Secrets in the Moon (Crescent City Werewolves #1)

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Reunion

“Evening, Nell. Were there any phone calls?” asked Cora, as soon as she squeezed inside the front doorway with all her shopping bags. Any hopeful excitement had seeped from the question weeks ago, and now she asked out of mere stubbornness.

Her maid met her in the living room, already dressed in her hat and coat. “Twelve, miss. How was tea with Mrs. Archer?”

“Very stiff and proper. I’m convinced that woman truly hates me.” Cora unwound her hands from the bag handles while glancing over the other girl’s neat handwriting on the notepad by the telephone. The first message was from one of her lawyers, but she wasn’t surprised. They called constantly these days, anticipating tactics from her father now that he had finally been charged and the trial had been set.

Today’s call probably had to do with the discovery that a private detective had been hired by the defense to find every scrap of her past that could be used to question and condemn her character. Even now, all she could manage in response was a sigh over how a detective had come back into her life—but not the right one. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. She had always felt so strongly, especially when it came to her father, but now her responses were muted if not outright apathetic. It was really very hard to muster up any indignation that her father would stoop so low.

She glanced through the second message, which was from another lawyer, before noticing Nell was about to leave. It was the other girl’s night off, and she seemed more excited than usual. Cora could guess why. “What movie are you seeing?”

Nell’s eyes lit up. “Lonny’s taking me to the new horror with George DeHart. Night of the Madman. Have you gone to it?”

“No. I’ve just managed to coax Roland to see a mystery tonight, and even that seemed impossible for a time. He thinks using death in entertainment is gauche.”

Cora didn’t realize how wistful she sounded until pity flickered in Nell’s expression. Before the other girl could respond, she quickly added, “Enjoy your night. You’ll have to tell me all about the movie tomorrow.”

“All right. Goodnight, miss.”

Once alone, Cora put away her new clothes. She had to admit, the shopping hadn’t been very satisfying even though these were the first things she’d bought for some time. Truthfully, she had only done it because Mrs. Archer had spent the entire tea making pointed comments about the frivolous spending habits modern girls had. Truthfully, every time that shrew of a woman went on about her son’s virtues, Cora felt even more irritated with her—and not because she disagreed. In the two months since she had reached out to Roland and began a tentative relationship, she had come to learn that he was a responsible, trustworthy man and devoted son. No terrible vices or alarming behaviors. Not even a bad habit. No, he was respectable with a capital R. There was nothing wrong with him, and yet he was entirely wrong for her. She could feel it.

She wished she could fool herself into wondering what had attracted her to him before the sigil had burned away her memories, but it was clear enough to her even now. Roland never made her breathless with desire, but he was handsome, gentle in manner, and absolutely steady. His interest in her would never waver because he treated life as a series of pieces to slot together. She satisfied him as one such piece: a pretty, charming girl who loved him and wished to be his wife. It was all he needed, and while he had her, he would never look at anyone else. And that was what irritated her so much—she had once fallen for him because he was willing to keep her. Because he was the first man who wanted her to be in his life. It was frankly desperate, even pitiful on her end, and she hated feeling like either.

But that wasn’t Roland’s fault.

Just then, the clock chimed, reminding her how it was already evening. She’d have to hurry to be dressed before Roland arrived.

She chose a silk gown that flowed like liquid against her body, highlighting its champagne color with a white fur stole and elbow length gloves. A diamond necklace and rose-gold bracelets completed the look, but she still hadn’t picked her shoes when a knock came at her door. Roland, she knew, and almost groaned at how she’d be late again.

When she answered the door, he smiled at her. She tried her best to be lost in the sight of him, focusing on his sharp, lean looks, his curly blond hair, and his clear blue eyes as he said, “Hello, darling. How are you? Mother said she had a nice time at tea.”

A brief kiss on the cheek was all she got, and she muffled a sigh at how proper he always was, even when they were alone. “I’m swell, thanks. How are you?”

“Fine. I’m still not sure about this play you want us to see. Mysteries always end up being sordid nonsense. I have to score them all the time at the station.”

“I think they’re exciting once you give them a try. Do you want something to drink while I finish dressing?”

Disappointment seeped into his expression. “You’re not ready? You promised to be better about that.”

“I know, and I am. I can be ready in five minutes instead of my usual half-hour.” She offered him a bright smile.

