An Early Wedding Gift
His attention remained on those around them as they all streamed out of the theater and into the shining nightlife of the city, but she heard an answering grin in his voice. “Gloating, Bunny?”
“Maybe. I don’t think that’s completely awful of me. You’ve figured out the last three.” She tucked her arm into his before adding, “Where are we off to now? You’ve been very furtive about tonight’s plans.”
“I wanted to take you somewhere special and had to make sure we could get in.”
“We’re walking away from the car, so it must be fairly close.”
His eyes glimmered at her, a deep gold even in the orange glow of the streetlights. “Solving one mystery isn’t enough, huh?”
“It’s hard waiting for a new case,” she admitted. When he laughed, she added, “I know it’s only been two weeks since we solved the poisoning of that factory owner, but it wasn’t difficult at all. His wife didn’t even realize it looked suspicious to set up a life insurance policy for him without his knowledge, or to start buying expensive things for herself the day before his death. The only clever thing she did was setting up her husband’s business partner to take the fall.”
“There are always lulls in this type of work. That’s why I thought it’d be nice to see a show and go out to dinner. Maybe even try a new place.” Then he stopped her in front of a building designed with geometric flourishes of gold and black. At the entrance, people dazzled in their finest coats, furs, and jewels while thickening the air with cigarette smoke and murmured conversations. Light bulbs spelled out a name above the peacock-blue door.
Cora gasped. “Delphine’s? Are we really eating here? I can’t believe you managed to get a reservation.”
Despite the crowd around them, he ran hands up her bare arms to coax her close, teasing her with the brush of his mouth. “I know you wanted to try it.”
That was a vast understatement. The restaurant had been open for three months and remained explosively popular, proving almost impossible to get into. Excitement left her breathless, and so did his brief yet smoldering kiss. It felt like she floated more than walked as they headed inside.
The maitre d’ greeted them with a slight bow, too trained to react to the sight of Sam’s eyes. Crescent City never had an easy relationship with wolves, but certain circles were better at pretending there was no reason to fear them. The pomade in the man’s hair gleamed like oil as he bobbed his head in an unspoken apology, drawing Cora’s attention from the opulent gold ceilings and patterned blue walls. “There’s been a change to your reservation, sir. It’s now a table for three in our Oracle Room.”
Cora looked at Sam in confusion. He had lost his smile, but his tone remained pleasant as he said, “Who changed it?”
“Mr. Phineas Clayborne. He seemed very sure that you wouldn’t mind.” The maitre d’ allowed himself a glance between them to gauge any signs of an impending argument.
Sam noticed and said, “Relax. Can’t say I’m happy you went over my head on this, but I know no place likes to upset a fella like Clayborne. Cancel our seats. We’ll reschedule some other night.”
“Wait,” said Cora, turning to Sam while the maitre d’ began wringing his hands with clear anxiety. “Wouldn’t it be fun to see what he wants?”
That striking gaze of his, always so intense whether he was a wolf or a man, deepened into something heavy and warm. “I already know what he wants: our time. And tonight, I’m only interested in you.”
She knew how he would make up the loss of a luxurious dinner, and it was truly tempting. Yet so was the intrigue of Phineas Clayborne’s arrogant action. “Come on, Sam. I might die of curiosity if we just leave.”
“He was… rather insistent,” said the maitre d’. “And more serious than I’ve ever seen him.”
Sam shot him a look that subsided any other comment. Then he guided Cora a few steps away, just enough to keep his next words private. “Do you know Clayborne?”
“Not at all. I believe he did business with my father once or twice. Otherwise, he was just one face among many at high-society events. He seemed friendly enough but rarely paid attention to us ‘modern’ girls. That’s why I’m so interested—what if he wants to speak to us as detectives?”
Sam didn’t seem any more enthused, but his expression grew wry as he took in her own hopeful one. “You really love this work, don’t you? All right. Let’s see if his conversation is as overconfident as his actions.”
Cora beamed as the maitre d’ led them through the silk-draped doorway. Somehow, the evening had just gotten better.
The Oracle Room proved to be as stunning as the rest of the restaurant, with the walls divided into jade panels depicting figures from ancient myths and a vaulted ceiling painted black and lit with lights to mimic a starry night. It was also big enough to host at least fifty people, yet all but one of the tables remained empty, without place settings or glasses on the pristine white cloths. The staff had clearly been told not to allow any other dinner guests inside. Cora’s anticipation grew as she picked out a lone figure seated at the table in the center of the room.
Phineas Clayborne was an imposing man, with a full head of silver hair and a face lean and strong despite his age—63 to his bride-to-be’s 19, as the whispers went. His grey-blue eyes studied them both carefully as he rose to his feet in greeting. “Detectives. I appreciate the willingness to accept this stunt.”
“I never mind surprises,” said Cora, keeping her voice cheerful. “I’m Miss Cora Marshall.”
