Percy, Cecil, and Kent shuffled their feet, shoulders slumped, head down when they walked into the Duke’s ballroom. At fifteen, the boys could think of hundreds of things they’d rather do than learn how to dance.
Emma and Rose had come early to giggle with Louisa about the three boys.
“Cecil is the cutest. I hope I’m paired with him,” Rose said.
“We switch around. You won’t be with one boy the whole time,” Louisa said. “Besides, Kent is the nicest of the three. I might step on a toe or two. I’d rather dance with someone who would be nice about it.”
Her Grace, the Duchess of Rutland and Louise’s mother, clapped her hands like a schoolteacher to get the teens’ attention.
“This is Mr Downs.” The girls curtsied, and the boys bowed. “He is your instructor. I have told him I want a full report on the progress and behaviour of this, this . . .” she waved her hand around, “group.”
She smiled. “Enjoy. I have fond memories of learning to dance.”
Louisa’s mother left, and Mr Downs lined them up, boys on one side and the girls facing them about three feet away from one another.
No sooner had the stepping in and out begun than Percy started laughing and couldn’t stop.
“Lord Pemberton. Is there a problem?”
Percy tried to sober, “No, sir, Mr Downs.” He laughed again.
“I apologize. May I take a moment to collect myself?”
Percy turned his back on the group and breathed deeply. He closed his eyes, managing to finally breathe steadily, and turned.
“Shall we continue?”
The group took a break halfway through the lesson for lemonade a kitchen server had left on the table against the wall. The boys stood together out of hearing distance of the girls while Mr Downs left the townhouse for fresh air.
“Why were you laughing, Percy?” Kent said.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I was finally able to stop when I looked at the girls. Their faces showed they were horrified. I felt like an eight-year-old.”
The remainder of the lesson went along without any outbursts. They curtsied and bowed, and the boys left to go home.
The girls stayed for tea. “What do you know of Percy?” Emma said. “He seems either fun-loving or immature.”
Louisa waved her hand as if swatting a fly. “He’s both. His family lives within walking distance of here, and we all dine together every so often. He and I joke around, roll our eyes, make fun of our parents, but he usually doesn’t laugh until he can’t stop. He’s usually not the way he was today.”
At the next lesson, the boys shuffled in and stood in a line facing the girls. Percy breathed deeply, trying to stay serious. He looked at Louisa. She rolled her eyes at him, something she had frequently done at the last dinner party.
He burst into laughter but got it under control, mostly because of the angry look Mr Downs sent his way.
“Lord Pemberton. Please take a seat,” he said, sweeping his hand to the wall where a row of chairs waited.
As he turned to leave, Louisa turned her back on Mr Downs and stuck out her tongue. Percy sobered instantly. As he walked by her, he whispered in her ear, “You have just declared war.”
Her small smile told him she intended to rise to the challenge.
When Percy was sprung from his ballroom seat jail, his plan was fully developed.
Mr Downs paired them off for the new country dance he planned to teach them.
He started with the boys, standing in front of them demonstrating the steps a few times until they got it. Then he hummed so the boys could dance to the rhythm and speed of the music.
When he turned to face the front, his back to the boys, Percy flapped his arms like a bird. Louisa squeaked and covered her mouth with her gloved hand, trying to cover her outburst with a cough.
Once the girls knew their part, they paired up. Louisa and Percy were a pair. When their hands met over their heads, Percy held hers with a crushing grip. She grimaced but said nothing. When she gave him a look designed to melt his face with fire, he stepped on her foot. Hard. So hard, it brought tears to her eyes.
She had to get serious about her revenge.
At the next lesson when Louisa and Percy were paired together, she stepped closer to him and breathed out.
“Lord Pemberton,” Mr Downs admonished when Percy took an abrupt step back.
“What did you eat?” he whispered to Louisa through clenched teeth.
She stepped as close as she dared, “Pardon?” She breathed on him again, and he stepped back again.
“Lord Pemberton,” Mr Downs snapped.
“Onions and sardines,” she said with a smug grin. “You like?”
Percy’s face turned red. “You’re disgusting.”
“Lord Pemberton,” Mr Downs said in a stern voice. “Please take a seat.”
Louisa turned her back on Mr Downs and pouted at Percy. She mouthed, “Ha, ha,” then turned her to Mr Downs with a smile.
