It was ridiculous to gape at a young man like a ninny just because he had kissed my hand five years ago. Some girls had their hands kissed every day.
Some girls liked having their hands kissed by all and sundry. I certainly didn’t care for any such nonsense. I could hardly even remember what he’d said that night on the beach in Devon before he’d walked away, after fighting side by side with me in the hardest magical battle of my life.
“It’s not finished. I promise you that. I will see you again.”
No, I could hardly remember that at all. I certainly hadn’t ever thought it about it since then. Especially not at night, before I fell asleep. Or when I was scanning the crowds in the most unlikely places, looking for those broad shoulders and remembering the tingling, breathless feeling of his lips brushing against my hand.
Only a foolish, frivolous sort of girl would spin any fancies out of that. And I definitely wasn’t that sort of girl.
So it was just as well that I didn’t care a jot for what he thought of me now, after five whole years apart. And it was particularly fortunate that I’d never once imagined the way we might meet again, or what I might say or do if we did…
…Because, I realized with a sudden, horrible jolt, I certainly wasn’t dressed for the part.
His intent green gaze had finally moved away from my face. It dipped down to take in the bizarre waves of muslin gathered around me, bristling with pins.
The impossible-to-read expression on his face quivered. Then it broke as laughter burst out of him.
I hated that his laugh sounded so good, even in the middle of my most squirming embarrassment. It sounded deeper than I’d remembered. It had filled out, like the rest of him.
“I might have known,” he said. “You’re never what I expect.”
“Oh…really!” I swung around, glaring at every man in the room. “Is everyone in England obsessed with my attire today? Because all day long, no one I know has discussed anything else!”
Mr. Packenham snickered. The Marquess cleared his throat, looking pained.
“Well,” said Alexander, in his familiar-unfamiliar, deeper voice, “if you wanted not to draw attention, perhaps you could have considered a more ordinary sort of gown? Or is what you’re wearing actually the fashion in high society right now?”
“I was in a hurry!” I said. “How many times do I have to repeat that?” I thrust my hands into my hair, scattering hairpins to the golden floor. “Am I the only one who thought this meeting was meant to be urgent? Or—”
“Ahem.” Mr. Gregson moved forward. “My lord,” he said to the Marquess, “may I present Alexander Harding, a young man who has done sterling work for England in the past five years? He has family connections to this Order…”
He paused, delicately, and I winced even as the other two young men looked up with interest. They might not know what he was referring to, but I could certainly understand why he wasn’t being more explicit.
Being the natural son of the last Head of the Order would be uncomfortable enough to explain even if the last Head hadn’t been revealed to be a murderous scoundrel and a traitor. I was trying not to look at Alexander anymore, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see him stiffening, his face drawing into that proud, haughty expression I remembered him using as self-defense before.
It hadn’t even struck me, until now, just how awkward it must be for him to step into the Guardians’ Golden Hall, knowing that his father had once ruled here—and had kept Alexander a secret from his fellow Guardians. Alexander might have inherited Lord Ravenscroft’s Guardian powers, but his illegitimacy ensured that he would never be accepted as a member of our Order, nor would he be granted a portal of his own to the Golden Hall.
“Not just this Order,” I said quickly, stepping forward before the other men could ask any questions. “You’ve been working for the other Order, haven’t you?”
“Other Order?” The Marquess frowned.
“Oh…that one.” Mr. Packenham let out a snort. “You know, old chap. The servants’ business.”
Alexander looked steadily across at Mr. Packenham. “Not only servants,” he said quietly. “Everyone who isn’t a member of your elevated social circle has our help.”
It was the social circle his own father had belonged to, of course; the social circle Alexander himself should have grown up in…except that Lord Ravenscroft had never bothered to marry Alexander’s mother. She had been a witch, after all, and the Order of the Guardians had always hated witchcraft. Worse yet, by Lord Ravencroft’s repellant standards, she had had no dowry to make her worthy of his respect or his more honorable attentions.
