Damon Norcott, Viscount Bentford was expected to marry a witch. Coming from a family where the females were born with magical abilities, and the men were not, it was expected that the males would take a witch as a bride to offer protection. However, the unexpected murder of his brother and sister-in-law also left Damon with three nieces to raise and he vowed not to marry for ten years, after the youngest had entered Society.
Miss Cordelia Vail is not a witch but believes in all things magical. If one lived in Bocka Morrow the existence of ghosts, witches, pixies, and mermaids were a fact, not myth. However, Cordelia had never experienced or witnessed any of the magic. That is, not until the day the Norcott family arrived. Smitten nearly at first sight, Cordelia did her best to ignore the powerful draw to the family, and particularly Viscount Bentford.
When the two meet, a bond and friendship is almost instant, as well as trust. Fate set them on a path to meet, but powerful elements stand in their way, which could destroy not one, but both of them.
Courtland Hall, Whitfield, Kent, England ~ Summer, 1813
“Uncle Damon, please let me attend. I promise not to be a bother,” Ianthe begged.
She’d recently turned twelve and wanted so badly to grow up. Damon Norcott, Viscount Bentford, wasn’t nearly as eager for her to do so, and if it were in his power, he’d slow time. If he actually had magical powers, which he did not, he’d return them all to three years earlier, to 1810, and before that fateful day his brother and sister-in-law had been murdered. Maybe he’d be able to alter the events and his nieces wouldn’t have become orphans.
But they had been killed and the murderers had never been caught.
“Grandmother is having a fête champêtre for her friends…adult friends.”
With a huff, Ianthe crossed her arms over her chest and flopped onto a chair. “I do not see why I cannot attend the garden party too.”
“You will when you are seventeen. Then I will present you to the world.” It would be his duty since Damon had been named guardian of his oldest brother’s three daughters. Not that he was opposed to the Season. His objection came when it required that he be in attendance at the same entertainments as his mother and her incessant matchmaking.
“That is five years away,” Ianthe complained. “I want to have fun now.” Her whining demands and pouting had become more frequent of late, and one of the many reasons Damon wanted to turn back time to when she was all of ten—sweet and loving and not a hint of the petulance.
Was this how it began? The traits Ianthe was exhibiting were the very ones he’d witnessed, and detested, during the Season. Had nobody taken those females in hand and broken them of the habit? Was it possible to do so?
This was something Damon would need to put his mind to, or his nieces might grow up to be the very type of miss that most gentlemen avoided, and he’d not have that.
“I can assure you that grandmother’s party will be no fun,” Damon insisted.
“You are going,” Ianthe reminded him.
“That is because Grandmother has not given me a choice,” Damon grumbled. He’d rather stay on the nursery floor with his nieces than endure polite conversation with the many guests currently wandering about in the gardens below. He’d hoped that Courtland Hall was so far removed from civilization that few would wish to visit. Though, in truth, while Damon’s family lived a distance from London, Dover was less than an hour away by carriage.
With the Season drawing to a close, it was that time of year when the ton either scattered to their estates or to more pleasant venues, such as Courtland Hall. Luckily, all their guests had taken rooms in Dover and would not be underfoot in the manor. Mother may enjoy entertaining, but overnight guests were prohibited and for a very good reason.
“It is not fair.”
Save him from pouting nieces! When they were unreasonable, they did try his patience and Ianthe had been doing so more often of late.
“You will not ever take me to Dover, and now I cannot attend the fête champêtre. You will not let me do anything.”
There was a very good reason why he didn’t take his nieces with him to Dover as it would be quite awkward to have them about while he was visiting with his mistress. However, that association had ended little over a month ago, shortly after his return from London, and he’d not returned to the coastal town since. His mistress had become demanding, whiny, and pouty because he’d been gone too long. It had set him on edge and any desire he’d once held for the woman quickly dissipated.
“I promise to bring you and your sisters treats. I will choose the finest biscuits and cakes.”
Ianthe tilted her head. “Do you promise?”
“I have never lied to you.” Then he took her hand and drew her to the window. “And you can watch from here.” He pointed to the back terrace where the guests were gathered. Others were strolling in the formal gardens or by the pond or sitting in chairs positioned beneath the trees.
“The ladies are wearing such pretty dresses.”
“Yes, they are,” he agreed absently because in most cases, Damon rarely noticed how a lady dressed. However, he idly wondered which of the females were here because his mother deemed her a suitable replacement if he did not settle upon Miss Perkins. “I will go do my duty and escape as soon as I know that I won’t be in trouble with your grandmother.”
