclair asks.

“Yes,” Percy and I say in unison.

Sinclair leaves—I hear the door latch behind him. Outside the window, I can hear carriage wheels crackling the gravel drive and the calls of the grooms as they yoke the horses.

Then Percy lets out a grisly moan and I start to laugh for no reason.

He takes a swipe at me and misses. “What?”

“You sound like a bear.”

“Well, you smell like a barroom floor.” He slides headfirst off the bed, gets tangled in the sheets, and ends up doing a sort of bent-waist headstand with his cheek against the carpeting. His foot rams me in the stomach, a little too low for comfort, and my laugh turns into a grunt. “Steady on, there, darling.”

The urge to relieve myself is too strong to ignore any longer, and I drag myself up with one hand on the hangings. A few of the stays pop. Bending down to find the chamber pot under the bed seems likely to result in my demise, or at least a premature emptying of my bladder, so I throw open the French doors and piss into the hedges instead.

When I turn back, Percy’s still on the floor, upside down with his feet propped on the bed. His hair came undone from its ribboned queue while we slept and it edges his face in a wild black cloud. I pour a glass of sherry from the decanter on the sideboard and down it in two swallows. Hardly any flavor manages to kick its way through the taste of whatever crawled into my mouth and died during the night, but the hum will get me through a send-off with my parents. And days in a carriage with Felicity. Dear Lord, give me strength.

“How did we get home last night?” Percy asks.

“Where were we last night? It’s all a bit woolly after the third hand of piquet.”

“I think you won that hand.”

“I’m not entirely certain I was playing that hand. If we’re being honest, I had a few drinks.”

“And if we’re truly being honest, it wasn’t just a few.”

“I wasn’t that drunk, was I?”

“Monty. You tried to take your stockings off over your shoes.”

I scoop a handful of water from the basin Sinclair left, toss it across my face, then slap myself a few times—a feeble attempt to rally for the day. There’s a flump behind me as Percy rolls the rest of the way onto the rug.

I wrangle my waistcoat off over my head and drop it onto the floor. From his back, Percy points at my stomach. “You’ve something peculiar down there.”

“What?” I look down. There’s a smear of bright red rouge below my navel. “Well, look at that.”

“Now, how do you suppose that got there?” Percy asks with a smirk as I spit on my hand and scrub at it.

“A gentleman doesn’t tell.”

“Was it a gentleman?”

“Swear to God, Perc, if I remembered, I’d tell you.” I take another swallow of sherry straight out of the decanter and set it down on the sideboard, nearly missing. It lands a little harder than I meant. “It’s a burden, you know.”

“What is?”

“Being this good-looking. Not a soul can keep their hands off me.”

He laughs, closemouthed. “Poor Monty, such a cross.”

“Cross? What cross?”

“Everyone falls in immediate, passionate love with you.”

“Well, they can hardly be blamed. I’d fall in love with me, if I met me.” And then I flash him a smile that is equal parts rapscallion and boyish dimples so deep you could pour tea into them.

“As modest as you are handsome.” He arches his back—an exaggerated stretch with his head pressed into the rug and fingers woven together above him. Percy’s showy about so few things, but he’s a damned opera in the mornings. “Are you ready for today?”

“I suppose? I haven’t much been involved in the planning, my father’s done it all. If everything wasn’t prepared, he wouldn’t be sending us off.”

“Has Felicity stopped screaming about school?”

“I don’t have a notion where Felicity’s mind’s at. I still don’t see why we have to take her along.”

“Only as far as Marseilles.”

“After two goddamned months in Paris.”

“You’ll survive one more summer with your sister.”

Above us, the baby kicks up his crying—the floorboards aren’t near enough to stifle it—followed by the sound of the nursemaid’s heels as she dashes to his call, a clack like horses’ hooves on cobbles.

Percy and I both flick our eyes to the ceiling.

“The Goblin’s awake,” I say lightly. Muted as it is, his wailing stokes the ache pulsing in my head.

“Try not to sound too happy about his existence.”

I’ve seen very little of my baby brother since he arrived three months previous, just enough to marvel at, firstly, how strange and shriveled he looks, like a tomato that’s been left out in the sun for the summer, and, secondly, how someone so tiny has such huge potential to ruin my entire bloody life.

I suck a drop of sherry from my thumb. “What a menace he is.”

“He can’t be that much of a menace, he’s only about this big.” Percy holds his hands up in demonstration.

“He shows up out of nowhere—”

“Not sure you can claim out of nowhere—”

“—and then cries all the while and wakes us and takes up space.”

“The nerve.”

“You’re not being very sympathetic.”

“You’re not giving me many reasons to be.”

I throw a pillow at him, which he’s still too sleepy to bat away in time, so it hits him straight in the face. I laugh as he gives it a halfhearted toss back at me, then I flop across the bed, lying on my stomach with my head hanging over the edge and my face above his.

He raises his eyebrows. “That’s a very serious face. Are you making plans to sell the Goblin off to a roving troupe of players in hopes they’ll raise him as one of their own? You failed with Felicity, but the second time might be the charm.”

In truth, I am thinking how this tousle-haired, bit-off-his-guard, morning-after Percy is my absolute favorite Percy. I am thinking that if Percy and I have this last junket together on the Continent, I intend to fill it with as many mornings like this as possible. I am thinking how I am going to spend the next year ignoring the fact that there will be any year beyond it—I will get wildly drunk whenever possible, dally with pretty girls who have foreign accents, and wake up beside Percy, savoring the pleasant kick of my heartbeat whenever I’m near him.

I reach down and touch his lips with my ring finger. I think about winking as well, which is, admittedly, a tad excessive, but I’ve always been of the mind that subtlety is a waste of time. Fortune favors the flirtatious.

And by now, if Percy doesn’t know how I feel, it’s his own damn fault for being thick.

“I am thinking that today we are leaving on our Grand Tour,” I reply, “and I’m not going to waste any of it.”

 

2

Breakfast is laid out in the dining room when we arrive and the staff have already made themselves scarce. The French doors are flung wide so the hazy morning sunshine flutters in across the veranda, lace curtains billowing inward when the wind catches them. The gold inlay along the scrollwork glows dewy and warm in the light.

