We ease into the hall. Lars is still on the phone, and there’s nothing to hear even once we reach the corner. It’s just “yeah” and “no” and grunts from his end. Then, between the noises comes the distinct sound of a card in a card reader. He’s opening the door.
Opening the door while on the phone, distracted.
I don’t think. Well, yes, I do. I think “he’s opening the door to my sister while distracted on the phone!” Hesitate, and I’ll lose my chance. My personality favors leaping over looking, and this is where I need that recklessness. I zip around the corner and out of Connolly’s reach before he can grab me back.
As I dash, there’s a frisson in the air. A crackle that seems oddly familiar. A scene flashes. The car skidding, an electricity that felt like fear. Only it wasn’t fear. It was luck.
Connolly casts his luck my way, and Lars doesn’t notice movement out of the corner of his eye. That’s all I need. Then I’m out of his sightline and creeping along the shadows, covering the five feet until I’m at his back.
I almost forget to check Lars for a gun. When I lift mine, though, it triggers Connolly’s warning. I glance down. The guy has left his tux jacket in the car, and I don’t see a gun in his hand or a holster. I lift mine and press it into his back. Lars freezes. Then he spins, grabbing for me, but I’m already out of the way, ducking to the side, gun raised. He sees the gun and pauses. His eyes narrow.
“That’s not a real—”
Connolly grabs him from behind, his arm going around the man’s neck and yanking him off his feet. Lars stumbles but wrenches free. I’m about to jump in—no idea what I’ll actually do, but I’ll do something—when Connolly punches him. A luck frisson comes again, a little late, or that’s what I think. I’m wrong. The luck boost wasn’t to help his punch, which is perfect. It’s the next bit, where Lars staggers and Connolly hits him again and he falls to the floor, unconscious.
“Nice,” I say.
He flexes his hands and manages a wry smile. “I had a boost.”
“Only in the ‘knocked unconscious’ part. That requires luck.” I turn to the door and inhale, and when I reach out, my fingers are shaking.
“You’ve got this,” Connolly murmurs.
I nod. When I take the door knob, he says, “You go on. I’ll be out here.”
“No, come in. Please.”
He shakes his head. “Better to leave my temporarily unlucky self out here. If you need me, I’ll be looking for banana peels to slip on.”
I smile. Then I’m inside the room. It’s the sitting area part, lit by the ambient glow of lighting I can’t see and don’t care to find. All I want is the door, which will lead to my sister. I find it in a sweep. It’s closed, and I’m glad to see that. Lars had clearly been coming inside, and the thought of him watching Hope sleep fires a rage that tempts me to go out and give him a kick for good measure. I can only hope that Hector was keeping his men on a short leash, and they did nothing more than peek inside to confirm that Hope was still here.
I turn the knob and push the door open an inch. Then I listen. Nothing. My heart pounds, and I shove it and—
And there’s Hope, sound asleep in bed. There’s no light in here beyond what’s coming from the doorway, but I can see a figure in the bed and dark hair on the pillow. The covers rise and fall with her breathing. I slip over to her side of the bed. She’s facing the other way, and I blow a breath over her hair.
“Hopeless,” I whisper. “Wakey-wakey.”
She flips over with a groan and—
It’s a guy, maybe my age, with dark hair falling into green eyes. He blinks, and then his handsome face stretches into a sleepy grin.
“Well, hello there,” he says. “Now this is what I call hospitality. So much better than a mint on my pillow.”
I stumble back, gun rising.
His grin only grows. “A hot girl in a slinky dress with a gun? Someone definitely has a dream shaper on staff. Please tell me you also brought handcuffs.”
A commotion from the sitting room. Connolly charges through the doorway. Well, he tries to charge, but the luck-balancing has him kind of stagger, stumbling through. I back up until I’m against him, gun still aimed on the guy in the bed as Connolly’s arm goes protectively around me.
The guy sighs. “And she’s with my brother. Of course she is.” He jabs a finger at the ceiling. “I thought you people didn’t believe in torture.” He thumps back onto the bed. “Can we restart this dream and leave my brother out of it? Thanks!”
Connolly strides toward the bed. “Rian?”
The guy looks from Connolly to me as I flick on a light. “Not a dream, I take it?”
“If it were, I wouldn’t be covered in dirt and cobwebs,” I say.
Rian grins. “In mine, you totally would. And you’d be coming to rescue me, having fought your way past legions of minions. There were legions, right?”
“One. But Aiden took him out.”
“Of course he did,” Rian murmurs. “Because Aiden is amazing and does everything amazingly, including rescuing his screw-up brother. Also, he does it in a tux, with a hot chick in tow.”