Not that there was much his mother could do to him. He was an adult of seven and twenty, and heir to the Marquessate of Chandos, but life was far more peaceful when he did as she requested, with the exception of marry. It was also his assumption that she was holding this fête champêtre at their estate because Damon failed to attend her in London.
Damon kissed the top of Ianthe’s head then exited her chamber. As soon as he reached the lawn, he glanced back to the window of Ianthe’s room. She plopped her chin in her hands and frowned.
Patience, he reminded himself.
Little had changed from one generation to the next. He remembered his sisters begging to attend entertainments and his brothers pleading to remain at home, and it wasn’t likely to change in future generations.
Damon greeted his mother so that she knew that he was doing his duty, then was quick to leave her side and walk the grounds before she could call an eligible miss over for an introduction. As he wandered, Damon nodded to some guests and stopped to converse with the ones he knew well, while avoiding those misses that he knew were in want of a husband.
“Damon, I was wondering if you would be joining us today.”
He turned to find Miss Vera Perkins approaching. They had known each other since childhood because of the friendship their parents shared. When he realized that they intended for Damon and Vera to marry, he had put distance between himself and the young woman and began addressing her as Miss Perkins. She still addressed him with the same familiarity from childhood. Her parents had died not long ago and ever since, Damon’s mother had become more vocal that Damon should marry Miss Perkins as she had no parents or siblings. If he were going to marry, it would be for reasons other than giving a woman a home.
“Are you enjoying the gathering?” he asked. Miss Perkins was quite beautiful with her midnight hair and grey eyes. But as charming and lovely as Miss Perkins was, he simply had no desire for her.
“Yes. It is a perfect day for a fête champêtre.” She slipped her hand through his arm and pulled him away from those he had been speaking with.
Damon had not offered his arm and further, he did not wish to encourage Miss Perkins.
“It is a shame that we did not see more of you in London this past Season,” she said.
“I had responsibilities elsewhere,” he reminded her. “My nieces are of great importance.”
“They are also children, as we once were.” She drew herself closer to him, pressing her breast against his arm. “You are a gentleman who should also enjoy the Season and adult entertainments.”
Did she think to seduce him? Damon nearly laughed at the prospect. While he wouldn’t mind bedding a beautiful woman, and it had been nearly two months since he’d done so, he would not be lured in by the charms of an innocent.
“My brother entrusted me with their care.” He stopped walking and pulled away from her. “They are my only priority and will remain so.” Damon offered a slight bow. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Miss Perkins.” Then he turned and walked away, determined to have a very firm talk with his mother once all the guests had left.
Damon glanced back to the manor and noted that Ianthe was still at her window. He’d hoped that she’d found something else to amuse her, but perhaps watching the gathering was entertaining enough.
As there was little he could do, Damon continued to stroll and briefly visited acquaintances until he’d determined that he had remained long enough to make his mother happy. Though in truth, she’d be disappointed that he’d left early and would likely lecture him on duty, but he did not wish to be here.
Knowing that no matter what he did, he and his mother would have words, Damon made his way to the table where Cook had prepared a large assortment of sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, and every imaginable fare one might wish to enjoy with a cup of tea.
He’d just finished adding the coveted biscuits to the plates he’d prepared for his nieces when squeals from several women echoed from the pond. Setting the plates aside, he made his way toward them and paused when he noted frogs hopping from the water and landing near those who had not yet run away.
Odd that, but frogs did come out of water. Turning, he made his way back to retrieve the plates when more screams erupted right before bird droppings landed on his arm. It was then that he noticed a sizeable flock of birds had flown in and landed in the trees, and he wasn’t the only one who’d been assaulted. Similar droppings adorned many of the other guests now. Parasols that had been used more as an adornment and for protection from the sun were quickly unfurled and lifted to protect the guests from the birds.
Damon quickly glanced first to his sisters but they were as surprised as anyone else. He then found Miss Perkins in the crowd but she was also stunned. In fact, by the reactions of the various faces of the women, those who were frightened and huddling under parasols were those he need not worry being matched with. The women who were curious or surprised, but not hiding, were the witches his mother had invited.
At least this incident allowed him to quickly identify who it was best to avoid.
If none of the guests of his sisters had been the cause, then who? Unless it was a coincidence, which was possible, but when witches were about, he had a hard time believing such oddities a random happenstance.
