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Read an Extract from Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

To those who are wild and wicked, welcome to Crow Island.

Francesca May’s fantasy debut is a heady mix of illicit magic, romance, blood debts and murder, think The Great Gatsby meets Practical Magic. Scroll on to read an extract from this lush, decadent gothic novel.




Chapter One


Rumour had it that Crow Island was haunted by witches.

As I saw it for the first time, I understood why. People said the witches who had first discovered the island lived on in the bodies of the crows that flocked on every street corner and bare-branched tree. They flew high above as the boat drew closer to the shore, a constellation of black stars against the bright summer sky.

Tucked away beyond the murky water off the east coast, the island’s crescent-moon shape gave it the appearance of a curved spine, a body curled secretively away from the mainland. Yet up close the properties, built to resemble American plantation houses and crumbling Georgian manors, dispelled this illusion of secrecy. They loomed large, like spectral grey sentries guarding their land.

On Crow Island, people had whispered to me back home, real magic lurked just below the surface. Wealth seeped from the place like honey. They said that it had a reputation, that here the law looked the other way.

My mother hadn’t wanted me to come, but I had pleaded, surprising both of us. It was my father’s final request, which felt vital somehow, and I was compelled in a way I never had been before. He had wanted me to do this, to travel to a place I had never been, to sort through and sell his belongings, although I had hardly known him. And I had thought I could do it. I thought, at least, I should try.

I was no longer sure. I had never been away from home, had never slept anywhere but the squat back bedroom in the little stone terrace house I shared with my mother. The thought was both light and sharp. I inhaled a lungful of the salty ocean air, which tasted different here than it did back home, and reassured myself that I could be brave. Crow Island might be haunted, but it couldn’t be much different than the rest of England had been since the war, life trudging on despite the ghosts. I would be fine.

In the harbour the final traces of Whitby drained away: here was no Mam to guide me; there were no familiar street corners to remind me of sunny afternoons with Sam and Bea; there was not even to be the routine of the shop, of cosy evenings by the fire or Sunday afternoons visiting the gallery in town. It was an unwritten story. I had never had so much freedom, or felt so timid.

There was a car waiting for me by the harbour office, a swanky hayburner unlike anything I’d ever dreamed of driving, with a paper slip bearing my name tied to the steering wheel. I approached hesitantly, placing my palm flat against the sun- warmed metal. It felt, for a second, like I could feel the heartbeat of the island, the same thundering under my skin I sometimes swore I could feel when I scavenged shiny polished stones on the beach back home. I pulled my sweating palm back and glanced around nervously.

The harbour had long since emptied and I couldn’t see another soul. The office loomed ahead, its windows mirrored by the sun. In the letter I had received before leaving I’d been told I would have to go inside to collect the key for my father’s car, but some force held me locked in place. It wasn’t the office itself that scared me, more the idea that once I had the key—what then?

I stood for a minute watching the occasional cloud scud across the dark glass of the office windows. Two minutes. Five. My thoughts trickled towards my father. I should be more upset by his death, but I was almost indifferent. Perhaps I was being harsh, perhaps he had loved Mam once, but she had never said. She had shed his surname as if even the suggestion of his love was painful for her. I almost preferred to think that he had never loved her. After all, what kind of man would abandon his wife and newborn daughter for an island? Still, this was my inheritance—money that could mean everything for Mam and me.

The sun beat down on my shoulders and I was hot and impatient with myself. Sam would have thought I was silly. Bea would laugh if she saw me. But Sam wasn’t here and Bea was probably still angry with me. My irritation grew. A roaring sound began inside my ears, the same sound I always heard when a panic came on—like ocean waves. Like drowning. I closed my eyes, squeezing them tight, blocking out the sensation of swirling water that clogged my mind.

“Are you . . . well, miss? Do you need a doctor? Papa says it looks like you might faint.”

A girl of no more than ten had appeared, red- haired and freckled, wearing a grey smock. Concern etched her forehead. I must have been standing here for longer than I’d thought.

“I’m—a little lost,” I said, fumbling for an excuse. “I think this is my car but I don’t have the key . . . ?”

The girl’s face sagged in relief and she snatched at the handwritten slip tied to the wheel plus the paper I handed her, my own messy scrawl in the margins of the note my father’s lawyer had sent me. When she returned them, it was with a small key ring, which she thrust at me.

“Thank you,” I managed, finally able to breathe.

