The problem with a disrupted sleep is that it doesn’t matter that Vanessa granted me an excellent make-up slumber, my day is thrown off. I’m in bed until nearly noon, which I haven’t done since I was a teenager. When I get up, there’s no one around, just a note telling me to help myself to food. I do that, snacking on the leftover breakfast trays.
Connolly’s bedroom door was closed when I passed, so I presume he’s sleeping. Vanessa’s note says she’s stepped out to run errands, which seems like a thing Vanessa would hire people to do, so I’m guessing it’s work, not picking up dry cleaning and groceries.
I decide to take my brunch onto the back patio. I know there is one—I saw it the day before. But do you think I can find it now? For a house that didn’t seem large, it’s a lot bigger than it looked. I’m considering just going out the front when a warm breeze wafts through a doorway and whispers that I’ve found the elusive back exit.
I follow the breeze. Through the doorway, I see an airy room with glass French doors opened to a back patio. I’m stepping through when a woman’s voice wafts out.
“—this was not the plan.”
Those words stop me in my tracks. I back up and peek through. It’s not Vanessa—the words have a faint brogue, rather than an Italian lilt—and there isn’t anyone else in the house as far as I know.
I lean to see a wicker table and chair set. On the table is a laptop, opened to a video chat with a woman on the screen. Connolly sits in the chair, his back to me. While the woman’s accent suggests she’s Irish, I don’t presume anything until I see her face better. And then there’s no doubt who she is. Marion Connolly. Connolly’s mother.
She’s dark haired, but otherwise, the resemblance is unmistakable, from the light freckles to the high cheekbones to the green eyes. There’s a look on her face I’ve come to recognize on her son’s too—the annoyed impatience of having to speak to someone who isn’t playing the role they’ve been assigned.
“The plan—” she’s saying.
“I am well aware of the plan, Mother. I devised it.”
Now, I should back out. Leave them to their private conversation. Yet given what they’re saying, I can’t. My gut might trust Connolly, but my brain is another matter, and my brain says that I need to be sure their “plan” matches the version I’ve been given.
“The plan,” Marion Connolly continues, as if her son hasn’t spoken, “was for you to hire one of the Bennett girls. Preferably the oldest. While my sources say the youngest shows promise, the oldest has proven herself. She is steady and reliable. That middle girl—”
“—is my choice. Kennedy has always been my choice.”
“We agreed that I would hire one of the Bennetts. I decided on Kennedy. Knowing you would question that choice, I tested her skills. They are excellent.”
“I’m sure they are.”
At her tone, he stiffens. “Whatever you are implying—”
“I’m implying that my sources tell me she’s the wild one. There’s a reason she skipped off to Boston. Small-town life wasn’t for her. She’s flighty and reckless, and there’s an appeal to that, for a man like you.”
“A man like me?” Connolly seems to be speaking through gritted teeth. “Do I even want to know what that means?”
“It’s a classic set up. The buttoned-down, steady, successful young man and the manic fairy girl.”
“Manic pixie girl. I am well aware of the trope, Mother, and that is not Kennedy. Nor is it me. I’m a grown man, capable of making decisions that have nothing to do with a pretty face or a charming demeanor.”
“You find her charming. And pretty.”
“Because she is both, and if that’s meant to make me stammer denials, may I say again that I am a grown man. I can recognize that a young woman is attractive while knowing—unequivocally—that it did not affect my decision to work with her.”
“Work with her? She’s supposed to be working for you, Aiden. The plan was for you to hire a Bennett girl and then buy this necklace, uncurse it and pay off your brother’s debts. Instead, you’re chasing this girl’s sister.”
“Because she’s been kidnapped.”
“Which is not our concern. Apparently, though, it’s the concern of a boy—oh, sorry, a man—who wants to impress a girl.”
I walk through the doorway. “That is not what Aiden’s doing.”
He jumps and puts his hand on the laptop screen, as if to close it.
“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I was looking for the back door when I overheard that last bit. I’ll go in a second.” I turn to the screen. “Aiden isn’t trying to impress me. He’s trying to pay off his brother’s damn debt, which is somehow his responsibility. I’m not going to comment on that—as much as I’d like to. Aiden and I are trying to work out a solution that resolves both our problems. If we can’t do that, then we part ways. He’s been very clear on that. If saving my sister interferes with helping his brother, then we’ll find ourselves on opposite sides, with me helping my sister’s captor win the necklace.”
Icicles drip from Marion’s voice. “I was having a conversation with my son, Ms. Kennedy.”
“Too bad. Being the subject of that conversation in a negative way, I felt compelled to defend my honor. Your plan was to hire a Bennett ‘girl.’ Great. But then two of those ‘girls’ were kidnapped, just as Aiden was trying to hire the third. Do you really expect me to go along with his plan now? Get the necklace for him even if it costs my sister her life? Hope’s kidnapping is your concern if you want a Bennett’s help. You sure as hell can’t hire her. Or Ani, who wants nothing to do with your family. So you’re stuck with that, what was it? Manic pixie Bennett?”
