Chapter Seventeen

Connolly walks out of the library and heads straight to his car.

“Uh . . .” I call after him. “Fleeing so soon?”

He frowns at me. “I thought we were going for ice cream.”

“Custard, but yes, we are. It’s within walking distance. Here, everything is within walking distance.”

He pauses, and I swear I see that churning behind his eyes, as if he’s trying to put the words “walking” and “distance” together in some way that make sense in his world.

“We can drive if you want,” I say. “But it’s two hundred yards away. Also . . .” I nod toward Ellie, who’s wandering in the garden, as if she hasn’t followed me out. 

“Right. Yes. Of course. We’ll walk.”

He still pauses at his car door, looking through the tinted window and then patting his pockets. I think he’s forgotten something, but he doesn’t open the door or take anything from his suit jacket, and I realize he’s just mentally shifting into walking mode, figuring out what—if anything—he needs for the adventure.

I point at the blazing May sun and then pop on my sunglasses. “Might need these. You could probably also lose the jacket.”

“Lose the . . .? Right. Remove it.”

He hesitates, and I bite back a laugh. 

“Or you can leave it on,”  I say.

“No, no. It is getting warm.” 

He sheds the jacket and takes out his sunglasses. Earlier, I’d reflected that the men surrounding his car weren’t federal law officers, despite their short hair and suits. That’s what Connolly looks like, though, in his shades and tie. Or maybe not an actual agent as much as the TV version. Sculpted jaw, high cheekbones, lean build very nicely filling out his tailored shirt. The sun glints off his hair, making it more gold than red. Even the mud spatter on his shoes only adds to the image of the hard-working agent, nattily dressed despite tramping through the forest in search of clues. He bends to check his reflection, pushing a stray lock of hair in place, the small flash of vanity oddly adorable. Also, in bending, he presents a very fine rear view, unhindered by his suit jacket.

He catches me looking, and his brows shoot over his shades.

“You’ve got a bit of dirt or something,” I say. “Right here.” I tap my hip.

“Ah.” He brushes at the clean spot. “Thank you.”

“Anytime. Ready?”

He nods, and we head onto the street, Ellie trotting along at a suitable distance. As we walk, I’m glad he grabbed his sunglasses. I’m sure it’s easier on his eyes. Also, they look good. But mostly, I’m happy that I can’t see his reaction to our surroundings. 

It’s turned into a gorgeous May day. A cherry tree drops petals like kisses blown in the wind. Lilacs perfume the air with a heady scent that always reminds me of great-aunt Dimitra. Every lawn is golf-course green, and whether it’s a business or residence, flowers burst from gardens and overflow from pots. Every now and then I catch the scent of fresh paint or fresh cut grass cutting through that lilac. It doesn’t matter if I walk through Boston parks every day—this is different. This is home at the most magical time of year, the town sparkling bright, ready for Memorial Day crowds.

Does Connolly see that sparkle? Does he smell the lilacs? Hear people greeting me as they spruce up yards and storefronts and gardens? Or is his gaze fixed down the road, searching for a sign that marks the end of our journey? 

Or is it worse than that? Is he looking around and judging? Seeing past the pretty gardens and gorgeous architecture to the theme park beneath. Because that’s what Unstable is, in its way. It’s not Salem—thank God. The only reference to that tragedy is in the names of our streets, honoring the dead. There are good people in Salem, who want a memorial to the horror of the witch sham, but there are too many who just want to profit off people’s fascination with it. Here, we celebrate the paranormal and our fascination with that. A fascination with the possibility of magic in the world.

As we walk, we pass three shops catering to that part of Unstable: a dream therapist, a tarot reader and a numerologist. We also pass a B&B, a sandwich spot, a soap store, a candy shop—specializing in fudge, of course—and a little place where you can craft your own crystal bracelet. They’re all services catering to tourists. Also all the sort of places you might find in a theme park. I’m okay with that. I’m rather fond of theme parks, and there’s an old-fashioned earnestness I love about this one. But what does Connolly see? I don’t dare ask.

I already feel a bit foolish, wanting him to see the beauty of my town, like a girl with a new haircut, hoping a certain boy will notice. No, that analogy doesn’t quite work. It’s more like when I brought college friends home. I wanted them to like Unstable—and not judge me for liking it. I’m not sure why Connolly’s opinion matters. It just feels as if it does.

We make it to the custard shop without a word exchanged. I almost jump when he speaks.

