I would love to say that Connolly launches straight into his story after that. He doesn’t. He throws his empty bowl in the trash. Checks his phone while murmuring something vaguely apologetic. Double-checks his phone when there aren’t any messages to stall him further. Attempts to pet Ellie. Gets scratched. Requires napkins to staunch the bleeding . . .
Five minutes later, he’s looking at his hand, roughly bound in blood-soaked napkins. “Please tell me your cat has had her shots.”
“I will . . . right after you tell me your damned story.”
“Stalling,” I say. “While my one sister is held captive and the other is already texting, wanting me to send you packing.”
“The necklace isn’t for me. That’s why I said the money isn’t important. I need to win the auction and uncurse the necklace for a third party.”
He stiffens. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“You must be. Or a clone.” I peer at him. “Is that the answer? Clone? Identical twin? Because you’re clearly not the same guy I spoke to this morning, who assured me, quite frostily, that he does not work for others.”
“What was the wording? I don’t hire myself out like a common laborer.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Oh, it was clear what you meant. Aiden Connolly works for nobody but himself.” I lift a spoonful of melted custard and wave it at him. “Which is odd, because I could have sworn you also said you’ve been hired by people in this gray market. Kinda sounds like an employee. Oh, wait. Service provider. Isn’t that what you called me?”
He doesn’t answer. When Ellie rubs against his leg, he reaches down, but I snatch her away.
“Might I suggest there are better ways to escape this conversation than inviting bodily injury?” I say. “For example, you could just say, ‘I lied.’ Or, in Aiden-Connolly-speak ‘I believe I overstated the matter.’”
I get a hard look for that, but he doesn’t argue. I set Ellie down with the remains of my custard cup.
“Yes,” he says. “I overstated the matter. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m working for this person, but that’s splitting hairs. I’m uncomfortable with the situation.”
“There’s nothing wrong with working for others.”
“Unless your parents run a Fortune 500 corporation, so no one believes your company is actually yours.”
“They presume your insurance business is one of your parents’ holdings. Like giving your kid a building set to keep him busy, encourage him to play independently, see what he can make with it.”
He nods. “Which isn’t the case at all. Even the initial loans didn’t come from them.” He fingers the sunglasses on the table. “I’m sorry. That sounded defensive.”
“As someone who runs her own business, unconnected to the family one, I get it. I hear the whispers in the magical community. That I moved to Boston to get out from under my sisters’ shadows. That I need to call them in for the tough jobs. Sometimes I think . . .” I shake my head. “Sometimes I know I got out to prove myself to the faceless nobodies whispering behind my back. Instead I gave them more to whisper about.”
“Yes,” he says quietly. His gaze lifts to mine. “Exactly that.”
“You have your own business,” I say. “And I would love—love—to know how it operates with the luck working. Hell, I’d love to know more about luck working in general. But the point right now is that we’re both ambitious young business owners. Those ambitions may mean taking on side jobs that add ladder rungs to levels we can’t otherwise reach.”
“Yes.” He eases back, getting comfortable. “That’s what I’ve done so far in the gray market. I have skills. Those skills get me places I’d otherwise be prevented from entering—too young, too inexperienced, etcetera. Getting the necklace, though, isn’t a job. It’s an obligation.”
“You owe someone. Drugs or cards?”
The horror on his face makes me laugh.
“I’m kidding,” I say. “Though I believe you did mention cards before.”
“I said I’m good at them. And yes, I haven’t racked up a drug or gambling debt. It’s my brother’s.” He hurries on. “Still not a drug or gambling debt. Or I hope not. Though . . .” He exhales and runs a hand through his hair.
“Your brother is a little wilder than you, I’m guessing.”
“That bar is set low. Very low. Although, at the risk of bragging, I did skip an entire day of school in my senior year. Well, two classes. And one may have been study hall, but I was not studying. In fact, I had left the premises entirely.”
“Was there a girl involved?”
His lips curve. “Possibly. So yes, that bar is low, and Rian jumps it. Vaults it, I should say. The debt is to someone in the magical black market. Rian bit off more than he could chew in a business endeavor, which he insists wasn’t actually illegal but . . .”
Connolly pauses, and then adjusts his tie and eases back, and I see the curtains closing. He’s decided he’s too relaxed, too at ease, giving too much of himself away.
“All that is irrelevant,” he says briskly. “Family business. The point is that Rian has gotten himself into a bind, and his debtor demands the necklace, and my parents expect me to get it.”
“Ah . . .”
His eyes narrow, and he withdraws more, as if sensing mockery. It isn’t mockery, though. It’s comprehension. This is why he’d been so prickly about working for someone else. Ultimately, that “someone else” is his parents.
I don’t say that. He doesn’t want—or need—me analyzing him. It just helps my own understanding of what’s going on. Aiden Connolly prides himself on his independence. He’s distinguished himself apart from the family business, and if he ever hires out his skills, it is to further his own advantage. He has complete control over his professional life . . . until his little brother screws up and his parents dump the debt at his feet. Then he’s right back where he started, trapped in a dynamic he can’t escape.
