Beyond the Hedge

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Overview

A high-level executive woman who has never had time for love stumbles into a land called Clipton Magna, which is two hundred years in the past and ruled by magic. She wants to return to her own reality, but the rules of the land make that difficult, and when the magnetic son of the squire tries to help her get back to the England that exists outside their borders, they begin to fall in love, despite what they both want. It is dangerous to everyone, because their love can threaten the very existence of Clipton ...

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Overview

A high-level executive woman who has never had time for love stumbles into a land called Clipton Magna, which is two hundred years in the past and ruled by magic. She wants to return to her own reality, but the rules of the land make that difficult, and when the magnetic son of the squire tries to help her get back to the England that exists outside their borders, they begin to fall in love, despite what they both want. It is dangerous to everyone, because their love can threaten the very existence of Clipton Magna and the spirits that rule it.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809556793
  • Publisher: Juno Books
  • Publication date: 1/10/2007
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.32 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Not only tall and long, the hedge was thick--much thicker than she had realized, though reason told her that a structure that massive would need to support itself against the winds that raced down across this land. And yet, as she kept travelling through the tunnel, which zigzagged between and under all the greenery, it almost seemed as if she were travelling down the hedge the long way, back toward the Mercedes, rather than across it. Had she not loved Dragon as much as she did, she might have turned back, but she was determined to get her hands on him, and once Jennifer determined to do anything, she was fairly obsessive about it. There was something about the weight of the hedge, the very bulk of it, that kept her from continuing to shout Dragon's name. She could now hear the scrabbling of paws in front of her, though the twists in the tunnel made it impossible for her to see their source.

Suddenly she was out of the tunnel. Dragon had stopped running, which was very un-greyhound-like, and was standing quite still, looking around sharply from side to side. Jennifer guessed he'd lost the cat. "D-dog," she began sternly, as she bent to get her hand on his collar. She was a little breathless, relieved at catching up with him and too concerned about him to take much notice of her surroundings. But just as her fingers were about to close on the dog, he barked and set off again, this time running flat out away from the hedge until he encountered some tall, waving grass, into which he virtually disappeared.

Jennifer called his name again, exasperated, then started after him despite being winded. Long grass was not characteristic of this part of Wales, especially not in winter,but compared to the hedge, it was as common as dirt. She ignored her surroundings, fixated as she was on the dog, who was fixated on the big gray cat, somewhere out ahead of him.

She was in good shape, but not for chasing a speeding greyhound. Despite herself, she finally ran out of adrenaline and had to stop, panting and clutching her side. She had a painful stitch, and she was sure she would have shin splints in short order. But her greater anxiety was that she did not yet have her dog back. Shouting for him had had no effect, so she stopped that drain on her breathing, bent double for a moment, grateful she'd worn denims and tennis shoes for the drive to Anglesey. She'd run so much that she was feeling hot despite the chill in the air. She debated opening her jacket, but thought better of it. As she began to catch her breath, she straightened up and looked around.

Her instant thought was that this place just didn't look like it belonged in Wales, especially not in the wild fastness that was Snowdonia. The tall grass meadow was largely behind her, and a gentle woodland was just ahead, deciduous trees bare in accordance with the season, but some clearly ancient--oaks and beeches, linden and rowan, purely English trees. This was usually a harsh climate, without much shelter, but these were sheltering woods, not even worthy of being called a forest. England had such woodland in abundance, while in Wales, the groves of trees were sparser, truncated, and seemed generally hardier. Her second thought was that someone was going to a great deal of trouble to create an English setting in what would seem to be an inhospitable place for it.

By the time she'd absorbed all that, she had caught her breath and was ready to start out again after Dragon, but she thought she would walk for a while. She was upset at herself for not having caught the dog yet, or for not having guarded him better in the first place. "I'm putting a GPS chip in that dog when I get him back," she said to herself. "Then I can track him by cellphone."

The object of her pursuit came running back to her less than a minute later, just as happy as could be. "Did you catch that cat?" she asked, too relieved to scold now. "Let's see if you've got gray hair in your teeth." She pulled his lips up, because it was not an idle question. He'd come back from runs on several occasions with feathers in his mouth, but this time no telltale signs of mayhem were present.

She took a firm hold on his collar. "You're coming back to the car with me right now. There's a good chance no one's stolen it yet, but if they have, you're on the hook for it." Now that she had him back, she felt a sense of accomplishment, and her spirits rose. She added the English woodland re-creation to the list of things she would ask the Auto Club about after the holidays. And she would not be too late arriving at Aunt Cecilia's.

