Kindle UnlimitedFree with a subscription to Kindle Unlimited
Bridget Jones meets Downton Abbey in this acclaimed time-travel series! Get it here: https://books2read.com/-StrandedStranded (The Shorten Chronicles Book 1)
Bridget Jones meets Downton Abbey in this acclaimed new time-travel series.
★★★★★ “An absolutely outstanding book. Time travel with a twist.” - Noel Cades
★★★★★ "Perfect for fantasy and historical romance fans!" - M. E. Hall, Amazon Reviewer
★★★★★ “A slow unfurling, done spectacularly well.” - E. G. Stone
A modern girl. A door to the past. No way back.
Sophie Arundel is stranded in history, stuck in a grand house in 1925 England. Thankfully, she has her faithful dog Charlotte with her. Oh, and fellow student Hugo, annoying and charming in equal measure.
Suffocated by corsets, long skirts, and boorish suitors, Sophie is desperate to get back to the twenty-first century, but the only way home is through a hidden portal — and she must work with Hugo to unlock its secrets.
As one clue leads to another, Sophie and Hugo discover that history is unfolding differently. Mobs rule the streets. And when chaos turns into a deadly revolution, anyone in a grand house is fair game.
Sophie and Hugo are running out of time...
Release date: October 12, 2020
Publisher: TOB Publishing
Print pages: 474
Content advisory: One instance of swearing, mild sexual references, one kiss
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
The idea for the Shorten Chronicles popped into my head when I was watching an episode of Downton Abbey: how would a modern young woman cope in a grand house a century ago? The answer of course is 'not very well!'
That premise then grew into a larger tale. Book 1, Stranded, was published in 2020. Book 2, Escape, will be published in 2021. In subsequent books, Sophie and the two boys she loves will have more adventures in different historical times and places, as will Sophie's formidable companion, Charlotte the labradoodle.
Stepping through a hidden portal is just the beginning...
Stranded: A Time Travel Romance
The university website had promised lawns and trees and a pretty medieval church.
Up ahead was a concrete tower block, its pitted surface painted in primary colours to resemble lurid Lego bricks. Narrow rectangular windows lay flat against the cliff face of the building in six horizontal lines, dull and dark in the late September sunshine.
Trundling her scruffy suitcase behind her, Sophie grimaced. What an idiot. Why hadn’t she visited first?
The school had laid on visits to Oxford and Cambridge, but she wasn’t in that league, been too focused on A level assessments to sort long road trips.
Students were pushing by, earnestly talking, and Sophie shortened Charlotte’s lead. Bringing a large brown labradoodle along wasn’t ideal but kennels were expensive. ‘I bet our room’s in that tower block,’ she said, addressing Charlotte.
Charlotte ignored her, weaving happily around a heap of cigarette ends on the grubby path; she had few expectations so was rarely disappointed.
Sophie squared her shoulders. Be more like Charlotte. Go with the flow.
The squat building beyond the entrance had sharp edges and a flat roof. A mottled, plastic panel had fallen off a wall, partly blocking the pavement.
‘It’s no good. This really sucks. Let’s go home.’
Charlotte promptly pulled on her lead towards reception.
Sophie sighed, imagining dragging her to the road, getting a taxi to the station and when they arrived back, Aunty Wendy’s disappointed face… No, Charlotte was right. Pathetic to drop out before they’d even walked in.
But the lecture-sized room with municipal flooring and yellow walls was jam-packed with new undergraduates and their families, queuing to register on the first day of the Autumn term, and Sophie paused, nerves swirling. This many people usually triggered undisciplined Charlotte bouncing; her fluorescent jacket might as well have been emblazoned I AM NOT A SERVICE DOG.
Charlotte leaned against Sophie’s knees, sensing her anxiety. Sophie knew she had to relax. Or Charlotte wouldn’t. She drew a deep breath. ‘Okay, let’s go.’
They joined the queue for A to E surnames and Charlotte immediately caused a stir, but she posed, enjoying being petted by impressed strangers. Genuine service dogs, focused on their work, weren’t supposed to be petted, but Charlotte was calm and looked the part. So far, so good.
As she waited, Sophie closed her mouth and breathed through her nose, fending off pungent teenage aftershave and celebrity-branded perfumes, the scents intensified by the unseasonal, humid weather and the stuffy room. No air con … she should have worn a thin dress, not jeans and an over-sized shirt. She hauled off her black cardigan and tied it about her waist.
A tall, dark-haired boy in a different queue was staring at his phone. Hugo Harrington? Couldn’t be him. Wouldn’t be seen dead in a place like this.
Her mobile bleeped in her bag. Isha, her BFF, had sent predictable pictures of her Oxford college. Hushed, immaculate lawns and dreamy spires.
Can we visit next weekend? xxx Sophie texted.
Isha replied immediately. Term hasn’t started yet. Come weekend after. Send Charlotte pictures!! xxx.
Will do xxx.
