Secrets in the Moon (Crescent City Werewolves #1)

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A Full Moon

Cora had never felt so blissfully happy in her life, a feeling magnified by the sweet simplicity of dozing in bed with Sam. His arm was wrapped around her to keep her close. The back of her head fit against the hollow of his throat, and she could feel his heartbeat against her back. They were in their own little bubble, oblivious to the rest of the world.

Eventually, though, the world came knocking. Quite literally—brisk, impatient raps sounded against the front door. Neither of them moved to answer it, although Sam did shift enough to nuzzle the back of Cora’s neck and murmur, “It’s Jane. She’ll probably use her keys next.”

Cora hummed wordlessly, determined to soak in the weight of his body until the very last moment.

Then the front door unlocked, and Jane’s voice drifted through to them. “It’s been three days since you both holed up in here. Your messages are overflowing, but I thought you’d be interested in the latest one in particular. The police found the man who mugged Miss Marshall. I’ll be waiting in the kitchen.”

At that, Cora stirred enough to sit up and brush hair out of her eyes. “Maybe they recovered some of my things.”

Sam kissed the tender skin beneath her ear before leaving the bed to begin dressing. “Sounds like we’re about to find out.”

Cora had contacted her tailor after her first night back together with Sam, having remembered that a new outfit would be ready to pick up. She’d had it delivered instead, and the elegant gold boxes waited on the dressing table. Eager to hear the news, she decided to slip into one of Sam’s shirts instead, which left her more modest than many of her outfits did.

Sam was already fully clothed, but his eyes glimmered with a hunger she was beginning to recognize at the sight of her in one of his shirts. His attention felt as sweet as honey, even when he restrained himself to a lingering kiss and briefly squeezing her hip beneath the fabric.

Jane only raised an eyebrow at her casual appearance, seeming more interested in drinking a pilfered cup of coffee. The case containing her prototype waited beside her on the kitchen table. She gave Sam a smug look when he greeted her and began skimming through the mail she had brought over, but her attention quickly returned to Cora. “You’re not dressed yet? It’s late afternoon.”

“I haven’t been paying much attention to the time.” More to the point, there hadn’t been any reason to; she and Sam had been constantly at each other. “What’s the news about the mugger?”

“He was stupid enough to brag about what he did to friends. He’s keeping quiet to the police, however, so they haven’t recovered any of your belongings.”

“He likely sold them to one of the hundreds of pawnbrokers working in this city,” said Sam, voice absent while he looked through the final bundle of mail. His focus sharpened on Cora’s disappointed expression, and his tone warmed as he returned to her. “I’ll get them back, Bunny. Maybe not everything, but as much as I can.”

Cora found it so easy to smile when she was with him. “It’s all right. The only thing I really miss is the radio you gifted me. Losing my clothes does sting, but I’ve decided to fill out my wardrobe by taking back the ones stuck in my father’s house.”

Jane looked skeptical at the idea. “How? There are still police officers guarding his house, and his bail conditions include a clause that he cannot accept visitors aside from his lawyers.”

Cora shrugged. “I don’t care. I’m tired of pushy men controlling my life. Those are my clothes and I want them back now, not whenever the lawyers finish fighting each other.”

It was a thought that had crystallized into a firm decision in the past few days whenever she had bothered thinking, but not one she had brought up with Sam. Now she glanced over at him, unsure what his response would be.

He smiled, eyes dark and relaxed. “I’ve broken in there before. Follow my lead, and we’ll never be noticed.”

As Cora beamed, leaning backwards into him, Jane finished her coffee and said, “Will you need enchantments? No? Good, because I’m already busy tonight.”

“Your prototype?” said Sam.

“Good to know your deduction skills haven’t rusted from a few days off.” Despite the acerbic words, Jane’s expression lit up, and her hand stroked the case as she added, “I’m showcasing it to the judging panel at eight o’clock.”

“Why that late?”

“My decision. They wasted my time making me believe I had a chance at winning the contract, so now I’m returning the favor. They’re going to miss all their cocktail parties, operas, and galas tonight.”

“Does that include Captain Dempsey?” said Cora, keeping her voice innocent.

“He isn’t one of the judges, but he might be there to see how my aim improved.” Then Jane’s tone grew more serious. “That’s the other reason I’m here, Sam. I didn’t have a chance to say this at the station, but I… appreciate your decision to accept Al and me.”

“Can’t say I expected to come back to that, but you’re happy. That’s all I wanted for you. Just don’t give me the details.” Then Sam’s smile turned wry, and he nodded at the prototype. “Are we going to get a look at that thing now that it’s ready?”

