“I’d rather we didn’t split up,” Connolly says as we head down the hall. “I understand you won’t want to come in my room, but I’d like us to stay within sight. It’ll just take me a minute to get ready. I’m almost packed.”
I nod and wait outside his door, which turns out to be near mine. As for him being “almost packed,” that’s an understatement. His overnight bag sits on a chair, open, but otherwise, the room is spotless. He still looks around. Then he strides to a shadowy corner and plucks his dress shirt from a chair.
“So that’s where it went,” I say, trying for a smile.
He frowns at me, and it’s clear he’s only half paying attention. I should just drop the lame attempt at humor there, but I want to smooth this over. He understands why I’m still skittish, and I’m grateful for that. It is yet another of those tiny things that says “this is a good man.” This is someone I want to know better.
Some guys would get frustrated, remind me that the dream attacker wasn’t really them. Connolly understands that what matters is the terror still fogging my brain, and he’s respectful of that. But the suspicion still stings him. I want to make him smile. Let him know that the nightmare doesn’t taint the good part that came before it.
“From the dream,” I say. “Your shirt disappeared.”
He stiffens, and I realize he thinks I mean the nightmare.
“No, the one before that,” I say quickly. “The first dream. The one Vanessa sent us.”
I smile, but he isn’t looking at me. He just stands there, staring down at that discarded shirt and . . .
“That . . . wasn’t you, was it?” I say. “I mean, not actually you. Just a much nicer dream with you.”
I realize how that sounds and my cheeks heat.
I hurry on. “Nicer compared to the other one. It wasn’t anything weird. Just you, uh . . .”
“Lost my shirt?”
My face scorches now, and I’m grateful for the dim lighting.
“Swimming,” I blurt. “I don’t even know if this place has a pool, but in my dream, we went swimming, and you misplaced your shirt and . . .” I clear my throat. “You have everything, so I should go get dressed.”
I retreat fast. He follows and waits in my doorway while I disappear into the bathroom to change.
I rip off the chemise and pitch it into the corner. Last night, I’d thought how flattering and sexy it was, and how it was a shame no one saw me in it. Then Connolly did, and he appreciated the view just as much as I could have dreamed he might. Except, apparently, that’s because I had dreamed it.
The way his gaze lingered on it. The way his fingers toyed with the hem, so irrationally sexy it still sends a shiver through me.
It hadn’t been Connolly. Hadn’t been a hint of what he might be like as a lover. It was entirely my fantasy version of what I’d want him to be like.
The worst is how damned sweet he’d been. Sweet and charming and chivalrous in the sexiest way, walking away with palpable regret. Our parting words, too, him thanking me for putting up with him, me thanking him for the same, a moment of precious understanding and acceptance.
Fake. All fake.
I’m yanking on my jeans when Connolly’s voice sounds from the hall. It’s quiet, his tone even, but there’s a note that raises my hackles, like that almost inaudible growl before a dog lunges.
“No, Vanessa,” he says. “Stop right there. Please.”
“Turn around and go back to your room.”
“Excuse me? This is my house—”
“And we were your guests. We’re leaving, and I’m going to ask you to wait elsewhere while we do that.”
“Is Kennedy in—?”
A scuffle of feet, and then a shutting door, as if he’s blocked her. “No, Vanessa. Please. I don’t want to talk about this right now. Kennedy is upset—justifiably upset—and I want to get her out of here without an argument delaying our departure.”
I leave the bathroom as I straighten my shirt.
From the hall, Vanessa sighs. Just sighs, deeply. “She’s upset about the dream. All right. I admit I may have overstepped.”
I grab the bedroom doorknob, but before I can even open it, Connolly’s warning growl erupts into a snarl. “You may have overstepped? You terrified her.”
I open the door to see they’re halfway down the hall.
Vanessa spots me. “Kennedy. I’m sorry if the dream upset you. It was a test. I had to know if I could trust you.”
