Ignorance is Bliss
By the time morning arrived, Cora had pushed all doubt from Holly’s words out of her mind. She decided to return to her usual boldness with her outfits as well, choosing a pale pink dress with ruffles at the neck and a white blazer jacket embroidered with gold. The smells of coffee and frying ham reached her while she put on a pair of heels and some earrings, but she resisted breakfast long enough to set aside white kidskin gloves and a hat for later, bubbling with excitement over the idea of spending the day sleuthing with Sam.
She was still smiling while heading downstairs, catching hints of a murmured conversation between Holly and Eve. Butter and jam waited on the kitchen table and so did two half-full cups of coffee, but Holly was already washing the final plate while Eve sat there and nursed the baby with a bottle. The younger she-wolf glanced at Cora and then away again, obviously uncomfortable.
Cora paused in the doorway, assessing the situation. “Did I miss breakfast?”
Holly looked over. The she-wolf had been stiff in her mannerisms before, but now they were absolutely glacial. “Yes. It was at 7:00.”
Cora checked her watch. 7:13. Inwardly, she wanted to laugh at the snub but kept her voice serene. “Well, I’ve always made it a habit to be late, so I suppose I can’t complain.”
She didn’t wait for an answer, instead returning to her room to collect her hat, gloves, and some spare change. In all honesty, breakfast with the others had been dull and strained even when Sam had been there by her side. Missing it this morning felt like an opportunity, not a punishment.
Back downstairs, Holly seemed surprised that she was leaving. “You’re going out into Ragbag?”
Cora offered a smile while adjusting her hat in the ancient mirror by the front door. “Oh, yes. I noticed a sandwich shop from my window that’s open for breakfast. It’s barely a block away. Isn’t that convenient?”
“But I didn’t mean for you to—you’ll get into trouble the moment you step outside.”
“I don’t think so. It’s just a sandwich. I’ll be back in a bit.” Then she was out the door and gone, navigating the grey, dilapidated structures overrun with weeds and trash piles. As she walked, her white shoes skirted broken glass and the occasional bloodstain. Guttural coughing could be heard from one of the leaning shacks built from ripped cloth and broken boards.
Oh, she wasn’t a total fool. Ragbag Way had an unpleasant reputation, and she was alone and obviously out of place. For that reason, she had traded her jewelry for her pistol and had left her purse behind. She had also kept every other part of her outfit completely untouched.
All the buildings she passed were unlit, but she felt the weight of attention from all directions until she reached the sandwich shop. Matteo’s, tiny yet alluring with its mouthwatering smells of peppers, fried eggs, and sausage. A man reeking of whiskey slumped in front of the big display window papered with old advertisements for beer brands and pickles, blinking at her when she smiled at him and continued inside.
The interior was worn yet clean, its air greasy and hot from the griddle in the back. The owner was a boulder of a man, with the thick body and broken nose of an old boxer. He stared at her with the same suspicion and bafflement as those eating at the cramped tables nearby, but said nothing while she ordered a breakfast sandwich and paid. In a few minutes, she left with her food without anyone following.
It was hard not to tear open the brown paper and begin eating, but she resisted until she found an old, crumbling wall to sit on. The fenced junkyard behind it meant no one could catch her by surprise, and the view she faced was rather nice: blackberry bushes overtaking a collapsed house. Red-throated birds swooped over the tangled branches, their chirps bright enough to cut through the drone of heavy machinery echoing from the distant docks. People passed by occasionally, but she didn’t expect to be approached, and wasn’t.
A few minutes had passed when two familiar figures appeared around the corner: Sam and Jane. Their movements were sharp and careful as if they hunted for something, and even from that distance, visible tension filled Sam while he spoke to Jane. They both caught sight of her at the same time, and she waved before taking another bite out of the sandwich. It really was too good to ignore.
By the time they were within speaking distance, Jane had relaxed back to her usual smirk, but Sam’s eyes looked feral. “Cora, why are you out here? What happened?”
