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Island of Shadows

Island of Shadows

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Island of Shadows

ratings:
3/5 (1 rating)
Length:
223 pages
2 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 8, 2017
ISBN:
9781386835479
Format:
Book

Description

It is 1930 and there is a dark undercurrent to the glamor of the Venetian lagoon and its lavish masquerades. The Ombra are a vampire-like race, living in the shadows. Instead of feasting on blood, they survive by feeding on the souls of the dead. The Ombra exist alongside the living without fear of detection. Having thrived for centuries, they are powerful, wealthy, fear no one and ruthlessly destroy those who stand in their way.
Maggie Forbes has come to Venice to see if she can discover what happened to her husband, Martin, who disappeared on a research trip to the island of Poveglia, the most haunted place on earth. Soon after her arrival in Venice, Maggie makes the acquaintance of two very different men. Torn between friendship and lust, Maggie must follow in Martin's footsteps to unlock the secrets of Poveglia. 
But time is running out. The Ombra lord is seeking a bride and the wedding day is looming.

Publisher:
Released:
May 8, 2017
ISBN:
9781386835479
Format:
Book

About the author

Jane Godman is a Romantic Novelists’ Award winner and Daphne du Maurier Award finalist. She enjoys traveling and spending time with her family, including her dogs, Gravy and Vera.    


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Island of Shadows - Jane Godman

Fifteen

Author’s Note

Dear Reader,

The Isola D’Orsini is a fictional place. It does not exist outside the pages of this book. But Poveglia is real, and many tragic events have taken place on its soil over the centuries, leading to its reputation as one of the most haunted places in the world. Which is why, as an author of gothic novels, I found myself irresistibly drawn to it. Island of Shadows is a tapestry of a tale. In it, I have woven some of the dark threads of Poveglia’s true history into the fictional embroidery of my story.

As a result, Island of Shadows tells two entwined and enduring love stories: the one between my hero and heroine, and the one between an island and its undead. I hope you find them both equally compelling and enjoyable.

Love,

Jane

Chapter One

Venice, March 1930

The day I met Connor Forbes, he ruined my favourite dress and nearly cost me my job. But he also made me laugh, a thing I had not done for a long time. And in truth, it wasn’t his fault that having ordered my coffee, I chose to sit at the end table, the one with the best view over the Grand Canal. Nor was it his fault that the hired bike had faulty brakes, his legs were too long and the canal-side paving stones were wildly uneven. All of these factors conspired against us. One minute, I was calmly sipping my coffee and studying the never-still, never-quiet waters. The next, a gangling, panic-stricken Englishman was bearing down on me, shouting a warning with his arms wind-milling in a frenzy. It was a miracle that we didn’t both end up in the canal. Instead, the incident was over in a flash, resulting in a buckled front wheel, an overturned table and a cup of lukewarm coffee dripping down the front of my flowered dress.

Oh, Lord! Picking himself up, he eyed the damage with exactly the same expression my brother had worn the day he hit a cricket ball for six—right through the roof of our grandfather’s greenhouse. Snatching up a serviette from the table, my assailant proceeded to try to dab away the stain. His actions had the effect of pressing the thin cotton against my legs, where it clung revealingly. Crossly, I snatched the piece of cloth out of his hand and attempted to repair some of the damage myself.

You were going much too fast, I said, looking up from my endeavours with an accusatory glare.

I know. He hung his head apologetically, but the humility of his manner did nothing to pacify me. I resisted the impulse to keep scolding him like an out-of-control schoolmistress. The proprietor of the trattoria rushed over, clicking his tongue disapprovingly, and started to clear up the mess. The Englishman drew me to one side, away from the muttered recriminations and dark glances. Look here, my rooms are just over that little bridge there. Why don’t we go across and then you can clean your dress properly?

