Excerpts from A Merge of Magic by Cara McKinnon. Copyright 2016 Cara McKinnon
Viola Seward had the misfortune to fall in love with her soulmate at age sixteen.
Most of the girls at the finishing school from which she’d recently been expelled would have considered this to be less calamitous than she did. In fact, many of them would have said she was lucky.
However, as the highest aspiration for the bulk of her classmates was to attach themselves in matrimony to the highest-ranked and wealthiest suitor who would have them—preferably by the end of their first seasons—Viola was not terribly interested in their opinions.
Her best friend, Rachel Bowen, was different. Like Viola, Rachel yearned for something more than a life defined by six months in London and six months on an estate, managing a staff, producing heirs, and perhaps being allowed to volunteer for a charity.
And Rachel’s opinion, when Viola confessed what had happened via letter, was that her father Evan had married three times and apparently loved all of his wives. So, by that measure, Viola didn’t have to accept this soulmate. There would certainly be another later, when she’d made her mark on the world and was ready to settle down.
Not that Rachel wanted to get married at all. Rachel’s ambition was to join her aunt Angharad (born Margaret) at her newspaper and champion the cause of women in all walks of life. And, try as she might, Rachel simply wasn’t interested in boys. She’d confessed to Viola, when they still shared a room at school and could whisper to each other late at night, that she had a tendre for Miss Ackerley, their piano instructor.
“When we sit side-by-side on the bench, and her hips are next to mine, and she leans over to correct my fingering, my heart just races!” Rachel had admitted. “Is that terribly wrong of me?”
“Not in the slightest,” Viola assured her. “My mother explained that not every woman is interested in men. And some women like both women and men. And some aren’t attracted to anyone, regardless of gender. Mother is one who likes both.”
Rachel had been shocked, but so relieved that she’d hugged Viola, hard. “I am so glad to hear that. Does your father know?”
“He does. I’m not supposed to know this, but sometimes there’s a lady who stays with us, and I saw her once leaving my parents’ room in the middle of the night. It would be hard for him to have missed her!” She’d squeezed her best friend. “So don’t worry. You are totally normal, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Viola wished she had Rachel to whisper to about Ian now. She had more than a tendre for him, and nebulous thoughts about the future were not a match for the emotion flooding her heart in the present.
But it was her own fault she didn’t have Rachel close by. Rachel had quietly helped her instigate the riot which had caused Viola’s expulsion from their school, but Viola had made sure the blame landed nowhere near her friend.
Now Viola was stuck at home. Or rather, at her family’s home in Scotland, where her father thought it would be safe to shelve her until the scandal died down. And instead of spending her summer making morning calls with her mother and being allowed to attend the first few hours of family parties, she moldered in this ancient pile of stones in the Highlands.
Not that she didn’t love Scotland. In most circumstances, she did. The magic here was stronger, the air cleaner, the landscape more rugged and wild. All of those things made her soul sing. But on the other hand, she’d had plans for London this year.
Angharad had promised to publish some of her articles this summer. The paper uncovered the truth about women’s lives in Britain and abroad, and printed pieces advancing the cause of universal suffrage.
Viola had planned to go down into the stews and help campaign for better working conditions and better pay, and to write about her experiences for the paper. In fact, the riot at her school had been something of a test. In some ways, it had been wildly successful, in others, an abject failure. But the riot had taught her that it was easier than she’d thought to incite people to violence.
It had also taught her that she needed to work smarter next time and not get caught.
Not that there would be a next time on the far end of the country from London, which was exactly why her father had banished her here.
But the worst part of being in Scotland this summer wasn’t missing the opportunity to begin her career as a woman of letters and reform. It was Ian MacAlasdair.
Viola had no intention of throwing her life away on a marriage and children before she’d had a chance to do something with it first. Even if her soulmate was on the next estate, was frightfully handsome, and looked at her with dark eyes that seemed to know every last secret in her heart.
He had magic, too, which made it worse. She longed to mingle their gifts and show him how to cast the spells his father had forbidden him from learning. And she knew, from the many times they’d talked as children, and the scrapes they’d gotten into together, that Ian wasn’t opposed to her life goals.
Of course her soulmate wasn’t likely to be a complete ogre, or else he wouldn’t be her soulmate. But any relationship demanded compromises from both parties, and Viola did not want to compromise. She wanted her own life on her own terms.
Ian MacAlasdair, with his long fingers that made her heart race when she imagined them skimming over her skin, and his leanly-muscled chest that she’d seen a thousand times before this summer but now pictured pressed against hers, did not fit into that life.