She estimated it would be at least a ten -or fifteen-minute walk back to the hedge, but now that she and Dragon were together, she was not bothered by that.

She planned her next action as meticulously as she tried to plan all parts of her life these days. At the car she would call Aunt Cecilia to say she had been a little delayed. Often before when she was supposed to go to Anglesey, she had worked longer than anticipated, and her aunt would not be in the least surprised that she would be late again. And she did not seriously believe anyone had stolen the Mercedes, even though the door was wide open and the keys were in the ignition. The road had dead-ended at the hedge, and the sense of desertion that lay around it was very real. She considered it unlikely that anyone would stumble along.

After ten minutes' walk, Jennifer began to look for the hedge. It was so tall that she suspected she would be able to see it well in advance of reaching it. The long-grass meadow was rolling, but they were low rolls. The waving grass, bending in the wind and swept this way and that by dancing gusts, seemed to go on forever, just as the hedge had when she first saw it. Five minutes longer, and the hedge was still not in sight.

Puzzled, Jennifer stopped. Dragon immediately sat down at her side, as if to show that his previous disregard of her call was only a fluke, completely unlike the obedient and compliant canine companion he actually was.

"Have we been going the wrong way?" she asked Dragon. She looked in every direction, but there was no sign of a green line which might have been the top of the absurdly tall growth.

The meadow appeared endless. Jennifer gave a short laugh. "I'm going to put a GPS chip in the car, too, D-dog, and I'm never letting the cellphone out of my hands." She decided that turning around would only get them hopelessly lost. She thought she must have chased Dragon far longer than she'd originally guessed, and it was only a question of going a bit further, and then the hedge would come into sight.

Another five minutes passed, and a climb up a slight rise showed her a good way into the distance, but there was still no sign of the huge, now elusive barrier.

Jennifer was growing more and more bewildered. The rise gave a view of most of the surrounding area, and the side which was not meadow was all woodland--far more of it than she had previously suspected. What kind of money--and what kind of lunacy--would it take some sort of ecologically obsessed person to build so great an imitation of England when the real thing was less than two hundred kilometers away?

Her conjecture was interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats behind her, and Dragon went on alert again. Jennifer put both hands on his collar, determined that this time he was not going to get away. She turned, grateful that there was someone approaching who was familiar with the area, someone from whom she could ask directions.

She saw the horses first. The lead animal was a well-built chestnut with a dark mane and tail, and the man riding him was leading a saddled but riderless bay. For a moment she was looking at him against a westering sun, and she saw nothing but the dazzling light. Then he moved past it, and she saw him clearly.

Jennifer had never been the kind of woman who normally noticed how men looked. She was much more likely to be interested in a man's work, in whether he was interesting to speak with, in whether he had a sense of humor, in whether, not to put too fine a point on it, he could do anything for her career. She had often thought that handsome men traded on their looks to gain power, and since she had not dated for a number of years now, she rarely needed to confront the issue of the kind of power a man with looks tried to gain. And she had certainly never believed in love at first sight.

One good look at the man on the horse and she amazed herself by thinking how incredibly handsome he was. He had even features, dark eyes, and smooth-shaven cheeks, and he was not smiling but did not appear to be in any way surprised to see her there. She guessed his age at about thirty. He was wearing an old-fashioned greatcoat, the kind that could be found at a fancy clothes emporium and was much sought after by some of the young people on the party circuit. He had on a curled-brim hat with a tall crown, and for a moment she thought it was a Stetson, but his knee-high black boots were clearly British, while she associated Stetsons with Western boots. She was thinking all that, and at the same time her heart was pounding and her mouth had gone dry. Something about this man, who had yet to say a word to her, unsettled her and swept her with alien emotions.

Dragon was barking now. She realized she was staring at the rider and indulging in fancy, which was completely unlike her. She shushed the dog and, to her further astonishment, he actually listened to her.

The horses drew up in front of her and the rider reined them to a halt, but did not speak to greet her.

She wet her lips and swallowed hard. "I'm afraid I'm lost," she said apologetically to the man on the horse.

"As I see," he said. His voice was fairly deep and mellifluous, but he still did not smile.

She realized that she wasn't smiling either, and she added one to her face. "I'm sorry to be a bother, but if you'd be kind enough to show me where the hedge is, I'd appreciate it. My dog chased a cat through it, and my car is out on the road."

He seemed to debate any number of replies, and then said something that she not only didn't expect, but that she didn't understand. He said, "The hedge cannot be seen from this side."