“Everything’s fine. I just went to that sandwich shop across the way for breakfast,” she assured him, shifting to jump down from her makeshift seat.
Yet he had already reached her, ripping off a glove to trace her cheek with bare fingers, as if making sure she was truly there and all right. She smiled at him and watched the concern in his expression melt into relief.
His voice remained a growl. “Wasn’t there any at the house?”
He really did seem wound up, but she sensed it wasn’t at her. In fact, from the way his body shielded hers from their surroundings, he was ready to rip at any passerby who so much as looked her way. “There was, but you know how I’m chronically late to things.”
His hand dropped from her face to check his watch. A muscle jumped in his jaw. “It’s not even 7:30.”
Jane moved within view, raising an eyebrow. “I told you they’d stop being polite once you left. Eve remains in shock over what happened to her sister, Brom doesn’t think if he can help it, and Holly believes you’re an innocent lamb being seduced by a fornicatress.”
Cora laughed, not seeing any reason to care about what had happened. As far as she was concerned, this was the best sandwich she’d ever had. “And here I thought I’d been called every word known to man. Look, they’ve really done nothing bad. I’m enjoying a peaceful morning with a delicious sandwich that is much too large for me. Do either of you want the other half? It’s bacon, eggs, pepper jam, and cheddar.”
Sam still looked too angry to speak without snarling, but Jane turned to her. “Are you fully aware of Ragbag’s reputation?”
“Oh, yes. That’s why I wasn’t worried at all. I mean, look at me. I’m obviously out of place and obviously alone, yet I don’t seem scared or confused. There’s no sign that I lost my way or got dumped off here. People surely think I’m some sort of police decoy sent out to test how dangerous Ragbag Way would be to a woman walking alone.”
“It’s very dangerous.” Sam’s teeth flashed with each word. “I was struck stupid when we caught your scent out here on the way to Minnie’s. Do the others know you went out?”
Cora hesitated, not wanting to blow things up further.
Her silence proved answer enough, because Sam forced himself calm and told Jane, “Watch over her. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Use your protection charms.”
“I’ll bill you,” warned Jane, settling beside Cora on the wall. “The good ones take hours to craft.”
“Use them.” Then his attention returned to Cora, and for a moment, his fury seemed softened by regret. “I’m sorry this happened, Bunny. I’ll be right back.”
“But it’s really nothing…” Her words trailed off as he left, the set of his shoulders dangerous. Then she looked over at Jane, who pulled a few glass charms from her enchanter’s bandolier and rubbed them until they shimmered like opals. “It was a silly little snub, that’s all. You should have seen the tricks my old friends played in the name of lighthearted fun.”
Jane replaced the charms and then folded her hands, studying Cora. There was no sign of her normal sarcasm. “Keeping breakfast from you wasn’t a snub and it wasn’t a trick. It was an unspeakably rude act and an attempt to put you in your place—beneath them. If that sounds like a lot of meaning behind a cup of coffee and some fried eggs, well… consider it an introduction to pack life. And Sam and I are especially sensitive about food. It means even more to us as orphans. Speaking of, are you still offering that sandwich-half? Matteo’s is the only thing I miss about living here.”
Cora handed it over, hoping she had enough patience to wait to hear more while Jane ate. She needn’t have worried. The she-wolf devoured the mound of food with astonishing speed. Despite the sandwich’s messiness, not a single scrap escaped her appetite, and when she finished, she neatly wiped her mouth with a thumb and licked it clean.
As the she-wolf replaced her gloves, she said, “Sam’s slowed down with practice, but he used to eat like this as well. The Saxbys had a rigid pack structure where food was allotted. Orphans were given the smallest amount because it was an efficient way to see which ones could rise above their situation and be worth something to the pack. So, if someone stole my meal, I either had to fight them to get it back or give it up and go hungry. In that way, the stronger orphans dominated the weaker ones and gained a higher position of power in their group. But the big brutes weren’t the only ones who did well. Weaker orphans who were sly learned how to make deals to avoid being attacked for their food. Call it initial education on surviving pack dynamics.”
