OXFORD SHADOWS ~ PROLOGUE AND CHAPTER 1

 

Prologue

 

Florence ~ June 1533

 

The River Arno swallows my body. I float, I fly, I fall. I do not try to move or fight. The stream engulfs the pleats of my billowing dress and drags me closer to the darkness. My arms are spread wide; my eyes stare at the unknown.

Whatever—whoever—awaits me on the other side, I will bow and curtsy. I will bid farewell to the despair that has wrecked my hopes, trampled on my love. The wait has been so long, so lonely, and in vain.

He did not come back for me but wedded another. A prettier one, a younger one, a luckier one. With fading strength, I unclench my fingers and let the lily drift away. The flower vanishes in the tumultuous waters. My sight has become blurred, and my chest burns until the pain disappears.

Death is an escape.

Death will be my new beginning.

 

Chapter 1

 

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford ~ Today

 

Madison stared at the man, her eyes glued to the blood smeared across his face. His lips mouthed words that the music of the orchestra rendered silent. Dread wrapped a heavy blanket around her heart and numbed her brain. Her fingers dug into her thighs. She forced herself to swallow, only for her mouth to turn bone dry.

He wasn’t real. He couldn’t be.

Rupert, by her side, hadn’t reacted to the apparition. His stepmother, Camilla, over whom the bloodied man hovered, didn’t even twitch at his proximity.

Camilla sat beside Rupert’s father Hugo, opposite Madison and Rupert, on the other side of the chancel, The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket spread across the window above them. Camilla paid attention only to the musicians and singers who performed in front of the High Altar. She caressed the curve of her swollen belly, pregnancy giving her a contented glow.

The melody—a Renaissance ballad—had faded from Madison’s consciousness. She couldn’t distinguish the lute from the harp or the violin. They meshed into a distant noise. She registered only the details of the man’s ancient clothing. A reddish hat with two golden buttons topped hair that he wore chin length. A jeweled collar of roses crowned his purple overcoat, trimmed with dark fur.

To break the spell the vision had cast, Madison shifted her gaze upwards to the vaulted ceiling from which lantern-shaped pendants appeared to hang in midair. Ribs and stone met at the center of the vault to form pointed stars, a tease of heaven for the faithful.

Rupert’s fingers were intertwined with hers. The warm contact gave her strength. Madison turned her face and studied his profile. Her heartbeat stalled, then restarted. Rupert Vance was her boyfriend, confidant, and unofficial bodyguard.

Suddenly darkness collapsed around her. Shapes and forms blurred, although the ballad kept resonating through Christ Church Cathedral. A chilled rush of air brushed over her face, and the short hair on the nape of her neck rose in apprehension. Candlelight flickered instead of the electric lamps that had illuminated the room seconds earlier.

And then, silence.

Someone—the ghost, for that was what her vision had shown—had pressed the mute button. Madison was the only audience for his show. He shook his head. Was it in anger or frustration? Madison didn’t know. He leaned forward, his head now above Camilla’s shoulder. He stared at her from the corner of his eyes. His gaze slowly moved across the chancel, from the pregnant woman to Madison.

Air was trapped in Madison’s lungs. She let out a lungful of oxygen. Fear played havoc with her breathing.

The man opened his mouth and started talking. His words came like the delayed echo of thunder across a summer sky. “The girl will die before she is born. So will her mother.”

The threat punched Madison in the stomach. She bent under the shock and let out a moan. A woman sitting in front of her threw a frown back at her. Rupert’s hold on her hand tightened. Her eyes shut, she blocked out the world around her, even him. She had to. Survival mode. When her eyelids lifted again, she checked the spot where the ghost had been.

He was gone.

Camilla wasn’t her friend, but she didn’t deserve to die at the hands of a homicidal ghost. Nor did her unborn daughter: Rupert’s sister. Rupert’s blood.

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