As we walk, Connolly is on high alert. I glance over to see him noting windows with small nods of approval. When I catch his eye, though, he only reaches to briefly squeeze my hand. Telling me he doesn’t see a trap; he’s just being careful.
He was quiet as I talked to Marius. Listening and assimilating but also wary. Bad enough we were alone, at night, in the house of a powerful arms dealer with unknown powers. The fact Marius is also a three-thousand-year-old immortal? It doesn’t matter how laid-back Marius seems, how hospitable he’s been. He can afford to be all that. We are mere mortals, no threat to him.
Connolly is also letting me focus on what’s ahead, rather than what to do if this goes sideways. What could Marius possibly want to show me? Specifically me.
We’re walking down a hall of doorways in a rear main-floor wing. Marius pauses at a door and holds the knob.
He turns to me. “Just remember that I will explain. And I will make it up to you. Both of you.”
At my look of complete confusion, he waves. “Go on. Aiden and I will wait here.”
Connolly opens his mouth to argue.
“She’s fine,” Marius says. “You’ll be out here with me. Let her have this moment.”
Again, Connolly starts to say something. Then he stops. His face darkens, mouth setting in a firm line as his glare locks on Marius. Then he says, stiffly, “Yes, you should go in alone, Kennedy. And yes”—another glare at Marius—“he will make it up to you.”
“What is—?” I begin.
“Just go inside,” Marius says, swinging open the door.
He reaches through and flicks on a light. When I step into the room, he closes the door most of the way behind me. I stand there, looking around. It’s a sitting area that seems to be for guests, with an entertainment system and a bookcase, a sofa and a recliner, a little private spot to rest. I’m not surprised then to open the adjoining door and see a bedroom.
From the light coming in behind me, I can see that the bed is unmade, and that makes me jump back. There’s no one in the bed, though. There’s another door, an open one into a darkened bathroom.
An empty bedroom, with a breeze blowing through the open window.
What am I supposed to see in here?
My gut whispers that I should know the answer. This looks familiar, doesn’t it? Like the rooms where Rian was kept. A nicer and more opulent version.
I know the answer. I really do, but I still turn, searching for proof. It’s on the night stand. A nearly finished novel, propped open under a lamp. A book cover I recognize.
I said I’d like a copy of that book you recommended, the one based on a Russian fairy tale.
I grab the novel and then I turn, looking from side to side. I race into the bathroom, just in case I’ve missed something. I haven’t. It’s empty.
Book in hand, I charge from the rooms, yanking open the outer door to find Marius and Connolly still there, Marius grinning, Connolly’s expression as dark as when I left him.
“You bastard,” I say to Marius. “You’re the one who kidnapped my sister.”
I lunge toward him. He steps back, hands up.
“You’re angry,” he says. “I understand that.”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
“Perhaps not, but we’ll discuss it. I can explain, and whether you accept that or not, I will make it up to both of you.”
“Make it up . . .” I sputter. I shake my head sharply. “I don’t want to hear your explanations. This is a threat. Or, as you probably call it, a negotiation. You’ve shown me that you have Hope, and now you want something in return.”
“What?” Connolly says. He wheels on Marius. “I thought you were returning Hope to her sister.”
I’m about to turn on him, thinking he knew. Then I realize my mistake. He figured it out before I did. That moment when his gaze had chilled and darkened, when he’d agreed not to come in the room with me. He’d figured out what was in there. Who was in there. What Marius had done.
“No,” Marius says. “Hope’s there. She must be in the bathroom.”
He throws up his hands. “She is. There’s no other place for her to go.”
I remember that cool breeze wafting through. “She escaped out the window.”
“No,” Marius says as I run back inside. “The windows have been boarded over. She’s in the bathroom. She must be.”
I barely hear him. I’m running into the bedroom. The window is definitely open, night air billowing the curtains. I race over and—
There is no window. There had been and—as Marius said—it had been boarded over. Now there’s an empty hole. I lean through to see a pane of glass and boards on the ground.