I regarded him speculatively. We might have recently entered the brave new decade of the 1930s, but in the world I inhabited, going to a man’s apartment alone with him was still frowned upon. He didn’t look like a would-be seducer, however, and if that was indeed his intention, his technique was certainly original. His face was handsome with open, regular features and fair colouring. I judged him to be in his early twenties, probably a couple years younger than I. He was tall and angular with limbs that seemed just a touch too long and slightly out of control. Like a genial puppy that still had some growing to do. Under other circumstances, I probably would have liked him on sight.

Oh, very well, I said grudgingly. After all, I could hardly present myself at the bank on Donna Gabriella’s behalf in this state, could I? And I was confident I could deal with him if he seemed inclined to pounce.

We crossed the short distance to the large, ugly lodging house he had indicated. I’m Connor Forbes, he said with a cheery grin as he unlocked the worn, wooden doors and stepped courteously aside so that I could cross the threshold ahead of him.

Maggie Carson. I forced my features to return his engaging expression. My mouth felt strange, and I tried to remember the last time I had smiled. I failed.

The exterior of the building was unprepossessing with peeling lime-green paint and gaping shutters that might once have been blue, but the two rooms Connor had taken for the holiday season were clean and bright. High ceilings, floral wallpaper and patterned rugs greeted my critical gaze, as did windows that opened a few feet above the murky canal waters. My still-apologetic host showed me into his bedroom and left me to my task while he awaited me next door.

When I had at last sponged the worst of the stains from my dress, I ironed it until it was dry. Slipping it back over my head, I studied my reflection in an aging, spotted glass over the sink and decided it would have to do. I’d been avoiding mirrors and I hadn’t realised, until that moment, just how thin I’d become. My arms and legs, pale and freckled where they emerged from the patterned material, appeared unbearably fragile. My face was all huge, troubled eyes and sharply angled cheekbones. The weight of my dark red hair, which I wore drawn back from my face, seemed almost too much for the slenderness of my neck to bear. Martin wouldn’t want this, I told my reflection sternly. She returned my gaze with moody defiance. I looked away first. The Italian spring was mild, but I wore a light cardigan as protection against the breeze. I slipped this back on over my dress and, flattening my unruly curls with the wide-brimmed straw hat I had been wearing, felt restored halfway to respectability again.

The least I can do now is buy you a replacement coffee, Connor said when I emerged from his bedroom. I thought about it, deciding eventually that, since I still had half an hour before the launch was due to collect me, it would be foolish to refuse. And I’d been churlish about something that was, after all, an accident, so I owed him a little courtesy now in return. A nervous flutter at the thought of having to make polite conversation with a stranger assailed me. It was something I hadn’t done since...Well, it had been a while.

We sat at the same table, upright again now, and the noise and bustle of the Grand Canal made our conversation easier because there was so much to comment on. Where other towns had main streets, Venice had this lively, watery thoroughfare lined with the marble and rose palazzi of the wealthy. From where we sat, we could see tourists crossing the Rialto Bridge and watch the boats pass by. I had soon learned that, because Venice was a city without cars, everything its population needed had to be transported by water or handcart. And, of course, between all of the other traffic, the gondoliers effortlessly steered their graceful craft, their faces reflecting the gravity of their iconic status at the heart of this unique city.

Connor was a surprisingly relaxing companion, and although the admission brought a tiny lump to my throat, the look of admiration in his eyes was bittersweet. It was a very long time since anyone had attempted to flirt with me; I wasn’t ready to respond, but it was nice. That was all. Just nice.

Are you here on holiday? He stirred a quite alarming amount of sugar into his dark, aromatic coffee. He also absentmindedly consumed all of my sweet almond biscuits along with his own.

No, I live on the Isola D’Orsini, I explained. He whistled appreciatively and rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together in the age-old gesture that meant money. I laughed and shook my head. I am employed by Donna Gabriella Orsini as her secretary.

Is she the one who looks like a witch? he asked, and I choked slightly on my coffee. Donna Gabriella was a well-known figure in Venice, so I was not surprised that Connor knew who she was. But, given his brutal, yet accurate, summary of her appearance, I decided it was a very good thing that my disdainful employer was never likely to encounter the hopelessly outspoken Mr Forbes. "Have you met him yet? I must have returned a blank look, because he added, Il Cavaliere."

