There were a great many things I would do for my older sisters, from engaging in scandalously magical battles to suffering through an unbearably tedious fitting for new gowns.
Agreeing to find myself a husband, however, was definitely a step too far.
Unfortunately, they had me trapped.
“Don’t move, Kat!” Elissa instructed me as her favorite modiste’s assistants bustled about, tutting ominously to each other about my angles and sticking lethal-looking pins perilously close to my skin. “Madame Fontaine likes a very exact fit for all her gowns.”
“Then perhaps she should be the one who wears them,” I muttered.
“Shh!” Elissa threw a worried glance at the assistants. “We are extremely fortunate that she’s agreed to take you on at all.”
“Don’t waste your breath, Elissa,” drawled our sister Angeline. She sat in a nearby armchair, flipping through fashion books. “I’m sure even Kat will learn the value of patience once she’s been stabbed by a pin a time or two.” She looked up from the book on her lap to give me a smile of creamy self-satisfaction.
I narrowed my eyes at her. If Angeline had any idea how much patience I’d had to learn in the last five years of my training to become a magical Guardian…
But I was eighteen years of age now, no longer a child, and I knew better than to utter the word magic in front of strangers. Our family had been shunned by Society for decades after our late mother’s witchcraft had been publicly uncovered. If anyone ever realized that all four of her children had inherited her powers of witchcraft—and that I had inherited a second, even more powerful and secretive magical legacy—then Angeline and Elissa would be ruined, and their husbands and children with them.
I had no intention of allowing that to happen.
But that didn’t mean I was going to be an easy target. Angeline and Elissa might still think of me as a child to be ordered about, but I hadn’t spent all of my time in the last several years training to protect good society from malevolent magic-users. I had also spent three perfectly splendid summers with our aunt in Edinburgh, learning both outrageous witchcraft and social confidence. Our aunt, la Marquise de Cherbignac, had never met a social situation she couldn’t master. Watching her had been most educational.
So I smiled back at Angeline instead of rising to her taunts, and I said, “I shouldn’t like to waste such an important modiste’s time, that’s all. If you think of how few balls I’ll be attending back home in Yorkshire…”
“Ha!” Angeline slapped her book shut. “You can’t wriggle out of this any longer. You should have made your début last year, and you know it. If Elissa hadn’t been breeding again…”
“Angeline!” Elissa’s pale cheeks flushed as she darted an anguished glance at the modiste’s assistants. “Really!”
She might as well have saved her breath. Angeline, despite being the only one of my siblings without any children of her own, had always been utterly shameless in the way she discussed women’s confinements. She didn’t pause for even a moment at Elissa’s rebuke.
“You said you couldn’t come out in Society until Elissa was ready to serve as your cosponsor,” she reminded me, her dark eyes penetrating. “I still don’t know how you managed to cozen Stepmama into agreeing when I could have perfectly well brought you out on my own. But you’ve used up all of your excuses now. Like it or not, it is time for you to enter Society…and more than time for you to finally start thinking like a grown woman.”
Aargh. The condescension in her voice was so palpable, it made my skin burn. I gritted my teeth and counted to twenty in seething silence. Anything I’d said out loud just then would only have proven Angeline’s point.
The most astonishing thing was, I had actually spent the last six months missing my sisters and looking forward to seeing them again. It really was like some mysterious and alarming new type of magic, the way I forgot, every single time we were parted, just how irritating they could actually be.
“Now, Kat.” Elissa laid one hand on my arm, stroking gently. “What Angeline means to say is, you know how we’ve looked forward to introducing you to Society. And why shouldn’t you enjoy it, too? There are so many interesting, eligible young men in town this season. You’ve always spent so much of your time…studying…” Her gaze slid sideways to the modiste’s assistants again as she uttered the euphemism we’d agreed on for my Guardian work. “Why shouldn’t you allow yourself a bit of fun for once?”
“Studying is fun for me,” I said impatiently. “Truly, Elissa. Look at me!” I spread out my arms, shaking her off. “You know I’d be a disaster in proper society. I’m not cut out for it.”
“Nonsense,” Angeline snapped. “You have a delightful dowry, courtesy of both of our husbands’ generosity. You’re perfectly pleasant to look at. And considering how much time you’ve spent running wild across the hills of Yorkshire, I expect you’ll be an excellent dancer, too. You’ll find a fiancé in no time.”
And there we were, back to the most aggravating point of all. “I will not be married off to some tedious young man just to make everyone else happy!”
Angeline narrowed her eyes. “So what exactly do you plan to do with the rest of your life, may I ask? Because Stepmama will certainly not allow you to live with her and Papa forever. And—”
“Shh!” Elissa hissed. Stepping between us, she gave us both minatory looks. “I’m sure no one else wishes to hear our silly family quarrels.”
