Cursed - A Spellbound Regency Novel

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Isobel Sterling is a governess with many secrets—including an uncanny ability she's been hiding her whole life, until the day arrives when she has to use it to save herself from a madman. But first she has to master it. Fast.

Governess Isobel Sterling feels fortunate to have found a safe haven in the Montgomery household. The children are kind and the lord and lady of the house leave her alone. Just when her life seems as good as it can get, mysterious visitors arrive from abroad.

At first Isobel is flattered by the single-minded attention she receives from their handsome young guest, Matteo Garibaldi. But when girls in the village go missing, Isobel has a terrible suspicion the disappearances are linked to the darkness she can see growing behind Matteo's eyes. Filled with dread, she tries to avoid his company—until she is locked in with him for the night.

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Cursed - A Spellbound Regency Novel

Submitted: June 24, 2015

Reads: 400

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Submitted: June 24, 2015

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Chapter 1

Isobel twitched the curtains apart carefully. If she opened them too wide she might be seen. Her room was directly above the center of the drive. A person standing at the right angle could clearly see her curtains. Although, it would have been a little odd if their guests bothered to look in the tiny third-floor window that belonged to her room.

Below her on the expansive gravel drive the staff were unloading the finest traveling carriage she had ever seen. The carriage was a black lacquer monstrosity with red and gold paneling on the doors. The horses that drew it were a sturdy pair of matched greys, doubtless the best that could be had at the last coaching inn their guests stopped at.

A more modest carriage had preceded the one currently in the drive several hours before. It had unloaded a few servants and a multitude of fine trunks. All the servants were male. There were no maids in the group the Garibaldis had brought with them from Santa Fiora, Italy, which meant no women had been included in their party.

The entire household had been buzzing about this visit all week. Guests were rare in this isolated corner of Northumberland. Her employer Sir Clarence Montgomery, a close-fisted minor baronet, did not like to entertain often. But these visitors were an exception. Sir Clarence had mentioned the upcoming visit of his half-sister's husband and son twice in her presence, which for him positively constituted boasting.

Aldo Garibaldi was an Italian count. Miriam Montgomery had met the Conte Garibaldi de Santa Fiora at a ball in London during her first London season, shortly after her debut. After a brief courtship, the Conte proposed and Miriam went off to Italy for her happily ever after.

Unfortunately for her, ever after was only a decade. She had passed away when Matteo, the count's only heir, was just a boy. According to the servant's gossip, Matteo was a handsome and intelligent young man of eight and twenty, a paragon of propriety and honorable behavior.

He sounded extremely dull.

She didn’t know if Sir Clarence had been close with his older sister. There had been a younger sister Anna as well, but Isobel's employer never mentioned her at all. According to the servants, Sir Clarence believed his younger sister had married beneath her. She had died young too, but if Clarence Montgomery felt the loss of either sister with any degree of emotion, it was hidden behind layer upon layer of proper manners and cold British reserve. But Isobel preferred that innate coldness in her employer. It was preferable to the alternative.

She had to leave her last position after the warm and fatherly Sir Isaac Warton, her former employer, made it clear that her duties went beyond the instruction of his spoiled children. He would wait until his wife was away paying calls in the neighborhood to waylay her and flirt shamelessly. Isobel had rebuffed with a polite but firm hand. When that didn’t deter him, she had advertised for a new position. She had been fortunate enough to find one right away. She was gone in a few weeks.

Isobel considered herself lucky to have found the Montgomery's. They didn't hold her Scottish heritage against her—although it was probably an excuse for paying her less than the last tutor despite her mastery of mathematics, Latin, Greek, and Italian. Her new charges, Martin and Amelia, were quiet and well behaved. Most importantly, the Montgomerys kept to themselves. Truthfully it was a little dull, but a governess' lot was often this way. Those of her brethren who yearned for adventure and excitement were the ones who got into trouble, something Isobel scrupulously avoided.

She didn't have anyone to talk to outside of her brief interactions with the servants. Her place in the household was in a strange nether position. By birth, she was above the servants, technically equal to the Montgomerys, but circumstances had placed her actual existence below them—far below.

