Waiting for the Future
Cora woke to muffled voices and the clatter of plates somewhere below. Instinctively, her hand jumped to the back of her head and found only sleep-mussed hair and normal skin. She sighed, all dread melting into relief. The sigil was gone. It hadn’t been a mere dream.
The fire had smoldered out and left the room in darkness, but she could see that Hayes’ chair was empty. And if she listened hard enough, she could hear his voice among the others, indistinct but serious in tone. Grim, even.
Whatever was wrong, she knew it couldn’t be about her. She was clear-headed and free of pain, only slightly wobbly while she got out of bed and walked over to the window to open the curtains. For several breaths, she basked in the bright morning sunshine, unfazed by the decaying factory that made up most of her view. At this moment, everything seemed beautiful to her, and her one wish was to be in her own clothes so she could look as good as she felt. There was a mirror on the small dresser nearby, its surface spotted with age, and when Cora glanced at her reflection, she wished for a hairbrush as well. Just as she started fussing with her appearance, someone knocked on the bedroom door.
Hayes stepped inside carrying coffee and a plate filled with enough eggs and buttered toast for two. He had changed his clothes and looked freshly shaven but already seemed tired. Some of the tension left his body when he saw her. “Minnie told me you were awake. How are you feeling?”
She beamed. “Wonderful. Although I suppose I should still be in bed.”
He winked while setting the food on the table. “I won’t snitch.”
Within a minute, he had moved the table and chair so that they could sit across from each other comfortably. She sank into the easy intimacy of sharing a plate with him, not even minding how the old-fashioned nightgown left her as modest as a nun.
As she bit into a piece of toast, Hayes said, “Minnie will visit later to check your mind for any lingering effects left by the sigil. Are you comfortable with that? Plenty of people don’t like the idea of someone digging through their thoughts.”
“I always say whatever is on my mind. It’s one of my few good habits. Besides, the whole city knows all about me. There’s probably nothing left for a mind reader to uncover. To be honest, I’m not thinking about the sigil at all.”
He tilted his head, one of those wolfish movements that she loved seeing. “If not that, then what?”
She studied him. His rough desperation from the night before had calmed into his usual steadiness, but the playful glint to his eyes was still missing. He sat in his chair like someone ready to jump up at the first sign of danger, and there was a grim set to his mouth that she recognized.
After a moment, she ran a hand along his arm. When the muscles beneath her fingers relaxed in response, she said, “Hayes, what’s happening? You have that certain look that only comes out when you’re thinking about your old pack.”
“I didn’t realize it was that obvious.” Then he sighed and finished his coffee. “How much did you hear about the Saxbys while living with your father?”
“Not much at all. Father wouldn’t let me read the papers. All I know for certain is that the Saxby alpha-king met with city officials and attacked them. Captain Dempsey and the police commissioner were shot but survived. I don’t know what happened to any of the wolves.”
“The alpha-king escaped. The captain of his royal guard was caught and arrested. The others all died.”
“But I thought their captain was…” Then she hesitated. She remembered the she-wolf’s name perfectly well but didn’t want to press on an old scar from his past.
He finished the sentence for her. “Isabelle. She was the one who shot both Al and Commissioner Keene.”
“Oh, Hayes. I’m sorry.” Her fingers still rested against his arm, and now they moved down to squeeze his hand. She didn’t care about politics but wasn’t completely clueless about them. No city official would take an attempt on his life lightly. The she-wolf surely faced a noose unless… “Is the alpha-king fighting to charge and try her in his own legal system?”
“No. Even if he did, the city wouldn’t acknowledge it. The Saxby diplomat’s seat was removed from the city assembly, and a no-trade order has been put in place.”
Cora almost gasped. “But that’s as good as a death sentence for the entire pack. Everyone knows the wolf packs all depend upon exporting to the city. Even if New Obsidian or another of the city-states could jump in as a replacement, they wouldn’t dare break their treaties with Crescent City over one struggling wolf pack.”
She now understood his grim manner, but strangely, her response chased some of it away. He smiled a little and said, “You know, all your old tutors who called you a pea-brain should’ve been in different careers.”
