A dominant earl and a hapless student…
The young ladies who attend Miss Bertram’s Academy call themselves Practitioners, and use their skills to help, heal and defend those in need.
War hero Leo Sterne doesn’t know it yet, but he’s in need of all the help he can get. A centuries-old curse has caused the premature death of every Earl of Ravenshaw, and he has just inherited the title. The clock is ticking on his survival, and the most inexperienced young lady at Miss Bertram’s has been assigned to save his life.
Caroline Noone has only her wits, training and an unpredictable assistant to aid her, and she is shocked to discover that the mysterious stranger who has been haunting her dreams for months is the new earl. Passion flares between them, but what will happen when disaster strikes?
Can Caroline save Leo’s life? Read The Gift to find out!
Publisher’s Note: This steamy paranormal romance contains elements of power exchange.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball
June 15th, 1815
“Captain Sterne, I believe I am feeling a little faint. Will you escort me to a quiet room?”
Her eyes were gleaming with predatory intent, and she ran her hand along the scarlet wool of his best dress uniform as if she were inspecting the quality of the firm muscle underneath. Had she not been a lady of the highest rank and birth, Leo Sterne would have called her dress positively indecent—pink muslin so sheer that he could see every generous curve of her body through it. Her décolletage was threatening to escape its thin cloth confines with her every breath. He’d known women who followed his regiment around the battlefields of Peninsular Spain who wear more respectable clothing! Well, for a short time, at least.
As she was a lady, however, and he a captain of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, he would merely call her clothes fashionable, and idly wonder if they were as easy to remove as they looked.
He escorted her from the dancefloor of the large converted coach house that the Duchess of Richmond had hired for this ball. Around them swirled the dresses of those English ladies who had been brave enough to travel to Belgium to accompany their husbands as they attempted to put a stop to Napoleon once and for all.
Here, away from the strict patronesses of fashionable Almacks, ladies of all ages danced the scandalous waltz with their scarlet-coated partners. They revelled in the wildness of the spins and turns, held so closely by unfamiliar hands. Spirits were high tonight; the Duke of Wellington was in attendance and nobody feared any danger. Napoleon and his army were miles away, and they could enjoy their revels in peace.
The scarlet coats of the many officers that had been invited provided vivid splashes of colour in the large, hot room, and the music from the orchestra battled with the thunderous sound of laughter and conversation from those too busy gossiping to take to the floor.
“Over there,” his companion said, indicating a door with her fan. “And quick about it!”
They passed unnoticed amongst the crowd. Few here would know him, anyway; his captaincy was new. He’d been promoted through the ranks, replacing men killed at Salamanca and Vitoria. The eldest son of a prosperous country lawyer, he’d been commissioned as a cornet, the lowest officer rank, back when he had joined the regiment.
His companion paused in front of the door, flicking her fan open with a practiced snap of the wrist, the painted silk hiding her face from any in the crowd that might recognise her.
He opened the door smartly and she walked through, letting her free hand drift across the placket of his trousers. He drew in a breath as she squeezed his member, indicating quite precisely the nature of the escort that she required him to provide.
A gentleman never refused the request of a lady, or so he had been taught!
He hurried through the door after her, shutting it firmly behind him. It led to a dark corridor, lit dimly with candles spaced at large distances along the walls.
“Push that table against it,” she ordered, calling over her shoulder as if she were addressing a footman, rather than a lover.
Oh, the minx would pay for that!
The sturdy wooden table was heavy and required his full strength to shift into position. It would block the door quite adequately, preventing anybody discovering their removal from the dance floor.
He hurried to catch up with her. The corridor led to a small room which was decorated in a suspiciously comfortable way for an ante-chamber to a coach house. Candles were already lit, sitting in small candelabra on various surfaces. There was a chaise-longue with several plump pillows, and bowls of flowers lent a pleasing perfume to the air. There was no fire in the grate, as the muggy June night was too hot for the comfort of most, but a pretty arrangement of candles and sea shells decorated the sparse surface.
“Lady Allen, I do believe that you have had this room prepared,” he said, trying to keep a straight face.
“Me?” she gasped, fluttering her fan in front of her face in a fair approximation of innocence.