Cora moved closer with him while Jane snapped open the case, just as interested. It was a sleek thing for being a submachine gun, black as oil except for the three cartridges that replaced a conventional weapon’s magazine. Those were a much lighter grey. She was able to keep up with Jane’s explanation even though she had never seen a gun that used energy blasts instead of bullets or shells, but did ask, “Why three cartridges?”

“Different power levels.” Then Jane pushed one, clicking it further into place. It lit up yellow. “Shoot with one active, and it delivers a disorienting shock.”

Pushing the second cartridge turned the glow from both into orange. “Two cause temporary paralysis.”

“And three?” said Sam, watching the light flare into red as the third cartridge locked into place.

“Like getting hit by lightning.” Then Jane pressed them all again to pop them back into their off position. “The public isn’t allowed to be there at the testing, or I’d otherwise invite you to watch.”

“Oh, I’ve had enough of the police station,” said Cora, watching her put the prototype back in its case. “In fact, the only place I want to visit right now is my father’s house.”

The sky glimmered with the fiery orange of sunset when they arrived at the gloomy, imposing mansion, parking under a tree just outside the entrance. Once night hit, no one would see it.

As Sam led her around the ivy-covered brick wall that circled the house, she said, “When did you break inside before?”

“After your father took you back home. I knew I couldn’t let you see me, but I had to make sure you were all right. Or as well as you could be with the sigil active.”

Cora felt her heart swell but tried to keep a cool head as they reached the servant’s gate at the back, aware of how careful they would have to be. “You know just how to make a girl swoon.”

He broke his concentration long enough to give her a smile that really did threaten to make her melt. “Well, hold off if you can, because I can smell a cop patrolling the grounds, and we’re about to slip past him.”

They got in through an open window. Sam stilled her with one hand and listened for a few breaths. “Your father’s scent is fresh, but he’s not on this floor.”

“Good. Do you know how many servants are left?”

“I smell five so far.” Then he checked the hallway before motioning her to follow. His eyes were sharp and careful. “All of them are terrified.”

“I can’t imagine Father is ever in a good mood now,” said Cora, but she studied their surroundings just as carefully.

Inside her bedroom, she was surprised to discover that everything had been left intact—her makeup compacts and lipsticks still waited on the dressing table, and her closet looked as full as she had left it. She hadn’t been sure of what to expect, only that her father would have erased her from his life as thoroughly as she had erased him from hers. Seeing her old things covered in a light layer of dust gave her an unexpected shiver, like she had stepped into a tomb.

Sam prowled around the room while she quickly picked her favorite clothes and packed them in a spare suitcase. It would be agony to not take all her shoes, but she knew it was too much of a risk to do this twice. She was just deciding between a pair of beige and brown day sporting boots with beautiful stitching and rose-colored satin pumps when Sam growled softly to catch her attention.

“There’s a maid coming,” he murmured, just before Cora heard the soft tread herself. “The one you’ve talked about before. Maisie.”

Cora made a split-second decision induced by her curiosity. “I want to talk to her and see why they’re all upset. You can slip out with the suitcase if you want to speed things up.”

He shook his head and stepped behind the dressing screen just as the door to the room cautiously opened. Maisie peered in and then gave a strangled gasp at seeing Cora.

“It’s just me,” said Cora, quickly. “I came to get my things and leave again. Maisie, are you all right?”

The girl looked thin and sleepless, her face haggard far beyond her years. Her hands wrung together as she said, “I—I just came in to check whether the windows were locked. Miss Marshall, you can’t be here!”

“Why not? Has Father found out?”

“He’s…” Maisie swallowed hard, as if her throat had gone dry. “He’s not in.”

Cora resisted glancing toward Sam’s hiding spot. “What? But he’s supposed to stay here until his trial.”

The girl looked ready to cry. “Please, miss. Just leave before there’s real trouble.”

Then came the muffled clank of something very heavy and very far below them. The walls creaked, resettling their weight.

“What on earth was that? It sounded like it came from the old wine cellar.” Cora looked up from the floor and found that Maisie’s expression had shifted into sheer terror.

“I have to go. I can’t stay, I can’t!” Then the girl fled, her footsteps soon disappearing down the hall.

Sam slipped out from behind the screen, his movements silent and careful.

Cora looked at him. “What is going on?”

“I don’t know, but she’s not the only servant leaving. We’re about to be alone in this house from what I can hear and smell.”

“How fresh is Father’s scent?”

“15, 20 minutes.”

In his expression, Cora saw the same question that she had, and she said it out loud while looking down at the floor again. “Then is that him down there or someone else?”

Since it was an old house, the wine cellar access was in the large kitchen pantry. The old wooden door looked the same as what she remembered, and was unlocked. Chilled air drifted out when Sam carefully opened it, his other hand close to his gun. Fat lamps lit stone stairs that sank down and out of sight.

Cora couldn’t hear anything, but her skin still prickled from the cold dampness seeping out through the doorway. “What do you think?” she murmured. “Would going down there be a very bad idea?”

