That should fix everything, right? Hector has Hope, so all we need to do is . . . What, exactly? He won’t be keeping her at home. Wherever he does have her, she’s well guarded.
Do we call the cops and report him as her kidnapper? That’d only make things worse. Confront him and demand her return? Yeah, this isn’t a guy who’ll quail at threats.
Vanessa murmurs that she’ll handle this. We’ll talk more later, but she promised to get Hope back for us, and knowing who has her, she’s convinced she can do it.
The main thing now is to not react. Hector feels secure in sniping against Connolly and belittling me, without fear that I’ll realize he’s the man on the other end of that phone. Either he presumes I won’t figure it out or he just doesn’t give a damn. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter if we know it’s him. I have my orders, and I’m obviously carrying them out. Hell, Hector might even be impressed that I wrangled an invitation to see the necklace.
I glance at the man, nursing his drink at the bar. Nope, impressed is not a word in that guy’s vocabulary. I don’t actually need to worry about taking too much interest in him. He’s paying no attention to anyone else, including me.
I’m assembling a small plate from the buffet while trying to figure out what’s what. Connolly leans over and whispers, “Any allergies?”
I shake my head. Then he starts very discreetly making recommendations. I’m picking up a shrimp puff when his gaze cuts left. I follow it to a white-haired man in a tux with a dark-haired woman on his arm. He must be in his seventies; she’s not much older than me. They’ve just appeared through the back entrance.
“The Hill-Cabots,” Connolly whispers. “Eloise’s son, George, and his wife, Brianne.”
“Wife? Oh my God, she’s been cursed by the necklace!” I hiss.
He glances over and then his lips twitch as he realizes I’m joking.
“That, dear Kennedy, is the curse of wealthy men, forever destined to remarry increasingly younger women.”
He lifts one shoulder. “Depending on how you look at it. My father would disagree. He always jokes he’s the only one of his cronies still with his first wife . . . because she’s too scary to divorce.”
“That’s actually not funny.”
“No,” he says, lifting a canapé to his lips. “It is not. Tell my father, though, and he’ll only insist you lack a sense of humor.”
He glances toward the couple, who stand there, their linked hands lifted like actors coming out for an encore. They’ve paused, waiting for everyone to note their arrival. Everyone has noted it . . . and gone back to whatever they were doing.
Connolly points toward a tray of pastries. “Those look quite good.”
“Is no one even going to acknowledge that the Hill-Cabots walked into the room?”
“I acknowledged it. Didn’t you see me glance over?” He selects a pastry for his plate. “I said I come by my arrogance naturally. So do most people here—and the rest are following their lead.” He nods toward the couple, still awkwardly poised. “They have money and breeding. Just not quite the right breeding for this crowd.”
“No magical powers.”
He lifts a plate of tiny tidbits for me. I take one.
“This is the true source of my parents’ arrogance,” he says. “They travel in monied circles, but those circles lack the little extra they have. It makes them feel superior. When you feel superior, you act superior. When you act superior, people recognize your superiority, which means . . .” He shrugs. “There’s no incentive to change. The self-fulfilling prophecy has been neatly self-fulfilled.”
While the Hill-Cabots try to figure out their next move, Hector swivels from his spot at the bar and grunts. “Well, get on with it.”
The couple blinks at him.
“Do you have the necklace?” he says. “That’s what we’re all here for. You could have saved yourself a shitload of money by skipping all this”—he waves around the room—“and wheeling the damn thing out an hour ago.”
I hate to say it, but he has a point. The champagne is lovely. The canapés are lovely. The chance to play fancy dress up is lovely. But we just want to see the necklace.
A wave of Mr. Hill-Cabot’s hand, and two tuxedoed security guards wheel out a box covered with a black velvet cloth. The men pushing it wear white gloves, making them look like magicians about to whisk off the cloth and release a pair of doves.
Hector’s sigh ripples through the room as I swallow a snicker.
“And you call me dramatic,” I whisper to Connolly.
He wrinkles his nose. “I thought they’d have better taste.”
“I’m sure they do. This performance is for us. The fools willing to buy a cursed necklace.”
His lips twitch. “Touché.”
One of the gloved guards reaches for the cloth.
“Stop,” Hector says. “We’ll do that. You can leave now.”
Mr. Hill-Cabot clears his throat. “We’d prefer our guards stayed—”
“I mean all of you. You, the side-show magicians, and your granddaughter.”
Mrs. Hill-Cabot squeaks as her husband harrumphs and corrects him, which only has Hector shrugging and saying, “It’s your money” to more protests and a wave of soft laughter that ripples through the room.
This is the problem with guys like Hector. When their snark is directed at deserving targets, it’s hard not to laugh, even when you really don’t want to.
