A Most Improper Magick
I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.
I made it almost to the end of my front garden.
“Katherine Ann Stephenson!” My oldest sister Elissa’s outraged voice pinned me like a dagger as she threw open her bedroom window. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” Curses.
I froze, still holding my pack slung across my shoulder. I might be my family’s best chance of salvation, but there was no expecting either of my older sisters to understand that. If they’d trusted me in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to run away in the middle of the night, like a criminal.
The garden gate was only two feet ahead of me. If I hurried…
“I’m going to tell Papa!” Elissa hissed.
Behind her, I heard groggy, incoherent moans of outrage—my other sister, Angeline, waking up.
Elissa was the prissiest female ever to have been born. But Angeline was simply impossible. If they really did wake the whole household, and Papa came after me in the gig …
I’d planned to walk to the closest coaching inn, six miles away, and catch the dawn stagecoach to London. If Papa caught up with me first, the sad, disappointed looks I’d have to endure from him for weeks afterward would be unbearable. And the way Stepmama would gloat over my disgrace—the second of our mother’s children to be a disappointment to the family …
I gritted my teeth together as I turned and trudged back toward the vicarage.
Angeline’s voice floated lazily through the open window. “What were you shouting about?”
“I was not shouting!” Elissa snapped. “Ladies never shout.”
“You could have fooled me,” said Angeline. “I thought the house must have been burning down.”
I pushed the side door open just in time to hear my brother, Charles, bellow, “Would everyone be quiet? Some of us are trying to sleep!”
“What? What?” My father’s reedy voice sounded from
his bedroom at the head of the stairs. “What’s going on out there?”
My stepmother’s voice overrode his. “For heaven’s sake, make them be quiet, George! It’s past midnight. You cannot let them constantly behave like hoydens. Be firm, for once!”
I groaned and closed the door behind me.
Like it or not, I was home.
I squeezed through the narrow kitchen and tiptoed up the rickety staircase that led to the second floor. When I was a little girl and Mama’s influence still lingered in the house, each of the stairs had whispered my name as I stepped onto them, and they never let me trip. Now, the only sound they made was the telltale creak of straining wood.
The door to Papa and Stepmama’s room swung open as I reached the head of the first flight of stairs, and I stopped, resigned.
“Kat?” Papa blinked out at me, peering through the darkness. He held a candle in his hand. “What’s amiss?”
“Nothing, Papa,” I said. “I just went downstairs for some milk.”
“Oh. Well.” He coughed and ran a hand over his faded nightcap. “Er, your stepmother is quite right. You should all be in bed and quiet at this hour.”
“Yes, Papa.” I hoisted the heavy sack higher on my shoulder. “I’m just going back to bed now.”
“Good, good. And the others?”
“I’ll tell them to be quiet,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“Good girl.” He reached out to pat my shoulder. A frown crept across his face. “Ah … is something wrong, my dear?”
“I don’t mean to be critical, er, but your clothing seems … it appears … well, it does look a trifle unorthodox.”
I glanced down at the boy’s breeches, shirt, and coat that I wore. “I was too cold for a nightgown,” I said.
“But …” He frowned harder. “There’s something about your hair, I don’t quite know what—”
My stepmother’s voice cut him off. “Would you please stop talking and come back to bed, George? I cannot be expected to sleep with all this noise!”
“Ah. Right. Yes, of course.” Papa gave a quick nod and turned away. “Sleep well, Kat.”
“And you, sir.”
I tiptoed up the last five steps that led to the second-floor landing. The doors to Charles’s room and my sisters’ room were both closed. If I was very, very lucky …
I leaped toward the ladder that led up to the attic where I slept.
No such luck. The door to my sisters’ room jerked open.
“Come in here now!” Elissa said. I couldn’t make out her features in the darkness, but I could tell that she had her arms crossed.
“‘Ladies don’t cross their arms like common fishwives,’” I whispered, quoting one of Elissa’s own favorite maxims as I stalked past her into their room.
