According to Ani, their trouble started yesterday morning, around the same time Aiden Connolly walked into my life. Our family business is appointment only, like my showroom. There are exceptions, such as town festivals and busy summer weekends when my sisters can’t resist the opportunity to make a few bucks off passing tourists. This time of year, though, you need an appointment.
Yesterday morning, Connolly strode into my showroom—without an appointment—and offered me a fake job. At nearly the exact same time, Ani was weeding the back gardens when someone strode into our yard—without an appointment—and wanted her to uncurse an object.
The woman had been a middle-aged female version of Connolly. Demanding, condescending, arrogant. Which works better if you’re a hot young guy. Well, no, that’s just for me—Ani wouldn’t care. And what lured me to Connolly’s office that day wasn’t the guy himself—it was the money. That doesn’t matter to Ani. My sisters live in a mortgage-free house and run an established business in a town where the cost of living is about the same as rural Maine. So, when this woman demanded Ani’s services, my sister decided she didn’t need her bullshit and turned her down flat.
As for the job, it’d seemed simple enough. The woman’s car had been jinxed. The woman didn’t say that, but Ani figured it out from her description of the problem—a “noxious” odor that filled the vehicle every time you hit the gas. The smell of gas . . . get it? If the weaver didn’t add a whoopee cushion effect to the seats, I’ll be very disappointed.
Ani didn’t even bother checking it out. The jinx was a well-known one. It was hard to say whether it’d been on the car when she bought it or she’d pissed off a curse weaver. Either way, her attitude suggested she deserved the jinx and, being only an annoying and non-dangerous prank, Ani decided the woman could live with it.
When Ani refused the job, the woman wanted to know if Ani could recommend another curse weaver. Her tone changed, the arrogance evaporating, and for a moment, Ani had considered relenting and uncursing the car. Then the woman mentioned me. Not by name—if she knew that, she wouldn’t need Ani’s reference. But wasn’t there a third Bennett sister? One who’d moved away? One who specialized in practical-joke curses?
With that, Ani’s defenses flew up. Earlier, they’d stepped inside to talk, but now Ani asked her to leave. The woman did, and Ani didn’t think of it again until I texted an hour later, accusing her of sending the guy with the jinxed tea caddy.
Ani had someone pop by, out of the blue, wanting a jinxed object uncursed and then asking for a referral to me. And now I was saying someone wanted a jinxed object uncursed and claimed my sisters referred them to me.
For a moment, Ani wondered if it was the same case. That lasted as long as it takes to realize a tea caddy is never going to be mistaken for a Cadillac caddy. So, she dismissed it.
Ani is furious with herself now for not seeing it was suspicious, but our brains do that. They see a connection, realize it’s not possible and move on. Later, Ani did think she should warn me about the woman, but by then cell service went down and so she made a mental note to talk to me when she could.
That night, as I already know, Jonathan was supposed to come by for board games. Ani watched a movie with Hope, while keeping an ear open for Jonathan’s rap on the door. When she heard the back doorknob turn, she figured his knock had been swallowed by an on-screen shootout. Ani hadn’t bolted the door yet. It’s Unstable—you don’t lock up until you go to bed.
Ani called a greeting to Jonathan, footsteps approached and . . .
Two strangers in balaclavas walked in. Ani dove for the fireplace poker, and Hope grabbed a vase, and after that, it’s a blur until they woke in the back of a van, bound, blindfolded and gagged.
A man was in there with them. He ungagged Ani, and they talked. Which consisted of Ani demanding answers, and the man giving some variation on tough-guy movie dialogue like “I’ll give you answers when I want to give you answers” and “I’m the one in charge here.” Which he really wasn’t once he removed Ani’s gag.
While Ani argued, Hope lay there, awake but still, and their captor mistook that for submission, which he definitely wasn’t getting from her big sister. Next thing Ani knew, she was waking in that hunting shack . . . alone.
I ask what the man said. It hadn’t made much sense to Ani at the time. He knew she was a curse weaver, and she hadn’t argued the point. I mean, it’s not as if we’re vampires or even witches—if people know what we are, they don’t run screaming or threaten to burn us at the stake.
We’re long past the era where the average person believes in curses. Yet, again, we aren’t vampires or some other impossible creature. We fall under the blanket occupied by psychics and mediums. For those who believe in our powers, we’re a valuable addition to the parapsychology world. For those who don’t believe, we’re either harmless entertainers or deluded new-agers, neither anything to fear.
