Cursed by Love

Chapter One

Molly Webber dodged through the backstage chaos of the popular antiques appraisal show, Your Grandma’s Attic. With her attention darting from one fascinating mound of stuff to another, she pulled up just short of following Ernie, her speedy studio guide, under a towering suspension ladder.

Not that she truly believed walking under a ladder caused bad luck. But was it only coincidence that Ernie plowed into a senior citizen carrying a box of doorknockers? She thought not.

Apologizing profusely, Molly helped Ernie get the old man back on his feet. After returning his treasures to their carton, they hurried on through the maze of lights, cameras, props and cables.

“Wait here.” Ernie indicated a small, nondescript room that reeked of stale coffee. The temporary holding area contained a couple of vending machines, a lumpy couch, and a folding table with two chairs. A lone male occupied one of them.

“How long?” Eager to get to the on-camera appraisal of her palm-sized pink carving, Molly almost bounced her way into the room.

“Maybe an hour.” Ernie tossed the information over his shoulder, hotfooting his way back to the studio.

“Okay, then.” After waiting in line for three hours to meet an appraiser, what was another sixty minutes?

Idly, she took stock of the room’s other inhabitant—a preppy type in a crisp button-down shirt and sharply creased khakis. Too carefully pressed and repressed for her taste, but wait. Her gaze caught on a pair of red Goofy socks peeking out between pant cuffs and loafers. Quirky. Cute… Interesting.

He held a sleek phone in the palm of one hand, scrolling the screen with the repeated flick of his index finger. The kind of pretentious phone Batman would use for redirecting missiles away from Gotham City or intercepting messages from his rogues’ gallery of enemies. The kind that made people way too dependent on technology and not nearly dependent enough on their brains, memory, and logic.

Setting the magical phone aside, he opened a wafer-thin laptop. His fingers flashed across the keyboard with deft strokes and an economy of motion as he peered into the screen intently.

He didn’t so much as glance Molly’s way when she dropped into a chair. Clearing her throat, She waited for him to acknowledge her. No response, unless taking a sip of bottled water counted as one.

With his attention obviously focused elsewhere, she studied him further.

His body was as slender and taut as a steel blade. Agile, but toned. No spare flesh, just lots of compacted male strength. She would describe him as lithe, if lithe described someone so masculine. Yes, lithe fit him. With the whipcord intensity of a swimmer or a runner rather than the over-inflated look-at-me bulging muscles of a football player or bodybuilder. Strong, but supple.

The strong silent type.

Which left her with no one to talk to. She sighed, wishing her mom had accompanied her the way they’d planned. Fascinating though the day had been, sharing it with someone else would really rock.

So far, Molly had been poked with a weathervane, attacked by unruly bagpipes, and jabbed with a revolutionary war sword before taking her place in the Asian antiquities queue. Still, she’d much rather participate in the mayhem of the crowded auditorium than in this dull space with an oblivious techie.

Intending to retrieve the self-help manual she’d been reading, she began groping through the apple-appliquéd canvas tote a former student had given her. Her “When You Wish Upon a Star” ringtone interrupted the search, so she switched to groping for her very basic, ancient cell phone. Before she located it, the guy moved his way-smarter phone from the table to his ear.

Hmmm, she mused, as pulled out her book. They shared the same Disney tune for their cell phone rings? What kind of sign was that? Not that she was looking for a sign from the universe. But still…

Now that he no longer had his head bowed over his laptop, Molly took stock of his looks. His better-than average looks. Gorgeous looks, in fact. If one liked that sort of boyishly attractive, intelligent type.

Strong jaw with a hint of five-o’clock shadow. Brown eyes that looked intelligent and guarded at first glance, then took her breath away as they flashed briefly with something dark and complex. He blinked and the peek into his inner depths disappeared, leaving Molly to wonder if she’d imagined the expression.

She fanned her hand in front of her face to cool the first heated licks of interest.

If his voice lived up to the rest of him, she might be willing to forget she’d sworn off men for good.

Her breath hitched in anticipation and her palms perspired as she waited for him to speak. His lips parted on the simple word “hello,” and her heart pounded.

