‘Spellbinding, evocative and compelling, The House of Brides is a delicious literary treat that I couldn’t devour fast enough. I predict this is the book everyone will be talking about this summer.’ – Rachael Johns, bestselling Australian author
Miranda has had a rough few years. Her successful career as a social media influencer has come crashing down after the controversial flop of her fertility app. Humiliated, she moves reluctantly back home to her judgemental father and cold stepmother’s house to nurse her wounds, feeling more than ever the loss of her mother.
Miranda’s mother, well-known author Tessa Summer, died when Miranda was young, leaving behind her bestselling book The House of Brides – a book that chronicled the generations of brides, each more notorious and tragic than the last, who married into the infamous Summer family and became mistress of the beautiful Barnsley House in England. Miranda does not know her mother’s family, so when a mysterious letter arrives from a young Summer cousin, asking for her help, Miranda’s curiosity about the legendary family (and desire to escape her current situation) prompts her to act.
Posing as a prospective nanny, she is soon living in the heart of the family, but nothing is as she expects. The luxury hotel and world-renowned restaurant created by the most recent ‘bride’, the lovely and effervescent Daphne, is gone. So is Daphne. More disturbing, one of the children is in a wheelchair after a mysterious accident and the sinister housekeeper Mrs Mins seems to have a dark influence over the master of the house.
What happened in this house? Where is Daphne? Will Miranda discover what darkness lies hidden at the heart of this house of brides? And if she does, will she survive it?
YESTERDAY I FOUND an article about Barnsley House in an old magazine. It took me a moment to recognize it; I was unprepared to stumble upon it and had only known it in winter, anyway. It was a shock to see the place captured in the full glory of sunshine, and before I knew what I was doing I had ripped out the pages to savor later, away from the prying eyes of the others.
In one photograph, the blue curve of the harbor is ﬁlled with sailboats and ﬁshing trawlers. It’s likely they took the photos years ago, when the hotel ﬁrst opened. In the spring perhaps, when the weather was starting to warm up, the ﬁelds around not yet burned in the summer heat. Max says at that time of the year the sky is full of drones taking photos for country houses about to come on the market, and pictures of the famous coastline for lifestyle television programs.
I see that view every time I close my eyes, but it’s better to have it here in front of me: the grass sloping away so that the cliffs and the village beyond lie hidden, the line of sea concealing sandbars beneath deceitful waves. From Barnsley you can’t see the cobbled harbor or the pier from which the little ferry departs every hour, tide permitting, to tour the coastline. You can’t see the ﬁsh and chip shops and the galleries with their blown glass or the tucked- away cafés and terraces of bed and breakfasts, and yet here they all are in the photographs, as if they were a part of the hotel itself.
It’s easy to remember what it felt like to see Barnsley for the ﬁrst time. Not in a photograph but in the ﬂesh, the grand house appearing in front of me. The beauty of the limestone is hard to see in a photograph, and harder to explain. The stone is different from that of other houses in the area, softer somehow, and in the summer, Max said, it felt warm to touch for weeks on end. Some days, when the sun was not strong enough to warm Daphne’s cold antipodean bones, she would lean up against the wall and hope that the warmth would penetrate through her summer dress and cardigan. That was before my time. It has only been cold, bitterly cold, since I have known it.
Will the hotel be successful again? Or is the article pointless, directing wealthy American tourists towards a house of ghosts? A hotel that has lost its way, and the woman who ran it, and not in that order. I have to hope we can turn Barnsley around, because it has somehow gotten in my blood, just like it got in the blood of the women who came before me.
“A TOAST TO Miranda,” my father said as he raised his glass to the air, then collided it heavily with the similarly upheld glass of my stepmother. “May your career at Grant and Farmer be long and successful!”
It wasn’t the ﬁrst time he had toasted a new direction in my career— god knows there had been a few twists and turns before this last crash and burn— but it was the ﬁrst time he had been in-volved in getting me the job. After everything that had happened, I didn’t really have a choice not to take it.