The lascivious look in her eye gave her away. Several years older than him, but still very attractive, this lady was clearly an expert in the art of seduction. She’d selected him, managed an introduction and manoeuvred him onto the dance floor with all the tactical skill of Wellington himself. For a man such as Leo, used to taking charge of the women he dallied with, this was something of a novelty.
It did not do to grant her too much power, however; it was time to put her in her rightful place. Over his knee!
“Such bad behaviour for a lady,” he said, his voice dropping to a low rumble as he stepped forward and took hold of her wrist, plucking the fan from her fingers.
“It is a shame that nobody has ever seen fit to punish you before,” he went on, stepping forward so that she was forced to back up against the wall of the room.
Her eyes gleamed at the word ‘punishment’.
“You’re going to punish me?” she breathed, shamelessly arching her back so that she pressed her breasts against his broad chest.
He leant in and nipped the lobe of her ear, causing her to squeal excitedly.
“Naughty girls need to know how to behave,” he told her, taking her unresisting hands and pinning them above her head, pushing her firmly against the wall.
He was still speaking directly into her ear, bending his head to rub the stiff bristles of his short beard against the delicate skin of her neck. She shivered and rolled her head to the side, allowing him access to more of her exposed flesh.
This was all the permission he needed; he pushed one of his legs between hers, providing a broad, muscled thigh for her to rock against. She would be dripping already if he was any judge. She moaned and rubbed against him, gasping when he started to make his way down her neck, interspersing stinging bites with soft kisses.
He tugged the bodice of her dress down with his free hand. Her breasts, full and round, tumbled free and he caught the nipple of one between his fingers. He squeezed, gently enough to make her moan and then sharply enough to make her scream.
He kept the pressure on her until she was writhing helplessly against him. Her former arrogance was gone now; no longer was she commanding him to move furniture or follow her, as if she was the one in charge. She had been reduced to the throb between her legs and the transformation was breath-taking.
“Please,” she moaned, rubbing against him.
“What is it that you want?” he asked.
She could only groan, the stimulation overpowering her ability to speak coherently.
“Lady Allen,” he said in clipped tones, the same as he used with his horse when he dared to disobey. “Answer me, Lady Allen, or I will stop.”
The air of command in his voice worked wonders.
“No!” she said in alarm. “Don’t stop, I beg you!”
“You want more?”
He let go of her nipple and gave her breast a smart spank. She screamed at the unexpected pain.
“I am Captain Sterne, Lady Allen, and you will address me as such. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain!” she said, still in shock at the sudden spank.
He removed his thigh from between her legs, noting with amusement the small wet spot on his white trousers. He’d wager that the spank had brought about that proof of her arousal. What she would be like when he had finished with her backside, he could only imagine!
Keeping the grip on her gloved wrists, he brought her away from the wall. He towed her to the chaise lounge, then sat upon it, bringing her down over his knee in one sudden movement.
She did not have time to react; her wrists were pinned to the small of her back and her skirt was hiked to her waist before she could do anything but gasp. Her bottom wobbled with the impact of his first smack and she yelped in shock of the blow, but she could do nothing but wriggle as his hand came down again, and again, and again.
Lady Allen was naked beneath her flimsy dress, so there was no protection for her bare bottom against the firmness of his hand.
She howled in protest and kicked her legs in the air, which only served to amuse him.
“None of that noise will save you from your punishment,” he warned her, delivering a stinging set of smacks to that tender area just below her bottom.
He was wearing his good, kid leather gloves, white, like his trousers. Perhaps that added something to the experience for her; it did stop the stinging in his own hand that a good spanking caused. He had a mind to test how wet she really was, however, and he did not wish to sully his dress uniform.
Once he felt her bottom had reached the perfect shade of pink, he let go of her wrists. This enabled him to remove his gloves, which he set down on the chaise longue. “Now then,” he said briskly. “Let’s see how wet that spanking has got you, shall we? Spread your legs.”
She obeyed, but didn’t answer, which got her another hard smack. This one left the shadow of his hand on her plump backside, which he admired for a moment as she let out an aggrieved scream.
“I told you to address me as Captain Sterne,” he reminded her.
“Yes, Captain Sterne!” she said breathlessly. “I’m sorry!”
She pushed her backside up in the air, presenting her wet channel for inspection. His middle finger slipped easily inside, followed by his index finger. He pumped his fingers in and out several times, enjoying the pants and groans it prompted. He sought out her little bud and rubbed it a few times. His hands were rough and callused from his years as a soldier, but they always seemed to make a woman happy when he fondled her most intimate parts.
