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Templeton Hall, Victorian Goldfields, Australia
Gracie Templeton had just turned eleven when she discovered there were people who didn't like her family as much as she did.
It was Saturday morning, June fifth. She woke at seven, knocked on her two older sisters' bedroom doors, waited for them to shout at her to go away, then knocked again, twice as loudly. Ignoring their second wave of sleepy insults, she went in search of her little brother. He was inclined to sleep in cupboards rather than in his bed, but on this particular Saturday he was, surprisingly, in his bedroom. Under his bed, rather than on it, but easy to find at least. After three failed attempts to wake him, she returned to her own small bedroom at the back of the east wing, the one with blue wallpaper that her father called the Red Room, for reasons he seemed to find funny and she didn't quite understand.
It was the first Saturday of the month and Gracie's turn to be the head of the house. She put on the well-ironed long blue cotton dress she'd hung up in her wardrobe the previous evening, adjusted her petticoats, tied on her apron, brushed her unfortunately flyaway white-blond hair until it was a little less flyaway, checked that her black patent leather shoes were shining and her bonnet neatly fastened.
After a final look in the mirror, she went downstairs and opened up the dining room, the library, and the morning room. She switched on all fifteen of the lamps, from the small table ones with the colored glass shades to the large standard models with the heavy brocade covers. Next, she polished the dining-room table. It was eight feet long and four feet wide and she couldn't quite reach the middle of it, but with the lamps turned low she hoped any dust wouldn't show.
She lit the incense in the small Chinese-themed room. She straightened the rugs in the entrance hall, tweaked the runner on the main staircase (it always seemed to stick on the fifth stair), and turned the bronze statuette of Athena on the side table in the smoking room so it was correctly facing forward rather than staring at the wall. Her brother, Spencer, thought it was funny to move the statue around in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. One Saturday, Gracie was about to open the heavy front door and welcome the first of the day's visitors to Templeton Hall when she noticed Athena was standing on her head, balanced precariously against the wall, her bronze legs akimbo. Gracie only just had time to rescue her before the first visitor appeared.
Returning to the morning room, Gracie used a broomstick to gently nudge the portrait of her great-grandfather above the fireplace back into position (it tended to tilt to the left) and set a record of Beethoven's sonatas playing on the old gramophone in the corner.
Her preparation was almost done. Even though she'd checked the appointments book the night before, she checked it again, trying to memorize where each group was coming from. Her sisters, Charlotte and Audrey, always mocked her diligence.
"Who cares who they are or where they come from?" Audrey would often say. "They're just tourists, Gracie. Here to pay our bills for us."
"Not tourists, stickybeaks," Charlotte would correct her. "People with more money than sense."
For years, Gracie had heard that saying as "more money than cents," which didn't make any sense to her at all. Not that she dared ask Charlotte for an explanation. She'd learned from an early age that it was best not to question any of Charlotte's pronouncements. There was less chance of being a victim of her sharp tongue that way. Her "legendary" sharp tongue, as Charlotte herself proudly referred to it.
Gracie loved both her big sisters, but preferred them separately rather than together. Seventeen-year-old Charlotte was quick tempered, but on her own she could also be surprisingly patient. And if sixteen-year-old Audrey wasn't busy gazing at herself in the mirror or complaining that she wasn't receiving enough attention from their parents, she could be quite kind to Gracie.
At least their father approved of his youngest daughter's passionate interest in the Hall. "That's my girl," Henry would say if he came across Gracie sitting on the staircase with the appointments book. "If only the others were as good at this whole malarkey as you."
"I am as good at this whole malarkey," Charlotte said once, overhearing. "Better, probably. I just can't be bothered. There's a difference."
Gracie put the book back neatly where she'd found it. This morning was going to be busy. The first group was due in at ten, and three others before lunch, but as all the Templetons knew from experience, casual visitors could also arrive at the Hall anytime. She caught sight of the family motto written in curling Gothic script around a framed portrait of her grandfather, Tobias Templeton. It was in Latin, but her father had translated it for her--loosely, he explained--as "Fail to prepare; prepare to fail."