It was a lonely life, but one Isobel had no wish to change. A friend may have inspired confidences she could not afford to share. It was better this way.

Sighing, she turned her attention back to the drive. Where were the Conte and his son? She had been watching for several minutes and so far no one had emerged from inside the massive conveyance.

Isobel was contemplating giving up and going to bed when there was a flurry of sudden activity. The occupants of the carriage had finally deigned to leave it to face the dark grey Northumberland sky. Two of the male servants that had been deposited earlier hurried to the carriage to assist a slow moving figure.

Finally. She leaned closer to the window for a better look, her loose auburn hair falling forward. The gap between the curtains widened despite her best intentions to leave them as they were.

No one had mentioned that the Conte was an invalid, but there he was being helped down by the servants. He was quickly followed by another man.

Wait.

The figure being helped down from the carriage wasn't grey-haired like the one in the fine waistcoat next to him. It was a young man, moving with painful slowness. The two male servants were positioned at his sides, supporting his weight as they made their way to the front door where Sir Clarence was waiting. Isobel leaned back from the window as the group disappeared inside.

How sad. The count's heir was obviously in very poor health. And it was unmistakably the younger of their two guests. Though he had moved with careful precision, the figure being assisted through the Montgomery’s front door had to have been Matteo Garibaldi. He was still fit, with broad shoulders and dark midnight hair. Whereas the Conte Santa Fiora had gone grey and had a discernible roundness about the middle.

Why would they come all this way with an invalid?

The Garibaldis had traveled weeks and weeks to reach this cold and rainy corner of England. But wouldn't the warm and sunny climate of Italy have suited an invalid's delicate constitution better? Especially with winter fast approaching.

Perhaps the illness was recent.

There was little point in speculating, Isobel told herself firmly as she climbed into bed. It was late and her days were full. No doubt the servants would have gleaned all the information about their guests by morning.

Between the upstairs maids, the grooms, and the kitchen staff there were no secrets in the Montgomery household. It was an efficient machine for gossip, one wasted on a completely respectable and slightly dull family. But now the servants finally had something to talk about. Her curiosity would be satisfied tomorrow.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

The next day, Isobel woke early. As soon as the sun had broken through her windows she was dressed, preparing to get her charges up and fed so they could have their first lesson out of doors. She wanted to take advantage of the fine morning to give her pupils a biology lesson before all the leaves fell from the trees.

Breakfast in the servants hall was full of empty gossip. Very few of the staff had glimpsed their guests since the Garibaldis had arrived so late. But the day was still young, she thought quickly drinking her tea and rushing to join the children.

A few hours later, Isobel was making excuses not to go back inside. The fine weather had lasted beyond her intended lesson, so she and the children lingered going over their readers outside on the lawn near the edge of the woods.

“Ms. Sterling, can we go to the stables, please?” Martin piped up from the blanket where they sat, interrupting the recitation he had been making at Isobel's instruction. “I'd like to show Amelia my pony.”

Little Amelia, the Montgomery's ward, nodded eagerly, her face filled with anticipation. The children were due inside for lunch soon, but she could hardly say no to the yearning in those big blue eyes.

Amelia had been living with the Montgomery’s for only a short time, a few weeks longer than Isobel herself. The little one was still quite timid about voicing her desires and wishes. Isobel didn’t want to discourage her from expressing herself, and she often wondered if Amelia had been as timid when her parents were still alive.

“Very well. Once you finish that passage,” she said agreeably.

The children smiled at each other, and Isobel marveled yet again at how easy they were to please. She bade Martin to continue with his recitation. As his clear bell-like voice filled the air, she let her mind wander. Martin was a fine reader and rarely made mistakes. But Amelia was still shy and often stumbled over the words. Isobel wanted her to grow more comfortable before she had her read aloud during lessons. Listening to Martin was one way for her to prepare.

Breathing deeply, Isobel leaned back on the blanket and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face. With her auburn hair and pale complexion, she had to be careful not to get too much sun or she would freckle. Despite that, she couldn't help enjoying what decent weather they did get here, especially now that the days were growing shorter and shorter.

