I must have stepped inside our little stone church at least ten thousand times before Elissa’s wedding day. All four of us had been baptised there, and I’d spent every Sunday morning I could remember sitting in the front row of hard wooden benches between my older sisters, listening to Papa sermonise while his patron, Squire Briggs, snored gustily in the main pew.
At least, I’d tried to listen. Papa had an unfortunate tendency to lose his way in the middle of his sermons. All too often, he would start out well but end up spending half an hour debating with himself about different possible interpretations of Greek and Latin texts that nobody else had ever heard of. I supposed it might have been interesting to someone who actually understood either of those languages, but my sisters and I had only ever studied French – and only Angeline had ever shown any real talent for it. Luckily, England had been at war with France for so many years that, as far as I was concerned, speaking French was a fairly useless accomplishment.
But I had sat there anyway, trying to look attentive for Papa’s sake, because almost no one else ever bothered. While the local farmers and villagers had whispered or slept behind me, I had memorised each and every swirl of colour in the tiny stained-glass window set in the back wall, and I had counted out every one of the ancient dark-grey flagstones laid into the floor under our feet. After all those years, I hadn’t thought our church could ever look new to me again.
But I had been wrong.
White roses clustered high in the rafters of the arched roof and twined around the edges of the wooden pews, filling the room with scent. They weren’t the same colour as the enchanted roses that Mama used to grow in our garden, but they were every bit as heavenly. Watching Angeline cast the final spell to hold them in place, I remembered all the times Elissa had taken me out to visit Mama’s roses, before Stepmama had cut them down, and I had to fight a terrible, humiliating urge to weep.
“Well, Kat?” Angeline finally turned back to me, dusting her hands. “Are you ready for your part?”
“Of course,” I said, and swallowed hard to push back the tears. Perfect. Finally, Angeline was going to teach me another spell to cast, after all my months of nagging her. Once I was officially inducted as a Guardian, I would have to give up casting spells entirely, so I was determined to make use of my witchcraft while I still could. “What shall I do?” I looked around the church, which was full of colour and beauty and wonder – just right for Elissa’s wedding. “I can’t see anything missing…”
“Oh, don’t worry.” Angeline smiled. “I’ve thought of the perfect task for you.”
I knew that smile. It never signalled good things.
Ten minutes later, I was cursing my luck once again for having been born the youngest sister, as I finished dragging the heavy ladder from our shed behind the vicarage and up the green hill to the church. I shoved it against the outer wall with a grunt of effort and glared at Angeline, who was lounging on the wide, flat stone steps before the doors, finally eating her apple. The closest farmer’s cockerels were crowing, and the sun was just beginning to rise over the long line of hills in the distance.
“You are going to regret that,” I told her.
She widened her dark eyes at me in a look of perfect innocence. “But Kat, you were the one who reminded me how dangerous it would be for all of us if anyone found out about the magic. You wouldn’t want our guests to suspect anything, would you? If Mrs Briggs noticed how high some of those roses were and didn’t have any explanation for how we had hung them there – you know she already suspects us all because of Mama.
I narrowed my eyes at her, in an imitation of her own most threatening look. “Just wait,” I said. “As soon as Elissa’s wedding is over…”
But that moment was coming sooner than I wanted to admit. As soon as we stepped into the vicarage, I could smell food baking in the kitchen. Mrs Watkins was awake and hard at work.
She wasn’t the only one. Stepmama’s voice sounded in the sitting room, high and anxious. “And if – heaven forbid – you ever see that Mrs Briggs’s plate is close to empty, then for all our sakes, and the sake of your pay, don’t forget—”
“The new maids,” Angeline mouthed. She closed the front door silently behind her.
I peeked through the open doorway into the sitting room. Stepmama had hired two girls from the village to act as temporary maids for the day, to help with the grand wedding breakfast she was laying out after the ceremony. Both girls looked absolutely petrified as she paced back and forth in front of them. I winced in sympathy. They were right to be afraid.
Ever since Elissa had become engaged to Mr Collingwood – a gentleman so wealthy he’d agreed without a blink to pay off every one of Charles’s horrid gaming debts – Stepmama had been wound up as tightly as a new watch, just waiting for something to go wrong. Even the fact that Mr Collingwood was quite obviously besotted with Elissa didn’t seem to be enough to soothe her jangled nerves. She seemed to be irrationally convinced that some mysterious catastrophe would descend upon us and change Mr Collingwood’s mind – and our family’s unprecedented good fortune – if she left even a single detail to chance. Her new wedding mania had made her even harder to live with than she ever had been before – and when it came to Stepmama, that was saying a good deal.
At least we had one thing to be thankful for. Despite the bragging Stepmama had always done about her grand connections in Society, almost none of her wealthy relatives had bothered to reply to the wedding invitations, and not a single one of them cared enough to travel to Yorkshire for the wedding. So at least we were saved the sight of Stepmama going into absolute hysteria trying to impress them as well. Impressing the village gentility – especially Squire Briggs and his horrid new wife – was driving her quite mad enough already.
Her voice rose now, shifting from panic to threat: “If I see a single drop of wine spilled on any of our guests…!”
Angeline and I looked at each other and winced. Then we both tried to speak at once.
I got my words out first. “You have to tell her about the roses. I did the ladder.”