With those thoughts, his gut tightened, and he glanced up to Ianthe.
She was staring out the window with wide eyes. She was certainly as shocked as everyone else, but deep down, Damon feared that she may have something to do with the frogs and the birds.
Just as he was about to return to the manor and pull her from the window, one single, large cloud rolled in and the skies opened with rain, scattering the crowd. As their guests ran for every available entrance into the manor, Damon sprinted around them and to the door leading to the kitchens. Once he gained access, he raced up the servants’ stairs until he gained the nursery floor. By the time he arrived in the chamber, Ianthe had pulled back from the window and sat huddled in the corner of her bed, deathly pale, but still watching out the window as if afraid.
Her maid rushed into the room right after Damon and he pulled her aside. “You were to tell me when she…got her courses,” he dropped his tone to a whisper. Beatrice had been assigned to Ianthe not long ago for the single purpose of alerting them when the changes would come about.
“She has not Lord Bentford. I swear.”
Damon glanced over to his niece. If that were the case, perhaps she hadn’t caused the calamity outside. But it was unlikely the frogs, birds and then rain were a coincidence, unless one of his sisters had thought to liven up the party but managed to hide their guilt.
No. They knew better than to do so. Not only would mother not be pleased, but they were aware of the danger of being discovered. Besides, neither had power over the weather, just nature, or what was of the earth: plants and animals and such. Even if Ianthe’s gifts were waking, she shouldn’t yet have the power to alter the weather. That gift was a rarity…his gut tightened again. Damon knew of one person who had once controlled the weather and it had been Ianthe’s mother. His grandmother could command that of the earth and his sister-in-law had commanded the wind and rain. Had Ianthe inherited both abilities?
“Leave me alone to speak with my niece.” Though there were no secrets from the maid, these matters were usually discussed in private.
“I am sorry, but the biscuits were ruined in the rain.” He slowly approached her bed.
Ianthe turned to her uncle as tears flooded her eyes. "I did not mean to," she cried.
“Mean to what?” he asked gently. He’d yet to share the specific talents she’d inherited from the family simply because it was a discussion for when children were old enough to understand the importance of keeping their secrets. Ianthe should have been told by now, but Damon had kept putting it off.
“I was angry at not being able to attend Grandmother’s fête champêtre and thought it would be funny if all the frogs hopped out of the water, and then birds would fly about leaving droppings behind, and then rain would come to ruin the party.”
“You thought of all that, did you?” He tried to sound calm, almost humoring.
“I just thought it Uncle Damon. I truly did. And pointed, pretended, like I had seen Aunt Larisa do when the ladder fell and almost hit Aunt Selene.” She blinked up at him. “I thought it was just pretend or I would never would have been so mean.”
He was going to have a talk with his younger sister. Larisa should know better than to let anyone see her perform magic, even if it kept another from harm. They had rules for a reason—to keep them all alive.
He ruffled her hair. “I am certain you did not intentionally mean any harm.”
“If I knew that I could wish for something, it would have been butterflies.” She waved her finger in a circle and in the blink of an eye, the sleeping chamber filled with butterflies of every color.
Her eyes widened with excitement and no longer fear. “I can wish for anything, and have it?” She asked as she lifted her hand again, finger about to point, but Damon covered it.
“No,” Damon said calmly. “You cannot have anything you wish for, nor can you do what you just did under any circumstances.”
Ianthe pulled back, fear in her grey eyes. “Am I evil?”
“No, darling,” Damon assured her. “You just need to be very careful.”
“Damon…” his mother called as she stopped at the entrance to the chamber. She took in the room of butterflies before looking at her granddaughter, a sentimental smile upon her lips. “It is time we retire to Nightshade Manor.”
“You are sending me to Cornwall?” Ianthe cried. “Because of frogs, birds and butterflies?” Tears welled again.
“It is not a punishment, Ianthe, I promise,” Damon said to his niece. “We will have fun, you and me and grandmother.”
“And her sisters,” his mother insisted. “By the time Ianthe learns, it will not be long before it is time for Nephele, and then Clio. In fact, son, I doubt you will live anywhere else for the next three or four years. If we expose the other two to what I will be teaching Ianthe, they will be much better prepared when their time comes.”
Ianthe jumped off the bed. “I cannot come home for three or four years?”
His mother chuckled. “You can visit, but there is much for you to learn, and it cannot be done here.”