A prickling sensation at the back of her neck made her eyes fly open. She sat up and looked down at her charges. Martin was still reading diligently, Amelia's eyes trained on him. But someone was watching them. She could feel it. Turning surreptitiously, she caught sight of an upright figure standing on the other end of the lawn near the stables.

The observer was a dark-haired young man, tall and fit. He was elegantly dressed in a fine gold waistcoat and dark riding coat paired with fawn colored buckskins. His top boots had brown uppers, the gleam of their polish evident even from a distance. And he was staring fixedly at her, not the children.

Isobel’s breath caught. She could feel the stranger’s gaze as if it was a physical thing, pressing in on her until her heart raced in response. She stifled a wild impulse to jump to her feet and run away into the woods. But instinct told her that would have been a grave mistake.

He would hunt her down.

What was wrong with her? The man was just looking at her. There was nothing threatening about that. From this distance she couldn't be sure of his expression, but it looked benign. He was probably simply wondering who she was.

You are being ridiculous.

After what seemed like an interminably long time the elegant man inclined his head. She was debating on returning his greeting when he turned on his heel and disappeared into the stables.

Was that the count's son?

She couldn't think of who else it could be…but the stranger was no invalid. He had stood without aid and walked with determined steps into the stable.

Confused and unsettled, Isobel changed her mind about a visit to see Martin's pony just now. She would take the children to the stables after lunch, once she was sure their guest was gone.

****

Amelia's eyes shined as Martin proudly demonstrated his little chestnut's many virtues. The girl hung on his every word, their heads were close together in conversation. She reached out to pet the horse that John, the head groom, had brought out for their inspection. He in turn watched Isobel, trying to catch her eye. She pretended not to notice.

“Can Amelia ride him, Miss?” Martin asked hopefully.

The little smile she'd been wearing fell away.

“I'm afraid not,” she said. “Amelia doesn't have a saddle.”

“She can use mine,” Martin said.

Isobel shook her head. “Amelia can't use your saddle because she can't ride astride. Young ladies need a sidesaddle,” she said, trying to sound firm.

Amelia looked crestfallen, and Isobel was flooded with guilt. She clearly remembered all the times she'd ridden without a saddle at all, back when her father had been alive. He'd been a mischievous sort, who'd turned a deaf ear whenever her mother had complained about letting their only child run wild, cavorting in the woods and riding astride with him on his horse. The fact she'd been wearing the stableboy's breeches at the time was a secret her father had taken to his grave.

Stirring from his position leaning on one of the stall doors John leaned forward. “It's all right, Ms. Sterling. Little Amelia's saddle arrived earlier this week.”

“Her saddle?” Isobel asked blankly.

“Yes, Miss,” John said, nodding at the stable boy who ran to fetch the saddle. John leaned closer while the children began to whisper excitedly. "It is her saddle,” he added in a low voice. “She used to have a pony too, but Sir Clarence said it was too expensive to keep.”

Isobel suppressed a frown and nodded. She had heard the rumors from the other servants when she had started her position. The only reason Clarence Montgomery had taken in Amelia, the daughter of a distant cousin, was because she was an heiress. Though her father had been in trade and the head of the household disdained all those who had to work for a living, the fortune Amelia was to inherit someday had apparently been sufficient enough inducement for him to take her in.

Unfortunately, Amelia's sizable inheritance did not mean she was treated with any degree of warmth. For the most part, she was ignored the way she would have been if she'd been a poor relation. But Isobel was grateful for Martin, a sweet and conscientious child who was completely unlike his parents. Amelia would always have a friend in him—and possibly a doting husband if Sir Clarence pushed for a match between them.

At least Isobel hoped that was where the baronet's intentions lay. It was the most benign of the possibilities she'd considered for her youngest charge.

“It can't be a long ride, especially as Amelia isn’t wearing a habit. We have another lesson upstairs in a quarter hour,” Isobel called after the children as John helped little Amelia to the mounting block.

“Master Martin can lead the little Miss around the paddock for a few minutes,” John said as he opened the gate for the pair.

