I have finished Irene H.'s story from Fl-ASH-fiction Wednesday, but since it is almost 8,000 words, I cannot justify calling it a flashfic, hence the subject line!
Irene wrote, "I want to see someone with their mother. Maybe Nev and Penny with their daughter, if they have one?" I loved the idea immediately, but it wasn't until I listened to Brené Brown's interview with Glennon Doyle that I was able to find my story structure.
I am not a parent and this has not been edited by anyone other than me, so if I have made any dire baby-related (or other) errors feel free to point them out!
Next week this post will become public, but for now you're the only ones who can see it, so shhh! 😘
You can find the other flashfics from this round here:
- Mrs. Khaleel goes to the Honey Moon
- Hetty Glentworth, Lively St. Lemeston's cunning woman (scroll down to the comments)
This was a bit strange to write; I wrote In for a Penny more than ten years ago. In fact, Fl-ASH-fiction Wednesday was to celebrate its 10-year publication anniversary!
I remember when I wanted to touch up the paint on my old car, I looked up the color in my documentation and bought the exactly correct shade from the dealership. But when I put it on, it didn't match at all! Then I realized--the paint on the car isn't the same color it was when it was new! It's been out in the world all this time, metamorphosing.
This was a bit like that. I've been growing up all this time, and Nev and Penny and their friends haven't, so nothing I write about them now will quite match. In some ways, this story is maybe a self-indulgent exercise in letting them grow up too, just a little.
But I did find it deeply satisfying to write. As Penny learned, there's nothing wrong with indulging yourself now and then! Hopefully I'm indulging you, too.
Thank you again for this prompt, Irene! What a beautiful book-end to the first decade of my career. I hope very much that you like your story!
Title: Do I dare to eat a peach?
Penelope picks up her peach—
She sets it back down.
She picks up her knife—
She sets it back down.
She picks up the peach—
“Is there something wrong with your peach?” Nev asks.
Penelope flushes, pushing her plate away.
She tries again the next day.
“It won’t hurt the gardeners’ feelings if you’ve lost your taste for peaches,” Nev offers.
Penelope might cry.
Nev carries Linette into the study. He knows he shouldn’t let her pull his hair; she’ll be stronger soon. But her little hands are so perfect, and it makes her laugh.
Penelope starts up from her chair, looking stiff and determined and scared.
In spite of himself, Nev is speared by a sharp memory: this room, Penelope starting and yanking her hands out of Macaulay’s, that night he asked her to leave Nev and elope with him.
She barely ate anything at breakfast. She’s been acting strange.
“Mr. Garrett,” she asks—she’s very nervous, if she’s back to ‘Mr. Garrett’—“would you watch Linette for a moment?”
Nev is trying, he’s trying so hard not to be jealous or suspicious. But he does look at Percy, to see if he knows what’s going on.
“Of course. Good morning, Nev.” Percy’s eyes linger on a neatly numbered list. He doesn’t meet Nev’s eyes as he takes the baby, either; he makes a show of cooing at Linette, and making faces.
Nev’s heartbeat picks up. “What are you two working on?” he asks casually.
For a moment, neither of them answer. “Expenditure estimates for your house party next month,” Percy says reluctantly.
“We can still cancel it if we need to,” Nev tries.
They blink at each other, baffled: Why would he think that?
Maybe because you never tell me what the hell is really going on! He sticks his hands in his pockets and slouches after Penelope into the empty breakfast room.
He waits as patiently as he can, hands curling into fists in his pockets while she picks drops of Linette’s posset out of his hair, brushes at a mysterious stain on his shoulder, fidgets, looks out the window, and finally turns to him with a painfully straight back. She’s wearing short stays, so that’s all her; he wonders if the dancing master at her boarding school laid a ruler along the girls’ spines. He wishes he’d been there to snap the damn thing in half. “Nev, when you asked me to marry you,” she begins slowly.
Nev can feel his life leaching out of him. He’ll be a waxwork, in a minute.
“I...I said that once you have shaken on a deal, you must not shrink from it, and...”
Is she going to take the baby? He could ask to have Linette at Loweston sometimes, couldn’t he, even if they separated? But she isn’t weaned yet.
Nev could barely sleep when Penelope and Linette were in London for a few days to stay with the Browns. He’d offered to escort them, and Penelope had said, That’s sweet of you, Nev, but I know how busy things are on the farm just now.
Did she take the baby up to London so she could tell her parents she was coming home for good?
“And I...but I...”
He recalls, suddenly, coming back from Vauxhall to find James waiting on Amy’s front steps. I’m too sober to deal with this, he thinks. And, will it always be bad news?
“Please, Penelope. Finish a sentence.”
She seems to see his face for the first time. With a gasp, she starts forward. “Oh, Nev, it isn’t anything too bad—at least, I hope you won’t think so—”
“I am begging you,” he grits out.
“I want to invite my parents to our house party,” she says in a rush.
Nev drops into a chair and puts his head in his hands.
