Madeleine Yaxley was reading. She was not generally much of a reader, but this book was different. Three more like it were stacked on her nightstand, jewel-bright covers glowing in the afternoon sunlight.
"Just try them," her cousin Ravenna had urged, pushing the books into Maddy's hands. "They're brilliant."
Ravenna was right. The books were brilliant. Maddy had devoured two in a matter of days, and was already deeply engrossed in a third.
"No!" cried Estelle, colour flushing her delicate cheeks. She pointed her wand at Maximo with a trembling hand. "I will never marry you! You murdered my father!"
Maximo tore his gaze away from her heaving bosom to fix on her crystalline eyes, bright with fury. Merlin, but she was attractive when she was angry!
"I did not kill your father," he said, voice deep and rough. "He was already dead when I arrived. I would have saved him if I could. All I can do now is try to protect his only daughter. You must wed me, and the marriage must be consummated by midnight tomorrow, or I will have no choice but to hand you over to your father's enemies."
Estelle eyed the tall, broad-shouldered wizard contemptuously. It did not matter how handsome and well-built he was, or that his eyes were the colour of the sea before a storm. She could never wed such a rogue, nor yield her maidenhead to him. Not even to break her family's curse ...
Maddy sighed with rapture and rolled onto her back, squirming into a more comfortable position on the worn velvet coverlet, already anticipating what would happen next. Estelle might resist for another fifty pages or so, but ultimately, she would succumb to Maximo's charms, and realise that they were meant for one another. And then they would go to bed together. That was the sort of story Freya Lovelace wrote, and the sort of story that kept Maddy turning pages.
Maddy identified passionately with the virginal young heroines of Lovelace's novels. Like them, she saw herself as strong-willed, but ultimately good, and deserving of happiness and love. Perhaps if she were as beautiful as they, she too might one day be swept off her feet by a tall, handsome rogue with a shadowy past, who could only be tamed by the love of a good woman.
A light knock sounded on Maddy's bedroom door, and her mother entered. Maddy sat up, closing The Maiden's Curse on her finger to hold her place.
"I hardly knew you were home, you've been so quiet." Cartimandua Venuti-Yaxley smiled, sitting down on the bed beside her daughter. She picked up one of the colourful novels from the nightstand and turned it over, brow creasing. "Where did you get these?"
"Ravenna lent them to me," said Maddy eagerly. "They're so good, Mum -"
Her mother pursed her lips. "These kinds of books aren't appropriate for well-bred young witches."
"But Ravenna reads them," Maddy objected. "And Auntie Boudica, too. I think they're hers."
"Ravenna is older than you, Maddy," said Cartimandua gently, "and my sister's family takes a different view of such things than we do in this house, as well you know."
Maddy pouted, hugging The Maiden's Curse to her chest. "They're just stories, Mum. And they're good. I like them."
Her mother set the book she held back on the nightstand with a sigh.
"I know you do, Sweetheart. We all like things that aren't good for us sometimes. When you're older, you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to read these kinds of books. But for now, I would prefer that you didn't. You're still very young, with a lot to learn about life. These books will fill your head with ideas and expectations that will only cause confusion and unhappiness, because the real world isn't like that."
"I know it's not real," sulked Maddy, though she did not truly believe it. People fell in love and lived happily ever after all the time. Perhaps not her mother, but that did not mean true love was hopeless fantasy.
"It's natural for a girl of your age to be curious about sex," her mother continued kindly, "but it's not healthy to dwell on those thoughts and feelings. Thinking too much about it can lead to temptation. Someday, you'll have a husband who will teach you everything you need to know." Cartimandua gave her daughter a knowing smile. "Until then, be patient, Sweetheart."
Maddy blushed. She already knew all about sex. When she was small, she had thought that babies were made by magic, until she realised that muggles had them, too. Her mother had explained the truth: how a man put his "wand" into a woman's sacred place to make a baby together. That it was part of a woman's duty to her husband. How pure-blood girls like herself must keep themselves untouched before marriage, if they wanted to win the love and respect of a good pure-blood man.
"I'm going to put these away," said Cartimandua, gathering up the books. "We'll return them to Ravenna next time we see her."
"Yes, Mum," said Maddy, letting go of The Maiden's Curse with disappointment.
She knew that Estelle and Maximo were destined to fall in love and live happily ever after, but she still wanted to read about how it happened. Maddy wondered how scandalised her mother would be if she learned that the dark secret of the romantic hero's past was that his grandmother had been muggleborn. Fictional characters going to bed together was one thing; pure-blood girls going to bed with mudbloods was another matter entirely.
Her mother rose. "We have a new gentleman lodger staying with us," she said, fixing Maddy with a meaningful look. "We'll be dining this evening at six o'clock sharp. I expect you to be punctual, and on your best behaviour."
Maddy scowled. "Another one? You won't even let me read those books, but you -"
"That's enough, Madeleine," Cartimandua snapped. "You know very well that our gentleman lodgers pay for your supper, and the clothes you wear. The least you can do is show a little gratitude."