Isha understood about Charlotte. Six years ago, when Sophie’s parents had died in a car accident, she’d grieved in private but confided in Isha, and, four years later, when Aunty Wendy had given her a puppy, Sophie had confided again, explaining the unexpected surge of maternal love and how Charlotte helped fill the parent-size void. And Charlotte was still an anchor in a lonely sea, would always trump getting a degree, socialising, anything—
‘Name?’ The woman behind the front desk glanced up from her computer screen. She had short, spiky hair and shrewd eyes.
The woman frowned, eyeing Charlotte. ‘You’re not on the special needs list.’
‘Oh, I filled out the form.’ She hadn’t, hoped she could wing it.
Unforgiving, overhead strip lighting revealed lines of annoyance around the woman’s pursed mouth as she scanned the screen and typed, the faint clicks from the keyboard sounding rapid and professional.
‘I hate to ask,’ said the woman, ‘but would you mind sending it again?’
Sophie hid her relief, adjusting her bag strap, securely slung across her chest. ‘Of course.’
‘I’ll put you on the waiting list for a ground-floor flat. I’m afraid you’ve been allocated a fourth-floor room.’
Right. The Lego Tribute. ‘No worries.’
The woman handed her an envelope, her eyes still scanning her screen. ‘Your room key.’
‘Thank you.’ Sophie stuffed it in her bag and hurried away, struggling to wheel the suitcase through the crowd. ‘Don’t worry,’ she whispered to Charlotte. ‘Before they realise the form’s still missing, I’ll think of something.’
The boy who looked like Hugo was in front of her, strolling towards the exit. Six foot three and gangly in his pale knee-length shorts and red T-shirt, he had a navy hoodie casually tied around his neck. He turned as the door opened, and she saw his profile. Strong jawline, broad shoulders, annoying air of easy confidence. It was definitely him.
To get his attention, she touched his arm.
He stared at her as if she’d beamed down from a spaceship, his thick black eyebrows surprised. ‘Sophie?’
She pulled Charlotte close; Hugo might not appreciate joyful doggie bouncing. ‘I didn’t realise you were coming here.’
He examined an envelope he was holding. His room key. ‘Missed the grades for Oxford.’
Puzzling. He’d always aced exams. In the last school debate, he’d argued climate change didn’t exist — without notes, just to show off. They’d never been friends. But he was a familiar face in a squash of strangers and Charlotte was earnestly leaning into his legs. Odd. She didn’t usually do her full-on love-lean to people she’d just met.
Hugo’s T-shirt proclaimed San Diego Surfing Co. California in bold, black letters, interwoven through a faded, dark ring. He could have bought that anywhere but, being Hugo, he’d have visited. She pointed. ‘Souvenir?’
‘Yes, my sister lives there.’ He pushed his unruly hair from his forehead. Cut neatly around his ears and nape, but his fringe was way too long. ‘Going to the tower block?’
She nodded. ‘You’ve no luggage?’
‘In the car. I’ll get it later.’
Hugo and his mates all had cars, courtesy of Mummy and Daddy. New, sporty, pricey. Why couldn’t one of her friends have turned up, not posh boy Hugo?
Outside, students were handing out Mexican beer, promoting some new brand.
‘We had to bin the sombreros,’ said a tanned, cheerful girl, handing Hugo a plastic cup. ‘Cultural appropriation and all that.’
Sophie reluctantly declined the beer. Both her hands were fully occupied trundling the suitcase and holding Charlotte’s extendable lead.
‘It’s good to be sensitive,’ said Hugo, as they followed a path around the reception building, ‘but where does it end? Banning people from selling Scotch whisky in kilts?’
She shrugged. Today was stressful enough. She wasn’t up for an earnest discussion.
They turned a corner. Boxed in by blunt, angular buildings was a stone medieval church with gothic, stained-glass windows. It was like the chapel at school, but the steeple was larger and taller.
The church on the website … the other buildings had been airbrushed out. Unbelievable.
‘That’s unusual,' said Hugo.
‘Sad.’ The lone survivor of a concrete massacre.
‘Over there.’ Hugo was pointing at something above an arched window at the near side of the chapel.
Half concealed by a buttress was a carving, attached like a gargoyle, but it wasn’t a devil or grotesque figure. Two young faces looked in opposite directions, the back of their heads touching. The identical faces could have been male or female.
Sophie walked closer, stood on tip toe and touched it. The lines of the carving were confident and flowing, executed with real skill. For a moment, the church shimmered, there but not there, like a mirage. Feeling dizzy, she took a slow breath and the air tasted fresher, like a rain-swept draught into a dusty room. Summer smells … grass and pollen.
‘Are you okay?’ Hugo was regarding her with concern.
‘I’m fine, shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.’ Curious. At school, he’d rarely deigned to speak to her.
They walked past the church and downhill, through a maze of square, two-storey buildings, the path levelling off as they drew nearer the tower block. No one seemed suspicious about Charlotte. Sophie had googled Invisible Illnesses, memorised a convincing lie, but few people would be crass enough to interrogate a stranger about a disability. English reticence plus political correctness. Result.
