This is . . . not what I expected.
Those words keep cycling through my head that afternoon as I sit in the reception area of Connolly’s office. I did my research on the guy. As I guessed, he comes from old money, a family who arrived in America even before mine. Connolly himself runs one of those vaguely named companies whose actual line of business remained unclear no matter how hard I searched. Something about securities. Stocks maybe?
From that, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from his place of business. It’d be old-school Boston. Dimly lit hallways, tiny nooks for offices, no amount of cleaning chemicals masking the odor of age. That fit with someone looking to redecorate with antiques and recreate the kind of office his great-grandfather would have had. Massive carved-oak pedestal desk. Swivel desk chair with buttoned red leather. Bookcases full of first editions that will languish, unopened, for the rest of their lives. An antique globe for the corner. Maybe a few mismatched Tiffany lamps. Aiden Connolly will sit in that leather chair, loafers perched on a desk worth more than I make in a good year, as he sips single-malt from a cut-glass tumbler.
That is what I expect. Instead, his offices are in a modern skyscraper, the rooms all steel and marble and glass. I have no idea where I could even put an antique without it seeming as out of place as a wet dog in a formal parlor.
I’m in the reception area, perched on a sleek glass chair that, with each fidget, threatens to send me sliding to the floor like a penguin on a ski slope. Speaking of penguins, I wish I’d worn the black pencil skirt and white Oxford shirt I’d contemplated. So far, I’ve seen three people, all of them dressed in shades of black and white. The Nordic blond behind the desk wears a pearl-gray dress that I keep expecting to tinkle like crackling ice when she moves.
Forget antiques. What this place needs is a splash of color. Technically, my red dress provides it, but I feel like an open wound ready to ooze onto the white marble tiles.
I jump and see Connolly waiting at an open door. His fingers tap the doorframe, impatient at this two-second delay. I leap up . . . and my heels promptly slide across the marble. Connolly’s PA shakes her head. Her boss, fortunately, has already retreated into his office. I find my footing and follow him with as much dignity as I can muster.
When I step into Connolly’s office, he’s at his desk, leaning over it to rustle through papers. Earlier, I’d squashed Connolly into the narrative I created for this job—and into the wood-paneled office I imagined—but seeing him here, I realize I’d been deluding myself. I cannot actually imagine him lounging with his shoes on a big antique desk. His surroundings here suit him perfectly. Chilly, austere, stylish and haughty. His personal office is no different. I’m sure it’s gorgeous, in a Scandinavian way. It just makes me long for a warm, woolly sweater and a crackling fire.
There’s been a mistake.
“Mr. Connolly?” I say as he bends over his desk to rustle through papers
Green eyes lift to mine as one sandy brow arches. He does not say “Call me Aiden, please.” He could be talking to someone ten years his senior, and he’d still insist on the formality. Old money, old ways.
“I . . . think there might be a misunderstanding,” I say. “This doesn’t seem like the . . . environment for antiques.”
“No, it’s not, is it?” he says. “Which is precisely the problem.”
I stiffen, ready to defend myself if he dares blame me for the mix-up. Instead, he opens a side door and strides through. The door half shuts behind him, before he grabs it and gives me a sharp wave, lips tightening in annoyance that I didn’t just follow.
I walk in and—
“Oh,” I say, my breath catching.
We’re on the fourteenth floor, and until now, I haven’t glanced out a window. I can’t avoid that here—one entire wall is glass, jutting out to form the curving nook of a solarium. Sunlight streams through, bedazzling a view that overlooks the Common.
“This is the room I want to redecorate,” he says. “The sunlight made it too warm most of the year, but thankfully, the air conditioning has been upgraded.”
Upgraded is definitely the right word. The room is about sixty-five degrees, AC pumping an arctic jet stream. I inch closer to the sunny windows.
“I wish to repurpose it as a staff area,” Connolly says.
That lip press again, as if the word is too informal, conjuring images of employees actually relaxing, possibly in real chairs.
“A staff area,” he repeats. “I understand that my choice of decor may invoke . . . ”
“Antarctica without the penguins?”
The faintest narrowing of his eyes. “I was going to say it invokes a sense of asceticism that some find off-putting.”
“Asceticism is great,” I murmur. “If you’re a monk.”
He continues as if he hasn’t heard me. “Personally, I like clean lines and simplicity. Clutter in one’s environment produces clutter in one’s mind. However, I am aware that employee productivity may suffer in a setting that is not comfortable. So I wish to remodel this room in a more traditional style.”