Jennifer's smile wavered, and she stared at him for a time, then said, "I beg your pardon?"

"The hedge is only visible from outside Clipton Magna," he said. "It will not be accessible from this side for at least several days, and even then it will not be visible."

She frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"I fear it will sound improbable whether you hear it in the approaching darkness or, as I prefer, at the Manor House. Are you able to ride?" He gestured to the horse he was leading.

Jennifer thought that he was crazy. "I can't go anywhere except back to my car," she said. "I've left the keys in it, and the door open, and it's a Mercedes, for God's sake."

"I am being impolite," he said. "Kindly accept my apology and allow me to present myself. I am Jeremy Clipton. My father, Sir George Clipton, is Squire and Lord of the Manor. The Manor House is some distance removed, and we are yet a way from the Avenue."

Jennifer tried again. "All I want is to get back to the road. I made a wrong turn."

He leaned forward as if to lend greater weight to his words. "It was not that you made a wrong turn. A wrong turn would scarcely have brought you to Clipton Magna. Once I learned you were here, my only real uncertainty was whether the nuns sent you, or the ancient spirits brought you."

Jennifer felt a nearly irresistible urge to laugh at the absurdity, which kept increasing. It was as if she and he were speaking two entirely different languages. "What--" she began. "Why--" She stopped before she could add, "How--"

Jeremy sat back on his horse and tossed the reins of the other horse in her direction. "I will provide you with what answers I can," he said, "if you will only follow me to the Manor. Or would you prefer I lead Hastings for you?"

A quick thought told her that she had not got a clue as to where the hedge actually was, that it was indeed going to be dark soon, and that she was unlikely to get anything but gibberish from this breathtakingly attractive but clearly unbalanced man unless she humored him. She could accomplish nothing if she continued to insist he tell her something he seemed determined not to divulge--and consideration of their situation told her he was unlikely to need to take her elsewhere if he had any violent designs on her. Besides, if she could get to a place with a phone, she could at the very least carry out her plan to let Aunt Cecilia know that she was going to be very late.

"What about Dragon?" she asked.

He stared at her as if she were the mad one. "Dragon?" he repeated.

"My dog."

He looked down at the greyhound with an expression that seemed to convey that he was really seeing it for the first time. "He will follow us," he said.

She was about to protest that Dragon's failure to heed was what had brought her here in the first place, but Dragon looked up at her, barked once, and pulled free of her unconsciously relaxed fingers. She made a grab for him, but he evaded her and went to stand behind the horses.

Jennifer felt the urge to pinch herself to be certain she had not fallen asleep in the Mercedes and dreamed all this. It had the quality of a dream, which actually reassured her, because she never remembered her dreams, and she wanted not to remember this. She disliked being confused. Even more, she disliked feeling so entirely unsettled by the nearness of this man.

And besides, she knew how to ride a horse; she had taken lessons as a child and ridden competitively when she was in college. She took the reins of the bay Jeremy Clipton had called Hastings and swung up on it. Her tennis shoes were not the best footwear for this kind of thing, but the stirrups were wide enough to give her a good purchase.

Jeremy turned the chestnut's head back in the direction Jennifer and Dragon had come since she caught him, but at a different angle, more toward the west. Jennifer rode up beside him, unwilling merely to trail behind as if she were actually on a lead. She decided to try what would have to be a simple question.

"That's a beautiful horse you're riding," she said. "What's his name?"

"Flodden," he said, looking straight ahead.

She put the two names together. "You've named your horses after battles. That's--interesting." She had been about to say "odd," but she reconsidered the wisdom of that.

For the first time, he smiled. She drew in a breath at the warmth it brought to his face, even in profile, and the subsequent unexpected heat in her own body at seeing it. "At times, the taming of a horse can resemble such conflict," he said, then added, "unless, of course, you can secure the services of a gypsy, which I could not."

She thought, with a small internal sigh, that the answer had made perfect sense until he got to the second half of it, and then it went to hell. She determined to try again. "I found it--remarkable--that someone would go to the trouble of encouraging so many English trees to grow here, in this climate," she said.

"This is England," he said shortly, and urged Flodden to a faster pace. Hastings increased his own speed to keep up, and Jennifer glanced behind them to confirm that Dragon was still there.

She wondered why he thought this was England, when it had clearly been Wales a couple of hours ago, but she did not want to challenge his delusion, because she wanted to get to a phone. She had a moment to wonder if she had somehow gone so astray from her normal path that she had travelled back across the border, but she had the distinct impression that she had seen Snowdon nearby before she lost her way. She put the doubt away from her.