Mother looks like she’s already been up for hours, in a blue Jesuit with her lovely dark hair swept back in a neat chignon. I ruffle my fingers through mine, trying to work it into that deliberately rumpled look I usually favor, handsome in the it looked like this when I woke sort of way. Across the table from her, Percy’s aunt and uncle are straight-faced and unspeaking. There’s food enough for a militia spread before the three of them, but Mother’s poking at a single boiled egg in a delftware cup—she’s been making a valiant effort to reclaim her figure since the Goblin wreaked havoc upon it—and neither of Percy’s guardians is having more than coffee. Percy and I are unlikely to make any noticeable impact either—my stomach’s not yet sitting still, and Percy’s finicky about food. He stopped eating meat a year ago, like some sort of extended Lent, claiming it’s for his health, but he’s still sick in bed far more often than I am. It’s hard to be sympathetic when I’ve told him ever since he adopted it that unless he gives me a better explanation, I think his diet is absurd.

Percy’s aunt reaches out when we enter, and he takes her hand. They have the same soft features—thin nosed and fine boned—as Percy’s father has in portraits, though Percy’s got thick black hair that grows in coarse curls that defy wigs, queues, and anything near fashionable. Percy’s lived with his aunt and uncle all his life, ever since his father returned from the family estate in Barbados with a jungle fever, his French violin, and an infant son with skin the color of sandalwood, then expired a few days afterward. Lucky for Percy, his aunt and uncle took him in. Lucky for me as well, or else we might never have met. Which would be a fate worse than death.

My mother looks up as we enter and smooths the wrinkles around the corners of her eyes like they’re creases in a tablecloth. “And the gentlemen arise.”

“Good morning, Mother.”

Percy gives her a little bow before he sits, like he’s a proper guest. It’s a ridiculous pretense from a lad I know better than either of my actual siblings. And also like a fair amount more.

The actual sibling present doesn’t acknowledge our arrival. She has one of her amatory novels propped against a crystal jam pot, a serving fork wedged between the pages to hold it open. “That’ll melt your brain, Felicity,” I say as I drop into the seat beside her.

“Not as fast as gin will,” she replies without looking up.

My father—thank God—is absent.

“Felicity,” my mother hisses down the table at her. “Perhaps you should remove your spectacles at the table.”

“I need them for reading,” Felicity says, eyes still fixed upon her smut.

“You shouldn’t be reading at all. We have guests.”

Felicity licks her finger and turns the page. Mother glowers down at the cutlery. I help myself to a piece of toast from a silver rack and settle in to watch them volley. It’s always pleasant when it’s Felicity being needled instead of me.

Mother glances across the table at Percy—his aunt is plucking at the rather distinct cigar burn on the braided cuff of his coat—then says to me in a confidential tone, “One of my maids found a pair of your breeches in the harpsichord this morning. I believe they were the same ones you left the house in last night.”

“That’s . . . odd,” I say—I thought I’d lost them long before we got home. I have a sudden memory of stripping off my clothes as Percy and I staggered through the parlor in the wee dawn hours, scattering them behind me like fallen trees. “Didn’t happen to find a shoe as well, did she?”

“Did you want them packed?”

“I’m sure I’ve plenty.”

“I wish you had at least looked through what was sent.”

“What for? I can send for anything I’ve left behind, and we’ll be getting new duds in Paris.”

“It makes me anxious to think of sending your fine things to some unknown French flat with a strange staff.”

“Father arranged the flat, and the staff. Take it up with him if you’re skittish.”

“I’m skittish about you two boys on your own on the Continent for a year.”

“Well, you should have raised that concern a bit earlier than the day we leave.”

My mother purses her lips and goes back to poking at her egg.

Like a summoned demon, my father appears suddenly in the doorway to the dining room. My pulse rocks, and I tuck into my toast, like food might disguise me as his gaze roams the table. His golden hair is slicked back into a tidy queue, the way mine might have a prayer of looking if it didn’t spend most of its life getting raked through by the fingers of interested parties.

I can tell he’s come for me, but he casts his attention first upon my mother, just long enough to kiss her on the top of the head, before it snags upon my sister. “Felicity, get those goddamn spectacles off your face.”

“I need them for reading,” she replies without looking up.

“You shouldn’t be reading at the breakfast table.”

“Father—”

“Remove them at once or I’ll snap them in half. Henry, I’d like a word.”

My Christian name from my father’s mouth jars me so badly I actually wince. We share that ghastly Henry, and every time he says it, there’s a bit of a grit-toothed grimace, like he deeply regrets my christening. I half expected him and Mother to call the Goblin “Henry” as well, in hopes of bequeathing the name to someone who still has a chance of proving worthy of it.

“Why don’t you sit and have some breakfast with us?” Mother says. Father has his hands on her shoulders, and she places one of hers overtop, trying to drag him into the empty chair on her other side, but he pulls away.

“I need a private word with Henry.” He nods at Percy’s aunt and uncle with hardly a glance—proper salutations aren’t for lower members of the peerage.

“The boys are leaving today,” Mother tries again.

“I know that. Why else would I wish to speak to Henry?” He lobs a frown in my direction. “Now, if you don’t mind.”

I toss my napkin onto the table and follow him from the room. As I pass Percy, he looks up at me and his mouth curls into a sympathetic smile. The faint freckles he’s got splattered below his eyes twist up. I give him an affectionate flick on the back of the head as I go by.

I follow my father into his sitting room. The windows are thrown open, lace drapes casting lattice shadows over the floor and the sickly perfume of spring blossoms dying on the vine blowing in from the yard. Father sits down at his desk and shuffles through the papers stacked there. For a moment, I think he is going to start back in on his work and leave me to sit and stare at him like an imbecile. I take a calculated risk and reach for the brandy on the sideboard, but Father says, “Henry,” and I stop.

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you remember Mr. Lockwood?”

I look up and realize there’s a scholarly-looking swell already standing beside the fire. He’s redheaded and ruddy cheeked, with a patchy beard decorating his chin. I had been so intent on my father, I had failed to notice him.

Mr. Lockwood gives me a short bow, spectacles slipping down his nose. “My lord. I’m sure we’ll become better acquainted in the coming months, as we travel together.”

