“Are you sure I can’t make you a coffee?” Connolly asks as we walk into his office.
“Yeah, no. Weirdly not in the mood.”
He pauses, cup to his lips, and then lowers it and nods. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. That was thoughtless of me.”
I settle myself into the visitor’s chair, fussing more than necessary so he doesn’t see my expression.
I don’t know what to make of Aiden Connolly. I’ve called him an asshole more than once. Yesterday morning, though, my assessment was “kind of an asshole,” and I think that’s more accurate. In many ways, he’s your stereotypical successful young businessman. Condescending and overconfident to the point of arrogance. Yet whenever he’s about to tip over into full asshole-mode, he has the grace to admit he’s overstepped. It’s as if his brain doesn’t process “how would this make someone feel” as fast as mine does, and his emotional wiring needs an extra surge to leap the gap between self-concern and empathy.
Or maybe he’s just an asshole who knows his target isn’t going to put up with that bullshit, so he’s dialing it back and feigning contrition.
As I settle in, struggling to mask my confusion, I text Jonathan. He’s downstairs, ready in case anything went wrong. I tell him all is well, and I’m certain Connolly doesn’t have Ani and Hope because he stuck to his story even when I held him at gunpoint. Jonathan pops back a thumbs-up, as if there is nothing the least bit alarming in that statement.
As I lower my phone, Connolly says, “First, are you absolutely certain your sisters are missing?”
“I’m certain they aren’t home. I’m also certain that they aren’t answering texts, calls or e-mails. Is it possible I’m overreacting? Sure. So you can skip that part.”
“I wasn’t going to suggest that. If this is unusual behavior for them, then yes, I believe there’s a very good chance they’ve been taken.”
“Because you knew they were in danger. Yet you failed to mention that last night.”
He steeples his fingers on the desktop. “If you’d listened to my job offer—”
At a look from me, his hands shoot up. “And that was uncalled for. I apologize. If I actually thought they were in danger, I would have warned you.”
“You wanted to hire me for a job. Presumably unweaving a curse. If my sisters have been kidnapped and you think it’s connected, that’s because there are other parties involved. You’re working for someone who needs an object uncursed.”
Connolly fixes me with a cool look. “I don’t hire myself out like a common laborer, Ms. Bennett.”
“Ah, right. Common laborer. That’d be me, right? The chick you were trying to hire.”
He hesitates. Then he picks up a silver pen, fidgeting with it before realizing what he’s doing and setting it back down.
“You have a knack for twisting words and intentions, Ms. Bennett.”
“Not sure how else I could have interpreted that one. What you really mean is that I have a knack for calling you out when you’re being a dick. People don’t generally do that to you, do they? At least, not people you consider common laborers.”
He lifts the pen again. “Shall I write ‘I apologize for being a dick’ and just hold it up at regular intervals so we can move this conversation along?”
I can’t help smiling a little at that. “Or you could try not being a dick.”
“Genetically impossible. If you ever meet my parents, you’ll understand. All right then. I did not mean that comment the way it sounded. No one has hired me. I’m one of several people pursuing an object. The most famous cursed object in history.”
“And you accuse me of being dramatic.”
He opens a desk drawer, withdraws a folded newspaper and extends it. As I take the paper, I realize it’s actually a supermarket tabloid. Below the fold is a photograph of a woman in a coffin. She’s about my age, and even post-embalming she’s drop-dead gorgeous. According to the headline, the dead woman—one Eloise Hill-Cabot—is . . .
“Ninety-seven?” I say.
“Exactly,” Connolly says smugly.
“Uh, I hate to break it to you, Connolly, but this is a tabloid. It also has articles on . . .” I flip pages. “Hillary Clinton’s alien love child and a man whose sneeze blew off all his wife’s hair.”
Connolly reaches into the drawer for another folded paper. This one is the New York Times, with a much smaller article stating that the wealthy Hill-Cabot clan is embroiled in an inheritance scandal, after claiming that a woman in her twenties was their dead reclusive matriarch, Eloise. The article also notes that DNA results confirm their bizarre story, and so police are now investigating the possibility of a larger scam involving medical personnel, while searching for the real Eloise Hill-Cabot.
“Damn,” I say. “Huh. But eternal youth wouldn’t be a curse, not unless . . .”
My head shoots up. “The Necklace of Harmonia?”
Connolly’s lips twitch. “The most famous cursed object in history. Or is that being overdramatic?”