They left the meadow for the woodland, riding side by side through the denuded trees in places where the vegetation was not in stands too dense to permit a wide enough path. Then she would drop behind only long enough to get through the narrow spaces.

She had not had time to ride since her first month in London, but she had, of course, ridden fairly often when she was younger and when she was competing. She'd forgotten how much she enjoyed it. Hastings was a good animal, with a pleasant gait and a comfortably compact barrel. He gave her the impression that he was glad to have her on his back.

The sun had sunk further when they emerged from the trees onto a neat country lane. It had been a while since Jennifer had been on a road which was not paved or even gravelled, and she was pleased the ground was solid enough not to cause dust.

The wind had slacked off, but it was growing colder. She began to think that there was going to be plenty of opportunity for someone to find and make off with the Mercedes, the presents, her suitcase, her computer, her purse, her cellphone, and the basket from Fortnum's. She determined to make a list for the insurance company well in advance. The question was whether she would be able, on Christmas, to hire a car to take her on to Anglesey.

The Avenue curved gently through even more woodland, and it grew darker while they cantered along it. Jennifer wondered about the size of this imitation of England. "I think this is bigger than Disney World," she said. It evoked no response.

They rode into full dark, lighted only by the thin sliver of a moon that made the trees and road seem created out of pewter. Jennifer shivered a little, wishing she had worn a heavier jacket.

"At least it isn't snowing," she said, one last attempt at conversation of some sort.

Once again, he did not reply.

She was about to give up entirely when a number of lights appeared ahead. "Is that the Manor?" she asked hopefully.

"This is the village," he answered, as they reached the first of the buildings. "Like the county, it is called Clipton Magna. The villagers will likely be in their houses, sheltering against the cold. We will ride through at a walk."

"There's a speed limit?" She meant to ask it out loud, but for some reason, it remained a thought. She had little time to wonder about that, because she was too interested in the village. Streets were not paved here either, and there was no evidence of cars, which was extremely strange. Every village in England, no matter how narrow or winding the streets, was packed with cars, lorries, even tourist buses. This would seem to be a perfect tourist magnet, but there was no sign that there had ever been motorized vehicles here unless someone swept the streets back into a bucolic setting as soon as the vehicles left. Perhaps, she conjectured, they were shooting a film here and had hidden the large trucks.

The buildings were a mixture of Tudor wattle and daub, and stone, most with thatched roofs. All of them seemed to be lighted by some form of illumination which flickered--kerosene, perhaps. "Is there no electricity laid on here?" Again, she thought she would ask it aloud, but again, it did not emerge from her lips. That was getting annoying.

The village had a pub with a painted sign hanging outside and showing a wild pig and the name "The Boar's Head." They passed a number of other buildings. Jennifer thought of the Renaissance Faire she had attended as an adolescent. Perhaps she had been closer to the mark than she'd guessed when she'd brought up the subject of Disney World.

They passed through the village--probably about thirty buildings, and Jennifer saw the bulk of a mill beyond, its water wheel turning slowly. The water that was moving it was sluggish with gathering ice.

Something jangled in her mind after they left the village behind and re-entered the pewter landscape. It was something he'd said that demanded follow-up, even though she'd let it slip at the time.

She looked across at him, his features softened to indistinctness by the dim light. "You said you learned I was here and came deliberately to find me. How did you learn it?" She was pleased to hear the sound of her own voice.

He hesitated, then gave another of those answers which seemed completely absurd. He said, "The cat told me."

* * * *

CHAPTER THREE

She asked no other questions before they reached the Manor House. She told herself that she had lost her taste for meaningless, crazy answers, but perhaps the truth was more that she did not want any further evidence that she was riding deeper into an unlikely amusement park in the company of someone who thought nuns or spirits were responsible for her being here and who had heard about her presence from a big gray cat. She acknowledged that she often spoke to Dragon, but she was certain she had never heard him answer her, which was why she had to make up her own replies.

There was a large stone wall at the end of the Avenue, and they passed through an open iron gate onto manicured grounds which, even under the silver coating of faint moonlight, spoke of wealth. The drive was gravelled and maintained; it wound past large-boled trees, small marble buildings of decorative value, and what looked like a water temple, though there was no water near it. She saw some indistinct figures that might have been animals, but that did not move--statues, perhaps, or topiary.