My father had had to call in a few favours. And when that didn’t work, I think he had to start making promises. Compromises. I don’t think it got to actual exchanges of money, but I’m not sure. I didn’t think I was imagining things when I detected a slight threat in his voice. A more than slight emphasis on the word long.
“Yes, darling Miranda. Good luck at Grace and Favour!” my stepmother Fleur said, joining in the toast even though she had already ﬁnished her second glass of champagne.
I laughed despite myself. Fleur was really only funny for a small portion of the day, somewhere between her second and fourth drink. And that window was much shorter than you might expect, given her expertise at consuming champagne and dry white wine.
Plus, I wanted to enjoy this celebration while it lasted; it was the ﬁrst time we had had anything to celebrate for a while. Judg-ing by the look in my two younger stepsisters’ eyes as they sat quietly and poked the ice cubes in their lemonade while the mer-riment continued around them, they also knew just how quickly things could change. Just wait, their faces were saying, she’ll muck this up as well.
“What’s someone with a degree in creative writing going to do at a PR company?” my godmother Denise asked, turning towards me after the toast had settled down. As usual, my family had cho-sen to forget about my postgrad studies in nutrition and diet. Around us, the waiters set down trays of antipasti: glossy grilled red sweet peppers, fat rolls of prosciutto, and plump Sicilian ol-ives. My favourite Italian restaurant, this was always the location for any family celebration, and as far as family celebrations go, me ﬁnally getting another job was fairly signiﬁcant. At least that’s what it seemed my father was trying to tell me by inviting every-one in the family, including my godparents, along to the celebra-tory dinner.
“What’s someone with a degree in creative writing going to do anywhere?” my father boomed from his end of the table, laughing loudly at his own joke and looking around to make sure some of the surrounding patrons were laughing as well. So much for me trying to go unnoticed.
“Isn’t all PR creative writing?” Fleur interjected. “Or am I get-ting confused with fake news?”
I was worried all the talk about creative writing might veer into a discussion about the creative writing that had landed me in hot water, so I concentrated on Denise when I answered. “I think I’m just going to be more like an EA to begin with— I won’t have anything to do with actual clients. Maybe eventually I’ll be able to work on some copy, things like that, I guess.”
I didn’t sound any more enthusiastic than I felt. Working on copy was so far away from what I had been doing. Running my own business. A successful blog. A book deal. The media said I was an inﬂuencer.
“What’s an EA?” one of my half sisters piped up. Ophelia, that time, but it could have just as easily been Juliet, given that their general knowledge was equally nonexistent. And yes, we all have names from Shakespeare. My mother started the tradition, and my stepmother continued it. My name meant something to my mother, whereas I suspect my stepmother had to use Google. Math brain, she says. Pea brain, I think.
“They book ﬂights, arrange meeting rooms, that kind of thing,” my stepmother cooed, stroking Ophelia’s hair soothingly due to the potentially upsetting nature of this disclosure. “And that’s why you don’t want to do an arts degree.” Ophelia and Juliet nodded solemnly, even though they were years away from making any decisions about their tertiary educations.
I concentrated on loading my plate with a selection of the anti-pasti, paying more attention than I really needed to on getting the placement of the food just so, trying to blink away the tears that were threatening to spill down on the terra- cotta side plates.
“I think it sounds lovely,” said Denise and squeezed my hand, but the sympathy in her voice made it worse. She would be think-ing of my mother, her best friend, and wondering how I could have turned out so mediocre when my mother had been so ex-traordinary. I wished she would go back to London with her per-fect little family and leave me here with people who didn’t expect too much of me. It was easier that way.
Conversation turned to a skiing trip Denise and Terence had planned. I felt myself zoning out, thinking instead about the casarecce with eggplant and Italian sausage that would soon be coming my way, and the tiramisu to follow if I was willing to risk Fleur’s disapproving comments.
