As Cora had predicted, Captain Dempsey appeared in high spirits, his sarcasm downright mild at seeing her surrounded by lawyers. “Miss Marshall. I’ll take a wild guess that you’re ready to talk about why you left your father.”
She offered a shining smile. “That’s right.”
Mr. Snaith stepped toward the captain, his words as brisk as the movement. “We’re sorry to disturb you this late, Captain Dempsey, but we thought this should be brought to your attention as soon as feasible.”
Once inside the captain’s office, a strange feeling struck Cora while Mr. Snaith and the others laid out the facts about her father and the sigil. There was the sheer anticipation of her father experiencing the hell of a police investigation and media uproar, yes, but also something quieter, something she couldn’t name. She sat there in silence, remembering the first time she had been in this office: the day Sam had taken her on as a client to clear her name against murder allegations. She wasn’t used to introspection, and it staggered her to think of how her life had changed. She supposed this was the closest she could come to experiencing closure over the sigil and her stolen memories.
Captain Dempsey remained stoic while listening, asking the occasional question for clarification. The smoke from his cigarette added to the moodiness of the dimly lit room. Jane had agreed to give the sigil to Cora’s lawyers, and they now offered the jar to the captain. Cora could never understand how men stayed so dispassionate in response to a repulsive sight. Only she flinched when the sigil, still in the slug-like form Jane had transformed it into, crawled to the side of the glass nearest to her and grew tendrils to search every inch of the smooth surface.
“As you can see,” said one of the lawyers, the expert in thaumaturgic law, “it still senses her.”
The captain’s gaze flickered over to Cora. She must have looked as sick as she felt, because he pushed the jar out of sight. “So, you want to press charges against your father.”
She drew in a deep breath, aware that there was no turning back from this moment. Aware that in the morning, when she felt less overwhelmed by a long day of legal discussions, she would be absolutely gleeful. “Yes. Mr. Snaith and the others have made sure I understand what that will mean for me.”
Dempsey studied her for a moment and then scrawled out a note. As he rolled it up and fed it into the pneumatic tubing system, he said, “All right. I hope you’re ready for the grinder.”
She raised her chin. “Who am I about to be meat for?”
“Everyone. You’ll have to see a police enchanter before you leave the station so he can collect all possible evidence left. Over the next few days, the police commissioner will want to interview you himself. Do you have somewhere to hide when the press finds out about this? It’s going to be big news. Every reporter in town will yap at your heels.”
“Miss Marshall is following our advice to remain out of public sight for tonight,” came Mr. Snaith’s calm reply. “We have someone who will send a press release for tomorrow’s morning edition. Since there’s no chance of keeping it quiet until you or the city prosecutor makes a move, we decided to control the timing and content of the reveal to reduce the stress on our client.”
One of the other lawyers offered yet another sheet of paper to the captain, who read it and shrugged. “Doesn’t put any words in my mouth, so I’m fine with it.”
As Dempsey stood in a silent signal that he was done with them, he added, “Any other questions or comments, Miss Marshall?”
“Yes. I know you already have men watching Father for his protection. I think that’s enough and don’t want anyone watching over me.”
“Obviously,” he said, voice dry. “Once the press is onto this, he won’t be able to sneeze without it being reported. Which I’m sure your team here is very aware of. Relax and get some sleep. You’ve given us plenty to work with.”
“All right. Have a good night, Captain.” Cora couldn’t resist putting a delicate inflection on the words good night. The lawyers wouldn’t understand it as anything besides an acknowledgment of more work for him and his men, but she thought the captain might hear the slyness in it. His response was a mere shrug, and she nearly laughed at his steady reaction compared to Jane’s.
He sensed what she’d implied, though, because as she and her lawyers rose to leave, his next words verbally poked her right back. “Your retinue is missing a familiar face. I didn’t think Sam Hayes knew how to leave your side.”
“Oh, he’s waiting here in the station with Miss Feral. I believe both expect you to ask for statements on the parts they played in freeing me.”
Mr. Snaith cleared his throat while gathering his coat and suitcase. “We’ve also advised Miss Marshall to keep her acquaintance with him as modest as possible.”
The captain lit a fresh cigarette before escorting them out of the office, not even bothering to hide his skeptical expression. “Lost cause, buddy.”
The lawyer didn’t seem ruffled by the final comment, but as they took the first of the hallways that would lead them to the police enchanters’ labs, he told Cora, “Advice is just that—advice, but I really do suggest you avoid spending too much time with Detective Hayes, including finding a separate living situation. We need all the public sympathy we can get for your case, and popular opinion is currently against wolves.”
