Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor, Page 3Ally Carter
When the Bite Is Worse Than the Bark
April had never been in a limousine before. But as soon as she stepped outside the hospital and followed Ms. Nelson to the long black car with the windows you couldn’t see through, she felt less like she was stepping into a car and more like she was getting into a carriage from a movie. The question remained, though. Was the Woman in White her fairy godmother or her evil stepmother? Only time would tell.
At the moment, she only knew two things for certain: One: Jell-O isn’t a very satisfying meal.
And two: limousines come with buttons. So. Many. Buttons.
There was one that opened a hole in the roof. One that raised and lowered the divider between the back seat and the driver. There was one for the radio, and one for the lights, and one that opened and closed a refrigerator that held nothing but teeny tiny bottles of water and wet washcloths that were rolled up like burritos.
Man, April really wanted a burrito.
Ms. Nelson sat perfectly still on the black leather while April poked and prodded and twisted and turned.
“You need to keep your seat belt on, April” was her only warning. But she didn’t sound mad.
“Um . . . I think I broke something,” April admitted a few minutes later.
“I think the car’s on fire!” April couldn’t believe she’d managed to start another fire, but she also couldn’t stop twisting and squirming as the leather beneath her got hotter and hotter, but Ms. Nelson didn’t seem the least bit concerned.
“Yeah. I did it. I started a fire!” April said, but the woman only shook her head.
“No. You just turned on your seat heater.”
“Your seat heater. Here.” She leaned across April and punched a button, and April’s rear end began to slowly return to normal.
“So . . . I guess rich people don’t like having cold butts, huh?”
“April, no one likes having a cold butt.”
When the woman smiled that time, it was a real smile. Not like she was laughing at April. Like they were laughing at something. Together. And for the first time April let herself think that maybe life at Winterborne House wouldn’t be so bad.
“So what’s your deal?” she said, turning to the woman.
“I apologize. I should have led with that back at the hospital. I’m the director of the Winterborne Foundation. I live at Winterborne House—that’s where you’ll live too from now on.”
April thought about the museum and all the fancy things that were a pile of smoldering rubble now, thanks to her. Then April thought about the box and the key and the questions that had been with her longer than any fire. “Is it Winterborne . . . like . . .”
“Like the Winterborne exhibit at the museum?” the woman guessed. “Yes. And Winterborne Industries. And Winterborne Street. And the Winterborne Metropolitan Library and . . . Well . . . You get the picture. But the foundation is based out of Winterborne House. Currently. That will be your home now.”
“If you visited the museum yesterday, you must have heard what happened twenty years ago to the Winterborne family.”
“You mean the shipwreck? Yeah. Everyone knows about that.”
The woman shivered a little, and April wondered why she didn’t just turn on her seat heater if she was cold.
“You heard about the boy who survived?” the woman asked, and April nodded. “Well, after the shipwreck, Gabriel lived in Winterborne House all alone. With only the staff . . . and the staff’s children . . . for company. Winterborne House was the home of an orphan for a decade. When he went away . . . Well, it seemed a shame for that great big house to sit empty, so the Winterborne Foundation decided to open its doors to kids like Gabriel.”
“I’m not like Gabriel Winterborne.” April didn’t mean to sound snotty, but her stomach was growling and her throat still hurt and she couldn’t stop thinking about the boy in the painting.
“Not exactly, no.” The woman grinned down at April. “But you said it yourself, April. You’ve lived in a lot of houses. I thought you might be ready for a home.”
She folded and refolded her hands, and April found it strange that there was something—anything—that might make this woman nervous.
“Is that because he’s dead now?” April blurted, then felt guilty when she saw the woman’s face go as white as her coat. “I mean, maybe he’s not dead. Maybe he’s gonna come home one day and find a bunch of random kids in his house. What’s he gonna say about that?”
The woman smirked at the thought. “Very bad words—that’s what he would say.”
It was almost like she was remembering something and she didn’t know whether it should make her laugh or make her cry. So, instead, she looked down at April and said, “I think you’ll like it at Winterborne House. I hope you’ll enjoy having a more . . . permanent . . . placement.”
She probably said it to be nice, but April felt the words like a slap. “I don’t need a permanent placement.”
“Everyone does better when they have stability. Everyone—”
“My mom is coming for me. I have a permanent place with her.”
The woman didn’t argue. She just tilted her head a little and said, “Yes, dear. I just meant that you have a place with us for as long as you need it. You’ll always have a place with us.”
She patted April’s hand and looked out the window. April expected to see a street like the one by the museum. She thought that maybe if she opened the hole in the roof, she might smell the sea. But it was just a regular street with little convenience stores and houses with metal bars over the windows.
“Lady, I hate to break it to you, but I think we might be lost.”
“Not lost,” the woman said as the limo slowed down. “Just making one more stop.”
They parked in front of a house with a rusty chainlink fence and old plastic toys in the yard, weeds growing up through the wheels.
The woman opened the door and said, “Please wait here. I won’t be but a moment.”
And then she stepped out of the dark interior of the limo and into the bright sun.