Elissa slammed the door behind her.
“Give us light, Angeline,” she said. “I want to see her face.”
Angeline was already lighting a candle. When the tinder finally caught and the candle lit, the sound of my sisters’ gasps filled the room.
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared right back at them.
“You—you—” Elissa couldn’t even speak. She collapsed onto her side of the bed, gasping and pressing one slender hand to her heart.
Angeline shook her head, smirking. “Well, that’s torn it.”
“Don’t use slang,” Elissa said. Being able to give one of her most common reproofs seemed to revive her spirits a little; the color came flooding back into her face. With her fair hair and pale skin, I could always tell her mood from her face, and right now, she was as horrified as I’d ever seen her. She took a deep, deep breath. “Katherine,” she said, in a voice that was nearly steady. “Would you care to explain yourself to us?”
“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t.” I lifted my chin, fighting for height. I was shorter than either of my sisters, a curse in situations like this.
“What is there to explain?” Angeline said. “It’s obvious. Kat’s finally decided to run off to the circus, where she belongs.”
“I do not!”
“No?” Angeline’s full lips twisted as she looked at me. “With that haircut, I don’t know where else you hoped to go. Perhaps if you hid behind all the other animals—”
“Shut up!” I lunged for her straight across the room.
Their bed was in the way. I hit my knees on it, then flung aside my sack and crawled across the bed to get to her. Angeline’s taunting laughter made my vision blur with rage. I landed on her, punching blindly, and kept on fighting even after she’d shoved me down onto the bed and wrapped her arm around my neck, half strangling me.
“Stop it!” Elissa shrieked.
Something heavy hit the other side of the wall: Charles signifying his displeasure. Across the stairwell, a door opened. Footsteps approached. A firm knock sounded on the door.
We all froze. We knew that knock.
“You’ve done it now, haven’t you?” Angeline whispered into my ear.
“Cow,” I whispered back.
“What’s happening in there?” our stepmother demanded, through the door.
Angeline shoved me off the bed and onto the floor. When I tried to stand up, she put one hand on my newly
short hair and pushed me straight back down. “Stay where you are!” she hissed. “She mustn’t see you like this.” She looked across the bed at Elissa. “You try to fob her off.”
Elissa was already moving for the door, her face suddenly angelic and serene. “I’m coming, Stepmama,” she called. “Just a moment.” She stopped just short of the door and whispered, “Put that light out! Quick!”
Angeline blew the candle out and threw herself back into bed, pulling the covers up to her chin.
I huddled on the cold floor in the darkness while Elissa opened the door.
“What do you think—”
“We are so sorry for the noise, Stepmama,” Elissa murmured. “Angeline had a fright and fell out of bed.”
“All that screaming …” Stepmama’s voice drew nearer. I could imagine what was happening, even though I couldn’t see it: She was poking her sharp nose into the room, peering around in hopes of mischief. It was her never-ending quest: to prove to Papa how incorrigible we all were. Just like our mother had been.
“Angeline had a terrible nightmare,” Elissa said, and I was amazed by how well my saintly sister could lie when she was properly motivated.
“Perhaps I should come in and look things over,” Stepmama said.
“Ohhh …,” Angeline moaned from the bed. Angeline, unlike Elissa, never found any difficulty in lying. “Oh, my poor stomach …”
Stepmama sighed and started forward. “If you’re ill, I’d better—”
ill,” Angeline said. “All over the floor.”
“Oh.” Stepmama came to an abrupt halt. “Where—?”
“Do watch where you step,” Elissa said sweetly. “I haven’t had a chance to clean it up quite yet, so—”
Stepmama’s feet shuffled back hastily. “Well,” she said. “Well. I’m sure that you’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep, Angeline. But see that you girls take care of the mess first. And no more noise!”