“Yes, because it’s your father.” Sam’s hand was already back on the door, ready to close it again.

Just then, Isaac Marshall’s voice boomed up from the darkness. “Whoever is up there, close the door. It’s already dusk, you fool.”

The sound of that imperious, scathing tone rang through Cora’s mind like a ponderous bell, shaking free all the memories of her father condemning her for whatever fault he found in her character. How many times had her cheeks burned while he called her thoughtless, silly, witless? How many times had she smiled at him as if those words couldn’t possibly bother her?

Worst of all, how many times had she believed him, just a little?

Her own voice shot through the thick air high and furious, honed from years of pent-up rage. “I’m no more a fool than you are, Father.”

Sam tensed beside her, staring down into the darkness with equal intensity, but remained silent as her father’s baffled response drifted back. “Cora?”

“Yes, it’s me.” Dimly, she was aware of Sam murmuring her name, but she was just too angry to keep herself from lunging down the stairs. She’d had enough. She’d just had enough of dueling with her father through lawyers and news articles. Here was a chance to give him a piece of her mind, and she would take it.

In the flickering light, the dirt tunnel morphed into concrete walls so fresh that she could still smell the lime. The air grew even colder as she reached the floor and began weaving past racks of wine.

Her father called out again, perhaps alerted by the rap of her heels. “Cora, don’t come down. Get back upstairs.”

Still ordering her around. Still acting like he always knew better. She was shaking, but not from the underground chill. Then Sam caught her arm, stilling her just as she reached a large steel door that was slightly ajar. Lamplight glowed inside.

When she turned to him, still furious, he met her gaze, his eyes dark and serious. “Cora, it’s all right. What he says doesn’t matter. He can’t control you anymore.”

“But he’s still trying to. I can’t hold back, Sam. I can’t!”

He sighed. “And it has to be right now?”

“Yes.” Her voice cracked. “Because after this, I never want to see him again.”

Another moment of study and then he traced the curve of her cheek. “All right. Let me go first.”

She nodded, heart pounding and fists balled at her sides while she followed him inside. Then she blinked, stopping dead. “Father? Why are you in a… a cell?”

Cell was putting it mildly. The steel bars dividing the room into two were obscenely thick and bolted into the floor. Her father sat in a plain wooden chair. It was the only other thing present on his side. Even all the lamps were carefully placed beyond reach of the bars. It really looked like more of a dungeon.

Despite his rigid posture, her father didn’t look well, sweating and shaking in his evening dressing gown. His eyes were bloodshot, and his words sounded clipped and strained as he said, “For God’s sake, Cora, leave before Siebert locks the door.”

The sharp click of metal sliding into metal at their backs suggested it was already too late.

Sam growled while trying the door’s handle. When he shook his head at Cora and then shrugged off his coat, obviously preparing to break them out, she turned back to her father. Her pulse pounded in her ears.

Her father groaned and slumped over. The act left his face in shadow as the lamplight flickered erratically. “You’re the same as always, dear daughter. You can’t understand anything.”

“I don’t believe in that claptrap anymore,” she shot back. “I’m smart. I know lots of things. And I deserve to know a lot more, especially when it comes to all the things you did to me. You want me to leave, Father? Then tell me why you’re in here.”

When her father’s shoulders bunched, she thought he was drawing in a breath to shout at her. Then she heard Sam growl again. Then he was suddenly between her and her father, staring at the man in horror. His expression cleared some of her fury, and she didn’t resist when the press of his body urged her back toward the door. “We need to get out of here. Now.”

Just then, her father shuddered and raised his head again. His eyes were a bright, feral yellow, and oversized fangs flashed in his mouth as he forced out, “I’m in here, you little fool, because it’s a full moon.”

Then he began seizuring, falling out of the chair to writhe on the stone floor. His voice dwindled into a gut-wrenching groan.

“Sam?” managed Cora. “Is… is he…”

His response remained calm, but she could see the tension in the lines of his body as he motioned her closer to him while his other hand pulled out his knife. “He’s changing form, but not into a regular wolf. His smell is different. I think he’s turning into the same goddamn creature as Dominic Tierney. Do you have your pistol? Good. Keep it on him in case he finishes before me.”

She did, amazed at how steady her hands were. A scream rose in her throat when sharp, cracking noises filled the room and she realized it was her father’s bones breaking and reforming. After swallowing it back down, she said, “What are you going to do? The lock is on the outside.”

“The hinges are in here with us. Once I knock the pins out, we can swing the door open and get the hell out of here.” Then he began using the hard metal of his knife’s pommel to do just that.