April wanted to roll down the window and yell for her to be careful, that just about anything in that yard could ruin her white clothes, but before she could even reach for any of the buttons, a terrible sound filled the air.
It wasn’t a bark. And it wasn’t a growl. It was more like a siren that came in canine form.
April reached for the door, threw it open, and shouted, “Look out!” just as the biggest, meanest, most slobberiffic dog she’d ever seen came barreling around the corner of the house, jumping through the weeds like it was a lion and Ms. Nelson was a gazelle.
Its teeth were bared, but the woman just stood there. She didn’t even step aside or take her white coat out of slobber range before the dog stopped flying and jerked back, landing in the weeds.
That was when April saw the collar and heard the rattling of the chain. There was more growling and barking though, but the woman looked down at the beast and said, “Enough.”
And, just like that, the dog went silent.
“Shut up, you!” someone else yelled. A screen door slammed. And a woman stepped onto the porch, carrying out the trash. She came down the sidewalk and stopped right in front of Ms. Nelson, dropping the plastic bag at her feet.
“This is all her stuff.”
Ms. Nelson looked down at the mostly empty sack and said, “Thank you.”
The stranger crossed her arms and stared at Ms. Nelson and all her immaculate perfection.
“You said I’d keep getting the check for her.”
“Well, no . . .” Ms. Nelson said cautiously.
“Then the deal’s off.”
The woman reached for the garbage sack and was starting back for the house when Ms. Nelson called, “We will have to officially transfer Violet into our care, but we’re quite willing to compens
ate you for your trouble out of the foundation’s funds.”
The stranger stopped. And turned. “What’s that mean?”
That’s when Ms. Nelson reached into her pocket and brought out a piece of paper. “Will this be sufficient?”
Even from the limo, April could see the stranger’s eyes go wide before she folded the check in half and shoved it down the front of her shirt.
“Yeah. That’ll do.”
“Excellent.” Ms. Nelson looked around the overgrown lawn. “Where is she?”
“Girl! Get out here!” the stranger yelled.
For a moment, April wondered if the woman was talking to her. She’d heard words just like those a million times, shouted by people who never even bothered to learn her name. But the screen door screeched again, and someone else stepped onto the porch.
She was younger than April, but it was almost impossible to say by how much. Her shiny black hair was cut short around her face, with crooked bangs that were too long, almost hiding her big brown eyes. She had the look of frailness that kids get sometimes, like a plant that never got enough water and can’t quite reach the sun.
Cautiously, the little girl walked down the rickety steps. The dog barked again, but Ms. Nelson said, “Down,” and it dropped to its belly in the grass even as Ms. Nelson knelt down to speak on the little girl’s level.
“Hi, Violet! I’m Ms. Nelson. I live at Winterborne House. How are you?”
“She don’t talk.” The foster mother had a kind of gleam in her eye. Like she’d gotten the woman with the fancy clothes to buy a dud but all sales were final. No takebacks.
But Ms. Nelson glanced at the pad of paper that the little girl held in her hands. “Have you been drawing?” she asked. When the little girl nodded, she turned the pad so that Ms. Nelson could see. “Oh, that’s very good. Do you like to draw?”
Violet nodded again.
That was the point where most kids might hide behind their mother’s legs, but this little girl didn’t have anyone to hide behind. Nothing to protect her from the world except that pad of paper, and Ms. Nelson must have sensed it too because when she spoke again her voice was softer.
“Violet, I work at Winterborne House. It’s a home and a school, and we’d like it very much if you would come live there. Would you like that?”
April didn’t know Violet. But she knew what she was thinking: that Winterborne House might be better than this place, but it also might be worse. The girl couldn’t have been older than seven, but she’d already learned that things are more likely to get worse than they are to get better and you’re always better off playing the odds.
The foster mother seemed to think this was funny, because she laughed and crossed her arms. “Good luck getting her to go without her guard dog.”
Ms. Nelson rose to her full height but looked down at the dog on the chain. She was just starting to speak when a voice rang out, shouting, “What’s going on here?” and April turned to see a boy walking down the street.
He must have been twelve or thirteen, with light brown hair that probably only got cut once or twice a year and the kind of skin that would burn if he stayed out too long in the sun. The collar of his denim jacket was standing up, not because it made him look tough but because it was warmer that way. But the thing April noticed the most was this: he looked far meaner than the dog. And he didn’t have a chain.
In a flash, he was through the gate and the little girl was flying into his arms. He smoothed her hair, and when he spoke again, it was like the words were coming from an entirely different person; they were soft and kind and gentle. “What’s going on, Vi? Did you draw something?”
She nodded but didn’t pull away from him long enough to show him the pad of paper that was smashed between their bodies.
When he looked at the woman in the too-clean, too-white clothes, his voice was as sharp as the teeth of the dog. “Who are you?”
“My name is Isabella Nelson. I’m the director of the Winterborne Foundation. Winterborne House is now a home and school, and we’d like for Violet to come live with us.”
