It all began with a letter.
While the rest of the teaching staff sat down to dinner, Annabelle Quinn hurried along the gloomy corridor at Mrs. Baxter’s Academy for Young Ladies. The loud knocking echoed again through the entrance hall, and in her haste, Annabelle nearly tripped on one of the cracked tiles in the foyer. She steadied herself with a hand on the newel post before proceeding to the door.
It was highly unusual to receive a visitor in the evening. The pupils were already settled in their dormitory, and she and the other teachers would soon retire for the night. Few people ever came to this remote country school in the moors of Yorkshire, only the vicar and the occasional tinker or deliveryman.
The massive front door creaked as she opened it. Framed by the purple dusk, a stoop-shouldered stranger in the garb of a workman stood on the porch. “Ye took yer sweet time,” he grumbled while shoving a letter at her. “I was paid to put this straight into yer hand.”
Orphaned at birth, Annabelle had never received a letter. “My hand? But who—?”
The man ignored her questions. He clomped down the steps and climbed onto a sway-backed nag. With a flick of the reins, he went trotting off down the drive.
She turned over the sealed note with great interest. Her mind resurrected a buried dream from her childhood: a long-lost relative arriving to declare that Annabelle had been stolen at birth, and offering to whisk her away into the arms of a warm and loving family …
The last light of dusk fell upon the front of the envelope. She blinked at the elegant spidery script. It was addressed to the headmistress.
Annabelle felt instantly foolish. Of course the letter wasn’t meant for her. The man had been instructed to give the note to someone—anyone—at the school rather than drop it into the postbox by the door where it would not be noticed until the morrow.
In all her twenty-four years at the boarding school, first as a charity student and then as a teacher, Annabelle could not recall a single other instance in which Mrs. Baxter had received a letter by special delivery. If this message couldn’t wait until the midday post, it must be extremely important.
The thought gave wings to her feet as she hurried back along the murky corridor to the dining chamber at the rear of the ancient converted manor house. There, she paused in the doorway.
Candles in pewter holders cast a meager illumination over the long table laid with crockery and tin flatware. The aroma of roast beef and potatoes drifted from the covered dishes on the sideboard. The dozen teachers sat listening while Mrs. Baxter read aloud in a gravelly monotone from her well-worn Bible.
Annabelle debated whether or not to interrupt. Did she dare to break the rule of silence during these nightly readings? But what if the letter conveyed urgent news? Wouldn’t she then be scolded for not speaking up at once?
She cleared her throat. “I beg your pardon.”
Mrs. Baxter stopped in mid-verse and scowled over a pair of rimless reading glasses. A skeletal woman with a bony bosom, she had gray hair scraped back into a bun and covered by a lace widow’s cap. “Have you so little regard for the holy Scripture, Miss Quinn?”
“Forgive me,” Annabelle murmured, deeming it wise to lower her chin in humility. “But you’ve received a letter by special messenger.”
“No earthly correspondence could be more important than the heavenly Word.” The headmistress clapped the Bible shut. “However, since you’ve been so bold as to interrupt, don’t stand there like a dolt. Bring the letter to me at once.”
A muffled giggle emanated from one of the teachers, followed by the murmur of whispered conversation. Annabelle knew without looking who they were, razor-tongued Mavis Yates and her dull-witted disciple, Prudence Easterbrook. They were two peas in a rotten pod.
The other women avoided Annabelle’s gaze as she walked toward the head of the table. Almost too late, she spied Mr. Tibbles lying beneath the headmistress’s chair. The orange tabby cat was Mrs. Baxter’s pride and joy—and a bane to everyone else.
As Annabelle handed over the letter, Mr. Tibbles hissed a warning. His green eyes looked demonic in the candlelight and his long tail flicked back and forth on the carpet. Having been scratched in the past, Annabelle wisely backed away and slipped into the single empty chair at the long table.
Mrs. Baxter broke the seal and unfolded the paper. As she scanned the message, her pinched features took on an unusual animation. Twin spots of pink appeared in her waxen cheeks. “Why, this is extraordinary. Most extraordinary, indeed!”
“Is something wrong, ma’am?” asked Mavis in the toadying manner she always used with the headmistress. “I should be happy to lend assistance in any way you wish.”
“As would I,” Prudence chimed in. “Unless of course it is a private matter.”
