An excerpt from Forbidden MagicIn which our heroine discovers her awful predicament.
Due out, March, 2011
(Meg Gillingham and her brothers and sisters have been left almost penniless by their parents' sudden death. Only the kindness of their landlord has kept a roof over their heads. Now read on....)
Left with her landlord, Meg led him into the chilly, neglected parlor. If he was going to propose, it seemed suitable, and if he was going to set a date for their eviction, she'd rather her siblings not learn of it too soon.
She saw Sir Arthur glance at the empty grate and shiver himself. It almost made her smile. Almost. He was going to propose, and she was going to have to accept. Then she'd be trapped with him forever, having to let him do what husbands do, and subject to his will.
Her shiver was not from cold.
She directed him to a chair and took a seat as far away as she dared. "If you can see a way to help, Sir Arthur, I will be very grateful." There, that was encouragement, surely.
He sat. "There are generally ways, my dear. You have heard nothing hopeful from your relatives?"
"My father's only brother is a missionary in the east, and his only sister is the wife of a curate in Derbyshire. With six children of her own there is nothing she can do."
"Your mother's family? She never spoke of them."
"As far as I know, they did not communicate. I found an address for a sister in Kerry and wrote to her. I have received no reply."
"How sad to see a family divided."
Meg wished he would just ask her. She had to want him to, no matter how he made her shudder.
His pale eyes flicked over her, perhaps assessing her. They'd hardly spoken since her parents' funeral, and before that she'd been away for three years as a governess. Perhaps he was disappointed in how she'd turned out. For her family's sake, she wished she were a beauty like Laura, but she accepted reality. With her sturdy body and plain brown hair, she was inescapably ordinary.
He didn't look disappointed, however. He looked... anticipatory. She supposed she should like being desired, but in fact she felt like a trapped mouse being eyed by a weasel.
"So," she said, a little too loudly, "can you think of a source of aid for us? A way to keep the family together."
His brows rose. "Four youngsters is a heavy burden to bring to anyone, Meg, but I might have a suggestion." He paused thoughtfully, and she wanted to leap up and shake it out of him. She'd do it. Anything had to be better than this.
"Companionship is so important," he mused, "and I live alone. Bed and board...."
She made herself smile. "Yes, I think so."
"I have always enjoyed your family. So lively. So warm. Perhaps I could take on the care and guidance of you all. If there was a closer relationship."
Meg knew her cheeks were turning red and hoped he took it for a pleased blush rather than a flush of agitation. "Relationship?" she echoed, since something seemed to be required.
"A warm and intimate relationship with a fresh, untouched young woman."
Now she could think of nothing to say, and waited for the fateful words, steeling herself to say yes, and to say it graciously.
He crossed his legs, unnervingly at ease. "I might -- no, would -- be willing to assist you all, to provide for your comfort and even the education of the younger ones -- if Laura becomes my mistress."
The world stopped for a few missing heartbeats, then Meg exclaimed, "Laura!" A second later, at higher pitch, she said, "Mistress?"
He smiled, and she knew now it deserved a shudder. "Is your nose out of joint, my dear? It's true, when you were younger I did find you somewhat appealing, but you are, what? Twenty-two?"
"Still too old. But Laura. Ah, Laura...."
"A wonderful age."
Meg leaped to her feet, wanting to scream at him, to throw him physically from the house, but -- hands clenched -- she made herself pause. She understood his purpose. If she didn't agree, they would all be cast out on a frosty darkening evening into direst poverty. Perhaps even into death.
In all her nightmares of their fate, this one had never occurred to her. If it had been herself, if Sir Arthur had wanted herself as mistress not wife, she would have done it for the sake of the rest.
But not Laura.
Which left only one resource, the thing she'd avoided throughout these terrible months.
The wishing stone. The ancient statue that could grant wishes, but always at a price.
Meg studied the stone statue warily, wondering what she should ask for, and if it was possible to avoid the sting.
That's what they needed, but it could come in many unpleasant ways.
A charity school or even the workhouse could provide that. Even Sir Arthur might, for a while at least.
To make the stone do her bidding she had to form her wish exactly as it should be.
The future of her siblings. That's what she wanted. Their future as the children of a gentleman. Especially seventeen-year-old Jeremy with his gifted mind, who should already be at Oxford or Cambridge.
She framed a wish and went over and over it. It seemed too much to wish for, an impossible wish, but it was what they needed, and she believed in the power of the sheelagh.
Then, when she was ready, she found the special red candles her mother had kept for this purpose, and the tinder box. Once a candle-stub was burning steadily on the bedside table, gilding the gloomy room, she took a deep breath and made herself put her hands on the grimacing statue.
The power rushed into her, and the grimace seemed to become a scream of victory.
"I wish," she said as firmly as she could, "that within the week, we all be provided for as befits our station, and with honor and happiness."
She could not let go. She knew that from the last time but for a moment, she tried.
Then she made herself surrender, plunge deep into the stone's wild energy. The power engulfed her, bringing the remembered shivers and aches, the dazedness and breathlessness. Dimly she thought she should have locked the door in case one of the others came in and found her like this.
She wondered, too, if the stone could kill, for she felt she might die. She'd felt the same way last time, though, and survived.
This was worse, though. Stronger.
Perhaps the power of the stone equalled the dimension of the wish. And she had wished for so much! Was it possible to wish for too much? Panicked, she again tried to pull free. What if it never let go? What if it sucked all life from her. She couldn't! She couldn't bear it!
She became one with the sheelagh's primal scream....
Sick and dizzy, she came to herself, shaking. She still couldn't take away her hands. The sheelagh's power ebbed, but slowly, almost reluctantly, as if it resisted releasing its victim.
Why think that, when the stone offered their only chance of escape? When the power sank, instead of snatching her hands away, Meg made herself stroke the figure, and whisper, "Thank you," before freeing herself and pulling the bag back around it.
She had to take a few moments to steady herself, but then she blew out the candle, put it away, and hung the heavy bag back in its secret corner.
Now it was just a matter of time.
It would happen, she was sure. Within the week, the wish would be granted.
Time alone would reveal the means, and the price.
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