I write Brain Chocolate. Want some?
She was “the Swan.” London’s premiere courtesan. Men want to be with her. Women loathe her success and yet admire her beauty, her riches, her independence. But when the jealous wife of her lover moves to have the Swan banished from her home on the high seas, she winds up crashed against Spain’s rocky coast with no shoes, no clothes—and no name. Taken in by a tortured, sensuous man known as The Artist, the Swan comes to know the woman she wants to be—her artist’s siren.
When Art Professor Brenna Anderson is in danger of losing her post at Harvard, the rule-following, prim professor is at a loss of how to salvage the shreds of her life. But when a new painting in the mysterious Siren collection is discovered in a dusty old house in France, Brenna does the unthinkable—hops on a plane to uncover the identity of the beautiful, enigmatic woman who is the subject of the paintings.
There’s just one hitch—the frustrating, irritating, bold and beautiful art hunter Fitch Wilder is also looking for the Siren. He’s been a thorn in Brenna’s professional side for years, but when their individual quests lead them to team up despite being enemies, a whole new sumptuous world of art and culture opens up for the two of them. And with it, they enter a realm of passion and love…
Read the reviews!
“It’s not often contemporary romance merges with history so flawlessly. We don’t simply fall in love once — but twice. Two breathtaking plots fuse at the seams to create a focused, elaborate story.” — RTBookReviews (Top Pick!)
“Love, sex, history, and art are all found in this epic tale. A journey of survival, loss, and new beginnings. I loved it.” — Urban Book Reviews (★★★★★!)
Read more reviews here!
Under the covers…
After the success of Unbound, Susan Donovan and I knew we had to tell the rest of the story. It wasn’t truly intentional to parallel the Swan and Brenna as we did with the Blackbird and Piper, yet as the first story progressed we realized that there were more questions than answers. Inspired by the beauty of New Mexico, we decided to set a portion of our story on the stunning coast of Catalonia, Spain.
Our travels to that location made the story come full circle in our minds. The beauty of modern Barcelona. The history of Catalonian castles and villages of ancient stone. Two worlds once again combined to free our imaginations to create something we felt was truly magical. To me, the Swan is a woman of strength and perseverance, wit and wile, wrapped around a core of undeniable hope that in a hard world there will always be hope, and deep, breathless love.
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Preview Chapter 1 of Breathless!
“A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as a thousand.” –Virginia Woolf
I am the Swan.
Another wave crashed overhead, her lungs desperate for air but finding only water.
With such an alias, shouldn’t I be a more accomplished swimmer? And shouldn’t a lifeboat mean life, not certain death?
But the small wooden dinghy had been no match for the wild tide and the rocky arms of the cove. She felt its planks splinter about her in the storm, her sodden gown sucking her down into the swirling void of the sea.
Only hours ago she had been grateful for the little boat – and for the ship captain who had saved her life during a mutiny. He had forced her into the tiny dinghy and lowered her into the water, sure her chances were better set adrift than caught in the bloody uprising.
Fear had choked her. Terror strangled her as she watched the clipper raise sail and disappear into the gloaming, its buxom white sails fading into blackness at last.
The storm hit soon after, pitching her in the waves until she’d hit against a shoreline. All those hours adrift she had ached to see land again, to escape the brutal, merciless sea that tossed her about like a bit of worthless rubbish.
The land had proved just as cruel, and she now feared it was poised to offer the final blow.
The tide hurled her forward once again, slamming her body into the stones, yanking her scrabbling fingers away from any solid hold on the slimy, barnacle-encrusted rock. The roiling seawater tumbled her until she lost any sense of up or down. The waves tangled her skirts about her legs, filled her mouth with froth instead of air, only to hoist her weakening body high … then slam it down upon the rocks again.
I am the Swan.
Her mind protested one last time, alive through the slicing pain, craving survival even as the world began to die away into unconsciousness.
I was the Swan.
Paris – present day
Door hinges groaned with age and disuse as Fitch Wilder got his first peek of history.
“Un capsule temporal…” His employer had whispered those words only moments before, as they’d climbed the narrow stairs of the vintage Paris apartment building and waited for the flat’s door to be unlocked. Yet even as Fitch’s eyes adjusted to the murky light, he could tell these rooms were more than a time capsule—he was about to step into a fine art wormhole.
“Oh, mon Dieu!” Jean-Louis Rasmussen gestured madly, pointing as if Fitch couldn’t see the eerie sight for himself—a richly appointed tomb, still as death, undisturbed for seventy-five years.
Until right at that instant.
The indirect light of the hallway began to illuminate the details. Fitch saw heavy velvet drapes and Persian carpets, a gilt bronze writing desk, ornately carved tables covered in figurines, clocks, and blown glass. Paintings in gilded frames were stacked six-deep against Louis XV chairs. Sculptures hid in shadowy corners. Vases lined the fireplace mantel like soldiers from mismatched armies. It looked as if someone had planned a seriously badass rummage sale and then decided against it.
Perhaps not so far from the truth.
As he had recently learned, a young woman inherited this apartment from her grandmother on June 11, 1940. Talk about rotten timing. The very next day, Paris braced itself for the Nazi invasion, and the young mademoiselle locked down her grandmother’s residence in the ninth arrondissement and fled to the south of France, never to return. Through the following decades, the woman’s solicitor paid the taxes and insurance on the apartment until his client passed away just weeks ago at the age of ninety-three. In her will, the never-married woman carried out the wishes of her long-gone grandmother and bequeathed the apartment’s contents to a variety of foundations, universities, and museums.
That was where Fitch came in. One of his occasional employers, the private Musee de Michel-Blanc, was among the beneficiaries, and he’d been hired to advise them during acquisition. In addition to tracing the provenance and rightful ownership of each work, Fitch would also oversee laboratory testing to verify age and authorship. He was the museum’s insurance policy against the worst offense within the world of art: display of a forgery or a stolen work.
“Allez! What are you waiting for?” Jean-Louis jabbed his bony fingers into Fitch’s side, nudging him onward.
Pressing a firm hand on the curator’s shoulder, Fitch turned his attention to the attorney who had unlocked the door. “May we proceed, monsieur?”
The lawyer gestured listlessly, as if opening a crypt was just another day at the office. “Apres vous.”
Jean-Louis shoved past Fitch and into the apartment. “We are the first!”
Fitch stepped inside, resting the heel of his cowboy boot on the decades-dusted parquet floor. He wanted to savor the moment, since this was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime treasure hunt every art investigator dreamed of. More than that, he wanted to honor it. Fitch knew he was about to take a breath of history itself.
And he wondered … whose lungs last pulled oxygen from the air of these rooms? Whose fingertips had last brushed across these chairs or drawn closed the draperies? He’d been told that the solicitors had never entered the apartment, as requested in the will, and it was unknown whether the granddaughter ever had a chance to examine her inheritance before she escaped the city. All things considered, Fitch knew it was possible that the grandmother—a woman born during Napoleon III’s reign—had been the last human being to walk these floors.
