Book Two of The Stranje House Novels
“This spy school for girls . . . is impossible to put down! . . . I recommend this book to anyone that loves brave girls, adventure and great friendships.” — 5 Girls Book Reviews
“The richly detailed setting and intriguing alternate history are well-crafted, but the characters are what stand out. Tess is headstrong, melodramatic, and awkward, but she is also brave, bright, and completely real. . . .Those seeking period romance with a twist need look no further.” — Kirkus Reviews
TESS AUBREYSON can’t run far enough or fast enough to escape the prophetic dreams that haunt her. Dreams bring nothing but death and grief. Tess refuses to accept that she may be destined for the same madness that destroyed her mother, until her disturbing dreams become the only means of saving Lord Ravencross, the man she loves, and her fellow students at Stranje House. Tess’s old friend, the traitorous Lady Daneska and the Ghost, ruthless leader of the Iron Crown, have returned to England, intent on paving the way for Napoleon’s invasion of England. Can the young ladies of Stranje House prevail once more? Or is England destined to fall into the hands of the power-mad dictator?
“Aww. Dudes, I’m such a sucker for this series . . . I loved the heck out of it.” –RachelsBookReviews.com
“Go Into This One Knowing Ending will make you cry! Happy tears!” – NightOwl Reviews, Reviewer’s Top Pick
Read an Excerpt:
I run to escape my dreams. Dreams are my curse. Every night they haunt me, every morning I outrun them, and every evening they catch me again. One day they will devour my soul.
But not today.
Not this hour.
I ran with Phobos and Tromos, the half wolves, half dogs who guard Stranje House. We raced into the cleansing wind. What is the pace of forgetfulness? How fast must one go?
“Tess! Wait!” Georgiana’s gasps cut through the peace of the predawn air and broke my rhythm.
I slowed to a stop and turned. A moment later, Phobos broke stride too, and trotted back beside me. He issued a low almost imperceptible growl, impatient to return to our race. Georgie leaned forward breathing hard. Her red hair hung in wet ringlets, dampened from the sea spray that had bathed us as we ran along the cliffs. But we were inland now, headed for the woods between Stranje House and Ravencross Manor, and except for the misty ghostlike vapors swirling about us, the air was much easier to take in. Winded, she gulped greedily for more. “I have to stop. My side hurts.”
Tromos trotted behind her and nipped at Georgie’s heels.
“Ouch!” She jerked her boot away. “Stop that.”
“She wants you to keep running.”
“I’m trying.” Tromos tried to nip her again but Georgie swatted at her. “Back!”
The dog growled in warning and Georgie withdrew.
“Tromos,” I scolded.
She tilted her head at me, tail wagging, and shook droplets of moisture out of her black fur. Quizzical as to why I’d called her off, after all, she was only doing what was best for her pack, training the young one to run faster.
“Walk.” I looped my arm through Georgie’s and tugged her forward, needing to get Georgie moving before Tromos took to nipping again. “Ever since that night on the beach, when she kept you warm, Tromos considers you one of her pack. She practicing for when she becomes a mother in a few weeks”
Georgie’s eyes opened wider. “Is that why she nudges me with her nose so often? She thinks I’m one of her pack?”
“In a sense. Yes.” It was true, but I had to stifle a smile.
Georgie was such an unlikely creature of the forest, especially clad in that bright white cotton dress. It was one of the absurdly frothy concoctions her mother had sent with her to Stranje House. Georgie had ripped the flounce off so that it was short enough to run in, but the fierce white only served to make her appear more flame-like. Georgie is a burst of fire, a blazing beacon in the early morning gray.
I am part forest. Wearing this brown dress, I blend with the woods. My eyes are green as leaves, my hair dark as shadows on bark, and my skin is as pale as frost. I am Welsh, a daughter of the earth. My mother used to tell me that the spirit of these things, the soil and trees, the rocks and beasts, they call to us. “We are part of this land,” she would say. Only now, my mother lies silent, cloaked in the very earth she spoke of with such love.
I shook away those thoughts.
“Are you well?” Georgie asked. “You went pale for a moment.”
I refused to speak of my mother’s death, so I ignored her question and mumbled, “Tromos also nudges to show affection.” I pulled Georgie into a faster walk. “Today she’s prodding you to make you keep running, so you’ll learn to go faster and longer. If you don’t want to—”
“I want to. I just can’t. My legs won’t go any farther this morning.”
