Excerpt: The Wrong Girl

Book 1 : The 1st Freak House Trilogy

The Wrong Girl (Freak House) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Windamere Manor, Hertfordshire, November 1888

To say I’d been kept prisoner my entire life in an attic wasn’t quite true. It was only fifteen years out of eighteen, and I was allowed to walk in the gardens for a half-hour some days. Besides, the attic rooms of Windamere Manor covered the top-most floor of the entire west wing, and Violet and I had the run of them.

Nor did we want for anything. As little girls, we had every doll and toy we could desire. As young women, we had music and books, embroidery and sewing, and an education from the finest tutors. Lord Wade was generous in all things, except, of course, his love and attention toward Vi, his daughter.

She tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, but I knew better. She couldn’t hide her melancholy from me, or her desire to be rid of the affliction that stopped her from taking her place as the eldest of Lord Wade’s children in the outside world. I saw it in her watery eyes as she gazed out the window and the way she hugged herself upon seeing the fresh burns in the Oriental rug. The latter only came after one of her episodes. The trinkets and tutors couldn’t replace her parents, and in many ways she and I were both orphans, although I, Hannah Smith, was the only true one.

As prisons go, the attic of Windamere was pleasant enough, and as the orphaned daughter of servants with a strange affliction of her own to endure, I was more fortunate than most in my situation. I’d read the stories by Mr. Dickens. I knew a child of my class could wind up in the cruel workhouses if they were lucky, and the friendless streets if they were not. I’d been given a roof over my head, food in my belly, an education to rival any lord’s daughter and a dear friend in Vi. Indeed, she was more like a sister than friend. She cared for me when I awoke from my unpredictable slumbers, disoriented and sluggish with a gaping hole in my memory. She was always nearby and had been for as long as I could recall.

What more could I—dare I—want?

I had just woken from one of those deep, dense sleeps when Miss Levine, our governess, stalked into our attic parlor, her black woolen gown so heavy that the skirt didn’t even ripple as she moved. Her lashless eyes narrowed as she took in Vi and me sitting on the floor, holding each other. Her nostrils, two small caves at the end of a beakish nose, flared wider as she sniffed the acrid, smoky air. At such moments she resembled a rat with her sharp face and equally sharp eyes. Vi and I used to giggle behind our hands when we were little and make jokes about her rattiness. It was an attempt to stave off our fear, both of Miss Levine and of what caused the scorch marks. But we hadn’t made any jokes in a long time, not since Miss Levine overheard us once and struck me with a cane until I apologized. I’d been ten years old at the time.

“At least you spared the wall hangings,” Miss Levine said, her tone brisk. “A small mercy for which Lady Wade will no doubt be thankful. She doesn’t have time to be furnishing these rooms, you know. She has the rest of the house to consider.”

I felt Vi tense. Lady Wade, her mother, never visited us in the attic—something for which we were both grateful. It was enough to have to put up with ratty Miss Levine’s moods. At least our governess had enough passion in her to grow angry on occasion. Lady Wade was simply indifferent to our plight, and that indifference made her as bleak as a February night.

“I’m sorry, Miss Levine,” Vi whispered, lowering her head so that her forehead touched mine. She tucked a strand of my curly red-gold hair behind my ear, but it sprang free again. “I couldn’t stop it.”

Her grip tightened around my shoulders, and I pulled her closer. It was difficult to tell who was comforting whom. Perhaps it was a little of both. As always, I soothed Vi after she almost set the attic on fire, and she soothed me as I fought my way out of the fog of my narcolepsy. Our twin afflictions, seemingly intertwined with one another’s, were inexplicable as much as they were dangerous.

“Stop apologizing to her,” I whispered. “You can’t help what happened and she knows it.” It was an old refrain, spoken over and over, but it was one I felt compelled to repeat. Perhaps one day Vi would listen and cease apologizing for something she couldn’t control.

“Get up, Miss Smith,” snapped Miss Levine. “You are not an invalid.” She waved a hand at the black scorch mark near the edge of the rug. “Attend to that.”

“I’ll do it,” Vi said, rising. She held out her hand and I took it, although I already felt stronger and didn’t need her assistance.

