The House in the Clouds - Victoria Connelly

Chapter One

Edward Townsend had known the house his whole life. Having grown up in a neighbouring village in the Sussex Downs, he knew it as Winfield Hall although the locals had another name for it – The House in the Clouds. Looking at its lofty position above the village now, Edward couldn’t think of a more fitting name. How palatial it looked. Compared to the tiny cottages clustered in the village, it must indeed seem like a palace with its splendid Georgian dolls’ house exterior and its large sash windows glinting in the light.

He’d spent the morning walking around the empty rooms of the hall, noting the crumbling plasterwork, the broken balustrades and the general air of decay, but he’d known that he had what it took to restore it to its former glory. It was a house with good bones, and that’s what counted. Everything else could be replaced or repaired.

Sitting in his car, Edward glanced down at the catalogue he was holding. The property was to be sold at a public auction which made him anxious. On the one hand, you could get an absolute bargain at auction but, on the other, the price might rocket to way above what you were happy to pay for it. How he wished that he could just put an offer in now and be done with it. Edward didn’t like surprises. He liked to know what he was getting and he was buying this place as an investment because he could see a real future in it.

Winfield Hall was a property of untapped potential in a beautiful location within commuting distance of London. What was not to love about that? And he planned to divide it into apartments, renting them out while living in one himself. He wasn’t sure for how long. Maybe three to five years, maybe more. He’d have to see how it suited him and his job in the capital.

His doctor had told him to slow down and to take some time off from his job as a financial adviser, but that was easier said than done. Edward was a workaholic and lived for his job, and yet somewhere inside him was that little boy he’d left behind in the countryside of the downs – the one who’d clambered over stiles and gone swimming in the rivers and the sea. Now, he was lucky if he got a once-a-week dip in his club’s pool. His punishing timetable meant that leisure time was often squeezed into non-existence.

He rolled his shoulders and cricked his neck, acknowledging that the punishing hours at his desk were taking a toll on him physically and, of course, there was the old problem, he thought, giving his left leg a massage. Just for a moment, he allowed himself the luxury of imagining an alternative lifestyle where he might be able to work from home a couple of days a week and fit some wild swimming into his timetable. Gosh, how he missed that. He still had his wetsuit somewhere, didn’t he? It was such a long time since he’d worn it, but he was pretty sure it was in his car.

He smiled at the thought of swimming in the wild again, imagining what it would be like to feel the cold, silky river water welcoming him and that incomparable feeling of freedom and relief he felt only when swimming. But he mustn’t get too carried away, he told himself. The house wasn’t his yet.

He took one last look out of the window at the pale golden facade of Winfield Hall before starting his car for the two-hour drive back into London. He wasn’t looking forward to it and he knew that he would be leaving a little part of him behind in that Sussex village.

Abigail Carey took a big, deep breath of the downland air, revelling in its early autumn purity. It was quite unlike anything she’d ever breathed before and she knew that she had found the one place she wanted to be more than anywhere else, which was a strange feeling for her to have. As a child, Abi had never had a garden beyond a bare courtyard and she wondered where this sudden longing came from now. But, wherever it came from, it was most welcome. She could draw here, she thought, and paint and embroider and … breathe. That’s what she wanted to do more than anything else after years of working so hard. It seemed to her that she hadn’t had