“Strength isn’t in the legs. It’s in the mind.” I run because I fancy I’ll escape my wretched dreams, but with Georgie, it is a different matter. “Why did you want to come running with me this morning anyway?”
Her chest heaved. “You know why.”
I had my guesses, but I wanted her to say it, so I kept mum.
“If I’d been faster that night in London…” She gasped for more air and didn’t finish speaking.
“Don’t say such things.” I hated to see how she was letting guilt chew on her heart. I wished she would stop blaming herself for what happened in London and Calais. “If you’d been faster that night, Lady Daneska would’ve captured you, too. And then she would’ve delivered two hostages to the Iron Crown instead of one.”
“You don’t know that.” She yanked her arm away from mine. “I might’ve been able to lead Captain Grey to them. Or perhaps, if I’d caught up to them on my own, I could’ve stopped Daneska and freed Seb—” she trailed off, unwilling to say Sebastian’s name out loud.
I bit my bottom lip to keep from blurting out the fact that if she had caught up to them, she and Lord Wyatt would probably be dead now. “He’s alive and well, thanks to you. It’s over. Sebastian is off to who knows where, serving king and country.”
That didn’t seem to console her. She stared off at the pink of the sun that was beginning to rise on the eastern horizon. “It was my fault he was captured in the first place. If I’d caught up to them, maybe I could’ve bested Lady Daneska.” She said it softly, as if even her words slid uncertainly down a thin strand of false hope.
“That’s a heavy basket of ifs and maybes. Daneska is fast and skilled with a blade. You’d had no training yet, I don’t see how—”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” Her chin jutted out like it always does when she musters her courage. “Madame Cho is teaching me. I’m getting better with the dagger, and in the future I want to be able to run faster in case I need to . . . in case someone’s life depends upon it.”
She shoved a handful of curls defiantly away from her face. “I’m going back to the house now. I don’t want to be around when you meet up with Lord Ravencross. We’re nearing the spot.” She waved her hand at the place, as if I’d forgotten where we were.
The trees were up ahead, and we neared the clearing where I usually cut through to his pasture, the juncture between the two properties where he liked to exercise his horse, Zeus, the place where he used to pretend he didn’t plan to meet me. But things were different now.
“He won’t be there.” My words came back at me and landed hard, like stones dropping on my chest from a great height.
Georgie denied them with a shake of her head. “Surely, he—”
“No.” I drew in a deep breath, forcing air into my squeezing chest. Breathe and face life squarely. That’s what I try to do. There’s no sense in lying to oneself. “He hasn’t come out riding early, not once, not since that night in London when I left him standing on the dock.”
Georgie stepped closer as if to comfort me. “Perhaps he doesn’t know we’re home.”
I moved back. “Don’t be absurd. It’s been two weeks.”
“Only thirteen days,” she corrected, always accurate, always exact. “He may not have observed…” Fortunately, she dropped that foolish line of defense, except then the pity in her expression made things worse.
I wanted to run again. Instead, I did something I never do with Georgie, I argued. “You like to put a favorable construction on things, don’t you? Well, in this case, you are just plain wrong.” I didn’t intend for it to sound that harsh, but I couldn’t let her sympathy weaken me.
In less strident tones I added, “He’s taken a dislike of me. And why shouldn’t he? What sort of a young lady takes a running leap off the end of a pier and grabs hold of a moving ship?”
“But you had to do that.” The loudness of her declaration startled us both and the dogs. Georgie caught her bottom lip and lowered her gaze to the grass and bare patches of dirt between us. “I was terribly glad you did,” she mumbled. “He’s bound to have understood.”
“Did he? You saw his face when you hoisted me aboard. Did you think he look pleased that I’d abandoned him in such a way?”
She didn’t answer right away. I didn’t need her to. I could envision his scowl. She kicked at a pebble. “Perhaps he was just alarmed because he didn’t know you could swim. How could he have known such a thing . . .”
With a resigned sigh I said, “And there you have it. The high and mighty Lord Ravencross has turned his heart back into stone. And when it comes to any thought of me, he will have ground my memory to dust.”
