The Lass Who Kissed a Frog – Caroline Lee

This tea-making ceremony was blessedly without singing, chanting or incantations of any kind. “Thank you, Grisel,” murmured Evangeline, as she accepted the delicate cup from her second-in-command. “And may I commend you on your restraint?” The plump godmother scoffed good-naturedly. “Ye may, but if ye dinnae care for the flavor, it’s nae my fault. A good muttering always makes the tea taste better.” Broca was scowling of course, as she swiped a cup from the tray. “Eyes of newts? Toes of frog? That sort of thing?” “I’ve always felt rather sorry for the poor newts and frogs.” Willa was the youngest in their chapter of the Guild and was much too bashful. Evangeline smiled encouragingly at her, and she shrugged delicately. “After the witches are done with them, are there whole herds of blind newts and disabled frogs hopping around pitifully on toeless feet?” “Frogs hop whether they have toes or not,” grunted Broca. “F’r nae whinst habbadan, eh?” All four of them swung their gazes to the fifth godmother sitting at their little table, and there was silence for a moment as they tried to work out what the old woman had said. Finally, Evangeline cleared her throat. “Yes, well…well said, Seonag. Thank you for that.” Seonag, wrinkled beyond belief, nodded in satisfaction as she began packing her pipe with some noxious-smelling plant Evangeline refused to allow her to smoke indoors, but that didn’t stop the old woman from chewing on the stem with great relish of course.

Satisfied in her control, Evangeline swept her gaze over the gathered godmothers. “Willa, dear, may I remind you not to use the W-word during these meetings? The Book is quite clear that we’ll have enough trouble, were word to get out about us, without the W-word being involved.” The young woman blinked. “What W-word? ‘What?’” “Which word,” corrected Broca. “Who! When!” chortled Grisel cheerfully. “Why!” Evangeline frowned at all of them. “Witch.” Grisel raised a brow. “Which? Which is a naughty word?” “When you say it, almost everything is a naughty word,” sighed Evangeline. “You know good and well I was speaking about w-i-t-c-h.” “Ooh. Spelled like bi—” “Thank you, yes!” Evangeline hurried to gain control of the conversation again. “We are not witches, sisters. The Book of Godmothering is quite clear on that, and we should do everything in our power—significant as it is—to do nothing to arouse suspicion.” “Wheezit almortin g’ro?” “I agree, Grandmother.

” Willa nodded solemnly, her gaze on her tea. “Grisel will make a joke about ‘arousing’ any moment now.” As Grisel began to sputter, the younger woman’s eyes twinkled with fake innocence, and Broca leaned forward, banging her knuckles against the table for attention. “Speaking of arousing and naughty words, how’re Max and Ember doing, eh?” Immediately, Grisel’s expression turned dreamy. “Och, they’re two halves of a whole, are they no’? Just perfect for one another, which I told ye from the beginning.” “And we all agreed,” grumbled Broca, “because we’re godmothers. But the house is running fine?” Grisel, who’d appointed herself Max DeVille’s housekeeper, even before he took that remarkable shoe to Ember and saved her from a life of drudgery, nodded happily. “I’m thrilled to report they both like my cooking, and I can keep a fair house when I need to. And the lad pays wages! I cannae recall the last time I had wages.” “That is because you do not work,” Evangeline said icily. “Och, Evie, ye wound me! I’ve worked hard my whole life, but no’ for wages. God’s truth, it isnae hard work, and the lass does the laundry on Sundays when the engraving factory is closed.” “It’s only been a few weeks,” Willa reported, “but Oliphant Engraving is already taking orders for Ember’s beautiful shoe design. Next season, all the fanciest ladies from Edinburgh to London will be wearing Oliphant shoes!” Evangeline couldn’t help but feel proud of their accomplishment. “Yes, Ember and Max are a delightful pair, and I’m certain they’ll enjoy their Happily Ever After working together at Oliphant Engraving.

