Cora Marshall had dressed very carefully in anticipation of the detective’s arrival. She wasn’t sure what a murderer looked like, but with every newspaper in the city declaring she must be one, each action on her part gained significance.
Her fingers nervously played with the diamonds at her neck while she looked out the window at her father’s study. Maisie, the maid, had already been told to show Detective Hayes into the study as soon as he arrived, so now there was nothing to do but wait and fret. Cora detested both options.
Determined not to fidget, she picked up the nearest newspaper and read its screaming headline. PACK VIOLENCE SHATTERS CITY.
As she scanned the first paragraph, Cora felt the skin between her eyebrows pinch. 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 violence had spiraled close to human areas.
Well, but that was the price to pay when living among monsters, wasn’t it? Glittering days hid bloody nights. If Crescent City was a rose, lush and full and envied by all who saw it, then werewolf packs were the sharp thorns hidden among the leaves.
Still, as Cora read through more of the article, chewing her lip over a detail about a girl’s body found near a territory line with her throat ripped out, she couldn’t help wondering if she’d made a mistake in reaching out to consult Detective Hayes. A werewolf living among humans instead of with a pack surely held some restraint, and yet a beast was still a beast no matter how fine of a suit he wore.
Then Cora huffed at herself and folded the newspaper, hiding the headline again. What good would it do to worry? She had no one else to turn to, and time was running out. Besides, if this wolf thought he could make a nice meal out of her, he’d quickly learn how she was one bunny that would bite back.
Just as she dropped the paper back onto her father’s desk, the doorbell chimed. Cora’s heart leapt up into her throat, but she only turned to the window again, smoothing her face into a pleasant blankness while Maisie’s muffled voice drifted over.
“You’ll find the lady right through here, sir.”
A deep voice, clear and confident. Brimming with that snap to the syllables that marked an inner-city dweller from high society and its arch manners. It was almost enough to make Cora turn around, but she forced herself to keep still, to stare out at the gardens below as if some fussy old hyacinths were the most fascinating things in the world.
At the sound of footsteps entering the room, she finally let herself look over. All the rehearsed words waiting on the tip of her tongue melted away, and her careful expression thawed into a brilliant smile. “Oh! You’re nothing like what I expected.”
What had she expected? After weeks of interrogations with police detectives, a vague image had formed in her mind, merging with portrayals of private investigators she’d seen in the theatre: 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, a carelessly-knotted tie. Fingers stained with nicotine from countless cigarettes, beady eyes that absorbed every detail in sight, and a suspicious air that would require 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 suit was understated but well-tailored, emphasizing a lean, powerful body, and his tie was perfect against his crisp collar. Yet it was his eyes that 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 fellow was something she was very used to dealing with.
In response to her surprise, the detective raised his eyebrows, amusement tugging at the corner of his mouth. “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 her father’s desk.
Maisie had already set out a tray with everything needed to serve light refreshments, and as they settled into the chairs, Cora added, “Coffee?”
As she poured him some, she couldn’t help watching him from beneath her eyelashes. He took in his surroundings with sharp glances here and there, his expression serious again. When she handed him the cup, he knew how to hold the saucer but still drank all the coffee in one gulp—someone who understood manners but wouldn’t curb his appetite for them. He really was a smoldering creature, and Cora was glad of it. She’d had enough of stuffy old men frowning at her.
“Thank you for agreeing to drive 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’ve thrown it out if I hadn’t recognized your name.” His tone kept the words a fact instead of an accusation, but he leaned forward in his seat as if already hunting for firm details. His attention was no less thrilling than the rest of him.
“I worried about someone from the newspapers intercepting it and printing it for all to see. A journalist did something similar last week by crawling through a window and rifling 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 instead of missing father.’”
Then Cora eyed her reflection in the coffee. “I think I’m starting to get frown lines. It’s all so vexing.”
The detective cocked his head to the side. The humorous glint had returned to his gaze. “I did my research, Miss Marshall. If there’s one thing I can say about you, 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 that you’re no stranger to scandal. That you used to get a real thrill out of it, in fact.”
When she offered no other reaction, he needled for something stronger. “I can rattle them all off if you think I’m bluffing.”
She took in the steadiness of his gaze, took in this first glimpse of how he would bite at something that puzzled him and then rip at it until all the secrets spilled out. Her laugh was sudden, delighted, and entirely unfeigned. “All right. Show me how busy you’ve been.”
He blinked, and she had the sense that for the first time since they’d met, she’d surprised him. “You had a fling with the railroad baron H.B. Stevens when you met on a cruise along the Copper Coast.”
“Oh, yes. It was my seventeenth 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 much too busy being given 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, yet a peculiar glint remained in his eyes, as though he grudgingly respected her boldness in the face of details that would make most tender young women cringe to hear aloud. “You once spent a year modeling for the biggest artists in the city. Which meant your nude portraits were hung in galleries everywhere for the whole public to see. Some are still there as permanent exhibitions.”