The Manor House itself was large, with a square central block five floors tall, and two curving wings two floors tall embracing the forecourt. Four men carrying torches emerged from doors beside the staircase leading up to the house's main entrance on the first floor.

Jennifer eyed the torches with dismay, but without surprise. She was certain they meant she was unlikely to find a phone. In a flash, she thought that Aunt Cecilia would be apt to call Scotland Yard when she had not shown up by morning. Even on Christmas, the disappearance of a Glidden director in a Mercedes should merit notice. They would know the route she was likely to take, but how likely were they to find wherever it was she had turned off? Perhaps helicopters would begin a sweep and find the car that way.

On the other hand, in a world without phones or electricity, how likely was it that she would encounter a helicopter? She closed her eyes briefly, wondering what the hell she'd gotten herself into.

When she opened them, she saw that the men with the torches had gone back into the house without actually getting near the horses. That was bewildering, too, but it was one of a whole list of confusing things, so she didn't even bother to ask about it.

Jeremy swung down off Flodden and dropped his reins to the ground. He offered Jennifer his gloved hand, and she put hers into his to let him help her dismount, reasoning that her knees were very weak--it had simply been too long a time since she had ridden, and hours on horseback made for aches in addition to shin splints. She was completely unprepared for the jolt of excitement that coursed through her body from the light touch of his cloth-sheathed fingers. She jerked her hand back as soon as her feet hit the ground, and Dragon nosed against her other hand as she caught her balance.

"Come with me," Jeremy said. He did not appear to have noticed her discomfiture. "You are not yet ready to be seen, and I choose not to tap my well to disguise you."

She understood the first three words and would have questioned the rest, but the night had turned very cold, and she decided she would rather be indoors and a little warmer. The word "disguise" fit in with her entire conception of this place as a masquerade. All I need to do, she thought, is find a comfort zone and play along until I can get someone to show me the way out.

She followed Jeremy up the stairs to the front doors of the Manor House; they were huge, made of dark, carved wood with large metal rings sunk into them to serve as pulls. He opened one so easily that she thought he was either remarkably strong or that the doors were exquisitely balanced. The front hall beyond the doors was lighted by several filigreed lanterns. It was an impressive place for a country house, though not as impressive as some of the stately homes she'd toured while making the decision to relocate to Britain. Panelling was a mid-brown instead of the dark wood she'd seen in so many other homes. The panelling framed a three-story open space into which a central staircase, banistered in the same wood, descended in a Y from a second-floor gallery. The lamps on the walls gave off a soft light, and no servants were in sight to greet Jeremy. Jennifer thought that the absence of staff didn't fit with the scenario that was being created here, but Jeremy had opened the doors himself without seeming to think it at all strange, and Who am I to judge? she thought. Dragon's nails skittered on the polished black and white tiles, but he kept his balance.

She wondered if she should say something about how nice the house was. Did his delusions need feeding for him to remain calm? Would she be safer if she played into them?

He did not seem to care that the hall was deserted. He led the way up the staircase to the gallery. She and Dragon followed. The dog was panting, despite the cold. As soon as they turned off the gallery into a hallway leading to a smaller stair up to the third floor, she said, "Dragon needs water."

Jeremy didn't stop walking, but said, "I know. And food. You could likely use some yourself, as well."

They turned left into another hallway, this one covered in a corridor runner patterned with flowers that seemed to dance in the flickering light from the oil lamps.

"Just a few steps further," he said, anticipating the question she was about to ask. He walked to the furthest door on the right and opened it, gesturing her in. Dragon trotted in ahead of her, but stopped so short that she nearly banged into him. Jeremy came in behind her and closed the door.

In the center of the room sat the large gray cat, twitching his tail and licking a front paw industriously. When they were all inside, Dragon staring at him as if unresolved whether to muster the energy to leap or bark, the cat set his paw down with deliberation, turned a shining golden eye on Jeremy, and said clearly, "It certainly took you long enough."

For a moment, Jennifer simply refused to believe it. Her logic, her ability to reason, had supported her well up to now. But this--she felt dizzy.

Jeremy was saying, "We could not gallop that distance and expect the dog to keep pace all the way from the boundary."

The cat began to reply, "I suppose--"

And Jennifer, who had always detested weakness in women, heard a buzzing in her ears and fainted.

* * * *

She regained consciousness with long hair.

