A whisper went around Mrs. Upton’s Academy for Young Ladies soon after tea. A new student had arrived, and she must be of rare family and fortune. One girl caught a glimpse of the carriage waiting outside, glossy black with an escutcheon on the door, and soon the whispers grew fevered: it must be a duke’s pampered daughter, or even a foreign princess.
They were wrong. Twelve-year-old Sophie Graham was an orphan, and she was the granddaughter of Viscount Makepeace, not a duke or a foreign dignitary. She also wanted nothing to do with him, and the viscount returned the feeling in full. Within a week of her arrival at his gloomy manor in Lincolnshire, he’d declared that she must go to school as soon as possible. Now she stood silently in Mrs. Upton’s office, listening as her grandfather tried to browbeat the headmistress into accepting Sophie.
“The trouble is, my lord, I do not usually accept new students midterm,” Mrs. Upton tried to explain. She was a moderately tall woman, fashionably dressed in subdued colors and devoid of embellishment, and she seemed utterly unafraid of Makepeace. Sophie respected her instinctively for that.
“You must. Her parents died of some gutter-borne fever.” He glared at Sophie, who gazed back without expression. “They left nothing for her, but abandoned her to my charity. She needs feminine influence and proper instruction in some decent trade.”
“Sir, we are an academy for young ladies,” replied Mrs. Upton, laying a delicate stress on the last word. “We do not instruct students in trades, but in fine arts and social graces—”
Makepeace waved this aside. “I don’t care what you teach her. She’s a wild thing, neglected by her no-account parents. I have no use for a hoyden.”
The headmistress glanced at Sophie, who remained still and quiet. She was not a hoyden, and her parents hadn’t neglected her. But she did want very much to be accepted by Mrs. Upton, and so she did not argue with the hateful lies her grandfather was speaking. “My lord, our students come from the finest families in Britain. Our reputation rests on my personal assurance that every young lady here is of the best character and demeanor, in need of the instruction we offer for her future life.”
The viscount barked with angry laughter. “I see your point! My son ran off with an opera singer—French, no less! Is that what you want to know? Good blood never does mix with common stock. Well, the girl is half wild and there’s nothing to be done about it, but she bears my name and that, madam, is superior to whatever standard you maintain.” He glanced around the understated room in obvious disdain. “Your establishment was recommended to me, and I wish to be done with the business as soon as possible. Name your price.”
Mrs. Upton’s face had grown expressionless during his tirade, but now she took another, more measuring look at Sophie. In the end, something—either in Sophie’s expression or in her grandfather’s final words—overcame the headmistress’s doubts. Sophie was sure it was the money. She didn’t blame Mrs. Upton; in fact she hoped the woman extorted an enormous price. Makepeace would pay anything to be rid of her, as she had learned quite explicitly in the three weeks since she’d been left in his care, and she hated him enough to savor him being rooked for every farthing.
“Thirty percent, my lord,” said the headmistress. “For a thirty percent premium on our usual tuition, I believe I can make room for her.”
“Done.” Makepeace reached for his walking stick and heaved himself out of his chair. “Her trunk is outside.”
“Would you care to see the grounds?”
“No.” The viscount led the way to the carriage, where Sophie’s small trunk had already been removed from the boot and left on the gravel drive.
Makepeace yanked on his gloves, his thick white brows bristling in a ferocious scowl. “I’ll pay the tuition until you’re of age,” he growled at Sophie. “Not a moment longer. You’d best try to learn something of value here, for you shan’t be my responsibility.”
“I never asked to be.” She raised her chin and met his stare. “Goodbye.”
He stared at her a moment before giving a contemptuous sniff. “A proud little thing, are you? You’ve no grounds for it. If you didn’t bear my name, you’d be as insignificant as your mother.” The viscount climbed into his carriage and snarled at his coachman to go. The carriage started with a jerk immediately. At no moment did Lord Makepeace look back.
“Let me show you to your dormitory, Miss Graham,” Mrs. Upton said in the awkward silence. The pity in her voice was faint but detectable. Sophie had heard that before, but this time she also heard sympathy. “I’m certain your grandfather will relent once he sees how diligently you work to become accomplished.”
“He won’t. Nothing I ever do will please him, and I’m glad he’s gone.” She watched the carriage pass through the tall iron gates to be certain that he was in fact gone. “I wouldn’t mind if he were waylaid by highwaymen and shot.” She turned her forthright gaze on the shocked headmistress. “Thank you for accepting me, ma’am. I promise to be a very good student.” And she dropped a flawless curtsy, worthy of the finest ballerina in Moscow—indeed, that was who had taught her.
Mrs. Upton took her inside and sent a teacher to fetch Miss Eliza Cross and Lady Georgiana Lucas. “You shall share their room this term,” she told Sophie. “They are both kind and well-mannered young ladies.”
“Are they my age, ma’am?” This interested her intensely. She had rarely had the chance to make friends with girls her own age.
“They are both in the second form. The girls your age are generally in the fourth form, but since I’ve had no opportunity to assess your education thus far, it’s best if you begin there.” She gave Sophie an uncertain glance. “I presume you have had some education, Miss Graham?”
