CHAPTER ONE PREVIEW
Bransfield Estate, Gloucester, England 1905
The horse’s hooves thunder across the hillside, and my heart pounds with each bunching of his muscles. My hair breaks free of its pins, pale strands sweeping across my cheek. Though the wind breaks through the thin barrier of my breeches and tall boots, the smile never leaves my face. Mild discomfort is a small price to pay for a journey unhindered by the heavy skirts of my riding habit.
I glance at Robert, who is keeping easy pace with me.
“Careful, dear sister,” Robert calls out, the wind snatching at his words, “I’m gaining on you.”
I laugh. “Serenity will refuse to jump this next bank, just as she always does.”
I press my booted heels to Orion’s sides, and a little thrill jolts through me as he charges forward. His excitement bubbles over my skin, making his buoyant joy hard to distinguish from my own. Arcana, derived from the warmth of the sun, cloaks us both, its invisible golden bands connecting us until we are nearly one creature. He floods my mind with his every thought: the way the light layer of snow gives way beneath his hooves, how crisp the air smells when he takes deep breaths, the light pressure of my weight on his back. The mare behind him is on his mind, too, a speck of awareness I take advantage of; it tells me how close I am to reaching the creek before my brother, therefore winning our little race.
The bank jump approaches. It’s nothing but a fallen log on a hilltop, but from this direction, the horses will have to jump down nearly four feet. Orion’s ears prick forward as he notices the log, and his strides increase. I loosen the reins and let him have his head.
One heartbeat, two, and then he arcs over it. I follow his center of balance, lifting up slightly from the saddle as his legs stretch toward the snowy ground beneath us. His front hooves land, the rest of his body follows, and his long strides cover the ground until we are at the creek. I spin him around to face the bank.
The teasing smirk on my face disappears as Robert’s horse jumps the log. “Well done,” I say, pride blooming in my chest.
But then Robert’s mare slips on the landing.
Too fast, her legs fold beneath her weight, dragging my brother down with her. I drop the reins and sit up straight in the saddle. My arms reach toward Robert as though I am trying to catch him. A deep tug at the core of me, and my power unfurls, sliding over my skin like silk. The familiar smell of energy releasing washes over me, like the refreshing scent of the earth right after it rains.
Golden light pours from my fingertips and bathes Robert and his horse in brightness. Robert squints as the light glitters around him, illuminating his mop of unruly blond hair. The arcana stops Serenity’s fall and suspends her inches above the ground.
I wince as more energy siphons away; it becomes more difficult to concentrate. There are times when drawing from the sun as a source of power is not always convenient; a heavily clouded sky, one which renders the sun’s rays essentially useless, is one of those times. With each beat of my heart, more energy leaves me. Pain radiates from my chest as Serenity treads the air in slow motion. When she finally straightens out her legs, the light fades, leaving them safe at the bottom of the hill.
As though I’ve just surfaced from the depths of the ocean, I take gulping breaths of air. My heart flutters wildly while my hands fall to my lap as the rest of me goes limp. The power of arcana leaves me, and Orion tosses his head at the loss of connection. Like a room suddenly plunged into darkness, Orion’s images disappear from my mind, and I can no longer guide him by my thoughts alone.
Robert walks his mare toward me. My lips part in surprise when I see his wide grin. “Wren,” he says, “beautiful save with the light. I would have been a broken wreck for sure.”
I try to smile back, but the image of Robert twisted beneath his horse at the bottom of a hill makes it impossible. I force some tension back into my limbs, since I refuse to let him know how much using arcana has cost me.
When I fail to respond, he tilts his head, the smile falling. “Are you alright? You look pale.”
Fatigue threatens to take over, but I fight it. My heart beats sluggishly in my chest. Don’t lose consciousness. Don’t lose consciousness. As if the sky hears my prayer, the clouds part, and a slice of sunshine falls across my arm. I soak up its energy greedily. It fills my body like partaking of a banquet after days of no food. In a few heartbeats, my strength is almost restored, my brother none the wiser.
“Of course I’m pale,” I say. “I just watched my brother nearly break his neck.”
“Come now, you can’t still be fretting over that little mishap. I’m well.” He gives his horse a pat on the neck. “Serenity is well.”
“You’re incorrigible. Next you’ll be crowing you got the silly thing to jump it in the first place.”
His grin returns. “Of course. I’m only sorry I didn’t make it to the creek in time.”
I give the smallest shake of my head. “Let’s rest here for a few moments, since I’m in no hurry to return home. Father will have our heads for racing the horses again.”