Clayborne nodded but dismissed her as soon as the words were out of her mouth, instead focusing on Sam as he introduced himself. It gave her a chance to study the man while they settled in their seats, curious about whether he had changed from their brief interactions in the past. Some people took poorly to being picked apart in the papers, especially when the scandal was of a romantic nature, but Clayborne’s appearance looked as neat and understated as she remembered.
His voice, however, sounded very tired as he said, “I won’t deny this was a presumptuous way to meet, but you see, I needed to consult you at once.”
Even as a waiter poured wine for her and Sam, Cora noticed that Clayborne’s glass looked untouched. She also felt the brief squeeze Sam gave her knee, an unspoken warning not to eat or drink anything. He didn’t trust the situation. She didn’t yet know what to think, puzzled by how calm and sober Clayborne appeared. The man looked like he was at a funeral, not one of the finest restaurants in the city.
Clayborne offered thin cigars and then lit one for himself, hands steady. “Do you wish to order first?”
Sam shook his head. “Let’s get right to it.”
“Very well.” Smoke drifted from Clayborne’s cigar as he sat back in his chair. The restaurant staff all knew to stay away. “I’ll state my situation as bluntly as possible. I’m engaged to be married, as I’m sure you’ve read in the papers. Miss Catherine Harper will be my fourth wife but the only one that I’ve loved. Our wedding is in one week. It will last three days as is tradition, and the guest list is sizable. There haven’t been any problems to plague our upcoming union other than the gossip columns obsessing over her family and my age—until very recently. Unfortunately, a relative with clairvoyance warned me that I will be murdered at my wedding. I believe the exact phrase was, ‘Your future ends as a groom dying before his horrified bride.’”
Then Clayborne nodded at them both. Despite the grim words, he appeared amazingly steady. “I’ve heard good things about you. That you’re clever, discreet, and have always solved your cases. I very much hope you can find my would-be killer and prevent my death before it happens.”
Cora could hardly believe what she’d heard. From Sam’s brief silence, he was just as surprised. After a moment, though, he said, “What’s got you convinced that ‘dying before your bride’ means murder instead of an accident?”
For the first time, Clayborne smiled faintly. “Perhaps I have a chance after all if you’re this observant. The foretelling also mentioned that good luck and good fortune would fall to malicious will. The implication is clear enough.”
There was an obvious question to ask—obvious yet tactless. Cora nudged Sam’s foot with her own to hint that she would say it. Clayborne already seemed to prefer talking to Sam more than her, and she had plenty of experience with taking someone’s view of her as a shallow, silly heiress and playing it to the hilt. “Your concern is understandable, Mr. Clayborne, but there’s one surefire way to avoid being murdered at your wedding: don’t get married at all.”
The response remained bland. “Yes, that has been advised to me by others I’ve consulted. As I said, I love Kitty very much. I won’t give in to a threat on my life if it means losing her. I also won’t change the ceremony to make it private, even if that might lessen the danger. It isn’t popular these days, but I believe in following tradition.”
Cora kept her tone delicate. “Maybe we live in modern times, but some things aren’t so very different from the past. There have always been fellas who bring a girl into their lives without having a care about marrying her.”
At last, Phineas Clayborne regarded her in full. She bore his attention easily but sensed Sam stiffening in his chair. Wolves never liked direct stares, especially when they were from strangers, and Sam’s voice roughened out of its usual easiness as he said, “Whether you agree with the idea or not, it’s a common one.”
“Yet usually left unspoken,” said Clayborne, dryly. Then his gaze returned to the cigar in his hand, and he took a drag from it. “Although I understand that impertinence means nothing these days. I won’t take offense at your suggestion, Miss Marshall, but I won’t follow it, either. I am a man of my age and hold to the customs of my time in all but a few ways. Even if I didn’t, Kitty deserves far more than the reputation of a mistress. I’ll not have the world sneer at her. She should have the respect of the Clayborne name.”
Cora couldn’t doubt the man’s passion toward his fiancée. He sounded far more disturbed at the idea of society calling her a floozy than he had while discussing the details of his potential murder. Still, his overall stoicism confused her. Clairvoyance wasn’t generally accepted as reliable magic. It was too vague and too prone to misinterpretation, and frankly, most seers were nothing more than swindlers trying to make as much money as possible off desperate people. Having your future told was the kind of shabby parlor trick that entertained only the very superstitious or the very gullible.
This man seemed like neither type, so what made him willing to believe in such a claim?
The contradiction must have itched at Sam as well, because he said, “Why do you trust the person who predicted your murder?”
Clayborne didn’t seem surprised by the question. His words took on the flat tone of someone who knew his answer was about to quell all doubt. “Because she is never wrong about death. It was Augustine du Bois who warned me.”