Aaahhh, yes! Tantalizingly deep. The kind of seductive voice capable of turning her into a puddle of desire if whispered across her pillow in the dark of night. “Molly,” he’d say with his breath tickling that squirmingly sensitive spot beneath her ear—

“No!” He shouted the word into the phone, almost giving her whiplash as he jerked her from fantasyland back to cold, hard reality. “Did you hear? I said no!

Molly leaned back in her chair and grimaced. She heard him all right. Everyone in the Convention Center auditorium probably heard him, too.

“Stay where you are, don’t touch the Quigley project, and don’t let Chloe near the computer again until I get home.” He barked out the commands in a tone more suitable to a drill sergeant or prison guard than a friend, or employer. Or spouse. Or father. “Yes! All right, I’ll stop at the store on my way home!”

Without a word of farewell, he thumbed off the connection and glanced up, catching Molly’s look of disapproval. His eyes met hers for the first time. She pulled back, shocked by a starkly incongruous tug of attraction.

Of desire?

But, no. She wasn’t gullible enough to overlook obnoxious behavior just because a guy had a handsome face and intriguing expression. She wasn’t that shallow. But she couldn’t explain the zippy feeling tickling her in secret little places. Her nipples puckered, and her pulse raced in anticipation.

Good God, girl, get a grip!

His lips twitched in a small frown. “Sorry about that.”

Instinctively she crossed her arms over her chest and clamped her thighs together. “Sorry about …?”

“That call.” Phone Bully gestured to his phone. “For disturbing you.”

Right, the yelling. She cleared her throat. Of course, the phone call. They didn’t have a secret ESP link that put them on the same intimate wavelength. He hadn’t felt the same confusing, physical reaction to her she’d had for him.

Except for that special… connection, he was clearly not her type. She shrugged away her awareness of him along with her disappointment. She wasn’t into S or M, and her self-image bristled at the idea of verbal bullying.

“No problem.” Not for her anyway. Too bad for the unfortunate caller he’d berated.

Perfectly gorgeous he might be, but so far, he’d exhibited the manners of a troglodyte. She could think of no excuse for a reasonable human being to use that tone anywhere outside of military boot camp.

She sniffed and opened her book. Choosing to ignore him, she flipped through Ten Ways to Save a Marriage even though she could feel his gaze examining her.

Sure, now Phone Bully was interested. Now that the dark underbelly of his bullying nature had been exposed. Did she know how to attract ‘em, or what?

Molly gave herself a mental slap. She needed to read this book to help her parents, even though the subject held no practical application for her life.

She hoped ways number seven through ten would provide more useful advice on salvaging her parents’ strained-past-the-breaking-point thirty-two-year marriage. Numbers one through six had sucked.

Some of the suggestions involved activities intimate enough to make a daughter blush when picturing her parents as the participants, but these were desperate times. She’d do whatever she had to do to get her mother and father back together again.

Happily for her, way number seven looked promising. List ten qualities you and your partner found attractive about one another when you first met. Compare your lists and reminisce about the head-over-heels days of your courtship. Hmm. That might work. If she could talk her mom and dad into—

“Gabe Shaw?” a stout woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses barked as she stepped into the room. Pulling a pencil out of her curly mass of hair, she scribbled something on the clipboard lodged in the crook of her arm.

“Here.” The Phone Bully closed his laptop and stood.

She glanced Molly’s way. “Molly Webber?”

“Right.” Tucking her book into her bag, Molly got to her feet as well.

“I’m Janice Scott, your director.” She shook hands before passing each of them a contract. “We’re all set up for you. Here are the usual disclaimers about the lack of payment for your appearance, the appraisals aren’t guarantees, and you won’t sue us if it turns out we were wrong about the value. Read ‘em, and sign ‘em. If you don’t agree with the terms, no hard feelings, but adios.”

As instructed, Molly and Gabe read ‘em and signed ‘em. Janice pointed them toward a mirror in the corner. “Check yourselves out. Make any adjustments you want. We like our guests to look natural, but that doesn’t mean you need to go on camera with spinach between your teeth.”

Molly tucked her chin-length hair behind her ears, bared her teeth for a spinach check, and then dabbed on peach lip gloss.

Gabe stood behind her, enveloping her in his heat, towering more than half a foot above her five-feet-five-inches. He flicked a casual look at his image and swiped his fingers through his sandy hair, stopping for a quick look at his Eeyore watch.