She nodded and Amelia beamed at her, a genuine and grateful smile. The little girl primly adjusted her skirts while Isobel went to stand at the paddock fence, crossing her arms on the top rail.

Martin led the chestnut in a slow circuit inside the fenced off area. John joined her at the fence, smiling broadly.

“Pretty as a picture, aren't they?” he asked warmly.

Isobel nodded but didn't say anything. It would not do to encourage him, and he always stared at her a touch too long when she came to the stables with the children.

“Miss Sterling, I hope you aren't planning on going to walk to the village anytime soon. Or if you do that you not go alone.”

Puzzled, Isobel pulled her gaze from the children to meet John's eyes. His normal buoyant and overly familiar manner was gone.

“If your duties require a visit to the village, perhaps you'll let me escort you. You see there's been another.”

She raised a brow. “Another what?”

Surprise flickered in his eyes. “Another disappearance. The baker's daughter this time.”

Isobel drew herself up and stood straight. “A disappearance? I was not aware there had been a previous one.”

John clucked his tongue. “Inside servants are falling down on the job, are they? All too busy talking about the count and his son I expect, but there are two young women missing. It's the most excitement these parts have ever seen. The girl disappeared last night on her way home from visiting a friend. And this one can't possibly be a runaway.”

“They thought the first girl ran away?” She had heard something about that. It had been a minor note of gossip in the house since the young lady in question wasn't known in these parts.

He nodded. “I don't know her name. Sarah something. She was from Etal, the little berg on the north side of Ford. Went missing almost a week ago. But most everyone thought she'd run off. She was said to be fast,” he added in a lower voice. “Had several fellows she walked with, if you know what I mean. When she disappeared even her parents thought she'd gone off with some man. But now they're not so sure, 'cause this other one can't possibly be a runaway. Lottie, the baker's daughter, was engaged to the blacksmith’s son and was happy about the match by all accounts.”

Isobel mulled that over. “It's still possible that first girl did run off,” she pointed out, crossing her arms. “And perhaps the second one was waylaid by a friend or tried a shortcut in the woods and became lost.”

Even as the words left her mouth, she realized she didn't believe them. Young ladies from the village, even those of the lower classes, avoided the woods during this season. They were cold and damp, with few discernible tracks or paths running through. It would be easy to become lost amongst those tall trees. She'd made it a point to learn the few paths well during her half-day off.

And the best hiding places, she thought, recalling her insurance policy deep in the woods. It won't come to that, she assured herself. But Isobel felt better knowing she was prepared.

John gave her a disbelieving glance before shrugging. “Until they turn up, it wouldn't do to walk alone. If they turn up.”

“I will keep that in mind,” she said in an even tone before calling out to the children.

Their leisure time was over.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

“They want me to dine with the family?” Isobel asked in disbelief.

She had been preparing for dinner in the kitchen. Though she didn't dine with the staff, she did take her meal in their serving hall, just after they had eaten, but before the family's meal was served in the dining room. Some governesses chose to have a tray sent to their room, but Isobel didn't want the servants to think she was putting on airs. Consequently, they were friendlier to her than they had been to tutors past. They still complained about how high in the instep her predecessor had been.

That regard was evident now as the chambermaid, her face red from a dash up to the third floor, nodded eagerly.

“Yes, Miss,” Mary said, her round form almost quivering with excitement. “Sir Clarence bade me to tell ye that yer presence is required at dinner tonight. 'E didn't seem terribly happy about it, truth be told,” she finished honestly as she reflexively straightened the bedclothes.

Isobel frowned. “If he's not pleased with the idea, why would he ask me to dine with the family?”

Mary literally hopped up and down. “It was the Nobile who asked for ye. Did ye know that's what a count's son is called in Italy miss?” she said, walking over to the wardrobe and rifling through it.

Nobile means nobleman in Italian,” Isobel said absently. “The count's son is the Nobile dei Conti di Santa Fiora. The family seat is southeast of Florence.”

Her stomach was tight and her head was swimming. Why would their guest ask for her?