After months of lessons, the six students eventually learned to dance despite Louisa and Percy’s antics. The two of them enjoyed their pranks with each other so much that they became good friends. They actually thought of each other like the brother and sister neither had. They vowed not to marry someone if their betrothed didn’t like Louisa or Percy.
They considered themselves a package deal. Percy and Louisa knew they would never be linked in marriage. They didn’t think of each other in that way. Besides, who could live day in and day out with someone plotting his or her next prank on you?
The music started up and Louisa, Emma, and Rose began to laugh.
“Finally, after all these years, we can dance for real,” Emma said.
“Where are the other boys?” Rose said, trying to see through the crowd.
“Ladies, we are trying to meet real gentlemen. It won’t happen in the hallway. We need to get inside. Besides, it might keep the gentlemen from us if we are with the boys. We need to be by ourselves, or they won’t approach.”
The three turned towards the ballroom and began to walk when they heard a voice.
“Not yet, ladies. Don’t be in such a rush,” Percy said. “You haven’t had the pleasure of our company.”
The ladies curtsied, and Percy, Cecil, and Kent bowed.
“We are headed inside to try to find gentlemen,” Emma said.
Yes, well maybe we can help?” Kent said.
The girls laughed. “How many times have we asked you if you could introduce us around? We met all your friends. You can’t help,” Louisa said.
Cecil tilted his head to the ceiling. “It would be so much easier if we weren’t your friends. Then we wouldn’t have to get in there and introduce ourselves to strangers.”
Rose said, “Yes, it would be. However, we should get in there.”
Over the last four years, all of them had become close friends. Louisa didn’t think it was possible, but she liked the three boys she got to know through ballroom dancing lessons.
They came in sullen and unprepared for the lessons Mr Downs gave. Lessons in etiquette when asking a woman to dance. Lessons in how to speak, what topics were recommended, what topics were not recommended. The six of them couldn’t help getting to know each other well.
Now she knew what it was like to have a brother. Percy made her laugh; he listened to her fears for the future, and he squirmed in his seat when she asked questions about men.
They readily admitted there was no physical attraction to one another. Louisa liked it that way. She thought intimacy of any kind would make their friendship different – and not in a good way.
Percy would walk over at teatime to keep the Duchess and Louisa company. Percy’s townhouse was empty except for staff. His parents liked to spend their time at their country estate. Unlike in most formal settings, the three put aside social constructs and talked about everything. Percy told hilarious stories about growing up in Gordon Castle, a draughty crumbling dinosaur that moaned on windy nights.
The Duke of Gordon seemed oblivious to his crumbling castle and his wayward son. Even Percy couldn’t understand why the kitchen staff didn’t check their apron pockets for frogs every time he walked through.
“It was lonely. I had to find my own entertainment. Making mischief kept me busy. I don’t know if there will be a time when I outgrow it.”
“Since the day we met, you have been causing trouble. I’m not sure you will ever outgrow that part of you. Luckily for you, it makes me laugh,” Louisa said.
The Duchess smiled indulgently at Percy. “Men can get away with little pranks. Women cannot. Keep that in mind when you are attempting to corrupt my little Louisa.”
Both Louisa and Percy laughed loudly. “Duchess, I think your daughter corrupts me more often than not.”
There were one to two balls a week. In any given month, a gentleman might approach and dance with a lady up to sixteen times. A gentleman could dance with the same lady twice per ball. The young ladies trying to develop relationships cursed the two-dance per ball rule.
At every ball, the three girls and the three boys went their separate ways lest they discourage others from approaching.
The boys huddled; one would look up in the direction of a girl he had interest in then huddle some more.
Finally, one of them would walk over to her, bow to her mother or her male relative and ask for a dance. He was then presented to the young lady, and after a curtsy and a bow, he would take her to the dance floor.
The three girls, having watched the whole transaction smiled broadly while they watched the dance. Sisters, proud of their brother.
Louisa danced two dances at each ball with Jack Duggan, the Earl of Salisbury. Jack also visited Louisa during calling hours when there wasn’t an evening ton event.
He was tall and handsome, with impeccable manners. He was intelligent and interesting. Percy thought he also had good taste in women.
Jack told her he saw her across the ballroom and knew he had to ask her to dance. Immediately. She was tall, willowy and animated. Her smile travelled across the space between them. Her dark hair and dark eyes gave her an exotic look. At first, he tried to figure out why he felt the pull but said he gave up trying to figure it out. He was drawn to her, and nothing was going to change that.