First, the socks. Now, the watch. And the fairytale cell ring. It took a lot of self-confidence for a man to carry off that much whimsy. Neat and tidy with a dash of eccentricity. Maybe he was batting for the other side. She wasn’t picking up a gay vibe, but maybe her gaydar had gone for a hike along with her luck.

Molly ducked her head and smoothed the wrinkles from her colorful pleated skirt. “How do I look?”

Janice gave her and Gabe cursory glances. “Fabulous. The camera will love you two. Ready?”

“How long will this take?” He rubbed his palms together in anticipation, or possibly, impatience. At least, his speaking voice differed from his phone bellow. Molly slid him a look from the corner of her eye. He appeared as eager to get the show on the road as she did.

“Follow me. The taping usually takes about ten minutes.” Janice led them back through the studio, avoiding a woman pushing a baby buggy stuffed with teddy bears. “Your appraiser will ask a few questions, then give you some historical background on your jade and its approximate value.”

Gabe surprised Molly by taking her elbow to maneuver her around a suit of armor in a wheelbarrow. His hand felt strong and capable. She almost wished he’d keep it there. He acknowledged her small smile of thanks with a nod.

“Forget about the camera, if you can, but when the appraiser talks, look interested.” Janice sidestepped a lanky teenager toting a brassbound trunk. “When the estimated value of your article is revealed, show some animation, surprise or disappointment, whatever’s appropriate.” She stopped in front of a backdrop with the show’s logo. “Which one of you will be talking about the jade?”

“I will.” Molly and Gabe spoke in unison, then stared at one another.

“Hmmm.” Janice consulted the information on her clipboard. “Oh, I see. There are two separate pieces. But you’re going to appear in the same segment.”

“Is that good or bad?” Gabe asked.

“We’ll soon find out.” She motioned them into chairs behind a table where Molly’s pink carving sat beside another one.

The two pieces were similar in size and style, but dissimilar in shape and color. Molly’s imagination often gave her perceptions a fanciful twist, but just now, the pieces seemed to take on a glow of their own, as if they were lit from the inside.

She spotted appraiser James Lindermann threading his way across the room toward them. Wearing a gray pinstriped suit and red bowtie, the height-challenged dandy was the Asian antiquities expert she’d spoken with earlier.

As he approached, she hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those depressing, instructional bits, where two people had brought in comparable objects. One a priceless original, the other a worthless copy.

Watching the program at home, she always sympathized with the unsuspecting owners of the fakes. As a teacher, she was all for education. But knock-on-wood, she hoped her possession turned out to be more than a valuable learning experience.

More from habit than any expectation of good luck, she randomly fingered the charms attached to her silver bracelet. A star, rainbow, four-leaf clover, a pixie, and horseshoe. Some misguided friend had given her a rabbit’s foot once, but Molly discarded it. It sure hadn’t been lucky for the rabbit.

Frowning, the empty space where her lucky penny used to hang distracted her. She’d lost that one–-her oldest and most favorite talisman—a few weeks ago and hadn’t found one to replace it yet.

Not that she really believed in such things, but it didn’t hurt to keep her options open. Discovering a new lucky coin would be a good indication her fortunes were about to change. She needed them to change, and soon—if the catastrophes of the past few months were anything to go by.

Crossing her fingers behind her back, Molly wished for the best as Janice clipped a microphone onto the front of her T-shirt.

section break motorcyle icon“If you look closely at the carvings,” James Lindermann instructed, “you can see the exquisite craftsmanship…”

Seated beneath the glare of hot studio lights, Gabe felt sweat beading between his shoulder blades. He tried to concentrate on the expert’s monologue about the oddly shaped chunk of green jade his grandfather had provided as an answer to their prayers.

The carving had collected dust in a footlocker under Granddad’s bed for as long as Gabe could remember. But since he didn’t give a rat’s rear about twelfth-century this, whoever-dynasty that, his mind wandered.

He had real-life problems to worry about. But if this knickknack turned out to be nothing more than a fancy paperweight, he’d have his grandfather’s disappointment to deal with as well.

Granddad was certain the piece had immense historical and monetary value, but then, that was Granddad all over. Gabe had no idea how the old man remained a wide-eyed optimist after all the kicks in the teeth he’d endured. But Gabe figured one of them should be realistic, and usually, in the shifting kaleidoscope of Shaw family dynamics, he’d been assigned the role of hard-ass pragmatist.