‘Must be somewhere to practise cricket,’ said Hugo. ‘A pitch…’
‘You think?’ A cricket pitch here was as likely as a magic garden. But his doomed quest didn’t affect her. She’d always been baffled by the appeal of cricket, with matches lasting whole days. Could have played at school; the mixed team had been quite good, but she’d been happy with kickboxing and javelin.
She paused wheeling the suitcase to brush an annoying strand of hair from her face. ‘The sports complex looked cool on the website.’ Maybe she could do kickboxing? Javelin was impractical, required a field.
‘They’ll have cricket nets. Better than nothing.’ Hugo opened a door at the base of the tower block and went in. Above the doorframe, STUDENTS’ UNION AND ACCOMMODATION was signed in red, bulky letters.
Sophie followed with a skittish Charlotte. Beyond a convenience shop was a huge hall that took up most of the ground floor. Despite its size, it was as crowded and stifling as reception.
Charlotte pulled back towards the exit. She loved her day trips, exploring wind-swept beaches or the quiet gardens of stately homes; this hectic space was downright scary. Sophie gave her a reassuring pat. ‘Honestly, you’ll like it once we’ve settled in.’ Charlotte sat, put out her front legs and held them ramrod stiff. So began a well-rehearsed battle of wills. There could only be one winner and — after two treats — Charlotte consented to walk to heel, attracting respectful and admiring glances.
‘Wow, he’s a big dog.’ A podgy boy with ginger hair patted Charlotte’s head.
She should have bought a harness signed I AM A GIRL.
He handed her a leaflet. Behind him was a poster of a caged, brown and white beagle with haunted eyes.
‘They’re doing testing here?’
‘Not yet, but they’ve been granted funding. You’re welcome to join our protest. Noon tomorrow, outside the science labs.’
‘I’ll be there.’ Sophie walked away, putting the pamphlet in her bag. ‘When we get to our room,’ she told Charlotte, ‘we’ll call Aunty Wendy.’ Sophie’s aunt had Parkinson’s disease and checking on her was a daily routine.
A boy wearing a cap walked by and Charlotte shrank against Sophie’s legs in a very un-guide-dog way. Charlotte didn’t like hats, because she couldn’t see the person’s face. Sophie leaned against a partition wall and hugged her.
As she straightened, Sophie’s head nudged a small sepia photo, sending it wonky. She adjusted the dusty gilt frame and read the caption. Little Shorten, 1910. Two young girls wearing white pinafore dresses and solemn expressions were sitting on a bench by a village green. The fine hairs on the back of Sophie’s neck stood up and her skin prickled. Someone was curious. Watching, assessing.
She turned around. Busy, noisy — nothing weird.
The younger girl in the picture was about four, her round face gazing defiantly at the camera. ‘The university’s main entrance is on Shorten Road,’ she told Charlotte. ‘Little Shorten won’t be far. You’ll love all that green space.’
Without warning, Charlotte bolted, the crowd parting like a knife slash as she moved at alarming speed. Holding the lead, Sophie hurtled after her but couldn’t hurtle and keep her footing. She lost the lead and careered into grimy, vinyl flooring.
For a moment Sophie lay winded, but galvanised by panic, she hauled herself up and sprinted.
At the far end of the hall were two lifts. One was plain, grey metal, matching the building’s brutalist architecture, the other was painted gold. Hugo was waiting nonchalantly in front of the gold lift, his eyes on his phone. Charlotte was right beside his feet, almost touching his black trainers, oddly still, as if sitting for a portrait.
Sophie reached Charlotte, took her lead and paused to catch her breath.
On the gold lift doors were maths symbols for infinity and Pi, and two she didn’t recognise. And there were pictures, simple and child-like, drawn in the same dark, swirly strokes: a mansion in the countryside, a man rocking a cot, a girl gripping an enormous sword and a cottage on fire. Framing the door was a classical-looking mural, depicting graceful urns and stylised leaves, and at the top was an old-fashioned round dial, showing only three floors — decorative not functional. By the dial were leaping stags with craggy antlers and noble expressions.
Sophie put her palm against the drawing of the country house. The paint wasn’t textured as she’d expected, but smooth and cold, like stone. Odd jumble of images … must have been done for some art project. She shivered and pulled on her cardigan. Finally, air-conditioning. But it was far too cold.
Hugo put on his hoodie and zipped it closed, his eyes hardly moving from his phone.
A high ching noise like a bicycle bell rang out and the gold doors shuddered open, rattling as they slid completely back. Charlotte strained to get in, making pitiful strangling noises, smelling a dropped sandwich or forbidden burger.
Sophie checked out the grey, laminate floor, efficiently illuminated by a boxy light on the ceiling. Fine. No trash.
She let Charlotte scrabble over the threshold and followed her. Hugo came in, glancing from his phone just long enough to press the button for the sixth floor. Sophie pressed for the fourth, glad they were on different levels. She’d meet like-minded people at the protest, hopefully make friends.
The doors slid shut and Sophie frowned at her reflection in a mirror. The white shirt skirting her thighs was streaked with grey dust from the students’ union floor. And her face was smeared with grime. She found a tissue in her bag and hastily wiped it off.
Charlotte pricked up her ears.