Louisa was attracted to him. It was a nice feeling that he was also interested in her. When they weren’t dancing their two dances, they stood near the wall of the ballroom and talked. They ate the midnight dinner together and took refreshments together. She wanted to get to know him better. And it seemed he wanted to get to know her better as well.
When Jack visited during calling hours, he told her stories about growing up in Salisbury. He described the countryside as green, rolling hills with a lake that matched the colour of the sky on a clear, sunny day.
He and the stable master built a course of increasingly difficult jumps. He spent hours working with his horses until each mastered the course.
Jack worked on the estate and in the village, helping to build a well in the village closer to the livestock and sheep. He helped prepare roots and plant for the healer. They made so many different plant remedies that he put the extra in pouches. Salisbury’s healer took the extras to surrounding villages.
Louisa loved hearing Jack’s stories. Although they were both only children, she spent much of her time alone. Her upbringing was different.
“I gathered up a pile of small rocks and laid them out on the ground in large squares to make room in the house. That’s when I left openings in the walls for doors and even made the dining room larger than the parlour. It was laid out just like our house.
“Then I’d walk from room to room, making sure I went through the doorways. I would sit down in the parlour. That’s when I would scold myself for not remembering to bring out the cups and saucers so I could have a tea party.”
Jack laughed. “That was clever of you. You mentioned that you read a great deal since you were a child. Did you read outside? I enjoyed spreading out a blanket and reading in the sun on a warm, cloudless day.”
Louisa smiled. “I loved that sometimes I woke up later with a book in hand, and I wouldn’t remember how I fell asleep. Reading is by far the best solitary activity. It saved me from boredom my entire childhood.”
In truth, there were very few entertaining stories Louisa could tell from her childhood. There were no children in the house. All the servants’ children lived in the village.
She had no cousins to visit or to visit her, and she never went to London until she was fifteen.
Every day, her mother required her to dress in dresses of pink, yellow, and white. If she played outdoors, she couldn’t do anything that would cause her dress to get dirty.
When her parents were in London, her governess, Darcy, would allow her to dress more casually. She could go to the barn and play with the dogs and pick flowers in the meadow.
As a special treat, she and her governess would walk to the village and walk up and down the main street looking in the windows of the cobbler, the seamstress, the baker.
Darcy would buy her a piece of chocolate. It tasted so much better in the bakery in the village than it did on a plate offered at teatime.
Back on the main street, Louisa would watch the barefoot children her age kick a ball between them, laughing. She longed to take off her shoes and stockings and play with them.
Darcy would take her hand and say, “Come. It’s time to go back.” They would walk back, Louisa dragging her feet.
The village seemed so magical. It was another world where there was a bakery and laughing children at play. So different from her life. Her quiet, regimented life that didn’t allow her to go around spontaneously deciding what she wanted to do next.
Louisa spent hours dreaming of running away from home. She would take a large cloth and put bread and cheese in it.
She would pack a nice dress, but she would ride with breeches. Once she got to London, she would go to the park and meet girls her age, and one would offer to take her in.
Then, she would grow up with a friend her age who liked to play with dolls, play patty-cake, race and explore wooded areas. She longed to go into the woods and see what it was like in there.
After she was settled with her new family, she would write to Mother and Father to let them know where she was living. She would ask them to visit on weekends. To visit her because she was sure she would miss them and they would miss her.
Then her plan would crumble. She would not be able to get to London by herself. She didn’t know the way. She didn’t have any money. She couldn’t stay in an inn by herself. Would one dress be enough when she got to London?
What if she didn’t make a friend at the park? Where would she stay? And on and on until she realized she was stuck at her country estate.
Time went slowly. Laughter and joy were scarce. Most of her gifts were books, which she loved, but which represented one of the few approved activities she had.
Going to London at the age of fifteen was the most exciting time of her life. Every single day was a joy.
Sometimes Louisa wondered if London would be such a joy if Percy weren’t in her life. From the moment she met him, they laughed and understood each other. It was the most important relationship she had.
After dance lessons, Percy somehow started coming over every day for tea. Louisa looked forward to that time every day. He would make her laugh. He would make her think. He was so relaxed like he was part of the family.
Most women had girlfriends as their best friends, but Louisa considered Percy hers.
She could picture him as more, but she was afraid to go down that road. She didn’t and wouldn’t want to jeopardize her friendship with Percy for a chance of a love interest. She kept the whole idea of Percy being a love interest as far down in her mind as she could.
