The Great Gatsby meets Practical Magic in this lush, decadent gothic novel where a young woman gets swept into a glittering world filled with illicit magic, romance, blood debts and murder.
Rumour had it that Crow Island was haunted by witches.
As I saw it for the first time, I understood why. People said the witches who had first discovered the island lived on in the bodies of the crows that flocked on every street corner and bare-branched tree. They flew high above as the boat drew closer to the shore, a constellation of black stars against the bright summer sky.
Tucked away beyond the murky water off the east coast, the island’s crescent-moon shape gave it the appearance of a curved spine, a body curled secretively away from the mainland. Yet up close the properties, built to resemble American plantation houses and crumbling Georgian manors, dispelled this illusion of secrecy. They loomed large, like spectral grey sentries guarding their land.
On Crow Island, people had whispered to me back home, real magic lurked just below the surface. Wealth seeped from the place like honey. They said that it had a reputation, that here the law looked the other way.
My mother hadn’t wanted me to come, but I had pleaded, surprising both of us. It was my father’s final request, which felt vital somehow, and I was compelled in a way I never had been before. He had wanted me to do this, to travel to a place I had never been, to sort through and sell his belongings, although I had hardly known him. And I had thought I could do it. I thought, at least, I should try.
I was no longer sure. I had never been away from home, had never slept anywhere but the squat back bedroom in the little stone terrace house I shared with my mother. The thought was both light and sharp. I inhaled a lungful of the salty ocean air, which tasted different here than it did back home, and reassured myself that I could be brave. Crow Island might be haunted, but it couldn’t be much different than the rest of England had been since the war, life trudging on despite the ghosts. I would be fine.
In the harbour the final traces of Whitby drained away: here was no Mam to guide me; there were no familiar street corners to remind me of sunny afternoons with Sam and Bea; there was not even to be the routine of the shop, of cosy evenings by the fire or Sunday afternoons visiting the gallery in town. It was an unwritten story. I had never had so much freedom, or felt so timid.
There was a car waiting for me by the harbour office, a swanky hayburner unlike anything I’d ever dreamed of driving, with a paper slip bearing my name tied to the steering wheel. I approached hesitantly, placing my palm flat against the sun- warmed metal. It felt, for a second, like I could feel the heartbeat of the island, the same thundering under my skin I sometimes swore I could feel when I scavenged shiny polished stones on the beach back home. I pulled my sweating palm back and glanced around nervously.
The harbour had long since emptied and I couldn’t see another soul. The office loomed ahead, its windows mirrored by the sun. In the letter I had received before leaving I’d been told I would have to go inside to collect the key for my father’s car, but some force held me locked in place. It wasn’t the office itself that scared me, more the idea that once I had the key—what then?
I stood for a minute watching the occasional cloud scud across the dark glass of the office windows. Two minutes. Five. My thoughts trickled towards my father. I should be more upset by his death, but I was almost indifferent. Perhaps I was being harsh, perhaps he had loved Mam once, but she had never said. She had shed his surname as if even the suggestion of his love was painful for her. I almost preferred to think that he had never loved her. After all, what kind of man would abandon his wife and newborn daughter for an island? Still, this was my inheritance—money that could mean everything for Mam and me.
The sun beat down on my shoulders and I was hot and impatient with myself. Sam would have thought I was silly. Bea would laugh if she saw me. But Sam wasn’t here and Bea was probably still angry with me. My irritation grew. A roaring sound began inside my ears, the same sound I always heard when a panic came on—like ocean waves. Like drowning. I closed my eyes, squeezing them tight, blocking out the sensation of swirling water that clogged my mind.
“Are you . . . well, miss? Do you need a doctor? Papa says it looks like you might faint.”
A girl of no more than ten had appeared, red- haired and freckled, wearing a grey smock. Concern etched her forehead. I must have been standing here for longer than I’d thought.
“I’m—a little lost,” I said, fumbling for an excuse. “I think this is my car but I don’t have the key . . . ?”
