A Curse of Ash and Iron
by Christine Norris
Release Date: May 21st 2015
Curiosity Quills Press
Summary from Goodreads
Benjamin Grimm knows the theater is much like real life. In 1876 Philadelphia, people play their parts, hiding behind the illusion of their lives, and never revealing their secrets.
When he reunites with his childhood friend Eleanor Banneker, he is delighted. His delight turns to dismay when he discovers she has been under a spell for the past 7 years, being forced to live as a servant in her own home, and he realizes how sinister some secrets can be. She asks for his help, and he can’t refuse. Even if he doesn’t believe in ‘real’ magic, he can’t abandon her.
Ellie has spent the long years since her mother’s death under the watchful eye and unforgiving eye of her stepmother. Bewitched and hidden in plain sight, it seems no one can help Ellie escape. Not even her own father, who is under a spell of his own. When she sees Ben one evening, it seems he is immune to the magic that binds her, and her hope is rekindled along with her friendship.
But time is running short. If they do not find a way to break the spell before midnight on New Year’s Eve, then both Ellie and her father will be bound forever.
Ellie looked around, thinking that perhaps the letter-writer had stayed close by in order to be sure their missive was delivered. She
saw no one. She clutched the letter to her chest, a little thrill going through her. A secret letter! She wanted to tear it open and read it immediately but hesitated. Whoever wrote the letter wanted only her to read it, or else they would have sent it with the regular post. With the envelope tucked into her apron, she grabbed the two bottles of milk and went back inside.
“Rebecca? Is that you, dear?” Olivia’s dulcet tones, much like the squawking of an irritated goose, resonated through the house. Ellie started, clanging the glass milk bottles together. Neither broke, fortunately. The goose herself appeared in the kitchen doorway, and her eyes narrowed when she saw Ellie.
“How did you get out of the cellar?”
Ellie, who had no answer but the truth, shrugged. “The door was open, Stepmother.” It made her stomach turn to kowtow to Olivia, but she wanted to keep the peace this morning.
Olivia tucked her chin toward her chest, her mouth falling open. She patted the pockets of her robe, muttering to herself. “I… could have sworn… I have the key right here.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a heavy brass key. She glanced at Ellie, then stuffed the key back into her pocket and straightened her robe. She grasped at the locket around her neck, and then smoothed back a strand of gray-streaked hair that had come loose from her nighttime braid. “I trust you have learned your lesson? About how to speak to your betters?”
Ellie bit back her first reply, which had something to do with the day Olivia became her better coinciding with the end of time. “Yes, Stepmother.” Olivia gave a curt nod. “Fine, then get breakfast and be quick about it. It will not do for Rebecca and me to be late for church.” She left, the kitchen door swinging in her wake.
Ellie’s shoulders slumped in relief. The note would have to wait until after the women left. She pulled it from her apron and tucked it into the back of the dish cupboard for safekeeping. But the mysterious letter continued to absorb her thoughts throughout breakfast.
“What are you doing, you stupid girl?” Olivia screeched. Ellie, looked down. The salt cellar was in her hand, the small spoon filled with salt. Both were positioned above her stepmother’s teacup. She quickly moved her hand over the poached eggs and tapped the spoon with one finger.
“I’m salting your eggs, Stepmother.” It was a good thing they hadn’t wanted breakfast in bed this morning, or else I might have spent the day scrubbing poached eggs out of the upstairs carpet.
Rebecca’s voice cut through her woolgathering. “Mother, I see the invitation to the Assembly Ball arrived in yesterday’s post.”
“Yes, that’s right, my dear,” Olivia said sweetly, with a sidelong glance at Ellie that was meant to sting. “It will be here before you know it.” She sipped her tea, and Ellie wished shehad dumped salt into it. “This year it will be a masked ball. Which I think to be a little juvenile, but I suppose the Dancing Assembly decided it needed to try something new.”
