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Tilly Wallace

Layers to Peel

Layers to Peel

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Wolf versus cat… fur will fly.

Lady Isabel Grayson is tired with London in general and boorish peers in particular. Known for her sharp tongue and strident nature, after one scandal too many she finds herself banished to the countryside. Her exile is made worse when her father announces he plans to marry her off to a mangy dog.

Alick Ferguson is more comfortable in wolf’s fur than a man’s breeches. He is resigned to going through life alone, until he spots a spitting cat picking off dandies in a ballroom with a fencing foil.

Alick’s protective nature throws them together, and there is more to both than meets the eye. But can they peel away their armour to trust and find love, or will they doom each other instead?

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Isabel

The women tittered to each other like noisy chickens and clustered around the small round table. One of their number was an aftermage, and the trace of magic revealed itself through the gift of reading tea leaves. The young brunette peered into the depths of the delicate teacup.
She smiled and looked across the table. "I see a fabulous wedding in your immediate future, to a duke, no less."
The tittering turned into gushes and breathy comments of oh, you're so lucky. Then the speculation started as to which duke or impending heir would be the lucky groom.
Isabel rolled her eyes. It was all quite ridiculous. You didn't need to be an aftermage and tea leaves to predict any of their futures. They were all broodmares waiting to be sold; of course they would get married and reproduce. It was their sole function as politely-bred ladies.
There were a number of aftermage gifts considered socially acceptable for a young lady; the ability to read tea leaves, find lost items, or make flowers bloom. Talking to the dead was sought after in some circles, by those who wanted the excitement of late night séances, but if the dead spontaneously appeared around the woman she would find herself cut. No one wanted a ghost hovering over luncheon. Dead people put such a dampener on an event.
It infuriated Isabel—as if a woman had any control over what flowed through her veins! She held out her arm and stared at the faint blue lines that ran up toward her elbow. A lady was either lauded or ostracised over something beyond her control.
"Will you dare to try, Lady Grayson?" a particularly bold chicken asked.
A delicate porcelain teacup was extended toward her. Pale pink roses entwined around the sides and the handle was painted with gold.
Isabel's focus moved from lamenting the blood in her veins to another niggle in her life—the insipid women she was forced to keep company with. She swallowed a sigh. May as well get the farce over and done. She grabbed the tea and downed the tepid liquid in a couple of large, and distinctly unladylike, gulps. Then she placed the saucer over the top and tipped it upside down before depositing it on the table.
"You need to turn it three times," someone whispered.
And perhaps if she also did a cartwheel with a turnip clutched between her teeth, it would make the brown leaves form into the pattern of her future husband.
Isabel plonked herself down in the chair and used one fingertip to turn the cup around and around on the saucer. Then she slid it closer to their seer.
The young woman picked up the cup and gave it a small shake to dislodge the last drops of tea. Then she peered into the tiny porcelain chamber. Women gathered closer, waiting to hear her prediction. Isabel rapped her nails on the table. The other woman's showmanship needed some work, but she was drawing this reading out before announcing, to great surprise, that Isabel was yet another young woman with impending nuptials.
The brunette muttered under her breath and rotated the cup.
"What do you see? A duke, or perhaps a prince?" someone asked.
Laughter ran through the crowd. Everyone knew Isabel had a tendency to scare off potential suitors. One lash of her tongue and they took their fortunes and titles and sought a demure wife elsewhere.
"No, I don't see a suitor. I see… a dog." The fortune reader squinted at the tea leaves.
"A dog?" Isabel frowned. No suitor for her then, but was that relief she felt or disappointment? Would she watch all her acquaintances marry off one by one, leaving her standing all alone? It wasn't her fault none of the nobles had any backbone, and cowered under her gaze. "Father is probably going to give me a poodle for my birthday."
"No, not a lapdog. This looks more like—I don't know, a wolf perhaps?" The fortune teller placed the cup back on the table and left it for the others to examine.
"Luncheon is served, ladies," their hostess announced, breaking up their conversation about whether the remains of Isabel's tea revealed a corgi, wolf, or spaniel.
The group moved toward the long table. Isabel lingered at the back. Her gaze roamed over the rear wall of the parlour, which held an array of rosewood-framed boxes. Each held butterflies of extraordinary hues, shapes, and sizes. With their wings outstretched, they dazzled and outshone each other, as though they were the living embodiment of an exotic Indian bazaar. And every single one was dead. The riot of colour that created a fantastical quilt on the wall, was the lifetime work of the noble's obsession with lepidopterology.
"How cruel was life to them. One moment drinking nectar, the next gassed and preserved," Isabel murmured to herself. What would it be like to see the delicate creatures free? She imagined standing in a lush jungle, hands outstretched as a swarm of them danced from bloom to bloom, drinking nectar from heavily perfumed flowers—the beauty not just in the insects’ shape and colour, but in the celebration of their freedom as they went about their fragile lives.
Isabel sighed. The displayed butterflies could be a metaphor for her life: beautiful to look at but dead on the inside. Kept pinned to a wall, never allowed to fly or be free. To be seen and admired as something exotic and decorative, but with no real purpose.
She tucked a dark strand of hair back behind her ear and surveyed her companions as they all took their assigned seats. They were like the insects—delicate. They would bruise easily if they ever batted up against the bars of their cages. Not Isabel. She used her tall, lithe frame to ride, run, and hunt. Her muscles knew the burn of climbing a tree all the way to the top, or using a sword until her arm ached. One day she would be strong enough to pull apart the bars holding her prisoner.

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