Book One of The Stranje House Novels
Scroll down for EXCERPT
★ Awarded Spirit of Texas 2016
★ Kansas NEA Reading Circle gave it a starred review in their “Best of the Best for High Schools”
★ Publisher’s Lunch listed it in their 2015 Young Adult BookBuzz
★ 2012 Marlene winner – YA category
A School for Unusual Girls is the first captivating installment in the Stranje House series for young adults by award-winning author Kathleen Baldwin. #1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this romantic Regency adventure “completely original and totally engrossing.”
It’s 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England’s dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don’t fit high society’s constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young ladies. Or so their parents think. In truth, Headmistress Emma Stranje, the original unusual girl, has plans for the young ladies—plans that entangle the girls in the dangerous world of spies, diplomacy, and war.
After accidentally setting her father’s stables on fire while performing a scientific experiment, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam is sent to Stranje House. But Georgie has no intention of being turned into a simpering, pudding-headed, marriageable miss. She plans to escape as soon as possible—until she meets Lord Sebastian Wyatt. Thrust together in a desperate mission to invent a new invisible ink for the English war effort, Georgie and Sebastian must find a way to work together without losing their heads—or their hearts…
What critics are saying about A School for Unusual Girls:
★ “Sign me up for Kathleen Baldwin’s School for Unusual Girls. It sucked me in from the first few pages and kept me reading until late into the night. Kathleen Baldwin has created a completely original – and totally engrossing – world, full of smart girls, handsome boys, and sinister mysteries. Who wouldn’t want to enroll?”
—Meg Cabot, NYT and USA Today bestselling author of Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls and The Princess Diaries series
★ New York Times – Sunday Book Review:
A School for Unusual Girls, by Kathleen Baldwin, is enticing from the first sentence: “What if Sir Isaac Newton’s parents had packed him off to a school to reform his manners?” Our protofeminist teenage protagonist, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, known as Georgie, utters those lines. Possessing the robust intellect of a promising scientist along with a lack of interest in conforming to the societal norms of early 1800s England, she’s banished to a boarding school with a reputation for “reforming” recalcitrant girls into compliant companions.
This first installment of the Stranje House series has all the markers of a Regency romance — elaborate manners, rigid social hierarchies and historical accuracy about the fine points of clothing and culture. Baldwin has an ear for period dialogue as she draws us into this world of sharp, smart young ladies who are actually being trained and deployed for the British war effort by the mysterious headmistress, Miss Stranje.
It’s speculative historical fiction, with a trace of steampunk inventiveness: Would a refinement of invisible ink in 1814 have changed the course of history, helping the British evade spies in the war they were fighting on multiple fronts?
Swoony moments also abound (“An instant later, his mouth found mine. . . . It felt as if he poured years of hunger and longing, thousands of heartbreaking secrets into me, into this one urgent moment”); after all, this is a romance as well. Yet gender stereotypes are turned upside down as the women, who each have an unusual talent, plan a daring spy mission. Georgie literally flies to the rescue of her beloved Sebastian, taken captive in an enemy stronghold.
To read the review on NYT site, scroll to the middle of the article at: New York Times Sunday Book Reviews
★ “Teens will enjoy the well-drawn cast of characters and identify with 19th-century Georgie’s angst, insecurity, desire for independence, and first love. Verdict: the spunky, naive, and passionate protagonist will resonate with readers, who will appreciate the lively, fast-paced narrative of personal discovery, maturing realizations, and understanding.”
— School Library Journal
~London, April 17. 1814~
“What if Sir Isaac Newton’s parents had packed him off to a school to reform his manners?” I smoothed my traveling skirts and risked a glance at my parents. They sat across from me, stone-faced and icy as the millpond in winter. Father did not so much as blink in my direction. But then, he seldom did. I tried again. “And if the rumors are true, not just any school—a prison.”
“Do be quiet, Georgiana.” With fingers gloved in mourning black, my mother massaged her forehead.
Our coach slowed and rolled to a complete standstill, waylaid by crowds spilling into Bishopsgate Street. All of London celebrated Napoleon’s abdication of the French throne and his imprisonment on the isle of Elba. Rich and poor danced in the streets, raising tankards of ale, belting out military songs, roasting bread and cheese over makeshift fires. Each loud toast, every bellowed stanza, even the smell of feasting sickened me and reopened wounds of grief for the brother I’d lost two years ago in this wretched war. Their jubilation made my journey into exile all the more dismal.
Father cursed our snail-like progress through town and drummed impatient fingers against his thigh. We’d been traveling from our estate in Middlesex, north of London, since early morning. Mother closed her eyes as if in slumber, a ploy to evade my petitions. She couldn’t possibly be sleeping, not while holding her spine in such an erect fashion. She refused herself the luxury of leaning back against the seat for fear of crumpling the feathers on her bonnet.
Somehow, some way, I had to convince them to turn back. “You do realize this journey is a needless expense. I have no more use for a schoolroom. I’m sixteen, and since I have already been out in society—”
Mother snapped to attention. “Oh, yes, Georgiana, I’m well aware of the fact that you have already been out in society. Indeed, I shall never forget Lady Frampton’s card party.”
I sighed, knowing exactly what she would say next.
“I didn’t. It was a simple matter of mathematics,” I explained for the fortieth time. “I merely kept track of the number of cards played in each suit. How else did you expect me to win?”
“I did not expect you to win,” she said in clipped tones. The feathers on her bonnet quivered as she clenched her jaw before continuing. “I expected you to behave like a proper young lady, not a seasoned gambler.”
“Counting cards isn’t considered cheating,” I said quietly.
“It is when you win at every hand.” She glared at me and even in the dim light of the carriage I noted a rise in her color. “And now, given your latest debacle—” She stopped. Her gaze flicked sideways to my father, gauging his expression. I would’ve thought it impossible for him to turn any stonier, but he did. Her voice knotted so tight she practically hissed, “I doubt I shall ever be allowed to show my face in Lady Frampton’s company again, or for that matter in polite society anywhere.”
Trumped. She’d slapped down the Queen of Ruination card, Georgiana Fitzwilliam, the destroyer. I drew back the curtain and stared out the window. A man with a drunken grin tipped his hat and waved a gin bottle, as if inviting us to join the celebration. He tugged a charwoman into a riotous jig and twirled away.