When this guy called Ani a curse weaver, she didn’t argue. She just wanted to know what he needed uncursed. Of course, she realized he probably wanted a curse woven and that’s why they’d been kidnapped—the Bennetts were known as reluctant weavers. But no, he clearly wanted an unweaving. So, she set about negotiating.
Negotiating made sense. She unweaves curses for a living. No need to take her captive. Just give her more information, and they could settle on a price. If he’d refused to pay, well, she would have argued, but in the end, she was smart and reasonable, and she would have agreed to exchange an uncursing for their freedom. The conversation never got that far, though. When she tried to negotiate, he decided they’d chatted enough. He knocked her out, and she woke up in the shack.
We finally arrive at the gas station. Or what used to be a gas station. It closed recently enough that the fuel price on the old sign is still accurate. From the looks of the place, though, it’d been on life support for years—maybe decades—before the final axe fell. Its death can be squarely blamed on a new highway five miles west. Once upon a time, this road might have been a main route from Boston to New York. When the interstate came, some would have continued using the road as a scenic route or even a shortcut in heavy traffic. That changed with the new highway, and with no reason to come this way, it’s an empty road in the middle of nowhere.
Connolly barely pulls into the weed-choked gravel lot before I throw open the door. He manages to call a warning. I’m gone, though, staggering out as soon as it’s safe to do so. Then I’m running along the front of the boarded-up station, shouting for my sister.
There’s no one here.
We’re too late.
They didn’t abandon Ani in that shack. They stashed her temporarily, came back, found it empty and knew she’d gone looking for a phone. Expecting me, she’d been watching for an unknown rental car. Instead of us, she got her kidnappers.
Why did I tell her to wait here? Why didn’t—
A shadow inches around a corner, someone peeking out. And then that shadow becomes my sister and I run to her and launch myself into her arms, as if I’m a toddler again, my big sister home after an endless day of kindergarten.
I hold her as tight as I can, clinging and inhaling the herbal smell of her. She hugs me back and smooths my hair and whispers words of comfort, and for one moment, she isn’t Ani. She’s Mom. Her hair is the same texture as Mom’s, falling onto my cheek as I hug her. Her soft and fierce embrace feels like Mom’s, as does that gentle hand in my hair and those words in my ear.
I kinda lose it then, like I did when I heard her voice on the phone. I break down, sobbing, and it doesn’t take a shrink to tell me this had been about more than my sisters being taken. It’s about losing my family, my entire family, all the dull pain from Dad’s accident and the still raw pain from Mom’s death. I hadn’t allowed the thought to form, but somewhere in my heart, I’d seen a vision of a life where I am the only Bennett left, and that rushes out now, the fear and the relief.
I sob until my throat hurts, and then I pull back, snuffling. Ani does look like Mom, more than any of us. I have our mother’s skin tone and her dark hair and eyes, but it’s Ani who has her curls and her curves and her features, with Dad’s blue eyes. Through my tears, her face blurring, I could mistake her for Mom.
“I look like hell, don’t I,” she says.
I shake my head. “You look perfect.”
She blinks, as if she’s misheard. There might be only two years between us, but it always feels like more. I am the annoying little sister always ready with an insult.
Ani’s face softens, and she pulls me into another hug. Then she glances over my shoulder, and I twist to see Connolly walking toward us.
“Ah,” Ani says, looking him over. “Now I know why Kennedy hasn’t come home for two weeks. Something you forgot to tell me, K? Someone new in your life?”
“What?” I look from her to Connolly. “Ack! No! Definitely not.” I catch his expression. “I mean, umm, no, we’re not— No. We just met. Like yesterday.”
“You caught a lift with a guy you met yesterday?”
“What? No. Well, yes, but not like that. Geez, Ani. What do you take me for?”
“Umm, the girl who showed up after her first weekend in Boston, dropped off by some guy she met the night before.”
“Hey! That’s not fair. If you’re implying that I slept with some dude to get a free ride—”
“Of course not. You met him. A neighbor or something, I recall, and you start chatting and you mentioned going to Boston the next day, so he offered you a lift. As guys do.”
She looks at Connolly. “Sorry, Red. If you thought you were racking up points, you don’t know my sister. She presumed you were being nice. Because, golly gee, guys are just so sweet about stuff like that. Or they are if you’re Kennedy.”
