Authors: Forbidden Magic
Tags: #England - Social Life and Customs - 19th Century, #Regency Novels, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Magic, #Orphans, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Marriage Proposals, #Romance Fiction, #General, #Love Stories
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Book / published by arrangement with the author
All rights reserved.
Jo Beverley Publications, Inc.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.
For information address:
The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
Books first published by The Signet Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
and the “
” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.
Electronic edition: July, 2005
Thanks to all the people on the Internet who make a writer's life so interesting these days, and to all the experts there who generously respond when an author comes along hungry for facts. I sometimes think cyberspace defies logic and lives on dreams and faith. Perhaps it's another form of magic, but if so, long live magic.
The sharp rap of the knocker almost made Meg Gillingham cut herself with her paring knife. It was Christmas Eve! Surely they'd leave them alone for Christmas.
A succession of noisy raps shattered that hope.
Her young sister rose, face shadowed by the same fears. Meg waved Laura back to her seat at the kitchen table, back to supervising the twins' messy construction of angels out of scraps. After nervously wiping her hands on her apron, she picked up the two heavy shawls she kept handy, and went into the cold corridor, heading for the front door.
She longed to peep out through the parlor window to see who was on their steps, but a door-shaking thumping, and a bellow of “Open, in the name of the law!” had her running to draw the bolt and turn the key.
She flung it wide to see icy fog swirling around Sir Arthur Jakes, their landlord, and even worse, portly, uniformed Beadle Wrycroft, with his rod of office.
Not on Christmas Eve!
Sir Arthur had been so kind. He was an old friend of her parents. Surely he'd never throw them out of their home on Christmas Eve.
He clearly wasn't suffering for lack of their rent. His heavy caped greatcoat was of finest quality, as were his warm muffler, his thick leather gloves, and his high-crowed beaver hat. “At last, Meg,” he said, clean-cut face rather pinched. “Let us in, please.”
Meg swallowed, but could do nothing but step back and gesture them into the narrow hall. “You wanted something, Sir Arthur?”
Once she'd shut out the frigid air, he said, “My dear girl, it cannot have escaped your attention that you have paid no rent for over three months.”
“But you said we weren't to worry!”
Her breath puffed, and she shivered, tucking her icy hands under her shawls. If Sir Arthur had come alone, she would have invited him into the kitchen, the only room with a fire. She rebelled, however, at inviting grubby, onion-reeking Beadle Wrycroft into the most intimate room of her home.
“My dear Meg, you must see that I meant only to give you a little time after your parents' shocking deaths. Time to seek help, to make arrangements.” He shrugged without distressing his perfect clothes in any way. “It cannot be indefinite, particularly with winter coming on.”
She glanced around, as if help or advice would appear like an angel. But the only angels here were the paper ones the twins had made, and neither they, nor the holly twigs filched from nearby gardens, offered any help or advice.
“Of course, Sir Arthur. I do see. You have been most kind. If you could give us just a little more time. It is Christmas.Â .Â .Â .”
“Now, now, Miss Gillingham,” the beadle said, “Sir Arthur has indeed been kind. More than kind.”
The benefactor raised a gloved hand to silence him. “And can afford to be kind a little longer. As Miss Gillingham says, it
Oh, thank heaven!
“But you must see,” he added to Meg, “that this cannot be a permanent arrangement.”
Meg did. She had lived on hope for months, writing first to a scattering of relatives, then to friends. She'd had a few kind responses, and even some small bank drafts, but no one wanted to take on a lively family of five.
Recently, she had resorted to charities, but since she'd managed to keep up appearances, such groups showed no interest. Perhaps if the Gillingham family ended up on the winter streets with just the clothes on their backs,
the Gentleman's Society for the Relief of Indigent Orphans, for example, would take up their cause.
But any charity would split them up. At twenty-one, she would be expected to fend for herself. Seventeen-year-old Jeremy would be set to clerking. Laura, Richard, and Rachel would be sent to institutions to be trained for a trade. She should be grateful, but it wasn't right. It wasn't fair! They were the sons and daughters of a gentleman.
It was pointless, however, to try to conceal their desperate situation any longer. Their money was just about exhausted. The best she'd been able to scrape together for Christmas dinner was a rabbit. They'd fill up on Christmas pudding made in the summer, before her parents' death, but after that they'd be on soup rations, and inevitably, one day soon the money would be completely gone.
She looked down, hating it. “I really have no idea where to turn.”
“Oh, my dear.” At his kind tone, she looked up, hope sparking, but something in his eyes made her want to step back, to escape. She remembered now that years ago, Sir Arthur had changed from avuncular to a kind of sly suitor. It had made her most uncomfortable. He was looking at her that way now. Did he still want to marry her?