At first she wasn't aware of that, just of the warmth of lying on something soft, with an even greater warmth pressed beside her. She reached up to touch the source of the heat next to her, eyes still closed, and recognized Dragon, his head on her ribcage. For a moment she thought she'd arrived at Aunt Cecilia's and was awakening from a dream. Except that normally Jennifer did not have dreams nearly as vivid as this one had been, and since she didn't remember those, it was unlikely the earlier events had been one. She stroked Dragon and raised her hand to her forehead, where her fingers tangled in something.

She opened her eyes, found that she was looking at the bottom of a brocaded canopy instead of Cecilia's simple plaster ceiling. She took a deep breath and sat up. She was lying in a large, high, four-poster bed, soft with what was likely a feather tick and comforter. As she noticed that, the thing that had tangled her fingers fell across her field of vision. She pushed it away and realized it was attached to her head.

"How the hell long have I been asleep?" she asked, adding quickly to Dragon, "And don't you dare answer me!" The dog obliged, yawning and wagging his tail, but not saying a word.

She threw back the comforter and jumped down from the bed, missing a set of wooden bed-steps she hadn't noticed before. She was wearing a nightgown that covered her from throat to ankles, trimmed in lace. "And where the hell are my clothes?"

There was a cheval glass in a corner of the room. It was dark enough so that she knew it was night, but whether the same night or a different one, she did not know. Even in the lamplight and the dim glow of a banked fire in a small hearth across the room, she could see her reflection in the glass. She had to look twice and touch the mirror with her fingertips to convince herself that she really was the person she was looking at in it. She had shoulder-length, somewhat snarled hair instead of the shining cap she paid a fortune to have styled in a shop on the Chelsea Road. She fingered the strands and tugged on them; the hair was real.

She wanted not to think about that, tried grasping the shreds of her practicality about her by imagining a great investment opportunity, since men's hair-growth products did very well in the marketplace.

The nightgown was made of a very fine linen, but it was definitely not her type of garment. She looked around to see if her clothes were lying on any of the chairs or trunks. They were not, so she thought they might have been in the armoire that stood against the wall.

She had not yet moved in that direction when there was a light tap on the door, and before she could respond to that, the door was opened by a plump, smiling woman balancing a tray of food and drink on her hip. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, with steely curls covered by a mobcap. Her dress was clean, waisted below her ample breasts, with a large apron over it. Both garments were long enough to nearly brush the rug on the floor. "The Young Master said you might be awake now, miss," she said, "so I've brought you a tray." She seemed unduly pleased to see Jennifer, her smile wide and welcoming.

"What day is it?" was what Jennifer intended to ask. Instead, she heard herself ask, "What is the hour?"

"Laws, it gives on midnight, miss," the woman said, bustling into the room and setting the tray on a dressing table in a dim corner. She took a spill from a ceramic dish on the mantelpiece, lighted it in the hearth, and used it to light two candles on the dressing table. Then she held out the chair for Jennifer.

Jennifer was now thinking that Jeremy had not been mad, but that it was she, Jennifer, who had lost her mind. In that case, how could she possibly be hungry?

Yet she was. She took the chair and picked up a muffin. The still broadly smiling woman went to feed and stoke the fire, taking split lengths of wood from a basket beside the hearth. The room grew marginally brighter.

The muffin nearly melted in Jennifer's mouth. She swallowed as the woman rose to her feet from the hearth, rubbed her hands on her apron, and went to the door. "The Young Master asked that you choose a dress and meet him in the family parlor. I will send one of the maids to help you choose your clothes and do your hair."

"I can dress myself," Jennifer was going to say. What she said was, "I would appreciate that kindness."

The plump woman bobbed a small curtsey and left the room.

Jennifer didn't understand why what she was saying did not accord with what she intended to say, but she also didn't understand why it wasn't upsetting her more. Something was very wrong, a discordant note that she couldn't identify and hadn't had an opportunity to analyze yet.

And the food was real, tasty and filling. There was sweet butter and jam for the breads on her tray, and a fine crystal tumbler with milk in it. She ate some of everything.

With the room brighter than it had been, she saw dishes on the floor by the fire, one still with water in it, and she knew that Dragon had been fed, too. He still slept on the bed, stretched out across the comforter now that she was no longer taking up some of the space.

The dog was the only familiar thing in the room, a typical greyhound, sound asleep, as he usually was when there was nowhere to run. She was very happy he was there. He seemed to be what she could hold onto as representative of who and what she had been before she came through the hedge and lost her haircut, her clothes, her ability to say what she was thinking, and her equilibrium, all at the same time.

A knock on the door heralded the appearance of a thin girl of about fifteen in a plain muslin dress and cap. She curtsied at the doorway and went straight to the armoire. Its open doors revealed a row of hanging dresses. The girl took out a pale blue dress of soft wool sprigged with small pink flowers.

