It was raining in the Cotswolds. Icy, sleeting drizzle that slicked the roads and froze to the windscreen. Wasn’t it supposed to be sunny here? Ellie Matthews craned her neck, her fingers clenched the steering wheel, as she peered through the iced-over windscreen. Night had fallen hours ago and her daughter Abby had stopped with her heavy, theatrical sighs awhile back, which was a bad sign. It meant she’d given up, and that made Ellie feel like giving up as well.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be sunny, first of all, even if it was six o’clock on a January evening, which meant, in any part of England, unending darkness. But in Ellie’s mind it had been sunny and stupidly, it had also been spring. There might have been a few rainbows and unicorns in her blissed-out fantasy of their new start in life. Wychwood-on-Lea might have looked the tiniest bit like the set of a musical, with people singing and dancing in the streets. But whatever. It wasn’t supposed to be bloody raining.
In the back of her beat-up estate that had seen better days ten years and a hundred and fifty thousand miles ago, Marmite gave a doleful woof.
“Sorry, buddy,” Ellie called back. “We’ll be there soon.” Her poor dog hadn’t had a wee since Birmingham, which should have only been an hour ago, but with the state of the roads and the fact that her sat nav seemed intent on putting Wychwood-on-Lea in deepest Shropshire, it had been a lot longer than that.
In the passenger seat next to her Abby stirred, blowing a strand of hair from her eyes and refolding her arms in a way Ellie knew well. Her daughter was not happy. But then, her daughter was rarely happy, and Ellie couldn’t blame her. Things were going to be different here in Oxfordshire. She’d promised both Abby and herself that they would be. They needed to be. But first it had to stop raining.
“I think we’re almost there,” she said to Abby, who exhaled loudly.
“How on earth would you know?”
She wouldn’t. “I have a feeling,” Ellie answered. “A good one.” She’d abandoned the sat nav several miles back, when it had tetchily informed her, the computerized voice seeming to get stroppier by the second, that she needed to make an immediate U-turn and get back on the M6. No, she did not.
“I know we’re close,” Ellie persisted. “We drove through Chipping Norton and that’s only a few miles from Wychwood-on-Lea. It’s somewhere around here…” She leaned forward again, squinting to peer through the windscreen. The car’s laboring defrost wasn’t up to melting the ice that stuck to the glass in a bobbly pattern, presenting her with a distinctly warped view of the world. Not that there was much to see. West Oxfordshire’s county council didn’t seem to splash out on much street lighting in between its picturesque hamlets.
“Mum.” Abby grabbed her arm, making Ellie let out a little shriek as the tires skidded across the wet road and Marmite whined from the back. “It’s there. Turn right. Turn right!”
Ellie had a glimpse of a miniscule sign pointing towards an alarmingly narrow road before she jerked the car to the right, tires squealing, sending them careening towards a prickly hedge, visions of ambulances and A&E dancing through Ellie’s stunned brain before she managed to even the car out. She pressed the brakes, her heart thudding, as she pulled over. Sweat prickled between her shoulder blades and she let out a shuddering breath.
“Goodness, that was close.”
“It certainly was. You almost missed the turn.” Abby gave her the glimmer of a smile, sunlight breaking through the scowl, and Ellie smiled back. It wasn’t her daughter’s fault that life had been such hard going. But things really were going to be different here. Maybe there wouldn’t rainbows or unicorns or people singing on street corners, but Ellie hoped more than anything that her daughter could find a friend.
“Okay.” She took another deep breath and then glanced at the narrow road they’d just turned down, hemmed in by hawthorn hedge on either side, the stark branches gleaming darkly in the rain. “So. This is the way to Wychwood-on-Lea. Good eye, Abby.”
Taking another big breath, Ellie glanced behind her at the dark, rainy road before indicating and then pulling back on. “We’re almost there. Really, I mean.”
“What, you were lying before?”
“I was being optimistic.”
She’d been trying to stay optimistic for the last month, or really forever, but especially since she’d bagged a job as administrative assistant for the history faculty at the University of Oxford. Considering her only job experience was ten years of working in a GP’s office in suburban Manchester, it seemed incredible—a true miracle on par with statues crying real tears—that she’d been hired. She’d only applied for the job on a whim, if you could call desperation a whim. With Nathan announcing a sudden, open-ended trip to Australia and the mean girls of Year Six finding fresh ways to make Abby’s life even more of a misery, not to mention her parents’ suffocating concern coupled with more than a dash of condescension, a new start for them both had started to seem imperative.
And she liked the sound of Oxford, imagined working in a medieval building with all those dusty books and dreaming spires. She’d pictured herself cycling down some narrow, cobbled street, or sipping espresso and talking about modern art in some bohemian café.