“I know,” she says miserably. “I know I said I wouldn’t ask you to entertain them with your friends, and I meant to keep my word.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. His laugh comes out too hard, half a sob. “Penelope, I...” He laughs again, dizzy with relief. Dizzy with something, anyway. “Of course you can invite your parents to the house party. I never asked you not to invite them. You’re the one who said we should only have them over when no one else is here. I can’t believe you made me think this was going to be—”
Something important, he almost says. But to her, it is important. She’s been fasting and praying as if he’s King bloody Ahasuerus. “Did you and Percy really think I was going to say no?”
“I hardly know what I thought.” That’s the stiff little voice that means she cares more about being fair than about being honest.
Nev surprises himself. “I think you do know,” he says firmly. “And I’d like to know too. Because I thought—” He takes a deep breath. “I thought you were going to leave me. And I know it isn’t your fault that I expect the worst sometimes. But you did try to leave me, once before.”
“I didn’t try to leave you. I tried to visit my parents for a few weeks.”
“I was there, Penelope. You said, ‘Whatever happens, I’ll make sure you keep the money.’ Do you think I don’t know your father offered to buy you a divorce at our wedding?”
She pales, mouth folding in on itself. “I...”
Nev waits, because what else is there to say? His cards are on the table.
She comes over and stands quietly by his chair until he turns and makes space for her in his lap. Waiting is easier with her head on his shoulder—not to mention the newly plump swell of her breasts directly in his line of sight.
“I’m sorry my father talks so loudly,” she says, which even her breasts can’t transform into a good apology. “You saw me trying to eat a peach yesterday.”
He blinks. “Uh-huh.”
“I wanted to eat it without cutting it up first,” she confesses. He can’t see her ears from this angle, but he knows they’re bright red, because the flush is creeping down her neck. He snuggles her closer. She smells warm and clean—but with the hint of sour milk that permeates their lives now. He buries his face in the crook of her neck.
She squirms away, laughing. Nev forgot for a moment that she likes to do things in order, one at a time, with her whole concentration.
He used to think it was because she needed her defenses up, but he’s started to think it’s just that sensations distract her from words. When she moves away, it’s as if she’s shushing him at a concert. She still almost never talks in bed—and when he does, he can tell after a while that she’s only really listening to the sound of his voice. He’s pretty sure she likes his voice, though. He’s pretty sure she likes it a lot. He clasps his hands loosely around her waist and lets her sit up straight, leaning away from him.
“I’m embarrassed by Linette,” she whispers, eyes too bright. “She’s a messy eater and I’m...”
A tear slips down her cheek. Her freckles stand out more than they used to; she has less time for her toilette since Linette was born, and trying to remove her freckles was one of the first things to go. But he still sees her sighing over them in the mirror. “Oh, sweetheart. You’re perfect. You’re both perfect.”
“I’m afraid of her starting to talk.” Her face crumples. “I’m supposed to want her to start to talk more than anything! But I’m so afraid her accent won’t be right and I’ll be embarrassed, and I love her so much.”
“Of course you do. I know you do.”
She sniffles. “She trusts me so much, and I want to deserve it. My mother is never embarrassed by anything, and I’m such a coward. And...”
“What is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh,” she says, almost inaudibly. “What if she...what if I...what if you…?” She gives him a pleading look.
Nev does his best: “What if she’s…common?” He hates saying it; he doesn’t want Penelope to think that because the words are in his mind, he must believe them.
She nods. “I want to give her the best of everything. What if I haven’t? What if I...” She sighs. “I’m sorry I wouldn’t let you come up to London with us. I know you wanted to. My old accent comes back around my parents, and I didn’t want you to hear it. I didn’t want to spend the whole visit being mindful of it.”
He curls his fingers tighter. “I understand,” he says carefully. “And I’m so sorry you have to worry about all this. But I wish you’d call me a snob to my face, instead of avoiding me. I worry.”
She lets out a shuddering breath. “I’m just so ashamed, Nev. I’ve been so ashamed of my parents, and I adore them. And I couldn’t bear it if I made Linette ashamed of herself. I don’t ever want her to feel like this. She is perfect, and so unself-conscious—so ready to cry and scream and giggle, so unaware of any reason why she ought to be different than she is.”
“Have you...talked to your mother about how you feel?”
“Oh, I couldn’t!”
“I don’t want to hurt her.”
She resists flattery so energetically, and is so squeamishly tactful herself. Nev tries to say this gently. “Maybe, since she loves you, she’d rather hear how you really feel than a polite fiction.”
Penelope’s mouth makes a little stunned O. There’s a pause. “I never thought of it that way.”
“I’m not an idiot about everything.”
“I—Nev, of course I don’t think that. I’m so sorry. I...” She’s quiet for a long time. He tries not to shift about too much, since she’s still in his lap. “I have an idea,” she says at last. “Maybe you’ll think it’s ludicrous, or...“ Her face falls. “Or perhaps it’s awfully crass, but...” She notices him tensing, and hurries on with a nervous huff of laughter, “What would you say to a—a penny jar? I mean, we’d have a jar, and—I hope we wouldn’t use it all the time, but only when it mattered—”
Nev is going to push her off his lap.
