I’m pleased to announce I’ve successfully done what I secretly wanted to do for my past two books and never got around to doing—include the Victorian language of flowers!
Yes, In Charleston With You—which will take place in part at the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition of 1901–1902—stars a British man with a ne’er-do-well brother, both of whom inherited a love of floriography from their late parents. Across the pond, a beautiful, spit-fire pen pal will challenge everything the brothers have planned for themselves.
And now, without further ado, you can read the first chapter for yourself…
Jacob blew air into his gloved hands as he trudged through the snowy streets towards the fourth pub of the night. London’s unforgiving December chill had all but numbed his hands now, but he could still feel the cold through his clothes, and it was getting painful to move.
I hope he’s in there. I hope he’s all right. And if he is, I’ll kill him.
Pushing open the door to The Gardeners Arms, Jacob marched to the back of the room, past half-asleep men nursing their whisky, absinthe, or gin. With both hands on the stained oak counter, he called to the barman. “Is there a game still on in your back room?”
The barman looked up from the glass he was cleaning to give Jacob a quizzical look over the top of his bifocals. From experience, Jacob knew all the stations at which the barman’s train of thought stopped while looking him over. First, Jacob would look eerily familiar to him. He’d think it was strange that a man—albeit with a completely different disposition—was walking into his pub for the second time in a night. Then the barman might notice the different clothes or the few shades of difference in their whiskey-colored hair, and it would dawn on him.
Predictably, this barman said, “Would you happen to have—”
“An absolute fool of a brother? Yes. Tobias Cartwright. Is he still here?”
The barman nodded and jerked his head in the direction of a door to the back room. Jacob nodded his thanks and braced himself for whatever he was about to find.
The tang of sour, cheap beer assaulted his nostrils as he pushed the door open, followed quickly by something exceedingly more pungent and sickeningly familiar. A round, water-stained table littered with playing cards stood in the center of the room surrounded by mismatched wooden chairs. Half a dozen men in various states of sobriety stood not near their poker game, but huddled around something off to the side. Or someone.
“He doesn’t look so good.”
“‘Ow many ‘as ‘e ‘ad?”
“Not more than three pints.”
“Three? My nan drinks three at suppertime.”
Jacob’s stomach sank like a stone. Sure enough, when he approached, a scarfless, coatless Tobias lay crumpled in a heap on the floor.
One bystander looked up to catch a glimpse of Jacob’s face, recognized the family resemblance, and stepped aside to let him through. Jacob dropped to the floor to assess the night’s damages. A quick pat on his thigh confirmed Tobias had lost his wallet and whatever was inside. That off-putting stench that first hit Jacob had indeed been Tobias’s vomit, which formed a chunky puddle beside his pale, grimacing face. He was drenched in sweat and moaning, but thank God, he was still breathing.
Seeing his little brother in excruciating pain made Jacob heartsick. Tobias was more of a victim than anything else. They’d be long gone by now, but the prats Tobias ran with knew exactly how much fun he’d provide them—at his own expense—if only they could lure him to a card game. One lager would be all it took to begin his unraveling—which made him easy prey.
Tobias coughed, and he strained to whisper, “Is that you, Jacob?”
“I’m sorry,” Tobias croaked. “I-I just couldn’t stay away.”
The brotherly love evaporated. What Tobias said was true, but that didn’t stop it from feeling like a lazy excuse. Jacob ground his teeth together to keep from snapping, Yes, you could have! If you would ignore your dodgy friends and take up a job like I’ve begged you, we wouldn’t be in this mess! It was a declaration not unlike several he’d strung together in his head over the past handful of years since their mother—with her saintly patience and soothing voice—succumbed to illness. Lately, they sat on his tongue with greater and greater weight.
But losing his patience with Tobias wouldn’t be productive now, would it?
Jacob lightly smacked each of Tobias’s cheeks. “Come on, now. You’ve had your fun, haven’t you? It’s time to go home.”
“Mmph,” was all Tobias could manage.
Realizing the show was over, the onlookers disbanded. Jacob talked one of them into fetching something to force Tobias back to this side of sobriety while he dragged Tobias up off the ground by the underarms. The man returned with a pint glass packed full of snow.
Again, Tobias moaned. “What am I meant to do with that?”
“You open your mouth, and down the hatch it goes,” Jacob said, nodding his thanks at the man as he took the glass from him.
The man shrugged. “I would’ve suggested we stuff it somewhere else. Down his jumper, or down his—”
“You’re mad!” Tobias screeched. As he did so, Jacob took hold of his jaw and tilted the glass forward until a gob of snow slammed into Tobias’s open mouth. Tobias wrenched himself away from Jacob, shivering and spitting out snow. The other fellow barked out too hearty of a laugh for either of the Cartwright brothers’ liking as he exited.
Jacob shrugged off his coat and threw it around Tobias’s shoulders. At the same time, the jolt swallowing snow had given him wore off, and Tobias’s eyelids drooped as he slouched into himself. In the nick of time, Jacob maneuvered himself under Tobias’s arm to support his weight. Both of them were of an average size, and Tobias wasn’t much heavier than Jacob, but the extra mass had Jacob’s knees wobbling already, and it wasn’t a short walk home.
Tobias’s voice was thick with tears. “Thank you.”
Jacob groaned in relief as he took his first sluggish steps over the threshold. It wasn’t much warmer inside his flat than on the frigid streets, but at least he was that much closer to his bed—the soft sheets, the pillows he’d just purchased the other day, the warm blankets…
All that and more on his bed, the only bed in the flat.