“Yes, ma’am.” It stung to be placed in the lower form, but Sophie refrained from informing the headmistress that she spoke fluent French and some Italian, that she loved math and geography, that she knew how to dance and had been playing the pianoforte since she was four. She intended to win over everyone at this academy, and it wouldn’t hurt to hold some pleasant surprises in reserve.
Lady Georgiana arrived first, as tall as Sophie but fair and fine-boned. Miss Cross hurried in after her, breathless and a little flustered. She was shorter and plumper than Lady Georgiana, and every bit as ordinary in features as Lady Georgiana was beautiful. Sophie smiled at them both. “It is my great pleasure to make your acquaintances,” she said to the two other girls. “I hope we’ll be friends.”
Miss Cross smiled nervously and Lady Georgiana gave her an appraising look, as if to say we’ll see. Sophie didn’t mind. She would be circumspect in the other girl’s place, too. But Sophie had inherited her father’s charm and her mother’s drive, and so she set about befriending them.
She needed to. Under no circumstances was she going back to Makepeace Manor, where her grandfather ruled in surly silence. Her youth had been spent in the capitals of Europe, following her operatic mother’s career. Her parents’ deaths had upended that happy if unsettled life, leaving her at the mercy of a grandfather who seemed determined to hold her accountable for every sin and slight her parents had ever committed—and in his eyes, they were legion. Sophie soon divined that dying was possibly her father’s worst sin, as he had named the viscount her guardian in his will. If there had been a way to break that will and wash his hands of her entirely, Sophie was sure Lord Makepeace would have done it. Sending her away to school was the next best thing.
A young ladies’ academy might not be as exciting as Europe, but it offered the one thing she hadn’t had in all her twelve years: a fixed home. On the interminable drive to Mrs. Upton’s, Makepeace had informed her that she would board at school during holidays if she didn’t get invited home with another girl. Sophie could endure holidays at school, but she yearned for friends.
Eliza and Lady Georgiana had great promise in that regard. Eliza was shy and sweet, the sort of girl who would always be steadfast and loyal. Sophie admired that. Lady Georgiana, on the other hand, appealed to her high-spirited side, the sort of girl everyone else admired and looked up to. It didn’t take long to discover that Eliza was the only child of a man with wealth but no connection, while Georgiana was from one of the most august families in Britain, being the much younger sister of the Earl of Wakefield.
After dinner the students retired to their rooms to study. Sophie was reading the French lesson—her mother’s language—and feeling relieved there was one class where she wouldn’t be behind, when her new roommates’ whispering caught her attention.
“Try again,” Georgiana urged. “You can learn this.”
“I’m trying,” said Eliza in anguish. “I am, I just can’t—”
“Is it sums?” Sophie asked, spying the page in front of them.
“It’s so difficult for me,” whispered Eliza, shame written on her face.
Sophie smiled. “I can help.” She rummaged in her trunk and drew out a pack of cards.
Lady Georgiana raised her brows. “Gambling?”
Sophie scoffed. “It’s not gambling if there’s no wagering. But cards are an excellent way to practice sums, and odds, and all sorts of mathematics.” She dealt some hands. “This is a game where you add the value of the cards. You must do the sum very quickly and quietly, and decide whether you’d like to add another card.”
“Ladies aren’t supposed to play cards.” Lady Georgiana came to sit on the end of her bed, studying the cards with fascination.
“Truly?” Sophie was surprised. “All the ladies in Paris play. And in London—my father said the only people more passionate about gambling than English ladies are English gentlemen.”
Lady Georgiana snorted with surprised laughter. “No!”
“Oh yes.” Sophie didn’t add that her father knew because he’d gambled with all of them. When her mother began to lose her voice to a suppurating throat condition, they’d left Europe and come home to England, where Papa put his charm and name to use playing at the card tables to support them. She’d helped him practice the art of appearing to play carelessly while actually calculating the odds of every move.
Eliza edged closer. “Will it really help with sums? I—I have such trouble.”
“Of course!” Sophie lined up the cards of one hand. “What is this hand worth? Add the numbers.”
“Six,” said Eliza, staring at the four of hearts and the two of clubs.
“And now?” She flipped down a seven of hearts.
“Thirteen,” said the other girl slowly.
“Good! Now?” An eight of diamonds appeared.
“Twenty . . .” Eliza hesitated. “One.”
“Very good.” Sophie beamed.
“That’s far more fun than totting up numbers on a page,” declared Lady Georgiana with a delighted laugh. “Where did you learn this?”
“My father.” She caught the quick look the other girls exchanged. “He and my mother died,” she added. “My grandfather didn’t want me, so he brought me here.”
“Oh, how dreadful,” said Eliza.
Sophie mustered a smile. Her parents’ deaths were dreadful. Her grandfather was dreadful. Mrs. Upton’s was by far the least dreadful thing in her life at the moment. “I’d rather be here than with him. Would you rather be at home?”