Cora didn’t agree but decided she could be diplomatic about it. “I’ll certainly consider it.”
She certainly didn’t, and even after two hours passed with the police enchanters putting her through a ridiculous amount of tests she didn’t understand or want to know about, her first thought was wanting to feel Sam’s arms around her. By then, it was after midnight, and she wasn’t the only one who was exhausted. The lawyers also showed signs of weariness, some taking off spectacles to rub at the marks left behind on their noses and others leaning against the nearest wall.
Yet they were all obviously pleased by how everything had turned out, with Mr. Snaith even smiling at her while they returned to the main entrance room of the police station. “We’ll be in touch once I hear anything from the city or your father’s legal counsel. Until then, avoid contact with him and try not to worry. There’s no reason to.”
She nodded, but her sudden eagerness came from spotting Sam near the phone booths. He alone didn’t seem tired, his grey suit as crisp as ever and his hat tilted over one of his eyes. When he smiled at seeing her, her heart beat a little faster.
“I’ll take over from here,” he said, his tone even but also warning the lawyers against arguing.
Cora had to admit, Mr. Snaith and the others took not getting their way with much more grace than her father’s lawyers, only murmuring a round of polite farewells before leaving the station.
As soon as they were out of sight, she smiled at Sam, who slipped a protective hand to her back.
“Ready to go?” he murmured.
She moved closer to him, her heels loud compared to his silent steps. “Absolutely. What about Jane? Is she still giving her statement?”
“No, we’re both done, but she’s staying awhile longer. Something to do with her entry for the city’s new gun model contract. The deadline is in a few months, and she’s getting nervous.”
As they drove away from the station, she told him everything that had happened, ending with Mr. Snaith’s suggestion. Repeating the words left her more indignant than when she’d first heard them.
To her surprise, Sam said, “Might not be a bad idea to find your own place as soon as possible. Somewhere you can call home.”
“But I thought once the news is out about the sigil, I can live with you.”
“Bunny, these days I’m hardly at my apartment. And a lot more people know where it is and that I’m there.”
“Oh.” She tried not to sound crestfallen. Her hope had been that after tonight, they would spend the next several days in bed to make up for lost time. “Is it because you’re more involved with the Saxbys now?”
Traffic was sedate enough that he risked a glance at her. Even the glitter of the city’s nightlife couldn’t compare to his eyes, their gold bright and wry. “You overheard me and Brom, huh?”
“Yes, a little. You can overhear a lot in that house, especially through its ventilation. Not that I normally try to, but… I was curious. All I heard was that you’ll visit the Saxbys tomorrow.”
“That’s right. At dawn.” When he didn’t elaborate, she remembered the other wolves’ reticence toward discussing their pack in front of her.
Just as she drew in a breath to change the subject, he sighed, expression tightening as if he’d come to a decision and didn’t like it. “There’s been a lot of upheaval with the Saxby Pack since the city cut it off. The alpha-king has barricaded himself with the remnants of the royal guard in his citadel. The rest of the pack is trying to overthrow him. They’re called the breakaway Saxbys since they haven’t come up with a new pack name. I’ve been helping them since I’m the only wolf on their side with firsthand knowledge of the layout and weaknesses of all the royal buildings.”
She nodded, taking in the grim set to his mouth. “Is there a good chance they can pull it off?”
He rubbed the side of his jaw, eyes absent. “Yes, there is. Strange as it sounds, the fact that the city has cut off trade with the Saxby Pack created some breathing room. No other pack wants the trouble of mollifying the city if they take over the territory, so even though the Saxby alpha-king’s hold on his pack has disintegrated, everyone else is content to watch and wait.”
“Who will be the new Saxby alpha-king?”
“Whoever the breakaways decide is the best leader for a new pack.” He spoke the words with his usual steadiness, but Cora saw more in his expression.
Her voice rose in excitement. “It could be you, couldn’t it?”
He hesitated. “Could be. Others have pointed out that I’m already acting like a leader for the breakaways. Right now, I’m solely focused on bringing down the alpha-king to help the others. It’s the least I can do to repair the damage his rule has done to the pack.”
She didn’t understand why he wasn’t more enthusiastic about it. “But isn’t this all good? You’ll be able to return to your pack again and perhaps even lead it. You’ll have the respect you deserve from humans and other wolves. It’ll be freedom to do what you want after having to be so careful toward either side.”
He smiled thinly. “I try not to get ahead of myself, especially with complicated situations like this. One step at a time. For tomorrow, that means finding and cracking open some storage rooms. It’ll keep the breakaways fed and well-supplied, anyway.”
Worry threaded through her next words. “It won’t be too dangerous, will it?”