“And this is why she can’t hold down a real job,” I heard my father saying just as I realized the waiter was trying to place my dinner in front of me. “Daydreaming all the time.” It was true, I was a daydreamer. My dad used to think it was funny, charming even, but lately he had been making all sorts of pointed com-ments. You can’t be this vague all your life, Miranda. You’re twenty- six now— isn’t it time you faced reality?
I could see why he was worried. I couldn’t imagine myself sit-ting at a desk all day, paying attention in long meetings, remem-bering numbers, names, dates— but that’s what I’d be doing when I started at Grant and Farmer.
There was laughter all around: shrill from Fleur, polite from Denise. I could see her watching me again, and I smiled weakly to show I was okay.
The noise of the restaurant was gathering in volume as the night progressed. Chairs were scraped back as patrons rose to greet each other, the sommelier squeezed corks out of prosecco bottles, and waiters carried endless bowls of steaming pasta out of the kitchen. The mood was light, the smells heavenly, and at tables all around us people were smiling, laughing, sipping on Chianti and pinot grigio, leaning in to hear each other properly above the buzz.
All the tables except for ours. If it wasn’t for the food and the conversation arising from it, we would have been almost com-pletely silent. What did you order? Spaghetti alle vongole. Looks delicious, don’t you have mature tastes? This Barolo is delicious, Bruce. Yes, it’s a favourite of ours. This place never changes, does it? That’s why we like it, Terence.
It had been a bad idea to invite the O’Hallorans: somehow the presence of outsiders highlighted the unease that I had somehow grown accustomed to over the years, and now I could see what our cobbled- together family must look like through their eyes. If my mother were here, our table would look just like the others and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that. The tiramisu would have to wait for another time. I needed to get out of there.
“Girls? Do you want me to take you home? Haven’t you got some homework or oboe practice to do?”
The relief on Juliet’s and Ophelia’s faces was immediate. The evening opened up in front of them: a frenzy of social media, Net-ﬂix, and phone calls while their parents were out of the house. It wasn’t easy growing up with my father and all his rules.
- No phone calls after 9:00 p.m.
- No phones in the bedroom.
- No television during the week.
- No sleepovers with the opposite sex. No phones at the table.
- No piercings.
- No tattoos.
- No alcohol.
- No drugs.
- No. No. No.
I know, I lived with him for a long time. Too long, if you ask me. And him. And Fleur.
And now I’m back at home again.
Juliet and Ophelia, though, they still seem to think I’m cool, if only because I can drive them around and go on my phone when-ever I like. They even think it’s cool I now work at an activewear store and can get them discounts on the compression tights they and their friends wear at all times. Unfortunately, my father is not so easily impressed.
“Take my car, poppet.” My dad made a big fuss of pulling his car key out, closing his hand around mine. “We’ll get an Uber.” Like he was doing me a favour.
Juliet and Ophelia chatted all the way home in the car about school, boys, their friends, The Voice.
“Why didn’t you guys pipe up at dinner?” I said after ten min-utes had gone by and I was ﬁnally able to get a word in. “You seem to have a bit to say now.”
“Denise is weird. She always looks at us funny when we talk. She hates us,” Juliet offered.
“And she hates Mum.” So Ophelia felt the same.
“That’s not true.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I just thought of Denise and Terence as part of the family.
“It is. And she’s always staring at you with this weird look on her face. Have you noticed?”
I turned the corner into my old street, barely paying attention to the road. Even though I had lived away from home for a few years, I could still drive here on autopilot.
I still thought of it as home: the ﬁxer- upper Federation my par-ents had bought when they were ﬁrst married and thought they had all the time in the world together. Turned out they didn’t have that long, and the house didn’t get ﬁxed up until years later, when Fleur and her retinue of expensive architects and builders came on the scene.
“No,” I lied.
Denise had spent a lot of time on this visit staring at me. People had always told me I looked nothing like my mother, that I totally resembled my father. Your mother was beautiful, they would say in the same breath, as if I couldn’t understand the implication.
