Chapter Twenty-two

We continue to eat and talk. Vanessa wants more information on Hope’s captor—everything we can give her. She doesn’t know who it might be, but the data will help her narrow the list of suspects, should she decide to help.

It’s dark by the time the servers bring plates of desserts and coffee. We’re still picking at dinner and discussing the kidnapping. When we’re ready to dive into dessert, Vanessa surveys the table and then excuses herself.

“All the more for us,” I murmur after she’s gone.

I pick up a plate of silver-dollar-sized tiramisu. When I hold it out, Connolly lifts his hand. 

“None for me, thank you,” he says.

“But it’s tiramisu. Teeny-tiny, ninety-nine percent guilt free tiramisu. And there’s zuppa inglese and galaktoboureko, too. Small enough to try some of each.”

“They’re all yours. I’ve had more sugar today than I’ve consumed in weeks.”

“I can tell. That shirt barely fits you anymore. And you’re talking nonstop, running around, barely able to sit still. Clearly, you have a problem.”

“That sounds like sarcasm.”

“If there’s any doubt, I’m not doing it right.” I hold up the plate between us. “You do realize that you’re actually reminding me of how many sweets I’ve had, and suggesting I shouldn’t have more either.”

“I said nothing of the sort.”

“It’s implied.” I sigh and put the plate down. “I can take a hint. As delicious as these little treats look, if you have the willpower to resist, I should, too.”

He raises a brow. “I thought you said they were guilt free.”

“Only if you eat them.”

He takes one. “Better?”

“Yes, if you only want one. Because ultimately, it’s about you, and if you can look me in the eye and tell me you only want one—or none—then I’ll stop harassing you. However, if you’d really like two, or even three, then I feel obligated to remind you that life is short and if the rest of dinner is any indication, these are going to be so worth it.”

He takes one tiramisu and one galaktoboureko and puts them on his plate. “Better now?”

I wait until he takes a bite of the tiramisu. “Much.” 

“You are a terrible influence.”

“No, I’m an excellent influence. I’m about to make your evening ten times better.” 

Shoes squeak, and we look up to see Vanessa standing in the doorway, one brow arched.

“Well, that was an interesting line to walk in on. Should I go out again?”

I smile and shake my head. “I was talking about dessert. Convincing Aiden to indulge.”

“You’re wasting your time. That’s why I brought this.” She lifts a plate of fruit. “Aiden doesn’t eat . . .”

She stops as she sees the half-eaten mini tiramisu in his hand. “Well, well. I’ve been trying to tempt him for two years now, and I’ve made no headway at all.” Her gaze rests on me. “Evidently, my sweets were not to his taste.”

Connolly says something about her pastries being excellent, completely oblivious. 

I shake my head. “I’m not sure what sweets Aiden actually does like. I haven’t had time to bake him any, and I don’t plan to. My sister has been kidnapped. I appreciate any help I can get in finding her, but I’m not offering cookies for the reward. Nor do I think he’d take them if I did.”

Connolly frowns, and then shakes his head, deciding to ignore my rambling in favor of polishing off the tiramisu. 

Vanessa watches me for a moment, assessing. Then she says, “Understandable. However, if you did decide to bake for him, I wouldn’t object. The boy is in desperate need of cookies, wherever they come from.”

I choke at that. Connolly hands me a glass of water, still oblivious. Vanessa smiles, pulls out her chair, and sits.

“Tell me more about this issue with Havoc, Aiden.”

***

We’re spending the night at Vanessa’s. By the time we finish dinner, it’s after ten. She promises our answer by morning. She needs to make some calls and check some files first.

I’d rather stay at a hotel. I don’t know Vanessa well enough for a sleepover. Yet Connolly isn’t fazed by it, and so again, I have to trust his judgment. He’s the one raised in this world. I thought I knew a lot about the magical world, being from a town and a family that accepts it as a fact of life. Yet when I talk about “the community” I mean a loose network of others with abilities. A social-support system. Connolly’s corner of it is one I’ve only heard about in whisper and rumor and warning.