I’d like to throw up on his buckled shoes, but I refrain. I hadn’t wanted a bear-leader, primarily because I’m not interested in any of the scholarly things a bear-leader is meant to teach his charges, and I’m more than capable of getting up to my own fun, particularly if I’ve got Percy at my side.

Father laces the papers he was mucking with into a leather skin and extends it to Lockwood. “Preliminary documents. Passports, letters of credit, bills of health, introductions to my acquaintances in France.” Lockwood tucks the papers into his coat, and Father twists around to face me now, one elbow resting on his desk. I slide my hands between my legs and the sofa.

“Sit up straight,” he snaps. “You’re small enough without slumping.”

With more effort than it should take, I pull back my shoulders and look him in the eye. He frowns, and I nearly sink straight back down.

“What do you think I wish to speak about, Henry?” he says.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Well, take a guess.” I look down, which I know is a mistake but I can’t help it. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.”

I raise my eyes, staring at a spot over his head so I don’t have to look straight at him. “Did you want to discuss my year abroad?”

He rolls his eyes at me, a short flick skyward that’s just long enough to make me feel like a bleeding simpleton, and my temper flares—why ask such an obvious question if he was just going to mock me when I answered?—but I keep silent. A lecture is gathering in the air like a thunderstorm.

“I want to be certain you’re clear on the conditions of this Tour before you depart. I still believe your mother and I are foolish to indulge you a single inch further than we already have since your expulsion from Eton. But, against my better judgment, I am giving you this one year to get ahold of yourself. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Mr. Lockwood and I have discussed what we think is the best course of action for your time abroad.”

“Course of action?” I repeat, looking from one of them to the other. Up until this moment, I’d thought we had an understanding that this year was for me to do with as I pleased, with a bear-leader to arrange the annoying things like lodging and food, but besides that, Percy and I would have free rein.

Mr. Lockwood clears his throat rather grandly, stepping into the light from the window, then back out at once, blinking the sunlight from his eyes. “Your parents have placed your well-being in my hands as your bear-leader, and I intend to take up that calling with great seriousness. Your father and I have discussed your situation, and under my watch, there will be no gambling, limited tobacco, and absolutely no cigars.”

Well, this is turning a bit not good.

“No visitations to any dens of iniquity,” he goes on, “or sordid establishments of any kind. No caterwauling, no inappropriate relations with the opposite sex. No fornication. No slothfulness, or excessive sleeping late.”

It’s beginning to feel like he’s shuffling his way through the seven deadly sins, in ascending order of my favorites.

“And,” he says, pounding the final nail in the coffin, “spirits in moderation only.”

I’m ready to protest loudly to this until I catch my father’s hard stare. “And I defer entirely to Mr. Lockwood’s judgment,” he says. “While you travel, he speaks for me.”

Which is exactly the last thing I need accompanying me to the Continent—a surrogate of my father.

“When you and I next see each other,” he continues, “I expect you to be sober and stable and”—he casts a look at Lockwood, like he’s unsure how to tactfully phrase this—“discreet, at the very least. Your ridiculous little cries for attention are to cease, and you’ll begin working at my side on the management of the estate and the peerage.”

I would rather have my eyes gouged out with sucket forks and fed back to me, but it seems best not to tell him so.

“I have set your itinerary with your father,” Lockwood says, withdrawing a small pad from his pocket and consulting it with a squint. “We begin in Paris for the summer—”

“I have some colleagues I’d like you to call on there,” Father interrupts. “Acquaintances it will be important for you to maintain once you’re over the estate. And I’ve arranged for you to accompany our friend Lord Ambassador Robert Worthington and his wife to a ball at Versailles. You will not embarrass me.”

“When have I ever embarrassed you?” I murmur.

As soon as I say it, I can feel us both riffle through our mental libraries for each incident in which I shamed my father. It’s an extensive catalogue. Neither of us says any of it aloud, though. Not now that Mr. Lockwood is here.

Lockwood chooses to take a clumsy hack through the awkward silence by pretending it doesn’t exist. “From Paris, we continue on to Marseilles, where we will deliver your sister, Miss Montague, for school. I have accommodation arranged as far as there. We will winter in Italy—I have suggested Venice, Florence, and Rome, and your father concurs—then either Geneva or Berlin, depending upon the snowfall in the Alps. On our return, we will collect your sister, and the two of you will be home for the summer. Mr. Newton will make his own way to Holland for school.”

The air in the room is hot, and it’s making me feel petulant. Or perhaps I’m entitled to a little petulance because this whole lecture seems a bit of a sour send-off and I’m still rather panicked over the fact that at the end of all this, Percy’s going to bloody law school in bloody Holland and I’m going to be properly apart from him for the first time in my life.

But then Father gives me a frostbitten look, and I drop my gaze. “Fine.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, sir.”

Father stares hard at me, his hands folded before him. For a moment, none of us speaks. Outside on the drive, one of the footmen scolds a groom to step lively. A mare nickers.

“Mr. Lockwood,” Father says, “may I please have a moment alone with my son?”

As one, my muscles all clench in anticipation.

On his way to the door, Mr. Lockwood pauses at my side and gives me a short clap on the shoulder that’s so firm it makes me start. I was expecting a swing to come from entirely the opposite direction and be significantly less friendly. “We’re going to have an excellent time, my lord,” he says. “You will hear poetry and symphonies and see the finest treasures the Continent has to offer. It will be a cultural experience that will shape the remainder of your life.”

Dear. Lord. Fortune has well and truly vomited down my front in the form of Mr. Lockwood.

As Lockwood closes the door, Father reaches toward me and I flinch without meaning to, but he’s only going for the brandy on the sideboard, moving it out of my grasp. God, I’ve got to get my head on straight.

“This is the last chance I’m giving you, Henry,” he says, a bit of the old French accent peeping through, as it always does when his temper is rising. Those soft edges on his vowels are usually my first warning, and I almost put my hands up preemptively. “When you return home, we’ll start in on the estate work. Together. You’ll come to London with me and observe the duties of a lord there. And if you can’t return to us mature enough for that, then don’t come back at all. There’ll be no place left for you in this family or any of our finances. You’ll be out.”

