When a sound startles me awake, I’m half-hoping it’s another knock at the door . . . and half-hoping it isn’t. No, I’m fully hoping it isn’t. I want to leave that particular dream on its pitch-perfect endnote, with Connolly walking away but me not feeling like he was walking away. Deferring that which should be deferred.
I open my eyes, braced for another dream tap on the door. The room is silent, though. It’s changed, too. The window is closed and the moon’s hidden behind cloud, casting everything into inky darkness.
The air smells different. Feels different. There’d been a gauzy unreality to the dream that’s gone now. I catch the citrus scent of the lotion I’d slathered on, along with the faint smell of sweat, whispering that I probably should have had that bath after all.
A floorboard creaks, and I glance toward the hall.
Connolly? Woken from that sensual dream and wished he hadn’t left? Returning to see whether I feel the same? I can’t picture that, though. More like he’d awake and come to assure me he meant nothing by it.
My stomach clenches at the thought.
Don’t, okay, Aiden? Just don’t. You enjoyed that dream tête-à-tête as much as I did, and we can pretend it didn’t happen and move on. Set it aside. Don’t make this awkward. Don’t make it embarrassing. Please.
Yet after that creak, all goes silent again. Just the house settling and—
Another board creaks . . . right beside me.
I reach for the reading lamp over my bed. Only this isn’t my bed, and there isn’t a lamp there.
My phone. Just grab my phone. It’s plugged in right . . .
No, this isn’t my room. I hadn’t wanted to move things around searching for an outlet, so I’d plugged in my phone across the room.
I take a deep breath. I’m overreacting. It’s just the house settling. Everything’s quiet now and—
The very distinct sound of a foot on a board, creaking it down and then releasing.
“Hello?” I say.
My voice quavers, and I’m about to try again, firmer, when I stop myself.
Am I sure someone’s there? Yes, it sounded like a footstep, but that’s what I was expecting. I’m spooking myself. I’ve decided there’s a person in my room, so I’m imagining I hear one.
Who would it be anyway? Connolly? Never. I can tease him about being an asshole, but there are many varieties, and he is a mile from the sort who thinks sneaking into a woman’s bedroom is sexy. He’s even further from the kind who’d slip into my bed whether I wanted it or not.
So who else is in the house? The staff is gone. That leaves only . . .
You didn’t trust Vanessa.
Yes, but I only meant that I didn’t know her well enough to be thrilled about staying the night. If I’d mistrusted her, I’d have gotten to a hotel even if it meant walking there.
No one is actually in my room. I’m imagining—
The swish of fabric. Then a shadow shifts. A shadow shaped like a figure, there for one moment and then disappearing into darkness as it moves.
Moves in my direction.
I rocket up and blindly grab in the direction where there should be a nightstand. My hand hits something hard, a sharp edge smacking into my palm.
Marble. Too late, I picture the bedside lamp—on a huge solid base of marble. Pain explodes through my hand, but I reach to grab the lamp in both hands and—
A fist slams into my jaw. It’s so fast, and so unexpected, that I fall back onto the pillow, blinking in shock.
I have never been hit. Never intentionally. A softball strike. A stray elbow. A wild flail. That is it, and the shock throws me more than the actual blow. My brain screams that this is as impossible as the crescent moon outside my window earlier. It’s wrong, and therefore it is not happening. I’m dreaming. I must be.
A hand grabs me, and I smack it hard and scramble up, clawing toward the foot of the bed and then tumbling out. I hit the floor. The hardwood floor. Not a dream. Oh, God, this isn’t a dream.
Fingers grab for me, snagging the chemise. I push up and run. I’m out the door and tearing down the hall, bare feet skidding on the hardwood. I reach the sitting room and—
Hands grab me again. I flail against them, but before I can get away, I’m whipped around. I see a figure. Then fingers close around my arm. I twist and find myself staring into irises the color of summer grass. A tumbled lock of red-gold hair. A hint of freckles under the eyes. That’s all I can see, the hand gripping my upper arms so tight I can’t move.
I know who it is. That face leaves no doubt.
My brain still rebels. Insists I’m seeing wrong. Having a nightmare.
Why are you so sure it’s a dream? He isn’t Ani. Isn’t Jonathan. Isn’t someone you’ve known for years. Aiden Connolly is a stranger.
His gaze locks mine. “Did you really believe me when I said I gave a damn about your sister?” He must sneer—I can’t see his mouth, but the disdain comes through his voice, his eyes. “That I’d endanger my brother for some girl I don’t know? Who are you, Kennedy? Who is she? Nobody. Little curse-weavers performing in a sideshow.”
The shock snaps then, and I start to fight. I don’t care if this is a dream. Even in a nightmare, I’m not going to listen and cower while Connolly insults me.
I rake my fingernails down his arm hard enough to slough skin. He howls and slams me backward. I trip over an ottoman. Connolly comes at me.
I can barely see him in the darkness, but I can make out enough to fight. The problem is that I don’t know how to fight. Never learned anything more than a bit of karate, useless here. It doesn’t matter. I kick and claw and scream.
Get up. Get out.
One last kick, with everything I have, and then I scramble the other way. When he grabs me. I lash back, elbowing him in the nose.