The girl’s face sagged in relief and she snatched at the handwritten slip tied to the wheel plus the paper I handed her, my own messy scrawl in the margins of the note my father’s lawyer had sent me. When she returned them, it was with a small key ring, which she thrust at me.
“Thank you,” I managed, finally able to breathe.
The girl disappeared as quickly as she’d come. I gazed at the car for a moment more, remembering the illicit runabouts in Sam’s dad’s jalopy. I’d hated them at the time but was glad now, although I was worried that it would be harder here than roaring along the winding, empty country roads at home.
I didn’t want to think of Sam, or of home, and that spurred me into action. I threw my meagre belongings into the car, and once I was on the road it came back to me little by little. It was easier than I remembered, or perhaps the car was simply better. The air tasted of tree sap, the future shimmering ahead like a mirage in the heat.
The reality of Crow Island stretched and grew around me as I drove, lavish houses making way for smaller dwellings as I headed away from the harbour, and quiet, crooked streets peeling off the main road through the town known as Crow Trap. I took in the freshly whitewashed shops and the bright, shiny windows. I hadn’t seen such a lush air of festivity since the parties we’d thrown after the armistice. The bunting was fresh and neat, fluttering between lampposts, and the children who ran in circles outside the small bakery wore clean aprons and shoes.
It was beautiful, and yet I couldn’t help the nervous way my palms itched at the sight of the wooden boards outside shops peddling Genuine Palm Readings and Holidaymakers’ Charms for Good Fortune, and at the windows that offered a glimpse of trailing greenery, framing small signs that proclaimed the vendors’ license to advertise faux magic.
It had been this way since the prohibition began after the war. Licenses, posters, and provisos, silly games that danced on a knife-edge as far as the law was concerned. Back home I hardly thought about magic except to avoid the advertisements at the back of the newspaper where faux mediums passed public messages to the great beyond. In Whitby there wasn’t much cause for meddling with magic, real or otherwise; most people barely had enough money to put food in their bellies, never mind extra to waste on trifles.
And it wasn’t worth the risk.
Mam always said that real magic was cunning and it was best to steer clear. Fake magic was a joke, a party trick for rich people who had nothing better to do, so it was best to steer clear of that too. Her most well- worn bedtime caution over the last two and a half years was the story of a girl in York, Bessie Higgins, who’d been hanged for selling poppets that turned out to have dried monkshood in them, although she’d sworn she had simply picked the weeds near the river.
There must be more to Bessie’s story, but talking about magic had always made Bea act foolish, so we never did.
Magic seemed different here. The licenses and advertisements were light, funny. These signs offered a glimpse into the future instead of the past. Perhaps the rich could better enjoy the soft scares of make-believe fortune-telling, since they hadn’t lost as much as the rest of us.
I counted seven of the island’s famous crows as I headed back towards the coast. They were perched on rooftops and in trees, one more on the pinnacle of a lamppost, her beady eyes and sharp little beak shining in the May morning sun. I acknowledged each one under my breath like a prayer, the hazy words of a half- remembered poem in the back of my mind.
One for malice,
Two for mirth . . .
The stretch of coastline where I’d rented a house for the summer was a jungle of grand houses and sprawling estates, the odd cottage like mine annexed from wealthy land a long time ago. I drove down roads shaded by hedgerows growing verdant and wild and speckled with dark thorns. It was a relief to easily find the cottage, nestled less than five minutes’ slow drive away.
It sat atop a sloping lawn, surrounded on three sides by so many trees you could hardly see the sky, or the ocean, or anything but tangles of green. At the back of the cottage the lawn dipped until it fell away into a sandy stretch looking out to the North Sea. I’d used some of my new inheritance for the privilege of being able to see water. That was why outsiders came to Crow Island after all, wasn’t it?
There was a man waiting for me outside the cottage when I arrived. He was tall and broad shouldered with greying rust-coloured hair and a cheerful, ruddy face. He smoothed the jacket of his mmaculate herringbone suit and smiled.
“You must be Miss Mason,” he said, shaking my hand warmly as I climbed out of the car. “Your father spoke very highly of you. My name is Jonas Anderson—it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m very sorry about your father. Such a shame to have lost him so unexpectedly.”
