Vanessa lied when she said she didn’t want the Necklace of Harmonia. That’s no surprise. Last night I’d planned to use my morning walk with Connolly to discuss the possibility that she’d use our information to scoop the necklace from under our noses.
The more confusing part is why she felt the need to test our trustworthiness. Why not just send us on our way with a “Sorry, can’t help”?
And why the secrecy at all? She’s a major player in this gray market. Won’t it be assumed she wants the necklace? Wouldn’t it seem odd to the others if she claimed she didn’t?
We don’t get answers for the last part. Oh, she skates around them with excuses. Everyone knows she isn’t keen on jewelry, so she’d planned to stay out of the fray, and then hop in and outbid them.
What about the first part then? Why not just send us off? She knows we aren’t going to back out of the auction. We can’t, with what’s at stake.
Here’s where we do get an answer. She expects both of us to back out of the auction and help her get the necklace. But first she’ll help us free Hope and Rian. Once they’re safe, then we’ll repay the debt by helping her.
As for how we’ll help, it would seem that she’d want me to uncurse the necklace. She doesn’t. In fact, she doesn’t want it uncursed at all.
“You’re going to accept the curse?” I say. “Take it on yourself? Eternal misfortune in return for eternal beauty? I . . . don’t know if you’ve seen a mirror lately, but I don’t think you’re going to ever have a problem with that last bit. Is it the youth you want?”
“I’m not taking on the curse. I’m destroying the necklace.”
I glance at Connolly, who frowns.
“I could try to uncurse it for you,” I say. “I mean, if it’s beyond my skill, then I’d appreciate not being forced to do it, but I could try. At least then you’d have the necklace.”
“I don’t want to own it. I don’t want to sell it. I want it to not exist.”
Connolly and I exchange a look.
“Is that a problem?” she says. “Does it matter what I do with it, as long as your siblings are safe?”
We both admit that it doesn’t matter.
“Then let’s leave it at that,” she says. “I will not need Kennedy’s curse weaving skills.”
“Then what are we doing for you?” I say. “I get the feeling you don’t consider Aiden a serious contender, so getting him out of the auction doesn’t seem to help you much.”
“Getting his parents out of the competition does help me. More than that, though, you two are going to be my ticket into this auction. I’ve said I don’t want the necklace. The other major players accept that. That means I need a back door in. You’ll open that. Everyone knows I’m fond of Aiden. So they will understand if I say I’ve agreed to help him in return for access to his skills.”
I choke on a snort.
“Luck working skills,” she says, with a mock glare at me, as Connolly furrows his brow, oblivious. “However, if they do think something else?” She shrugs. “Better that they believe I’m pursuing that than the necklace.”
“Kennedy and I will discuss your offer,” Connolly says.
She looks at him. “I’m offering to get your brother out from under his debt and Kennedy’s sister away from a kidnapper. In return I want nothing more than for you to pretend I’m helping you win the auction. I’m not sure what there is to discuss.”
“Whether we trust you.” He pauses. “I don’t suppose you know of a way we can test that. A dream sequence perhaps?”
Vanessa jerks back, affronted, as if she can’t believe he’s still bringing that up. It was an entire hour ago. Ancient history.
“All right,” she says finally. “You and Kennedy can take some time to discuss it. But first, allow me to sweeten the pot. There’s a showing tonight. I can get you in.”
“A showing of the necklace?”
“Yes. A private party. Black tie. The Hill-Cabots are sparing no expense to woo the potential buyers.”
Connolly frowns. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. When did the invitations go out?”
I look at him. “Apparently, you aren’t on the guest list.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally,” he murmurs.
“They decided you weren’t worthy. That’s the definition of personal.”
He meets my grin with a sour look. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I look at Vanessa. “That’s it, though, right? They don’t realize Aiden’s family is backing his bid, so he isn’t considered a serious contender. Which is good. They’re the lions fighting over a kill. To them, Aiden is only a circling jackal, hoping to snatch a bite, with no actual hope of doing so.”
“Circling jackal,” he murmurs. “You aren’t salving my ego at all here, Kennedy.”
“Does it need salving?”
His lips twitch. “No, it does not. And you’re right. This is where I wanted to be. My ego might prefer that I was considered a serious threat. My business sense knows this is better.”
“It is,” Vanessa says.
“Kennedy and I will discuss it.” He turns toward the door. “I don’t suppose I could get the coffee now?”
She sighs, flutters her hands and heads indoors.
I have never wanted to be rich. Oh, sure, I’d take a quarter-million-dollar inheritance from some long-forgotten stranger I helped with an uncursing. I’d stick it into the bank and never again have my gut seize up when I see a bill in my inbox. That’s my idea of heaven. Actually “rich,” though? In the way Connolly grew up? I don’t see that it would make my life significantly better.
I don’t understand the appeal of high fashion or flashy jewels. My crowd only wears designer clothes when they can get them at bargain prices and then tell everyone how little they paid for them. They buy fake jewelry and happily admit it’s fake when anyone admires it. If I bought a car like Connolly’s, my people would only be impressed if I told them I got it at auction for a fraction of retail and then spent fifty bucks cleaning that dead-thing smell from inside.
So no, I’ve never seen the appeal of buckets of money . . . until I walked into Vanessa’s house and realized if I did have obscene amounts of cash, this is what I would spend it on. Indulgent luxury. Soft beds and sunken tubs. Plush furniture and candle-lit courtyards. Also, food. Not quantities of food, but quality and variety, a cornucopia at my fingertips.