Of course it wouldn’t be like that—she didn’t know the first thing about modern art—but she’d needed to hold on to that rose-tinted image to keep her nerve. After ten years spent more or less in a rut the big, wide world was a little frightening.
Her mother’s skepticism and her sister’s disbelief had fueled her determination to prove them—and her own secret fears—wrong, and when she’d found a rental cottage in a village only half an hour from Oxford, it had felt like another miracle—as well as some much-needed validation. She’d rented it over the phone, without even coming down to take a look, trusting that the photos were accurate and the estate agent was honest. This really was going to work. She’d make sure of it.
“So this is Wychwood-on-Lea,” Ellie murmured as a few buildings came into view. She drove at a crawling pace down the village’s high street, first past a dark expanse of village green and then on to a narrow street with terraced houses and shops on either side. And… that was it. Wychwood-on-Lea was in the blink-and-you’d-miss-it category, but that was okay.
She’d been tired of city living. Endless noise, all that pollution, and it wasn’t as if she ever took advantage of any culture. The cinema once a month for the latest fantasy film—Abby’s choice—was about as far as she got. Abby had been a bit nonplussed to discover the cinema nearest to their new home was fifteen miles away. Her daughter wasn’t as convinced about the benefits of moving to Oxfordshire as Ellie was. Yet.
“Now we need to find Willoughby Close.” The cottage she’d rented was part of the converted stables of a manor house, and it had looked incredibly charming on the website, four lovely little houses of golden Cotswold stone, with oak doors and mullioned windows, all of them sharing a cute, cobbled courtyard. Ellie had imagined chatting with her neighbors over coffee, children running in and out of houses. They’d be like a family, only better, because they wouldn’t sigh and shake their heads and wonder where she’d gone wrong.
“Willoughby Close is near Willoughby Manor, isn’t it?” Abby asked and Ellie put on the brakes. Gently.
“Because there’s a sign that way.” She pointed to a little brown sign that aimed at a single-track lane off the high street.
“Great,” Ellie said, injecting a double shot of enthusiasm into her voice. “This is it.”
Two minutes later she was maneuvering the car through a pair of imposing wrought iron gates, and then turning off the sweeping drive onto a decidedly rutted track, hemmed in on either side by cedar trees. It looked rather dark and foreboding, and Abby had folded her arms again, which was even more ominous.
Ellie drove around a curve and then they were there, the cottages of Willoughby Close just as they’d looked on the website. Well, mostly. Sort of. They were swathed in darkness, not a single light on, and no cars or bikes or signs of any life at all. The whole place looked kind of… empty.
“Everyone must be out,” Ellie said uncertainly. She hadn’t been expecting a welcoming committee, but it would have been nice to see a few lighted windows, a friendly neighbor poking her head out the door and exclaiming, “Oh, you must be Ellie and Abby. We’ve been waiting for you.” Okay, yes. A welcoming committee. Seriously, what was she like? It was as if no one but her had ever moved house before.
“Come on,” Ellie said as she pulled in front of Number One and turned off the car. “Marmite needs a wee.”
She got out of the car, icy rain needling her in the face as she opened the boot and Marmite lumbered out with a sigh and a fart. Lovely. Her giant, hairy beast of a dog, half Golden Retriever and half Rottweiler, began to sniff around. Abby climbed out of the passenger side, arms still folded, and glanced dubiously at their new home.
“This is it?”
“Yes, isn’t it lovely?” Ellie held onto her cheer with effort. She knew Abby wasn’t thrilled with the move, but the cottage was pretty. The little cobbled courtyard was surrounded on three sides by friendly-looking cottages, even if they were empty and lightless at the moment, and in the distance Ellie could see the dark towers of the manor house thrusting against a darker sky. “Come on, let’s have a look.”
“What about our stuff?”
“We’ll unload later.” They’d only brought boxes of clothes, books, dishes, and linens from Manchester. The tatty, secondhand furniture Ellie had had for her entire adult life she’d consigned to the skip. New start, new furniture. She’d had two beds and a kitchen table delivered to the cottage already, and the caretaker, Jace Tucker, had emailed her yesterday to say they’d arrived and were safely inside. The rest they could pick up in bits and pieces, poking through charming charity shops in quaint villages on sunny Saturday afternoons. That was part of the ever-increasing fantasy too. It was all, Ellie told herself yet again as she unlocked the front door, going to be fabulous.
The door creaked open and the smell of fresh paint, plaster, and unused appliances hit her. Ellie fumbled for the lights as Abby squeezed past her and Marmite butted into her legs, making her nearly fall over.