“Fine.” Angeline sighed. “But you have to promise me, when Frederick and I are ma— I mean…!” She caught herself, blinking rapidly. “If Frederick Carlyle and I are ever married – and of course we aren’t actually betrothed – it’s not as if he’s even proposed, so I certainly don’t expect—”
“He will,” I said, and rolled my eyes. Angeline worrying about Frederick Carlyle’s intentions was every bit as daft as Stepmama thinking anything could stop Elissa’s wedding now. Even two months of sharing a room with Charles hadn’t been enough to drive the man away. Instead, he’d taught himself to fix leaks in the roof – probably the first time in his life he’d ever had to do any manual labour – so that he could move into our abandoned spare room and stay in easy reach of Angeline all day, every day, for teasing and flirting and hot, longing looks when they thought no one else was looking.
“He’s mad about you, in case you hadn’t noticed,” I said. “He’s only waiting until he turns twenty-one so the betrothal will be legal. He explained it all to me during our billiards lesson.”
Colour swept across Angeline’s cheeks. For once, my confident older sister looked flustered. Any mention of Frederick Carlyle tended to do that to her. It was one of the reasons I approved of him so much.
“Regardless,” Angeline said, and fixed me with a look. “If it ever happens, you have to promise me you’ll lock Stepmama safely in a cupboard and not let her out until the wedding ceremony is over. Understood?”
“I promise,” I said, and escaped up to my bedroom.
But I couldn’t stay there forever. All too soon, Stepmama was berating me for not being dressed yet and I was scrambling into the horrible gown she’d chosen for me – all ruffles and puce muslin, the price I’d had to pay for missing that particular shopping expedition.
And then everything seemed to both speed up and slow down in an almost magical way.
First I was standing in the bedroom my older sisters shared – the bedroom they had shared, all my life until today – and Angeline was pinning the floor-length wedding veil to Elissa’s bonnet. Both of them were chattering away somewhere far, far away in the distance, but I couldn’t hear a word of it. I was too busy gazing at my beautiful oldest sister, her blue eyes shining with happiness and excitement, looking more like an angel than ever. Elissa’s pale blonde hair curled in ringlets around her cheeks, and her white veil fell around her like a cloud. She looked as if she could float right through the air away from me, and I dug my fingernails into my palms and tried to memorise her face for always.
Then Stepmama was bustling in to gather us up, and we were hurrying outside, back up the green hill, while carriages and farmer’s gigs rolled up the long road from the village and the cool September breeze blew Elissa’s veil up around her, tangling with her legs. Elissa and Angeline were laughing as they beat it back, and Stepmama fussed. For a moment, it all felt safely like a dream.
But then Stepmama was gone, seated inside the church with everybody else, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Only the three of us were left standing outside on the grass in front of the closed doors. Organ music struck up inside, and suddenly everything felt all too real.
“Elissa,” I said. My voice came out as a thin, fragile whisper, caught by the breeze and thrown away.
But Elissa and Angeline both heard me, and they both put their arms out at the same time. Elissa looked as if she could either cry or laugh; Angeline’s face was full of warm sympathy with, for once, no irony. We all held each other’s hands for one perfect moment that felt like forever.
The doors swung open.
Angeline and Elissa’s hands fell away.
Angeline gave me a firm nod. I took a deep breath and nodded back. Together, we started forward, carrying our bouquets.
The church was full of people – Papa’s parishioners, Stepmama’s friends and, of course, Squire Briggs in his pew, looking pleased and self-important, while his wife looked as pursed-up as a prune. The sight of her suspicious, disapproving face actually helped, for once. It steadied me, giving me the nerve to lift my chin and square my shoulders and pretend to be as cool and collected as Angeline as I walked down the aisle.
This was Elissa’s wedding day, and no one was allowed to spoil it.
The whole church looked perfect. Angeline’s white roses bloomed around us, buoying up my spirits with their scent. Papa stood at the altar beside Mr Collingwood, looking so tall and distinguished that no one would ever guess how impractical he was in real life. Mr Collingwood himself looked close to swooning with excitement as he stared past us at Elissa. And standing next to Mr Collingwood…
Frederick Carlyle was Mr Collingwood’s best man, but all his attention was focused on Angeline. He gave her a smile so tender and knowing, I actually had to look away. For the first time since we’d entered the church, Angeline lost her cool composure. She flushed darker than I’d ever seen her as she met his gaze. I could almost feel the air crackle between them.
It was utterly embarrassing.
“Careful,” I whispered, out of the side of my mouth. “You don’t want to trip on your gown in front of him.”
“Shh!” Angeline hissed back. But she glanced quickly down at her feet. I grinned.
We each stepped to one side of the altar. Elissa passed Angeline her bouquet. Her eyes were modestly lowered. She was breathing quickly. Mr Collingwood looked positively goggle-eyed as he gazed at her. Papa cleared his throat.
“Dearly beloved…” he began in his rich, rolling voice.
The big wooden doors flew open, slamming against the stone walls of the church. I spun round, almost dropping my bouquet.
A short, round, crimson figure stood in the open doorway, flanked by servants and brandishing a parasol like a weapon.
“Where is he?” she bellowed. “Where is my son? And what has that trollop done to him?”