Ellie asked herself again, for the hundredth time, how it was that she’d been persuaded to join in. Archaeology was hardly her thing and for that matter, neither was Jane Austen. But, in the end, it was impossible to refuse Jess this small request. Jess, her best friend, who she loved like the sister she didn’t have, had pleaded with them all. And it was Ellie who had made sure the others had agreed to come on the dig, reminding them when she’d managed to take them to one side that they were lucky to still have Jess around after her horrendous health scare of the previous year.
‘It’ll be fun,’ said Ellie, packing her sketch book into her bag as she walked along in the sunshine, ‘especially as it’s our last summer together before most of us have to join the real world and work for our living.’
‘So long as I can bring my straighteners,’ said Liberty, admiring her reflection and flicking back her chestnut mane as they walked past the refectory window on their university campus. ‘They do have electricity where we’re going, don’t they?’
‘Of course they do,’ Martha snapped, unable to disguise the irritation in her voice. With her nose buried in a book, she completely missed Liberty’s rolling eyes and the grin that passed between her and Cara. Although the five girls had struck up a friendship since sharing a student house, the mix of characters and personalities could hardly have been more different. Martha always remained just a little outside the group. It was Ellie and Jess, Liberty and Cara, and Martha drifted between the two, happy, for the most part, to be on her own.
Ellie purposely left out any suggestion that the trip might involve hard work or dirt, and made light of the fact that the archaeological dig was in a tiny Hampshire village in the middle of nowhere. Jess was obsessed with Jane Austen’s books and when she’d found out that volunteers were needed to find the remains of Jane’s childhood home in Steventon, she’d not talked about much else. Jess would never have done anything like that by herself; she’d always been timid with strangers. Ellie knew Jess wanted them all to go with her, but also realised that if Liberty and Cara had any idea of what was really expected of them, they might refuse the invitation. Instead, she focused on the parts she knew would keep them interested.
‘There’s a film crew going, and they’re making a documentary.’
Liberty, the drama student, could hardly contain herself. ‘OMG, do you think we’ll get to be in it?’
‘Oh, Liberty, our fifteen minutes of fame,’ said Cara, grabbing her friend’s hand and twirling her round. ‘I’ll have to tell my mum. When do you think it will be on the telly?’
‘I don’t know exactly, sometime next year, I should think, but I can tell you who will be presenting it.’
‘Who is it, somebody famous?’ Liberty looked as if she might explode.
‘Greg Whitely.’ Ellie knew she did not have to say any more.
Liberty threw her arms around Ellie. ‘But, I’ve been in love with him forever, and I’ve just always had this feeling that we were meant to be together. I think I might die at the thought of meeting him.’ Her hands flew to her mouth. ‘Do you think he’ll be there, Ellie?’
‘I don’t know, maybe not for the whole dig, but perhaps for some of it.’
‘Well, I shan’t be in any hurry to meet him.’ Martha closed her book and tucked her lank, mousy hair behind her ears. ‘My mother’s worked with him and she says he’s an insatiable womaniser.’
‘Even better! Perhaps I could be the one to tame him. I can just picture it – me in ‘Hello’ magazine on Greg’s arm swathed in satin and crystals,’ said Liberty, striking a pose, ‘as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge shower me with confetti.’
‘Dream on, Liberty,’ said Cara with a grin. ‘Martha, you’re so lucky. It must be wonderful to have an actress for a mother.’
‘No, it’s not,’ said Martha, instantly turning scarlet to the roots of her hair, a frown wrinkling her forehead. ‘I don’t think you can have any idea. My childhood was spent largely alone with a succession of nannies in school holidays, none of whom ever showed me the slightest affection, whilst my mother travelled the world pursuing her career.’
‘But, you must have seen some incredible actors and met some of them, too,’ said Liberty, who really excelled at saying exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible moment.
Ellie knew she should step in before Martha started to say she wouldn’t be able to come after all. ‘There is someone going on the dig who I think you’ll be interested to meet, Martha. He’s been on that documentary series where they only have a week to dig up some bones and then reconstruct the faces. Will MacGourtey – you know him – he’s an archaeologist – fair hair, young and quite good-looking.’
