Read an Excerpt
All Georgia could see in the atrocious conditions were snaking brake lights, and she feathered the brake pedal, glad she'd left a huge gap between her and the car in front.
It slithered to a halt, and she put on her hazard flashers and pulled up cautiously behind it, trying to see why they'd stopped, but visibility was minimal. Even though it was technically still daylight, she could scarcely see a thing through the driving snow.
And the radio hadn't been any helpplenty of talk about the snow arriving earlier than predicted, but no traffic information about any local holdups. Just Chris Rea, singing cheerfully about driving home for Christmas while the fine, granular snow clogged her wipers and made it next to impossible to see where she was going.
Not that they'd been going anywhere fast.
The traffic had been moving slower and slower for the last few minutes because of the appalling visibility, and now it had come to a complete grinding halt. She'd been singing along with all the old classics as the weather worsened, crushing the steadily rising panic and trying to pretend that it was all going to be OK. Obviously her crazy, reckless optimism hard at work as usual. When would she learn?
Then the snow eased fleetingly and she glimpsed the tail lights of umpteen cars stretching away into the distance. Far beyond them, barely discernible in the pale gloom, a faint strobe of blue sliced through the falling snow.
More blue lights came from behind, travelling down the other side of the road and overtaking the queue of traffic, and it dawned on her that nothing had come towards them for some minutes. Her heart sank as the police car went past and the flashing blue lights disappeared, swallowed up by the blizzard.
OK, so something serious had happened, but she couldn't afford to sit here and wait for the emergency services to sort it out with the weather going downhill so quickly. If she wasn't careful she'd end up stranded, and she was so nearly home, just five or six miles to go. So near, and yet so far.
The snow swirled around them again, picking up speed, and she bit her lip. There was another routea narrow lane she knew only too well. A lane that she'd used often as a short cut, but she'd been avoiding it, and not only because of the snow
'Why we stop, Mummy?'
She glanced in the rear-view mirror and met her son's eyes. 'Somebody's car's broken down,' she said. Or hit another car, but she wasn't going to frighten a two-year-old. She hesitated. She was deeply reluctant to use the lane, but realistically she was all out of options.
Making the only decision she could, she smiled brightly at Josh and crossed her fingers. 'It's OK, we'll go another way. We'll soon be at Grannie and Grandpa's.'
His face fell, tugging her heartstrings. 'G'annie now. I hungry.'
'Yeah, me, too, Josh. We won't be long.'
She turned the car, feeling it slither as she pulled away across the road and headed back the way she'd come. Yikes. The roads were truly lethal and they weren't going to get any better as more people drove on them and compacted the snow.
As she turned onto the little lane, she could feel her heart rate pick up. The snow was swirling wildly around the car, almost blinding her, and even when it eased for a second the verges were almost obliterated.
This wasn't supposed to be happening yet! Not until tonight, after they were safely tucked up with her parents, warm and dry and well-fed. Not out in the wilds of the countryside, on a narrow lane that went from nowhere to nowhere else. If only she'd left earlier
She checked her mobile phone and groaned. No signal. Fabulous. She'd better not get stuck, then. She put the useless phone away, sucked in a deep breath and kept on driving, inching cautiously along.
Too cautiously. The howling wind was blowing the snow straight off the field to her right and the narrow lane would soon be blocked. If she didn't hurry, she wasn't going to get along here at all, she realised, and she swallowed hard and put her foot down a little. At least in the fresh snow she had a bit more traction, and she wasn't likely to meet someone coming the other way. She only had half a mile at the most to go before she hit the other road. She could do it. She could.
A high brick wall loomed into view on the left, rippling in and out like a ribbon, the snow plastered to it like frosting on a Christmas cake, and she felt a surge of relief.
Almost there now. The ancient crinkle crankle wall ran alongside the lane nearly to the end. It would give her a vague idea of where the road was, if nothing else, and all she had to do was follow it to the bigger, better road which would hopefully be clear.