I’m pleased to see her taking her place among the clan’s best engravers, as her father had intended. But if we could please move on to current business?” Broca shifted in her seat irritably. “Ye cannae begrudge us a little celebration.” Evangeline skewered her with an arch stare. “I seem to recall you lot ‘celebrating’ with them via the crystal ball. The Book has strict rules about using magical devices to spy on intimate moments, which you well know.” She swept her gaze around the table, and three of the four godmothers refused to meet her eyes, pretending great interest in the ceiling, the tea, or in Grisel’s case, the contents of one ear. Seonag was the only one who smiled and chewed on her pipe as she nodded encouragingly. “Well, let us move along.” Evangeline pushed her tea away and pulled a pad of paper a little closer. With a pencil, she checked off the first few lines. “We have been called to order, the tea has been served, clearly we’ve discussed old business, and now we are moving on to…current assignments. Willa, perhaps you could update us?” The young woman cleared her throat twice, then placed her cup and saucer carefully on the table, which was good, because her hand was shaking hard enough to spill a bit of tea over the rim onto the lace cloth. Evangeline stifled her sigh, not wanting to frighten Willa more than necessary. “Um…aye.

Well…” Willa cleared her throat yet again, locked her gaze on the tablecloth, and at last spoke, though the words tumbled over one another, pauses for punctuation non-existent, in their haste to remove themselves from her mouth. “We all ken Roland and Vanessa are meant for one another but she ruined our plans when he heard what she said about his brother she’s no’ a bad person but it’ll be an uphill battle to prove that to him I think.” Evangeline hummed. “Yes, I agree. Roland’s idea has merit. In his hopes of teaching her a lesson, he’ll learn one as well of course. Have you decided on what shape the story will take?” Willa peeked up, her gaze darting around to all of them before flashing once to Evangeline. “Number forty-seven, I thought.” Humming, Evangeline pulled The Book from its place of honor in the middle of the table and began to flip through the pages. “Number seventeen, twenty-nine— Oh, here’s the one with the apple you’ve been wanting to try, Broca—thirty-eight, forty-three—goats? Why are there goats in— Oh! Here it is.” She ran her finger down the page, reading the particulars, and her lips curled upward. “The frog, eh? Oh, this is good. This will be perfect, Willa! Excellent choice!” The younger woman flushed at the praise and ducked her chin even further. “Habben f’r none aftin?” Seonag removed the stem of the pipe from her teeth and pointed it at the book. “Nabs it can bongle!” Evangeline blinked, then surreptitiously glanced around the table to see if anyone else may have understood the old woman.

Broca and Grisel just shrugged helplessly, and all that showed of Willa’s face were her flaming cheeks as she studied the tablecloth. Hoping Seonag had been agreeing with her and refusing to admit she wasn’t completely in control of the meeting, Evangeline nodded firmly. “So we’re settled then. Number forty-seven will be a delightful way to frame this particular story.” She turned back to Willa. “When it comes to narrative causality, this one is a little trickier since the story could go in all sorts of directions. It isn’t as well-known, you see.” “Aye,” spoke up Grisel, “but that just means there’s plenty of chances to improvise as ye go!” “Or for things to go wrong,” grumbled Broca. “Things will not go wrong,” insisted Evangeline. “We are godmothers, and no matter how it happens, our Happily Ever Afters are guaranteed.” “Aye, but I just dinnae want to have to be involved personally!” Evangeline blinked at Broca’s complaint. “Whatever do ye mean?” “Like last time. Can ye believe Max just—just showed up here? Grisel actually brought him to a meeting!” “What else could I do?” Grisel shrugged happily as she reached for a biscuit. “The lad asked to visit. He comes from Everland, ye remember, so he must ken of the godmothers there.

” Broca settled back in her seat; her arms crossed. “What kind of hero tracks down the godmothers? Usually, if we have to reveal ourselves, we do it to the lass.” “Do ye think we might have to in this story?” Willa asked worriedly, peeking up at them. Breaking her usual stoic demeanor, Evangeline leaned over to pat the girl’s hand. “I don’t know, Willa. This particular story is more complicated—and less known—than usual, but we must trust in the narrative causality.” As expected, Broca, Willa, and Grisel chimed, “Narrative causality,” in a comforting sort of way, while Seonag grunted, “Gibblins,” with an emphatic nod. Willa still looked worried, which bothered Evangeline. Her choice of story was a good one for these circumstances, but was it too complex for the girl’s first assignment? Oh dear. What’s done is done. Evangeline nodded firmly. “Seonag, get out the crystal ball, and there will be no inappropriateness, sisters. We just need to check in on the start of Willa’s story. If I don’t miss my guess, Vanessa, along with her mother and sister, should be arriving at Newfincy Castle just about…now.” Chapter 1 “Vanessa, my darling, my angel, ye look just stunning.