He didn’t smile back while checking his watch. “Darling, why do you always do this? You knew what time we were supposed to leave.”

She tried not to let her strain show while picking up the notepad by the telephone. “I know, but I haven’t checked all the messages left for me while I was out. I thought I could glance them over before choosing my shoes and purse.”

“If you do all that now, we’ll be late.”

She hesitated and peeked at the last message Nell had written. It was from a downstairs neighbor complaining that she played her radio too loudly in the evenings. With a sigh, she said, “I suppose you’re right. Two minutes and I’ll be ready. I swear it.”

And she was, although the drive to the theater remained relatively quiet. Once, while at a stoplight, she nearly jerked in her seat at the sight of a male silhouette that looked painfully familiar while waiting to cross the street. The tilt of the hat… and the color of the hair…

Then the figure stepped into the pool of light from a nearby street lamp, revealing very human eyes and a face that was nothing like Sam’s. The disappointment felt crushing, but Cora hissed in a breath and turned to Roland, determined not to sulk. “I’m sure the play will be worth all this traffic. It’s gotten wonderful reviews. Everyone says the twist ending is worth the ticket price alone.”

“If you say so.” His tone was pleasant but disinterested.

“You haven’t already made up your mind to hate it, have you?”

“No, but I doubt it will play fair with the audience. These types of mysteries are always half-baked clues rendered useless by a twist ending that makes no sense. What’s the point of paying attention when it’s impossible to guess the culprit?”

Cora fluffed up her stole, refusing to lose her brightness. “You never know. I’m usually quite good at figuring out the mystery.”

His mild blue eyes looked genuinely affectionate as he said, “Believe me, darling, I love your enthusiasm, but no one solves these things.”

The hope that she could finally coax some playfulness out of him was too much to ignore. “Is that so? How about a friendly bet, then? During the intermission, I’ll write out the murderer’s name and give you the paper to hold. After the play is over, we’ll see how right or wrong I was.”

“I don’t like to gamble. It’s a treacherous habit.”

She muffled a sigh. “There aren’t any stakes involved. It’s just for fun.”

“Well… all right.”

The fact that he’d agreed left her hopeful that the evening would only improve as it deepened into true night.

The play was as entertaining as she’d heard, and she made careful note of all the characters, mindful of the bet. The actors were all excellent, with the victim proving to be a known blackmailer and all-around rotten girl. The twisty fun of the mystery faded, however, when the detective entered the story. He was a fat old man who liked to gesture with his pipe to add to his absentminded air, but his presence still sent Cora tumbling into thoughts she had tried very hard to ignore for the past two months.

There in the dark, caught in an audience and sitting beside a man whose biggest virtue was that he wanted her in his life as long as she fit in it, there was nothing to muffle her heart. She missed Sam so badly. With every other fella who had left, she had been able to move on after a lot of crying and shopping. Each day had smoothed out a little more until she met a new man who erased the last of the old hurt.

Not this time. Instead, each day felt duller. Nothing bright slipped in, not even with Roland. Oh, she felt sure that her past self was excited beyond belief to become his wife. A steady life away from her father would have been heavenly compared to all she had known at the time: uncaring friends who loved drama above all else, brief flings with men that always turned sour, and a home of cold silence.

Yet she was no longer that girl and knew far more about herself. She had met Sam. She had learned how much better it felt to have someone believe in her over merely being an attractive doll on an arm. And she had discovered what she truly wanted out of life: investigating cases with him in the day and going home together at night. Seeing that boyish smile he so rarely gave. Feeling his thick fur between her fingers while their hearts beat in the same rhythm. She should have known a wolf could disappear as easily as a man.

Once or twice, she had tried to prod daydreams from her sluggish mind, concocting a life where she went off on her own as a private detective since she liked the work so much. But the imaginings had collapsed before fully formed, leading to a realization that she didn’t care much about anything anymore, not even the future.

It was a frightening fact, and she found herself staring several moments after the stage curtains had been drawn and the lights turned on for the intermission.

She came back into herself and wrote the character she suspected on a scrap of paper. When she folded it in half and offered it to Roland, he took it with a smile. Since he disapproved of drinking, she had stopped as well—normally. Tonight, she was rattled enough by her thoughts to order a scotch. It drew a side-glance from Roland, but before she could defend her decision, a man called out his name while weaving through the crowd of bodies. Cora vaguely recognized him as one of the other musicians who worked alongside Roland at the radio station, and she wasn’t surprised when they both fell into a lighthearted conversation.