This was my father’s lawyer. The man he’d left in charge of his estate. He was the one who had written after my father’s heart attack and begged me to come. It’s what your father wanted. The only thing he asked for. He was the one who had given me an advance on my father’s money—for the cottage. I hadn’t expected him to be here, and his presence made my muscles bunch nervously.
“Mr. Anderson,” I said, smoothing my hair flat under its scarf. I didn’t like the idea that my father had spoken about me at all when it hardly seemed like he’d remembered I existed, but I tried to keep that from my voice. “How nice to see you in person—but I’m here so early. I thought we weren’t scheduled to meet until next week.”
“No, but I wanted to, ah, welcome you to the island,” he said, still smiling. “I wanted, really, to make sure you found the car without trouble, and the cottage . . .” He pointed vaguely. “I was surprised you chose one over here, but I can understand why. It’s lovely, isn’t it? Anyway, I know it can be daunting to find your feet in a new place. Especially one like this.” He gestured at a single crow that had perched itself comfortably on the bonnet of my car. “So, if you need anything, you mustn’t hesitate to let me know. Particularly if it’s about your father or his things. We were good friends, you see. I’m sure you must have questions, though I understand if you’re too overwhelmed today. I thought perhaps that was why you came early. I can try to speed through the necessary paperwork, but I’m more than happy to give you this week to get settled if that’s preferable.”
I blinked away the unexpected tightness in my throat at his kindness and nodded as he talked, allowing myself to settle into this new world and agreeing gratefully to keep in touch. Once he was gone I slipped into the cottage, shutting out the sunny warmth to set about unpacking my few belongings.
Now that I was alone, the cottage seemed big and rambling. Frivolous. It wasn’t like it was even my money I was spending yet. It was strangely quiet too, the sound of my footsteps muffled by the distant rush of the ocean and the caw of a crow. And there was a different quality to the quiet; it felt like the blackest part of a shadow, coiled and waiting.
I had never been alone like this before. I had spent all my early years with a gaggle of other neighbourhood children, Sam and Bea and a snotty girl called Margot at my heels as we ran and played in the streets behind my mother’s chocolate shop. Later, when Sam was gone, I had Mam and Bea, and then Mam. What would I do with all this space? I could walk from one side of the cottage to the other without tripping over Mam’s knitting basket or having to slow for Tabs and her kittens. I could swing my arms and not hit a single thing if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here.
Until Sam was deployed I’d never thought about leaving Whitby. After he left I thought about it constantly. I was still trying to convince my mother to let me sign up to nurse when we found out he’d died. Just—died. Gone.
It felt like a warning. This is what happens when you dream. This is what happens when you get ahead of yourself. For two years Bea and I hardly spoke of him, and when we did we pretended that he was still away, travelling the world and collecting experiences he would bring home to share with us. He never came home. And when Bea had left last spring—when she’d come to this very island—without saying goodbye to me, it felt like I was doomed to lose everything, each part of me slowly chipped away until there was nothing left.
I stayed with Mam, pretending I was content. I did what it felt like I should do, going through the motions like no war had ever happened. How was my loss any different from anybody else’s? My life became a pattern of dance halls on the weekends, more out of obligation than anything else, and the shop during the week. Trips to the gallery and the dull excitement of a new sewing pattern. Mam never said so, but eventually she expected me to marry. It had been four years since Sam died, and my inevitable future grew closer every month. I couldn’t put it off much longer.
And then . . . ?
That was the part that scared me. The picture of a life already lived, so predictable I could write it point by point in my journal and tick it off. Marriage, babies, hard work, and never enough money to stretch . . . The problem was, as much as my father’s death felt almost like a windfall, coming to the island scared me too.
Standing here, in this cottage that wasn’t mine, I told myself it didn’t—couldn’t—matter that I was afraid. This felt like my last chance to change my path; I needed to grasp it with both hands, pull the opportunity up at the roots, and carry it with me, ready to plant, or else the life back home was all that waited for me.
