Born Wicked Page 1

Chapter 1

OUR MOTHER WAS A WITCH, TOO, but she hid it better.

I miss her.

Not a single day goes by that I don’t wish for her guidance. Especially about my sisters.

Tess runs ahead of me, heading for the rose garden—our sanctuary, our one safe place. Her slippers slide on the cobblestones, the hood of her

gray cloak falling to reveal blond curls. I glance back at the house. It’s against the Brothers’ strictures for girls to go out of doors uncloaked, and running isn’t considered ladylike. But we’re concealed from the house by tall hedges. Tess is safe.

For now.

She waits ahead, kicking at the dead leaves beneath a maple. “I hate autumn,” she complains, biting at her lip with pearly teeth. “It feels so sad.”

“I like it.” There’s something invigorating in the crisp September air, the searing blue skies, the interplay of orange and scarlet and gold. The Brotherhood would probably ban autumn if they could. It’s too beautiful. Too sensuous.

Tess points to the clematis climbing up the trellis. Their petals are brown and crumbling, their tired heads bowing toward the ground.

“See, everything’s dying,” she says mournfully.

I realize what she intends a scant second before she acts.

“Tess!” I shriek.

I’m too late. She squints her gray eyes, and a moment later, it’s summer.

Tess is an advanced caster for twelve—much more advanced than I was at her age. The deadheads spring up, whole and white and luscious. The oaks sprout new green leaves. Magnificent peonies and lilies sway toward the sun, glorying in their resurrection.

“Teresa Elizabeth Cahill,” I hiss. “You put that back.”

She smiles winsomely, skipping ahead to smell the fragrant orange daylilies. “Just for a few minutes. It’s prettier this way.”

“Tess.” My tone doesn’t brook any argument.

“What good is all this, anyway, if we can’t use it to make things more beautiful?”

As far as I can tell, “all this” is good for precious little. I ignore Tess’s question. “Now. Before Mrs. O’Hare or John comes outside.”

Tess mumbles arevertospell under her breath. I assume that’s for my benefit. Unlike me, she doesn’t need to speak aloud to cast.

The clematises’ flowers droop on their vine; the leaves crunch beneath our feet; the impatiens fall to pieces. Tess doesn’t look happy about it, but at least she listens to me. That’s more than I can say for Maura.

Footsteps strike the cobblestones behind us. It’s a man’s quick, heavy stride. I whip around to face the intruder. Tess moves closer, and I resist the urge to put my arm around her. She’s small for her age, but I’d keep her this way forever if I could. An odd, pretty child is safer than an odd, pretty woman.

John O’Hare, our coachman and jack-of-all-trades, lumbers around the hedge. “Your father’s wanting you, Miss Cate,” he huffs, his bearded cheeks red. “In the study.”

I smile politely, tucking an errant strand of hair beneath my hood. “Thank you.”

I wait until he’s gone. Then I turn, tugging Tess’s cape up over her curls, bending to brush the dust from her ragged lace hems. My heart is pounding. If he had come two minutes earlier—if it had been Father, or the Brothers paying an unexpected call—how would we have explained this corner of the garden springing back to life?

We couldn’t have. It was magic, plain and simple.

“Best to see what Father wants.” I try to sound cheerful, but the unexpected summons makes me uneasy. He’s only been back from New London for a few days. Does he mean to leave us again so soon? His time at home gets shorter every year.

Tess looks longingly down the cobblestone path toward the rose garden. “No practicing today, then?”

“After that display? No.” I shake my head. “You know better.”

“No one could see us from the house, Cate. We were behind the hedges. We’d have heard them, like we heard John coming.”

I frown at her. “No magic outdoors except in the rose garden. That’s what Mother taught me. She made the rules to keep us safe.”

“I suppose,” Tess sighs. Her thin shoulders slump, and I hate that I’ve taken this small happiness away from her. When I was her age, I liked to run through the gardens, and I suppose I was careless with my magic, too. But I had Mother to look out for me. Now I have to play mother for Tess and Maura, and ignore the wild girl that still bangs in my heart, begging to be let out.

I lead the way back to the house, and we troop through the kitchen door, hanging our cloaks on the wooden pegs inside. Mrs. O’Hare is bent over a bubbling pot of her dreadful fish chowder, humming a snippet of an old church song, her curly gray head bobbing in time to the music. She smiles and gestures toward a pile of carrots on the table. Tess washes up and sets right to work chopping. She loves bustling around the kitchen, dicing and mixing and measuring. It’s not proper for girls of our station, but Mrs. O’Hare gave up on proper a long time ago with us.

The heavy oak door to Father’s study is slightly ajar. I can glimpse Father at his desk, shoulders rounded in exhaustion, as though what he’d like the very most is a nap. But there’s a stack of thick leather-bound volumes on his desk, and I have no doubt that when our business here is concluded, he’ll go right back to them. And when he finishes those, there are dozens more on the shelves ready to take their place. He is a businessman, yes—but a scholar first and foremost.

I rap on the door and wait for permission to enter. “John said you wanted to speak with me?”

“Come in, Cate. Mrs. Corbett and I thought you should have a say in our new venture, since it affects you girls.” Father gestures toward the corner of the room, where Mrs. Corbett sits like a fat spider on the plush red sofa, spinning her helpful little schemes.

“New venture?” I echo, striding up to his desk. Mrs. Corbett had precious little interest in us before Mother died, but she’s been full of neighborly advice ever since. Her last suggestion was to send me off to a convent school run by the Sisters. I had to compel Father and modify his memory so he wouldn’t make me go. He only remembers deciding it wasn’t wise to send me away, not so soon after losing Mother.

Invading his mind is the wickedest thing I’ve ever done. But it was necessary. How could I keep my promise to look after my sisters if I was in New London? It’s a two-day journey.

“I think—that is, Mrs. Corbett suggested—” Father hems and haws but eventually gets to the point. “A governess! It would be just the thing.”

Oh no.

I jut my chin at him. “For what?”

Father’s thin face flushes. “For your education. I’m going back to New London next week, and I’ll be gone most of the autumn. That’s too long for you girls to be away from your lessons.”

My heart sinks. Hours snatched here and there to correct our French pronunciation and Latin translations are the only time we get with him anymore. Now we won’t even have that. I learned not to count on Father years ago, but Tess hasn’t. She’ll be heartbroken.

I brush dust from the lamp at the corner of his desk. “Maura and I can teach Tess while you’re gone. I don’t mind.”

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