So she clung to Rachel’s suggestion. There would be someone else for her, someday. And maybe she was wrong about Ian. Maybe this was simply a tendre, just desire, brought on by the changes in her body as she grew into womanhood.
She would decide not to accept these feelings, would decline this soulmate and wait for another.
If she ignored her passion, it would go away. Wouldn’t it?
It didn’t go away that summer. She tried to avoid Ian and her older brother Malcolm, but her interests and activities had always aligned with theirs, and she encountered them almost every day.
It didn’t go away all that year of exile in the Highlands under the tutelage of a governess. It didn’t go away the next year, when Ian’s father died and Mal officially took him on as an apprentice in magic. That brought Ian under the aegis of Clan Fay, and he was invited to places where Viola could not pretend to ignore him anymore.
No, that year, it got worse.
But the next year, when she was eighteen, her exile ended and she returned to London. She made her bow before the queen, and took her place with the debutantes in the whirl of the social Season.
Ian and Malcolm were there, too, of course. They’d taken up with the Prince of Wales and his friends, who loved illusions and demonstrations of magical prowess. Viola made a splash among the Marlborough House set, winning magical competitions and offering exhibitions of her talents.
But she had no interest in the acclaim and approval she garnered there, except as a way to misdirect society from her true goals. The magic she wanted to do was the kind that would actually help people. The kind that her great-great grandmother Lilias had championed.
Viola had grown and matured since she was expelled from finishing school, and she understood now that it wasn’t important for the world to know who she was and that she’d made a difference. The important thing was actually making a difference.
So she flattered the people who needed flattering. She provided entertainment. A spectacle. And the ton loved her for it. But when she wasn’t at parties, she was on the streets. She started classes for middle-class and lower-class women with small magical talents, teaching them simple spells that would improve their lives and provide additional sources of income. She helped place women in jobs, and no one in the glittering world of society ever guessed that she wasn’t a paragon of debutante virtue.
She was invited to more balls, soirees, and routs than any girl who had actually finished at her finishing school. Which only illuminated the awful hypocrisy of the upper classes. They clamored for her to attend their parties, and never saw that they’d welcomed a progressive harridan into their midst. But she couldn’t entirely blame them. After all, she was very good at illusion.
Despite several proposals in her first season, Viola managed to avoid entangling herself with anyone. She laughed and teased and said she was having far too much fun to settle down just yet. They returned in her second season, and again in her third. They declaimed violent passions, crafting odes to her eyes and her hair and her magic. Her favorite poem came with no author attached, and extolled the delights of parts of her body women were not supposed to acknowledge existed in mixed company.
That poem she’d had copied and sent to Rachel and her female cousins. She kept the original tucked into her journal. Perhaps the poet would turn out to be her next soulmate.
If she could just stop thinking about the first one.
By the middle of her third season, she still had almost a dozen suitors, though Ian wasn’t among them. He and Mal had become quite a sensation in the highest circles, and since his older brother had died in India the year before and he was now a baron, he had plenty of debutantes throwing themselves in his direction. She hated them all, and castigated herself as a hypocrite after every ball when he danced with everyone else but her.
He would have danced with her, but she’d told him long ago that she wasn’t interested. She’d never told such a flagrant lie before or since, not even when she prevaricated about her daytime activities in the slums.
It was time to pull away from the social whirl and the distraction that was Ian MacAlasdair, and focus on what was truly important.
She was about to turn twenty-one, and once she reached her majority she had plans to move into Rachel’s aunt’s home in Chelsea, a slightly less posh area than Mayfair, but still respectable and full of well-to-do families.
There, she would be able to act openly, perhaps even establishing real schools under her real name, rather than the surreptitious classes held in secret that were all she could administer now.
But she wouldn’t turn twenty-one for another month, and so she was still going to social events. Ian’s mother was the hostess of tonight’s affair. Ostensibly, the party was just another late-spring soiree, but Mal had revealed that the baroness planned to announce her engagement to Viscount Tawley. Mal and Ian were planning a spectacular display of illusion as a gift to celebrate their happy union.
Since Viola thought the old baron had been an ass, and that the baroness therefore deserved to have her happiness celebrated, she presented herself at the Drumoss townhouse several hours before the event to offer her magical services to Ian.
She’d not bothered to bring a maid, seeing as she’d run wild with him on their estates for most of her life, but when he entered the parlor where she’d been waiting, she wished there was someone, anyone, else in the room.
They hadn’t been alone together in almost three years, since right before her first season when he’d hinted that he would like to call on her in Town, and she’d rebuffed him.