“It just sounds like bullying to me,” said Cora, horror itching up her spine. “Was this normal for all the Saxby wolves?”
“Whether you had parents or not, the tactics became abstract once you grew up and were given a position in the pack. Less about brute strength and more about what you could provide to the stability and growth of the pack. Especially for she-wolves. Not all of us were like Isabelle and had the strength and skill to be a fighter. Many, especially among the royal ranks, can’t even change into wolves, so their aggression is literally toothless. A typical Saxby she-wolf will be passive-aggressive with her anger. It’s all she knows. And she’s often rewarded for being demure, anyway, as if proper behavior is better than her learning how to shift form. The Saxbys are truly an example of the psychoses that happen when you force wolves into a few select roles and tell them that their position means everything for their survival and well-being—and for the pack’s as well.”
There was a bitter note to Jane’s words that Cora wasn’t sure how to address. In a soft voice, she finally asked, “What did you do to survive while you were with the Saxbys? It couldn’t have been a pleasant life.”
Jane smiled thinly. “Sam’s always looked after me. For some years, we were too young to fight off the oldest of the orphans, but we could both shift into our fur and catch live prey. I’m a terrible hunter, but Sam was always good at it and always shared with me. Even on the days we went hungry, I felt better about having an empty stomach than giving in. When we were older, enough higher-ranked wolves noticed my intelligence to put me into the researcher division. It was a safety net despite my bad temper and worse tongue.”
Cora nodded, not wanting to press the she-wolf further. Yet just as she bit into the remnants of her sandwich, Jane suddenly said, “I’m not explaining all this so you might better understand Holly’s actions. I want you to realize how much you’ve saved Sam. The amount of good you’ve brought into his life by being in it. By being as you are. You give him so many things that were missing in his life while he was a Saxby.”
Cora blinked, struck by how thoroughly the sentiment crossed what Holly had said last night.
Jane’s expression grew shrewd. “So Holly did try to put doubts in your mind. The idiot. Her concern for Sam is genuine and horribly placed. She’s unhappy that he clearly cares for you but will never talk to him about it. It’s too confrontational. She’ll merely sulk and nip at you instead, hoping to drive you away.”
“But is she right?” said Cora, hesitantly. “Am I just distracting him as another obligation?”
Jane scoffed and rose to her feet. “Don’t listen to her about what he feels. For that matter, don’t even listen to me. Talk to him and find out for sure. Here’s your chance.”
Then the she-wolf looked out at the street. Cora did as well and saw Sam approaching them again. He seemed calmer, eyes back to a normal gold, but his voice sounded rougher than usual when he said, “You won’t have to stay there another night. I already collected your suitcases and put them in the car. We’ll take them to my office.”
“Good,” said Jane, looking smug. “I’m sick of dragging her luggage around.”
Nothing much was said during the drive. Sam still seemed on edge over what had happened, and Jane showed no interest in another conversation, instead sketching out enchantment ideas on a scrap of paper.
Once at the office, Jane disappeared into her side. Sam took the heaviest of Cora’s suitcases, leaving her with just the makeup case to carry while she followed him into the back. Unsure of what to say, she remained quiet while he stacked the luggage beside the small bed.
“You don’t have to stay here,” he said, still terse. “I’ll help you find a hotel if you’d prefer that.”
“What I’d really prefer is to talk with you,” she said, brushing his arm. Even through the thick fabric of his coat, she felt the tension in his muscles.
At the touch, he studied her as carefully as Jane had back on that brick wall. Then he sighed. “I’m sorry about what happened, Bunny.”
“Sam, it means nothing to me. Jane explained why food is important to you and the other wolves, but I—I admit it’s what Holly said last night that’s got my feathers ruffled.”
He growled, looking as wolfish as when he was in his fur. “She admitted to speaking with you last night but didn’t want to give details.”
“It was about you and your future.”