Her skin crawled. She remembered the way he'd touched her back thenâkindly pats, but in the wrong places. She remembered, too, how he'd often embarrassed her by the things he'd said.
But if he offered to marry her now, she'd have to do it.
She looked at his handsome face, his elegant appearance, and tried to persuade herself that it wasn't such a terrible fate.
“Beadle Wrycroft,” Sir Arthur was saying, “I believe we can dispense with you for today. I will sit with Miss Gillingham and see if we cannot find a way out of her predicament.”
“You're too kind, sir, too kind.” The beadle looked heavily at Meg and waggled a grubby finger. “You pay attention to Sir Arthur, Miss. 'Tis a sad truth that
beggars can't be choosers. If you're without resources, you will all have to lower your standards and make do.”
Meg bit her tongue. They'd been lowering standards and making do for months. Was it their misfortune that their decent clothes were not worn enough yet to give them a suitably tattered appearance?
But she forced a smile and thanked the beadle for his help. There hadn't been any, but he clearly appreciated being appreciated.
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 tonight.
She saw Sir Arthur glance at the empty grate and shiver. 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 the 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. Do you know the cause?”
“No, Sir Arthur.” 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 lookedÂ .Â .Â . 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 boardÂ .Â .Â .”
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 mightâno, wouldâbe willing to assist you all, to provide for your comfort and even the education of the younger onesâif Laura becomes my mistress.”
The world stopped for a few missing heartbeats, then Meg exclaimed,
A second later, at a higher pitch, she gasped,
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?”
“StillÂ .Â .Â . But Laura. Ah, LauraÂ .Â .Â .”
“A wonderful age.”
Meg leaped to her feet, wanting to scream at him, to throw him physically from the house, butâhands clenchedâshe 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.
Should she even consider it? Would not Laura's situation be better ifÂ .Â .Â . ?
But she needed time.
One idea occurred to her, disgusting her almost as much as Sir Arthur's proposal.
To do that, she had to put him off.
She faced him. Oh, she'd been right to think him a weasel. A smug, sneaky weasel, confident the mice were trapped.
“I cannot agree to this at a moment's notice, Sir Arthur.”
“I cannot give you much time, my dear.”
“At least till after the Christmas season!”
“Two weeks? Too long by far.” He rose slowly, drawing out the moment. “One week. I will come for my answer on New Year's Eve. Yes. How appropriate. How delightful to start the new year with Laura in myÂ .Â .Â . home. But for that indulgence I deserve one. Call your sister so I may enjoy her beauty for one moment.”
If only she could refuse, but she would have to allow this. “You will not speak ofÂ .Â .Â . of what you said?”
“I'm sure you will be much better able to prepare her. To persuade her.”
Meg felt physically sick, but she fought it, opened the door, and called her sister.
In a few moments, Laura hurried down the corridor, an enchanting vision even in a shawl made out of an old gray blanket. Her golden-brown curls were tied back simply, but clustered charmingly around her smiling face. Her skin was flawless, her eyes large, clear, and innocent.
Meg fiercely wished her sister were dirty and disordered, but Laura never was. Even in poverty and simplicity she shone.
“Oh, Sir Arthur,” said Laura, dropping a curtsy. “Good day to you, and a merry Christmas!”
Sir Arthur, thought Meg, had a remarkable degree of self-control. Or was a deceptive weasel, depending on how one wished to view it. His smile was exactly what one would expect of an old family friend. “A merry Christmas to you, too. Working hard helping the twins?”
“And hard work it is! I'm sure the whole kitchen is glued by now.” But she spoke with good humor and showed her dimples.
It was completely impossible to deliver her up to lechery.
Sir Arthur strolled over and raised Laura's hand for a light kiss. “Your sister and I have been discussing your predicament, and we hope we might have found a way to help you all.”
“Really? Poor Meg has struggled along, but I know we can't continue like this forever. I have been preparing myself to become a scullery maid.”
“This lovely hand”âhe patted itâ“could be much more pleasantly occupied than scrubbing and scouring, my pet, and I will see to it.” He kissed it again. “Oh yes, indeed.” Still smiling, he took a coin from his pocket and pressed it into her palm. “Buy yourself a little something pretty.”
He strolled to the door, but he paused to look back. “A week, Meg.”
With that shot, he left.
“A week?” asked Laura.
Meg was shaking and prayed Laura wouldn't notice. Laura must never know. “That's when he thinks he might have a solution for us. With the new year.”