Removing the glasses from the bridge of her nose, Mrs. Baxter gave her favored two teachers a distracted smile. “How very kind, but your concern is misplaced. It seems I am to have the honor of a visitor from London on the morrow, a fine lady from the royal court. She will wish to meet the staff, so you must all wear your very best.”
The news set the dining room aflutter. “The royal court?” chimed several teachers. “Who is she?” “Is she bringing her daughter to study here?”
“Her name is Lady Milford and she is seeking a governess for the young Duke of Kevern in Cornwall. She will be interviewing a select number of you for the post.”
Annabelle sat riveted. Cornwall! It seemed as distant and exotic as China or India. For many years, she had yearned to see the sights beyond the insular world of the school. On the rare free day, she would hike the moors and imagine what lay beyond the barren, windswept hills. Hungering for knowledge, she’d read every geography book in the library. She’d pored over maps of England and foreign countries, places with fascinating names like Egypt and Constantinople and Shanghai. She had studied and dreamed and saved when the other teachers had spent their wages on new gowns and ribbons and other frivolities.
Now this was her chance to escape the tedium of teaching manners to giggly young girls concerned only with fashion and gossip. She would have to carefully consider what to say in the interview, how to present herself as the ideal tutor for a young aristocrat …
As Mrs. Baxter glanced around the table, her gaze stopped on Annabelle. Those pale eyes took on a distinct chill. “Miss Quinn, you must instruct the maids to clean my parlor from top to bottom. And since you will not be participating tomorrow, you’ll have ample time to assist the other teachers in any needlework they might require. Run along now, and close the door on your way out.”
The joy drained from Annabelle. She was being banished. She would not be granted a coveted interview. The colossal injustice of it overruled all caution.
She stood up from the table, the chair legs scraping the wood floor. “Please, I should very much like the opportunity to meet Lady Milford.”
“Do you dare to gainsay me?” Mrs. Baxter said in tight-lipped astonishment. “I have issued an order and you will obey it.”
“But I’m as well prepared as anyone else here to be governess to a duke, perhaps more so. I’ve studied Latin and Greek, I’m adept at mathematics, well versed in science and literature—”
“Your qualifications are of no consequence. My lady visitor will wish to hire someone from a respectable family. She would never consent to employ a bastard who cannot even put a name to her own parents.”
The scornful words echoed in the cavernous dining chamber. Mavis and Prudence had the audacity to smirk. The other teachers regarded Annabelle with pity or discomfiture. Although most of them were pleasant enough, they would not align themselves with her for fear of being ridiculed, too.
Her cheeks burned with humiliation. It took an effort to harness the impulse to lash out in anger. Protesting further would only invite the headmistress’s wrath—typically in the form of docking Annabelle’s already paltry wages. She couldn’t afford to lose a single ha’penny of her nest egg.
She curtsied to Mrs. Baxter, then walked out of the dining room and shut the door. Annabelle paused there in the dim corridor with her head cocked, trying to discern meaning in the muffled drone of Mrs. Baxter’s voice. What was the headmistress telling everyone? Was she giving them instructions on how to act and what to say? Was she announcing the order in which they were to meet Lady Milford?
Realizing her fists were clenched, Annabelle gulped several deep breaths. Wild emotions must not goad her into another impassioned outburst. Better to have a clear mind so that she might determine rationally how to proceed.
One thing was certain, she would not relinquish this golden opportunity. A chance like this might not come along again—ever. By hook or by crook, she must finagle her way into an interview.
* * *
Shortly after luncheon the following afternoon, the rattle of carriage wheels outside disrupted the discipline in Annabelle’s classroom. One minute, the group of fifteen-year-olds paraded in a dignified circle, each girl balancing a book on her head to learn proper posture. The next minute, several students broke rank and rushed to the windows overlooking the front of the school.
“Why, will you look at that!” exclaimed Cora, a redhead with a dusting of freckles over her elfin face. “Have you ever seen such a splendid coach?”
Beside her, a plumpish brunette pressed her nose to the glass and peered downward at the drive. “Who could it be?” Dorothy asked. “Do you suppose it’s a new girl? But why would anyone so rich be coming here—and after the term has already begun?”
Annabelle clapped her hands. “Ladies, it isn’t polite to stare. Come back here at once.”
