A sexy twist on a fairy tale favorite!
Cursed by a jealous witch, wealthy recluse Anabel Charming is destined to grow uglier with each passing year. Only by having sex before her twenty-first birthday can this virgin’s spell be broken. Yet no man will agree to sleep with the humpbacked, pockmarked, one-leg-shorter-than-the-other “Freak of Park Avenue.”
When handsome Chase Singleton shows up on a quest to retrieve his grandmother’s long-lost talisman, which Anabel now possesses, Anabel is willing to give up the jewel…if Chase agrees to break her curse.
With two days left before her chance at a normal life is lost forever, Anabel and Chase discover the reality of beauty, the power of sexual healing, and the meaning of love.
BEAUTY AND THE CURSE: CHAPTER ONE
“Oh, my heart!”
“Gram?” An adrenaline burst launched Chase Singleton to his grandmother’s side, frightening Merlin out of her arms. The black cat leapt onto the cluttered kitchen table, scattering trinkets as he fled.
Tarot cards fluttered to the floor.
“Do you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest? Is there tingling in your left arm?”
Gripping her chest, Gram shook her tiny turbaned head no. Her gypsy earrings jingled. Slow, steady breaths did little to calm Chase’s heart, which was banging like the half-bare tree branches whipping against Gram’s building in the October wind. “Are you short of breath?”
“Move back, boy. Give me some air.”
Chase pulled his cell phone from his back pocket. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
She gave his knuckles a sharp smack, and he dropped the phone. Thankfully, it missed hitting her antique crystal ball. He’d never forgive himself if he cracked her precious family heirloom.
“Hush.” She pointed to the tabloid in front of her. “This is the reason I’m upset.”
An article on the front page featured infamous New York City recluse Anabel Charming. The press had dubbed her the Freak of Park Avenue due to her hunchback and black veil. She never left her apartment. She kept hidden because she’d been bewitched. Or so Chase’s grandmother believed.
Gram always made up the best stories.
Her bony finger tapped Anabel’s picture. “She’s wearing my heart. I thought it had been buried.” Mumbling, she paced her small kitchen. Her brightly printed caftan whipped in the breeze she created.
“Are you okay, Gram?” Chase picked up the tarot cards from the floor.
“I gave my heart away fifty years ago. I was afraid I’d never see it again.”
“I know how you feel.” Chase had given his heart to Natalia, and she had broken it.
“You haven’t experienced true love yet. That supermodel wasn’t good enough for a nice boy like you.” Her face reddened. “True beauty can only be found on the inside. To think you almost married that…that Blackhart.”
“Gram.” He touched her arm until she met his gaze. She hadn’t been this worked up since Dad had publicly disowned her. Ruthless bastard. “What’s going on?”
“There’s a storm coming, Chase.”
“I know. The weather channel forecasted a bad one through the entire weekend.”
“No. I mean things are about to change.” The kitchen grew dark from the rain clouds tenting the sky. Lightning flashed into the room. Thunder rattled the china in Gram’s cupboard, yet no rain fell from the sky. He shuddered away an eerie chill.
Gram sank into a kitchen chair and reached across the table. Her soft, thin fingers curled around Chase’s. “I have something to tell you, sweetheart, and I need you to believe me.”
He swallowed hard. What was she getting at, and how could she think he’d ever treat her like the rest of the family did? So what that she had the uncanny ability to predict the future? So what that she believed she was a witch? Her eccentricities made her a unique and special treasure. “You know you can tell me anything, Gram.”
Her pleased smile warmed him. “Fifty years ago, I gave my heart to the love of my life.” Her small, frail finger pointed to the heart pendant Anabel Charming wore in the tabloid.
She slowly shook her head, and he wasn’t prepared for the tears that filled her eyes.
“I loved your grandfather. He was a good, fine man, but he wasn’t the love of my life. Maxwell Charming was.”
“Anabel Charming’s father?” No wonder Gram had been inexplicably upset over the old man’s death five years ago.
“Yes. I gave him my talisman so he’d always have a part of me. He’d always have my heart.” She brushed a tear from her cheek. Outside, the rain fell. “I was a foolish commoner in love with royalty. Naive enough to believe his parents would let him break his betrothal, and we’d run away together. What was I thinking?”
Gram had spent countless hours through the years telling Chase stories about her youth, yet this she’d never revealed. His heart ached for her loss. What would it feel like to love someone so much you cried over them fifty years later?
“So that’s what that whole gravedigger thing was about.” Chase had been off at college five years ago when Gram tried to bring a shovel into Holy Spirits Cemetery and got stopped at the gate. That fiasco had been the last straw for his father.
“I guess it’s a good thing the groundskeeper banned me, or I’d have dug up poor Maxwell’s grave for nothing.” Her brow furrowed as though she were about to say something very important. “I need you to do something for me.”
“It doesn’t involve cemeteries, does it?”
Gram’s earrings made a tinkling sound as she shook her head. “Bring back my heart. I’ve foreseen my death.”
The back of Chase’s neck prickled as his hair stood on end. “Don’t talk like that.”
“It’s true. Only the magic in the talisman can save an old witch like me. Without it, I’ll die on Halloween.”
“You really believe you’re going to die in two days?”
“With all my heart.”
His throat dried. A thick lump formed inside his churning gut. Damn. Those weren’t the words he wanted to hear. Gram had always told him that if you believed in something strongly enough, it would come true. A self-fulfilling prophecy. If Gram truly believed she’d die without the necklace, she would lose the will to live. He swallowed in order to moisten his throat enough to speak. “I can’t just go into her house and take it from her.”