When I first woke from my strange slumbers, as I called my episodes, I felt vague, like I wasn’t altogether there. It was as if I were drifting through a dream, and my head might as well have been stuffed full of cotton. After a few minutes, my head slowly cleared, and I could function normally again. Usually by then Vi had inadvertently set something alight. She claimed her episodes were brought on by her fear for me in my comatose state, but I’d never been quite convinced that was the case. It didn’t make sense, although Vi certainly was afraid for me. That I didn’t doubt. Poor, dear Vi was always afraid. It was why she needed me.

“No, I will.” I squeezed her hand. “Go and rest on the settee, Lady Violet.”

Her mouth twisted at my teasing. She didn’t like me calling her by her full title. “You’re too good to me, Hannah.”

“She’s lazy is what she is.” Miss Levine wrapped her bony fingers around my arm so tightly I could feel my blood bank up in my veins. “Water, Miss Smith. Now.”

I jerked free and set my feet apart to give myself a steadier stance. I might be slight in stature and Miss Levine tall, but I would not make it easy for her to push me about. I turned eighteen last month, and Vi a few months before that. We were no longer children. If anything, Miss Levine should be concerned that she’d lose her position now that neither of her charges needed her. I, on the other hand, was indispensable to Vi’s happiness. For as long as she was confined to the attic, I would be with her.

“The fire’s already out,” I said. “There’s no need for water.”

“Nevertheless, I’ve asked you to fetch it,” Miss Levine said.

“Actually, you didn’t ask, you ordered.”

“Do not test me, Miss Smith.” Then Miss Levine did something I hadn’t expected. She heaved a deep sigh. It caused her usually rod-straight back to curve, her shoulders to stoop. “We don’t have time for your stubbornness. It’s time for your walk. You don’t want to miss that, do you? I know how you like to go out. Especially of late.” Her lips curled back in what I suspected was an attempt at a smile, although I’d never actually seen her smile before, and I couldn’t think what she found amusing about our walk on this particular day. “Fetch some water and make sure the fire is completely out. You know what’ll happen if the floor beneath the rug is smoldering.”

I knew. Three years ago, after a particularly bad attack, Vi had set the wood-paneled wall behind one of the woolen hangings alight and the flames had quickly spread. Fortunately the fire was extinguished before it did too much damage, but only because several pails were kept full of water at all times. Afterward, Lord Wade had ventured up to the attic to inspect the damage. The next day, we’d received new hangings. It was the last time Lord Wade had visited us.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Vi sink onto the settee as if her knees had given way. She turned her pale face to stare out the parlor’s only window. While we both loved looking at the scenery through that window and making up stories about the people we saw coming and going from the house, she hated venturing outside for our walks. She seemed especially anxious today. Indeed, her nervousness had grown worse after I’d spotted the handsome gardener watching us. I, on the other hand, had been curious. Poor Vi. She was as much imprisoned by her fears as by her father.

I did as I was told and dipped the jug into one of the pails of water lined up between the small fireplace and the door.

I splashed the water from the jug over the burned patch, getting some of it on the hem of my gray woolen skirt. I checked under the rug—also woolen—but the floorboards had been spared.

Wool. It was everywhere. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning in the stuff. Woolen rugs on the floor, woolen hangings on the walls, woolen coverings on the chairs, settees and beds. My clothes were made of wool, even in summer, as were Vi’s and Miss Levine’s. Everything flammable was kept in chests and drawers, all draped in woolen fabric of course. I was convinced that we were single handedly responsible for the English wool market’s profits. It doesn’t burn you see. Not properly. It smolders when a flame is put to it, but once the flame is extinguished, there is nothing left but a blackened scar.

The attic, and we two girls, had been smothered in wool. Just once I wanted to wear a flimsy organdy gown like the ones worn by Lady Wade and her other daughter. I’d seen them through the window from the room we used as a parlor. The window looked down on the front steps of Windamere, and the long, straight avenue lined by ancient oaks that eventually swallowed the drive in the distance.

Sometimes I looked through the window at the gentle curve of hills and the thick woods at the edge of the vast Windamere estate and wished I was out there, exploring the world, meeting people, tasting freedom.

But I couldn’t leave Vi behind to live in the attic with only Miss Levine for company. Nor could Vi come with me, not with her condition. While my narcolepsy was a danger only to me, her fire starting was a danger to others. She needed my company.

Besides, where else could I go?

“Put on your coats, girls,” said Miss Levine, standing at the door. “It’s cool outside.”