The door closed, and her footsteps moved away. I stayed frozen until her bedroom door had opened and closed again on the other side of the stairwell. As I finally moved, my hand slipped on the wooden floor and slid across two familiar, oddly shaped books hidden just beneath the bed.
I knew those books. They weren’t supposed to be here. They were supposed to be locked away with the rest of our mother’s keepsakes, where Papa and Stepmama hoped we would all forget that they had ever existed. Just like Mama herself.
I started to pick them up, then stopped. Now wasn’t the time to ask either of my sisters provocative questions.
“Whew.” I stood up and stretched to relieve my cramped muscles as Angeline relit the candle. “Well, I’d better go up to bed and sleep now, as Stepmama said, so—”
“Don’t even think about it,” said Angeline. Her arm
shot out and grabbed the back of my jacket, pinning me to the side of the bed. “Open up her pack, Elissa. Let’s see what Kat was planning to take away with her.”
“I’m not a thief,” I muttered.
Angeline threw me a look of amused contempt. “I never thought you were, ninny. I just wondered what sort of practical provisioning you’d made to prepare for your journey.”
“Journey?” Elissa said. Her voice came out in a gasp. “What journey?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Angeline. “What else did you think she was doing, dressed up as a boy and heading out in the middle of the night? She was running away, weren’t you, Kat?”
I gritted my teeth and stood silent under her grasp.
“You couldn’t—why—” Elissa collapsed onto the bed. “Whatever would make you do such a thing? How could you even think—?”
“I didn’t have a choice!” The words burst out between my gritted teeth. “It was the only way I could stop you from being an idiot!”
“Me?” Elissa stared at me.
“If you’re trying to fool us with one of your wild stories—,” Angeline began.
I glowered at her. “And you. You were going to let her do it!”
“Do what?” said Elissa. “What is she talking about?”
“I heard Stepmama!” I said to Elissa. “She was positively
gloating about it to Papa. All about how she’d managed to save the whole family by selling you off to some horrible old man. And you hadn’t even told me! You two never tell me anything! I knew if I tried to argue, you wouldn’t pay any attention, so—”
“Oh, Lord,” Angeline said. “I knew if she found out—”
“At least I was going to do something about it.” I swung on Angeline. “You were just going to let her sacrifice herself.”
“And what exactly was your plan?” Angeline asked. “Once you’d fitted yourself out like a monkey—”
“I was going to London,” I said. “I knew if I ran away, there would be such a scandal that Stepmama wouldn’t be able to sell Elissa off. And once I was there …” I half closed my eyes, to see my dream past my sister’s skeptical face. “There are thousands of jobs a boy can get in London. I could sign on to a merchant ship and make my fortune in the Indies, or I could be a typesetter at a newspaper and see every part of London. All I’d have to do is get work, real work, earning money, and then I could send part of it home to you two, so at least you could both have real dowries and then—”
“Oh, you little fool,” Elissa said, and the words came out in a half sob. “Come here, Kat.” Angeline let go of me, and I crawled over the bed to Elissa’s warm embrace. She wrapped her arms around me, and I felt her tears land on my short hair. “Promise me you won’t ever do anything so rash and unnecessary ever again.”
“But—” My voice came out muffled against her nightgown.
Angeline spoke from behind me. “How long do you think you would have survived in London on your own, idiot? And who do you think would have hired you, coming from the countryside with no references, no one who knows you to give you a good word, no skills or experience—”
“I have skills!” I said.
“Not the sort that get young men hired,” Angeline said implacably. “And when they found out you weren’t really a boy …”
Elissa shuddered and tightened her arms around me. “It isn’t to be thought of,” she said. “The danger you would have been exposed to—”
“The danger she would have walked straight into, without even thinking twice,” Angeline corrected her.
“I could have taken care of myself,” I said. “Charles taught me how to box and fence last year when he was sent down from Oxford for bad behavior.”
“Charles is a fool,” said Angeline, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t half as good at boxing or fencing as he claims to be.”
