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The Wrong Girl

By:C.J. Archer

The Wrong Girl

(Book 1 of the 1st Freak House Series)


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.

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