“Bothersome peasants.” My mother huffed and adjusted the cuff of her traveling coat. Peasant was her favorite condemnation. She followed it with a haughty sniff, as if breathing peasant air made her nose itch. A roar of laughter rocked the crowd outside entertained by a man on stilts dressed as General Wellington kicking a straw dummy of Napoleon.
“Confound it.” Father grumbled and consulted his pocket watch. “At this pace we won’t get there ’til dark. All this ruckus over that pompous little Corsican. Fools. Anyone with any sense knows Bonaparte was done for a month ago.”
Without weighing the consequences, I spoke my fears aloud. “One can never be certain with Napoleon, can they? He may have abdicated the throne, but he kept his title.”
“Emperor. Bah! Devil take him. Emperor of what? The sticks and stones on Elba.” Father bristled and puffed up as if he might explode. “General Wellington should’ve shot the blighter when he had the chance. Bonaparte is too arrogant by half. The man doesn’t know when to give up. Let that be a lesson to you, Georgie.” He shook a finger at me as if I were in league with the infamous Emperor. “Know when to give up, young lady. If you did, we wouldn’t be stuck here in the middle of all this rabble waiting to get across London Bridge.”
Never mind that during the last ten years Napoleon Bonaparte had embroiled all of Europe in a terrible war—today I was the villain.
But I forgave my father’s burst of temper and heartily wished I’d kept my mouth shut. His anger was understandable. My brother Robert died in a skirmish with Napoleon’s troops shortly before the Battle of Salamanca. Reminders of the war surrounded us. Perhaps if we had been the ones burning Napoleon in effigy it would have been liberating. Although it had been more than two years, each redcoat soldier who sauntered past, each raucous guffaw jarred our coach as if we’d been blasted by the same cannonball that killed Robbie.
My father would never admit to a weakness such as grief. I didn’t have that luxury. Gravity could not explain the weight that crushed my chest whenever I thought of Robbie’s death. He had been the best and kindest of my brothers. We were closest in age. I hardly knew my two oldest brothers; they’d been away at Cambridge and had no interest in making my acquaintance. Robbie, alone, had genuinely liked me. He never looked at me as if I was an ugly mouse that had crawled out from under the rug. I missed how he would scruff my unruly red hair and challenge me to a chess game, or tell me about books he’d read, or places he’d visited.
Napoleon stole him from us.
If we’d been home, Father would’ve stomped out of the house and gone hunting with his beloved hounds. Some hapless hare would’ve paid the price of his wrath. Instead, this laborious journey to haul me off to Stranje House kept him pinned up with painful reminders. Unfortunately, Napoleon wasn’t present to shoulder his share of the blame. Father furrowed his great hairy eyebrows at me, the troublesome runt in his litter.
If only I’d had the good grace to be born a boy. What use is a daughter? How many times had I heard him ask this? And answer. Useless baggage. Three sons had been sufficient. Even after Robbie’s death, Father still had his heir and a spare. I was simply a nuisance, a miscalculation.
The leather seats creaked as I shifted under his condemning frown. He’d never bestowed upon me more than a passing interest. Until now. Now, I’d finally done something to merit his attention. Not as I’d hoped, not as I’d wished, but I had finally won his notice. He squinted at me as if I was the cause of all this uproar.
I swallowed hard. “We could turn back and make the journey another day.”
My father growled in response and thumped the ceiling with his walking stick alerting our coachman. “Blast it all, man! Get this rig rolling.”
“Make way,” the coachman shouted at the throng and cracked his whip. Our coach lumbered slowly forward. With each turn of the wheel, my hope of a reprieve sank lower and lower. Before we crossed the bridge, I took one last look at the crowds milling on boardwalks and cobblestones, reveling and jostling one another. One last glimpse of freedom as I sat confined in gloomy silence on my way to be imprisoned at Stranje House and beaten into submission.
With a weary huff my mother exhaled. “For heaven’s sake, Georgiana, stop gawking at the rabble and sit up like a proper young lady.”
I straightened, prepared to sit this way forever if she would reconsider. She sniffed and pretended to sleep again.
We passed the outskirts of London with the sun high above us, a dull brass coin unable to burn through the thick haze of coal soot and smoke that hung over the city. We traveled the south for hours, stopping only once at a posting inn in Tunbridge Wells to change the horses and eat. As evening approached, the sky turned a mournful gray and the faded pink horizon reminded me of dead roses. Except for Father’s occasional snoring, we traveled in stiff, suffocating silence. Two hours past nightfall, we turned off the macadam road onto a bumpy gravel drive and stopped.
Sliding down the window glass, I leaned out to have a closer look and inhaled the sharp salty tang of sea air. The coachman clambered down and opened a creaking iron gate. A rusty placard proclaimed the old manor as stranje house, but I knew better. This wasn’t a house. Or a school.
This was to be my cage.
“It must be well after eight. Surely, it’s too late to impose upon them tonight. We could stop at an inn and come back tomorrow.”
Father hoisted his jaw to an implacable angle. “No. Best to get it over and done with tonight.”
“The headmistress is expecting us.” Mother straightened her bonnet and sat with even greater dignity.
Our coachman coaxed the team through the entrance and clanged the gate shut behind us. The horses shied at the sound of barking in the distance, not normal barking—howls and yips. Seconds later, dogs raced from the shadows. It might have been two, two dozen, or two hundred. Impossible to tell. They seemed to be everywhere at once, silent except for their ferocious breathing. One of them pounced at the coachman’s boot as he scrambled to his perch.
I jerked back from my window as one of the creatures leaped up against the coach door. Black as night, except for yellow eyes and moon-white teeth, the monstrous animal peered in at me as if curious. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, could do naught but stare back. Our coachman swore, cracked his whip, and the horses sprang forward. The beast’s massive paws slipped from my window. With a sharp yip, he fell away from the coach. These were no ordinary dogs.
“Wolves.” I slammed the window glass up and secured the latch.
“Nonsense,” my mother said, but scooted farther from the door. “Everyone knows there are no more wolves in England. They were all killed off during King Henry’s reign.”