Now his expression warmed. “No. Trust me, I’ll be back in time to be with you when the news breaks about your father and the sigil.”
“And then onto Mr. Forrester to see what he knows?”
He laughed. “If you’re not sick of lawyers.”
“Not when it means investigating.” Then she also laughed, but a pang went through her heart as she looked out and saw how close they were to Ragbag Way and therefore Minnie’s house.
His hand found hers, warm and comforting. “Don’t want to go back yet?”
“No. I know I should get some rest, but I’m just not ready. My mind is whirling with how quickly life has changed. All I’m sure about is wanting to spend more time with you before you leave.”
When Sam spoke again, his voice brushed her ears like a kiss. “Where do you want to go?”
“Anywhere. I know I mustn’t be spotted by people, but that’s all right. A quiet place will be just as swell.”
His smile in response made her heart jump. “I can think of just the spot.”
He drove her to the ocean, finding a rocky part of the shoreline that wasn’t popular. There were copses of cypress trees to park a car under, but all the trails down the steep cliff edges were cut right into the stone and sand.
This high above the ocean, the waves sounded lulling instead of thunderous, and the sky was beautifully clear of the typical marine fog that often slipped in at night.
An ancient wooden fence waited by the trees, still sturdy enough that they could settle on it to watch the waves glitter under the waning moon.
“This is a lovely spot,” said Cora, melting into the warmth of his body. “How did you know about it?”
“When I first left the Saxbys, I used to come here whenever living among humans got to be too much. I’d shift into my fur and run beside the waves, smelling nothing except saltwater and seaweed.” He sounded thoughtful, musing, as if remembering those days.
“To escape for a little while,” she said, softly, watching how the shadows from the cypresses played off his features. “It must have been terribly hard growing used to us.”
“Everything’s hard, Bunny. Life in the pack was hard, too.”
She nodded, looking out at the ocean. The next words slipped out of her, driven by the allure of moonlight on waves. “Would you like to escape like that tonight?”
There was a brief pause. “You mean, running along the shoreline as a wolf?”
“Yes.” Then she wondered if she’d blundered. There was still so little humans understood about wolfkind. “Or is it difficult to change form?”
“Not for me, anyway. It’s always been painless and easy. You merely surprised me by asking.”
“I don’t know why I did. It just seems so dreamlike out here. So peaceful.” The wind pulled at the curls of her hair before she added, “I’ve always thought it must be wonderful to escape being human. I’ve met quite a few wolves by now, and most looked absolutely miserable trapped in clothes and manners. And you know… during the month I was back with my father, only my dreams were truly out of his control. You appeared in them all the time, always as a wolf. It felt so vivid. I can even recall the texture of your fur. It made me feel better whenever I woke back up. People insult wolves by calling them ‘animals,’ but I don’t think being an animal is humiliating at all. I think it means you’re free in a way that humans will never know.”
He studied her, eyes gold even in the starkness of night. She couldn’t tell what he thought. Then he nodded, and his hand brushed her cheek before he pulled away and began removing his clothes. He looked unearthly in the moonlight, and she found herself wondering how humans, herself included, went through their day viewing the wolves as just one more mundane aspect of their lives.
She shivered in awe when he crouched down in his bare skin and began the change. It was smoother than she expected, a hint of true magic taking place. Muscle and bone twisted into new shapes in silent harmony. Fur rippled into life, replacing skin. A soft growl was the only sound he made while shaking himself from muzzle to tail. He looked like smoke and silver while loping to her, and she forgot how to breathe.
At first, she kept still against the fence, unsure of what he was comfortable with. Then a cold nose prodded her hand, encouraging her to touch him. Even through her glove, the thickness of his fur thrilled her. When she took it off and stroked between his shoulders, marveling at how they were as high as her waist, her bare fingers sank in until she couldn’t see them. Just like in her dreams. Suddenly, she felt close to tears.
He circled around her, powerful fangs tugging at the thick coat she wore. Despite the ocean’s chill, she shrugged it off to free her movements and found herself kneeling to bury her face against his fur. He smelled like clean musk and salt. His heartbeat reverberated, matching her own. He didn’t pant like a dog, instead remaining silent while nuzzling at her.
“Thank you,” she murmured. “Until this moment, some part of me still refused to believe this has all really happened.”
Somehow, despite the fact that he was now bone-crushing jaws and bristling fur and deadly instinct, his silent movements held the same reassurance as his kisses.
She left her hat, stockings, and shoes behind with her coat, too excited to feel the chill of the sea breeze. The trail down to the shore was brightly lit by the moon, but much of it proved steep enough that she kept a hand on his back for balance. The hiss of waves grew into a roar once they reached the bottom, and she could see that rocks as jagged as teeth pushed up through the sand by the cliffside.