“You tested a guest in your home?” Connolly says. “If you didn’t trust her, you shouldn’t have invited us to stay. And as for testing her by . . . by that . . . I have no idea how you thought that accomplished anything except terrifying her and driving a wedge between us.”
“What? No. Well, yes, I suppose it could—” She waves her hands. “I think we’re all overreacting a little here.”
“Overreacting?” Connolly snarls the word. “You made Kennedy think I attacked her.”
“What? Attack? No, there’s some mistake—”
“Are you saying she’s lying?”
“Do you see those bruises on her arm? Apparently, I made those. Some nightmare version of me attacked Kennedy in her sleep. It was clearly a dream—I was in my own room and found her being attacked by some invisible force. Yet it was a dream that left actual marks. Are you telling me a dream shaper can’t do that?”
“In a way, yes, but that isn’t the dream I sent. At all.”
“Is there another dream shaper hiding in your house? Someone who snuck past your security?”
“No, which means I need to figure out what happened here. Can we talk, please?”
“You are a dream shaper. Kennedy had a nightmare—a nightmare with real-life consequences—in your home, and you have admitted to sending her a nightmare to test her. Do I have all that right, Vanessa?”
“I didn’t send a nightmare. I sent a dream about . . .” Vanessa looks from Connolly to me. “I think Kennedy would prefer I spoke to her about this in private.”
“You are not speaking to her anywhere, private or not.”
I make a noise.
Connolly catches my expression. Then he says, “I would prefer she didn’t speak to you, but that’s obviously her choice. I would ask, though, that it not take place in private.”
Vanessa continues, “The dream I sent was one where she would . . . be in a situation in which she would feel at ease, her guard relaxed, and the . . . other person in that dream would begin a conversation that would allow me to determine how honest you were both being with your necklace story.”
“How honest we were both . . .” Connolly begins. “You’re saying I was the other person in the dream? You admit that you tricked her into thinking I was there . . . just like in her nightmare.”
“The dream shaping went wrong,” I say. “Aiden was supposed to talk to me and instead . . .”
I realize then why she’d wanted to speak about this in private. If that sexy dream had played out to the end, I would indeed have been relaxed, my guard lowered. She’d set up that fantasy dream to get to the pillow talk, where “fake Connolly” would initiate that conversation.
I swallow my embarrassment and say, “So Aiden was supposed to talk to me over . . . a moonlight swim or a glass of wine. A relaxed scenario. But the dream shaping went wrong. Things didn’t . . . play out the way you planned them, and the dream took a dark turn, preying on my own anxieties. I turned it into something else.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Vanessa says. “Yes, I only give suggestions. I can shape your dream with prompts. For it to turn from . . . what I had planned . . . into a nightmare of attack, though? That’s more than your fears re-shaping my prompts. I’m going to need to see it to have any idea what happened.”
“I have a scrying bowl that allows me to replay shaped dreams. That’s how I would have gotten the information. I would have . . . fast forwarded past any . . . unnecessary parts. I suggest you and I rewatch that together. Aiden? You may certainly stay nearby, but you don’t need to be privy to Kennedy’s nightmare.”
He opens his mouth to protest, but I cut in with, “I agree.” I meet his gaze. “Do you really want to watch yourself attacking me?”
He hesitates. His expression says no, but he doesn’t want to leave me alone with Vanessa either.
“I’d rather you didn’t see it,” I say. “It’s bad enough remembering what happened. I don’t want to rewatch it with you right beside me.”
He nods slowly. “All right. I’ll wait outside the door.”
I’m not sure where Vanessa keeps her scrying bowl. We aren’t allowed in there. She says she’ll be back, disappears into the rear of the house and returns with a box, which she takes into the courtyard.
“You can fix yourself a coffee while you wait,” she tells Connolly. “I have quite a selection. Try a few and see what you like.”
She smiles as she says it, trying to ease the tension, but he meets her gaze with an impassive stare and only pulls a chair closer to the courtyard door.
“I’m going to need to close this,” she says. “For Kennedy’s privacy.”
Connolly cuts his gaze to me. I nod, and he says, “I’ll be right here then.”