It was rude not to join them, but just as the bartender handed over her drink, two figures joined her.

“Miss Marshall,” said the Frosthound alpha-king, gesturing for two shots of whiskey. “You’re looking well for someone who’s very unhappy.”

Cora started, almost spilling her scotch as she twisted to face him and his queen. The pair looked as sleek in their tuxedos as ever, very much at ease despite being the only wolves in the room.

Cimorene tsked at her king before turning her attention to Cora. “He’s excited. It makes him rude.”

“Has something happened? Is Sam—Detective Hayes—all right?” Cora’s heart clenched in her chest.

“He’s among the living,” assured the alpha-queen. “I would know if he had met the Lady and her eternal peace. I meant that Thane is enjoying the play. Even I am, and I far prefer opera and its pageantry.”

“Oh, I see.” Cora managed to keep the relief out of her voice, and to resist asking more about him.

As the alpha-king handed one of the whiskeys to Cimorene, she said, “Who do you think murdered our unlikeable victim?”

Cora sipped at her drink, feeling a little bit of life come back into her. She couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken without care. “Funnily enough, I have a bet about that. I think it’s the detective himself who killed her.”

Cimorene laughed without showing her teeth and then glanced at Thane. “He told me the same thing when the intermission began. Yet this detective is the only character with no motive.”

“That we know of,” replied the alpha-king, idly playing with his empty glass. They were all taking up space at the bar, but no one dared to tell them to move.

Cora nodded. “That’s true, and besides, what would be a more perfect way to hide evidence of your guilt than to ‘solve’ it and pin the blame on another? And if he’s been in retirement for years, why come out of it now?”

“The host of the dinner party is an old family friend,” pointed out Cimorene.

“Yes, and think of how many similar requests the detective has surely received over the years. Why did he respond to this one?” Cora didn’t realize how much her expression had lit up until both wolves studied her intently.

“So you do miss him,” said Cimorene, a trace of sympathy in her voice.

It was impossible to play dumb about who the alpha-queen meant. Cora kept her own tone breezy. “I’ve moved on and built a new life as much as he has, I’m sure.”

The alpha-king had already widened his focus to the people around them. “And here you almost made it through the conversation without telling us a lie.”

“It wasn’t a lie,” said Cora, refusing to be cowed. “After all, I haven’t said how I feel about that fact.”

The response drew a glance of grudging respect from him. His queen looked outright amused, but she quickly grew serious again and said, “We’ve been in the city since this morning. If news has finally come out about Sam Hayes and the breakaway Saxbys, we’re ignorant of it. Yet I do wonder if you know even less than us. The play won’t resume for another fifteen minutes. Come sit with us and have a conversation that I believe you need.”

The offer made her breathless with anticipation, but she had to admit, “I’m not alone. I’d have to ask my—well, his name is Roland Archer, and he might not be comfortable with that. He’s very traditional in his thinking.”

The alpha-king now looked over her shoulder. “I can see that, and I can see what his answer will be, too.”

Cora turned and saw Roland ducking around people to reach her. She had never seen him so upset, and as he caught her by the arm, the first words out of his mouth were, “My God, Cora, what are you doing?”

“It’s all right. I know them,” she said, starting to twist toward the two wolves again. “This is—”

Before she could introduce them, she found herself being dragged away in Roland’s grip. She resisted, aided by the crush of bodies hoping to get a drink. “Will you stop? They won’t hurt us.”

“They’re wolves,” he shot back. “Do you really believe they’ve never torn out throats?”

The alpha-king watched them with a sardonic smile. “Relax, fella. You’d be too boring of a kill.”

The comment drew a glare from Roland before his hand tightened against Cora’s arm. This time, he used all his strength to pull her away with him. It hurt enough to draw out her own anger, but before she could do more than hiss his name, the alpha-queen called out to her.

“The path you want isn’t closed.” Cimorene looked as calm and direct as ever, but her voice rose like a howl of warning. “You lost sight of it, that’s all. It can be found again, bloody as before.”

Cora tried to glance back a final time, but Roland had a long stride, and within moments they were outside of the building. As the doors swung shut on the lights, smoke, and laughter, she jerked her arm free. “There was no need to be so rude.”

