Getting Down to Business
Cora was very relieved to find that Hayes—Sam—acted as unprofessionally with her in the morning as he had throughout the night. Despite the lack of sleep, she felt bright-eyed and refreshed by the time they both washed and dressed. His freshly shaven face nuzzled against her neck until he could lick at her pulse while she put in her earrings. Her giggling in response was soon interrupted by a sharp knock on the door.
No one opened it, but Minnie Wilkes’ voice drifted through. “That’s enough now. Get downstairs before you miss breakfast.”
Sam kissed her a final time and straightened up. In the morning sunlight, he looked rested yet hungry, eyeing her as if he wanted still more. “I’ll go down first to make sure everyone stays civil.”
She faced him while putting the other earring in. “Oh, I don’t care if they frown at me for behaving outrageously. It’s been my reputation for years, and I’ve heard every disapproving comment in the book.”
“They can still be polite.” His hand traced her cheek a final time before he left, steps silent against the floorboards.
Syrup-sweet satisfaction lingered in her every thought while she finished dressing, but she remained aware enough to choose a subdued outfit. If human women resented heiresses flaunting their wealth, then she-wolves probably weren’t much different. Her knit dress was a demure navy blue, stylishly tailored but without any further decoration except some silver stripes on the sleeves and skirt.
Downstairs, she chirped a greeting to Minnie in the kitchen over the sizzling of eggs and tomatoes frying in bacon fat. She found the others in the breakfast room. From their stiff postures and quiet conversations, no one seemed very happy, and Sam had that easygoing yet detached expression he used to keep a discussion calm. It didn’t change while he gestured at her to take the chair beside him and then introduced her to everyone.
There was Brom, big and brawny and focused on shoveling scrambled eggs into his mouth more than anything. He had just come back from a night shift at the docks and seemed exhausted. His mate, Holly, was tall but slender, had auburn hair, and pointedly refused to look Cora’s way. And finally there was Eve, the young she-wolf who had been so aghast at seeing them together. She still seemed embarrassed to face Cora, instead fussing with baby Theodora asleep in her arms.
It was mostly Holly and Eve who talked to each other, although Brom occasionally tossed a friendly comment Sam’s way. Cora decided it was better to keep quiet and focus on the plate of food Sam had gotten for her. When he passed over the cream and sugar for her coffee, though, she couldn’t resist smiling. The reserve in his eyes disappeared long enough for him to wink in response.
“You put that much sugar in your coffee?” said Eve, still looking baffled by Cora’s very existence.
“I have a terrible sweet tooth,” replied Cora, and took a sip. She sensed the playfulness draining from Sam again, but truthfully, she wasn’t nervous at all to be the outsider at the table. It was unlikely their comments would be anything worse than the malicious wit that passed as talking with friends among high society.
“So, you’re the latest case for our Sam,” said Holly, suddenly.
Cora brightened her smile, remembering to keep her mouth closed to avoid showing her teeth at the she-wolf. “Yes. I doubt he expected so many twists and turns when he first took it on. I certainly didn’t.”
“But it’s surely over now. All the human papers have moved onto other topics.” The word human had a particular inflection to it.
“I hope so. I’d like to move on, too,” said Cora, and bit into her toast.
Amber eyes glanced over her face and away again. “That’s good. Sam has many other things to worry about.”
At that, Sam shifted in his chair. It was a small move, but Cora watched in fascination as it caused a ripple effect in the postures of the other wolves. It was clear who was the dominant one in the room. “Holly, you’re not anywhere as subtle as you think. Don’t try speaking for me while I’m right here.”
As soon as he looked at Holly, she nodded stiffly and fell quiet.
Brom shoved the rest of his bacon into his mouth, his attitude toward Sam as comfortable as before even though his posture remained deferential. “Holly’s just twisted up with nerves. We took control of rooms near to where the king’s barricaded himself, but he’s stuck fast like a tick. At least we’re close to controlling the storage units.”
There was a slight growl from Holly that seemed directed toward him. He acknowledged it with a shrug, still eating, but Cora noted how the lapse into silence seemed focused on her. It was easy to realize they didn’t want to talk about their pack in front of a human.
Sam also understood, because after finishing his coffee, he said, “Do you need to talk to me before getting some sleep?”
