The Governess Gambit – Erica Ridley

Miss Chloe Wynchester sucked in one last breath of semi-clean air from the open attic windows and then poked her head through one of the narrow apertures high above the central chandelier in the House of Commons. Her nostrils immediately tickled with the smoke from dozens of flickering candles and the musty scent wafting from a large chamber packed with several hundred men. The octagonal ventilation shaft was her only viewing gallery. Women had no place in Parliament. But Chloe never allowed anything so dull as not belonging to keep her from somewhere she wished to be. Much of this blessing was due to her eminently forgettable nature. She was neither tall nor short, thin nor fat, ugly nor beautiful. Her clothes were neither fashionable nor tattered, her hair neither smartly curled nor a mess of tangles. Her eyes and hair were brown, the most common color. Her skin was white, neither pockmarked nor freckled. Having one of those faces that was always vaguely familiar was brilliant for pretending to be an old acquaintance. Chloe was not a lady. She was a Whitechapel foundling, now grown to almost eight and twenty years. She’d had the immense fortune to be plucked from the orphanage and fostered by a foreign lord at the age of ten, but most orphans were not so lucky. That was why she was here.

Chloe never missed a session of Parliament if she could help it, in order to stay abreast of any news of the government doing something—anything—to help the poor. Most often, when the subject of money arose, the government’s aim was to put coin in their pockets, rather than give aid to those who had none. Parishes had workhouses, did they not? There were foundling hospitals for orphaned infants, were there not? The sort of thing a wealthy man might say, because he’d never been abandoned in a wicker basket, or had to wonder if tomorrow there might be a crust of bread to eat, or collapsed from exhaustion after working from dawn to dusk for months on end without a single day’s respite. It wasn’t that the members of Parliament didn’t know this was happening. They didn’t care enough to do something about it. It was not their business. This was just how the world worked. None of which stopped Chloe from penning and disseminating countless pamphlets in an attempt to educate the wealthy on the plight of poverty. There were a few ladies’ societies dedicated to charity for the poor, and Chloe appreciated them very much. Women like that were the reason she’d had somewhere to go as a newborn squalling inside of a basket.

But for big improvements, structural improvements, lasting improvements, one was forced to rely on the opinions of a chamber full of rich white men in top hats and tailcoats slowly sweating themselves into a puddle. They sat hip-to-hip with each other on long, narrow benches as the summer sun beat down upon the roof. She pulled her head out of the ventilation shaft for another gulp of marginally-lessfusty air before returning her face to the smoky draft inside. There he was. Her heart beat faster. The statesman with the rich, smooth voice was the reason she had hope. Lawrence Gosling, Marquess of Lanbrooke, was the orator Chloe most loved to watch. It was not because of his soft brown hair or angular jaw. Or his wide shoulders displayed to perfection in a bespoke gray coat, paired with sharp black breeches over strong, muscular legs. It was because Lanbrooke sometimes spoke about helping people who could not speak for themselves in Parliament.

Despite having to hunch over at an awkward angle to achieve a partially obstructed view, Chloe would not move from this position until Lanbrooke concluded his speech. When he spoke, people listened. She included the occasional pithy quote from him in her pamphlets, which made the content seem less idealistic and more official. If the future Duke of Faircliffe agreed with certain points, the public might think, surely some of the other ideas also had merit. Eventually, when Lanbrooke inherited the Faircliffe dukedom, he would take his seat in the House of Lords. Although there was no convenient attic theatre box above that chamber, Chloe had no doubt Lanbrooke would continue to champion unpopular causes there just as often as he did here in the House of Commons. After all, she’d been watching him speak for almost a decade. In fact— A rhythmic knocking sound came from the roof just overhead. Tat, rat-a-tat, tat. It was the signal.

With one last look at her favorite statesman, Chloe eased her head out of the small square hole she’d been peeking through and blinked around the attic. Occasionally the wife of a Member of Parliament would come to watch part of the proceedings, or the housekeeper—whose private chamber was up here in the attic— might pass by with a broom and a dustpan. Today, Chloe was alone. Not that it mattered. No one would remember her presence anyway. Chloe’s relentlessly ordinary features were bland enough not to be describable in any identifiable way. Over the years, she’d cultivated her forgettableness by never meeting eyes or making conversation unless absolutely necessary, and even then ensuring each encounter was as ordinary and unremarkable as possible. This skill had allowed her to slip past countless witnesses, without leaving any clear memory of the meeting behind. Tat, rat-a-tat, tat. “Yes, yes,” she muttered under her breath.

