Escorting Ellie back to Ani is really just an excuse for me to get my thoughts in order—and see my sister—before we leave. Our house is a quarter-mile from the custard shop, and Ellie knows the way. It might have made more logical sense to drop her off there but . . .
Does it sound weird if I admit that I don’t want to take Connolly home? It feels awkward, like being a kid again with a potential new friend. For me, bringing a friend home was a huge step, inviting them into my private corner of the world.
I don’t feel that way about my apartment in Boston. My family home, though, is the repository of my memories, the repository of me, if that makes sense. I had to trust a new friend enough to pull back that curtain. And if the friendship never solidified, I’d feel as if I’d lost something. Maybe none of that makes sense. All I know is that I wasn’t ready to take Connolly over that threshold.
We talk to Ani. Then, as we’re leaving the library, Connolly offers to let me drive. He has calls to make, and while he’s fine with multi-tasking, he got the feeling earlier I’d rather he stuck to one or the other. I appreciate that. We’ve battled over this particular patch of ground, resolved the issue and moved on with maximum efficiency and minimal conflict. Nice.
So I drive, and he places calls. He lets Vanessa know he’s coming and warns her that he’s bringing a “colleague.” He also speaks to his tech person about the signal device we found at the cabin. She says it was almost certainly working on an independent SIM card, probably pay-as-you-go. Following her instructions, he finds and removes the card, and we make a stop to overnight it. After that, he offers to drive, and I agree.
“Can I ask about your business?” I say when we’re back on the highway. “Pure curiosity. You can tell me no if it’s proprietary information. Or if you just don’t feel like talking about it.”
“You’re giving me the opportunity to brag about how terribly clever I am, finding a different way to make money using my magical talent. I think you realize exactly how irresistible that is—as someone who has done the same thing.”
I smile. “True enough. We don’t get nearly enough chances to brag. So, insurance, huh?”
“Yes, and don’t even pretend you think that part of it’s interesting. It’s been many years since I made the mistake of presuming anyone found the art and science of insurance as captivating as I do. Do you know how long a blind date lasts after you wax rhapsodic about actuarial tables?”
“Ten, actually. I believe I got as far as ‘the fascinating thing about actuarial tables is—’ before she excused herself to use the restroom and never returned.”
I smile. “Her loss. She probably missed the most passionate defense of statistics she’ll ever hear.”
“She did. Which I’ll spare you. What you’re interested in is the fun part. How I can use luck to nudge those statistics to my advantage. First, though, how much do you know about luck working?”
“It involves working with luck.”
He makes a sound that might actually be a chuckle. “It does, oddly. The thing about luck is . . . Well, my gran calls it fairy dust.”
The words barely leave his lips before he glances over. “And don’t say it.”
“The L word.”
I grin at him. “Leprechaun? Which is a type of fairy?”
“I walked into that one. My gran’s point is that it’s the most ephemeral of the magical talents. When you weave a curse or cast a charm, you know exactly what the outcome will be. The luck worker must be more careful. We’re taking this cloud of fairy dust and trying to direct it, rather than let it land where it may. There is, of course, a time and place for general luck, but most people want something specific.”
“Like luck at a casino winning them the game instead of a free drink.”
“Precisely. Then there’s the issue of balance, as with any magical talent. Good luck must be balanced with bad, which unfortunately can’t be directed. Just managed.”
He changes lanes, shoulder checking first. “Most luck workers adjust their own good fortune, juggling it in ways that benefit them. That’s what my parents do. Both being luck workers means they can operate in tandem, bolstering one another. Which is why I’m supposed to have joined the family business. To help with that.”
“But you didn’t. Is that a problem?”
“It would be if the corporation was in trouble. As it stands, my parents are quite happy to support me, but they see my business as a future acquisition. That’s what the Connollys do. They spot talent and innovation, allow the minds behind it to build the company and then . . .”
“Make them an offer they can’t refuse?”
“Yes. It’s very common in corporate practice.”
“Except in your case, they wouldn’t buy the business from you. They’d bring you into the fold . . . with your company. Pull it—and you—under their umbrella.”
He glances over. “Are you quite certain you don’t have a business degree?”
“Actually, I didn’t finish my degree. Dropped out when my father died. But it was a history major and business minor.”
“An unusual combination. But it also means you weren’t completely unprepared to open an antique shop.”
“Did it seem like I was?” I make a face. “Sorry, that was defensive.”
“And my comment held an air of condescension. We’ll both withdraw to our corners and get back on track.” He checks his rearview mirror. “Luck working and insurance. That was the original question. How they work together. Any guesses?”
Before I can open my mouth, he says, “Was that patronizing?”
I smile. “Only if you insist that I guess or make me feel stupid for guessing wrong.”
“Then I’ll take a shot at it. You use luck to help swing the odds in your favor. Like you would at cards, only on a bigger scale.”
“Bigger in term of numbers,” he says. “The luck manipulations are generally small, which makes them easier to offset. Microdosing, if you will. Find high risk, high profit policies that would benefit from a little luck manipulation and balance them by negatively affecting low risk, low profit policies.”
“You’re the only one who’s tried this?”
