A half hour later, we’re in the downtown core of some small city whose name I’ve already forgotten. All that matters is that my sister is here, chilling in a coffee shop with Connolly’s brother.
There’s a no-stopping lane in front of the shop. While Jonathan finds a proper parking spot, Connolly pulls in there and hit his emergency flashers. It’s like the gas station all over again, and I’m out before the vehicle has come to a complete stop. This time, I don’t have a moment of worry that my sister isn’t here. I can see her at a table in the front window, sipping some frozen concoction and laughing at something Rian’s saying. Then she sees me, and she flies from the table. Rian motions that they’ll come outside, and I’m bouncing on my toes when that door opens. Hope doesn’t make it two steps before I’ve caught her up in a bear hug.
“Is that smoke?” she says, nose wrinkling. “What’d you do, fall into a campfire again?”
“Are those seriously your first words to me, Hopeless?”
She shrugs. “It was no big deal. I got kidnapped and treated like a princess. Then kidnapped again and treated a little less princess-worthy, but a few bats of my lashes and I was out, thanks to that beauty curse.”
“Hey, it was more than a few bats of your lashes,” Rian says. “That took serious acting skills.”
She grins at him. “And a bit of luck.”
He shrugs. “You had it under control. And then there was that punch.” He looks at me. “Your sister is awesome.”
Hope glows, and when she looks at Rian, I may detect an eyelash bat or two. Great. My sister has been out of captivity for a few hours, and she’s already crushing on her captivity-mate.
“So what’s with the fire damage?” Hope says.
“They escaped a burning building,” Ani says as she walks over with Jonathan. “And still found time to grab that necklace and uncurse your ass, little sister.”
Hope throws herself into Ani’s arms. We stand outside that shop and talk until we’ve gotten enough side-eye from passersby that Connolly suggests we talk elsewhere—Vanessa has offered her place for a rest stop before we journey home. We agree that’s wise and pile into cars.
So Hope is fine. In the end, she saved herself, and she’ll be flying high on that for a long time. Her curses are gone, too. All of them. Youth and beauty, which she didn’t need, and the rest of it, too. When I unwove the curse, it unwrapped its tendrils from my sister, and that’s what counts.
As for me?
I no longer feel the lump of the curse curled in my gut, but that only means the snake has burrowed in, becoming part of me. I’m cursed. I felt it enter. I did not feel it leave. Hope and Ani can see it in me, and Ani has vowed to find a way to uproot it, but I know that won’t happen. The necklace is uncursed, and there’s nothing more to be done.
I’ve already joked that it’s like the ultimate guardian for my heart—no one unworthy may enter. It’s more than that. I feel the truth of the curse in my soul. Yes, woe to those who pretend to love me, but it’s more all-encompassing than that. If I fall for the wrong person, someone who can’t truly love me back, we’ll both suffer.
My sister is fine, though. Connolly is alive and well. Rian is fine. Marius even has the necklace—Hector threw it down in a fit of rage when he sensed that the curse was gone. So we all came out of this as unscathed as we could have hoped for.
The rest? That little part that isn’t perfect? I’ll deal with it. I’ll have to.
We’re at Vanessa’s estate. It’s been three days since I got more than a few hours’ sleep, and I barely managed to shed my smoke-steeped clothing before I tumbled into the spare bed. A half-hour later, I’m awake and lying there, listening to Hope’s soft snores of exhaustion as she sleeps beside me. I give it another ten minutes, but my body has acquired the exact minimum amount of rest it needed and my brain says there’ll be time to sleep after all this is over. Time when I’ll be alone in my apartment with Ellie, thinking of all the things I wish I could have said when I had the chance.
I slip out and find the clothing I arrived in two days ago, somehow washed and folded and waiting for me, along with a tray holding every toiletry a guest could want, all of it brand new. I make quick use of it, including the tiny pot of under-eye concealer—thank-you, Vanessa!
As I step from the guest wing, voices waft from the courtyard’s open door, and I glance through to see Ani and Jonathan deep in conversation. I finger-wave, but they don’t notice me. When they’re talking like that, the rest of the world falls away. I remember how many times I’d watched them with envy. That’s what I wanted with a guy. Not surface conversation, skating over topics of vaguely shared interest, always aware of potential judgment, always trying to make a good impression without revealing too much.
I have that idealized level of comfort with my family and with female friends, but never with a guy—even in friendship there always seemed to be some unspoken barrier. I caught glimpses of that possibility with Connolly. Perhaps mirages shimmering with misguided hope. Or maybe a glimmer of true possibility.
I leave Ani and Jonathan, and I cover a few more steps before I hear another couple in conversation. I pass a doorway to see Vanessa and Marius on the divan. He’s reclining, just like when I first saw him. This time, though, there’s none of that bored insouciance. He’s on his back with his head on Vanessa’s lap, and they’re as rapt in each other as Ani and Jonathan. Their conversation is more relaxed, though, words intertwining like melodies.