“Might’ve missed one or two,” my father muttered, peering out his window at our shadowy entourage.
Whatever they were, these black demons would devour us the minute we stepped out of the coach. “Turn back. Please. I don’t need this school.” I hated the fear creeping into my voice.
Mother laced her fingers primly in her lap and glanced away. I cast my pride to the wind and bleated like a lamb before slaughter. “I’ll do exactly as you ask. I promise. Best manners. Everything. I’ll even intentionally lose at cards. I give you my word.”
They paid me no heed.
Stranje House loomed larger by the second. Our coach bumped along faster than it had all day, the coachman ran the team full out in an effort to outpace the wolves. My heart galloped along with the horses. Faster and faster we rumbled up the drive, until the speed of it made me sick to my stomach.
The sprawling Elizabethan manor crouched on scraggily unkempt grounds. Dead trees stood among the living, stripped of bark by the salt air they stretched white skeletal hands toward the dark sky. The roof formed a black silhouette against the waning moonlight. Sharp peaks jutted up like jagged scales on a dragon’s back. Fog and mist blew up from the sea and swirled around the boney beast.
Gripping the seat, I turned to my parents. “You can’t mean to leave me in this decrepit old mausoleum? You can’t.” They refused to meet my frantic gaze. “Father?”
“Hound’s tooth, Georgie! Leave off.”
My heart banged against my ribs like a trapped bat. No reprieve. No pardon. No mercy.
Where could I turn for help? If Robbie were alive, he wouldn’t let them do this. My stuffy older brothers would applaud locking me away. Geoffrey, the oldest, had written to say, “She’s an embarrassment to the family. About time she was taught some manners.” I doubt Edward remembers I even exist. Thus, I would be banished to this bleak heap of stones, this monstrous cage surrounded by hellhounds.
All too soon, the coach rolled to a stop in front of the dragon’s dark gaping mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to scream, to shriek like a cat being thrown into a river to drown.
Only I didn’t. I sank back against the seat and gasped for air.
From my window, I watched as an elderly butler with all the warmth of a grave digger emerged from the house and issued a sharp staccato whistle. The wolves immediately took off and ran to the trees at the edge of the old house. But I saw them pacing, watching us hungrily from the shadows.
To my dismay, our coach door opened and a footman lowered the steps. I hung back as long as possible. My parents were almost to the house when, on wobbly legs, I climbed out and followed them inside, past the grizzled butler, and up a wooden staircase. Every step carried me further from my home, further from freedom. Each riser seemed taller than the last, harder to climb, and my feet heavier, until at last the silent butler ushered us into the headmistress’s cramped, dimly lit study.
We sat before her enormous desk on small uncomfortable chairs, my parents in the forefront, me in the back. Towering bookshelves lined the walls. More books sat in haphazard piles on the floor, stacked like druid burial stones.
Concentrating on anything, except my fate, I focused on the titles of books piled nearest my chair. A translation of Beowulf lay atop a collection of John Donne’s sermons, a human anatomy book, and Lord Byron’s scandalous vampire tale, The Giaour. A most unsettling assortment. I stopped reading and could scarcely keep from biting my lip to the point of drawing blood.
The headmistress, Miss Emma Stranje, sat behind her desk, mute, assessing me with unsettling hawk eyes. In the flickering light of the oil lamp, I couldn’t tell her age. She looked youthful one minute, and ancient the next. She might’ve been pretty once, if it weren’t for her shrewd measuring expression. She’d pulled her wavy brown hair back into a severe chignon knot, but stray wisps escaped their moorings giving her a feral catlike appearance.
I tried not to cower under her predatory gaze. If this woman intended to be my jailer, I needed to stand my ground now or I would never fight my way out from under her thumb.
My mother cleared her throat and started in, “You know why we are here. As we explained in our letters—”
“It was an accident!” I blurted, and immediately regretted it. The words sounded defensive, not strong and reasoned as I had intended.
Mother pinched her lips and sat perfectly straight, primly picking lint off her gloves as if my outburst caused the bothersome flecks to appear. She sighed. I could almost hear her oft repeated complaint, “Why is Georgiana not the meek biddable daughter I deserve?”
Miss Stranje arched one imperious eyebrow, silently demanding the rest of the explanation, waiting, unnerving me with every tick of the clock. My mind turned to mush. How much explanation should I give? If I told her the plain truth she’d know too much about my unacceptable pursuits. If I said too little I’d sound like an arsonist. In the ensuing silence, she tapped one slender finger against the dark walnut of her desk. The sound echoed through the room—a magistrate’s gavel, consigning me to life in her prison. “You accidentally set fire to your father’s stables?”
My father growled low in his throat and shifted angrily on the delicate Hepplewhite chair.
“Yes,” I mumbled, knowing the fire wasn’t the whole reason I was here, merely the final straw, a razor-sharp spearlike straw. Unfortunately, there were several dozen pointy spears in my parents’ quiver of what’s-wrong-with-Georgiana.
If only they understood. If only the world cared about something beyond my ability to pour tea and walk with a mincing step. I decided to tell Miss Stranje at least part of the truth. “It was a scientific experiment gone awry. Had I been successful—”
“Successful?” roared my father. He twisted on the flimsy chair, putting considerable stress on the rear legs as he leaned in my direction, numbering my sins on his fingers. “You nearly roasted my prize hunters alive! Every last horse—scared senseless. Burned the bleedin’ stables to the ground. To the ground! Nothing left but a heap of charred stone. Our house and fields would’ve gone up next if the tenants and neighbors hadn’t come running to help. That ruddy blaze would’ve taken their homes and crops, too. Successful? You almost reduced half of High Cross Greene to ash.”
Every word a lashing, I nodded and kept my face to the floor, knowing he wasn’t done.
“As it was, you scorched more than half of Squire Thurgood’s apple orchard. I’ll be paying dearly for those lost apples over the next three years, I can tell you that. And what about my hounds!” He paused for breath and clamped his teeth together so tight that veins bulged at his temples and his whole head trembled with repressed rage.
In that short fitful silence, I could not help but remember the sound of those dogs baying and whimpering, and the faces of our servants and neighbors smeared with ash as we all struggled to contain the fire, their expressions—grim, angry, wishing me to perdition.