After a short silence, he removed his hat and gloves and then shrugged off his suit jacket and shoulder holsters. She took off her own outerwear, relieved at the sign that he was about to ignore the rest of the world for her. His bare hands felt very warm as they caught hers to guide her over to the bed. Even after they sat there together, he kept their fingers entwined while staring down at them. Stripped down to his waistcoat, it was easy to see the strong, fit lines of his body that had gotten him through years as a pit fighter. All that strength and steadiness, and yet he still looked so tired. Her hands tightened against his while she wished she could erase all the worries from his heart.
The movement, small as it was, stirred him out of whatever he’d been thinking, and he looked up at her with dark, serious eyes. “I don’t want there to be any questions between us, big or small. What’s worrying you?”
She swallowed hard, not sure she would like this conversation. “Is it true that you’ve always planned to return to the Saxby Pack?”
He scoffed a little, as if hearing how most of the words were Holly’s. “No. I didn’t think at all when Jane and I first lived among humans. Once fighting for survival eased into building a life, I had time to realize how deeply corruption ran in the Saxbys and many others. Around the time I got into detective work, I started helping other wolves escape their packs and get a softer starting point among humans than what I had. It helped with but didn’t erase my guilt for leaving the Saxbys to their corrupt alpha-king. I feel obligated to help the breakaways with overthrowing him, and I’ll enjoy seeing the bastard squirm at facing the consequences for his greed. Those things are what drive me to return to pack land. Nothing else.”
He sounded so sure and cold, as if he had thought about it many times before. When Cora searched his face, trying to glean more, he noticed. His tone softened. “I’ve changed. We’re already creatures caught between two natures. Now I’m one caught between two worlds, too. There’s a lot about pack life that I don’t like. I won’t slip back into my old role when it means accepting those things. Holly and the others can’t understand yet and maybe don’t want to anyway. It took living among humans to realize how rotten wolves can be. How blind I was to the true state of the Saxbys.”
“So now you want to help those still stuck in that life,” murmured Cora. “What does that mean? Becoming the new alpha-king?”
“Anyone who becomes a king ends up dead inside, paranoid, or gleeful about his power. I just got over being the first type, and the other two sound even more dangerous.”
“Oh.” Cora blinked, slightly stumped by how unglamorous he made the wealth and power of an alpha-king seem.
As if sensing her thoughts, he smiled a little. “Do I sound bitter? Maybe I am. Maybe that’s why I can’t forget those I left behind five years ago. They don’t deserve the king they have.”
She shifted enough to begin stroking his hair, trying to soothe him. Despite the grim nature of their conversation, she had to smile at the way he unconsciously leaned into her touch just like when he was a wolf. “You seem worn down more than anything. Holly made it sound like you’ve been itching to get away from humans for good.”
He had already relaxed enough beneath her touch to wink in response. “A few have grown on me.”
She blushed like a schoolgirl, but her hands also dropped to fuss with the quilt covering the bed, smoothing out the nearest wrinkles.
He noticed. “Did Holly put it in your head that you’re holding me back?”
When she nodded cautiously, fingers still working away, he sighed and caught her hand, coaxing it close until his mouth brushed her knuckles. The kiss was absolutely chaste compared to some of the things they’d done, but it still soothed the painful doubt that had stubbornly remained.
When he pulled her closer still, her body melted into his, and his next words reverberated against her cheek. “I made up my own mind to help you set up a new life before I join the breakaways to finish off the alpha-king. To hell with anyone who doesn’t like that fact.”
“I believe you,” she breathed against him. “How long will it take to overthrow him?”
“Funny enough, that meeting I had earlier with the breakaways might’ve improved any answer to that.”
Considering the vagueness of his words, she thought he would stop there. Instead, he absently nuzzled the top of her head, still so wolf-like, and added, “Do you remember what I told you about trying to save the Saxby princess?”
Cora nodded. “Princess Liana. The poor girl sent off to be with the mad Sinclair prince.”
