Miss Chloe Wynchester burst through the door of her family’s sprawling residence in semi-fashionable Islington, followed closely behind by her sister Thomasina. Chloe’s pulse raced with excitement. His Arrogance, the Duke of Frosty Disapproval, didn’t have a chance.
Unable to keep her exuberance to herself, she yelled out, “I have news about the painting!”
In a more respectable household, a young lady might expect censure for being so vulgar as to shout, even within the confines of one’s own home. Such a young lady might also be rebuked for donning trousers and strolling about Westminster under an assumed identity.
Chloe was grateful every single day not to have such limitations.
Her roguish brother Graham appeared at the top of the marble stairs, delight and disbelief writ across his handsome face. He was used to being the one with shocking news to share. “Don’t stand about. Come up to the Planning Parlor at once! I’ll ring for tea.”
Exchanging grins, Chloe and Tommy dashed up the marble stairs, their gray cotton trousers allowing them to take the steps two at a time. In seconds they joined Graham in the Planning Parlor, the communal private sitting room the six siblings used for plotting their stratagems.
Chloe and Tommy tossed their matching beaver hats onto the long walnut-and-burl table in the center of the sound-dampened room.
Tommy rubbed a hand over her short brown hair, causing it to spring up at all angles. Graham moved a pile of scandal sheets from the table to the map case to make room for refreshments. Tommy and Graham launched themselves into their favorite needlepoint armchairs, between two large windows outfitted with heavy calico curtains of ruby and gold.
Chloe was far too excited to sit. Instead, she paced the black slate floor, which still contained traces of chalk from the last planning session. She paused before the unlit fireplace and lifted her chin.
For as long as she could remember, two paintings had always hung above the white marble mantel. One of them had been missing for the last eight months.
But it wouldn’t remain missing for much longer.
“The Planning Parlor feels doubly empty without our Puck,” Graham said gruffly.
“Not just the Parlor,” Tommy corrected. “Our entire house.”
No one said the words out loud, but they all knew it to be true. The house had belonged to Baron Vanderbean, but the beloved painting belonged to all of them.
Bean had rescued his motley brood of orphans over the course of a single summer. Six proud, frightened children between the ages of eight and eleven: Chloe, Tommy, Graham, Jacob, Marjorie, and Elizabeth. Life had taught them to be mistrustful and careful. Coming together as a family had been the most pivotal moment in their lives.
Chloe lifted her gaze to the portrait above the left side of the mantel. Bean’s fatherly visage bore a grin that crinkled the edges of his bright blue eyes. It was not at all the thing to smile in one’s portrait, which was probably why Bean had done so. Chloe was glad he did. His smile always made her feel loved.
A maid entered the room and began arranging the tea. Chloe tugged her cravat free, so as not to fill it with crumbs.
Tommy wiggled with excitement. “I can’t wait to hear your plan, Chloe. Once Puck comes home, it will feel like having a part of Bean back. Like being whole again.”
Chloe’s heart pounded in agreement. All six of the siblings would do anything in their power to bring Puck & Family home where it belonged.
Before they’d found each other, most of the siblings had never had anyone they could rely on or possessions to call their own. They’d learned the hard way not to develop emotional attachments to people or things.
Bean had offered permanence. A place to belong. A home. He told them they were the children he’d always wanted but never had. From the moment each had arrived on the doorstep, they’d felt loved and cherished in a way they had never known. The oil painting was their first purchase as a family. Their first decision as a family. For most of them, it was the first time their voices mattered.
The artist’s uncommon skill wasn’t why they’d chosen the unusual painting. It was the subject. A forest scene, featuring Robin Goodfellow—the mischievous demon-fairy sometimes known in folktales as Puck—and six fellow sprites of all sizes and hues, dancing about a fire with absolute freedom and joy.
It was the visual representation of what they’d found in each other. Happiness. Unconditional love. The ability to be oneself and to be bigger than oneself—to be a team, and a family. That was the most magical part of all. That painting was their soul on canvas.
To the Wynchesters, the painting was a family portrait…and their most cherished possession. It belonged to all of them. It was all of them.
“Once Puck comes home, we can get rid of that cherub.”
All three gazes swung to the fireplace. An angel-shaped vase stood on the mantel, right beneath the faded rectangle where Puck & Family should have been.
A blank spot that matched the empty space in their lives where Bean used to be.
Chloe swallowed hard at the injustice. Nineteen years earlier the prior Duke of Faircliffe had sold them the painting to pay one of his many gaming debts. Then, eight months ago, when he suddenly wanted it back, the family refused. Instead of honoring the original transaction, the duke stole the painting and left an ugly vase behind in its stead, as though that could possibly make up for their loss.
Neither they nor the old duke anticipated a carriage accident interrupting his journey home—or that he’d succumb to his injuries.
When Bean visited the heir to politely request the return of their painting, the newly crowned Duke of Faircliffe refused to see him.
