Under the Duke’s Wicked Spell – Meghan Sloan

Charlotte lifted her chin to gaze at the stoic, shadowed building before her. She clutched her parasol with white-knuckled fingers and acknowledged the dread that thudded in her stomach. Ordinarily, when she allowed herself to be caught up in Louisa’s strange and provocative fantasies, she regretted it—yet always, in the initial moments before, as she allowed herself to fall for the good of adventure, she neglected to remember all previous horrors. Her dear best friend, Louisa, huddled close to her, her hand latching around Charlotte’s elbow. “We’re going to discover all the secrets of the world today, Charlotte,” she whispered, her voice bright. Charlotte turned her head slowly. Rain pattered gently across the top of her parasol. Already, it had drenched a few of the dark curls across Louisa’s right shoulder, missing the parasol altogether. “You can’t possibly believe that, Louisa,” Charlotte offered before she could halt herself. Louisa’s eyes darkened. “Everything we read about last evening in those old-world texts? They must have changed your mind, at least a bit.” Charlotte half-remembered the dramatic texts Louisa had flung out across the table in Charlotte’s family library. Her little finger had drawn lines beneath words; she’d blinked up at Charlotte with a severe gaze, yelling, “This. Read this? How can mysticism not be true when something like this was recorded?” It had been difficult for Charlotte to explain that just because something was written in a book didn’t mean it had actually occurred in the world. Now, as she opened her lips to articulate this fact once more, Louisa squeezed her elbow still harder.

“I told you. Florentia won’t be here long. She’s a traveling mystic, the sort of woman who answers the calls of the wind and is drawn elsewhere at a moment’s notice,” Louisa explained, clearly exasperated. Charlotte’s eyes switched to the other side of Louisa, where their chaperone, Louisa’s elder sister Margorie, heaved a sigh. It was difficult to tell Margorie’s withheld opinions regarding this world; that said, it was clear that the three of them could no longer stand so solidly beneath the ever-thudding rain. A decision had to be made. When they reached the door of the old building, a sturdy-looking man with a broad forehead and eclectic, eastern clothing tugged open the door. Charlotte yearned to chuckle at his expression. After all, he was rather clearly an Englishman, dressed in other culture’s clothing. Still, his eyes were dark, almost sinister—and Charlotte had the slightest hunch that any sort of teasing on her side would result in something not altogether pleasing on his.

She couldn’t possibly trust these kinds of people. “Good afternoon,” the man boomed, allowing them into the shadowed foyer. “Hello,” Louisa murmured, her voice shaking. “We’re here to see the mystic.” The man blinked twice. Outside, thunder crackled, making the ground shake. Charlotte felt as though the chaos of the afternoon had switched itself over to melodrama. “Florentia is in the midst of another session,” the man affirmed. “If you’d like to wait here for a moment, I can pour you each a cup of tea from the eastern lands, simmering with healing properties.” Charlotte coughed at the idiocy.

Wasn’t a cup of tea a cup of tea, regardless of where you were? “That sounds marvellous. Doesn’t it, ladies?” Louisa said. “I’m sure it costs extra,” Charlotte said. The man flashed his eyes towards her ominously. “I can assure you the cost hardly covers us for shipment from the old country. We bring this here for you for internal calming, to find peace and prosperity, to open your mind to allow Florentia to assist you properly.” Charlotte turned her eyes towards first Louisa, then Margorie, hoping one of them would shrug, pull back toward the door, and wash her hands of such idiocy. “Come, girls. I’ll pay for the tea,” Louisa said, her voice low. The man bowed his head, drawing his chin towards his chest.

“You’re altogether too kind towards your friends. I can see it; your aura is different than the others. Still, it has been known to happen that one’s aura shifts—both for the betterment or the worsening of one’s friends. Protect your aura, dear one …” He kept his eyes pinned on Louisa. “For you never know when your friends will want to take advantage of you, tear your aura to shreds—draw your light towards their darkness.” The man led them towards a small drawing room, decorated with other-worldly elements, including a Middle-Eastern rug that hung from the wall, several Indian statues, and Buddhist décor. Charlotte dropped into a chair and drew her knuckles together. She so yearned to point out the disparity between each of the elements before them—the fact that whoever had situated each piece had very little comprehension for other cultures. Still, Louisa looked as though that sort of comment would rip her heart in two. The man poured them tea in silence.

Just before he left the room, he tapped his heart three times with three fingers, his eyes closed. “I wish you well when you interact with our colossal beauty, our mystic, Florentia,” he said. “Your journey to our door today was assuredly a difficult one, but one you won’t regret.” The moment he disappeared, Charlotte drew her shoulders forward. Laughter bubbled from between her lips. Louisa cut her a horrendous look. “Can’t you behave for more than five minutes?” she demanded. Charlotte lifted her teacup and peered into the darkness of the liquid. “I don’t know. Do you suppose the mystic will tell me that if I ask her?” “I hope you won’t waste your session with the mystic with silly questions,” Louisa affirmed.