“Oh, please, Miss Quinn, do spare us just a moment,” Cora said, casting an imploring glance over her shoulder. “Don’t you want to find out who’s come to call?”
They could have had no inkling that Annabelle already knew, or that her insides were twisted into a knot. The visitor had to be Lady Milford.
For the umpteenth time, Annabelle fretted over how best to present her credentials to the lady. It was a quandary she’d pondered into the wee hours, sewing by the light of a single tallow candle, repairing rips in hems and attaching new lace to the gowns worn by the other teachers today. While she’d labored, she had considered and rejected numerous plans. The fly in the ointment, of course, was Mrs. Baxter. The headmistress would be keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings. But if all went well, there might just be a way—
The thump of falling books yanked Annabelle’s attention back to the classroom. The rest of the pupils had seized upon her silence as an invitation. They made haste to crowd around Cora and Dorothy at the windows.
The buzz of their excitement infused Annabelle, too. As a former charity student, she knew the ennui of endless classes in deportment, art, music, and other skills necessary to become a lady. How could she scold the girls when she herself felt an irresistible curiosity?
Maintaining a semblance of dignity, she strolled to join them. For once her tall stature proved a boon. Peering over the heads of the students, she studied the vehicle that rolled up the graveled drive.
The girls were right to ooh and aah.
A team of four white horses drew the cream-colored coach with its fancy gold scrollwork decorating the door. Large gilded wheels glinted in the dappled sunlight. A coachman in leaf-green livery drove the equipage, while a pair of white-wigged footmen perched at the rear.
Annabelle forgot herself and stared openly. Never before had she seen a sight so magnificent. The girls here were mostly commoners, the daughters of local landowners, and they tended to arrive for the term in pony carts or sturdy carriages suitable to the country.
This coach, however, had sprung straight out of a fairy tale.
The fine vehicle drew to a halt in front of the portico. One of the footmen leaped down to lower the step and open the door. A moment later, a woman emerged from the vehicle. Petite and slim, she wore a waist-length black mantelet over a turquoise gown with a fashionably full skirt. A black-veiled bonnet embellished with peacock feathers hid her features from view.
All at once, she cast an upward glance. For one piercing moment, she seemed to stare through the dark tulle straight at Annabelle. Then the woman lowered her head and started up the steps to the porch.
The incident unnerved Annabelle. The skin prickled at the nape of her neck and she stood frozen, her gaze locked on the figure below. How ridiculous to think that keen look had been directed at her. More likely, Lady Milford had merely been inspecting the façade of the school.
Mrs. Baxter appeared on the porch. The headmistress sank a deep curtsy and exchanged a few words with her guest. Then the two women vanished into the ivy-covered stone building.
A collective sigh rippled from the girls. They turned away from the window to chatter among themselves.
“Do you suppose she might be Princess Victoria?” Dorothy asked in a reverent tone.
“At this backwater school?” Cora said with a toss of her reddish ringlets. “Hardly. Besides, Princess Victoria is only seventeen and I think this lady looks quite a bit older.”
Annabelle said nothing, though she privately agreed. There was a mature dignity in the way Lady Milford had moved, a graceful self-assurance that made Annabelle feel gauche and countrified in her much-mended gown of drab gray worsted wool. How did she dare hope such a vision of elegance would hire her?
She shook off the question. Misgivings would win her nothing. Her credentials were all that mattered. That, and her determination to present herself as the best possible candidate for the post.
Dorothy clasped her pudgy hands beneath a dimpled chin. “Miss Quinn, you simply must find out her name. Please, we shall die of curiosity if you do not.”
A clamor arose as the other girls chimed their agreement.
“All in due time,” Annabelle said. “In the meanwhile, you must practice your posture so you’ll know how to comport yourselves someday in the presence of such fine ladies.”
Grumbling, the pupils resumed parading around the room while balancing a book on their heads. But an atmosphere of liveliness lingered, affecting everyone’s concentration. More than once, a girl squealed as her tome thumped to the floor. The others giggled and whispered among themselves.
Annabelle was too distracted to scold them. The impatience to put her plan into motion gnawed at her composure. But it was too soon, she told herself. Better to wait a while and give Lady Milford an opportunity to chat with the headmistress and to enjoy refreshment from the tea tray.