A thin wisp of vapor snaked across our path and blew apart as if a blast of wind exploded it. Phobos, his ears peaked and alert, trotted a short distance up ahead and halted.
Something was not right.
The woods were too quiet. Morning larks, who every night tried to hurry sunrise with their song, had hushed. Rabbits, who loved to suckle on grass covered in morning dew, ought to have scampered into the underbrush at our approach, but they were already hiding.
Still as the birds around me, I strained to hear. A breeze blew through the woods in broken patterns. Leaves rustled in stops and starts, disturbed by some intruding presence. I closed my eyes, and heard a whicker in the distance, stamping hooves. Horses in the woods. Impatient. Pawing. A snort, followed by the clacking of a metal bit against thick teeth. Horses held at a standstill, not allowed to graze.
Georgie touched my sleeve. “What is it?”
“Hush,” I whispered. Both dogs came silently to my side. I drew the knife from the sheath on my calf.
Phobos and Tromos crouched into hunting position as we crept forward. I heard a twig break in the distant under brush and pebbles click under horseshoes as one of the animals moved through the thick stand of trees at the north corner of the field.
In that instant, images flashed through my mind. Blinding splotches of color tumbled and spun in my head. I could no longer see the field or woods. Instead, a burst of black, followed by an explosion of white overcame me. Georgie’s dress? It shimmered away and in its place, I saw Tromos tearing at a man’s leg. Blood. Knives slashing. Lord Ravencross’s face. A searing pain struck my chest. The blast of a gunshot startled me out of the vision.
I gasped and clutched my upper chest to stop the bleeding. Except there was no blood. No wound. It had only been a phantom pain.
I opened my eyes wide and stared at the stillness in the predawn field. There were no frightened birds winging away in the sky. Nothing had disturbed the dewy gray green grass. No shot had been fired, and yet I shook as if it had truly happened.
It had only been a dream.
A useless indecipherable vision. It was nothing, I told myself. Only a cursed waking dream, like the ones that drove my mother—and her mother before her—to their graves.
I forced myself to breathe slow and even, quieting my heart so I could listen more closely to what was actually happening. One horse moved through the undergrowth in the woods up ahead, and yet I still heard others. Why were they staying back?
A lone rider emerged from the trees and rode toward us. He touched the rim of his felt hat and called out a greeting. “Good day, mam’selles.”
Phobos barred his teeth and growled. I didn’t like the man either. Menace wafted off of him like stink from a chamber pot. His eyes landed on Georgie and brightened with a vicious sort of glee, and I knew—they had come for her.
We would never be able to outrun his horse. But the wolves and I could fend him off while she escaped. “Georgie.” I spoke low. “Run.” I urged through gritted teeth. “Go. I’ll hold him off. Get help. Bring weapons.”
She hesitated. “I can’t leave you.”
That was all it took. The blackguard saw her alarm, issued a shrill whistle, and kicked his horse.
“Run!” I ordered, this time in a voice she couldn’t argue with.
She took off and, tired or not, she tore for the house as if her life depended upon it.
And it did.
Georgie had the presence of mind to scream, a shrill throaty shriek that sliced through the early morning peace like a bolt of lightning, and she kept at it, yelling for help, loud enough to awaken half the countryside.
Phobos and Tromos streaked toward the horseman.
The man cursed in French and dug in his spurs. Except his mare was no warhorse seasoned for battle. This was a skittish rented hack, wide-eyed with terror at the wolves charging her. She wheeled sideways and reared, snorting and shying to ward them off. Their snarling snapping jaws gave her no quarter. Phobos circled behind the mare. She kicked, spun, and reared again, throwing her rider to the ground.
Just then, three more horsemen charged out from the underbrush.
Knife in my hand, I took a stance, ready to stop who ever came at us first, the men on horseback, or the fallen rider struggling to escape Tromos, whose teeth were buried in the scoundrel’s leg. I caught a glimpse of another rider galloping across the neighboring field. He was only a speck in the distance, but I would recognize him from a hundred miles away.
He had ridden out this morning after all. Surely, he could hear Georgie’s screams. But even if he did, Lord Ravencross would arrive too late to save her. And what would he use to fend the brigands off? His bare hands? No, it fell to me.
I readied my blade.
EXILE FOR DREAMERS
A Stranje House Novel
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