My jaw dropped. Unfortunately, so did my focus.
I tipped forwards and crashed straight to the ground, hitting a massive knot of tree roots with my left shoulder.
I didn’t have time to moan over my injuries. I rolled over and pushed myself to my feet. The dark figure was already gone. Curse him! Charles, on the other hand, was heading towards me.
“Kat, are you…”
But I was already running. “Don’t worry about me.” I yelled the words over my shoulder. “We have to catch him!”
“Well, dash it, Kat, you can’t just… Kat! Wait for me!”
I didn’t bother to respond. I needed all my energy for the chase.
I dived between tree trunks and jumped over tangled roots, powered by fury. My mysterious follower might think himself amazingly clever for tracking me all the way across England this past week, but I would be damned if he’d get away with spying on me as I prepared for my own initiation ceremony. I wouldn’t let him go until I finally found out what the devil he wanted from me.
But that was easier said than done. On my way here, I’d had time to carefully find my way through the darkness to the moonlit clearing. Now that I was running at top speed, every pointed tree branch in the forest seemed to aim directly at my face or arms, and every single one of them found its mark. I was scratched and panting by the time I burst out of the trees at the top of the hill, looking down over the inn and the village beyond.
The hill was empty. The stables were dark. There wasn’t a single person in sight.
I let out a groan of pure frustration.
Whoever my mysterious follower was, he was a fast runner – and a quiet one too. If it hadn’t been for that telltale twig snapping under his feet, he could have watched me and Charles all night long, and I never would have known.
What an utterly horrible thought.
I wrapped my arms around my chest and looked down at the stables that stood between me and the inn. Narrow, darkened windows stared back up at me like hollow eyes.
I was not afraid, I told myself. Certainly not. Only cowards eavesdropped and spied and ran away when they were spotted, and I could never be afraid of a coward.
But when I heard a crackle of breaking twigs behind me, I spun round so fast, I nearly fell over.
It was only Charles, emerging from the trees and brushing grass off his trousers.
“Blasted tree roots,” he said. “I think at least one of them tripped me on purpose.” He looked around, frowning. “So, where is he? Whoever he is.”
“Gone,” I said, and ground my teeth together. “We were too late.”
“Huh.” Charles straightened his jacket. “You can’t say much for his manners, can you? Lurking about in the woods to spy on people. Not what you could really call gentlemanly behaviour.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” I relaxed just enough to roll my eyes at my brother. “I can’t believe you’re huffing about gentlemanly behaviour. Aren’t you the one who keeps getting sent home from Oxford?”
“That’s completely different,” Charles said. “Having a bit of fun—”
“You mean, doing stupid amounts of drinking and gambling, and taking on every idiotic prank that your friends dare you to—”
“It’s not ungentlemanly.” Charles lifted his upper lip in a sneer. “As you would understand if you were a gentleman.”
“Ha.” I started down the hill towards the inn, shaking my head. “If being a gentleman means…”
My voice dried up in my throat. I froze, five steps out from the shelter of the trees.
Something was tickling at my senses; something I’d been too busy to notice while I was arguing with Charles.
“What the devil?” Charles stumbled into my back, knocking me forwards. “Blast it, Kat, will you make up your mind? Are we going or staying?”
“Shh,” I hissed.
My whole skin was tingling with awareness. I turned in a slow circle, peering through the darkness.
Moonlight cast a faint glow on the grassy hill, sweeping down to the stables and the inn and the thatched cottages beyond. There definitely wasn’t anyone in sight.
But we were still being watched. I was certain of it.
I breathed deeply, all my senses alert. If he was using witchcraft to hide himself…
No. Every witch had a signature scent that lingered in the air when they cast a spell, and I smelled nothing but the fresh scent of grass and leaves, mingled with the salt of the ocean in the distance.
The trees rustled behind me, full of secrets. I thought my watcher had come out of the woods ahead of us… but had he really? Or was he still standing in the shadows, only a few feet away, listening to our conversation?
There was only one way to find out.
Clenching my hands into fists, I spun round, lunged forwards –
And Charles’s arms closed around my waist from behind. To my utter shock, I found my feet rising high off the ground. My six-foot-tall brother had scooped me into the air, pinning my arms against my sides.