Then he added, almost despite himself, “I don’t know how you do it, but it’s always easy talking to you, even about the hardest things.”
They had shared kisses that had already revealed the intensity and passion he was so reluctant to reveal to the world, but somehow those words felt far more intimate. A glimpse of his raw feelings.
“I feel the same way,” she said, softly, all thought flying from her head while she looked into his eyes.
The tension that had just started to leave his movements suddenly returned. He glanced toward the door and finished the dregs of his coffee. “We’re about to have company.”
There wasn’t even a knock on the door. It just jerked open with a muffled thump while Jane struggled inside, dragging Cora’s suitcases behind her. She was panting. “Why am I always doing this?”
“You could’ve chosen to watch over her instead,” replied Hayes.
Jane scoffed while piling them into a corner. “You mean, stay here? No, thanks.”
Cora glanced between them, excitement bubbling over. “You collected my things from Father? I thought it would be impossible without an army of lawyers.”
“He doesn’t know. The servants said he’s sick. That maid of yours recognized me and packed your cases.”
Cora shifted in her seat, already itching to change into some prettier clothes, but the sudden sharpness in Hayes’ voice caught her attention again.
“How sick is he, Jane?”
The she-wolf shrugged. “There were police enchanters present to check him. They seemed unconcerned and had already ruled out poison, spells, or any other attempt on his life. He might be experiencing effects from the destruction of the sigil. I was focused on Miss Marshall’s comfort, not his.”
“No, it can’t be the sigil,” said Cora. “He was sick in the morning.”
“What were the symptoms?” said Hayes, his attention now on her.
“Well, he did seem weak. His hand shook from writing a letter. And his skin had a definite pallor. He was shivering and sweating at the same time. But it was nothing too serious. No coughing or labored breathing. And he certainly wasn’t confused or delirious.”
Hayes only nodded, eyes narrowing slightly.
Cora glanced at Jane, who didn’t appear enthused about the information. The she-wolf’s next words confirmed it. “Sam, I thought you were going to take time off from thinking like a detective. Let Captain Dempsey’s men look after Isaac Marshall. Now that Miss Marshall is free, I don’t see why we need to care about him.”
“I certainly don’t,” said Cora, and resumed eating.
The comment coaxed a reluctant smile from Hayes. “All right. If you’re going back to the office, Jane, lock up my side for me.”
Cora returned his smile, pleased by the implication that he’d stay and keep her company.
He did, leaving only to take the empty dishes back downstairs. While he was gone, Cora quickly washed up. Then she found a peach-colored chemise and paired it with a black-and-gold silk robe that she left untied. She was sitting on the bed and brushing her hair by the time he returned. “I have to admit, I’m still weak, but I feel miles better in my own clothes. I bet if I styled my hair, I could even manage to dance.”
He surprised her by reaching out for the soft waves falling over one eye, tucking them back behind her ear. “Maybe wait on the dancing until you’re back on your feet. How about cards instead?”
She won twice at double solitaire but had to admit he had her beat at poker. She had never been a sore loser and merely laughed while pushing her pennies over to his side of the table. “And here Jane told me you loved billiards.”
“I do. I used to play a lot when I was a pit fighter. It calmed me down in between bouts.”
The reference to his past was made without bitterness, but the words still drew her mind away from the new hand he dealt out to her. “What do you want your future to be, Hayes? Now that you’re in a better place and have a successful career, what are you looking for?”
“I don’t often think about what I want. Whatever I or the people close to me need is more important.” He seemed focused on his cards, but there was a trace of resignation in his expression. “What about your future, now that it’s free?”
“Well, I’ve become quite a fan of doing detective work. I wouldn’t mind returning to it. But I suppose I should first focus on cutting all connections with Father. That mostly means hiring lawyers for any legal details and finding my own place to live. And then… living.”
“You sound excited,” he murmured.
“I am. It won’t be like before, and I don’t want it to be. I’ve had enough of the constant circus of my old social circles. Everything was always so busy and yet so empty at the same time.”