At Brom’s nod, Sam turned to Cora. She didn’t like how some of the tiredness had returned to his expression, but his voice sounded reassuring. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Once he and Brom stepped out into a tiny backyard used as an herb and vegetable garden, silence fell around the table. Cora reached for the nearest newspaper to read the headlines, remaining quiet even when Holly and Eve began talking about a play heard on the radio the other night. Oh, she recognized their behavior; she’d known plenty of mothers, sisters, and close friends who had shown similar coldness because a man important to them was interested in her. That busybody mixture of protectiveness and suspicion over their darling boy being led astray—nevermind that the darling boy knew full well what he was doing.
Yet she simply wasn’t interested in reacting to it. There were better things to focus on, like what the papers had to say about her disappearance from the opera house. Most of the headlines were about Isabelle Saxby’s execution. The only article about her was buried on the third page, and it implied she was simply up to her old tricks and had found a famous—or notorious—figure to spend a few days with. Frankly, she was glad. It gave her more breathing space to figure out her new life.
Minnie came in from the kitchen with her own plate of food. When she settled down at the table, she studied Cora with an expression that was more resigned than critical. “Well, girl, how are you this morning?”
Only a slight hint of irony marked the words. Cora, well-used to disapproving old ladies, remained cheerful. “Outright wonderful. You’ve been very kind to watch over me, but I feel fully recovered.”
“You seem well enough,” the other woman acknowledged. “Although, you need some awareness of what setting off on your own will mean. More… caution about the seriousness of escaping your father.”
“I thought a lot about it yesterday. I don’t see any reason to fuss over it this morning.”
The response drew a slight shake of the head from Minnie.
Cora was very pleased to see that, because it meant she was still good at her mental defenses. Keeping her voice airy, she added, “Instead, I’ve been thinking about last winter’s fashion, particularly the use of oversized buttons to break large blocks of color. There were so many coats, blouses, and dresses that had them. It will take all day to run out of examples. I’m sure I’ll dwell on nothing else.”
It was the first time she had seen Minnie surprised. “You know how to loop thoughts against mind readers? Goodness, girl, I see Sam wasn’t exaggerating when he said you had hidden talents.”
“Yes, but he didn’t know that. Or at least, I never told him. He might have sleuthed it out when first looking into my case. I was very good friends with a man named Cornelius Arbot, who was from Aquila. You know how that city is. It’s said that everyone there has such strong telepathy that some don’t even know what their own voice sounds like. Cornelius always spoke very well, though, and taught me a few techniques to protect my mind.”
“Yes, since coming into the city, we constantly read in the papers about your many good friends,” muttered Eve, who now gently rocked the baby while finishing her last slice of toast.
It was tempting to see if she could stoke the two she-wolves into outright bristling with merely one impertinent remark, but Cora knew it wouldn’t lead anywhere good. Instead, she looked at Minnie and said, “I’ll open my mind back up if you prefer. I just don’t think you would with the types of thoughts running through it this morning.”
“You’re a brazen little thing,” said the old woman, but grudging respect laced her voice. “Do as you like. I can tell your mind is in fine shape and form, and that’s all we needed to know.”
Just then, Sam and Brom returned inside, Sam saying, “Tomorrow at dawn. It’s going to be a short visit. There’s a lot for me to do here, too.”
His voice sounded dispassionate and hard, and Cora was dying to learn more. As soon as he appeared in view, he focused on her, still a little grim. “Everything all right?”
“I was about to ask you that.”
He nodded and glanced at Minnie. “Is she well enough to go out?”
“Oh, I’d say so,” said the old woman, dryly.
“Really?” Cora felt herself light up. “I was hoping you’d say that. I took a chance earlier and made an appointment with a lawyer. It’s at ten today.”
“Let me know when you’re ready,” said Sam. “I’ll take you.”
Soon, she found herself beaming in the passenger seat while he drove her through the city. Whenever he wasn’t using both hands on the wheel, his free one clasped hers, his touch warm even through their gloves. Despite the misty day, the buildings, people, and other cars all appeared so vivid to her gaze. Her thoughts still wheeled at the sense of freedom.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” she said, cheerfully. “I was expecting a tongue-lashing about improper behavior.”
Out on the road and in the fresh, briny air, he looked more relaxed but wasn’t yet smiling. “Minnie’s better than that. She just said I wouldn’t be allowed to stay overnight until you move out.”
“Oh, no.” She couldn’t help sounding crestfallen.
His hand squeezed hers. “It’s fine. Her next words were that you are well enough to move out. At this point, your father’s the only thing to worry about.”
