Exclusive Excerpt: Ann A. McDonald’s The Oxford Inheritance

THE OXFORD INHERITANCE by Ann A. McDonaldIt’s a very exciting release day and we are offering an exclusive peek inside a book that you can buy right now! Ann A. McDonald’s The Oxford Inheritance is available today and it promises enough mystery and intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Cassandra Blackwell never knew that her mother studied at the presitigous Oxford University, but a mysterious package makes her determined to peek into her mother’s past. After traveling across the Atlantic, Cassandra falls headfirst into a glamorous life at Raleigh College, an insitution steeped in tradition and perhaps even murder…

“Morning.”

Cassie did a double take when she emerged from her room early the next morning. Not only was Evie awake, but she was bright­eyed and waiting in the living area, lacing up a pair of running shoes. “I thought I could come out with you, if you don’t mind,” Evie asked. “I haven’t done any exercise in so long I swear my muscles have atrophied.”

“Sure,” Cassie replied slowly. She preferred the time alone to think, but she’d been rebuffing Evie’s invites all week. “I mean, of course you’re welcome to. It’s not very interesting,” she added, zipping up her sports jacket. “Just out to the meadows and back.”

“Believe me, I need it.” Evie laughed. “See if I can’t sweat some of these cocktails out of my system.

“You were out again last night, weren’t you?” Cassie asked.

Evie groaned. “Too late, and I shouldn’t have gone. But someone was having a party, and then we needed food, and before I knew it, we were propping up the bar until closing, like always!” They headed downstairs, walking out toward the back entrance. “Have you been past the Botanic Garden?” Evie suggested. Cassie shook her head. “It’s not far, out beyond Magdalen College. We could loop around by the river, it’s nice and peaceful.”

“Lead the way.”

They started jogging, and soon fell into a slow, steady pace as they headed down the street and across the bridge to where the river wound away from Raleigh in the opposite direction of the route Cassie had been taking. This wasn’t as secluded as her usual path: they passed museums and parkland, but still the early morning silence was draped over the city, muffling distant traffic with birdsong and the gentle lap of the river on its banks.

Evie chatted easily as they jogged, about her upbringing in the leafy north Hampstead suburbs, her private schooling, her dramatic French mother. She had studied for her undergraduate degree in history and literature at Cambridge and made the move to Oxford to work on her thesis at the site of Raleigh’s activities. Her parents were retired now, idling near a vineyard in the South of France, while Evie happily pursued her master’s digging through dusty Elizabethan research and drinking dry gimlets in the elegant city bars.

It was a world away from Cassie’s own upbringing, but she found herself enjoying the gentle chatter and glamorous stories all the same, like an anthropologist hearing reports from a foreign tribe. Unlike some of the other students she’d encountered, who boasted loudly about their foreign houses and extravagant vacations, Evie was simply being friendly, and she peppered her own stories with questions about Cassie’s life. Cassie evaded as much as possible and repeated her cover story about a lifelong fascination with Oxford.

“Is it everything you imagined?” Evie asked, when they took a break to rest by the Botanic Garden. The glass hothouses sat neatly by the riverbanks, manicured lawns winding with trimmed pathways. Cassie could see the lush green and vibrant colors of the exotic plants housed within. “Oxford?” Cassie paused a moment, catching her breath. “I don’t know yet. I built it up so much in my mind, I’m not sure anything could have equaled the vision I had.”

This was true. She’d imagined Oxford to be a mythic place, full of answers, where she’d finally come to know the truth about her mother, but instead . . . It was just a city: beautiful and old, yes, but still a real place, the same as any other, full of darkness and mystery but also the buzz of traffic, wet autumn rains, tourists clustering the streets.

“It never quite matches what we had in our minds, does it?” Evie replied softly.

Cassie looked over, surprised by the disappointed note in Evie’s voice. “My degree.” Evie gave a bashful shrug. “I thought it would be . . . not easy, but clear. That I’d know exactly what to do, the way I always do. Things make sense to me, they always have, but now . . . I just can’t find the answers I’m looking for.”

Cassie gave her a sympathetic smile. “You just need a plan,” she said. “Be methodical, and you’ll figure it out. Step by step.”

Evie nodded. “Hey, thanks. For listening; I know I can babble on.” “No problem.” Cassie smiled. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

They turned back to the college. As they jogged slowly along the river, a familiar figure drew closer—the young man Cassie had seen out running before. His brown hair was ruffled by the wind, ears tipped red from the chill. As he approached them, he gave Cassie a wide smile. “You again,” he called. “What are you, stalking me now?”

Cassie didn’t reply. She waited for him to pass them by, but instead he slowed, then jogged backward as they kept moving toward him. “I’m Charlie,” he told her, brown eyes alive with amusement. “I figured it was time I introduced myself.”

“I’m Evie,” Evie volunteered. “And this is Cassie.” “You students?” Charlie asked, still jogging backward. “Postgrad,” Evie replied. “At Raleigh.”

“Fancy,” he teased. “You know, I’m always looking for a running buddy,” he added, attention still fixed on Cassie. “If you’re worried about keeping up, I promise I’ll go slow.” He grinned, broad and cocky. But Cassie wasn’t looking for whatever this man had on his mind.

Romance, dating—they were foreign concepts to her, and she had bigger things on her mind. She gave him a withering stare and lengthened her pace, speeding up to leave him there by the bridge. Evie caught up with her a moment later. “What’s wrong?” she asked, panting. “He was cute.”

“I’m not interested,” Cassie said, feeling a flush of embarrassment. “Sorry,” Evie said quickly. “I figured you guys had, I don’t know, a friendly runners’ thing. He seemed to like you,” she added.

