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.”
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.”
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.”