A special sneak preview of A Most Improper Magick (a.k.a., Kat, Incorrigible).
Stepmama was the first one into the house. According to her many, many friends, who clutter up the drawing room every Tuesday afternoon and cluck over her difficulties in life, Stepmama is still a great beauty even at the ancient age of eight-and-thirty (although she pretends to be three years younger whenever she can get away with it). They all agree every week over tea and cakes what a cruel injustice of fate it was that she could never find a husband in a higher rank of life to support her in the style she deserved.
None of them, of course, ever bring up the fact that, based on all the social rules Stepmama herself taught us, as a spinster of three-and-thirty, she was lucky to be offered marriage by any gentleman, no matter what his income or social status... which was exactly why she’d accepted Papa the very moment he’d offered, despite all her fine words now.
When Stepmama stepped inside the front hall and found me waiting for her with my hands held carefully behind my back, her whole face pinched up so tight with exasperation that she could have cut paper with it.
“What on earth have you done to your poor gown this time? It’s filthy!”
Angeline came up behind her, holding a pile of parcels, and looked over Stepmama’s shoulder at the dust that covered the front of my gown. Her dark eyes narrowed. It was one of her most dangerous expressions.
Stepmama was still ranting, “Do you ever take any thought for the most basic tenets of propriety and ladylike behaviour? Or the embarrassment you might bring upon your poor sisters? Only imagine if we had had a caller, what they would think–”
“But we do have a caller,” I said. “He’s in the drawing room right now. He was most anxious to meet Angeline’s family.”
Angeline’s eyes narrowed even more.
Stepmama stared at me. “This is an inappropriate moment for a joke, young lady. If you–”
“I gave him tea,” I said. “Isn’t that what I ought to do with visitors? Especially when they might be eligible suitors? After all, you’re always saying that we’ll all die old maids if we don’t work very hard for ourselves.”
Elissa let out a sound of pain from behind Angeline. “Did you make the tea yourself, Kat?”
“Well, of course I did. You know Mrs Watkins always visits the market on Monday mornings, so–”
Elissa closed her eyes in an expression of pure agony. “Perhaps I can find some of her biscuits in the cupboard,” she said. “They might take the taste of the tea from his mouth, if I’m quick enough.” She hurried past the others, heading for the kitchen without even taking off her bonnet or pelisse first.
“Well, really,” I said. “I must say–”
“You have already said quite enough.” Stepmama unbuttoned her own pelisse with quick, angry gestures and shoved it at me. “Hang this up and change your gown before you show yourself in the drawing room.”
I had to bring my right hand forward to take the pelisse before it could fall on the floor. Mama’s thick magic books slipped precariously in my left hand. I pressed them hard into my back and edged towards the wall. “He’s already seen my dust. I don’t think–”
“I don’t care. Angeline, follow me as soon as you’ve tidied your hair.”
Chin up, Stepmama sailed towards the drawing room like a fully armed navy battleship heading for an unsuspecting French privateer.
Angeline waited until the drawing room door closed behind Stepmama. Then she shook her head.
“That,” she said, “was very, very foolish.”
I smiled innocently up at her, my fingers straining around the hidden books. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Who is it, really, in the drawing room? A farmer’s boy? The milkman? I’m sure I’ll be terribly amused by whatever joke you’ve prepared for me.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe only I will.”
She nodded at my dusty gown. “Did you find out what you wanted to know when you went nosing around under my bed?”
“You mean in these?” I brought my left hand out from behind my back to show her the magic books. “Oh, I didn’t need to read these to find out what you’ve been up to.”
“No?” She raised one perfect eyebrow, a gesture that usually drove me mad with frustration. I could never imitate her, no matter how hard I tried. “Enlighten me,” Angeline said. “I’m truly curious.”
“Oh, you’ll find out,” I said. “Just step into the drawing room and see who’s waiting for you.”
“Fine. I shall.” Angeline took off her pelisse. She patted down her dark hair as she gazed into the murky mirror that hung beside the parasol stand. She twitched the puffy shoulders of her gown into place and smiled at me sweetly. “I do hope you’re enjoying this moment very much, darling Kat, because I promise you will pay for it.”
“Just go into the drawing room,” I said.
Then I threw Stepmama’s pelisse onto its hook and chased after Angeline as, for once, she actually followed my orders.
Inside the drawing room, we found Stepmama glowing with satisfaction. That had to come from the news of Mr Carlyle’s first-quarter payment, I thought. Only the promise of money ever put such pleasure in her eyes. She was in such a good mood that she barely even grimaced when she saw me still wearing my dirty gown.
“Girls,” she purred. “May I introduce your father’s new student? Can you imagine, he has come all the way from Oxford, on foot, to study with your father! Mr Carlyle, may I present my husband’s two younger daughters? These are Miss Angeline and Miss–”
She broke off as Frederick Carlyle jumped to his feet, shoving aside his full cup of tea so hard it sloshed and spilled all across its saucer.