I was almost too startled to be outraged.
“What – on – earth – do you think you’re doing?” I panted. I twisted and kicked against him, fighting to break free.
“I’m saving you from yourself,” said Charles. He held me with maddening ease, no matter how hard I struggled. “Someone needs to, don’t you think?”
“Of all the idiotic, dunderheaded…! No. Wait.” I took a deep, calming breath and stopped struggling. Turning my head round as far as I could, I gave Charles my most calm and mature and reasonable smile. I had practiced it before, in mirrors and on Stepmama, and I knew how well it worked. “The thing is,” I said, both calmly and sensibly, “there happens to be something that I have to do right now, so if you’ll just let me down for a moment, I’ll—”
“Go charging into the woods after some lout twice your size?” Charles snorted. “I think not.”
“How did you know – ?”
He shrugged. “I do have eyes, Kat. And you aren’t exactly a blank slate, you know.”
It was too absurd to be borne. This was Charles, for heaven’s sake. Charles! For the past six years, ever since Stepmama had first sent him to boarding school, he’d barely seemed to remember that he even had a family. Why did he suddenly have to notice me now?
“I am a Guardian,” I said. “Remember? You don’t have to protect me from anything. And if you’re trying to act like an older brother now—”
“I am your older brother,” said Charles. He heaved a long-suffering sigh. “It would be pleasant if, for once, just one of my sisters would recall I am the oldest in the family, and take my guidance.”
If I hadn’t been so angry, I might have let out a shout of laughter.
“Just try telling Angeline and Elissa that,” I said. “Really. I’d like to hear what they’d say. But in the meantime, if you’re finished playacting…”
“Sorry, Kat.” He turned and started back down the hill, his long legs striding confidently forwards despite all of my exertions. “I’m sure you’re a terribly powerful magic-worker and the whole world trembles when you let out a roar…but I’m still not letting you go flinging yourself into trouble anymore.”
I kicked his leg, hard, on purpose. “Of all the people to preach at me about getting into trouble!”
“I’ve been spending an awful lot of time thinking, since last September,” Charles said. “You did save me, after all. And you were right – I had been acting like a fool for a long time before that. But believe it or not, I’m not the kind of fellow who’d just ignore a thing like nearly getting killed, especially” – he grimaced – “when I had to be rescued by my infant sister, of all people. And besides, that showed me just how out of control you’ve become.”
I gaped up at him. “I beg your pardon?”
He frowned as sternly as a judge. “Running around Bath at night, by yourself? Throwing yourself into battles with people twice your size? If I don’t step in now, you’re bound to get yourself killed or cause a public scandal before you even turn fourteen.”
“I’ll cause a scandal?” I took a deep, soothing breath, to keep myself from screaming. “Charles,” I said. “I appreciate your concern. But of all the people to give me a lecture!”
“Trust me,” said Charles, “I may have ruined all of my own prospects, but I won’t stand by and let you ruin yours. Obviously Stepmama can’t handle you, and now that Angeline’s leaving, you’ll have no one else keeping any reins on you at all. So from now on, I’m going to look after you myself…whether you’re sensible enough to like it or not.”
“Oh, my Lord,” I moaned.
I subsided against him in limp horror. The whole world seemed to be whirling around me as he carried me down the hill.
I’d spent the last few weeks trying not to think about how on earth I was going to cope without either of my sisters, once Angeline married Mr Carlyle and left me behind for the first time in my life. But it had never even occurred to me that there was a far, far greater threat in store.
The Charles I had known for the past three years, who had slept through every Oxford lecture and gambled the whole family into debt…well, he had been a problem, to say the very least.
But a brand-new Charles, wide-awake and determined to take charge of my life?
That was an absolute, unmitigated disaster.
I craned my neck to peer back over his shoulder as he carried me down the hill. No one moved out of the shadows of the trees. But I could still feel hostile eyes watching me all the way to the inn, and it made me burn with impotent fury.
Soon, I promised myself. Soon I would hunt down my mysterious follower, and I would show him I was a force to be reckoned with.
Just as soon as I managed to escape Charles’s “protection.”