Fitch drew in the stale air, and blew it out.
With an excited outburst of French, Jean-Louis flung open the drapes. And just like that, a beam of morning light split the dim room, illuminating every corner. Millions of dust particles twirled in the sudden air current.
In his agitated state, the curator stumbled, then gasped in horror. Fitch tried not to laugh, but the sight of Jean-Louis cowering under a seven-foot-tall taxidermied ostrich wasn’t an everyday occurrence.
Fitch tossed his employer a pair of white cotton gloves, then shoved his own hands into an identical set. “Let’s keep moving. We don’t have much time.”
A random lottery had given the Michel-Blanc first access to the apartment. Like each of the sixteen beneficiaries, they were allotted four hours to locate the items bequeathed to them, conclusively match each item to the inventory within the grandmother’s original 1940 will, crate the works, and exit the premises.
Fitch knew why Jean-Louis was so twitchy. Among the items earmarked for the little museum was a signed Rembrandt in black and red chalk, dated 1631, and given the decidedly generic title of “Mother and Child.” From the moment Fitch arrived at baggage claim at de Gaulle yesterday, Jean-Louis had spoken of little else, going on about how the drawing would be a major coup for the small museum. He was right, of course, but only if he found it to be authentic, and Fitch knew signed-and-dated Rembrandts from that period were exceedingly rare. He told his employer to keep the celebratory champagne corked until he’d finished with the X-rays.
Though Fitch was looking forward to examining the Rembrandt, he was more intrigued by the less conspicuous items on the list, and, though he’d kept the thought to himself, he had a hunch one of the institutions might walk away from this Paris flat with an explosive find. Fate had smiled on this private collection. The closed-up apartment had served as a kind of a safe house during the Third Reich’s invasion of Paris, allowing the artworks to slip beneath the notice of Nazi raiders determined to plunder the city’s cultural treasures.
Only God knew what could be in this place.
Fitch set up his camera and reminded Jean-Louis not to move anything until he had documented its location.
“Oui, Oui!” Jean-Louis headed into the dining room. He threw open those drapes as well, flooding the area with sunlight and exposing an even larger jumble of tapestries, oil paintings, figurines, and what looked like a carved frieze from the Middle Ages.
Jean-Louis sent his hands fluttering over his head. “Do you have your copy of the list?”
Fitch nodded, snatching it from his jacket pocket and holding it up for his employer’s reassurance.
Within the first hour, Fitch found three of their items: a Fabergé egg dated 1902, a still life of lilacs in crystal signed with Manet’s telltale scrawl, and a Guangzhou period vase much like one he’d seen auctioned off for a quarter-million dollars the year prior. As Fitch was matching the vase to the solicitor’s inventory, his employer began screaming in French that he’d found the Rembrandt. He could barely compose himself enough to hand the drawing to the solicitor for verification.
“It is the real thing, oui?” Jean-Louis looked up at Fitch with a pleading expression. Since the poor man was overwrought, Fitch didn’t mention that he’d already asked that question six times in as many minutes.
“Like I said, no red flags are jumping out at me. Everything looks right—the correct chalk pigment for the date, the appropriate type of laid paper, and an authentic-looking mark—but I won’t be sure until I’ve done research and run some tests. If I could’ve phoned in this job from Santa Fe, I would have. You know that, right?”
The curator nodded, wiping tears from his eyes. He patted Fitch on the arm. “Bien sur. You are the best and I will be patient.”
Once the crating process had begun and Jean-Louis was overseeing a team of museum workers, Fitch wandered off to continue his search. According to the list, four items had yet to be located—a series of original French political cartoons from 1899 through 1901, a female nude oil on canvas of unknown age and origin, a Japanese kimono that had allegedly belonged to an eighteenth-century geisha, and a 1929 signed and inscribed first edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Ole Granny was probably one hell of an interesting dinner guest.
Fitch wandered into a breakfast nook off the vintage kitchen and winced at what he saw—a jumble of unframed canvases leaned against a window seat, a particularly unkind way to store paintings. Luckily, the apartment had been nearly airtight all these years, and the drapes had been drawn, which cut down on light damage, moisture, and dust accumulation, though Fitch knew unframed canvases were vulnerable to warping in the best of environments. He lowered himself to one knee for a closer look.
Carefully, Fitch slipped a gloved finger between two canvases, separating them. He began to divide each canvas from its neighbor, one after the next, making quick mental evaluations of each work. There were watery French country fields, seascapes, and studies of Paris street life through various decades. Though they were important and worth further study, Fitch was on the clock, and so far there had been no sign of any cartoons, kimonos, or mysterious female nudes.
The very last canvas was larger than all the others, perhaps forty-by-forty inches. It was draped with an old embroidered bedsheet, and when he gently pulled at the linen he found the painting was faced away. Its back was covered by a layer of coarse muslin, frayed and tearing along the tacked-down edges. Fitch leaned closer, frowning, his brain suddenly humming with alarm. One touch of the muslin and his heart skipped a beat.
Okay—this was nuts. He had only seen the back. He had to be fucking crazy to be thinking what he was thinking.
He set all the other canvases off to the side, stood to open the window’s shutters, and returned to the floor, where he balanced on both knees. With the benefit of better light, Fitch confirmed that his sanity was intact—there were, in fact, similarities. Was it unlikely? Hell, yes. Was it impossible? Not in his line of work.
First, he took a few photos to document exactly where the canvas had been found and in what position. Then, with a gloved finger, he pushed back a corner of the ragged muslin and turned on the flashlight app from his phone. Peering underneath, he saw how the canvas was supported by strainers of ancient olivewood and held together mortise and tenon joints—an exact match to the others.
“Holy God,” he whispered to no one. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
His hands trembled slightly as he turned the canvas to face him. It was upside down. He set it upright. The shock of what he saw sent him back on his heels, his breath coming fast. In the bottom right corner was the familiar mark of an L and an A done in a bold cursive hand.
Fitch grabbed the list and double-checked the wording … “female nude oil on canvas of unknown age and origin.” Of course it had been unknown back in 1940! The Siren Series hadn’t been assembled as a collection of five paintings until after the war and even then … well, hell, that was all that had ever been “known” about anything. Even today, the artist, muse, setting, and date were a mystery.
He shoved the printed list back into his pocket and tried to get his brain and his breath to slow down.
Fitch heard himself laugh out loud.
He couldn’t deny it. Everything was there. This painting had the lively brushstroke, the familiar play of light and shadow, and the golden touch of sunshine on the model’s warm skin. Fitch recognized the boudoir, too, with its wide windowsill framing the sea, the rugged stone walls, and the unvarnished oak of the simple bureau.
