Blackmailed Bride, Midnight Whispers Book 2

Blackmailed Bride cover

He must depend on a blackmailed bride to ensure he has a future.

Blackmailed Bride, Midnight Whispers Book 2

A desperate man has no choice but to blackmail his bride.

Dr. Jonas Shades’ wife vanishes one winter night, leaving no trace.

He needs her by his side or he’ll lose not only his funding, but his life.

So he blackmails antiques dealer Cathlynn O’Connell into impersonating his missing wife.

Meanwhile, a ruthless killer is determined to not only sabotage Jonas’s research, but to make Cathlynn disappear—all in the name of revenge.

Will Cathlynn live long enough to confess her love to the husband who can never be hers?

If you like fake relationships, fish out of water stories and small-town settings,  you’ll love this romantic suspense fraught with danger and enigma.

EXCERPT

Chapter 1

Cathlynn O’Connell glanced around the living room of the monastery turned mansion, looking for her treasure with, she hoped, what passed for cool composure. Her heart fluttered with excitement, but she forced herself to present her usual calm professional appearance. People expected that from her; she’d built her reputation as a top-notch antiques dealer with her fairness and her levelheadedness.


Where was the sculpture? What if? But no, she wouldn’t even entertain such a thought. The brochure had clearly printed the description, and the picture had left no doubt.


The Aidan Heart was here—somewhere.


Cathlynn removed her wool hat and gloves and dropped them on one of the folding chairs. A storm brewed outside. Strong winds pummeled the ancient stone structure—one of three buildings on the grounds. The promised inclement weather hadn’t kept people away from the auction. Cathlynn didn’t blame them. Nothing could have kept her away today.


She’d raced the dark, billowy clouds all the way from Nashua to the small village of Ste-Croix on the western edge of the White Mountains, and the old Ste-Croix Monastery. Slate skies had met white snow with nothing in between to give the illusion of depth except somber evergreens and the gray branches of winter-bared maples and elms. Taking a wrong turn along the twisty country road, she’d almost ended up in the treacherous depths of the Ste-Croix River that fed eventually into Lake Winnipesaukee. But she’d made it.


And ten years of searching for the Aidan Heart would end today.


Inside the gray stone main house, people milled about, creating a soft buzz with their chatter. Curiosity seekers or competition? The cordial fire, glowing in the hearth, mellowed the wind’s strong bite, but couldn’t quite keep the chill out of the air. Cathlynn scanned the room once more. The fact the walls’ only adornment was a series of paintings, portraying austere monks in their black-hooded habits didn’t help. It almost seemed as if the monks followed her every move, especially the one over the fireplace whose eyes glowed red in the firelight’s trail.


What kind of person would choose to live in such a bleak environment? An involuntary shiver slid down her spine.


As she crossed the room, she recognized several rival dealers and nodded a greeting. Noticing a side room from which people emerged, and guessing the auction goods’ location, she headed in its direction.


A collection of high quality antiques crowded the small adjoining room. Cathlynn looked at the rich offerings, feigning interest while her heart beat strong with anticipation of finding the Aidan Heart. She spotted a lamp and several glass bowls she could easily place with her clients, but she wouldn’t bid on them.


She’d come to Ste-Croix for one thing and one thing only—the glass sculpture her great-great-grandfather had fashioned for his bride almost a hundred years ago. A gift of love tragically lost when Aidan and Deirdre O’Connell had left Ireland for the United States.


Now she held the precious gift in her sight.


As she approached the sculpture, Cathlynn held her breath. Though shaped like the pylon paperweights popular in the late 1800s, the similarity ended there. Rather than tool the glass into shape, the artist had hand-blown it so the glass folded over itself, forming hanging layers of translucence from light pink to dark purple to pure transparent, with a three-dimensional heart suspended, as if by magic, in its center. The whole rested on a flat square base.


It was perfect. More beautiful than she’d imagined. The glass spoke to her, flooding her with sensations of the past, of love, acceptance, happiness. She breathed deeply to tamp down the tears of joy threatening to fragment her careful composure.