Silence fell. This time, Cora couldn’t hide her shock while she looked over at Sam. Had she heard that correctly?
Sam’s voice sounded as bland as Clayborne’s as he said, “Augustine du Bois, the necromancer.”
It wasn’t quite a question, but Clayborne still nodded.
Well, that turned the situation on its head. Cora had never paid attention to the history lessons taught to her as a child, but even she knew necromancers were figures of old magic, from before Crescent City and the other city-states had been founded. The few who still existed had the power to raise the dead. Foretelling when a person would die was child’s play in comparison.
“We are—very—distantly related. I’ve always called her my great-aunt, but she is many times older.” Then a hint of irritation slipped into Clayborne’s expression. “She is also prone to dark humor and gave the warning as an ‘early wedding gift’ to Catherine and myself. She surprised me with this gift, if you can call it that, last week when I invited her to meet Kitty.”
Sam had also noticed the change in Clayborne. “Was Miss Harper present during the foretelling?”
“Yes. Augustine sprang it on us during dinner and then laughed when the poor girl went into hysterics afterward.” Clayborne drew off his cigar, the movement sharper than before. For a moment, there seemed to be true anger in his eyes. Then he added, “However, she also gave us hope. Part of the prediction was that I may be saved through ‘buying a stranger’s kindness with coin.’ I took that to mean I must hire someone to protect me. I already have good bodyguards, so the next logical step was to consult private detectives. And now here we are. Are you willing to hear more?”
Cora barely kept herself quiet. She knew her answer, but Sam showed no signs of how he felt. He just sat easy in his chair, one hand in his pocket and the other relaxed on the table while he studied Clayborne. “Is there any chance you remember more of your great-aunt’s prediction? Any other details or phrases?”
With that, Cora knew he was just as interested as she. By tomorrow, they might be working on a new case after all. She all but vibrated in her seat, gaze on her untouched wine to hide her glee.
Clayborne relaxed enough to sip at his own glass before he answered with, “You’ll be able to hear it in full, and from Augustine herself. She has agreed to stay with me and scry my future until I find the detective clever enough to change my fate. If you meet us tomorrow or the day after, I’ll pay three times your usual rate for a consultation. I can’t wait any longer than that. I’m sure you understand why.”
Sam nodded and rose from his seat. “Give us a few minutes to talk.”
Cora felt like she glowed with sheer excitement while they left the room. The restaurant’s bar was so crowded that all the noise would be as effective at giving them privacy as an empty room. Sam ordered them both a shot of whiskey, his professional mask slipping enough to smile at her when she fluffed up her stole in an attempt to keep still. “What do you think, Bunny?”
“I’ve never heard anything like it. Was he lying at all?”
Sam downed his whiskey and sighed. “That’s the strange thing. I could smell his honesty throughout. He’s not afraid, but he’s desperate as hell. He’s willing to risk death to marry the girl.”
“It might be true love. He is very open about his feelings for his fiancée. Most older men of his status act like they have no emotions at all. He also took my impertinence with amazing grace. He was indignant for Miss Harper’s reputation, not his own.”
Sam didn’t look convinced. “It’s easy to take things with a shrug when you’re sure about getting your way.”
She didn’t disagree, but the wry undertone to his words brought out an urge to tease him. She sipped at her glass and said, “Perhaps. Or perhaps you’re a bit annoyed with him for interrupting our dinner plans.”
Some of the remoteness left his eyes, replaced with a glint that only ever appeared for her. “Maybe. I had a few things in mind for tonight, but a new case wasn’t one of them.”
“But you’re interested?”
He knew how to tease her back, and only stood there as casual as could be, hands in his pockets while he shrugged.
Her hand jumped to his nearest arm as she pressed in close. “You have to admit it already sounds like a real puzzle. Someone bold enough to kill a powerful man like Phineas Clayborne at his own wedding? There’s no chance this will turn out to be a greedy wife wanting insurance money.”
“Not since he’s got a fiancée instead.”
His mouth relaxed into that boyish grin she loved while his arm slipped around her waist. “Sure, I’m interested.”
Warmth bubbled in her chest, one that had nothing to do with the whiskey. “Then what are we waiting for?”
Clayborne showed no expression at their approach, but his cigar twitched in his fingers until Sam spoke. “We’re willing to meet you and Augustine du Bois tomorrow. Since nothing’s definite until then, I don’t see a point in talking out terms.”
Clayborne acknowledged the comment with a bow of his head. It had the eloquence that only old-fashioned manners could manage. “Thank you. Tomorrow at noon, then? Excellent. Feel free to bring your own thaumaturgist to supervise Augustine’s work. I will pay their fee since you must find one on such short notice.”
Cora smiled brightly and shared a final glance with Sam. For the first time, he let some humor slip into his voice as he replied, “That shouldn’t be any trouble. I already have someone in mind.”