Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the teahouse…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The League of Gentlewomen Witches by India Holton, out from Berkley on March 15.
Miss Charlotte Pettifer belongs to a secret league of women skilled in the subtle arts. That is to say—although it must never be said—witchcraft. The League of Gentlewomen Witches strives to improve the world in small ways. Using magic, they tidy, correct, and manipulate according to their notions of what is proper, entirely unlike those reprobates in the Wisteria Society.
When the long lost amulet of Black Beryl is discovered, it is up to Charlotte, as the future leader of the League, to make sure the powerful talisman does not fall into the wrong hands. Therefore, it is most unfortunate when she crosses paths with Alex O’Riley, a pirate who is no Mr. Darcy. With all the world scrambling after the amulet, Alex and Charlotte join forces to steal it together. If only they could keep their pickpocketing hands to themselves! If Alex’s not careful, he might just steal something else—such as Charlotte’s heart.
Charlotte was quite certain that the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has patience for a queue must be intolerably stupid. And yet it was also considered vulgar to move ahead more quickly by smacking one’s purse against those in front, so she merely tapped her foot as she waited for a girl to convince the ticket agent she was indeed over the age of eighteen and any minute now her fiancé would arrive and confirm this. “I am Constantinopla Brown,” the girl declared in a pompous tone.
And when the ticket agent only blinked: “I have chatted with Her Majesty the Queen in Her Majesty’s bedroom, and therefore obviously can be trusted in your silly little museum.”
“I had breakfast with the Russian empress this morning,” the agent responded with a smirk. “She advised me not to sell tickets to lying schoolgirls.”
“Now see here—!”
“For heaven’s sake,” Charlotte said, leaning past the person ahead of her to frown at the ticket agent. “She’s obviously either an overindulged aristocrat or a pirate. Both possibilities suggest you should let her in if you wish to avoid a commotion.”
“Very well,” the agent relented and gave the girl a ticket. She exited the queue triumphantly and waved the ticket at Charlotte.
“I owe you!”
Charlotte looked at her blankly. “I cannot imagine any instance in which a sixteen-year-old girl might assist me.”
“Oh, but I’m only sixteen chronologically speaking,” the girl replied, then trotted off on a pair of snazzy yellow shoes that were at least one size too small for her. Charlotte watched with disapproval. Over the past two days she had seen the number of pirates and witches visiting the museum increase as word spread about Beryl’s amulet. In fact, some hours it was impossible to actually see the displayed items beyond all the ruffled dresses and madly decorated hats. At least everyone had been well-behaved. Thus far, the only damage done had been to egos as the two societies engaged in conversational combat while scouting the room and assessing the guarded, glass domed amulet.
But it was also fair to say that if manners got any sharper someone was going to end up needing emergency surgery.
As she looked away from the girl, her gaze happened to meet that of a pale-haired gentleman loitering beside a brochure stand. He was staring at her with an expression so icily intent, Charlotte shivered. His dull suit and shabby brown overcoat suggested he was no pirate; what else might explain the way he kept staring, even after she stared back, as if he wanted to peel off her clothes and skin to scratch at her heart for evidence of—
“Fire! Fire! Evacuate the museum! Fire!”
Charlotte blinked, her thoughts scattering. A young man dashed through the hall, arms flailing as he screamed his warning. The patrons looked at him blandly. This was the sixth false fire alarm since the exhibition had opened, and nobody was fooled. The young man reached the front doors without effect and, blushing in embarrassment, turned around and trudged back to the Grenville Library.
In the meanwhile, the queue had moved forward. Charlotte glanced again toward the brochure stand, but the pale-haired man had vanished. No doubt he had just been an ordinary citizen, transfixed by the elegance of her hat. She purchased a ticket and made her way toward the library.
Over the past two days, she had prepared a cunning plan to obtain the amulet. Her amulet. As Beryl’s true heir, according to Wicken prophecy, she was clearly also beneficiary to Beryl’s possessions—and while old maps and pearl necklaces did not interest her, an amulet with the power to break magic, break buildings, and subdue even Aunt Judith, certainly did. Just thinking of it almost brought a smile to her face. With such power, no one could prevent her from
sitting in a quiet corner to read ruling the League uncontested.