” Mother’s hand gently covered Vanessa’s. “Ye have nae need to fret.” She hadn’t exactly been fretting, but Vanessa had been absently plucking one of the ribbons on her gown’s skirts. With her mother, Lady Machara Oliphant, patting her hand so comfortingly, Vanessa dragged her anxious gaze from where it had rested—the beautifully imposing Newfincy Castle, visible through the carriage’s window—and sent the baroness a smile. “I ken, Mother. I’m no’ fretting. Honestly.” “Know, darling, no’ ken. It is bad enough I was no’ able to attend a finishing school, or send ye and yer sister to one, but I’ll no’ have ye speaking like a complete barbarian all the same.” “Nay, Mother,” Vanessa’s smile froze, and she wriggled her hand out from under the other woman’s to smooth down the imaginary wrinkles in her skirts. “I’ll try harder.” “Och, ye have nae need to try harder, my angel. I shouldnae have said a word. Ye are already so anxious about seeing yer charming lord again, and ye look absolutely perfect.” Well, that was true at least.

Vanessa felt herself sitting taller under her mother’s praise. After all, her beauty was what had attracted Roland Prince, Viscount Blabloblal, and therefore, surely it was to be lauded. She didn’t consider herself to be vain; she was just acknowledging a truth. She was the most beautiful lass born to the Oliphants in a generation, so why shouldn’t she be worthy of a prince? Or in this case, a viscount? Aye, ye’re worth a viscount. Mother has often said as much. Actually, Mother wanted Vanessa to marry the heir—Roland’s older brother—but she had no desire to yoke herself to such a hard man. Not only was he hideously scarred, but he spent his days skulking around the ruined old Oliphant Castle, barking and growling at his servants. She didn’t know anyone who’d actually spoken to the barbaric man, much less carried on a civilized conversation with him. She would much rather marry his brother, Viscount Blabloblal, and enjoy the comforts of Newfincy Castle. Her chin rose. And ye will. Ye will marry him because … “Who else could the most beautiful woman in the land marry, other than the most handsome prince?” On the opposite bench, her sister snorted indelicately. “Bonnibelle! What sort of ghastly noise was that?” Doing a wonderful impression of having not been paying attention, Bonnie lowered her book and blinked at their mother. “I’m sorry, Mother? I was—” “Reading, aye, I ken—I know it!” Mother scowled at her younger daughter. “Ye’ll ruin yer eyes, I’ve told ye a hundred times!” Seeming not to be affected by their mother’s scolding, Bonnie placed the book upside down on her lap, then reached for her notebook and pencil.

“Aye, Mother. A hundred times at least,” she murmured, making a notation. “And have I told ye that many times a man will never want a woman who spends her days with her nose in a book? Oh, Bonnie, if only ye’d taken to embroidery or music, or even flower arranging, the way ye obsess over those silly auld books!” “This is neither silly nor auld, Mother,” murmured Bonnie in return, still writing. “This is a history of the Highlands, published by Mr. Grimm in Inverness. Quite recent and utterly fascinating.” Before Mother could say anything else, Bonnie sent her and her sister a tight smile. “Books teach us things flower arranging cannae.” Brava! Vanessa wanted to cry but knew from her mother’s sour look it would be unappreciated. Instead, she dipped her chin just slightly in her sister’s direction; her only acknowledgement of the superior volley. Attempting to change the subject, Vanessa asked, “Is this research, Bonnie? I thought yer book was complete?” She should know; she helped edit the thing. As they trotted into the courtyard of Newfincy Castle, Bonnie finished her notation and closed the notebook with a flourish. “That book is complete, aye, but I’m compiling notes for the next one. I believe a series of vignettes about Oliphant history would be wellregarded in certain circles—” “Oh, Bonnibelle,” their mother tittered, rolling her eyes. “A female author? Do ye honestly believe anyone will be purchasing these books from ye?” “No, Mother,” Bonnie said stiffly, as the carriage rocked to a stop.