"Don Raul? No, he is away at his other home in Brindisi. I believe he spends most of his time there. But the servants tell me he is quite reclusive even when does come to Orsini, so I do not expect to see anything much of him during my time here. Why are you in Venice, Mr Forbes? Business or pleasure?"

A little of both. I’ve always wanted to come here—who hasn’t?—but I am also gathering research for a book about the islands. I felt my heart clench painfully. I say, have I said something to upset you? You’ve gone awfully pale.

"Will you be here for the masquerades—the carnevale tribute events—that are being planned?" I turned his concern aside with another question.

"Oh, I should say so! That’s not the sort of thing you miss if you get the opportunity, is it? And you are doubly fortunate because those traditions are deep-rooted on the Isola D’Orsini, you know. I didn’t know, so, at my look of enquiry, he explained, Well, of course, traditionally, the masquerade season used to begin on the feast of Saint Stephen, December 26, and end at the start of Lent, on Shrove Tuesday. There were all sorts of laws passed down the ages that diluted the scandalous activities that went on under the guise of masquerading. At one point, when Venice was ruled by Austria, the king even outlawed the masquerades altogether, but, of course, people have always continued to hold their own private revels. Over the centuries, the season has become less defined, the dates less significant. On Orsini, however, the festivities have always been linked, not to the Christian calendar, but to an older, darker one. There, the masquerades still end with the spectacular feast of the Sarabande Ball."

"I thought the traditional carnevale had died out in modern times?" I was amused by his enthusiasm.

Its significance has certainly declined gradually over the years, although rumours that Mussolini intends to ban it altogether have enraged certain aristocratic Venetians—including your employer, Donna Gabriella—to the point where they are planning some spectacular events as a sort of upper-class protest this year. The time line has shifted forward to March to fit in with the Sarabande Ball, since that is the key event of the Venetian social calendar for that set. So it seems you and I have chosen a good year, and the right time, to be here.

I winced slightly, but he couldn’t know, of course, why his words were so painful to me.

I saw the tiny motorboat from the island weaving its way through the flotilla of gondolas and other crafts. I rose from my seat. Here’s my lift. It’s been nice chatting to you, Mr Forbes. I held out my hand in its once white, now coffee-coloured, glove.

"Can we do it again another time? Not spilling your drink and scaring you half to death. Just the chat and the nice company? You can find me at this trattoria most afternoons. I come here to write. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, Miss Carson."

I was handed into the launch by Carlo, who was one of my employer’s servants. Although in appearance he bore a remarkable resemblance to Dr Frankenstein’s creation, he had rather less warmth and approachability than that acclaimed literary figure.

Actually, I said, looking up at Connor as I took my seat in the precariously swaying boat, "it’s Mrs Carson."

I am ashamed to admit that, prior to my arrival in this part of the world, my geography of the region had been woefully inadequate. Having been here for a little over a month, I had remedied some of my ignorance and now knew that the city of Venice was spread across 118 small islands. Nature had separated these with canals, and man had painstakingly linked them together with bridges. It was a unique, crowded, vibrant jumble of villas, palazzi, churches and squares in hues of pastel stone, pale marble, patterned frescoes and stuccoed plaster. In addition to the city itself, there were over five hundred other islands in the Laguna Veneta, a crescent-shaped body of water situated between the Italian mainland and the Adriatic Sea.

Once my business at the bank was completed, Carlo, with lazy skill, piloted the little craft along a well-worn route between these islands. Many were uninhabited, except by a variety of wildlife. Some housed the palazzi and villas of the wealthy. Others provided a base for local fishermen. A few served the population as miniature market gardens, each specialising in its own brand of produce. On our left, we passed the long stretch of sand that comprised the Lido, setting for Mann’s novel Death in Venice. Martin, never one to mince his words, had declared this critically acclaimed work unmitigated tripe before hurling it into the depths of a rose bush. I blinked away the pain that the sudden bright memory of my husband triggered.

