The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)(3)

“She will bring tea if you like,” Black Annie said, as though apologizing for her lack as a hostess. “You may be seated, Mrs. Braithwaite.”

“What are you going to do?” Meagan asked curiously from the sofa.

“Create the talisman that will transmit the spell.” Annie opened the drawer of the table and added scissors, a small knife, and a length of twine to the pile. “You are welcome to watch me. I have no secrets.”

Meagan rose and pattered across the carpet to the table where Deirdre stood, fingers clenched in excitement. For fifty guineas, Meagan thought, they ought to be given a good show.

Black Annie lit a spill at the fireplace and touched it to the wick of a fat candle on the table. As the candle warmed, the faint scent of wax and spice wafted to Meagan, filling her with sweet lassitude.

Black Annie lifted the feathers and pieces of cloth and began to bind them in the length of gold wire with deft fingers. All the while she murmured under her breath, words just beyond Meagan’s hearing.

Deirdre leaned closer, eyes bright. “Are you doing magic?”

Black Annie ignored her. Meagan clasped her hands, her body relaxing, mesmerized by Annie’s smooth voice and the tiny flame of the candle. She felt herself swaying, as if in rhythm with Black Annie’s chant.

Annie unwrapped Deirdre’s handkerchief to reveal a narrow braid of black hair. “This is his?” Annie asked her. “You are certain? It would never do for the spell to fall upon the wrong person.”

“Certain enough,” Deirdre said impatiently. “My maid swore it.”

Annie shrugged as though that were ample proof. Resuming her chanting, she wove the wire around the braid, binding it to the feathers and cloth. She continued to weave and add feathers until she had an oblong bundle about the length of Meagan’s thumb. It looked nothing more than a jumble of oddities held in place with the glittering wire.

“That is all?” Deirdre asked, sounding disappointed.

“Nearly. Miss Tavistock, would you put your finger there?” Annie tapped a place where the wire crossed itself.

Still in the grip of the lassitude, Meagan readily put her forefinger where Annie indicated. Annie tied the wire off in a neat knot and withdrew it. The wire scraped a tiny drop of blood from Meagan’s finger to smear the feathers, but Meagan barely felt the sting.

Black Annie blew out the candle. Acrid smoke filled Meagan’s nose, and she sneezed. As she did so, the sweet relaxation fell away, and she blinked.

“That will be fifty guineas, Mrs. Braithwaite,” Black Annie said crisply.

Deirdre’s eyes narrowed as though she belatedly shared Meagan’s father’s views about charlatans. “I will pay you when I see whether the spell works.”

Black Annie quickly closed her hand over the talisman. “No, Mrs. Braithwaite. Cash on receipt of goods. If the spell does not work, you may of course request your money returned.”

Deirdre opened her mouth to argue. Black Annie gazed at her in quiet confidence, a much stronger woman than silly Deirdre could ever hope to be.

Deirdre sighed. “Oh, very well. But it had better work.”

“It will.”

Deirdre opened her reticule and removed a bank draft. “For fifty guineas.”

Black Annie took the draft calmly, folded it, and placed it in the drawer of the table. She wrapped the talisman in Deirdre’s handkerchief and held it out.

Deirdre glanced at it then said, “Keep it for me, Meagan. Bring it to Lady Featherstone’s ball tonight. I dare not take the chance my husband will find it if I take it home.”

Meagan stared at her. “It is only a bit of wire and feathers. Your husband would not tumble to what it is, surely.”

“He will ask me.” Deirdre shook her head. “He always tasks me when I come home with what I’ve bought and how much I’ve spent. So tedious. He will find it, and whatever should I say to him?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Meagan said in irritation. “Tell him it is for spots.”

Deirdre gave Meagan a disparaging look. “As though I have trouble with my complexion, thank you very much. My maid is too stupid to hide it—my husband’s valet will find it and try to have my maid given the sack. That man loves to lord it over all the servants. You must keep it for me.”

Black Annie held out the handkerchief to Meagan. “It seems the only way, Miss Tavistock.”

Meagan hid a sigh as she took the small bundle. It felt very light, the bits of wire hard against the soft feathers. “Yes, yes, very well.” She pinned Deirdre with her glare. “But only until tonight, mind. If my father or stepmother find it, I will tell them truthfully that it’s yours.”

“Then make certain they do not find it,” Deirdre said. “Now where is that maid? I must get home.”

Black Annie rang her bell and the maid reappeared, Meagan’s and Deirdre’s wraps over her arm. In a sudden hurry Deirdre snatched hers up and flung herself out of the room without saying good-bye. Meagan tucked the handkerchief-wrapped talisman into her reticule, wondering if she should apologize to Black Annie for Deirdre’s rudeness or simply slip away.

“Miss Tavistock.”

Meagan turned. Black Annie stood behind her, hands folded, her eyes wise and even kind.

“I must beg your pardon for Deirdre’s abruptness,” Meagan began.

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