“I’ll wait out here while you get your snack.”

“You don’t want one?” I say.

“I don’t eat sweets.”

“Don’t eat sweets? Or don’t like sweets?”

His hesitation is all I need. I tug him through the door, the bells jangling. Mrs. Madani emerges from the back, and thus begins the ten minutes of chitchat I’ll endure if I step into any shop along this street.

I say endure. I mean adore. I love coming home and catching up with people I’ve known all my life. I try to cut this conversation short, being very aware of Connolly waiting, but he shows no sign of impatience, so I chatter away as I place my order. Connolly continues to protest that he really doesn’t need anything until I threaten to get him the “everything” custard—every mix-in on the shelf. He orders a small salted caramel, and we head out back to the garden tables, where Ellie is waiting on the low wall.

“If you really don’t want it, I’ll eat it,” I say as he stares into his bowl.

“No, I . . .” He lifts the spoon and nudges the custard, as if it might bare teeth. “It looks quite good.”

“Looks good. Is good. Dig in.”

He does . . . and finishes his before I’m halfway done mine.

“Not so bad, huh?” I say, arching my brows at his empty bowl.

Spots of color underscore the sunglass lenses. “It’s . . . been a while since I’ve had sweets. I have a . . . tendency to overindulge.”

I run a quick glance down his shirt. “Unless you’re hiding it really well, I’m not seeing it.”

“Because I know my weakness and steer clear.”

I stop, midway through twisting to drop a spoonful for Ellie. “Like tee-totaling sugar? That’s some serious willpower. How long have you been doing that?”

He considers. “Twenty years.”

“Since you were a kid?” I sputter.

“I started putting on some weight, and my mother excised sugar from my diet. I do have the occasional treat but . . .” He fingers the empty bowl, staring down as if hoping it might magically refill. Then he snaps upright. “Best not to tempt fate.”

“Uh, look, I’m not going to comment on your mother’s methods. Biting my tongue hard here.”

His lips twitch. “I see that.”

“But you’re an adult, and something tells me you don’t have a problem with self-control.”

He lifts the bowl, displaying the spotless interior.

“Right,” I say. “But that was a small. And you aren’t rushing back in for seconds.”

“Is that an option?” 

His lips twitch again, and even with his glasses on, I feel the surge of warmth. It does something to my insides, and I quickly focus on my own now-melting custard.

“I’m just saying you seem like you can handle it,” I say. “Which is none of my business anyway. Sorry.”

His lips curve into a genuine smile, and when he tugs off his glasses, that summer glow makes me scoop custard faster, staring into my cup like it’s a scrying bowl, holding the secrets to my future.

“Don’t apologize,” he says. “You’re very easy to talk to, and I don’t mind a little easy conversation right now. Especially if it delays you getting to the real point of this excursion, which was getting me to explain why I can’t drop out of the auction.”

I lift my gaze to his. “That obvious, huh?”

“Well, either that or you just wanted to spend more time with me.”

“I—”

He lifts his hand. “I’m teasing, Kennedy. Your sister has been kidnapped. Obviously, you didn’t want to just grab an ice cream with me. You wanted to get me away from your sister and Jonathan in hopes I’ll be more comfortable speaking to you alone.”

“We do need to know, Aiden. In whatever detail—or lack of it—you can manage. Only one of us needs the story. We trust one another. If you’d rather speak to Ani or Jonathan . . .”

“No, I’d rather speak to you. I will ask for discretion, though. This . . .” He clears his throat and reaches for the sunglasses before thinking better of it and pushing them aside.

“The problem,” he says, “is that even if I explain, I’m not sure you’ll understand. Without standing in my shoes, you won’t see the situation from my perspective.”

“Just tell me what you can.”

22 thoughts on “Chapter Seventeen”

  1. I can’t wait to hear his perspective!

    Is the wording missing a “with” here- before I’m halfway done mine.

  2. Laura Nix says:

    I’ve played catch-up for almost two weeks and am anxious for the next chapter. I had listened to audiobooks of the women of the other world at least twice through. I have been missing stories touched by magic.
    Through pagan friends I have learned to think of “real” magic as gentle not forceful and this story fits that. Thank you!