In the end, he’d understood he could either bring Granddad’s treasure here to the show for him, or the feisty octogenarian would bring it himself. He was used to Granddad’s oddities, but other people tended to lose their patience when trying to talk to him. Mainly because he refused to wear his hearing aid unless it suited him to do so.

Gabe had decided it was better for him to give up time he couldn’t afford to waste, than worry about Granddad creating a scene on public television. He hoped for both of their sakes that the twisty-leaf-shaped-jade thing turned out to be worthwhile. A few hundred bucks wouldn’t do the business any good. Hell, a few thousand wouldn’t help. They needed a major influx of cash, and they needed it now. If only he could manage to keep things going for the next six months, he had a real shot at making their family business a success.

He pulled his thoughts back on track. Look interested, the director had said. Sure, he could do that. He fixed his gaze on the jade as James lifted the piece and turned it upside down to point to some markings on the bottom.

“The jade is exquisite. The marking is undeniable.” The appraiser quivered with suppressed excitement. “The stones set in the bronze base are first-quality rubies approximately one to two carats each.”

The phrase “first-quality rubies” grabbed Gabe’s attention. “As is, I’d estimate the value of this piece at the right auction to be approximately twenty- to thirty-thousand dollars.”

He almost leapt to his feet in celebration. But pretending to be Mr. Cool, he managed to stay in his seat. Before he broke open the champagne, he wanted—needed—James to repeat the amount. “How much?”

“Under the right circumstances, it could bring twenty- to thirty-thousand dollars.”

Gabe hit the heel of his hand against his ear, in case his Granddad’s hearing disability was hereditary and had chosen this moment to strike. “Did you say ten-thousand dollars?”

“I said twenty-thousand,” James repeated, smiling all the while. “Or thirty. And that estimate could be on the low side.”

Gabe rolled the number around inside his head, stunned by the evaluation. Then, remembering Janice’s instructions, he found his voice and spoke up, more enthusiastically. “Thank you! My grandfather will be thrilled. And so am I.” He reached out to pump the appraiser’s delicate hand.

Thirty-thousand dollars wouldn’t be enough to save them, but it would tide them over for a few weeks. At least until he could come up with some new clients or a practical plan to raise the capital necessary to keep the company afloat.

“Now for some background on the companion piece.” The appraiser gestured to the other carving. Oh, yeah, Gabe almost forgot about the curious woman from the waiting room.

“Congratulations,” she mouthed from across the table. The same brilliant eyes that had watched him disapprovingly when he’d talked—all right, when he’d yelled—at Granddad on the phone, now seemed genuinely pleased for him. And they glittered with excitement, eager to hear about her treasure.

As the appraiser began his spiel, Gabe reminded himself to pay attention–when all he really wanted to do was take the piece and run to the nearest auction house.

“See the similar markings?” the expert began.

Gabe watched on autopilot, following the lead of the Webber woman, nodding when she nodded, smiling when she smiled.

And what a great smile. Her lush and full lips drew his attention. Wide and expressive, they were totally out of place on top of a package that made her look like she’d arrived at the Convention Center straight from the schoolroom.

Pleated skirt, canvas tote bag, sensible sneakers, tip-tilted nose. Clear, oceanic blue eyes that conveyed her every thought. Skin like peaches. Even under the unremarkable, everyday clothing, her body hinted at some definite curvage.

Well, all right. So not all of her parts fit the elementary-school image, but enough of her bits and pieces meshed together for him to recognize a traditional woman with children and domesticity on her mind. Not at all the sophisticated, career-driven type that usually appealed to him. The kind of woman who looked for sexual release more often than an emotional connection.

The fire-shot opal sparkling on the third finger of Molly’s left hand didn’t look like a wedding or engagement ring. But if she wasn’t married, he’d missed his guess by a mile. Although her earlier choice of reading material indicated things might be rocky on the home front. Still, someone who looked that sexily domestic should definitely be married and making some lucky bum ecstatic in the bedroom.