Rebuff Baron Vanderbean! Chloe’s blood boiled. But that was hardly the first of the new duke’s endless slights and rejections. He’d always been too lofty and self-important to notice anyone of lesser rank, no matter the justification.
Later, when Bean caught smallpox, he refused to allow the children into his sickroom lest he expose them to the disease. They threw themselves into retrieving the painting, and cursed Faircliffe when Bean slowly slipped away, without the safe return of their heirloom . Then or now, the Wynchester family couldn’t command a single second of the new duke’s time. She ground her teeth.
According to the society papers, the Wynchester children were nothing more than a dead baron’s charity orphans—someone you might toss a coin to out of pity but never deign to speak to on purpose.
She didn’t care what Faircliffe thought of her. Chloe was glad to be a Wynchester. She wouldn’t trade a single moment for the boring, buttoned-up life of the beau monde.
Chloe was used to being invisible. It was her greatest talent and often the reason for the success of their clandestine missions. It had begun as a game.
When the six siblings were children, Bean taught them to play Three Impossible Things to give them skills and confidence. They gathered information, breached barriers, and performed feats of daring.
Later, their team became the specialists to turn to when the justice system failed those in need. The Wynchesters snuck food and medicine into prisons, exposed workhouses and orphanages with draconian practices, tracked down libertines who despoiled for sport, rescued women and children from abusers, delivered aid and supplies to those who needed it most. Bean had taught them nothing was impossible. Everyone deserved their best life.
Their missions gave them purpose and adventure. Chloe loved slipping about unseen, doing good works beneath people’s noses. But being overlooked on purpose was one thing. Being dismissed out of cruelty was far worse.
“We no longer have to beg,” Chloe announced. “We can steal it back from Faircliffe, just as his father did to us.”
Graham added another tea cake to his plate. “How will we infiltrate the duke’s terraced fortress? That town house is as tightly locked down as His Loftiness himself. Do we even know where he’s keeping the painting?”
Chloe grinned at him. “We don’t have to. I know where it’s going to be.”
He set down his cake. “Where? How?”
She leaned back. “I sometimes watch parliamentary proceedings from the peephole in the attic—”
“Sometimes?” Graham rolled his eyes. “When have you missed one? And what does your obsession with politics have to do with getting Puck back?”
“Well, if you would let me finish.” Chloe pilfered her brother’s tea cake and took a bite from the corner, chewing with exaggerated slowness before swallowing. “As I was saying, today Tommy disguised us as journalists and we sneaked into the Strangers’ Gallery, where we sat behind Mr. York—”
“Wait,” Graham interrupted, his brown eyes gleaming. “Mr. York, the MP whose daughter is rumored to have caught the Duke of Faircliffe’s eye?”
“It’s more than a rumor,” Chloe said sourly. “We overheard Faircliffe say he intends to give Puck & Family to Mr. York’s daughter Philippa as a courting gift.”
Graham’s face purpled. “Give away our painting? That knave. It’s not his to give!”
“That’s the bad news,” Chloe agreed. She affected an innocent expression. “The good news is that my ‘Jane Brown’ alias has an invitation to Miss York’s weekly ladies’ reading circle. I met her when I was on that mission at the dreadful school for girls. Philippa was visiting with a charity group and—you know what? It doesn’t matter. The important part is, I have access to the home where the painting will be. It’s our chance!”
Her brother pinned her with his too-perceptive gaze. “You accidentally bumped into the Duke of Faircliffe’s future intended and now have a standing invitation into her household? That’s a bit of good fortune.”
“Er…yes.” Chloe became suddenly enthralled by her tea. “A very lucky, completely random coincidence.”
It was definitely not because she read the same gossip columns as her brother and wanted to see for herself what kind of woman attracted the Duke of Faircliffe’s attention.
Chloe had passed by him any number of times—not that he noticed. He didn’t even acknowledge her when she’d placed herself in his direct path to demand the return of her family portrait. Barely a syllable had escaped her lips before he strode right past her toward something or someone he actually cared about.
“Now that we know when and where to act, we can play the game and get the painting.” Chloe counted the Impossible Things on her fingers. “First, ingratiate myself with the reading circle. Achieved. Second, retrieve Puck & Family once Faircliffe delivers it. Third, replace it with a forgery so no one suspects a thing. It all happens on Thursday.”
Graham frowned. “Why would Faircliffe wish to interrupt a reading circle?”
“He doesn’t know he’s going to.” Chloe smirked. “The Yorks are surprisingly crafty.”
“Even a stiff, scowling duke like Faircliffe is a catch worth bragging about,” Tommy explained. “Mrs. York will want witnesses.”
“We don’t want witnesses,” Graham pointed out. “Wouldn’t it be safer to bump into Faircliffe on the street and ‘accidentally’ swap his rolled canvas for ours?”
“It would indeed,” Chloe agreed, “if Faircliffe happened to stroll through Grosvenor Square with a rolled-up canvas. But the painting is framed, and the duke will arrive in a carriage where the York butler will be watching.”
