When I disconnect, I glance at Connolly, who’s deep in thought. I give him a moment and then clear my throat.
“Did you recognize anything about the voice?” I say. “I know it was distorted.”
“It’s definitely not the woman we were going to see. I didn’t think she’d resort to kidnapping, but that confirms it wasn’t her.”
“You mean because it was a guy. Could she have hired someone to call us?”
“No, she would insist on doing that herself. Otherwise . . . I’m relatively new to all this, as he said. Besides Vanessa—the woman—I don’t know the major players beyond being able to point them out at a party.”
“Can we talk about all this?” I say. “Give me more insight into what’s happening here?”
“No need,” Ani says. “What matters is our sister’s life, which is more valuable than any necklace. You’ve heard the terms, Mr. Connolly. Dare I hope you have enough decency to back out of the auction?”
“It . . . isn’t that simple.”
Ani surges forward, but I stop her with a look. Connolly’s hesitation and his sidelong glance tell me he’s not being an asshole. It really isn’t that simple.
“How much?” Ani says.
She presses on. “How much profit would you expect from this necklace, if you were able to buy it, uncurse it and resell it. Name a figure.”
“It isn’t about the money.”
“Then what the hell is it about?”
“It’s . . . complicated.”
“Aiden.” My use of his first name must startle him. He looks up, those green eyes meeting mine, clouds swirling in his. “You know we can’t accept that. This is Hope’s life.”
“No one is going to kill her. That’s not how anyone operates in this world.”
“I’m not forcing your hand right now. I want to get Ani home. I want to talk to Jonathan and see what he’s come up with. And I want to think. Mostly, I want to think. But in the end, I’m going to need a little more from you than ‘it’s complicated.’”
“Can we go then?”
He nods, distracted, as if he’s already faded back into his thoughts. Then his head jerks up, and he turns toward the shack.
“That transmitter,” he says. “If it’s connected to a cell service, there might be a way to trace the number. I suspect it would lead to a dead end, but I should bring it.”
He does that. Then we continue on. We take the path I believe Ani’s captors used to carry her to the shack. I let Connolly walk ahead while I search for clues. In a movie, one of her captors would have dropped a lighter with his name engraved in it. Better yet, a stray business card would have slid from his pocket. I find only broken twigs and scuffed shoe prints.
I’ve caught up with Connolly when his arms shoot out, holding me back. He pauses, head tilting as he listens. Then, without a word, he strides forward. I jog after him and try to grab his shirt, but he strides at a remarkable pace.
“Please get off my car,” he says.
I hurry out to see three guys. One lounges on the hood of Connolly’s car like a neighborhood thug. A glance across the three, though, makes me wish they were neighborhood thugs. These guys wear dark suits filled out with muscular builds. Short hair. Clean-shaven. While they look like federal law enforcement, menace swirls thick around them, the air of men who intimidate their way through life.
We should have been more careful coming out of those woods. Yes, the signal triggered that call, but it could also have sent Ani and Hope’s kidnappers back.
Connolly strides out, not the least intimidated, and normally, I’d find that hella sexy, but this is one case where I’d have argued for a bit more caution. It’s three of them against three of us, and that’d be better odds if I was armed with more than my fake derringer.
Connolly walks up to the guy on his car hood. The man is bouncing on it now, grinning. He’s about Connolly’s age and Connolly’s height. Stocky bordering on beefy with a wide face and a pug nose that I’m sure was a lot cuter when he was five.
“Do I need to ask you again?” Connolly says. “I don’t think you want that.”
“Oh, I want it.” The guy meets Connolly’s gaze, his thick lips curving in a sneer. “I really want it.”
“Are you sure?” Connolly stops within striking distance. “I seem to recall the last time we had this discussion—”
The guy hops down, his hands slamming out as if to shove Connolly, but he doesn’t actually make contact. At a wave from Connolly, the other two men retreat silently to their car—a black SUV parked twenty feet away.
“Friends of yours?” I say to Connolly as I walk from the woods, Ani behind me.
“Friends of yours?” the guy says. He whistles as his gaze travels over us. “Please tell me they aren’t sisters. If you’re banging sisters, I might actually need to be jealous.”
Connolly’s eyes chill. “Show some respect—”
“Respect?” the guy says as he strolls toward us. “Girls like this don’t want respect. That’s where you always get it wrong, Aiden. This one here?” He waves at me. “What she really wants is someone to grab her pretty hair and—”
Connolly moves fast, but I move faster, getting between them so quickly Connolly’s fist glances off my shoulder.