“She had an older sister who had been mated off to the alpha-king of the Baca Pack. That’s what helped make the mating treaty with Liana and the Sinclair Pack seem in earnest. Alpha-king Saxby had done the same thing with his other daughter, Lorelei, and had success with it. As an ally, the Baca Pack joined the Saxbys against the Sinclairs after Liana was killed. By the end of the fighting, they were all dead, including Alpha-queen Lorelei… or so I thought. It turns out she escaped and has been in hiding with a sympathetic pack until now. I met her this morning. It’s her all right, and she’s hellbent on bringing down her father. The breakaways are willing to rally around her as their new leader.”
Cora straightened up to look at him. “But that’s wonderful! Then overthrowing the old king should go as smoothly as possible.”
In the silence that followed, she added, “Shouldn’t it?”
“Yes. Very.” Then Sam sighed, grim once more. “Like I said, no questions between us, Bunny. Having Lorelei back on pack land and hungry to take over will push things to a faster pace, but it could still take weeks, even months. And once I’m over for good, we’re closing the territory borders to make sure the alpha-king can’t escape. Nobody in… nobody out.”
As good as she had felt before, now she felt like a snuffed-out flame. For a moment, all she could do was stare. “What? But… what about letters, or—or news of what’s happening?”
“Nothing. We can’t risk the alpha-king sending for help, or the other packs pouncing if they hear the wrong news.” Then his arms tightened around her. “That’s why I’m intent on helping you first. It’ll be the last time we can see each other for a while.”
“Well…” She struggled to breathe, let alone find some lighthearted words. “Well, that’s all right. We never did promise our time to each other, did we? Or anything beyond you taking me on as a client.”
“Bunny,” he murmured, brushing her cheek. “You’re a lot more than that to me. I never knew what love could do to a life until you showed up in mine. But I need to do this. Especially now.”
“I understand.” And she did, but she wished the idea of months without him didn’t hurt so much. “And I won’t drag on finding an apartment or anything like that to make you stay here forever. It wouldn’t be fair. Which means we have just a few more days together, don’t we?”
She drew in a deep breath. “Then let’s make it as normal as possible. I want to enjoy our time together without being reminded that it’s about to end.”
He hesitated. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? There are other things I need to tell you, important things that I held back on while the sigil and your father were threats.”
“Please,” she said, softly. “I’ll face reality when it comes. But for now, let me pretend that nothing between us is about to change. I just got you back, Sam.”
The gold of his eyes darkened at the sound of his name in her voice. His own voice grew gentle, soothing away her dread. “All right.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, angling her face towards his for a kiss. A small, painful part of her wondered if he would avoid it.
Instead, he kissed her deeply, as if memorizing her, and broke off only to nip at her lip, a teasing note entering his next words. “Does this mean you want to do some detective work today?”
She smiled in relief that she could feel excited at the thought. Ignorance really was bliss, and she was determined to wallow in it. “Yes.”
“Good.” He kissed her again unhurriedly and then straightened up. “Because I hear Mabel on the stairs outside, and she always brings the morning papers with her. It should help us to see what Mr. Forrester is reading over his coffee.”
Cora had read through the press release back when her lawyers had composed it, but she still felt a thrill thumbing through the papers and seeing the results in action. “Oh, Father’s face must be absolutely purple by now. I’m sure Mr. Forrester is just the opposite. The man always grows white as a sheet in response to a shock.”
“Does he hide, too?” said Sam, skimming through the last of the articles.
“Mr. Forrester? Oh no, he’s very proud of never wavering from his schedule. And since it’s Sunday, I know just where he’ll go after breakfast no matter how disturbed he feels: the golf course.”
Sam smiled, almost playful again. “Which one?”
The Cypress Grove Golf Club had a closed membership, but Cora knew more than a few of the members and was recognized by the staff immediately. Despite this, they objected to letting Sam in after one look at his gold eyes.