But he had been more than happy to train her son in wielding both Guardian magic and witchcraft in his service. As Lord Ravencroft’s magical heir, if not his legal one, Alexander had been treated by his lordship as a convenient, albeit shameful tool: much like a servant, but with far less honesty involved.
I hoped Alexander’s new Order gave him the respect he had always deserved.
I hoped he was happier now than he had been five years ago.
I hoped I didn’t look like anywhere near as much of an utter idiot as I felt when I suddenly realized that I was gaping at him…again.
I slammed my mouth shut and turned to Mr. Gregson. “So,” I said. “You have a mission for us?”
“Indeed.” He was gazing at me with a look of subtle but unmistakable amusement on his face. It made me nervous even before he continued, “In fact, you are dressed rather appropriately for it. I take it your sisters are preparing to introduce you to Society?”
I winced. “Unfortunately.”
“Mm.” His spectacles glinted in the golden glow that emanated from the walls as he tilted his head like an inquisitive bird. “May I ask exactly when it will begin?”
The thought of it was like a stone sinking deep in my stomach, but I couldn’t refuse to answer. “In three days,” I admitted. “First, Elissa’s going to bring me to the Hadlows’ ball on Friday, and then Angeline’s inviting a large group to dinner on the following Wednesday, and…” I rolled to a sudden stop, realizing all four men were listening with sharp attention. “Surely you can’t be interested in all of that?”
“On the contrary.” Mr. Gregson nodded to the Marquess. “I take it you can secure an invitation for yourself to the Hadlows’ ball?”
The Marquess let out something that wasn’t quite a snort, but was as close as any really proper nobleman could come to it. “That should hardly present a difficulty.”
“I’ve already got one,” Mr. Packenham volunteered. “But what about…him?” He didn’t even bother to look at Alexander as he spoke. “I suppose he could mingle with the servants?”
“An ingenious idea,” said Mr. Gregson, “but, in fact, securing Mr. Harding an invitation should be perfectly straightforward, once the Hadlows are brought to understand that he is a family connection of mine from the North.”
Both of the other young men turned to stare in outright disbelief at Alexander.
“I shall, of course, arrange for a new wardrobe,” Mr. Gregson added gently.
Alexander’s shoulders stiffened until I could almost read the protest in them, but he didn’t speak.
“But why?” I said. “Is something important happening at the ball? Because Elissa seemed to think it would be perfectly dreadf—I mean, perfectly proper.”
Alexander’s lips twitched as he met my eyes, warm understanding in his own. “Dreadfully proper, you mean?”
I rolled my eyes at him, ignoring the answering warmth in my chest. “You know what I mean.”
“I think we all do,” Mr. Gregson said, and sighed. “But that will make it all the more unexceptionable as a place to introduce three new suitors to your family.”
“What?” I was so shocked, I forgot to hold up my muslin draperies as I spun around. The sound of ripping fabric filled the air, but I didn’t bother to look down and see how much damage I had done. “You can’t be serious!”
The Head of the Guardians looked calmly back at me. “Can I not? Our illusionist is moving at exactly your sisters’ level of Society, stealing the guises of various members of the higher aristocracy in order to disguise his thefts in crowded ballrooms and dinner parties. How better could I place the four of you together to hunt him down at Society events than to inform the polite world that these three gentlemen are openly courting your hand in marriage?”
The Marquess looked as pained as if he’d just been asked to swallow an uncooked chicken.
Mr. Packenham snickered. “What ho, eh, Miss Stephenson? More fun than I was expecting from any mission.”
But I barely noticed either of their responses as I took in the undisguised horror on Alexander’s face.
So much for five years of fantasies.
I emerged from Elissa’s spare bedroom just in time to see Angeline hurrying up the stairs toward me.
“Oh, Lord, Kat!” Groaning, she came to a halt midway up the staircase. “First, I thought you’d fled for good out of some back window. Now you’ve managed to somehow rip all that fabric on your way?”
“Forgive me,” I said flatly, and lowered my head as I walked carefully down the steps, holding my torn muslin draperies around me. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
“Well, of course you didn’t mean to. You never…wait.” Her eyes narrowed. She put out one hand to stop me as I tried to step past her. “What’s happened?”