It seemed like fate that Bea was here. I’d been thinking of her a lot since I set out on the ferry, wondering if she’d truly missed me like her letters said. Whether she was still angry with me. The hole she’d left in my chest ached. If only we could be friends again—true friends—maybe I wouldn’t feel so lonely.
Bea and I had been so close, once. Both of us had grown up without fathers, although hers had died when she was just a baby, and we often joked that we were fierce enough not to need them. It felt strange, after all our jokes, all the secret longing we’d hidden behind our bluster, that I was here today because of my father.
Perhaps he had hoped coming to the island would be good for me. Perhaps he had hoped that the island would jostle my soul and wake me from a slumber he recognised—that it would cut this stunted part of me free. Perhaps he hadn’t thought of how it would affect me at all. I wasn’t sure which possibility I liked the least.
The late-afternoon air in the cottage was loaded with my questions. I wanted to know about his life, about his friends, his work, and his hobbies. I wanted to know why this place had captivated him so much that he had left us without a second thought. And most of all, I couldn’t stop the small voice in my head that asked the same thing I’d been returning to for weeks—at home, on the boat, seeing that shiny car for the first time . . .
Why now? Why had my father only wanted me to come to Crow Island once he was dead?
The moon rose whole and bright like a shiny coin. I made a pot of honey tea and carried a cup out onto the shining blue lawn. The sound of the ocean was loud in my ears. I would never be able to sleep, missing the snuffling sounds of Tabs and the kittens at the side of my bed, the distant rhythm of my mother’s snores. Instead I stood and inhaled the new, fresh scents of the wild garden, knowing Mam would love them. She’d always wanted a big garden where she could grow roses, magnolias, geraniums . . . a dream I hoped my newfound money could soon accomplish.
From my spot on the lawn I could see the ocean spread so far ahead it became the sky. The noises were of nature, rustling leaves, flashes of white that were rabbits darting between the trees near the cottage. Back home I couldn’t remember the last time I had been outside alone at night, felt the silver light of the moon on my shoulders and the crown of my head.
I sipped from my cup and allowed my thoughts to drift, dwell- ing on the stronger teas and tinctures we’d had when I was young. Blackcurrant and licorice tea for vivid dreams, ginger root and angelica for luck and protection. I recalled the pink, foamy tea Bea’s mam had served us once—rose hip and cardamom laced with the barest whisper of hemlock. We’d lain together under a canopy made of old bedsheets and told each other stories for hours, not growing tired until the sun was almost cresting through Bea’s window.
It unnerved me how easily we had been led back then, how cushioned we had felt, lulled by the tea’s charm. Magic had once felt like fun, before we understood what else it could do. It unnerved me more how I still missed the teas and the exotic chocolates that could make your heart race with joy, the subtle spice in a freshly baked carrot cake; I knew what they did and a deep part of me still longed for them, or for how it had been before everything changed. These days you were lucky to even find fresh lavender, never mind anything dried or sweetened. Ever since the prohibition it had been harder and harder to find things to calm your nerves, anything to alter your mental state at all.
I didn’t mean to wander from the lawn. At home I would never have allowed myself to leave the safety of the house this late without a friend. I left the back door open as I carried my cup down the slope until my feet were buried in the cold sand of the beach. I just wanted to escape the thoughts that had followed me from the boat to the harbour and the house. Thoughts of what I’d have to go back to once the summer was over, ghosts that stalked me everywhere I went.
I cradled the steaming cup in both hands. The ocean was black and so still it was like a dark pane of glass reflecting the moon. It reminded me of the stories of the witch’s black mirror, of how heathens had once used a surface like this to see the future. The thought made the hairs rise on my arms and I shoved it away. Real magic like that, the kind of magic that made witches different from regular people, was the reason we had the prohibition—not because of fancy teas and fortune-tellers but because of the abuse of raw power that had turned boy soldiers into killing machines.
I walked along the beach, blindly drawn onwards by the whisper of the tide. Another crow flew overhead—no, it was a group of them, five or six flocking to the trees around my neighbour’s house, their wings beating in time with my heart. I closed my eyes, draw- ing the sound into myself, and felt an old familiar tumbling deep in my belly, like the flash of fear when you miss a step and your death hovers.