Vanessa doesn’t just bring Connolly a brewed cup of coffee and a carton of flavored creamer. She returns with a breakfast spread. Two pots of fresh-ground coffee, single origin, one African and one South American. Cream. Three kinds of sugar, none of them in little packets. Steamed milk. Cocoa. Cinnamon. A plate of homemade pastries. A platter of fruit with everything from strawberries to mangos to pomegranates.
It’s two in the morning, and Vanessa slides all this on the table as if it was waiting in the kitchen, breakfast prepared by last night’s staff . . . which it probably was. Imagine waking up to that every morning. Yep, I might not have batted an eye at Connolly’s car or custom suits, but this? I would totally take this.
Connolly gets halfway through his first cup of coffee before he speaks. While I don’t tease him about the pastries, he still takes one of the miniature muffins and a small plate of fruit. I make myself a coffee with steamed milk and a sprinkle of cocoa, plus a square of banana bread and some fruit. As wonderful as the spread looks, it is the middle of the night, and we had a huge late dinner.
Once Connolly’s had his coffee, we start talking, and we don’t stop for the next hour.
Neither of us jumps at the chance to work with Vanessa. Her offer seems too good to be true, and so we will presume it is. There must be a catch, even if her reputation suggests she’s trustworthy.
We analyze our chances of doing this without her. They aren’t good. We have only the barest information on Hope’s captors. Sightings of cars and strangers in Unstable, neither of which does us any good until we have a suspect. A mechanically altered voice on a phone. A man talking to a blind-folded Ani in the back of a van. Connolly’s tech contact will have that SIM card in the morning, but even she doesn’t expect to get anything from it.
We need to go to this party. Listen to voices. Record them for Ani. Study the main players. Then there’s the necklace. It will be there, the guest of honor, and I want to get close to it. See whether I’d be able to uncurse it, if it came to that.
We decide to make a counter-offer. Vanessa needs to take us to that black-tie event before we agree to anything. Afterward, the three of us will assess the real chances of rescuing Hope and lifting Rian’s debt before the auction. If Vanessa thinks she can do it—and we believe her—we’ll proceed.
“I want to apologize to you, as well,” Connolly says.
“Not about the nightmare.” He refreshes his coffee. “Yes, I do feel the compulsion to apologize for that, which I understand is awkward for you because you realize it wasn’t me.”
“I do. One hundred percent. If we have to speak about it, I’d rather we referred to my ‘attacker.’ Any resemblance to you is no different than a costume.”
“I appreciate that.” He sips his coffee. “What I want to apologize for, though, is that night in my office. I don’t think I ever properly acknowledged that what I did was wrong.”
“Blocking me from leaving? You did apologize. We’re good.”
He shakes his head. “I mean the test. I knew you were upset at it, but I dismissed your concerns as overreacting. I needed to test you, and therefore tricking you was acceptable.”
His gaze lifts to mine. “When Vanessa said she’d sent a dream to test you, I was furious. You came to her in good faith, and instead of treating you like a fellow professional, she resorted to trickery and subterfuge to test you. It was disrespectful.”
I nod and tap a little more cocoa on my coffee.
“That’s what I did,” he says. “I didn’t see it that way. I do now. If you were an employee who’d given me reason to distrust you, a test would be warranted. But you weren’t. If I wanted to test you, I should have said so. Told you I had a curse-weaving job and asked for proof of your abilities, and then it would have been up to you to give that or walk away. I thought I was being clever. I wasn’t.”
I nod, accepting his apology. We sip a little more coffee in silence. Then Connolly rises and says, “I’ll ask Vanessa to join us.”
Vanessa agrees to our terms. Connolly gives his word that we will deal fairly with her. That we aren’t going to use her to gain access to that party and then run off with the information we gather there. I don’t think she’s worried about that. Connolly may have entered this auction expecting to be treated like a serious contender, but he’s getting a clear lesson in the truth. Like when Hope’s captor needled me about my skills—a reminder that, to the greater magical world, specializing in the joker’s jinx makes me, well, a bit of a joke.
Connolly isn’t a joke. He brings the power of his family name and, while he’s new in this game, his reputation is solid. He thought that bought him a seat at the head table. It only got him through the door. I look around Vanessa’s place, and I know we’re both seriously out of our league here. Having Vanessa vouch for Connolly will be critical.
The party is tonight in New York, and we have nothing to wear. Naturally, Connolly has suitable attire at his condo in Boston, and I have suitable attire in an alternate universe where I’m Princess Kennedy, heir to the throne of some tiny European country.
While Connolly could get to Boston and back in time, we both opt for a formal wear rental shop. As much as I’d love to pop back home, if only to see Ani, Unstable is on the other side of Boston, which makes the trip out of the question.
All that preparation will come later. First, we check the security video. Vanessa had already done that while we talked, and she’s found the breach. The video shows just the occasional glimpse of a shadowy figure coming over the fence and avoiding all motion detectors on their way to my window. Someone who knew her security system and where she’d be putting me as her guest. That, apparently, narrows it down to pretty much everyone in the inner circle of bidders. Not exactly helpful.
Next we need sleep. The coffee sustained me enough to get through two hours of talking and negotiating and planning. Then I’m exhausted, my entire body dreaming of that incredible bed I barely got to sleep in. Of course, thinking about sleep reminds me why I’m so tired.
Vanessa promises me a sound and uninterrupted sleep. For a dream shaper, that’s no idle boast. One of their powers is the ability to grant sleep. Of course, they need to balance it with sleep deprivation, but Vanessa assures me she has backup mechanisms—like my Magic 8 Ball—that means I won’t be the one suffering insomnia for the gift of a good sleep.
I take my leave, head off to bed, and I’m asleep before dawn’s first light.