Great goddess, but he was even more gorgeous now. The day she’d rejected him, she’d had to restrain herself from launching at him and kissing him until he stripped her and had his way with her in the middle of the field where they’d been walking.
She couldn’t help imagining it now. He would bend her over the sofa, the way she’d seen in a book of erotic drawings, and press into her from behind. His shaft would be so hot and hard, filling her up and stretching her, so much better than the false cock she used on herself.
He would thrust, and thrust, and reach around to stroke her until she broke and screamed for him. Then he would spend, so deep inside her, and she would hear that amazing voice growl her name as he climaxed—
She took a deep, unsteady breath, and shoved the fantasy away. Even if she hadn’t angered him three years ago, even if he still had any interest in her at all, they couldn’t be together. She had too much to do with her life, and she’d barely even started.
Ian stared in confusion at Viola. She hadn’t voluntarily entered his presence alone in three years. Mal had tried to convince him that Viola would never choose him, that their camaraderie as children was one thing, but marriage was something else.
Obviously Mal was correct. If Viola wanted him, she would have torn down the heavens to have him.
He’d suffered with that knowledge, with the force of his desire for her, and with the emptiness of a love unrequited. Because he had always loved her, and would love her until he died.
Even as children, he’d known. She was the only one for him, out of millions of souls on the earth. Anyone else would be a pale substitution, and he wouldn’t force another woman to be second-best.
So he was a bachelor at twenty-three and would be a bachelor at sixty-three. His oldest sister had two sons, and by Scottish law they would have no trouble inheriting the barony, so he need not worry about begetting an heir. He would never marry anyone but Viola.
Who had, for the last three years, ignored him utterly.
He tried to put on a polite expression, to mask the confusion and desire that swirled inside of him, but he couldn’t force his body to move naturally. He might have become in truth a creature of stone, solid and unyielding, standing before her as stiff and abrupt as a stack of rock rising up from a shifting sea. His voice was always deep, his register a low baritone, but when he said her name, it came out even more rumbling than usual.
She rose and performed a fluid curtsey, for all the world as though they were in a drawing room full of people and someone had just introduced them for the first time. Not as though they’d spent half their childhood in each other’s pockets, and he’d once made a fool of himself by hinting that he wanted to court her when it was obvious she did not return his desire.
He inclined his head, not certain how to respond.
“Hello, Ian.” At least she didn’t call him by his title. That would be a blow, indeed.
“Why—” he stopped himself. He’d been about to ask why she’d come, and that would have been both rude and far too revealing of his own feelings. “That is, what can I do for you?”
She settled back onto the sofa and he took a seat in a chair as far away as he could politely manage.
“Actually, I’ve come to see if there is anything I can do for you.”
A flurry of images passed through his mind: her naked body beneath his as he slipped into her wet heat, his tongue tasting her folds, her lips sliding over his cock, her hands running over his chest, his ring on her finger as his wife, her belly swelling with their child.
So many things he wanted from her, with her. But nothing he could ask for. “What do you mean?”
“Mal said your mother plans to announce her engagement tonight, and you’ve got a spectacular illusion planned to celebrate the occasion. I would like to offer my skills to assist you.”
He bristled. She wanted to do magic for him? Once, years ago, they’d tried to cast a spell together, and it had been a disaster. He’d been so worried that she would sense how he felt about her that he couldn’t concentrate on the threads, and the spell had blown up in their faces. “Mal and I have it under control.”
“I don’t doubt that. But…” for a moment, she paused, the polite social creature hesitating to take credit for her own accomplishments lest she display unwonted pride. But then the real Viola, the girl who’d never once hesitated to do any of the things he and her brother had done, asserted herself. “I’m quite good. Better than either of you.”
She’d never backed down from a challenge or a contest, not in all of the time that he’d known her. And neither had he. “And what sort of accomplishment is that, exactly? So you wear the latest fashions and swan about a ballroom casting spells that entertain the feckless English. What happened to the girl who wanted to change the world? Who swore when she got back to London that nothing would stop her from leading the women of the lower classes out of starvation and poverty?”
Viola jumped up from the settee. His lifelong training had him on his feet with her, as only a truly boorish man remained seated when a woman stood. So instead of looming over him, she had to tilt her head back a little to meet his gaze. But she wasn’t intimidated in the slightest, and arousal spurted through his body as she prodded a finger into his pectoral muscle.
“You know nothing about me, Ian MacAlasdair, or what I’ve done with my life.”