It was no different with Lady Allen. She started to moan quite happily when he played with her bud and she wriggled so much across his lap that his member started to strain at his fly buttons. That would wait, however; his mentor in the amorous arts had given him very good advice for situations like these. Ladies first, in all things!
All women were different; the lightest touch would bring some off, while others needed a much firmer hand. Some needed a few flicks, others a finger-cramping constancy of application before they found their pleasure.
Lady Allen responded well to rough handling, it seemed, and she was helped along her way with a few more spanks to her flushed backside. She screamed and clenched down on his hand when she finally came, trapping it between the flesh of her plump thighs.
He did not give her much time to recuperate. His own patience was becoming rather thin—there was a limit to how much a man could take, after all!
He rose, scooping her up as he did so, and looked about the place for a suitable surface. Not the floor—for all the room’s decoration, he rather suspected that it contained too much dirt and grime to risk his white trousers with tell-tale spots on his knees. It would have to be over the chaise, where the curve of the back reached the highest point.
As his intentions had been pressing most intimately into her for the last ten minutes, she did not express any surprise at his actions. Indeed, she hiked up her skirt herself, and bent as far forward as she could over the chaise, grabbing the cushioned base for support.
She sighed when he pushed his cock into her the first time, her soft warmth welcoming his hardness as he sank his full length in. He was glad that she was no nervous virgin—he could fuck as hard as he wanted without worrying about her discomfort. His length and thickness could be a deterrent as often as an enticement, he’d discovered.
He paused when he’d breached her fully, listening to her sighs turning to pants as she accustomed herself to him. He reached forward and took her breasts in his hands, pulling at her nipples and laughing as she squealed and wriggled, impaled as she was on his cock.
He stayed still, his self-control pushed to its limits as she squirmed under him, her channel gripping and squeezing him as she moved.
“Please, Captain Sterne!” she said, her breath coming in pants.
“What is it you want, Lady Allen?” he asked.
If his voice lacked a little of its previous tone of command, he could be forgiven, he thought. He was seconds away from snapping his hips back and forth and fucking the breath out of her. It would be better, though, he knew, if she said the words he wanted to hear first.
“Fuck me!” she wailed. “Please! I beg you!”
“Say it again,” he said, through gritted teeth, squeezing her nipples a little harder.
“I beg you!” she said, half pleading and half screaming as she rubbed herself against him. “Fuck me, please, I beg you!”
That was what he needed. He let go of her breasts to grip her hips and he began the pleasurable business of ploughing into her, his hips working furiously as he slammed his length again and again into the wet heat of her depths.
He kept his own pleasure at bay for as long as he could; he wanted to savour this moment for as long as possible. He’d never taken a tumble with a lady of birth and breeding before, and to have one with the mark of his hand on her backside begging him to ram her as hard as he could was an achievement to be proud of!
He could feel the muscles gripping him begin to tighten again; her position over the top of the chaise must have let her rub against some helpful carving, for she was reaching the peak of her pleasure again. He could feel his own orgasm building, the pressure in his balls causing them to tighten.
He would not spend inside her, as tempting as it was. It would be bad form to leave her with a remembrance of their encounter to explain to her husband. He withdrew, causing her to cry out in loss. She knew what he was about, however, because she scrambled for some of the loose cushions on the chaise before righting herself. She dropped them to the floor and knelt on them, preserving her dress, as she took him in her gloved hand and guided him to her mouth.
His thrusts were shallow, at first, as not to overwhelm her, but Lady Allen was eager to please him and grabbed at his buttocks, urging him to thrust more deeply. He was lost as soon as the head of his cock reached the back of her throat. He groaned deeply and came, his seed spilling from the side of her lips as she greedily sucked it from him. She licked him clean, and tucked his depleted member back inside his trousers, buttoning them before placing one last single kiss to the top button.
He helped her to her feet and found her reticule and fan while she righted her skirts and felt for any dislodged hair pins. She took out a small handkerchief and dabbed at her mouth, removing any traces of him from her lips.
“I must say, Captain Sterne, you really do live up to your name,” she said, all traces of deference gone.
He bowed. “I live to serve, my lady,” he said, and she laughed and tapped him with her fan.