“I’ll be all right,” I said, taking Vi’s hand. She shook her head very slightly in warning. I grinned at her. Vexing Miss Levine was a favorite pastime of mine since she no longer used her cane to punish us.

Vi chewed her lower lip and the action reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite recall what. Something at the edge of my memory, something to do with vexing Miss Levine and the worried look on Vi’s face.

But the memory slipped away before I could grasp it, and I didn’t bother trying to reclaim it. My memories rarely returned after my narcoleptic episodes, and I’d come to accept that they never would.

“I know you enjoy being tiresome, Miss Smith,” our governess said with an exasperated sigh, “but perhaps just this once you can put on your coat without argument. Gloves and hats too.”

I opened my mouth to tell her I wouldn’t wear gloves, but Vi frowned. “Please do as she says without quarreling.”

My hands dropped to my sides and I blinked at her. She rarely spoke to me with such vehemence, or to Miss Levine for that matter. Vi was the sweet-natured one, the peacemaker. She never challenged Miss Levine’s commands, never gainsaid an order. While it was the thing I loved about her the most, it irritated me in equal measure. She was Lady Violet Jamieson, daughter of the Earl of Wade. She shouldn’t be taking orders from anyone, let alone a governess.

“Vi? What’s wrong?”

Her blue eyes softened and she bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.”

“You didn’t.” I tucked a strand of her dark red hair behind her ear as she had done with mine earlier. Where my unruly locks had refused to stay, hers remained. How I admired her sleek hair, her creamy skin and beautiful face. She would have been the belle of the ball if she’d been allowed to attend one. She was the opposite of me in so many ways. I was short and small, my face freckled. Although we both had red hair, mine was pale and orange—orange!—whereas hers was a rich mahogany.

Miss Levine clapped her hands. “Quickly now, before the weather changes. The sky is already looking quite gray in the west.”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t go out,” said Vi.

Miss Levine gripped Vi’s arm and gave her such a withering glare that my friend’s face crumpled. “It’s too late to change our minds now.”

For once, I was in accord with Miss Levine. “If the weather changes and sets in, we may not get out again for days.” I crossed the landing to our shared bedroom and retrieved our coats, hats and gloves from the brass hooks near the door. The maids had already been through. The beds were made and the hearth free of ash. The servants at Windamere were an efficient, silent lot. I hardly ever saw them let alone heard them going about their business, yet everything was spotless.

I handed Vi her things and put on my coat and hat, but not my gloves. Those I carried. I was halfway down the stairs before Vi even set foot on the top step. She was stalling, but I wouldn’t let her fears keep me indoors. Not when it may be the last walk for some time with winter just around the corner, and not with the possibility of seeing that handsome gardener again, the one who watched me with such intensity that my skin prickled and my heart did little somersaults in my chest.

I waited for Vi and Miss Levine on the second-floor landing. They eventually caught up, and the governess gave me one of her stern looks. She was breathing much too hard to verbally reprimand me.

“Please slow down, Hannah,” Vi said, drawing alongside me. “They’ll be watching.”

‘They’ were the invisible yet ever-present servants. Vi always worried they would gossip about us, or be staring at us, the two peculiar girls who lived in the attic.

“Let them,” I said. I took her hand, and together we walked down the grand staircase to the entrance hall. The tap tap of our shoes on the tiles echoed around the marble hall and bounced off the columns that reached to the high ceiling, two levels above us. I glanced to my left, through the double doors into the opulent dining room beyond. It was a habit of mine when I came downstairs. The grand hall and adjoining dining room were the only two areas of the house I’d seen other than the attic, and for all I knew, the rest of Windamere Manor was nothing like those rooms. I couldn’t help comparing what I saw to our attic. Our sparse, wool-covered, low-ceilinged space couldn’t be further removed from the dining room. Slender statues of Roman goddesses were tucked into carved niches, and touches of gilding here and there broke up the pristine white of the walls and mantel. There was a rug too, but it was free of burns and nothing covered the large mahogany table or sideboard.

“Good afternoon, Lady Violet,” said the stiff butler, Pearson. He opened the front door and bowed, revealing his bald patch. “Enjoy your walk.”

“Th-thank you,” Vi stuttered. Her face flushed to the roots of her hair, and her grip tightened on my hand.