“Kennedy is not in tow,” Connolly says. “Nor is she a chick.”
“See? I can’t even get away with casual misogyny around my brother.”
I turn to Connolly. “Can you get him out of here. I need to find Hope.”
He hesitates, and in that hesitation, my heart sinks.
“You think Hector meant your brother,” I say. “That’s who he had. Not Hope.”
Still no response, because the answer isn’t the one I want. I’m madly reviewing what we heard. That Hector had something we wanted, something we were going to get by doing what he wanted. A sibling issue. It fit. It totally fit if he had Hope.
It also fits if he had Connolly’s brother. If Connolly wasn’t buying the necklace to repay his brother’s debt to Havoc. If he was buying it to regain his brother. From Hector.
“You lied,” I whisper, looking at Connolly. “This wasn’t about a debt. You know what Hector meant.”
His eyes widen. “What? No. I had no idea—”
“Whoa!” Rian says, swinging out of bed. “I don’t know who you are, but if my brother lied, it was to get me out of here. Which he did. Or he will, if we can actually leave.”
I spin . . . to see that Rian is naked. My hands fly to my eyes and I backpedal, hitting Connolly, who tries to grab me, but stumbles and somehow, not only do I end up on the floor, but he’s on top of me.
“I’d say that’s a sweet move, Aiden,” Rian says. “But I’m guessing it’s a luck balance, ’cause you’re never that smooth.”
“I didn’t lie to you,” Connolly says, face over mine. “I swear it on my car.”
“Your car?” Rian sputters. “You turn not-smooth into an art form, big brother.”
Connolly ignores him. “I still don’t quite know what’s going on here. I thought what you did—that your sister was in here.”
“Wait,” Rian says. “This is an accidental rescue?”
“Are you dressed yet?” Connolly calls over to him.
“Why? Afraid of the competition?”
“You do realize we’re on the floor because she recoiled in horror, right?”
Rian laughs. “Ouch, nice one. Yeah, I’m putting on my shorts.”
Connolly rises and helps me up. I let him but don’t speak. I’m not sure what’s going on here, and I’m not fleeing the room, but that’s the most he can hope for at the moment. I want to believe him too much to do it lightly.
Connolly turns to his brother, who is, as advertised, in his underwear. I won’t comment on that, because it feels weird to say Connolly’s brother is hot. Okay, I guess I just said it. Still, he’s not as good-looking as Connolly, though I may be biased. I see the resemblance now, in the face and definitely the eyes. He’s taller, broader and dark-haired. Mostly, what I care about right now is that he’s not my sister.
“I’m not here to rescue you, Rian,” Connolly says, “because you aren’t actually here. You’re in Europe, lying low, while we repay your debt, which is to Havoc, not Hector Voden.”
“Huh. Is that what Mom said?”
“Can we discuss this somewhere that isn’t the villain’s lair?” I say. “Or maybe I can let you two work it out while I search, in case my sister is here?”
“There aren’t any other hostages,” Rian says. “Believe me, I’ve been rapping on pipes and shouting when my guards leave. There haven’t even been construction workers.”
Connolly says, “Still, the three of us will conduct a brief check of the finished rooms to be sure.”
“Thank you,” I say.
We start for the door. Connolly looks back at his brother. “Clothing, perhaps?”
Rian grins. “Up to your friend there. Does she really want me covering up?”
“She doesn’t care,” I say. “Since she will be busy checking rooms. You, however, may care if you get splinters where you don’t want splinters.”
“That part’s covered.”
Rian’s grin grows. “You noticed.”
“Trying very hard not to.”
“But your gaze is irresistibly drawn—”
“—to the door. Where I am now heading. In hopes of finding my sister.”
Connolly starts to follow me out, stumbles and crashes into me.
I turn to him. “Since some of that bad luck should be mine, can you transfer it?”
He shoos me toward the door.
“Take his hand,” Rian calls after us. “You can take some of it that way.”
Connolly pulls his hands in. “But you are not going to, because you need all your own luck right now, if there’s any chance your sister is here. Now go.”
My sister is not here. We do a very quick sweep, staying in sight of one another. Most of the rooms are under construction. We find two habitable ones, with no sign of actual habitation. Then we regroup and head for the stairs. We reach the first level when Connolly’s arms shoot out to hold us back. He tilts his head, considering.
“Yes,” a voice calls. “There is someone in this hall. Someone who has been waiting far longer than he should have needed to wait.”
Hector throws open the stairwell door and fills the space. “That took a very long time. You aren’t very good at this, are you?”
“Where’s my sister?” I say.