But it was the subject he knew best of all—her tumble of sun-streaked blond hair, her smoldering, powder-blue eyes, the sleek curve of her shoulder. And there was the fantail birthmark on the side of her right breast, exactly where it should be. That mermaid-shaped mark had inspired the only name by which this outrageously sensual muse had ever been known.
But Fitch had never seen her like this. No one had.
She was pregnant. The Siren leaned back on her hands at the edge of an unmade bed, as if the painter had caught her in the process of pushing herself to stand after a long and luxurious rest. Her full breasts and slightly rounded belly were gilded by the sun. Her lean legs stretched out before her as she gazed directly into the soul of the artist.
Any shred of doubt Fitch might have been harboring was gone. The Siren’s bold eye contact with the painter—and the intense sexual connection it revealed—was what set these paintings apart from nearly everything else in the art world. That heated connection was the trademark of this unknown painter’s work. And of his muse.
Fitch didn’t call for Jean-Louis right away, but instead allowed himself a few moments of quiet study. This painting was as technically brilliant as the other five, to be sure. The colors were as luminous and rich. The wash of light and hint of movement were the same. And yet … this painting was more than the others. The sum of all its elements had created something tangibly alive. It was as if the woman’s gaze had burned through the artist himself, onto the canvas, and through time to reach Fitch.
The Siren wasn’t daring him, exactly. It was more of an invitation.
I have a story to tell. Are you prepared to listen?
The sound of approaching footsteps jolted Fitch from his trance.
“Where are you? We need to—” The curator stopped behind him. “Qu’este-ce? No! It cannot be! Is this—?”
“Without question, my friend.”
“But…” He leaned over Fitch’s shoulder and pointed at the canvas. “She is with child here. This is … this has never been seen before!”
His instincts had always told him there were more than just the five paintings—and he’d been right. So if this canvas had been hiding for seventy years in an abandoned Paris apartment, how many more were hidden away and forgotten? And where on earth could they be?
“We’ve just found the sixth in The Siren Series.” Fitch turned and smiled up at his employer. “And it is now the property of the Michel-Blanc. That is, unless or until—”
“Mon Dieu!” Jean-Louis slapped a hand over his mouth. His eyes flashed in comprehension as he did the math in his head. Like everyone else in the art world, he knew this single oil painting could be worth more than several small Rembrandts, simply because of one man’s obsession. Billionaire London art collector H. Winston Guilford was unabashedly fixated on The Siren, and had spent the last twenty years acquiring all five paintings in the series. He would surely offer an obscene amount of money to get his hands on the sixth.
From the twinkle in his employer’s eye, Fitch suspected the Michel-Blanc would be only too happy to enable Guilford’s addiction.
Fitch popped to his feet, the thrill of the chase already rushing through his veins, a plan already forming in his mind. He would run tests on this painting while it was still the property of the Michel-Blanc. And if he got extremely lucky, he would find something he could use as leverage with Guilford, something that might convince that crusty old bastard to let him take the rest of the series into the lab—and perhaps even to public display.
And after that…? As always, he would wait and see where the hunt took him.
Fitch carried the painting to the solicitor, making a mental note to cancel his return flight to the States. It could be a while before his boots once again roamed the blue-skied streets of Santa Fe.Order your copy
Unbound is the exhilarating prequel to Breathless!
Regency London’s most celebrated courtesan, The Blackbird, was a woman before her time—uninhibited, financially independent, and free to live by her own rules. Schooled in the sensual arts by the one man she loved the most, she recorded every wicked detail in her diaries…When Boston museum curator Piper Chase-Pierpont unearths The Blackbird’s steamy memoirs, she’s aroused and challenged by what she finds. Could the courtesan’s diaries be used as a modern girl’s guide to finding love and empowerment? One curious curator—and one very lucky man—are about to find out…
(Unbound was previously published as A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man.)
Read the reviews!
“Ophelia broke barriers making her a force to be reckoned with. She is definitely going down as one of my favorite heroines.” —Under The Covers Blog
“[In] this thought-provoking novel…[t]he growth of both women is well written and each of their powerful, scandalous, outrageous journeys comes to a satisfying conclusion.” — RT Book Reviews (top pick)
Read more reviews here!
Under the covers…
In the front of Unbound, there is a quote from poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
This novel takes place both in the past and the present. Don’t worry, we made sure you won’t get lost! 🙂
Writing Unbound was about splitting open the world for me. It isn’t meant to be simple erotica. It isn’t meant to be just a sexuality manifesto. It isn’t really a romance novel, even though it is one of the most romantic things I have ever written. My half of the novel is the diary of Ophelia (the Blackbird), a Regency courtesan, which was about telling a fundamental truth about the secret life of women. I am not a cardboard cutout. I am not a moveable piece in someone else’s game. I do not owe the world “nice” or “pretty” or “good.”
None of us do.
Ophelia is brave, uncompromising, snarky and full of joy. I love her. She is the woman I want to be when I grow up.
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Preview Chapter 1 of Unbound!
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. —-Muriel Rukeyser
Boston, Present Day
This time, she really meant it. She would read just one more page and call it a night:
A large, masculine hand ran up the bare flesh of my thigh. The masked lover I knew only as “Sir” whispered into my ear, his breath hot. “I have taught you everything I can. Tomorrow you will choose your first protector.” My teacher kissed me then, more tenderly than at any time during his instruction in the Seven Sins of the Courtesan. “Are you certain this is what you wish?” he asked. “Once you enter this world you may never return to the life you’ve always known.” “I know what I want,” I told him, luxuriating in the nest of silken sheets, a woman now, not the girl who had come to this bed a week prior. “Only as a courtesan can I be truly free to decide my own destiny.”
Piper Chase-Pierpont placed a white-gloved finger on the musty diary and slid it to the far edge of the museum workroom desk, providing some distance between herself and the devastatingly erotic secrets of a woman long dead. She needed to think. She needed to figure out how to handle this unexpected development, this sudden twist of truth.
Obviously, the first shock was that these diaries existed at all. But the story they told was nothing short of … well … frankly … this was the most triple-X, crazy-assed, explicit tale she’d ever read. Piper’s head buzzed. She craved a large alcoholic beverage, and she didn’t even drink. She wanted to wolf down a Three Musketeers bar, though she knew it would only disrupt her endocrine system with free radicals, preservatives, and high-fructose corn syrup. She needed a little fresh air. Water. An ice-cold shower. She was short-circuiting.
She tried to calm herself. It wasn’t working. Oh God! What am I supposed to do with this stuff? Through the broken lenses of her glasses, Piper glanced at the clock on the basement workroom wall. It was after 1 A.M., which meant she’d been held spellbound by these documents for more than five hours, her thighs clenched together in the desk chair, barely moving, breathing hard. She’d only skimmed through the three diaries—out of order, she now realized—but it had been enough to understand that she’d unearthed a secret so outrageous it would rock the known historical record, jeopardize the reputation of her museum, and maybe even give her boss the excuse he needed to cut her position.
