A Devil of a Time is my contribution to the 5-book Witch in Time series created by myself, Stephanie Damore, Ava Mallory, Jenna St James and K M Waller.
The books are released weekly beginning on 15 February 2019.
As I get ready for the launch of A Devil of a Time on 22 February 2019, here’s a sneak peek of the book’s prologue:
“I beg your pardon?” Gram asked me as I took my first bite. Salmon and cucumber. She always remembered my favourite sandwich. Or, rather, the staff did.
“I didn’t say anything?” I said with a self-conscious glance at my overflowing plate. After weeks of ramen, my appetite wasn’t dainty enough to be polite.
“Quite.” Gram said with a frown.
My mother met my gaze and jerked her head in the direction of Cecil, the headless chef.
“Oh, erm, right. Thanks Cecil,” I said. The spook did an awkward bow and I averted my eyes so I wouldn’t see the wound that was the stump of his neck. He’d been practically unemployable after his accident, understandably. Trust Gram to hire him. She was all in favour of free labour.
“I know it may not be trendy to use manners,” she said, the word trendy causing her some difficulty. She generally didn’t like to say a word unless she was certain it was in the Oxford English Dictionary and so I guessed she was unsure whether that word was. “But you must remember you are a Warner. We hold ourselves to a high standard.”
“Sorry Gram,” I said. She looked even older than the last time I’d visited. Translucent eye bags hung down almost to her nostrils. The wrinkles around her mouth had sagged and dropped, creating a ripple effect where her cheeks should be. Her eyes were still piercing, though, and her hair expertly designed to hide its thinning.
“You’re a good girl,” Gram said. Her own plate stood empty. I hadn’t seen her eat in years. “You need more time with your family, though. This is an important time for you, Felicity.”
“Flick,” I said instinctively.
“Flick,” I repeated. “It’s just a bit more casual.”
“As if more casual is what this world needs?” Gram asked. She clicked her fingers and her lady in waiting, a teenage waif of a spirit whose name I could never quite remember, came running across the room to pull out Gram’s chair. “You are Felicity Octavia Geraldine Warner the Fourth. You should be proud to bear that name.”
“I am proud,” I said, although my true feelings about that name – and the identity that came with it – were decidedly more complex.
Gram stood carefully and approached the mahogany sideboard. She ran her spindly fingers across the top, then clasped a silver photograph frame and brought it to my side.
“You’re the double of me,” she said as she set the frame in front of my plate. The black and white image was of poor quality, but the young woman portrayed did indeed hold a striking resemblance to me.
“Hair as red as a phoenix!” My mother chimed in. This tale was the Warner equivalent of a bedtime story. I took a deep breath and prepared to look interested.
“The women of our family have a lot in common with that bird,” Gram said, as if the idea had just occurred to her. As if my mother hadn’t given that very same comment in this exact conversation a hundred times. “We arise from the ashes of our predecessor, just as they do. No others have quite matched the flame of my hair, though, it has to be said.”
I smiled and clasped Gram’s hand. I knew she had a soft spot for me, behind the tough exterior. And who knew how long we had left with her heading the family? I resigned myself to being more patient. To visiting more often.
I looked across to her shrunken frame. It was hard to imagine her silver locks as red and wild as my own.
“Well,” Gram said as she began the steady walk back towards her own seat. The waif was poised ready. “This is nice.”
“Lovely!” My mother said, her posture ruler straight in her chair. She was being weird.
“Mother?” I asked.
“Shall we get to the business of the day?” Gram said, and since the others seated around the table – my mother and my grandmother – all nodded in succession, I realised that the business of the day had been discussed already with everyone but myself.
“Shall I excuse myself?” I asked. I thought it must be about finances, if everyone else knew about it. Yes, I was an adult, but I was being entirely supported by the family wealth and had no business being privy to matters relating to money. I lived in a small flat outside London and pretended to my friends that the rent was a heavy burden, since that seemed to be what they expected me to say. They’d collapse if they saw Gram’s country estate, with its seventeen bedrooms, wine cellar, servant quarters and vintage car collection.
