The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)(4)

Black Annie made a dismissive shrug. “She has paid me well—I am not interested in her manners. But I wanted to tell you Miss Tavistock, that I knew your mother.”

Meagan stopped, her excitement at the illicit outing fading in a wash of surprise. “Did you?”

“You look much like her, my dear. You must have been very young when she died, were you not?”

A dart of pain laced Meagan’s heart. “I was eight.” She remembered little about her mother except her warm smile and comforting hugs. She also knew that her mother had loved Meagan and her father to distraction.

“Indeed, she was taken from us far too soon,” Black Annie said, her voice sad. “She was a sweet woman and a dear friend.”

Meagan glanced at the table with the candles and gold wire and thought of her father’s disparaging words about Black Annie and tricksters like her. “You and my mother were friends?” she asked doubtfully.

Black Annie’s eyes twinkled. “We were, my dear, though I was a few years older than she. She’d lost her own mother, you see, and looked to me as a sort of substitute. And yes, before you ask, I made a spell for her. How do you think your mother and father fell in love in the first place?”

“You gave my mother a love spell?” Meagan said in shock, which was followed hard upon by anger.

Black Annie’s smile deepened. “I did indeed. Your mama came to me soon after she’d made her debut, distracted because the handsome Michael Tavistock would not look her way. She was far gone in love with him, and I believed that once Mr. Tavistock noticed her, he’d be easily smitten. I simply gave her something that nudged him in the right direction.”

Meagan treasured a memory of her father and mother standing in each other’s arms in the hall of their Oxfordshire house, unaware that Meagan watched from the stairs. Meagan’s father had caressed her mother’s cheek and kissed her. Her mother had closed her eyes and returned the kiss, looking oh so happy. It was one of the last memories Meagan had of her.

“Are you saying what they felt for each other was a spell?” Meagan demanded, her throat tight. “That it was false?”

Annie lifted her sturdy hands. “No, indeed, Miss Tavistock, do not distress yourself. I am merely stating that the spell brought them together. And so what if it did? It turned out well for them, did it not?”

Meagan’s chest ached. “You had no right—” She stopped herself, forcing her common sense to scatter her anger. “Goodness, what am I saying? This is all chicanery, isn’t it? You are not really a witch—you only make talismans to give to silly women at fifty guineas a go. You had nothing to do with my mother and father falling in love. What you do is a trick I risked my father’s wrath to observe this afternoon.”

Black Annie regarded her in silence, that smile lingering in the corners of her mouth.

Of course what Black Annie did was all foolishness and trickery, except …

Except last year, the devastatingly handsome Prince Damien of Nvengaria had swept into Little Marching in Oxfordshire claiming that Meagan’s friend Penelope needed to run away with him to follow a magical prophecy to save his kingdom. Magic had been real around Prince Damien and his Nvengarians. Meagan would never have believed in enchanted sleeps, shape-shifting logosh, prophecies, and healing magic if she hadn’t witnessed them all herself.

Now Black Annie was explaining that the strong love between Meagan’s father and mother was a bit of magic, as simple as the trick Black Annie had made for Deirdre. Meagan’s mother had come here and stood in this very room and begged for a spell to make a man fall in love with her, just as Deirdre had today.

“You are very amusing, Mrs. Reese,” Meagan said, lifting her head and burying her uncertainty. “You almost took me in.”

“Believe as you please, Miss Tavistock,” Black Annie said, brisk once more. “But they were terribly happy, were they not? A more loving couple I never knew. And I only charged her a bob.”

* * *

“You cannot possibly be magic,” Meagan told the talisman.

She sat in chemise and stockings at her dressing table and stared at the twist of feathers and wire that lay on top of Deirdre’s handkerchief. The braid of black hair shone softly in the candlelight, the smooth lock belonging to the man whom Deirdre was so anxious to ensnare.

“Poor fellow,” Meagan said. “Whoever he is.”

She was dressing to attend the seasonal ball hosted by Lord and Lady Featherstone, an annual event popular throughout the ton to which Meagan’s stepmother had finagled invitations. Simone Tavistock had once been a baronet’s wife and had no compunction against using former connections to mingle in society—and more importantly, to find Meagan a husband.

Simone had decided after marrying Michael Tavistock that her raison d’être was to get Meagan married. In Simone’s opinion, Meagan at twenty was far past when she should have been betrothed, and as she’d said this morning, in danger of being firmly on the shelf. Simone wanted to see Meagan marry well. The dear girl deserved nothing less than the best, and after all, Simone’s own daughter Penelope had married a prince.

Simone had plunged into the task of finding Meagan a match with the ruthlessness of one of the new steam-powered engines. She’d persuaded Michael to hire a house near Portman Square for the Season and had dragged Meagan to every ball, soiree, musicale, and outing she possibly could get herself invited to. Meagan suspected Simone had another motive—once Meagan was safely married and out of the house, Simone would have Meagan’s father all to herself, no stepdaughter underfoot.

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