A Cahill Christmas Scene - Christmas, 1895 (9 months before BORN WICKED begins)
I hand the Brothers’ wives their morality tales, trying to hide my disdain — but no one will ever develop a love of literature from these. They’ve got paper-thin characters and ridiculous, saccharine plots. In the newest, little Johnny sasses his mother and then repents when she’s stricken with influenza. He prays to the Lord to save her. Being merciful, He does, and Johnny promises to serve Him the rest of his days, perhaps by joining the Brotherhood when he’s grown.
I prayed to the Lord to save my father, too. To no avail. He died in his prime — only thirty-six — after a fit of apoplexy, and instead of going off to university in the city, I’m stuck here in the bookshop, watching it fail, watching Mother try to stretch our money, watching Clara go around in patched dresses.
The bells above the door ring, alerting me that we’ve got more customers.
Good. Even though it’s Christmas, the shop has been doing precious little business.
It’s two of the Cahill sisters, Maura and Cate. Maura’s a voracious reader, mostly of our banned books: poetry, mysteries, novels. She makes a beeline for the back of the shop, where we keep the forbidden Gothic romances that are all the rage overseas. Cate prowls the first row of books, where we keep the children’s adventure stories. Her hands — ungloved — reach out to dance over the dark spines and then draw back uncertainly. She’s not one for browsing herself. Comes into the shop sometimes to pick up parcels for her father, but never lingers. Perhaps she — like the matrons in front of me — thinks she’s too good for us.
I take the matrons’ money. “Thank you, ladies. Have a Merry Christmas!”
They give me haughty, frozen smiles. “And to you, Mr. Belastra.”
Cate waits until they’ve gone to approach the counter. “Can I help you, Miss Cahill?”
She lowers her voice, even though there’s no one else in the shop save her sister and me. “Your mother was going to put aside an atlas for me. For my father?”
I search through the stack of books Mother left for me. “Ah, here you go — Illustrations of Indo-China and the Oriental Islands. These are lovely.” I flip through the gorgeous, gilt-edged pages of watercolor maps. “A very nice collector’s item. I’m sure Mr. Cahill will treasure it. And the Brotherhood would abhor anyone having it.”
I give her a conspiratorial grin. The Brothers loathe the notion that anyone could want to escape New England, but how could we not? Their restrictions make it harder and harder for shops like ours to keep our doors open. I worry that Mother’s bluestocking reputation and outspoken ways will get her arrested for a witch if selling banned books doesn’t.
Cate’s eyes — a stormy blue-gray — catch mine. For a minute, she looks intrigued — perhaps even impressed? — that I would dare say such a thing. Then her eyes shutter and she straightens, shoulders back, chin up, voice starched-stiff. “Could you wrap it, please?”
I snap the book shut, disappointed. Her father’s a great scholar; I thought perhaps she’d be more rebellious herself. “Of course, Miss Cahill.”
“Maura!” she practically hollers at her sister.
Maura sighs, climbing to her feet and making her way to the front of the shop. “What about this one?” she suggests.
“The Lord Who Loved Me? For Tess?” The look on Cate’s face makes me chuckle. “She’s eleven.”
Maura glares, hands on her hips. She’s a pretty girl — all red curls and curves — but it’s her sister that intrigues me. “Well, not everyone’s as practical as you. Some of us like a bit of adventure.”
“I like a bit of adventure!” Cate protests, but I can hardly imagine that. Not with the rigid set of her shoulders and the downward tilt to her pink mouth.
“Tess is too young for stories about—“ Cate glances at me, and I have the sudden horrified fear that she could tell that somehow my mad brain went racing off at the notion of how soft her lips look, to how it might feel to kiss her, to have that worry melt off her face and her melting into me —“things of that nature.”
I stare down at my feet. I can feel my face flushing, my ears turning red.
“Oh, I suppose you’d rather have her reading bloodthirsty stories about pirates!” Maura accuses.
“I would, actually.” Cate sounds defensive.
Do your job, Finn. Which is finding them books, not mooning about kissing a girl who’d never give you the time of day. “Er — has she read Arabella, Brave and True?” I manage.
“She has,” Cate says.
I stride over to another bookshelf, fingers tripping over the spines, and select one of my own favorites. “What about this? Homer’s Odysseus? It’s got a bit of everything — adventure, romance, revenge. Has she read that?”
“In Latin,” Maura adds. “She’s terribly clever. She loves all the old myths.”
“A girl after my own heart. Hmm,” I say, thoughtfully, and Cate gives an impatient sigh. Well, hell. Finding the right gift for the little Cahill sister feels like a challenge now, and I won’t be stymied by it. Not in front of this girl. “I think I have just the thing. Wait right here.”
I dart into the closet, pulling the door shut behind me, and shove aside the bookshelf containing a few ledgers. Behind it, there’s a small door set into the wall, and beyond that is a small, spidery stone room where we keep the most forbidden of books. The ones we’d be arrested for in a heartbeat. I pluck one off a towering stack. It’s wrapped in cheesecloth but I know what it is from the heft of it.
I pop back out into the shop. “Here. The Ramayana. It’s an ancient Indo epic poem, translated from the Sanskrit.”
“Oh, that’s perfect!” Maura claps, obviously delighted, while I look to her sister for approval. For all Maura’s vivacity, it’s obvious that Cate’s the one in charge.
And for some reason, I want to goad her. “It’s forbidden,” I point out. “I’m not sure your father would approve.”
It works. I know it before she speaks, by the tilt of her pointy, stubborn chin. “We’ll take it. She’ll love it. We’d like this one, too.” She slides Maura’s novel onto the counter and fumbles for her coins as I quote the cost.
I try not to stare at her as I wrap the novel. I don’t know why I’m suddenly so intrigued by Cate Cahill. I’ve seen her a hundred times before. She used to squirm through Sunday school and then play tag across the lawn with the boys after church. But she hardly seems like that carefree girl now. Impatient, sure, but she looks like she’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders. I wonder what happened to change her?
Her mother died around the same time as Father. I suppose that would do it.
“Thank you for your business, ladies.” I push up my spectacles with my index finger.
“Of course. We’d be lost without the bookshop,” Maura declares, heading for the door.
“I’m afraid not many people feel that way any longer.” I hand Cate the packages and our fingers brush. She jumps away as though she’s been burnt, knocking into her sister. She glances over her shoulder and catches me watching her.
I look down - but when I look back up, so is she. Looking right at me, with an expression of — what?
We both look away in a hurry.
As if I could be interested in a girl like that! She doesn’t even read.
I'm the author of The Cahill Witch Chronicles. The first book in the trilogy, BORN WICKED, is now available from Putnam; the second book, STAR CURSED, will be available June of 2013. I love reading books about independent girls who still get in a fair amount of swoony kissing, so that's what I tried to write. You can find out more about the books here.