“No, just as I’m sure you aren’t the only one who’s tried buying cursed antiques for resale. You have an eye for quality, an engaging personality and excellent curse-weaving skills. It’s the combination that works. Same with me. I started this business in high school. Several luck workers have tried it since. They fail because they aren’t statisticians with a genuine love for actuarial science. They also don’t share my caution. I avoid risk by nature. So I’m not exactly offering insurance on race horses.”
“You offer regular insurance. To regular people.”
“Primarily, yes. Managing risk and reward in a way others, like my brother, would find stultifying. What he sees as slow and plodding, I see as . . .” One hand lifts in a graceful wave. “Crafting. Refining. The challenge for me is creative precision. I see luck working as building a quiet masterpiece, one subtle stroke at a time. While Rian is . . .”
“Throwing paint at the wall?”
“Yes.” He wrinkles his nose. “That sounds like bragging, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way. Rian has his own style.”
“Abstract art versus old master. I get it. I’ve been known to throw a bit of paint myself in curse weaving. It drives Ani nuts. She’s like you, careful and precise. I want to . . .” I pat the dashboard. “It’s like having a fancy car. I want to see what my weaving can do. Take it through its paces.”
“Explore and create. You in your way. Me in mine.”
I smile at him, and he glances over, that wave of warmth washing through me. Then his gaze flicks to the rearview mirror, and he frowns. I twist to look behind us. The car following is a convertible, driven by a woman my age, who seems to be shouting at us, until I realize she’s just belting out a song.
I’m about to comment when I spot another vehicle—on our right and two cars back. A black SUV with dark-tinted windows. Just like the one Travis had been driving.
“I need to make a call,” Connolly says. “If you’ll excuse the interruption.”
He puts on his earpiece and stabs the console display so fast I see nothing but flashed icons. Then, without preamble, he says, “I didn’t complain about you sending Travis because you know exactly how I feel about it. Silence does not in any way imply acceptance.”
Through his earpiece, I catch a woman’s voice, her words as clipped as his own.
He continues, “If I opened this call with a proper greeting, you would again take that as proof I’m not upset about being followed. You wish me to act like a son? Then please remember that’s what I am. Or, failing that, treat me like a business associate who has done nothing to earn your mistrust.”
A response, short and to the point.
Connolly’s voice cools to sub-Arctic temperatures. “That was a personal matter, intended to show you just how much I dislike being treated like a rebellious teen. If you insist on clinging to that as an excuse for surveilling your own sons, might I suggest I’m not the one you should be surveilling.”
Another glance into the mirror, and as he does that, he sees me and gives a little start, as if he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone. When he speaks again, his voice is calm and even.
“I’m actively trying to help Rian,” he says. “Having Travis tail me—”
She speaks, cutting him off.
Frustration twangs in Connolly’s voice. “Travis or anyone else from your security division.”
“I’m being followed by a black Ford Expedition with custom-tinted windows, Mother. Are you honestly going to tell me that isn’t yours?”
I twist to look back. The SUV is in the right lane and closing the gap fast. I squint, hoping to see through the windows, but I can barely distinguish outlines. Two people. That’s all—
The SUV accelerates.
“Connolly . . .” I say. “Watch—”
The other vehicle jerks toward us.
“Aiden!” I shout.
The SUV slams our right rear bumper, the angle sending us straight into the concrete divider and then spinning back into traffic.
We’re going to die.
It happens almost too fast for any thought to process, but somehow, that one does. Not a scream, but a horrified whisper.
We’re going to die.
We ping-pong off the divider and spin back into oncoming, steady, seventy-mile-an-hour traffic, and we are going to die, and I’m never going to see my sisters again or my cat, my damned cat and—
The car stops, tires spitting gravel. For a second, the world seems to stop, too, and I think I’m dead. I must be. There is no way we survived that without ending up in a heap of twisted metal. Yet we’re on the shoulder, across three lanes of traffic, and we are fine. Cars honk and tires still screech, a delayed reaction to the disturbance. But we’re sitting here, breathing hard, and we’re fine.
We just shot across three lanes of solid traffic and missed every oncoming car? That’s impossible.
No, not impossible. Just lucky. Very, very lucky.
I glance at Connolly. He’s collapsed against the steering wheel. I grab my phone from the floor, thinking he’s been injured. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees me, lifts a hand and croaks, “I’m fine.”
When I hesitate, he says, “Really. Just . . . give me a moment.”
Not an injury then—exertion from using his powers. A blast of luck, cast at a split-second’s notice.
I can say curse weaving wipes me out but not like this. This is the equivalent of lifting a car off a trapped child, and he’s pale and shaking as he struggles for breath.
“I can drive,” I say. “Get us off the road—”
He lifts one unsteady finger. Two heartbeats pass. Then he glances over his shoulder, fingers on the door handle, as if he’s considering opening it.
“The shoulder’s wide enough for you to get out,” I say.
“Right now, it’s probably best if I just slide over. And, yes, definitely best if I don’t take the wheel until—”
A police siren bleep-bleeps before wailing to life.
Connolly exhales, his shoulders slumping.
