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Sarah Castle wasn't in the habit of blindfolding people, but her sister's twenty-first birthday was a delightful exception. As she drove through the winding lanes of Devon, she glanced quickly at Mia. She did look funny with the red polka-dotted scarf tied around her eyes and her curly dark hair flattened into submission.
Slowing down to take a bend in the road, Sarah tried to think how she'd spent her own twenty-first birthday. With a nine-year gap between them, Mia would have been just twelve and had probably been at school.
I would have just finished university, Sarah thought, remembering that summer. It had been the summer their mother had walked out on them and the summer Sarah's role had changed. There had been no note of explanation and no telephone call to check up on them. It was as if Monica Castle had decided she'd completed her role as a mother and moved on to other things somewhere else. Of course, neither of their fathers wanted to know, although the occasional check arrived to pay the rent and assuage some guilt.
From the wide-eyed graduate who was going to conquer the world, Sarah became a surrogate mother, tidying up after her little sister and making sure she always had clean clothes and was eating properly. Her own life had taken a back seat and, whilst working part-time at a restaurant, she'd studied to become an accountant.
No wonder she hadn't had time to celebrate her twenty-first birthday, but this weekend was going to make up for it.
She glanced quickly at Mia and smiled. Some sisters might not have survived the kind of relationship that was forced on them, but it brought Sarah and Mia closer together, and now that Mia had also graduated, she was about to leave home and start leading her own life. She'd already been talking about sharing a flat in Ealing with her friend Shelley, and Sarah was desperately trying not to act like a mother hen, fussing around Mia and making life impossible with endless questions. Mia was a grown woman, and Sarah had to remember that, although, looking at Mia now, she still seemed young and naive. She'd always reminded Sarah of Marianne from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. She had the same drive and passion, teamed with inexperience. A lethal combination, Sarah thought.
Oh, stop worrying. Stop worrying, she told herself. This week was about pure unadulterated pleasure. She wasn't going to think about Mia living in an appalling flat, unable to pay her bills, and getting into all sorts of trouble because she wouldn't have her big sister to keep an eye on her. Oh, no. It was going to be a week of ‘busy nothings.' They would walk. They would talk. They would eat and read and watch films. Sarah had a suitcase that was almost completely full of films, from the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to the BBC version of Persuasion. She had been forced to take out some of her clothes, because they wouldn't all fit in. Of course she could have put the films in a separate case, but that would never have done. Sarah was very particular about such things. You took one suitcase away on holiday, and that was all. She only hoped that the warm weather would continue and that she wouldn't have need of the big woolly sweater she pulled out at the last minute.
Banishing thoughts of a freak May snowstorm, Sarah thought about the week that lay ahead. No doubt there would be the usual arguments about who was the best Elizabeth Bennet and who made the most dashing Mr Darcy. This disagreement was when their difference in age became most pronounced, as Sarah would be singing the praises of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth, whereas Mia would be swooning over Matthew Macfadyen and Rupert Penry-Jones.
‘But he's far too pale to be a convincing Captain Wentworth,' Sarah would say. ‘He doesn't even look as if he knows where the sea is!'
‘Well your Captain Wentworth looks like a grandfather,' Mia would retort.
Sarah grinned. There were some things about which they would never agree, but one thing they agreed on was that this week was going to be free from men. Sarah had just ended a relationship that had been a complete disaster from start to finish, and Mia was still nursing a broken heart after her latest boyfriend, Guido, had gone back to his mama in Italy. Sarah sincerely hoped there were no men in Devon or, at least, not in their little corner of it. She was fed up with living in a city where there was a rogue around every corner. The only men she wanted to think about were the fictional heroes in her Jane Austen novels. They were the only perfect men in the universe, weren't they? They never broke your heart. Living safely within the confines of a novel, they were the very best kind of lover.
‘Are we nearly there yet?' Mia asked, breaking into Sarah's thoughts.
Sarah laughed at the childlike question. ‘Nearly,' she said. ‘You're not feeling dizzy, are you?'
‘No, I'm fine,' Mia said.
‘Because we can take the scarf off, if you'd like.'
‘Oh, no! I like surprises,' Mia said.
‘And you've no idea where we are?'
Mia shook her head. ‘Somewhere complicated,' she said. ‘All these twists and turns.'
It had certainly been a complicated journey, with Mia coming from London and Sarah from Winchester. They'd finally managed to meet up in Exeter and had driven through the rolling Devon countryside together, both glorying in being released from their city lives for a few days. Sarah couldn't wait to get out of the car and stretch her legs and stride across a few fields like Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood.
It was then that she saw the track that she'd been looking out for and turned off the main road onto the private one. Mia swayed in the seat beside her.
‘We're getting close, aren't we?'
‘Not long now,' Sarah said, although she had never been there before herself, so had no real idea of where they were going. Still, she could feel a bubble of excitement inside her. It had been such a hard secret to keep from Mia. Sarah didn't like secrets. She liked openness and honesty, but, she told herself, this was different. This was a secret to beat all secrets, and she couldn't wait for it to be revealed.
The turnoff came quickly, and Sarah slowed the car, parked it, and turned off the engine.
‘Can I take the scarf off?'
‘No!' Sarah said. ‘Stay right there.' She got out of the car and ran around to open Mia's door, releasing her seat belt and taking her arm.
‘I feel like an invalid,' Mia said.
‘Come on,' Sarah said.
‘It's steep,' Mia said.
‘It's all right. I've got you.' Sarah led the way down a path and then up a grassy bank until she reached a small wooden gate. She placed Mia's hands on top of the gate, and only then did she untie the scarf.
‘Happy birthday,' she said, leaning forward and kissing her sister's pink cheek.
For a moment, Mia just stood blinking, as if getting used to seeing again, but then she gasped and her mouth dropped open.
‘Oh, my goodness! It's Barton Cottage! You found Barton Cottage!' Mia jumped up and down on the spot like a little girl, which, Sarah knew, she would always seem to her. She would always be her little sister. She smiled as Mia's eyes widened in delight at the sight that greeted her. It was truly beautiful—the perfect Georgian country manor, its pale walls and large sash windows so open and friendly. But it was more than just a beautiful house—it was the house used in the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility—the one to which the Dashwood sisters have to move after their father dies.
‘It's so beautiful,' Mia said. ‘This really is it, isn't it?'
‘It really is.'
Mia turned to face Sarah, her dark eyes brimming with tears. ‘I can't believe you found it, and I can't believe we're really staying here.' She opened her arms wide and then wrapped them around Sarah, squeezing her until she begged for mercy.
‘Don't you want to see inside?' Sarah asked, extricating herself from Mia's embrace.
Mia nodded, her smile reaching gigantic proportions.
They opened the little wooden gate and walked up through the garden. Everything was lush and lovely. Frothy cow parsley grew in abundance, and bright red campion blazed in the hedgerows. To the left of the house lay a field of bright bluebells, and a beautiful lawn stretched out in front of the house in green splendor. It was as if spring had danced over everything, leaving no surface untouched.
As they reached the front door, Sarah turned around to admire the view down to the estuary. It was flanked with pale blond reed beds, and a little lane ran alongside it.
Mia gasped. ‘That's the lane Willoughby rode along, isn't it?'
‘And Colonel Brandon too,' Sarah said, wistfully glancing along it in the hopes that Alan Rickman might show up on horseback at any moment.
‘We're going to have the best week ever here!' Mia said.
‘Of course we are,' Sarah said. ‘A perfect week.'
But perfection is hard to come by, even in Devon, and Sarah had been wishfully thinking when she'd hoped there were no men in their little corner of the English countryside.