With discreet awe and a trembling finger, Cathlynn reached out to touch the object of her intense search. The glass warmed beneath her finger. She picked it up, feeling its solid weight in her hands for the first time. Turning it over carefully, she inspected every facet. Not a chip, not a scratch in sight. The room grew unbearably warm around her, making the glass pulsate with heat, coating her hands with sweat. Even the walls seemed to shimmer in a fever-like hallucination.


Her lips trembled. She clamped them down. She had to get hold of herself. She couldn’t let emotions draw her in. Staying cool, calm, and collected—that would get her the prize, not foolish emotions.


With a deep reluctance, she set the sculpture down on the table once more, and turned back to the main room. Maybe the imminent storm would keep most her competition away. Few people realized the value of the piece, but maybe some would be drawn into the bidding by its simple, yet elegant charm.


No use worrying. She’d get the Aidan Heart even if she had to sell her soul for it.


By bringing the sculpture back to its rightful owner, she hoped to give a final glimpse of magic to her dying grandmother. Gram had done so much for her. Her summers at Gram’s house had brought a measure of peace to her chaotic childhood, the stories of Aidan and Deirdre’s love, and the magic of belonging. And with the sculpture, she’d brighten her grandmother’s last days, see the light of recognition shine one more time in her eyes. She owed her at least that much.


Two elderly ladies, shuffling through the door, blocked her exit from the room. Cathlynn stepped aside to let them pass.


”Do you suppose he’ll show up?” asked the one leaning on a cane.


”Who?” asked the one whose purple feather on her hat bobbed to a palsied rhythm.


“Jonas Shades. Who else?”


Jonas Shades. Why did the name seem so familiar? Where had she heard it before?


Purple Feather cocked a hand on her hip. “Bertha, you’ve no intentions of buying anything, do you? You dragged me out in this weather just to add fodder to your gossip fuel. I’ve a good mind to drag you right back home.”


“You’ll do no such thing!” Bertha pretended indignation, then leaned closer to her companion’s ear. “My David says he’s been impossible to work for since his wife disappeared last month, that he’s lost his edge. Hasn’t been able to do anything. David says he spends most of his days pacing. And you know how it is…. Well, I had to see for myself.”


Purple Feather’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “Your grandson is as bad a gossip as you are.”


Bertha picked up a trinket from the nearby table and replaced it with barely a look. “David says that’s why he’s having the auction. David says he desperately needs cash. Think of how it would affect the village if he left.”


“Someone else would come. Someone always does.” Purple Feather tried to pull Bertha along.


“Yes, but at what price to us? Remember what happened when the family lost the monastery after Jeremy Shades died? The village almost disappeared.”


”Come on.” The hat’s purple feather dipped wildly as the woman forcibly pulled her companion along. “The auction’s about to begin. Let’s go take our seats.”


Cathlynn followed the old ladies out the door. Bertha stopped abruptly, and Cathlynn nearly crashed into her.


”There he is,” Bertha whispered to her companion. “Oh my, he doesn’t look good at all, does he? I wonder if he’ll cancel the Christmas fete this year. What a disappointment that would be for everyone. But who could blame him with all this tragedy hanging over his head?”


Despite herself, Cathlynn couldn’t help following the old lady’s gaze to the tall man standing in the corner. He leaned his long, athletic frame against the wall, studying the room with undisguised contempt. His dark brown hair looked as if he’d recently raked it with fingers. Deep-set eyes the color of squally clouds hid beneath low brows, giving him an appearance as frosty as the winter storm blustering outside. Prominent cheekbones and a square jaw negated the promise of sensuality offered by his full mouth.


Not a man to tangle with, yet Cathlynn was drawn to the sheer power of his presence. Even when he tried to melt into the shadows, he filled the room.


Their gazes met and held for longer than was comfortable. The intensity of his gray eyes traveled all the way to her soul, and buffeted her with feelings she didn’t dare name. She put aside the exciting sensation thrilling through her down to the prospect of owning the Aidan Heart, not to the brooding man in the corner.


Unexpectedly, the protection of her coat felt like candy glass, thin and transparent. She tightened it around her despite the insufferable warmth tingling her body. An echo of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on pinged deep inside.


The illusion of warmth faded from his eyes. When she realized his stare had hardened into hate, she shivered and turned away.