I sputter. “That is not—”
“Blame small-town living,” she continues to Connolly. “She’s used to people doing nice things for no reason other than being neighborly. Not that she’d take advantage of you. She’ll totally owe you one—which means she’ll dog-sit for you, maybe run an errand or two. Anything else is off the table.”
Connolly’s gaze has gotten increasingly cool as she talks. I expect him to tell her off. Instead, he turns that icy gaze on me.
“You accept rides from young men you’ve barely met? That is extremely unsafe, Kennedy. You could end up—”
“At a closed gas station?” Ani says. “Miles from the nearest town?”
“Precisely. You—” He stops as his gaze lifts to the storefront sign. “You mean me?”
Now Connolly is the one sputtering. I cut in with, “It isn’t like that, Ani. This is a business arrangement. Remember that woman who tried to hire you yesterday? That’s what he did.”
“You’re the guy with the tea caddy?”
“No, no, he shooed him off. Connolly—Aiden—tried hiring me for a job, only he was really testing me with a cursed object. I snuck back to unweave the curse, and he admitted it was a test. I got angry and stormed out, but not before he said something about you and Hope. When you two disappeared, I went back to him.”
“He threatened us? After he tricked you?”
“It wasn’t like—” Connolly clears his throat. “Yes, it was a bit like that, but I have admitted my mistake, and Kennedy and I are partners in this venture.”
“Partners, hmm. Great. So, whatever you people are trying to uncurse, Kennedy gets half of the profit, right?”
Connolly’s mouth opens. Stays like that for a moment before he closes it and adjusts his tie. “I would be open to renegotiating a fair—”
I shake my head. “I already told him I don’t want his money.”
She stares at me and then cradles her forehead against one hand. “Oh, K. Of course, you did.” She wheels on Connolly. “You are taking advantage of my sister’s kindness—”
“It’s not kindness, Ani,” I say. “The deal is that he helps me find you and Hope, and in return I uncurse an object. I don’t care what he does with it after that. I only care about finding you two.”
She pulls me into a one-armed embrace. “All right. Understood. But now that I freed myself, I think we can agree that whatever deal you had with him isn’t necessary.”
“Hope is still missing,” Connolly says. “And I’m still your best chance of finding her. I’ll renegotiate the terms of our deal, but you need me—”
“I don’t need you. I don’t know you, and I don’t trust you.”
Connolly looks over, as if expecting me to step in. How can I? Yes, Ani’s right that I’m a little too trusting, but I’m not gullible or naive. There have been things Connolly has done that I appreciate. But there are even more things he’s done that I don’t.
And if a little part of me says this is a man that I’d like to know better, I’ll chalk it up to my taste for gingers, even if I know it’s more than that. I keep thinking I have him figured out, and then he says or does something that suggests I don’t, and that intrigues me. This isn’t the time to be intrigued by a guy, though. It really isn’t.
“Ani’s right,” I say. “I appreciate your help, Aiden, but I think we can take this from here. I don’t know you well enough to trust you. I’m sorry.”
His jaw works, and I brace myself. Then he says, “Don’t be sorry. I’ve given you reason to be suspicious. I do, however, honestly believe I am your best chance of finding Hope.” He turns to Ani. “Fifty percent.”
“I don’t even know what this is about.” She lifts her hands against his explanation. “And I don’t want to. Kennedy, you say he mentioned us before we were kidnapped, and he says he’s your best chance of getting Hope back. Does that not suggest he knows exactly where to find her . . . because he’s part of this?”
“Set a price,” Connolly says. “A bond, if you will, surety that I am not involved in your sister’s kidnapping.” He glances around and then points at his car. “If I’m lying, you may have that.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want your—”
“I know. You don’t want my money or my car. However, I am loath to part with either, as you may have guessed. My family is wealthy. I’m personally comfortable but not to the point where I can blithely hand over the keys to a seventy-thousand-dollar vehicle.”
“Seventy—” I choke. “Who spends seventy thousand dollars on a car?”
“Successful young entrepreneurs from Boston.” Ani looks at Connolly. “My sister is more accustomed to guys who inherited their dad’s Ford pickup.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” I murmur. “I appreciate frugality.”