And let’s face it, Piper thought—if she let this information out, everyone in town would hate her. What city wants to learn that their most beloved and righteous folk heroine spent her youth as a high-class hooker and accused murderess? Not Boston, Massachusetts, that was certain.
Maybe she should just pretend she never found the journals. She could simply take the diaries and run. But how would she live with herself? Piper was a senior curator at the Boston Museum of Culture and Society. Her job was to interpret history, not shove it in a shoebox and hide it under her bed.
Oh, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. The story she’d just read hadn’t only left her shocked—she was restless. Overheated. It felt as if the two-hundred-year-old words had been written just for her, Piper Chase-Pierpont, Ph.D., a sex-starved, uptight, overworked, and underpaid woman standing alone, looking down into the abyss of her thirtieth birthday. God help her, but she wasn’t ready to share these journals with anyone. Not yet. Not until she understood the full historical—and personal—import of what she’d stumbled upon. Literally.
Piper’s glance went to the center of the basement workroom floor, where it all began. It had been seven in the evening. A Friday in midsummer, which meant the rest of the staff had long ago gone home to their lives. She’d been sitting cross-legged with her notes and sketches for the Ophelia Harrington exhibit spread out around her.
Filling the room’s shelves and floor were nearly four hundred catalogued family artifacts on loan to the museum. Piper had been soaking it all in, desperately hoping a theme for the exhibit would gel in her mind. The Fall Gala was only three months away, and that made her nervous. She began to chew on an ink pen. Sure, it was a terrible habit (one that her mother abhorred) but it’s what she’d been doing since middle school—when she thought hard, she chewed on a pen.
But this time, the pen snapped. Foul-tasting ink trickled into her mouth. One violent shake of her head and her glasses went flying. Piper jumped to her feet and lurched toward the restroom, stepping on her glasses in the process. In her half-blind state she tripped over Ophelia Harrington’s 187-year-old leather and cedar travel trunk, and when she returned from her scrubbing sojourn at the bathroom sink, she discovered that she’d knocked the trunk on its side, exposing a secret compartment. And the journals.
Piper smiled to herself at the irony. Despite her years of experience and a doctorate from Harvard, she had only luck to thank for this particular bonanza. Luck and clumsiness. And now there they were, three small, innocent-looking journals bound in cracked brown leather, their powder-fine deckle edges ragged with age, their pages packed with historical dynamite.
She considered her options. Piper could follow standard procedure and copy the journals in the museum’s document center. But since it was locked on weekends, she’d have to wait until Monday, when someone was bound to peer over her shoulder as she worked. And boy, wouldn’t that be fun? They’d see phrases such as “rosy red nipples,” and “the dark curls of my pubis peeked from between his fingertips.” No, thanks. Piper had barely been able to read those words alone in her basement workroom in the middle of the night. No way was she about to share them in a 9 A.M. staff meeting. The thought made her shudder.
What she’d do instead, she decided, was find an office-equipment vendor to deliver a professional-grade copier to her apartment on a Saturday. She’d pay out of pocket for it. Then she’d copy the diaries in private and study them at her leisure. She wouldn’t tell anyone a damn thing about the journals until she was good and ready, and that would be only once she’d verified the recounted events and could place the outrageous story in its proper historical context. Besides, at home she could apply cold showers as needed.
Piper frowned, suddenly aware of the appalling lack of professionalism in that line of reasoning. How could she even think of doing something so outrageous? What if she got caught? She’d always been more milquetoast than maverick. Certainly, these diaries weren’t worth losing her career and reputation over, were they? She tipped her head and wondered. Well? Were they?
The distant ping! of the basement elevator shocked Piper back to the here and now. The night security guard was on his way! Oh God. Oh no. Oh, the heck with it! And her decision was made. Piper shoved herself to a sudden stand on bloodless legs, nearly toppling over. She stomped her feet to get the circulation going, shook her arms and hands, rolled her head from side to side.
Get organized, fast. Get the journals and get out of here. Footsteps came down the hall. Closer now. Heading her way. Moving as fast as she could on feet that felt like concrete stumps, Piper began gathering everything she’d need—artifact tweezers, several more packages of lint-free white cotton gloves, acid-free paper, and Mylar storage sleeves, her favorite soft horsehair cleaning brush. Sometime in the future, she’d oversee the proper deacidification of the documents. Right now, she just had to get them home and get them copied.
And to think! Up until a few hours ago, her biggest challenge had been choosing a narrative theme for the Ophelia Harrington exhibit, finding a way to smoothly combine the public and private lives of one of the city’s most beloved nineteenth-century icons. She kept moving. Gathering. Thinking.
Ha! Thanks to this shocking wormhole in history she’d just discovered, she was now faced with an inscrutable mystery: how had a much-desired Regency London courtesan known as “the Blackbird” become the most fiery female abolitionist in America’s history? Piper gathered all three journals into one big sheet of acid-free paper, and shoved the entire bundle into her brown leather messenger bag. It made her cringe to handle them like that, but there was no time for delicacy. She staggered toward the travel trunk still lying on its side, righting it. Then she plopped down amid her notes and sketches, pretending to be lost in thought, only this time without a pen.
“Yes?” Piper looked up and smiled as the door to the basement workroom opened.
Night security supervisor Melvin Tostel poked his head inside and frowned. “You still here?”
“What?” Piper tried to adjust her skewed eyeglasses. She wished she’d had a few extra minutes to retape them. She probably looked like a madwoman. If she was lucky, she looked like the same nerdy, workaholic curator she always had been, just a little, well, nerdier.
“Are you okay there, Miss Piper?” Melvin’s frown deepened. “You got an exhibit opening or something? I haven’t seen you here this late since—” He stopped himself.
Even the security guards at the BMCS knew that Piper’s last exhibit—one of the more costly in recent museum history—had “fallen short of expectations.” That’s how her father described the fiasco. Everyone else just called it what it was—a flop. A disaster. An embarrassment. It was common knowledge that the Ophelia Harrington exhibit was Piper’s last chance. The museum trustees had already cut several vital positions, and they’d made it clear that one of the two remaining senior curators would be next—herself or the brown-nosing weasel boy Lincoln Northcutt.
Piper was savvy enough to understand why the trustees had approved her idea for the Harrington exhibit. First, it would be dirt-cheap to install, because she’d already convinced prickly family matriarch Claudia Harrington-Howell to loan all of her ancestor’s personal effects to the museum without compensation. Second, the subject matter would offend no one. And then there was the fact that the trustees had long sought to lure Claudia—and her deep pockets—into the museum’s fold.
Somehow, Piper didn’t think revealing that Claudia’s beloved ancestor was a hot mess of a slut would help with that.