Charlotte turned her eyes back to Margorie, yearning to plead with her for a bit of normality. Margorie just gave a lacklustre shrug and sipped her tea. “Margorie! Don’t sip the tea,” Charlotte cried. “Why not?” Margorie demanded. “It’s not as though this man wants to be responsible for our deaths.” “There’s very little we know about this situation at all,” Charlotte affirmed. “They could very well want to poison and kidnap us. If we don’t keep our guard …” “Charlotte, I don’t wish to run with your fantasies any longer,” Louisa interjected. “In any case, it’s essential that we focus on the various elements of our existence that we wish to ask the mystic about. I’m sure she has a limited amount of time; we must help her focus her energy on what we care most about.

” Louisa’s eyelids dropped; her lashes fluttered across her cheeks. Margorie turned her eyes back towards her tea. Her nostrils squeezed upward. “Not so tasty?” Charlotte asked. “It’s rather … different,” Margorie said. “Poisonous?” Louisa’s eyelids shot upward once more. “Charlotte! You’re ruining a day I’ve looked forward to for some time.” “Some time,” Charlotte scoffed. “You only informed me of the mystic four days ago.” “Yes, but I’ve wanted to meet one for nearly a decade.

” “We’re only twenty-three years old,” Charlotte said. “You didn’t have such fancies surrounding a mystic at age-thirteen.” “I did,” Louisa said. “Did she?” Charlotte demanded of Margorie. Margorie shrugged. “I was rather busy courting back then.” This cast everyone into silence. Nobody liked to be reminded of Margorie’s past: the fact that she’d married a man for love, and he’d ultimately left her for a woman on the other side of the country, taking his money along with him. This had left Margorie essentially penniless. Now, at the age of twenty-eight, she’d moved back in with Louisa and their parents and spent a great deal of time in the garden with tears glittering across her cheeks.

Suddenly, a woman appeared in the doorway dressed in what seemed to be four or five different layers of red and green and blue robes, with one wrapped elaborately around her head. Her eyes peered out, green and glittering, and her hands clenched either side of the doorway, as though if she let go, she would be cast upward towards some impossible heaven. Her scarves seemed to flutter, despite the lack of wind. Louisa let out a little, tender shriek—the sort of sound a younger girl might have made. Charlotte yearned to roll her eyes but maintained her alertness instead. “Ladies,” the mystic began. Her voice was all watery, hazy, and she blinked skyward, as though she spoke instead to an invisible force above their heads. “It is with great joy that I welcome you here this afternoon. I can feel it in the air above you: there’s tension within this room. Is there not?” Louisa spun her head around to glare at Charlotte as if to say, See? You’ve upset her—yes—but she sees all.

“My name is Florentia,” the mystic continued, bowing her head as she said it—as though the act of articulating her own name demanded trumpets and harps. “I’ve travelled far and wide, studied countless languages, gone under hypnosis many times, and studied the secrets of the universe from the comforts of a cave at the top of a mountain. I’ve seen it all: what has come before and what will be. As a result, I comprehend the weight each of you has, as it relates to the texture of the universe. I see it within each of you. Each of you is a smaller world within this greater one—but you’re no less complex.” Nobody spoke. Florentia dropped her palms to her sides, tilted her head, then stepped into the room, her shawls fluttering. “It’s best we begin when our energy remains high,” she said. “Who shall follow me first?” Charlotte furrowed her brow.

Louisa turned back, her lips parted. “We think it best that we enter together,” Charlotte affirmed. Florentia clucked her tongue. “That is not possible,” she said. “It’s essential to meet each of you individually, as it allows me to see each of you uniquely—with the magic of each of your auras surrounding me.” Charlotte groaned. Naturally, the woman only wanted to meet each of them separately because they would then have to pay for each separate session. It was entirely clear to her that this woman wanted to rip them off; why couldn’t Louisa see the idiocy? Then again: what sort of friend was Charlotte if she didn’t allow her friend to experience whatever magic she wanted to believe in? “Louisa will go first,” Charlotte interjected. Louisa’s eyes brightened. “Are you sure?” “Of course,” Charlotte said.

“We’ve come too far to turn back.” Louisa all but leapt from her chair. She tapped her hair across her now-dried curls and beamed at Florentia, as though she was an angel incarnate. “I’ve looked forward to meeting you for quite some time.” “And I, you,” Florentia said. “Does this mean you felt me coming?” Louisa asked.

.

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