The girl disappeared as quickly as she’d come. I gazed at the car for a moment more, remembering the illicit runabouts in Sam’s dad’s jalopy. I’d hated them at the time but was glad now, although I was worried that it would be harder here than roaring along the winding, empty country roads at home.

I didn’t want to think of Sam, or of home, and that spurred me into action. I threw my meagre belongings into the car, and once I was on the road it came back to me little by little. It was easier than I remembered, or perhaps the car was simply better. The air tasted of tree sap, the future shimmering ahead like a mirage in the heat.

The reality of Crow Island stretched and grew around me as I drove, lavish houses making way for smaller dwellings as I headed away from the harbour, and quiet, crooked streets peeling off the main road through the town known as Crow Trap. I took in the freshly whitewashed shops and the bright, shiny windows. I hadn’t seen such a lush air of festivity since the parties we’d thrown after the armistice. The bunting was fresh and neat, fluttering between lampposts, and the children who ran in circles outside the small bakery wore clean aprons and shoes.

It was beautiful, and yet I couldn’t help the nervous way my palms itched at the sight of the wooden boards outside shops peddling Genuine Palm Readings and Holidaymakers’ Charms for Good Fortune, and at the windows that offered a glimpse of trailing greenery, framing small signs that proclaimed the vendors’ license to advertise faux magic.

It had been this way since the prohibition began after the war. Licenses, posters, and provisos, silly games that danced on a knife-edge as far as the law was concerned. Back home I hardly thought about magic except to avoid the advertisements at the back of the newspaper where faux mediums passed public messages to the great beyond. In Whitby there wasn’t much cause for meddling with magic, real or otherwise; most people barely had enough money to put food in their bellies, never mind extra to waste on trifles.

And it wasn’t worth the risk.

Mam always said that real magic was cunning and it was best to steer clear. Fake magic was a joke, a party trick for rich people who had nothing better to do, so it was best to steer clear of that too. Her most well- worn bedtime caution over the last two and a half years was the story of a girl in York, Bessie Higgins, who’d been hanged for selling poppets that turned out to have dried monkshood in them, although she’d sworn she had simply picked the weeds near the river.

There must be more to Bessie’s story, but talking about magic had always made Bea act foolish, so we never did.

Magic seemed different here. The licenses and advertisements were light, funny. These signs offered a glimpse into the future instead of the past. Perhaps the rich could better enjoy the soft scares of make-believe fortune-telling, since they hadn’t lost as much as the rest of us.

I counted seven of the island’s famous crows as I headed back towards the coast. They were perched on rooftops and in trees, one more on the pinnacle of a lamppost, her beady eyes and sharp little beak shining in the May morning sun. I acknowledged each one under my breath like a prayer, the hazy words of a half- remembered poem in the back of my mind.

One for malice,

Two for mirth . . .

The stretch of coastline where I’d rented a house for the summer was a jungle of grand houses and sprawling estates, the odd cottage like mine annexed from wealthy land a long time ago. I drove down roads shaded by hedgerows growing verdant and wild and speckled with dark thorns. It was a relief to easily find the cottage, nestled less than five minutes’ slow drive away.

It sat atop a sloping lawn, surrounded on three sides by so many trees you could hardly see the sky, or the ocean, or anything but tangles of green. At the back of the cottage the lawn dipped until it fell away into a sandy stretch looking out to the North Sea. I’d used some of my new inheritance for the privilege of being able to see water. That was why outsiders came to Crow Island after all, wasn’t it?

There was a man waiting for me outside the cottage when I arrived. He was tall and broad shouldered with greying rust-coloured hair and a cheerful, ruddy face. He smoothed the jacket of his mmaculate herringbone suit and smiled.

“You must be Miss Mason,” he said, shaking my hand warmly as I climbed out of the car. “Your father spoke very highly of you. My name is Jonas Anderson—it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m very sorry about your father. Such a shame to have lost him so unexpectedly.”

This was my father’s lawyer. The man he’d left in charge of his estate. He was the one who had written after my father’s heart attack and begged me to come. It’s what your father wanted. The only thing he asked for. He was the one who had given me an advance on my father’s money—for the cottage. I hadn’t expected him to be here, and his presence made my muscles bunch nervously.

“Mr. Anderson,” I said, smoothing my hair flat under its scarf. I didn’t like the idea that my father had spoken about me at all when it hardly seemed like he’d remembered I existed, but I tried to keep that from my voice. “How nice to see you in person—but I’m here so early. I thought we weren’t scheduled to meet until next week.”