The lift was moving but there was no sound that Sophie could hear, not even a vibration hum. She took out the leaflet. Animal Testing Is Torture. Underneath the headline were distressing photos. She was already Online Petition Girl but here she could do proper activism. She folded the paper in half to hide the pictures. Seeing them was too difficult. She found a lot of stuff too difficult. Veggie for half her life but had never managed to go vegan.
A loud clang, and the doors on the far side jerkily opened, making a grinding sound, metal on metal, like they needed oiling.
She stuffed the leaflet in her bag and half-turned, reaching for the handle of her suitcase behind her. But it wasn’t there. It was in the hall, forgotten when she’d dashed to catch Charlotte. Sophie swore under her breath and stepped forward to press the button for the ground floor.
And gaped. What was beyond the lift couldn’t be real. She blinked. But the scene in front of her didn’t change.
Charlotte was wagging her tail, trying to leap out. Sophie pulled her closer and with her free hand grabbed a curved handrail, keen to hold onto something solid. If this was a window, it was a long way down.
‘Top of the range and the stupid thing’s died.’ Hugo pocketed his phone and looked up. ‘Impressive 3D projection. And nice birdsong.’
Right by the threshold was the sturdy trunk of an oak tree. Beyond it, under an intense, blue sky, was a sunlit country road, bordered by a tall bay hedge.
‘The IT facility here is world class,’ said Hugo. ‘The different perspectives are flawless.’
Of course. ‘Probably been done for Freshers’ Week.’ The coming days promised non-stop excitement: big name music acts, live comedy and awesome parties.
Sophie took her hand from the rail. Explained why they’d gold-sprayed the lift — happy party colour and wacky art. She turned to the side wall to press for the ground floor but the black metal facing on the control panel was glossy walnut, the digital floor display had gone, and there were only two buttons — for closing and opening the doors. They were also made of wood, protruding and chunky. She gasped, disorientated.
Hugo was turning slowly around. ‘This makes no sense…’
A dainty chandelier was hanging from the ceiling. Droplet-shaped crystals, artfully arranged in tiers, floated amidst three silver branches that curved upward, cradling tented bulbs. These gave out an unusually bright white light, eerily illuminating the lift walls — no longer innocuously grey but a swirl of different wood grains, from ebony to light birch.
Sophie pushed down a whisper of fear. The drab, austere ceiling was now a round mirror, framed with raised gold petals, reminiscent of a flower or the rays of the sun. Her reflected upturned face was anxious and slightly rippled. Had she been knocked out when she’d fallen? She didn’t remember banging her head. She traced a curved groove on the wall with her forefinger. More likely she was asleep on the train.
Hugo pressed to close the doors. Nothing. He pressed again with more force. Nothing.
The lift was bigger than before; enough room to sleep, with space to spare. Beneath the translucent flooring was a purple, ragged cobweb, as wide as the lift, rhythmically glowing, pulsing like a heart. Sophie bent and gingerly touched the floor. It was slightly springy, like a piece of eel she’d tasted years ago by mistake. The memory still made her shudder. She snatched her hand away. Her fingertip was numb, as if she’d held it under icy water.
‘The fancy light’s working, so it’s not a power outage.’ Hugo frowned. ’Did you notice an out-of-order sign?’
‘No, but if the doors were painted recently, it could have dripped, jammed the doors?’
He shook his head. ‘Whatever the problem, there should be a way to contact the lift people. Perhaps the help button’s on a separate panel?’
They both searched. There was no other panel.
Hugo drove his hand through his hair. ‘I don’t understand. Basic health and safety.’
Sophie pushed the clunky button to close the doors; it felt spongy, broken. Alarm was now souring her throat. ‘We should climb through the top, like they do in films.’ Even as she said this, the prospect of carrying Charlotte between them seemed too dangerous. Impractical. ‘You could do that, by yourself.’
Hugo was tall enough to inspect the ceiling, including a circular brass plate that secured the chandelier. ‘Might be an access door underneath this glass. Have you anything sharp in your bag?’
Keeping a firm hold on Charlotte’s lead with one hand, Sophie extracted her phone and put it carefully on the floor, grabbed a bottle of water, then tipped out pens, mini umbrella, a bag for Charlotte, room key envelope, pocket mirror, comb and something foul. ‘Ugh.’
‘What is that?’
Sophie peered at the mouldy gunge. ‘An apple. I bought it on the train.’
‘Random dream stuff.’ Sophie pushed the apple out with her boot, a few putrid bits wedging in the door tracks.
She opened the room key envelope, hampered by her numb finger. A thin, electronic card dropped out. ‘Useless.’
Hugo took car keys from his pocket. ‘I might get the glass off with these.’
‘But mirror glass is mega sharp…’ A fatally injured Hugo would be a seriously sick dream.
‘We should phone the fire brigade.’ His hand went to his pocket and he sighed. ‘You need to.’
She picked up her phone. Had she accidentally turned it off? She pressed the on button. ‘It’s dead, like it’s run out of charge.’
Hugo swore and checked his watch. ‘Eleven twenty. About ten minutes since we walked in.’