And halfway along the wallthere it was, looming out of the blizzard, the gateway to a hidden world. The walls curved in on both sides of the imposing entrance, rising up to a pair of massive brick piers topped with stone gryphons, and between them hung the huge, ornate iron gates that didn't shut.
Except that today they were firmly shut.
They'd been painted, too, and they weren't wonky any more, she realised as she slowed to a halt. They'd always hung at a crazy angle, open just enough to squirm through, and that gap had been so enticing to an adventurous young girl out for a bike ride with her equally reckless older brother.
The gryphons guarding the entrance had scared them, mythical beasts with the heads and wings of eagles and the bodies of lions, their talons slashing the air as they reared up, but the gap had lured them in, and inside the wall they'd found a secret adventure playground beyond their wildest imaginings. Acres of garden run wild, with hidden rooms and open spaces, vast spreading trees and a million places to hide.
And in the middle of it all, the jewel in the crown, sat the most beautiful house she'd ever seen. A huge front door with a semi-circular fanlight over it was tucked under a pillared portico that sat exactly in the centre of the house, surrounded perfectly symmetrically by nine slender, elegant sash windows.
Not that you could see all the windows. Half of them were covered in wisteria, cloaking the front and invading the roof, and the scent from the flowers, hanging delicately like bunches of pale lilac grapes against the creamy bricks, had been intoxicating.
It had been empty for years; with their hearts in their mouths, she and Jack had found a way inside through the cellar window and tiptoed round the echoing rooms with their faded grandeur, scaring each other half to death with ghost stories about the people who might have lived and loved and died there, and she'd fallen head over heels in love with it.
And then years later, when her brother had started to hang out with Sebastian, she'd taken him there, too. He'd come over to their house one day to see Jack but he'd been out, so they'd gone out for a bike ride instead. His idea, and she'd jumped at it, and they'd ended up here.
It had been their first 'date', not really a date at all but near enough for her infatuated sixteen-year-old self, and she'd dragged him inside the still-empty house just as she had her brother.
Like her, he'd been fascinated by it. They'd explored every inch of it, tried to imagine what it would have been like to live there in its hey-day. What it would be like to live there now. They'd even fantasised about the furnishingsa dining table so long you could hardly see the person at the other end, a Steinway grand in what had to have been the music room and, in the master bedroom, a huge four-poster bed.
In her own private fantasy, that bed had been big enough for them and all their children to pile into for a cuddle. And there'd be lots of them, the foundation of a whole dynasty. They'd fill the house with children, all of them conceived in that wonderful, welcoming bed with feather pillows and a huge fluffy quilt and zillion-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets.
And then he'd kissed her.
They'd been playing hide and seek, teasing and flirting and bubbling over with adolescent silliness, and he'd found her in the cupboard in the bedroom and kissed her.
She'd fallen the rest of the way in love with him in that instant, but it had been almost two years before their relationship had moved on and fantasy and reality had begun to merge.
He'd gone away to uni, but they'd seen each other every holiday, spent every waking moment together, and the kisses had become more urgent, more purposeful, and way more grown up.
And then, the weekend after her eighteenth birthday, he'd taken her to the house. He wouldn't tell her why, just that it was a surprise, and then he'd led her up to the master bedroom and opened the door, and she'd been enchanted.
He'd set the sceneflickering candles in the fireplace, a thick blanket spread out on the moth-eaten carpet and smothered in petals from the wisteria outside the window, the scent filling the roomand he'd fed her a picnic of delicate smoked salmon and caviar sandwiches and strawberries dipped in chocolate, and he'd toasted her in pink champagne in little paper cups with red hearts all over the outside.
And then, slowly and tenderly, giving her time even though it must have killed him, he'd made love to her.
She'd willingly given him her virginity; they'd come close so many times, but he'd always stalled her. Not that day. That day, when he'd finally made love to her, he'd told her he'd love her forever, and she'd believed him because she loved him, too. They'd stay together, get married, have the children they both wanted, grow old together in the heart of their family. It didn't matter where they lived or how rich or poor they were, it was all going to be perfect because they'd have each other.