“Of course not. Barter with her.” A wry smile lit up her delicate face. “I’m sure you have something she needs.”
“What do I have that she could possibly need?”
Gram pushed up her sleeves, causing multiple bracelets to jangle. She rubbed her crystal ball and gazed deeply inside as if seeing something no one else could. “Anabel’s tired of the paparazzi invading her privacy.”
“You’re one of the top salesmen at Singleton’s Security, aren’t you?”
“Then go sell that young lady the latest alarm system.”
“Not another word. You must fulfill your destiny.” She pushed him toward her apartment door.
“So, my destiny is to drive into Manhattan during the worst storm in years to sell an alarm system to a bewitched recluse?”
“Your destiny will be revealed when you complete this quest.”
“Quest?” He took a few steps back and leaned on the kitchen counter. Okay, now she was being overly dramatic, even for her.
“You know how much I love you, don’t you, son?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
“Then get my talisman, and you’ll witness its healing powers.”
He ran his hand through his hair. She would never let this quest for a magical talisman go until he agreed. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Start at Anabel’s penthouse apartment: 666 Park Avenue.”
Was she serious? “How am I going to solicit my services at an exclusive penthouse apartment complex? I’ll never get past the doorman.”
“You leave him to me.” Gram rubbed her hands together. Her eyes gleamed with mischief. “I’ll call ahead, and he’ll let you right up.”
“You know him?”
“No. I’ll charm him over the phone.”
He didn’t doubt that. Gram had a way with people. Well, except for her immediate family.
“Hurry up now, boy.” She pressed him toward the door. “If I don’t have that talisman before noon on Halloween, I will die.”
“You can’t escape.” Anabel Charming hobbled after the toad making a break for her penthouse door. Her ten-pound dragon, Jinxy, was right on his heels. “I told you there’s only one way I’ll let you leave. You must agree to have—”
The chiming doorbell startled her.
She raised her voice to be heard in the hall. “I don’t know what happened to the pizza delivery guy.” She shooed the toad away, but it hopped over her orthopedic lift shoe. “He never showed up.”
The toad croaked in protest.
“Jinxy,” she whispered. “Catch him and put him with the others.”
“Uh, Miss Charming?” The voice came through the door. “I’m not from the pizza place. My name is Chase Singleton, of Singleton’s Security Systems. I saw your picture in the paper and thought I could help you.”
Paper? Tabloid was more like it. She couldn’t believe the latest invasion of her privacy. She had set out some mums and pumpkins on her balcony, and a man had used a telephoto lens to get a shot of her for his gossip rag. If the photographer hadn’t been a few rooftops away, she’d have turned him into a toad, too.
“Can we talk?”
“No. I don’t talk to paparazzi.”
“I’m not a paparazzo. Here’s my card. Uh, it won’t fit under the door.”
That’s because it’s enchanted.
She glanced out of her peephole. The man had no cameras that she could see. More important, he had no wedding ring on his left hand. “Are you married?”
“Why does that mat—”
“Yes or no. Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No.” The why-are-you-asking-me-this was evident in that one drawn-out word. She didn’t care. That was the beauty of being eccentric. People tended to humor her out of curiosity.
She pulled her black lace veil down over her face, checked to be sure Jinxy was out of sight, unlocked the knob, turned the dead bolt, unchained the door, and opened it.
“It’s nice to meet you.” Chase held out his hand, but she didn’t shake it. His eyes were fixated on her hunchback.
She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Uh, hello. My eyes are right here.”
His gaze dropped to the floor, like every other person who was uncomfortable looking at her. He shoved his hand into his jacket pocket and entered her apartment.
She closed the door and locked everything up tight again. The locks were symbolic. The door was already enchanted. Unless she allowed it, no one could enter or exit.
She turned to see Chase glance at the big calendar she’d tossed onto the entryway table. Each day that had passed was crossed off in thick red marker.
“You counting down to Halloween?” He pointed at the date circled.
“Why? You writing a book?”
“I’m just making conversation.”
Conversation, right. No one made conversation with Anabel. “It’s my twenty-first birthday.”
Printed in bold marker was the word noon with an exclamation point. “What happens at twelve o’clock?”
“I turn into a pumpkin. Why are you really here, Mr. Nosy? You could have peddled your security system with a simple phone call. Have you come to stare at the Freak of Park Avenue?”
“No, I . . .” He cleared his throat. “Miss Charming,” he said, very businesslike. “I’m here to offer you a high-tech, top-of-the-line security system. But instead of payment, I’d like to barter my services for your necklace.” He pointed to it.
She clutched her talisman. The smooth stone felt warm and comforting in her palm. Her father had given this heart to her on his deathbed five years ago. He’d said it had been from his true love. Not her wicked mother. He’d cherished it always. And so had Anabel. After he’d placed it around her neck, she’d never taken it off. “You want my talisman? Why?”
“My grandmother says it belonged to her fifty years ago, and she needs it back.”
Chase’s grandmother was her father’s true love?
“I know it’s difficult to believe, but I swear I’m not making this up.”
“So, you’re really here because you want my heart talisman?” Perhaps she’d been too snarky with him.
He nodded. “For my grandmother.”
She hugged herself and blinked back the tears stinging her eyes. Why couldn’t someone love Anabel enough to brave a terrible storm and a freak in order to get a talisman to heal her?
“I bet you’re willing to offer me a great deal to get it.” Her pulse raced.
“I take it you don’t want the security system. What would you like, money? I can pay—”
“Mr. Singleton. I don’t need money. What I need is sex.”