I return my attention to the articles.
He continues. “I’m not sure how much you know about the necklace and the mythology surrounding it.”
I point at my face.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s Greek myth, and your mother was Greek. Your father partly Greek, too, if I’m correct. That doesn’t mean you know the mythology.”
“I didn’t mean my cultural background,” I say. “I mean what I am. The living embodiment of Greek myth, one might say. So yeah, I know all about the Necklace of Harmonia. Short version: the wearer is blessed with eternal youth and beauty but cursed with great misfortune. Some say it also confers wealth, but others argue it’s the eternal youth and beauty that help amass wealth. Either way, you’ll be young and healthy and rich . . . and your life will suck in every possible way.”
“As it did for Eloise Hill-Cabot. Three marriages. All failed. Five children. Three died before they turned eighteen. The other two are, as you would say, assholes. Ones who’d make me look like a candidate for sainthood.”
“So you think Eloise had the Necklace of Harmonia.”
He passes over another photograph, a black-and-white shot showing Hill-Cabot as a bride wearing a gold necklace of two serpents clasping a jeweled sun between their mouths.
“Either that’s it or it’s a gorgeous fake,” I say. “Let me guess. You said there were other interested parties. After Eloise’s death, you’ve all realized she had the necklace, and now you’re all in a mad race to steal it from the Hill-Cabot vault. I think I’ve seen this movie.”
“Do I look like a thief, Ms. Bennett? I am a businessman. As you saw, the family isn’t able to claim their inheritance, given the suspicious circumstances of Eloise’s death. So they’ve discreetly put several items up for sale. One is the necklace. They’ve yet to snag an unwary buyer for that. Everyone who asked for a showing had a sudden change of heart.”
“Precisely. In our community, though, it’s theorized that a skilled curse weaver can remove the negative aspects.”
“Leaving only eternal youth and beauty.” I hand him back the newspapers and photograph. “You’d need more than a curse weaver, though. The Necklace of Harmonia is a curse plus a charm.”
“Is it?” He leans back in his chair. “You’d consider eternal beauty and youth a blessing then.”
“Pfft. No.” I wave at the photo in his hand. “That kind of beauty is nothing but trouble for a woman. And eternal youth? How long did Eloise manage to live in the real world before she went all Howard Hughes? At some point, you can’t keep claiming it’s all genetics and moisturizers. It’s definitely not . . .”
I trail off. “You think it’s all curse. The blessing is a trick. A trap. The wearer thinks they’re getting an awesome gift in return for a bit of bad luck. Instead, it’s all bad.”
My gaze meets his. “Joker’s jinx.”
He smiles, and it isn’t that smug smirk. It’s an actual smile, his green eyes crackling with summer’s warmth where, a moment ago, there’d been nothing but winter chill.
“That’s why you wanted to hire me,” I say. “Others are looking to combine a weaver with a charm caster, and you think they’ve got it wrong. What they need is an expert in one particular curse. The joker’s jinx.”
I shake my head. “I’m flattered, but I’m still not sure it’s enough. That is one serious curse. The biggest of them all. It would take more than just skill to unweave it. It’d take . . .”
“Luck?” He smiles again, that summery blaze of a smile. “That’s where I come in.”
I have a bit of luck now and then.
“You’re a . . .” I begin.
“I am indeed.” He leans back in his chair, that smug look back.
“Wow. I’ve never met an actual leprechaun. That’s kind of cool.”
He sits upright so fast the chair squeals. “A what?”
“Leprechaun. I should have guessed. You mentioned luck. You’re Irish. You have red hair. You’re not overly tall.”
“I am average height,” he says, straightening fast. “The average American male is five foot nine and I am five nine and a half.”
“That’s . . . oddly specific. Also, interesting that you know that particular piece of trivia. Still, I didn’t say you were short. Just not overly tall. Which I’d expect from a—”
“I am not a leprechaun. There’s no such thing.”
I eye him. “Are you sure? Cause you—”
“I am quite sure. I’m a luck worker.”
“Mmm, luck workers are Italian. Descended from the Roman goddess Fortuna. Leprechauns, on the other hand—”
“—do not exist,” he says, his voice chilling. “If you are at all familiar with Celtic history, you will know it was invaded by Rome. Invasions mean a mingling of bloodlines. The Connollys trace part of their lineage to Rome. The part that makes them luck workers.”
I open my mouth, but he cuts me off with, “I can bring the required luck to your weaving. That is all that matters.”
