Chapter no 76 – JAMESON

The Brothers Hawthorne

Two of the three keys had been found on the grounds. Jameson’s gut said that the boxes those keys opened would be back inside the manor. He listened to his gut and paid no attention to the storm of emotions churning inside him—and even less to the sound of Ian shouting after them.

“Jameson.” That was all Avery said, once they were out of earshot of the others.

“I’m fine,” he told her. That was a lie. They both knew it was a lie.

“You’re better than fine,” Avery told him fiercely. “You’re Jameson Winchester Hawthorne. And we’re going to win this game.”

Jameson came to a stop and turned to face her, so he could quiet the storm inside in the only way he knew how. He pushed Avery’s wild, wind-blown hair back from her face. She tilted her head back, and he brought his lips down on hers—not hard this time but soft and slow. His mouth hurt. His face and body hurt. Everything hurt. But kissing Avery?

That hurt in the best possible way.

Watch yourself,” he murmured, his lips just barely pulling back from hers. This was what it meant to focus. To play.

“The last clue,” she murmured back. “One last chance to win this game.”

Screw Ian. Jameson didn’t need Ian. It was—now and always—Jameson and Avery against the world.



Back inside the manor, they started looking for mirrors. In a house of this size—of this type—there were dozens, many of them too large and heavy for even two people to lift. So instead of lifting them, Jameson and Avery probed the frames, running their fingers along the sides, looking for hinges, a button, a hidden compartment.

Eventually, they hit paydirt.

In a long hall on the fourth floor, they found an enormous mirror with a bronze frame. When Jameson pulled on the side of the frame, there was no resistance. It swung open like a door.

Watch yourself. Jameson stepped into a long, nearly empty room, Avery on his heels. The room was dark, lit only by candles on a single chandelier in the center. Although the ceiling was at least twenty feet tall, the chandelier hung low, almost to the floor. Looking at it called to Jameson’s mind a pendulum.

As the mirror swung closed behind Avery, Jameson realized just how little light the candles provided. The dark green walls looked almost black. Portraits hung every ten feet, all the way down the length of the room.

Jameson didn’t see a treasure box, let alone three. There’s nothing in this room except for the chandelier and the portraits. He strode to examine the closest one. Ian smirked back at him from the frame.

Jameson set his mouth in a firm line. It made sense. Ian Johnstone-Jameson was the most recent owner of this place. Jameson looked to the next portrait and saw a woman. The resemblance between her and Ian was uncanny.

“I guess I don’t just have his eyes,” Jameson said quietly. “They’re yours, too.”

He’d grown up with a grandfather, singular, and no grandmother. This woman, the one in this portrait, was every bit as related to him as Alice Hawthorne—and just as much of a stranger.

You had three sons. Jameson addressed those words silently to the portrait. You raised them here, when you could. Vantage was her ancestral home—and that makes it mine. Jameson ran his fingers along the edge of first one frame and then the other. Once he was satisfied that these two were clean, he began to move to the next one.

“Jameson.” Avery’s voice cut through the air. “This one’s you.”

He whirled to face her. “Me?” Jameson had no intention of letting that

matter, so why did each breath he took suddenly feel like sandpaper in his throat? Why, as he crossed the room and stared at the portrait that someone had commissioned of him, did some part of him want to be on those walls?

To belong here.

Jameson locked his fingers around the frame, then pulled—first one side, then the other. Nothing happened until Avery ran her fingertips around the edges of the wood. Jameson knew the exact second she found the release. Once it was triggered, the portrait swung away from the wall, revealing a hidden compartment. Nestled there was a jeweled chest, its dominant colors emerald green and shining gold.

The Game is almost over now. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, Jameson absorbed every detail of this moment and knew three things immediately, courtesy of instincts hard-won over years and years of playing games just like this. First, the chest was green, and that made it a match for the key that Branford had found in the caves. Second, the chest had been hidden behind Jameson’s portrait, which he was willing to bet meant that it held his secret. And finally, this portrait hadn’t been painted in quite the same style as the portraits of Ian and his mother. That, combined with the fact that his uncles really hadn’t seemed to know about Jameson’s existence, suggested that this painting was likely a recent commission.

Very recent.

Rohan did this. How did he even know the Proprietor would choose me for the Game?

Right now, that wasn’t the question that mattered most. “We need to find the other two boxes,” Jameson told Avery. He started running from portrait to portrait, even more adrenaline flooding his veins, an old friend, a needed rush. He stopped when he reached a portrait of Branford.

Jameson’s fingers found the release almost instantly, and the portrait swung away from the wall to reveal another jeweled chest—gold again, with pearls inlaid. A match for the second key.

Jameson inserted the pearl key in the lock. It turned. The lid to the box opened. Inside, there was a scroll. He undid the ribbon, unwound the scroll, and was greeted with words scrawled in sharp and angular script.

I have a son.

Jameson knew almost nothing about Simon Johnstone-Jameson, Viscount Branford. He didn’t know if his uncle was married, or if he had

any other children, but the Proprietor had been very specific about the kind of secrets he was interested in.

The kind men would kill and die for. The kind that shakes the ground beneath our feet.

Jameson tucked the scroll into his waistband, then gave the jeweled chest a once-over, just in case.

“Jameson!” Avery’s voice cut through the air like a knife. Immediately, he looked toward the door. Branford—and he’s not alone. Zella strolled in behind the viscount, and Jameson thought to wonder if Katharine wasn’t the only one who’d struck a deal.

“Avery!” Jameson called. “The chest!”

If Avery had the green box, Branford couldn’t use his key to unlock it. Jameson expelled a breath when Avery got to the portrait first, when she held the chest in her hands.

Held his secret in her hands.

And that was when Jameson realized: Zella and Branford hadn’t moved from the doorway. Neither one of them had so much as glanced at Avery or the green box.