The noise was quickly muffled by the snapping and gurgled screaming coming from her father. His transformation was nothing like Sam’s smooth, painless shift, and she was too shocked to look away. The features of his face bubbled, tongue lolling like a man choking in a noose. His eyes bugged out until she thought they would pop. His spine contorted in quick, shuddering movements, vertebrae bursting through the silk fabric of his dressing gown.

It wasn’t until a tail sprouted out that he finally began screaming. His voice thickened into something guttural and utterly wretched while the muscles of his body convulsed and swelled, sloughing over the exposed bone of his back. Hands scratched at the ground until fingernails broke past the quick. The movement pushed his sleeve up past his left arm, and that was when Cora saw it—old scar tissue bubbling and swelling until it ripped into a fresh wound again. She had known enough roughshod men to recognize what a bite from an attack dog looked like, and this was a much larger, uglier version of that. Even as she fought not to feel sick, the wound sprouted greyish fur.

The next time her father twisted to where she could glimpse his face, his stately sideburns had thickened into the same fur and spread, covering his skin. His teeth were even larger, pushing out of a distorted muzzle without rhyme or reason. Another spasm left those terrible fangs clamping down on a still-human tongue. The froth on her father’s jowls grew bloody.

After that, Cora had to look down and concentrate on breathing steadily. The pistol remained cocked and ready in her hands, leaving her unable to cover her ears against the wet, tearing noises of flesh reassembling itself, or the agonized howls that still sounded like her father’s voice. Only the steady pounding from Sam driving out the pins in the hinges kept her focused.

The beautiful chime of one falling to the floor jerked her gaze toward him. He was sweating but intent, fingers incredibly steady as he straightened up to the second and final hinge near the top of the door. His voice sounded just as calm despite rising above another thick scream from her father. “Cora, brace a hand against this area of the door to keep it straight. If it starts twisting, there’ll be too much pressure on the pin to pop it out.”

She tried not to pant while following his directions. Despite the awful noise shaking the room, he glanced at her, eyes clear and reassuring. “It’s all right. We’re almost out of here.”

Just as she nodded, a bubbling groan from her father shifted into a rumbling growl. Then came the scrape of claws against stone, and panting breaths that vibrated the walls. Cora instinctively aimed her pistol, eyes widening as the form behind the bars shuffled closer to the lamplight.

Glowing eyes stared back at her in a mountain of muscle. Rivulets of drool streamed from a blunted version of a wolf’s muzzle. The creature that was somehow her father had grizzled fur tipped with silver, as if even in this form he felt the ravages of age. He moved awkwardly, on limbs unfit for either walking upright or bounding on all fours. A patchwork creature designed by a madman, a grotesque mimicry of wolfkind sharpened by size and power. The entire room felt tiny with him in it.

A large, wet nose snuffled at the air, pointing in her direction. Then came an earth-shaking growl, and all that weight slammed against the bars holding it back. Steel groaned in response. Bent. Her father snarled, dripping saliva from a mouth that could fit around her entire head and crack it like an egg.

Then came the clang of the second pin falling free, and Sam snarled back at her father while ramming the door open with one shoulder. “Come on. Hurry!”

As they raced through the cellar together, Cora said, “Do you think this room will hold him?”

The sound of cracking cement answered her question. Sam’s voice was nearly a growl. “I wouldn’t count on it.”

They burst out into the kitchen, leaving behind the echo of crumpling metal. By the time they reached the front entrance, Cora heard splintering wood and cooking pots clattering to the ground. He was already out of the cellar. She wasn’t even sure how she was still running; she felt numb from head to toe.

Light spilled out into the night as they ran out the door and down the steps, alerting the police officer who was on duty.

“Run!” she screamed at the startled man, but just then, Sam suddenly jerked her aside. An incredible noise filled the air, as if the entire house crumbled beneath a great weight. Then came a guttural roar, and she felt more than saw long claws rake the space where she had just been.

They caught the officer instead, ripping him in half.

Cora shrieked as blood splattered her from head to toe, convinced they would die next. Only Sam’s hand at her back kept her running as he said, “The police car is right there. You drive it while I shoot at the bastard.”

For some reason, climbing into the driver’s seat was more terrifying than running. Even with her father distracted from attacking the limp pieces of the body, her hands shook as she started up the car and slammed on the gas as hard as possible. Even with the reinforced metal of a police vehicle, they would be crushed like a tin can if he got to them before they reached a fast speed.

Somehow, they were out of the driveway and onto the private road before the hulking form appeared in the rearview mirror, shaking blood off fur. Cora tried to stay as calm as Sam, who had found the standard issue shotgun and was checking to see if it was loaded.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, trying to hold back tears as her father began chasing them. Despite his awkward run, he moved fast and was already closing the distance. “I think I’ve just killed us.”

At that, Sam looked over at her. “You think I’m angry with you?”

“I’m certainly kicking myself right now.”

To her surprise, he actually laughed. Despite both of them being covered in blood—despite how she could already hear panting growls and a heavy lope behind them—his next words brushed her ears like velvet. “Let me tell you something, Bunny. I’ve been itching to kill your father from the moment the sigil left you crying and bleeding in my arms while trying to force you to go back to him. Now I have the chance to fill him up with silver buckshot. Do you really think I’m angry about that?”

She managed a watery smile. “No. For that matter, neither am I.” Then she drew in a deep breath, determination filling her full. “We need to lead him somewhere. We’re about to barrel off of the property and onto a public street.”

“The police reports said silver didn’t do much to Tierney, so we need something else to stop him.”

“What about Jane’s prototype?”

Sam opened his window, ready to lean out with the shotgun. “Even if that doesn’t work, something else at the station should. Ready?”

She nodded, focusing on the road. With the city’s thriving nightlife, this was about to get hairy.

She began honking the horn as well as blaring the police siren when the first cars appeared in front of them. A glance in the rear view mirror proved that she couldn’t slow down. Her father bounded after them with awkward but distance-swallowing lunges. The moment they stopped, he’d be on them. Sam’s aim never missed, and each shot drew an answering roar of pain, but her father never faltered for more than a breath, his thick hide smoking from the silver.

With her hand on the horn, she wrenched the car onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians scattered with shouts and screams. The shrieking changed pitch when people saw what chased after the car.

“He’s staying focused on us,” yelled Sam, while reloading. “That’s the good news.”

“And the bad?” She prayed that no cross traffic was about to pull in their way as she crossed a street, scraping a massive cement flower pot. The sharp crack behind them suggested that her father had just barreled through it.

“He’s getting closer.”

Just then, she saw the Telladay Conservatory, its many glass facets glittering from reflected light. “I think I can slow him down. Get back inside!”

With the siren still blaring, she veered past the opera house and turned as tightly as she dared to point the car at the lowest part of the conservatory across the street. When the car lurched from its wheels bumping off the sidewalk and onto the front lawn, she sensed Sam twisting to see where they were headed. Then he saw the looming conservatory and quickly shut his window, realizing what she was about to do.

Glass shattered against the car, bright and deafening. Cora felt her hands sweating against the wheel, but nothing punctured through to them. From the change in her father’s roaring, he wasn’t so lucky. Cracking and scrabbling continued behind them as she drove as fast as she dared through the plants.

“It’s working,” said Sam. “The pieces that aren’t sticking into him are slicing him into ribbons. It’s a lot of damage to heal from.”

The police car destroyed the man-made stream and sideswiped the spiral staircase before she glimpsed the other side. Just then, she heard Sam swear. “Veer left. Left!”

She did but still felt the car jolt as her father lunged, catching them with a glancing blow. She wrenched the wheel, trying to keep control even as her father’s grotesque face crashed through the passenger window, foam dripping from open jaws.

Sam fired point blank, sending the creature back with a spray of blood. Her father’s massive form twisted and writhed, crashing through the glass ahead of them to paw at his face. By the time Cora got the car through the broken shards and back outside, two eyes glowed at them while mountains of fur shook off blood and debris.

Screams sounded all around while people realized what was happening. Cora just kept driving, hoping that her father would remember enough of himself to keep chasing after her.

“How many shells are left?” she said above the earth-shaking roars and the wailing of their siren.

“Not enough to keep him after us through the city until we reach the police station. What about tearing through the Cypress Grove golf course? It curves around most of the high risers. We’ll pop back out a few blocks from the station.”

“And no one else will be in the way, either.” Then came the screech of metal as claws raked the back of the car. Cora stomped against the gas pedal and veered the car in the right direction.

The golf club’s entrance was flanked by cypress trees. She rammed through the large members only sign and the decorative wooden gate instead to get inside. The windshield cracked but held as broken boards and posts flew into the air. The siren was knocked off, dying with a final wail.

The headlights were just enough to keep her away from the sand pits, but the grass wasn’t used to the weight of a police car, slowing their speed. Her father was also having trouble, ripping up great clods of earth with each step. Out here, it was eerily silent aside from her father’s panting and the car’s engine. With the endless swathes of green grass turned silver beneath the moonlight, it almost felt like they were all trapped in an eternal hunt.

Then the glimmer of water warned her to steer left. Her father lunged straight ahead, some dim instinct encouraging him to take the shorter distance to cut them off. Instead, he landed with a great splash, and all that weight immediately sank further.

“Oh, no,” she muttered, hoping they were clear enough of the pond’s edges to avoid any mud. The front tires sank slightly into the softer ground but kept rolling. The back tires sank in with a sickening lurch, stopping them dead.