Hollybrook Park, Bocka Morrow, Cornwall, England ~ Summer, 1813
Miss Cordelia Vail settled onto the bench beneath the weeping willow and lifted a favorite book, though she had no real intention of reading it a third time. A breeze wafted in from the sea and swept the long limbs of the willow tree across the ground as the flowers within the garden came alive, bending and straightening as more buds unfurled, revealing their brilliant colors of red, yellow, pink, white, orange, and purple. The swaying flowers had nothing to do with the breeze, but rather the pixies. Cordelia had intentionally dropped a few small ribbons along the path as a lure. She knew that eventually one of the pixies wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to snap it up and Cordelia was willing to bide her time, pretending to read while she waited for one of them to show themselves.
The gardens and grounds were supposedly filled with pixies but not once had Cordelia ever seen one.
“Still hoping to catch a pixie?”
Cordelia glanced up to find her brother, Edward, walking toward her.
“It is unfair that I have yet to encounter one, and I blame you because of all your rock throwing last summer. It was quite unkind of you.”
“I apologized, cleaned and played my flute for an entire fortnight,” he complained. “They just do not want you to see them.”
“You are a horrid brother.” Cordelia set her book aside before she behaved irrationally and threw it at him.
“How did you enjoy this term at Eton?” Edward would be home for only three weeks before he’d need to return so she should be more pleasant, and she did want to know about his schooling.
“It is no fun and I do not like living in my Dame’s House,” he grumbled. “She is mean and makes us stay in our rooms and be quiet when not in school.”
“I am certain that it is not so dreadful,” Cordelia insisted. What she wouldn’t give to have been able to attend Eton or any educational institution. It simply wasn’t fair that such an advantage was wasted on her thirteen-year-old brother.
“You would like it. All we do is read or listen to lectures.” He pointed to her book. “Once I am done, I am never reading a book again.”
“You wish to be ignorant then?” Cordelia asked.
“I wish to learn the world, not words written on a page.” He kicked a stone down the path.
Then Edward would truly remain ignorant as he grew older because the accomplishments and discoveries in the world were constantly changing.
“Adam should have let me go off to the navy. They take boys younger than me who earn rank as they learn skills and grow older. By the time I am a man, I could captain my own ship and see the world.”
“In time, Edward. Once you are fully grown, you can book passage to anywhere you wish.”
“That is years away,” he complained. “I want adventure now.”
“You can have just as many adventures within the pages of a book if the novel is well written.”
He rolled his eyes. “You know what you should do?”
Cordelia sighed. “No, Edward, what?”
“Become a governess. You think everybody should read all the time and learn things, and you always want to dole out discipline when you think I have misbehaved.”
It was true that sometimes Cordelia did believe their older brother, Adam, was too easy on Edward. Just last year he’d been throwing rocks at pixies and injured two adults in the process. So, she’d taken it upon herself to see that Edward was punished. Frankly, Cordelia believed that Adam didn’t want to deal with their wayward younger brother and was happy to pass the task off to her.
“Just do not go throwing rocks where you should not. Then there will be no need for punishment,” she chastised.
As she settled back and reached for her book, the earlier, pleasant breeze stilled completely. She glanced about. This was certainly an oddity given they lived along the coast and there was always some form of wind. The birds went silent and not even the lightest petal moved within the gardens. All was still and quiet.
Slowly she stood. Even the air had changed, as if charged with the energy that can often be felt with the coming of a storm, but the sky was clear and blue, and no clouds lingered over the sea.
“Come on,” Edward cried, tearing off across the fields.
“Where are you going?”
“Hurry, or we will miss it.”
“Miss what?” Cordelia called as she followed her brother down an overgrown path. She hadn’t gone this way since she was a child, but there certainly wasn’t anything to see between here and where it ended other than trees, grass, and wildflowers.
“I know the perfect vantage point to watch it happen.”
“Watch what happen?” she demanded as Edward came to a stop at the mass of bramble that stood between them and the neighboring estate, Nightshade Manor. He put his booted foot into the knot of an old oak tree then climbed before he settled on a limb. “Come on or you’ll miss it.”
“Miss what?” Cordelia demanded again. She was not climbing a tree, yet she did wish to see what was on the other side.
She shook her head. She knew there was nothing but more bramble. When she was younger, she’d explored out of curiosity, hoping to get a glimpse of Nightshade Manor, but it was impossible with everything so overgrown. That is what happened when an estate was unattended, with no servants left behind to see to the grounds. In fact, nobody had been in residence in two years, and even then, no one had seen the family.