Will getting the necklace end their “break”? I have no idea, and I’m not sure it matters. Whatever their sleeping arrangements, they are a couple, in all the best ways. Marius didn’t seem to want the necklace to win her back. He wanted it because she needed it.
I continue on without stopping. I’m looking for someone else, and I don’t want to get sidetracked. When I’d been stumbling toward the bedroom earlier, Connolly had said something about needing to speak to his parents, that I’d find him in the study if I couldn’t sleep. I should have taken that as a hint that he wanted to talk, but I’d been too exhausted.
Kind of like our first night here, when he’d showed up with wine, hoping to talk. Talk about the situation, he’d said, and in my disappointment, I’d withdrawn. I regret that now. Connolly hadn’t shown up at my bedroom door with wine to discuss a situation we’d discussed to death already. He’d simply wanted to talk, and he hadn’t known how to say so. If I’d doubted that, the dream Vanessa “sent” us proves it. That was the real Aiden Connolly, the one stifled under restraint and formality. I’ve seen him since. I want to see him again.
When I reach the study door, though, I can hear him still talking to his parents. I interrupted that once; I won’t do it again.
I’ll make him a coffee. Dig up a treat for the side—I’d spotted biscotti the other day. A coffee and a cookie. A seemingly impersonal present, like a generic Secret Santa gift, but it says I know how much he loves his coffee and sweets—and how much he’ll want them after that talk with his parents.
I’m smiling as I enter the kitchen, and I’m still smiling a few minutes later, as I wait for the coffee to brew. When footsteps sound at the doorway, I glimpse a figure that looks like Connolly. My smile grows . . . until I see Rian’s dark hair.
“Wow,” he says as he walks in. “I don’t think anyone’s ever been less happy to see me.”
“Sorry, I thought—”
“—I was Aiden. I know. I’m sure he’s gotten the same reaction many times, people mistaking him for me.”
“Ego runs in the family, doesn’t it?”
He grins. “Connollys are very aware of their many blessings. Some of us use them to build a million-dollar startup by twenty-one. And some of us use them to start up the motors of a million girls.”
He waggles his brows, and I can’t help but smile even as I shake my head. I turn back to making coffee.
“I suck at entrepreneurship,” he says. “And Aiden sucks at relationships. We play to our strengths. I try to overcome my weaknesses, which led to this whole mess. But at least I try. My brother? Not so much. It’s business, business, and more business. He walks into a party and doesn’t even notice the gauntlet of women checking him out, because all he sees are the networking opportunities.”
“Mmm-hmm.” I add a dollop of cream to Aiden’s coffee.
“What I’m trying to say is . . .” Rian throws up his hands. “Oh, hell. I’m here to make a plea on my annoying and exasperating brother’s behalf. Don’t let him walk away, Kennedy.”
I freeze and then force myself to press the brewer for a second cup.
“He’s going to walk away,” Rian continues. “Because he’s Aiden. I don’t care how smart he is. In some things, he’s an idiot. If you don’t skywrite ‘I’m interested,’ he’s going to tell himself this was just business. He’ll let you go.”
“If that’s what he wants—”
“Of course it isn’t what he wants. The way he acts around you? The way he talks? The way he relaxes? He barely does that with me. Which is a whole other story, I know—we have our problems. But the point is that you bring out something in my brother, something he needs, something he really needs. Hell, he lets you drive his car.”
I stir Connolly’s coffee.
“That’s for him, isn’t it?” he says. “You’re making him a coffee, because you know that after talking to our parents, he’ll need one the way other guys need a drink. You’ve fixed it exactly right. You’ve even got him a cookie—one small enough that he won’t refuse. You can’t tell me you want him to walk away.”
“No, but if he can walk away, maybe he should.”
Rian growls in frustration. “You may know Aiden well enough to fix him that coffee, but you obviously don’t know him that well. He doesn’t take risks, Kennedy.”
“Maybe he needs to start.”
“Or maybe you could.”
I shake my head. “Believe me, I have no problem taking risks.”
“Then this one should be easy. Just—”
“I thought I heard voices,” Vanessa says as she walks in. She stops. “Did I interrupt something?”
I shake my head. “I was just making Aiden a coffee.”
“Ah, well, hold that thought. Rian? Can you get your brother? I heard Hope stirring, and I know everyone will want to be on their way. I’m determined to feed you all first. Can you give me a hand with that, Kennedy?”
Rian shoots me a look, but I duck it. He throws up his hands and strides off to get his brother.
We’ve eaten and talked. There will be fallout from what happened in that farmhouse, with both Havoc and Hector, but Vanessa and Marius will handle it. This was, after all, about them. We were the mortals caught in the riptide of their ancient dramas, and they don’t expect we’ll hear any more from the villains in this piece. We’ve served our purpose and been discarded.
We aren’t as summarily dismissed by Vanessa and Marius. They owe us for our help and for what we suffered—his near-death experience and my curse. We have their ear and their favor, if we choose to use it.