The idea of being back in Sam’s apartment made her giddy, but she tried hard to focus on the new turn to their conversation. “Has he given a public response to my disappearance yet? I’m sure he’s very suspicious and confused by now. He probably even thinks I’m dead somewhere.”
“If he does, he’s not showing any concern. He hasn’t left his house and continues to refuse phone calls, but public perception of him is still sympathetic. He’s seen as a lucky survivor of Freddy Davenport’s cult plans who is slowly recovering.”
“Hmm. I’m sure he’s had Mr. Forrester amass whatever important people he thinks are necessary to lay low and avoid scrutiny. Well, that’s all right. I’m about to find my own.”
They reached a stoplight, leaving Sam free to look at her. The wryness had returned to those beautifully wild eyes. “Speaking of, who’s this lawyer you’re about to see?”
“Mr. Otto Snaith. His family was nearly ruined by Father almost a decade ago. I thought it was safest to see someone who would feel absolutely murderous toward Father and therefore wouldn’t back down from such a formidable figure.” Then she thought for a moment. “And if I like Mr. Snaith, I’ll talk about the sigil as well.”
When Sam raised an eyebrow, she said, “What Father did to me is bound to be found out anyway, isn’t it? Just now, you said the public perception of Father is that of an innocent man. You didn’t say it’s what the police think.”
For the first time since he’d left her bedroom, his real smile returned. “Clever Bunny.”
She grinned back before he said, “Your father hired Harold Beaumont to create the sigil. The police have his ledger of illegal enchantments and are slowly working through it. I don’t know how close they are to finding the entry for the sigil, but whenever they do, they’ll be able to connect it with your father just like I did.”
Cora nodded. “I see no reason to avoid helping them along, but I still want a lawyer to iron it all out first.”
Despite his history with her father, Mr. Snaith proved to be very neutral in manner. A thin, drab man with wire spectacles that flashed in the harsh lighting of his office, he carefully listened while she explained her intent to cut all connection with her father and live independently. Then he answered her questions, most of which boiled down to how well a restraining order would work against a powerful man like her father, and what other types of lawyers she might need if the situation grew messy.
She liked his explanations enough to decide to trust him further, and before he could wrap things up, she cleared her throat and said, “There’s one more thing, Mr. Snaith. I thought I should mention this, and if you aren’t able to help me, then maybe you could refer me to someone else. I’ve explained about wanting to stay away from my father’s control, but I suppose you couldn’t know that I meant it literally. Up until very recently, I really was under his control. Over a year ago, he had a binding sigil put on me. It took this long to escape it.”
The lawyer’s body language changed. He had been very stiff and proper up to this point, but now he outright froze at her words. His eyes, which were enlarged by his spectacles, stared at hers unblinkingly, and she was suddenly reminded of a short yet intense fad that had rippled throughout the elite of the city: keeping a praying mantis as a pet. She had never done it, but many of her friends had, and she’d been amazed at how the little creature seemed so indifferent and still until it sensed prey. Then it moved like lightning, catching and eating the unlucky insect head-first, those eyes now ruthless and knowing.
Mr. Snaith wore such a look now. Isaac Marshall, using illegal magic on his own daughter. Isaac Marshall, revealed as the kind of monster among the city’s elite that would be shown no mercy. His downfall would be spectacular.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning about this?” he said at last, and actually smiled.
She was also smiling while leaving his office a little later on. It brightened at the sight of Sam, and as they left the building together, she said, “He was very helpful and very confident that I’ll be safe from my father and any tricks he might pull to make my new life miserable. He’s not the type of lawyer who helps with police interviews—in fact, he warned that I might have a whole team of lawyers by the time this is through—so I gave him your office number for anyone he wants to refer me to. I hope you don’t mind since I don’t have my own phone yet.”
Sam nodded, settling a hand against her back as they joined the flow of pedestrians. “Not at all. Is he sending the bill there, too?”
“Bill?” she said, absently, too caught up in the excitement of spending the rest of the day together. “Oh, I haven’t hired him yet. He’ll get back to me once he has a representation agreement for me to look at.”
“He’s a lawyer and still wants to be paid for today. As soon as you stepped into his office for a consultation, he started charging by the minute.”
“Oh. That’s why he kept looking at his clock. I thought he was bored by my explanations. I was trying to be thorough.” The realization left her frozen on the sidewalk. “I didn’t even think about money. I’ve just always signed my name whenever necessary.”