The three of us sat for a moment in depressed silence, acknowledging the truth of that.
Elissa sighed. “But the point is, darling, it isn’t necessary for you to save me.”
“Who else is going to do it?” I struggled up out of her
embrace. “I am not going to let you sell yourself off just so Stepmama can buy us all dozens of new gowns and seasons in London and—”
“And keep our brother from being sent to debtors’ prison,” Angeline said evenly.
I snorted. “You should know better than to listen to Stepmama’s moans. She’s just hysterical about—”
“It’s true,” said Elissa. “I saw the evidence myself. Papa borrowed everything he could to pay off Charles’s dreadful gambling debts, but he couldn’t cover all of them. If we can’t come up with the money to pay the rest within two months, poor Charles will have to go to debtors’ prison.”
“‘Poor Charles,’ my foot,” said Angeline. “Going to debtors’ prison is exactly what Charles deserves.”
I looked from Angeline to Elissa. “But surely—”
“If Charles goes to debtors’ prison, we will all be ruined,” Elissa said. “None of us would ever receive an eligible offer of marriage after that. You know our family is already considered … well …” She bit her lip.
“I know,” I said. Stepmama was only too ready to remind us, anytime one of us forgot. There were plenty of people in Society who would always look at us askance just because of our mother, no matter how properly we behaved or what our dowries were. It was one reason why I had decided long ago not to bother behaving properly. “But that can’t be enough to make you marry an old man! Whoever he is.”
“Sir Neville Collingwood,” Angeline said. “One of the wealthiest men in England. You can see why Stepmama chose him, can’t you?”
“He’s not so very old, Kat,” Elissa said. She clasped her hands together and looked down at them. “I don’t think he can be above forty, and—”
“And Stepmama says he is supposed to be quite handsome.”
“Supposed to be? She hasn’t even met him herself?”
“We’ve been very fortunate even to gain this one opportunity.” Elissa’s voice sounded strained. “Stepmama has good relations, you know.”
“Ha,” I said.
“Well, she has connections, at any rate,” Elissa said. “It was through them that she found out that Sir Neville is coming into Yorkshire—and that she arranged for us to meet him.”
“Sir Neville will be part of a monthlong house party at Grantham Abbey, thirty miles from here,” Angeline said briskly. “Stepmama has arranged for all of us to be guests there as well, because everyone knows that Sir Neville is looking for another wife.”
“Another?” I repeated. “What happened to his first one?”
“That doesn’t matter,” Elissa said. She was knotting her fingers so tightly together now that her knuckles had turned white. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me. For all of us. Sir Neville is … he is …”
“He is so wealthy, he could pay off all Charles’s debts for the rest of his life, without even noticing,” Angeline said. “And since Papa and Stepmama can’t keep Charles locked up in the house forever, it makes a great deal of sense for at least one of us to have a husband like that.”
“I don’t mind, Kat. Truly,” Elissa said. “I always wanted to marry a man who could help my family. Sir Neville is a great man in Society.”
I frowned at her. “Then why do you look so miserable?”
“Never mind that.” Angeline put one hand on Elissa’s knotted fingers, and for a moment I felt completely shut out as they looked at each other with sympathetic understanding.
“What is it?” I said. “What aren’t you telling me this time?”
“Nothing, darling,” Elissa said. “Just go up to bed now. We’re all too tired to talk properly. Come back in the morning before breakfast, and I’ll fix your hair. And please, don’t worry about me anymore. I am perfectly happy. Truly.”
“But …” I stood up slowly, still frowning at my two sisters and trying to guess the secret I could feel hanging between them. “If you marry Sir Neville, do you think he’ll give Angeline a dowry?”
“I hope so,” said Elissa.
“It doesn’t matter whether he does or not,” Angeline said, and flashed me a dangerous smile. “I have my own plans for that.” Ha
. At least that gave me one clue.