To our right loomed the lonely island that, as I had already learned in my short time here, polarised all human reaction. Carlo followed local tradition by averting his eyes and making the sign of the cross while his lips moved in prayer. I, on the other hand, could not look away. Before my first glimpse of it, I had believed it would be a hateful, ugly place. I was wrong. Poveglia was dainty and incredibly pretty. Damned, but beautiful.

With relief I turned to look instead at the approaching outline of the island I now called home. The Isola D’Orsini was a narrow, gilt-edged sliver of land that nestled low in the turquoise velvet of the lagoon. The island was exclusively owned and occupied by the Orsini family, and we approached a coast lined with pretty villas in hues that reminded me of different ice cream flavours. Pistachio, strawberry, blueberry, vanilla and lemon, each complete with its own landing stage. Small boats bobbed excitedly in front of them. On a rise high above these houses, dominating the whole island, sat the palazzo itself, its pale pink stone turning rose gold now in the afternoon sun. Carlo skirted this section of coast and brought the boat thrumming to a halt alongside a small jetty that was overhung with ancient olive trees and flowering oleanders. There was no sand here and the crystal water chuckled playfully over multi-coloured pebbles.

The steps that led up to the terrace were many and steep, and I was breathing hard by the time I reached the top. I turned back to drink in the sun glinting on the clear water, the other islands in the distance, the nearer beauty of soaring palms and smattering of bright shrubs. Poveglia could not be seen from this angle. That fact was important to my enjoyment of the view.

I ran lightly across the marble-tiled terrace with its wrought-iron patio tables and silk-upholstered lounge chairs in subtle shades of pink and grey. The Palazzo Orsini was a breathtakingly beautiful house. Built in 1640 on the site of a Roman villa, it had been restored and regenerated by the current owner, the elusive Don Raul Orsini. Every inch of its six thousand metres of parkland was carefully manicured and every room, even those assigned to a humble secretary, the height of luxury and good taste. I wasn’t happy here, but that fact had nothing to do with the house or its occupants. It was because my heart belonged elsewhere. It belonged, to be exact, in a tiny and rather shabby cottage set in the grounds of a cloistered Oxford College.

"My mistress wishes to see you, signora. Rosa, Donna Gabriella’s maid, had a habit of appearing silently as if from within the walls themselves. Unfailingly, this trick managed to make me start with surprise. I suspected that Rosa took pleasure in this reaction. She is awaiting you in her sitting room."

I went up the stairs toward the suite of rooms that my employer occupied, wondering, as I went, if I should change out of my crumpled, still slightly coffee-scented dress first. I had yet to discover exactly why Donna Gabriella required the services of a secretary. During the time I had worked for her, I had undertaken such minor tasks as writing an occasional letter of thanks, replying to invitations and, as had been the case this morning, taking a cheque to be cashed at the bank in Venice. I was hardly overworked and had an inordinate amount of spare time on my hands. The salary she paid me was generous, to say the least, for such routine employment. Considering the matter dispassionately, I decided it added to her prestige to have a secretary. And her position in Venetian society was undoubtedly important to Donna Gabriella. She could not be described as a warm or even particularly approachable woman. I decided, on balance, that keeping her waiting while I changed my clothes would be a mistake.

"Entrare," she called in response to my knock. Her voice was pitched rather low for a woman, and it had an unusual, melodic tone. She spoke several languages fluently, including English, but we generally conversed in Italian. She was standing by a long window, looking out over the rear aspect of the house. This was the way I had just arrived, and I wondered if she had been watching for me. But how nonsensical! As if this wealthy, beautiful darling of the jet-set would spare so much as a minute’s thought for the comings and goings of her secretary. Donna Gabriella had a knack for making me feeling gauche. In her company, I always felt like I had lipstick on my teeth, and the way she looked at me now made me instinctively wonder if she had already noticed the coffee stains.

I rummaged in my bag and withdrew the envelope the bank cashier had presented to me. Donna Gabriella took it with a word of thanks and, without another glance at it, placed it in the top drawer of her

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