Jacob studied Tobias’s lightless green eyes, untidy hair, and general disorderly appearance. The man was a wreck. No employer yet wanted to risk hiring someone with Tobias’s tarnished reputation, which only made him feel worse, and that led him to pursue unseemly pastimes.
At least, that’s what Jacob imagined was happening. They didn’t discuss it much.
Whatever fueled Tobias’s return to the cards and drink, he did always return, and those escapades always reached the ears of those who might’ve otherwise helped him. Jacob clinged to the hope that tonight wouldn’t dramatically worsen the situation. The authorities weren’t called. They shuffled away under the cover of night. Tomorrow was another opportunity for a help wanted sign to appear in some good-hearted soul’s shop, or for an advertisement to be written just vaguely enough so as not to immediately disqualify Tobias.
Jacob was so caught up in this fantasy, he hadn’t noticed Tobias slipped out of his grasp and stumbled into the bedroom—not until the first eardrum-shattering snore.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” Jacob shouted as he dashed to reclaim what was rightfully his.
But it was too late. Clutching the duvet to his chest and out cold, Tobias would be unwakeable and unmoveable.
Smothered frustrations threatened to reignite in the pit of Jacob’s stomach. This was supposed to be his bed. That was the deal when he agreed to house and clothe and feed Tobias until he had the means to live on his own. True, he let Tobias sleep there when he had an early morning job interview, but that was it, and that wasn’t the case tonight.
He deserved all forty of the winks Tobias would get on the bed. Not every man in his twenties would put in so much time and effort in supporting someone who wasn’t his wife, never mind venture into the freezing night to find a clod whose remorse would fade along with the alcohol’s effects come morning.
If he vomits in my bed, I’ll never forgive him.
As Jacob turned to go make up the couch for himself, Tobias murmured something in his sleep. Jacob only caught one word: “burden.”
His response came as a reflex. “You’re not a burden, Toby.”
“I’ll work it all out,” Tobias said around another snore. “You’ll see.”
Jacob told him he was happy to hear it and exited, closing the door to the bedroom, hardly processing what his brother was going on about. He yawned. If he were more awake, his curiosity might have been piqued. But the sun would be rising soon, and Jacob preferred to rise with it. He retrieved both spare blankets from the linen closet, toed off his shoes, and collapsed onto the sofa.
Now, Jacob hadn’t used the sofa in a long while. He wasn’t home enough to engage in much lounging, and even when he was, the sofa was so associated with Tobias’s sleeping space in Jacob’s mind that he avoided the area altogether, preferring to read or solve jigsaw puzzles at the dining table. But the discomfort he felt now was new, and the soft crunching sound when he shifted made him all the more perplexed.
A quick brush of his hand along each cushion yielded the culprit: there was something—many paper somethings, by the feel of it—in the cushion. Jacob groped around until he found a tear in the fabrics. A deliberate tear.
What have you been up to, Toby?
The answer was writing letters. Dozens upon dozens of letters were squirreled away in the cushions over the past several months, if the dates on the letters were anything to go by. When he was sure he’d retrieved them all, Jacob lit a candle and got to reading.
He meant to merely skim a few of them, just to be sure nothing scandalous or illegal was going on. At worst, Jacob imagined that Tobias might be sending love letters to a handful of women whom he believed might give him the time of day. The earliest letters indicated that was exactly what Tobias had in mind. Odd that he would choose to have the ladies address him by the brothers’ shared middle name, Joseph, instead of Tobias, but maybe the anonymity was part of his fun.
Then, about three months into this epistolary hobby, the number of ladies to whom he was writing dropped in number until only one remained—a woman named Vivi. She wrote with the graceful penmanship, fine paper, and high-quality ink of someone from far more wealth than Jacob generated as a stenographer. Her letters had a delicate floral perfume applied, which Jacob appreciated. Even an untrained nose would’ve been able to identify the rose and orange blossom in the scents. He recalled their respective meanings without needing to reference the books passed down to him by his mother—love, and your purity equals your loveliness.
Jacob smiled. An orange blossom was one of the dried flowers his father pressed between the pages of a certain lady’s books purchased from his shop. That lady would become his wife, and Jacob and Tobias’s mother. Both brothers inherited their father’s green eyes and fleshy nose, their mother’s bronze skin and airy laugh, and a mutual love of floriography.
But there was no way an American girl could know about the Victorian language of flowers that brought his parents together. Americans didn’t know or care about such things, did they?
Nevertheless, Jacob was intrigued, and that was a good thing. It was only this piqued curiosity that led him to discover the real reason Tobias was using his middle name in their correspondence—and likely the reason he began writing Vivi in the first place.
Incensed, Jacob burst into the bedroom just as the sun’s rays decided to do the same. “You’re engaged!”
Tobias didn’t stir. In one fluid motion, Jacob ripped off the covers. Tobias’s legs shot up to his chest. Shaking violently, Tobias used one hand to search for a source of warmth. When he found none and realized what happened, he blearily regarded Jacob. “What are you on about?”
“You’re engaged,” Jacob repeated, paying no mind to how his increase in volume caused Tobias to wince. “And you used my poetry to woo her!”
“Can we talk about this in a few hours?”
“We absolutely cannot. You need to sit up, pick up a pen, and write to this girl that you can’t possibly marry her.”
Tobias wilted. “I can’t.”
“What are you talking about? Of course—” Jacob’s eyes widened. “No, you can’t, can you? You’d be breaking her heart, and you don’t want to do that.”
Tobias sighed. “There’s more to it than that. You don’t understand. But if you make me a quite strong cuppa and swear on your life to leave me be until evening afterward, I’ll spill all my secrets.”