“Trust me,” Cassie said. “Men are the last thing on my mind right now.”

“Then I’ll say no more.” Evie mimed locking her lips shut. “God, this is why I don’t exercise; I’m burning up inside. Want to stop by Harvey’s for a breakfast bap on the way back in?”

“Sure.” Cassie tried to relax, checking the path behind them to see if Charlie was gone. “Sounds good to me.”

Her information pack listed a couple of libraries outside the college that could be used for her classwork, so after showering and changing, Cassie struck out across the city to see if one of them might hold any clues about her mother. There was an official university archive housed in the Radcliffe Camera, an eighteenth-century domed building set off Brasenose Lane. A flow of tourists posed for photographs out front. Inside, Cassie used her Raleigh ID to register for a reader’s card and filled in the request slip for the records she needed.

“The official record for every college?” The clerk looked over his fashionable black glasses frames at her. He was in his twenties, his hair slicked back, his fingertips paint­stained. He frowned at Cassie’s cursive script. “For nineteen ninety­two—”

“And ninety­three, and ninety­four,” she finished. “Is that a problem?” “No,” he said, but he sighed with a mournful air. “Wait here. I’ll have the first batch sent up in a minute.”

Cassie spent the day tucked away in the upper reading room, systematically working her way through the books that the clerk called up for her in batches, each time greeting her request slip with the same weary sigh. Here, the crowd was older than at Raleigh: grad students, the occasional professor with his half­moon glasses and worn leather elbow patches. They built forts with their research materials, blocking off corners of their desks to keep out prying eyes, and it was easy for Cassie to blend in: just another reader, researching some old, faded records in the pools of afternoon sun.

She broke only for lunch, which she bought from a café in an old converted church across the square, and ate in the shade of its leafy courtyard, among tourists and their cream teas, and clusters of blue­ rinsed pensioners gossiping over fragrant lemon cake. It was a sea of strange faces, save one: Professor Tremain, deep in conversation across the courtyard. He saw her from across the courtyard and gave a wave, almost knocking his tea to the ground.

He was a curious man, Cassie thought, waving back. A relic, an oddity in his tweed and absentminded concentration, he seemed as if he could have been transplanted from fifty or a hundred years ago. But then again, that was Oxford: its cobbled streets unchanged, the lampposts still old­fashioned wrought iron even if the bulbs inside were new. This was an odd, timeless place, a city out of step with the rest of the world, where walking down an empty backstreet along the snaking line of an ancient college’s walls, Cassie could almost forget which century she was in—until a cluster of noisy undergrads spilled out of some back­alley pub, with their modern fashions and noisy buzz of cell phones breaking the spell.

It was still strange for Cassie to think of her mother here. She would have loved it, Cassie knew: the bustle of the city center, with its collision of old worlds and new: the old Tudor row houses and college walls, the modern office buildings and traffic that snaked through the winding streets, the horizon of turrets and curving spires. To have seen her there, immersed in such literature and tradition . . . It was a fantasy, impossible, Cassie knew, but as she searched through the old college records, expecting to see Joanna’s name on every next page, she could almost glimpse it. That laughing smile, that glow of possibility.

What had happened to her, to strip away all that great potential and leave her so broken, so full of rage and sorrow? Or had it been inevitable, the time bomb in her delicate DNA: the threads of instability woven deep, and only surfacing later, when it was already too late?

The DNA they both shared. Cassie shivered and turned back to her books, but the thought lingered. For years, she’d known that she’d inherited too much from her mother; not her blond hair or blue eyes or perfect singing pitch, but the darkness lingering beneath the surface. A poison of sorts, running in her veins. Her mother’s sickness had been the manic episodes, the heightened emotions, the dizzying, knife­edge depths.

For Cassie, it took a different form.

She’d been a kid still when they started. Tantrums, disapproving teachers would call them, but to Cassie, they were anything but a choice. The anger would take her over in a heartbeat, a pounding, furious storm that she was powerless to control. People used the term blind rage so casually, but Cassie knew from the inside exactly what it meant. She would lose track of herself, overcome with a red­hot fury that demanded release, until finally something broke through the fever or it ebbed away, leaving nothing but wreckage behind.

It terrified her, losing control. She feared that she was becoming her mother, only worse. Sharper, more dangerous. Her mother only screamed and cried in the grip of her episodes, but Cassie . . . Cassie wanted to burn the whole world down.

Her mother knew the signs. She held fast against doctors and medication until there was no ignoring the damage. But instead of submitting Cassie to the drugs that she swore numbed her to the world, Joanna taught Cassie her own coping mechanisms, making out like it was just a game. Hold on to the magic pendant, and count; imagine they were lying on the trampoline in the summer sun. Safe thoughts. Careful numbers. Keep the furious hunger at bay.

Cassie knew the pendant was nothing more than chipped stone, and the simple meditation techniques designed for stress, but it was all she had. She focused that wild fury, boxed it up in walls of whispered chanting until she was safe, until it was contained.

It didn’t always work. There was an incident with bullies when she was eight years old, the time on the school bus when she was twelve. Broken bones, black eyes, a trip to the ER, and little Cassie in the middle of it all, unharmed and unremorseful. They took her out of school in the end—it was just safer that way—and away from the daily battle of other kids, taunting and not understanding, she found it easier to keep control. A calm life, a simple one; that had been all Joanna wanted for them both.

But it hadn’t worked out that way in the end.

The Oxford Inheritance is available right now! Grab your copy: Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks | All Romance | IndieBound. And on the off chance you’re killing time at work, check out some more excerpts right here.

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