“I believe a publisher will purchase the rights to the books from me, then print my stories to share with the world.” Mother waved her hand dismissively. “It is hardly a proper sort of plan for a young lady. Ye’ll ruin yer eyesight and yer posture, hunched over those books, and no respectable publisher will agree to print—” “Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters? There are dozens of women who’ve been writing and publishing books for the last century, Mother,” Bonnie was quick to argue. “Oh, those are novels,” Mother sniffed. “Novels hardly count. Men run the publishing business, my dear deluded darling daughter, and it is best to just accept the chances of success in that field are verra slim. Ah, finally!” she called, as the footman opened the door and offered his hand. “Coming, dears?” As Mother stood quickly to be the first to alight from the carriage, Vanessa glanced at Bonnie, who was scribbling something yet again in her notebook. When Bonnie caught her looking, she sent a wink. “Dear deluded darling daughter,” she whispered. “It was too good no’ to record.” Vanessa smothered a giggle, knowing Mother wouldn’t approve. But when she and Bonnie were both standing upright on the perfectly maintained stones of Newfincy’s front walk, she shared a secret smile with her sister. “Come along, lassies,” Mother called as she swept toward the front steps.

“It isnae every day we receive an invitation to tea with lords.” Knowing what was expected of her, Vanessa planted a soft smile on her face—one she knew made her look approachable and demure, because she’d spent hours practicing it in front of a mirror—and followed. “Why are ye so nervous?” whispered her sister, as she tucked her notebook into a hidden pocket and stepped up beside her. “Dinnae deny it. I ken ye better than Mother does, remember?” “I’m no—” Realizing she was about to deny it, Vanessa’s smile slipped for a moment. “I just dinnae want to do anything to ruin my chances with Roland.” The reminder of the masquerade ball earlier in the season, and how the two of them had not only danced beautifully together, but had also snuck away for some quiet conversation, made her sigh happily. “He’s perfect, Bonnie,” she whispered as the butler opened the door ahead, “and I think I might love him.” “Ye love the idea of him,” her sister corrected. As if that mattered. Vanessa sighed again. “Aye, I believe I do.” The idea of Roland and Roland. “I want him to love me too.” Apparently, their mother was listening, because as the butler led them through the echoing foyer of Newfincy Castle, she turned just long enough to hiss over her shoulder, “Of course he’ll love ye.

Ye’re beautiful! He came to tea, did he no’?” Luckily, she’d turned back away, the fake smile plastered on her face, and Vanessa didn’t have to answer. Instead, she exchanged glances with Bonnie and knew her sister was thinking the same thing. Roland had come for tea, only a week after they’d danced at the ball, and had brought Max DeVille—who was now married to their stepsister, Ember—as well. But despite Mother’s attempts to pretend everything was wonderful, Roland had been distinctly cold throughout the social niceties, and had left not long after Mr. DeVille had excused himself. And Vanessa was terrified she knew the reason why. “Ladies.” Two men stood when the butler led them into the parlor, but only one was smiling. And it wasn’t the one who’d spoken, which was Roland Prince. “Thank ye for joining us.” “Of course, Viscount Blah-blah-blah!” Mother tittered as she dipped into a deep curtsey. “We are honored.” “Blabloblal,” corrected Roland under his breath, his expression carefully blank. It wasn’t until Bonnie followed their mother that Vanessa remembered her manners and forced herself to stop looking at Roland long enough to curtsey as well. He’d stepped up to Mother’s side and was leading her toward the little arrangement of chairs facing a cold hearth.

“Lady Machara, Baroness Oliphant, may I present my brother, Mr. Phineas Prince?” “Ye most certainly can!” Mother winked at Roland, her outrageous flirting curling something deep in Vanessa’s stomach. “But a mere ‘mister’? Oh dear,” she pretended to bemoan, as she offered the youngest Prince brother her hand. “I was certain such a handsome Prince as yerself would be a lord.”


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Updated: 10 June 2021 — 18:16

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