‘At least there will be someone worth talking to, then,’ Martha said as she opened her book again. ‘Intelligent conversation coupled with the informed knowledge of a first-rate academic is my idea of heaven – something quite sadly lacking from my life right now.’
The other three exchanged smiles, and Ellie, who was glad that she now had all three girls on her side, sent up a silent prayer that they would all continue to be so happy.
Jess was beside herself with joy when Ellie told her the news. And Liberty looked even more excited when Jess told them that they’d been invited to stay at her godmother’s house for the duration of the dig.
They were all gathered in the cramped sitting room of the student house they shared, which didn’t seem big enough for the five personalities whose belongings lay strewn on every surface. Books and folders, half-finished essays and sketchbooks jostled for position with pens and pencils, bottles of nail varnish and tubes of paint.
‘Isn’t she the rich one with the big house?’ Liberty never took long to get to the point. She put down the book of plays she was supposed to be reading to bounce onto the sofa next to Jess, hugging her knees and staring up at Jess’s beautiful face with undisguised anticipation.
Jess laughed. ‘I suppose she is quite wealthy and her house is a sizeable one. I must admit; I haven’t been there for a while. I was just a young girl when I last visited. Aunt Mary has lived abroad for most of the last ten years.’
‘Will she leave you all her money?’ Cara chipped in, joining her on the other side so Jess was completely wedged in.
‘That’s not very likely, though goodness knows my family could do with it. My mum and Mary were at teacher training college together. My mum fell in love with a fellow teacher, but Mary was swept off her feet by a young man, who swiftly became a millionaire. We’re comfortably off, but my parents have worked so hard all their lives and Aunt Mary doesn’t really have a clue. But, she’s always been incredibly generous to my family, and sadly was unable to have any children of her own.’
‘It’s really kind of her to invite us,’ said Ellie, ‘but does she know what she’s letting herself in for having five girls come to stay?’
‘Oh, Aunt Mary isn’t going to be there,’ Jess said, smiling as she recognised the fear in Ellie’s eyes behind the question, ‘she’s in Tuscany for the summer – we’ve got the place to ourselves!’
The coach picked them up from the university. It was already half full with an interesting mix of people who, like themselves, had volunteered for the dig. There was a group of male students from another university occupying the row at the back of the coach, and Ellie had to stop Liberty from marching up to them before they’d even found where they were sitting.
‘We’ve got allocated seats, Liberty and Cara,’ Jess called, pointing at the two in front of her. Martha sat next to Jess, which Ellie had agreed beforehand, so she wouldn’t feel left out. As the coach headed out of Winchester, Ellie watched the urban sprawl gradually left behind: lanes of verdant green replaced shops, houses and flats. Fields and meadows with tiny farmhouses in the distance, looked like toy farm sets, their cows and sheep grazing under oak trees dotted amongst the hedgerows. She was looking forward to the trip in many ways, and hoped there’d be some opportunities for her to paint. Google Earth had thrown up some beautiful images of the countryside around Steventon and Ellie loved nothing more than trying to capture a landscape in watercolours. It had been her ambition to study illustration for as long as she could remember and becoming a freelance illustrator was her goal. She was nervous about the future, but she’d already had a few commissions. Perhaps being in Jane Austen country would be an inspiration for her painting.
Ellie could hear the guys at the back, some of them talking far too loudly, showing off whilst evidently trying to get the attention of Liberty who was constantly looking round. Dressed like any other student, nevertheless, everything about them suggested out of the ordinary affluence and confidence exuded from every pore. Rather too much self-assurance, Ellie thought, and decided they were arrogance personified – snobs of the worst sort. It crossed her mind that perhaps she was being a little unfair but it seemed to her they expected everyone to be impressed by them. Ellie made up her mind, right then, to give them a wide berth.
‘Isn’t it exciting?’ Jess’s face materialised in the gap between the seats in front, a halo of short blonde curls giving her an elfin appearance. ‘I can’t believe we are going to be walking on hallowed ground tomorrow.’
