Sat
Sep 2 2017 11:00am

Christina Dodd Excerpt: The Woman Who Couldn’t Scream

Christina Dodd

The Woman Who Couldn't Scream is the fourth book in the Virtue Falls series (available September 5, 2017).

Merida Falcon is a world-class beauty, a trophy wife who seems to have it all … except she has no voice.

For nine bitter years, Merida lived to serve her wealthy elderly husband, never leaving his side, always doing his bidding…

On his death, Merida vanishes … and reappears in Virtue Falls with a new name, a new look, and a plot to take revenge on the man who loved her, betrayed her and walked away, leaving her silent, abused and bound to an old man's obsession.

But Merida faces challenges. Her school friend Kateri Kwinault is the newly elected sheriff of Virtue Falls. A chance meeting with her former lover intrigues him and brings him on the hunt for her, and meeting him face to face shakes her convictions. Will she have time to discover the truth about the events that occurred nine years ago? For someone in Virtue Falls is stalking women and slashing them … to death.

CHAPTER ONE

Benedict Howard was used to having women look at him. He had money. He had power. He was ruthless. People saw that. In particular, women looked at him. As they always told him, they found him interesting.

Now, the most beautiful woman in the world looked through him. Not over him. Not around him. Through him.

The Eagle’s Flight, the largest and newest sailing yacht in the high-end cruise line, cut through the waves with an authority that spoke well of the vessel’s design as well as captain and crew. As the new owner of Birdwing Cruises, that gratified Benedict; his decision to buy the company had been sound.

But now at three days into the two-week transatlantic crossing, he stood by the port railing on the aft deck, and his whole attention was focused on the world’s most beautiful woman.

Her skillfully tinted blond hair was styled in an upsweep with short tendrils that curled around her softly rounded face. Her nose was short and without freckles. Her neck was long and graceful. Her figure was without flaw, Barbie doll–like in its architectural magnificence, and unlike the other, determinedly casual passengers, she wore a designer dress with matching jacket and one-inch heels. Her wide blue eyes were set deep in an artfully tended peaches-and-cream complexion … but they were blank, blind, indifferent. To him.

If she was trying to attract his attention by ignoring him, she had succeeded. But only for as long as it took him to recognize her machination. As he began to turn away, she looked toward a table set under the awning. She waved and she smiled.

Benedict was transfixed by her smile. He knew her. He was sure he knew her. From … somewhere. Business? No. Pleasure? No. In passing? Absurd. Who was she? How could he forget the most beautiful woman in the world?

Stepping forward, he caught her elbow. “We’ve met.”

She turned her head toward him, but as if his impertinence offended her, she took her time and moved stiffly. She shook her head.

“I’m sure we’ve met.” He searched her face, searched his mind, seeking the time, the place. “You must remember. I’m Benedict Howard.”

She wore a leather purse over one shoulder. With elaborate patience, she pulled it around, reached inside and pulled out a computer tablet. She brought up the keyboard and swiftly, so swiftly, she typed onto the screen. And showed it to him. It said, “How do you do, Mr. Howard. My name is Helen Brassard. I am mute, unable to speak. DO NOT SHOUT. I am not deaf. I certainly recognize you. You’re quite famous in the world of finance. But you don’t know me.”

“I don’t believe you.”

She gave him a look, the exasperated kind that without words called him an idiot.

He realized he had instinctively raised his voice.

She typed again and showed him the tablet. “I’m sure we’ll run into each other again. It is a relatively small ship and an intimate passenger list. Now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t like to keep my husband waiting.”

Benedict wanted to insist, but he glanced at the small dapper gentleman who glared at him with imperious fury, the gentleman who was old enough to be her grandfather. But wasn’t her grandfather. Benedict recognized him; that was French billionaire Nauplius Brassard. That was the husband.

Trophy wife. Helen was a trophy wife: head-turningly beautiful, no doubt accomplished in bed … and mute. Perfect for the short, thin, elderly gentleman who had no doubt purchased her services for the long term.

Benedict let her go and turned away.

She was right. He didn’t know her.

*   *   *

Helen Brassard seated herself next to her husband and used her hands to sign, “You look overheated and ready for your afternoon cocktail. Shall I order you a sidecar?”

Nauplius flipped his bony fingers around, grasped her wrist and squeezed. “I saw him speak to you.”

She groped for her purse and tablet.

“No! That’s how you communicate with everyone else. Sign to me.”

She shook her captured wrist, trying to free herself, to make it easier.

