Maybe it was the fringed battlements lining the top of the walls and guarded with gargoyles that made Cora’s skin tingle as they approached Twickenham Manor. The sky outside was the same bluish-gray it had often been in London, but it wasn’t oppressive here. It was mysterious.
Cora felt like Cinderella arriving at the ball. She gaped out the window as their driver pulled up in front of a white Gothic castle. The homepage had said it was a manor house, but the size rivaled a royal address. Getting out of the car put her right beside a large, open gate to the side yard. She walked through and pulled out her camera to record the turrets, paths, and gardens. Stone-carved lions, dragons, and lizards hid among the bushes and sat atop the stone walls used as handrails on the sides of the exterior stairs. This was the highlight of their vacation in England—a full week living like Jane Austen.
The early morning dew must not have burned off yet because, to Cora, it looked like the entire lawn, all the way to the Thames, and the garden were flocked with glitter. Every plant and flower sparkled magically with tiny rainbows. Her finger ran over the petal of a rose climbing around the tunnel that led to the doorway, and the dew from it clung to her, shining as if with its own light.
Her heart skipped a beat. She could feel it. This was the new beginning she desperately needed in her life. She nearly hadn’t come. Her roommates Reese and Kaitlyn had invited her. Kaitlyn’s brother and his best friend had come, too. The others had deep roots of friendship and history between them, and from what she’d seen from the glances the men threw toward the women, sparks of romance as well. But because she’d only known the girls a couple of months, she felt like she was butting in on their vacation. It was natural for them to pair up, and it was natural for Cora to avoid crowds. She laughed at herself—same old Cora. But standing in this place, feeling the magic of it from centuries past, made her glad she’d come.
The group gathered at the desk just inside the ancient-looking front door to check in for their immersive Regency experience.
“Cora Rey?” the man at the desk called.
Cora stepped up and signed the paperwork.
“We have all in ready for you,” the butler said. “Your chamber will be the lilac room, Miss Rey.” He handed the key to a woman who came to stand next to him. “This is Miller. She will be your lady’s maid during your stay and will be at your call whenever needed.”
The young woman curtsied to Cora. “This way, miss.” She led Cora through the house, past the grand salon with its walls decorated with spears arranged in sunburst patterns, past a library with bookcases pointed like cathedral windows, and up the curving marble staircase. “The manor is huge, and it can be a bit tricky to find your way around until you get used to it. There’s a map in your room to help.”
Cora had studied the map that was sent with the orientation materials. One thing stood out as unusual, though. The map she’d received showed three levels, but this home had four. Why hadn’t that floor plan been included? What was the secret?
“This is it, miss.” Miller twisted the key in the lock and opened the door. “Your things have been delivered there,” she said, pointing to the large walk-in closet beside the en suite. “Would you like help unpacking?”
Several dresses already hung in the closet. The Regency costumes had been part of the package she’d chosen for her experience. It was surprising how new they looked, and they appeared to be the exact size she would need.
“No, thank you.”
“Then I’ll be back at six to help you dress for dinner.” The young woman set the key on the side table. “Aunt Nellie will be around to greet you before then.”
Cora made short work of putting away her clothes, then pulled out her bio for a quick review—she was a wealthy American heiress, looking to marry advantageously.
Several minutes later, someone knocked on Cora’s door. When she opened it, a beautiful woman walked into the room. Cora tried to decide her age, but she couldn’t settle on it. She could have as easily been thirty as fifty. Was her hair really gray or dyed to look like it? The woman was ageless.
She stared at the woman’s eyes. They were the same silver-blue color as the eyes of everyone who worked there that she’d met so far. The color was mesmerizing. Perhaps they were all related.
“Welcome to Twickenham Manor. I’m Aunt Nellie. I’m no one’s aunt, really, but that doesn’t seem to matter so much,” the woman said, then put her arm around Cora’s shoulders and led her to the stuffed chairs by the large windows. “Have you settled in yet?”
Cora liked her voice. It was soothing and friendly—very grandmotherly. “Yes. I was just looking over the orientation materials.”
“Don’t worry too much about those. You’ll have plenty of time to get it all down. In fact, you’ll be able to do even more than is listed in the agenda, should you choose to.” The woman laughed as if she’d just made a joke. “You’ll have more time than you can even imagine.” She waved her hand around a bit. She stood. “Do you have any questions?”
“Not yet. I’m just excited to be here.”
“It will be a grand week. Now, I’m off to meet the others.” When she got to the door, she paused and turned back. “This is a new beginning for you, Cora Rey. I’m so happy you’ve come.”
Cora was, too. The woman didn’t know how much that meant to her—a new beginning. Aboard the train in London, the message board and automated voice had warned riders to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform as they entered or exited at each stop. The phrase had caught her attention and resonated with her.