“Rude?” he said, incredulously. He was still wound up, smoothing out his hair and checking his tie with shaking fingers. “They looked ready to eat you alive.”

“That’s just how they are. They’re the Frosthound alpha-king and alpha-queen. Even the other packs are scared of their reputation, but they’re really very nice. They just wanted to talk, Roland.”

“They’re murderers,” he said, his voice flat. “How can you possibly think of them as nice?”

“I…” Her argument deflated as she realized he would never understand the answer. Because at least they’re honest about their natures, which is more than can be said about all the humans I know.

“All right,” she said, wishing this night was over. “Let’s just go back to our seats and wait out the intermission.”

He shook his head, catching her arm again. His hand wasn’t as tight as before, yet it remained tense against her skin. “Not while there are wolves inside. We’re leaving.”

“What?” She was shocked enough to walk with him. “You can’t be serious. The play isn’t over.”

His mouth just tightened into a thin line. Even once they were inside the car, his silence simmered.

Cora bit back a huff of breath while looking out the passenger window, arms folded. Soon, she noticed that he followed any stoplight that turned green first, as if trying to put as much distance between them and the theater as possible. She managed to stay quiet for all of a minute. “This isn’t the way back to my apartment.”

“I know that,” he snapped. “I’m so damn shocked that I can’t tell east from west right now.”

Cora stared at him. Roland, swearing? She couldn’t believe it. “Shocked at seeing wolves enjoying a play?”

“At your behavior,” he burst out. “When we first met again and spoke about what had happened, you told me that the wolves you knew were all related to the case. That you had never… associated with them before.”

“Yes, and that’s the truth. Including the Frosthounds.”

After a few more breaths of silence, he pulled the car over and parked it there on the street. They were now far from the theater, in one of the more rundown areas of housing, but all he seemed interested in was studying her face.

At least he looked calmer, and his next words sounded grim and carefully spoken, as if he knew how important they were in deciding their future together. “Cora, I must ask this. That wolf you hired. The private detective.”

Cora drew in a shallow breath. “Yes?”

“It was impossible not to hear the rumors about… him and you. That your connection with him wasn’t professional.” He seemed slightly embarrassed to broach such a subject, but his eyes remained fixed on her face. “Is that true?”

Was this what bitterness felt like? A lump in her throat that she almost choked on? “Detective Hayes was a consummate professional when we met, and a consummate professional when we parted ways. Do you really need to know more than that?”

Doubt flickered in his eyes, but he looked away. His hands flexed against the wheel before he said, “It’s just that you seemed all too comfortable with those wolves just now. Quite… companionable.”

“Is that why you pulled me out of the theater? It really is, isn’t it? I thought you were scared of them, but you just felt scandalized by my behavior.”

He grimaced. “It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?” When he didn’t answer, she slumped back in her seat, dully wondering how the night had turned out like this. “And now we’ve missed the play.”

“Willam told me who the murderer was back at the intermission,” he muttered, as they both stared ahead. “It was the detective.”

She wished she could feel more satisfied over being right. “Aren’t you going to check my guess?”

With a sigh, he pulled out the slip of paper and read it. “Who told you?”

“No one. Like I said, I’m quite good at mysteries.” Then she tried to sound lighthearted, although she felt anything but. “Don’t you believe I’m smart enough to solve a puzzle?”

When she saw the look on his face, she turned numb. Her voice sounded very thin as she answered for him. “You don’t.”

“I didn’t say that,” he said, quickly.

“But you don’t. You think I’m a silly, emptyheaded heiress like all the rest. I—you—” Suddenly, she couldn’t bear to be with him for another moment, and lunged out of the car. The world had blurred over.

“Cora. Cora!” Then came the sound of a car door opening and shutting.

She ignored him, heels clicking against the crumbling pavement. She didn’t know where she was going; her surroundings were dim and empty of any other people or even street lamps. Only the occasional light from a window outlined the street.

When Roland caught up to her, she whirled to face him, all frustration spilling out. “At this point, I wonder if there’s anything you do like about me. You didn’t like that I drank, so I stopped. You didn’t like that I carried a gun, so I stopped. Now you apparently don’t like that I can think. What am I supposed to do, pull out my brain?”

“It’s not like that,” he insisted, his voice growing as heated as hers. “I love everything about you, but I did warn you that your life would change if we became a couple again.”

