The shopping trip had been very successful, and Cora was smiling even before she saw Detective Hayes waiting by his car in the driveway. She waved at him while parking. “Hayes! You’re early.”
He smiled slightly. “No, Miss Marshall, you’re late. I said I’d be here at nine. It’s nine-thirty.”
“Oh. I have warned you that tardiness is a lifelong habit of mine.” She got out just as he walked over to join her. “I had to get my hair done, of course, and there were a few items I needed for our meeting with the Saxby Pack today.”
Then she pulled a hat from its box and brandished it for his inspection. It had a delicate veil that would fall over her eyes at an angle and was studded with real pearls. “I doubt I can convince them that I’m anything more than a frivolous heiress, so why not play that to the hilt and make them underestimate me instead?”
“And the rest of these?” said Hayes, eyeing how bags and paper-wrapped parcels filled every area of the car that wasn’t the driver’s seat. Multiple servants had already appeared to take them inside.
“Detective, it’s impossible to stop with just one thing.”
His baffled expression suggested he didn’t agree, but he only said, “Miss Marshall, I always admire your moxie, but we’re going to be stretched for time and I still need to brief you on what to expect. You’d better swap hats now so we can get going.”
“Swap hats? Oh, no. I’ve got an entire outfit planned.” She picked out two parcels in particular and began after the servants, who were trying to see over their armfuls.
“What’s wrong with your current one?”
“It’s all wrong. I’ve thought about this very carefully and know just what to wear. It won’t take me long to change. I promise.”
He checked his watch but followed her with nothing more than a sigh.
It was strange to consider how they had reached an agreement about this meeting in much the same situation—her behind a screen while changing, and him pacing throughout the room. Now, though, she wasn’t trying to tease him and could tell that he was in no mood for it anyway. She’d never seen him so tense.
She spoke while stripping down, tossing her clothes aside without care. Each piece of her new outfit waited within easy reach. “I’m listening, Hayes.”
“So far, everything is playing out as expected. According to my sources, only the diplomat and the royal inspector from the Saxbys will be there. The alpha-king had second thoughts after hearing we chose the Frosthound Pack to host the meeting.”
“Is that good news or bad news?” Then she unwrapped one of the parcels and studied what was in it. Her tailor was used to much odder requests from his various clients and hadn’t even raised an eyebrow when she’d put in the order last week. He was a stiff, humorless man but did wonderful work—she was able to fit the material around her thigh without any interference from her stockings and garter belt.
As she reached for the second parcel, Hayes said, “It’s hard to tell. There won’t be as many guards, but without their alpha-king to keep them cowering, the Saxbys will be more aggressive.”
“You sound very sure of that.”
“I’ve been in meetings like this. We’ll all be on edge. Every wolf there will be under a spell to hide their scent. It’s a common tactic during negotiations where no one wants to give anything away.”
“Well, that doesn’t affect me.”
“No, but it makes us feel… blind. We judge a lot by what we can smell.”
“That’s very good to know.” She meant every word, since it reassured her that the thaumaturgist she’d seen really had known his stuff when it came to slipping things past wolves.
Then her attention narrowed to the box in her hands, which was much heavier than one would expect for its size. Its contents gleamed back at her, just as striking as they had been in the shop.
These were the extras, and she thought it was better to keep them in her purse. Mr. Rye had given her very clear instructions and had sworn they would work beautifully. He hadn’t been surprised by her initial request, either, and had in fact told her that such orders were on the rise with the recent pack-related violence throughout the city.
That fact drew a comment out of her even as she reached for her dress. “I must admit, I’m puzzled about why the Frosthounds are so feared when it seems as though every pack is very willing to kill.”
There was a brief pause before he answered, and when he did, his voice sounded flat. “Packs are very rigid about their roles, Miss Marshall. They don’t like it when someone flouts expectations, whether it’s in their pack or out of it. It makes them nervous. The Frosthounds do just that.”
“Yes, I remember what you said about their alpha-queen worshipping a death goddess.”
“It’s more than that. She used to be the royal duelist for the alpha-king. It’s a rough position. Most duelists for an alpha’s court don’t survive beyond five years. It’s also a lower position—you fight for members of the court, but that doesn’t mean you’re part of it. When the Frosthound alpha-king fell in love with her and wanted her as his queen, nearly every wolf in the upper ranks of his pack was against it. Usually that’s enough to stop a king’s whim in its tracks. Not with Thane, though.”
Cora couldn’t help sighing. “That’s so romantic.”
“Not really. It meant he slaughtered most of his court to make it happen.”