Perhaps Angeline and Elissa wanted to play at keeping more secrets from me, but I would wager anything that there was one secret Angeline hadn’t dared to share with our sweet, proper oldest sister.
I’d recognized the books hidden underneath Angeline’s side of the bed. They were Mama’s old magic books.
Now all I had to do was figure out what Angeline was planning to do with them.
A Most Improper Magick
If my plan had worked, I would have woken up the next morning in a stagecoach heading toward London, with a whole new life waiting to unfold before me. I would have breakfasted on apples and cheese with the passengers around me, heard all their stories, and been halfway adopted as an honorary nephew into all their families by the time we reached London.
Instead, I had to face my own family.
I walked into the breakfast room at eight o’clock, and Stepmama’s jaw fell wide open, exposing a mouthful of mashed toast.
“Katherine Ann Stephenson!” she uttered in a dreadful tone. “Whatever have you done to your hair?”
I dipped a curtsy to Papa and made my way to the sideboard,
where bread and jam and kippers were laid out. “I like it,” I said. I did, too, especially now that Elissa had straightened out the crooked edges. After one morning without the bother of hairpins, I was ready to keep my hair short for life.
“I thought something was different,” Papa said, with quiet satisfaction. “Good morning, dear.”
“George!” Stepmama flung down her napkin. “For heaven’s sake. Your daughter has just chopped off all her hair. Is ‘I thought something was different’ really all you can say?”
“Not all her hair, surely.” Papa peered up at me from behind his book. “Ah, no. No, there’s still a bit left. It’s rather …” He frowned thoughtfully. “It’s rather boyish, actually.”
“Quite,” Stepmama said. “That is exactly my point. Aren’t you going to ask her how she could do such a thing without even asking your permission?”
Papa said tentatively, “Did
you ask my permission, Kat?”
“Kat’s new haircut is quite stylish, don’t you think?” Elissa said softly. “She looks just like the model in the Mirror of Fashion
“But with a rather higher-cut décolletage,” Angeline said dryly. Mischief sparked in her eyes as she slid a glance at our stepmother. “What did you think of that latest style, ma’am?”
“Oh!” Stepmama shook her head. “None of my stepdaughters will ever appear in public with such low-cut
gowns as I saw in that journal. It is absolutely shocking what young ladies in London nowadays are up to. In my day …”
“Shocking indeed,” Angeline murmured, and winked at me.
You might have thought, if you didn’t know my sisters, that I could have just asked Angeline straight out about Mama’s magic books.
But I knew better. If Angeline even suspected that I knew about the books, she would find them a new and better hiding place before I could even get the question out of my mouth. Then she’d devise one of her diabolically cunning punishments for my nosiness, and that was the last thing I wanted. No, I’d have to work the mystery out for myself.
Luckily, Stepmama took Elissa and Angeline out directly after breakfast to shop for fabric for new gowns—to impress Sir Neville, I supposed. There was only enough room in the gig for two people to travel with her to the fabric shop in the village, and no one asked if I wanted to be one of them. They knew better.
As soon as the gig rattled out of sight, I hurtled upstairs, hiking up my skirts and taking the creaking old steps two at a time. Charles let out a groggy roar from his room at the noise, but I ignored him. I headed straight for Angeline and Elissa’s bedroom.
They ought to be gone for at least two hours. But if
anything went wrong … I imagined Angeline’s expression if she caught me reading the books. I shuddered.
I would have to hurry.
I darted into the room and over the bed to Angeline’s side. When I passed my hand underneath, all I felt was the bare wooden floor. Where had they gone?
I lay down to peer under the bed. Aha
. She’d only pushed the books deeper in. I wriggled underneath, choking on dust, and emerged a moment later, holding them both. Victory!