I paused, waiting for it to pass. It happened sometimes, often when I was by the ocean, a dizziness that I usually put down to the cold. Only this night was balmy, the wind faint, and when I opened my eyes the feeling hadn’t entirely vanished.
I heard laughter. Music. I turned, straining my ears away from the ocean. The sound of the party grew louder. The noise I had mis- taken for belonging to Crow Trap was coming from only a little way along the beach, on the left in the direction the crows had flown.
I heard the sultry swing of jazz, string music and brass and sing- ing too. There was the chink of glasses, a lone voice followed by a chorus of laughter. I clutched the lukewarm cup and followed the sounds along the beach, where I passed a little dock, sand glittering at the edge of my neighbour’s lawn. The house caught my gaze and I was drawn like a moth.
It was a beautiful cacophony of grey stone, silver in the moon- light, the many windows twinkling with hundreds of electric lights. The house was bordered at the back by swaying pine trees, and I thought I could make out an old oak with low branches, a swing dancing in the faint wind.
It was already late but it sounded like the party was still young, the noise only growing as I stood, my feet ensconced in cool sand. I listened to the music swell as the laughter took on a wild edge. I could just make out the distant hum of an engine and then louder, raucous shouts of welcome from closer to the house. A tugging sensation began in my chest, the kind of longing I hadn’t felt in years.
This house, unlike my little cottage, did not simply allow its lawn to become beach to become sea. Instead, there were elegant steps that shone white leading up to a beautiful fountain, bubbling away beneath statues of women with dark feathered wings—like the island’s crows. I followed the sound of the trickling water, careful to stay on the sand, where I was sure I wouldn’t be seen, hidden by a stone wall and the trees between the beach and the lawn. I perched by the wall for a moment, not brave enough to get any closer.
Through the gaps in the trees to the left of the house I could make out the smudged shapes of people, the noise growing as more guests arrived. The women wore sleek, stylish dresses in gold and pink, white and royal sapphire blue; some were dressed in jewel shades that seemed to blend into the dark so all I could make out was the way the moonlight glinted off flutes filled with what looked like champagne, their costume jewellery glittering as they danced and sang. Their laughter was raw, yet somehow honeyed, tinged with abandon. One of the women wore a stylish beaded turban around her hair, and she and a man in a black suit rushed for the swing attached to the oak tree, flinging themselves into its seat. The woman screeched as the man pushed the swing higher and higher, the branch groaning while somebody else clapped.
I ducked farther down behind the stone wall, inching my way along towards the steps at the back of the house. My heart hammered in my chest, stomach churning with a mixture of fear and— want. I knew what kinds of people these were.
They were rich. The kind of Crow Islanders I’d heard rumours of, who didn’t care if they got caught “promoting witchcraft” and slapped with a hefty fine. I doubted they noticed the cost, which made me think of my mother again, and how she’d almost lost the chocolate shop that had been in our family for six generations when the law changed and she could no longer include the K-class magical herbs in her prized jasmine-lemon white chocolate truffles. There was anger beneath my fear, but I didn’t leave.
I reached the pillar at the bottom of the stairs, where I was safely hidden from sight, keeping most of the guests behind me. I placed my cup of cold tea on the closest step, my hands shaking with sudden nerves. I wasn’t sure why I was hiding, except for the single irrational fear that if somebody saw me they might ask me to join them. They might think I was one of them. And I wasn’t.
Deep down I was also afraid that I would want to say yes.
I turned, about to leave when I caught sight of a partygoer exit- ing the back of the house, where a porch jutted over the grass. They stepped from darkness into glittering night, just a shadow at first, which made me think of the crows that had flown overhead, and the dizziness returned. I squinted, peering through the darkness to make out the ghostly arms of the house fading off to the left and right. On the porch there was a flickering electric lamp that shed an eerie purple glow.
My eyes were drawn to the light—and to the figure as they came to rest just beneath it. They were tall, lithe, with the easy movements of the rich. Despite my reservations I couldn’t help myself, creeping farther up the steps to be able to see better. They had an air of boredom, but they stared out to the ocean in a way that almost seemed hopeful, body alert, searching the black water for an answer.