So she had stood before glass cabinets, gazing at rows of books while surreptitiously loosening screws in the cabinet door frames. She had located all the light switches. The most significant pirate threat, Miss Darlington, was attending an urgent consultation with her long-suffering doctor after Charlotte delivered to her house a box labeled “measles.” And several witches whom Charlotte considered rivals had been lured across town by a supposed sale on rug cleaners (“guaranteed to get tea and blood out of your carpets!”). Charlotte needed no crystal ball to assure her of success.
She looked up to see a handsome blond man smiling at her so charmingly her inner Lizzie Bennet swooned dead away. Instead Fanny Price arose, tut-tutting.
“Can I help you?” she asked plimly (which was even more snootish than primly).
“I noticed a lady drop her handkerchief,” he said, “but I’m unsure if it would be polite for me to approach her. Would you be so kind as to do so instead?”
Charlotte eyed the handkerchief he held out. It was a delicate, lace-trimmed thing with pink Asiatic lilies embroidered on it, the sort of confection carried by a lady who had no intention of using it to actually clean anything. “Very well,” she said, taking it gingerly. “What lady?” “She’s in the Black Beryl exhibition now. Pale blue dress, red-gold hair in a pure and bright mythic braid. Would you please tell her I think she’s beautiful?”
“Good heavens. Can’t you do that yourself?”
He blinked his long eyelashes coyly. “I’m ever so shy. Do you mind?” Charlotte hesitated. Fanny Price advised her not to think well of this man who was no doubt sporting with some innocent woman’s feelings. But another part of her would have everybody marry if they could, and was imprudent enough to help the fellow toward that possible aim.
“Not at all,” she said.
He tried to offer thanks, but she was already escaping the conversation before he could smile at her again.
Entering the Grenville Library, Charlotte paused on the threshold, taking a deep breath as she tried to assimilate the noise and vehement colors of the crowded room. Almost everything in her wanted to escape to some quieter library where the only sound came from the turning of pages, but determined ambition propelled her forward. She noticed her mother flirting with one of the museum guards, and Mrs. Chuke directing her lady’s maid to pick the pocket of a second guard, and half a dozen other familiar faces amongst those crowded around what was presumably the amulet display. Charlotte could not see it past their voluminous dresses, but she could feel its magic tugging on her witchy instincts.
At last she located the red-haired woman in pale blue, inspecting a book open on display and possessing such an air of effortless poise and femininity that Charlotte immediately both hated and fell a little in love with her. Here was a woman fit for a romantic story!
And here was Charlotte, tasked with being a servant in that story. Swallowing down an emotion for which she had no literary reference, she strode over and extended her arm, handkerchief dangling from her fingers. The woman turned to regard the lacy cloth with wariness, as if it might be a weapon, and then with gentle confusion.
Her gaze flickered up to Charlotte’s face, and one elegant eyebrow lifted in a question.
“I beg your pardon,” Charlotte said belatedly. “I believe this is yours?”
Looking again at the handkerchief, the woman’s gray eyes began to soften. “It isn’t mine, but I did see such a one in a store window this morning and was admiring it. Where did you get it?”
“A gentleman in the entrance hall said he saw you drop it, and he asked me to bring it to you.” Charlotte gestured with the handkerchief toward the doorway at the same moment the woman reached out to take it. An awkward dance of hands followed; finally, the woman smiled and carefully removed the handkerchief from Charlotte’s grip.
“He also asked me to convey that he found you beautiful.”
The woman laughed. A blush suffused her lovely face. “Let me guess—blond fellow, ridiculous sense of fashion?”
“That’s my husband. He’s such a rogue.” She tucked the handkerchief into her bodice, near her heart. “I noticed you here yesterday also. Have you come up with a plan for acquiring the amulet yet?”
Charlotte’s eyes widened. “Are you calling me a pirate?” “Certainly not. I would never offend you in such a way.” “Thank you.”
“I, however, am a pirate; therefore my curiosity is professional.” Charlotte looked more carefully at the woman. Red hair, easy self-assurance, interesting pockets in her dress. “By any chance are you Miss Cecilia Bassingthwaite?”
The woman smiled again effortlessly. “My husband keeps trying to introduce me as Mrs. Lightbourne, but yes, I am Cecilia Bassingthwaite. May I beg the honor of your name?”