“You are most delightful,” she pronounced. “I look forward to renewing our acquaintance at the next suitable occasion. Now wait here for ten minutes while I make my entrance back into the ballroom, won’t you?”
“I’ll move the table for you,” he agreed. Protecting her reputation was paramount. Although ladies of the nobility took lovers quite freely after providing their husbands with an heir, it was not something to be shouted from the rooftops. Discretion protected all parties.
He accompanied her back up the corridor to the blocked door. Something was wrong, however. Instead of music and laughter, all that could be heard was alarm and the hurried thunder of running feet.
She stepped back into the shadows as he shoved the table aside and opened the door. Throughout the ballroom chaos reigned as officers from all regiments were hurrying away, kissing their crying wives and calling for their horses.
“Sterne! Come on!”
A fellow captain in his regiment clutched at his arm.
“We go to Quatre Blas,” he said urgently. “Napoleon is on the move. It’s bad, Sterne.”
Leo looked back over his shoulder at Lady Allen, hiding in the shadows. He nodded briefly to her, and then took off after his fellow officer.
The time for playing was over. It was time to fight once more.
Miss Bertram’s Academy for Young Ladies
Bath, August 1815
The Crones assembled, as they had for centuries, although now it was in the comfort of the private dining room of Miss Bertram’s Academy for Young Ladies in the fashionable town of Bath, rather than in the open air, under a midnight moon. They were women of all ranks of life, from the grand Lady Grafton, widow of an earl, down to the humblest women who took in washing or sewing to make ends meet. The one thing they did have in common was their age. The youngest woman there was five and fifty, and the oldest a mass of wrinkles who claimed to be eighty-seven and had to be helped up the stairs to the dining room by two footmen.
Niceties were exchanged as maids passed around the best bone china and delicate almond biscuits, but there was a tension in the air obvious to anybody with any sense. Practitioners preferred to work alone, or at most, in small groups of three or four. Any more than that and there were more arguments than productive work. A gathering this large, of thirty or more women, boded nothing but trouble. Those that had familiars were accompanied by them, and they were as susceptible to the tense atmosphere as their mistresses were. Cats hissed, dogs snarled, and birds flapped their wings noisily. The lone tortoise present glared suspiciously at the other animals from the depths of his shell.
The maids left as soon as possible. Despite them all being born to magical families, a gathering of Crones this large made them feel incredibly uncomfortable somewhere deep in their bones. As soon as the most senior practitioners in the nation were left alone to their afternoon tea, Miss Bertram rose and gathered their meeting to order.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” she began, carefully noting who had chosen to attend her call for a coven, and who had pleaded age, sickness or sheer disinterest in the discomfort of travel as reasons for staying firmly at home.
“I call this meeting to order,” she said firmly. “We have much to discuss.”
There was a flurry of activity as the assembled women pulled themselves upright in their chairs, put their knitting aside and stopped furtively pocketing the almond biscuits. Their familiars quietened, staying close to their mistresses.
“I for one would be grateful if you disclosed your reason for calling us all here,” a disagreeable voice said from the end of the table. “Your letter was most vague.”
Miss Bertram sighed. She had rather hoped that Mrs Pendle would not attend. The wife of a prosperous confectioner from Lancashire, her mind was as sharp as her tongue, and Miss Bertram did not quite trust her. That was a dreadful thing to say about a fellow practitioner, and Miss Bertram would never threaten the unity of the Council of Crones by betraying her true feelings. She had no evidence of any wrongdoing on the behalf of Mrs Pendle, merely a sense of worry that tickled her mind whenever they met in person.
A wise practitioner trusted her instincts, and Miss Bertram’s were singing as loudly as a soprano in Covent Garden. She schooled her face, however, and did not let any of her feelings show. To her left sat Lady Grafton, who did not feel it necessary to show Mrs Pendle any such courtesy if the scowl on her face was any indication. Miss Bertram hoped that Lady Grafton would be able to hold her tongue during the meeting, but she did not have high hopes.
Lady Grafton was not a lady well-used to restraint.
“I thought it wise to be discreet,” Miss Bertram told the council. “This is a matter of some delicacy.”
This caused them to prick up their ears. Practitioners adored gossip as much as the next woman.