The security guard cleared his throat. “So what are you up to, then? You’re here awfully late.” Melvin began to glance around the room—with suspicion in his eyes, Piper noticed. Was he on to her? How? It was only moments ago that she’d decided to violate every ethical guideline of her profession and remove antiquities from the museum premises. Without permission. She’d never done anything without permission.
“Nothing!” she announced, louder than necessary. She pushed herself to a stand, still wobbly from the restricted blood flow. “I just lost track of time, I guess. You know how I can be. Well, I should probably get going home now.” Piper stumbled to her desk to grab her messenger bag. She turned off her desk and worktable lamps. She limped toward the door.
“You know your lips are blue, Miss Piper?”
“Oh, right.” She shrugged. “An ink pen. What a mess.” Piper clomped toward the elevator on her concrete stumps.
“You hurt your legs or something?”
“No! They fell asleep. Sitting for too long in one position can compress the arteries, thereby preventing nutrients and oxygen from reaching the nerve cells.”
“Huh.” Melvin cocked his head and produced a quizzical smile as he held the elevator door open. “I’ll get you safely to your car. Half the lights are out in the parking garage—budget cuts and all.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Piper said, trying to sound casual, thinking about what she had crammed down inside her bag and the fact that she wasn’t the type who usually spent time in a women’s prison—her six years at Wellesley aside. “I’ll be perfectly fine.”
“It’s the middle of the night, Miss Chase-Pierpont,” Melvin said. “Here, let me help—”
“No!” He looked at her like she was crazy. Maybe she was. Maybe this was what happened to single, lonely, pornography-stealing women about to turn thirty. Piper and Melvin remained awkwardly silent on the elevator ride and through the garage, their footsteps echoing in the emptiness. “Here we are!” she announced, gesturing to her rusty Honda Civic. She flung open the passenger door and placed the messenger bag on the floor. “Thank you again, Melvin!” she said, racing around to the other side of the car. “Have a good night!”
Without warning, Melvin smacked his hand on the roof of her Civic. Piper was so startled that she nearly jumped from the pavement. She panted, clutching her car keys to her chest. Suddenly she pictured her criminal trial in great clarity—her mother in a front-row courtroom seat, her shoulder bones rattling as she sobbed, her father shaking his head in disapproval (if he could even bring himself to witness the public shaming of his only child), and the jury box? That’s right—it would be filled to the brim with members of the museum’s board of trustees, hearing aids and all. Now, wouldn’t that be something? The first time in thirty years that Piper Chase-Pierpont doesn’t play by the rules and she gets sent to the big house.
“Hairspray and baby oil!” Melvin announced, laughing.
Piper blinked. “Uh…”
“I’ve been racking my brain for how my wife got that printer cartridge ink off her fingers a few years back, and that’s it! Hairspray and baby oil!”
“Oh.” Piper began to breathe normally again, bracing herself against the car door. “That’s an excellent idea. I’ll try it as soon as I get home. Good night!” She burned rubber on her way out of the parking lot, another first in a night full of them.
I tightened my arms about his neck and cried out at his entry, my sob of aching satisfaction disappearing into his hot mouth.
No wonder it was taking Piper forever to copy these diaries. Every time she found an efficient rhythm while managing to maintain the rigorous preservation standards the job required, she’d run across another word or sentence or paragraph that would stop her cold.
He said, “I will bury my hands in your hair and drive my cock deep, then pull it wet and slippery from your lips, only to do it all again.”
Seriously. Her priority needed to be copying each page, not reading for her own titillation. The heat and humidity of her post-war, no-frills box of an apartment was the worst possible environment for these artifacts, and the window fan she’d strung up from the kitchen pot rack was doing nothing but stir the sticky heat around. Each second she wasted put the fragile paper, leather, and ink in further peril.
Piper suddenly felt evil feline eyes boring into the back of her head. “I said I was sorry,” she snapped at Miss Meade, dabbing her own forehead with her sleeve, her gloved fingers carefully fisted against contamination. “I told you I can’t run the air conditioner and this behemoth at the same time or I’ll trip the fuse box again.”
In response, the Divine Miss M. raised her overstuffed, gray tabby hind leg and licked daintily at her kitty giblets, her disapproving gaze still focused on Piper. Back to the task at hand. The original journals had to be returned on Monday to the museum documents room, where they could be stored properly. She’d keep the copy with her at all times, to read, reread, study, make notes on, and use to painstakingly compare to the known historical record.
Clearly, there was no time for diversion. If she stopped to linger over every provocative phrase and erotically tinged word she encountered in Ophelia’s elegant and fluid handwriting, she’d be standing at the copy machine for the rest of her natural life. Piper carefully lifted Volume II from the glass surface and forced herself to concentrate. Though she followed document-handling protocol to mitigate damage, each turn of a page had resulted in some additional injury to the journals, the paper tearing slightly along the hand-sewn spine. It was unavoidable.
The pages were brittle with time, pockmarked by insects, and weakened by mold and mildew. Yet it could have been far worse, she knew. The diaries were in surprisingly good condition for their age and had remained mostly legible, thanks to the way they’d been wrapped and stored.
Ophelia Harrington had meant business when she packed these away in the false bottom of her trunk, a task that she accomplished on or after April 16, 1825, the date on the London Examiner news sheet used to wrap them. Nearly six layers of newsprint had encased each volume. In addition, the trunk itself had offered a good deal of protection from humidity and light.
Whoever built the travel chest had been a master craftsman, fitting the seams so tightly that the secret compartment and its spring release were invisible even upon close examination. In the three months Piper had been poking around the trunk (along with all of Ophelia Harrington’s belongings), she’d never suspected such a feature. And it would have remained a secret—the diaries lost forever—if Piper hadn’t knocked the trunk on its side when she tripped. She cautiously turned the page, lifted the journal, carried it to the glass plate and turned it over for copying.
That’s when her eye caught the phrase “my masked lover” and her pulse spiked once more. This stuff was addictive! Mind-numbingly erotic! Historical and sexual C-4! And Piper knew if she lost her focus and started reading the diary entries as a woman instead of a scholar, then she’d be in serious trouble. She’d already seen enough to know that Ophelia Harrington had lived a far juicier life than Piper had. Furthermore, she’d done it in an era of limited rights for women, a strict social construct, and before the girl even turned twenty-five!
Piper, on the other hand, lived in a time where she could be anything and do anything she wished. And what had she done with thirty years of freedom? She’d studied. Worked. Read the classics. Traveled when she could. Tried to please her parents. Dated men who weren’t quite right for her, and only occasionally.
With the discovery of these journals, Piper had to face the fact that compared to Ophelia Harrington, she was in danger of becoming a dried-up, frustrated, bitter, and boring woman. The most hurtful event of her life flashed through Piper’s brain—the way it often did in moments of self-pity—and in her mind’s eye, she watched Magnus “Mick” Malloy’s strong and straight back as he walked out her door.