“Did you go to look at any? Which was your favorite? I always liked Rigg’s interpretation of me in his Evening Star Comes to Life. I looked very tall in it. As you can see, I’m not tall at all.”
“You don’t care, do you?” murmured Hayes, his expression intent. “Not a hint of a blush in your face. You like getting in trouble, Miss Marshall.”
“I grow bored so easily, and it’s fun to ruffle the feathers of people who are just aching to be upset at something.” Yet despite her words, Cora felt her smile fade as she abruptly remembered where it had all led to.
“But now you’re so nervous about the newspapers that you won’t even write a full letter to someone.”
“Well…” Cora paused to drink at her coffee, mind now snatching at any explanation that would avoid the true cause of her recent fear of gossip. “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 happened to make 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 any good at this type of negotiation. She had been perfectly happy as a shallow, pretty thing that knew how to glitter with the rest of the city.
“I would like to be honest,” she said in a low voice. “It would be a big relief.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Because being completely honest would only make others even more convinced that I must be guilty.”
Cora sighed and set aside her coffee for a cigarette, instead. Hayes leaned forward to close the space between them, withdrawing his lighter in a silent offer. She accepted it, their faces now inches away as her cigarette flared into life against the heat of the flame. The slightest shift on her part and they could be kissing. The slightest shift on his and he could be sinking teeth into her throat.
Then his eyes met hers, their bright gold as enigmatic and piercing as any wild thing. She found herself wondering what had made him leave his pack and live among humans. They were kindred spirits in a way, two desperate creatures running against the currents of society. Was that connection, tenuous as spider silk, enough to place her trust in?
“Everyone thinks I hate my father,” she said, not looking away from that intent gaze. “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.”
There was a flicker in the detective’s eyes, something like the sudden alertness of a predator scenting wounded prey, but she didn’t let that stop her, leaving her cigarette in the tray and rising from her seat. She would have to show the wretched thing for him to really understand it all.
As Detective Hayes stood with her, she said, “You’re right about my sudden good behavior. Even the newspapers now point it out. Their most common theory is that he threatened to disinherit me and I spent some time playing at being a good girl before deciding it was easier to murder him. They’re wrong about that, too.”
Then Cora turned around and let her head fall forward, exposing the curve of her neck. “I think it’s somewhere on the back of my head. My scalp always burns there, anyway. Go on, take a good look even if it means mussing my hair.”
The skin on her bared shoulder blades tingled as he drew close, and her stomach knotted itself, perhaps a ghostly reaction to the original procedure that she still couldn’t quite recall. When Hayes’ fingers brushed up the nape of her neck, she drew in a sharp breath to keep still. But his hand was warm and smelled like tobacco, things that were nothing like the cold touch and antiseptic stench that lingered 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 his hand to pause at that tender spot beneath the back of her skull. When his thumb brushed over that area, she knew he’d found it. A binding sigil, placed discreetly so that no one might ever know it was there.
When Hayes spoke, a growl had slipped into his voice. “That’s been illegal for decades.”
“My father still found someone and paid them well to do it.”
“Did he have any memories stripped away, too?”
“Yes.” Now she turned to face him, intent on meeting his eyes. She had no reason to feel shame over her next words, no matter what he might think. “You’re very good with your research, Detective, but no one knows about my most sordid scandal. I tried to elope with someone. I loved him, I know I did even if I can’t feel it anymore. But he was very unsuitable; only a servant who worked on the estate. My father found out and kept it from happening. 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 Detective Hayes. She walked over to the window, the words now falling heavy from her mouth. “I don’t remember his name, or his face, or what it was that made me fall in love with him. And I don’t know what happened to him. It’s now all a complete blank in my mind.”
As she stared out at those wretched hyacinths again, she found herself wondering if she had ever done that and seen him, this mysterious man who was now nothing more to her than a vague ache in her heart. Realizing she might dissolve into tears if she kept up with that line of thought, she looked over at Detective Hayes.
He stood a polite distance away, hands in his pockets while he watched her. She’d heard that wolves started to slaver at the scent of weakness, that vulnerability drew terrible teeth to tender flesh, and yet she found no greed in his expression. No hunger. She couldn’t tell what he thought at all.
And so she raised her chin, daring him to dismiss her. “Being completely honest about things would mean putting 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 hung for his death.”
“But you didn’t do it.”
“No.” Now she moved closer, desperate for him to understand. “And I don’t know what happened to him. But I must find out and clear my name. He took away my future once already. I don’t want his death to do that again.”
As those wild eyes studied her, she wondered if he could see clear through to her heart, see how it shivered like a bird captive in its cage. Then Detective Hayes took the final step needed to erase the distance between them, and something in that small movement made him appear ready to lunge. He grinned, a hot, crooked one that hinted at the feral nature hiding beneath that perfect tie and those shiny shoes, and his teeth flashed at her as he said, “Then we better track down your father and find out what really happened.”