“Charlotte Pettifer.” She held out a gloved hand and Cecilia shook it. For the merest moment, their grips shifted in what may have been called, by uncharitable observers, a wrestle for dominance, although the pleasant expression on both faces did not waver. As they lowered their hands again, they smiled at each other with ladylike sweetness.
Guns have been cocked less terrifyingly.
“Charlotte Pettifer,” Cecilia repeated. “The same Charlotte Petti fer who flew a bicycle over St. James’s earlier this week?”
Charlotte narrowed her eyes. “That is a provocative question.”
“I certainly hope so, or I’d have to give up piracy and become a reasonable woman.”
“Are you going to report me?”
Cecilia gasped with what appeared to be genuine horror. “Egads, no. We may be beyond the era of mass witch trials, but I am aware the death penalty remains for witchcraft. It would be most ill-mannered of me to send you to the gallows.”
“While I am pleased indeed to hear that, I feel obliged to mention your duty to the century-old feud between the Wisteria Society and the Wicken League. For example, look over there—Mrs. Chuke is attempting to maneuver a marble bust onto the head of that poor, frail, elderly lady.”
“That poor, frail, elderly lady is Bloodhound Bess,” Cecilia said. “I am fairly sure her hat will be specially constructed to—and yes, there you go.”
Both women winced as the bust bounced off Bloodhound Bess’s large purple hat and shattered against a wall. It was followed by a dart that failed to impale Mrs. Chuke only by the prompt intervention of her maid, Miss Dearlove, who leaped in front of her, flicking a miniature metal parasol out from a red-handled device to shield the woman. A museum employee dashed over, crying, “No! Not Melpomene!”
He fell to his knees before the marble shards. “Tragic,” Charlotte murmured.
“What was that tool your associate used?” Cecilia asked with quiet but keen interest.
Charlotte hesitated, but could see no harm in telling her. “We call it our witch army broom, or besom. It has several functions, although we primarily use it as a broom.”
“For flying?” “For tidying.”
Indeed, at that moment a stiff woman in an even stiffer black dress held out her own besom and, with a flick of her wrist, caused a thin broom to appear from its interior. She marched over and began sweeping the shards of the marble bust with such vigor, the employee scuttled fearfully aside. As he watched her work, another witch slipped behind him and, whispering the incantation, directed his wallet to float from his jacket pocket into hers.
“Teamwork. How fascinating,” Cecilia murmured, as if she had just witnessed fairies dancing through the chamber. “What a shame that, due to the feud, it would be more trouble than it’s worth to invite you to afternoon tea. Otherwise I’d certainly be eager to have a conversation with you about that device, the elevation of bicycles, and other interesting topics.”
“Alas, I myself am fated to be the next leader of the Wicken League,” Charlotte replied. “Therefore I ought not be talking to you even now. Otherwise I’d ask your opinion of Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, which you have been perusing. But I’m afraid I’m required to despise you. And as I see my Aunt Plim nearby, I must bid you good—”
She stopped, her heart thudding as she realized Miss Plim was in conversation with a certain tall, dark-haired gentleman whose briefcase she currently held in her hand. Even as she stared at them, Miss Plim’s mouth puckered with disapproval at something Captain O’Riley told her. She looked past him to Charlotte, and her brow furrowed above her little round spectacles.
“Oh dear,” Cecilia murmured. “I perceive you may be in trouble.” “Not at all,” Charlotte replied with a perfectly calm facade. “That is my aunt’s regular expression of pleasure.”
“And that is Alex O’Riley she’s talking to. Just as I know you were on that bicycle yesterday, I also know he was the reason why.”
“Miss Bassingthwaite, I must venture to say you are far too clever for anyone else’s good.”
“Yes,” Cecilia replied complacently. “So I have been told before. In this case, it is merely that my housemaid happened to witness the scene. But I do understand about aunts. And I know Alex. He’s not malicious, but he is—well, a man. Goodness knows they cannot be relied upon for rational behavior.”
“That is true.” Charlotte hesitated, biting her lip. “I think I’d better…”
“Run away to America?” Cecilia suggested.
Miss Plim lifted two fingers and flicked them brusquely, summoning Charlotte to her side.
“Unfortunately,” Charlotte said with a sigh, “I doubt it would be far away enough.”
And tightening her grip on the briefcase, she went to face her fate.
From The League of Gentlewomen Witches by India Holton, published by Berkley, an imprint of The Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by India Holton.