“Sign with one hand.”

She did as he commanded. “Benedict did speak to me.” She kept that gentle smile on her lips. Ignored the pain as the delicate bones ground together.

“He’s lost his looks.”

Signing: “He was never handsome.” Although that was the truth; when she had known him before, Benedict’s awkward arrangement of facial features had been offset by his youth and charisma. Now he looked … harsh, like a man who had tasted too much bitterness.

Nauplius adjusted his red bow tie. “What did he say?”

“He thought he knew me.”

“Impossible.”

Apparently not.

Nauplius was both jealous and selfish to the point of psychosis, but his skill at observing and interpreting others had brought him unimaginable wealth and a power he loved to abuse. Now he must have read her mind, for his grip tightened again. “You look … not at all like the woman you were when he knew you.” Menacingly, “Do you?”

There was the paranoia she knew so well.

“I have not been in communication with him either on the ship or off. You know that.”

He did know that. He knew what she said and to whom, what she did and when. He owned her, and she knew from experience he was infuriated by this unforeseen intrusion into the quality of his life. Especially this intrusion; during their nine-year marriage, they had lived in France and Italy, Greece and Spain and Morocco, anywhere she was isolated by language barriers, utterly dependent on him, and very, very unlikely to run into anyone she had known before.

Like the old man that he was, Brassard moved his jaw and chewed at nothing. “I didn’t know Howard would be on this cruise. What is he doing here?”

Signing: “I don’t know.”

“He didn’t tell you?”

She took a steadying breath before she signed, “All he said was that he knew me.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That he didn’t.”

“I’ll get us off this ship.”

She glanced out at the turbulent blue Atlantic, then up at the half-furled sails that caught the prevailing eastern winds. She signed, “How?”

“Helicopter. They can come out this far.”

“As you wish.” She bowed her head and waited.

His voice rasped with irritation. “But the helicopter—it’s expensive and usually only used in case of emergency.”

She signed, “That is my concern. A helicopter could cost possibly one hundred thousand dollars.” Which Brassard could well afford. But wealthy as he was, he counted every cent and made sure she knew exactly how much she cost him.

He said, “I can call it in. I’m doing it for you.”

She looked into his brown, deceptively soft eyes and signed, “You have no need. When I see Benedict, I feel nothing.”

Brassard’s grip tightened. “You never feel anything.”

“Not true. Right now, you’re hurting me.”

In a swift, petty gesture, he tossed her wrist away from him.

As always, she was the perfect wife. In flowing, graceful movements, she asked, “Shall I order your cocktail?” and gestured to the hovering waiter.

*   *   *

For two days Benedict toured the working areas of the ship. He discussed meal preparation with the intimidated chef and the equally intimidated kitchen staff, inspected the lifeboats and their ongoing maintenance and gave orders to improve the air-conditioning in the stifling laundry area.

Then Benedict moved into the public areas, stalking the ship’s photographer as she recorded the voyage as a video for purchase by the passengers. The invariably pleasant Abigail photographed passengers as they toured the bridge, arranged flowers, played bridge, ate and drank.

It was when he was with Abigail that he saw her again, the most beautiful woman in the world, in the midship lounge at the line-dancing class. Helen Brassard looked the same, tastefully dressed and in matching heels, and she frowned as she concentrated on the prescribed steps, placing each foot with a calm precision that created an anchor in the turbulently undisciplined line. She pulled the other dancers along, encouraging them with admiring gestures and warm touches to their shoulders. When the line completed the simplest dance step in unison, she smiled.

The most beautiful woman in the world had the most beautiful smile in the world, and Benedict was transfixed, enthralled, in need.

“That’s Mrs. Brassard,” Abigail said. “She’s married to Mr. Brassard, who is possessive and quite … demanding.” Her voice conveyed a distinct warning.

Benedict turned his cool gaze on her.

She respectfully lowered her eyes.

Abigail was afraid of him; all the staff were afraid of him. Yet she wanted him to know his interest would not be appreciated by a paying customer.

A good employee. A brave employee, one with guts and intelligence. He knew how rare those qualities were, and how valuable to the cruise line. He would see to it that she moved up in the ship’s hierarchy and if she continued to do well, she would be sent to college and eventually move into his family’s company. “Thank you for your insight.” Which he wouldn’t heed, but that was of no consequence to her. He indicated a burly black man with massive shoulders and a calm demeanor. “That’s Carl Klineman, right? I always see him lurking near the Brassards. What is he to them?”