Robert chuckles. “My head, perhaps. Yours he will dote over and continue to ignore every wild thing you do.”
I give a shrug of my shoulders. “It’s the least he can do when one considers how much time and energy goes into keeping my darling older brother alive.”
He opens his mouth to retort, but shuts it immediately after, a look of concern flashing across his face. I follow his line of sight to Margaret, one of the maids. Her shawl has slipped unheeded to the ground, and an overturned basket of bread lies at her feet.
Though she is too far for me to make out her precise expression, I can tell by her stiff posture that something is very wrong. My heart pounds a warning inside my chest.
“Margaret!” I call out, my voice wavering despite my best effort to appear calm. “Are you alright?”
My voice seems to rouse her, and she takes one small step backward. Robert and I—even our horses—stand frozen, waiting her response. Instead of answering, she turns and flees. I watch slushy footprints form ahead of us as cold dread fills my stomach.
“She saw everything,” Robert says, his face tight.
I manage a single nod. Our father will not be pleased.
Charles, our footman, greets us as we enter the manor. His eyes are quick to avoid mine, and the snake pit of nerves within me returns. Does the whole house know already?
“Begging your pardon, milady,” he says while Robert kicks the dirt and snow from his boots. “Your father would like to see you in his study.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” I say, and he responds with a short bow. I give him a harried smile before pulling Robert into one of the nearby sitting rooms.
The room’s cheerful yellow chintz print on the walls does nothing to calm me. I close the door and lean against it. “I told you we should’ve questioned Margaret.”
Unflappable as usual, Robert flipped on the lamp beside his favorite chair and sat down. “What would you have me do? Run her down on horseback? I’m sure that wouldn’t have frightened her at all.”
“She’s obviously told everyone she encountered.”
“Margaret is as kind and timid as a mouse. I very much doubt she told everyone.
We didn’t give her that much of a head start.”
I shake my head. “Thomas knows. He could barely stand to look at me.”
Robert’s expression turns skeptical. “You mean the way he always looks at you when you’re dressed as a gentleman instead of a lady? Truly, Wren, you’re reading too much into everything. This has happened before,” Robert says in his infuriatingly nonchalant way, “and it will happen again.”
“I was seven the last time it happened,” I say, my voice coming out as more of a screech. “Everything’s different now.”
Robert crosses his arms over his chest. “Do you regret saving me?”
I shoot him an exasperated look. “Of course not.”
“And I very much doubt Father will be angry with you for saving his only son.”
“Father hand-picked each of the servants here to be loyal and to hold their tongues. Most of them have been here since we were children.” His lips curve in a half-grin. “And, honestly, who will believe such an impossible tale?”
I rub my forehead, trying to ease the tension amassed there. “Mr. Baxter will.” As butler, he was head of the servants. He knew all.
Robert snorts. “I’m sure he already does. He’s probably the first person she went to, and you should be thankful since he’ll put a stop to the spread of it.”
My shoulders relaxed marginally. Robert was right, of course. Mr. Baxter had been with our family since before even Robert had been born. He was unfailingly loyal and would tolerate nothing less from the others. Unfortunately, he had no doubt already talked to Margaret, and Papa would know we’d disobeyed him in every possible way—again. “We shouldn’t have raced again today.”
“If I recall correctly, you were the one to suggest such an outing in the first place.”
I blow a lock of hair out of my face. “Did I? Well, even if that were true—”
“It is true.”
I narrow my eyes. “Even if it were true, I still think you should accompany me to explain.”
He shakes his head. “I’m sure Father will want to meet with me as well, but I’d rather send you in first to appraise his mood.”
“What kind of an older brother are you?” I demand.
Robert lets out a loud bark of laughter. “The kind who knows his father has a soft spot for his silly younger sisters. I will walk you to the door, but no farther.”
“Very well.” I glance down at my mud-splattered breeches. “Perhaps I should change?”
“It’s too late now,” Robert says with some sympathy. “I’m sure he already knows. You’ll only make it worse to keep him waiting.”
We leave the cheery room and make our way down the long hall, our boots echoing on the wood.
Outside the white panel door, I take a deep breath, and Robert pats me on the back. I knock once, and Mr. Baxter opens the door.
His ruddy face holds very little emotion, but he gives my arm a squeeze as I walk by. I have the urge to throw my arms around his generous middle as I used to do when I was younger and had done something wrong. He would always comfort me with a kind word and a scone stolen from the kitchen. Today, however, I straighten my spine and walk over to Papa.