Gracie would never admit it to her sisters, or to Spencer, but that motto was like a life message to her. She did her best with her schoolwork and her share of the housework and gardening, but she really tried to be prepared when it came to the family business. She bit her lip as she stood in the hallway, mentally checking her to-do list. Something was missing. She walked through the rooms again until it hit her. Flowers! There were no flowers. And there had to be flowers.
She ran up the two flights of stairs and this time opened Audrey's door without knocking.
"Did you get the flowers?"
"Audrey, did you?"
"I'm sleep talking. Go away."
Gracie's voice got louder. "You promised you'd get them. We made a deal. I'd polish the silver if you got the flowers. You promised."
"I forgot." Audrey's voice was muffled by the pillow.
"That's not fair!" Gracie was shouting now.
"Can you two shut up?" Charlotte's voice sounded clearly from her room across the hallway. "I'm trying to get some sleep here."
Gracie surprised them both, and herself, by giving a loud shriek that lasted nearly ten seconds. It hurt her throat but it worked. Before the last note finished sounding, both Audrey (in a silk nightdress) and Charlotte (in plaid pajamas) were standing in front of her. Their expressions were murderous, but they were at least paying her attention.
"Bloody hell, Gracie. Shut up. You'll wake Mum and Dad and Hope," Charlotte hissed. "You know the rules. No sleep-in on Saturdays, no pocket money for any of us."
Gracie stood her ground. "Audrey was supposed to get the flowers and she didn't."
Charlotte rolled her eyes. "So what? Who cares? If anyone asks, blame it on the maids."
"We don't have maids."
"People don't know that. Tell them we had a maid but she turned out to be light fingered--"
"Flower fingered," Audrey interrupted.
Charlotte laughed. "So we had to dismiss her. Hence, no maid and no flowers."
Gracie wanted to cry. She hated it when her sisters ganged up on her like this. She also hated it when there were no flowers in the rooms. At any other time of the year, she would have gone out into the large gardens surrounding the house and picked what she needed. But there were no flowers at the moment, just lots of dry autumn leaves.
"Stop fretting so much, Gracie," Audrey said, more kindly. "It really doesn't matter."
"It matters to me."
"'It matters to me.'" Charlotte and Audrey both mimicked her passionate tone, before laughing again.
That did it. She stomped, as noisily as she could, down the hallway.
"Shut up, Gracie. You'll wake everyone," Audrey hissed again.
"I don't care. I hope I wake them all, Mum and Dad and Aunt Hope. Then I'll be able to tell them about the flowers. About your broken promise."
"I'm going back to bed," Charlotte said, turning away.
Gracie turned back toward her. "You can't. You're supposed to be dressed and ready by now, too. I checked the roster. It's you and me on today. I'm downstairs, you're upstairs."
"Check the roster again. It's you and Spencer on today, not me. I did a deal with him."
Gracie felt a sudden rush of anger again, secretly enjoying the feeling. It gave her the courage to stand up to Charlotte and Audrey. She borrowed one of her aunt Hope's phrases: "You two are absolutely and completely bloody incorrigible." She headed downstairs, muttering to herself but loudly enough so they could hear her, borrowing another one of Hope's favorite sayings. "If this was my house, I'd throw you all out."
She did her best to ignore their laughter as she tramped back down the polished stairs to the entrance hall. Audrey was probably right, none of the visitors would notice the lack of flowers. They were usually so busy noticing everything else about Templeton Hall, as well as whispering to one another about the age of their tour guide and the whole unusual setup. But this kind of fine detail mattered to Gracie. Unlike her two sisters and brother, she longed for her turn as head guide. She didn't do it purely for the pocket money on offer, either. She loved sharing everything she knew about the Hall: its history, its beautiful contents, all it meant to her whole family, stretching back for generations. . . .
"We're just a tourist attraction, Gracie. You have to understand that. People don't care if we're descended from English aristocracy, Australian squattocracy, or a pack of werewolves," Charlotte had said once. "We're just one more stop before they drive on to their hotel or caravan park. Something to fill up the day. A place to take a photo or go to the loo. Don't take it so seriously."