I wheel to Connolly as he comes up behind me. “She escaped. She figured out how to remove the window and the boards.”
Connolly leans out and shines his cell phone light over the debris.
“Right?” I say. “She escaped.”
He glances at me. He says nothing. He doesn’t want to, because his response won’t be what I want to hear. It’s the last thing I want to hear.
Marius is already on his phone, his words staccato gunfire, the words all but lost behind the pounding in my ears. I catch only a few.
Perimeter. Cameras. Get off your ass.
“No,” I say, grabbing for his phone. “She’s escaped, and you are not sending your goons after her.”
He lifts the phone from my reach. “I don’t have goons, Kennedy. Not since I fired Havoc. I have security. And your sister didn’t escape. That glass has been cut out. The boards have been pried from the outside. If you’re going to tell me that someone rescued her, then I will certainly call off my team. Otherwise . . .”
Otherwise . . .
I do not want to think about “otherwise.”
“Did Vanessa know?” I say as I hurry to the bathroom, double-checking there. “Or Rian. He’s outside. Maybe he . . .”
Maybe he what? Used x-ray vision to see my sister in a locked room? Found a pry bar and glass cutter conveniently laying around the yard?
“Vess had no idea I took Hope,” Marius says between orders to his security team.
“I’ll call Rian,” Connolly says, and I’m about to comment when something jangles in the room, like an old-fashioned phone.
We all freeze. The sound comes again, muffled. Connolly is there first, striding to the bed. He flips up a pillow to reveal a tablet.
I’m at his side as he lifts it, and he hesitates only a second before passing it over. The screen lights up with a passcode prompt.
I turn to Marius. “Is this Hope’s?”
He shakes his head. “I offered her one, but she was fine with books and a game console.”
I stare down at the code. Then I enter the last one I remember Hope using. It fails.
“Don’t keep trying or you’ll lock it up permanently,” Marius says. “I have people who can crack it. Looks like an off-brand model. They’ll be able to unlock it.”
He’s right. It isn’t a brand I recognize, and there’s a button for a “hint” on the password. I press it.
Is your name Kennedy Bennett? If not, put me down.
“Hope must have snuck the tablet in,” Connolly says.
Marius shakes his head. “I had her change clothing, to be sure. My people used a metal detector.”
“Well, then,” I say. “One of your people had a problem with you kidnapping someone, and they snuck her a tablet.”
“No. My staff aren’t monsters, but they trust me implicitly. I needed to trust them as well—trust they wouldn’t do anything to a twenty-year-old girl. Only two people had contact with Hope, and both have been with me a very long time.”
“Does that make sense?” Connolly says. Then he catches Marius’s look. “No, not about your employees. The message. It says it’s for Kennedy.” He turns to me. “Do you know what it means? Some childhood game?”
I reread the words. There’s nothing here to twinge a memory.
More than that, it doesn’t make sense at all. Why would Hope leave a tablet intended for me? A tablet hidden in the room where she’d been held captive?
That buzz again. This time, I realize it’s ringing. An incoming message. When I tap the screen, though, nothing happens.
Marius puts out a hand. Without thinking, I pass it over. Then I remember he’s the guy who kidnapped my sister. I should be screaming at him. Getting the hell out of his house. But suddenly that seems a whole lot less important than figuring this out.
When my phone buzzes, I jump. I take it out to see a text with six numbers. I snatch back the tablet and punch them in. It unlocks to a wallpaper of Hope sleeping. I know what this is now. I know, and rage boils up in me at that photo, my little sister curled up in bed, sleeping soundly.
That’s the only thing on the screen. No icons. Nothing. I tap the photo. Then I stab at it. Nothing happens.
I’m about to turn to Connolly when the picture changes. It’s Hope, wide-eyed over a gag. My rage erupts, and I jab the screen, hitting and swiping and trying to make it do something, anything. Marius reaches out to take it, but then hesitates and wisely withdraws his hand.
The screen goes black, and I realize it’s operating on a timer or a trigger, and nothing I can do will speed it along. Doesn’t keep me from trying, stabbing and swiping even as the screen flickers, like some old-fashioned TV station.