“—And if you really want to know what I’m thinking, you’d say, ‘Penny for your thoughts’ and put a penny in the jar, and I’d have to tell you honestly. And vice versa, of course.”
Nev blinks. “You’d really do that?”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll have to work out the details.” Her hands move restlessly in that way that says, I wish I had pencil and paper so I could make a list, and Nev is so glad to have her in his lap that his breath catches. “For example, I’m sure sometimes we would need a system of credit—for the money and the thoughts, since sometimes we might not be near the jar, and in a heated moment, we might find it not within our power to express ourselves with the forbearance that ought to be the hallmark of—“
“I love you.”
“I love you too. I love you dreadfully.”
“I don’t see what’s dreadful about it.”
He can see in her face that she almost apologizes again, but she kisses his temple instead. “You’re right, it’s splendid. It’s magnificent. What should we do with the money, do you think, when we’ve filled the jar?”
He grins. “Why don’t you make a list?”
She makes a rueful little face, blushing. “You don’t think I’m a bad mother?”
“No. I do hope—I don’t want Linette to be ashamed either, no matter how she pronounces her vowels. But as to your having a variety of sentiments, some of them in contradiction, I believe it’s a universal human failing.” He tucks his face into her neck, since he’s talking now and he thinks better this way. “How the devil should I know what you ought to be doing, anyway? I lived with a wet-nurse until I was three years old.”
He can feel her shock. “Wh—who?”
Nev grimaces. “I don’t know her name. She doesn’t live here anymore and my parents rarely mentioned her after.”
“And one day your parents came and—and took you back?” She’s trying to be tactful again, to keep criticism and horror out of her voice. But she shifts, extricating her arm from between their bodies and folding it around his head so she can stroke his hair and press him closer. God, he craves that protectiveness, that drawing closer: You’re mine.
“I suppose they—they must have visited. I don’t know. I don’t remember it. I—do you think I…?” It’s his turn not to finish a sentence. Talking about this gives him a crawling feeling. He doesn’t want to believe it has anything to do with the echo inside him that says, She’s going to leave you. Suddenly even his adoration of her breasts seems childish, perverse.
Penny isn’t his nurse, for God’s sake. A man can love his wife without…
But he’s too old now to think being tied to her apron strings with proper conviction. “I don’t know,” he repeats. “But I’m glad you wanted to keep Linette here, too.”
“So am I.” She shifts again, tilting his chin up so she can kiss him. “I—“ She pats at her pockets, and makes a frustrated sound. “Do you have a pencil?”
“If you need to go back to the study...”
She flushes. “It isn’t that, I only know it will fly right out of my head—will you remind me later, that I meant to inquire into whether your nurse receives a pension?”
At the moment, he’d let her carve a reminder into his flesh. But she would think that appalling melodrama, so he ties a knot in his handkerchief instead. “You’re the best wife in the world.”
The blush creeps down her neck. “We’ve already left Nettie with poor Percy for so long. Would you...that is...might you have time...“
He plucks a coin from behind her ear. “Penny for your thoughts?”
The room is empty, but she glances furtively about anyway. “Might we send the nursemaid to her for half an hour? Well, perhaps a little longer. I should like...” She presses her lips together and takes the penny, clearly reminding herself that she has shaken hands, and must not shrink from her bargain. “I should like you to take me to bed,” she says very firmly.
He thought she might say that, but his smile breaks free anyway. “Ready for me to give you more home truths?” He waits for her groan.
“I suppose they will be hard to take,” she says piously, “but I am prepared.”
He heaves her up into his arms. Not as easily as he did when they were first married—she weighs more now, and he’s had little time to spare for boxing. That’s all right. He doesn’t mind working harder for it.
They walk slowly back to the study, hand in hand, loose-limbed and happy. Penelope keeps ducking her head to hide a smile, and even when Linette starts wailing, she only sighs and quickens her steps. There are days when that sound makes her entire body freeze in panic.
Percy is rocking her at the window, murmuring something in Ancient Greek with long-suffering affection.
“I’ll take her, Mr. Garrett,” the nursemaid says.
He looks down his nose at her a bit. “Thank you, I can manage.”
Penelope rushes forward and commandeers her. “Are you hungry, Linette? I’m sorry, I know, I was gone far too long.” She gives Percy a glowing smile. “Thank you, Mr. Garrett.”
Percy’s smile and murmur back ring a little hollow, and his eyes stay on his tiny goddaughter as Penelope bustles off with her. Nev feels guilty, yet again, for flaunting his family in Percy’s face.
Percy’s been a very good sport about the long engagement—has nobly contradicted Louisa, even, when she complains about it. They've waited a year already, as Louisa has been reminding him every day for several weeks. She even hinted broadly last week that it would serve Nev right if her first child was born early.