His look answers the question that my gut already has, scrunching up in confusion. Still, I have to push.
“My sister. The one who specializes in the lover’s lament—the curse that’s apparently on the Necklace of Harmonia.”
His face purples then, as if I’ve said something unforgivably rude. “Lover’s lament?” He roars the words, making us all shrink back. “Who calls it that?”
“Everyone,” Rian says. “It makes sense, right? Aphrodite screwed around with Ares, so Hephaestus cursed her. He was upset and—”
“It is not a lover’s lament.” Hector spits the words. “I do not have your sister. I have this idiot, courtesy of Havoc, who owed me a favor and repaid it thus.”
“So when Havoc demanded the necklace to repay Rian’s debt,” I say. “She was actually getting it for you?”
“I have multiple actors in play.”
“Because you really want that necklace.”
“A moot point now, as I do not have it. My wife does. That’s where you come in. At the museum, I realized even if we caught you, I might have difficulty getting you out of there. Better to bring you here.”
In other words, this was a trap. I don’t say that. Neither does Connolly. We won’t give him the satisfaction of gloating over how easily we fell into it.
“What do you want, Hector?” Connolly says.
“It’s Mr. Voden to you.”
“All right. Mr. Voden then.”
Rian grumbles under his breath. He wouldn’t have given Hector the satisfaction. I’m not sure I could have done it either, at least not as smoothly and sarcasm-free as Connolly. But it’s the right move, and Connolly knows it, and his ego is healthy enough that he doesn’t need to get into a pissing match with the guy blocking our escape route.
“I want what I have always wanted,” Hector says. “That damn necklace.”
“And we’re supposed to get it for you,” I say.
He snorts. “I wouldn’t ask you to get my mail from the post box. You’d drop it in a puddle halfway back. No, all I want is confirmation—and proof—that my wife has it.”
“You’re going to hold me captive until they come through,” Rian says.
“No, they can take you. You’re not worth the upkeep.”
Rian opens his mouth to protest, but an elbow to the ribs stops him.
Hector continues. “I believe I’ve proven my point. I got your brother easily, Mr. Connolly, and he was in no danger of escaping. Nor were you in any danger of finding him until I let you do so. You have only seen the smallest showing of my power. So I’m not even going to threaten you. You already realized that if you fail me, you won’t like the consequences.”
Even as I think that, I tell myself to be careful here. It’d be easy to dismiss Hector as a textbook villain. While he might talk like one, he is not one. He is indeed a figure of power in this world, one that operates just far enough outside the normal one that it doesn’t need to abide by any rules.
I might be able to tell the Unstable police chief that my sister was kidnapped for her curse weaving skills, but try that with the FBI. Leave out the curse weaving part and not enough would remain to launch an investigation.
My sister was kidnapped by someone who wants me to stop a guy from buying a necklace.
We’ve always rested comfortably with our abilities. Come at us, and we’ll curse you. That doesn’t work on someone like Hector, who can meet our pellet fire with cannon blasts. Same goes for Connolly and his brother. Rian’s captors made damn sure he didn’t escape through a “lucky break.”
Hector turns to Connolly. “You’re ambitious, boy. It vibrates off you. The fact you chose to work with my wife shows a distinct lack of good taste, but you wouldn’t be the first who fell for her charms. I don’t have any charms. Just brute power. She could have ignored me last night. She didn’t. She doesn’t dare. They all make sure to pay their respects when I am in the room. If you want into this game, the person you need to impress is me.”
I want to laugh. Is Hector actually dangling future employment in front of Connolly? After kidnapping his brother?
He is, and he sees nothing wrong with that. In his world, this is just business.
Is Connolly that valuable? Enough to have Vanessa and Hector fighting over him?
Connolly is a raw asset, a student ripe for learning. Put in a little effort, and he will be very valuable. But at the heart of it, this isn’t about Connolly. It’s about Vanessa and Hector. She sees promise in Connolly and wants to mold it. Hector wants to take that from her.
That’s what this is really about. Hector is sending Connolly on a mission to test him. Letting him take Rian to prove he wouldn’t be a tyrannical boss. He’s wooing an asset to hurt his ex-wife. Nothing more.
Strangely, I’m not the least bit offended. Hector has dismissed me, as he’s obviously dismissed Rian. We don’t have what it takes, and that isn’t just about power—it’s about drive and ambition, too. Connolly is the one who can, ultimately, be useful. And who can be used. Pawns. We’re all just pawns here.
We leave soon after that. Hector has delivered his message in full. An offer, though he’d never frame it like that. This is a demand, and by taking Rian with us, we agree to it.