“It’s fine,” I say. “Inconvenient, but fine.”
I open my door as the police cruiser pulls in behind us. I’m climbing out when Connolly touches my leg.
“Can you talk to them? I’m not—”
“Please step out of the car,” an officer says.
I close my door and turn to her. “Thanks for coming. We’re fine, but my friend is winded and—”
She raps on Connolly’s window as if I haven’t spoken. “Sir? Step out of the vehicle.”
He hesitates. Then he pushes the door . . . and it smacks into the officer, who stumbles back. Connolly scrambles out, hands raised.
“I’m sorry,” he blurts. “That was an accident. The door slipped—”
“Step away from the car, and keep those hands up. We just had a report of a vehicle driving erratically and then veering into the center divider.”
“What?” I say.
A look from Connolly stops me as I realize we’ve been set up. I don’t know if our attackers meant to cause a fatal accident, but they sure as hell weren’t expecting us to walk away without a scratch.
Someone just tried to kill us. And frame Connolly for his own death.
“My license is in my wallet,” Connolly says. “My right rear pocket. May I remove that?”
Connolly reaches back with care and tugs, but the wallet sticks, and when he pulls, the movement somehow sends him staggering into the officer, who backpedals fast.
“Up against the car,” she barks. Then she turns to her partner, who’s still in the cruiser. With a growl of obvious frustration, she calls, “I could use a little help here!”
As her partner climbs out, Connolly snags my gaze with a look of wide-eyed desperation that I don’t understand . . . and then I do.
This is why he hadn’t wanted to step out on the shoulder. Why he’d agreed I should drive. Why he’d asked me to speak to the officers. Not exhaustion.
I remember the door hitting the officer. Then Connolly smacking into her as he pulled out his wallet.
This is the price for the surge of good luck that saved our lives. A run of bad luck, until he’s set the balance straight again.
The officer is telling her partner to grab the breathalyzer.
She thinks Connolly’s drunk. Of course, she does. The call said he’d been driving erratically. Now he’s disheveled and clumsy. Clearly someone had a three-martini lunch.
I look from Connolly to the breathalyzer, my eyes asking a question I can’t voice. He shakes his head. No, his bad luck can’t make the device give a false positive. It doesn’t work that way. Yet as I try to think of a way out of this, the officer struggles with the machine, which is clearly not working right. The breathalyzer won’t condemn him . . . but his bad luck means it won’t exonerate him either.
“We haven’t had anything to drink, Officer . . .” I read her tag. “Bradford. We just had the scare of our lives. An SUV struck our rear bumper. A black Expedition. It hit our corner like a pool cue lining up a shot. We went into the median and bounced off, and I thought we were going to die. Aiden managed to steer us out of it, but obviously, he’s a little freaked out right now.”
My explanation doesn’t impress Bradford, but it does calm Connolly, and the breathalyzer works then. It shows zero alcohol in his system.
“Fine,” she says. “You weren’t drinking, but we still had a report.”
“I can’t explain that,” I say. “But if you look at the bumper, it’s freshly scratched.”
I keep trying, but it’s obvious Officer Bradford does not want to drop this. Oh, I’m sure she would have been reasonable . . . if Connolly hadn’t smacked into her twice. She’s actually being very good about it.
I consider appealing to her partner, but he looks on the far side of sixty, one of those guys who’s already mentally practicing his retirement golf swing while his young partner does all the work. He’s so disinterested that he plucks his coffee from the car and perches on the cruiser hood.
When he lifts his cup for a drink, coffee streams out both sides, making him jump with a yelp. Bradford shoots him a look.
“Bad lid,” he mumbles and adjusts it.
Before she can speak to Connolly, her partner lifts his coffee . . . and again it streams down, this time soaking his shirt. She tries to keep questioning Connolly, while her partner dances around, plucking at his soaked uniform shirt.
“Look, the guy’s fine,” her partner says finally. “He blew clean. He didn’t hit anyone. It looks like the girl’s right—they got clipped. Either we file a report or just let it go, so I can fix this.” He plucks at his shirt.
Bradford glares. I don’t blame her. But her partner is agitated and just wants to get back on the road. After a few warnings for Connolly, Bradford sends us on our way. I climb into the driver’s seat, and we’re off.
“Damn dribble cups, huh?” I say.
Connolly gives a dry chuckle. “That was you, was it? Nicely done.”
“Nothing like what you pulled off. Our lucky break.”
He runs a hand through his hair. “Yes, but I nearly got myself arrested for assaulting an officer.”
“How are you doing?”
“Feeling about as lucky as a man walking under a ladder on Friday the thirteenth.”
“Should I be concerned?”
“No. Just stay away from me when I’m opening doors apparently.” He glances at an exit sign. “To be safe, we should probably pull off. Take a walk. Grab a coffee. Let me trip over my own feet, scald my tongue, get it out of my system.”
“What about scratch cards?” I ask.
He arches his brows.
“Buy a bunch of scratch-and-win cards. Work off your bad luck that way.”
“Worth a try,” he says. “Though I’d still suggest you maintain a three-foot distance for the next hour.”
I smile over at him. “Noted.”