The First Taste of Freedom
Cora didn’t realize how weak she felt until she tried to get out of the car. Her knees wobbled as soon as she stood. The stars spun slightly.
Just before she collapsed on the pavement, Hayes caught her. “Easy. It took a big enchantment to get rid of the sigil.”
“I feel amazing, though. Honestly. My head is so light and… and free. I didn’t realize how my every thought was so heavy before.”
“You still need to recover.” Then he easily lifted her up in his arms and began carrying her.
There was a scoff from Jane, who had gotten out of the car but remained standing by it. Drunken shouting drifted from one of the surrounding dim buildings, but the she-wolf didn’t seem concerned. In fact, even with blurring vision, Cora could pick out Jane’s smug expression as she said, “Face it, Miss Marshall, you’re about to be fussed over. I’m sure you’ll survive.”
The sky continued to slide like spilled ink while they went up the narrow stairs to the front door. Before Hayes had a chance to knock on it, it opened. Cora caught a glimpse of a tiny old woman, her faded shawl and white hair glowing from the lamplight within. “Up to the third floor. The first bedroom is ready for her. Quickly, now. The world is probably spinning for her.”
The old woman wasn’t wrong, but Cora still felt amazing. The absence of pain or control left her sinking into anything she managed to sense, no matter how innocuous. How the muscles in Hayes’ shoulders flexed against her arm, which she’d managed to hook around his neck. The very steadiness of his breath. The faded flowered wallpaper, worn wooden bannisters, and carpeted stairways that briefly made up the world before it widened into a room. All of it proved what she was still afraid to fully believe—that she was free of her life with her father.
“Here we are.” Hayes carefully eased her onto a small bed.
For a moment, she only sat and rubbed at the back of her head while her dizziness subsided. Lamplight warmed the cream ceiling and rose-colored wallpaper. There was a small window near the bed, its curtains drawn for the night, and the fire in the hearth had already burned down to a bed of coals that would keep the room warm.
The last thing she noticed was an old-fashioned flannel nightgown draped over the foot of the bed. Hayes also eyed it before his gaze jumped to her bloodied, disheveled gown. For the first time that night, he seemed uncertain.
Cora flashed a smile despite the lingering shivers throughout her body. “I can do that much myself. Though I certainly wouldn’t mind if you wanted to help me change.”
His expression turned wry, and he was still smiling while turning away to stir up the coals in the hearth. The set of his shoulders made it clear he wouldn’t face her again until she had the nightgown on.
She really was weak, fingers slow and trembling while they slid off the gown. Jane’s enchantment must have done something to clean itself up, because even though the clothes were stiff with dried blood and slime, her skin was absolutely clean. Cora was glad, because even the simple movement of pulling the nightgown over her head left her body throbbing down to the very bones.
Well, if she was about to pass out, then there was one final thing she needed to do first. “What time is it?”
Hayes glanced at his watch and returned to her while she sat on the bed. “Ten minutes after eleven.”
“And does that telephone work?”
“I want to phone Captain Dempsey and reassure him that I left my father of my own free will. I see no reason to cause a panic over my disappearance when I’m perfectly fine.”
He walked over. “Your scent is already full of exhaustion.”
“I know, and I’m very much looking forward to sleeping and waking up in a place that isn’t my father’s house. But I think it’s important.”
After a moment, he nodded. “I know the number by heart.”
He quickly dialed for her and then handed over the phone. While waiting, she absently ran fingers over her scalp, still marveling at the simple skin there. There was a slight headache forming at her temples, but it felt normal, nothing more than a clear sign from her body that it was overtired.
The captain answered on the second ring, almost growling, “Dempsey.”
“Captain! I guessed you’d be working after hours. You don’t seem like a man who sets aside any time for a social life.”
“Miss Marshall. Are you about to explain why you slipped on my man?”
“Yes. I refuse to live with my father anymore. I’m perfectly fine but unwilling to go into more detail about why or where I am at the moment. I don’t want the reporters or anyone else to know. I have a lot to think through. And whatever Father says, it isn’t true. I wanted to leave him, and I have. This is entirely my own decision.”
The captain didn’t sound any less irritated. “And are you now with a certain private detective?”
Cora decided it was best to remain coy. “I’m not at his office or home.”
“I know that. We’ve already checked.”
“My goodness, you and your men really are efficient, aren’t you?”
“Miss Marshall, where the hell are you? How are we supposed to contact you?”
“My lawyer will be in touch.”
There was a brief rustle of paper. “Mr. Forrester?”
“No, that’s Father’s lawyer, though I expect he’ll bluster at you as well. I won’t keep you, Captain. Until the next time.” Then she hung up before he could do more than sigh. The conversation, brief as it was, had sapped even more of her energy.
Before she could do more than sigh herself, there was a brief knock on the doorway. The old woman from earlier—who Cora guessed was Minnie Wilkes—came inside and studied Cora. Then she clucked her tongue. “We’ll save proper introductions for tomorrow. You’re exhausted. It’s time to sleep or risk making yourself worse. You’ve had powerful magic leaching from your life for over a year. If you let yourself rest in bed tomorrow, I can see you being fine in a few days. Keep pushing yourself and it’ll turn into a week or longer.”
Her head really was starting to throb, so Cora didn’t argue, instead meekly slipping beneath the sheets and embroidered blankets.
Minnie then turned toward Hayes, who remained near the bed. “Come on. Out, now.”
Hayes shook his head, his expression remaining easy. “Don’t worry, I’ll let her rest. I’m sleeping in the chair tonight.”
There was a brief pause where Cora realized that the old woman must have been reading his thoughts, because without another word from him, she gave in with a nod.