“Angeline?” he said. “Miss Angeline? Is it really you?”
“I...” Angeline paused, licking her lips nervously. I had never seen my arrogant sister so discomposed. “I am Angeline, yes,” she said. “But sir–”
He shook his head. His dark blue eyes were wide and wondering. “I’ve come so far,” he said. “I would have walked forever.”
In three quick strides he was across the room, knocking elegant little tables aside. Stepmama’s brand-new Wedgwood teapot, delivered all the way from London, went flying to the ground. The sound of its crash, as it shattered, mingled with Stepmama’s moan of pain. Two vases followed, splashing water and lilies across the carpet as they broke. But the clatter of breaking china didn’t slow Mr Carlyle in his path.
He threw himself down on one knee and grasped Angeline’s hand. “Miss Angeline,” he said. “Marry me. Please. I beg you.”
Stepmama’s voice came out as a shriek. “What in heaven’s name–?”
Angeline opened her mouth and closed it again. Colour rose in her cheeks until they were a deep, dusky red.
Frederick Carlyle bent his head to kiss her hand passionately. It made a disgusting, wet, sucking sound. I might have gagged if I hadn’t been trying so hard not to laugh.
Elissa opened the door behind us, holding a plateful of Mrs Watkins’s best biscuits, and froze in open-mouthed astonishment.
“My goodness,” I whispered into Angeline’s ear. “It’s almost like... magic!”
Angeline found me in my attic an hour later. I’d been ordered up there by Stepmama the very moment she’d regained her breath, so I’d missed the rest of the entertainment. I would wager anything that Elissa hadn’t been dismissed like a child. At least I still had Mama’s diaries with me. I read more of them on my bed while I ate one of the apples I’d packed in my sack for last night’s journey.
Spells for love... spells for whispering secrets across a great distance – not much use, since I hadn’t managed to run farther away from home than our own boring front garden. What I could have used was a spell for eavesdropping on secrets from far away so that I could hear the conversations downstairs.
When the trapdoor swung open, I wasn’t surprised to see Angeline’s glossy, dark head rise from the opening.
I closed the book and put it on my lap. “Well?” I said. “Did you say yes? That was the whole point of your spell, wasn’t it?”
Angeline glared at me. “That was the single most embarrassing moment of my entire life,” she said. “What a relief it is to know that you, at least, found it amusing.” She clambered up onto the wooden floor and swung the trapdoor shut. “Give me one of those apples,” she said as she walked over to the bed. “I need something to restore myself.”
I passed her an apple and a hunk of cheese. “At least you’ve been kissed now,” I said. “Even Elissa can’t say that much.”
“You think not?” Angeline arched her eyebrows at me and bit into her apple as she sank onto the bed.
“Really?” I stared at her, lowering my apple. “No. She wouldn’t! Who was it? When? On the hand or on the mouth?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Angeline smirked. “I’ll tell you when you’re old enough.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I wonder how old Stepmama would have to be before she was ready to find out how Mr Carlyle really found us.”
Angeline put down her apple and narrowed her eyes. “That is not going to happen.”
“No?” I narrowed my eyes back at her and tried to arch just one eyebrow. It didn’t work. So I just had to make my voice as cool as hers had been. “Wouldn’t you like to know that for certain?”
“Is this blackmail?” Angeline sighed. “Come now, Kat. We both know you aren’t going to tell Stepmama anything. She’d tell Papa, and then...”
We both winced at the same time. It was too terrible to even contemplate. Stepmama would fill the house with her outrage and horror at the discovery – and her vindication. It was exactly what she’d been waiting to see ever since she’d first stepped into the house five years ago and seen the three of us standing in front of Mama’s miniature portrait, still on shocking public display.
And the way Papa’s face would sag in defeat as he listened to her...I couldn’t bear the thought of it.
“Of course I won’t tell her,” I said. “I’m not a fool.”
“No? You do act like one sometimes.”
“I don’t have to tell Stepmama,” I said. “I know someone else who doesn’t know the truth. Elissa.”
Angeline’s dark eyes flashed as she spoke, “You wouldn’t!”
“I would,” I said. “I really would, and you know it. Just think how shocked she would be. How many weeks she’d spend lecturing you if she found out.”
“You little traitor!”
“I’m not the one who’s a traitor,” I said. “I’m not the one shutting you out. Ever since you entered Society last year, you and Elissa have both been treating me like a child.”
Angeline sneered. “You are a child.”
I grabbed hold of my temper before I could throw my apple at her. If Stepmama heard us fighting, I’d never get my way. Instead I said, “I’m not too young to understand that you put a spell on Frederick Carlyle to make him love you and walk all the way across the country against his will, just to find you.”
She flushed. “It wasn’t against his will.”
“How do you know? He doesn’t even have a real will of his own any more, does he? All he wants now is you, and he never even met you until today.”
“That isn’t...” She scowled down at her half-eaten apple. “You make it sound as if it’s a terrible thing.”
