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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2021 by Ireen Chau

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of quotations in a book review. For more information, address: ireenchau@gmail.com

First ebook edition March 2021

Cover design by Ireen Chau

Cover illustration by Ireen Chau


For Esme


I was almost certain our neighbor was a witch.

Witches, they say, must be avoided at all costs. Some can turn you to stone with a glance. Some can conjure lightning and fry you on the spot. Some brew foul poisons day and night, hoping to slip them into your supper. When you’re dead, they’ll chop you up and use your flesh in their wicked alchemy.

They didn’t roam the kingdom anymore, of course, and I had never seen Julianna Alderidge brew poisons or turn people into stone. But there was no doubt she was a wicked creature I avoided at all costs.

I just wished my stepmother would stop inviting her to tea parties.

Julianna’s laugh rung across the lawn. “Mr. Sternfeld, you are a riot!”

Cedric Sternfeld said something inaudible, his pearly smile a stark contrast to his dark skin. Julianna dissolved in an explosion of giggles.

He was a rather handsome young man, but compared to his wealth, his face was inconsequential. The neighborhood girls stuck to him like caramel on a toddler’s tooth the second he moved in across the street.

None more so than Julianna. No doubt she would have hosted a welcome event in her backyard if my stepmother hadn’t done it first.

“Does she think he’ll marry the girl who laughs at everything he says?” I grumbled to Genevieve as Julianna giggled for the thousandth time. I didn’t need to turn to know my stepsister was smiling.

“He just moved in, Amarante,” Genevieve said, setting her sketchbook and charcoal onto the grass. The dappled light beneath the apple tree made her blond hair glow. “She’s only being friendly.”

I didn’t think it took more than a pretty face to impress a lord’s son, but I hoped for his own sake that Mr. Sternfeld wouldn’t fall for Julianna’s perfect curls and milky complexion.

“Or she’s waiting to pounce once his grandfather passes,” I said.

Genevieve coughed. “Amarante!”

“Rumors have it he’ll inherit a good mass of land from Lord Gideon Sternfeld.”

Genevieve gave me a reproachful look, but her lips were twitching. “Since when do you listen to rumors?”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, Gen. Stepmother is the biggest gossip in the neighborhood.”

My stepmother, Lydia, was too busy playing hostess to notice we were huddled beneath our apple tree, away from the guests. Most of the neighborhood families had shown up this morning with their daughters in tow. Several of them swarmed Lydia now. Only the top of her impeccable updo was visible behind the heads of our neighbors, who were no doubt complimenting her for organizing such a lovely reception.

Genevieve started sketching again.

I sighed. “Do you ever stop drawing?”

“We’re in hiding, remember?” Genevieve said. The arched windows of our house took form on the page. “There’s nothing else to do.”

“Didn’t stepmother tell you to pick gowns for the Season?”

“I’ll do that later,” she said. “I have a month before it starts.”

“And you’re sure you want to go this year?” I asked, picking at the embroidery on my skirt.

“Yes, Amarante, for the fifth time. I’m already eighteen. The youngest girls attending are your age.”

I blew a strand of brown hair out of my face. “Ridiculous. I cannot believe they’re asking for marriage at sixteen.”

“They are not! The Season is a coming-of-age celebration,” Genevieve said. “That is all.”

“It’s frivolous and overrated.”

The scratching of charcoal stopped. “Really? Then how come I remember you dancing in the parlor with a bed sheet tied around your waist, pretending you were at the Debutante Ball?”

My cheeks burned. “Keep drawing, why don’t you?”

“Admit it. You can’t wait to attend next year.”

I stomped the grass beneath me. “I’d rather kiss a toad!”

“Perhaps it’ll turn into Prince Charming,” Genevieve said in a singsong voice.


Before Genevieve could tease me further, Julianna approached with Cedric Sternfeld at her arm. I prayed she hadn’t overheard our conversation. The last thing I needed was another rumor about me, this time kissing toads.

I savagely took a bite of my raspberry tart. Our cook, Theodora, always baked the most heavenly pastries, but Julianna’s presence soured the taste. She looked infuriatingly pretty in a lilac sundress and her chestnut hair twisted back.

“If it isn’t Amarante and Genevieve,” Julianna said in a faux-cheery voice. “Why haven’t you joined the rest of us in welcoming our new neighbor?”

I tried not to scowl as Genevieve and I stood and curtsied to Mr. Sternfeld.

“Apologies, Mr. Sternfeld. Amarante and I merely wandered off,” my stepsister said. “I hope you won’t take offense.”

Mr. Sternfeld bowed. “Not at all. You’re Madam Lydia’s daughters?”

He had a friendly baritone voice and a kind gaze which lingered on Genevieve a beat longer than customary. So he was impressed by pretty faces. Hopefully he had enough sense to choose the right one.

“Indeed. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Sternfeld,” Genevieve said.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Genevieve,” he said with an easy laugh. “I cannot thank your mother enough for such a warm reception upon moving in. Your backyard is lovely.”

“Our gardener does a fantastic job with the roses,” Genevieve said with a demure smile. A hint of pink stained her cheeks.

Julianna’s grip on Mr. Sternfeld’s arm tightened. “Didn’t you fall into the rose bushes one year, Amarante?” she said. “Madam Lydia almost had that gardener Rhonda fired.”

“Her name is Rowena,” I said stiffly. “And it wasn’t her fault I fell.”

“The thorns scratched your face horribly.” Julianna looked up at Mr. Sternfeld with a pout. “Scratches are awfully unattractive on a woman’s face, aren’t they, Mr. Sternfeld?”

He had the

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