But maybe Denise could see something in me? Maybe I was becoming more like my mother as I aged? I tried to check my reﬂection in the rearview mirror as I pulled up by the house, but I couldn’t see anything in the dim twilight. There was a loud scrape as the wheels hit the gutter. I cursed under my breath as I realized the rubbish collectors had left our empty bins across the driveway.
“Oh, Dad’s going to kill you,” Juliet whispered. Glee, there was deﬁnitely glee in her voice. “How many champagnes did you have, anyway? Alky!” They laughed together, high on freedom, lemonade, and schadenfreude.
“I barely ﬁnished one.” It was true, I wasn’t much of a drinker. I probably would have ordered a Diet Coke if Denise and Terence hadn’t been there. “Can you please move the bins?”
The request was met with the sound of slamming doors. The pair of them raced up the stone steps.
I pressed the button for the window. “Ophelia? Juliet? Can one of you please move the rubbish bins?”
“Come on, Miranda, I’m busting.” Ophelia made a show of hopping from one foot to the other, a movement that owed more to years of speech and drama lessons than any actually pressing bladder needs. “Just leave the car there. Dad won’t mind.”
I looked up at the tree above the car, its sap the subject of nu-merous family arguments over the years. The tyre was pushed right up against the kerb— any damage would only be visible once it was moved.
“Okay.” I sighed. “Next time don’t drink so much lemonade.” It was only for a moment, I told myself; I’d come back and move the bins and the car once I got the girls sorted. I climbed the stairs to join them, admiring the garden as I went.
For all Fleur’s faults, she did have a talent for gardening. Or landscape architecture, as she always corrected me. At this time of the year the garden looked amazing, and a well- placed light high-lighted the blooming jacaranda in all its glory. My mum would have loved it. One of the few things I had been able to deduce from her writing was her love for the natural world, her afﬁnity with the outdoors.
The scent of the house hit me as I opened the door. Closed up all day, it seemed to have manifested its fragrance: the remains of Fleur’s ever- present ﬁg candles, gardenia blossoms ﬂoating in a bowl on the hall table, and the unmistakable scent of a pine Christmas tree. Underneath it all, the smell of home. Some things hadn’t changed, despite everything.
“Christmas tree already?” I asked Ophelia as she pushed past me, her desperate need for the toilet seemingly forgotten, while I idly rifﬂed through some mail on the hall table.
For a long time, there hadn’t been any for me. School maga-zines from time to time. Catalogues. Nothing interesting.
And then the thick envelopes from lawyers’ ofﬁces had started coming in. Some days there were bundles of them. Other days just one or two. But for a few months, it was relentless.
I breathed a sigh of relief that there was nothing for me today. “You know Mum,” Ophelia called back. I heard her collapse on the sofa, the noise of the TV swelling into life. She was home, and could switch off. From where I stood, I could see Juliet through the bank of glass windows at the back of the house.
I nearly ﬂicked past the envelope. Brown paper with one cor-ner completely covered in jewel-c olored stamps, all imprinted with the Queen’s tiny little head in proﬁle. The exact sort of enve-lope I had spent my whole childhood looking out for.
The address had been crossed out and rewritten, crossed out and rewritten again. It looked as if it had been in the postal sys-tem for some time, and had obviously come halfway around the world. That wasn’t the odd part, though. The odd part was who it was addressed to.
MORE PRAISE FOR THE HOUSE OF BRIDES
‘Cockram’ s plot crackles with tension, hitting all the right notes for readers fond of gothic-flavored tales.’ – Publishers Weekly
‘Gripping, atmospheric and with an ending you won’t see coming, this book held me in its spell long after the final page. A sure-fire bestseller.’ – Sally Hepworth, bestselling author of The Mother-in-Law
‘Jane Cockram’s The House of Brides is a twisty, turny ride through the English countryside … Fans of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca will love this! ” – Ellen LaCorte, author of The Perfect Fraud
Posted on August 16, 2019 by harlequinaustralia