Thankfully she didn't say it again after Percy turned bright red and kicked her under the table.
Nev can’t allow a moment’s generous mood to decide Louisa’s future. But probably it’s time for a candid discussion with his sister. Please not too candid, he prays with a shudder.
Penelope disappears with Linette behind a screen in the corner, nurse in tow, and soon the wailing breaks off into whimpers, and then silence. Penelope starts singing “The Ballad of Captain Kidd.”
Percy sighs. “I shouldn’t have snapped at the nursemaid. But she always looks at me as if I’ll drop Linette. I was holding babies before that young woman was born!” He gives Nev a rueful smile. “Pride will be the death of me, I suppose.” He passes up a sheet of paper. “Here, I’ve starred a few names I think you ought to strike from the guest list, if the Browns are coming.”
Nev looks at the list. It was a small enough guest list to start with—only people Nev thought wouldn’t be rude to Penelope. “Were these people unkind to you?”
Percy shrugs with perfect indifference.
Nev can’t match it. He puts the list in his pocket and sits on the desk. “You knew what Penelope was going to ask me.”
Now Percy looks concerned. “Is that—? I hope you don’t think—but perhaps I didn’t think. Of course I ought not to have listened to confidences from your wife—I’m heartily sorry if you—”
It occurs to Nev that all his favorite people are depressingly alike. “That’s not what I meant. You thought I might say no? And don’t you dare tell me, ‘I hardly know what I thought.’ Have I given you cause to—do you think I’m ashamed of you?”
“Not ashamed of me, no.” Percy looks startled. He glances towards Penelope's screen. “I—come talk to me in my room for a moment, if you would.”
So Nev follows him into his bedroom. It’s really just a closet, and Percy looks conscious. “I don’t expect Louisa to live here.”
“I wouldn’t have expected Penelope to live in my bachelor lodgings in town, either,” Nev says impatiently.
Percy sits on the edge of his bed. “To be perfectly frank, Nev, I didn’t think for a moment you’d tell Penelope no, whether you wanted her parents here or not. I’m the last person to accuse you of being select in your invitations.”
“Why shouldn’t I want her parents here?” Nev can hear the edge in his voice, and wishes he’d put this conversation off after all. Percy can be a snob, too, and Nev would really rather not be in the awkward position of having to lecture him about it. “Maybe you think I just lick the Browns’ shoes because I owe them money, but I swear it isn't like that at all. God, Percy, please promise me you’ll be kind to them.”
Percy’s jaw sets. “Mr. Brown pays my salary; I hope I am not quite an ingrate. I only thought you’d be obliged to spend all week dancing attendance on them, and Penelope is so sensible of anything like a slight.”
“Unlike you, who are used to swallowing them?”
Percy gives him a sharp glance, and doesn’t answer.
Nev thinks of something, and then is stunned and mortified he didn’t think of it sooner. “Would you like to invite your family to the house party?”
Percy lets out a long breath, with the shaky edge of a laugh in it. “Don’t ask me that, Nev! Then I’ll have to face that I might not.”
Nev doesn’t know what to say, so he slides down the wall and folds his arms atop his knees, ready to listen.
“Lord knows my mother would love to meet your baby.” Percy makes a hopeless gesture. “And Louisa would be glad to see them. She was always friendly with my sister, you know.”
Nev supposes he did know that, in a vague sort of way. “What about you? How will you feel?”
Percy shakes his head. “I don’t know. My mother will bow and scrape to Lady Bedlow—the dowager countess, I mean. And Louisa—well, she’s sensible of anything like a slight to me. And I’ll wish...”
Nev wonders if Percy’s secret wish is the same as his: that they could just be equals. He remembers Mr. Garrett snapping Mind how you talk to your betters! once, when Percy superciliously corrected Nev’s sums, and Percy’s furious flush.
He remembers what Penelope said, Percy’s first night back: The talk is that he broke his parents’ hearts, running wild and never coming home. Nev has no idea how matters stand between him and his family.
He pulls the guest list out of his pocket. His own mother’s name is at the top. Percy was too tactful to star it—is too tactful right now to come right out and say whose slights Penelope and Louisa will be sensible of. “It was simpler when it was just you, me, and Thirkell, wasn’t it?”
“I’m damned sorry about my mother, and about those starred names too. The last thing I ever wanted was to put you in the way of insults. I—you have to know that’s part of why I avoided Loweston. Because we were never just ourselves here. If I kept you away from your own family, I’m sorry for that. I—I wish everything were different too. But Percy, I have a daughter now. The Browns are her grandparents, and they’ve been good to me. They were good to Penelope, a thousand times better than my parents.” Nev chews his thumbnail. He can feel himself flushing. “I want...I mean to take Mr. Brown aside while he’s here, and ask him how to be a good father.”
Percy looks poleaxed.