“Well...” I thought about it. “It is, isn’t it? I mean, it would be one thing if you only put yourself in his way and let him fall in love with you naturally, but to make him fall in love... well, that’s like cheating at cards, isn’t it? It’s dishonourable. Even Charles wouldn’t do that.”
“It might help if Charles did cheat,” Angeline said. “Then he might not lose so often.” But I could tell by the look on her face that I’d won. “I didn’t mean it to happen that way,” she said. “I cast a spell to bring my true love to me. I thought he’d arrive riding a great black stallion, or driving a fine carriage through the village, and he would see me quite by accident and fall in love. I didn’t expect him to be so” – she gestured helplessly with her apple – “so stupidly besotted. And I certainly didn’t expect him to be one of Papa’s students, for heaven’s sake!”
“Well, you can’t get rid of him now,” I said. “He’s already brought his first quarter’s payment, and Stepmama knows it too.”
“Oh, Lord. She’ll never let him go!”
Suddenly we were laughing together, for the first time in ages – the first time since she’d started going to balls with Elissa and gossiping in secret, when everything had changed between us. Angeline reached across the bed and grasped my hand. “Kat, you little wretch. What on earth am I going to do about him?”
“You could always marry him,” I said doubtfully. “If the spell was meant to summon your true love...”
“There was some mistake,” said Angeline. “There had to be. I’m not even surprised – it was the first spell I ever made up by myself, so it’s no wonder it brought me the wrong man. This one isn’t even old enough to get married.”
“He’s older than you are.”
“He can’t be more than twenty! His family would have a fit. They’d say I’d bewitched him.”
“Not intentionally. Why would I? He’s completely witless! All you have to do is talk to him for two seconds to realise that.”
“Maybe once you take away the spell...” My voice trailed off.
“I don’t know how to take it away!”
“Oh,” I said. I bit my lip, but I couldn’t keep the laughter from leaking out. “Can you imagine what mealtimes will be like? Stepmama can’t stop you eating together. He’ll propose to you three times a day!”
“Papa probably won’t even notice,” Angeline said. “Anyway, it will wear off eventually. It has to. And in the meantime...” She sighed. “In the meantime, Papa can earn a bit more money than usual, and Mr Carlyle will have a very good tutor.”
“But what are you going to do?” I asked. “If you won’t marry Mr Carlyle–”
“I wouldn’t marry a fool like Frederick Carlyle even if he had ten thousand pounds a year,” Angeline said. “It’s completely out of the question.”
“Well, then, what will you do instead?”
“I’m certainly not going to sit here waiting for Stepmama to fix up an eligible suitor for me, I can tell you that much!” Angeline snorted. “Elissa may sigh all she likes about family loyalty, but I won’t let it take me that far.”
“Elissa.” Finally we’d come to what I’d meant to ask all along. “What wouldn’t you two tell me last night? What’s wrong with Sir Neville?”
Angeline sat back. I could see her face closing down against me – the ‘secrets’ look I’d learned to hate. “Would you expect anything to be right about a man picked out by Stepmama?”
“You know more than that,” I said. “You’re just not telling me.”
“Well, there’s the fact he’s twenty years older than her, for a start.”
“You said Frederick Carlyle was too young.”
“There’s a difference between a handsome man of five-and- twenty – or even thirty – and one who’s old enough to be your father,” Angeline said tartly.
“So that’s all it is? Sir Neville is too old for her? That’s what I tried to say last night, but you both–”
“That’s not enough, on its own, to rule out the marriage,” Angeline said.
I studied her face. Her expression was as bland as the watered wine Stepmama gave me at dinner... but I knew her too well to be fooled. I picked up Mama’s magic books.
“It won’t wash,” I said. “If you don’t think I’m old enough to understand, that’s your decision, but if you don’t tell me the truth, you’ll have to listen to Elissa being horrified by your behaviour for the next three weeks at least.” I raised my voice to imitate Elissa’s soft, lilting tones. “‘I just don’t understand, Angeline. How could it even occur to you to practise magic? How could you possibly dream of such a wickedly improper, immoral–’”
“Enough!” Angeline threw her apple onto the bed. “Fine. I’ll tell you exactly what I don’t like about Sir Neville. But if I tell you, you can’t let anyone else find out that you know, and you absolutely may not think up some mad scheme to interfere. Elissa has made her decision, she is determined to follow Stepmama’s orders, and there is nothing you can possibly do to stop her.”
“Fine,” I said. “But you needn’t tell me that Elissa’s as stubborn as a mule. She’s my sister too.”
“I know. That’s exactly what worries me.” Angeline took a deep breath, “Very well. Sir Neville Collingwood was married once before, as you know. And...” She closed her eyes, frowning in concentration as if she was trying to think of exactly the right words.
“And?” I said. “What happened to his wife?”
Angeline opened her eyes and looked straight at me. “He murdered her.”
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