There was a flicker of light and smoke as a cigarette flared to life, briefly illuminating the figure’s face. Narrow chin, sharp cheekbones. Wicked eyes that sparkled like dark gems. Lips . . . lips curved like a Cupid’s bow.
The woman wore a man’s white suit, crisply tailored to her slight curves. I blinked, but I couldn’t erase her face from my mind. A trembling started in my chest—coming from my fluttering heart.
The woman shifted, taking a long drag on her cigarette. The purple light overhead wavered and the shadows lengthened, catching in the slickness of her dark braid, making her suit stand stark against her olive skin. She was magnetic.
An unravelling started inside me—no, an uncoiling. A buzz of panic whipped through my limbs. My pulse began to thunder; it was as if the longing that had pulled me here was tangible, a pin right through the centre of my heart. It was somehow both pain and plea- sure. I backed away, grateful for the silent sand, and hoping for the party behind me and the waves lapping on the shore to drown out the fear that rinsed through me.
I wondered if the woman was my neighbour, or just a guest. I wondered if the purple light had some sort of significance, or whether it was a trick of tired eyes. I wondered if she always wore such masculine clothes. My cheeks burned and I pressed my icy hands against them, ready to laugh, ready to forget the whole thing had ever happened.
Over the last few years I had learned that the best time to practice magic was not at midnight like my aunt had always said; the true witching hour was the morning after a party, any time after the last straggler passed out in the fountain and before eight o’clock.
I had taken to setting up my altar in the attic long before the others were awake because it was easier when I didn’t have to answer questions. In the beginning I’d shared every story with them, linger- ing on the details I’d gleaned while Nathan made tea or breakfast. If an appointment had been resolved in one sitting, as they so often were, I’d enjoy explaining the clients’ faces when I’d told them to swallow a spoonful of honeyed wine spiced with verveine for peace or wild garlic for protection. I asked Isobel to help me find the best herbs for my spells, because she always seemed to know not only which worked best, but how to combine and mix for a better result. I always allowed them to examine my recipes, making suggestions or jokes, although I often ignored them.
These days things were different. Two drops of blood and a concoction I could fit into a vial smaller than my thumb or I wouldn’t take it on.
Nathan and Isobel could never know how bad it had become, how the blood in my veins was growing thick and tired, how my magic sometimes felt cracked and dry like a cursed riverbed. I flexed my hands instinctively, drawing the nails into my palms and measuring the weak throb of my pulse.
For my final of last night’s clients I used an old recipe of my aunt’s, bastardised by years of Cilla’s tutelage. I measured out eight drops of lavender oil, a thimbleful of dried ground yarrow, two big sprigs of fresh rosemary, and wax from a red candle, which I mixed with a single drop of blood pricked from the end of my finger, two pinches of grave dirt, and a healthy sprinkle of salt. The herbs made a faint hissing sound as I stoppered the vial and sealed it with more red wax.
Two drops of blood would have been more effective, three better still, but one would have to do. My aunt would have been disappointed if she could see me relying on such a base kind of magic— but she wasn’t here.
The pull of the magic as the blood dried on my fingertip was familiar. The pain that roared up my arm and into my chest was new. It faded fast so I ignored it, tidying up the last of the cuttings and the fresh herbs.
The sun had already been up for a couple of hours and the sky through the attic window was clear and startlingly blue. At the peaked window I peered out to where the gardens joined the ocean. Beyond, on days like today, you could see the northern point of the island, a hump of houses that sometimes flickered white as the sun caught their bright stone facades.
Not for the first time I allowed my thoughts to stray to the light on our porch, purple and distinctive. I wondered if she might be out there on the northern point, if my imagination had not run wild with the scant details she had left me. If she might be able to see the light and know I was still looking for her.
My gaze moved to the back lawn, shaded but gold dipped at the edges, where three—no, four—guests were draped under a big old oak whose cover had protected them from the worst of the damp night.