He walks to a built-in bookcase of glass shelves. That’s when I notice the antiques. Three pieces small enough to fit on those shelves: a snuff box, a cigarette case and a mahogany triptych mirror.
I’m drawn to the cigarette case first. It’s art-deco, the silver lid inlaid with jade showing a twenties-style flapper smoking oh-so-elegantly.
“This is beautiful,” I say, curling my fingers against the urge to touch it.
“Yes, I won it in a card game.”
I must glance over sharper than I intended, thinking he’s joking, though I’m not sure which is harder to picture—Connolly playing cards or Connolly telling a joke.
“I have an excellent poker face,” he says.
He points at the snuff box. “I won that on the same night. I have a bit of luck now and then.” His lips twitch, as if this is indeed a joke, albeit a personal one I am neither supposed to understand nor pursue.
“And this—” I stop short, fingers extended toward the mirror. I wasn’t going to touch it. I know better. I was just gesturing. Still, the moment I do, I yank back.
I hesitate and then give myself a mental shake. Obviously, my brain is misfiring, because the irony there would just be too rich. This morning Connolly dismissed the guy with the cursed tea caddy . . . only to have a cursed object himself.
I glance at the mirror again and those tendrils of magic snake out, whispering . . .
Nope, definitely cursed.
I inch closer and let the first notes of that hex wash over me. A lover’s lament. Better known as an ex-hex. Hell hath no fury like a lover scorned. And from the vibes rising from this mirror, someone felt very scorned.
“Did you win this one?” I ask hopefully.
“No, that was a gift from a woman I was seeing. Quite surprising, actually. I’d long admired it. When we had a falling out, she gave it to me. A peace offering, to show there were no hard feelings.”
He waves away his words. “Which is more than you care—or need—to know. But of the three, it is my personal favorite, and whatever you suggest for this room, that one piece must stay.”
Of course it must. Because this couldn’t be easy. He couldn’t say, Oh, I don’t really care for that particular piece, perhaps you’d like to buy it from me?
Connolly clearly doesn’t realize it’s cursed—it takes an psychically attuned person to pick up even just “bad vibes.” I can see why he likes it. Of the three, it’s the simplest piece. Edwardian. Gleaming red mahogany. The original mirrors, only faintly warped. The center mirror is oval with brass fittings that allow it to tilt.
I will admit I have a predilection for more ornate items—gaudy, Ani would say—and the cigarette box is more my style, but I must appreciate the sheer craftsmanship and elegance of the mirror. A truly perfect piece . . . flawed by a nasty little curse.
Two hexed items in one day? Is that even possible?
The last time I stumbled over a cursed object “in the wild” was a year ago. And yet, technically, I’ve only stumbled over one today. The tea caddy was brought to me after my sisters sent the owner my way, which they do with irritating regularity.
Also, let’s be blunt, I am not the least bit surprised that Aiden Connolly has earned himself an ex-hex. Something tells me, if you scroll through his romantic history, it’d be a Christmas light string blinking red with angry exes. He’s young, attractive, successful and single. He’ll have no problem finding companionship, and I suspect he’d have no problem moving on a month later, probably via breakup text. He’s also exactly the sort of guy who’d see nothing suspicious about an ex offering a lovely parting gift. It would only prove that he’d done nothing untoward and the breakup was mutually acceptable.
“Ideally, I’d want a dual-purpose area,” Connolly says, and I tear my gaze from the mirror to find him across the room. “A place for staff to decompress, but also a place to entertain some of our older clientele. A more traditional meeting room.”
“Got it. Now, I must admit I wasn’t able to find a lot about your company online. What, uh, exactly do you do?”
My soul drops, just a little. I’ll admit, I’d held out hope for something a little more interesting, a little sexier. But no, this fits. Sadly, this fits.
“What sort of insurance?” I ask, struggling to sound intrigued.
A wave of his hand. “This and that. Now, I only have a few more minutes before my next appointment. Do you have any questions, Ms. Bennett?”
Any chance you’ll let me take that mirror home? Fix it up for you?
Remove that ex-hex before I’m forced to work in the same room as it?
That is a problem to consider later. For now, I ask if I may take photographs of the room. I’m hoping to get a little more face-time with the mirror, but Connolly stays right where he is, watching. I snap my shots and leave with a promise to call later this week.