Jennifer tried to ask about her denims, but nothing came out of her mouth at all and she decided to wait to try again until she had something else to say.

The maid laid the dress on the bed, careful not to disturb the dog, then went to a trunk for underclothes, stockings, and a pair of flat slippers made of some kind of fabric over a harder sole.

"I'm going to look like--"

Jennifer didn't even bother to try to complete the thought. It was useless to make any attempt to speak when she wasn't able to, and silence was better than hearing something she hadn't intended to say come out of her mouth. If she couldn't control her speech, she wouldn't try to speak at all.

She remained silent while the maid dressed her, brushed her hair, and coaxed it into a long curl which fell to one of the dress's puffy sleeves and onto the white lace fichu that hid any sign of cleavage. The maid took a silky wool stole from another truck and draped it over Jennifer's shoulders. With a sigh, Jennifer ventured, "How would I get to the family parlor?" It came out the way she wanted to ask it, and the relief she felt at having been able to form a question and have it emerge intact seemed ridiculous to her, but it was certainly genuine.

"If you please, miss," said the maid, smiling at her, and gestured toward the door.

Dragon did not wake up, and Jennifer did not call him, though leaving him in the room gave her more of a wrench than she expected, certainly more of a wrench than not having been able to vocalize what she wanted to. She followed the maid down the flight of stairs and along the gallery to a door that stood partly ajar. As Jennifer pushed it open, the maid vanished along the corridor.

The family parlor was bright with lamplight, candlelight, and a roaring fire in the hearth. Several divans, some brocaded chairs, a desk, and two side tables made up the furnishings.

Jeremy, in a bell-sleeved white shirt, black trousers and vest, and an unbuttoned russet coat, was seated by the fireside, watching her. The moment she saw him, she felt again that inexplicable thrill, that wave of excitement at being near him. She blinked and made herself look away.

In addition to Jeremy, there was an older man, who rose with a smile as she came in. He was more heavily built than Jeremy, and he was ruddy. He wore a silk vest so thickly embroidered with large yellow flowers that he seemed to glow. Jennifer thought for some reason of Dickens's Mr. Fezziwigg--jolly and giving, and at Christmas time, too.

Jeremy said soberly, "Miss Paul, may I present my father, Sir George Clipton, Lord of the Manor and Squire of the county."

Jennifer went to hold out her hand to offer a handshake, but bobbed a small curtsey instead, then extended her hand, palm down. The squire took her hand and bowed over it. That was the moment at which Jennifer realized that Jeremy had used her surname, but she was certain she had never told it to him. She wanted to ask how he knew it, but what came out was, "I am most honored to make your acquaintance, sir." She thought, I'm a puppet, and is it Jeremy Clipton who's pulling my strings, or--a notion which would have been impossible in her other life--or could the puppet master be that unbelievable cat?

Jeremy sat silent as Sir George made small talk with Jennifer for some minutes--the state of the winter garden, the plans to repair some plates on the millwheel when the season of freeze was over, and suchlike. Jennifer's mouth made interested, murmuring sounds. Having done his duty by being courteous, Sir George excused himself and left the room.

Jeremy rose and closed the door after his father before returning to his seat. Jennifer sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the hearth. Jeremy leaned forward and adjusted the firescreen so that the heat did not blast at her face.

They sat across from one another in silence for a minute or so, as she struggled to ignore the continuing excitement, the crackling of the fire the only sound in the room. Despite herself, she couldn't help studying him. His short hair was dark, his eyes a deep blue she saw now, and his even features were so solemn that she wondered if he ever intended to smile again. She had quite enjoyed his smile.

At last he stirred and said, "No doubt you have many questions."

"So I have," she said, listening closely to what came out of her mouth, "but I seem to have been unable to ask them."

"That will only happen with others," he said, "those who have never been to the world outside or who do not know there is one. I know; I have been there, though not--" He hesitated. "--recently. You may ask me what you like."

She wasn't sure she trusted that, but it was certainly worth trying. She touched the curl that lay on her shoulder. "How long ago exactly did I arrive here?"

"This afternoon," he said, "so I would venture to say some eight or nine hours ago."

"Then how did you do this?" she asked. She held up the curl.

"I did not," he said. "Malkin did. Malkin is one of the spirits who guard the reality of Clipton Magna."

"Who is Malkin?"

"The cat."