“Oh, Herbie, don’t be so stuffy,” said Cora, looking past him to scan the visible areas of the course for any sign of Mr. Forrester. “You overlook the rules all the time. Or don’t you remember?”
The man flushed red against his crisp collar. “Miss Marshall, this place has a reputation to keep.”
“We’ll be discreet,” said Sam, catching one of Cora’s elbows to guide her past.
The man gave in with a forlorn, “You’re not even dressed to play.”
“That’s because we’re here on business,” said Cora, flashing a final smile at him.
“Do you like golfing?” murmured Sam, while they began walking through the course.
“I never tried it. The clothes you’re expected to wear are hideous. What about you?”
“Never saw the point in chasing after a ball.” His wink drew a laugh from her.
They found Mr. Forrester at the fifth hole playing by himself. He did appear quite pale. He also appeared unhappy to see them.
“Miss Marshall,” he said, by way of greeting. “I see the rumor that you had absconded with a scoundrel was true.”
“You’re a lot less polite than the last time we met,” said Sam, his words easy. “Game not going well?”
When the man just scoffed and selected a club, Cora said, “The morning newspapers were quite interesting, weren’t they?”
“I have nothing to say about that business.”
“That’s fine, because I came to you for a different reason. I’d really like to know when Father decided to work with the Saxbys.”
Mr. Forrester sputtered. “What?”
Cora smiled brightly, knowing it would irritate him. “You told me Father mentioned a shadow venture to you but you refused to help him.”
“That’s correct, and that’s all I know,” he said, stiffly.
Sam glanced at her in a wordless signal before he took over the conversation. “No, you knew more than that. At the very least, you were aware that Isaac Marshall put a binding sigil on her.”
The man paled slightly, but Sam gave him no chance to protest. “You admitted to knowing her since she was a child. Are you telling me you weren’t suspicious at all when her behavior changed suddenly and radically? You’re a smart man and proud of it. You’re also a cautious one and would’ve asked your client how he got his daughter to behave, hoping the answer wouldn’t be ‘illegal magic.’”
Mr. Forrester was beginning to sweat despite the cool day. Cora decided to press him a little more. “I hope you don’t think silence is a swell way to protect yourself. And if you don’t wish to talk to us, that’s fine. Mr. Forrester, I’m not trying to be a pest. I’m just here to reassure you that the papers aren’t exaggerating. Father is about to be in very hot water over what he did to me, and what do you think he’ll do when he remembers there are others who know about his willingness to use illegal magic?”
As the man’s hand dropped back to his side, the game forgotten, Sam added, “You know how ruthless he was with his daughter. Do you think being his friend will keep you safe?”
The vein in Mr. Forrester’s forehead looked like it was about to pop as he snarled, “Friend? No friend would try to convince me to join in on the type of plans he had.”
Cora’s eyes widened. She hadn’t expected the man to give in so easily. He truly must have been rattled by the sigil’s reveal. Both she and Sam listened in silence as a torrent of words rushed out.
“I had nothing to do with it. Any of it. I only learned of the sigil after it had been placed on you. At my inquiry, he began speaking as if bio-thaumaturgy was the way of the future instead of a death sentence from the city. I couldn’t believe it. Not only did he talk about partnering with wolves, but he also claimed he’d finally found a use for his brother’s cult.”
Then Mr. Forrester seemed to regain some of his composure. “There was no talking him out of it. He was sure the Saxbys would end the violence among the packs that kept spilling into human streets by ruling them all. Stability, he said. That was the goal. The one thing impossible to find in this godforsaken city. All I could do was step aside and wait for disaster to strike. And it did, over and over… whether you believe me or not, that’s all I know.”
Cora did believe him. “Why would Father care about controlling the wolves?”
With his slumped posture, Mr. Forrester’s garish golfing outfit made him look like a broken puppet. “Investors outside of the city are increasingly skittish over the wolves’ bloodthirst. There are growing rumors that they will overtake the human parts of the city. Isaac decided to strike first. Now. What do you want from me?”