“As you all know, the Council of Crones has a duty to protect, guide and instruct the next generation of magical practitioners. It has been this way for centuries, and it is why some of you serve on the teaching staff here at the Academy.”
There were nods around the table, although Mrs Pendle sat thin-lipped and unamused.
“However, we have another duty. That of protecting the unknowing population of this nation from the effects of our wild and dangerous history, when women of power freely attacked their enemies with their magical gifts.”
The women around the table shifted uncomfortably. Some looked shocked at the mention of the long-distant past, and a history most of them worked hard to forget. Others nodded grimly. These were the women that still saw active service as practitioners, despite their advancing years. They travelled the country, seeking out tales of evil witches and malign powers to investigate whether any traces of foul magic still polluted the country.
Miss Bertram’s eyes found Mrs Pendle’s, who had sat in silence as the rest of the women buzzed and murmured their displeasure at mentioning a topic most found the strictest of taboos. Her face was alert and wary, which only set Miss Bertram’s instincts to screaming. Lady Grafton tapped a gloved hand on the polished oak table. A faint glow from beneath her delicate white silk gloves betrayed the small amount of magic she was using to gain Miss Bertram’s attention.
They exchanged a quick look, glad to see that the other had come to the same conclusion about Sarah Pendle. There were always one or two women who had a more than healthy interest in the events of long-ago centuries, before the establishment of the Code. They bore watching, and it would be down to Miss Bertram to discreetly arrange it.
“For centuries, the Council of Crones has sought to nullify the dark and dangerous spells laid down by an unknown witch on a jewel owned by the Ravenshaw earls. Unfortunately, we have never been able to place an operative close enough to the jewel long enough for her to be able to un-work the spells.”
“Why not?” asked a dowdy-looking woman from halfway down the table.
Her dress was of plain brown material, and her bonnet several years out of fashion. She wore only one piece of jewellery, a small brooch that kept her shawl in place. Her familiar, a mouse the same shade of brown as her dress, ran up her arm and across her shoulders, where it scrambled up into her bonnet and hid among the tired-looking feathers that drooped there. She looked precisely what she was: an old spinster, living in very reduced circumstances and pitied by most of those of her home village that took the time to know her.
No amount of dowdy clothing could hide the intelligence in her eyes, however, or the way that her familiar peered out of her hat to carefully take in the reaction of every witch at the table. There was no such thing as a stupid practitioner, because a stupid practitioner very quickly became a dead one, or at least one that was missing several key body parts. There was more to casting a spell than waving a stick with a star on the end and saying some magic words, no matter what the story books told you. Channelling the invisible streams of magical power that wound their way through the atmosphere was no easy task and accidents did happen to the unprepared.
“Whoever cursed the jewel was damned good at what she did,” Lady Grafton said bluntly. “When we made the decision to abandon those evil ways and live by the Code, we began to forget how ancient practitioners worked their spells. Very few of us have the knowledge of how to unpick the mess that surrounds the jewel, and even fewer of us have the skill to do it. Of course, let us not forget that the jewel is a large ruby, worth a great deal of money. The Ravenshaws did not make a habit of leaving it lying around for a new servant to see.”
“It was necessary to call us here to discuss this? To remind us of your failure to do your duty?”
“We have finally found a way forward in this matter,” Lady Grafton snapped at Mrs Pendle. “Although you have not had anything to do with solving the problem, I may add.”
The prohibition against another practitioner was the second rule of the Code that governed the actions of all Gifted women, second only in importance to the rule that they must never use their powers to hurt, harm or hinder the un-Gifted population of the British Isles. That was the only reason that Lady Grafton and Sarah Pendle were not now conjuring fireballs or some other violent action, if Miss Bertram was any judge.
“The Ravenshaw earls have been plagued with misfortune ever since the jewel was cursed,” Miss Bertram said hastily. “Their history is littered with untimely deaths and runs of bad luck that have seen what was once one of the foremost noble families in the land reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves. Even now, they are mourning the death of the fifteenth Earl of Ravenshaw.”
“I thought they had just lost one? A young man?”
“They had; this was his successor. Fell off his horse, or so I heard.”
“Who is to inherit?”
“The title is to pass to a distant cousin of the family,” Miss Bertram said, raising her voice to be heard over the gossip of the Council. “A soldier, who escaped the family curse by surviving Waterloo. I have it on good authority that he is unmarried and will naturally be looking for a wife to pour her dowry into the Ravenshaw coffers.”