Then she looked at him in chagrin, embarrassed by the oversight. “And here I thought I was doing a good job of things.”
At that, he shifted closer, eyes darkening with reassurance. “You are. It’s hard breaking off on your own when you’ve never done it before. Look, Allagash & Crown isn’t that far. Why don’t we drive there and see if someone can talk to you about your trust account?”
She nodded but couldn’t help saying, “Maybe I was overconfident about all this. I’ve never paid attention to more than the interest from my trust and don’t know how much is in it. There’s a difference between paying for shoes and paying for lawyers.”
“Believe me, the fact that it’s with Allagash & Crown proves you’ll be fine.”
The first open appointment was at one o’clock, and Cora took it. After they were escorted back out of the black marble building, Sam checked his watch and then eyed the park across the street. “That gives us about an hour. Feel like lunch?”
Many employees from the surrounding businesses had the same idea, but the lines at the street vendors moved quickly. She chose salted fries, wanting something she could eat without spilling on her outfit. He got a hot dog and had already finished by the time they reached the park. A brass band played in the pavilion, attracting a large audience, but when Sam glanced at her in a silent question, Cora shook her head. She didn’t want to listen; she wanted to talk, and they settled on a bench over by the pond instead. She watched several ducks drift through the water, already feeling bubbly again, especially when Sam settled an arm behind her and began lightly stroking the back of her neck.
When she turned to him, though, he seemed distracted while staring at the peaceful pond. It reminded her of how tired he had seemed the night before. Even as she took a fry, she found herself asking, “How are you?”
He looked startled by the question until she added, “Obviously, we’ve reunited in spectacular fashion, but it was over a month that we were apart. My side of things was very clear and boring, but what about yours? What did you do?”
“It drove me nuts to think of you back under your father’s thumb, so I stayed as busy as possible,” he admitted. “Here in the city, that meant figuring out how to free you while Jane worked on the enchantment. I also started and finished a quick case. Being associated with you rubbed off on me. Other high society figures are starting to reach out for my sleuthing skills.”
“Oh? Who was your client?”
Cora recognized the name. They were much alike, she and Louise. Notorious for being caught in scandal, for being fashionable, and for always being with men. But Louise also preferred hobbies Cora had never been interested in, mostly car and boat racing. The girl constantly drove those two worlds mad with how she could keep up with and sometimes even beat the other established drivers.
To Cora’s surprise, Sam’s hand moved enough to catch her chin and coax her to look at him. Humor glinted in his eyes. “Your scent changed as soon as I mentioned her name. Jealous of her?”
Cora tried not to huff. “She once called me too short to wear ostrich feathers. That doing so made me look like a molted bird. I’ve never forgiven her because she was absolutely right.”
“That’s all it takes, huh?”
“Well, that and the fact that she found her way to you as soon as I was unavailable. What was her case about?”
“Someone replaced a bunch of her jewelry with paste copies.”
Cora leaned toward him, trying not to sound so gleeful. “Don’t tell me—she did it herself.”
He was already smiling. “How did you know?”
“She has a horrible gambling addiction. Her motive for hiring you was probably just sheer interest. We’re all alike, you see. Dying for any new experience.”
“No, Bunny,” he replied, his eyes suddenly smoldering. “You are nothing like her. Even during our initial consultation, I could tell you were excited to know more about me, not what you could gain from being seen with me. It’s a big difference.”
It felt like her heart was about to melt, so she made her response just as teasing. “If we’re going to talk about sleuthing, then we should mention our bet before I was packed off to that stuffy retreat. I was right about Harold Beaumont hiding in Mallow Manor.”
“Mm-hm. What do you want as a prize?” Even though they were out in public, their mouths were inches apart, and the tone of his words was anything but proper.
“I can’t think of anything I want more than just to be with you,” she said, voice soft.
His growl sounded more like a purr while he kissed her, his hand still gentle against her chin.
Just as her lips parted against his, the clock tower chimed in the distance, startling her. His movements remained smooth as he pulled away with a sigh. “One o’clock. Time to go.”
She groaned but knew he was right.