I’m out of my depth here and becoming more aware of that with each passing hour. Connolly is my bridge to that world, and I’m relying on him to provide safe passage. Is that wrong? Naive? Maybe. I only know that Hope is being held hostage in this corner of our world, and I don’t have anyone else to take me into it. 

It doesn’t help that I’m not sure I could even make it to a hotel. I woke up at five this morning worrying about my sisters. That seems like a week ago. Now I’ve eaten too much, had more wine than usual, and I’m afraid if I even lower my butt onto one of Vanessa’s impossibly comfortable sofas, I’m not getting up again until morning.

I’ve also been abandoned by my hosts. I understand why. Vanessa is chasing answers for us, and Connolly has slipped off to clear his schedule for tomorrow. I’d already cancelled next week’s appointments—due to the break-in—and I’m trying very hard not to think about how long it might be until I can reopen. 

What I haven’t done is report the break-in to the police, which means I won’t have paperwork for the insurance company. Connolly has assured me he’ll look after all that . . . which only makes me worry even more that I’m relying on him too much. 

My mood is off. It’s as if having both Vanessa and Connolly disappear to tend to business reminds me that I’m not in their league. Not when it comes to the magical community or my career. Ani would point out Connolly’s background and the advantages it gives him. That feels like an excuse. Yet do I want to compete at his level? A life blinkered by work and ambition?

Here lies the core of my dissatisfaction these days. An inner drive to do more, be more, warring against a voice that says I’m doing just fine, that I was doing fine even before I left Unstable. Being there today only reminded me of how much I miss it. I left because I felt like I should. I wanted my own business, and somehow that got tangled up with needing to move away from my roots and my family and . . .

Damn, I’m in a mood. 

I pop off a text to Ani. We’ve been back-and-forthing all evening. She wants to be sure I’m safe, and I want to know whether they have any new leads. They don’t.

I say goodnight to Ani and then send a text to Connolly before heading off to bed. I find my room ready, as if Vanessa had the staff make it up before they left for the evening. Or, possibly, it’s just always like this, Vanessa striking me as the sort who’s always ready to throw open her door to guests.

The room comes complete with en-suite bath and a sunken tub that makes me reconsider my straight-to-bed plans. Yet as I picture myself sinking into that tub, brimming with hot, perfumed water, I also see myself drifting to sleep and drowning. So, maybe not. Get to bed early. Rise early. Take a walk around the gardens and then a hot bath before breakfast.

It isn’t until I start to shrug off my jeans that I realize I don’t have nightwear. Or clothing for tomorrow. Connolly has a bag in his trunk for emergency business trips, but I didn’t think that far head. I’m chiding myself for that when I see a nightgown folded on the dresser. As I lift it, a soft rap comes at the door.

“Yes?” I say, tugging my jeans back on.

“It’s Aiden.”

I hurry to open the door. The hall lights are off, casting Connolly half into shadow.

“I thought I heard you in here,” he says. “My business took longer than expected. Are you busy?”

“Just settling in.”

A frown. “For the night?”

I nod. “I thought I’d turn in early. I sent a text.”

“Ah. I didn’t see it. I will leave you to your evening then.”

It’s only as he steps back that I see he holds a glass in each hand, wine shimmering in the half-light.

“Oh,” I gesture. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see that.”

“You’ve probably had enough of this already tonight. I just thought if you were still up and wanted to talk . . . But you aren’t so . . .” He lowers the glasses down beside him, out of sight. “I will see you in the morning.”

“If you wanted to talk about something . . .”

“No, no. I just thought you might wish to discuss the situation. Ask questions if you have them.”

Disappointment flutters through me. Do I want to talk about the situation? No. Not really. We’ve been talking about it all day, and it’ll only remind me that we don’t seem any closer to a solution. 

If he’d just wanted to talk, though? About . . . I don’t know. Life? Thoughts? Random musings? Spend a bit of time unwinding and sipping that wine and talking about anything other than what’s happening right now. I’m even tempted to ask about actuarial science. 

Which is why I won’t ask. Because it feels like a dangerous path to go down, a dangerous thing to want.