Somehow that did not surprise her. To clarify it completely, however, she said, "The talking cat is responsible for this 'reality.'"

He sensed the sarcasm; it really was not very subtle. "This reality is just as true as any other, Miss Paul."

That drove what had been her next question out of her mind. "How did you know my name? I never told you."

"You told Malkin, and Malkin told me."

She shook her head. "I never said a word to that cat."

"Not while you were conscious." He rose and lifted a crystal carafe from a silver tray on one of the side tables and poured a glass of whatever it contained. He held it out to her. "Malkin's well is very deep, and he does not often tap it, because he has no need to, so his supply is quite full."

She accepted the glass from him, but frowned. "What well? What are you talking about?"

"Each of us--each of us who lives here--has what we call a well, from which we can draw when there is a need. My father, as squire, has quite a deep one, though not nearly as deep as Malkin's or Storm's. And my father almost never draws from it. As heir to the Manor, I possess the next deepest well. The villagers have varying levels, and they are not aware of the wells. They simply use what they need when they need it. The servants and the children have very little. The children use their allotment up as soon as the year begins." He smiled at that, but it was not a smile that included her.

She shook her head, not understanding. "Draw what?" she demanded. "Why does nothing you say make any sense to me?"

He could have been frustrated by her lack of comprehension; indeed, she fully expected him to become impatient. Instead, his smile grew, and she knew it was directed at her now. Once again, it made her a little breathless. "It will make sense to you," he said. "What we can draw from our wells is what you would call magic."

She stared at him. It was no more outrageous than a hedge that vanished, a cat that talked, hair on her head easily ten times the length it had been yesterday--and then there were those times when what she meant to say got translated into something else before she said it. So why should she find it at all difficult to believe that there was such a thing as magic operating here? She fastened on a question she could ask. "Who or what is Storm?"

His smile broadened, once again making him unbelievably attractive. "Storm is the talking owl," he said. "You have yet to make his acquaintance."

She sipped the contents of the glass she was holding and discovered a sweet sherry. She swallowed only a little of it. "I'm beginning to take you seriously," she said. "I suppose that means I'm crazy." She stopped herself before she had added, "--too."

Jeremy sat down across from her again and leaned back, crossing his long legs. "Once inside Clipton Magna, you would only be crazy if you failed to take me seriously."

She let that pass. "How can I get back out?" she asked.

"The county has its own rules," he said. "As I told you, the hedge cannot be seen from this side, and it is only accessible at certain times. Even from the other side, it can only rarely be found."

She set her glass down on the stones of the hearth. "What does that mean?"

He crossed his arms. "Because you are here, because you were able to see the hedge and cross it, I am guessing that you believe this to be the Year of our Lord 2005."

That brought her up short. "Of course--" she began, then: "What year do you believe it is?"

"This is 1805," he said. "Welcome to Clipton Magna."

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    fun Alice falling through the rabbit hole into a Brigadoon romantic fantasy

    An orphan since her parents and her brother died in an accident, Jennifer Paul is a business executive at Glidden Industries currently based in London. She enjoyed her work for the firm in Boston and initially in London until her boss at both locales moved on to Barcelona leaving her to cope with the insidious Cobra whose unreasonable assignments are given to her so she would appear to simply want to resign. Thus spending Christmas with her Aunt Cecelia in Wales is a welcome respite. Accompanied by her greyhound Dragon, she drives towards her Aunt¿s home when she comes across a barrier on the road a hedge is where no hedge should be and except for turning around Jennifer has no place to drive. While pondering what is going on, Jennifer takes a canine pit stop when a cat comes out of the hedge talking in the King¿s English Dragon chases Malkin the cat back through the hedge. Jennifer follows her dog only to find a strange realm that should not be there. She learns she has stepped into Clipton Magna circa 1805 where King George III still misrules a place in which nuns created a sanctuary for star-crossed lovers to include the Prince Regent whose marriage to Mrs. FitzHerbert was considered invalid. There Jennifer meets the Squire¿s son, Jeremy Clipton, who falls in love with Jennifer but she does not belong there as this is magical land for the star-crossed not the no-crossed. If she fails to leave the land could die if she leaves Jeremy could die of a broken heart. --- This is a fun Alice falling through the rabbit hole into a Brigadoon romantic fantasy. In some ways the story line feels like a time travel tale as the heroine leaves today when she crosses the hedge into the regency era. With a personification spin provided by Malkin and a wise owl (any other kind?), fans will enjoy Jennifer¿s adventures on the other side of the hedge. --- Harriet Klausner

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