“No!” she screamed, while stomping on the gas. The wheels spun uselessly. They were stuck, and from the looks of it, so was her father, who writhed and roared while trying to contort his limbs free.

Sam stopped her with a hand. “Wait, wait. Use the brakes instead. I think I can give the wheels enough traction to get back onto solid grass. Here, take over with the gun in case he escapes this mud before us.”

Her skin prickled as she slid out of the car with the shotgun, unsure of what was about to happen. As water frothed and splashed around her father, Sam grabbed a few fence boards that were still wedged against the windshield. Within moments, he placed them in front of the back tires, ignoring the mud flicking onto his clothes and hands.

Cora made sure she was out of the way while he got into the driver’s side and carefully pressed on the gas, coaxing the wheels to lurch forward enough to catch the rough grain of the wood. Her father was also working himself free, the line of mud on his chest and back showing how much of his body had escaped the pond’s grasp. When he snarled at her, she shot without hesitation, unable to tell what was blood and what was mud in the stark moonlight.

Then the car rolled back onto firm ground, guided by Sam’s steady steering. She shot her father again just as his hind legs emerged from the water and ran for the passenger’s side.

“I can’t believe he’s still chasing us,” she said, as they raced through the rest of the course with him close behind. His breathing sounded more labored, but he showed no other sign of pain or tiredness.

Sam’s voice turned grim. “It’s just what the Saxbys wanted with their berserker serum. Fighters that would never stop.”

“But how? Did they infect Father as well as Tierney? That can’t be right, though. Isabelle Saxby admitted that they wanted to kill him.”

“With a serum invented by a madman. Something must have gone wrong. Tierney didn’t kill your father, but he must have passed it on somehow. The traits are all the same: his appearance, his immunity to silver, and the fact that he changed on the full moon.”

Cora remembered the ugly bite on her father’s arm revealed during his transformation. “He bit him. There was a scar I saw on him while you worked on the door. It was a terrible wound. My God, has this happened to Father on every full moon since then?”

“Would explain why he went to Beaumont after escaping Tierney. And why Beaumont had him in a reinforced room.” Then Sam’s voice tightened. “Hang on. We’re about to hit city streets again.”

Cora nodded, bracing herself for a fresh round of chaos.

They smashed through some bushes and a decrepit wire fence to reach a road. Branches and barbed wire slowed her father to a limp, his growls bubbling wetly in his chest as he fought to free himself, eyes always glowing right into the rearview mirror. The massive police station rose high into the night, illuminated by so many lights that it appeared gold. Their car barreled down the sidewalk on the wrong side of the road, as battered as her father.

Despite the time of night, there were a few cars parked in front of the long stone stairway up to the entrance, and a group of people making their way down the steps. Through the broken windows, Cora could hear their voices and recognized some of the figures.

The police commissioner barked orders to a young, neatly dressed man who nodded and took notes. Other equally distinguished-looking gentlemen murmured to the commissioner while angling their hats and tugging their gloves into place against the night chill, making their way to the cars. Further behind on the stairs was Jane with her prototype in its case, a handful of police officers and enchanters, and Captain Dempsey.

They all stopped and stared as Sam screeched to a halt, nearly hitting the commissioner’s car.

As they both lunged out, Cora raised her voice. “Jane! Get ready to use that prototype. He’s coming!”

“What is the meaning of this?” said Commissioner Keene, his mustache bristling as he glared at them.

Sam guided Cora to circle around until the cars would block them from her father whenever he emerged from the dark end of the street. When he spoke, it was to Captain Dempsey. “Get reinforcements. Her father changed just like Tierney. He’s been chasing us for the past goddamn hour.”

Cora glanced down the street long enough to search for glowing eyes. There weren’t any, which somehow made her even more terrified. “We have to get inside. All of us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the commissioner, and then turned to the younger man beside him. “Jackson, the door. What kind of assistant are you?”

Jackson bobbed his head and hurried toward the car. Just as he opened it, a massive shape lunged out from the darkness, trailing barbed wire behind it. Glass chips pelted the ground. Mud obscured all but the fangs and eyes as a giant mouth snapped down on the commissioner’s head.

This time, it was someone else who ended up covered in blood, not Cora. Sam had already pulled her further back, hiding them both from her father’s view behind one of the iron statues that circled the station.

Jackson froze despite the blood dripping down his face, managing only a whimper as the massive creature in front of him dropped the commissioner’s body to study him instead. As the creature’s shadow fell over the man, he shrank back against the car, squeezing his eyes shut.

Then light shot into the creature, splitting into lightning that crackled all over its heaving form. It convulsed, roaring with true pain.

Cora watched her father, openly impressed that Jane’s weapon was affecting him so much, but beside her, Sam swore and said, “She’s out in the goddamn open.”

Captain Dempsey’s voice roared out a moment later. “Jane, take cover!”