With a dead phone, she could only guess the time. She’d never worn a watch.
‘Won’t last long between three.’ Hugo glanced at the water bottle, his face pensive.
She repacked the bag with one hand, trying to keep her nose away from the rotting apple smell. She’d wake soon.
Charlotte was still straining against the lead towards what appeared to be a gnarled tree trunk and sun-dappled leaves.
Hugo sat on the floor against the interior wall by the open doors. ‘Never liked lifts … I’m dreaming.’ He hugged his knees and frowned. ‘Or that beer was spiked?’ He didn’t expect an answer. ‘But if this is a drugs trip, it’ll wear off.’
So, he did drugs. Russian roulette with criminal substances instead of bullets. Life was risky enough. Her parents’ faces swam into her head and she focused on Charlotte restlessly turning in a circle. ‘I don’t know how long drug trips last, but it won’t be long before Charlotte needs to, you know...’ Sophie pressed the clunky button again. It felt solid but empty, like a façade or stage prop. ‘Maybe it wants us to go out?’
‘Who’s it?’ Hugo squinted at the sun or what looked like the sun.
‘The lift, if it’s magic.’ She didn’t really think that. No such thing as magic, only mysteries science hadn’t solved yet. ‘If we walk along the road and come back, the doors might close, and it’ll go to the tower block.’
‘Or when we get out, we’ll be stuck, wherever.’
‘Or that.’ Sophie sucked her numb finger. This felt real but had to be a dream. Or nightmare. Stuck in a lift with Hugo Harrington. Dreams could be so … random.
Charlotte turned and fixed Sophie with a preoccupied stare. She squatted and peed, ensuring her paws were clear before perkily straightening up. The amber pool steamed and expanded, and Hugo scrambled to his feet.
Survival shows about drinking urine... ‘If we had another bottle,’ said Sophie, ‘we could have scooped it.’
‘Aren’t you supposed to drink urine, once you run out of water?’
‘Yes.’ Hugo wrinkled his nose.
Sophie stepped sideways to avoid warm pee and Hugo cautiously put his left arm out of the lift.
Hugo waved his hand like a swimming fish beyond the doorway. ‘I can feel a breeze. That might be part of an IT installation on the top floor, but it might not be.’ He peered over the edge and stepped back.
Sophie sneezed. On the breeze were traces of birch pollen, like by the chapel.
‘Let’s see if it’s solid.’ Hugo took his phone from his pocket and hurled it out of the lift. It landed with clatter on what looked like tarmac.
They could still be on the ground floor. The lift hadn’t lurched or juddered; there’d been no sense of gliding ascent.
With his left foot, Hugo slowly prodded what appeared to be grass, and gradually shifted his weight, levering himself out, holding on to the side of the lift like a human stick insect.
Finally, he was completely out. ‘Feels like a regular place. A bright summer day. Fantastic virtual reality.’
She touched her head. ‘How can it be? We’re not wearing headsets.’
What an interesting dream. Real Hugo would never have admitted she was right.
Charlotte strained harder towards the lane, wheezing as the lead pulled her collar tight.
‘If there’s a dangerous person or animal lurking,’ said Sophie, ‘Charlotte would sense it.’
Hugo bit his lip, dubious.
‘Right, we’re coming too.’ Keeping a firm grip on the lead’s sturdy handle, Sophie stepped gingerly onto what felt and smelled like tree-shaded grass. She fished out Charlotte’s plastic bag and tied it to a knobbly branch. ‘This can mark the spot in case the lift doesn’t stay or only comes here sometimes.’
‘You know what you’re saying is bonkers?’ Hugo picked up his phone and put it in his pocket.
In a few steps, Sophie reached the tarmac strip. ‘No road markings.’ She looked one way, then the other. Bordering the lane were unbroken high hedges, fronted in places by oak and silver birch trees. ‘We could wait here and if the doors start to shut, run in?’
‘The doors have been open for a while. Might be stuck.’
The slid back doors weren’t there — they should have been visible outside the structure. A self-contained box, with no shaft or haulage mechanism … not a real lift at all. And the angular outer walls were barely discernible, had taken on the complex green and brown shades and textures of the surrounding vegetation.
‘This is tricky,’ said Sophie, ‘right or left?’
Shame Hallucination Hugo wasn’t a dream guide.
Charlotte was hauling on the lead again, wanting to go right.
‘She must smell food,’ said Sophie, giving in and walking. There was nothing unusual here, but that in itself made her uneasy. Why would she dream about a deserted lane?
The air tasted freshly washed, pure and sweet, suggesting countryside beyond the road, but the hedges were too tall to see over, looming like brooding sentinels; the sunlight that felt warm on her shoulders didn’t penetrate them. She took off her cardigan and secured it on her waist. Hugo pulled off his hoodie and tied the sleeves around his shoulders.
Charlotte was also too hot and panting, so Sophie removed the fluorescent coat, folded it and stuffed it in her capacious, smelly bag. Good thing this was only a dream.