Nev shifts uncomfortably. Maybe he’s been opting for too many polite fictions, himself, if Percy didn’t realize that Nev has no idea what the hell he’s doing. “What I mean to say is, we’re adults now. I already—I tried just cutting out the parts of my life—“ He forces himself to say it. “I tried cutting my connection with you. Because it was complicated. And I….Do you remember how my father used to say, ‘What a gentleman does when he’s not at home has nothing to do with his wife’? I think...I think maybe he started to feel as though...as though what he did had nothing to do with himself, either. I don’t want that kind of life. I’m not—not a wax anatomist’s model, to be taken cleanly apart and stored in separate crates. I think maybe life has to be complicated, if we want it to be real.”
Percy laughs. “You’ve really got a way of making me feel low.”
Nev’s gorge rises.
“No, Nev—not low! Not like that. Christ, I’m sorry, I should have said—'mean', I suppose. Ungenerous. Look at you, shouldering all the blame as blithely as you used to pay our tab at dinner. As if I won’t notice, if you do it gracefully enough. Of course I know you’ve gone out of your way to spare my feelings. Hell, Nev, I know I’m part of the reason you were so unprepared to be earl. You’d never have raked up so much hell, if you’d had a best friend who could have gone to Almack's with you. If I hadn’t quarreled with my parents and annoyed your mother, maybe you’d have learned to manage the estate, or seen what was happening here.”
Nev feels worse than before. “Have you been stewing in this all year? I never blamed you for a moment—“
“No?” Here it comes: the hectic flush. Percy is starting to lose his temper.
Nev is starting to regret bringing any of it up. “I do wish you’d told me my father was dipped, but you were right, I probably—”
“You had to auction yourself off to the highest bidder!” Percy hisses, with a glance at the door. Nev is glad he has that much self-control left. “And I had money saved in the bank from all those dinners I let you pay for, and you wouldn’t even take it. Christ, I despised myself. I know I took your head off for calling me a fortune hunter, but I can’t blame you for thinking it.”
Nev shoots to his feet. “I’m ashamed of thinking it for even a moment. I never should have said it. Don’t—”
Percy jumps up too. “Don’t what? Tell the truth? You know I made up to you so Lord Bedlow would pay for my schooling, at first. I earned my living off invitations you got me. When you got engaged—I’m sick when I think of the things I said.” Percy looks sick. About to vomit up bile. “'They think everything can be bought,' I said. 'Even affection.'”
There’s bile in Percy's laugh, too; the sound is corrosive. “I’m only here now because your wife bribed me to it. Thank God you were too generous to repeat my remarks, or she’d never have bothered. The truth, Nev, is that I almost didn’t let Louisa see how I felt. Because of the money I’d lose if you sacked me. Of course my conduct hasn’t been disinterested; why the devil should you be ashamed, only for seeing it?”
This conversation has officially become one more thing Nev is totally unequipped to handle. “You give me credit for far too much insight. I was just being a snob.”
“Don’t do that.” Percy clenches his fists. “Don’t ‘I’m-not-clever-enough-to’ me.”
“I promise I’m not clever enough to read your damn mind.” Nev’s own temper heats, compounded by embarrassment—he doesn’t really do that so often, does he? “How’s this, then: don’t read me your list of self-reproaches and then tell me it’s what I think of you! I never thought a damn word of that. I just thought you weren’t rich or dashing enough for Louisa, because I was a damn cad, and frankly I thought Louisa was a bit shallow, because, did I mention, I was a damn cad.”
Percy looks like he wants to hit him.
Probably they’re too old to settle their differences with a fistfight. “If you want to hit me...” Nev starts anyway, because what the hell else is he supposed to do? Feeling even more childish than he expected, he lets the sentence trail off—but he braces himself, because Percy looks like he might do it.
“I will—“ Percy slams his mouth shut.
“I can take it,” Nev says, barely believing it himself at this point. “I won’t blow over in a stiff wind.”
Percy opens his mouth, and shuts it again.
“For God’s sake, just spit it out.”
“I will kill anyone who raises a hand to you,” Percy snaps.
Nev rocks back on his heels.
Percy gives him a fulminating glare. “There, don’t you wish I’d kept that to myself? Didn’t know you were buying tickets to a Cheltenham tragedy, did you? But when Louisa and I came home and you were covered in blood…” His voice cracks.
Nev blinks, his mouth curving.
Percy slumps back onto the bed, covering his face with a groan. “Ugh, I hate you. Don’t look so smug. You are a cad.”
Nev’s grin widens. “Reformed rakes make the best husbands.”
Percy makes a retching noise. But he drops his hands, and says very quietly, “I just—I want you to know that all the things I just said about being mercenary—I wouldn’t want you to believe that I mean I don’t genuinely...”
Nev feels remarkably better. “I promise, of all the things I thought, I never thought your friendship was mercenary.” He sits by Percy, knocking their shoulders together. “Do you think that’s why it never made sense to me that Penelope wouldn’t believe I liked her, just because I married her for money? It sounds ridiculous now, but I just—I couldn’t see that the two things had anything to do with each other. What’s that mathematical term?”
“Independent variables,” Percy supplies.