A sneeze caught me by surprise. Then another one. I almost dropped the books. When I finally stopped sneezing, I glanced down and groaned. I was completely covered in dust, all the way across the front of my white gown. If Stepmama saw me like this, she’d throw a fit. And if Angeline saw me …
If Angeline saw me, she would know exactly what I had been up to. Curse her! Had she planned it this way? No, surely not—even Angeline couldn’t be that devious. But still, whether she’d planned this warning system or not, I knew I’d just lost half an hour from my reading time. First I’d have to put the books back exactly where I’d found them. Then I’d have to change my gown and wash the telltale dust from this one, all before the others came home from their shopping trip.
I gritted my teeth and ran out of the room before I could lose any more time.
I didn’t go to my own windowless attic room. That
wouldn’t be nearly safe enough. Instead I hurried back downstairs and out the back door, heading for my favorite lookout spot—the old oak tree behind the vicarage, overlooking the graveyard. From my perch in the tree, I’d be able to spot Stepmama’s gig from half a mile off as it came circling back up the winding road from the village.
I clambered up the wide, knobbly trunk and settled comfortably into the crook of one of the big central branches. My legs dangled in the air, and I kicked off my shoes, letting them fall to the grass. Through the ground-floor window of the vicarage, I could see Papa reading one of his hundreds of old books. A fresh breeze ruffled the leaves of the oak tree and set the yew trees in the graveyard to swaying gently. The road beyond was empty beneath the bright blue summer sky.
I adjusted my shoulders against the rough bark of the tree trunk and opened the first book. A Diary of Magick
, I read, in looping purple handwriting. Olivia Amberson’s Own Book.
Amberson had been Mama’s maiden name. That was one of the only things I knew about my mother. She’d died ten days after I was born, and a nursemaid raised me for the first few years, until my sisters were old enough to take over. I would have been more grateful to them if it hadn’t left them so smugly convinced, no matter how old I grew, that I was still a mere child.
Papa never talked about Mama. It wasn’t until he’d married Stepmama, though, that I’d realized Mama had
been a disgrace. It was the first time I’d ever felt close to her memory. I was always in trouble, too.
Stepmama always said that it was a great trial to be the wife of a clergyman, especially one with such a poor income as Papa. She only hated it for the lack of money, though, which meant the lack of fashionable clothing, London townhouses, and scandalous gossip at close hand. It must have been even harder for Mama to be a clergyman’s wife, since she was a witch.
Elissa wouldn’t talk about Mama anymore—she had been seven years old when Mama died, but the memories still made her too melancholy, she said. Angeline told me once, though, about the disaster that happened when Papa’s patron, Squire Briggs, was invited to tea at the vicarage, two months before I was born. Angeline was only five at the time, but she said she had never forgotten it.
“Mama got distracted as she poured the tea,” Angeline told me. A smirk pulled at her full lips as she remembered. “Papa and Elissa were both so appalled, but I thought it was hilarious.”
“What did she do? Did she spill the tea?”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that.” Angeline leaned close to whisper the words in my ear, even though Papa and Stepmama were safely occupied with the accounting books in the next room. “Mama was trying so hard to concentrate on making polite conversation with Squire Briggs, because it was so important for Papa’s future, that she forgot to use her hands to pour the tea!”
“The teapot just rose up in the air all on its own and poured for everyone while she talked. You should have seen Squire Briggs’s face! He turned purple and started to choke. And Mama still didn’t realize …” Angeline bit her lip, holding back a laugh. She was meant to be tutoring me in French, as a punishment for both of us, so we couldn’t let Stepmama hear us giggling together.
“Poor Mama,” Angeline said. “She was trying so hard to help Squire Briggs stop choking, and Papa started stuttering hopelessly, he was so horrified, and that teapot just kept on pouring absolutely perfectly, without a single spill, until Papa lunged forward and grabbed it himself, and then the tea spilled all over his lap and the floor and … I laughed so hard, I thought I would die.”
“And then what happened?”
