We reach Vanessa Apsley’s house. And by “house” I mean mansion. Or maybe that’s not the right word either. Estate is better. We turn into the lane and have another half-mile drive. At first, I’m straining to see the house, but that only lasts as long as it takes for the grounds to appear behind the high stone wall. Then I’ve got my window down, head out the window like a happy hound dog.
“It’s quite pretty, isn’t it?” Connolly says.
“Quite—quite pretty?” I sputter. I wave my hand out the window. “It’s the freaking garden of Eden, Connolly. Change of plans. Let me out here, and you can talk to the lady of the house. Take your time. Three or four hours should be enough.”
The grounds are spectacular. Even that word falls short. It’s like the most amazing botanical garden ever, everything in bloom despite only being mid-spring. Endless gardens that seem as if they just popped from the earth that way, like those despicable people who roll out of bed looking gorgeous. The art of one who can casually fling paint at the wall and come away with a masterpiece.
It’s not just the flowers. In fact, for me, they’re mere decorations on the cake. The cake—and the icing—is the rest of the landscaping. Graceful willows bending over babbling brooks. Pocket forests so lush and inviting that they’re like something out of a fairy tale. A lily-dappled fish pond with an arching bridge that leads to a gazebo crying out for a glass of lemonade and a dog-eared novel.
“Do you garden?” Connolly says as we drive through this Eden. “I suppose so, given your interest in forestry.”
“That only means I know the names of the plants. Ani inherited Dad’s green thumb. You should see our yard. It’s nothing like this, obviously, but I could spend all summer out there.”
I push my head out a little farther to inhale the incredible scents.
“Careful,” Connolly says. “There’s a gate up ahead.”
We already passed through one at the end of the drive. There’s a second gate here, on a wrought-iron fence. Connolly talks into a speaker, and the gates open.
Beyond is what would, on another property, be the yard. At least an acre of it, filled with gardens. These ones are formal beds with winding paths and benches and ivy-draped statuary.
The house itself is a surprise. After seeing the property, I expect a grand and imposing mansion. Instead, it’s a single-story, low-slung and Italianate, hugging a front courtyard.
I’m so busy gaping that I don’t realize Connolly is out of the car, and the front door is opening. I twist to see a woman step out, her arms opening in welcome. Connolly strides over to greet her, and there is no doubt this is Vanessa Apsley . . . and also no doubt that I was very, very wrong about her.
I thought Connolly’s lack of attention to her age meant he’d dismissed her as a generic older woman. Nope. It meant she was so far out of his league he’d never paused to consider anything other than a business relationship. That’s no insult to Connolly. The blame here falls entirely on the shoulders of Ms. Apsley.
A few years ago, Hope went through a phase of devouring billionaire romances. Endless books about guys as rich as Croesus, with the body of Hercules, the face of Adonis and the creative talents of Apollo, all of whom fell madly in love with an everywoman main character. I used to tease her that guys like that don’t actually exist. Vanessa Apsley is proof that the female equivalent apparently does.
Connolly said she’s divorced, but her fortune is her own doing. From this property, I’m putting her squarely in the multi-millionaire category. As for her age, she could be anywhere from thirty-five to fifty. All I know is that she’s so freaking gorgeous I can’t help wondering whether she has the Necklace of Harmonia herself.
The house looks Italianate, and that’d be my guess for the woman herself. Mediterranean. Flawless olive skin, waves of raven-black hair swept into a casual updo, and the kind of bone structure that means she’s probably even lovelier now than she’d been at twenty. Then there’s her figure, which is so impossibly lush and perfect that a petty corner of my soul wants to credit plastic surgery and shape wear.
As I climb from the car, I’m not sure whether to fix myself up or just surrender and wallow in my car-rumpled frumpiness. Not that it matters—Ms. Apsley’s attention is entirely on Aiden. As she holds him at arm’s length, her gaze sweeps him up and down, telling me she is interested in more than his luck working. Connolly might not be long-term relationship material for a woman like this, but he’s worthy of a romp or two.
I’m about to slink back into the car when violet eyes turn my way. Violet eyes. Of course. Because a woman like this couldn’t have normal-colored ones, could she?
Her gaze skates up and down me so fast my cheeks heat in humiliation. Then she peers at me, and something like a smile teases her lips. With a clap on Connolly’s arm, she heads my way, that smile growing.
“You’re one of the Bennett girls, aren’t you,” she says.