When she just huffed and began walking again, he followed. “I know it’s been hard adjusting after what your father did to you. I recognize that things can’t be the same as before, when we were about to elope. But you have to understand that what you got away with as Miss Cora Marshall won’t be allowed as Mrs. Roland Archer.”

“By you?” she snapped.

“By society.” Then he stepped in front of her, forcing her to stop again. He looked both fed up and disappointed as he added, “You know this city as well as I do. Having the right name, connections, and balance in your bank account means nothing can ruin your life. Do you think your father, with all his misdeeds, would still be comfortable in his home if he weren’t Isaac Marshall? Any normal man would have been charged, tried, and hanged weeks ago. And that’s what I am, Cora: a normal man. A scandal is enough to ruin me and my family. I can’t be blithe about my behavior. And now, neither can you.”

Her anger pulsed into something white-hot from being lectured. “You’ve made that clear enough, but what does that have to do with questioning my relationship with Detective Hayes? If it’s my present behavior that worries you, why ask about my past? Would you find me repulsive if you found out he had ever touched me? Is my reputation more important to you than who I am as a person?”

He didn’t want to answer that, she could tell.

Just then, a rough male voice behind them said, “Hey. Hey!”

They both looked over and saw a short man with a cap pulled low to keep his face in shadow. He stood a few feet away with his hands in his pockets. “You lost or something?”

Roland responded first. “No. Thank you.”

“Just having a bad night,” muttered Cora, shrugging her stole further around her.

The man had good hearing. “Well, it’s about to get worse.”

Then he pulled out one hand and flicked it, revealing a small but nasty-looking knife. The blade gleamed in the moonlight as two more shadowy figures slipped up behind him. “No hysterics. Just give me everything you got.”

“Oh, my God,” said Cora, freezing. “Roland.”

His voice turned tight. “Just do what he says.”

Roland,” she hissed again.

The man sighed and made a feint with his knife. “Do I have to start cutting you up?”

In response, Roland jerked back until he was behind her, leaving her to face the blade.

Even as she gasped in outrage, the mugger chuckled. “What a swell guy. Come on, both of you. Toss all your things toward me, including the jewelry.”

“Fine. Why not? It’s such a perfect resolution to a wonderful evening.” Cora ripped off her bracelets and necklace, shaking with rage and embarrassment.

Roland remained silent while throwing his wallet on the ground by the man’s feet.

“The lady’s coat and shoes, too.”

“What?” Her voice rose. “But they’re my favorite pair. And how am I supposed to walk around barefoot?”

Another twitch of the knife, and she gave in, hands on her hips as the mugger disappeared back into the darkness with his companions. Then she turned around and began walking in the opposite direction.

When Roland called her name, she didn’t even glance back. “Oh, don’t even talk to me. I can’t believe you gave me all that guff only to hide behind me like a coward.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Let’s just report this, go home, and forget that this night happened. The car is right here.”

“I’m not getting in there with you,” she said, heatedly. “I couldn’t stand to sit that close to you for even a minute.”

His voice grew just as vehement while he opened the passenger’s door. “Cora, get inside. We’ll talk about it later.”

“No. It’s over. We’re obviously completely wrong for each other. Whatever I felt for you is long gone, and I’d rather die alone and miserable than become Mrs. Roland Archer. So just leave.”

“Fine,” he said, his tone growing cold. Then he slammed the door shut and walked over to the driver’s side. “Goodnight and goodbye, Miss Marshall.”

When the car started up and sped past her, she gasped, running after it for a few steps. “I didn’t mean for you to actually do it. I don’t even know where I am!”

In the silence of an empty street surrounded by unlit buildings, she groaned. Then she looked up at the sky until she found a constellation that would guide her north until she found something familiar. By the time she did, her feet already felt sore against the rough pavement. Worse, the sight wasn’t reassuring at all. It was the huge city clock tower itself, which meant her apartment was at least 30 blocks away.

The police station was only 20. She counted. As she stumbled up to the front entrance, the mud-stained hem of her gown trailing over the steps, she was too exhausted to feel more than a dull relief that it was so late and no one was around to see her sorry state. Inside, she ignored the empty front area and its cubicles meant to service the public, all shuttered for the night.

She also ignored the one officer on duty there, who gave her a double-take. “Miss… Marshall? Are you all right?”

Her answer would either be a scream or crying, so she simply continued shuffling down the hallway that led to Captain Dempsey’s office. As expected, it was the only one still lit, and she opened the door without knocking.

The police captain looked up from behind his desk, papers spread out before him. His irritation morphed into astonishment. “What the hell happened to you?”

Cora drew herself up, pretending she wasn’t a disheveled mess. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m happy to see you, Captain. It’s been a horrible night. I was mugged and left without any money for a phone call or a taxi. I’ve been walking all night to get here. I’m tired, my feet absolutely ache, and it’s another 10 blocks home. And… and…and worst of all, you’re now the only friend I h-have in this entire city.”

Then her voice rose into a wail, and she started sobbing into her hands. She couldn’t even say if it was out of rage or sheer tiredness.

Dempsey pulled the phone on his desk closer without taking his eyes off her. “No, no, no. Just hang on a minute.”

Despite crying so hard that her breath hitched in her chest, she dimly heard him dial a number and mutter, “Pick up. Pick up, damn it.”

No one did, and he sighed before hanging up. “All right. Try to shut off those tears and explain what happened.”

He passed a handkerchief over before lighting up a cigarette for himself. After wiping her face dry and immediately feeling fresh tears run down her cheeks, she began wringing the fabric instead, voice thick and strangled. “What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Responsible, proper, morally upright Roland Archer left me there in the street. He left—just like all the other men in my life!”

The police captain rubbed at his head, expression resigned, but before he could respond, Cora heard a deep, painfully familiar voice speak from behind her. “Bunny. What—are you all right?”

Her heart bucked in her chest, but her mind refused to believe what she heard until she twisted in her seat and saw Sam Hayes standing there in the doorway. He looked as put-together and composed as the first time they’d ever met, but those brilliant gold eyes darkened with shock as he took in her state.

Under his attention, sweet exhilaration filled her. So did fury. “Don’t you ‘Bunny’ me! You’re one of them.”

The seething words didn’t stop him from stepping inside and crouching before her in one smooth movement. “What happened?”

“You left me for months, that’s what. You just disappeared after telling me to make up a new life. As if I could switch off how I felt about you. As if I could stop caring about whether you survived or whether I would never—never see you again.” Then she dissolved into fresh tears, too overwhelmed to do more than hide her blotchy face in her handkerchief even as Sam’s hand eased against her arm, warm and gentle against her chilled skin.

Dempsey eyed her. “Can’t you have this conversation somewhere that isn’t my office?”

“No.” She managed to glare at the police captain. “I behaved like a proper lady for that prig for two months, Captain, and now I’m going to make a scene whenever I want.”

He sighed out a lungful of smoke. “All right.” Then he resumed going through the paperwork on his desk, scrawling on some and rolling up others to shove into the pneumatic tubing.

Before she could do more than wipe at her raw cheeks, Sam shifted closer to her. “Bunny—Cora.”

“Miss Marshall,” she insisted, despite how her heart fluttered at the sound of her name in his voice.

He nodded, slowly taking her hands in his own. When she didn’t resist, he said, “I don’t blame you for being angry at me. Do you want me to leave so you can talk to the captain in private?”

The enraged part of her was tempted to say she didn’t give a fig about what he did, not anymore. The rest of her remembered what had happened with Roland and the car. After drawing in a deep breath, she said, “No. That’s not to say I’ve forgiven you, but it won’t take me long to go over what happened. Then we can get back to arguing, because I’m not nearly finished. I’m—I’m smart, and I can do things, and I deserve better than being set aside for some alpha-princess or anything else without even having a say in the matter. I have thoughts as much as anyone.”

He nodded, studying her with a warm, heavy gaze.

The police captain broke through her indignation by pulling over a notepad. “All right. Let’s hear it.”

As she explained what happened, she felt Sam’s tension increase with each detail. He remained silent aside from the occasional question, thumb running over her knuckles, but by the end, she could tell he was as furious as she. A large part of her wanted to rest fingers against the muscle jumping in his jaw, but she resisted.

Once she finished, Dempsey pulled over some forms and lit a fresh cigarette. “Usually, I’d make you fill these out, but I know I’ll get you out of here faster if I do it. They’ll be shot over to the theft division, but don’t hold out hope of getting everything back.”

Cora just nodded. She hadn’t expected anything more. When the police captain fell silent again, her focus returned to Sam. It was getting harder by the moment not to lose herself in the deep gold of his eyes, but she kept her voice stiff. “I suppose everything went well with helping the Saxbys.”

“We won, if that’s what you mean.” Then he sighed. “I didn’t know I’d be gone that long. Believe me, I didn’t enjoy it. I came back as soon as I could.”

She huffed. “What about the next time that alpha-princess wants your help?”

“Alpha-queen,” said Dempsey, now waiting on the phone. “He got her the crown twelve hours ago. The city passed down word to all its branches to acknowledge the Saxbys again.”

Her throat was so raw that her shriek came out as more of a squeak. “You’ve been back that long? You said you’d call me.”

The angrier she grew, the more soothing his voice became. And he still looked at her as if she was the most amazing creature he’d ever seen. “I did. The maid said you were out.”

“Aren’t detectives supposed to look for people?”

He sighed. “I haven’t been feeling like a detective today. I’ve been feeling like an idiot who let the most stunning girl I’ve ever known slip away. I thought it was better to clear up both our pasts. Get rid of any questions. And maybe I thought a respectable human who once wanted to marry you would make you happier than a wolf who collects scars and not much else. I’m sorry, Miss Marshall. I can smell your hurt and it kills me that I caused it.”

She swallowed hard, voice falling quiet. “C-cora. And you didn’t cause all of it. I could have broken off things with Roland much earlier. Even before tonight, I knew he was stuffy, and boring, and… and nothing like you. I should have listened to my heart much earlier, back when you gave me the file on him. I should have admitted right there what I already knew. I’m in love with you, no one else. I just couldn’t bear to say it and then hear you explain that we were still through, anyway.”

“Through?” The look in his eyes turned feral. “I wanted to burn that damn file, not hand it over. Right now, it’s driving me nuts to smell him on you.”

“Oh.” He did look very intense at the moment, she had to admit. There was nothing reserved in his expression at all, but she found herself saying, “I thought you were just passing me off to him. Holly told me that—”

His voice roughened into a growl. “Holly and the rest can go to hell. I know what I want, and it’s right in front of me. Whether they like it or not is their problem.”

“You’re not going to become the alpha-king?”

“No.” Then he caught her face with one hand, his grip gentle but tense with an unmistakable hunger. “I swore to myself that I wouldn’t be like your father and hide things for my own benefit. Well, now I swear that you’ve got my heart whether you want it or not. Nothing else can distract it. Not a crown, not the past, and not my own damn stupidity. Cora Marshall, I love you.”

Her lungs didn’t want to work properly, gasping as if she was close to passing out, but she felt deliriously happy. “You do?”

“Yes.” The word came out as a rasp. Despite his fine, tailored suit, at that moment he didn’t look human at all.

Her laugh was small and watery but real. “Then why are we fighting?”

He smiled, that boyish one she loved, but the answer to her question didn’t come from him.

“Because you both stupidly talk past each other even when trying to have an honest conversation.” Jane Feral leaned against the doorway, holding a pink sheet of paper in one hand. She appeared very smug while brandishing it at them. “Unlike you, I wasn’t about to leave the line after waiting in it for over five hours. Here’s your vehicle release form, so go get your car and take her home. She looks terrible.”

“Don’t take her to her place,” said Dempsey, hanging up the phone to check the fresh messages from the pneumatic mail. “It’s been hit.”

“What?” said Cora.

Sam swore under his breath. “The mugger used a key tracker?”

“Looks like it.” Then the police captain glanced at Cora. “Did you keep your apartment key in your purse? Thought so. A lot of thieves use magic to trace a key in their possession back to its lock. Then they walk right in and clean out the place.”

“They took all my things?”

“According to your landlord. Looks like Mr. Archer escaped that problem since they only stole his wallet.”

Cora stiffened in her seat. “Wait a minute. Roland already filed a report here at the station?” When the police captain nodded, she added, “Did he mention me?”

“No. He also wasn’t any help with describing the mugger. I’ve got the report right here. ‘Short male in dark clothing and cap.’ Detective Walton will probably ask if you remember any details when he gets the case tomorrow.”

Cora huffed. “I can tell you right now. We were at eye-level before I had to hand over my shoes. The left sleeve of his jacket was torn at the cuff. He tried to keep his face in shadow, but I saw it was triangular in shape and that his left eyebrow was notably higher than his right. Oh, and he was left-handed.”