Angeline’s face hardened. “After that, Squire Briggs wouldn’t come back to tea again as long as Mama was alive. He had already offered to give Papa a second living, but after that teatime, he changed his mind. And Mama …” Angeline looked away, setting her jaw. “Mama wept for a week.”
I shivered in the oak tree now, remembering Angeline’s story as I looked at my mother’s lovely, looping hand-writing.
There used to be a miniature portrait of Mama in the sitting room, when I was a little girl, but Stepmama had locked it away with the rest of Mama’s things, magical
or otherwise, in a cabinet none of us were allowed to open. There’s no use in reminding the neighbors of old problems
, she’d said. She had already cut down all of Mama’s roses from the back garden by then; they were a scandal too. Apparently, roses weren’t supposed to be able to bloom red all year long. But I had loved them anyway. My sisters used to take me out to sit underneath the oak tree on fine days when I was little, and the rich, sweet fragrance of the roses had filled the air with magic.
I hadn’t remembered Mama’s roses for a long time.
I took a deep breath and turned the page. I have decided to begin as I mean to go on, no matter how Ominous the Dangers
, my mother had written. Tho’ it must be kept Secret from my closest companions and even my own Colleagues, I cannot let Ignorance, Prejudice, or Pride hold me back any longer from exercising all the Talents I have been given. I shall teach myself first how to enchant Inanimate Objects.
Well, I understood why she’d meant to keep her witchcraft a secret—if it hadn’t been for the fact that she’d married a clergyman, she would have been completely cast out of Society for it, and as it was, she had still caused a scandal. Marrying her had ruined Papa’s career. But that was because she hadn’t kept the magic a secret after all. From all the stories I’d heard, she hadn’t even tried very hard. Surely someone who really wanted to keep her witchcraft secret wouldn’t have blatantly enchanted the roses in her garden, would she? And what on earth had
she meant by “Colleagues”? Mama’s family might not have been wealthy, but she had definitely been a lady—and ladies, as Elissa was always ready to remind me, did not work for a living, no matter how dire their circumstances.
I let out a long breath and turned the page. I didn’t have time to waste worrying about any of that, no matter how tempting it might be. I was after my sister’s secrets right now, not my mother’s—and enchanting inanimate objects, like Mama’s self-pouring teapot, wouldn’t get Angeline her dowry.
I skipped through the pages of Mama’s first failures and final successes, as she experimented with creating her own spells. She’d learned more and more difficult tricks as she’d progressed, but nothing practical like turning copper to gold. Half of Mama’s spells were meant to make herself look prettier or to make her twice-turned, hand-me-down gowns look new. I even found a love spell—and next to it, circled and surrounded by tiny hearts, a name: George
. My father’s name.
I flicked quickly past that page, feeling my cheeks heat up.
It had been at least an hour since I had begun to read, and the sun had risen high in the sky above me. I couldn’t see the gig in the distance yet, but I knew I didn’t have much time left. I flipped faster and faster through the pages.
I was concentrating so hard, I didn’t even notice the footsteps coming toward me from the graveyard.
The first I knew of it was when my stockinged feet, swinging in the air, brushed right against a man’s beaver hat and knocked it to the grass. I almost fell off my branch in surprise. Both of Mama’s diaries dropped from my hands, six feet down onto the grass, next to a moving pair of dirt-covered Hessian boots. My gaze went up past the boots, up mud-spattered pantaloons and a dark blue coat that looked like it had once been expensive, before it had all been covered in dirt. The man who wore the clothes—and the dirt—was a complete stranger.
“Who are you?” I asked. The words blurted themselves out of my mouth. If Angeline had been there, she would have said something smooth and courteous and subtly amused in greeting. If Elissa had been there, she would have been too proper to speak to a strange gentleman at all without a proper introduction. Then again, neither of my sisters would have been caught off guard in the first place by sitting in a tree without her shoes on.
The man underneath me had kept walking forward even after I kicked his hat off. He hadn’t even paused to look up at me, or to pick up his hat. But when I spoke, he stopped walking and shook himself as if he were shaking off a cloud of gnats.