It’s a fake “bad reception” video, which makes me want to throw the damned tablet against the wall. Someone has my sister—has taken my sister just as I was about to get her back—and they’re staging this like a goddamn college project.
The screen clears, and Hope appears. She’s gagged and bound to a chair, but her expression has changed. It’s hard now, impassive, and she’s so still that only the flickering shadows tell me this is a video. She’s being taped and she knows it, and while there’s terror in her eyes, she’s stone-faced, not giving them anything. I love her for that. I love her for a million things, but seeing this, my heart swells even as it breaks. She’s so scared and alone, but she’s not giving her captor the satisfaction of seeing it.
A figure walks into view, seen only from the back. It wears a black robe, and seeing that, every horror movie slams into my brain.
I have said we are not afraid to show the world what we are, but that is as much a brave front as Hope’s defiant expression. Real magic workers believe they avoided the witch hunts. Maybe they did. There’s no real way of knowing that, is there? Not without researching the family of every victim. We were not caught up in it, though, with those innocent women. Yet that specter hangs over us. The knowledge that we are never truly safe from persecution, and when I see that dark robe, an old and primal terror fills me.
The figure turns, and all I see is a pale chin under the shadow of the hood. Then gloved hands rise and flick back the hood, and Marius starts to swear. He starts, and he doesn’t stop, a snarled spew of profanity that barely penetrates my own rage.
On the screen is a face I saw only hours ago. A woman’s face, smiling with smug superiority.
She shrugs off the robe, and I realize that was just another bit of theatrics. As if this is a game. As if my sister—bound and gagged beside her—is just stage setting in her performance.
Because she is.
The reality of that hits me in the gut, stealing my breath. I see Havoc’s gloating face, and I see the smirk of someone who has put one over on her enemies.
This isn’t about Hope. Not about me, either. We’re just stage setting. Props.
“Kennedy,” she says. “Nice to see you again. Is Ares with you?” Her eyes widen in mock-horror. “Whoops! I mean Marius. I didn’t give anything away, did I, sir? Are you there? I’m sure you are. Swearing up a storm, I bet. Don’t bother. I can’t hear you, sir. For once, you need to listen to me. Painful, isn’t it? You thought you were being so clever, and I swooped in and scooped the prizes from under your nose. Both the prizes.”
She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a silk bag. From it, she takes the Necklace of Harmonia.
“There’s a reason the Greeks named two gods of war,” she says. “Athene is the smart one. God of strategy. You’re the god of brute strength and dumb luck. But that was never enough. You had to be clever. You always need to prove you’re clever. Except you aren’t.”
Havoc’s gaze sweeps the screen. “Is she there, too? Mighty Aphrodite?” Another lip curl. “Please tell me the necklace wasn’t for her.” She pauses, gaze fixed on the camera. “It was, wasn’t it? All this for her. Everything always for her. That’s what happens when you’re the goddess of love and beauty. Even the mighty god of war stumbles around like a schoolboy trying to catch her eye.”
Havoc dangles the necklace. “May I guess your plan? You kidnapped this girl to unhex the necklace. Then you’d present it to Aphrodite. The cursed necklace, defanged at last, for her to do with as she wishes, in memory of your dear, sweet Harmonia.”
Venom drips from every word, and I glance at Marius, but he’s staring at the screen, his jaw tight, eyes blazing.
“Did I guess right?” she says. “Of course I did, because you are a fool, Ares. A transparent, sentimental fool. Except I have the necklace now, and I have the girl. Do you know the problem with gods? They don’t actually notice mere mortals. Even me—a fellow immortal—is beneath your notice because I lack your precious powers. The whole lot of you is forever fixated on one another. Aphrodite trying to prove she’s over Harmonia’s death. Prove to you that she’s healed and prove to Hephaestus that he can’t hurt her anymore. You know she’s lying, and so you’re fixated on healing that wound by getting her this necklace. And Hephaestus? Three thousand years later, and he’s still trying to make Aphrodite pay for screwing around. He wants to make damned sure that necklace stays in the world, punishing her by hexing new women. And if he can thwart your plan? All the better. So you three are locked in your ancient history, and the rest of us, as always, are mere ants, scurrying about your feet.”