“Mmm, no. What matters is that my sisters are missing. I presume you’re implying they’ve been kidnapped by someone else hoping to unweave the curse.”
He nods. “When I went to research curse weavers, your family was the first name to come up. That is, apparently, what happens when you run an actual business removing curses.”
“Are you suggesting that if they’re kidnapped, it’s our own damned fault?”
“Not . . . really. Although one could say—”
“One could, but one should not.”
He raises his pen for emphasis. “My point is simply that it seems unwise—”
The pen bursts, ink spraying his white shirt. He startles back and then looks from the pen to me.
“Should not,” I say.
“That was my favorite pen.”
He hesitates. “Did you jinx it earlier?”
“That would be wrong. I need a reason.”
“But you didn’t touch it. Curse weaving requires physical contact with an object.”
“Does it? Well, then, the exploding pen was a coincidence.”
He turns it over in his hands. “It’s true then. Your family has a little extra. That’s what the rumors say. You’re the direct descendants of the leader of the arae.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you’re just really unlucky. At least when it comes to favorite pens.”
“You can weave minor curses from a distance, without any materials. That is definitely a show of power. It’s also the real reason your sisters were targeted. Well, that and the fact they’re very easy to find, running a business—”
“You do like that pen, right? And you’d eventually like it uncursed?”
He sets the pen down.
“Yes,” I say. “My family openly practices unweaving. Have for centuries. Do you know how many times it’s led to kidnapping?” I make a zero with my forefinger and thumb. “What’s the point in forcing us to uncurse something when we do it for a living?”
“If it’s a famous and potentially dangerous curse? On an object so valuable that any gifted curse weaver would insist on full profit sharing?” He glances at the pen. “I will concede your point, though.”
“And refrain from suggesting that the victims had it coming? That if they didn’t want to be attacked they shouldn’t be flaunting their stuff, strutting around in a mini-skirt, metaphorically speaking?”
Spots of color heat his cheeks. “I . . . did not intend it that way.”
“Then stop saying it. Please.”
“I will. So, now, our course is clear. We need to find your sisters—”
“Really hoping that we is also metaphorical.”
His brows knit. “I don’t see how it could be.”
“I can find my sisters. Just give me the information.”
“I don’t have information. I have vague leads. Which I will share as we hunt for your sisters together—”
“I have the information you need. I also have the contacts you need. You have the curse-weaving skill I need. We’ll find your sisters, and you’ll uncurse the necklace, for which I will pay you twenty-five percent of original purchase price.”
“I don’t want the money. I just want my sisters.”
He waves away my words. “You’re concerned for them now. Once you have them, you’ll want the money. It’s obvious you could use it.”
“Unless you want me to find your sisters alone. That would drop your share to ten percent, but I’m willing to consider it.”
“And I don’t give a shit about the money. But I’m not going to sit on my hands while you search for my missing sisters either.”
“Excellent, then we are agreed. I’m hiring you—”
“No. You aren’t hiring me for anything, Connolly. I’m not your employee.”
“Of course you aren’t. This is only a contract position—”
“Not an employee.”
“A service provider, then, and I am your client—”
“Nope.” I cross my arms. “Employer or client, either way, you’re my boss. That ain’t happening. Equal partners or nothing.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t have partners, Ms. Bennett. I have employees and service providers.” He lifts his pen and pulls out a checkbook. “Let me write you a retainer. Proof of my sincerity as your new employer—”
Ink explodes, splattering his shirt again. He turns cool eyes on me.
“Would you please stop doing that?” he says.
“Would you please stop deserving that?” I say. “I’m not your employee. Not your service provider. Not in need of a retainer. We are partners, or I walk away and you find another experienced curse weaver who specializes in the joker’s jinx, one who will put up with your shit. That last part’s going to be toughest.”
He hesitates, pen still poised over the ruined checkbook. “I have no experience of partnerships and—”
“Step one, stop calling me Ms. Bennett. You may mean it to be respectful, but it sounds condescending. My name is Kennedy.”
Another hesitation, longer this time. “I suppose then that you may call me Aid—”
“No need. I like Connolly. Now, let me call in my associate. He’s waiting downstairs.”
Connolly’s brows rise.
“You trapped me here last night,” I say. “I wasn’t coming alone. Jonathan is an old friend. From Unstable.”
Connolly frowns. “Does he have a magical power?”
“He doesn’t need one.” I take out my phone. “He’s a librarian.”