My father sits in his favorite brocade chair by the fire, a book in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other—but only because it’s daytime. Were it evening, the tea cup would be replaced by a glass of scotch. He is surrounded by books—some so old the binding struggles to retain their hold on the pages within—all in piles that threaten to topple at any moment. Papers and pens littered on the top of the mahogany desk obscure its beauty, and if it weren’t for the servants, the whole room would likely be covered in dust.
Even still, the room is cozily familiar, lit only by a small lamp and the fire.
He lowers his book to the little side table and gestures for me to sit in the matching chair across from him.
“You wanted to speak to me, Papa?” I ask. I search his face for a sign of his mood, but if the tired lines around his mouth and eyes are any indication, he is more exhausted than angry.
“Indeed, my dear.” He leans back in his chair, and I try to take comfort from the relaxed position. “I find I’m at my wit’s end.”
I clasp my hands together in my lap, but I cannot prevent my eyebrow from arching.
“This is your eighteenth year, is it not?”
“Yes, Papa.” The tiniest hint of where this conversation is going enters my mind, and I grip the arms of my chair.
“Ah.” His eyebrows furrow. “And yet you still insist on deliberately disobeying every social edict you’ve learned from both your governess and myself?”
“I’m not sure I understand—”
He cuts me off with a gesture toward my clothes. A small clump of snow drips off my boot incriminatingly. “Your manner of dress. Riding astride. Racing with your brother. Shall I continue?”
I bite my tongue to keep from arguing. The color rises in his cheeks, and I know he is past listening to my excuses. I shake my head.
“Indeed, I feel I must. For I’ve just spoken with Mr. Baxter.” He eyes me with his bushy eyebrows raised. “Seems Margaret witnessed an unusual event this afternoon.” He turns to the butler. “Mr. Baxter, would you be so kind as to repeat to Katherine what Margaret said?”
“Of course, my lord,” Mr. Baxter says. “Margaret returned from a trip to town this afternoon and saw Katherine using arcana to save Robert from a terrible fall. Apparently his horse tried to take a jump but slipped at the last moment.” He pauses to look at me with more than a hint of admiration. “Margaret was frightened but very willing to keep the family secret—once she realized no harm would come to her.”
“Thank you, Baxter, that will be all,” Papa says, and Mr. Baxter bows and leaves us.
“Papa, I had no choice,” I say as soon as the door closes behind him. “Robert would have . . .” I choke on the thought of what might have happened, swallow, and try again. “He would have been gravely injured had I not intervened.”
“No one is contesting that fact, my dear. But it’s because of your poor choices that you were forced into such a dangerous situation.” He points at the snow falling lightly outside. “The slush is no condition for a race—especially for a lady.”
Guilt and a strong urge to defend my right to enjoy a ride in the countryside battled within me. “I regret I had to use arcana,” I say, unwilling at the moment to apologize for much else.
He gives me a long, appraising look. I resist the urge to squirm in my chair. “With any luck, Margaret will not reveal what she saw to anyone from town. But of course, you needn’t worry about that.”
My eyes dart to his. I don’t like the hint of warning in his tone.
“You’ve left me with no choice, Katherine. I’ve decided you will travel to London to have your debut at the start of the season.”
I jump to my feet. “So soon! You said I could wait until I turned nineteen.”
“That was before you continually ignored good sense.” His expression softens. “My darling, you know I love you, but I feel I have been remiss in my fatherly duties. Your dear mother would have wanted you to be a proper lady, to be as comfortable in the bosom of society as you are on the back of a horse.” He rubs his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “You’ll never find a suitable husband holed up in the country—especially if what happened today spreads around town. As difficult as it will be, the season will enable you to be introduced to gentlemen who are worthy of you.”
I try to keep the disgust off my face. The season is a subject I tend to avoid. Nothing is more displeasing to me than the silly, pointless marriage mart. I pace in front of my chair, hating he brought Mama into this. Respecting her wishes and honoring her memory are important to me, but what my father suggests is intolerable. I thought I would have another year, one to either convince Papa I will never make a good wife and would be better off as a spinster—even in spite of the abject horror with which society greets such a position—or to resign myself to my fate. Either way, I thought there was more time.
“But where will I stay? Who will help me debut?”
“Mother has agreed to let you and Lucy stay with her. She has even brought in a rather accomplished London governess to continue Lucy’s studies for the duration of your stay.”
I think of the cheerful, though somewhat dowdy governess who instructed my siblings and me. No doubt my grandmother had found her wanting. “And what of Miss Taylor?”