“No, but I wanted to, ah, welcome you to the island,” he said, still smiling. “I wanted, really, to make sure you found the car without trouble, and the cottage . . .” He pointed vaguely. “I was surprised you chose one over here, but I can understand why. It’s lovely, isn’t it? Anyway, I know it can be daunting to find your feet in a new place. Especially one like this.” He gestured at a single crow that had perched itself comfortably on the bonnet of my car. “So, if you need anything, you mustn’t hesitate to let me know. Particularly if it’s about your father or his things. We were good friends, you see. I’m sure you must have questions, though I understand if you’re too overwhelmed today. I thought perhaps that was why you came early. I can try to speed through the necessary paperwork, but I’m more than happy to give you this week to get settled if that’s preferable.”

I blinked away the unexpected tightness in my throat at his kindness and nodded as he talked, allowing myself to settle into this new world and agreeing gratefully to keep in touch. Once he was gone I slipped into the cottage, shutting out the sunny warmth to set about unpacking my few belongings.

Now that I was alone, the cottage seemed big and rambling. Frivolous. It wasn’t like it was even my money I was spending yet. It was strangely quiet too, the sound of my footsteps muffled by the distant rush of the ocean and the caw of a crow. And there was a different quality to the quiet; it felt like the blackest part of a shadow, coiled and waiting.

I had never been alone like this before. I had spent all my early years with a gaggle of other neighbourhood children, Sam and Bea and a snotty girl called Margot at my heels as we ran and played in the streets behind my mother’s chocolate shop. Later, when Sam was gone, I had Mam and Bea, and then Mam. What would I do with all this space? I could walk from one side of the cottage to the other without tripping over Mam’s knitting basket or having to slow for Tabs and her kittens. I could swing my arms and not hit a single thing if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here.

Until Sam was deployed I’d never thought about leaving Whitby. After he left I thought about it constantly. I was still trying to convince my mother to let me sign up to nurse when we found out he’d died. Just—died. Gone.

It felt like a warning. This is what happens when you dream. This is what happens when you get ahead of yourself. For two years Bea and I hardly spoke of him, and when we did we pretended that he was still away, travelling the world and collecting experiences he would bring home to share with us. He never came home. And when Bea had left last spring—when she’d come to this very island—without saying goodbye to me, it felt like I was doomed to lose everything, each part of me slowly chipped away until there was nothing left.

I stayed with Mam, pretending I was content. I did what it felt like I should do, going through the motions like no war had ever happened. How was my loss any different from anybody else’s? My life became a pattern of dance halls on the weekends, more out of obligation than anything else, and the shop during the week. Trips to the gallery and the dull excitement of a new sewing pattern. Mam never said so, but eventually she expected me to marry. It had been four years since Sam died, and my inevitable future grew closer every month. I couldn’t put it off much longer.

And then . . . ?

That was the part that scared me. The picture of a life already lived, so predictable I could write it point by point in my journal and tick it off. Marriage, babies, hard work, and never enough money to stretch . . . The problem was, as much as my father’s death felt almost like a windfall, coming to the island scared me too.

Standing here, in this cottage that wasn’t mine, I told myself it didn’t—couldn’t—matter that I was afraid. This felt like my last chance to change my path; I needed to grasp it with both hands, pull the opportunity up at the roots, and carry it with me, ready to plant, or else the life back home was all that waited for me.

It seemed like fate that Bea was here. I’d been thinking of her a lot since I set out on the ferry, wondering if she’d truly missed me like her letters said. Whether she was still angry with me. The hole she’d left in my chest ached. If only we could be friends again—true friends—maybe I wouldn’t feel so lonely.

Bea and I had been so close, once. Both of us had grown up without fathers, although hers had died when she was just a baby, and we often joked that we were fierce enough not to need them. It felt strange, after all our jokes, all the secret longing we’d hidden behind our bluster, that I was here today because of my father.

Perhaps he had hoped coming to the island would be good for me. Perhaps he had hoped that the island would jostle my soul and wake me from a slumber he recognised—that it would cut this stunted part of me free. Perhaps he hadn’t thought of how it would affect me at all. I wasn’t sure which possibility I liked the least.

The late-afternoon air in the cottage was loaded with my questions. I wanted to know about his life, about his friends, his work, and his hobbies. I wanted to know why this place had captivated him so much that he had left us without a second thought. And most of all, I couldn’t stop the small voice in my head that asked the same thing I’d been returning to for weeks—at home, on the boat, seeing that shiny car for the first time . . .

Why now? Why had my father only wanted me to come to Crow Island once he was dead?


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