I love the Regency. The aesthetic, the houses, the formal rules that seem a bit strange to us now. And it’s those same rules that make it such fertile ground for one of my other loves: witchcraft.
I love the romance of waltzing under the moon and casting spells under its light. Learning that you cannot dance two dances with the same gentleman, as it would be scandalous; and learning that throwing pennies in a well might bring you true love.
It’s no secret that girls in the 19th century struggled against the constraints of courtesies, and corsets, and the terrible, terrible 'treat' of calves foot jelly. Yuck.
That’s why I so enjoy giving my girls a secret weapon. Something like being able to control the weather or talk to the dead when they have so little control over their own lives otherwise.
So if you love Bridgerton like I do and are wishing Eloise could properly rebel, maybe by setting something on fire with her brain or saving London from hungry ghosts, why not give The Witches of London series a try? I think Eloise would fit right in at The Rowanstone Magical Academy for Young Ladies.
It was the most boring event of the Season.
Emma was promised dashing young gentlemen in starched cravats dancing until dawn, and kisses in dark gardens. Instead, there were only whiskered old widowers in creaking stays who smelled like lavender water and arthritic cream, and more wall-flowers than seats. As if being a wallflower wasn’t bad enough, being forced to stand in uncomfortable shoes that pinched while debutantes cast her pitying glances—and the few young men cast her none at all—was so much worse.
She longed for the forests of Berkshire and the stars overhead. She stifled a yawn since her chaperone, Aunt Mildred, would lecture her all the way home that yawning was neither pretty nor polite behavior. Neither was tapping one’s foot to the music, eating too many pastries off the buffet table, or laughing loudly. In short, anything remotely amusing. Worse yet, Gretchen was hiding in the library and Penelope was in the garden with the very handsome and muscular Mr. Cohen. Penelope somehow managed to consistently flirt with social scandal and skip away unscathed. But that left Emma alone, once again.
If only Lord Durntley would trip on his way to ogle Lady Angelique’s bosom. If only he’d crash into the footman and toss the tray of custard tarts so it could land on Lord Beckett’s abysmal toupee.
If only something interesting would happen.
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She leaned against the wall, even though young ladies weren’t supposed to lean, slouch, or otherwise bend. With nothing left to distract her, she took the small bottle out of her reticule, winding the ribbon around her finger and letting the candlelight shine through its murky depths. It was rather strange-looking to be jewelry and didn’t appear to contain any kind of perfume Emma would ever want to smell, let alone smear on her wrists, but it was the only thing she had of her mother’s. She carried it as a sort of talisman.
She’d only actually seen Theodora Day, Lady Hightower, three times in her entire life. Three identical Christmas mornings at their country estate, chaperoned by the housekeeper, five footmen, and a great-uncle she hadn’t seen since. Each time, her mother sat in a chair by the window, staring at the woods, pale as the snow outside. She hadn’t even blinked when Emma approached to sing her a carol. She never spoke, except to scream the one time Emma tried to hold her hand.
Four debutantes drifted Emma’s way, giggling and trailing chaperones and admiring younger sons of earls and viscounts. “Lady Emma,” Daphne Kent simpered formally, even though their families were friendly and they’d known each other since they were children. Now that they were out in society, they were meant to acknowledge each other with long boring titles and curtsy and talk about nothing at all. “What a unique bauble.” Her eyes sharpened. Emma had no idea why. She’d never been interesting to Daphne, and likely never would be.
The other girls, Lady Lilybeth Jones, Lady Sophie Truwell, and Lady Julia Thorpe curtsied a greeting, perfectly in unison. They wore identical white dresses, ornamented with beaded ribbons and ostrich feathers in their hair. Emma curtsied back, barely stopping herself from rolling her eyes. Gretchen wouldn’t have stopped herself at all.
“Isn’t it just a lovely ball?” Sophie smiled. “I vow, I’ve never seen such beautiful roses.” There were enough yellow roses in the ballroom to sink a ship. Their scent mingled with perfumes, hair pomades, and the melting beeswax from the candles.
Emma stifled a sneeze. “Lovely,” she agreed.
“Did you hear? Belinda has had an offer already!” Lilybeth squealed as if she couldn’t help herself. “From Lee Hartford!”
Julia glanced away, mouth tightening. “She’s only sixteen.”
“Don’t be jealous,” Daphne said. “You’ll get your chance. Anyway, he’s only a baron’s second son. Your father should look higher.”