Mind the gap. That’s where she was in her life. Her mother had died before she was out of elementary school. Then Cora had graduated with a special education degree a year before her father was diagnosed with cancer. She taught for a couple of years, then returned to college soon after her father succumbed. Now, with her master’s degree and another graduation behind her, she had a gap. There was no family to go back to. Various roommates had filled that gap over the past two and a half years, but now what?
This seemed like just the thing she needed—to be completely diverted into a new life starting today.
Each day of the immersion experience was like living in a BBC movie. Her time was filled with walks in the gardens, lessons with the dance master, amazing food, painting, needlework, and lavish dinners with the twenty-some guests enjoying the immersion experience, too. Late at night, Cora would sneak into the music room and play pieces that would have been heard in that period. This truly had been the most amazing vacation imaginable.
An hour before the ball on the last day, Cora’s maid arrived. “I have your gown, miss. Are you ready to dress?”
“I am. Aunt Nellie has provided amazing clothes.” The dress was an apricot-colored fabric overlaid with off-white sprig netting. The applique along the netting resembled small feathers near the waist of the dress and grew into a more rich design of peacocks and trees at the bottom. “I can hardly wait to wear that.”
Cora freshened up, and Miller helped her dress in the beautiful gown. She wanted to twirl like a toddler and feel a rush of joy just to be dressed in the poofy costume. She gave in and threw her arms wide, laughing as the ceiling circled above her in a dizzying dance. “This is perfect,” she said when she stopped. “Thank you, Miller, for everything this week.”
“Oh, miss, you’re lovely. What a night this will be for you.” Miller clasped her hands over her chest. “Magical in every way.”
The Full Moon Ball was everything Cora expected in a true Regency event. Women in colorful silk gowns swirled around the dance floor, guided by men dressed in the finest attire the Regency had to offer. Cora was a little sad when the midnight dinner was called—half the evening was over. She slipped her phone out of her bra and took a few more pictures. She would have hundreds to remember this trip.
Reece found Cora. “Come on. We’re going exploring.”
Cora tucked her phone away and followed Reece and Kaitlyn up the staircase to the top floor. The door at the top of the stairs stood open. Cora peeked inside. It was huge and completely lined with racks of clothing. They looked like costumes from every era in history. She wondered what they used them for.
“So, this is the secret level?” Cora called to her friends. “It just makes you want to open every door, doesn’t it?” She followed the group to the left.
At the end of the hallway, Kaitlyn and Cyrus stood one on each side of an open door. “We found this earlier and thought you’d all like to see it.” Kaitlyn swept her hand in front of her to gesture them to enter.
Cora loved the dark red wallpaper lining the gallery walls. The white and gold of the fanlike flourishes of molding that webbed across the ceiling of the long narrow room added more elegance. Every room she’d seen in Twickenham Manor had stained glass windows, and this one had them nearly from floor to vaulted ceiling. She imagined the warmth of the light that would fill this room in the day. Portraits covered the walls, and Cora looked closely at the ones near her.
“Cora, come look at this one.” Cyrus was pointing toward a full-sized mural at the far end.
“No way,” she whispered to herself, surprised at what she was seeing. Their whole group was depicted there. She walked across the room never taking her eyes off herself in the mural. She and her roommates were wearing much fuller dresses, Victorian instead of Regency, but it was them. The paint seemed to flow with pinpricks of light. The hairs at the back of her neck tingled. “How … ?” She didn’t even know what to ask.
“It’s a little freaky, isn’t it?” Jem asked.
“More than a little,” Reese mumbled.
“I’ve got to have a picture of this.” Cora turned her back to the wall and positioned herself and her other-self in the screen, taking several selfies. “Everyone. We need a picture of this. Stand by your … selves in the mural.” Not everyone fit in the viewer. “Squash up a bit.” She held her phone up again. Yes.
The group was too large to get in the photo frame in a single shot. She angled it toward the far end. Lightning flashed, and she blinked hard to clear the little dark dots floating in her vision. When she held the phone up again, her friends were … gone. How did they … ?”
“Not funny,” she called. She turned to the left and right. Did they just bring her up here for a practical joke? If they did, she had to admit that it was an impressive one. “Where are you?” The room beyond the mural was dark. The paint where her friends had been standing looked like dull, normal paint, but her picture was still illuminated, pulsing with the strange light.
She leaned closer and felt a magnetic tug, drawing her toward the wall. Tiny lasers of light shot into her, stinging like piercing hooks and yanked her toward the portrait. The rhythmic pull increased, and her hands shot out to brace against the wall and stop her fall. Blood roared in her ears, and heat flashed through her. The wall fell away, and rays blasted like lightning. Cora fell headfirst through her portrait, tumbling and spinning. She felt stretched and then compressed. Numb. When the blinding light burned out, Cora was sitting on the floor, her head dizzy, feeling as if she might hurl.