I’ve seen this scene in movies. We’ll go to a curtain or a roped-off entrance, where the uninvited will be subtly jockeying for admission. What do you mean I’m not on the list? It doesn’t matter that they have no idea what the other party is for—it’s private, and that means they want in.
There is no curtain. No roped-off hall. Vanessa finds a security guard and murmurs something to him, and he snaps to attention. A “Follow me, please” and he’s off, walking briskly toward a side hall. A few heads turn as we pass. Several people even fall in behind us. Then they see where we’re apparently going. To the restrooms.
We lose our entourage there. Once they’re gone, the guard directs us to a corridor past the restrooms.
“The Edith Cabot Memorial Room,” he says. “Would you like me to escort you?”
“No, we can take it from here,” Connolly says. “Thank you.”
I don’t recognize the name of the room. It’s been a few years since my last visit, and I presume it’s new. It isn’t. As soon as we continue down the hall, though, I know exactly where we’re going.
“Oh!” I say. “The treasure room!”
Connolly glances over. “You’ve been to this museum?”
“Enough times to know my way around blindfolded. I’ve never been in the ‘Edith Cabot Memorial Room,’ though. Never knew what it was called. It’s just always been the treasure room, aka ‘the door I could never sneak through.’”
His brows arch.
I shrug. “There’s nothing as tempting as an unmarked, locked door in a museum. Clearly, it’s where the treasure is kept. I used to sneak down here from the restroom, hoping to find it unlocked. It never was.”
“Well,” Vanessa says. “Tonight it is unlocked. And it contains treasure.”
I grin. I can’t help it. Connolly smiles over, and I take his arm again. As we walk, someone slips out from a door marked “Staff” and converses with Vanessa, confirming our invitations. Then he melts back into his hideaway, and we are free to continue.
The Edith Cabot Memorial Room is at the end of the hall. While the door is open, the dim lighting makes it impossible to see anything beyond. I expect a murmur of voices, a tinkle of glasses and laughter, but all is silent.
I’m wondering whether we’re the first to arrive when we draw close enough for me to make out shadowy figures. A few more steps, and the figures coalesce into people.
I expect the “inner-circle event” to be a scaled-down version of the main one. People in evening wear milling about as servers circulate with champagne and appetizers—sorry, canapés. Instead, it looks like . . . well, it looks like a pub, and not a very lively one at that.
It’s a small room. Glass display boxes mark it as a museum, but they’re widely spaced, decorations rather than attractions. A temporary bar consumes a quarter of the space. A few people sit. A few stand. The rest . . . well, there is no “rest.” A rough scan counts maybe ten heads, and that includes the bartender.
Two people catch my attention even before we reach the door. They’re the type of people you notice, even when they’re making no effort to draw attention to themselves.
The man at the bar is an arresting figure, if only for his size. Even sitting, he’s as tall as the woman tending bar and his shoulders are twice as wide as hers. “Built like a bull,” that’s the phrase that comes to mind. He’s shed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, with one massive muscled forearm resting on the bar. Dark wavy hair. Dark beard. Handsome, in a brooding way. Maybe in his forties.
The other man is a ginger. Which would always catch my eye, but in this case, a flash of red-gold hair has me doing a double-take. But on second glance, there’s not much resemblance to Connolly beyond the hair, and even that is lighter on the man, more of a blond that gleams red in the candlelight. He’s roughly the same age as the behemoth at the bar.
What really caught my eye wasn’t his hair but his pose. There’s a stone divan in the corner. I’m pretty sure it’s an artifact. Also pretty sure it hasn’t been left out for seating. Yet the man isn’t just perched on it. He’s fully reclined, one leg lazily over the edge, looking for all the world like a wealthy Roman lounging in his courtyard.
He even has the attendant maiden crouching at his side, offering him a drink. I think it’s a server until I notice her dress, which is at least as fancy as mine. She’s older than me, maybe in her thirties, with blond hair swept up off a pale neck draped with jewels. She’s fit, with sculpted arms and an athlete’s lean body. It’s a strong look, yet she’s on one knee, holding out a champagne flute for the reclining man, chattering away like a teenage girl. He’s ignoring her completely. Even has his eyes closed, and I wonder if he’s asleep until he lifts one hand and waves her away as if she were a serving girl at his Roman bacchanalia.
I can understand her interest. He’s good-looking. Really good looking. Well-built, with a classically handsome, knife-cut face.
The moment we reach the doorway, the man’s eyes snap open, like a hound catching a scent. He sits up so fast, his elbow strikes the proffered flute, spilling it onto the kneeling woman. He doesn’t even notice. The only thing he sees in that moment is Vanessa, and he’s on his feet in a blink, a smile lighting his face into something incandescent.
At the same moment he spots Vanessa, so does the big man at the bar. His is a very different kind of stare, something hard and almost possessive. He starts to rise, stops and downs his drink instead, pushing it forward for a refill. As the ginger-blond man passes behind him, his head snaps that way, eyes narrowing. He looks between Vanessa and the other man, and then snaps his fingers for his drink, attention back on the bartender.
“I knew you couldn’t stay away,” the ginger-blond man says as he approaches. He pulls Vanessa into a half-embrace, and she air-kisses his cheek.
“Marius,” she says. “I’d like you to meet my guests.”
Marius Archer. Arms dealer.
