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Wages of Sin
By Jenna Maclaine
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Jenna Maclaine
All rights reserved.
My name is Cin. It's an unusual nickname, one that always incites speculation about how I received it. Some say it's because of the color of my hair, blood red and sinful. Others, the ones who whisper behind their hands, or cross the street rather than pass me on the sidewalk, say that it's because of who I am, of what I am. Ah, what is that, you ask? I am a witch ... among other things.
They are all wrong, of course. I remember well how I got the name, who gave it to me, and why. So long ago, and yet sometimes it seems like only yesterday. I have been Cin for a great many years but I was not always her. Once I was young and sweet and innocent, just a girl with her whole life ahead of her.
I was born Dulcinea Macgregor Craven. My mother called me Dulcie. ...
Surrey, England 1815
"Dulcie, my dear, are you sure you won't come tonight?" my mother asked, looking lovely as ever in an emerald satin ball gown, her copper red hair piled atop her head in a glorious mass of curls.
"The Anworthys always throw a magnificent party," my father said. "The punch is actually drinkable and there will be no end of eligible young men there," he added with a wink.
I laughed. "No, truly, my head aches. Besides, we've just returned from the Little Season and I've had quite enough of dancing and eligible young men for the moment. I think I'll have some hot chocolate and retire early tonight. Do give my best to the Anworthys though."
"Darling, are you sure you aren't staying home just to avoid Lord Montford? I hear he's returned home."
"No, Mama, I just don't feel up to going tonight. Lord Montford is a pest but he's harmless."
"Can't like the man by half, Dulcie," Papa humphed, straightening his already impeccable cravat in the hall mirror. "If you know what I mean."
I did. My mother was a Macgregor witch and my father came from a long line of men who married Macgregor witches. Sometimes he could, well, sense things. My mother was always trying to get him to develop his skills but he always waved a hand and said it was nothing. Two witches in the family were quite enough, he'd say.
Sebastian, Lord Montford, was a handsome, if somewhat overzealous, suitor of mine but he'd never been anything but a perfect gentleman with me. Heavens, we'd played together as children, though our friendship had taken a header later, as childhood friendships often do. I'd loved him as a child, hated him as an adolescent, and was surprisingly entirely indifferent to him as an adult. However, if Papa said he didn't like him, then I had to respect that. I'd never known his intuition to be wrong. To tell the truth, there was something about Sebastian, something in his eyes, that made me uneasy also.
"I know, Papa. I'm trying to dissuade him politely but he doesn't seem to take the hint. Perhaps I should be more forceful, though I do hate to hurt his feelings."
"His feelings will mend," Mama said. "It's you I don't want to see hurt."
"Posh," I scoffed.
"I want you to watch yourself around him, my dear," Papa said. "Even the Devil can be kind when he goes courting."
"I can take care of myself. I am not a child," I mumbled.
"You are my child," Papa said and wrapped his arms around me. I put my arms around him and rested my cheek against his frock coat. He kissed the top of my head and then ruffled my hair. "Now, any more of that and I'll have to go up and have Sanders tie another cravat."
"Oh, we couldn't have that," I laughed, thinking of Papa's starchy valet, Sanders.
"My lord, my lady," our butler, Masterson, said from the doorway. "The carriage is waiting whenever you are ready."
I hugged my mother. "I love you, Mama."
"And I love you too, Dulcie darling. Rest well and we'll see you in the morning," she said as she hugged me.
I watched them walk through the door, my mother's arm entwined with my father's. She laughed up at something he said and he looked down at her with a smile filled with love.
I awoke suddenly, my neck and the back of my hair slick with sweat, a stray drop running down between my breasts. What had woken me? A nightmare? No, no. I looked at the ormolu clock on my mantel. Three o'clock in the morning. My parents should have been home from the Anworthys' by now. My stomach clenched at the thought. Dear Lord, something was wrong.
I threw my thick velvet dressing gown over my night-rail and bolted out my bedroom door and down the hallway. Stopping in front of the massive double doors of my parents' suite of rooms, I suddenly felt ridiculous. Slowly easing one door open, I looked inside. No lamps burned in the sitting room but there was a small fire laid in the grate in anticipation of their arrival. I passed by it and slowly pushed open the door to their bedchamber. My parents had married for love and had never seen the sense in keeping separate beds, as many of the aristocracy did. They always slept together, curled in each other's arms, but tonight the carved mahogany four-poster bed with its dark green velvet hangings was empty.
I turned and hurried down the hall, my feet flying lightly down the great staircase. Masterson was asleep in a chair by the front door. Gracious, I thought with a smile, the man even slept like there was a steel rod running up his back, just his head lolling to one side. No matter how many times my parents told him he ought not wait up, he always did. Masterson took his duties very seriously. I touched his shoulder and softly called his name. He snorted and then looked up at me, not a wiry gray hair or a whisker out of place.