Cora shared a glance with Sam before he said, “A statement to the police about what you know.”
“That’s it?” Mr. Forrester sounded almost offended.
Cora huffed. “Goodness, I’m not Father. I just want the truth to come out.”
“If you ask for protection,” added Sam, “they’ll hide you away afterwards.”
“All right,” said Mr. Forrester, heavily. “I’ll go as soon as I change.”
“We’ll give you a lift there,” said Sam, his tone implying he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Later, after Mr. Forrester was safely inside the station, Cora watched the traffic thoughtfully while Sam guided the car away. They were nearly back at his office before she said, “It’s all solved, isn’t it? Our case is finally closed.”
Sam nodded, smiling a little. “Good job, Bunny.”
She beamed back. “What’s left to do now?”
“A lot of waiting. That’s the nice thing about being a private detective. The police are the ones who have to collect everything and shape it into charges and a trial.”
“Then things will slow down for us?” She couldn’t help sounding hopeful, wanting as much time with him as possible.
His voice turned wry while he parked in front of his office. “I wouldn’t say that. I can already hear Mabel taking phone calls. It’s ringing the moment she hangs back up.”
He hadn’t exaggerated, and as the following days proved, neither had Captain Dempsey’s warning about everyone wanting a piece of her time.
Honestly, it all passed in a blur. She left everything to the lawyers and generally followed their advice, but it still meant hours of discussions with them. The reporters were as terrible as always, but thankfully it had been decided that she should avoid giving interviews. She made no attempt to contact her father and had no wish to, anyway. Some of her belongings were still at his house, but she was patient enough to let things be hashed out before trying to collect them.
She, Sam, and Jane all had to return to the station at various points to be interviewed by the police commissioner and others; only Jane seemed resentful of her work being interrupted. Although Cora had elected to sleep in the back of the office, wanting to fill up as much of her day with Sam’s presence as possible, she rarely saw the she-wolf outside of those instances.
She had never been so busy in her life, and it amazed her how easily time slipped and slid. The only parts of her day that crystallized into clear, shining moments were those with Sam. He was just as busy but somehow found the hours to help her go through apartment listings given to her by a trusted realtor. With him by her side, touring places as a potential new home left her feeling hopeful about the future despite the painful awareness of his need to leave. On his end, he lingered with her as well, always taking her out for coffee or a meal no matter what time of day or night they finally had to themselves. From the look in his eyes, he was memorizing each second as deeply as she was.
Finally, a week after the news broke about the sigil, she signed the lease to a furnished apartment. It was a bright, beautiful morning, and buttery light shone through the windows of the flat, which was on the third floor and of a modest size that would be roomy for one and perfect for two.
She found herself staring at the keys in her hand long after the manager had left. Hayes lingered by the doorway, looking very striking in his dark grey suit against the bright white geometry of the walls.
She looked over at him in a daze. “It’s happened. I have my own life again. No, not again. For the first time, I’m truly in a home of my own.”
He smiled, eyes warm with affection. “A little nerve-wracking, isn’t it?”
“Exhilarating,” she said, still feeling breathless. “It’s hard to believe.”
“I have something that might make it feel less strange.”
“What is it?”
His smile widened as he ushered her into the living room. “I brought it in while you were signing the papers.”
It was a radio, his radio. The one they had listened to during that blissful day at his apartment.
“Oh…” she breathed, rushing over to turn it on. Lively jazz burst into life, immediately chasing away the stillness and formality of the room.
“So you can listen to Murder Time whenever you want,” he murmured.
Cora laughed and held out a hand. “Help me break it in.”
Dancing with him felt so right that even her usual chatter faded into nothing as they moved through a lighthearted number. When it slipped into a slower song, she found herself looking up into his eyes, aware of how he had never shifted his focus from her. He was no longer smiling, but there was a fresh intensity in his gaze that left her tilting her mouth toward his.
“Cora,” he said, quietly. They were so close that the word brushed her lips like a caress, yet she could hear the deadly seriousness behind it.
