We don’t speak on the way to the car. Connolly has his deep-in-thought face on, and I probably have mine on, too. Hector doesn’t have Hope. I want to kick myself for jumping to that conclusion so fast, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced someone wanted us to think he did. If that guy on the phone wasn’t Hector, he sure as hell was doing a fine impersonation of him. That can’t be a coincidence. We’ve been led on a wild goose chase.
Now we’re being led on another.
Does Vanessa have the necklace? I can see how it might look that way. She brought us. We identified it as a fake, while she was already out of the room—with the real necklace. Fire and snakes and panic ensure her clean getaway.
And yet . . .
I remember the look on her face when she’d excused herself before the necklace was uncovered, and no matter how much I analyze that mental image, I don’t see deceit. She’d been upset. Which doesn’t make much sense, but it also isn’t the face she’d pull on as an excuse to leave. She’s said she isn’t interested in the necklace. Why not just go with that—oh, that thing, I’ll just step outside for some air while you all make fools of yourselves over it.
So much of this doesn’t make sense. It seems to, until I dig deeper. Then I come up with explanations for why people are behaving as they are, when the truth is that I feel as if I’m watching a foreign movie with the subtitles off and telling myself I understand what’s going on. I don’t. There’s more here, and I’m not getting it. Connolly and I are skimming the surface as everyone else swims below us, pursuing goals we can’t see, for reasons we can’t fathom.
When we reach the car, Rian says, “Any chance I can get an update here? On what’s going on?”
Connolly snaps out of it with a sharp shake of his head. “Yes, of course. We need to talk. First, is Hector telling the truth? Your debt was to Havoc but she sold it to him?”
Rian shrugs, hands spread. “I guess so? I wasn’t exactly part of that conversation. I was taken from outside my apartment last week. Havoc said she was tired of waiting for me to pay her back, and I was her guest until my debt was repaid. Her goons stashed me in that hotel.”
“How were you treated?”
Another shrug. “Well enough for a captive, I guess. Bored out of my skull. There’s only so many shows you can binge-watch before you go stir-crazy. I tried talking to my guards, but they figured it was a trick. Otherwise, it was like being quarantined at the Holiday Inn. Not exactly five-star food and guest services. Decent enough, though. I figured, as long as it kept being decent, that meant Mom and Dad were playing ball. I knew they’d pay the ransom. They were just stalling to teach me a lesson.”
“No one was stalling,” Connolly says. “Your captor demanded something other than money. I was working on that.”
“You were working on it?” Rian sputters. “Wait. Mom and Dad offloaded this on you? Outsourced this inconsequential task that wasn’t worth their time?”
“I think it was more complicated than that,” Connolly murmurs in a practiced tone that suggests he’s accustomed to smoothing over their parents’ bad behavior to keep Rian from being hurt. So who does that for Connolly? No one, I bet.
“They didn’t even tell you I’d been kidnapped,” Rian says.
“I . . . presume that was for my own good. So I’d proceed with a clear head.”
“Right. I’m pretty sure I could be strung out over a vat of boiling oil, and you’d still proceed with a clear head.”
When Connolly opens his mouth, Rian claps him on the shoulder. “That sounded pissy. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant you don’t get rattled easily. They should have told you. Our parents are assholes.”
Connolly’s mouth opens again, but again Rian cuts him short with a shoulder squeeze. I remember how quick Connolly had been to admit his parents were assholes. But there’s a difference between saying it to me and saying it to the guy who shares those parents.
“You can defend their honor later,” Rian says. “Let’s stop jabbering and get going. I want to hear this full story.”
I offer to explain the situation while Connolly drives. Or I can drive and he can explain. That makes Rian laugh.
“Good luck with that,” he says. “No one drives Aiden’s car but Aiden.”
“Er, right,” I say. “So I’ll tell the story then?”
“Please,” Connolly says.
“Whoa, what? Seriously? You’re letting someone else explain something?” Rian looks at me. “When we were little, people used to think I was mute, because Aiden always did the talking. All the talking.”
Connolly unlocks the car. “Please explain what ‘people’ you mean and under what circumstances.” When Rian doesn’t, Connolly says, “Adults in dire need of explanation. Like when a softball went through their window. Or someone kept their daughter out all night.”
