Chapter 1: extract
Marion peered out of the window as the taxi swung into Church Row, Hampstead. She could not see much because it was raining. Of course it was raining, she thought, this is England. At least it made the grass green and the houses looked like they’d just had a wash and brush up.
Leaning back she pulled her gloves on tightly, straightened her skirt and tried to remember what her boss back in New York had said as he handed her the very large payoff: something about “the London office needs rescuing”. She knew it was a ruse. But things had got just a tiny bit too much in New York and she agreed to this transfer. Besides, it was only a year. How bad could it be?
A few moments later the taxi pulled up outside a tall white house with casement windows and a brightly painted red front door. A woman in a sensible tweed skirt and cashmere sweater set was standing with a clipboard in front of the house. Marion sighed. The woman was wearing pearls and lace-up brogues. Seriously? Did the English really play their part to the hilt quite so convincingly?
Marion paid the driver and opened the cab door. The driver sprung open the trunk but did not move to get her luggage. She wondered if she had not tipped him enough. Perhaps they just didn’t do luggage removal here in England. She struggled with the bags a little and smeared some mud on her camel coat. The coat had been pristine when she left New York, but a few moments in England and it was soaking and had a mud stain. Great.
The woman with the clipboard called out, cheerily, “Are you on your own?” but stayed put. Marion lugged her bags up the front path and dumped them hard on the stone step.
“In a metaphysical sense or in reality?” she asked.
The woman – whose name appeared to be Diana Knoll-West, according to her old-fashioned calling card – appeared undefeated. “We assumed you’d be bringing your family,” she said. “It’s rather a large house for one.”
After living in a Manhattan apartment for the past seven years, Marion thought the house on Church Row was pretty large, but she was damned if she was going to say so. “I have rather a large life,” she said.
Marion didn’t know that Diana was a former Head Girl of Cheltenham Ladies College. Diana drew herself up to her full height, which was actually not that impressive, and looked at Marion warily. “Gosh. I forgot how confident Americans are!” she said.
“Brash, I believe, is the word you Brits use,” said Marion, and took the keys out of Diana’s hands and opened the door.
Marion turned back to see a vision in flowing purple ceremonial robes approaching the front gate.
“Oh hello, Lydia. This is Marion O’Neal, the new tenant.”
Marion was not sure what to make of the medieval priestess garment-wearing woman who was now bearing down upon the house. Marion looked at Diana, and back to the woman approaching. Diana beamed, “Lydia is a local celebrity,” she said, “She writes romance novels.”
“Set in the middle ages, I’m hazarding a wild guess.”
By this point, Lydia reached the garden gate and swung through without pausing. “I do! I do!” she boomed, “Yes! Welcome to our happy corner of the world, Marion!”
Marion did not respond. In NYC she had never met her neighbors and she wasn’t about to start bonding with a latter day hippie now.
“I feel sure you’ll have an adventure. This is a mysterious place,” said Lydia. Marion looked doubtfully at the house and backed away from the overpowering scent of Lydia’s patchouli and musk oil.
“Is that so?”
Lydia was not deterred in the slightest. “Oh! Do I detect an AMERICAN accent?” she beamed, “What fun!”
“Bingo,” said Marion, dryly. She did not feel like getting into trans-Atlantic bonding and started to close the door on the two women.
“I hope you’ll be very happy here,” said Diana, quickly, pressing a small parcel with a large sticker on it that read “WELCOME!” into Marion’s hand. “If you need anything our office is at the top of Church Row, on the High Street!” she said as the door shut.
“The neighbors are heavenly,” Lydia boomed through the closed door. Marion could still hear her voice echoing down Church Row. “Annabelle and Simon! HEAVENLY!”
Marion leaned back against the door and looked around, suddenly exhausted from her trip. “I’m not looking for Heavenly,” she said to the hallway. Then something caught her eye to the left of the door – “You have to be kidding me,” she grinned – it was an actual umbrella stand, she’d never seen one outside of shelter-porn magazines like World Of Interiors before.
The house was certainly grand. Eighteenth century, according to Diana’s welcome pack, which she read while gulping down a large scotch. Luckily she had bought duty-free at the airport, as there was nothing wicked in the house whatsoever.
She opened every cupboard door – just vast packets of tea and some uninteresting cookies in a Tupperware container with a sticker that said “digestive biscuits” in girlish handwriting. By the kettle was an envelope with her name on it. Marion walked over to the sink and rinsed out her glass and picked up the envelope, expertly slitting it open with her pinky finger in one motion like a mobster cutting someone’s throat.
After the decriminalization of witchcraft in the 1700s, the Establishment had to change tactics in order to keep women with special powers in line. As a result, most people now believe that witches are a myth.
But when Marion O’Neal, a glamorous American advertising executive, is extradited to the UK for further monitoring by those who strongly suspect her advertising campaigns contain witchcraft, all are in for a big surprise.
For Marion is indeed a sorceress, and a very bewitchingly glamorous one at that: one who also knows how to marshal the new forces streaming through the global Internet, empowering women everywhere. The Establishment has no idea what is in store for them, but they are about to find out.
As are Annabelle and Simon Jones, Marion’s new next-door neighbors on Church Row in leafy Hampstead, and their lives are never going to be quite the same again…
Sophia Stuart is a journalist (ELLE China, Four Seasons magazine, Good Housekeeping UK, Harper’s Bazaar Australia, ICG, PC Magazine/Ziff Davis, Red, Refinery29), writer/director (“Mayfair Brooks“, a 15-part mobile drama for Pocket Gems), digital strategist (Condé Nast, Hearst, Louise Galvin Haircare, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, The Digital Check Up, Voltari) and author of “How To Stay Sane In A Crazy World” (Hay House, 2014), which was featured in “O, The Oprah Magazine”. As a technology commentator, Sophia has written about artificial intelligence and robots at Caltech, DARPA, NASA, Trinity College Dublin, USC Polymorphic Robotics Laboratory and UCLA Biomechatronics as well as interviewing FBI advisors, VFX and espionage experts on major Hollywood movie releases.
Sophia lives in Los Angeles but started her career back in London on “The Independent”, the national newspaper that (coincidentally) launched the careers of Allison Pearson (“I Don’t Know How She Does It”), JoJo Moyes(“Me Before You”) and Helen Fielding (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”).
She is represented by the literary agent Lisa Gallagher.