Right on schedule, the disinheritance rears its ugly head. But after years of holding it over me—clean up, sober up, stop letting lads climb in through your bedroom window at night or else—for the first time, we both know he means it. Because until a few months ago, if it wasn’t me who got the estate, he’d have no one to pass it to that would keep it in the family.

Upstairs, the Goblin begins to wail.

“Indicate that you understand me, Henry,” Father snaps, and I force myself to meet his eyes again.

“Yes, sir. I understand you.”

He lets loose a long sigh, paired with the thin-lipped disappointment of a man who’s just seen the unrecognizable results of a commissioned portrait of himself. “I hope you one day have a son that’s as much of a leech as you are. Now, you’ve a coach waiting.”

I fly to my feet, ready to be rid of this sweltering room. But before I get far, he calls, “One final thing.” I turn back with the hope we might speak from a distance, but he crooks a finger until I consent to return to his side. It’s hard to be that near him without feeling the need to duck. He casts a glance at the door, though Lockwood is long gone, then says to me in a low voice, “If I catch even a whiff of you mucking around with boys, while you’re away or once you return, you’ll be cut off. Permanently. No further conversation about it.”

And that is our farewell in its entirety.

 

Out of doors, the sun still feels like a personal affront. The air is steamy, a ferric storm beginning to conspire at the horizon. The hedges along our drive sparkle where the dew sits, leaves turned to the light and shivering when the wind runs through them. The gravel crunches as the horses paw at it, harnessed and anxious to depart.

Percy is already at the carriage, his back to the house, which allows me an unobserved moment of starring at his arse—not that it’s particularly noteworthy arse, but it’s Percy’s, which is what makes it very much worth the noting. He’s directing one of the porters loading the last of our luggage that wasn’t sent ahead. “I’ll keep it with me,” he’s saying, his arms extended.

“There’s room to stow it, sir.”

“I know. I’d rather have it with me is all.”

The porter surrenders and hands Percy his fiddle case, the only relic left him by his father. which he cuddles like he was concerned they’d never see each other again.

“Have your aunt and uncle gone?” I call as I cross the drive toward him and he looks up from stroking his fiddle case.

“Yes, we had a chaste farewell. What did your father want?”

“Oh, the usual. Told me not to break too many hearts.” I rub my temples. A headache is building to a boil behind my eyes. “Christ, it’s bright. Are we off soon?”

“There’s your mother and Felicity.” Percy nods in the direction of the front steps, where the pair of them are silhouetted against the white stone like they’re fashioned from cut-paper. “You’d best say good-bye.”

“Kiss for good luck?”

I lean in, but Percy puts the fiddle case between us with a laugh. “Good try, Monty.”

Hard not to let that pinch.

Felicity is looking sour and unattractive as usual, with her face scrunched up against the sun. She’s got the bridge specs tucked down the front of her Brunswick—Mother might not have noticed, but I can see the imprint of the chain through the fabric. Barely five and ten and she already looks like a spinster.

“Please,” Mother is saying to her, though Felicity’s staring into the sun like she’s more interested in going blind than in taking maternal counsel. “I don’t want letters from the school about you.”

The finishing school has been a long time coming, but Felicity is still so scowly about it you’d think she hadn’t spent all her born days proving to my parents that if one of their children needed civilizing, it was she. Contrary thing that she is, she’s spent years begging for an education and now that it’s finally handed to her, she’s dug in her heels like a stubborn mule.

Mother opens her arms. “Felicity, come kiss me good-bye.”

“I’d rather not,” Felicity replies, and stalks down the steps toward the carriage.

My mother sighs through her nose, but lets her go. Then she turns to me. “You’ll write.”

“Of course.”

“Don’t drink too much.”

“Could I get an absolute value on too much?”

“Henry,” she says, the same sigh behind her voice as when Felicity stormed away. The what are we to do with you? sort. I’m on familiar terms with it.

“Right. Yes. I won’t.”

“Try to behave. And don’t torment Felicity.”

“Mother. I’m the victim. She torments me.”

“She’s fifteen.”

“The most vicious age.”

“Try to be a gentleman, Henry. Just try.” She kisses me on the cheek, then gives my arm a pat like she might a dog. Her skirts rasp against the stone as she turns back into the house and I go the opposite way down the drive, one hand rising to shield my face from the sun.

I swing myself into the carriage, and the footman shuts the door behind me. Percy’s got his fiddle case balanced on his knees and he’s playing with the latches. Felicity’s scrunched up in one corner, like she’s trying to get as far from us as possible. She’s already reading.

I slide into the seat beside Percy and pull my pipe from my coat.

Felicity executes an eye roll that must give her a spectacular view of the inside of her skull. “Please, brother, we haven’t even left the county, don’t smoke yet.”

“Nice to have you along, Felicity.” I clamp the pipe between my teeth and fish about in my pocket for the flint. “Remind me again where we’re permitted to drop you by the side of the road.”

“Keen to make more room in the carriage for your harem of boys?”

I scowl, and she tucks back into her novel, looking a bit smugger than before.

The coach door opens, and Mr. Lockwood clambers up beside Felicity, knocking his head on the frame as he goes. She slinks a little farther into the corner.

“Now, gentleman. Lady.” He polishes his spectacles on the tails of his coat, replaces them, and offers us what I think is meant to be a smile, but he’s so toothy the effect is a bit like that of an embarrassed shark. “I believe we’re ready to depart.”

There’s a whistle from the footman, then the axles creak as the coach gives a sudden lurch forward. Percy catches himself on my knee.

And like that, we are off.

 

3

The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.

A long, slow slide, then a sudden impact.

Though the story of Percy and me—the account sans love and tragedy—is forever. As far back as I can remember, Percy has been in my life. We’ve ridden and hunted and sunbathed and reveled together since we were barely old enough to walk, fought and made up and run amok across the countryside. We’ve shared all our firsts—first lost tooth, first broken bone, first school day, the first time we were ever sweet on a girl (though I have always been more vocal about and passionate in my infatuations than Percy). First time drunk, when we were reading at our parsonage’s Easter service but got foxed on nicked wine before. We were just sober enough to think we were subtle about it and just tipsy enough that we were likely as subtle as a symphony.