There were three women and a man—I recognized none of them—curled together against the dawn chill, sleeping deeply. They were all young, beautiful strangers dressed in bright party garb, their headdresses sparkling, their peacock and dove feathers wilted and crumpled. One wore a gown crafted from gold scales, shining even in the shade of the tree, and another was barefoot, no shoes in sight. It might be hours before they woke, yet. The kazam had run dry at just gone three, but Isobel’s latest mixture was certainly potent.
I pushed away from the window, rolled up the sleeves of my shirt, and set to my other work. Downstairs, glasses filled with colourful dregs littered every surface, new rings staining Cilla’s antique wooden sideboards, which I marked with indifference. Cigarette ashes overflowed the gilded porcelain trays, and I was certain I’d find spilled tobacco in the creases of the upholstery. I started with the glassware, my thoughts turning to last night, to another success. Echoes of laughter had filled the hallways, the ballroom, the fullness replaced by a ringing emptiness in the light of day. It had been a party that rivalled all others. There had been a cacophony of noise, the heat of bodies crushed against one another, the light of a thousand twinkling electric stars. The house had flamed; the liquor had flowed: kazam and kyraz; gin and amber whisky; pink champagne with bubbles so soft they were like a thousand tiny kisses on a welcoming tongue. The whole of Crow Island had known about the party.
I hadn’t invited them, but it seemed like the whole of Crow Island had come.
Except for her.
I forced the thoughts away as my mood darkened and scrubbed the bar in the parlour harder. I was still there when Nathan stumbled down the last flight of stairs and through the grand archway, his brown hair mussed and his sleepy face drawn. His presence was like a blanket and my resolve threatened to unravel. I wanted to tell him everything.
“Oh good,” I said before he could speak. My voice was tight but I didn’t care. Nathan would understand if he knew. He would comfort me. I couldn’t face it. “Now that you’re awake you can go and get rid of those stragglers on the And when Isobel gets up, tell her she needs to go lighter on the poppy petals next time.”
I could smell Nathan’s particular coffee-and-cinnamon scent as he wandered slowly through the parlour, picking up two glasses I’d missed on the mantel and returning them to the bar.
“You’re lucky she brews it for you at all,” he said. His tone was light but I knew an admonishment when I heard one. “You know how she feels about all of this. I’m sure she’d much rather us drink the lot.”
I threw down the cloth and marched over to the large bay win- dow that looked out over the front lawn sloping towards our gravel drive. The sun was bright and hot and I leaned against the sill for a moment, my blood settling slowly like silt on the bottom of a river. Just that small morning magic had left me drained.
“You’re right, love. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Of course you didn’t. I know you’re always beastly after a party, so I won’t hold it against you.” Nathan grinned, clinking the two glasses together, miming celebration, but the sound was empty. Then he sighed, suddenly serious. “Look at us, darling, we’re work- ing ourselves to the bone. We should get more help than just the waiters. Or maybe we should take Isobel’s advice and reconsider the parties altog—”
“We’ve had this conversation, Nathan,” I said, not turning from the window. “Isobel has her clients and I have mine. If I choose to charge them, and how I choose to invite them to the house in the first place, is up to me. Besides, it’s not as if the parties are just for attention.”
Nathan laughed incredulously. “Aren’t they entirely about attention?”
I gripped the sill, forcing my knuckles to whiten, watching the blood drain from them and thinking of last night, of all those people, all that magic in this house. A success. And yet still, a failure. “You know it’s not that simple. We don’t want the attention of every- body. We want—her.”
Nathan said nothing to that. He was partly to blame. If he’d kept an eye on her—if he’d only done as I’d asked—we wouldn’t be in this position. Never mind if I hadn’t done the unthinkable in the first place.
The sound of a door slamming somewhere outside startled me. Nathan heard it too, abandoning the dirty glasses to come and see. The trees between our house and the annexed cottage next door were thin and spindly and we peered for a better view.
“That cottage has been empty for months. I wonder which mis- guided soul has taken it on this time. Haven’t they heard about the raging heathens who live here?” Nathan smirked. “I hope they like noise.”