Louisa was sure Percy didn’t see her as a love interest. And she was sure she would lose him if she were even to hint at such an idea.
She tolerated whomever he courted because the woman needed to accept her so that Louisa could continue to see Percy.
And the same went for him. Luckily, Percy and Jack got along well. Somehow, she knew if they didn’t, she would have to choose between them. She couldn’t even bear to think about making that decision. She couldn’t bear losing Percy.
Almost every time Jack left the parlour and was ushered out the door by Mendon, Amelia commented on the Earl.
“He seems very interested in you, Louisa. He continues to ask you to dance, and he always visits. He even seems interested in the kind of childhood you had. I’m not sure every suitor would be interested in your background. I like him.”
Louisa smiled. “I do too. He is a nice man, and I can see myself with him. When I have doubts, I look up, see him walk up to me, and ask to dance or visit me. I think he’s the one, Mother.”
“I think the next time he visits, I’ll instruct Mendon to find your father so he can drop in and say hello.”
The season was going well for Percy as well. He met a cute, quiet girl who laughed at his jokes and looked up into his face adoringly. Louisa loved to observe him. She saw her from across the ballroom. Nora stood next to him, happy to be within his orbit. They didn’t fight for the limelight. Nora was perfect for him.
“Did you come here to tell me you’re betrothed?” Louisa asked one day over tea.
Percy grinned. “No, I’m here to tell you I will be soon.”
Louisa grinned back. “That’s wonderful news. Tell me about her. Better yet, bring her around for tea. I can interrogate her myself.”
“I will. You are going to like her, Louisa. I do. We are compatible, and although she doesn’t make me dizzy in love, I know she and I will get along well. She’s not the type to stir up trouble.”
“So when are you going to let her in on your plans?” Louisa asked.
“Not yet. I’ll want to marry soon after the betrothal but not during the season, so I’ll wait.”
The following week, Nora joined Percy for tea with Louisa and her mother.
“Welcome, dear,” Louisa’s mother said, “we’ve been looking forward to meeting the woman who has captivated our Percy.”
After curtsies and bows, Nora sat and said, “And I’m pleased to meet you.” She turned to Louisa, “Percy has told me about your dance lessons. Most men groan when they think back on learning to dance, but Percy has fond memories of the experience.”
Louisa grinned. “Well, that’s because Percy used to take great glee in stepping on my toe or crushing my hand while we danced. I’m sure he’s been on his best behaviour with you Nora, but his dance skills were purposely lacking in those days.”
“Don’t believe a word she says Nora,” Percy said.
She laughed and faced him. “Somehow, I think she should be believed.”
Tea was an enjoyable experience. Both Louisa and the Duchess enjoyed Nora’s company. They both noticed a fondness Percy and Nora had for each other.
Percy was impulsive. He dove into whatever caught his eye and immersed himself until something else caught his eye, and he moved on. Louisa thought he was looking for something, something just out of reach, but very important. He just thought he was restless.
He couldn’t stand being alone, and he couldn’t stand being bored. He woke late, having stayed up until the early hours of the morning.
His mind raced most of the time, and he was unable to turn it off. He had learned long ago how to hide his racing mind and restless body so it wasn’t apparent to others.
He thought of his upcoming day, his visit to Gentleman Jim’s boxing club to exhaust his body or at least bring it down a notch and his horse ride through the St James’ gardens where the hurdles course waited. If the hurdles weren’t vigorous enough for him that day, he would opt for the open track.
Then, his body under control, his mind would take over, and he would think about who he would target that day and what kind of prank he would play.
Once in London, and he met Louisa at dance lessons, he looked forward to them. She made him laugh, and he made her laugh. His mind was engaged.
When lessons were over, he somehow fell into the habit of joining her and her mother for tea every day. His townhouse was empty but for the servants, and he craved using his mind. He loathed being alone.
Cecil and Kent were best for an evening at White’s. Louisa and the Duchess were best for tea, so he watched the clock all morning until it was teatime. He checked his cravat and walked the few blocks to her townhouse. She and the Duchess welcomed him warmly.
He sat, listened, and talked. He would pull them out of topics meant for women or that were boring. He loved gossip. It made him laugh.
Every so often, the ladies would invite him to dine with them. He always accepted. Cecil and Kent ate at White’s every evening, and he always joined them. He couldn’t imagine sitting in his dining room at home eating alone.