The boy looked from the shiny black car to Ms. Nelson’s fancy clothes and finally to the little scrap of paper sticking out the top of his foster mother’s shirt.
“What’s that for?”
The woman stepped back, as if she might be afraid of a twelve-year-old boy. “They’re compensating me for my trouble.”
“She isn’t for sale,” the boy growled again.
“I have no wish to buy any child,” Ms. Nelson said calmly. “But it’s come to our attention that Violet has remarkable talent for art, is that correct?” Ms. Nelson asked, but she didn’t really wait for an answer. “At Winterborne House we have the resources to help her nurture and develop that talent. And you spent some time in the hospital last fall, didn’t you, Violet?”
“She’s fine,” the little boy growled, but Ms. Nelson cocked her head and studied the boy.
“Asthma can be serious. Especially if unmanaged and untreated. We have a doctor on call at Winterborne House. Violet would receive the best medical care.” She leaned down as if trying to get Violet to look her in the eye. “How does that sound, Violet?”
But she was really speaking to the boy, and everyone knew it.
“Whatcha say, Vi?” he asked after a long time, his voice softer as he looked down at the girl, who seemed even younger and smaller than she had a moment before. “Wanna go for a ride in the fancy car? Move into the big house? I bet they have lots of paper in a place like that?”
Ms. Nelson knew a lifeline when she saw one, and she grabbed it. “Oh yes. We have a whole room just for art!”
The little girl pulled away from the boy. The tears were drying on her face.
Now it was the boy who looked like he wanted to cry. “That sounds nice, right, Vi? That sounds like a great place to live.” He turned away and April could hear his voice crack. “I think you’ll be real happy there. Just . . . Just send me a picture every now and then, okay?”
Violet knew what was happening before Ms. Nelson reached for the little girl—before the boy even let her go. In a flash, she was in Ms. Nelson’s arms and being carried to the car. Her legs kicked. Her arms reached toward the boy, who wasn’t reaching back.
And then a single word broke through the air, “Tim!”
It was the first word she’d said, and Ms. Nelson stopped. It only took a moment for her to consider, then say, “Tim?”
“What?” he snapped.
“How would you like to come to Winterborne House, too?”
The House at the Edge of the Earth
Violet didn’t push any of the buttons. Neither did Tim. April thought that probably meant something—but she didn’t know what, exactly. She just knew that they sat together, perfectly still, while Tim’s arm lay across Violet’s shoulders and she looked like she was trying to dissolve into him, even as she kept her gaze on the pad of paper in her lap.
“I apologize, Tim,” Ms. Nelson said. “According to our records, Violet didn’t have a brother. We didn’t know.”
“I’m not her real brother,” he said, but Ms. Nelson smiled.
“Family isn’t always something we’re born into.”
He didn’t smile or speak or do anything but grip Violet a little bit tighter.
“You gonna get in trouble? For taking me?” he asked after a long time.
“Don’t worry about that,” Ms. Nelson said.
“What are you looking at?”
It took April a moment to realize that Tim was looking at her—talking to her.
“Nothing,” she said too quickly.
Then Ms. Nelson shifted and said, “Tim, Violet, this is April. April’s moving to Winterborne House today, too.”
She said it like that ought to make them Best Friends Forever, but April had met enough kids in the system to know that Tim and Violet got by because they had a lifeboat built for two. April wasn’t going to force herself in, risk
making it tip over.
“Have you and Violet lived together long?” Ms. Nelson asked.
“A while,” Tim said with a shrug. Violet didn’t say anything. She just kept drawing on that little pad of paper until, finally, she ripped off the top sheet and handed it to April.
“For me?” April asked. She looked down at the paper and saw a perfect rendition of the emblem on her mother’s key. Panicked, April’s hand flew to her neck, and she realized that the key had somehow come out from beneath her shirt and was hanging there for all the world to see.
“That’s very good,” the woman said as she looked at the picture. “That’s the Winterborne crest. You’ll be seeing a great deal of it at your new home. The Winterbornes were wonderful people, but they did go a little overboard with the decorating,” she added like it was a secret, just between the four of them.
Then April felt the car begin to slow and turn. She practically plastered herself to the windows as they pulled through the tallest gates that April had ever seen. The car kept driving, around twisty bends and beneath the branches of tall trees, and then it came to a stop in front of a house that was bigger than the museum. Than the hospital. Than her school and every single house she’d ever lived in put together.
It was made out of dark gray stone and looked almost like a castle. April had to wonder if there were people locked up in any of the tall towers. She thought maybe there might be a moat and a drawbridge. Surely a place like this came with at least one dragon, she thought as she crawled from the back of the car, and out into a wind that smelled like salt and felt like rain.
April could hear the low rumbling sound of the waves. A bright green lawn stretched out to her right but then it seemed to just . . . stop. Disappear. And April looked up at the massive house again, hoping that the wind wasn’t strong enough to knock it into the sea.
But Ms. Nelson didn’t seem concerned at all as she walked toward the big double doors.
“Come along, children. Welcome home.”
And for some reason, April didn’t even try to correct her.
* * *