God, the thought of Mick Malloy still made Piper’s belly clench in shame. She’d followed his superstar career over the years, of course. It would have been hard not to in their line of work. Mick Malloy had become the unofficial cover model for The Curator, Archaeology Today, and Science Magazine. She’d even heard the rumor that Malloy was getting his own cable reality show.
And why not? He was made for TV. Sexy. Sun-bronzed. A real-life Indiana Jones with a brilliant mind, a sharp wit, and a devastatingly fine … Forget it. It doesn’t matter anymore. Piper sighed. The details she wanted to know about Mick weren’t to be found in magazines or TV shows, anyway, and she’d never dare come right out and ask someone. Was he happy? Had he ever married? Had a woman ever captured his mind and heart the way archaeology had? If so, who was she? And in how many ways was she the complete opposite of Piper?
I will not go there. Piper straightened her shoulders and carefully executed the task at hand, reminding herself that these journals were not about her or Mick or how she’d blown her chance with him a decade ago. The diaries weren’t some kind of yardstick with which to compare her own adventures—or lack thereof. These journals were a historical treasure with yet unknown repercussions.
Ophelia’s firsthand accounts of her life as a London courtesan would not only add a fascinating complexity to her role in history, but it could improve understanding of early nineteenth-century underground London economy, its social mores, and the indiscretions of the rich and powerful. This was a serious scholarly matter, not a Cosmo quiz.
Piper turned to the yellow demon stare of Miss M., who had draped herself over the back of the Queen Anne chair in dramatic fashion, her tail swishing in the stuffy air as if she were fanning herself. “You think I’m enjoying this?” she asked her cat. “I’m exhausted. It’s ninety-four degrees outside. My life is about as fun as one of Mom and Dad’s dinner parties! And this girl—this courtesan chick who ran around calling herself ‘the Blackbird’ and bending over to light men’s cigars so that her mammary glands fell out of her dress—” Piper gestured toward the diary she held above the copier. “My God! What a complete tart that girl was!”
Miss Meade blinked, then looked away as if offended by the outburst. The phone rang, saving Piper from further crazy cat-lady conversation. She eased the journal into its makeshift cradle of organic cotton batting covered by acid-free cloth, and checked the caller ID. Suddenly, chatting with her cat seemed like a perfectly reasonable endeavor. Piper let the call go to automated voice mail, but clicked on the speaker.
“It’s your mother,” the clipped voice said through the telephone console. “Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll assume you’re not coming for dinner tomorrow. I am concerned about you. We haven’t seen you for going on a month. You haven’t returned my calls. Your father thinks you might be back on dairy and are experiencing symptoms of bloat and/or depression. Are you back on dairy? Are you depressed? Are you bloated? Call me, please.” Click.
This would be as good a time as any to take a break, Piper decided, heading into her tiny kitchen for some ice cream. The real stuff, too. Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean. Five hundred eighty calories and thirty-six grams of fat in a one-cup serving. As Piper opened the freezer compartment and stuck her head inside for a quick respite, she thought about how she’d like to answer her mother. If she had the nerve. She might say, “Hell, yes, I’m back on dairy, Mother dearest! And by the way—you seem to have forgotten your only child’s thirtieth fucking birthday!”
A sudden tingle that went through her had nothing to do with the open freezer. She found it immensely satisfying to speak to her mother like that—especially using the f-word—even if only in her head. She smiled to herself. Oh, if her mother only knew … Just yesterday, Piper had enjoyed a Polish sausage, fries, and a giant vanilla shake. And three days prior to that she’d gotten completely out of control and had a huge slice of New York cheesecake—the chocolate marble swirl kind.
Piper was aware that her bingeing on dairy was a classic case of rebellion, the kind she should have experimented with at seventeen. But she hadn’t had the nerve at seventeen. Or eighteen. The truth was, it sucked being the only child of the founders of the Caloric Restriction and Human Longevity Lab at Harvard. They were among the country’s most revered biomedical researchers—and two of the most tightly wound, repressed human beings ever to inhabit the earth.
Birthdays weren’t celebrated in her family. Her parents said holidays were just an excuse to overdo. For her birthday, Piper could count on a kiss on the cheek and a new book, but never cake and ice cream or a beautifully wrapped gift. “Will vanilla work for you?” Piper asked Miss Meade, who was rubbing against her ankle and purring, a sure sign of her improving mood.
As she scooped out two bowls of the heavenly substance, it suddenly struck Piper as pathetic. Her idea of debauchery in the twenty-first century was a cup of vanilla ice cream. Ophelia Harrington had spent part of 1813 studying the erotic arts, under the tutelage of a masked man she knew only as “Sir,” who served as her professor of gluttonous depravity for seven days and seven nights. There was something wrong with this picture.
Thus emboldened, I returned to the witness stand, determined to skewer the hypocrites, all of them. “I stand accused of a murder I did not commit. And who are my accusers?”
I scanned the packed courtroom and pointed to the offenders. “The prosecutor is a man who has unsuccessfully courted me for more than a decade, a man known to grovel at my doorstep, only to burst into sobs when I sent him away. And the man bringing these charges?”
I took great relish in facing the sullen, vindictive wastrel, wondering how I could have ever found him dashing. “This is the blackguard who tried to sell me into sexual slavery years ago, only to beat me severely when I escaped his control.”
The courtroom erupted into gasps and murmurs. Yet I was not done. I stood in the witness box and raised my voice high and clear. “This trial is naught but a temper tantrum thrown by enraged and undisciplined little boys, all of whom are in dire need of a good spanking!”
The alarm had gone off long ago, but Piper remained propped up on her pillows, in the same daze she’d been in all weekend. There was no other way to look at it—Ophelia Harrington had balls. The lady didn’t take crap off anyone—not her guardians, not the arbiters of decorum, not the men who sought out her company and then sought to rule her. That chick had the courage to live life to its fullest—in and out of the boudoir. It was all very inspiring. And exhausting.
After spending forty-eight hours in Ophelia’s exotic world of lust, excess, seduction, intrigue, and betrayal, Piper felt overwhelmed. The journals had aroused her and piqued her curiosity in equal measure, but she was far more accustomed to being piqued than being aroused, so, by this time, she was wiped out. Wasted.
Hung over on a Monday morning and running late for work. The sun sliced through the miniblinds. The window air conditioner hummed and rattled. Miss Meade was curled up at the foot of her double bed. This was where Piper was supposed to rise and dress and pack her brown-bag lunch and get herself to the museum. She had a 9 A.M. staff meeting. She had an afternoon monthly budget session. But how was she supposed to do all that?
How was she supposed to drag her sex-dazed self in there and pretend she was the same girl who’d come to work on Friday? She wasn’t. And she’d probably never be that girl again, would she?
Piper wiped at the tears suddenly running down her cheeks, laughing at her own ridiculousness. She’d made quite the wet mess of herself, hadn’t she? Last night, for the first time in years, Piper had touched herself. Last night, for the first time in her life, she’d managed to bring herself to orgasm. And not just the standard kind of orgasm. Inspired by the diaries, somehow Piper had charged headlong into a searing, core-rattling, devastating place she’d never visited before. She didn’t go there once. She went four times.