But when he received a dinner invitation from the Duchess, he would send a note to White’s letting his friends know he wouldn’t be joining them. It was a welcome change.
He loved Louisa. He couldn’t imagine being without her, but he didn’t dare think of her as anything but a friend. He didn’t dare venture into a relationship only to have it fall apart. Then he would be left without her. He could forego an intimate relationship with her for her friendship. A friendship would last forever.
But he wouldn’t fool himself. If he could have both, he would. He never touched her for fear it would become addictive.
He watched out for whom she liked and whom she courted. He wouldn’t let her get serious about the wrong kind of man. But he made it clear to her and her love interest that he would always be in the picture.
She easily agreed that the man she ended up with also had to be aware that Percy would be part of the deal. A package deal.
Curiously, he wasn’t jealous of Jack. The man accepted him and his relationship with Louisa where he wasn’t sure other men would. He was more grateful to Jack for accepting him than jealous of him. Jack was a nice man, and Percy knew he would never do anything to make her unhappy. But heaven help him if he came between him and Louisa.
After his bow, Percy sat in his chair until Louisa passed him some tea.
“What has you restless today?” she asked.
Percy blew out a long breath and shrugged. “I don’t know. I woke up this way. I think I had a nightmare, but I don’t recall.” He shrugged again.
Louisa offered him a plate with cookies and biscuits, but he waved it off. “Something troubling you? Your father? Your health? Nora?”
He shook his head. “No, I’ve mentally gone down the list, and there is nothing out of the ordinary.
“I do have a question I’ve been rolling around in my head, however. I’m not sure why it even matters, but I’d like to solve it.” Percy turned to the Duchess.
“Duchess, what is your philosophy on love? I see so many different relationships on the dance floor, and I don’t know what to make of it.
“There’s the couple that you can say are truly in love. There is the couple that is very well suited and will live a contented life together without love, and there’s the couple that is pairing up because the gentleman needs an heir and the lady needs a husband.”
Louisa interrupted. “And don’t forget the couple where the woman was forced to marry by her father or by financial circumstances. Or my favourite, the woman or man who flit from one partner to another until they latch on to the person who has the most money. Just a few examples of the marriage of convenience.
Percy nodded. “I’m very contented with Nora. She is wonderful, but I’m not in love.”
Percy was silent, looking to the Duchess to see her reaction and what she would say.
“I understand your struggle, Percy. I always knew you were a sensitive soul. Very few find love, in England or anywhere else in the world. We have all seen it, so we think we too might find it, but we don’t.
“It’s rare. But what you have with Nora is strong and almost as good. You have compatibility and mutual respect. You have a single vision of your future. Don’t undervalue what you have. Many couples don’t even have that.”
Percy nodded. He just needed to accept that that’s all there was. He couldn’t hold out for love.
Somehow settling for contentment seemed like the wrong thing for him to do. He wanted love. He wanted to wake up every day next to someone special, and he wanted her to wake up to someone she thought was special as well.
Would he end up an old bachelor searching for something he would never find?
Louisa reached over and put her hand over his. “Nora is wonderful. You’ll see. You will probably be the happiest of all of us. Who knows? Maybe you will fall in love with her over time.”
Percy lifted his head and looked into Louisa’s eyes. “What about you, Louisa?”
She gave him a small smile. “I’m in a similar relationship as you. The only difference is I’m content with it. Jack’s a wonderful man, and I expect to have a good life with him. I thank God I was able to choose my partner. I feel sorry for women who are forced to marry. I doubt those marriages ever work out.”
The Duchess spoke, “You two are lucky to have found your partners. I agree with Louisa that marriages of convenience are usually unhappy marriages, but not always so. The Duke and I were lucky. We barely knew each other when we married. It could have gone so wrong, but it didn’t. You’re best thinking what you have instead of what you don’t have.”
“Thank you, Duchess,” Percy said. “I think marriage questions are best answered by married people.”
“I think you are right,” she said.
“A Duchess to Fight For” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Friends since they were young, Percy and Louisa vowed to never marry each other and ruin their deep friendship. Around them, couples enjoying their season pair up motivated by dowries, titles and alliances, but not by love.
Percy and Louisa reject marrying on those terms but fear they won’t find a partner or worse, they will have to break their vow and risk losing out to being joined in an unhappy marriage.
What happens after Louisa rejects Percy’s proposal? And how do their feelings for each other change?
“A Duchess to Fight For” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.