“I heard you the first time.” There must be an adventure afoot. She strode to an open window and made the answering knock on the wooden frame so that her brother Graham would know his message had been received and heeded. Her brother had never met a structure he couldn’t easily scale. Graham needn’t bother with anything so mundane as stairs. A flying buttress? No problem. He could sprint up it to the rooftop as nimbly as a squirrel. Chloe, on the other hand, was obliged to take the stairs. She hurried down, leather half-boots padding silently on the wooden steps, the handsome MP already forgotten. There were more important things than Parliament.

The Wynchester siblings didn’t just talk about doing good works. The Wynchester siblings delivered. Whenever there was a problem the system couldn’t—or wouldn’t—attend to, Chloe and her tight-knit family of fellow orphans turned their unique talents to finding justice. It was time for another mission. C CHAPTER 2 hloe leapt from her carriage the moment it paused at the Wynchester family’s large home in semi-fashionable Islington. She raced up the path to the entrance. Their butler, Mr. Randall, had the door open long before Chloe reached it. “Everyone is in the blue parlor,” Mr. Randall said as he took her bonnet.

“The poor woman is in quite a state. She won’t speak to anyone but you.” “Me?” Chloe repeated in surprise. The only people who ever remembered her lived under this roof: the various Wynchester siblings, their foster father Baron Vanderbean, known familiarly as Bean, and a household of cherished servants. For someone else to remember her—to ask for her—to need her! Chloe thanked Mr. Randall over her shoulder as she rushed to the blue parlor. Bean was in his usual armchair, a gorgeous cream-and-red bergère. As usual, his snow-white hair was impeccably styled, and his quick blue eyes were the first to notice Chloe. Very little got past Bean. He was the one who had taught her that any good strategy began with keen observation.

To his left sat handsome, brown-skinned Jacob Wynchester, with a golden puppy on his lap. Jacob was usually out in the barn training or rescuing one animal or another, but he always joined the family whenever a client was in trouble. His dark eyes were on their guests. Tommy Wynchester sat on his other side, her frock coat gorgeously tailored and her cravat impeccable. Only her short brown hair was tousled, as though she’d recently dragged her fingers through it. Behind them, standing against the silk-covered walls, was golden-skinned, blackhaired Graham Wynchester. He must have flown home from the Palace of Westminster to beat Chloe here and yet somehow, he managed to look refreshed and presentable. Elizabeth Wynchester sat on one of the sofas, her hands folded on the serpentine handle of her cane, which concealed a sharp blade. Her chin rested atop her folded hands and her sharp green eyes glittered. Next to her was diminutive Marjorie Wynchester, her face and fingers flecked with colored paints.

She spent most of her time in her third-floor studio, creating works of art or forging someone else’s. On the opposite sofa was a distraught matron with a familiar face. Mrs. Pine. With apple cheeks and bright gray eyes framed with laugh lines, Mrs. Pine was usually a ray of sunshine in a dark place. She worked at the orphanage where Chloe had grown up. Mrs. Pine had been the one who discovered her basket on their front step and brought it in from the cold. Mrs.

Pine had known Tommy for just as long but could be forgiven for not recognizing her. The tall figure in trousers and a waistcoat did not resemble the little girl named Thomasina. Tommy rarely left home as the same person twice, unless a mission required it. Some days she was a gentleman, others a lady. Sometimes old, sometimes young. It was impossible to fathom what mischief she’d been in the midst of when the knock came at the door. Next to Mrs. Pine sat a young girl, anywhere between eight and twelve years of age. She looked healthy, but childhood malnourishment often made it difficult to determine age at a single glance. At least she was with Mrs.

Pine now. The motherly woman would do everything in her power to keep the girl safe. “You’re here!” Mrs. Pine sprang up from the sofa and rushed to greet Chloe. “I knew you’d come to the orphanage soon—we are all forever indebted to your family for the quarterly donations—but I’m afraid this couldn’t wait. I’m in… I have… a bit of a pickle.” “She has me,” the skinny little girl on the couch said defiantly. “Again.” “And with me you’ll stay,” Mrs. Pine assured the child.

“That is, I hope so. I haven’t any authority to… but that’s why we’re here. Chloe’s family solves hopeless cases for the desperate. I never thought to become a hopeless case myself, but… Well, here we are. You’re my last resort and my only hope. Please tell me you can help.” “We’ll do our best,” Bean promised. “No matter what it is. Please, take your seat and tell us about it. Leave nothing out.