Branford reached into his suit jacket.

Jameson knew then, before Branford even pulled out the scroll. He’s already been here. He already found the green box. He already unlocked it with his green key.

He already has my secret.

“I understand you found the other two keys.” Branford’s path was straight, his stride long as he made his way toward Jameson like a missile zeroing in on its target. “I believe I have something of yours. I haven’t read it yet. This secret—whatever it is—will stay secret if you’re willing to make a trade.”

Jameson plucked Branford’s scroll—his secret—from his waistband. “I’m open to the idea.”

Branford’s shrewd eyes missed nothing. “You’ve already read it.”

Jameson wished he hadn’t. “I’ll give it to you and never breathe a word of it to anyone else.” Your secret son can stay a secret. What’s it to me?

“It’s not a bad offer, Branford,” Zella said. “Maybe you should take it.” There was something in the way she delivered that statement, a twist to her tone that made Jameson think her real goal was to push the viscount into

doing the opposite.

What are you up to, Duchess?

“The trade you’ve proposed,” Branford told Jameson evenly, “would only be an even trade if I read your secret before returning it to you.”

The room suddenly seemed small. Jameson could hear his heart beating in his ears, could feel it in the pit of his stomach. There are ways, Jameson Hawthorne, he’d been warned, to take care of problems. He thought about the bead he’d offered up to the Proprietor as proof of his secret. Poison, he’d been told in Prague, undetectable and quite deadly.

That had been a warning.

He’d known that he was taking a risk, but he’d told himself it was a calculated one. A miscalculation. Sweat trickling down his jaw, his neck, Jameson took a step toward Branford. “You don’t want to know my secret,” he told his uncle. “People who know that secret tend to meet unfortunate ends.”

“This is about Prague, isn’t it?” Avery said, making her way slowly toward him, the green box still in her hands.

“Don’t,” Jameson told her, the word coming out with almost violent force. “Just leave it, Heiress. Stay back.”

Away from Branford. Away from that scroll. Away from me.

“There is another trade I would accept.” Branford didn’t have Jameson’s height, but he somehow managed to look down at him nonetheless. “Your secret for the remaining key.”

The key. The one that opened the final box, the box they hadn’t even located yet.

We’re so close. Jameson looked up, the way he always did when he was thinking through something, playing it out as a web of possibility laid out across a ceiling or a sky. And when he looked up, he saw the long chain connecting the low-hanging chandelier to the ceiling.

At the top of that chain, he saw a box. Unlike the other two, this one wasn’t shining or gleaming. It bore no jewels. From a distance, it looked silver, possibly tarnished.

Jameson brought his gaze back down—to Avery. She had the last key. As she finished closing the space between them, he traced an arrow onto her palm. Up.

He saw the spark of realization in Avery’s eyes. She didn’t look up, not

immediately, not in a way that Branford or Zella would notice. But she knows.

Jameson stepped away from Avery and made a move to draw his opponents’ attention back to himself. “Counter proposal,” he said, walking toward Branford and Zella—and away from Avery. “You set my secret on fire, Branford, and I do the same for yours. You leave this room. I win the Game, and once I’ve won the prize that we’re both after, I’ll give you Vantage.”

Jameson had Branford’s full attention now—and Zella’s. Good. He kept walking.

“What’s the difference,” Branford said tersely, “between giving me Vantage and giving me the key right now? If you’re hoping to double-cross me—”

“I’m not,” Jameson said. To his own ears, his voice sounded raw, like he’d been in this room screaming into the void for hours. “Vantage belonged to your mother. It means something to you—more than it means to either of your brothers, apparently.”

Jameson didn’t let himself think about Ian. He tried not to think about Ian.

He failed.

“You asked what the difference is between the deal you proposed and the one I did.” Jameson didn’t allow his voice to shake. “The difference is that under my deal, I win.”

All Jameson needed was to finish this. To prove that he could.

“You’d risk whatever this is,” Branford said, holding up Jameson’s scroll. “A secret you claim is deadly, a price you never should have paid to be here, to win a prize that you don’t even want?”

To Jameson’s left, Avery looked up.

In the span of less than a second, Jameson considered his next move. If he ran, would Branford follow him? Would Avery be able to climb that chain, retrieve that box, unlock it?

One of them winning was both of them winning. Jameson knew that, almost believed it.

“You really are my nephew,” Branford said intently. “Far too much like my brother.”

That hurt. It hurt, but it didn’t matter that it hurt, because Branford was

wrong. I’m nothing like Ian.

“I can’t take your deal, young man.” In one fell swoop, Branford returned Jameson’s secret to the inside pocket of his suit. “My father is not well. I’m the head of this family in every way that matters, and like it or not, you are our blood. If you’ve got yourself in too deep, if you are in danger, I’m afraid I need to know.” The expression on the viscount’s face was implacable. “I can’t give you your secret—not even for the final key.”

Family. That one word was seared into Jameson’s mind like a brand. He had the sense that it wasn’t one that Simon Johnstone-Jameson, Viscount Branford, used lightly. The bastard feels honor bound to protect me. And he’s willing to sacrifice Vantage to do it.

To Ian, Jameson had been disposable. To Branford, apparently, he was not.

That doesn’t change anything. It didn’t even matter if Jameson believed that, because the truth was that even if Branford’s words did mean something to him, even if something had changed something—Jameson’s need to win hadn’t.

He was extraordinary. He had to be. There was no other choice.

Drawing in a breath that felt like needles in his lungs, Jameson made his way back to the chandelier and removed the five burning candles one by one, placing them on the floor. Then, without a word to anyone else—even Avery—he eyed the positioning of the chandelier’s chain, jumped, and caught it in his hands.

And then, he began to climb.

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