Yet there was still a wide strip of smooth shore that ran for a good two miles, and as soon as Sam knew she had her footing, he raced ahead, moving with incredible speed along the damp, hard-packed sand. In that ethereal landscape of black rock, silver waves, and glittering stars, in Cora’s eyes he was the most otherworldly sight of all.
She knew she couldn’t catch up with him, but it didn’t matter. She ran as well, full of an exhilaration that left her laughing each time seafoam washed over her bare feet. The cold air stung her cheeks and calves, but her heart beat strong and fast, eyes always on the wolf speeding over the dusky sand.
He made it to the end of the shore and returned to her before she was even a third of the way along, splashing in and out of the waves until his tongue lolled. She was barely aware of him lunging to erase the distance between them before he had changed form and caught her up in a rough, breathless kiss. With her skin chilled by salt and wind, the heat of his mouth felt shocking. Her fingers buried into his wet hair as his lips moved down to her throat, his body pressing against hers with the same excitement that had filled his every movement while a wolf.
“Sam,” she whispered, just to bring his face back up to hers.
His eyes glowed like the moon as he looked at her, and his grin was almost boyish. Unguarded and in the moment.
I love you, she wanted to say, sure that her heart was about to burst from the truth of those words.
Yet then he kissed her again, as passionately as before, and that butterfly-delicate feeling in her chest brightened into a heat of her own as he began unbuttoning her dress, somehow both unhurried and hungry in his movements. Very soon, she forgot all about those words and anything else that wasn’t him. The moon wheeled overhead, bathing them in its gentle, ancient light while they made the most of their night together.
By the time they returned to Minnie’s house, they were properly dressed and using their masks of manners once more, but Cora knew she couldn’t keep a satisfied smile off her face no matter how hard she tried. Her skin itched from the salt left by the seawater, she was so tired that she couldn’t tell up from down, and in the morning she would be applying makeup to her neck just like Jane Feral. Frankly, she felt utterly amazing.
Sam escorted her to the door like a perfect gentleman, but before he could unlock it, Minnie Wilkes opened it for them. The old woman sounded glad enough to see them, but Cora could tell she wasn’t about to let them repeat the night before.
Sam didn’t bother going in, instead giving Cora that warm, wry smile of his. “I’ll be back by breakfast, Bunny,” he murmured, eyes gleaming.
She nodded with a tinge of wistfulness. She wanted to say something lighthearted, perhaps even offer a quip back, but all that came out of her was a breathless, “Be careful.”
Something flickered in his eyes, but she couldn’t tell what it was before he disappeared into the darkness with the ease of someone used to hunting in the shadows of humans.
Inside, the house was quiet and dim, with the main hearth long reduced to embers.
“Everyone else has been in bed for hours,” said Minnie, but there was no judgement in her voice. And when Cora only nodded again, the other woman patted her shoulder and added, “Chin up, girl. Sam’s gone on much more dangerous visits into pack land and returned no worse for the wear.”
Cora managed a smile, believing her, but in her heart, she knew it was more than that. They’d spent the night together, and now her bed would feel empty without him in it.
As she moved for the stairs, Minnie added, “Sleep well, Miss Marshall. Breakfast tomorrow will be at 7:00 like before, but I won’t be there. I go to church on Sundays.”
“I understand. Goodnight.”
The hearth in her room had also burned away to embers, their dim lighting and occasional crackle encouraging her to undress and fall asleep. She had just picked a nightgown when a soft knock at the door startled her. The silk slipped through her fingers while she turned toward the sound.
“Come in,” she said, assuming it would be Minnie.
It wasn’t. Instead, Holly stepped inside cautiously, as if expecting Cora to throw her right back out.
“Oh. Hello,” said Cora, seeing no reason to hide her surprise. “I didn’t realize anyone besides Mrs. Wilkes was up this late.”
“I wanted to speak with you.” The she-wolf moved with the same silence as Sam but held more grace in her movements while closing the door. She remained there, looking over Cora’s suitcases.
Cora didn’t know what Holly wanted but thought it was best to get things over with. “Of course. Sit down if you’d like.”
Holly didn’t, although her gaze briefly flickered to Cora’s face. “There’s no reason to play coy about why I’m here. Are you aware of Sam’s plans?”
Cora decided the best option was to play up being silly and thoughtless. She had no hard feelings toward the she-wolf but no soft ones, either. “For tonight? He mentioned that he needed to leave and would be back tomorrow.”
“I meant his long-term plans. I thought perhaps he shared them with you.”