After we eat, I announce plans to wander the gardens while the others finish. Am I hoping Connolly will join me? Of course. But he’s busy answering messages on his phone, and soon I’m walking through the front gardens alone. When a courier appears at the gate, I wander over.
“May I help you?” I say.
“Package for a Kennedy Bennett,” she says.
She frowns. “This is the address I was given.”
“And I’m Kennedy. I just wasn’t expecting a package here.”
After that, she understandably requires ID, which I show and sign for the envelope. It is indeed to me, at Vanessa’s address, with a very narrow delivery window.
I rip open the seal and pull out a greeting card. It’s a generic Congratulations! card, with a cartoon cat throwing confetti.
Inside, scrawling script says “Congrats on passing your college entrance exam! Please await further instructions on the admission process. Course selection begins soon.” Signed, “your dear great-great-great-great-great granny M.”
“Huh,” I say, aloud this time. “That’s . . . disconcerting.”
I turn to see Connolly walking toward me. I wave the card and then share it with him.
“Do I even want to know what she means?” I say.
“Probably not. But I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.” He shoves his hands into his pockets. “I wanted to say goodbye before we all take off.”
And here it is. The moment of truth, when I’ll know where he stands, what this is between us.
The answer, apparently, is nothing. Because that’s what he says. Nothing. Oh, he talks, meaningless banalities about how much he enjoyed working with me. It’s the sort of thing you say to someone you’re paired up with on a project. Not what you say to someone you carried from a burning building.
Rian warned me about this. I thought he was wrong. I was special, after all. Connolly was different around me—that’s why Rian came to plead his case. Surely, Connolly wouldn’t just walk away.
But that’s exactly what he’s going to do, and when I see it coming, I see the truth of my own words to Rian.
If he can walk away, maybe he should.
Or is that my own bruised ego talking? I know Connolly feels more. I didn’t need Rian to say so, though that should be all the extra support I require.
Connolly finishes his platitudes, and I know he’s ready to go. I need to say something, however simple. Maybe joke about whether he wants me to delete his number.
What if he says yes?
He’s glancing toward the house, pivoting in that direction—
“Oh,” he says, turning back sharply. “I almost forgot about your shop. The insurance and the police report. I can help you through that. We should be able to get you up and running in a few days.”
“I’m . . . not going to be reopening. My lease ends next month, and I just emailed to say I’m not renewing. I’m moving back to Unstable and opening a shop there.”
“You’re moving . . .?” Hands shoved into his pockets again. “Yes, of course. I knew you weren’t happy in Boston, and this scare with your sisters would have only strengthened your ties to home. Plus, given the damage to your stock, it’s the logical time to make the move so . . .” He clears his throat. “Yes, completely understandable.”
A beat pause. “However, my offer stands. Regardless of where you end up, there’s still an insurance claim to process. I would be happy to help with that. Unless you’d prefer I didn’t.” A faint smile. “I’m sure you’re quite sick of me by now.”
“Never. And I would love your help with the claim.”
He brightens. “Excellent. With the move, you’ll want the claim handled expediently. The delayed police report might prove a slight bump, but I can get you past all that, as painlessly as possible. After all, you did save my life.”
“Uh, no, pretty sure that was Jonathan and Marius.”
“You dragged me out of a burning house.”
“Because you collapsed from carrying me through that burning house.” I lift my hands. “Don’t argue. You owe me nothing. I will, however, greedily accept any help offered. Also, you’d mentioned the idea of me expanding my business. I’m not quite ready to go international, but I wouldn’t mind using some goodwill I built with Vanessa and Marius to grow my business. I could use your help navigating the gray market.” I finger the envelope, hoping I don’t look as nervous as I feel. “You did mention you’d be willing to do that . . .”
“Absolutely. It’s an excellent idea. I’ve had thoughts on that—what you could do with a business like yours. In fact, I’ve been seeking investment opportunities . . .” He catches my look. “Or I could just offer my expertise, if that’s preferable. However, if any capital investment is required, my terms would be far better than any banks and . . .”
He continues talking, one hand deftly guiding me deeper into the gardens. We walk and we talk, making plans for the future.
Is it exactly the sort of future I’d hoped for where Connolly is concerned?
Actually, yes. At least in the short term. Rian may have hoped for a different resolution, but Connolly and I aren’t there yet. It’s like watching an action movie, where the couple trade a few sparks amidst the danger, only to declare their undying love in the final scene.
I understand the constraints of a two-hour script, but I’m not really a fan of insta-love. I prefer the endings where the two former strangers make plans to stay in touch, maybe take on a joint project. I can peer into the future and give them an eventual happily-ever-after.
Is that what I see with us? Not yet. Maybe not ever, and if I can’t have that, then I’d damn well better stick with friendship, considering that little curse.
Connolly isn’t walking out of my life. He found his doorway back in, and he leapt at it. That’s all I need . . . at least for now.