Charlotte bounced blissfully along, breathing in imaginary scents, but before the road twisted left, Sophie stopped and looked back at the lift. Even in the sunshine, the lit interior was bright. From a distance, the inside appeared to be the same size as a regular lift, as was the square external shape; a mismatch of perceived dimensions and reality, like Dr Who’s Tardis. If the doors closed now, she wouldn’t get in if she sprinted.
She turned reluctantly and walked on, past another bend. More tarmac and high hedges.
Hugo gestured at bright yellow flowers on the verge. ‘These primroses are pretty.’ He took sunglasses from his pocket, put them on and looked at the sky. ‘No vapour trails.’
No vapour trails meant no planes meant … she couldn’t resist winding him up. ‘Perhaps we’re on another planet, where we haven’t trashed the climate?’
He shrugged, seemed puzzled.
Okay, the Hugo she’d imagined was as laid-back as the real one.
A shadow swooped over the lane and Sophie pulled Charlotte close in a heart-stopping panic. ‘Go away.’ Her voice sounded harsh in the rural quiet.
‘A hawk,’ said Hugo.
Sophie took a long, relieved breath. Charlotte was too hefty to tempt an eagle, so a hawk was no threat. She examined her finger and flexed it. Fine now.
Further along, breaking the hedge line on both sides, were rough wooden gates. Sophie leaned on one, resting her elbows on the top plank; the wood felt slightly damp from recent rain. A patchwork of green fields stretched for miles, dissected by a broad river, azure and sparkling in the sunshine. Near the river, sheep were grazing, and in a different field, cows were huddled under an elm tree. Sophie reached through the gate and touched tall, golden grass rustling in the gentle breeze. ‘Beautiful.’
‘Barley.’ Hugo smiled. ‘This is a nice dream. My grandparents’ farmhouse must be nearby.’
Charlotte barked and raised her head.
Someone was whistling.
Hugo turned towards the road. ‘That’s not my grandfather.’ He gulped, his Adam’s apple wobbling.
A man carrying a walking stick was striding towards them. He had a squished brown hat and wore black trousers, a dark green waistcoat and a sandy shirt, rolled up to the elbows. He drew nearer, still whistling, neither quickening nor slowing his pace.
The unfamiliar shrill melody repeated, giving Sophie’s forearms goosebumps.
Charlotte was watching the man, unconcerned. But in dreams she often acted oddly. Once she’d started talking. That had been really weird.
The man drew near and stopped whistling. He was short and stout with lined, ruddy cheeks. ‘That’s a strange dog. All that wavy fur.’
His accent was a thick country-type, so thick, Sophie had to listen carefully. ‘She needs a groom.’
He stared at Sophie’s jeans, so Sophie stared back.
Hugo took off his shades. ‘What’s this place called?’
‘This is all Lacey land.’
Sophie chewed her lip. None the wiser.
The man’s gaze shifted to Hugo then returned to her. ‘You need to go to the Manor.’ He gestured vaguely up the lane. ‘They’ll see you right. It’s not far, ‘bout twenty miles.’
Twenty miles … on foot? She went running every day at school, had even run a marathon, but this man made it sound like a casual hike.
‘What’s the other way?’ asked Hugo.
‘Stansbrook. Just a hamlet. You’d be better off at the big house. They look after … strange visitors.’
Unease curled around Sophie’s spine. What did he mean?
The man gave a sort of salute, walked past them and resumed whistling.
Sophie had been holding her breath. Did you have to consciously breathe in dreams? She’d once dreamed she was suffocating. That had felt real.
‘A regular guy, maybe a farmer?’ Hugo was reassuring himself. He cleaned his shades with the bottom of his T-shirt. ‘It’s not these sunglasses.’ He returned them to his pocket. ‘The green of the verge, blue of the sky, the flowers … all slightly off. Like a sunken dream.’
‘Seem fine to me.’ Crisp, strong shades, deep and vivid.
‘No idea why I’m still dreaming about you.’ He frowned. ‘But you’re behaving differently in this one.’
Hallucination Hugo dreamed about her? That made no sense.
‘Let’s make it nicer.’ He took her right hand and theatrically kissed it. She was so surprised, she didn’t react.
He slowly drew her closer and, intrigued by her mad subconscious, she let him. His eyes were on her mouth.
This was one wacky dream—
He kissed her, such a soft dreamy kiss she went with it. She breathed in the faint scent of his aftershave, freshly cut grass wrapped in sunshine, and when the kiss turned intense, she responded, relishing a delicious energy right down to her toes. His fingers were on her shirt, caressing her breast.
Sex with Hugo Harrington? Too wacky.
Charlotte was jumping against Sophie’s back, trying to join in the snuggle, and Sophie stepped away, resisting a tantalising tingle. Her imagination was splintering into crazy tangents. The dream must be winding up.
Hugo shot her a reckless smile. ‘Let’s go into the field, find a secluded spot…’
‘That man was a guide. To complete the quest, we have to reach the Manor.’
‘Like a computer game?’
‘I guess.’ But this was a product of her brain. ‘I’ve just finished my pre-course reading. A knight on a quest story. So, there’ll be King Arthur but no elves or orcs.’ English medieval literature was a cool degree course, if not obviously useful for finding a job.
