Born Wicked Page 2

Father tactfully refrains from pointing out that Tess’s Latin is worlds better than my own. “If that were the only—that is to say—you’re sixteen now, Cate, and—” He looks helplessly at Mrs. Corbett, who is only too pleased to jump in.

“There is more to a young lady’s education than foreign languages. A governess could give you girls a bit of polish,” she asserts, eyeing me up and down.

I clench my hands into fists. I know how I look: a high-necked navy frock unadorned with any frills or frippery, the scuffed boots I wear to work in the garden, hair plaited neatly down my back. It doesn’t do me any favors. But it’s better to be thought dowdy than to attract too much attention.

“We have our piano lessons in town every week,” I remind Father.

Mrs. Corbett smirks, her eyes disappearing into the fat folds of her face. “I believe your father was thinking about more than piano lessons, dear.”

I should lower my eyes like a good girl, but I don’t. That sugary, overly familiar “dear” sets my teeth on edge. I square my shoulders and lift my chin and stare right into her beady little hazel eyes. “Such as?”

“May I be frank with you, Miss Cate?”

“Please.” My voice is syrupy steel.

“You’re of an age to be thinking about your future now, yours and Miss Maura’s. Your intention ceremony is coming up soon. It won’t be long before you’ll have to make your choice: marry and raise a family, Lord willing, or join the Sisterhood.”

I fiddle with the gold tassels on the lamp shade, a flush rising on my cheeks. “I’m well aware of my choices.” As if I could forget. It feels like I spend half my days batting the fear away, refusing to let the rising panic consume me.

“Well, you may not be aware that you girls are getting a reputation. As—eccentrics. Bluestockings. Miss Maura more so than you—she’s always got her nose in a book, doesn’t she? Always popping in and out of that bookshop. You two don’t go visiting or receive callers. It’s understandable, without any mother to guide you—” Mrs. Corbett looks sadly at Father. “But regrettable. I thought it my neighborly duty to tell your father what I’ve been hearing.”

Of course she did, the snooping, meddlesome—

Eccentrics,she said. Have the old cows in town been gossiping about us? What if the Brotherhood has heard? Father’s a Latin scholar of some renown, and he’s respected by the Brothers. Before Mother died, before he inherited his uncle’s shipping business in New London, he taught at the boys’ school in town. But that’s not enough to place his daughters above suspicion. These days, no one is above suspicion.

I thought keeping us secluded would be safer. Perhaps I’ve been going about it all wrong.

My face falls, but Father takes my silence for assent. “Mrs. Corbett knows of a young lady who would do. She’s fluent in French—painting, music —” His voice drones on, but I stop listening. Our governess will excel in all the pretty, useless things young ladies of our station are expected to embrace.

And she’ll be living here. Right here in the house.

I grit my teeth. “Have you already retained her, then?”

“Sister Elena will be here Monday morning.” Mrs. Corbett smiles.

Sister? It’s worse than I thought. The Sisters are the feminine arm of the Brotherhood, only without any power: they do not preside over legal disputes, or create addendums to the morality codes, or judge the cases of girls accused of witchery. They live isolated in convents in the cities and dedicate their lives in service to the Lord, educating girls in their elite boarding schools, occasionally serving as governesses. I’ve never met a member of the order before, but I’ve seen them passing through town in their closed carriages, dressed all in black. They always look pinched and joyless. Mrs. Corbett’s daughter Regina had a Sister for her governess before she married.

Is that Father’s intention? Does this governess specialize in marrying off hopeless girls, like Maura and me?

I turn to Father, accusations on my lips. He wanted my input, did he? He’s already made his decision! Or had it made for him by someone else.

He sees the anger on my face and droops like the poor clematis flowers in the garden.

Blast. I can’t argue with him; since Mother died, there isn’t enough of him left to argue with.

“If the decision’s already been made, we shall make the best of it. I’m sure she’ll be lovely. Thank you for thinking of us, Father.” I give him my most charming smile, full of daughterly devotion. See? I can be sweet as Tess’s strawberry pie when I want.

Father smiles back uncertainly. “You’re welcome. I only want what’s best for you girls. Would you like to tell your sisters the news, or shall I tell them at dinner?”

Oh.That’swhy he summoned me. He never intended to ask my opinion. It was only a pretense because he doesn’t have the courage to tell them himself! This way, when Maura throws a tantrum and Tess sulks, he’ll be able to comfort himself withCate agreed it was for the best.As if I had any real say in the matter.

“No, no. I’ll tell them.” Better they’re rude to me than to Father. “I’ll be off to do that now. Good day, Mrs. Corbett.”

Mrs. Corbett brushes invisible lint from her heavy wool skirt. “Good day, Miss Cate.”

I curtsy and close the door behind me, cursing her black soul. She has no notion of the peril she’s just put us in.

Maura’s curled up on her window seat, a patchwork quilt around her shoulders, reading a Gothic novel. They’re banned, of course, but she has a whole stack of them hidden under a loose floorboard in her closet. They used to be Mother’s.

I sail in without knocking. She closes the book, one finger marking her place, and squints up at me with sapphire eyes.

“Heard of knocking?” she asks. “It’s all the rage among polite people.”

“Oh yes, I know what a stickler you are for manners,” I laugh.

“What is it?” She sits up, one bare foot peeking out from beneath her navy skirts. “Tell me quickly. I’ve got to find out what happens to this poor girl. She’s about to be ravished by a duke.”

I roll my eyes. Fine reading material for a young lady. If Father caught her, even he would object. But we’ve more important things to worry about at the moment.

“Father’s decided to hire a governess. A member of the Sisters.”

Maura dog-ears her page and sets the book down.

It’s not certain doom. But it will make things more difficult, particularly if the governess is the pious, talkative sort. It’s hard enough keeping our secret from Father and the O’Hares and Lily, our lady’s maid. Adding another person into the household—a person who will be spending all her time judging our conduct—will make things much more difficult.

“Father decided, did he? As if he’d have the gumption to come up with a plan like that.” Maura taps on the window. Outside, Mrs. Corbett is climbing into her barouche, the wind flapping her cloak. She looks for all the world like a great fat crow.

I’d thought the same thing about Father, but I don’t like to hear Maura say it.

“Oh, for pity’s sake, don’t give me that lemon face. You know it’s the truth.” She shoves the calico curtains aside so we can get a better look. “Do you suppose she wants to marry him?”

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