And the most shocking part of all of it was that somehow, Mick Malloy had risen from her past and inserted his man-candy self into her orgasmic fantasies, weaving in and out of the jumbled historical sex-stew that had temporarily taken over her brain. So now, as Piper sat there propped up against her pillows, it felt as if a dam had burst in her soul, as if the heat of Ophelia and Sir’s two-hundred-year-old sexual liaison had somehow burned down the walls she’d built inside herself.
What was she supposed to do now?Order your copy
From the New York Times bestselling author of the Heiress Brides comes a heartfelt and hilarious Christmas romance…
Grieving widower Lord Matthias of Havensbeck Manor sends messages in a bottle to his lost wife and child, never knowing they are being found and read by spirited vicar’s ward Bernadette Goodrich!
It’s been six years since Matthias lost his family to a Christmas Eve fire at the manor. Still grieving, he secludes himself there every year, unable to bear the holiday celebrations of others. And every year, he sends his love and his broken dreams off in a series of letters tossed into the river.
Every holiday season, orphaned Bernadette looks for the dramatic and beautiful letters to arrive at her riverside vicarage. Will anyone ever love her the way the mysterious letter-writer loved? And who is the author of the heart-stopping letters she treasures so much?
A Christmas Ball brings the two together in a conspiracy by a mischievous little brother and an interfering butler. By turns heartfelt and hilarious, Sleepless in Staffordshire is a charming Regency historical take on the romantic Nora Ephron film “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Read the reviews!
“I love her characters I get so attached! I have everything she’s written and they just keep getting better.” — S Hill – Amazon Reviewer
“Yes, it’s got funny parts, and yes it’s light-hearted, but Bradley hits you in the feels right out of the gate and doesn’t let go until the end.” — Julie P – Amazon Reviewer
“This is classic Celeste Bradley at her best. It was both heart wrenching and heartwarming.” — S O’Byrne – Amazon Reviewer
“With Christmas celebrations over, and seeing a post of this new-to-me writer, I couldn’t resist one more holiday story. And I’m so glad I permitted myself this one final gift. A beautiful, bitter sweet story of love lost, and the bloom of a new love and new beginnings.” — Susan F – Amazon Reviewer
Read more reviews here!
Under the covers…
Sometimes when you have an idea burning in your imagination, but it doesn’t work with your current series, there’s only one thing you can do.
Start another series!
The Haven Holiday books are my new Christmas series. Every holiday season, I’ll publish another story set in the village of Haven in Staffordshire. Snowfall, sleigh rides, hot tea and fireside cuddles–all my favorite things about English Country Christmas!
My other favorite thing about Christmas? Holiday movies! So I thought I’d look to my favorite romantic holiday films for inspiration in capturing that perfect Christmas love story. I give you Sleepless in Staffordshire, starring the sorrowful Lord Matthias and the irrepressible Bernadette!
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Preview Chapter 1 of Sleepless in Staffordshire!
SLEEPLESS IN STAFFORDSHIRE
LORD MATTHIAS WATERFORD ENTERED HIS fine country manor of Havensbeck in county Staffordshire, removed his hat and was promptly greeted by his butler, Jasper. The stout man looked dignified as usual in his dark blue livery.
Jasper bowed. “How was your ride, my lord?”
“Cold.” Matthias shrugged out of his snow-dusted greatcoat and unwound his woolen scarf. Something caught his eye as he looked up. “Jasper, what is that hideous growth that is even now strangling my banister?"
Jasper wasn’t the slightest bit near-sighted, being no older than Matthias’s own thirty-two years. Yet he squinted up at the stair railing as if barely able to see what his master referred to. "Oh, that? That is a garland, my lord. A braided strand of winter greenery used to impart a sense of the season."
"Yes, I know what a garland is. Why is a garland allowed to infest my house?"
Jasper beamed at Matthias innocently. "Some people consider them very becoming decorations, my lord."
"Some people may, but not I. Take it down."
"Absolutely. Hideous thing. I shall banish it at once, my lord." The butler bowed so obsequiously low that Matthias could see the top of his ginger-haired head. Sarcasm, in his own house.
Matthias handed his black leather riding gloves to Jasper with an admonishing glare. Then he turned toward his study and the bottle of brandy that awaited him there.
Garlands. Blast it! Christmas just kept coming, every year, again and again, no matter how fast he rode or how far he traveled. So he retreated to this place, Havensbeck, deep in the Staffordshire valley, where the icy cold kept everyone indoors and the heavy snow muffled the sounds of their celebrations. And he still walked in on blasted garlands.
Matthias sighed and turned to face his most faithful and trusted and annoying retainer. "Out with it, Jasper."
"The Haven assembly rooms are under repair, my lord. Recall that storm last October? The roof leaked most abominably."
"I don’t believe a word of it."
Jasper nodded solemnly. "It is quite true, my lord. Mildew everywhere. The blue velvet chair cushions are positively green with stuff growing on them."
"And yet you drape my house with green growing stuff?"
"That’s different, my lord." Jasper’s tone was starchy. "That’s traditional."
Matthias sighed. "Mildew, eh?"
"It is most unrefined, my lord. The ladies will never sit down all night. You will be forced to dance with every single one, at least three times. That is, you would if you still danced."
Pity tinged the butler’s voice. Matthias flinched from it, parting his lips to reprimand Jasper. However, those black days of shouting at his devoted servants were long past. “Inform whomever is arranging this event that I will buy new chairs for the hall.”
Jasper blinked. “Ah. Yes. That is most generous, of course, my lord. But with only three weeks until Christmas?“
“Ah, you were hoping I would volunteer the manor for the celebrations?”
"Oh, it isn’t I, my lord. It’s the staff, you see. I’m simply the elected spokesperson." Jasper spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. "I’m fully against it, myself. I loathe people. I despise celebrations. So messy. Dreadful nuisance, guests. If it were up to me, my lord, I would keep the house dark and cold and serve only dry toast and brandy for the next three weeks, just as you prefer. Now, that’s my sort of Christmas."
Irony, from his own butler. Matthias grunted as he turned away. "Just top off the brandy, Jasper. The dry toast is all yours this evening."
MATTHIAS LEANED BACK IN HIS fireside chair and cupped his snifter in both hands. His study remained quite satisfactorily dark, but it wasn’t cold. Jasper would never allow that. A cheery flame traced blue and gold over the coals in the fireplace. From his high-backed chair, Matthias watched it numbly until its merry dance seemed to mock his misery. He closed his eyes against its optimistic flare.
Another Christmas. Another year without Marianna, without his jolly little Simon, without his family. No happy singing of carols, no giddy hiding of gifts, just this bloody great echoing house and another snowy anniversary of that horrible fiery night.