“My kennels are ruined. Blacker and smokier than Satan’s chimney . . .” He lowered his voice, no longer clarifying for Miss Stranje’s sake, and spit one final damning indictment into my face. “You almost killed my hounds!” He dismissed me with an angry wave of his hand. “Successful. Bah!”
My stomach churned and twisted with regret. Accident. It was an accident. I wished he had slapped me. It would’ve stung less than his disgust.
I wanted to point out the merits of inventing a new kind of undetectable invisible ink. If such an ink had been available, my brother might still be alive. As it was, the French intercepted a British courier and Robert’s company found themselves caught in an ambush. It wouldn’t help to say it. I tried the day after the fire and Father only got angrier. He’d shouted obscenities, called me a foolish girl. “It’s done. Over. He’s gone.”
Nor would it help to remind him that I’d nearly died leading the horses out of the mews. His mind was made up. Unlike my father’s precious livestock, my goose was well and truly cooked. He intended to banish me, imprison me here at Stranje House just as Napoleon was banished to Elba.
Miss Stranje glanced down at my mother’s letter. “It says here, that on another occasion Georgiana jumped out of an attic window?”
“I didn’t jump. Not exactly.”
“She did.” Father crossed his arms.
It had happened two and a half years ago. One would’ve thought they’d have forgotten it by now. “Another experiment,” I admitted. “I’d read a treatise about Da Vinci and his—”
“Wings.” My mother cut me off and rolled her eyes upward to contemplate the ceiling. She employed the same mocking tone she always used when referring to that particular incident.
“Not wings,” I defended, my voice a bit too high-pitched. “A glider. A kite.”
Mother ignored me and stated her case to Miss Stranje without any inflection whatsoever. “She’s a menace. Dangerous to herself and others.”
“I took precautions.” I forced my voice into a calmer, less ear-bruising range, and tried to explain. “I had the stable lads position a wagon of hay beneath the window.”
“Yes!” Father clapped his hands together as if he’d caught a fly in them. “But you missed the infernal wagon, didn’t you?”
“Because the experiment worked.”
“Hardly.” With a scornful grunt he explained to Miss Stranje, “Crashed into a sycamore tree. Wore her arm in a sling for months.”
“Yes, but if I’d made the kite wider and taken off from the roof—”
“This is all your doing.” My father shot a familiar barb at my mother. “You never should’ve allowed her to read all that scientific nonsense.”
“I had nothing to do with it,” she bristled. “That bluestocking governess is to blame.”
Miss Grissmore. An excellent tutor. A woman of outstanding patience, the only governess in ten years able to endure my incessant questions, sent packing because of my foolhardy leap. I glared at my mother’s back remembering how I’d begged and explained over and over that Miss Grissmore had nothing to do with it.
“I let the woman go as soon as I realized what she was.” Mother ignored Father’s grumbled commentary on bluestockings and demanded of Miss Stranje, “Well? Can you reform Georgiana or not?”
There are whispers among my mother’s friends that, for a large enough sum, the mysterious Miss Stranje is able to take difficult young women and mold them into marriageable misses. Her methods, however, are highly questionable. According to the gossip, Miss Stranje relies upon harsh beatings and cruel punishments to accomplish her task. Even so, ambitious parents desperate to reform their daughters turn a blind eye and even pay handsomely for her grim services. It’s rumored that she even resorts to torture to transform her troublesome students into unexceptional young ladies.
Among the beau monde, being declared unexceptional by the patronesses of society is the ultimate praise. It is almost a prerequisite for marriage. Husbands do not want odd ducks like me. Being exceptional is a curse. A curse I bear.
I care less than a fig for society’s good opinion. Furthermore, I haven’t the slightest desire to attend their boring balls, nor do I want to stand around at a rout, or squeeze into an overcrowded sweltering soiree. More to the point, I have no intention of marrying anyone.
My mother, on the other hand, languishes over the fact that, despite being a wealthy wool merchant’s daughter with a large dowry, and having been educated in the finer arts of polite conversations, playing the pianoforte, and painting landscapes in pale watercolors, she had failed to bag herself a title. She’d married my father because he stood second in line to the Earl of Pynderham. Unfortunately, his older brother married shortly thereafter and produced several sturdy sons, thus dashing forever my mother’s hopes of becoming a countess. As a result, her desire to elevate her standing in society now depends on puffing me off in marriage to an earl, or perhaps a viscount, thereby transforming her into the exalted role of mother to a countess.
A thoroughly ridiculous notion.
Has she not looked at me? My figure is flat and straight. I doubt I shall ever acquire much of a bosom. I have stubborn freckles that will not bleach out no matter how many milk baths or cucumber plasters Mother applies. She detests my ginger hair. Red is definitely not en vogue.
Not long after the glider incident, she tried to disguise my embarrassing red curls by rinsing them with walnut stain. It would infuriate her if she knew that her efforts to change my hair color increased my obsession with dyes and inks. Her oily walnut stain failed miserably. The hideous results had to be cut off—my hair shorn like a sheep. It has only now grown out to an acceptable length.
And now this. Exile to Stranje House.
I clinched the fabric of my traveling dress and wished for the millionth time that I’d been more careful while adding saltpeter to the boiling ink emulsion. If only it hadn’t sparked that abominable fire.
Miss Stranje allowed an inordinate amount of time to pass before pronouncing judgment upon me.
“I knew it.” Mother collapsed against the back of her chair in defeat and threw up her hands. “It’s hopeless. Nothing can be done with her.”
Miss Stranje rose. The black bombazine of her skirts rustled like funeral crepe. “On the contrary, Mrs. Fitzwilliam. I believe we may be able to salvage your daughter.”
Salvage? They spoke of me as if I were a tattered curtain they intended to rework into a potato sack.
“You do?” My mother blinked at this astonishing news.
“Yes. However”—Miss Stranje grasped the edge of her desk as if it were a pulpit and she about to preach a sermon condemning us all to perdition—“you may have heard my teaching methods are rather unconventional. Severe. Harsh.” She paused and fixed each of us with a shockingly hard glare. “I assure you, the gossip is all true.”