But Gracie did take it seriously. She couldn't help it. She checked the time now on the large grandfather clock ticking beside her in the hallway. Nearly nine a.m. A glint of metal on the side table caught her eye. Charlotte's car keys. They shouldn't have been there, for two reasons. One, all signs of their "modern" life were supposed to be hidden on the weekends when the Hall was open to the public. And two, their parents had asked each of them repeatedly to please hang any keys on the hook behind the pantry door. The house was so big that a few rules and regulations had to be made. The alternative was many wasted hours searching through eighteen rooms.
Gracie did some quick mental arithmetic. Templeton Hall was out in the countryside, a long way from a shop. It would take her twenty minutes to drive into Castlemaine, their nearest big town. Ten minutes, if she was quick, to buy flowers from the grocery store where the family had an account. Twenty minutes back. It was possible. If there were no delays, she'd be back with ten minutes to spare before the Hall opened to the public.
There was the minor matter of it being illegal for her to drive. But she'd been driving Charlotte's car, a little automatic, since she was ten years old, over a year now. So far, only in the paddocks around Templeton Hall, but Charlotte had always expressed amazement at how quickly she'd caught on. Her lack of height was the main problem, but a couple of folded wheat sacks from the stables had always given her the inches she needed. A coat or jumper or two would do the same now, surely?
Five minutes later, she was at the wheel, turning from the Hall's long dirt driveway onto the main road to Castlemaine. Her heart was beating so fast she could almost hear it. She was up a little high in the driver's seat (she'd decided on three coats rather than two, and regretted it slightly now). Her steering was good, her braking impeccable, and the roads were thankfully quiet. As she passed the Welcome to Castlemaine sign twenty minutes later and drove into the wide main street, she started to breathe more easily. She could see the greengrocer ahead, setting up his outside display of fruit and vegetables. Yes, he had roses there. And she could see carnations, too, and chrysanthemums.
She was so busy looking at the flowers that she didn't see the car pulling out in front of her. There was, however, no missing the bang that sounded as the front of Charlotte's car hit the back of the other vehicle, or the sound of her car horn as she fell forward against it for ten long seconds, that later would re-sound in her ears as lasting for hours.
Afterward, she wondered where all the people had come from, and so quickly. The street had been quite empty. But within seconds of the collision, people came rushing from shops, from other cars, from side streets. She heard snatches of sentences.
"I didn't see her. She just appeared." "What the hell is a kid doing driving a car?" "Why is she dressed in that weird gear?" "She's one of those mad bloody Templetons, that's why. They think they own the bloody place."
The greengrocer's concerned face was replaced by a fiercer face attached to a body dressed in a policeman's uniform. "What do you think you're doing? You could have killed yourself or someone else."
"I was getting flowers. We're about to open."
The policeman looked away from her, around the crowd, as if hoping they might be able to make sense of Gracie's words. It was clear he couldn't.
A bystander stepped in. "You're new here, aren't you? She's one of the Templetons."
"The mad bloody Templetons," someone added.
"Up to another publicity stunt."
"From Templeton Hall."
"Tembledinall?" the policeman misheard. "What is it, a religious cult?"
More murmurs as locals hurried to offer explanations. Gracie didn't have time to listen, or to worry about her family being called the mad bloody Templetons twice in five minutes. The town hall clock was striking nine-thirty. She had to hurry. She struggled out of the seat belt. One large brown arm pushed her back in her seat.
"You're not going anywhere, kiddo."
Much later that night, Gracie's father, Henry, announced that he found it very funny. Hilarious, he said. Her mother, Eleanor, was still in a shocked, rather than amused, state and also angry--Gracie's arrival at Templeton Hall in a police car just as a bus filled with tourists pulled up had caused such a fuss that Hope, Eleanor's younger sister who stayed with the family on and off, had taken a "turn," as Eleanor usually put it. "Threw a wobbly," Audrey preferred to describe it. "Went psycho," Spencer would say. "Exhibited pure attention-seeking behavior, more like it," Charlotte would insist.
Charlotte, as the oldest, had plenty of opinions on the relationship between her mother and Hope. "It's Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret all over again," she'd announced once. "The youngest is jealous of the older sister's standing and marriage, so she goes wild and hits the bottle, resulting in the older sister having to take care of her for the rest of her days--the ultimate revenge."
From the Trade Paperback edition.