Just as Cora realized that Jane was standing at the top of the stairway in clear view, her father saw the she-wolf and lunged, fur still smoking. Jane tried to dart back but he was already there, backhanding her with enough force to send her and the prototype flying in different directions. Her body hit a pillar with an audible snap, and she fell to the ground in a motionless heap. Cora’s heart jumped up to her throat.

Before her father could grab the limp she-wolf, officers began firing from behind the other pillars. Their bullets peppered her father without any effect beyond bewildering him in who to go after next. Cora still held the shotgun, but her attention had shifted to the prototype, which had landed several yards from her and Sam. Two out of three cartridges glimmered orange at her.

She lunged for the weapon, every muscle feeling electrified. The third cartridge clicked into place beneath her touch, flickering red to show the gun was now at the highest power level. Then a wave of hot breath blasted her side, and she looked over her shoulder to find her father towering over her. Shock burst through her chest just as a bullet caught him clean in the eye, sending him reeling back.

As he roared and clawed at his face, Sam shot him again, eyes feral. His snarl was just as ferocious. “You’re not going to hurt her, you son of a bitch.”

Cora steadied her stance and then let out a scream that shredded her throat to get the creature’s attention. “Father!”

His head swung back in her direction, fangs bloodied.

“You won’t take my life away ever again.” Then she fired.

The night brightened into a white heat as overwhelming and vicious as a lightning strike. Even after Cora closed her eyes, her vision remained red. The sizzle of burning flesh filled the air.

When she opened them again, she found her father twitching on the ground, his body reduced to a crater of charcoal from neck to hip. Shockingly, within a moment, he drew in a breath. Then another. By the time her eyesight had completely recovered, he panted sluggishly.

Sam joined her side and shook his head. “Just like Tierney. He’s still breathing despite everything.”

“Isn’t there anything that can kill him?” she said, staring.

It was Jane who answered, slightly unsteady on her feet as she approached them and the smoking body. “Not until he transforms back. Remember how Tierney only died once he was human again?”

“Sunrise, then,” said Sam. “Because it was the full moon that triggered the change.”

“What do we do until then?” said Cora. “Shoot him whenever he recovers?”

“Sounds good to me,” growled Captain Dempsey, as his officers followed behind. He waved over Enchanter Byrd, who seemed both in shock and fascinated by the sight of the creature. “Byrd, let’s put him in one of your containment rooms. We’ll watch over him until dawn.”

Cora sighed, all tension draining away as she handed the prototype back to Jane. Sam pulled her close, nuzzling the top of her head, and even with hours of night ahead, she knew the danger was over.

As it turned out, that single shot was enough to keep her father down. His body had healed by the time lavender tinged the sky, but he seemed unconscious, breathing shallowly. Cora shared a cup of coffee with Sam while waiting in another room, knowing they’d be called by the enchanters once her father had changed back into human form and had been revived. Several times, she had to hide a smile over how Captain Dempsey kept checking on Jane, his professional mask slipping whenever the four of them were alone. Jane herself simply looked smug, stroking her prototype in its case.

It was nearly an hour after sunrise when Enchanter Byrd escorted them back to the containment chamber. Captain Dempsey was also there. Her father looked much as he had in his wine cellar, only now his dressing gown was plain cotton and his sickly pallor was brightly lit. He faced them all without expression, as composed as if he was in the middle of a boardroom meeting.

“Well, then,” he said, finally. “I expect you all want something out of me.”

Dempsey answered first, his cigarette in his mouth. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Oh, yes.”

When he said nothing else, Cora decided to speak up. All her anger had melted away, crystallized by the finality of the situation. After all, nothing better suggested an end to any chance at a relationship with her father than shooting him. “I’m sorry you were infected by the serum, Father. I really am.”

He barely reacted to her, instead sipping at his coffee with shaking hands.

Sam sounded less sympathetic. “Are you willing to tell your side of the story now?”

At that, Isaac Marshall glanced up. “Is it necessary? You have the air of someone who knows and simply wishes me to confess.”

“I think your daughter deserves to hear it. It’s the least you can do for her.”

Her father scoffed, but after another heartbeat of silence, he gave in. “This godforsaken city is going to the animals. Humans are the dominant force only because the packs are too busy fighting each other to truly come after us. The Saxbys looked poised to win with their berserker idea. I agreed to give them capital in hopes of securing future deals with them.”

“And soon regretted it,” murmured Sam. The cold glint hadn’t left his eyes.

Isaac Marshall took a final sip from his coffee and then set it down. “I didn’t like the others who were picked for this plan. Too unreliable. Too impulsive. All too soon, my fears proved true. The berserker serum created by that hack of an enchanter had so many flaws. For God’s sake, its best iteration turned the berserker into something infectious, transferring its shifting ability to whatever it bit—the very opposite of what the Saxbys wanted as an elite, special force. Once I realized the enchanter was an utter madman, I wanted to back out before my losses ran too deep. That’s all I know, although I can surmise the Saxbys were behind my misfortune with my driver in Corpsewood.”