The modiste’s assistants didn’t say a word. But I could have sworn I heard a muffled giggle.
My left forefinger began to burn.
I had never in all my life been so relieved to feel it.
It was my amethyst ring producing the heat, and it was an urgent alert: the Head of the Guardians was summoning me. If I didn’t come now, he would send someone to fetch me…and wouldn’t that shock the assistants!
“If you’ll excuse me…” I started plucking at the pins that held masses of white muslin gathered all around me. “I’m afraid I have to leave for just a moment, so—”
My sisters both grabbed me at once. I rolled my eyes at them meaningfully. “I have to visit the necessary,” I mouthed.
“Oh.” Elissa’s hands fell away.
Angeline gave me a suspicious glance, but her fingers relaxed on my arm. Still, when I reached for the closest pin, she shook her head. “Don’t be absurd. You can keep that on while you go. Just be careful.”
“You must, Kat!” Elissa said. “These girls have put so much work into it already. If you aren’t properly assembled in it when Madame Fontaine arrives…”
“Oh, very well!” Sighing, I started across the room, carefully maneuvering my way past the modiste’s assistants, the chairs, the sofas, and the various fabric samples that had been laid across them all. I had to hold the gathered muslin carefully before me so that I wouldn’t trip. Still, with five pairs of eyes watching me, I walked with my head held high, as gracefully as possible, out of Elissa’s pretty blue-and-white drawing room, turned into the corridor…and breathed a sigh of relief as I finally closed the door behind me.
None of her servants were in sight.
I dropped the cloth, twisted the ring on my finger…
…And Whoosh! I was surrounded by high, shining golden walls on every side, rising to a rounded ceiling. My shoulders relaxed for the first time in half an hour, and I took a deep, calming breath.
Unlike witchcraft, Guardian power could be inherited by only one child in each generation of a family. That meant my sisters couldn’t follow me there even if they tried…and the Guardians’ Golden Hall was the one place in England where I could be entirely safe from thoughts of matchmaking, gowns, and being shoved at eligible young men like a side of beef for their appraisal.
At least, that was what I thought.
“Katherine.” My former tutor’s voice came from behind me, sounding wearily resigned. “How good of you to come so quickly.”
“Well, of course I did.” I turned, adjusting my muslin draperies with a tsk of irritation. Really, could there be any more pins left in the world after this? “I…”
The words dried up in my throat.
My former tutor, Mr. Gregson, the small, spectacled and deceptively harmless-looking Head of the Order of the Guardians, wasn’t alone as I’d expected. He wasn’t even surrounded by the other Guardians in their fifth or sixth decades who customarily prosed on at the Order’s larger meetings.
Instead, he stood by two tall young men who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me. They were both staring at me with their mouths gaping wide open.
…Or, more accurately, they were staring at my outfit.
One of them, the red-haired one, lifted a quizzing glass to one eye as if he needed extra evidence to prove that what he saw was really true.
“Oh.” I put one hand, stupidly, to my chest. My face was suddenly hot. “I was just…that is, I was in the middle of a fitting, but the message was urgent, so I thought…”
The young man with the quizzing glass gave a slow and perfectly horrible grin, his pale blue eyes gleaming with a message I most definitely did not want to understand.
“Of course.” Mr. Gregson kept his own eyes politely averted as he coughed pointedly.
The blond gentleman jerked his gaze away from me, his color heightening. He was quite handsome, actually, with a deep blue coat that set off his eyes and…
…Truly? I grimaced, catching myself before I could complete that sickening thought. I really had spent too many hours listening to Angeline and Elissa talk about dress patterns and young men in the last few days. It was more than time to get hold of myself.
There was only one time in my life so far when any young man had really managed to make me lose my balance, and I had been far younger and less sensible back then. I certainly wasn’t going to let it happen today.
I dropped my hand from my chest, straightening my shoulders and meeting the red-haired young man’s eyes challengingly. After all, no matter what the disgusting expression on his face might imply, I was hardly indecent. I might be wearing only a shift under my makeshift muslin covering, but I was entirely wrapped in fabric, without so much as an inch of extra skin bared to his view…and the sharp metal pins glinting off all my corners could hardly look less like an invitation to flirtation.
Under the weight of my glare, the red-haired man lowered his quizzing glass, but the annoying grin remained plastered to his face as he elbowed the young man beside him. The blond only shook his head, his face still flushed.
“If I may…?” Mr. Gregson sighed. “Miss Katherine Stephenson, may I introduce the Marquess of Lanham…” He nodded to the blond young man. “…And the Honorable George Packenham. Both Mr. Packenham and Lord Lanham come from families of long distinction in our Order.”
“An honor, ma’am,” said the blond Marquess. He managed to jerk a bow without looking at me, which I found impressive.
“A pleasure,” said Mr. Packenham, and gave me another smirkingly improper look as he bowed. It made me feel like a snail had slimed along my skin.