“I think what Hector is saying,” Marius says, stepping forward, “is that we’ll be more comfortable examining the necklace on our own. Your guards can certainly stay outside the doors and prevent us from leaving until you’re in possession of the necklace again. We can just better . . fully appreciate its . . . unique qualities without oversight.”
He glances at Mr. Hill-Cabot, and a look passes between them, one that says Marius knows the old man realizes there’s something wrong with the necklace—and he’s pretending otherwise. If he wants to maintain that charade, he’s going to need to leave the room.
If he wants to come clean, though? Admit he realizes he’s selling tainted goods? Admit that the people in this room aren’t regular folks who just want to examine its fine workmanship?
Mr. Hill-Cabot could do that. Step out of his tidy life-box and into something stranger, darker, a place where the world isn’t quite what he thought it was. All he has to do is say that he knows why we need to see the necklace in private.
The old man clears his throat. “All right. We will return in thirty minutes. Until then, I must insist that no one leaves the room.”
Chin up, Mr. Hill-Cabot turns to leave. As he goes, Vanessa glides over and whispers something. Mr. Hill-Cabot nods stiffly, and she heads for the door with them, after a wave our way, telling us she’s going out.
Marius notices and starts forward, as if to join her. A lift of her fingers and he hesitates, and then, with an abrupt nod, walks to us instead.
“Is everything all right?” I ask.
He murmurs something I don’t quite catch, vague words of assurance, even as his troubled gaze follows Vanessa. Then he nudges me.
“Go on, and get in there,” he says. “Everyone may seem very polite here, but once that cloth is off, they’ll be piranha smelling blood.”
Connolly puts a hand against my back and escorts me forward. The box sits on its pedestal, still covered. Gazes flit from Marius to Hector. If there was any doubt who were the top dogs here, that dispels it.
Marius catches Havoc’s eye and waves for her to do the honors. She preens as she strides forward, all gazes on her. I’m sure she sees this as a mark of honor. It’s not. It’s the boss sending an underling to do the work, while he freshens his drink.
Havoc doesn’t stand on ceremony. She walks up and whisks off the cover, and the guests surge forward as one body.
Marius lifts a hand, and everyone freezes. For a moment, I wonder whether this is some magical power I’ve never heard of. Then I realize it is power. The power to make people stop in their tracks with a laconic raised hand.
“I know everyone wants to take a look, and everyone will have that chance. First, though, Ms. Bennett.”
I glance around, as if there’s another Ms. Bennett here.
Marius continues. “As a curse weaver from the esteemed Bennett clan, I think she should get a first look.”
Connolly starts to propel me forward as someone says, “What? I have a curse weaver, too.” A bald man waves at the gray-haired woman that Marius pointed out earlier.
“Yes, but you are not me,” Marius says. “I’m taking first dibs. Unless . . .” He turns to Hector. “Would you like to have a look?”
I swear the whole room truly does freeze then, every breath held.
“Seen it,” Hector says.
“You don’t want to admire the craftsmanship?”
A sound from deep in the crowd. A gasp? A titter? I can’t tell, and I feel as if I’m missing a joke, but when I glance at Connolly, he lifts a shoulder, saying he doesn’t get it either.
“Nope,” Hector says as he raises his glass to his lips. “Looks fine from here.”
“The Bennett girl isn’t your curse weaver, Marius,” the bald man says. “She’s his, isn’t she?” A dismissive wave at Connolly.
“She is Vanessa’s guest, and since Vess stepped out, I’m asking in her place, and claiming the right to let Kennedy examine it first. Also, I’m curious to know what a weaver thinks.” He looks at the bald man. “Or we can bicker about this until our thirty minutes are up. Your choice.”
The bald man grumbles but falls silent. Marius motions me forward. He also waves for the other curse weaver to approach, though he warns her back before she can get close.
Connolly stays with me, his hand against my back as if I need the guidance. No one interferes, and we both approach the necklace.
It’s more beautiful in life than any photograph or painting could capture. Thousands of years old, yet it gleams as if the gold has just been cast. It’d been hard to see in the photograph of it around Eloise’s neck. Up close, though, the craftsmanship is incredible.
I’ve seen snakes on necklaces before. They’re usually shaped like rope, forming a solid choker. This one is fine threads interwoven into a light chain that looks like snake scales. Two snakes, one down each side. At the bottom, their mouths open around a garnet. A carved garnet, depicting something I can’t make out. When I bend to squint at it in the dim light, Connolly whispers, “A loom. It shows a loom.”