“Here.” Abby flipped the switch on the other side of the door, bathing the room in a bright, electric glow. Ellie gazed around, blinking. It was very empty. Not, of course, that that should be a surprise, but somehow she’d been expecting… what? House fairies to have magically furnished her new home?
“Is that our beds?” Abby nudged a cardboard box that did not look big enough to hold two beds. Some assembly required was, Ellie suspected, going to be a massive understatement. “What about the mattresses?”
Mattresses. Ellie stared at her daughter, her smile finally starting to slip. She’d bloody forgotten to buy mattresses. “Sorry, Abby,” she said, and her daughter shrugged, scuffing one foot along the floor, before turning away.
Of course it was. Abby could huff and sigh with the best of them, but ultimately she stuck by her mother. The two of them against the world for what felt like forever, battling a deadbeat dad and mean girls and condescending if well-intentioned relatives, but here they were finally going to find some allies. Some friends.
“I’ll get online tonight,” Ellie promised. “And do expedited delivery so we’ll have them tomorrow.”
“We don’t have wifi, Mum,” Abby said. She sounded like a mother reminding a child of the house rules.
“I’ll sort that out too.” Ellie knuckled her forehead, wondering if it would be wrong to dig out the bottle of wine she’d stuck in their start-up box of emergency provisions—tea, kettle, mugs, bowls, cereal, bread, and of course chocolate spread. And wine. “At least we have a few days to sort ourselves out.” It was Thursday, and Abby wasn’t starting school until Monday. Ellie had arranged to start her job on Tuesday, to make sure she could take Abby to school for that first all-important day.
“It is a nice place, though, don’t you think?” Ellie walked around the downstairs of the cottage, which was one large open-plan living area. The kitchen was tucked in a corner, all granite counters and stainless steel appliances, neither of which had featured in their boxy two up-two down back in Manchester. A woodstove beckoned invitingly, empty and cold as it was currently, in another corner, and a pair of French windows overlooked a garden now cloaked in impenetrable darkness, but Ellie was sure it would look pretty in the morning.
“Shall we look at the upstairs?” she asked, and Abby nodded.
Up a steep staircase was a tiny hall landing, two bedrooms, both with built-in cupboards, and a bathroom that had a gorgeous claw-footed tub and a glassed-in shower, both which made Ellie want to strip off and immerse herself in hot water immediately.
“Nice bathroom,” Abby said grudgingly, and Ellie grinned.
“I’ll say. You can have dibs on the tub.”
“I’ll take the shower.”
“Perfect. Now.” She clapped her hands before heading downstairs again. “We need to sort out supper and Marmite and sleep, in that order.”
“Okay.” This counted for enthusiasm from her daughter, and with a bounce in her step, Ellie headed back outside. The rain had tapered off and clouds parted to reveal a sliver of moon that bathed the little courtyard in silver. Never mind rainbows, this was perfect. It would be perfect. Ellie took a deep breath of fresh, cold air, letting it fill her lungs and buoy her soul. Here was their new start, at last.
They started hauling boxes from the back of the car, dishes rattling around and Marmite sniffing hopefully at an open sack of dog food. Ellie had just put down a rather heavy box of Abby’s fantasy books when she felt her phone buzz in her pocket. Repeatedly.
“That must be Gran,” she said as she slid her phone from the pocket and swiped the screen with her thumb. Seven missed calls and four new voicemails. That seemed excessive even for her parents.
Frowning, Ellie thumbed a few buttons. She hadn’t heard her phone ring, but reception had been patchy on the narrow roads between here and the M6. Patchier, it seemed, than she’d realized.
The first message was, predictably, from her mum. After living two streets away from her parents since she was nineteen, and seeming to disappoint them at every turn, they were understandably worried by Ellie moving two hundred and fifty miles south.
“Just wanted to make sure you arrived all right, darling… it is raining an awful lot, but perhaps not down in Oxford… but the roads are tricky and you’ve never had the best sense of direction, have you? I’m really not sure about all this, Ellie… I still don’t understand why you had to traipse off to Oxford of all places… “Her mother let out an all too familiar, weary sigh. “Please do ring… I know you’re busy but I’ll feel better when I know you’re safe. Nathan phoned, by the way,” she added, her voice brightening. “He arrived in Australia safely. Just wanted to let us know. Wasn’t that kind of him? All right, then.” Of course Nathan would phone her mum, and not his own daughter. Her ex-husband had a bad case of Peter Pan Syndrome, and her mum couldn’t help but play Wendy. Sighing, Ellie deleted the message.
Sighing, she pressed delete and listened to the next message, this one from her sister Diane.