For the first time that day, my mother relaxed.
I, on the other hand, could not swallow the dry lump of dread rising in my throat. Miss Stranje’s sharp-eyed gaze seemed to reach into my soul and wring it out.
She bore down on my father. “Mr. Fitzwilliam, you may leave your daughter with me under one condition. You must grant me authority in all matters pertaining to her welfare, financially and otherwise. Should I decide to lock her in a closet with only bread and water for sustenance, I will not tolerate any complaints or—”
“Heavens, no. You can’t do that.” Mother swished her hand through the air as if swatting away the idea. “It won’t work. Don’t you think we would’ve tried something so simple? It’s no use. You can’t leave her in solitude to think. She’ll simply concoct more mischief while she’s locked up. You’ll have to come up with something more inventive than that.”
Lips pressed thin, Miss Stranje sniffed. I wasn’t sure whether she was annoyed about Mother interrupting or about being saddled with such an intractable student. “Furthermore,” she said with a steady calm, “if I deem it necessary to take her to London to practice her social skills, you will not only permit such an excursion, you will finance the endeavor.”
“More coin?” My father ran a finger around the top of his starched collar. “Already costing me a King’s ransom.”
“The choice is yours.” She plopped a sheaf of papers on the corner of the desk nearest him. “You must sign this agreement or I will not accept your daughter into the school.”
He glanced at me and his angry scowl returned. His nostrils flared. I groaned, knowing the smell of ash and burnt hay still lingered in his nose. He would sign.
“Won’t sign unless I have some assurances you can do the job.” He sat back, arms crossed. “We stated quite clearly in our letters, we expect some kind of guarantee. I’m no stranger to the rod. Went to Eton. Got beat regularly. All part of the training.”
The lump in my stomach turned into a cannonball, and my backside began to hurt in anticipation.
“Women are too weak for this sort of thing.” He glared sideways at my mother. “How do I know a female like yourself can administer proper punishment, when punishment is due?”
Miss Stranje got all prickly and tall. She didn’t look weak to me. Not by half.
“I assure you, sir, although I always abide by the law and never use a rod that is thicker than my thumb—”
“Proof, Miss Stranje.” Father leaned forward and tapped the stack of papers. “I want proof that you can make something of her. Then I’ll sign your blasted papers.”
Miss Stranje tilted her head and studied him, the way a wild turkey does before it tries to peck your eyes out. In the end, the headmistress stepped back and lifted the oil lamp. “As you wish. I believe a visit to my discipline chamber is in order.” She ushered us to the door. “You, too, Georgiana, come along.”
She led us down long twisting stairs, deep into the bowels of Stranje House. Damp limestone walls, gray with age and mold, closed around us, swallowing us in chilly darkness. Deeper and deeper we went. It was the hellish kind of cold, a moist heavy chill, as if the underbelly of the house had been cold for so long it had seeped into the stones permanently. It sucked the warmth straight out of my bones. We emerged in a dank hallway and shuffled through the musty passageway until the headmistress finally stopped in front of a heavy wooden door. The hinges creaked as she opened it, and we were met with the sound of human whimpering.
Miss Stranje swept her hand forward, welcoming my parents into her dungeon just as if it were a prettily decorated parlor.
Mother marched straight in, glanced about the room and shook her head. “I’m afraid there’s not much here we haven’t seen before.” She pointed to a pale white-haired girl who was strapped waist, shoulders, and head to a thick oak slat. “See here, Henry, this is a common backboard. Very good for the posture. They had one at my finishing school. I daresay every lady in the ton has spent time in a similar device.”
The girl’s blue eyes opened wide and flittered fearfully as we drew close. Her forehead had been buckled so tightly to the backboard that red marks welted on each side of the leather strap. She stood perfectly still as Miss Stranje addressed her. “Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam may I present Miss Seraphina Wyndham.”
Seraphina did not speak, nor did she greet us with a genial smile. She simply mewed like a strangled kitten.
Next to Seraphina stood a large steel mummy case. I’d read about Egyptian artifacts but had never seen one. Except I quickly realized the coffin was not from ancient Egypt, not with that type of a clasp. I leaned closer, thinking I heard something inside.
I jumped back. “Something’s in there.”
“Someone,” Miss Stranje corrected. Holding her lamp aloft, she peered into one of the eyeholes. The metal coffin reverberated like a dull bell when she rapped on the front. “Lady Jane? Are you—”
A sharp yowl echoed inside the metal sarcophagus.
“No need to move about. Those tines are extremely sharp. I only meant to inquire after your health. I couldn’t help but notice a small quantity of blood seeping out of the bottom of the case. Are you well?”
Of course, she wasn’t well. Blood trickled out of the metal seams onto the floor. “This is barbaric!” I backed away from the horrid mummy case and the even more horrid Miss Stranje.
“Well enough.” Lady Jane’s surly response reverberated eerily from the casket.
“Well enough, thank you,” Miss Stranje corrected. “One must be courteous regardless of the situation.”
There was no answer.
“This is cruel.” I glared at the headmistress. “You can’t do this to a member of the nobility.”
“Can’t I?” She cocked her head at me, quizzically, like a raven right before snapping up a beetle.
A small Oriental woman padded silently out of the shadows and whacked the mummy case several times with a bamboo stick, setting off a sickening chime. I flinched as Lady Jane shrieked in pain and then obediently responded, “Well enough, thank you.”
My mother’s only comment was, “Well now, that is something I haven’t seen before.”
Miss Stranje inclined her head to the Chinese woman and turned to my parents. “Mr. Fitzwilliam, Mrs. Fitzwilliam, allow me to present Madame Cho. She assists me here in the discipline room and also instructs the girls in Asian history.”
Small and old, Madame Cho looked crafty as a black cat. She bowed slowly and stiffly as if the effort cost her ancient bones much pain.
My parents walked on without acknowledging her, following Miss Stranje to examine a rack of various sized training rods and lashes.
Swift as a thief, Madam Cho straightened. So much for her old bones. Her obsidian eyes reminded me of a lizard’s as she examined me with ruthless assessment. I edged away and joined my father who stood toying with the end of a whip that hung on the wall. He fingered the knots tied in the leather thongs at the beating end of the whip. Glancing sideways at me, I wondered if he might be troubled by the idea of my back, lashed and bleeding.