Vanessa shuts the door. Moonlight filters into the courtyard, but she still does the rounds, lighting the candles and lanterns we’d extinguished after dinner. Then she takes a bowl from the wooden box. It’s shaped like half of a clam shell. Or that’s what I think until I get close and see that it’s an actual half-shell, just not the sort I’m used to seeing in New England. It’s over a foot in length, and teardrop shaped. The inside is polished mother-of-pearl.
From the box, Vanessa also takes a pitcher. It’s terra cotta and Greco-Roman, that classic black and clay coloring I’ve seen only in museums. There’s a scene looping around it, but I can’t make out more than figures. I think the pitcher must be empty from the way she brought it, carried inside the box, but she lifts it over the shell and pours in water until it’s half full. Then she waves her fingers above it and whispers a few words that I can’t make out.
When she finishes, an image appears in the water. It’s Connolly rapping on my door—the version of him I remember from the dream, the good one, where he’s wearing his trousers and dress shirt, feet bare. Then I answer the door. There’s no sound, but I see my mouth moving.
“How would you have heard any conversation,” I say. “It’s like a silent film.”
She taps her temple. “Not to me.”
“And this is normal for dream shapers? Being able to replay a shaped dream?”
She hesitates. “I wouldn’t say ‘normal.’ High-level dream shapers can enter the dream themselves, as a bystander.” She wrinkles her nose. “To me, that smacks of voyeurism. Yes, I know, you may feel this isn’t much different, but I wouldn’t have watched the whole thing. I’d have moved to the part I needed.”
“Can we do that, please? There’s nothing happening here.”
She glances at the bowl and then flicks the water, and the figures move faster. “I see that,” she murmurs. “I set up a perfectly good sexy encounter, and what do you two do? Talk, talk, talk some more . . .”
“Yes, well, apparently even my imagination can’t stretch far enough to picture him doing more.”
She glances over, brows rising. “Your imagination?”
I wave at the bowl. “I’m working with your prompts, right? You send a fantasy Aiden to my room, and I take it from there. He did and said whatever I wanted . . . and could reasonably imagine him doing.”
She stares at me. Then she laughs. “Oh no, that was Aiden. I see how that would be unclear, particularly given what happened later, but this part”—she waves at the bowl, where Connolly runs his fingers along the bottom of my chemise—“is all him.”
“This is . . .?”
“Him. Also dreaming. That was the setup. Consider my role that of the set designer, with a bit of director thrown in. I lay out the scene, and then I put you both into it, hoping it would lead where it should, prodded by your magically shortening nightgown and his inexplicably lost shirt.”
She glares at the shell as Connolly heads back to his room.
“And where it should lead,” she says, “with normal hot-blooded young people, is not to talking. Nor to a sweet parting.” She flicks the water, and the image stills, like a paused video.
“That’s him,” I say slowly. “The real Aiden. Dreaming the same dream.”
“Lying bastard,” I say.
“Oooh, did he claim he wasn’t there at all?”
“Yes,” I grumble. “I made some comment about his missing shirt, and he pretended to have no idea what I was talking about, which was insanely embarrassing. He lied.”
“Yes, he did.” She unpauses the replay with a tap of her finger. “I could say that, given what happened afterward, he may have thought it best to remove himself completely, and I’m sure that’s part of it but . . .”
I keep grumbling. There’s no real venom behind it, though. She’s right—given the fake-Connolly attack, he might not want to admit he’d been in my dreams at all.
She continues. “The problem is also that you figured it out, and he didn’t. He thought this little encounter was his dream, and his alone, and when he realized otherwise, you caught him off guard.”
“So he lied. Lied and embarrassed me to save himself any embarrassment.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find a way to repay him. For now, though . . .” She waves at the shell, where I’m back in bed, sleeping.
Then I seem to wake up, inside another dream, the one with the intruder. When I tense, Vanessa says, “Would you like to step away while I watch this?”
“I . . .” I take a deep breath. “I didn’t fight, okay? Not until the end. He hit me, and I just froze.”