I’d never heard that the gem was carved, though I know it was a popular practice at the time. A loom symbolized women’s work. While it’s kind of like giving a modern woman a jewel engraved with a vacuum, it would have been appropriate for a bride. A symbol of her new household. Here, though, it has a second meaning. Weaving. Curse weaving.
I shudder. Such an exquisite piece of jewelry, with a curse sharper than . . . well, sharper than a serpent’s tooth. I wonder whether that’s symbolic, too. The serpents delivering a curse in their jaws. Beauty with a core of pure venom.
“May I . . .?” I move my finger toward the glass case and look first at Marius and then at Hector. It takes effort to do the latter. I want to ignore him, but I can’t afford the insult. Play this as if I don’t know he has my sister locked up somewhere.
“Of course,” Marius says. “If it’s safe to touch, please do so. We’d love to hear your thoughts.”
Hector grunts what I take as agreement.
“It should be safe to touch,” I say. “It’s taking possession of it—wearing it—that’s the problem. I’ll wear gloves, but I think . . .”
I trail off. I’m blathering. Thinking aloud, my anxiety pulsing for everyone to hear. I can ignore the insults about my specialty, but deep inside, there’s always the little girl who wants to prove herself. This is my chance, and I’m afraid of blowing it.
I take a deep breath, put on my gloves and reach very slowly toward the necklace.
“Oh, come on,” a voice says. “Enough with the drama.”
I glance over to see, with some surprise, that it comes from the other curse weaver.
“It isn’t drama,” I say. “I’m listening for the curse, letting it speak to me.”
I don’t add “which you should know.” That would be rude. The words hang there, though, unspoken, and she bridles at them.
“Who are you again?” Marius murmurs to the woman, and his voice might be soft, but it carries like a whip, the woman jerking.
The woman blinks, and pity darts through me.
She straightens. “Lesley-Ann Morrison.”
“Never heard of you,” Marius says.
I squirm and hope it doesn’t show on my face. I know Lesley-Ann by reputation. It is . . . not a good reputation. There’s a hierarchy in curse weaving. Many practice it quietly and efficiently, and earn the respect of their peers for their discretion.
The way the Bennetts do it is not discreet, and so the fact that we are still respected is, as Yiayia always said, our highest badge of honor. We are respected despite plying our trade openly.
The Morrisons . . . Well, the Morrisons are a prime example of the other kind of curse weaver who openly markets their abilities. A lot of sound and fury, signifying very little innate talent.
The room goes silent after that, and no one interferes again as my fingers stretch toward the necklace. I close my eyes and open my mind, and the sibilant whispers snake out, slowly coalescing into words.
I jerk back, blinking. The words aren’t right. The tone isn’t either. There’s a malevolence there I don’t expect. Yes, the Necklace of Harmonia carries a terrible curse, but it’s either an ex-hex or a joker’s jinx, directed at one specific target. That malevolence sounds like—
I give my head a shake and start to reach out again. As I do, an inner warning bell sounds.
I ease back and reconsider.
“Really?” Lesley-Ann says. “Look, little girl, you might come from a family of famous weavers, but unless I’m mistaken, your own specialty is the joker’s jinx. You’re—”
“—the curse weaver I hired to do this job,” Connolly cuts in. “Marius might not know who you are, Ms. Morrison, but I do, and you didn’t even make my long list.”
“Who the hell are you?”
I don’t glance up as I eye the necklace, but I can feel Connolly’s cool stare crossing the room.
“If you don’t know the answer to that,” he says, “then might I suggest you’re traveling in the wrong circles?”
A few snorts of appreciative laughter. Connolly gains points with that, even from those who also don’t know who he is. Whispers follow the laughs, as that gap is filled in.
Nicely done, Connolly. Nicely done.
He might be pushing his own agenda, but it helps mine, giving me time to re-focus on the necklace again.
I reach toward it, eyes closed, following the tendrils of weaving, opening myself to those whispers.
No, don’t judge. Just assimilate. Listen. Learn.
Liar, liar, pants on fire—
I jerk back harder now, blinking fast. The “liar, liar” may have sounded anachronistic, but this definitely is. No ancient Greek would start a curse that way.
That’s what I noticed before. Yes, the curse is in Greek, as expected. But it’s modern. As modern as that taunting phrase.
A shadow moves over me, and I glance up to see Connolly studying me.
“Something’s wrong?” he mouths.
I nod, but say nothing. I close my eyes and reach out again, even more careful now.
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Open your mouth,
See what transpires.
Misanthrope’s malice. That’s what the nasty edge on that whisper meant. This isn’t the right curse. Someone’s cast a malice on the necklace. Which means I really don’t want to touch it. I do want to listen again, though, to be sure, because this makes no sense.
I reach out, as close as I dare.
Connolly snatches my hands. “Don’t. It’s a fake.”