“Father?” I whispered, praying for a reprieve.
Then I remembered how, after the fire, he’d chased me with his riding crop. His face hardened into the same angry mask he’d worn that day.
He let go of the whip and rubbed his palms against the side of his coat. “I’ve been too soft on you,” he said under his breath, and turned his back on me.
Mother stood in front of a small medieval stretching rack. The relic must’ve dated clear back to the Inquisition. She seemed alarmed to find such an evil contraption housed in a girls’ school. But as she rubbed her fingertips together I realized she wasn’t alarmed, merely perturbed that dust had smudged the tips of her glove.
I wanted to scream. No, no, no! People do not do this anymore. Not to their daughters. Not to anyone. And yet here we were, standing before implements of reform that even the despicable Miss Stranje had not invented; whips, paddles, various length training rods, and other devices, like the backboard that were in use all over England.
I swallowed the pincushion of fear stuck in my throat and, marshalled every ounce of courage I had left, to ask, “You don’t actually use this rack, do you?”
Miss Stranje turned to me, hideously pleasant, as if merely commenting on the weather. “I find it remarkably effective.”
Father headed for the door. “I’ve seen enough. I’m ready to sign those damnable papers of yours. I want to be rid of this place.”
Rid of me.
Mother and Miss Stranje hurried after him. I stared at the shackles on the rack, stunned that my parents would leave me at the mercy of this awful school. I’m not given to outbursts of weakness, but I began to tremble stupidly and my feet seemed frozen to the cold stone floor.
Hope does not shatter all at once. The mind plays tricks.
For several moments I felt certain Stranje House was no more than a ghoulish nightmare. Any moment, I assured myself, my maid Agnes would throw back the curtains and I would awaken in my own bedroom. The world would turn right again. Sanity would return. The sun would glint through my windows. The mantel clock would tick steadily and reliably, not like the panicky thumping of my heart.
But I did not wake up. Not until Madame Cho swatted the back of my legs with her stick and pointed to the door. “You go.” Then she turned and beat on the mummy case. My stinging calves roused me out of disbelief.
My slippers skidded against the stone floor as I dashed out of that ghastly room. Faint candlelight trickled from the discipline chamber, but not nearly enough to penetrate the thick darkness in the hallway. Still I ran. Straining to see my way through the inky blackness. A junction in the corridor confused me. Which way were the stairs? Behind me, Madame Cho’s banging mingled with yelps of pain. I shook my head. This wasn’t a girls’ school. It was a madhouse.
I had no idea what Napoleon intended to do about his imprisonment on Elba, but as for me, I planned to escape.
I rushed down the corridor until I found an opening in the stone wall. Candles in the discipline chamber did not reach this far down the hallway. The only light came from wisps of moonlight filtering through a small mullioned window high on the wall. A narrow staircase curled up into thick impenetrable darkness. This had to be the right way, so I stepped up into utter blackness.
Moisture from damp moldy stones seeped onto my fingers as I trailed them along the wall, guiding myself as I climbed. I waved my other hand in front of my face brushing away cobwebs and spiders that dangled from the low ceiling. I had to catch up to my parents, but every step increased my uneasiness. Realizing that this couldn’t be the right stairwell, I slowed my frantic steps and considered turning back. Except that would do no good. Only the discipline chamber lay behind me.
A faint glimmer caught my attention. Straining to see, I groped the wall and came upon what appeared to be a small door with a weak golden light wavering around the edges. Hopeful it might lead back to the normal part of the house, I pushed. With a loud scraping noise, the door cracked open. I shoved harder. Small pebbles and stones grumbled beneath the wooden panel and pattered on my head. Finally, it opened wide enough I could squeeze through.
A flurry of high-pitched squeaks startled me—the unmistakable sound of bats. I covered my face and shuddered. They flapped crazily, fanning my nerves to the edge of panic, before they fluttered away. Once they quieted, I peeked out and found myself hunkered on a small ledge high on the wall of a rough-hewn chalkstone cave.
I inched to the lip of the alcove and accidently knocked stones loose with the toe of my shoe. Two seconds later a splash echoed. Far below, a hissing oil lamp hung on a docking post. It sent orange light and shadows sneaking across the walls of the cave. Seawater sloshed in through a narrow opening and splashed against the cavern walls, knocking against a dinghy tied to the post.
I’d read about smuggler’s caves in North Devon and Cornwall, and everyone knew they existed along the southern coast near Penzance and St. Ives, but I hadn’t expected one here. Yet, surely, this must be a smuggler’s cave, and as evidenced by the boat and lantern, in recent use.
Spiders of apprehension skittered up my spine. What sort of girl’s school was this? I had to find my parents before it was too late. Surely, knowledge of a smuggler’s cave would dissuade them from leaving me here.
I wriggled back through the makeshift door and dashed up the passageway. A few moments later, I heard something. Voices. Indistinct at first, but as I darted up the steps, they grew louder. A man’s voice, an irritated man, and that could only be one person. With a flood of relief, I shouted, “Father! I’m coming. Wait for me. Please!” The walls muffled my cries, sucking the sound into all the musty crooks and crevices. I called again, and raced through the dark to catch them.
I would do anything to stop my father from signing those papers. I would throw myself at his feet and beg him to forgive me. I’d vow to never ever conduct an experiment in the stables again. I’d even swear not to dabble with explosive components again. At least, not in such imprudent quantities. If only he would let me come back home.
A thin beam of gray light penetrated the thick darkness ahead. I ran faster and, in my rush, tripped on a crumbling step and fell to my knees. A mouse pipped in alarm and scurried past my shoulder. The floors were wood here. I leaped up, and brushed the grit and splinters from my palms. At last, I’d found a doorway out of this interminable pit. I scrambled up the remaining steps, but stopped short on a narrow wedge-shaped landing.
This was not a door.
And the voice did not belong to my father.
I teetered on the edge of a precipice overlooking a room. I stood in a small alcove facing the backside of a tapestry, one that must hang very high on the wall. Thin gauze-like peepholes in the tapestry’s weave allowed me to survey the chamber below with a fair amount of clarity.
