I want to say I’ll go to the bar with Connolly, but that’ll look as if I want to eavesdrop on Vanessa and Hector. Which I do . . . to hear Hector’s voice and see whether he could be Hope’s captor. Vanessa will make sure we are properly introduced, though, so I let Connolly go to the bar, with an order for something bubbly.
The problem with such a small party is that it’s hard to people-watch without looking as if you’re staring. Even harder when people-watching—and listening—is what I’m here for. These are the major players. I want to put names to faces as fast as possible. All I have so far are Marius and Hector, who Connolly said were at the top of the food chain, along with Vanessa. There are a few others, but without more data, I need to wait for introductions.
The one I really want to meet is Havoc. She holds Rian Connolly’s debt. Is there a chance she also holds my sister? Playing it both ways? Or screwing over the Connollys?
Hmm, seems I had to get that necklace myself. Now you really owe me.
I scan the attendees, looking for someone who fits what I recall Vanessa saying. That Havoc is a capo who thinks herself a godfather. Self-important and chafing at being kept out of the upper echelons.
That’s when the woman who’d been kneeling beside Marius sets her sights on Connolly. As he’s turning from the bar, drinks in hand, she lays her fingers on his arm, stopping him.
“Aiden Connolly, I believe.” Her voice wafts to me. “You look so much like your brother.”
I freeze. Connolly murmurs something I don’t hear. The woman laughs, a tinkling sound as her fingers glide down Connolly’s arm and tickle over the back of his hand. He stiffens, obviously struggling to hide his reaction. There’s a look in his eyes I know well. I’ve seen it in every girl cornered by a guy at a bar.
I start toward them. Connolly doesn’t notice me. He’s listening to the woman as her fingers slide from his hand to the champagne flute he’s holding. When she tries to tug it away, he gives a tight-lipped very un-Connolly smile and nods toward me.
“I can certainly get you one if you’d like,” he says. “This one’s for my . . .” He finishes that sentence with a nod toward me, and I’m impressed by how smooth that is, leaving off the last word and letting her interpret whatever she wants.
“Hey,” I say. “That looks delicious. What is it?”
“Kir Royale. Champagne and crème de cassis.”
“Mmm.” I take the flute in my left hand and extend my right. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Kennedy, this is Havoc. Havoc, Kennedy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. . . . Ms. Havoc? Or is Havoc your first name?”
“It’s my name,” she says.
Vanessa appears and envelops Havoc in a half-embrace. “Havoc, how lovely it is to see you.”
I hear no snark in Vanessa’s voice, but Havoc stiffens and disengages fast.
Before anyone can speak, Vanessa takes my arm. “If you don’t mind, Havoc, I promised to properly introduce my guests about the room. We should do that before the necklace arrives. After that, no one will have eyes for anything else.”
“Your guests?” Havoc’s gaze cuts from Vanessa to Connolly. “I thought you didn’t want the necklace.”
“I don’t, which is why they are my guests. Aiden is planning to bid, but he wasn’t invited. I was, and I’m not planning to bid. It worked out perfectly.”
“Then why’s she here?” Havoc jerks her chin at me.
“Because she’s a curse weaver.” Vanessa speaks in measured tones, just short of insulting. “And the necklace is cursed. Presumably Aiden wants it uncursed.”
Havoc glowers. “Obviously. I just mean why is she here.”
“To look at the necklace,” I say. “It will help me be prepared.”
She sniffs. “I would think a decent curse weaver wouldn’t need that.”
“No,” I say evenly. “A decent curse weaver knows to take every opportunity to familiarize herself with a curse. Particularly such an infamous one.”
“So you’re saying it might be too much for you.”
Vanessa tugs my arm and inserts herself between us. “It may be too much for anyone, Havoc. That’s the point. The more homework Kennedy can do, the better prepared she’ll be. Now, if you’ll excuse us . . .”
“Take Kennedy around please,” Connolly says. “I need to speak to Havoc.”
Vanessa nods and leads me off. Once we’re out of earshot, I say, “I feel as if I’ve just made an enemy without even trying.”
“Havoc is the sort of woman who considers herself ‘not like other girls.’ She prefers to associate with men. Women don’t count.”
I make a face.
“My sentiments exactly,” she murmurs. “As for her taking a dislike to you, you’re with Aiden and that’s a problem.”
“She likes him.”