“All right . . .”
“Just . . . don’t . . .” Another deep breath. “I always thought that if something like that happened, I’d fight. But I just . . . I’ve never been hit. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
“You’re asking me not to judge you.”
There’s silence. When she speaks, her words are hard. “Where did women get the idea that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t fight when a man hits them? If they’re paralyzed with shock and disbelief? If they take time to react? Or if they decide not to react—that it’s best to just wait it out?”
“Every movie where a woman gets attacked, and the audience dismisses her if she doesn’t fight back.”
“It’s not just movies. It’s every judge and defense attorney and jury member who wonders why she didn’t fight. Unless she kills him. Then they wonder why she fought so hard.” She meets my eyes. “Whatever you did here was the right thing, Kennedy. I’m just very, very sorry . . .”
She glances at the screen, where not-Connolly has me by the upper arms. She smacks the water, hard enough to make half of it spill over the sides, and the picture disappears.
“That wasn’t me,” she says. “That wasn’t you, either—not your mistrust of Aiden reshaping my dream into a nightmare.”
She starts the replay again and fast-forwards to a point where I’m smiling at Connolly. “See this? The image is perfect.”
She fast-forwards to another point, where I’m running from not-Connolly. Before she can point it out, I see the difference. Both segments were in half-darkness, but the first one is crystal-clear, the second clouded and shadowed, figures blurring and wavering.
“This one is being dream shaped,” she says. “Just not by me. It’s like a feed picking up an external signal. Mine comes through clear. The other doesn’t.”
“The other being sent by a second dream shaper?”
Her fingers tap the water, stopping and then dismissing the replay. “I would say yes, but that seems implausible. Or perhaps I simply have too high an opinion of my security and my reputation. No one else got into this house last night. Could they get on the grounds, though? Close enough to your room to send their own dream and interfere with mine? The interfering part is harder to believe, though again, that may be my ego speaking.”
She sits and thinks for a moment. “My dream, though, had been cancelled by your actions. Yours and Aiden’s.”
“We were supposed to have sex, and then real-Aiden would fade out, to be replaced by a fake version that would ask me questions.”
“Please note that the fact I’m not complaining about this doesn’t mean I’m not seriously pissed off. And weirded out. And a whole lot of other things.”
Those violet eyes rise to mine. “Hmm?”
“You orchestrated sex, Vanessa. Between two parties who were not in a mental state to give their consent. I know it wasn’t real sex. But still . . .”
She shakes her head. “I didn’t orchestrate anything. As I said, I simply set events in motion. I gave the push. You two failed to follow through in the correct direction.”
“It was the correct direction for us.”
“So you say. Oh, don’t give me that look. This is why I wouldn’t shape more than the setting. Whatever happens between you must be your choice.”
I pull out a chair. “And since we’ve detoured to address concerns, I have a big one with you pushing Aiden in my direction. You hinted at it last night. But unless I’m sorely mistaken, you’d have been quite happy if he knocked on your door last night. Which makes me question you sending him to mine.”
“Only because you’re young and terribly American, with terribly American sensibilities.”
I arch a brow.
“Yes,” she says. “I find Aiden attractive. Very attractive. I would have happily taken him to my bed. For a night. Or a weekend. Even several weekends. But as fond as I am of attractive men—and sex with attractive men—I’m even more fond of matchmaking. Aiden is comfortable with you, and for him, that’s rare. You make an adorable couple.”
“Right now we’re—”
“Yes, yes, busy saving hapless siblings. I understand that. Which is why I fully admit that last night’s push was about more than any matchmaking. I wanted to confirm your stories before I allowed you both into my confidences.”
“As for this . . .” She glances at the bowl. “My dream shaping ended when Aiden left and you returned to bed. That gave another dream shaper an opening. We’ll need to check the security cameras.”
I stay seated. “First, if I’m going to stay, I need to understand what’s going on. You said you need to trust us. With what?”
She’s silent for a moment. Then she calls, “Aiden? Come in please. We need to have a chat.”