Saturday Excerpt: House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick
A Gothic tale that will have you clamoring for more, House of Shadows hits shelves on October 17. Get an early look at this stunning read as today’s Saturday Excerpt!
About House of Shadows:
The wooded hills of Oxfordshire conceal the remains of the aptly named Ashdown House—a wasted pile of cinders and regret. Once home to the daughter of a king, Ashdown and its secrets will unite three women across four centuries in a tangle of intrigue, deceit and destiny…
In the winter of 1662, Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, is on her deathbed. She entrusts an ancient pearl, rumored to have magic power, to her faithful cavalier William Craven for safekeeping. In his grief, William orders the construction of Ashdown Estate in her memory and places the pearl at its center.
One hundred and fifty years later, notorious courtesan Lavinia Flyte hears the maids at Ashdown House whisper of a hidden treasure, and bears witness as her protector Lord Evershot—desperate to find it—burns the building to the ground.
Now, a battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues Holly Ansell has to finding her brother, who has gone missing researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with Lord Craven. As she retraces his footsteps, Holly’s quest will soon reveal the truth about Lavinia and compel her to confront the stunning revelation about the legacy of the Winter Queen.
She dreamed about the house on the night before she died. In the dream she felt as insignificant as a child; a miniature queen clad in a cream silk gown embroidered with gold. The collar prickled the nape of her neck as she craned her head to gaze up, up at the dazzling white stone of the house against the blue of the sky. It made her dizzy. Her head spun and the golden ball that adorned the roof seemed to plunge
like a shooting star falling to earth.
Beyond the walls of her bedchamber crouched the city; filthy, noisy and seething with life. But in her dreams she was far from London; she had followed the wide ribbon of the Thames upriver, past the hunting ground at Richmond and the great grey walls of Windsor, to a place where two rivers met. She took the narrower path through drowsy meadows thick with daisies and the hum of bees, for in her dream she was a summer princess, not a winter queen. The river be‑ came a chalk stream that bubbled up from springs deep in the dappled woods until finally she burst out of the shade and onto the highlands, and there was the house in a hollow of the hills, a little white palace fit for a queen.
Her lips moved. One of her women, weary, anxious, attentive, bent to catch the whisper. It could not be long now.
It caused consternation. She had sent him away, her cavalier, told her servants to bar the door against him.
“Madam…” The woman was uncertain. “I don’t think—”
The Queen’s eyelashes flickered. Her eyes, blue‑grey, were clear, imperious.
“Majesty.” The woman curtsied, ran.
The room was hot, windows and doors closed, fire roaring. She drifted between sleep and waking, on the fringes of shadow. Outside, dawn was breaking over the river, the water rippling with a silver wake. It was unseasonably mild for February and the air felt heavy, waiting.
She heard the stir, felt the cool shift of the air before the door closed again, sealing them in.
No one argued, which was good because she was too tired for arguments now. Her eyes would not open. In the silence she could hear everything, though; the hiss of the fire as a log settled deeper in the grate, the creak of the floorboards beneath his boots as he crossed the room to her side.
“Sit. Please.” It was an effort to speak. There was no time for discussion now, or apologies, even if she had wished to make them, which she did not.
He sat. Now that he was close she could smell on him the night cold and the scent of the city. She could not see him but she did not need to. She knew every plane of his face, each line, each curve. It was as though they were written on her heart, an indelible picture.
There was something she needed to tell him. She fought for the strength to speak.
“The crystal mirror—”
“I will get it back. I swear it,” he replied instantly. A second later his hand grasped hers, warm and reassuring but still she shook her head. She knew it was too late.
“It will elude you,” she said.
He had never understood the power of the Order of the Rosy Cross or its instruments, though perhaps he did now, now that the damage was done.
“Danger to you—” She tried one last time to warn him. “Take care or it will destroy you and your kin as it did me and mine.” She was gasping for breath, frightened.
His fingers tightened on hers. “I understand. Believe me.” She felt the knot inside her ease. She had to trust him.
There was no alternative. Her life was unravelling like a skein of wool. Soon the thread would run out.
“I want you to take this. Keep it safe, hidden.” With an effort she opened her eyes and unclenched the fingers of her right hand. A huge pearl spilled into her lap, glowing with baleful fire in the subdued light. Even now, looking on it for the last time, she could not like it, for all its ethereal beauty. It was too powerful. It was not the fault of the jewel, of course, but of the men who had sought to use it for their own wicked purposes. Both mirror and pearl had once been a force for good, strong and protective, until their power had been corrupted through the greed of men. The Knights had been warned not to misuse the instruments of the Order and they had disobeyed. They had unleashed destruction through fire and water, just as the prophecy had foretold.
She heard the catch of Craven’s breath. “The Sistrin pearl should be given to your heir.”
“Not yet.” She was so very tired now but this last task must be completed. “You need to break the link between the pearl and the mirror. One day the mirror will return and then it must be destroyed. Keep the pearl safe until that is done.”
Craven did not refuse her gift or tell her that he had no time for superstition. Once he had scorned her beliefs. No longer. She watched him scoop up the pearl on its heavy gold chain and stow it within his shirt. His face was grave and set, as though he was facing battle, such was the weight of her commission.
“Thank you.” Her smile was weary. Her eyes closed. “I can sleep now.”
There was a sudden commotion. The door swung back with a crash and a protesting creak of hinges. Voices; loud, commanding. Footsteps, equally loud: her son Rupert, come to be with her at the end, always hasty, always late.
There was so little time now.
She opened her eyes again. The room swam with shadows and the red and gold of firelight but she felt cold. She looked on Craven for the last time. Grief was etched deep into his face.
Old, she thought. We have had our time. The loss cut her like a knife. If only…
“William,” she said. “I am sorry. I wish we had another chance.”
His face lightened. He gave her the smile that had shaken her heart from the moment she had first seen him.
“Perhaps we shall,” he said, “in another life.”
She forgot that her time could be measured in breaths now, not hours or even minutes, and tightened her grip urgently on his hand.
“The Knights of the Rosy Cross believed in the rebirth of the spirit,” she said, “but it is against the Christian teaching.” He nodded. His eyes were smiling. “I know it is. Yet still
I believe it. It comforts me to think that we shall meet again in another time.”
Her eyes closed. A small smile touched her lips. “It comforts me too,” she said softly. “Next time we shall be together always. Next time we shall not fail.”