Percy flops back on the bed, closing his eyes. “I could use a nice soothing mathematics exam after all that raw honesty.”
“I’ll try to macerate the honesty next time, to get the bitterness out.”
Nev is doubly glad Mr. Brown is coming for a visit; no one at Loweston appreciates his puns.
The nursery-maid has stepped out, so Penelope is in her room alone with Linette, who’s nursing for what feels like the thousandth time that day. She’s probably not really hungry any more, but she doesn’t want to admit it yet; she’s fussing a little, wanting first this breast, then the other. She pulls Penelope’s hair out of its ribbon, leaving sticky handprints on Penelope’s bosom—how on earth did her hands get sticky again? Penelope feels for the cloth, but it’s too far away.
Nev walks in, remarks what she’s doing, and hands her the cloth as he sits beside her to greet their daughter. He lays his finger against her tiny palm to see if she’ll grip it, then tries to hide his disappointment that this time, she didn’t.
If Penelope is self-conscious about her bare breasts and general dishevelment, it’s only that: a consciousness. Something is happening that might embarrass her, but doesn’t.
Strange how having a baby has pushed her past that piece of her fastidiousness, at least tonight. She rubs at the sticky smear on her right breast, and even Nev, who takes such simple delight in her enlarged bosom, only has eyes for Linette at the moment.
So imperceptibly do people accustom themselves to new circumstances, new habits.
What had it been like for Mrs. Brown, to watch Penelope’s vowels and consonants contort themselves into a correct new posture, day by day? To hear her daughter’s voice grow quieter, and her gestures smaller?
Linette is so small, so warm. She’s happiest right here, curled in her mother’s arms, as close to being surrounded by Penelope as she can manage anymore. She wails as if her heart will break, sometimes, if Penelope is out of sight. But one day, she’ll be tall and squirm out of hugs, mortified by everything Penelope does. The thought is sad and wonderful at the same time, filling Penelope’s heart to bursting. Having a variety of sentiments, some of them in contradiction, is a universal human failing.
Penelope wants to accustom herself to courage, not cowardice. She’s tired of being bounded in a nutshell and saying to herself, No matter, I am used to it.
Nev is right; she should talk to Mrs. Brown.
Nev wanders over to her dressing table. Coming back with her comb, he begins to braid her hair for her. Somehow, Penelope can sense a little wistfulness, a shy questioning in his fingers. She never knew it was possible to feel so physically close to people—or—
She must have, once. She was a baby in her mother’s arms, a couple of decades ago. Once, she didn’t know it was possible to be physically separate; she had nestled under her mother’s heart. But then she forgot.
“Penny for your thoughts?” she says to Nev, but the nursery-maid comes back in and he doesn’t speak. He digs a penny out of her purse, though, dropping it into the narrow mouth of the brown jug she’s set out on her night-table.
It’s the one her father gave all his employees last Christmas: “Brown Jug Brewery” is painted on the side, along with the date and a silly verse: From Mother Earth I took my birth / Then formed a jug by man / And now stand here filled with good beer / Drink of me while you can.
She feels another moment of that consciousness looking at the jug: once this would have embarrassed her. Never say ‘brewery.’
The penny falls with a lovely hollow sound, landing with a half-clink half-clunk among the scattering of pennies already in the jug. Penelope flushes; last night she dropped a penny in the jar while Nev was inside her, and he said something very shocking indeed.
Linette senses her wandering attention somehow, and opens one eye to glare. She doesn’t like it when Penelope reads while she’s nursing, either; she reaches behind her to crumple the pages. Penelope sticks her tongue out at the baby.
“Should we not serve liquor at the house party, if your parents are coming?” Nev asks tentatively.
Penelope laughs. “I don’t think your other guests would much appreciate it. I’m sorry my father is so inconsistent on the subject.”
“I...” Nev hesitates again. “For a man to own a brewery, and be so firm on the subject of sobriety….”
Linette is barely sucking anymore, but she protests indignantly when Penelope tries to pop her off the nipple, clutching at Penelope’s nightgown. It seems so hard to ask a baby to moderate its desires, when there’s no way to explain the benefits. All Nettie understands is that she wants, and Penelope denies her.
Still, perhaps a natural consequence of permitting oneself immoderate emotion, is that one relies on others to say when one has gone too far; the heart of self-restraint is the belief that one can anticipate to what point the capacity of others might, or ought to extend, without troubling to inquire as to the facts—
She looks up. “Sorry, Nev. You’re right, I know it doesn’t make much sense.”
Nev doesn’t answer.
At last the nursery maid carries Linette off, leaving them alone. Penelope goes to the basin to wash. “What did you want to say?”
“Well, I suppose I wondered—although perhaps I do your family an injustice—“
He grins ruefully at her. “You’re rubbing off on me. I suppose I wondered if perhaps one of them...depended upon it too far, in some former time.”