“And I thought Marchioness was a mouthful,” Mary said, wrinkling her nose as she struggled to process the intricacies of addressing the upper classes. “We don't have much time, Miss. Ye best put this on,” she said, holding up what passed for Isobel's best dress. “So, when did ye meet his lordship?” she asked eagerly.

“Mm, I believe you can call him Lord Santa Fiora, or simply my lord, as the Montgomerys do. I don't believe the use of courtesy titles is common in Italy as it is here. But I haven't met him. Not yet,” she frowned, standing still as Mary fluttered over her, undoing the laces of her plain grey gown.

All of Isobel's dresses were plain, in shades of grey, brown, or blue. The dress Mary had chosen and laid on the bed was in the grey family, but it was a lighter shade with a tinge of blue to it with a slightly more flattering cut than any of the others. It was still a far cry from what was currently being worn in the ballrooms of London.

“'Ow romantic! 'E must 'ave seen ye with the children and asked for ye te join them,” Mary said, her round face alight with excitement.

Isobel suppressed a scowl. She did not share Mary's anticipation. She was unprepared for a meal with the family. Although she was the daughter of a gentleman, by the time she was of an age to socialize, her father and mother had been long gone. Isobel was certain her manners were above reproach, but the thought of casually conversing with Italian nobility was beyond her. She already knew Sir Clarence was not pleased to include her. What if she embarrassed herself?

Or worse, somehow exposed herself?

A cold weight settled in the pit of her stomach as Mary helped her out of her dress. Isobel allowed herself to be jerked back and forth as the servant did up the laces of her stays.

“Not too tight,” she said.

If she was laced too tight when she was already feeling lightheaded, there was a real possibility she would disgrace herself by passing out.

Mary nodded and laced her loosely. “Good thing for ye, yer waist is already tiny,” she said, moving to pick up the grey dress before casting an envious glance at Isobel's midsection. “There's no time to redo yer, hair I'm afraid.” She pursed her lips at the simple knot of auburn hair on Isobel's head before she slipped the light grey dress over her and fastened it.

“It will have to do. Thank you,” Isobel said, running her damp hands over her waist and smoothing her skirts.

She nodded at the maid and headed down the stairs, trying to calm her racing heart the whole way.

****

Isobel was late. When she entered the drawing room, it was already full. Sir Clarence and Lady Montgomery were conversing with their guests. In addition to the Conte and his son, the minister and his wife were present.

Sir Clarence looked up at her. “Miss Sterling, finally,” he said shortly, gesturing for her to join the group.

Isobel stepped closer and curtsied as gracefully as she could. “Forgive my tardiness. I wasn't expecting an invitation to join you for dinner,” she said with studied politeness.

If her employer was going to grouse about her lateness, he might have given her more than five minutes warning.

The younger Garibaldi cleared his throat.

An ill-disguised flicker of irritation passed over Clarence Montgomery's face. “Hmm, yes. Allow me to formally introduce Aldo Garibaldi, Conte Santa Fiora, and his son Matteo, Lord Santa Fiora. You already know Mr. and Mrs. Sanderson.”

Isobel murmured a polite greeting and executed another curtsy for their noble guests. When she raised her eyes, she found the young lord staring at her intently.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Sterling,” he said in softly accented English.

His voice was deep and rich, and more melodious than those of her adopted countrymen. It rippled down her spine in a little wave that she did her best to ignore.

“Thank you, my lord,” she said self-consciously, before turning to the other guests.

“Please, call me Matteo.”

At her right, Mrs. Sanderson, the minister's wife, briefly widened her eyes at her. Isobel was shocked too, although she nodded noncommittally. Clearly, Italians were clearly far more informal than the English. She surreptitiously checked the Conte’s reaction, but he was busy looking down his nose at her drab gown.

Well, there's no helping that now, Isobel told herself sternly. “I trust you have recovered from your long voyage, your lordship.”

“Sufficiently,” the Conte answered shortly. He said nothing more, and her discomfort doubled.

“Well, that's enough idle chatter,” Sir Clarence said with a fake jovial grin. “Shall we make our way to the dining room?”