Papa flashes a wry smile. “Not up to the London standard, I’m afraid. Those are Mother’s words, of course, not mine.”
I sit back in my chair with a huff. We aren’t able to visit with my father’s mother often, but I know she will expect me to be debut-ready. I picture the thinly veiled horror on her face if she could see me now, my white-blonde hair tangled from the wind, clad in muddy breeches and boots.
“Papa, I know you think this is what’s best for me, but I’m happy here at Bransfield with you and Lucy. I find it difficult enough to enjoy myself at the country balls much less grand ones in London.”
“And what of a husband? Will you find one who is worthy of a viscount’s daughter here in the countryside?”
A husband—someone to tell me what to do, what to think, how to live. I’d seen fine men at some of the balls, but none who would ever make me want to risk telling him the truth about my abilities. There is also a part of me, a rather large part, that believes there will never be such a man. Why would London be any different?
I steel my spine. “Perhaps it would be better if I never married.”
My father nearly spits out his tea. “Katherine! What has gotten into you?”
The warmth of a blush creeps up my neck. “I’m just not certain I will ever meet a man who will find me . . . agreeable.”
My father shakes his head, lets out a soft chuckle. “How utterly ridiculous. You have your mother’s striking beauty and a wit and sensibility all your own. Any man who would think otherwise is the worst sort of fool and should be beneath your notice.”
I glance out the window at the snow swirling in the breeze. Mama and I do share some similarities, with our willowy frames, large eyes, and high cheekbones. The older I get, the more I recognize her in the mirror. But it is not my appearance that concerns me. “And what if he realizes what I truly am—what I can do?” I whisper.
He reaches over and clasps my hand in his. “It never prevented me from marrying your mother.”
I meet his kind hazel eyes. “Perhaps you’re the only one.”
“Nonsense. There is a man out there who is your perfect match, and I will do everything in my power to put you in the path of such a suitor.” He fumbles in his coat pocket for a moment before pulling out a folded letter. “It is for this reason I have shamelessly asked a favor of someone whose very presence at your side will draw the attention of every eligible bachelor in England.”
My eyebrows wing up, for I cannot help but be curious. My father rarely leaves the estate save for business, and I can’t imagine who he means.
“The Earl of Thornewood.”
“The earl?” I repeat a bit breathlessly. My father never made mention of him before, but it is of little consequence. Having such a lofty member of the peerage in my favor would make my coming out noteworthy indeed.
I cannot imagine anything more horrible.
My father nods. “Your dear Grandmama believes him to be a rake, but I know better. Colin is the mirror image of his late father, who received the very same label. Utter rubbish.”
My hands are gripped so tightly in my lap that my knuckles turn white. The late earl’s son. This would be no father-like figure to ease me into society. This would be a highly sought after London bachelor. Any other girl would be in raptures, but a cold fear grips me. An earl’s patronage will assure I will be the center of attention at every ball and party—more scrutiny and censure than I will ever be comfortable with.
“Katherine, are you well?” my father asks, his eyes full of concern. “You look rather distraught.”
I take a few steadying breaths and nod.
“Shall I call for some smelling salts?”
“No,” I say, finally finding my voice again. “That won’t be necessary. I was just surprised at such an illustrious person offering me aid.”
My father grins. “It may be true I love the lifestyle I have now, but before your mother made an honest man of me, I ran with a different sort. Colin’s father and I were close growing up and were never far from White’s.” I draw my eyebrows together as I try to place the name. “The gambling house,” he says when he notices my confusion. “Though we were always careful not to risk too much. Robert Thornewood always said we would need money for dowries one day.”
I nod but don’t meet his eyes. I loathe the subject of dowries almost as much I hate speaking of the marriage mart. They go hand-in-hand, and I always feel like ladies are a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Even in this modern age, with our electricity and railway carriages, women still have shockingly few rights. But such thoughts go against everything high society says on the subject of marriage, and I would be much happier if I could tear them from my mind.
“When will I leave for London?” I ask.
“Your train will leave in two days. Your brother will accompany you on his way back to Oxford.”
“If I am to leave in so short a time, I must get my things in order.” I stand and bend at the waist to give my father a kiss on the cheek, and he pats my shoulder.
“Katherine,” he says when I reach the door. I stop and turn back to him. “Your mother and I protected you the last time this happened, and though I no longer have her wisdom to guide me, I will keep you safe.”
“Yes, Papa,” I murmur, already caught in the snare of my own memories.
I leave his study in a daze, and I am powerless to stop my mind from returning me to the last time I was caught using arcana.