Ellie nodded back as enthusiastically as she could for Jess’s sake. It was fantastic to see Jess animated and looking well again. This last twelve months she’d been to hell and back. No one else could have suffered so much with such strength and courage. Ellie had watched her best friend grow pale and thin before her diagnosis, and then witnessed her growing sicker with every session of chemotherapy. When Jess’s long, golden tresses had fallen out in clumps, it was Ellie who’d cried. Jess had borne it all bravely, saying what a relief it was not to have to fuss about with hairdryers and hairstyles. But, that was the type of person Jess was – never thinking of herself, only trying to make things better for everyone else. Her fellow lecturers and students were full of admiration for the girl who had managed through it all to hang on to her dream of becoming a teacher like her mum and dad. She’d had time off from university, but nothing was going to stop her from going back and completing her course.
‘I hope we find something exciting. Can you imagine going to all the effort of digging and nothing of any interest turning up,’ said Ellie.
‘It will be enough for me just to walk in Jane’s footsteps,’ said Jess, a dreamy expression spreading over her face. ‘I think they are supposed to be determining exactly where the house stood, initially. There’s some debate about what the house looked like and its position on the land. Hopefully, the geophysics will be done by now and they’ll have an idea where we can start digging!’
Liberty’s head popped over the seat. ‘I’m so glad I came,’ she said, with one eye on the boys at the back, ‘though, there are more old people than I expected.’
Martha made a shushing sound. ‘You never know when to be quiet, do you, Liberty? I like the fact there are lots of different ages here. It’s wonderful to think that not all people in their seventies are gaga and are still reasonably mentally alert.’
Ellie wanted to disappear into the fabric of her seat. The silver-haired woman sitting opposite them looked across disapprovingly and muttered something about ‘the youth of today’ under her breath.
There was a sudden crackling noise from loud speakers and a lady brandishing a microphone at the front of the coach stood up to make a welcome speech, introducing herself as Melanie Button, and thanking the volunteers for their participation. ‘I hope you’ll all be happy with the accommodation that’s been arranged. Most of you will be staying in the village where you’ll meet some of the local volunteers this evening at the reception party. According to my list, I believe Jess Leigh and her friends have made their own plans and also Henry Dorsey and Charlie Harden. Am I right?’
Jess waved and gesticulated in their direction. ‘Yes, we’re all sorted out, Mrs Button, thank you. We’ll have use of a car and be walking in too, I hope. We’re at Ashe, just a mile away.’
One of the students sitting with the Oxford group raised his hand. ‘Charlie Harden here, Mrs Button. Henry and I are staying together – we’re in Deane so we’re not far, either.’
Ellie saw Jess looking at Charlie with interest. He was good-looking in a fresh-faced way with a mop of sun-bleached curls that looked even lighter against his tanned skin. He had the sort of piercing forget-me-not blue eyes that don’t look quite real and it was easy to see why Jess looked at him, albeit in her own covert way. At least he seemed to have some manners, which was more than could be said for his friends. The one called Henry, by contrast, seemed to scowl at her when she caught his eye.
‘Do call me Mel,’ said Mrs Button, smiling broadly at Charlie and Henry, ‘let’s not stand on ceremony. We’re going to be working very closely together.’
Liberty barely stifled a giggle and whispered to Cara, ‘She’s old enough to be their mother. Look at that gorgeous Charlie, he looks frightened to death at the thought of being personally intimate with Ms Button.’
‘Now, we’re all meeting in the village hall at seven thirty,’ continued Melanie. ‘We are enormously excited to have Greg Whitely and Will MacGourtey of Dig your Ancestor fame arriving to kick off the party, and tell us what’s been accomplished so far. Are you digging that, ladies?’
There was a ripple of laughter from some of the older female volunteers and a few groans from some of the young men. And then the coach stopped. ‘Ashe Rectory,’ called the driver.
Ellie stared at the life-sized doll’s house in front of them. A doorway surmounted by a beautiful fanlight was set in the centre of the elegant Georgian façade, its panelled doors opening as they stepped down from the coach. Wisteria and roses climbed over the rose brick walls and the windows on either side. On the upper floor, the window under the pediment caught the glow of the sun in its rectangular panes. The light was blinding, but Ellie sensed they were being watched and when she shielded her eyes to squint at the glass, she saw she was right. It was momentary, but the sight of a young man with pale hair and skin standing at the window made every hair on her body stand on end. He was looking down at them and, for a moment, Ellie thought that she knew him. There was something so familiar about the turn of his head and his stance that caused a flicker of pleasure to quicken inside her, and when, at last, their eyes met, the sense of recognition and consciousness felt almost like coming home.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten