The Duke Heist (The Wild Wynchesters #1) - Erica Ridley


March 1817

London, England

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.”

Our lives.

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.