“I don’t have any questions,” I say. “And I’m too tired to be coherent. I thought I’d get an early night and take a walk before breakfast. I don’t suppose you’re the morning walk type?”

“I could be.” Something flickers over his face, and he straightens. “I mean that I should be—it’s better if you don’t go out alone right now. What time were you thinking?”

“Is six-thirty too early?”

“I’m usually up by five. So six-thirty is fine. I’ll meet you in the courtyard then.”

We say our goodnights, and he leaves. I stand there with the door shut, lingering, regretting, for far too long. Then I snap out of it and return to the nightgown. I lift it to see it’s more of a chemise, complete with short dressing gown. They’re also brand-new, the tags still affixed. I smile and shake my head. Now that’s hospitality. Also, serious money, where you can have a drawer of new nightwear stashed aside, in various sizes, for surprise guests. 

I hadn’t been planning to wear it, but seeing that it’s new, I’m persuaded. It’s also gorgeous, silk that shimmers down around me, soft as a lover’s kiss. Which is what it’s designed for. Oh, it’s comfortable, nothing like the polyester lingerie I’ve bought, shoved into a drawer and brought out only for those ten minutes of show before it is—thankfully—peeled off. This is what lingerie should be, the kind of chemise you could lounge in all evening, artfully hidden under the short dressing gown until it’s time to retire for the evening with someone who will appreciate it. One glance in the full-length mirror across the room, and I’m tempted to shoot boudoir selfies. Of course, then I’d need someone to send them to . . .

It does look good, though. The perfect color, a rich maroon that sets off my skin tone. The perfect length, too, skating the tops of my thighs and showing off my legs. In the soft light, my hair, an unholy tangle from a long day, looks artfully mussed as it falls across my shoulders. 

Such a waste. 

I sigh, treat myself to a slather of decadent citrus-scented body lotion, and climb between sheets so luxuriant I want to sneak a look at the brand and set myself an aspirational goal. Instead, I sink onto a soft mattress and softer pillow, close my eyes and—

A soft tap sounds at the door. Exactly the same tap I’d heard when Connolly came by. I don’t ask who it is. I know. I slide from bed and slip the dressing gown over my chemise.

As I cross the room, something seems . . . off. Not quite right. Not wrong either. It’s an odd sensation, a surreal quality to everything around me. Warm night air tickles past, raising delicious goosebumps and bringing the heady smell of roses. 

I glance over to see the window open, and though I don’t remember opening it, the thought brings not even a twinge of concern, nor does that out-of-season scent. The breeze and the smell are delightful, and that is all that matters. 

The moon hangs in a low crescent, though I could have sworn it’d been fuller when we left the courtyard. Again, no concern, only the fleeting thought that it is the loveliest moon I’ve ever seen.

Carpet cushions each step, the pile as warm and comfortable as a pair of fuzzy socks. Hadn’t it been hardwood before? No, I must have been thinking of another room.

I open the door to see Connolly standing there. Earlier, he’d been in half-light, and he is again, and yet this time, it’s different. Moonlight from across the room somehow reaches him here, bathing him in the perfect mix of light and shadow. Shadowing angular cheekbones. Setting off a strong jaw. Making his eyes impossibly green and his hair glimmer red-gold even where it falls into shadow. 

He’s dressed in his button-down shirt from earlier, but it’s open at the collar, the tie long gone, shirt sleeves rolled up over strong forearms. His feet are bare, and somehow that makes something inside me flutter. 

“I . . .” he says, and then seems to stick there, as if searching for words. Searching for an excuse that explains coming to my door again.

I know what will come next. He’ll withdraw and straighten, maybe clear his throat. When he does exactly that, my insides flutter again, as if being able to predict his reactions means something, implies I know him better than I’d expect after only a day together.

“I thought I heard something,” he says. “I wanted to be sure you were all right.”

“I am. Sorry if I woke you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.” He steps closer. “Also, I’m lying. I didn’t hear anything. I just wanted to say everything will be all right. After I walked away earlier, I realized I didn’t say that, and I wanted to. I know you’re worried about your sister, and you’re afraid I’ll put my brother’s debt above her life. I won’t.”