Miss Carmen Jasso wore rigid, conservative clothing decades out of date, but the yards of black fabric and lace added to her tall, imposing frame. Silver streaked her dark hair, which was styled into a pompadour, and her eyes reflected the office lamplight like pieces of obsidian. Jeweled rings hinted at her skills in old-world magic, with fire opals, tiger iron, and brown tourmaline glimmering from the slightest movement of her hands. A black serpent coiled over her shoulders, flicking its tongue at Cora while she sat in the chair facing Miss Jasso’s desk.
Cora, who had never been afraid of snakes, merely gave it the same smile as she had to Miss Jasso. She didn’t know much about ‘heirloom’ magic, as it was quaintly termed now that modern methods of thaumaturgy had taken over, but she figured it was better to acknowledge Miss Jasso’s familiar than to ignore it.
“Don’t worry about Sylvie,” said Miss Jasso, petting the serpent’s gleaming scales. “Her work is silent and invisible. Now. You came in to discuss your account with us.”
“Yes. I want to live on my own, free of my father’s money. That will mean hiring lawyers and other possible expenses, so of course I’ll need my own income. Can my trust provide that?”
“Easily. Your mother created this trust with your independence in mind.”
“Good. I want to use it well.”
The other woman nodded and opened the file in front of her. “All decisions, of course, must be your own, but my advice will help you make them wisely. Let’s first discuss your portfolio summary.”
Cora followed along with the explanations, options, and proposed plans easily enough, asking the occasional question for a clarification.
After about fifteen minutes, Miss Jasso paused. “I freely admit, Miss Marshall, to feeling surprised. You have much more awareness and enthusiasm than when I last called to ask if you wished to make any changes to your trust.”
“I suppose I’ve changed since then,” said Cora, not looking up from the sheets of figures and sums.
“You must have, if you now plan to move away from your father.”
The sudden change in Miss Jasso’s tone drew Cora’s focus up to her face. The serpent slid along the woman’s shoulders, coiling in beautiful patterns against the stiff fabric. Each scale now seemed to be outlined with flickering, golden light, like the glow that could be seen beneath embers in a fireplace. Its gaze seemed as intelligent as Miss Jasso’s while they both studied Cora intently.
Then Miss Jasso leaned forward in her seat, gaining actual emotion in her voice. “If you don’t mind my saying so, I believe it to be a good personal decision as well as a financially sound one.”
“What do you mean?” said Cora, trying to sound calm despite sensing she was about to hear something important.
“I worked with your mother to set up this trust for you. She was a very respectable woman, a very gentle woman, but wary about your father growing too aggressive with his goals. She thought he would one day bring about his own ruin.”
For a moment, Miss Jasso didn’t answer. Her fingers brushed over the serpent’s glowing scales. Her hand remained unburned. “There are several magical seals on every account we manage. They protect against many attempts to take money from its rightful owner. Blackmail, embezzlement, even murder… we can catch evil intent and trace it back. Over a year ago, we noticed one of the seals for your account cracked—this is a sign of an impending threat, if you didn’t know. I called to warn you. You seemed very grateful and scheduled an appointment to see me.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“You missed it. When I called a week later, you didn’t remember our previous conversation at all.” Then Miss Jasso gave her a meaningful look. “We are, of course, well-versed in recognizing all types of magic, legal or otherwise.”
“Oh.” In her excitement of having the sigil removed, she had entirely forgotten that there was no way of knowing what memories she had lost. “But if you realized I had a binding sigil put on me, why didn’t you notify someone? The police?”
“Our position with clients is to protect their money, not kill them. We didn’t think you could survive if the sigil was revealed.”
The woman’s calmness needled at Cora, and she saw no reason to avoid stating the obvious. “And if I died, my father would inherit the trust and your firm would lose all that money.”
To Miss Jasso’s credit, she looked slightly uncomfortable but admitted, “That was also a consideration.”
The concession made Cora all the more glad that she did have one person she could trust, and she was glad to be able to leave and see Sam leaning against one of the marble columns outside the building’s entrance.
“What is it?” he said, catching her lingering indignation.
“Oh, everything’s all right with the money. It’s just that I realized very abruptly that I’ll never know what memories Father took from me. It’s a little unnerving. And it makes me feel helpless, which I’ve always hated.” Then she looked up at him, determination burning in her chest. “I want to know everything about this case. I don’t care if it’s considered solved and no one cares anymore. I want to know what really happened when Father survived that assassination attempt against him.”
She continued to scowl until Sam stepped in close, his eyes sharp with the excitement of a hunt. “Then I guess it’s a good thing you’ve got a detective on your side. How about a drive to my office?”