"My lady?" he asked, and then blinked a couple times. "Ah, no. Miss Dulcie. Whatever is wrong?"
I must have woken the dear man from a dead sleep because he hadn't called me Dulcie since I had outgrown short dresses and pigtails. He creaked a bit as he got to his feet and straightened his waistcoat and jacket.
"Masterson, I —" Good Lord, how did I say what I was feeling without sounding like a complete lunatic? I decided to lie just a bit. "I had a nightmare. Please, would you send someone down to the stable and have one of the grooms saddle a horse and ride to the Anworthys'?"
He looked at me quizzically.
"I know I sound mad and I hate to wake anyone up at this hour and send them on what is probably a fool's errand but —"
"Never fear, Miss Craven," he said. "It shall be done."
"Thank you, Masterson. I'll wait in the green drawing room."
"Very good, miss. Shall I bring you a nice pot of tea?"
"No, thank you."
I walked into the green drawing room, poured myself a spot of my father's finest contraband whiskey from George Smith's distillery at Glenlivet, and walked to the terrace doors. Swirling the fiery liquid in the glass, I smiled. Masterson had not even blinked an eye at my request, but then he was well aware that ours was not exactly a normal household. Having been with the family since my father was a boy, Masterson was accustomed to the eccentricities of the ladies of the house.
I looked up at the two portraits hanging on either side of the fireplace. They were my family's two greatest ancestors. Ever since I was a little girl, looking at them had always given me a sense of calm and strength. I needed it tonight.
The portrait to the left was of a beautiful woman in the first blush of her youth, all raven hair and dark blue eyes. Her name was Lorraina Macgregor and she had lived during the mid-seventeenth century. Now, some women become witches and some are born with an innate magical ability. The Macgregor women of my mother's line are all natural, or hereditary, witches and Lorraina was the first to be born with the magic inside her.
As is usually the case with the women of my family, her magical powers didn't fully manifest until she was nearly twenty years old. Our magic is a patient thing, lying below the surface, waiting for the right moment to break free. I am a late bloomer. At twenty-two I still haven't experienced The Awakening, but I can feel the magic inside me, waiting.
Lorraina's magic hadn't come to her until after the birth of her daughter. Her husband had taken his men and gone to England to fight for Charles Stuart's restoration, hoping that the support of the clan would be rewarded with the lifting of the Act of Proscription against the Macgregor name. The husband disappeared during a skirmish and was presumed dead. Knowing how much of their hopes the clan had invested in her husband's plan, Lorraina left her baby daughter in her sister's care and went to London to the new court of Charles II.
Most people believe that Charles II lifted the proscription on our family name because of the Macgregors' service to his father; but the Macgregor women know that it was truly because Rainy Macgregor seduced a king. She sent one letter home from court and was never seen or heard from again. To honor her memory the MacGregors name the firstborn female in every generation after her. My mother is named Lorraina and in my generation my cousin Lori has that honor.
I walked to stand in front of the second portrait. She always made me smile. As is the case with many aristocratic families, we intermarry at an astonishing rate. My cousin Seamus's sheepdogs have a cleaner pedigree than at least four of my very closest friends and, by the sound of the Craven family tree, you'd think we were not much better. For the last three generations, and not without a vast amount of eyebrow-raising from the ton, Craven men have been particularly taken with Macgregor women. Thankfully, the Macgregors are a large enough clan that I can claim only the most distant kinship on my mother's side to any of my Craven ancestors.
Painted when she was in her early forties, the portrait to the right is of a brown-eyed redhead, much like myself, though I fancy I'm more classically pretty than Charlotte Macgregor Craven. Her beauty lay in her strength; you could see it in every stroke of the brush. She was an iron lady, my great-grandmother.
The letter that had come from Lorraina to her sister and infant daughter before she disappeared had been filled with prophesy. It was said that among her magics, Rainy Macgregor possessed the Sight. She warned of a great war between Scotland and England that would tear the countryside apart before another century had passed. Death would come to each and every door and the clans would be trampled under a butcher's heel. She knew the men would fight for Scotland and as always it would be the women who were left to pick up the pieces. For nearly eighty years the women of our family had kept the letter secret and planned for the day when they alone would take destiny by the throat and bend it to their will. And destiny had handed them Charlotte Macgregor on a silver platter.