“We will be seen,” Cordelia insisted.
Edward rolled his eyes. “The leaves are too full. Nobody is going to see us. I promise.”
Cordelia did a slow turn and looked about the area that was no longer as familiar as it had been when she was a child. She’d come here often then, breaking the rules, so that she could eat the numerous blackberries that grew within the bramble, which was tight, interlocking hedges separating the two properties. Adam had said the bramble belonged to Nightshade Manor, but she’d decided any blackberries that faced Hollybrook Park were theirs. They were always the best tasting blackberries too, but now Cordelia wondered if they only tasted better because they had been forbidden.
“I knew you were too boring and proper to want to experience something interesting,” Edward decided. “Just like a stern governess who never allows for fun. Like my house mother.”
House mother indeed! She most certainly was not boring. Proper, yes, but not boring.
A proper miss would not climb a tree, especially at her age. But, neither would a boring person.
She held up her hand. “Help me up.”
He grinned down, reached out a hand, and before Cordelia knew it, she was seated beside Edward. Luckily the limb was strong and should hold them both. “What am I supposed to see?” On the other side of the bramble was nothing but a field, and more bramble. Odd, the bramble separating Hollybrook Park from Nightshade Manor turned away from the border further away, as if rounding a corner, and continued in another line, away from where it had intersected with the property row.
Cordelia didn’t know what to make of it, except perhaps a gardener had once tried to train it back, which was nearly impossible if let go for too long.
“Just wait,” Edward said.
Cordelia blew out a sigh and waited. If everything hadn’t gone so silent and still, she wouldn’t even be here.
“Look at all the blooms for the blackberries. The birds will certainly be happy. It is a shame that there won’t be anyone to pick them.” Except, she might just visit once they were ripe and fill a pail. It wasn’t as if anyone at Nightshade Manor would know that she was picking from their bushes.
Cordelia leaned forward to study the blooms to see when the petals might drop, but the petals faded away, and berries plumped and ripened right before her very eyes. How was that even possible?
“There.” Edward announced, pulling Cordelia’s attention from the magical blackberries. He was pointing in the direction of the main road to Bocka Morrow, not that it could be seen from this distance, and then she heard horses and carriages approaching.
There was no road here. At least not a well-traveled one. Simply a grass-covered path wide enough for a carriage. There were rumors that the road to Nightshade Manor was near here, but she’d never seen it. Then before Cordelia could comprehend what truly was happening, a dirt road appeared where the overgrown grass had been and ended at the bramble that had pivoted away from the other bushes.
“See,” Edward whispered. “There is more.”
“You have seen this happen before?” Cordelia questioned.
“When?” she demanded.
“You will be angry.”
There wasn’t a day passed that Cordelia wasn’t angry at her brother for something, except for the blissful period that he was away at Eton. If one were honest, Edward had gotten up to mischief as soon as he could crawl, so it wasn’t a surprise that he’d done something he shouldn’t.
“I promise,” she said and hoped she could keep it.
“When I was six. I was eating the berries and the same thing happened. Everything got silent so I climbed the tree.”
When he was six? That would have been in 1806. That was also the last time anyone had arrived at Nightshade Manor. The family stayed until 1811 and hadn’t been back…Until today.
It didn’t take long for the carriages to arrive, then stop at the end of the road before the shield of bramble.
Then a gentleman, older woman and three young girls got out and glanced around. Perhaps they were lost or had taken a wrong turn. Except, that road hadn’t even existed until a few moments ago.
She recognized the woman to be the Marchioness of Chandos, but she did not recognize the gentleman or the girls.
Why was Lady Chandos here and why hadn’t she brought her daughters or husband?
This was all very strange.
Two of the younger girls raced toward the tree she and Edward were sitting in and the gentleman turned in their direction. She waited for him to call out, because Cordelia was certain that he’d looked directly at her.
He was the most handsome gentleman she’d ever seen, or perhaps it was simply that something called out to her. She’d already had four Seasons, but this was the first time her breath had lodged in her throat, pulse sped, and heart pounded.
She shook those thoughts away. It was the fear of getting caught, and nothing else, and she waited for him to demand to know why she and Edward were spying on them from a tree.
But he didn’t. He turned away.
“This is very odd,” Cordelia whispered.
“Shush. Just watch.”