The voices belonged to two gentlemen, one young and one middle-aged. But this sparsely furnished room wasn’t intended for guests. The only chairs were four uncomfortable looking straight-backed chairs from the Tudor period. There was no welcoming fire and a table stood off to the side, strewn with maps, letters, and books. It did not bode well. What were these men doing in a girls’ school late at night? Equally baffling was the question of why a spy hole existed in a dark passage of that same school. It must be a forgotten hiding place from the house’s Tudor days, when, according to my history books, royal families were obsessed with spying on one another.
The younger of the two men paced, while the elder stood completely still. Both tall in stature, they were opposites in every other way, angel and devil, light and shadow. The older man stood at ease. Tranquil. His golden hair thinning and his skin roughened from years in the sun. The younger man looked only a handful of years older than me and had midnight black hair and hard angular planes in his face. His eyes flashed with impatience and a sword swung at his hip as he paced.
“We’re wasting time, Captain,” he grumbled. “If we leave now we can make the crossing before morning. We must strike while his men still think he’s dead.” I detected a slight French accent in his speech.
The captain shook his head. “They already know.”
“How?” The younger man stopped pacing and pressed a fist atop the hilt of his sword. “His own family has been kept in the dark.”
“Face facts, Sebastian, he has eluded us for weeks. Always a step ahead. Someone is helping him. Someone knows he’s alive.”
Sebastian spun around and raked a hand through his dark curls. “Who? Thistlewood and his Jacobean cronies?”
“No. Too well-organized for that lot.” He rested a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder. “I think the Order of the Iron Crown is back at work. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Half of France wants Napoleon restored to the throne. There must be more collaborators on this side of the pond than we suspected.”
Order of the Iron Crown?
What sort of girls’ school welcomed conspirators into their private rooms? I clutched the wall to balance myself. Bits of old mortar crumbled in my palm.
Sebastian circuited the worn Turkish carpet, grumbling so low I could hardly hear. “. . . If anyone knows, mark my words, it’s her.”
Who? I wondered.
He circled back to my side of the room and declared, “We’ll make her tell us—force her if necessary.” I leaned as close as possible, straining to hear the other man’s response to Sebastian’s dire threat.
“Be reasonable. She’s a peer. What would you do? Put her on Emma’s rack?”
I covered the gasp that nearly escaped my mouth.
Sebastian shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. “Wouldn’t help. She’d only lie.” He stopped in front of the Elizabethan chest directly beneath me, and smacked his fist against his palm. “We have no choice. We must cross and run him aground now.”
“There is always a choice. You’re allowing emotion to rule your head.” The older man tucked his hands behind his back and waited until he had Sebastian’s full attention before continuing. “If Emma’s new student has developed a reliable invisible ink, one that can’t be detected by simply running a candle under the letter, think how that will aid us. Our time is better spent here, rather than chasing the Ghost across the channel and risk using the old codes.”
Codes. Ink. I couldn’t believe my ears. Surely, they weren’t talking about my ink formula. It had to be a coincidence. I clutched the edge of the niche and leaned closer, intent on hearing every word. They couldn’t possibly know about my experiments with ink. No one knew about my research, no one except my father, and . . .
Mother. She must have mentioned it in those wretched letters she sent Miss Stranje.
Sebastian exhaled loudly and glanced about the room before blurting, “We can’t be certain this girl has anything viable. We’re going on too little. The strength of a few letters and one governess enamored of her student.”
He couldn’t mean my Miss Grissmore? Surely not. What could she possibly have to do with all of this?
The captain’s stance stiffened, no longer tranquil, and if I were a sailor on his ship, I would be backing away. “I assure you, Emma has researched the matter thoroughly.” His tone was terse, full of command. “She’s been investigating the young lady for some time now. That is good enough for me.”
Open-mouthed, I sucked in air. Had someone been watching me? Investigating? No, surely not. They couldn’t be talking about me.
“Even so, she’s a mere girl. New to the school.” Sebastian crossed his arms. “What can she possibly know of chemistry and ink formulas? Chemistry requires an understanding of mathematics. In my experience, girls’ heads are full of fripperies and trinkets. Their weightiest calculations are deciding how many ruffles they want on their next ball gown.”
Fripperies? Ruffles? I curled my fingers around a decaying timber. What an arrogant jackanapes. I’d like to hit him over the head with a calculation or two.
With a shake of his head, the captain relaxed and said, “Careful, my boy. Never underestimate women. They’re dangerous. Apart from that, you know how selective Emma is about her young ladies. She only takes in the ones who . . .” He stopped and rubbed at the stubble on his cheek as if contemplating his next words.
Drat! What about the girls in this school? I balanced on the edge of the landing, barely able to keep from shouting at him, yes, yes, go on. The ones who . . . ?
I did shout. My foot slipped off the ledge. I screamed and scratched wildly at the tapestry, trying to grab hold of some nubbin or knot in the weave, fighting to keep my balance, but it swung open. Scrabbling in vain, midair, I dropped like a stone. Except time slowed to a torturous crawl.
My future rushed toward me in predictable angles, calculable forces, inescapable Newtonian physics.
I would be dashed to bits on the monstrous Elizabethan chest below. My lungs would be punctured on the steepled gothic finials. Other parts of me would be bruised and pierced on the metal studs hammered along the edge. In short, I would die.
I closed my eyes.
Instead of breaking my ribs against the sharp-edged chest and plummeting to the floor, I felt myself whisked sideways, swooped away from the furniture. An angel must have saved me. Or perhaps I had died and flown directly into heaven?
Unlikely, on several counts.
I opened my eyes and found myself cradled in the devil’s arms. Stunned beyond words or good sense, I blinked, noting that Sebastian’s eyes were a startling blue.
I ran through several explanations I might give for my sudden appearance, but decided against speaking. Instead, I concentrated on recovering my breath. I felt a distinct sense of satisfaction to see that Sebastian’s impatience had completely disappeared. The young man seemed quite as astonished as I.
Introductions were in order.
So, I began. “For your information, I have never given a single thought to the number of ruffles on my ball gown. Ever.” There. That told him.