“A husband hunt,” one of the older women said thoughtfully. “Plenty of young women would like a title.”
“And that means plenty of young women invited to Ravenshaw Hall to make the acquaintance of the new earl,” said another, nodding approvingly. “You mean to smuggle an operative in, I take it, Miss Bertram?”
“I do,” Miss Bertram said, grateful that the Council seemed willing to approve her plan.
“Do we have any Mothers suitable?” asked another, frowning. “We don’t have many young ladies from the noble classes represented in our numbers. Those that we do train usually refuse to complete the test and retire into marriage.”
The eyes of the Council fell to Lady Grafton, one of the few representatives of the nobility who had chosen to both pass from Maiden to Mother and become an operative of the Council, ready to use her magical gifts to help those around her.
“It is more difficult for ladies of my rank to properly use our gifts,” Lady Grafton admitted. “Our lives are more closely scrutinised, and the risk of discovery greater. However, I do believe that we have a young lady at our disposal who would be a suitable candidate for the Earl of Ravenshaw.”
One of the Crones who worked as an instructor at the Academy stiffened slightly.
“You mean Caroline?” she asked cautiously.
“Of course I mean Caroline; how many other granddaughters do you think I have stashed about the place?” Lady Grafton demanded.
“But she is still a Maiden,” the instructor said, shaking her head. “We thought it best that she not take the test. She has always shown more aptitude for the more, ah, theoretical side of magical practice. Her research skills are really very good, you know.”
“You mean she can’t work a simple spell without it going wrong,” Mrs Pendle sneered.
“Caroline can work any spell you ask her to,” Lady Grafton said, glowering at her. “And she will prove it, at her test.”
“Once Miss Noone has passed her test, she will be dispatched to Ravenshaw Hall with the rest of the matrimonial hopefuls. Lady Grafton will, of course, go with her to act as her chaperone in the eyes of the rest of the party. In reality, it will be Lady Grafton who will un-work the spells on the jewel and lift the curse. Miss Noone will be there merely as a distraction. However, we cannot send a practitioner into the field without her first passing the test in front of the Council of Crones.”
There was nodding from most of the women around the table, who seemed willing enough to consent to Miss Bertram’s plan. There was no leader of the Council, as such; any Crone could call a meeting to discuss any topic at any time. However, as the latest Miss Bertram in a long line of Miss Bertrams to run the academy that trained young gifted women to use their powers appropriately, most looked to her for guidance.
Most, but not all. Miss Bertram did not like the way Mrs Pendle was catching the eye of several other Crones and frowning.
Miss Bertram cast a glance at a portrait of the previous headmistress on the wall, her aunt, Eugenia. She sat ramrod-stiff on a chair, next to a table where she was assembling a bouquet of flowers, her beloved dog curled at her feet. It looked like a cosy image of domesticity until you noticed the steely determination in her eyes, and the odd combination of flowers being woven together. Lemon blossom, hollyhock, celandine, box, borage and witch hazel—not a combination one would expect, unless you understood the secret language of flowers. Discretion, ambition, education, constancy, courage and the casting of magical spells; all necessary components in a woman’s character, according to Aunt Eugenia.
Miss Bertram steeled herself. “Miss Noone will be brought before the Council tomorrow to face her test,” she announced.
“I volunteer as one of the judges,” Sarah Pendle said quickly.
“Thank you,” Miss Bertram said, gritting her teeth. “Could I presume on you, Miss Mountjoy? And you, Mrs Pratt?”
Miss Mountjoy, the brown-clad witch with the mouse familiar nodded her agreement. Mrs Pratt, a jovial-looking plump lady, looked surprised at being called on but agreed nonetheless.
It was not what she wanted, but it would have to do. For Miss Noone to pass her test she had to convince the three judges that she was an able practitioner. If one of them refused to pass her, then she had failed and would have to wait a year until she could be tested again. Miss Mountjoy was strict but fair; Mrs Pratt kindly but always one to obey the rules. Sarah Pendle, now smirking and showing off her fine dress to those sitting next to her, was the only judge who would seek a reason to deny Miss Noone her promotion from Maiden to Mother and would perhaps be reined in by the steady influence of the other judges.