“Just checking you arrived in one piece. And I cleaned your flat for you, since I’m not sure you remembered that and I think you might want your deposit back. The toilet was disgusting, by the way.” Diane sounded both brisk and self-righteous, which was not surprising since it tended to be her default setting, although she always meant well. She was protective of Ellie to the point of deep irritation, although Ellie tried not to mind too much because even though they were as different as they could possibly be—Diane having married, had three children at neat two-year intervals and now working part-time as a physiotherapist while Ellie had bumbled and scraped her way through an unplanned pregnancy, school drop out, and a marriage that never should have happened—her sister had been there for her. Repeatedly, and at the most crucial time. Still, her bossy older sister rants got a little old, as did the assumption that Ellie was essentially hopeless, shared by their parents, even though she’d held down a steady job for a decade, raised her daughter essentially on her own, and still managed to stay sane. She loved Diane, but she wouldn’t mind living a little bit farther away from her, as well as her mum and dad. Three people who loved her to bits but were constantly acting as if she couldn’t find her head if it wasn’t screwed on. She needed the distance to remind herself that she was a capable, organized, confident person. Maybe.
Third message. “I’m trying to reach Eleanor Matthews.” The male voice and cut-glass syllables were both unrecognizable. “She was due to start work as my personal assistant today, and I’ve been trying to reach her for several hours. If this is Miss Matthews, could she please ring me, Dr. Oliver Venables, as soon as possible? Thank you.” The sudden, loud click of the phone being hung up hurt Ellie’s ear.
Her stomach plunged unpleasantly as she tried to process the message. She wasn’t due to start at the history faculty until Tuesday, and she didn’t even know who this Dr. Oliver Venables was. She was a general administrative assistant, ie, dogsbody, to the faculty, not someone’s personal secretary. She was tempted to ignore the call, but she had a feeling that would be a bad idea. He’d sounded important and worse, irritated.
Ellie looked up to see Abby standing in the kitchen area, a half-unpacked box of food around her feet. “What about tea?”
“Right.” Ellie hurried over and banged a pot of water on the stove, thankful the gas and electric were both switched on. “Pasta tonight, all right? We’ve got a packet of spaghetti somewhere, and some sauce…”
“Okay.” Abby’s hands were lost in the sleeves of her oversized black hoodie and standing amidst the boxes, her thin shoulders hunched, she looked younger than her eleven years and entirely vulnerable. Ellie couldn’t resist giving her a quick sideways hug, even though her daughter didn’t really do hugs and predictably squirmed away.
“Can you keep an eye on that water, Abs? I just need to make a call.”
Ellie went upstairs to her bedroom, her heart thudding and her palms turning slick, which was stupid, because she knew she was in the right here. Wasn’t she? Quickly she scrolled through her emails, but she didn’t see anything from Dr. Ven-whatever. She checked her spam folder, and then her heart did an unpleasant somersault. There was a message from the history faculty, and the subject heading was ‘Urgent-Early Start’. Damn it.
The phone rang four times before it was picked up, and Ellie listened to the cut-glass tones she recognized from the message with a wince. “Oliver Venables, may I help?”
“Yes.” She cleared her throat, wincing again at how loud it sounded. “This is Eleanor Matthews…”
“Miss Matthews.” Oliver Venables’ voice was caught between relief and definite irritation. “You were due to start this morning. May I ask what has happened?”
“I’m sorry, uh, Dr. Venables, but I wasn’t expecting to start until Tuesday.” Ellie closed her eyes and crossed her fingers, half-waiting for the blast of aristocratic outrage coming her way. All she got was taut silence. “Also,” she ventured to add, “I don’t think I’m actually your personal assistant?” For some reason she made this sound like a question even though she hadn’t meant it to be one. “I’m the general administrative assistant for the history faculty…”
“Yes, and you have been lent to me for the next term,” Dr. Venables cut across her in a tone of barely-concealed impatience. “The deputy head of administration sent you an email about it several days ago.”
“Right.” She wasn’t going to mention the email in her spam folder. They should have rung, for heaven’s sake. “I’m sorry,” she added, because she really didn’t want to mess this job up.
“Never mind all that,” Dr. Venables cut her off. “We’ll just have to start now as we mean to go on. Please report to my office in the history department tomorrow at nine.”
“Tomorrow? But I’ve only just…”
“Term starts Monday, and your contract starts tomorrow,” Oliver cut across her. “I looked at it this morning.”
Did it? The agreement to start on Tuesday had only been verbal, but… “If I could just…” Ellie began only to have Oliver interrupt her yet again.
“I shall see you tomorrow, Miss Matthews.” And without waiting for her to reply, Dr. Oliver Venables hung up the phone, leaving Ellie with her mouth gaping, her mind spinning, and a definite sinking sensation in her stomach.
End of Excerpt