“Fine,” Ani says. “Sign a bond on the car—”
I clear my throat. She understands my meaning right away, but it still takes her a moment to hand over the reins.
“I’ll take the bond,” I say. “First, because, as you said, the car means something to you. Second, I don’t see the point in you continuing a charade of ‘helping’ me find someone you kidnapped when I’ve already agreed to lift the curse. Third, I had Jonathan run a basic background check on you and it came up clean.”
“As it should. My reputation—” Connolly stops. “Wait. Background check? When?”
I look at Ani. “Also, Jonathan says to tell you he was right behind us, coming to your rescue, but he got a flat tire. Truth is he took Ellie for me and went home to investigate the scene of the crime.”
“As he should. I’m far more impressed by him doing the practical thing. Men.” She shakes her head. “So—”
My phone buzzes. “And speak of the devil.” I whisper. “Flat tire, remember?” and then hit Accept.
“K?” Jonathan says before I can speak. “K, tell me that’s you.”
“No, sorry,” Ani says. “Kennedy’s busy. You’re stuck with me.”
“Ani? Ani!” Jonathan’s voice rises in a way that makes my heart soar. “Oh, thank God. I pulled off to get gas and saw a message from Kennedy saying to call her right away, and then I saw I’d gotten a call from an unknown number, no message. I had this image of you at a phone booth in the middle of nowhere, using your last quarters to call me when my damn phone’s auto-set to Do Not Disturb while I’m driving.”
“Which is the sensible thing to do.”
“Not when your best friend’s been kidnapped.”
“Well, you were oddly right about the payphone in the middle of nowhere. Are you sure your mom isn’t really psychic? Wrong on the last quarters, though. I was kidnapped from my couch. I grabbed the fire poker, not spare change. Which, in retrospect, was a bad call. Anyway, I was phoning collect. When you didn’t pick up, I moved on to Kennedy.”
“Wait,” I say. “I was your backup choice?”
“You don’t have a car. Purely a practical decision.”
I grumble and wave at her. “You two catch up. Connolly and I will scout around.”
As we walk away, Connolly whispers, “What are we scouting for?”
“Hell if I know. I’m just giving them a few moments alone.” I glance back to see my sister clutching the phone to her ear, her face glowing as she talks. “They’re adorable, aren’t they?”
“Are they . . . together?”
“Not yet. But I’m working on it. I’m always working on it.”
He looks back toward Ani. “So, you and Jonathan aren’t . . .”
“What? No. Eww. Where would you get that idea?”
“You seemed close.”
“Uh, yes. Because he’s been Ani’s best friend forever. We have family videos of Jonathan and Ani changing my diaper.” I pause. “I was a baby, in case that needs clarifying.”
His lips twitch, something like a smile warming his eyes. “It didn’t, but thank you anyway. Also, I’m sorry for saying she left Hope behind. Ani didn’t hear that, did she?”
I shake my head.
He continues, “Even if she had left her, it’d be understandable. Practical even. Get away and phone for help.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure I could do it, though.”
We walk to the edge of the parking lot, and he squints against the sun, his eyes dazzlingly green but distant.
“I’d like to think I would,” he murmurs. “But I’m not sure I actually could.”
“You have siblings?”
“A brother. Younger. Maybe that’s the key. Younger siblings. I swear I’ve spent half my life getting mine out of scrapes. I wouldn’t dare leave him behind. He’d leave me, though.” A wry twist of his lips. “No doubt about that.”
“Maybe,” I say. “Or maybe he’d think the same about you. When I left for Boston, I figured my sisters would be happy to see me go. I can be a bit . . . much.”
That twitch of his lips, those grass-green eyes warming. “I can’t imagine.”
“Right? I figured they’d like the break, and maybe they did, for a week or two, but now it’s all about how to get me back to Unstable. Whether it’s moving away or fleeing a kidnapping, sometimes logic says you should strike out on your own, but it’s hard. It’s really hard.”
“Well, in my brother’s case—”
“K!” Ani calls, waving. “Let’s hit the road.”
I motion that we’re coming and then glance at Connolly as we walk. “You were saying?”
“Nothing important. We need to get your sister home. She’s had a shock.”
I snort. “If you think she needs a bed to swoon in, you haven’t been paying attention. It’ll hit later, but for now, she’ll want to move forward. Step one, I believe, should be checking out that hunting shack.”
“I have them occasionally.”