Oh, Vanessa had smoothed over the edges on that one—he sells military technology. And maybe the guy doesn’t actually sell weapons themselves, but yeah, mentally, he’s been “Marius Archer, the arms dealer” to me. The problem is that I’d already assigned that name to the guy at the bar, if only subconsciously, and it takes a moment to shift it to the handsome ginger-blond in front of me.
Marius turns our way, and it’s clear he hadn’t even realized anyone was with Vanessa. His gaze lands on Connolly first, and there’s a flash of something almost like pleased recognition, quickly dowsed with, “I know you, don’t I? Conlin, is it? No, O’Connell?”
“Connolly. Aiden Connolly. We’ve met. Multiple times.”
“Right. Of course. The Connolly boy. Luck worker. Good to see you again, Aiden.”
Marius turns to me, and his smile widens. When he says, “I definitely haven’t met you,” it could be said with a leer or a creepy grin, but it’s light, off-hand flattery, like the appraising glance that accompanies it.
“Kennedy Bennett,” I say.
“Bennett?” His blue eyes spark. “One of the Bennetts, I presume. It is lovely to meet you, Ms. Bennett. I presume you’re here to help Vanessa procure an object she has very clearly, very definitively said she does not want.” He looks at Vanessa and lifts a brow.
“I don’t want the necklace,” she says. “Aiden does. His invitation, though, seemed to get lost in the mail.”
“Most invitations did, I think. The Hill-Cabots have a very precise idea of who does and who does not qualify for their attention.” He looks at Connolly. “Your parents should have said they were fronting you. That’d have gotten you an invite.”
“He has one now,” Vanessa says. “And I have the opportunity to wear a pretty frock and spend an evening among friends, without having to jump into the feeding frenzy for that accursed necklace.”
A look passes through Marius’s eyes. Not suspicion or doubt. It looks more like . . . sympathy? He catches me looking, finds a blazing smile and says, “Well, it’ll all be over soon enough, Vess.”
“The necklace isn’t here yet, is it?” I say, scanning the exhibit boxes.
“Oh, no. That will be a very special presentation, full of pomp and circumstance.”
“Will they let the curse weavers near it?” I say. “That always helps.” I look around. “I’m presuming there are curse weavers here besides me.”
“Mmm, her, I believe?” He nods toward a gray-haired woman alone in a corner, pretending she’s busy checking phone messages to avoid looking as if she’s been abandoned by her host.
Marius scans the room, and his gaze lands on a blond hanging off an older man. “And possibly her, though if you ask me, I’m thinking she’s . . .”
He laughs. It’s a bark of a laugh, sudden and surprised. “Yes, that’s one way to put it, I suppose. The nicest way.”
“You didn’t bring a curse weaver yourself?”
“If I win the auction, I’ll decide what to do with it at that point. No sense putting the cart in front of the horse.”
Could that mean he already has a curse weaver? Hope? I’d used “paid companionship” to see how he reacted. He didn’t, and nothing in his demeanor or his word choices or his tone reminds me of the guy on the phone.
Vanessa must come to the same conclusion. She rests her fingertips on his arm and murmurs. “As lovely as it is to see you, Marius, I’m afraid I need to . . . pay my respects. Before the tension grows any tighter.”
“Hmm.” Marius glances over his shoulder at the big man, who’s studiously working on his drink. Then he nods toward me and Connolly. “Would you like me to take your guests around? Perform the necessary introductions?”
“Thank you for offering, but . . .” She glances at him. “I think perhaps it’s a good time to take some air. It’s a bit stuffy in here, and you won’t want to miss the unveiling.”
A look passes between them. Marius forces a false hearty smile. “All right then. I’ll step outside, and see you all later.”
He leaves, and Vanessa assures us she’ll be back to perform introductions in a few moments. First, she needs to say a private hello.
As she heads toward the man at the bar, Connolly leads me deeper into the room.
“Her ex,” he murmurs.
I try not to gape at Vanessa and the man at the bar, but I can’t resist a peek. She’s beside him, leaning in, and he’s ignoring her.
“Ex-husbands, I’m guessing?” I say.
Connolly pauses. “I don’t like to gossip, but in business, it helps to understand the competition in every way, including interpersonal dynamics.”
“And there are definitely dynamics at play here.”
He nods. “Hector is her ex-husband. Marius is an ex-lover. She gets along very well with Marius, as you saw. Hector . . . is another story.”
“I see that,” I say as I watch Vanessa talking to Hector as he looks straight ahead. When Vanessa starts to leave, Hector grabs her wrist. I tense. Connolly puts a hand on my arm.
“Don’t,” he murmurs. “As much as you might want to. That’s why she asked Marius to leave. Her relationship with Hector is fractious, but she prefers to handle it herself.”
Even as he speaks, Vanessa is peeling the man’s massive fingers from her forearm. He grunts and takes his hand back and then says something, and they fall into conversation, his gaze on her now.
“Hector,” I murmur. “That’d be Hector Voden. Construction, right? He owns the Voden Group.”
While I’d pictured him as the arms dealer, this fits, too. As Vanessa’s ex-husband, though? No. Marius certainly fits as a former lover. But this guy hanging out at the bar, practically bristling with hostility and contempt for everything around him? Married to gorgeous, charming, vibrant Vanessa?
“He must have been a very different guy when he was younger,” I murmur.
“Presumably. Now, may I get you a drink?”