I look at Connolly. “Pixies. Fairies. You guys seems to have some kind of fixation with the little folk. It’s almost as if—”
“Don’t.” He doesn’t smile, but the strain in his face eases.
“I’m just saying . . .”
He shakes his head and turns to the screen. “This conversation is over, Mother. I was merely updating you, which I now regret.”
“I really didn’t mean to interrupt,” I say. “I’ll retreat now. Just one more thing.” I turn to Marion. “You might not have the Bennett you wanted, but if this works out—if Hope is freed—you’ll have all the Bennetts working together to uncurse that necklace. None of us gives a damn about the thing. You can have it. But if Aiden and I are able to get Hope out, then we all owe him. We’ll repay that debt.”
I don’t say that if Vanessa ends Rian’s debt, no unweaving will be necessary. I suspect Connolly hasn’t told his mother that part.
I lift my coffee and plate. “I’ll take this outside and let you talk.”
“I’ll join you,” Connolly says. “We’re done here.” He turns to the screen. “If you wish an update in the morning, I will call you.”
I step back into the hall so I don’t hear her reply. When Connolly comes looking for me, I meet him with a cup of fresh coffee.
“Thank you,” he says. “I’m sorry you needed to endure that.” He pauses. “How much did you hear?”
“The pixie part, obviously. And the impressing part.”
He winces. “Right. Well, that’s embarrassing.”
“Nah,” I say as we head toward the patio. “We’re young. We’re single. Everyone’s going to think we’re just trying to get laid.”
He chuckles. “It would be easier, I suppose, if I was twice your age.”
“Hell, no. They’d say the same thing. It’d just be creepier.”
“True.” He pushes the open French doors wider. “Are we sitting or walking?”
“One and then the other. We still have a couple of hours, and I fully intend to get at least an hour’s hike through these grounds.” I glance at him. “Which you don’t need to join me for. I know it’s not really your thing.”
“I will survive. And I have a feeling we’ll need some peaceful relaxation before tonight.”
“Peaceful relaxation doesn’t quite describe my hiking style. I’ll adapt, though. Just for you.”
I pull out a patio chair, and we lower ourselves into them to sip our coffee in companionable silence.
I’m walking with Connolly when Hope’s captor calls. I’ve been expecting this. It’s been twenty-four hours. Time for a check-in. Also time to check on my progress. I tell him I’m working for Connolly.
“Yes, I know,” he says.
“Word travels fast,” I say.
The obvious question is how he knows, but he isn’t going to answer that. He might even realize that by admitting he’s heard the news, he’s giving me a clue. He has a connection to one of the very limited number of people who know I’m working for Connolly.
“We got an invitation to the event tonight,” I say. “You might have mentioned that. If you want that necklace uncursed, we’re going to need as much time with it as possible. It will help us to know whether we can uncurse it.”
“You aren’t uncursing it, Miss Bennett. Your sister is. If that was a hint for me to bring her to the gala, it was clumsily done. She will have all the time she needs with it once I’ve procured the piece.”
So you’re going to the event? I know better than to ask that. He’ll deny it . . . or change his mind about going. He’s implied he’ll be there, and that’s enough.
I want more hints. Little things he might let slip if we keep speaking. Figures of speech or tonal patterns that even a voice manipulator won’t disguise. Yet the longer I keep him talking, the more likely he is to realize what I’m doing. Better for him to think I’ve cast my die, and I’m doing as he asks.
“I’ll still make sure I get a good look at it,” I say. “I’m supposed to be uncursing it for Connolly, so he’ll expect me to take an active interest. May I at least report my findings to Hope, so she’s prepared? I can write them down if you’re concerned.”
Because you’re already listening in when I speak to her. And, after my last conversation with Hope, you’ve dismissed us as a couple of silly “girls” who’ll do as we’re asked.
“May I speak to her now?” I ask.
“You may. Five minutes.”
Connolly has been walking beside me, listening in and silently assessing. At that, he motions that he’ll go on ahead and give us privacy.
I get my five minutes alone with Hope. Well, relatively alone. We’re as careful as we were the first time. She slips in a few reminiscences to tell me she really is fine. That’s what I need. It’s all I get, too.
She isn’t even going to try to sneak in anything that might help tell me where she is. I don’t think she could anyway—she’s in a windowless room with no access to the outside world. She’s safe, though. A valuable hostage being treated well enough that I can proceed with minimal panic.
After that, I need to start getting ready. I’ve set aside enough time to use the sunken tub, though I’m not really in the mood to enjoy it.
Hope’s captor will be at the event tonight, while I’m pretending to be on his side. Pretending to be doing his bidding. What if he finds out the truth?
The trouble only comes if my companions screw up. If Vanessa does something to suggest I have a side deal with her. Or Connolly says something that suggests he knows Hope has been kidnapped. Yet, being brutally honest, the person in our trio most likely to screw up is me. I’m the reckless one. I’m the one who isn’t accustomed to this kind of back-door business.