“No, dear,” Gram said, “it’s quite important that you’re here for this.”
“Oh.” I said with some surprise. Perhaps I’d reached the age to be included in the family business conversations.
Gram cleared her throat. “We’ve received a proposal.”
“A marriage proposal. For you, Felicity.” Gram said. In a room of five people, all named Felicity, it was surprisingly easy to know that Gram meant me. She named her daughter Daughter and her granddaughter Grand. I was the only one she actually called Felicity. I guess I could have found it worrying that she never saw me fit to earn the nickname Great, but I recognised that it was more of a compliment to have her own name bestowed upon me in everyday use.
I laughed. “Very funny!”
“It’s no laughing matter,” Gram said, “you’re getting no younger. The proposal is from the Morse family. You remember young Merlyn?”
“The conjuror?” I asked, appalled. Yes I did remember him, the tiny blond rat of a boy I had been forced to invite to my childhood birthday parties despite having not a thing in common with him. My birthday parties had always been more full of family connections than genuine friends. I’d scarcely given a thought to Merlyn for years. “You can’t be serious.”
“The Morse family are a good connection to have,” Gram said. She pushed her plate away from her as if she’d lost her appetite, even though there had never been any food on it. “And this boy, he’ll inherit the kingdom. Even if his mother insisted on inserting that ridiculous y into his name.”
“Are we…” I began, unsure how to form the words. “Are we struggling for money?”
My mother shot me a glare. “Of course not!”
I didn’t know how she knew. She’d never worked a day in her life.
“I can get a job,” I whispered. The thought had crossed my mind before. I didn’t understand why my family were so against the idea.
“No descendant of mine will work,” Gram said, and that was that. Conversation closed. “The correct thing to do is to marry a man of status, and your proposals will dry up in a few years, Felicity. We need to get you wed.”
“But none of you stayed married!” I exclaimed. “Maybe that plan isn’t as great as you all seem to think it is!”
I knew I’d overstepped a line with my words, but to my surprise Gram didn’t react. She chewed on her lower lip for a moment before she met my gaze.
“You will take a husband because it’s the proper thing to do,” Gram said, enunciating each word. “How long you keep him, or what end befalls him, is not my concern. A daughter must be conceived, of course. Our lineage is too strong to die out.”
I sighed. The lineage. Always the lineage. “And what about my wishes? Don’t they matter at all?”
“In this regard, child, you’ll place your duty ahead of your happiness. We’ve all done the same.”
I almost rolled my eyes then remembered whose company I was in. My own mother’s marriage to a powerful Warlock lasted precisely one month. Long enough for me to be conceived and the old man to have a tragic accident involving him tumbling down a flight of stairs to his death.
I hadn’t been privy to the details of the other marriages within the family, but it was clear no husband had remained alive for very long.
Why any man would want to risk a proposal to a Warner woman was beyond me. We had always kept our own surname and our own residence. We had had the men sign pre-nups and our finances were always entirely preserved.
It was a dangerous sport, attempting to tame a Warner witch. And yet the men continued to try because we were the ultimate catch. Even if we were usually deadly.
“I don’t want to marry,” I said. I was annoyed that I’d trudged out of the city into deepest Surrey in the hope of a light-hearted afternoon tea and instead had found myself the target of this ambush. My family could be quite intolerable at times.
“How do you suppose you’ll bear a child?” Gram asked.
“I haven’t decided if I will,” I said, then took a large bite of sandwich, which bought me some time to avoid the interrogation that had to follow such a remark.
“But…” my mother began, then thought better of it and ducked her head low as if fascinated by the Wedgwood dinnerware.
“You must have a child, dear.” Gram said.
“Oh, that settles it then.” I snapped. I’d been tempted to cancel the visit, but I knew I hadn’t seen Gram often enough since my move to London. I wasn’t the adorable young witch I’d been as a child and our relationship had become more complicated as a result. Gram wasn’t used to anyone questioning her authority.