Lilybeth tittered. Sophie looked sympathetic. Emma just blinked. It was as if they were speaking a foreign language.
“Pardon me,” Julia murmured before walking away, the pearls in her hair gleaming. Her hands in their elbow-length gloves were fists at her sides.
“Never mind her,” Daphne confided. “She’s quite desperate. She fancied herself in love with Lee. Worse, she fancied him in love with her.”
“You’re positively wicked,” Lilybeth said.
“Hush,” Sophie added. “We’ll be overheard.”
Daphne, for all her fluttering eyelashes and simpering smiles, looked smug.
Until she realized the young men were watching, and then she blushed prettily. Emma felt bad for Julia. The other girls turned to look at her expectantly. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to get married. She didn’t want to poke fun at others to be noticed. She didn’t want to wear white dresses, as expected of all debutantes in England. She simply didn’t fit. She never had.
“I think Julia’s very nice,” Emma said finally, just to fill the silence.
Daphne shook her head on a sigh. “Let’s go, girls,” she added, pityingly. They moved off like a flock of geese, whispering and giggling. One of their beaus trod on Emma’s foot as he hurried to follow and didn’t notice enough to apologize. Emma gave serious consideration to tripping him. Especially when he jostled her hard enough to make the ribbon slip off her wrist.
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The perfume bottle fell to the floor. It broke in half, leaking thick fluid that smelled like rot and roses. A crystal bead rolled out, coming to a stop against her foot. She stared down at it, annoyed. “That was my mother’s,” she snapped, but he was already gone.
She bent to gather the pieces. One of the shards sliced into her left thumb, drawing blood through the thin silk of her glove. Around her, a country dance was in full swing, polished shoes squeaking, and skirts flouncing. Aunt Mildred searched the floor for her and her cousins. If Emma crossed the room in order to make her way to the library to hide out with Gretchen, she’d be caught. She needed a quiet corner. For some reason, holding the broken pieces of her mother’s perfume bottle made her want to cry.
She eased backward until she was mostly hidden by the potted palms. She slid along the wall until she came to the nearest doorway and then stepped into the relative peace of the hall. A silver candelabrum filled with beeswax candles burned on a marble table. The soft, humid scent of orchids and lilacs drifted out of the conservatory. She pulled off her stained glove so as not to instigate one of her aunt’s mind-numbingly dull lectures, and practically dove into the indoor garden.
Extensive windows and a curved glass ceiling held in the warmth and moisture of hundreds of flowers. The marble pathway wound around pots of daffodils, lilac branches in glass vases, and banks of lilies pressing their white petals against the windows. She tried to see the stars through the ceiling but mist clung to the glass, obscuring the view. Instead, she contented herself with wandering through the miniature jungle, listening to the faint strains of a waltz playing from the ballroom.
It wasn’t all she heard.
The soft scuff of a shoe had her turning around, frowning. “Is anyone there?” She thought she caught a shadow, but it was gone before she could be sure. It wasn’t the first time since her coming out that she’d thought someone was watching her. Only it didn’t just feel like being spied on.
It felt like being hunted.
It made no sense. Who would bother to spy on her? She was the seventeen-year-old daughter of an earl. She was barely allowed to visit the chamber pot without a chaperone. Nothing interesting ever happened to her.
Shivering, she reminded herself not to be a goose. There were a hundred reasons why someone would walk through the garden room and not want to be seen. Like her, they might be hiding from a chaperone. Or more likely they were looking for a private place to steal a kiss. That was why there were so many strict and tiresome rules about proper behavior; no one wanted to follow them in the first place.
Thumb throbbing and still holding what was left of her mother’s keepsake, Emma forced herself to go deeper into the scented shadows. If only to prove to herself that she wasn’t one of those girls who were afraid of every little thing.
Although sometimes, fear was the only logical response.
And not only because the ground lurched under her feet, as if it had turned into the deck of a ship in a storm. She grabbed the nearest table to steady herself. Pots of orchids rattled together. The room lurched again, making her belly drop. Her ears popped. A vase of calla lilies tumbled to the polished floor and shattered. She felt as if there was ice melting off her, or invisible chains falling away. It was the strangest thing.
But still not as strange as a girl stumbling out of the leaves, covered in blood.
She crumpled before Emma could reach her.
The girl’s brown hair fell in ringlets out of its pins, dragging on the ground.