His eyes opened and his gaze slid to the blotter on his desk. Jasper had left out a stack of foolscap and a filled inkwell. Next to the blotter stood a washed, dried wine bottle and a cork at the ready.
Matthias looked away. He didn’t know why he bothered. The letters never helped. The entire process was maudlin and unwise and useless. If anyone but Jasper ever learned of it, they would certainly think him mad.
So why did the next moment find him seated at his desk, sharpening a quill? Why did his fingertips grasp the pen, dip it into the ready ink and begin to write?
My dearest Simon,
He wouldn’t write to Marianna this time. But a man could pen a letter to his own son, could he not?
The snow is falling on the lawn and I think of you chortling away as your mama tried to show you how to make a snow angel. She moved your little arms and legs and you thought she meant to tickle you. And when she lifted you into her arms and pointed at what you made together, you clapped your hands and shouted "Doggie!" That’s when she began to call them snow doggies instead and we made them all over the lawn for you to see the next morning when you awoke.
The coals had gone to gray ash and the house was silent by the time he finished the letter. The pages, when rolled, scarcely fit through the neck of the bottle.
“You are a man of few words, my love,” she had told him once with a little laugh in her voice, “but when you take up a pen, you write volumes!
"Only about you," Matthias whispered now. "Only about him."
He corked the bottle tightly and stood, weaving just slightly. He’d been at the desk so long the brandy had nearly worn off, or it would have, if he’d taken the toast. He would have an aching head on him in the morning for his carelessness.
No matter. His step was steady as he left the study and the house. It wasn’t a far walk to the stone bridge over the river. His woolen surcoat and weskit would keep him warm enough, even in the snowfall.
The clouds held a glow, for the village was still alight with lanterns and the first round of celebrations. The people of Haven loved a fête, that was for certain. Marianna had adored throwing parties for them all. From baptisms to weddings, she had turned her considerable imagination to pleasing his people. Matthias had always held their respect, but it was Marianna they had loved.
His chest hurt. The hollow pain of loss and helpless fury that smoldered in his heart burned with a special, piercing ache as Christmas Eve approached every year.
The manor had long been repaired. Looking back at it now, no sign remained of the fire damage that had burned the heart right out of its master. Tonight, as the snow fell so peacefully and silently, muffling the faint sounds of fiddle music coming from the village, one would think that nothing bad could ever happen in a place so beautiful.
One would be wrong.
Marianna had loved the river. It was known as the River Churnet, a name so old no one remembered what it meant any longer. “Mundane,” she had stated, and renamed it the River Celadon and declared it chock full of naiads or dryads or whatever spirits haunted running water. Even now, in the harshest of winters, the swift running water had refused to freeze entirely, leaving a rushing stream down the center of the encroaching ice on both banks.
Matthias leaned his elbows on the sturdy stone railing of the bridge and pressed the freezing glass bottle to his flushed forehead. It was a silly thing to do, writing these letters.
"Stupid. Useless." He held the bottle to his cheek and squeezed his eyes closed. "I love you both. I miss you. Merry Christmas."
And he let the bottle fall into the hissing, rushing water yet again.
BERNIE GOODRICH WRAPPED ONE FIST in the back of her brother’s thick winter jacket and held tight to the leafless branch over her head with the other. Beneath them, the ice-edged water of the River Churnet swirled gray and white.
"Just a bit more."
"I haven’t any more, Simon. Do you want to take a dousing in the ice water and cause Aunt Sarah to carry on about you taking a chill? She’ll boil you alive in the tub until you’re the color of a cooked lobster!"
"Got it!" Eight-year-old Simon held the bottle aloft like a trophy, brandishing it in triumph.
Bernie pulled him back to the bank with a mighty heave. "Heavens, you’re growing. I won’t be able to do that for much longer." She set him on his feet and then brushed her fallen hair back into her knitted hat so she could better examine their prize.
"It’s a different label than last time," Simon pointed out. "Look, there’s a waterwheel on this one."
Bernie tilted her head. "I think it’s one of those Dutch inventions. A windmill." She held the greenish-brown bottle to the wintry gray daylight and tried to peer through it. "This one looks chock full of paper!"
"Bernadette Goodrich! What on earth are you doing on the riverbank on such a terrible day?"
Bernie tucked the bottle away into the folds of her skirt as she straightened. "Nothing, Aunt Sarah!" She called back up the bank.
Her aunt gazed down at her from the path above the Churnet, her work-worn fists plunked onto her angular hips. Her brow held the permanent furrows of confusion that Bernie and Simon seemed to inspire in their childless aunt and uncle.
"Are we late for something?" Simon whispered as they clambered up the bank. The grassy slope was covered in a thick fall of snow. They left a trail of footprints, one set small and the other not much larger, in the pristine bank.
It was a good question. "I don’t think so, but perhaps?"
It seemed to Bernie that she was usually in the wrong for one thing or another. Tardiness was her usual sin, although according to Aunt Sarah she was also accomplished in Laggardliness and Inattention. In the six years since she and Simon had been sent away from the epidemic that had taken their parents, they had lived in the vicarage of Green Dell and had done their best to adapt. Simon had only been two years of age, so the crumbling house and poor village was all he knew. Bernie, on the other hand, had been fourteen, old enough to recall every moment of another life.
A life very different from this one. "Let’s see. We fed the chickens, filled the coal scuttles and turned down the beds."
"I fluffed the pillows!"
"And a fine job you did of it, too." Bernie counted off on the fingers of her woolen gloves. "Chickens, coal, beds, wood-box, and the dough is rising."
"We didn’t dust the parlor!"
"Oh, Christmas Bells on a Stick!" Bernie swore. It was Wednesday and the village Ladies League met in the vicarage parlor every week. "Scurry home and get the cloths from the linen basket. I’ll put the bread in the oven and meet you in the parlor. Go on! Run!"
Simon bounced ahead of her. If her aunt wasn’t lurking watchfully about, Bernie would pick up her skirts and race him home. But the prospect of a lecture on decorum along with the usual one on duty made her head ache just a little bit.
She didn’t mean to be a slackard. It wasn’t that she minded the constant work, for Aunt Sarah was thrice as industrious herself. None of the chores she’d been set were terribly arduous, at least not now that she was fully grown. It was just that there were so bloody many of them!
And now she’d said bloody in her head, which had to count as some sort of sin. Bernie sighed. It was so easy to sin, living at the vicarage. When Mama and Papa were alive, she’d hardly seemed to sin at all!
The paper-stuffed wine bottle tucked deep into her coat pocket banged against her knee at every step. It was the first one they’d seen this year! Excitement simmered within her, fighting with the frustration that threatened to boil over.
With the Ladies’ League gathering at the vicarage today, she and Simon wouldn’t have a moment to examine their find until bedtime!
Christmas Bells!Order your copy