Even the first kiss I ever had, though disappointingly not with Percy, still involved him, in a roundabout way. I’d kissed Richard Peele at my father’s Christmas party the year I turned thirteen, and though I thought it was quite a fine kiss, as far as first ones go, he got cold feet about it and blabbed to his parents and the other Cheshire lads and everyone who would listen that I was perverted and had forced myself on him, which was untrue, for I would like it to be noted that I have never forced myself on anyone. (I’d also like it noted that every time since then that Richard Peele and I have had a shag, it’s always been at his volition. I am but a willing stander-by.) My father made me apologize to the Peeles, while he gave them the lots of boys mess around at that age speech—which he’s gotten a lot of use out of over the years, though the at that age part is becoming less and less relevant—then, after they’d left, he hit me so hard my vision went spotty.

So I had walked around for weeks wearing an ugly bruise and mottled shame, with everyone eyeing me sideways and making spiteful remarks within my earshot, and I began to feel certain I had turned all my friends against me for something I couldn’t help. But the next time the boys played billiards in town, Percy bashed Richard in the side of the face with his cue so hard that he lost a tooth. Percy apologized, like it was an accident, but it was fairly transparent vengeance. Percy had avenged me when no one else would look me in the eyes.

The truth is that Percy has always been important to me, long before I fell so hard for him there was an audible crash. It’s only lately that his knee bumping mine under a narrow pub table leaves me fumbling for words. A small shift in the gravity between us and suddenly all my stars are out of alignment, planets knocked from their orbits, and I’m left stumbling, without map or heading, through the bewildering territory of being in love with your best friend.

If the whole of England were sinking into the sea and I had the only boat with a seat for a single person more, I’d save Percy. And if he’d already drowned, I probably wouldn’t save anyone. Probably there wouldn’t be much point in me going forward either. Though I would hang on because I’d likely wash up in France, and from what I remember from the summer my family spent there when Felicity and I were young, there are some lovely women in France. Some handsome boys as well, many of whom wear their breeches very tight, though I wasn’t clear where I stood on that when I was eleven.

As we sail across the Channel toward Calais, this is what I’m thinking of—Percy and me and England sinking into the sea behind us, and also French lads and their tight breeches and, zounds, I can’t wait to get to Paris. I am also maybe a tiny bit drunk. I nicked a bottle of gin from a bar before we left Dover, and Percy and I have been passing it between us for the last hour. There are still a few swallows left.

I haven’t seen Felicity since we boarded the packet, nor much of Lockwood either—he spent most of our time in Dover as we waited for a storm to pass fussing over luggage and customs and correspondence. Then, once the boat left the harbor, our bear-leader became occupied with being sick over the rail, and we became occupied with avoiding him, and those two activities were perfectly compatible.

Beyond the prow of the packet, the water and the sky are the same ghostly gray, but through the fog I can make out the first signs of the port winking at us—a link of golden lights gilding the invisible coastline like a chain. The waves are rough, and side by side, with our elbows upon the rail, Percy and I keep bumping shoulders. When we strike a rough patch and he nearly loses his footing, I seize the chance to grab him by the hand and haul him upright again. I have become a veritable scholar in seemingly innocent ploys to get his skin against mine.

It’s the first time we’ve been properly alone together since Cheshire, and I’ve spent the whole while filling him in on the tyrannical restraints placed upon us by Lockwood and my father. Percy listens with his fists stacked atop each other on the railing and his chin resting upon them. When I’m finished speaking, he wordlessly hands me the gin bottle. I snatch it with the plan to drain it, only to find he’s beat me to it. “Bastard.” He laughs, and I pitch the bottle into the gray water, where it bobs for a moment before the bow of the packet sucks it under. “How is it that we’ve landed the only bear-leader for hire who’s entirely opposed to the true purpose of the Tour?”

“Which is . . . remind me.”

“Strong spirits and loose women.”

“Sounds instead like it’s going to be weak wine with dinner and handling yourself in your bedroom after.”

“No shame in that. If the Good Lord didn’t want men to play with themselves, we’d have hooks for hands. Still, I’d rather not be keeping myself company from now until next September. God, this is going to be a disaster.” I look to him, hoping for some sort of despair that is at least on a comparable level with mine—I thought we were all operating under the same understanding that this year was to be for Percy and me to do as we pleased before he goes to school and I load stones in my pockets and throw myself into the ocean—but instead he’s looking aggravatingly pleased. “Hold on, are you keen on all this cultural shite?”

“I’m not . . . not keen.” And then he gives me a smile that I think is supposed to be apologetic but instead looks very, very keen.

“No, no, no, you have to be on my side about this! Lockwood is tyranny and oppression and all that! Don’t be seduced away by his promises of poetry and symphonies and— Dear Lord, am I to be subjected to music for the entirety of our tour?”

“Absolutely you will. And the only thing you will hate more than listening to Lockwood’s selected music will be listening to me talk about said music. Sometimes I’ll talk to Lockwood about music and you will hate it. You’re going to have to listen to me and Lockwood using words like atonal and chromatic scale and cadenza.”

“Et tu?”

“Aw, look at you using your Latin vocabulary. Eton wasn’t a waste in its entirety.”

“That was Latin and history, so take that—I’m highly educated.” I turn my face to his—or, more accurately, up to his. Percy’s taller than most, and I’m unencumbered with excessive stature, so though I swear there was a time we were the same height, it’s ancient history—he’s got the aerial advantage over me these days. Most men do, and some ladies as well—Felicity’s nearly as tall as I am, which is mortifying.

Percy tucks a piece of my collar that’s been blown asunder back into place, his fingers brushing the bare skin along my neck for a second. “What did you think this year was going to be? Gambling halls and cathouses the whole while? You will grow weary of that, you know. Fornication with strangers in piss-rank alleyways loses its bittersweet charm with time.”

“I suppose I thought it was going to be you and me.”

“Fornicating in alleyways?”

“No, you dunce, but . . . the two of us. Doing what we wanted.” Perfecting my phrasing without betraying my heart is starting to feel like a complicated dance. “Together.”

“Still will be.”

“Yes, but I mean, the last year before you go to law school and I start working with my father and we won’t be seeing each other so much.”

