Cora Marshall had dressed with great care in anticipation of the detective’s arrival. She wasn’t sure what a murderer looked like, but with every newspaper in the city implying she might be one, even her outfits fueled debate about her guilt. Hopefully, a black suit where the skirt reached her knees was proper enough attire for a girl who had lost her father. She certainly wasn’t about to wear anything dowdier.
Her fingers played with the diamonds in her necklace while she paced throughout the study. The maid had already been told to show in Detective Hayes as soon as he arrived, so now there was nothing to do except wait or worry. Cora detested both options.
Determined not to fidget, she picked up the nearest newspaper and read its headline. Pack Violence Shatters City.
The details left her wincing. More severed heads had been found in the streets. The werewolf kings were always at war with each other over expanding their territories, but lately the fighting had spiraled close to human areas.
Well, that was the price to pay when living with monsters, wasn’t it? Glittering days hid bloody nights. If Crescent City was a lush rose admired by all, then werewolf packs were the sharp thorns hidden behind its leaves.
Still, as Cora read through more of the article, part of her wondered if she’d made a mistake in seeking out Detective Hayes. He had an outstanding reputation for solving crimes, and surely a werewolf living among humans held some restraint, yet a beast was still a beast no matter how fine of a suit he wore.
Then she huffed at herself and folded the newspaper to hide its grim words. What good would it do to worry? She had no one else to turn to, and time was running out. Besides, if this wolf tried to make a nice meal out of her, he’d quickly learn she was one bunny that bit back.
Just as she returned the paper to her father’s desk, the doorbell chimed. Her heart jumped into her throat while she hurried for the nearest window. She had never been quiet and reserved in her life, but those who were tended to fixate on a boring thing in the distance. She checked her reflection in the glass panes to make sure she looked perfect and then stared out at the sprawling gardens below.
The maid’s timid words drew near. “You’ll find the lady right through here, sir.”
“Thanks a lot.”
A deep voice, clear and confident. Brimming with a snap to the syllables that marked an inner-city dweller from high society and its arch manners. Anticipation shivered through Cora, but she pretended to be absorbed in a ridge of pink hyacinths, even when footsteps sounded against the polished wood of the study’s floor.
“Miss Cora Marshall? I’m Detective Samuel Hayes.”
Finally, she let herself look over. Her careful expression thawed into a smile, and all rehearsed words flew out of her mind. “Oh! You’re nothing like what I expected.”
What had she expected? After weeks of interrogations from the police, a vague figure had formed in her mind, merging with the portrayals of private detectives seen in plays: someone older, perhaps even her father’s age. Flabby from chasing down criminals with his intellect instead of his feet. A wrinkled mess of a suit, fingers stained with nicotine from countless cigarettes, and a suspicious air that required a lot of coin to smooth into diligence.
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
For one thing, this Samuel Hayes looked to be in the prime of his life, without a strand of grey in his dark, neatly combed hair. His well-tailored suit emphasized a lean, powerful body, and his tie was in a perfect knot against his collar. Yet his eyes were what truly captivated her—deep gold like a wolf’s and just as wild.
Frankly, he was the most handsome creature she’d ever met, human or otherwise. Cora’s smile grew. Well. She wouldn’t have to feel nervous at all. A big, bold, good-looking fella was something she was very used to dealing with.
In response to her surprise, the detective raised his eyebrows. The corner of his mouth twitched with humor. “Expecting something hairy and panting?”
“Of course not. I know a little about werewolves. Anyone living in the city has to. Please, sit down.” She gestured at the pair of leather chairs placed in front of the desk.
The maid had already set out a tray of light refreshments, and as they settled in, Cora added, “Coffee?”
She poured some for them both while covertly watching him from beneath her lashes. He took in his surroundings with sharp glances here and there, his expression serious once more. When she handed him the cup, he knew how to hold the saucer but drank all the coffee in one go—someone who understood manners without curbing his appetite. He really was a smoldering fella, and she was glad of it. She’d had enough of stuffy, old men frowning at her.
“Thank you for driving out here for a mere consultation,” she said, keeping her voice brisk while she took her own cup in hand. “I realize my letter was a little obscure about why I need your services.”
“More than that. Your letter was so vague that I would have thrown it out if I hadn’t recognized your name.” His tone kept the words an assessment rather than a rebuke, but he leaned forward as if already hunting for an explanation.
“I worried about someone from the newspapers intercepting it. I may sound paranoid, but my situation really is that bad. Last week, a journalist crawled through a window and rifled through my writing desk. Thank God there wasn’t anything besides a note to my dressmaker. Even that was juicy enough for them. ‘Heiress worries about diamond-stitched frock while father remains missing and presumed dead.’”
Cora eyed her reflection in her coffee before adding, “I think I’m starting to get frown lines. It’s all so vexing.”
Detective Hayes cocked his head to the side. He looked amused again. “I did my research, Miss Marshall. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you’re the most beautiful girl in the city and no one can say otherwise.”
Her brilliant smile returned. “You’re very kind.”
“I also found out you’re no stranger to scandal. In fact, you get a real thrill out of it.”
When she offered no other reaction, he needled for one. “I can rattle off examples if you think I’m bluffing.”
She took in his steady gaze, realizing it was her first glimpse of how he would bite at whatever puzzled him until its secrets spilled out. Her laugh was sudden, delighted, and entirely unfeigned. “All right. Show me how busy you’ve been.”
He blinked, seeming surprised. “You had a fling with the railroad baron H.B. Stevens after meeting him on a cruise along the Copper Coast.”
“Oh, yes. It was my eighteenth birthday as well as the first time I sailed on the ocean. I liked him very much. He made me laugh until I was dizzy.”
“Mrs. Stevens didn’t find anything funny about it.”