I turn to face the other guy. “That’s where you get it wrong. Girls like me love respect. Can’t get enough of it. Can’t get enough of guys who show it, either. My sister and I were driving along with Aiden here, and we just couldn’t help ourselves. Insisted he pull off for a threesome in the woods over there. That’s where respect gets you.”
The guy pauses, not quite knowing what to do with this. Insulting women with sex talk isn’t nearly as much fun when they join in.
Finally he says, “Well, if you’re into threesomes, you should try me on for size. I’m sure Aiden here didn’t quite scratch the itch.”
“Mmm, no. He scratched it very well.” I step back to run my hand up Connolly’s arm. “When a guy knows how to treat a woman out of bed, it’s a sure sign he knows how to treat her in bed.”
The guy snorts. “Yeah, that’s not what I heard. Remember Tiffany in sophomore year, Aiden? She told me—”
“Sophomore year?” I say. “Sex at sixteen is the starting point of a very long learning curve. Or it’s supposed to be.” I peer at the guy. “Please tell me you know that.”
“Wanna find out?”
I shudder. “God no. That’d be like going from that”—I wave at Connolly’s car—“to a moped.”
Connolly moves forward. “And now that you two have met, perhaps a more complete introduction is in order. Travis, this is Ms. Bennett, Kennedy, this is Travis.”
“Let me guess,” I say. “He works for your father.”
I make a face. “Ugh. Sorry. That was sexist of me.”
Travis saunters back to Connolly’s car and hops onto the hood again.
I wince. “Really? You have a very limited repertoire, don’t you, Travis?”
“I don’t think we resolved this,” Travis says, chin rising.
“Yeah, we kinda did,” I say. “Aiden discreetly threatened to kick your ass, and you decided to get off his hood.”
“K,” Ani warns under her breath.
“Kick my ass?” Travis says. “Like hell. He was threatening to run to mommy, as he always does.”
“As I never do,” Connolly murmurs. “All right, let’s go with that, Travis. I’m threatening to tell my parents. Now get off my car—”
“It’s not yours. It’s mommy and daddy’s.”
“No,” Connolly says. “It is mine. Bought with my money. Which I earned.”
“From a business Daddy bought you.”
Connolly’s mouth opens, and then he pulls back. He glances my way. He wants to defend himself, but he knows Travis is baiting him.
It doesn’t take a scrying ball to see the past between Connolly and Travis. From Travis’s cracks, they’ve known each other for years. I’ll go out on a limb and say they weren’t childhood buddies. Their families know each other. Most likely, Travis’s works for Connolly’s.
They’re the same height now, but Travis carries himself like a man who thinks he’s bigger, and Connolly getting defensive about his height suggests it’s a sore spot from his youth. Connolly was a small kid, and Travis was a big one. I picture Connolly as studious and quiet, but with the arrogance of privilege he still carries. Travis would have felt compelled to use his size to prove his superiority. Connolly might have been smarter and wealthier, but he was just a little redheaded punk, easily pushed around. That’s changed. Connolly’s still smarter and wealthier, but now, in a fair fight, I’d put my money on him.
“What do you want, Travis?” Connolly says, enunciating each word.
“Your mommy was wondering what you’re doing out here. You canceled lunch—oh, I’m sorry, brunch. She saw where you were and had me come find you.”
Travis smirks, as if waiting for Connolly’s embarrassment to show on his fair skin. Yet not even a touch of pink brightens Connolly’s cheeks.
“Tell my mother that I’ll call her,” Connolly says. “Thank you for the message. You may leave now.”
With that dismissal, it’s Travis who colors. He covers it by crossing his arms and walking up to Connolly. “If she trusted you to tell her what you’re doing, she’d have called you.”
“Yes, and perhaps someday we’ll no longer need to play this little game, but for now, we are both stuck with it. My mother doesn’t expect me to tell you what I’m doing. This is business. Family business. Your only job was to show up and report where you found me and what I seemed to be up to. And to convey the implicit message that I may have stepped beyond the circle of my mother’s trust, but I cannot escape the circle of her influence. Message delivered. Now leave.”
Travis spins to face me.
“No,” Connolly says. “You have no parting words for Ms. Bennett or her sister. If you feel the need to toss one final insult, please aim it at me.”
Travis directs his glare my way, as if I’m puppeteering Connolly. He opens his mouth again.
“No,” Connolly says, the word harsher now. “That is your last warning. And before you say it, I won’t tell my mother on you. I’ll tell yours. That is always so much more effective.”
Ani stifles a laugh that has Travis starting to turn on her before muttering something about Connolly, incoherent but obviously unflattering. Then he stalks back to the SUV where the other two men wait.