“Y-yes.” I put out my hand. “Kennedy.”
“The middle one.” She clasps both my hands between hers, warmth and the faint perfume of bergamot enveloping me. Still holding my hands, she looks over at Connolly. “You think it’s a joker’s jinx then.”
Silence, as my heart thuds. She steps back and surveys us both.
“Think what is a joker’s jinx?” I say slowly.
“The Necklace of Harmonia. That is what you’re after, isn’t it?”
“We . . . are aware of the auction,” Connolly says.
She rolls her eyes. “Of course you are, dear boy. While the old-timers preen and posture, you’re hoping to slide in and snatch the prize from under their noses. You’ve come to pick my brain under the guise of, what, a social visit? I hope you at least had a better story than that, or I’ll be very insulted.”
“We came to speak to you about a related matter.”
“Are you going to pretend you aren’t after the necklace?”
He meets her gaze. “Are you?”
“I asked you first.”
“I wouldn’t insult you by requesting information that would conflict with your business interests,” he says. “I respect you too much for that.”
“You mean you respect my ability to crush you under my heel.”
“That, too.” He nods toward the door. “May we step inside and discuss this?”
“Are you going after the necklace, Aiden?”
“Possibly. Right now, I’m more concerned about obtaining information on other potential bidders, because one of them kidnapped Kennedy’s sisters.”
She glances sharply at me. “What?”
“Her older sister is fine. The youngest is still being held to uncurse the necklace. I’ve promised to help Kennedy resolve that in return for her help with the necklace, which I do not particularly want, but I’m obligated to obtain in payment of a debt. If that obligation was waived and Kennedy’s sister was freed, it would remove two buyers from the auction, which would help you . . . if you wanted it.”
Well, that’s definitely more than we planned to say. I try to catch his eye, but he’s studiously avoiding my gaze.
“Come inside,” Ms. Apsley says. “I had dinner prepared for us, and I have a feeling it’ll go cold by the time I get this entire story.” She walks over to Connolly. “Which I will get, correct? The entire and true story?”
“You will get as much of it as I’m able and willing to tell.”
She extends a hand to me, takes one of us on each arm and heads for the door.
* * *
Vanessa’s house—she’s already said “call me Vanessa”—is as breathtaking as the grounds. Sumptuous is the word I’d use, a level of luxury that falls just short of decadent and is all the better for it.
The estate grounds had invited me to wander, to explore, to enjoy and unwind, and her house does the same. We pass at least three spots where I long to curl up with a book and at least four bookcases that I long to pillage for that very purpose. There’s a window seat where the sun stretches over a pile of pillows. A chaise longue with a wicker side table begging to hold your cup of tea. A circular couch with deep cushions and an artfully crumpled angora blanket.
Every piece of furniture is perfect . . . and every piece would set me back several months’ rent. I’d fallen into another misconception earlier, when Connolly said Vanessa was one of the top names in the gray market. I expected her to be well-off, but not as wealthy as those in the black market. Surely you can make more money dabbling in a criminal enterprise. Which is bullshit. Drug kingpins don’t automatically have more money than CEOs. To expect that underestimates how much talent goes into any job. Clearly, Vanessa has that in spades, from both her business acumen and her magical ability.
As for her ability, it’s dream shaping. It’s a strange and rare power that I don’t fully understand, and Connolly admitted he doesn’t either. We have a dream shaper in Unstable, but his family has always used their powers for sleep manipulation and has lost any other skills through time and disuse. In short, he can grant sound sleep and banish nightmares, and that may sound like a small thing, but for someone with insomnia or PTSD, a good night’s sleep is the stuff of, well, dreams. Maybe Vanessa has discovered a way to do that on a grand commercial scale.
Dinner is served by two young men who seem to have given up lucrative modeling careers to work for Vanessa. Not that she seems to notice their physical attractions. It’s as if they’re just two more works of art decorating her home.
No, that isn’t fair. She doesn’t treat them as objects—she acknowledges their presence with genuine warmth and respect. They’re neither pieces of furniture nor pieces of ass. Just young men who bring beauty to her home.
We eat in a proper Italian courtyard—an open-air room in the middle of the house. It’s decorated with so much lush greenery, it’s like dining al fresco in a tropical paradise.
The food is perfect for the setting, all plates of light bites, with plenty of fish and vegetables, very Mediterranean, nothing heavy. It’s a meal made for talking over. Put a few choice items on your plate and nibble while chatting, then take a few more, and keep going into the night, as wine and water glasses seem to refill themselves.