A woman left the cottage and walked towards a cream coloured motorcar. She was young and fine boned, her golden hair wrapped up in a loose knot. She moved cautiously, with a measured kind of grace, like a cat weighing her surroundings.
Nathan kept speaking, but I couldn’t hear him over the sudden, foreign roaring sound in my ears and a wrenching feeling deep in my chest. I recalled a similar moment last night, when I’d been standing on the porch and watching for signs of life in the grand houses on the northern point. It had felt, for a moment, like being stung by a bee. Sharp, painful. After a moment it grew dull, the ache moving towards my heart, the faint sound of the ocean ringing in my head. I’d assumed it was the debt, and ignored it.
I clenched my fingers tight as a new sensation washed over me; it was akin to being swept by a wild gust of ocean wind, bitter and raw. It was fear mingled with a strange kind of longing. When I blinked I saw darkness and ruby flowers, three pairs of crows’ wings, flapping madly, damp earth under my fingernails, my veins tinged black by the sluggish slip of my blood.
Without thinking I bit down hard on my tongue and threw up my mental barriers, grabbing the slippery feeling and hauling it down into the recesses of my chest, where it hid, cowed by the iron tang of my blood. Distantly I recognized the normal sounds of life as Nathan spoke again about the cottage, the woman, about the guests still sleeping on our back lawn, and eventually another voice joined his, thick with sleep.
“Here you two are.” Isobel, her dark ringlets still bundled in an old silk scarf of Cilla’s, headed for the window. She wore a pair of shorts under a nightshirt, the collar slipping off one shoulder. In her hands she held two steaming cups of coffee, one of which she immediately thrust at Nathan. I forced myself to look away as the blond woman next door climbed into the cream car. “What are you two gawking at this time of day? Did somebody do something foolish on the lawn last night? Is it a big horrible mess? If it is, I absolutely will say I told you so.”
I took my coffee from Isobel, grateful I didn’t have to reply. It was weaker than the kind Nathan made, which was always dosed with cinnamon and strong enough to stand a stick up in. As the car pulled away the feeling in my chest dulled, a faint roar of surf in my ears as my heartbeat returned to normal.
“Em’s mooning over the new neighbour.” Nathan sipped his coffee, his face the picture of innocence. “Probably about time she got a new hobby.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Who?” Isobel asked, craning her neck.
“Gone now, darling. You slept too late and missed all the fun.
She’s some pretty young thing.”
“It’s a pity it’s not some strapping man for me to flirt with,” Isobel teased. Nathan’s cheeks coloured and he slapped away the long finger Isobel wagged as she continued. “An extra pair of strong, sturdy hands certainly wouldn’t go amiss around here.”
“I wish you two would make yourselves useful instead of teas- ing each other,” I said churlishly. “Or teasing me. I’m too tired for this.” I turned fully away from the window, planting my feet firmly. “You”—I pointed at Nathan—“need to get those hangers-on off the back lawn or so help me I’ll lock the greenhouse and overwater all your plants. And you”—I turned to Isobel, who raised an eyebrow in challenge—“what on earth did you put poppy petals in the kazam for?”
Isobel looked surprised, letting out a bark of laughter. “You mean why did you use the syrup I specifically told you not to use, which was labelled For Isobel, when you made the wine? The wine I told you not to brew yourself? I told you that syrup was for my work, not yours. Serves you right for thinking the world revolves around you. And now you owe me, dearest, because that batch took me two weeks to make. So I suppose I shall have to ask you kindly to spend some time helping me brew another one.”
I rolled my eyes at her smile, but I was glad for Isobel, who always felt like a tall tree to shelter beside—even when she was bawling me out. Perhaps especially when she was bawling me out. I was always grateful for Nathan’s gentle warmth, but Isobel’s love felt like a firm pair of guiding hands. I wondered, just for a second, whether they would simply be grateful when I was gone.
I followed Nathan and Isobel farther into the house as they carried on bickering, about the booze, about the parties, about me and my clients. I followed them away from the cottage and the woman.
Away, too, from that tugging feeling, still there, deep down inside me, which felt like a warning.