When Cora shook her head, Holly didn’t look surprised. “He’s never wanted to stay here among humans. In the five years since he had to leave the pack, some of us managed to keep in contact with him. It’s always been his goal to return to the Saxbys.”
So far, the she-wolf’s tone sounded mild, but Cora still felt herself grow restless. Without anything else to do, she began packing her belongings back in her suitcases. When it became obvious that Holly waited for a response, she said, “I understood everything you said, but I don’t see what I’m supposed to take away from it.”
“His time among humans was for mere survival, including his job as a private detective.” Holly studied her again and added with some exasperation, “Including his clients as a detective.”
Cora had never been a neat packer, but now she tried, aware that she needed a few extra moments to keep her next words lighthearted. “In other words, we’re nothing special to him.”
Cora sighed and faced the she-wolf. “If you really believed that, you wouldn’t bother having this discussion. So what do you truly wish to tell me?”
The insight startled Holly. The she-wolf folded her arms against the oversized, heathered sweater she wore and looked at Cora more carefully. “All right. I’m here to ask you to leave Sam out of your sordid games.”
“Games?” repeated Cora, honestly confused.
“You know your reputation. You flaunt it constantly. One of those rich girls of the city that collect men like dresses.”
Cora sighed. So it was just the same pinch-faced disapproval after all. “Why should I hide my past? I’d rather be honest about it. But it’s all right. I don’t expect you to like me. Frankly, most women don’t.”
Holly eyed her, her posture still stiff. “Can you really be that shameless? The whole city knows about your sordid history and yet you laugh like it’s a joke. As if you have no heart.”
Cora didn’t stop packing. “It’s just I’ve heard this so many times before.”
“That’s exactly it,” said Holly, taking a step closer. “You don’t understand, so you think it’s fine to do to Sam what you’ve outright admitted to doing to other men.”
“Do what? Enjoy each other? I don’t see what’s so bad about that. You’re talking like I’ve gone out and bewitched him.”
“You have! He’s distracted by you. Glamored. He trusts you, and that’s a terrible thing. Humans aren’t like wolves. You don’t understand how we view the world. Wolves are loyal.”
It was those words that rankled Cora to the point of letting heat slip into her own voice. “Humans understand loyalty, too. Even I do. I was very fond of each man in my past.”
“And yet now your attention is so easily focused on Sam.” Holly shook her head. “How soon before it shifts again? And even if it doesn’t, you’ve compelled him to care about your problems. To help you far beyond what a client in a case deserves. Can you honestly claim you’ve brought more good than bad to his life? That he can escape this city while you’re clinging to him? What life does he have here, serving humans? He can be a king back on Saxby land, but out of either ignorance or selfishness, you’re content to keep him a mere dog among humans.”
Cora realized she was breathing so quickly that she felt dizzy. She wanted to tear out handfuls of the she-wolf’s long, auburn hair while screaming that none of it was true, but her treacherous brain jumped to how happy he had been on the beach, free of the city and its humanity.
Then she raised her chin, refusing to let Holly’s words fill her with doubt. “If Sam wants to end things, then I trust he’ll tell me so himself. And I’ll believe him. But I won’t take anyone else at their word about it, including you. Is there anything else you wanted to discuss?”
Holly briefly flashed her fangs in frustration, but when she replied, she sounded only formal. “If I can’t convince you, then there’s nothing else to say. Goodnight.”
Cora nodded, still too angry to trust herself to be polite. And once the door shut behind the she-wolf, she paced throughout the room, all exhaustion burned away by confusion and fury. She was so indignant and so sure that Holly would keep talking about her that she even unblocked the vent in the floor that piped air and any conversations happening in the rooms below.
Holly’s voice drifted up to where Cora knelt, metallic yet clear. So did the creak of bedsprings, as if she had already settled in for the night. “I’m worried about the human. What do you think of her?”
Her mate, Brom, already sounded half-asleep. “Sweetheart, you’re the only girl who exists in my eyes.”
“Be serious. What if there’s trouble?”
The she-wolf really did sound scared, and once again, doubt itched at Cora. Suddenly, she wasn’t angry. Suddenly, she just hoped Holly was completely wrong.
Brom sighed. “For who, Sam? He’ll be fine. He survived Isabelle.”
“Humans are different. They never want to let things go. And she’s an heiress, isn’t she? She’ll have a lot of sway. If she’s soft on him and takes it badly when we all go back home…”
There was a slight rustle, as if one of them shifted to be closer to the other. Then Brom said, “Knowing Sam, he’ll let her down gently and have things planned out for her to move on smoothly as possible. It’s fine, love. Everything will be fine.”