“Good afternoon, Pearson,” I said breezily. He hadn’t addressed me, but sometimes, when I was feeling particularly irreverent, I cast aside the rules of propriety. I was, after all, a prisoner, a narcoleptic and a companion to a lady who started fires with her mind. Propriety was the least of my concerns.

It must have been the prospect of seeing him again that fueled my impish mood. The tall, dark-haired gardener with the intense gaze and handsome face had occupied my thoughts ever since I’d first noticed him on our walk almost two weeks earlier. I’d seen him every time we’d taken a turn in the garden since. When I’d asked Miss Levine his name she’d dismissed my question with a flick of her skeletal fingers.

“Where shall we go?” I asked Vi. “Down to the lake or across the park?” It wouldn’t matter which way we went. He would be there. I knew it as surely as I knew my name was Hannah Smith.

Without waiting for an answer, I steered Vi down the terraced garden, Miss Levine trailing behind. That was another reason I enjoyed our walks. Although Miss Levine was always in attendance, she stayed a few paces back, giving Vi and I privacy.

“The sky looks rather ominous,” Vi said, stopping abruptly. She cast a glance over her shoulder and I followed her gaze, just in time to see a pale face disappear from a window on the first floor. I didn’t know which room the window looked into, but I did recognize the face. It belonged to Vi’s fifteen year-old sister, Eudora.

Vi and I had never met her, having been condemned to the attic together when Eudora was born, and not meeting her even once on our walks. When we’d first seen her watching us through the window some ten years ago, Miss Levine had informed us that she was Vi’s sister. It was the first we’d heard about her. We’d not even heard her crying as a baby.

I suspected Eudora had been ordered to stay away from us. The only other times I’d seen her was when I looked out the window as she’d left to walk or ride around the estate or to step into one of her father’s carriages.

“Nonsense,” I said cheerfully. “It’s lovely out. Those clouds are miles away.” It was an optimistic statement. The entire sky just beyond the house was as black as night, the low clouds heavy with rain. The sun, however, still shone on Windamere’s façade, bathing it in a golden glow it didn’t deserve.

The mansion was a statement of architectural perfection from the previous century when an ancestor of the current earl had built it. Wide and rectangular, it was all straight lines and right angles. The dozens of windows were precisely the same distance apart on all its three levels, and the grand front porch was placed exactly in the middle, the columns holding up the portico like soldiers keeping guard. Nothing was irregular or wrong at Windamere.

Nothing, that is, except Vi and I.

“Continue, girls,” barked Miss Levine. “Violet! Don’t stop now.”

Violet held the brim of her hat and led the way across the park toward the woods. The breeze ruffled the feathers attached to the hatband, and a strand of my hair fluttered against my cheek.

“You’re looking for him, aren’t you?” Vi said as I drew alongside her.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You shouldn’t. You know nothing about him.”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

She held the lapels of her coat together at her throat for warmth. “He could be dangerous. He could be waiting behind the bushes to…”

I snorted. “Vi, stop worrying. What do you think he’s going to do with you and Miss Levine here? Ravish me?” I laughed at the absurdity of it, but even so, my scalp tingled at the thought of the new gardener kissing me.

“It’s not a joke, Hannah.” We’d almost reached the edge of the woods, and she stopped again, eyeing the bank of trees as if they would stretch out their branches and capture us. “It’ll start raining soon.”

“You want to turn back, don’t you?”

She looked down at her boots and said nothing.

“Come on,” I said. “The exercise will do you good. Cool that fire within you.” I smiled at my little joke, but she only frowned harder. I winced. “Sorry.”

“If you’re determined to have your walk, then let’s walk.” Her tone was curt, crisp, so like Miss Levine’s. “I want to go into the woods today.”

“Really? I thought you hated the woods.”

I glanced back at Miss Levine. She still followed, her gaze focused not on us but on the trees.

I tilted my face into the cool breeze and a fat raindrop exploded on my cheek. “Bloody hell.”

“Hannah!” Vi scolded. She hated my occasional outburst, but she was used to them nevertheless and no longer truly shocked.

“We’d better hurry,” I said, walking faster, clutching my gloves tighter. Another raindrop splashed on the end of my nose, then another and another. “We need to find shelter. Shall we head towards the orangery instead?”

“No!”

I blinked at her. Her vehemence was so odd, so unlike her.