But two years down the line, driven by ambition and something else she couldn't understand, he'd changed into someone she didn't know and everything had fallen apart. Their dream had turned into a nightmare with the shocking intrusion of a reality she'd hated, and she'd left him, but she'd been devastated.
She hadn't been back here in the last nine years, but just before Josh was born she'd heard on the grapevine that he'd bought it. Bought their house, and was rescuing it from ruin.
She and David had been at a dinner party, and someone from English Heritage was there. 'I gather some rich guy's bought Easton Court, by the waySebastian something or other,' he'd said idly.
'Corder?' she'd suggested, her whole body frozen, her mind whirling, and the man had nodded.
'That's the one. Good luck to him. It deserves rescuing, but it's a good job he's got deep pockets.'
The conversation had moved on, ebbing and flowing around her while she'd tried to make sense of Sebastian's acquisition, but David had asked her about him as they were driving home.
'How do you know this Corder guy?'
'He was a friend of my brother's,' she said casually, although she was feeling far from casual. 'His family live in that area.'
It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth and she'd felt a little guilty, but she'd been shocked. No, not shocked. Surprised, more than anything. She'd thought he'd walked away from everything connected to that time, as she had, and the fact that he hadn't had puzzled her. Puzzled and fascinated and horrified her, all at once, because of course it was so close to home, so near to her parents.
Too close for comfort.
But a few days later Josh had been born, and then only weeks after that David had died and her whole world had fallen apart and she'd forgotten it. Forgotten everything, really, except holding it all together for Josh.
But every time since then that she'd visited her parents, she'd avoided the lane, just as she had todayuntil she'd had no choice.
Her heart thudded against her ribs. Was he in there, behind those intimidating and newly renovated gates? Alone? Or sharing their house with someone else, someone who didn't share the dream
She cut that thought off before she could follow it. It didn't matter. The dream didn't exist any longer, and she'd moved on. She'd had to. She was a mother now, and there was no time for dreaming. She dragged her eyes and her mind away from the imposing gates and the man who might or might not be behind them, flashed her son a smile to remind her of her priorities and made herself drive on.
Except her car had other ideas. It slithered wildly as she tried to pull away, and the snow swirled around them, the wind battering the car ferociously, reminding her as nothing else could just how perilous their situation was. Gripping the wheel tighter, her heart pounding, she pressed the accelerator again more cautiously and drove on, almost blinded by the blizzard.
Before she'd gone more than a few feet she hit a drift with her right front wheel, and her car slewed round and came to rest across the road, wedged up against the bank behind her. After a few moments of spinning the wheels fruitlessly, she slammed her hand on the steering wheel and stifled a scream of frustration tinged with panic.
'It's OK, darling. We're just a teeny bit stuck. I need to have a look outside. I won't be long.'
She tried to open her door, but it wouldn't budge, and she wound the window down and peered out into the blizzard, shielding her eyes from the biting sting of the snow crystals that felt as if they were coming straight from the Arctic.
She was up against a snowdrift, rammed tight into it, and there was no way she'd be able to open the door. She shut the window fast and shook the snow out of her hair.
'Wow! That was a bit blowy!' she said with a grin over her shoulder, but Josh wasn't reassured.
'Don't like it, Mummy,' he said, his lip wobbling ominously.
Nor do I. And I don't need them walking in a winter wonderland on the radio!
'It's fine, Josh. It's just snowing a bit fast at the moment, but it won't last. I'll just get out of the other door and see why we're stuck.'
'No! Mummy stay!'
'Darling, I'll be just outside. I'm not going away.'
She blew him a kiss, scrambled across to the passenger side and fought her way out into the teeth of the blizzard to assess the situation. Difficult, with the biting wind lashing her hair across her eyes and finding its way through her clothes into her very bones, but she checked first one end of the car, then the other, and her heart sank.