“Still. You’d be surprised at how many girls dream of having a fella who would do anything for her, and all because he really loves her.”
Finished, she stepped out from behind the screen, pleased with what the nearby mirror showed. She had chosen an outfit of white and black, the sharp lines and colors softened by the luxurious stole over her shoulders and the sheen of pearls on her gloved wrists. She looked dramatic, elegant, and completely like someone who had trained herself to be helpless from having so many other people do everything for her. “Is that really all it takes to scare a wolf? Facing someone in love?”
Hayes still moved about the room with the restlessness of an animal in a cage. It wouldn’t be right to say there were cracks in his usual composure, but that affable glint in his eyes that could turn teasing or intent within a breath was now nowhere to be found. Instead, he looked very hard and guarded. “Wolves understand greed. Love, not so much.”
There was an odd undertone to the words for all that he spoke evenly, enough so that Cora turned to look at him as he added, “All the other packs now consider Thane Frost to be crazy, and his queen equally so.”
When she only nodded, more interested in tilting her hat to the perfect angle, he shook his head. “You’re not frightened at all, are you?”
“I’ve never seen the point of fretting. Besides, you’ve never scared me.”
“I’m not like other wolves. I try to be nice.”
She flashed a smile at him. “I doubt I’d be scared even if you were being very, very bad.”
“Miss Marshall.” His expression all but begged her to take things seriously.
She finally did, realizing there was likely more to his tension than merely trying to convince his idiot client that she was in danger. “I’m sorry, Hayes. I don’t mean to be this aggravating. Did your plan to hire someone from that one pack work out?”
“It’s all set up. I have the Mange waiting with someone I can trust. That doesn’t guarantee things will go easy for us.”
“I know. Really, I do. And I also know it will be much harder for you than for me, facing your former pack, but…” She grabbed her purse and took a final glance at her reflection while trying to find the right words. “We’ve done the best we’ve can to be safe against them. As for what they might say, well, that’s nothing worth thinking about. If they’re anything like their diplomat, then they’re utter fools. They’d have to be, to believe they’re better than you.”
Then she realized the room had fallen silent. Hayes had stopped pacing and was now staring at her as if he still didn’t know what the hell to make of her.
“Detective?” she said, puzzled more than anything. “Should we go?”
He remained terse throughout the drive, and she decided to keep quiet rather than distract him with chatter. It was easy to absorb her attention in their surroundings; she had never been this close to city limits. Yellow paint marked the borders shared between public streets and pack territory, and occasionally barbed-wire fencing did as well.
Then the road itself became bordered with yellow, and Cora knew that meant they were now surrounded by wolves. Trees and shrubs and brick walls ran along the road, protecting whatever hid behind them from the most curious eyes. Occasionally, things opened up to reveal flashes of squat, industrial buildings or even the glimpse of houses far in the distance.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed before Hayes said, “We’re almost there.”
Cora nodded, excitement bubbling up through her rib cage. “Any final advice?”
“Don’t trust them.”
Within a few breaths, he turned into a driveway almost hidden by the gnarled trees bordering it. They drove down a gravel path enclosed by tall hedges for nearly a mile before a huge iron gate appeared, already opened. Hayes hissed something beneath his breath at the sight of figures waiting there.
“Frosthounds?” she murmured, fixated on them despite the hedges falling away to reveal a massive white mansion and its grounds.
“No. Saxby fellas.”
They were hard, ferocious-looking creatures, she had to admit. They dressed like normal men, wearing hats, suits, and nice shoes, but moved too smoothly, revealing their inhuman nature as they turned to watch the car. All five were broad, sturdy, and looked like they were used to being punched in the face. Perfect goons.
Hayes stopped the car just when it was close enough for her to make out the feral yellow of their eyes. “Not a damn Frosthound guard in sight,” he said, his voice tight.
When the Saxby wolves approached, he glanced at her. “Stay in the car. If things get ugly, use it to get out of here.”
“But, Hayes…” Heart in throat, she watched him get out and put himself between her and the approaching Saxbys. Her hands twitched against the folds of her dress as they stopped a few feet from him.
The goon in front had a neck thicker than his head, and his teeth flashed at Hayes as he said, “So, you came crawling in after all.”
“Hello, Eddie.” Hayes looked easy while facing him, but Cora didn’t miss how he kept them all in his line of sight. “Why are you out here waiting for us?”
“Gotta check you over for weapons.”
“Not happening. It’s not your place to even request it.”