“And whose fault is that? Who refused to speak to me the second Society’s eyes turned to her?” Which wasn’t true, or entirely fair, as she’d refused him back in Scotland. But it amounted to the same thing. She’d known she was going back into the social whirl, and known Ian would hold her back from attaining the heights of popularity and position in that glittering world. He’d been nobody, with no title, no land, and only a half-trained, mediocre magical talent.
He couldn’t blame her, even as the truth of it cracked his heart anew.
“I don’t give a damn about Society.” She pushed in even closer, so close her breath washed over his lips as she shouted. “They’re a means to an end. But at least I can say my successes are my own. Have you ever cast a spell without my brother to help you?”
Ian had not known that it was literally possible for a person to see red when not using the Sight. But a haze dropped over his vision, a muddle of anger and frustrated desire. “You know nothing about me either, Viola Seward Fay.” And then her shoulders were in his grasp and his mouth was on hers.
Viola hadn’t meant to goad Ian, but he had no idea how desperately she wanted his approval, and how much it hurt that he couldn’t see the real woman beneath the social illusion. So when he hurt her, she lashed out in return.
Then he’d been so close, and the heat and smell of him had washed through her in a tidal pull of desire. Her nipples tightened beneath her blouse, and she actually wished she had listened to her mother and gotten a true corset rather than this lightweight one with no boning and only a single layer of fabric. If he looked, he would see the peaks of her breasts against the silk. He would know that she wanted him.
So she stepped closer so he couldn’t see, and shouted at him, when what she wanted was to wrap her body around his and sink her magic into him.
He didn’t shout back. His deep voice rasped soft and seductive against her ears. He said her name, and her magic woke as though he’d conjured it. Power flooded up from her core, pooling in her chest and between her legs like a hot spring of desire. He met the power with his lips, capturing her and drinking her in.
She’d wanted him so long that her body rejoiced without her conscious permission, her tongue darting out to stroke along his. Their magic tangled at the touch, and the flood inside her turned to a torrent and a geyser, fountaining up and bursting forth, becoming actual moisture inside the cleft between her legs. She pressed into him, wrapping her arms around his body, moaning when her sensitive nipples dragged against his lower chest.
His magic tasted like fresh bread and smelled like both flour and the millstone used to grind it. Her Ian was a creature of earth and stone, with an almost metallic tang, like a vein of ore running through a mountain.
His grip on her shoulders relaxed and one hand swept down her back to her arse. She arched into his touch, and he gripped her and pulled her against him. She swallowed the groan that erupted from his mouth when his other hand found her breast. He thumbed one tight, hard peak through her blouse and she gasped, breaking the kiss. His lips trailed over her jaw and down to the thumping pulse at her throat. He licked the fluttering spot and she shuddered, her fingers digging into the fabric of his coat. She wished she had his skin under her palms instead.
The hand on her arse shifted to her hip, and he leaned to grasp her leg, lifting it so that he nestled into the notch of her thighs. She thrust her hips against him, and his cock pressed hard between her legs, sending a pulse of liquid bliss through her body as he grazed her clitoris. If he raised her skirt and unbuttoned his falls, he could be inside her. Goddess, she wanted that.
Except, she didn’t.
The shock of contact burst through him at the same time as it reached her lust-clouded brain. They both sprang away from the other’s too-perfect touch.
Her body keened in loss, but her mind had finally re-engaged. She was furious with him, furious with herself. Everything she wanted in life was almost within her reach, and Ian MacAlasdair was not a part of that future. She could not allow him to be.
“If you ever touch me again, I swear to the goddess I will geld you.” Her voice was too low, too full of passion, and broken by gasps as her body still vibrated with sexual tension.
His dark eyes, that had always seen too much of her, narrowed with anger. His voice was like stones tumbling down a crag. “No worries on that score. I’d sooner bed down with a kelpie.”
Her oldest brother used to tease her by calling her that. Most kelpie in the stories were male, and associated with water. Giles thought she acted too much like a boy, and resented that she had a magical gift and he didn’t. It hurt, very much, for Ian to reference that particular fey now, when he knew how much she hated Giles’s taunts.
She stared at him, suspended in the eternity between her racing heartbeats. His mouth had compressed into an angry line, his dark eyes hard and sharp as flint. She fled the room.
On the threshold, Ian’s voice reached her, and held her like a tether.
“You’re wrong about my magic. I’m just as good as you, or Mal.”
Viola slowly, deliberately, looked back over her shoulder. Their gazes met again. Just loud enough for him to hear, she said, “Prove it.”
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