‘I’m searching for the Holy Grail?’ Hugo seemed baffled.
‘The best quests are tricky. The nature of the quest will only reveal itself at the end.’ She let out Charlotte’s lead.
Hugo put on his shades and watched Charlotte darting to and fro. ‘To win the game, we’ll have to trade something for shelter or weapons when we get there.’
‘Obviously not Charlotte.’
‘Of course not.’ Hugo sounded affronted.
He was all right. Well, in this dream.
Her bag seemed heavier and on one of her cheap, lookalike Doc Marten boots, the sole had come loose. And her right foot was sore — a blister. Stupid shoes to wear on a quest.
Hugo checked his watch. ‘Four-thirty, so we’ve been walking for five hours.’
It felt like ten. But time in dreams was deceptive. The road frequently wound left and right, but the lane and high hedges hadn’t changed since the field gates. Perhaps only minutes had passed?
‘This was my great, great grandfather’s,’ said Hugo. ‘Survived the Great War better than he did.’ The watch had a thick leather strap and a round face with plain, clear numbers.
Really not interested. He was like those magazine adverts for watches so expensive you inherited them. She willed him to disappear, but he didn’t even fade.
They walked past wooden gates; interrupting both hedge lines, the gates faced each other. Identical to the previous ones. So were the fields. She’d been going around in a circle.
Charlotte was determinedly panting, had long ago stopped bouncing, and the water bottle was taunting Sophie. DRINK ME. She’d resisted; this might be a quest test: temptation, delayed gratification or endurance. But she was beyond caring. She only drank a third — a small, reluctant part of her worried this wasn’t a dream. She tipped another third into Charlotte’s throat and offered Hugo the rest.
He drained it, handed her the bottle and she returned it to her bag.
After a sharp bend, they continued along a lengthy straight stretch before the lane twisted right.
Sophie sat on the verge and thought about lying down. ‘Knights rest on quests.’
‘Chimneys.’ Hugo pointed. ‘Must be the Manor.’
Ignoring her protesting feet, Sophie stood, shielding her eyes from the sun.
Beyond yet another bend, an array of chimney stacks was just visible in a faint haze of woodsmoke.
Charlotte gave a half-hearted bark.
Coming towards them were two young men pushing empty wheelbarrows, chatting among themselves. Their trousers and shirts were muddy brown; they had no waistcoats but sported leather braces and cloth caps.
Hats and wheelbarrows were a canine call to arms but Dream Charlotte stayed sitting on the verge, quiet and watchful, as knackered as her mistress.
Hugo took off his sunglasses and cleared his throat. ‘Good morning, lovely day.’
Both men were staring at Sophie’s jeans. After a moment, they tipped their caps and hurried by.
Sophie glanced down. Was something wrong with her legs?
Up ahead was a broad stagnant pond, covering one verge and half the road. It smelled rank. But like the chimneys, it was new; she hadn’t been walking in an endless loop.
‘We shouldn’t drink from that,’ said Hugo.
‘Agreed.’ Sophie shortened the lead as they walked by. Real Charlotte loved dirty water.
They came around the bend and there was the house.
Sophie shaded her eyes again. ‘All those chimneys belong to this building.’
‘Elizabethan gables,’ said Hugo. ‘Georgian extensions and Victorian.’
Hallucination Hugo had morphed into a tour guide.
It was a mansion, not a house. Countless stone-framed mullioned windows, huge and ornate, others tiny, and beyond the glass … movement?
One of the crenellated gables was entirely covered in dark green ivy, like a rustling green shroud.
They look after strange visitors.
Sophie took a long, shuddery breath. She didn’t have to go in there, could doze in a meadow. Opposite the house, across the lane, were more neat fields.
But if this was real, a place with cows would also have agitated bulls…
Open ironwork gates marked the start of an unnecessarily long gravel driveway. It wasn’t just her feet; her whole body ached. Keeping Charlotte’s lead short, Sophie followed Hugo up the drive.
The Manor was fronted by a steep, dried-out moat. Serving as a path to a more modern front door was a thick, iron gate — the original drawbridge. Hugo tugged on a large bellpull and a jangling ring echoed inside.
The door was opened by a skinny woman in a black maxi dress with a high frilly collar. Her coarse salt-and-pepper hair was drawn sternly back from her face into a tight bun. ‘You’ve come from the lane.’ Her lips tightened, pulling at her wrinkled face.
‘Yes,’ said Sophie and Hugo together.
‘You’d better come in.’
‘Bad feeling,’ hissed Sophie. ‘It’s like we’re expected.’
Hugo pocketed his shades and walked in.
Was this the end of the quest? She’d wake now—
Charlotte was pulling on her lead after Hugo. Sophie mostly trusted Charlotte’s instincts; she wiped her boots on the doormat and warily stepped into a gloomy hall.
On the left was a fine oak staircase that wound up past paired, leaded windows before it disappeared beyond a double-height ceiling. Underneath the stairs’ highest sweep was a door, slightly open, revealing a desk covered in papers and envelopes.
‘Please wait here.’ The housekeeper went through a doorway opposite the staircase.