It takes her a moment to understand that “it” means “liquor.” Her first thought is that she really is making Nev mealy-mouthed; her second, that he’s imposing his own family’s sordid history on hers. But after that…
”I don’t know,” she says slowly. “I was away at school, when Papa’s enthusiasm for sobriety started. I thought his vegetarian friend had been at him about the purity of the soul in its natural state.”
She feels a little vertiginous—could such a thing truly have happened in her home, without her ever knowing? She can think of a few signs, now she tries—a few instances that might mean much, or nothing at all.
She remembers her horror at Nev’s story of the contracts he signed without knowing what they said: there were pages and pages, with the most dashed tiny printing you ever saw. She felt so superior. But how much has she herself read without understanding? How much has she passed over, because it was simpler than looking closely, or asking?
How many things have happened to her, that her parents have no inkling of? Why hadn't it occurred to her that they might be keeping secrets, too?
“I’ll write and ask if they would prefer us to only serve small beer and watered wine.” She feels a little unbalanced walking back to the bed. She’s glad to lay her head on Nev’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about your father.”
He squeezes her waist. “That isn’t what I meant to talk to you about, though. I—I don’t want my mother at our house party.” He tenses, waiting for her answer.
Penelope's heart sinks. I said what I wanted, and it ruined everything, just as I knew it would. She manages not to say it, but she does say, feeling very small and flat, “I didn’t mean to make everything so complicated. My parents wouldn’t want...” She's not sure what to say. Of course the Browns know what to expect, and would be patient with Lady Bedlow, but it isn’t as if Penelope is eager to see them insulted.
“It’s not because of your parents,” Nev says firmly. “It’s something Percy said. I realized I’d be obliged to spend the whole week dancing attendance on her.” He shrugs out of his coat.
For a moment—such is the force of habit!—she forgets to feel lustful about it. She remembers as he’s loosening his cravat, and then has to wrench her mind back to his words in the middle of a sentence.
“...what she’s saying to your parents, and what she’s saying to Percy, and what she’s saying to Louisa, and what she’s saying about them when I’m out of earshot. I want to shut myself up in the billiard room with Percy and Thirkell for an hour or two without...” He undoes his last waistcoat button. Without its tight seams holding him up, he slumps—already waiting for her to explain why his own desires must be set aside for kindness and good manners. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, aren’t I?”
So: the effortless way he contrives harmony, when they’re in company, isn’t effortless after all. She feels awfully tender about that, and ashamed she didn't realize. “You don’t have to do all that. You could let us fend for ourselves. If you want to see her.”
His brow furrows. Then he says flatly, “I don’t want to. I know I ought. But I don’t. And I imagined—I don’t want Linette to humor me, when she’s grown, if she doesn’t want me to visit her. I couldn’t bear that.”
“Linette will adore you.”
That doesn’t seem to comfort him either. The slump is nearly a hunch, now. “I never asked to be her favorite."
“You aren’t Linette’s favorite!” she blurts out.
He blinks, then looks embarrassed. “No, I—I know that. I meant my mother.”
It’s a moment before she can dredge up the memory, having been drunk at the time and mostly hoping Edward couldn’t tell she was staring at Nev’s arse as he helped his mother down the carriage steps. Oh yes—the countess said, You were always my favorite, Nate, and then Nev nearly dropped her. Penelope remembers because when he caught her, his coat-tails parted and gave Penelope a lovely view. Oh no, and then Penelope told him, Your family gives me a headache!
Nev said they gave him a headache too. At the time, she thought it was funny.
“It’s not your fault.” Honesty, she reminds herself. “I wonder sometimes, if I’d had a brother, if Papa would have taken me to the brewery less.”
“You think it’s because I’m male?”
She gives him a crooked smile. “Maybe not. Honestly, Nev, I’m the last person to give an impartial answer to that. It seems entirely natural to me that everyone should adore you.”
He looks more uncomfortable yet. “This isn’t really my home.”
Oh—she was wrong before. Now everything’s ruined. Her small honesty, Can I invite my parents?—it was a dropped stitch, and now the rest is unraveling past repair.
Why should she feel so panicked? Surely she doesn’t prefer the country to town. She’s grown used to it, that's all; she can sleep through the cacophony of birds and the absence of traffic. The country is supposed to be more salubrious for children, but if Nev isn’t happy here…
She rushes to balance a mental tally: how much money to lease a house in town? Would they need to hire an assistant for Percy? With his salary, surely it would be fair to ask him to do it himself. Or Louisa might help—but with Penelope gone she would need a chaperone…
“I don’t mean...of course my home is with you,” he says.
Her breath comes out in a whoosh. She hadn’t even let herself know she was afraid he meant that.
“I meant, this was my mother’s house. And—the Grange isn’t simply our home in the way your parents’ house is theirs. It belongs to Loweston; it was meant to serve as a public building, nearly, for the estate. I can’t tell Aggie Cusher she has to move out, simply because I don’t like her. I can’t stop eating bacon, because then the servants can’t have bacon. They’re her servants! What will they say, if I don’t invite her, only because I don’t enjoy having her here? My own mother?”
It does seem harsh to Penelope.