Why? She made her way back to her chair. What did I do? She removed her coat and self-consciously smoothed the skirt of her burgundy wool-blend shirt-dress, then picked up her brochure.


Jonas Shades. Where had she heard the name? She read the brochure’s cover and found the auction sponsored by the Monastery Company. She searched through the catalog of her mind, but came up empty. She’d never met the man—would have remembered if she had. Power that potent wasn’t easily forgotten.


She shrugged. It didn’t matter. She hadn’t driven all this way to solve the mystery behind the pained look in Mr. Jonas Shades’s eyes.


Suddenly, the front door blew open. Wind whipped through the opening. It whistled and snarled down the makeshift aisle, snapping the folding chairs in the back row to the ground with its unexpected ferocity. The audience turned in one movement.


”Do you suppose it’s her?” Bertha whispered to her companion.


“Who? The monks’ virgin sacrifice?” Purple Feather scoffed.


”Her. You know, his wife. I’ve heard people say they’ve seen her ghost about the place. Some even say he killed her himself in a fit of rage.”


Purple Feather jabbed Bertha in the ribs with her elbow. “There you go again gossiping. No one’s sure she’s even dead. You should know by now people love to exaggerate everything because nothing ever happens here. The monks’ legend is just that—a legend.”


“Well, there’s always a grain of truth in every story. The monks do have a bloody history.”


”It’s just a myth!”


A heavy thump boomed and resounded down the corridor as a young man, dressed in a suit too formal for the occasion, closed the door, straightened the downed chairs, then took a seat in the back row.


The auctioneer banged his hammer and got the sale under way. He proceeded at a fast pace, for which Cathlynn was thankful. Turning her gaze to the corner of the room, she found Jonas Shades’s icy stare on her once more. The faster she got her prize, the sooner she could escape and leave behind the uncomfortable feeling settling in her gut.


”Now we have item number 113. A piece of experimental Irish glass circa 1900 from the Summers Glasshouse. The artist is unknown, but the piece is often referred to as the Aidan Heart. Who will give me…”


She knew the market value, but she wanted the piece no matter what it cost. And that put her at a disadvantage. Would puffers, seeking to inflate prices, prey on her vulnerability? Would the auctioneer call phantom bids when he sensed the intensity of her desire? She’d bid tentatively at first to feel out the opposition. If she simulated a lack of interest, she might get the piece for below its market value.


Cathlynn waited patiently, breath held, while someone signaled to cut the opening bid in half.


“Ladies and gentlemen,” the auctioneer continued. “This is the finest example of Irish glass I’ve seen in a long time…”


The bidding went fast and furious. As bid rose to the piece’s market value, Cathlynn tightened her hold on her bidding card and tried to remain calm.


“This is no money for such a fine example of Irish glass…”


Beads of moisture formed along her hairline. Cathlynn put up her card.


“Remember this is an original, ladies and gentlemen. You would pay more than this for a reproduction. Who will give me…”


The bidding was too high. Cathlynn’s armpits prickled with sweat. She crossed and uncrossed her ankles. As she calculated her options, her mind whirled.


I want it.

I need it.

No amount of cool reasoning could counter the irrational demand of her yearning.


She had to have it.


She put up her card.


“This should be a part of any serious glass collection…”


One card went up. Then another. She’d never dreamed the price would go so high. Oh God, she was going to lose the Aidan Heart after searching for it for ten years. She couldn’t let it go.


Licking her dry lips, she flung up her card, not sure how she’d manage to pay.


Jonas interrupted the auctioneer. A frantic whispered discussion passed between them, and Jonas, after nodding once to someone in the back, left through the back door.


What was going on? Why had they stopped? Dreadful premonition swamped through her. No, they couldn’t stop. It wasn’t legal. She was so close. Her rapid pulse hammered her brain. Her hands unconsciously tightened around the bidding card, scrunching the flimsy cardboard.


The auctioneer cleared his throat and resumed his pitch. “Ladies and gentlemen…”


From the back of the room came a bid. A bid so ridiculous it took an instant to register into her brain.


”What!” Cathlynn jumped to her feet, amid agitated whispers. She whirled around, knocking her chair to the ground. “You can’t do that!”


EXTRAS for Blackmailed Bride

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