The others agreed with a soft burble of conversation, but it ceased abruptly when Matteo stepped closer to her and offered his arm.

“Allow me to escort you, Miss Sterling.”

Isobel paused and threw the others a searching glance. The young lord was breaking the rules of precedence with his offer.

The minister looked disapproving, as did the Conte and Sir Clarence. Lady Montgomery wore her perpetually vague expression. Only Mrs. Sanderson looked pleased, a hint of an amused smile on her face.

Uncertainty flooded Isobel. She couldn't very well refuse, could she? How would that look? With a stiff smile, she gave Matteo her arm and they followed the others into dinner.

The situation didn't improve over the meal. Lady Montgomery had seated the party according to rank, so Isobel was at the other end of the table from Matteo, too far for conversation. But that didn't stop him from staring at her throughout the meal. And because he did, everyone else did too.

She could feel the weight of the Conte and Sir Clarence's displeasure, but there was little she could do about it. She focused on Mrs. Sanderson, who was seated next to her, asking her about her local charity work while concentrating on swallowing her meal without dropping her fork or spilling her drink.

Almost a decade younger than her dour husband, Beatrice Sanderson occupied herself with good works in the neighborhood, which also gave her a great opportunity to indulge in her favorite pastime, gossip.

At one point in the meal, Sir Clarence succeeded in claiming Matteo's attention with a discussion on the local hunting.

Mrs. Sanderson took advantage of the opportunity to lean in and whisper under the guise of drinking wine with her, “You've been busy, I see.”

Flushing at the unspoken assumption that she had done something to attract the young lord's attention, Isobel gave her a surreptitious shake of her head while sipping her own glass. She had always liked Mrs. Sanderson and lying to a minister's wife didn't sit right with her.

She pasted a fake smile on her face and spoke from between her teeth. “I haven't actually. I'm not sure what's going on. You just witnessed my first meeting with our illustrious guests.”

Mrs. Sanderson's smile became fixed as well. “Oh, that is interesting,” she said in a low voice.

She looked over at Matteo, who had resumed his study of Isobel until his father spoke to him again. Once his eyes were averted Mrs. Sanderson leaned in. “I would not wish to discourage you should this be a beneficial...er, interest, but I would advise caution.”

Isobel nodded and smiled in response, uncomfortably aware of the Montgomerys disapproving glances before she changed the subject to the weather.

After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, dinner finally ended. She and the other ladies withdrew to the parlor while the men stayed behind to enjoy their port. Isobel gave silent thanks to the observation of this particular ritual as it gave her the chance to escape from the Garibaldis' collective scrutiny. After a few minutes of conversation with the ladies she excused herself, pleading a headache.

Though she did have the beginnings of a headache, Isobel was most concerned with getting away before the men rejoined the women. It was obvious neither the Conte nor her employer approved of the young lord's interest in her.

She reached the second-floor landing with a sigh of relief. Inching carefully down the dimly lit hallway in her long skirts, she felt a hand on her arm and nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Forgive me, signorina,” Matteo Garibaldi said in his dark velvety accent. “I did not mean to frighten you.”

Isobel stared at him with wide eyes. “My lord! How did you come up behind me without me hearing you?”

She didn't understand. With his tall muscular frame, she should have heard something: the sound of his footsteps on the stairs or a creak of the floorboards. But there had been nothing, she was sure of it.

Matteo shrugged and smiled. “I walk quietly. Again, my apologies for surprising you. I had hoped to be able to speak with you more. Perhaps you would join me in a stroll in the garden tomorrow?”

For a moment, Isobel was truly flattered. There had never been any young men in her life, none that admired her near her own station. And Matteo was well-built and handsome with elegant manners.

But there was something in his voice, an unnatural intensity, that didn't match his simple request. His eyes rested on her like dark pools in the dim light, and Isobel 's heart picked up speed.

“Er, I'm sorry, my lord,” she said eventually. Her throat was tight, but she made herself say the words anyway. “I'm afraid that would not be appropriate.”

For a long moment he did not respond. The air filled with a tension that, to her overheated imagination, felt menacing. And it was affecting her vision. It was as if his eyes were gathering the shadows in the hall, pooling and growing blacker before her eyes.