“I am Frederick Carlyle,” he said in a strange, flat voice. He was still looking straight ahead at the vicarage, so I couldn’t see his face, only the back of his dark blond hair. He was dressed like a gentleman, but from the look of his hair—not to mention the state of his clothing—it had
been some time since he’d seen a valet, or a comb. “Here to study with Miss Angeline Stephenson’s father,” he said.
“With An—you mean with Papa? Mr. Stephenson?”
He still didn’t turn. “Here to study with Miss Angeline Stephenson’s father,” he repeated. “I have brought my first quarter’s payment with me.”
“Ah … good?” I slid down off the tree. It was awkward, since I couldn’t let my skirts ride up in front of him. I landed hard on a sharp stone, stumbled, and barely missed stepping on Mama’s books. I snatched them up and tried to flatten the crumpled pages with one hand. Later I would probably panic about the damage, but right now I was too curious to feel scared.
“How do you know Angeline?” I asked the back of the gentleman’s head.
He swung around, and I saw his face for the first time. It was alight with hope. “Is Miss Angeline truly here? Are you Miss Angeline?”
“No!” I said. “Of course not. I’m just Kat.” I stared at him. He was young—about the same age as Charles, I thought, so probably no more than twenty. Handsome, too, I supposed, if he hadn’t looked so vacant. I frowned, looking at his blank blue eyes. Maybe “vacant” wasn’t the right word, after all. Maybe “entranced” would be more accurate.
Something about that started an ominous tugging in the back of my mind. Entranced
… But before I could
think it through, I heard a rattling sound behind me and something worse—familiar voices floating through the still air. I spun around.
“Oh, the devil!”
I had been the one too entranced to think straight. I hadn’t been keeping my lookout.
Stepmama’s gig was on the road just beneath us, less than two minutes’ drive away. Even as I watched, it turned onto the final curve.
The full implications hit me with a thud. I stared down at the books in my hands. Half the pages had been bent in the fall, and the whole middle section of the first diary was crumpled. Even if I put both books back exactly where I’d found them, Angeline would never be fooled. She would know the moment she opened them exactly what had happened.
I wondered if it was too late to run away after all. The boys’ clothes were still in the attic, where I’d left them. Maybe, if everyone else was absorbed in greeting our strange visitor, they wouldn’t even notice I was missing. And this Frederick Carlyle, whoever he might be, certainly seemed to be excited about meeting Angeline, so that should distract her at least a little while, until …
“Is Miss Angeline in that gig?” he asked hopefully.
“Yes,” I said unhappily. “So I really need to go and—no, wait! She’ll be here in just a moment. You don’t need to go chasing after it, Mr. Carlyle—Mr. Carlyle! Stop!”
I threw myself in front of him to hold him back. He
walked straight into my raised arm, heading for the hedge around our garden that overlooked the road, a full fifteen feet below.
“It’s too high!” I said. “You’ll break your legs if you jump that. What’s your hurry, anyway? It’s not as if you’ve ever even met her, so—” Oh.
Suddenly it all clicked into place. Mama’s magic books tingled in my hands as I regarded them with newfound respect.
“Miss Angeline Stephenson,” Frederick Carlyle murmured. He sounded like a bleating calf being led to the slaughter, but a blissful smile curved his lips.
Now I knew why he had seemed entranced.
“Come inside,” I said soothingly. “Why don’t I bring you a cup of tea? Then you can brush yourself off before you meet Angeline. You want to make a good impression on her, don’t you?”
He frowned, as if it were a difficult concept to grasp. “Miss Angeline is coming here? Inside this house?”
“She is,” I said. “I’ll show you in. I want to be there with you when she arrives.”
I couldn’t hide the books from Angeline, or keep her from finding out that I’d looked at them. But I had something better than secrecy now.
I had the perfect opportunity for blackmail.