Then she looked up at him, feeling herself glow. All his attention was on her face, and the intensity of his gaze melted her last bit of restraint. “Do you know what I keep thinking about, Hayes? The day spent with you at your apartment. Despite the strange, terrible things I’d seen and learned just before, I felt so peaceful and right there. I felt like I was home. And I have that same sensation this morning. When I was a child, I had a few experiences with fevers that required bedrest to recover from. They were some of the most boring memories in my life. I always thought I was too impatient to enjoy quiet moments… until we met. I can’t remember being so comfortable in someone’s presence no matter where I am or what’s happening.”
“I know what you mean, Bunny,” he said, and then sighed. “The last month was rough on me. I didn’t realize how much until last night when you were in my arms.”
“Hayes,” she whispered, wondering how her heart could feel feather-light and overfull at the same time.
The phone rang. He jerked toward it, pupils constricting, but made no move to answer. At his lack of surprise, Cora realized that he had been waiting all morning for a call.
Within a minute, Minnie Wilkes came inside, silent despite her uneven gait. Her expression was as grim as Hayes’. “It’s for you, Sam, and you’ll want to take it downstairs.”
He rose from the chair, turning toward Cora. “I’ll have to leave after this call. It might be hours before I’m back. I’m sorry.”
She stood as well, unconsciously reaching for him. “Is everything all right? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Bunny. There’s just something I need to do.” He gave her a faint smile before moving for the door, but his expression had already hardened by the time he disappeared from view.
In the silence that followed, Minnie appraised her. The slight shake of her head was the only hint of what she thought about Cora’s bold state of undress. “Well, you certainly are alert enough for proper introductions. I’m Mrs. Minnie Wilkes.”
It was a struggle to remember her manners through her worry for Hayes. “Miss Cora Marshall. You’re very kind to let me stay here.”
“Sam told me a little of your situation. Did he tell you about what I can do?”
“Yes. You read minds.”
“That’s right.” The old woman had a knitting bag with her, and now settled in the chair before pulling out her yarn. “There won’t be any pain, but I’ll have to be very thorough to see what the sigil did to your mind and whether it left any traces behind. That means learning a lot about you and your thoughts, girl. Can you take that?”
Cora nodded. “What do I need to do?”
“Nothing. I find it easiest to let your mind wash over mine, so do things as you like.” Then Minnie began knitting, seemingly ignoring her.
At first, Cora fell quiet while gathering up the cards, unsure if Minnie needed silence to work. She couldn’t help thinking about Hayes and what that phone call meant for him.
Just as she finished shuffling the cards, the thin cry of a baby came from somewhere downstairs.
When she cast a startled glance at Minnie, the old woman said, “You’re not the only tenant at the moment. There are four others, including the baby. Has Sam mentioned them yet? No, I’m not surprised. I told him to be careful with over-taxing your mind. They’re former Saxby wolves. Eve is the one looking after her little niece. She’s good friends with Holly, who’s here with her mate, Brom.”
Cora felt her interest rise despite how the knitting needles clicked in a steady, lulling rhythm. “Is Hayes helping them adjust to a life among humans?”
“Yes. I’m sure you’ll meet them once you’re well enough to be up and about.”
“I’m hoping that will be very soon. I’m itching to begin living again.”
“I think you’ll be fine. They took some memories from you, I’m sure of that. But you’ll heal from the binding itself.”
The rush of relief felt more muted than she’d expected, perhaps because she was still worried about Hayes. “I’m very glad to hear that, Mrs. Wilkes.”
The old woman studied her. “Sam will also be fine. It’s pack business, Miss Marshall, and he’s used to dealing with that.”
Cora nodded but couldn’t help asking, “Will he be back soon?”
“Have a little patience. You’re not his only concern.” The words were mild, but Cora heard the reservation in the other woman’s voice. With sudden insight, she understood that Minnie had sensed her longing for Hayes and didn’t approve of it.
Yet Cora was well used to disapproval, especially from old ladies, and saw no reason to avoid voicing her suspicions about why Hayes had looked so grim. “Was the phone call about Isabelle?”
Minnie looked up from her knitting again. This time, her hands fell still. “He’s told you about her?”
“Well, a little. He’s never gone into details, but I met her and quickly realized she must have been very important to him when he was still part of the pack.”
“Important?” The old woman laughed, a creaky sound without humor. “Sweet child, she’s his mate.”