Cora said nothing, realizing that any comment she made might annoy her father enough to shut him up. Instead, she watched Sam pace and share a glance with Dempsey in an unspoken signal.

When Sam spoke, his voice remained flat. “I can tell you what happened next. The Saxbys used human connections to infect your driver, Dominic Tierney, with the serum while he was getting a new tattoo. Another pawn of theirs set up a meeting for you that would ensure you’d be driving with him at night during the next full moon. Nothing too tricky to time, and they knew you were much too arrogant to think they’d do anything, anyway.”

Isaac Marshall nodded. “I remember being attacked by him. Something distracted him before he could finish me off. Other people, I think. I was able to stagger off and disappear into the forest. I knew that miserable Beaumont was hiding in a manor within walking distance. I thought he might cure me. We worked on it for weeks before he grew too drunk one night and accidentally killed himself. I was locked in that room for three days without food or water.”

Now Sam stopped in front of him. His teeth flashed as he said, “Why did the Saxbys want Cora so badly?”

For the first time, her father deigned to look him directly in the eyes. “My God, so there is a sordid attachment between the two of you. I shouldn’t be surprised at this point.”

Cora swallowed hard, moving up to take Sam’s place. “Father, it’s no use trying to bait me. I’m thoroughly over all that. And I just wanted to say that I’m going to move past what you did to me with the sigil. I found Roland again, and… well, it’s all over with now.”

“Yes, preventing your elopement has been my greatest regret.”

Cora felt tears fill her eyes, realizing that was the closest to an apology she would ever receive from him.

Then her father added, “Yet there wasn’t a better excuse than the boy.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sam turn toward them again. She knew his body language well enough to understand he was just as startled by the words.

Dempsey blew out some smoke while studying the other man. “Mind elaborating on that?”

Her father faced her as if she had asked the question instead. There was still no hint of emotion in his eyes. “I didn’t care about your plans to elope, Cora. I cared that you’d found out about my plans with the Saxbys. Probably from sneaking in one night after a rendezvous with the boy. Beaumont told me you would still have awareness of losing memories, and that it was best to hide the true reason by taking other memories as well.”

“You… you mean…” was all she could manage.

Her father continued as if she hadn’t even spoken. “I decided to use your plans with the boy as an excuse. I didn’t want to. I would have rather let you disappear once and for all. It would have greatly simplified my life. But I still found use for you. Since Beaumont was already working on you, I told him to use your blood for the serum as a fail-safe against the Saxbys trying to cut me out of the deal. I knew wolves couldn’t be trusted, and thought making my daughter an essential component of the serum would prevent them from replacing me with another rich human. I now admit I assumed too much from them.”

“You rotten bastard,” said Sam, quietly. “I’d hoped it was something the Saxbys insisted on.”

“You… you…” Then Cora felt something deep inside her snap. Hands grabbed at her as soon as she lunged at her father, and she was left scratching at the air until Sam pulled her into his arms, his voice low and soothing while she screamed at her father’s impassive face, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You miserable old man! How could you? Did you ever love me? Did you ever even try?”

When his expression only darkened in disgust, she finally broke, slumping against Sam while he guided her out of the room. Tears reduced the world into blurred light and his warm touch.

When they were to themselves, she cried against him until his shirt was wet. It felt like everything was spilling out of her, every bad memory, every moment of pain, every neglected piece of her childhood. He just held her close, steadying her with his warmth. Once her sobs became sniffles, he offered her his handkerchief. She took it, wringing it as if it were her father’s neck. “I could kill him. I could really do it.”

He traced the curve of her cheek, his tone teasing yet gentle. “Once isn’t enough?”

Minutes ago, she’d thought she would never smile again. Now she found her lips twitching toward one even as fresh tears ran down her cheeks. “Maybe not.”

Then she sighed. “I always knew he was cold. I didn’t realize he was hateful.”

At that, Sam caught her chin. His gold eyes were intent and hot, thawing the chill behind her ribs that had appeared with her father’s final words to her. “It’s all over, Bunny. He’s not part of your life anymore. And believe me, now that he’s killed the police commissioner, the city will have him tried, convicted, and hanged within a month. He can’t take anything else from you.”

She nodded, resting her head against his chest again. Her breath already felt steadier. “Will you take me home?”

“To your apartment?”

Despite her stuffed-up nose, she shifted until she could kiss him. She still hurt but already felt the parts of her heart that would heal with enough time. “No. Yours. It’s the only place that has ever felt like home, and that’s where I want to start my new life. With you.”

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