“Yes. Law school.” Percy turns his face to the coastline again, a thin-fingered breeze rising off the water and pulling a few strands free from the black ribbon tying off his queue. He’s been talking for months about cutting his hair short so it’s easier to get under a wig, but I’ve made it clear I will murder him if he does, for I quite adore that unruly mop of his.

I press my face into his shoulder to make him pay attention to me again and give a theatrical moan. “But bloody Lockwood and his bloody cultural outings have wrecked that.”

Percy twists a lock of my hair between his fingers, a soft smile teasing his lips. My heart kicks again, so hard I have to catch my breath. It’s unfair that I can nearly always tell when someone’s making eyes at me, except when it comes to Percy, as we’ve always been rather hands-on with each other. Impossible now, after so long, to ask him not to be without admitting why. Can’t seal up a conversation with a casual Oh, by the way, could you perhaps not touch me the way you always have because each time it puts fresh splinters in my heart? Particularly when what I’d really like to say is Oh, by the way, could you please keep touching me, and perhaps do it all the time, and while we’re at it, would you like to take off all your clothes and climb in bed? They’re both weighted alike.

He gives a tug on my hair. “I have an idea of how we will survive the year. We shall pretend that we are pirates—”

“Oh, I love this.”

“—storming some sort of city fortress. Sacking it for gold. Like we used to.”

“Remind me of your pirate alias.”

“Captain Two Tooth the Terrible.”

“Threatening.”

“I was six, I only had about two teeth at the time. And it’s captain. Captain Two Tooth the Terrible.”

“Pardon me, Captain.”

“So insubordinate. I should have you locked in the brig.”

As the packet skips forward with its nose to France, we talk for a while, and then we don’t, and then we do again, and I am reminded of how exquisitely easy friendship with Percy is, equal parts comfortable silence and never lacking things to say to each other.

Or rather it was easy, until I ruined it by losing my bleeding mind every time he does that thing where he tips his head to the side when he smiles.

We’re still there, holding court at the prow, when the sailors begin to scamper about the deck and, high above us, the bell peals, a low, somber note in continuum. Passengers emerge from below and cluster at the rails, moths drawn to the fool’s gold shine of the approaching coastline.

Percy rests his chin on top of my head, his hands on my shoulders as we too turn our faces to the shore. “Did you know—” he says.

“Oh, are we playing the did you know game?”

“Did you know this year is not going to be a disaster?”

“I don’t believe it.”

“It is not going to be a disaster,” he repeats overtop of me, “because it is you and I and a year on the Continent and not even Lockwood or your father can wreck it completely. I promise.”

He nudges the side of my head with his nose until I consent to look up at him, then does that tipped-head smile again, and I swear to God it’s so adorable I forget my own damn name.

“France on the horizon, Captain,” I say.

“Steel thyself, mate,” he replies.

 

 

PARIS, FRANCE

4

Before the end of our first month in Paris, the violent biblical deaths we are seeing immortalized in paintings and hung in an endless procession of private collections are beginning to look rather appealing.

The days become a succession of dull disasters. Lockwood is worse than I expected. Foremost, he does not permit us to sleep late, which makes it difficult to work up the stamina to stay out all night with Percy, which is what I would most prefer to be doing. I have lived most of my life as a devotee of the philosophy that a man should not see two sevens in one day, but most mornings Lockwood sends Sinclair in to wake me hours before I want to be woken. I am then stuffed into suitable attire and shoved into the dining room of our French apartments, where I’m forced to sit through a civilized breakfast and not put my head down on my eggs or stab my bear-leader in the eye with the cutlery.

While Felicity stays behind at the apartments, he takes Percy and me out most afternoons, sometimes to formal gatherings, sometimes for meaningless strolls to soak up the city like a stain. Paris is a shithole of a place, with more people crammed into it than seems possible and truly incredible traffic. Twice as many carriages and handcarts and sedans crowd the streets as in London, and there are no footpaths to speak of. The buildings are taller than in London as well, the lanes weaving them together narrow, their stones rough and slick. Sewage falls from the windows as chamber pots are tossed, and the gutters fester with it, great mastiff dogs roaming feral through them.

Lockwood is aggravatingly delighted by the filthy enchantment of it all.

We’re dragged to readings and concerts and the goddamn opera (though not the theater, which Lockwood tells us is breeding ground for sodomites and fops, and as such sounds more to my taste). The galleries all start to look the same—even the Louvre Palace, still full of art the French royal family left there when they abandoned it for Versailles, doesn’t hold my attention for long. The collectors themselves are the worst—most of them my father’s friends, and all rich men and variations on him. Conversing with them makes me tense and twitchy, waiting for someone to take a swing at me if I say the wrong thing.

But everyone else in our little band seems to be enjoying themselves with all this art and seeing sights and goddamned culture, and I start to wonder if perhaps I’m too stupid to do the same.

It’s not until our third week that Percy and I finally get out, which may be the longest I’ve gone in the past two years without a night out. Lockwood suggested we pass the evening at a lecture called “The Synthetic Panacea: An Alchemical Hypothesis,” which sounds like a laugh and half. But in the late afternoon, Percy pleads a headache and I plead watching him have a headache, and we’re blessedly excused.

We all sup at intervals as the sky turns bruise-colored with sunset and smoke. Percy and I take the meal in his room and then lie tangled upon his bed, drowsy and languid—the first time I leave all evening is to see if I can bully one of the staff into giving me some whiskey for his ague and my enjoyment. The lanterns haven’t been lit yet, and the hallway is so shadowy that I nearly smash into Felicity, who is pressed up against the wall with her shoes in her hand, wearing a plain Brunswick with the hood pulled up, like a bandit come to lift the silver.

I’ve done enough sneaking out in my lifetime to know precisely what she’s up to.

She starts when she sees me, and clutches her boots to her chest. “What are you doing?” she hisses.

“I could ask you the same,” I reply, far louder than is needed, and she flails a hand. In the sitting room, I hear Lockwood clear his throat. “Trying to escape undetected, are we?”

“Please don’t tell.”

“Are you meeting a boy? Or perhaps a man? Or have you been passing your nights as one of those dancing girls with the scarlet garters?”

“If you say one word to Lockwood, I’ll tell him it was you who drank that bottle of port that he missed last week.”