None of the other wolves looked surprised as they slowly moved to circle him. Cora tried to keep calm as Eddie said, “That’s rich, coming from a fella who makes a living serving humans.”
Two of the other Saxbys mimicked the high-pitched barking of a lap dog while grinning.
Hayes glanced at them, but his tone didn’t change. “The Saxby king has no authority here. We’re equally powerless on Frosthound land.”
At that, Eddie laughed. “Equally? You think you’re equal to us?”
Cora gritted her teeth, finding it impossible to stay silent. She hated their contempt, but the vicious anticipation coming to life in their eyes was even worse. They were aching to attack.
She hid the anger in her voice while leaning through the rolled-down window of the car, offering one of those knowing smiles that men could never resist. “If you boys want to have fun, you should be talking to me.”
All attention jumped to her. Hayes went stiff with fresh tension, but she kept her focus on the goons, who were studying her as if they hadn’t even realized she was there.
Then one of them said, “Think you can handle a real wolf, sweetheart?”
She remembered enough about wolves to keep her gaze away from their eyes, instead glancing over their bodies as if admiring their strength. Her fingers hitched the folds of her dress up over her knees. “I don’t mind finding out.”
That drew half-smiles, and even a step closer from one or two before Hayes snarled with enough violence to stop them in their tracks. “I’ll break your goddamn necks if you even move toward her.”
Just then, a brief whistle rang out. Two wolves were coming out from the mansion. Cora felt her heart skip a beat until she realized they had to be Frosthound guards. Stark, black uniforms emphasized the guns and daggers waiting within easy reach. They moved efficiently, silently, well-used to working with each other. Most striking of all, though, were the masks they wore, shaped and colored like skulls. Only their eyes remained visible, flashing yellow while they approached.
The Saxby goons quickly moved away from Hayes, looking sullen and avoiding eye contact. Their well-tailored suits suddenly seemed ostentatious, even vulnerable compared to the Frosthound guards’ severe appearance.
The taller guard spoke first, revealing a hard voice thick with sarcasm. “Well, now. Both your royal inspector and your diplomat said all the guards were inside with them. Who’s been forgetful? You for leaving your posts, or them for leaving you outside?”
When none of the Saxbys responded beyond uneasy gazes that darted everywhere except at them, the second guard stepped closer, smaller in stature but with a wiriness that promised hidden strength. “Get inside before we decide to skin you.”
Grim words, all the more so because of their neutral tone, but it was the guard’s unmistakably female voice that left Cora leaning further out the window in surprise. If the Frosthounds noticed her sudden movement, neither commented on it, instead watching the Saxbys slink back inside.
Then the male guard turned toward Hayes.
Cora wanted to smile at how he remained unflinching beneath the scrutiny, or how the growl hadn’t quite left his voice as he said, “This is the first time I’ve visited a pack without seeing their guards everywhere.”
“Alpha-king Frost wanted to see what the Saxbys would try.”
When Hayes just growled again, the female guard added, “You knew coming to us for a neutral territory would be uncertain. All the king and queen promise is extending that same uncertainty toward the Saxby Pack. Drive over to the entrance. We’ll meet you there and escort you the rest of the way.”
Then they left, both barely making a sound against the gravel driveway. Cora watched until Hayes got back in the car.
“Miss Marshall.” It was only her name, but the words seethed, warning her that his anger hadn’t left with the other wolves. “What the hell were you thinking? I told you to leave.”
Somehow, the fact that he was furious with her as well warmed her heart more than the sweetest compliment. It meant he really was taking what she said and did seriously. “I know, and I know you also told me not to speak to them, but something had to be done. They were about to bully you bloody.”
“Look, I can handle myself.”
“And I can handle a bunch of goons.”
When he shook his head, mouth still grim, she added, “Hayes, I didn’t come to you for protection. I came to you because I haven’t got any brains. It’s all this sleuthing that I need help with. When it comes to looking after myself, well… I was doing fine just now.”
He made a sound halfway between a growl and an incredulous laugh. “You don’t know these fellas like I do. They would’ve—” Then he broke off, obviously forcing himself calm. When he spoke again, the words sounded merely flat, but his eyes blazed gold as he looked at her. “Don’t goad anyone else. They might not just laugh. All right?”
“All right,” she said, her voice as demure as her hands while she smoothed her dress back over her knees.
Her sudden compliance drew a glance from him while they drove toward the waiting guards. “Why do I feel uneasier when you agree with me than when you argue?”
She just smiled, pleased at how well the folds of fabric hid the snub-nosed revolver strapped to her thigh.