"Can't Squeaker bring my supper to my room?" begged Maddy.
"No," said her mother firmly. "We must be gracious when it comes to guests, and show them proper hospitality in our home. Six o'clock."
"Yes, Mum," said Maddy, hanging her head.
As the bedroom door closed behind her mother, Maddy flopped back onto her bed with a sigh of annoyance. She hated meeting her mother's "gentleman lodgers", who rented the spare bedroom on the ground floor of the house, but rarely slept there. They always treated Maddy like a child and an irritation, getting in the way of their affairs with Cartimandua. The last one had moved out before the winter holidays, making it almost a year since Maddy had had to deal with one of her mother's paramours. She had hoped to have her mother and their home to herself this summer, but apparently it was not meant to be.
Home was a lonely place when Cartimandua had a new lover. Sometimes, Maddy could escape to her aunt's house for a few days, but she had just returned from a week-long stay with her cousins, and she had no other close friends she could turn to. It might not have been so bad if Maddy still had Freya Lovelace's romances to occupy her, but now that consolation was gone, too.
Maddy flounced onto her side, glowering at the wall in irritation.
It was all her father's fault. Boniface Yaxley had owned a small but popular theatre in Wizarding London. Her mother had been an aspiring actress when they met. He had run off with a dancer when Maddy was still very young, and was never heard from again. Cartimandua told people that her husband was dead, though she was vague about when and how. Maddy knew better, but since she did not know where her father was, it made no difference. He was dead to her.
Her mother had had to sell the theatre, retaining only part ownership, and a small percentage of the profits. That, and the rent from their "gentleman lodgers", kept food on the table and allowed them to live the semblance of a decent life - barely.
If only Maddy were a young heiress, like the heroines in Freya Lovelace's novels, things would have been different. Even when they were orphaned and destitute, it always turned out that they had a secret inheritance somewhere, and there was always a strong, handsome man nearby to console and protect them in their hour of need.
Maddy closed her eyes, imagining that she was the one who must wed Maximo by midnight tomorrow, and how safe and happy she would feel with his strong arms around her ...
As she had promised, Maddy dragged her feet down the stairs to supper promptly at six o'clock. She had spent the entire afternoon imagining the joys of her new life with her roguish fictional lover, and was grumpy and sullen at having her daydreams interrupted.
The man seated at the dining room table was entirely un-Maximo-like. He was young - in his late twenties at most - and he was tall, but there the similarities ended. He was as thin as a broom-handle, his ears stuck out, his jaw was narrow, and his eyes were the same muddy brown as the limp hair that fell to his shoulders.
Maddy kept her eyes down and said nothing as she took her place at the table. Perhaps she and her mother's new lover could simply ignore one another until one of them went away.
"I told you about my daughter, Madeleine," said Cartimandua. "Maddy, this is Ophiuchus Cameron, our new lodger."
Maddy nodded and mumbled a vague greeting, eyes fixed on her plate.
"Why, Manda," said the man, with every appearance of genuine delight, "you didn't tell me I'd be spending the summer with two beautiful ladies!"
Maddy looked up, surprised. None of her mother's previous paramours had ever so much as looked at her twice, let alone complimented her.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Madeleine," said Cameron, still smiling.
Charmed in spite of herself, Maddy hesitantly returned the smile.
"Well, this is very pleasant," beamed Cartimandua. "Squeaker, you may serve supper now."
A house-elf entered the dining room, carrying a tureen of soup almost as large as she was. The elf was dressed in a clean white linen pillowcase, belted with a length of green satin ribbon. As she ladled out the soup and poured drinks, Cameron turned to Maddy once more.
"I think you must know my sister, Tabitha," he said. "She taught Defence Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts last year. And my niece, Antares, is in Ravenclaw. She's a bit younger than you, though, I think. You're what? Seventeen? You can't be eighteen yet; your mother said you were still in school."
Maddy put a hand over her mouth to hide a giggle. "I'm fifteen."
"Really?" he said, impressed. "And already such a lovely and sophisticated young woman. I imagine there must be dozens of boys exhausting their owls every day, sending you love letters. Or maybe one special boy?" He raised an eyebrow knowingly.
Maddy giggled again, and shook her head. She had had little attention from the boys at school before the previous year, and then it had mostly come in the form of staring at her chest, which had begun to fill out noticeably.
"Might I inquire which house at Hogwarts is graced with such loveliness?" Cameron asked, eyes twinkling.
"I'm in Slytherin," Maddy informed him proudly. It was the best house. Only students from the best families were Sorted into it.
Cameron nodded approval. "So was I."
As they settled in to their supper, Cameron regaled Maddy and her mother with stories of the previous summer's Quidditch World Cup, and informed them that his family were distantly related to the Blacks, even keeping the tradition of giving their children names plucked from among the stars. Every now and then, he would smile at Maddy, almost as often as he did at Cartimandua, and ask her a question about herself.
Perhaps Cameron was not handsome like Maximo, but Maddy was pleased to finally have one of her mother's paramours show an interest in her, and treat her like a real adult. Maybe this summer would not be so bad after all.