“Oh.” Eliza looked startled. “My mother also died, when I was a child. My father sent me here to learn to be a lady. I miss him, but . . .”
“My brother wanted rid of me, too,” offered Lady Georgiana readily. “But like you, I prefer to be here. He’s an odd duck, my brother. I revel in being unwanted by him.”
Sophie grinned. “Mrs. Upton’s Academy of the Unwanted.”
Georgiana burst out laughing, and Eliza gasped. “That’s terrible . . .” But she joined Georgiana on the end of the bed. Sophie dealt more cards, and they practiced sums in happy camaraderie. Gradually Sophie began teaching them the rules of the game as well, and then how to calculate odds. Eliza’s confidence grew until she was adding the cards almost as quickly as Georgiana.
“What should you do with this hand?” Sophie asked.
Eliza looked at her cards, a ten of clubs and a five of hearts. “Take another, because almost half the cards have values of six or less?”
“Precisely! You’re doing very well,” Sophie assured her, just as the door abruptly opened.
“Young ladies,” said Mrs. Upton, aghast. “What is this?”
Eliza went pale; Georgiana winced and gave an audible sigh. All three girls scrambled to their feet.
Mrs. Upton crossed the room and swept back the fold of blanket Sophie had instinctively tossed over the cards. “Gaming,” she said in a deeply disappointed tone. “This is improper behavior for young ladies.”
“We were not gaming,” said Sophie. “None of us have any money.”
The headmistress did not look amused. “That is a very fine distinction, Miss Graham, and not one I accept. Not only is gaming immoral, it exposes one to people of low character and risks one’s reputation and fortune. No respectable gentleman will wish to be connected with a lady who gambles. He will recognize that she harbors a dangerous susceptibility to wickedness, and he will not want to be held liable for her losses.”
“What if she wins?” murmured Sophie.
Mrs. Upton gave her a look of warning. “Any gambler who thinks like that is heading for a loss. It is the lure of winning that drives people to risk ever larger sums of money until they have bankrupted themselves and their families. What are the chances of winning every hand, Miss Graham?”
Sophie said nothing. She remembered too well the nights Papa had come home late, in dismal spirits, not having won enough.
“Gambling has destroyed many a decent and eligible man,” continued Mrs. Upton. “You cannot begin to imagine how much worse it is for a female. Mind my words, young ladies—gambling is the path to ruin. Avoid it at all costs.”
“Yes, ma’am,” whispered Eliza tearfully.
“Yes, ma’am,” echoed Georgiana.
Mrs. Upton raised a brow. “Miss Graham?”
Sophie began to shrug, but caught herself in time. “Yes, ma’am.”
The headmistress surveyed them. “Since you are unfamiliar with our rules here, Miss Graham, I shall let this pass. But do not stray again.” She collected the cards and left, dousing the lamp as she did.
“I’ll practice sums another way,” said Eliza as the girls got into their beds. “Papa would be so upset if Mrs. Upton wrote to him that I’d been gambling. He hopes I’ll marry a gentleman, which means I must be a lady. If only sums didn’t matter so much to gentlemen . . .”
“They don’t,” declared Georgiana from her own bed. “No gentleman I know can abide sums. They don’t even like discussing them with their secretaries, who do all the work.”
“A few hands of cards doesn’t hurt anyone. And we were not gambling.” Sophie said a silent prayer of relief that Mrs. Upton had confiscated her old deck of cards and not Papa’s deck. She would have fought like a wild animal to keep that deck—or any of her few reminders of her parents—and that might have got her tossed from school and back onto Lord Makepeace’s mercy.
A wave of heartsickness washed over her at the thought of her parents. Four months ago they’d been alive and well, their finances strained but their home happy. Then it all disappeared. Consumption, the doctor said; she was lucky she hadn’t got it, too.
Lucky. How she hated that word.
Sophie forced herself to inhale evenly and deeply. Everything in life was a matter of chance. Happiness depended solely on one’s own efforts, because Fate was rarely kind or generous. Sophie had learned that early, and she would never, ever forget it. One could never count on luck.
“But Mrs. Upton wouldn’t teach sums if they weren’t beneficial for ladies to know,” Eliza insisted, unaware of Sophie’s inner turmoil. “I’ll have to find some other way to learn . . . although I truly hope I don’t need to learn odds . . .”
Georgiana giggled. “That’s because the odds are very good that you’ll find a handsome and charming husband, Eliza, and he’ll treat you like a duchess, whether you can balance your household accounts or not.”
“I hope so,” said Eliza wistfully. “Since I haven’t got your beauty or Sophie’s cleverness, I can’t risk it.”
Sophie tucked the blankets under her chin as they debated the question. That simple comment, calling her not only clever but by her given name, caused an unexpected warmth inside her. She was all alone in the world now, with Mama and Papa dead, her grandfather an ogre, and her mother’s family a continent away. She vaguely knew she had an uncle or two, and perhaps even cousins somewhere, but none of them were coming to her aid.
She might not have any family worth knowing, but true and honest friends would be a good start. And she had a powerful feeling that she, Eliza, and Georgiana were destined to be great friends.