“Bitch!” he roars as blood streams.
Rivulets of blood run down his arm, from the furrows my nails left. He grabs my wrist.
“Did you really think I was going to help you? You’re going to help me, and you’re going to help my brother. Because we matter. You don’t.”
The hand on my wrist grips my shoulder instead. Grips it and shake it, and my head jerks up. Connolly’s there, his face only inches from mine.
“Kennedy,” my name comes on a whoosh of relief. “Breathe, just breathe.”
I scrabble backward, slapping his hands away when he reaches for me.
He raises his hands. “It’s okay. You were having a nightmare. I heard you cry out.”
“Stay away from me.” My voice comes in a hoarse croak.
He flicks on a lamp. Light floods the sitting room. I’m on the sofa, my back pressed into it.
“You were sleeping, Kennedy,” he says slowly. “I found you here. I don’t know what you were dreaming, but it was just that—a dream.”
I creep along the sofa and gauge the distance to the door.
“I’m not blocking you,” he says. “You can go anywhere you like. I made a mistake in my office. I’d never intentionally trap you.”
“Stay away from me,” I repeat.
He blinks, and something seems to dawn on him. “Was the nightmare about me?”
“I am, but I swear I just got here now. I heard you scream, and I ran in here and you were on the sofa, thrashing about in a nightmare.”
He sounds like himself. That’s an odd thing to think, but I realize he hadn’t sounded like himself before. The voice, yes, but not the tone, not the word choices, not his way of speaking. Even the profanity wasn’t anything I’ve heard him use.
Connolly rubs his hands over his face. I see him more clearly then. Dressed in an old fraternity T-shirt and sweatpants. When he lifts his face from his hands, it’s clean, no blood oozing from his nose.
“Let me see your arms,” I say.
He looks down at them in confusion.
“Lift them,” I say. “Show me they aren’t scratched.”
He pushes the T-shirt sleeves to his shoulders and holds up his arms, rotating them so I can see they’re unmarked.
“Okay,” I say, nodding slowly as I realize he’s telling the truth and that realization sharpens to embarrassment. “Sorry, I . . . It was a very vivid dream.”
“I could tell. Whatever you thought I did . . .” He looks at the sofa, and his fair skin pales, freckles popping.
“No,” I say quickly. “Nothing like that. Just . . .”
My hand rises to my upper arm. Even awake, it feels tender.
“Kennedy . . .” Connolly says slowly. “Can you . . . step into the light please?”
I stand and move into the lamplight. He stares at me. Then he says, carefully, “May I come closer?”
I nod again, and he takes a step before stopping. He blinks. Then he moves back.
“I realize this won’t help my case at all, but I think you need to look in the mirror. I’ll stay out of your way.”
He sidesteps and waves to a mirror on the wall. I walk to it. The first thing I see is the chemise. I think that’s what he means—that I might want to throw something on. Then I step closer to the mirror and see dark marks on my upper arm.
They seem like shadows at first. When I lift my arm, though, I see the very distinct print of finger bruises and half-moons where short nails dug in. I press one and wince.
“I did not do that,” Connolly says. “I was in my bed, Kennedy. I was sleeping, and I thought I heard a sound. I got up and checked my phone—maybe I can prove that, show when it unlocked. Then you screamed, and I came running. I swear I didn’t . . .” He swallows. “I didn’t do that.”
“What did you see when you came into the other room?” I ask, still staring at the bruises.
“It was dark, so nothing at first. I could hear you, though. Gasping. I ran to the sofa, where you seemed to be convulsing.”
“I grabbed your shoulder and shook you. I think I said your name. Then I realized it could be a seizure, and maybe I shouldn’t shake you, but that’s when you jumped up.”
“That’s what I experienced,” I say. “Someone was gripping me by the wrist. Then you were shaking my shoulder. There wasn’t a time gap between the two.”
“I didn’t— I swear, Kennedy, I did not—”
“I know. That isn’t what I mean. It wasn’t you. But it looked like you. Sounded like you. It was supposed to be you. I clawed my attacker’s arm, though. I saw the gouges, the blood. I hit his nose, too, and made that bleed. You aren’t hurt; therefore it wasn’t you. But when you came in, I wasn’t unconscious. I was under attack. In a dream.”
His brow furrows. “You didn’t give yourself those bruises.”
“No, I didn’t.” I walk to the doorway. “Tell me more about dream shaping.”
He stops. His eyes widen, and then narrow, and the sudden fury in them makes me step back, but he’s already turning, laser-beaming that look down the hall.
“We need to leave,” he says. “Now.”
“You think Vanessa—?”
“There’s no one else here, and dream shaping is her power. I’ll explain once we’re gone. Right now, I don’t want her waking up.”
“You think she’s dangerous.”
“No, but I think it’s unwise for me to speak to her right now.”
When he turns toward me, I instinctively backpedal and bash into a low table. He starts to reach out, to catch me, but I duck his grasp. He backs off, his hands raised, anger and anguish warring in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just . . .”
“Completely understandable.” He clips the words, his glare directed back down that hall. “No, I really don’t think I should speak to her right now. Let’s get our things.”