“He never speaks to them, and they never even glance at him,” Abigail said. “For the most part, he keeps to himself.”

“And yet?”

She spoke softly, “Speculation among the staff is that he’s their bodyguard. Or an assassin. But no one really believes that Mr. Brassard would be oblivious to an assassin. He is a very astute man.”

Benedict sensed she had more to say. “And…?”

He had to lean close to hear her say, “Very astute and very … dangerous. We, the staff, take care never to displease him.”

A man could learn a lot from his employees, especially in these circumstances, and Abigail was genuinely frightened. “Then I will take care to tread carefully around Nauplius Brassard.” He gave Abigail a moment to recover, then in a brisk tone asked, “What do you photograph next?”

“Musical bingo in the Bistro Bar starts in a half hour.”

“Let’s go.”

*   *   *

Benedict despised trophy wives. He always had. And that name: Helen.

Helen of Troy.

The most beautiful woman in the ancient world, the woman whose face launched a thousand ships. He could hardly believe she had been born with that name. Probably she had chosen it when she created her persona to trap a wealthy man …

Benedict did his research and online he found out all about her.

Helen was the name she’d been given at birth. Her beginnings were humble; she had grown up in Nepal as the daughter of missionaries. When she was a teenager, her parents were killed in a rockfall and she was sent to the United States to live with her aunt and uncle in the south. She finished high school at sixteen and began college at Duke University, where her unusual beauty attracted Nauplius Brassard’s attention. After a brief courtship, she graciously consented to be his wife and dedicated herself to him and his well-being. She did not work, did not express independent opinions, and during the days when he worked or during the evenings when he made public appearances, she never left his side.

Very neat. Very pat. But nowhere did any source explain why she could not speak. That single fact made Benedict doubt the whole story—although the numerous politically incorrect of the online community suggested that this disability made her the perfect wife for Nauplius Brassard.

The world abounded with snide jackasses.

And Benedict’s curiosity was piqued.

Before the voyage had even begun, the crew had studied the ship’s manifest and passenger list, memorizing every face and name. Now Benedict did the same. When he was satisfied with his ability to greet the guests, he joined the convivial table that nightly gathered after dinner at the aft main deck bar, a table that included five retired southern high school teachers making their annual pilgrimage to Europe, two university professors on sabbatical, a group of Spanish and Portuguese wine merchants, a skinny eighty-year-old corporate lawyer—and Nauplius Brassard and his wife, Helen.

Benedict turned a chair from another table and dragged it over. “May I join you?”

For a mere second, conversation faltered.

One of the middle-aged females scooted over. “We’re all friends. Sit next to me.” She placed her hand on her husband’s arm. “We’re Juan Carlos and Carmen Mendoza from Barcelona … and you are Benedict Howard.”

Apparently he wasn’t the only one who had studied the roster. “That’s right, from Baltimore, Maryland, USA. I buy and sell things.”

“On a grand scale,” Juan Carlos said drily. “The Howard family is known for its business … acumen.”

A nice way to say ruthlessness. “Yes.” Benedict looked toward the opposite end of the long table. “But I interrupted the conversation. Please, continue while I sit and absorb the bonhomie.” In fact, he had interrupted Helen Brassard, who had been animated and flushed as she recounted some story by signing while Nauplius Brassard translated in his faintly accented voice.

Cool and calm, she sipped her champagne and looked him in the eyes. She nodded. She put down her champagne, lifted her hands and signed, “Of course. I was telling this illustrious company about the surprise party my husband threw for me for my twenty-seventh birthday.”

“Fascinating,” he murmured.

With a turn of the head, she dismissed Benedict and signed to the assemblage, “On the banks of the Loire in the month of June … he scheduled the Osiris String Quartet to play chamber music and had a catered picnic flown in from Vienna and laid on blankets on the grass. He hired a film crew to record each precious moment and he surprised me with a custom-made gift of polished amber stones set in a magnificent gold setting.”

Benedict had trouble knowing who to look at—Helen, who was speaking, or Nauplius, who was interpreting. He glanced around and saw the others at the table seemed similarly stricken by uncertainty, and he wondered if they also found it odd to hear Nauplius Brassard praise himself so effusively … in her words. Certainly Brassard looked smug as he spoke.

Helen gazed at her husband as if she adored him, placed one palm flat on her chest, and with the other she spelled, “The memory is engraved on my heart.”