Her lips purse as we stop in a quiet spot. “No offense to Aiden, but this is about me. We have . . . history. She knows I’ve taken an interest in Aiden. She’s not sure whether I want him as a lover, an employee or a business contact. So she’s covering her bases.”
I glance back to where Connolly is talking to Havoc, and she’s standing far too close, her face tilted up to his as if they’re having a very private conversation.
“Several months ago,” Vanessa continues, “Havoc and I were at the same party, as we often are, unfortunately. I was talking to Marius and several others, and Aiden’s name came up. Luck workers are always valuable assets. Aiden had done work for a few of us, and I was saying I thought he was worth cultivating. He has obvious talent, but perhaps even more importantly, we can work with him. He’s confident and self-assured, but not a braggart or a grandstander. He’s intelligent, but never needs to be the smartest man in the room. Polite and respectful, but no fawning sycophant. He’s an excellent worker and reflects well on anyone who employs him. A week later, I hear through the grapevine that Havoc has hired his brother.”
“She wanted her own Connolly luck worker.”
“Perhaps, but I’m more concerned that she saw Rian—who seems a bit of a wild card—as a way to Aiden. It didn’t take long for her to snare Rian in a debt he couldn’t repay. And then, oh look, there’s this necklace she’ll accept in exchange. A necklace Aiden could get.”
“Forcing Aiden to jump through hoops isn’t exactly the way to get his attention.”
“Havoc wouldn’t see that. She’s a doer, not a thinker. A better criminal than criminal mastermind.”
“You said she used to work for someone higher up.”
Vanessa nods toward a figure coming in a doorway.
“Marius,” I say. “I saw her trying to get his attention earlier.”
“Hmm.” She glances around. “Now, where shall we begin these introductions? How about over here . . .”
We make the rounds. I pay the most attention to voices, but also to attitudes. Do they know who I am? Why I’m here? Do they treat me like Hope’s captor did? Do their word choices invoke him? The cadence of their speech?
Connolly joins us partway through, which helps. He can double-check my interpretations of attitude and voice.
It’s maybe an hour later when we finally approach the last potential buyer. The guy at the bar. Vanessa’s ex. Hector Voden.
“Aiden could handle this,” I say to Vanessa. “You don’t need to speak to him again.”
She waves her fingers. “It’s fine. We’ve been divorced longer than we were together. We’ll never get on, but it’s not as if we did when we were married either.” A tight smile. “When you travel in the same circles as your ex, you develop a veneer of civility.”
Before I can argue, she’s sweeping us toward Hector.
“And saving the most important introduction for last,” she says. “May I introduce Hector Voden. Hector, I’d like to introduce my guests for the evening.”
Hector turns. His gaze slides up me and then down Connolly. There’s nothing lascivious about it. Nothing flattering either.
“I see you haven’t lost your taste for pretty young things,” Hector says, returning to his drink.
“Now, now. These are business associates. I believe you know—”
“The Connolly boy,” he says. “One of them anyway. This would be the prissy one.”
“Moving right along, this young lady is . . .”
“One of the Bennett girls. To uncurse that necklace that you insist you don’t want.” He peers at me. “Please don’t tell me you’re the middle sister.”
“Yes, I’m Kenn—”
He snorts and looks at Vanessa. “And this is why you’ll never play at the top, Vanessa. What made you pick her? I could say it’s that weakness for pretty young things, but from what I hear, she’s not even the prettiest. Let me guess, she’s the only one who’d accept your offer.”
He looks at me. “Is that right, Miss Bennett? Your sisters turned Vanessa down?” His gaze shifts to Connolly. “Or did you do the hiring, boy? Had to scrape the bottom of the Bennett barrel?”
“Well, this was fun,” Vanessa said. “You are as charming as ever, Hector. We will leave you to the companionship of that glass and avail ourselves of the buffet.”
He mutters something as we leave. I’m sure it’s not a compliment.
As we walk to the food, I glance at Connolly. Alarm bells had rung nonstop during that conversation. Hector’s dismissive attitude. His sneering tone. Calling Connolly prissy. Dismissing my skills. Referring to me as Miss Bennett. Saying I wasn’t the prettiest sister . . . as if he’s seen the one who is.
At my look, Connolly nods. It’s not just me then.
Vanessa murmurs. “Was I right? That was the most important introduction of the evening, yes?”
“It was,” I say.
“Yes,” Connolly says. “It definitely was.”
She sighs. “That’s what I was afraid of.”