Star Cursed - Page 24/73

Maura turns back to her captive audience, clasping her hands to her heart theatrically. Everyone’s eyes are on her, just the way she likes it. “It’s been awful, cooped up all alone in the country.”

Tess smacks Maura’s arm. “You weren’t alone, you goose. I was there!”

“Oh, you know what I mean.” Maura’s laugh is bright and bubbly. “Chatham is frightfully dull, and we’ve never known any other witches. Our mother was so strict, we were hardly ever allowed to practice. I want to learn everything I can about the Sisterhood and the history of magic. I envy you girls; I’m afraid I’m horribly behind for my age.”

I stare at Maura, her forehead puckered with worry. She’s never possessed a lack of confidence. But it’s precisely the right tactic; Alice and Vi and their lackeys are already falling over themselves, offering to tutor her or help her in any way they can. I turn back to Tess. “I like your hair like that. And what have you been doing, growing when I’ve got my back turned? You’re up to my chin now.”

“I’m an absolute giant.” Tess grins up at me. “Oh, Cate, I’m so glad to see you. I’ve missed you!”

“Not as much as I’ve missed you.” I take in the other inhabitants of the room: Rebekah is sitting at the piano, with Lucy next to her, though they’ve abandoned their music. Mei is beating Rilla handily at chess. A few of Alice’s lackeys are sprawled on the floor before the fire, flipping through magazines. But there are no teachers present. “Is Elena here, too?”

The name catches Maura’s attention. “Naturally. She’s with Sister Inez now. She and Paul escorted us.”

“Paul McLeod? My Paul?” He’s the last person I’d expect to chaperone my sisters.

“Is he yours?” Maura grins. “He’s called on us several times since you left.”

Tess pauses in her examination of the bookshelf, which contains a host of Gothic romances for pleasure reading. “He’s been worried about you.”

“Has he? He hardly mentions Cate to me,” Maura teases, and I flush. The last time I saw her, she was heartbroken over Elena’s betrayal. “Where have you been, anyway? No one would tell us.”

I shiver, slumping against the blue-flowered wallpaper. “I was at Harwood.”

“Why?” Maura gasps, all her bright artifice falling away. She sinks back onto the pink love seat, and Alice pats her sleeve sympathetically.

Tess huddles next to me, gray eyes worried. “Are you all right?”

I press my fingertips to my temples, massaging the headache that’s sprung up. “I’m fine. I went on a nursing mission. Sister Cora wanted me to speak with Zara, since she studied the oracles.”

“Zara’s our godmother,” Maura explains to the others, though in truth she is only my godmother. “She’s a powerful witch and a brilliant scholar.”

Alice leans forward eagerly, bracing her elbows on her knees. Her dress is a striking purple velvet today. “What did she tell you?”

My memory conjures up Zara: dark curls and dreamy eyes and gold locket. “She’s a bit muddled from the laudanum, but I got her to tell me about the two other oracles before Brenna. The Brothers kept them in Harwood and tortured prophecies out of them.”

“They tortured them?” Tess whispers, fiddling with her lace cuffs.

I nod. She and Maura and I stare at each other, united in our fear, and I decide to keep the other gruesome details to myself.

“Have you had visions? Is that why Sister Cora sent you?” Alice asks.

“No. Not yet,” I say, and it feels as though the entire room heaves a sigh of disappointment. “I don’t know why—Brenna’s been having visions since she was at least fifteen, and Zara said the others were twelve and fourteen when the Brothers caught them.”

“Perhaps you’re a late bloomer,” Alice says caustically, judging the way the black bombazine dress hangs on my thin frame.

I flush. I know the Sisters’ uniform does me no favors. “Well, if it’s going to happen, I wish it would happen already. It’s like waiting for an ax to fall.”

“We can always hope,” Alice jests, her pink lips pursed.

Maura turns. “Don’t you speak to my sister like that.”

Alice gapes at her. “Pardon me?”

“You heard me.” Maura’s smile bares her teeth. “If Cate is the oracle, she’s the most powerful witch in this room. She deserves your respect. Don’t forget that.”

Alice draws back, pressing into the corner of the love seat. It’s the first time I’ve seen her cowed by anything, and I can’t stop the smile that twitches over my face. I’d expected Maura to be furious with me, not defending me. I’d forgotten how fiercely loyal she can be.

“Making friends already, Maura?” Elena Robichaud slides past me into the room, her taffeta skirts rustling. Against her cream-colored dress, her dark skin practically glows. She’s a very beautiful girl.

“I was just telling Cate how lost Tess and I would have been without you this last month,” Maura says coolly, somehow managing to convey the exact opposite. I note the way her shoulders go tight, her smile brittle, at Elena’s appearance.

Elena ignores her, patting her dark ringlets into place. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was nervous, too. “Hello, Cate.”

I smile evenly, though I’d still like to throttle her for breaking my sister’s heart. “Hello.”

“Why don’t you come help us unpack, Cate?” Maura stands and gives the girls her most charming smile as Elena, Tess, and I file out into the hall. “I’m so glad to finally be here. I hope we’ll all be great friends.”

“There’s no doubt who’s the beauty in that family,” Vi says, her voice pitched loud enough for us all to hear.

“She’s got gumption, I’ll give her that,” Alice agrees.

Tess slips her small hand into mine. “Don’t pay them any mind.”

“Oh, I never do.” But their easy acceptance of Maura smarts. She’s managed to earn their respect in five minutes, and I haven’t done it in a month. I’m reminded, suddenly, of how people would stop on the street to coo over Maura when she was little, to tell Mother what a gorgeous child she was, give her lollipops and pet her red curls and ply her with questions she answered in her adorable lisp. I was the plain one with thin, straight hair that fell out of my braids no matter how tightly Mother wound them, and mud over my hems from running wild, and no interest in talking to strangers. Sometimes they gave me sweets, too—but it was always an afterthought.

People like Maura; they’re drawn to her vivacity and beauty. They always have been. It wasn’t so obvious when we were all shut up at home, but now I feel like an overlooked child again. Shouldn’t I be past this?

Elena stops at the foot of the stairs. “That was quite a performance.”

Maura gives her a steely glare. “I meant every word.”

“Of course you did. You’re very ambitious of late.” Elena’s smile is bitter, and I’m perplexed. Persuading the three of us to join the Sisterhood was always Elena’s goal; it’s what she was sent to Chatham to accomplish. She ought to be thrilled.