“Get some sleep, girl. If you hear any noise in the night, don’t worry over it. You’re safe now.” Then Minnie left, shutting the door behind her.
Despite Minnie’s warning, Cora turned onto her side to watch Hayes pull the chair closer to the bed. “You really are a stubborn fella to keep to that chair.”
He acknowledged her words with a grin before settling in. He had already shrugged off his jacket and hat and now loosened his tie.
As he unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up, she watched in unusual silence. Some part of her still felt shocked that the night would end very differently than it had started. When she did speak, all the teasing had left her voice. “I missed you so much.”
At that, he reached out and caught her nearest hand. “I know, Bunny. I wanted to get the sigil off you a lot sooner. It had to be hell living with your father again.”
“I don’t care.” And she really didn’t. When her fingers entwined with his, she added, “That’s all over, and I have no concern for my father or what he thinks.”
The color of Hayes’ eyes remained heavy and warm, but a grim note slipped into his next words. “He might still try to punish you some other way.”
“He can’t. That’s why he put the sigil on me. There was no other way to punish me. I’ve never told you before, did I? I don’t suppose I could talk about it. Father likes to put on airs, and he’s very good at making money, but his side of the family faced ruin by the time he met my mother. It was her money that allowed him to build himself up, and when she found out she was going to have me, she had some set aside in a trust that only I can touch. It gives me a very generous amount per year, easily enough to live on.”
“How are you sure he can’t touch it?”
“She set up the trust with Allagash & Crown.”
When the answer drew out a low whistle from him, she knew he understood the significance of the prestigious bank. “So your mother came from old magic.”
“Yes. Only someone of her blood can access the account, which means Father isn’t able to touch a single penny, and he knows it. Strangely, he seems more impressed than anything whenever he talks about it. A ‘good business maneuver,’ he calls it. I do think he loved my mother in his own strange way, but…”
Then she realized Hayes’ expression had gone very distant yet focused. “Hayes? What is it?”
He shook his head slightly and seemed to come back into himself. “Nothing worth worrying about. It’s just interesting to hear.”
“Really? I think it’s boring. I only cared about Father’s money in terms of spending it to get a rise out of him. Anger is still a form of attention, and I suppose I thought that was good enough at the time. Now I want nothing to do with him.” Then she drew in a breath, half in disbelief at how freely she could speak. The lightness in her mind felt dizzying. “Hayes, you really are a marvel. I never thought I would feel like this again.”
His eyes warmed once more. “Jane’s the miracle-worker, not me.”
“Jane pays attention to other people only when she has to. If it weren’t for you…” Then her hand pulled away and began fiddling with his rolled-up sleeve. It was horrible to imagine what the rest of her life would have been like.
After a moment, his hand covered hers, squeezing gently. “I know. But you’re not out of the woods yet. You need time to recover and put your life back together.”
“But why here?” She couldn’t hide her disappointment. “Why not at your apartment?”
“It’s still better if your father doesn’t know where you are. Not until it’s clear that he can’t get at you again.”
She was starting to feel drowsy but didn’t want to stop talking to him. “I can already think of a few lawyers to help with that. Father never minded burning bridges, so there are plenty all too happy to work against him.”
Hayes didn’t look surprised but only said, “Relax for now. Whenever you’re ready, give me a list and I’ll find their numbers for you.”
“Are you leaving?” Her hand grabbed at his.
He smiled, that wry, warm one she loved. “Don’t worry, you’ve got my company for the rest of the night. Get some sleep.”
She didn’t want to. Bed rest seemed like a waste of time when she had just gotten back the chance to be with him. But the pillow beneath her head felt very soft, and the room felt very cozy from the warmth and gentle crackling of the coals. Finally, she gave in to her exhausted body with a sense of not drifting away so much as curling up against the strength and reassurance of his presence.
She didn’t even stir when his hand eased from hers to tuck some hair back behind her ear, feather-light and careful, but another figure noticed while pausing in the doorway.
“She’s already in a deep sleep,” said Holly, her gaze slipping from the bed to Hayes’ face. “Good. Brom found out some things about the pack today. He’s wanted to tell you all evening.”
Hayes bit back a sigh and nodded, still watching Cora. “All right. We’ll go into it tomorrow.”
The she-wolf’s body stiffened. “The human won’t wake up for the rest of the night. You can smell it as well as I.”
“Tomorrow.” Now Hayes looked up at her, his tone warning her not to push it further.
The she-wolf glanced away first. “Very well.”
Before she could leave, Jane appeared in the doorway as well and slipped through with her usual sarcasm. “Sweet dreams, Holly.”
For a few moments after the other she-wolf disappeared down the stairs, Jane stood next to Hayes in silence, watching him instead of Cora. “She’ll be fine.”
He leaned back in the chair, relaxing at last. “I know. Thanks, Jane. You crafted something most enchanters would claim is impossible.”
She nodded, her expression almost softening. “The others will keep pushing for your attention whenever possible. They see you as a leader now, especially with what’s been happening with the Saxby Pack.”
He glanced at her with equal affection. “Finally learned not to say ‘our pack,’ huh?”
“Maybe I’m merely developing an independent life.” She leaned against his chair, her attention now back on Cora, who continued to sleep peacefully. “If you want to thank me, then spend time with her. Not just to look after her but to have fun. The others don’t understand. They’re too caught up in the idea of returning to pack land. They think you’re helping for the same reason. I know better. I’m shocked your heart hasn’t imploded from the sheer stress of the past month.”
“Trying to replace Minnie’s role of mothering me?”
“Just nagging at you to let yourself be happy in these uncertain times.”
At that, the humor drained from his expression, and he reached out to trace Cora’s face again. “Believe me, Jane, I want to. And for the next few days, I will.”