Her eyelids fluttered. Emma thought her name was Margaret, but couldn’t recall for certain. They’d made their curtsies to the queen together last month, wearing ostrich feathers and ridiculous court-ordained panniers.
Now she was wearing blood.
Emma dropped to her knees beside her. “Where are you hurt?”
Margaret moaned, managing to open her eyes. “I don’t know.” She jerked suddenly and began to weep. “Feels like the time I fell out of a tree when I was little. Broke my collarbone.”
Emma gingerly pushed her hair off her shoulder, wincing at the bump protruding under Margaret’s pale skin. “You’ve broken it again. The earthquake must have knocked you off your feet.”
She shook her head. “No, there was ... can you feel it? It’s so cold.”
Pain must be confusing the poor girl. And no wonder. Blood filled the hollow of her cracked collarbone and dripped down her arm, soaking into her gloves. It looked worse than it had just a second ago. “I’ll get help.” Emma leaped to her feet.
She rushed down the path, clutching the hem of her gown so it wouldn’t trip her up. “I need a doctor,” she called out, sliding the last few feet along the slippery flagstones. She could hear agitated voices in the ballroom. “Someone help—” She crashed into a man just inside the door, partially obscured by ferns. He caught her in his arms, steadying her.
“Not that way, love. The tremor knocked a candle into the curtains. Ballroom’s on fire.”
She recognized the voice and stifled a groan. “Not you,” she muttered. Anyone but Cormac Fairfax, Viscount Blackburn, heir to the Earl of Haworth. They hadn’t said more than a word to each other in months, not since that night in the gardens when he’d kissed her. The next week he’d gone away to school and refused her letters and turned away whenever she entered the room.
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She still had a fierce desire to kick him.
He’d recently turned nineteen, and was tall with strong shoulders under his navy blue coat. His cravat was simply knotted and blindingly white under a severe jawline. His dark hair was tousled, and his eyes narrowed with disgust. She’d hoped he’d gotten ugly since she’d seen him last, at Lilybeth’s dismally boring birthday celebration.
No such luck.
He was just as handsome, just as lean, but the edge of danger was new. She wished it was unattractive. He raised an eyebrow and looked ready to make some pithy comment when he noticed the blood on her thumb. He seized her wrists. “You’re hurt.”
She squirmed in his grasp. “I am now,” she said, trying to break free. “Let go.”
He was too busy staring in horror at the broken perfume bottle she was clutching. She had to admit the odor was unpleasant but it didn’t deserve that kind of reaction, surely. Especially not with wisps of smoke starting to drift out of the ballroom behind him.
“Where did you get that?” he asked, oblivious to the danger.
“Never mind that,” she snapped. Didn’t he know how fast fires could spread? “There’s an injured girl back here. We need to get her out.” She yanked out of his hold, throwing him a dark glance over her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?”
He followed, grim-faced as the corridor filled steadily with smoke. The flickering of the fire in the ballroom seemed to have a curious violet hue. She thought she smelled lemon balm and fennel seeds.
Margaret had managed to push herself up into a half-sitting position. Her cheeks were clammy, her eyes red with tears. “I smell smoke,” she said, coughing.
“It’s all right,” Emma said with more confidence than she felt. “We’ll get you outside and with all the smoke someone’s already fetching a doctor, I’m sure.”
“What’s your name?” Cormac asked.
“Gently then, Margaret,” he murmured, bending to scoop her into his arms.
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She gasped when the movement jarred her collarbone. “Sorry, not far now.” His comforting smile died when he glanced at Emma. “The door,” he snapped.
She yanked it open, glaring back at him. If he hadn’t been holding an injured girl, she might have thrown a potted orchid at his head. He carried Margaret outside, laying her carefully in the grass. He took off his coat and placed it over her for warmth.
Smoke crept out of the ballroom windows like dark snakes. The lawns were crowded with frantic guests. A gentleman in old-fashioned buckled shoes fainted. Footmen raced about, opening doors and sweating under their powdered wigs. The light was too bright at the windows, the smell of scorched silk wallpaper and paint wafting out. More footmen raced from the kitchens with buckets of water.
“I have to help with the fire,” Cormac said to Margaret. “But you’ll be fine.” He turned to Emma. “Can I trust you not to get into any more trouble?” he asked acidly. She’d never seen him with a temper. He was usually draped over some girl or another, smirking.
They both watched him go, his white shirt tight over the muscles of his arms and back.
“He’s divine,” Margaret murmured.
“He’s a prat,” Emma returned. Margaret just smiled.
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