“There are twelve flawless rubies, at least a carat each. Valuable in their own right, but combined with the authenticity of the jade and its partner—” James removed a handkerchief from an inside coat pocket and mopped his brow, letting the suspense build. “Individually, the two pieces have similar values. The pink is slightly more valuable than the green due to the unusual coloring and the size of the jewels. But here’s the exciting part…”

The appraiser picked up both jades. A sly smile lifted the corners of his mouth. The tension in the air ratcheted up a notch. Sensing a jackpot find, a crowd gathered on the perimeter of their set.

“If you fit the components together like so…” James paused before placing Molly’s rose-hued swirling petals of jade inside Gabe’s hollowed out base. As the appraiser gave a slight twist of the wrist, Gabe would have sworn the hair on the back of his neck stood up in anticipation.

“Voila!” James said with a dramatic gesture. “It’s unusually subdued for a piece of this sort, especially from this era, but do you see what we have?”

“Oh my goodness, it’s beautiful.” Molly’s voice flowed over Gabe like warm honey. “It looks like a flower. A lily, maybe, or, because of its origins… a lotus blossom?”

“It’s what Asian art collectors call a Sleeping Lotus,” James enthused. “It’s very uncommon to find a set that was created in the twelfth century, by Li-Wang, the Emperor’s Imperial carver, intact and undamaged.” The appraiser beamed, looking like a man ready to kick up his heels. “I’ve dreamed of handling both the stalk and petals of a Lotus in such pristine condition for my entire career, but I’ve never had the privilege. My heart nearly pounded out of my chest when I saw the two pieces.”

“Never?” Molly’s eyes widened with delight.

Gabe rubbed his palms together beneath the table. Oh, yeah, this could be good. Very, very good.

“None that have come close to this one in quality, condition, and beauty,” James amended.

An unprecedented spark of hope flared inside Gabe’s chest. “Why are they so rare?”

“Despite the curses often attached to such artistry, the pieces get–”

Uh-oh. Gabe clamped a hand over the back of his neck where the hairs definitely bristled. He hoped his sister, Sierra, didn’t hear anything about a possible curse. She lapped up that kind of claptrap with a spoon.

Molly’s shoulders jerked back like she’d been shocked with an electrical wire. “What kind of curses?”

“We can’t know what curse is attached to this particular piece without more research,” James told them. “But generally the curses predict infertility, impotence, death, dismemberment, painful affairs of the heart, any number of personal disasters.” He shrugged them all away with a flick of an elegant hand. “All myth, of course, but a powerful incentive for anyone inclined to superstition.”

Gabe trained his attention on the conjoined pieces. Tipping his head from side to side, he tried to discern the beauty Molly claimed to see. He saw only the hint of a flower. In fact, the form reminded him of a man and a woman.

Intertwined in a very intimate act.

Pornographic, in fact.

He looked closer.

Yes, by God. From every angle, all he could detect was the linked image of a couple enjoying uninhibited sex. He fought the urge to drop a cover over it before the suddenly irresistible Molly Webber realized her beautiful Sleeping Lotus depicted nothing more artistic than a complicated Kama Sutra pose.

“Are you sure it’s a flower?” He cleared his throat. “Isn’t it… Isn’t it…?” He couldn’t think of a way to phrase the question without jeopardizing the program’s family rating.

“Yes, it’s subtle, isn’t it?” James stuck his thumbs into his vest pockets and preened. “It’s the finest piece of twelfth-century Chinese erotica I’ve ever handled.”

The delectable Molly gasped and leaned in, tilting her long slender neck this way and that. Gabe knew the instant recognition fell into place for her by the color that flooded her cheeks. With her newfound awareness, her gaze remained riveted on the object.

“Are you allowed to show this on the air?” she blurted. “There might be children watching.”

“Of course,” the appraiser assured her. “We’re public television. It’s educational.”

“It is now,” Gabe muttered. “For anyone under the age of ten anyway.”

“But what does all this ancient Chinese artistry mean in regard to value?” Bless her heart, Molly returned to the crux of the matter more quickly than Gabe.

“Because there are only a few complete sets by this artist known to exist, these are highly sought after by a number of different collecting groups.” The appraiser’s eyes glinted with avarice. “For a Sleeping Lotus of this quality, a serious jade, Chinese and/or erotica collector would pay as much as four- to five-hundred-thousand dollars. Maybe more.”


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