Chapter 1

Alice Howe 1893


The rusty key turned. Trembling with excitement, Amelia Wise thrust aside the trailing ivy that covered the old oak door and pushed. But the door would not budge. She spat on the key to see if that helped.

I had better not dab it on my one-and-only faded, patched dress, even if it is second-hand, she thought. A muddy puddle had wet it earlier, and rust marks would add to the mess.

After a wipe on the green moss in the stone wall, she inserted the key once more, turning it backwards and forwards, twisting it from side to side. “Why won’t you open?” she yelled.

A robin flew out of the ivy high above her and she took a step back, pushing her unruly curls back off her face. Large oak trees stood each side of the door, blocking out the view of everything behind the wall, even from her bedroom window.

With a concerted effort she leaned against the door. A slight movement gave her encouragement to try again. It yielded a little, but not enough to open. She tried and tried until she finally slumped to the ground, exhausted. “I won’t let you beat me,” she vowed. “I’ll keep trying until you reveal your secrets.”

Amelia had only heard about Alice Howe three weeks before. Her father, Mark Wise, had left the house to her in his will. Apparently, it had been in his family for generations, or so she had been told, but he had fallen out with everybody and moved away, so it had gone to wrack and ruin.

She and her stepmother scrubbed and cleaned every day, helped by a footman and two maids from the village. One, Patience, was not much older than her sixteen years, and the other, Jenny, was even younger.

“Treat your new life as an adventure,” her stepmother had replied to her protestations. Well, today is my adventure, but if I can’t open this door, I shall be most vexed and adventureless.