All I need to do is play my role as Connolly’s hired curse weaver. Do that . . . and not let Hope’s captor know I’m looking for him. That second part is going to be tougher, but I can pull this off. I need to, for my sister’s sake.
Connolly drives the three of us to New York. When we stop for gas, he goes inside to grab a coffee, the caffeine level in his blood having apparently dropped to critical levels for him to accept gas-station swill. As he’s gone, Vanessa explains the plan—Connolly will drop us off at a dress rental shop and then meet us outside the event.
“So you’re renting a dress, too?” I ask.
Her brows arch in genuine horror.
“That’s a no,” I murmur. “Sorry. If you’re not, though, you don’t have to hang out with me. You know Aiden better, and he might appreciate a second opinion on his tux.”
“If you think Aiden needs anyone’s help selecting clothing, you may need glasses, Kennedy dear. The man has impeccable fashion sense.”
I look out to where Connolly is half-visible through the store window. He’s wearing what I presume would be his idea of “casual clothes.” Dark gray linen trousers and a button-down pearl-gray shirt rolled up his forearms.
“His taste is very . . . monochromatic,” I say.
She sighs. “He’s working with a palette that suits his coloring. It’s flattering, isn’t it?”
“Sure. I guess.”
“It’s very flattering. And do you know why? Because it isn’t the color that matters. It’s the style and the fabric and the cut, which is perfection.”
“If you say so.”
“The man could have stepped out of a men’s fashion magazine, Kennedy. Are you honestly telling me you haven’t noticed?”
I shrug. “He’s hot. I’ve noticed that. The clothing, though? I’m thinking he’d look good in old jeans. Really worn, comfy, form-fitting jeans. And a Henley.”
She shudders. “Well, at least you didn’t say plaid.”
“Oooh, yes! Plaid flannel shirt. Rolled up like he’s wearing it now. Old jeans. Maybe work boots. I have a thing for work boots.”
“And, apparently, for lumberjacks.”
I lean back in my seat. “I dated a lumberjack once. Well, forestry service, but close enough. Now he knew how to dress. An entire closet of plaid flannel. Of course, then plaid flannel came back in style, and everyone mistook him for a hipster. He decided, hey, maybe I should just roll with it. Grow my beard. Wear a bun. Drink microbrews. Start ironically listening to country music. That’s when I dumped him. The hipster stuff was bad enough, but once you start consuming popular media just to mock it, I’m out.”
“On that we agree, though I’d have been out as soon as the hipster phase began.”
“Nothing wrong with a little lifestyle experimentation. But yep, it went beyond experiment and into full-blown lifestyle.” I watch Connolly as he comes back, coffee in hand. “He does dress well, doesn’t he?”
“You seriously did not notice until now?”
I shrug. “Guess it’s a good thing you’re coming shopping with me instead.”
When we’d decided to rent our formal wear, I’d breathed a sigh of relief. I could afford that.
My first thought on entering the shop? I cannot afford this.
I don’t know how much the rentals are. I don’t want to find out, or I’ll embarrass Vanessa by squawking “Do you know how many discount dresses I can buy for that much?”
I balked the moment Connolly dropped us off and I saw where we were heading. That’s when Vanessa assured me that I wasn’t footing this bill. Pride made me want to refuse, but before I could, she reminded me that I was going as her guest. I think that meant I shouldn’t need to pay, but what I heard was that my outfit would reflect on her, and I couldn’t show up in a fifty-dollar rental . . . if such a thing were even possible to find in Manhattan.
I’m going to think of it as a uniform, as if I’d been hired to serve champagne. With that in mind, I settle into a chair as Vanessa speaks to the staff. We’ve been there less than five minutes before the owner sweeps in and insists on serving Vanessa himself. I could chalk that up to the fact she’s drop-dead gorgeous, but it takes the guy five whole minutes to look above her neckline, and that’s not because he’s admiring her perfect figure. His gaze devours her outfit instead. Apparently, Connolly isn’t the only one with fashion sense, and even Vanessa’s “driving to New York” outfit is enough to tell him she’s someone he wants to look after personally. Except, sadly, she isn’t the client.
When Vanessa introduces me, I don’t miss the disappointment in his appraising look. Still, he says, “Your sister, I presume?”
Vanessa favors him with a regal smile. “You flatter me.”
“No,” I murmur. “Pretty sure I’m the flattered one.”
She turns that smile on me, my voice having apparently been louder than I thought. “This is my young friend, Kennedy,” she says. “I’m taking her to a black-tie affair this evening with another young friend. A man.” She winks at the owner. “I’m playing matchmaker.”
The owner and the two assistants all chuckle obligingly.
“Matchmaker and fairy godmother,” she says. “I want this to be a night to remember, and I’m hoping you can help me with that.”
“I believe we can.”