” Chloe settled into an empty armchair between Bean and Mrs. Pine. “The problem is… Well, no, you’re not a problem, darling, I don’t mean it like that. I’m just trying to… This is Dot.” Mrs. Pine placed her arm reassuringly about the child’s shoulders. “She came to us as a foundling nine years ago. Last month, she was fostered by a wealthy family outside of Benson.” Chloe and her siblings exchanged raised eyebrows. A rich benefactor was an unlikely achievement for an orphan.

Finding Bean was the single greatest thing that had happened to them. But despite this stroke of good fortune, something must be gravely wrong. “Being placed with a family of means is lovely,” Chloe said. “Congratulations.” Dot glared at her. Mrs. Pine winced apologetically. “She sneaked back.” “Sneaked… back?” Chloe repeated. Baron Vanderbean had been the best thing to happen in any of the Wynchester siblings’ lives.

They wouldn’t be siblings if he hadn’t found them and adopted them, giving them a name and a family and a purpose. She knew from experience that a kindhearted philanthropist such as Bean was the exception to the rule, but Chloe also knew how it felt to try to fall asleep in a narrow liceridden cot whilst her stomach twisted painfully in hunger. She would have traded anything for a clean bed and a warm meal. The orphanage was less dreadful now—due in no small part to the Wynchesters’ gifts and donations—but all the same, it was an orphanage. Something awful must have happened to make Dot run away from her new family. She turned to Dot and spoke gently. “Tell me about it.” “They said they wanted me. They didn’t.” Dot crossed her arms and held Chloe’s gaze despite the sudden glossy sheen reflecting in her eyes.

“They tossed me away.” “To a boarding school,” Mrs. Pine explained quickly. “Except it wasn’t. I’m getting ahead of myself.” “It’s all right,” said Chloe. “Start at the beginning. We have as much time as you need.” Mrs. Pine nodded gratefully.

“The family consisted of a mother, a father, and a daughter, who had begged endlessly for a sibling to play with. After years with no luck, they decided to foster an orphan about the same age as their daughter, in order to give her the playmate she’d always desired. Dot seemed perfect. Dot, you are perfect. Don’t let small-minded people—” Dot turned away with her nose in the air, blinking rapidly. “The daughter decided she could not abide sharing her parents’ attention after all,” Mrs. Pine said with a sigh. “The parents were too well bred to give a child they’d promised to raise back to the orphanage she’d come from. They felt an obligation to see to Dot’s future, and meant to make good on it. So they sent her to boarding school.

” “It is not a school,” Dot said darkly. “It’s a workhouse.” Mrs. Pine let out a sigh. “It was for you, and for that I am sorry.” She turned back to Chloe. “Sarah Spranklin’s Seminary for Girls is an institution just outside of London that accepts boarders year-round.” Dot hugged herself tight. “My ‘family’ didn’t want me back.” “The school has a special program,” Mrs.

Pine explained. “At a discount in tuition, the child helps with chores and is later placed in gainful employment, such as that of governess, which is very respectable.” “It would be,” Dot agreed. “If it happened.” Mrs. Pine’s mouth tightened. “Dot says none of the girls in the ‘special program’ have any contact with the other students, other than to cook their meals, wash their clothes and dishes, and empty their chamber pots. They work all day, with little time to do more than sleep on hard pallets and begin the day all over again. Dot’s tuition was paid in advance from now until she reaches her majority.” “I assume they couldn’t contact their families,” Bean said quietly.

Dot’s lower lip wobbled. “We haven’t pen or paper, nor time to use them even if we did. Some who’ve lived there since they were small can scarcely read or write. We’re kept in the attic, except when we’re working. And always under Miss Spranklin’s watchful eye.” “Heaven forgive me, I thought Miss Spranklin was nice.” Mrs. Pine’s voice cracked. “She visited the orphanage last year, and ended up taking a young girl named Agnes home with her. I thought… I thought it was a fairytale.

Like Chloe and Thomasina, Agnes was kind and clever. I thought she’d make a brilliant governess.” “Agnes makes porridge and boiled vegetables,” Dot said. “She’s in the kitchen before dawn and cannot sleep until the last dish is clean.” “I put her there,” Mrs. Pine whispered, her face pale and her eyes tortured. “I signed the papers and let her go with nothing more than a smile and a wave.” “You didn’t know,” Chloe said softly. “From the sound of it, no one knows but Miss Spranklin and the girls themselves.” She could still remember the wretched indecision she’d felt when Bean had offered to give her a home.

He was rich and titled. Even at ten years old, it had sounded too good to be true. The only adult who had ever treated Chloe with compassion was Mrs. Pine. It was thanks to her encouragement that Tommy and Chloe were now safe and comfortable and part of a big, loving family.

.

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