She steps toward the camera. “You’re all so easily duped when you’re focused on one another. I could do whatever I wanted. First, the Connolly boys. Your star progeny.”
I glance quickly at Connolly, but he only frowns and then shakes it off, as if clearly Havoc has misused the word.
“When the older boy comes sniffing around our business, Aphrodite takes him under her wing. You notice him, too, and pay attention, and when the necklace appears, you were thinking he might be useful. You put out a few feelers, getting a handle what sort of man he is. So I swoop down, lure in his not-quite-so-bright little brother and snare him in a trap. That plunks the older boy in the palm of my hand. Better yet, Hephaestus is only too eager to get his hands on that bit of leverage. Now he has both boys in his hand and—better yet—out of yours. He sets the older boy on a mission. Get him that necklace. Whether he can manage it or not hardly matters. It muddies the waters and thwarts you and Aphrodite. But you still make your play, grabbing a curse weaver and putting another in your debt while setting her on the task of taking young Connolly out of the game.” Havoc pauses. “You’re asking how I know this. You have a leak, sir. I’d say to plug it, but I’ve already done that. You’ll find him in your stable.”
Marius tenses, color draining from his face.
“You and Hephaestus assembled your teams. I did try to wreak a bit of havoc there. Can’t help myself really. A mishap on the highway. A nightmare under a dream shaper’s roof. It should have sent the Connolly boy and the Kennedy girl running. Seems they aren’t that bright. So I have plan B—snatching your teams from under your noses. It seems I temporarily lost the younger brother, but don’t worry, I have him again.”
She walks across the room and there’s Rian, slumped on the floor.
Connolly blinks hard and jabs buttons on his phone.
“Don’t worry, he’s fine. Just sleeping very soundly. He really is your kin, Ares. As big a fool as you. His brother springs him from captivity and what does he do? Sees a pretty girl, bound and gagged, and leaps in to save her. A simple trap for a simple boy.”
Her gaze flicks to Hope and then back to the camera. “Kennedy? I presume you’re still there. I’m sure all this doesn’t make much sense to you. I’m also sure that Marius has made you quite the generous offer to help him uncurse the necklace for his fair lady. Did he offer to release your sister? Probably. Delightfully ironic, isn’t it? Having a drink with you while your captive sister sleeps nearby. That isn’t Ares, though. For a god of war, he takes remarkably little pleasure in the cruelties of it. He lacks spine, sadly. But whatever his offer, clearly it’s off the table now that I have your sister. So the person you need to deal with is me.”
A pause, as if she’s giving that time to sink in.
“The same goes for you, Aiden,” she continues. “Forget Marius and Vanessa and Hector. Their petty squabbles don’t concern you anymore. I have what concerns you.” She points to Rian and then Hope.
Havoc lifts the necklace. “I want the curse removed from this necklace. Only the curse. The blessing must remain. I already have a buyer lined up. A Saudi who knows just enough about the magical world to understand what I’m offering. He has his eye on a remarriage prospect and this necklace would win his bride. Yes, another man making a fool of himself for a woman. In this case, a pretty young thing who brings a fortune with her. For it, he’s willing to pay me enough that I never need to bend a knee to those damned Olympians again.”
She hoists the necklace. “So here’s the deal. I have one luck worker and one curse weaver. They have the right bloodlines, but they’re young. I want guarantees. Kennedy? You’ll bring your other sister. Aiden? You’ll join them. That puts together a nice curse-breaking quintet.”
Her gaze lifts to meet the camera dead on. “You’re thinking you can double-cross me. I know you are. So I’ll be adding an incentive to removing the curse.”
She walks over to Hope, lifts the necklace over her head and then lowers it . . . and clasps it around her neck. Hope’s eyes bug in horror. And the screen goes blank.