The wide-bellied, rumpled academic nodded and in an accomplishment Benedict admired, at the same time sneered. Dawkins Cipre didn’t want to offend Nauplius Brassard, a generous donor to European universities. Yet as a professor of literature he could hardly approve such a romantic gesture; it might reflect badly on his pretentiousness.

Elsa Cipre, the academic’s thin, nervous, carefully unmade-up wife and a professor in her own right, said, “Nauplius has studied the inner workings of a woman’s emotions.”

One of the schoolteachers rolled her eyes. Another said, “Bless his heart.” Apparently neither Nauplius nor the self-important academics had impressed anyone.

Unfazed, Elsa continued, “Dawkins is an expert on classic medieval French romance literature. Perhaps, Helen, for your twenty-eighth birthday he could consult with Nauplius and bring the full weight of French literature to bear.”

Faintly Benedict heard Carmen Mendoza moan under her breath.

Dawkins took the opportunity to launch into a college-level literature lecture in which he cited his years at Oxford and the Sorbonne. His pontificating encouraged low buzzing conversations to start and swell, and Nauplius Brassard flushed with irritation—he did not enjoy losing his place in the spotlight or being told what to do—and tried to interrupt.

Oblivious, Dawkins rambled on.

Without asking, the bar staff delivered another round of stiff drinks.

The band came in; the musicians played guitar and keyboard; the singer was thin, young, attractive and handled the microphone with an expertise that spoke of long familiarity. They began the first set.

Dawkins held forth until his wife touched his hand and they left to find the dessert buffet.

With a pretty smile, Helen pushed Brassard’s drink toward him.

Brassard folded his arms over his chest, transferring his irritation to her.

She tried to sign to her husband, to cajole him into a better mood.

He turned his head away.

When she persisted, he whipped around to face her, caught her wrists and effectively rendered her mute.

At once she stopped her attempt, and when he released her, she contemplated the champagne in her flute and drank.

An interesting scene, Benedict thought. Helen was Brassard’s whipping boy. What kind of background created a woman so greedy she would put up with that kind of abuse?

Of course, when Nauplius Brassard died, she would be wealthy beyond imagining. Legend had it that Nauplius had grown up on the streets of Marseilles, a scrawny vindictive thief; by the time he was twenty he had made his first million. Now he was still scrawny, still vindictive, but worth billions.

Carmen Mendoza began to hum and then to sing in a warm contralto, and within five minutes she had kicked off her shoes and stood before the band dancing. Before another minute had passed Juan Carlos had taken the female high school teachers onto the floor and the male high school teachers had joined them on the fringes, gyrating sheepishly.

Reginald Bardzecki, the eighty-year-old corporate lawyer, stood and offered his hand to Helen. She glanced at the still-fuming Brassard, smiled defiantly, removed her heels and joined Reginald. Unlike anyone else on the floor, they danced like experts. He led, she followed, the two of them staging a series of ballroom moves that only two people who reveled in the music could perform.

The musicians played. The staff and dancers stopped and watched.

Benedict leaned back in his chair and appreciated the sight. Then instinct led him to glance toward the other end of the table.

Nauplius Brassard sat glaring at the elderly man who spun his youthful smiling wife across the floor.

And Benedict remembered what Abigail had said about Nauplius Brassard: He is dangerous. We take care never to displease him … Benedict thought Helen would suffer for her insubordination.

The song ended. The dancers came back to the table, flushed and laughing. They ordered drinks and complimented Reginald and Helen on their skill.

Helen seated herself next to her husband, keeping a few careful inches away from his simmering resentment.

The next song started. Carmen pulled Benedict to the dance floor and taught him flamenco. When he felt he’d made a fool of himself for long enough, Benedict started back toward the table.

The Brassards were gone.

The next morning, a helicopter arrived and lifted Nauplius Brassard and his wife off the ship.

*   *   *

Thirteen months later, Nauplius Brassard died of a brain aneurysm.

His children, all in their forties, moved swiftly to eject his young wife, Helen, from the Brassard Paris home.

They discovered her designer wardrobe, her jewels and all the furnishings intact.

The fortune Brassard had set aside in a bank account under her name had vanished—and so had she.

*   *   *

Less than forty-eight hours later, one of Nauplius Brassard’s legal team was found murdered, slashed to death in her office.

The French police feared a copycat killer, one imitating the serial killer who two years before had died in a Canadian prison.

To their relief, no further murders followed.

Copyright © 2017 Christina Dodd.

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New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd builds worlds filled with suspense and adventure and creates the most distinctive characters in fiction today.

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