by Celeste Bradley & Susan Donovan
Date Released: June 12, 2018
In Breathless, bestselling authors Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan will sweep you away—across continents and centuries, combining the best of all worlds in one unforgettable romantic saga.
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…
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An Excerpt from Breathless
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 9th 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 drew 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 Faberge 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 allegedly belonged to an 18th Century geisha, and a 1929 signed and inscribed first edition of Hemingway’s 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 warp 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 bed sheet, 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 “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, 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, and 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 with 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.
Copyright © 2018 by Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan in Breathless
Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Griffin
About Celeste Bradley & Susan Donovan
Celeste Bradley is the New York Times bestselling author of the Runaway Brides, Heiress Brides, Liar’s Club, and Royal Four series. Her novel Fallen was nominated for a RITA in 2002.
“When you are over-endowed with imagination and under-endowed with punctuality, become a writer.” Years of dreaming on the job paid off when Celeste Bradley quit the mainstream in 1999 and started writing historical romance. “Handsome heroes beat out cranky customers every time!”
Bradley lives in New Mexico with her family, her desert garden and so many pets the house sometimes feels like an ark.
A former newspaper reporter with journalism degrees from Northwestern University, Susan is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller whose novels have been translated into dozens of languages. She is a two-time RITA Award finalist, and her novel Take a Chance on Me was named Best Contemporary Romance of 2003 by RT Book Reviews Magazine.
She lives in New Mexico with her family and assorted dogs.
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