Now it’s my turn to scrunch up my face, which isn’t a good look for me. Felicity crosses her arms, and I cross mine, and we regard each other through the shadows, stalemated. Blackmail is aggravating in normal circumstances, but far worse when it’s coming from a younger sister.

“Fine, I’ll keep quiet,” I say.

Felicity smiles, eyebrows sloping to a positively nefarious angle. “Lovely. Now be a good lad and go distract Lockwood for me so he won’t hear the door. Perhaps ask him to tell you something long and loud about Gothic architecture.”

“They’re going to throw you out of school if you behave this way.”

“Well, it took Eton years to catch on to your larks and I’m a fair amount cleverer, so I’m not concerned.” She smiles again, and in that moment, all my childhood instincts come out, for I’d like nothing better than to give her hair a good tug. “Enjoy your evening,” she says, then glides to the door, stocking-footed on the stone so she hardly needs lift her feet.

Lockwood, unwigged, with a banyan loose over his waistcoat, is settled in an armchair before the fireplace. He looks up when I enter and his brow creases, as though the sight of me alone is cause for consternation. “My lord. May I help you?”

Out in the hallway, I hear the soft click of the front latch.

And if Felicity is sneaking out, it’s about damn time Percy and I did so as well. “I think we’ll be attending that lecture tonight after all,” I say.

“Oh. Oh!” He sits up. “You and Mr. Newton both?”

“Yes,” I say, offering Percy an internal apology in case his headache was real. “We’ll get a coach to Montparnasse, so you needn’t come—you’re nearly dressed for bed. And we might have some supper after. So don’t wait up.”

And bless his little cotton socks, he must truly believe in the transformative power travel can have over a young man, because he swallows it.

As it turns out, it’s hardly even a lie—we do get a coach to Montparnasse, and we do have supper. It consists of a pint of baptized beer downed standing up in the corner of a smoky boxing ring, then spirits at a music hall after.

The boxing is my choice, the music hall Percy’s—his condition for coming out with me in spite of the headache that was apparently very much real was that at least half of the evening would be spent somewhere men weren’t brutalizing one another and we can hear each other without shouting. But the music hall is packed and nearly as loud as the fights. The walls are plastered in moldering velvet and golden fringe, the ceiling painted with an elaborate mural of cherubs frolicking with naked women in foamy clouds—the cherubs seem to be there purely to keep it from being pornographic. Candles on the tables—sheathed in red glass—rouge the light.

We spend our winnings on one of the private boxes in the top gallery, looking down upon the crowd and above the haze of pipe smoke. Tournaments of backgammon and faro are being played in the other boxes, shouts going up over piquet and lottery, but Percy and I keep only each other’s company. It’s bleeding hot with all those people packed so tight, and the box is private enough that we both shuck down to our shirtsleeves.

We finish near a Scotch pint of spirits between us before the interlude—Percy’s drinking more than he usually does and it’s making him giggly. I’m feeling it too—giddy and bold, coquettish at being out and alone with him and sitting on a belly of gin and warm whiskey.

Percy leans over from his chair to rest his chin upon my shoulder, one of his feet brushing my shin as it bounces in time to the music. “Having fun?”

I give a nip at his ear—meant to just lean in, but I misjudge the distance and decide halfway there to commit to it. He yelps in surprise. “No, but you are.”

Music is not an art I claim to understand or enjoy, but Percy looks so happy in that moment that I feel happy too, a sudden swell of delight to be alive and here with him. Though snatching at the heels of that is the thought of the hourglass attached to these last days before Percy and I part. Our Tour suddenly seems like an impossibly short time.

For a moment, I toy with the idea that, at the end of it all, I could not go home. Run away to Holland with Percy. Or perhaps run in earnest. Which would leave me stuck with nothing. No money and no skills to make it. I’m too useless to make a life on my own, no matter how odious the one selected for me is. I’m well shackled to my father, no way to escape or want things for myself.

And what would you want even if you could? says a small voice in my head.

And I’ve no answer, which sets off a flare of panic inside me. I suddenly feel myself to be drifting, out of even my own control.

What do you want?

The musicians take a recess and a man comes onto the stage to do a recitation of a poetical nature. A few people in the crowd boo. Percy knocks his shoulder into mine when I join them. “Stop that.”

“He deserves it.”

“Why? Poor thing, he’s just a poet.”

“Is more reason needed?” I kick my feet up on the table, misjudging the distance and catching my toe on the edge. Our empty glasses wobble. “Poetry is the most embarrassing art form. I can sort of understand why all the poets off themselves.”

“It’s not so easy.”

“Course it is. Here, attend.” I whack him on the back of the head to make him pay attention to me instead of the stage. “I’m going to write a poem about you. ‘There once was a fellow named Percy,’” I start, then falter. “‘Who . . .’ Damn, what rhymes with Percy?”

“Thought you said it was easy.”

“Blercy? That’s a word, isn’t it?”

Percy sips at his whiskey, then sets his glass upon the rail and says with a lilt, “There was a young fellow I knew / Named Henry Montague.”

“Well, that’s unfair. Everything rhymes with my surname. Blue. Chew. Mutton stew.”

“He drinks lots of liquor / And never gets sick-er.” He pauses for fullest effect, then finishes, “And he’s four inches longer than you.”

I burst out laughing. Percy drops his head over the back of the chair, with a grin. He looks very pleased with himself. Nothing delights me more than filthy things born from Percy’s tongue. Most who know him wouldn’t believe that such a quiet, polite lad has told me stories that would color a sailor’s cheeks.

“Oh, Perc. That was beautiful.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I should share it with Lockwood.”

His head shoots up. “Don’t you dare.”

“Or at least write it down, for posterity—”

“I swear to God, I shall never speak to you again.”

“Perhaps I’ll say it back to myself as I’m falling asleep tonight.”

He kicks the leg of my chair, and I’m nearly unseated. “Goose.”

I laugh, and it comes out a tipsy giggle. “Do another one.”

Percy gives me a smile, then leans forward with his elbows on his knees like he’s thinking hard. “Monty often smells of piss.”

“Well, I like this one significantly less.”

“But plays a wicked hand of whist.”

“Better.”

“Though Lockwood may doubt him, / There’s something about him / That everyone just wants to . . .” And then he stops, a bright flush creeping into his cheeks.