One of his eyebrows shot up to meet a shock of dark hair that had fallen across his brow. My moment of triumph might’ve lasted longer if his surprise hadn’t melted into a lazy sardonic smile. Smug scoundrel.
The captain rushed to us. “Is she all right?”
Sebastian’s gaze wandered casually down my neck and kept going, brazenly surveying areas of my person that he ought not to look upon so directly. “Yes, I believe so.” Finally, his wicked eyes returned to my face where they belonged. Although, the way he studied my nose and mouth I wondered if the brigand was counting my freckles. He cleared his throat, and with a sly half smile, said, “Although she must have bumped her head. She keeps going on about ruffles.”
“I do not. And for your information, a ball gown doesn’t have ruffles, it has flounces.”
“See what I mean?” Sebastian shook his head mournfully. “Poor thing is delirious.”
I buckled my lips together and then promptly unbuckled them. I meant to put a hasty end to his mockery. “Why were you discussing my ink?” I demanded.
At that precise moment, the door opened and Miss Stranje glided into the room. She took one look at me draped across Sebastian’s arms, glanced up at the tapestry dangling open in front of the spy hole, and hesitated only a moment before calmly addressing us as if nothing was amiss. “Ah, I see you’ve met my newest student.” Her gaze narrowed at me. “Miss Fitzwilliam, how clever you are to have already discovered one of our secret passages. Incidentally, your parents asked me to bid you adieu.”
Adieu? She was making that up; my parents didn’t use French phrases. “They’re gone? Without saying farewell?”
Miss Stranje inclined her head. “Your father thought it would be better this way.”
Better for whom? Not me. It wasn’t better. Not better, at all. They’d abandoned me. How could they leave me in this awful place? I felt disoriented, dizzy, like I might be falling again. My stomach lurched. I bit my lip to keep from crumpling, and turned my face into Sebastian’s chest, away from the wobbling light of the oil lamps.
I didn’t intend to sink deeper into his arms. Sadness rendered me momentarily weak. Cradled in his arms I felt warm and comforted, yet uneasy at the same time. I’d never been held by a man before, except, perhaps, by my father, but that was so long ago I had no memory of it. Father—who had just discarded me, left me in this place like unwanted baggage. I suppressed the instinct to curl up, to double over against the gnawing ache in my middle. I fought it. Trembling with the effort.
Sebastian’s arms tightened around me.
I mustered my pride, fought to regain my senses and take charge of the situation. To do that, I needed to get on my feet. I certainly didn’t belong in this man’s arms. Apparently, I didn’t belong anywhere.
A surge of something, maybe it was anger at the injustice of it, or maybe it was knowing I had no one to depend upon but myself, whatever the source, I found the strength to push against his chest. “Put me down, sir.”
“Lord Wyatt is a viscount, Georgiana. One must address him as my lord, rather than sir.” Miss Stranje instructed me as if I were a complete simpleton. “Thus, you would say, ‘Kindly put me down, my lord.’”
I didn’t care whether he was a viscount or a fishmonger. I needed to get out of his arms and onto solid ground.
Sebastian studied my face. “You’re still pale. After that fall, are you quite certain you’re steady enough to stand?” A wash of pity colored his features. I wanted none of it.
“Quite. Now, if you would be so gracious, my lord, as to kindly set me on the floor.” I emphasized his title with more sarcasm than I ought, and nearly spat the word kindly at Miss Stranje. My mother would’ve whipped me soundly for such rudeness. In my defense, I was still startled by the fall and my parents’ hasty departure.
Sebastian lowered my feet to the ground. “You’re welcome,” he said coldly, reminding me I hadn’t thanked him for saving my life. He straightened his rumpled sleeves and brushed away a cobweb I must have carried down with me on my skirts.
I couldn’t risk gratitude. Not just yet. My composure hung by a thread more fragile than the cobwebs he brushed off his coat. I set my jaw and turned to Miss Stranje. “Did my father mention at which inn he would be staying?”
Her bird-of-prey features softened. “No. I offered him rooms here, but he insisted on a hasty departure. To avoid a fuss, as he put it.”
“I would not have made a fuss.” A lie. I would’ve clung to his boots and begged like a street urchin, like one of the peasants my mother detested. The untruth made me flush with heat. Unable to look at them, I studied the intricate pattern in the Turkish carpet.
“Of course not.” Miss Stranje stepped aside and gestured to the doorway. “You may be excused for the evening, Miss Fitzwilliam. Your trunks have been carried to the girls’ dormitorium. You’ll find it easy enough. It’s up one flight, turn left into the east wing, the second room on the right.”
I was not a child that she should dismiss me out of hand. I faced her squarely, just as if my knees weren’t quaking. “These men were discussing my invisible ink.”
Miss Stranje didn’t flinch. That sharp hawk-like expression of hers returned, unreadable and shrewd. “Were they?” she said, without a modicum of surprise.
That proved it. They had, indeed, been talking about my ink. But why? The experiment had failed miserably, burst into flames, and Miss Stranje knew it.
“I demand to know why.” I couldn’t keep my wretched tongue from betraying my curiosity. I jutted my chin, defying her. I wanted answers. How had she found out about my research into invisible ink? Had she investigated me? Why? “And what does Miss Grissmore have to do with this?”
A flash of surprise lit her eyes but instantly vanished, followed by a frighteningly cold steel shuttering of her features. I stepped back involuntarily. Miss Stranje’s face became an unyielding mask of civility. She gestured to the hall again. “It is late, Miss Fitzwilliam. Bid Captain Grey and Lord Wyatt good night. You really must run along and attend to your luggage.”
“And your ruffles,” Sebastian said under his breath, sweeping into an overly flamboyant bow, but not before I glimpsed his insufferable smirk.
I frowned at him so hard the impertinent rogue ought to have shriveled to dust. He remained annoyingly intact. Rather than give them a quick curtsey, I wanted to slam the door on them and run headlong into the night after my parents’ coach. Except, that would be utter foolishness, and while I admit to many defects of character, foolishness is not numbered among them.
Order the Book at:
Amazon hardcopy: http://amzn.com/0765376008/
Amazon eBook: http://amzn.com/B00OXHDPS0/
Walmart online: http://www.walmart.com/ip/43379193