Graham lifted his tea. “There aren’t a lighter set of fingers in all of London, so I’ve no doubt you can nick the canvas. And we’ll ask Marjorie to create the forgery.”
All six Wynchester siblings were talented in their own ways. Marjorie was an extraordinary painter who could replicate any artwork to match the original.
Chloe smiled. “Marjorie finished ages ago. I just needed an opportunity to exchange canvases. And some way to smuggle it out without anyone noticing.”
She swapped Graham’s spoon with Tommy’s fork as she thought. Coins and keys were easy objects to palm, but a rolled-up canvas was much too big.
“Could you strap a tube to your leg?” Tommy asked.
“Perhaps if I walked very carefully…” Chloe mused, then shook her head. “I would have to lift up my skirts to strap on the tube, and being caught like that would be worse. What I need is—”
“Kittens.” Their rugged elder brother Jacob strolled into the Planning Parlor with a lopsided basket in his strong arms. “Most ladies love kittens almost as much as a good book. If you were showing off a new pet…”
Chloe tensed. Although hints of fur clung to Jacob’s ripped and patched waistcoat, she’d learned to be wary. The last time her brother had entered a room with a basket, he was trying his hand at snake charming. If she hadn’t been wearing her sturdiest boots… “Do you really have a kitten in there?”
“Ferrets,” he admitted, his dark brown eyes sparkling. “But I have the perfect solution out in the barn. Tiglet is the best of all the messenger kittens.”
“Messenger…kittens?” she echoed faintly.
“Like pigeons, but terrestrial,” Jacob explained earnestly. “More fur, less filth. The perfect cover. He can find his way home from anywhere. He’ll be a splendid distraction. Because where there’s chaos—”
“There’s opportunity,” Tommy finished, eyes gleaming.
Chloe held up a finger. “First rule of Three Impossible Things: No plan without a contingency.”
Graham brightened. “May I suggest—”
“Your acrobatic skills are awe-inspiring, brother, but unnecessary in this instance.”
Graham’s shoulders caved. “When will it be my turn?”
“Whilst I don’t anticipate the need for trick riding on the back of a racing stallion,” Chloe assured him, “a driver would not be amiss. Just in case I must flee in too much haste to flag down a hackney.”
“No hack required.” Graham straightened. “We can’t risk one of our carriages being recognized, so I’ll drive a substitute that cannot be traced to the family.”
Tommy cocked her head. “If there is a queue of carriages awaiting their literary-minded mistresses, how will Chloe know which coach is the right one?”
“Mine will have red curtains…and a conspicuously displayed glove for good measure.” Graham’s eyes lit up. “Better yet, I will not only be the first carriage you come to. I’ll be in the coachman’s perch. You shan’t miss me.”
“No plan without a contingency.” Jacob’s curly black hair dipped as he peeked into the basket of ferrets. “What if the Yorks’ staff insist you move the carriage?”
Tommy clapped her hands. “Elizabeth will distract them.”
When Elizabeth threw her voice, no one could tell where it was coming from. Their sister could emulate an entire crowd of distractions. She was also handy with a sword stick. Either skill would do the trick.
Graham turned to Chloe, his eyes serious. “If we get separated for any reason, go somewhere safe. I’ll find you.”
She grinned back at him, exhilarated by the upcoming adventure. Puck was finally coming home. “The reading circle will have a wonderful afternoon. Other than a wee interlude with Tiglet, the most memorable event will be Miss York charming the Duke of Haughtiness.”
Graham lifted a broadsheet. “Their alliance will be the talk of the scandal columns. No one will remember anything else. Which is too bad, because I rather enjoy their wild conjecture about us. One of my favorite columns claims: ‘Such a large, isolated house could contain dozens of them!’”
Chloe wrinkled her nose. “Those gossips make us sound like bats.”
“I like bats.” Jacob scratched beneath the chin of one of the ferrets. “Bats are fascinating. They have navels like humans and clean themselves like cats. I have thirteen of them out in the barn.”
“Please keep them there,” Tommy murmured.
“Or give them to His Iciness,” Chloe suggested.
“Faircliffe deserves as much.” Graham moved the broadsheets in search of his spoon. “No doubt the duke’s interest in Philippa York is monetary. Although she has no title, she does possess the largest dowry on the marriage mart. I’ve been keeping a tally.”
“Poor Philippa.” Tommy’s mouth tightened. “She deserves better.”
Chloe agreed. Faircliffe single-handedly lowered the temperature in every room he entered. The man was all sharp cheekbones and cutting remarks. That is, to everyone but her. She was invisible when right in front of him. Even when she was trying to be seen.
Graham made a face. “Can you imagine being wed to that block of ice?”
Chloe pushed her teacup away. “I cannot fathom a worse fate.”
“I want to be a Wynchester!”
— Eloisa James
“Erica Ridley is a delight!”
— Julia Quinn, author of BRIDGERTON