As Connolly explains, he holds back unnecessary details but gives a full picture of the situation. My sisters were kidnapped, and one was returned. The other is being held to unweave the necklace’s curse. To secure her safe return, I’m supposed to pretend to work with Connolly and then flake out at the last moment. Connolly, however, can’t agree to that because another buyer is demanding the necklace to repay his brother’s debt.
I’d rather leave out the part about pretending to work for Connolly. That’s admitting that I might double-cross Hope’s captors. Yet it’s also the supporting beam to this story. Otherwise, I should stay a million miles from him, as competition for the necklace.
If Connolly trusts Vanessa with this, then I must, too.
“Who holds your brother’s debt?” she asks when Connolly finishes.
He hesitates. “I’d rather not say.”
“I noticed. Which is why I’m asking.”
Connolly sips his wine.
Vanessa continues. “You’re hoping I can help you find Hope Bennett’s captor. Then you’ll free her, which will also free you to fulfill your end of the bargain. However, even if we identify who has Hope, freeing her will be risky.”
“Agreed,” I say. “We can use the necklace either to free Hope or to relieve Rian’s debt. These two things aren’t equal. My sister is a hostage. Your brother is not, correct?”
“Our parents have him in a safe house in Europe.”
“Then my sister’s situation is the more urgent one. If Vanessa can help with your brother’s case instead . . .” I peer at him. “Unless there’s a reason you don’t want that. Something you aren’t telling me?”
“No.” He meets my gaze so I can see the sincerity there. “The story is as I told it, and you have my word on that. I just don’t feel free to . . .” He glances at Vanessa. “Share information that isn’t mine to share.”
“I commend your familial loyalty, Aiden,” she says. “But Kennedy is right. Freeing a debt is easier and safer than freeing a person. Whatever you tell me is private. You’ll have noticed that my boys are timing their appearances perfectly. That isn’t luck. They know to stay in the kitchen until I signal for service. As much as I trust them, they shouldn’t overhear your secrets. I didn’t get where I am by treating my associates cavalierly.”
“Havoc. That’s the name we were given.”
“It’s obviously an alias.”
“I’m not remarking on the nom de guerre. My surprise reflects incredulity that your brother was fool enough to get involved with her. Apparently, you inherited his allotment of intelligence and common sense.”
Connolly stiffens. “Rian and I are different, yes, but—”
“Oh, get your back down, Aiden. The point is that Havoc is trouble. An overly ambitious capo masquerading as a godfather.”
I arch my brows.
She sighs. “Have you never seen mafia movies, child? A godfather is the head of a crime family. A capo is a lieutenant in charge of a unit of foot soldiers. Havoc worked in security for a good friend of mine. He had to let her go, and she decided to enter the game as an independent player, which has been nothing but headaches for everyone. She lives up to her name—let’s put it that way.”
“Can we pay off the debt another way?” I ask.
Vanessa shakes her head. “Unfortunately no. Havoc cares about the necklace because we care about it. I may know ways to deal with that, though. If I decide there’s something in this for me.”
She waves her hand. “I have no need of jewels.”
She’s right, in a very literal sense. I hadn’t noticed until now, but she isn’t even wearing earrings. There’s little need to accessorize when no one’s going to look beyond your personal beauty.
That does leave one question, though, and I ask it with a look at Connolly.
“Erin Concord,” he says.
Vanessa’s brow furrows. “Hmm?”
“Someone set up an appointment with Kennedy. Someone named Erin Concord. I thought it might be you.”
“Erin . . . Concord?”
“Erin for Eris,” I say. “Goddess of discord. Concord as another name for—”
“Ah, yes,” she cuts in. “I see it now. Clever. But that wasn’t me. Presumably another potential buyer for the necklace, seeking a curse weaver.”
“Someone also broke into Kennedy’s shop,” Connolly says.
“And did a whole lotta damage,” I say, trying not to remember the scene.
Her violet eyes widen. “That certainly wasn’t me. I’ve stayed out of the auction. Feel free to confirm that in any way you like.”
“What do you want then?” I ask. “In return for your help.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
Connolly shakes his head. “We need a price up front.”
She smiles. “Clever boy. Yes, never take a favor on loan. I meant that I’m not certain I can help, but I’ll think on it, and if I can, you will know my price in the morning.”