“I meant I understand,” I say. “It’s family business, like you said.”
He relaxes. “Yes.”
“Which is none of my business.”
He squirms, gaze shifting. “Not to be rude, but yes. I have an obligation to my family. I must fulfill it.”
“Which is no business of mine.”
Now he hesitates, the slightest furrow of his brow, as if trying to figure out why I’m saying the same thing in a different way.
“Your business isn’t my business,” I say. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I completely understand family obligations. But mine is my sister and her safety. We’re talking about her life versus your brother’s debt. One of these things is worth more than the other. Maybe not to you, and I won’t argue your perspective. Your family, though, is not my concern. Your obligation to them is not my concern.”
“Of course. No, I didn’t mean— I wouldn’t imply that Rian’s debt is worth more than Hope’s safety. The problem is that Rian’s debt is his safety. He’s gotten mixed up with someone who doesn’t take an IOU. I’m not saying his life is in danger, and I wouldn’t ask you to risk Hope’s life to keep my brother from whatever danger he faces. But I believe Hope is still in danger if I back out of this auction—the danger of being forced to unweave a notorious curse. Beyond that, I can’t back out, Kennedy. That isn’t an option.”
“Why is getting the necklace your job? Your parents are the ones with power and connections.”
“Rian got mixed up with this person because of me.”
I frown. “You put him in contact with them?”
“No, of course not. Rian knows I’m making inroads in the gray market. My parents are pleased about that. I didn’t do it to please them, but there you have it. They’re happy. Just like with my business. I didn’t launch it to please them. I don’t work sixty hours a week to please them. But they are pleased.”
Frustration laces his voice. He must hear it, because he pulls back, his tone smoothing out as he adjusts his posture.
“My success led Rian to one-up me,” he says. “That is our pattern, as siblings. Whatever I do . . .”
“He needs to do better.” I soften my voice. “And he never does, does he?”
Connolly shakes his head. I’ve seen that, with my sisters. Ani’s the one who always brought home straight As, the one who glided from strength to strength with the effortless grace of a figure skater. I know now that’s not true—she works her ass off and has plenty of self-doubt—but growing up, all Hope and I saw was Ani’s success.
Mom and Dad never favored her, never held her up as an example, would never say “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Others did, though. Teachers. Coaches. Even classmates.
In Connolly’s case, I’m sure his brother didn’t even have our level of parental support. Yet somehow, Rian’s endless scrabble to overtake his brother becomes Connolly’s fault. A mess Connolly has to clean up. His brother’s keeper.
I decide I hate Connolly’s parents. Sure, nothing I’ve heard so far made them candidates for parents of the year, but still, I hate leaping to judgments. He’d joked that he was genetically disposed to be an asshole. Now I realize he wasn’t kidding.
Silence falls then. Ellie returns to wind around Connolly’s ankles, purring, and I’m about to shoo her off, but he doesn’t notice the cat. He’s lost in thought. When she realizes he’s not falling for it again, she hops onto my lap. I give her a couple ear-scratches and then let her cuddle and purr.
“Two days,” Connolly says abruptly, making Ellie dig in her claws as she propels herself from my lap. I bite back a yelp.
“Give me two days to work this out,” Connolly says.
“Which only leaves two more days to find Hope before the auction.”
He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t ask you not to look for her. Continue that investigation. If she’s found, then we hit pause unless the situation changes and she’s in danger. For now, we split our efforts. One prong is finding your sister. The other is resolving my issue. Give me two days to do that. Please.”
It’s reasonable. Very reasonable. So why don’t I leap in to agree? For one very selfish reason. This is the point where we head our separate ways. That makes sense. Why does disappointment dart through me, then? Because I was enjoying this. Enjoying his company and getting to know him, and that is unforgivably selfish under the circumstances.
“My investigation will help your sister as well,” he says when I don’t answer fast enough. “One way for me to resolve my issue is to learn who has her so we can free her. I’m just asking for two days before you make any sudden moves.”
“I’ll need to check with Ani,” I say. “But I don’t see a problem with it. It’s a good division of labor and resources.”
“Agreed,” he says. “Now, I believe the place to start is where we were heading before Ani called.”
“She doesn’t have your sister, but she’s still our best source of information.” He rises. “If we leave now, we can be there before dinner.”
The word “we?” rises to my lips. I swallow it fast. He’ll hear it as a question, stop to reconsider and realize there’s no good reason to bring me along. There is, though—at least for me. He’s trying to find out who has Hope, and he’s talking to people I can’t otherwise contact, stepping into a world I know nothing about.
For Hope’s sake, I should be there, learning what I can and making sure Connolly doesn’t do anything—even accidentally—to endanger her.
“Yes?” he says. “We can leave now?”
“Just as soon as I get Ellie back to my sister.”