I gritted my teeth and swept as proper a curtsy as I could manage with the pin-studded muslin, pricking myself twice along the way. It didn’t improve my mood.
“If we could hurry?” I said. “I am expected back, you know.” As grateful as I was for the well-timed respite, the truth was, Elissa had begged for months for this tedious modiste’s appointment, and was paying a sizable bonus for it to be held at her own house rather than at the modiste’s shop. Worse yet, Madame Fontaine had already been forced to postpone her all-important visit three different times across the past two weeks. If I missed her when she finally did arrive, there would be no chance at all of having even one ballgown made in time for my début, no matter how much money my sisters threw at Madame Fontaine and her assistants.
And if Mr. Packenham didn’t stop looking at me as if I were wearing my nightclothes, I might be tempted to perform one of the nastier magic workings on him—which would be a very poor way to start my social début.
“Indeed,” Mr. Gregson agreed, “time is of the essence. I have a rather urgent mission, Katherine, regarding a rogue illusionist moving in good society. I hope that you and all three young gentlemen involved may be able to work together to effect it.”
“I can hardly wait…now,” said Mr. Packenham. He slid me a wink that made me want to punch him.
The Marquess stiffened until he looked as if he’d been carven out of aristocratic ice. Clearly, he didn’t share Mr. Packenham’s delight.
I looked around the Golden Hall, which was shining, vast and empty. “Three?” I said. “I only see two gentlemen.”
Mr. Packenham snorted. “That’s because there only are two gentlemen involved,” he said. “There may be one more fellow involved in this caper, but from what I’ve heard, I’d hardly call him a gentleman, eh, Lanham?”
The Marquess’s icy mask cracked as he opened his mouth as if to respond…then closed it again after a quick glance at Mr. Gregson.
Aha. The Marquess definitely agreed with his friend, but he wasn’t foolish enough to say so in front of the Head of our Order. In other words, Mr. Gregson had laid down the law to them both before I’d arrived.
The message didn’t seem to have sunk in with Mr. Packenham. “I certainly never expected to mix with the lower order in the Golden Hall, of all places. If m’mother knew, she’d throw a fit! But since this rascal’s somehow managed to weasel himself along—”
“Ahem.” Mr. Gregson coughed again. “In fact, we are deeply grateful for his assistance, as we could hardly complete our mission without it. But before I explain the details, I had better bring him here and perform official introductions.
“Or rather…” He nodded to me, his thin mouth easing into a half-smile. “I shall perform two introductions, but not three. I believe he and Miss Stephenson are already old friends.”
I frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
But Mr. Gregson had already blinked out of view.
Whoever this ‘rascal’ was, he clearly wasn’t a member of our Order, as he didn’t have a portal of his own to the Golden Hall. I couldn’t imagine that I would know him, either—Stepmama was as snobbish as a duchess, for all the good it did her—but at least, unlike the two male Guardians in the Hall with me, I wasn’t likely to swoon from the overpowering shock of coming into contact with someone from a lower class.
I waited impatiently for the next few moments, as the Marquess visibly did his best not to look at me, and Mr. Packenham did nothing but look me up and down. I could almost feel the time ticking away, like a scratching at my skin, as my sisters waited for me back in Elissa’s townhouse. My fingers tightened against my muslin skirts.
Of course, Mr. Packenham was the one who broke the silence. “I say.” He let out a snorting chortle. “Do you come here often?”
I gave him a look of utter disdain.
The Marquess cleared his throat, still without looking in my direction. “Miss Stephenson, perhaps…that is, the weather outside…your opinion…if you have one…?”
I always had an opinion.
But before the Marquess could tangle himself up even further, Mr. Gregson reappeared with his back turned to us, holding the arm of a young man whose well-worn brown coat strained across his broad shoulders. His back was turned, too, but it was only too easy to see why his invitation had created so much chaos in the stuffy Order. Not only was his ancient-looking coat made of an obviously inexpensive fabric, but his brown, wavy hair was—to be generous—only serviceably cut. It certainly hadn’t been arranged in the fashionable styles of either Mr. Packenham or the Marquess.
Mr. Packenham’s upper lip curled in a sneer. The Marquess raised his eyebrows, and his chin, and I lost my very last shreds of interest in his blond good looks.
Rolling my eyes at them both, I stepped forward to be pleasant. Clearly, no one else was going to bother.
“Good afternoon,” I began. “I hope…”
The friendly greeting dried up in my mouth as Mr. Gregson and his guest finally turned around.
The man facing me might be dressed in a plain coat, but he held his chin tilted just as proudly as the blond Marquess…
…And he looked at me with fierce green eyes that were instantly familiar, though I’d never expected to see them again.
“Alexander?” I whispered.
Or continue reading with Chapter Two.