The corners of my mouth begin to turn up. “Go on, Percy.”

“What?”

“Finish it.”

“Finish what?”

“Your poem.”

“My what?”

“The rhyme, half-wit.”

“Does it rhyme? I didn’t realize. Oh, wait. . . .” He feigns reviewing the verse in his head. “I hear it now.”

I lean in to him. “Come now, what were you going to say?”

“Nothing. I don’t remember.”

“Yes, you do. Go on.” He makes a humming noise with his lips closed. “Do you want to finish it, or do you want me to keep pestering you?”

“Ah. Bit of a tough choice.”

I press my foot into his shin. His stocking has slipped from his garter and is bunched up around his ankle. “That everyone wanted to what, Percy? What is it exactly that everyone wants to do to me?”

“Fine.” Now he’s really blushing, poor boy. He’s not so dark skinned that he can’t still go fantastically red when sufficient cause arises. He blows a short breath, then scrunches up his nose. It looks like he’s working rather hard not to smile. “Though Lockwood may doubt him, / There’s something about him / That everyone just wants to kiss.”

That single word sends a pulse up my spine like a struck lightning rod. Percy laughs and ducks his chin, suddenly shy. I mean to sit back and say something coy so we can play it off like it’s a laugh—I swear to God, I do. But then he licks his lips, and his eyes flit to my mouth in a way that seems a little out of his control.

And I want to. So badly, I do. Just thinking about it makes all the blood leave my head. And the drink has just enough of a hold on me that the part of my brain that usually steps in the path of terrible ideas and halts them with a sensible Steady on there, lad, let’s think this one through seems to have taken the night off. So in spite of being in possession of a full understanding of what a terrible decision it is to do so, I lean in and kiss Percy on the mouth.

I truly intend to make it a peck, just a small one, like it’s only because of the rhyme and not because I’ve been going mad with wanting him for two years. But before I can pull away, Percy puts his hand on the back of my neck and presses me to him and suddenly it’s not me kissing Percy, it’s Percy kissing me.

For perhaps a full minute, I’m so stunned that the only thing I can think is, Dear Lord, this is actually happening. Percy is kissing me. Really kissing me. Neither of us is sober, or even sober-adjacent, but at least I’m still seeing straight. And, damnation, it feels so good. As good as I’ve always imagined it would be. It makes every other kiss I’ve ever had turn to smoke and disappear.

And then it’s not just Percy kissing me—we’re kissing each other.

I can’t decide if I’d rather keep my hands in his hair or do something about getting his shirt out of the way—I’m feeling frantic and scrambly, unable to commit to a single place to put my hands because I want to touch him abso-bloody-lutely everywhere. Then he slips his tongue into my mouth, and I am momentarily distracted by the way the entirety of my being spills over with that feeling. It’s like being set aflame. More than that—it’s like stars exploding, heavens on fire. Kissing Percy is an incendiary thing.

I tug his bottom lip between my teeth and work it gently, and he lets go a bright, weighted breath as he slides from his chair onto my lap. His hands go under my shirt, tearing it out of the waistband of my breeches in handfuls, then his arms slide all the way around me, and I’m struggling to stay soft, trying to think of the least arousing things possible, and it just isn’t working because Percy’s got his legs on either side of my lap and his mouth is open against mine and I can feel his palms up and down my back.

I run my tongue down his jawline, so enthusiastic that my teeth scrape him, at the same time working my fingers against the buttons of his breeches until the essential one pops. He inhales softly with his head tipped skyward when my fingers meet his skin. His nails dig into my spine, my shirt rucked up in his fists. I know we should be careful—it’s a private box, but not that private, and if anyone saw us like this, we might get in real trouble—but I don’t care. Not about who might be lingering nearby or the pillory for sodomites or my father’s threat of what will happen if I’m caught with a lad. Nothing matters right then but him.

“Monty,” he says, my name punching its way through a gasp. I don’t reply because I’m far more interested in sucking on his neck than in doing any talking, but he takes my face in his hands and raises it to his. “Wait. Stop.”

I stop. It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, though it should be noted I have not had a very hard life. “What is it?” It’s ridiculous how winded I am, like I’ve been running.

Percy looks me dead in the eyes. I’ve still got one hand spread like a starburst on his chest, and his heart is pounding against my fingertips. “Is this just a laugh to you?”

“No,” I say before I can think it through. Then, when his eyes widen a little, I pin on hastily, “Yes. I dunno. What do you want me to say?”

“I want . . . Nothing. Forget it.”

“Well, why’d you stop, you goose?” I think we’ll take up where we left off, so I lean in again, but he ducks out of the way and I freeze, my hand hovering between us.

Then he says, very quietly, “Don’t.”

Which is not a particularly fine thing to hear when I’ve still got one hand down his trousers.

I don’t move right away—give him a moment to change his mind and come back to me, though it’s clear from his expression that I’m fooling myself in thinking he will. It’s a fight to keep my face straight, pretend I don’t have years’ worth of wanting attached to this excellent kiss with the most gorgeous boy I know, but I manage to say, “Fine,” without giving away how much that single word feels like the trapdoor of a scaffold falling out from under me.

Percy looks up. “Really? Fine?” he repeats. “That’s all you have to say?”

“Fine by me.” I shove him off my lap, which is what I think I would probably do if this were a laugh, but it’s harder than I mean to and he falls. “You started it. You and your daft poem.”

“Right, of course.” Suddenly he sounds angry. He’s fiddling with the buttons of his breeches, refastening them with more force than necessary. “This is my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was your fault, Perc, I said you started it.”

“Well, you wanted it too.”

“Too? I wanted it too?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I really don’t. And I really don’t care. God, it was just a kiss!”

“Right, I forgot you’ll kiss anything with a mouth.” Percy picks himself up with a bit of a stumble and winces.

I reach out, even though I’m too far away to help. “You all right?”

“You just shoved me and now you’re asking if I’m all right?”

“I’m trying to be decent.”

“I think you missed that chance a long while ago.”

“God, Perc, why are you being such a prick?”

“Let’s go home.”

“Fine,” I say. “Let’s go.”

And so we conclude what might have been a fireworks-and-poetry sort of evening with the most uncomfortable walk home ever shared by any two people in history.


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