  3. Love all the imagery: TV version agent, everything showcasing the sparkling town that celebrates magic, the custard scene with glimpses of Aiden’s sense of humor – and Kennedy using his name:-)

  4. Really enjoying the story and can’t wait to keep reading! Big fan

  5. Erin Leigh says:

    Ah I love this so much! The description of her small town on a beautiful May day was so vivid and makes me wish I could be out and about here on my own beautiful May day well that is until rains later 🙂

  6. Just wondering if there is a spelling mistake here

    Well, either that or you just wanted to spent more time with me.”

    Should it be spend? Not spent?

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I love your books! I can’t wait for the next chapter it’s my Tuesday and Friday morning ritual to grab a hot tea and sit on my deck and read the chapter. THANK YOU again.

    1. Kelley Armstrong says:

      Fixed! Thanks!

  7. Annabelle says:

    I am absolutely loving this
    I want to live in Unstable. Is it possible that Jaime Vegas has ever passed through…..

    1. Or that Hope has written an article (about) here? Or Elena (since she’s a journalist too) …

      Or who knows!?!? Karl might be planning to steal the necklace! Or maybe the cabals are scouting someone. Or someone in Unstable needs help from the Council. Or from Lucas and Paige’s Agency. The possibilities of combining Otherworld characters with the community of Unstable are vast! But I’m certain our very talented author is waaaay ahead of us! Maybe not in the introductory story about K and her sisters, but I’m sure she’s seen the promising possibilities down the road!! B

  8. Dave Allison says:

    Enjoying this very much. I think it’s brilliant to be able to read it as soon as you write it. I’m not spotting errors because I never look for them in American English lol. Now you have left us with a cliffhanger. I appreciate what you are doing here, thank you Kelly.

  9. Mary Carter says:

    Oh, this is so much fun!!

  10. This chapter is perfect. After being stuck inside for nearly two months, not getting to enjoy the budding spring nearly as much as I want, this chapter just completely transported me somewhere else: someplace charming, warm-hearted, and totally in tune with nature (and the paranormal). Even if our stop in Unstable is destined to be short, it sure is memorable. Thank you so much for the cherry tree petals, the lilacs, and most of all, the custard!

  11. I concur with Stella’s comments! This is a wonderful and perfectly timed stop in the adventure.

  12. I second comment #1 above about the missing word. Also, I believe you mean lenses (plural) in the line: “Spots of color underscore the sunglass lens.” I’m really enjoying this story, and the serialization aspect is perfect for these strange times in lockdown at home! Thanks!

    1. Kelley Armstrong says:

      Right! Fixed. Thank you!

  13. Leora B-N says:

    One thing I love about your (Kelley) novels is that I see parallels between all of your characters! Connolly reminds me of Gabriel, Kennedy reminds me of Savannah, Olivia, and Casey. Elena reminds me of Nadia, Casey and Olivia. Ricky reminds me of Nick and Adam! Clay reminds me of Dalton and really, the list goes on. I sound totally crazy but I own ALL of your books (even the short stories/tales/etc, just not the YA/9-12 books) and consistently reread them. I am LOVING this new story!!! You’re the best, never stop!

  14. Really really enjoying this! A tiny nitpicky note, there are usually at least a few weeks between cherries blooming and lilacs starting so they wouldn’t normally be out at the same time. Apples and ornamental crabapples do bloom at the same time as lilacs. Early magnolias would be flowering when cherries do. Thanks so much for sharing this advanced version 🙂

    1. Kelley Armstrong says:

      I definitely need to research that part 🙂 Thanks for the suggestions! I’d made a note to double check my flowering plants, and this helps.

  15. Thoroughly enjoying this, and trying to savor a chapter a day because I know I’ll run out before you write the next one.
    I have a question. Are you hoping to get useful feedback from the comments here? For instance, this chapter felt complete and polished. The last two felt like earlier drafts. In particular, there are a few conversations that take place off screen, but that felt a bit forced and convenient. On the other hand, I love the plot and the way you reveal the characters a little at a time.
    But if that’s not what you were looking for, this will be my last one. 🙂

    1. Kelley Armstrong says:

      It’s helpful. Bear in mind that they’re ALL first draft. Literally written and then read through for a quick edit. So what helps is specifics for later. Some I may already pick up in edits, but others I could miss.

  16. I know you’ve specifically placed this in the Boston and Mass. region, but the small town feel really could read as so many places. It really helps get into the setting. I can see Unstable quite clearly, as if it were so many places I traveled through or spent time in when I was little. It’s that attention to detail I enjoy when I read your work. Thanks so much for sharing this!

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