Annabelle bade the class return to their desks where they took turns reading aloud from a book of manners. Scarcely listening, she eyed the wall clock as it ticked away the sluggish minutes. It seemed an eternity—although no more than three-quarters of an hour had passed—when finally the bell rang and the girls left in a chattering horde, some for drawing classes and pianoforte lessons, others to a choir rehearsal.
Annabelle followed them into the passageway. Her heart kicking up a few beats, she opened a door hidden in the dark paneling and started up the steep wooden staircase used by the servants. While Mrs. Baxter and Lady Milford were interviewing the other teachers, Annabelle had time to set her trap.
With any luck the plan would work. It had to work.
The tapping of her footsteps echoed in the narrow utilitarian shaft. The other teachers used the main staircase, but she often took this shortcut to avoid encountering the headmistress, who was wont to pile on extra tasks if she suspected Annabelle had a bit of free time.
Now, she reached the third-floor corridor. Here lay the dormitories for the pupils and bedchambers for the teachers. Annabelle hurried along the passageway, stopping only at a linen closet to fetch a pillowcase. Then she went straight to Mrs. Baxter’s quarters.
The door was ajar as usual. The headmistress liked to allow Mr. Tibbles the freedom to come and go as he pleased. Jittery at the notion of being caught, Annabelle glanced up and down the passageway again, then slipped into the bedchamber.
Brocaded green curtains and dark mahogany furniture created a rich, cavelike décor. The scent of stale roses hung in the air. At any other time, she might have been tempted to explore the forbidden place, but not today. Today, she had to find Mr. Tibbles.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” she crooned.
The tomcat usually napped up here during the day; she had seen him saunter down the stairs in late afternoon. But now he was nowhere to be found. What if the tabby had changed his habit? That was the one circumstance that worried her. He could be anywhere in the house—or even outdoors.
Annabelle peeked under the bed, in the dressing room, and inside the cabinetry. The ticking clock on the mantelpiece served as a reminder that time was growing short. She was about to give up and seek him elsewhere when the tip of an orange tail moved between the window curtains.
Drawing back the drapes, she found the cat curled up in a patch of sunlight on the sill. He glared balefully at her and bared his teeth in a hiss. “Nice Mr. Tibbles,” she murmured, leaning closer, the pillowcase at the ready. “I do need you to be a good boy—”
The cat’s paw lashed out, leaving four stinging red lines on the back of her hand.
Annabelle sucked in a breath through her teeth. Then she threw the pillowcase around the little devil and scooped him up. Immediately he transformed into a wriggling, spitting ball of fury. She grimly held on to the cat, the bleached white linen protecting her from the full force of his indignation.
“I did try to do this nicely,” she told the tabby, while carrying him into the dressing room. “It was you who declared war.”
Without further ado, she opened a clothes press at random and dropped the bundled cat onto a pile of petticoats. She yanked off the pillowcase and shut the lid quickly.
He howled and scratched inside the chest. But there was no way he could escape. He’d be safe enough for a few minutes, she reasoned, until Mrs. Baxter came charging to his aid.
Annabelle retreated down the stairs, this time going all the way to the ground floor where she peeked out into the corridor. Her gaze swept past the landscape paintings darkened by age and the straight-backed chairs set against the paneled walls, to the closed door at the end of the passage. To her surprise, no queue of hopeful teachers waited outside the parlor.
Alarm niggled at her. What if she had trapped Mr. Tibbles for nothing? What if Lady Milford had hired the very first applicant? What if Mrs. Baxter had recommended Mavis Yates for the post and the matter was already settled?
No, surely the lady would wish to view all the prospects. Deciding upon a duke’s governess had to be serious business. Not that Annabelle knew much of the ways of the aristocracy. She’d never had occasion to meet any nobleman beyond a stuffy old viscount who had once delivered his daughter to school here.
The thought rattled her confidence—but only for a moment. She adjusted the spinster’s cap that covered her dark hair and then used her fingertip to rub away the traces of blood left by Mr. Tibbles’s claws. Nothing could be gained by dithering. It was time to seize her future.
Her arms swinging, she strode boldly down the corridor. She would knock on the door, send Mrs. Baxter off on the rescue mission, and then use the opportunity to beg an interview.
The ploy would work. It would.
She had nearly reached the parlor when the rustle of fabric caught her attention. From out of a nearby chamber stepped Mavis Yates.
Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Drake