A great heiress, Charlotte inherited fifty thousand acres of Macgregor land upon the death of her father. In 1740 the women of the clan fitted her out like a prize mare and her mother and aunt trotted her off to London to secure an English husband and ensure the survival of their family. Five short years later Bonnie Prince Charlie came to Scotland and the fields ran red with blood at Culloden as the Scots, Macgregor men among them, died for his cause. The clans were destroyed, their tartans and bagpipes outlawed, innocents murdered at the whim of the occupying English, but thanks to Lorraina Macgregor and the women of her line, a sanctuary awaited those family members who survived: fifty thousand acres of untouchable land belonging to the English Viscount Ravenworth and his beloved viscountess, Charlotte.
I refilled my glass from the decanter and glanced at the clock on the mantel. Surely they were safe. I had watched Mama put a protection spell on the new town coach not three days ago. I may have been able to accomplish only the simplest of glamours, or float a book or the tea tray, but my mother was a powerful witch, a direct descendant of Lorraina Macgregor's only daughter through the female line. Surely they were safe, surely.
I set the whiskey on a table and pushed open the terrace doors, which led out to the small Winter Garden. I had to do something or the waiting would drive me mad.
The high stone walls kept the garden marginally warmer in the winter months but the chill of the October night still made me shiver and wrap my robe closer around me. I walked into the center of the garden, stood there silently gathering my energy, and then closed my eyes and raised my hands, palms up. Breathing in, I opened my mind to the world around me, to the smells and sounds of nature. I willed myself to be still, to empty my mind as I'd been taught from childhood and let the Goddess flow into me. I felt the wind, heard the crinkle of fall leaves, smelled the crisp autumn air. I was searching for peace. I didn't find it.
One moment the world was calm and the next it seemed to spin around me. Maybe it was the whiskey. I tried to open my eyes, to take a step and steady myself, but I couldn't. Not even my fingers would move. It was as if I were frozen, standing there in supplication, in darkness, the world whirling crazily around me, colors flowing and sparkling behind my eyelids.
I heard horses scream and I began to panic, trying in vain to turn my head and look around, to find out where the sound had come from. A man's shout and then the cracking of wood, loud as a gunshot. My eyes flew open. Whatever had gripped me was gone.
I was breathing heavily but I stood still, so very still, as if by not moving I could pretend it hadn't happened. The night around me was quiet, peaceful. The sounds had not come from outside the walls; they had come from inside my head.
And then I smelled it. Roses and violets, my mother's perfume, and in that single horrifying moment I knew she wasn't coming home. Her soul had flown free and it surrounded me now like an almost tangible thing. I could feel her with me. Spinning around I half expected to see her standing behind me. There was no one there, no physical body at least, but something was there.
Magic, her magic. I don't know how I knew it but I did. It moved against me, tingling like warm champagne on my skin. I held my hands out and my skin glowed, golden and iridescent in the moonlight. What was happening? I threw back my head as the magic pushed into me, filling me, and as it did her magic Awakened my own.
I should have experienced The Awakening, the gradual process of coming into my power, years ago but it had never come. It was as if it had been there inside me, patiently waiting for ... something. The Awakening should have been slow, spread out over months or even years, but it burst forth within me like fireworks at Covent Garden. I could feel it mixing with my mother's magic and spreading through me. It was like water cresting the rim of a glass, one more drop, one false move, and it would spill over. The initial warmth was beginning to burn. The magic so filled me that there seemed to be no room for anything else, no room for me inside my own body.
I put my hands to my head as if I could somehow hold it all inside, but there was no way. It needed an outlet; it had to go somewhere or I would go insane. Screaming, I fell to the ground and the minute my hands hit the grass I felt all that power flow out of me.
A wave of iridescent gold left my hands and spread out over the grass, the flowerbeds, the trees — and the earth absorbed it like rain after a drought. I watched in horror as all the carefully tended plants in the garden were sucked into the earth as if jerked from underneath by some unseen hand and then just as quickly pushed out again, like watching several months' worth of growth spring forth in a matter of seconds.
The pattern of the garden remained the same but the flowers were all different: evening primrose, moonflowers, jasmine, honeysuckle, night-blooming lilies and gladioluses, and a whole host of others, all in full bloom as they would never be in mid-October. Bloody hell. How was I ever going to explain this to the gardener?
The wave of magic, that sparkling gold, hit the walls of the garden and moved back in my direction. I was too tired to move so I sat there and watched it come, as if I were sitting on a beach as the tide rolled in. As the magic surrounded me and seemed to absorb back into me, I waited for the pain to come again, that unbearable fullness, but it never did. The magic resided in me now, comfortable as it should be, as I had always known it would be, but there was so much more there than I had ever expected, not only my power but my mother's as well.
Mama. She was still here; I could smell her perfume.
Excerpted from Wages of Sin by Jenna Maclaine. Copyright © 2008 Jenna Maclaine. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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