“Calm down, Felicity,” my mother soothed, always the peace keeper, although she’d always side with Gram if she was backed into a corner. “Your Gram has a point. We have to…”
“…continue the lineage, I know.” I said, exasperated. “Do you know how bizarre it is that I’ve always been under this pressure to find the right man and reproduce? None of my friends’ families go on about this stuff.”
Gram pursed her lips until her face was more wrinkles than anything else.
“I’m sure the Sultan’s daughter…” my mother began.
I rolled my eyes. Gram hated it when I did that. “Normal people!”
“And there is your mistake,” Gram said. She clicked her bony fingers and her lady in waiting was by her side in a moment, pulling the chair from behind her tiny frame. Gram stood, dressed in her usual uniform of head-to-toe black as if her fashion idol was Queen Victoria, and gazed at me across the table. “Let’s take a walk.”
“Ugh, let’s not,” I moaned, aware that my tone was bordering on petulant child. Only a visit to the country manor succeeded in bringing this side out of me.
Gram raised an eyebrow and the matter was decided. I pushed my own chair back, the wood squeaking along the floor, and stomped across the room to the hallway. My jacket, a short leather, was stashed away in the closet where I had hidden as a child for whole afternoons with my dolls, creating lavish dream worlds that involved no magic, no witches, and certainly no warlock suitors. Even then, I’d dreamed of escaping all things mystical.
“Ready?” Gram barked from the end of the hallway. She stood in front of the large, double-door entrance, bundled into a black gown. Her regular veiled pillbox hat atop her head, she looked ready for a funeral.
I felt ready for one, probably my own.
I followed her out of the house and along the gravel path to the back of the manor, where manicured gardens led to a small fountain. Gram walked faster than people would imagine by looking at her age and frame, and I had to increase my natural speed to keep up with her.
“Gram, I didn’t -“
“Hush,” she scolded, and we continued in silence until we reached the fountain. A garden house – bigger than my London flat – sat off to the left and Gram led me into there. It was locked and she cursed under her breath, then pulled out her wand.
Wands had lost their appeal with many witches, but Gram always had hers and never performed magic without it.
“Stand back,” she commanded, and I did. She muttered a few words under her breath, pointed the tip of her wand at the padlock and then, with a flick of her wrist, sparks fired from the wand and – with a small explosion of fireworks – the lock fell to the ground.
“Impressive!” I said, despite myself.
She looked me up and down. “Not at all. When did you last use your power, Felicity?”
I couldn’t lie. Not to Gram.
“I’m a little out of practice,” I admitted, as I wondered if I’d ever return to the manor and make Gram proud of me.
“You remember this place?” Gram asked. She looked away from me as she pushed the door open and lead the way inside the garden house.
“Of course I do. I loved this place as a kid,” I said, although it had changed since my childhood. I remembered an antique rocking horse taking pride of place in one corner, and a baby grand piano in another. As I looked around with Gram, it was clear the space had been emptied.
“You’ll be happy here, then,” Gram murmured.
Gram let out a low sigh. “London isn’t good for you. I hoped you’d see sense and agree to marry but I should have guessed. This independence is the last thing a headstrong girl like you needs, Felicity. You’ll move in here.”
“I…” I began, then floundered. She couldn’t be serious.
“Please, child. I’m meeting you more than halfway here. I could insist you return to the Manor. At least this way you’ll have some space. I see that you need that. Now, you may as well stay. I know a transporting spell we can use to return all of your belongings from that… flat,” Gram said, the word flat causing her some difficulty.
“No, Gram, I mean… thank you, for the offer of this,” I said as I remembered my manners. “I like it in London. That’s my home now.”
“You can pay the rent, can you?” Gram asked as she fiddled rhythmically with the jade brooch on her gown.
“Well…” I squeaked. Of course I couldn’t. I’d never worked a day in my life, but not from any lack of willingness.
“I thought not. I have no choice but to stop funding this lifestyle, Felicity. I was prepared to grant you a little time to find yourself or whatever the young do these days, but the understanding was always that you would return home afterwards and marry. If you’re determined to choose another path, you’ll do so without the Warner wealth.”
And with that, she gave me a last withering look and left me alone in the beautiful childhood retreat that looked more like a gilded prison.
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