Cream, linen-fold panelling lined the walls, with oil paintings in heavy gold frames. The picture by the front door featured a glum couple posing in serene countryside. The attention of their dog, a smooth-haired harrier, was on his master, who was wearing a weird, triangle-shaped hat. The woman’s straw hat was simple, but her skirt was ridiculously wide, jutting out horizontally from her hips.
Sophie untied her cardigan from her waist, pulled it on, and sank into a deep, high-backed armchair. The air was faintly musty, as if centuries of dust had been brushed out of sight, behind wainscots and floorboards. Charlotte slumped at her feet and Hugo began pacing, oddly in time with a grandfather clock.
Tick-tock, tick-tock. The world shifted. She was back in the headmistress's study: the sound of the clock, the smell of furniture polish and formidable Miss Parncutt, visibly distressed, I’m so sorry… Sophie exhaled, like she always did, forcing herself into the present. The day she’d learned her parents were dead was always with her. A part of her.
She focused on Hugo. Why was he even here? Had her brain imagined him because he’d turned up at the university?
The housekeeper returned. ‘This way, please.’
Sophie made herself stand and nudged Charlotte out of her doze. ‘Come on. Whatever happens next, it’s smart to act like we’re awake.’
They followed Hugo into a spacious drawing room that was overcrowded with heavy mahogany furniture. A vaguely middle-aged woman in a long cream gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves, stood up from an emerald, damask-covered couch.
‘Hello, I am Lady Anne Lacey,’ she said, briskly, as if they had an appointment. Her face was bare of makeup and her dark hair was arranged loosely on top of her head.
Charlotte started bouncing.
This woman would go over like a skittle. Sophie pulled on Charlotte’s lead and gripped her collar. ‘No.’
Charlotte retreated to lean against Sophie’s legs. Dream-bounced but obeyed commands. Good to know.
‘You must be tired,’ said Lady Lacey. ‘Do sit down.’ Her voice was unexpectedly high, and her words were clipped, reminiscent of black and white films and The Crown.
Sophie sat gingerly on a sofa by a coffee table, keeping Charlotte well away from a large stone fireplace and a flimsy embroidered screen.
Hugo sat beside her. ‘I’m Hugo and this is Sophie.’
‘And this is Charlotte,’ said Sophie, still gripping her collar.
Lady Lacey smiled politely. ‘Shall we have tea?’
‘You have tea,’ Sophie blurted. Reassuring development. But this was her dream. Of course, there’d be tea. Eventually.
‘Keeps the Empire going.’ Lady Lacey pulled a rope on the wall. A young woman in a dark dress, a white apron and a maid’s cap appeared at the door, her eyes wide.
‘Afternoon tea for three, please,’ said Lady Lacey, ‘and a jug of water and two glasses. Oh, and a bowl of water for the dog.’
Lady Lacey sat opposite them and smiled again. ‘It is quite a walk.’
The maid returned with a three-tiered plate stand of sandwiches, scones and cake slices and another younger maid came in carrying a silver tray crowded with delicate china cups and saucers, a silver teapot, a porcelain jug of milk, a leaf strainer, sugar cubes and tongs.
Sophie’s knotted shoulders relaxed. This dream was getting better.
The maids left, then one returned with a glass water jug and two squat glasses, before putting a bowl in front of Charlotte. Sophie released her collar but kept hold of the lead.
Charlotte drank noisily and lay down.
After the maid poured tea and left, a primeval caution about eating and drinking in a strange place crept into Sophie’s head, a residue of half-remembered fairy tales.
Lady Lacey sipped tea and Charlotte began to snore. Hugo drank a lot of water, demolished half the food and also sipped tea. He looked worried but not poisoned.
Sophie drank three glasses of water and a cup of tea. The maid had poured in the milk after the tea. Why didn’t the maid know she hated that? The sponge cake and scone were warm from the oven, unbelievably delicious. She piled strawberry jam on a scone, tried not to eat too fast and fed Charlotte tiny sandwiches. Charlotte was able to eat while asleep, a useful skill in any circumstances.
Sophie ate the last sandwich, egg and cucumber, and finished her second cup of tea. Used to teabags, she’d forgotten to catch the leaves in the strainer, but it still tasted wonderful.
‘This is very kind of you, Lady Lacey,’ Hugo was saying. ‘I mean, you don’t know us or anything.’
‘Anne, please.’ She glanced at the closed drawing room door. ‘No, I don’t know you, but I know where you are from, and how you got here.’
‘You do?’ said Sophie, feeling nauseous.
‘You came out of the lift and walked along the lane.’
‘How do you know? Where is here?’ Hugo’s alarmed face mirrored Sophie’s growing panic.
She was going to throw up. This Anne woman was too serene, too calm—
‘You are in England, not far from the university, but it hasn’t been built yet. And I came here like you, many years ago.’ Anne looked directly at Hugo, then at Sophie. ‘You will have to make a new life here, like I did.’
Hugo sat bolt upright and Sophie’s breathing was shallow, speeding up.
Anne hesitated. ‘You see, there’s no way back.’
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...