“You were better at talking to grown-ups.”
“Better at cleaning up after—” Connolly cuts himself off. “Climb in. Rian? Can you take the backseat please?”
“Actually,” I say, “is it okay if I sit back there, too? Easier than twisting around to talk.”
“Did you hear that, Aiden? Your friend wants to sit in the backseat with me.” He waggles his brows. “I think I’m making an impression.”
“I’m sure you are,” Connolly says, and I sputter a laugh as we get into the car.
“Seatbelt on,” Connolly says. “And keep your hands to yourself.”
“What if she doesn’t want me to? Or what if she’s the one touching me?”
“If she touches you, I’ll expect a scream of pain to follow.”
“Be still my heart.” He glances at me. “I’m still hoping for those handcuffs.”
“I’m thinking a gag might be more appropriate,” I say. “Now hush up and listen. I have a story to tell you.”
Connolly has a text from Vanessa. It’s not the first. While we’d been fleeing the museum, she’d evidently texted to ask if we were okay. Connolly said we were, not mentioning the fact we’d been huddled behind an exhibit at the time. Then she texted while we were in pursuit of Hector’s henchman, asking if we needed a place to stay the night. Nope, we were good. Connolly had still refrained from saying anything about the fact we were kinda busy. Nor had he mentioned the texts to me. Both of these suggest he’d been mulling over the possibility Vanessa was complicit long before Hector claimed so.
Her third text says she’s heading to Marius’s and asks us to join her. She needs to speak to us in private.
That one Connolly passes to me.
“It could be a trap,” I say. “It probably is.”
“So we’re going?”
“Hell, yeah,” Rian says. “This Vanessa chick probably has your sister. She’s probably in on it with this Marius guy. If you don’t go, you miss your chance. I know where we can pick up a couple guns. There’s this guy in Brooklyn—”
“No,” Connolly and I say in unison.
“Fine, skip the guns. I can get us some mace. Or smoke grenades.”
“He’s kidding, right?” I say to Connolly.
“I wish,” Connolly murmurs. “No, Rian. While I hate the idea of stepping into yet another trap, it does seem the most efficient step. Our defense is that we know it may be a trap. We’ll be ready. And by ‘we,’ I mean Kennedy and me. You are going to a hotel.”
A pause. A long one. Then Rian says, “You hate me, don’t you? Take me out of one hotel room, dangle adventure in front of my nose and then stash me in another hotel room.”
“It will be a nicer one. Five star. I was thinking the Empire. If we hurry, the bar might still be open.”
Silence. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Connolly sighs. “That you’ve had a very difficult week, and I know you’re fond of the bar at the Empire. Have a drink, make a new friend.”
“Get wasted. Get laid. That’s my life, right? Oh, and getting into trouble that you need to fix for me.”
Connolly’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. “Right now, I would not turn down a drink myself. I’m sorry if you found that offensive, Rian. You were complaining about being stashed in a hotel room, and I was giving you options. As for the stashing part, that’s not an insult either. Bringing you along means explaining where you came from to Vanessa and Marius.”
“Aiden’s right,” I say. “If we tell the truth, they’ll know something’s up with Hector. Weave a web of lies, and we’ll get tangled in it.”
“Then bring me along and let me stay outside. Backup in case of emergency.”
“Or do you think I can’t handle that?” Rian says. “That I’ll screw it up like I screwed up that job for Havoc. I didn’t screw it up, by the way. I don’t know what Mom and Dad told you, but I was set up. She pulled the rug out from under me. I think that was intentional. Then she could claim I owed her, which puts the Connollys in her debt.”
“My concern isn’t that you can’t handle it, Rian. It’s that I think you’ve been through enough.”
“That’s for me to judge. Otherwise, you’re saying I can’t handle it.”
I clamp my jaw shut. I can’t interfere. Maybe Connolly doesn’t trust Rian to pull it off. Or maybe he doesn’t trust Rian to judge his own post-trauma mental health. He can’t say either, though, without offending Rian. Yet there’s nothing to stop Rian from hopping into a cab and saying “Follow that car” after Connolly drops him off.
“All right,” Connolly says. “You can come along, but you are staying outside any security perimeter. Understood?”