Then she realizes that she did the same to her parents. That’s what started all this in the first place. The Browns never expected an invitation to this party. Why does it seem unnatural in Nev, and quite natural in her? Because she’s a wife, living in her husband’s house? Because the dowager countess is a lady?
Perhaps it’s only because the Brown family never obliged to actually talk about it to each other. They all just assumed.
“It’s your house now, Nev. The plain fact is, you can do whatever you like. If you decide you’d rather not have her here, I’m sure we could come up with a tactful story to salve her pride, and even make it true—that she had another invitation, or went to Great Yarmouth for the sea air.”
“Do you really think so?”
She nods. “Only—I’m sorry, Nev, but you can’t tell her it was on my account. For I’ve never asked you...” Or is this only vanity, to wish still to be thought a sensible, fair-minded girl, who never makes a fuss? Should she have asked? I want my nutshell back, she thinks.
Nev takes her hand. “You’ve been neverendingly patient, in fact. More generous than I deserve.”
“If you were required to deserve it, it could hardly be called generosity.”
He kisses her fingertips. “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation,” he murmurs. “We do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy...”
She was so surprised the first time she heard him quote that play, in the carriage on the way to Loweston. Barely twenty-four hours after their wedding. I’m not quite a dullard, he snapped.
He rubs at the sore places in her right hand, where she holds a pen. All these months, and she still hasn’t quite stopped underestimating him—or perhaps, she hasn’t stopped finding unforeseen qualities to admire in him. Perhaps she never will. His virtues will pile up like pennies, and thoughts, and memories: always one more, until death do us part.
She closes her eyes and concentrates on the pressure of his thumbs, drifting away from the conversation. He’s so sweet with Linette, and when she was pregnant, he quietly ordered a foot-bath for her every night, smelling of rosemary and…
“She’ll probably blame you or Percy no matter what I say,” he says with a sigh. “Probably I should just keep my mouth shut.”
In a blinding flash, she sees that this is something they have in common. Good God, how did she never realize?
“Oh, don’t do that.” She curls her fingers around his hand and pulls him towards her for a kiss, coaxing his closed mouth open and slipping her tongue inside.
”Penelope, I...don’t laugh at me.”
She eyes him. “I don’t think I ought to make that promise, when I can’t be sure of keeping it. But I’ll try to control my expression.”
“Would you like to hyphenate our name after all?”
“I beg your pardon?” What is he talking about? Did she miss something important while she was staring at him undressing?
“Didn’t your father tell you? He played a prank on me when I brought him the list of my debts; he said I ought to change my name to Ambrey-Brown.”
Her jaw drops. “He didn’t!”
“We did both think it was hilarious at the time, but—his clerk was right, people do it every day. Maybe it would be nice for Linette, to be Linette Ambrey-Brown. And then, if we have sons, the younger boys will use our surname, and pass it to their children. If your father—of course I don’t mean to presume on his generosity, but if he should by some chance decide to leave the brewery to someone in our family, they might wish to share a name with it.”
Penelope blinks. She turns to look at the penny jar: Brown Jug Brewery.
Such a common name. She put it aside at her wedding; she grew accustomed, bit by bit, to signing her name Penelope Bedlow. She never expected to miss ‘Brown’.
But she does, if she’s honest with herself.
Linette is Penelope’s daughter, her parents’ grandchild. Maybe—maybe she might inherit the brewery one day. Lady Linette Ambrey-Brown, of Brown Jug Brewery. It sounds lovely, actually. Penelope can imagine her daughter behind the big desk suddenly, laughing at the foreman’s jokes with Mr. Brown’s loud laugh, sealing bargains with Louisa’s frank handshake. Tears prick her eyes.
Of course, Linette will probably change her name when she marries anyway—but who knows?
Maybe anything’s possible.
Penelope takes a peach from the bowl. Nev watches her—but his expression isn’t puzzled, as it was a few days ago. He already knows what she’s doing, so half her mind isn’t occupied with how to explain it to him.
She lifts the fruit to her lips, embarrassed by how much trepidation she feels. She fits her mouth to it: a ripe, satisfying curve that gives beneath her teeth. The skin is velvet against her tongue. She takes a breath.
Her teeth go through the skin. Oh, it’s so good, the resistance giving way with a little effort—she forgets how sharp her front teeth are, sometimes—and then so much sweetness, a surplus of it. Overflowing her mouth and running down her fingers.
Nev is watching, eyes hot. Maybe he’ll lick her fingers clean.
Or maybe she’ll do it herself, this time. Why not? This isn’t the only peach she’ll ever eat. There’s more where that came from, she thinks, and means all of it: more peaches, more moments with Nev, with Linette, with their friends. More children, God willing. More worthwhile tasks. More and more every day, like pennies in a jug, except that she isn’t a jug, molded by human hands and fired hard—when she’s full up, she can stretch, and make herself bigger.
She sets her peach pit aside, for planting.
What do you think Nev and Penelope should spend their pennies on?
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