“Spoken like a true detective,” murmured Sam while the police captain dutifully wrote it all down.

Despite having a stuffy nose and a headache from crying so much, Cora beamed at him.

Dempsey glanced up again. “Don’t distract her with that puppy dog look until I’m done getting information. Miss Marshall, where are you going to be until we’re through investigating your apartment? I need a contact number.”

She shared another glance with Sam, heart beating faster as he said, “My place.”

“All right. Sign here and you can go.”

As she did, Sam rose to his feet to take the release form from Jane, who looked extremely satisfied by the turn of events. The she-wolf even smiled while saying, “Don’t wait for me. I’m going to practice with my prototype down in the range.”

Cora didn’t miss the significant glance Jane gave the police captain. Neither did Sam, because after she left, he said, “I know you’ve been helping her with her aim. Among other things.”

Dempsey leaned back in his seat, expression indifferent. “So?”

Sam shrugged. “She’s happy, so I’m fine with it.”

“Good. Now start acting smart over your own girl.” The police captain flicked ash from his cigarette and looked at Cora. “You’re all done. Get out of here.”

Sam’s car was waiting by the impound lot owned by the station, and once they got inside it, he explained what had happened. Cora listened while their hands rubbed together, sinking into his voice like a hot bath. Her head felt both thick with a headache and incredibly light, and she had to close her eyes against another round of tears. She couldn’t believe this was real.

After he finished, she said, “Is this what you had to do all day?”

“No. I also had to get the lights and phones switched back on at my office and apartment. I had to call you from a phone booth.”

His wry smile made her laugh. “I suppose neither of us had a very good day. But tonight is looking much brighter.”

Just then, she saw his apartment building and softly gasped. “Oh…”

Then she turned to him with shining eyes. “You can’t imagine how many times I dreamed of being back in your apartment.”

“Same here, Bunny,” he murmured, giving her a look that made her feel like her gown was about to crisp right off her body.

Inside, she didn’t even notice the dust while he flicked on enough lights to lead her into the shower. All her attention narrowed to his hands slipping the dirtied silk down from her skin. His fingers were rough with calluses, drawing out the sensation in the most delicious way as they skimmed her shoulders, breasts, and hips.

Her breath was already shallow when he finished and raised his eyebrows. “No underwear?”

“I had to revolt against respectability in some fashion.” She arched into his fingers, feeling like sparks danced on her skin wherever he touched her.

In response, he growled against her neck, one hand already between her legs while he turned on the shower. She managed to take off his tie and shirt, kissing at the new scars she found until his fingers found a rhythm that made her cling to him for dear life. He sucked at her throat while her body shook through sweet, blinding release.

By the time she recovered, they were beneath the water. The spray prickled against her inflamed skin, but it was his mouth that left her gasping, his teeth and tongue tasting every part of her within reach. As she melted against him, it really seemed like her body was as ephemeral as the steam surrounding them, gaining the delightful ache of flesh only wherever he bit her.

The water threatened to turn cold before they finally left the shower. He wouldn’t even let go of her to grab a towel, and fresh desire shivered through her while he nipped at the tender skin beneath her ear.

“I still smell him on you,” he said, voice as hot as his eyes.

She ran fingers through his wet hair while he pulled her body tight against his. “I don’t see how. He barely ever touched—”

His mouth caught hers, cutting off the rest. The kiss was rough in the absolutely best kind of way, coaxing her to forget words. Offering her a taste of just what kind of wolf he would be now that he had decided to give her his heart, and trust, and loyalty.

Then he easily picked her up until their noses brushed. Her legs instinctively wrapped around him as she stared into his eyes, grinning in sheer excitement. His own eyes were wild, intense, taking in every hint of her reaction while he pushed into her. She just moaned, nuzzling against him while he adjusted his grip to take all of her weight.

He held her easily, arms strong around her while she panted against his mouth. Then he shifted his hands until she found herself arching back into them, exposing her throat to his hunger. It all felt so delicious and right. She found herself arching further still, laughing as her flexibility left her looking at the world upside down while his hands kept a firm grip on her waist, their hips working together in time to her racing heartbeat. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined feeling like this.

But this wasn’t a dream. This was real… and it was just the beginning.

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