“What is it?” Misgiving shuddered through her from how his expression had grown so grim. Surely, he wouldn’t leave for pack land already? Not this soon…
“There’s one last thing you need to know. Then the case really is over and you’re no longer my client.” With a sigh, he stepped back from her.
She tried to think up a witty reply, but her throat had gone dry. The air felt very cold compared to the heat of his body, and she shivered despite herself, aware of a rising feeling of foreboding as he moved over to the coffee table and picked up a folder stuffed with papers, something she had assumed was her case file.
“I found your former fiance,” he said, giving no hint of what he thought as he approached with the file. “His name is Roland Archer.”
It felt like all the blood drained from her head. She didn’t know what to think, much less say. She took the folder from him with numb fingers. Her heart beat very fast, yet she also felt chilled to the bone.
Aware of the need to respond, she managed, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know you were looking for him.”
“You asked me to find your father and no one else, but you looked so sad while talking about how you’d lost him and his love.” Then Sam began pacing, as if he was filled with too much tension to stay still. “At first, I had to keep some things secret from the sigil. At first. Then… I went dizzy for you like it was the first time I’d been in love. Once the sigil was off you, it was a relief to have Minnie warn me not to shock you with any big news. And it was a relief that we both grew busy afterwards with other things. It gave me a little more time. Made me feel like I wasn’t holding back on telling you about him. But I was, and it wasn’t fair to you.”
He looked back at her with a lopsided smile. “You know what they say about wolves. We’re greedy. Well, I got greedy for your company.”
But not enough to stay, thought Cora. She wasn’t angry; she was miserable. It hadn’t escaped her attention that his pacing had left them feet apart. The news about him leaving for an unknown amount of time had been bad enough, but this was much worse. She wasn’t about to hear see you soon. She was about to hear goodbye, and she already had plenty of those from other men.
He seemed concerned by her silence, stepping closer to search her face. “I should’ve told you sooner. You deserve the closure. And the news about the sigil has long reached everywhere. He and the rest of the city know your innocence. It’s a good time to look into what I found out about him and decide what to do from there. If you want.”
Tears were beginning to prickle in her eyes. The conversation she’d overheard during that night at Minnie’s cut into her shock with perfect clarity. He’ll let her down gently and have things planned out for her to move on smoothly as possible.
“H-how long have you known his identity?”
“Before your father was found.”
Weeks, then. And no fella shoved another in his place unless he was done and moving on.
It was obvious he was downright uncomfortable, glancing away again as if struggling with what to say. When he drew in a deep breath and looked her right in the eyes, she knew what was coming next.
“Thank you,” she burst out, clutching the folder to her chest. The edges cut into her fingers from the tightness of her grip. “I never thought I could get anything back from the sigil. Any—any closure over what I lost. It’s so overwhelming that I don’t know what to say other than… thank you.”
Nothing in that flow of words was a lie. She was overwhelmed, completely so. The truth was, she knew she couldn’t face once more hearing the tired phrases that all fellas used when ending things with her. They all boiled down to the same sentiment: You mean the world to me, sweetheart, but it’s over.
She couldn’t bear it if he used them on her, too.
And if she didn’t want to hear him finish things, then she had to do it herself. “It’s all over. The case is solved, I’m free of Father and his control, and now…” She stared at the papers crinkling against her grip, unable to believe there was a person in there. “Now I have a chance at the life that I thought I’d lost.”
Then she forced herself to look up. Sam still studied her intently, as if uncertain about her words, but finally nodded.
Despite herself, she asked, “Will you be all right? Overthrowing a king is dangerous, isn’t it? You might get hurt or worse.”
His voice grew wry, but she still felt the gulf between them. “Tell you what. The day I come back, I’ll call you to let you know I’m fine. In the meantime, don’t worry about me, Cora. Enjoy life now that it’s finally yours.”
She forced herself to smile, wondering how on earth she was supposed to do that without him in it. “I certainly will.”