I look up into his face. He’s right there now, as if somehow, I’ve moved closer too, until I’m near enough to see the pulse at the base of his throat. Also, his shirt is unbuttoned. Completely undone when only the top button was open a moment ago. The shirt is open, the tails pushed back over his hips, giving me a glimpse of a muscled chest and firm stomach.

Okay, this makes no sense. Which means I’m dreaming, damn it.

Or am I?

Well, yes, clearly, I’ve fallen asleep, and this is a dream, but it feels real, despite the fact that Connolly’s shirt has miraculously unbuttoned itself. 

Dream shaping.

Vanessa is a dream shaper.

However, if you did decide to bake for him, I wouldn’t object. The boy is in desperate need of cookies, wherever they come from.

Oh, yes, Vanessa Apsley is the perfect host. Michelin-star dinner, decadent guest room, and now, a little sexy-dream nightcap.

A sexy dream for one?

She said Connolly was in need of “cookies.” Not me.

I look up into those gorgeous green eyes, warmer and softer than I’ve ever seen them. Yes, softer, and I know for some, that’s not a sexy word, but for me, it’s catnip.

Is this my dream version of Connolly? An idealized imagining? Or . . .

“Tell me a secret,” I say.

His eyes dance, and he leans so close his breath tickles my upturned face. “A secret?”

“You want me to trust you. So tell me a secret. Doesn’t need to be anything blackmail-worthy. Just . . . something I couldn’t know, if you didn’t tell me.”

“Ah. Let’s see . . .” His lips lower to my ear and he whispers. “I’m afraid of snakes.”

“Snakes?”

His face moves over mine, one shoulder shrugging. “I had . . . an incident. It was traumatic. So, if we encounter any snakes on this adventure, you’ll need to deal with them.”

I look up at him, and I know some of this is fake. The lighting. The impossible green of his eyes. His shirt somehow coming undone. But this is Connolly, asleep in another room, his dreams being nudged and manipulated by Vanessa. 

A dream for two.

“Your turn,” he murmurs. “Tell me a secret.”

“I’m afraid . . .” The cool night breeze tickles my upper thighs and I look down, blinking. “I’m afraid I don’t know how I lost my robe.”

He chuckles.

“No, seriously,” I say. “I put it on. I was wearing it, wasn’t I?”

“Temporarily, and then it vanished.”

“You noticed that?”

Another chuckle, this one edged with something that makes my pulse race. “I couldn’t fail to notice. I just wasn’t going to bring it up. That could make you self-conscious, which would be very rude of me.”

“Well, I appreciate the consideration, especially given . . .” I blink at him. “You seem to have lost your shirt.”

His shirt is completely gone now. He looks down, which gives me an excuse to ogle, and I totally do. 

“Hmm,” he says. “That’s odd, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“Well, having no idea where it went, as long as it doesn’t offend you . . .”

“Not a bit. Does my lack of a robe offend you?”

Now he uses this as an excuse to give me a very slow once-over that turns into a twice-over, as if he has to be sure. Even when he speaks, his gaze is still fixed on the bottom of my hemline.

“Offended isn’t the word I’d use,” he says. His fingers touch the hemline. “This seems suitable coverage.”

One fingertip grazes my thigh, and he withdraws fast enough for me to know it was accidental, but heat still darts through me. He toys with the hemline. Not lifting it. Not trying to get beneath it. Just sliding his fingers along the silk edge, and it’s the sexiest damn thing imaginable, my whole body responding to a touch that isn’t a touch at all.

There’s an opening here. So many things I can say, just a bit of flirty teasing. Yes, the chemise is suitable coverage. Is he disappointed in that? Would he like it a little shorter? 

Or I could lean into his fingers, give them permission to touch.

It’s a dream.

Just a dream.

It’s safe.

Is it?

Is it really?

Do we see where this leads and then, tomorrow, act like nothing happened? 