I saw myself as others see me. The thought felt like a hard lump in my throat.
I dismissed it, quickly. Who cared for fripperies and nonsense? I never had. Why should I start caring today about what one particular young man—one highly ineligible young man, as Elissa or Stepmama would have pointed out—happened to think of me?
Instead of saying any of that to Angeline, I shifted my shoulders in a tight shrug. “What could have happened? There’s no one here but us.” I looked meaningfully past her. “Shouldn’t we be hurrying back to wait for Madame Fontaine?”
“And shouldn’t you be dragging your feet about it?” Angeline frowned at me. “Don’t try to fob me off, Kat. You were in a temper when you left, but now you’re looking miserable.”
“Don’t be absurd.” I tried to give a careless laugh, but it came out sounding half-strangled. “What on earth would I have to feel miserable about? I’ve ripped all this expensive fabric before Elissa’s modiste has even arrived. I’m about to be paraded around half the drawing rooms and ballrooms of London in hopes that someone will choose to think of my dowry instead of my character. I’m—”
“Who said anything amiss about your character?” Angeline’s eyes narrowed until she looked quite wicked. “If anyone’s been insulting you—”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” I pushed past her, gritting my teeth. “You said it yourself. Only I would find a way to rip my muslin on a simple trip upstairs!”
…Or reintroduce myself to Alexander dressed up as a pincushion. No wonder he’d looked so horrified at the prospect of having to pretend to court me. It was a laughable idea.
It shouldn’t have been a laughable idea. It wouldn’t have been, with any other lady in the Order. But I’d always thought I didn’t have to worry about things like gowns and style when it came to magic.
Angeline remained on the staircase, but her voice followed me down, rich and perturbed. “I’ve never known you to care what anyone else thought.”
“I don’t,” I snapped. “But have you ever bothered to think through this whole début plan in any detail? What exactly do you think is going to happen if any young men are actually duped into proposing to me?”
“We-e-ell,” Angeline drawled, starting down the stairs, “I certainly wouldn’t swoon from the shock of it. Despite what you might imagine, you know, you really are quite passable. And—”
“And then what?” I demanded. I shot a quick look down the corridor, checking for any eavesdroppers, before I stepped back toward the staircase and lowered my voice. “I’m a Guardian, Angeline. How do you think they’ll feel when they discover that?”
Angeline blinked. “Well…if you find the right sort of man, one whom you can trust…” She lowered her own voice to a whisper. “Everyone brings secrets to a marriage, Kat. But you know Frederick understood the truth about me before he proposed. Why shouldn’t you find a young man who can accept your magic, too, and help you keep it quiet from Society?”
“Because this isn’t like your witchcraft!” I retorted. “It’s not a matter of casting spells around the house for my convenience. That kind of magic is easy to keep quiet. But I fight regularly—in serious magical battles, Angeline!—to protect innocent people from the magic-workers who would hurt them. It’s too important a duty to neglect. As long as I have the power to help, I’ll have to put my calling before any domestic arrangements. So…”
I looked her squarely in the eye. “Exactly which of those respectable, eligible young men you and Elissa have been rhapsodizing about would actually wish for a wife like that? One who put her magical duties before her household management, her reputation, and his companionship?”
For a moment, as Angeline gazed at me in silence, I thought I had actually made an impression on her.
Then her lips curved into a dangerous smile. “Are there, by any chance, any unmarried young men in that Order of yours? Because I think that would be an extraordinarily neat solution. Don’t you agree?”
“Don’t I—?!” My mouth dropped open. “If you had any idea—! If you knew the young men—!”
“Oh, really,” Angeline purred. “Do tell!” She leaned forward expectantly.
I snapped my mouth shut before I could let slip anything else I would regret.
Scooping up the torn skirts of my pinned-together muslin, I fled my vexatious older sister and her questions for the comparative safety of the drawing room.
It seemed that I had a great many preparations to make, after all, before Friday evening’s ball.