“Then it is settled,” Miss Bertram said loudly, over the hubbub of conversation. “The test will take place at noon tomorrow. You are all, of course, welcome to stay here at the Academy for the duration of your visit, if you have not already arranged other accommodation.”
“I have a suite of rooms at The White Hart,” Mrs Pendle announced. “I always stay there when I travel to Bath—such excellent service, and well-proportioned rooms.”
“How lovely for you,” Lady Grafton said, baring her teeth in what would only be called a smile by a person who had never witnessed two ladies at war. “For those times when you are friendless in a strange place, it is so good to have a reliable inn to fall back on.”
Mrs Pendle bared her teeth in response, while Miss Bertram rolled her eyes. Lady Grafton should know better than to provoke Sarah Pendle.
“What a lovely day it is!” Miss Purvis said quickly. “There is time for a stroll before we need to change for dinner if anyone would care to accompany me?”
Miss Bertram let out a sigh of relief as her second in command gathered a large number of ladies who thought it best to quit the room before all-out war broke out. In the fuss of gathering shawls, scooping up familiars and checking reticules, Mrs Pendle was able to leave without losing any face. Miss Purvis may well be infuriatingly cheerful and as twittery as the canary that rarely left her shoulder, but she did have good instincts.
With some of the elderly ladies retiring to rooms prepared for them in the Academy, and the rest ushered out for a walk by Miss Purvis, Lady Grafton and Miss Bertram were left alone in the dining room among the empty tea cups and a few stray biscuits.
“I know, I know,” Lady Grafton said irritably, before Miss Bertram could speak. “She provoked me and I fell right into it. Damned stupid of me.”
Miss Bertram nodded but said nothing, merely opening a cupboard in the sideboard and pulling out a bottle of brandy. It was not the done thing for ladies to enjoy spirits, and certainly not in the middle of the day, but there were occasions when Miss Bertram was reminded that she was a practitioner first, and a lady second.
She poured a small measure for herself, using one of the discarded tea cups, and a similar one for Lady Grafton, who frowned and flicked her finger. The bottle in Miss Bertram’s hand jerked and a healthier splash of amber liquid hit the china cup.
“You’ve got better at that,” Miss Bertram said dryly. “You got it all in this time.”
“Years of experience with a stingy butler,” Lady Grafton declared.
Miss Bertram lifted her glass in a toast. She sipped her brandy carefully, relishing the sweet apple taste of the expensive spirit.
Lady Grafton swallowed her drink in two hearty gulps.
“Miss Noone will pass the test.” It was not a question, not really, but Miss Bertram did not feel confident enough to frame it as a statement either.
“You should know, Charlotte, you’ve been teaching her for the last ten years,” Lady Grafton said dismissively, eyeing up the bottle of brandy. “She’ll be fine. She’s got the talent.”
The talent, yes, but perhaps not the nerve, Miss Bertram mused. It was one thing to be born with magical abilities and learn to control them, and quite another to be put in a position where you might have to use them to defend and protect those without them.
Miss Noone, in her opinion, had come to the Academy too late. Girls usually started attending when their magic first showed itself, at around eleven or twelve, but Miss Noone had not been given permission to leave her mother’s household until she was fifteen. Lady Grafton had served as her instructor in the intervening years, so Miss Noone was not behind her fellow pupils, but her grandmother had passed on some rather bad habits that had taken the staff at the Academy some time to correct.
Miss Noone had not grown up at the Academy with girls of her age, making it hard for her to make friends and fit in. Most of the girls were from the middling and lower classes, grateful for the free education, board and clothing that the Academy provided. There were few families of rank represented amongst the pupils, which made the business of finding friends even harder. Although the staff at Miss Bertram’s worked hard to remove the distinction of rank between the girls, they lived in a society where social class dictated every aspect of your life, from the clothes you wore to the house you lived in and the man you married.
Miss Noone had become somewhat reserved and had taken to studying the history and theory of spell creation, which involved a lot of time in the dustier parts of the library. She probably knew more about how spells were crafted than any practitioner and had even experimented with creating spells of her own, albeit with rather mixed results.
“She will only be a decoy,” Miss Bertram said at last. “You will be doing the real work. She’s just the way into Ravenshaw Hall. Her test is only a formality.”
“She’ll be fine,” Lady Grafton said briskly.
“Yes,” Miss Bertram agreed.
Both women took another drink.