“Of course not. She was too busy taking private tours of the ship that always ended in her bedroom. I saw her with a different crew member every day.” Then Cora sipped at her coffee. “That’s one thing. What else did you find out?”
Hayes scoffed and leaned back in his seat. His eyes held a peculiar glint, as though he respected her boldness in the face of such details. “You once spent a year modeling for the biggest artists in the city, which meant your nude portraits were hung in galleries for all to see. Some are still there as permanent exhibitions.”
“Did you go to look at any? Which was your favorite? I very much like Rigg’s interpretation of me in his Evening Star Comes to Life. I look very tall in it. As you can see, I’m not tall at all.”
“You don’t care, do you?” murmured Hayes. “Not even a hint of blushing. You like getting in trouble, Miss Marshall.”
“I grow bored so easily. It’s fun to ruffle the feathers of those who just ache to be upset.” Her smile faded as she remembered where it had all led to.
“But now you’re so nervous about the newspapers that you won’t write a full letter.”
“Well…” She paused under the guise of finishing her coffee. “It’s much different to be accused of my father’s murder. That’s not fun at all.”
“No, it’s more than that. You quit your antics about a year ago. Disappeared from all the gossip rags because your behavior became as modest as a nun’s. What happened, Miss Marshall? What made you afraid of the scandals you once thrived on?” Those striking eyes absorbed every movement while he waited for an answer.
When Cora only hesitated, he added, “You have to trust me if we’re going to get anywhere. I can’t hunt down the truth if you don’t give me all the facts. Even the nastier ones.”
“Everyone has secrets. Can’t I keep some of mine?”
“Sure. I just won’t take you on as a client.”
She drew in a deep breath. Really, she wasn’t good at this type of negotiation. She had been perfectly happy as a thoughtless socialite sparkling with the rest of the city. “I would like to be honest. It would be such a relief.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“People would only grow further convinced of my guilt.”
In silence, she set aside her cup for a cigarette. Hayes leaned forward to close the space between them, extending his lighter in a wordless offer. She accepted it, their faces inches apart as her cigarette flared into life against the heat of the flame. With the slightest shift on her part, they could be kissing. With the slightest shift on his, teeth could sink into her throat.
Then his gaze met hers, patient yet inscrutable. She found herself wondering why he had left his pack to live among humans. They were kindred spirits in a way, two creatures fighting against the currents of society. Was that connection, tenuous as spider silk, something she could trust?
“Everyone thinks I hate my father,” she said, without looking away. “That it’s my motive for killing him. But everyone’s wrong. You see, I can’t hate my father. He took that away from me.”
After a final puff on her cigarette, she left it in the tray and rose from her seat. She would have to reveal the wretched thing for him to truly understand.
As Hayes stood with her, she added, “You’re right about my sudden good behavior. Even the newspapers point it out. Their most common theory is that he threatened to disinherit me, scaring me into becoming a good girl until I decided murder was easier. They’re wrong about that, too.”
She turned around and let her head fall forward. The rest of her body remained stiff and uncertain. No one else had seen what he was about to—no one except her father. “It’s somewhere on my scalp. Go on, take a good look even if it means mussing my hair.”
When he drew close, her stomach knotted itself in a ghostly reaction to a procedure she couldn’t quite recall. His fingers brushed up the nape of her neck, and she drew in a quick breath to keep still. But his hand was gentle and smelled like tobacco, sensations miles away from the cold touch and antiseptic stench lingering on the edge of her memories.
Her hair was cut short in the back, following the latest fashions, and it didn’t take long for him to pause at a tender spot on her scalp. When his thumb brushed over the area again, she knew he’d found it. A binding sigil, placed so discreetly as to be invisible.
When Hayes spoke, a growl slipped into his voice. “That’s been illegal for decades.”
“My father still found an enchanter who could do it. This is Crescent City, you know. Money wins over everything else.”
“Did he have memories stripped away, too?”
“Yes.” Now she faced him, refusing to feel ashamed of her next words. “You’re very good with your research, Detective, but my most sordid scandal remains a secret. I tried to elope with someone. I loved him. I know I did, even if I can’t feel it anymore. He was a servant who worked on the estate and was therefore very unsuitable. When my father found out, he kept it from happening. Somehow, he even kept it out of the public eye. But it was still the final straw for him and after that…”
A vague wave at her head was enough to draw a nod from the detective. Then the sigil throbbed with the same dull pain as pressing on a bruise, warning her that any further discussion about its presence would lead to outright agony. She moved for the window to give herself time to recover. “I don’t remember his name, his face, or how quickly I fell in love. And I don’t know what happened to him. He’s a mere shadow in my mind.”
While staring out at those wretched hyacinths, she wondered what her last words had been to him, this mysterious man who survived as an ache in her heart. Her eyes burned. The sigil hummed against her skin. She ignored both feelings and looked over at Hayes.
He stood a polite distance away, hands in his pockets while he watched her. Silent. Remote. She had heard wolves scorned any signs of weakness; to be vulnerable was to be prey. And yet she found no contempt in his expression. No mockery. She couldn’t tell what he thought at all.
She raised her chin, daring him to dismiss her. “Telling the truth would mean sticking my head through the noose with my own words. Surely, I wanted my father dead. Surely, having all of his money and none of his control is worth the risk of being caught and hanged.”
“But you didn’t do it.”
“No.” Now she moved closer, desperate for him to understand. “Please. I must clear my name. He's already shattered my future. I can't let his disappearance destroy it entirely.”
For a few agonizing moments, Hayes studied her as if seeing clear through to her heart. Then he took the final step needed to erase the distance between them and smiled, a hot, crooked one hinting at the feral nature behind his perfect tie and polished shoes. “In that case, we better track down your father and find out what happened.”