Instinctively she stepped away but he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “I understand,” he said. “Perhaps you'll change your mind later,” he added in a low tone before bowing and walking away.

Feet fixed to the floor, Isobel watched him leave. Once he was out of sight, she took a deep breath and hurried to her room. She readied herself for bed, climbing in and pulling the blanket up to her chin...but sleep was long in coming that night.

****

Fighting with all her strength, Isobel pushed Matteo away from her. The resulting cold was startling. Her eyes flew open.

She was in her bed alone. It had been a dream. A nightmare, to be precise.

Taking a shaky breath, Isobel sat up. It was still dark. In her addled dream-state, she'd pushed the blankets and pillow to the floor. Leaning over, she picked them up, hoping that she hadn't cried out in her sleep. Though they weren't next door, there were other servants asleep on this floor. If one of them had heard her, she would be mortified.

Drawing the blanket over her head, she shut her eyes determinedly, but after that nightmare there was no chance sleep would return. Instead, she lay quietly thinking. What if her dream was trying to tell her something?

She had never had a prophetic one before, but her maternal grandmother, Helen, used to have them sometimes. And that dream had been so intense, it didn't feel normal.

Her grandmother used to say that her dreams of the future were of little use as they were confusing, their meaning often murky and unclear until the things they depicted had come to pass.

Pulling the cover tighter, Isobel shuddered. Her dream had started just as tonight had ended, with Matteo coming after her in the hallway. But it hadn't been him at all. What she'd seen in her dream had not been a man. Instead it was a mask, a shell covering something dark—a creature of shade and shadow. Not human.

The realization settled into her heart as her long suppressed instincts flared to life. Something was wrong with the count’s son. The gathering shadows she'd seen in his eyes earlier were not some trick of the light.

It was black magic. And of all people, she would know.

How could this have happened? The Montgomery household, indeed all of England, was supposed to be her haven. She had left all memories of magic and spellcraft behind in Highlands. What was left of that life, of her legacy, was buried with her grandmother. And then there was her vow.

She had promised her mother on her deathbed that she would never again do magic, and wouldn't consort with others who did. She had sworn to go to her grave a normal woman.

For a time, when she was quite small, Isobel had embraced everything magical. Her grandmother had been adamant that she be trained in her craft, as had her own mother and grandmother before her. One of her daughter's, Isobel's aunt Moira, had also been trained.

But Isobel's mother had not wanted that life for herself. She always said one witch in the family was enough, and two was already too many. But she hadn't objected when grandmother Helen had decided to teach Isobel magic. Not until Moira had died.

Every other day from the time Isobel was six until she was twelve years old, she would spend afternoons with her grandmother. While her father took care of her classical education, grandmother Helen would teach her about herb lore and basics of spellcraft. They would tramp through the woods near their home, collecting herbs, rocks, and occasional insects or small animals.

Isobel had never learned what actually happened to those small animals. At the time, she had been dying of curiosity, eager to learn the upper-level spells that required such a sacrifice. Growing up around farm animals had taught her not to be sentimental about such creatures. But her grandmother had told her she would learn what was needed at the right time.

But that time hadn't come. Her aunt had died and all lessons had ceased. Her grandmother had been so upset, but even Isobel's father had agreed that it was for the best in light of what had happened.

From that day, Isobel had been taught to fear her gift and what might happen to her if others learned of it. And judging from the way the local villagers had turned on her grandmother, she was right to do so. Even Isobel, a mere child, hadn't been immune to their nasty looks and the whispers that followed her whenever she went into the village.

She clutched the pillow tighter as pain filled her chest. She fought to push the hurtful memories away, but last night's meal had brought all those long buried feelings back to the surface.

What was she going to do about Matteo?

In reality there was little she could do, save avoid him. She hoped he let her.

 

****

Would you like a free copy of the complete book in exchange for an honest review? Please contact me at contact@authorlucyleroux.com and let me know if you want an epub or mobi copy.

 


© Copyright 2020 Lucy Leroux. All rights reserved.

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