Rebecca dipped the corner of her toast in her teacup, looking thoughtful. “Yes, it sounds wonderful.” Ellie thought her words sounded forced. “But I thought, Mother, that since it is such a special occasion, and so important for a girl, that maybe… perhaps… Eleanor might accompany us?”
Ellie, who had been trying not to listen to the conversation, nearly dropped the teapot. She kept her gaze fixed on the table, not daring to glance at either of the other women. The silence hung heavy as lead. What if her stepmother, by some miracle, said yes? Visions of shopping for a dress, and slippers, and fans fluttered through her mind like a flock of doves.
Olivia smashed Ellie’s delicate hope like an eggshell.
“Why ever would Eleanor go to the ball, dear?” This was the way of things in her home―her stepmother speaking about her as if she were not there.
Rebecca’s forehead creased briefly. “Because she’s family, mother. She is seventeen now as well. And perhaps she would like to go.”
Olivia folded her napkin and placed it on the table, then smoothed it with one long-fingered hand. “I still don’t see why, Rebecca. She isn’t prepared for such social engagements, and her place is here. No, Eleanor will not go.”
Rebecca wet her lips, as if trying to think of another way to convince her mother without causing her to lose her temper. It was like watching a mouse try and outwit a cat. She opened her mouth, but her mother stopped her with a sing-song, “I won’t hear another word about it.” She picked up her spoon and scooped up some porridge. “I don’t want to spoil our breakfast, darling. I have a delicate constitution.”
Now, Ellie wanted to hit her stepmother with the teapot.
“Yes, Mother.” Rebecca’s gaze dropped to her own bowl but not before she gave Ellie a deeply apologetic look. Ellie tried to convey how grateful she was for the attempt, however unsuccessful. Olivia, without so much as a glance at Ellie, pushed the remaining corner of her toast off of her plate and onto the floor, which of course landed with the buttered side down. Ellie, gritting her teeth so tightly she thought she heard a crack, cleaned up the mess and returned to the kitchen. She threw the bread out the back door for the birds and her dishtowel at the wall. It hit with a smack, and Ellie wished it was Olivia’s face. She had never been able to puzzle out what she had done to make her stepmother dislike her so vehemently. Her stepmother’s rejection shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did, but it seemed it was a wound that would not heal. She wiped her eyes with the edge of her apron.
It was silly to cry over a ball. Even if she were to go, she still had to break the spell, and that night was her deadline, so she couldn’t spend her time shopping for frilly dresses or ridiculous, and probably painful, dancing slippers.
An hour and a half later, both women climbed into the carriage and clopped off to church. Finally, she was able to take a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea to her poor father. He was sitting exactly as she had left him, and he allowed her to spoon-feed him, like a baby.
“Thank you, dear. You are always so good to me.” Ellie wiped some porridge from his chin. “It’s because I love you.”
He patted Ellie’s knee. “Of course. And you know I love you as well, Olivia.”
Ellie’s sigh was heart-weary. “Yes, I know.”
Olivia had taken her father from her. Even though they were in the same room, it was as if hundreds of miles were between them. She gave him his medicine and left him to rest, then raced to the kitchen to retrieve her letter. Even though the house was essentially empty, she headed straight for the attic. Wrapping herself in the threadbare quilt, she sat on the sofa, her hands shaking with more than cold. When was the last time she had opened a letter of her own? When she was young, there had been the occasional Christmas card from her grandparents, who were gone and buried, or a note from her parents on her birthday, but nothing since.
She lifted the envelope’s flap, pulling up the plain wax seal with it. Inside was a sheet of thin, crisp stationary. Ellie unfolded it, the paper shaking in her fingers. There was no monogram across the top, but the writing inside was the same as that on the envelope. Eleanor, The answers you seek are inside your stepmother’s secretary. A Friend
That was all. Ellie flipped the page over, but it was blank. She reread the message. Which answers? Every question she had at the
moment was about this letter. Who was “A Friend,” and how would they know what kinds of things she might find in her stepmother’s desk? Searching it was a dangerous idea. A night in the cellar would seem like afternoon tea if she was caught.