I look up at him. His gaze is still fixed on my hemline, as if transfixed by that silken fabric sliding over my thighs. I think that’s how it started, but he’s been staring too long, and I know he isn’t seeing me anymore. He’s thinking, just as I was. Deciding where to go next.

“I’m afraid of heights,” I say.

His head jerks up, but he doesn’t look startled, just smiles and says, “Are you? I’ll need to remember that,” and in his smile, I see relief. I feel relief too, rippling through me as the moment passes.

It had been so tempting, but even if I knew no harm would come of it, I don’t want to go there. Don’t want to put that obstacle in our way. That’s what it feels like it would have been. An obstacle to work around. The elephant in the room we’d both pretend not to see.

“Thank you,” he says, those warm eyes still on me. 

“For what?”

He leans on the wall, one sculpted arm braced up against it. “For making this easy for me.”

I nod, not sure what he means. For making it easy for him to ease away from this? For us both to ease away, without awkwardness or embarrassment? Maybe that’s part of it, but after a moment, he says,

“I’m not easy to get along with. I know that. Thank you for putting up with my bullshit.”

“Oh, I’m not putting up with it. At all.”

He laughs. A real, head-thrown-back laugh that melts something inside me. When he looks at me, his eyes dance. “I know. And I appreciate that. It’s a welcome change.” He takes a step back. “Goodnight, Kennedy.”

Another step, and he’s about to walk away when I say, “Aiden?”

He turns back to me.

“Thank you, too,” I say. “For putting up with me panicking over my sisters. And for being . . . more.”

His brows rise.

“More than you seemed,” I say.

His lips curve, and he inclines his head, murmurs another good night and we part. I withdraw into my bedroom, but stand there, watching him go, that very nice rear view made even better by the “missing” shirt.

He disappears into the darkness, and I sigh and lean against the doorframe. 

Even in a sex dream, I still can’t get laid.

I laugh under my breath and shake my head. It’s for the best, and it was still a nice interlude. A very nice interlude that hints at . . . Well, I’m not going to think too hard about the possibilities it raises. We have siblings to save, and that will take all our attention.

Still, as I climb into bed, I may be smiling, feeling lighter than I have in two days. I slide between the sheets, and I’m asleep in minutes.

16 thoughts on “Chapter Twenty-two”

  1. Julie Ferm says:

    Loving this, thank you!

  2. love the whole “…cookies…” bit, twice;-)

    1. and happy release day for THE GRYPHON’S LAIR!

  3. “I say goodnight to Ani and then sent a text” — “sent” should be “send”

    Also, break-in should be hyphenated (noun form)

    This chapter is an absolute hoot!!!

    1. Kelley Armstrong says:

      Fixed! Thanks!

  4. That sure is going to be an interesting walk they will have in the morning 😀 also it’s going to be interesting to see Vanessa react to the fact that the dream didn’t go as she had planned 😀

  5. Brianna Arias says:

    The cookies scene was beautifully written.

  6. Erin Leigh says:

    Ok I loved this chapter and I am super curious now about how dream shaping works. I have questions 🙂

  7. Love two women not being petty and typical. Lovely cookie word play lol

  8. What a treat! I lapped up the decadence of Vanessa’s place vicariously through Kennedy.

    One distraction: Where does Aiden put the wine glasses? Does “beside him” mean on the floor or on a carveout in the wall or something? Seems dangerous to leave glasses outside of K’s door.

    You’ve done such a great job making us grapple with whether to trust Vanessa. She seems cool, Aiden trusts her, but the dream shaping ability so far seems like breeding grounds for manipulative behavior. And it’s downright creepy to orchestrate someone’s sex dreams without their consent. Hmm.

    Thank you thank you thank you for not having Aiden and K hook up in the dreamworld! It would have been like hooking up after having too many drinks. They deserve something without after-morning awkwardness.

  9. Kara Rogers says:

    Fun!And an excellent tease!

  10. didn’t think that far head Just needs to be ahead.
    Gaah, as so many have said, the banter just continues to be sublime, with the cookie scene being one of the best bits so far. And really thought-provoking illumination on exactly what Kennedy’s competing priorities are; I really appreciated that moment of introspection.

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