“The woods are closer.” She set off at a run toward the trees, and I followed. She was correct in that the thick canopy would provide some shelter against the rain. I didn’t look around to see if Miss Levine followed until I reached the trees, and when I did, I was surprised to find that she was not with us.

“We should wait here for her,” Vi said, breathing hard as she caught up to me.

I squinted through the rain and shook my head. “I can’t see her. She must have decided to run to the orangery.” The image of Miss Levine running anywhere was rather absurd, but it was odd that I couldn’t see her. Wherever she’d gone, it wasn’t toward us.

“The woodsman’s cottage isn’t far from here.” Vi had to shout to be heard above the rain splattering against the leaves. “Let’s wait for her there.”

“I don’t particularly care to wait for Miss Levine anywhere,” I said. “But let’s go anyway. We’ll enjoy our temporary freedom, and get out of this weather.” I set off along the path that had been hacked through the ferns and other bushes.

Vi’s footsteps thudded on the damp leaves and earth behind me. Although we moved as quickly as we could, we were both drenched by the time we reached the old woodsman’s cottage in the clearing. I pushed open the door and stumbled inside, Vi at my heels. She slammed the door, shutting out the wind and rain, but not the cool dampness.

Calling the building a cottage was perhaps a stretch. It was more like a hut, with only one room and one fireplace with a dented pot nestled among the ashes. The cottage must have stood in that clearing for centuries. The blackened beams hung low overhead, and the daub had come away in patches, revealing a skeleton of thin branches that held the walls up by some miracle. A small chest to one side of the fire contained tin bowls, cups, cutlery and a pan, and placed strategically in front of the hearth were two chairs.

“Good lord, I’m soaked!” I removed my coat and threw it and my gloves over the back of a chair.

Vi glanced around. “We’re alone.”

“You sound surprised.”

“I…I thought the gardeners may have sheltered here too.”

The gardeners did indeed use the cottage to store equipment or their packed lunch if they worked nearby, and we usually knocked before going inside, just in case. But, despite the rain and the need for shelter, the single-room cottage was unoccupied.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes,” Vi said.

One could only hope. I wouldn’t mind seeing that new gardener again, although I was sure he wouldn’t remain once he discovered us there. A male servant confined in a small space with Lady Violet would tarnish her reputation and be cause for malicious gossip if discovered.

The fact that I worried about her reputation was laughable considering she was unlikely ever to enter Society and had no need of a reputation, either good or bad.

“They must be working farther away today,” I said.

Vi glanced out the window and hugged herself as a shudder wracked her. “The rain seems to have set in. We should start a small fire if we’re to be here awhile.” She inspected the wood box near the hearth. “There’s no kindling. Will you fetch some, Hannah?”

Pity she couldn’t set alight the thick piece of timber she removed from the box with a point of her finger. At least that would be a benefit to an affliction that made her life miserable.

I ventured out again. The wind slammed the door closed behind me and lashed my damp skirt to my legs. It tugged my hair out from beneath my hat and drove the cold needles of rain into my cheeks. The tired, drooping porch did little to protect either me or the neat stack of wood near the door. Hopefully the kindling inside the box fared better.

I bent to open the lid, but stopped when I saw something move out of the corner my eye. I turned to look. Nothing there except trees and rain. I straightened.

Someone grabbed me from behind. A hand holding a cloth clamped over my nose and mouth. A sweet smell swamped me and clung to the back of my throat. I tried to scream, but what little sound came out would not have reached Vi. I scrabbled at the hand, tried to pull it away, but my attacker was too strong. His other arm circled my waist, holding me against his body. I knew it was a man. No woman was built like a steel brace.

The sweet smell filled my head, my lungs, and I began to feel myself drifting into a fog. A sudden wave of panic lent me strength. I clawed at that bare hand again. The man’s breath hissed through his teeth as I peeled off some of his skin with my fingernails, but my fight was all too brief. The fog closed around me. My eyelids were too leaden to keep open.

“It’s all right, Lady Violet,” he said. His words vibrated through the back of my head, pressed into his chest. “You’ll come to no harm if you cooperate.”

I felt myself slipping away. I could no longer stand and he picked me up. I would have been able to see his face if I could only open my eyes. Yet I was not so concerned about his identity at that moment as I was about what he’d just called me.

He thought I was Vi. He might be carrying me away from her, but I could still protect her. I would not tell him he had the wrong girl.

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