I should panic. But that thought came from a far away memory—this had happened to her before: waking in a new place, a storeroom. She’d been in pain. Now, she was drowsy and loathe to move.
Except there was that arm. In the window’s light, she could see that the arm was muscular and covered with light-brown hair. It ended in a square hand with long, blunt-edged fingers. Behind her, the owner of the arm breathed soporifically.
She slid forward—away; the arm’s hand slid along her hip and dropped laxly to the bed. She set her feet on a cold, wooden floor and stepped across to the window. Looking out, she sagged in relief. Below was Cleveland Square. She was in Police Headquarters..
She turned to study her location although she already knew it. There was a tall, three-drawer bureau, there a writing desk, and there a large bed containing a waking rumpled man. Charles pushed up on his hands to roll over and sit against the bed’s backboard; he studied her, eyes heavy-lidded.
“I thought that was you,” he said, his voice pure gravel.
“How long was I transformed?”
“You arrived here in cat-shape last night.”
She climbed back onto bed, rolled herself in the top quilt, and lay on her side facing Charles.
“I came to your room,” she said.
“You were sitting on the front step when our night patrol changed shift. I followed you up here.”
“I was at Lord Simon’s. There were two men—Mr. Jacobs and Kev—”
“Yes,” Aubrey said. “Kev wanted to take me back to wherever this all started, continue his experiments. I transformed. I think I clawed him.”
“Good. And Lord Simon?”
“He got what he wanted. It was never about the initial spell. It was always about the second one. Or at least, it was always about what lasts—like these.”
She let her claws spring free. Charles touched one, moved his hand to her cheek. She opened her mouth, and he lightly touched her fangs.
“We’ll catch Kev,” he said. “We’ll lock him up—and this other man, Jacobs.”
“He put a bag over my head.”
“When you were human?”
“Good.” He grinned slightly at Aubrey’s grimace and moved his hand to the back of her neck, massaged it.
“This way, we can hold him for kidnapping,” he said.
Aubrey yawned as Charles gently scratched her scalp.
“Should I purr?” she said crossly.
“You did before.”
She laughed and tumbled back, bringing Charles with her. She raised her chin, and he kissed her, she kissed him, pressing her scent against him; they became a tangle of quilt and legs until Charles moved his head to her shoulder, breathing deep, holding her with no other caresses.
Aubrey said, “Don’t you want—?”
“I prefer things regularized.”
“So Richard didn’t misread your intentions.”
“No.” He raised his head, smiled down at her. “I wanted you from the moment you ran to me out of Belemont Park—maybe even before when I hunted for you around Sommerville. But that night—you stood there demanding to go home, and I thought—I’m nine years your senior, Aubrey—Oh, damn, I’m going to have to be fatherly.”
“I've never thought of you as fatherly. I can’t imagine I did before.”
“You give me reason to think you don’t.”
She touched his cheek, claws faintly extended.
“You really don’t mind these.”
Charles shrugged, looking honestly perplexed, and Aubrey giggled, nudging her face against his arm.
She said, “I’m thoroughly compromised now.”
“Richard contacted me when you didn’t return home last night. He asked me to search for you. We should tell him you're safe—”
“And I leave you. Again.”
His arms tightened, drawing her closer.
“For a little while. I need to be able to—manage the situation.”
Protect her, he meant, from government interference.
“There may be a way—The first step is to neutralize the Academy’s interest in you.”
The police’s idea, Aubrey learned as she sat in the office later (Charles had brought her a gray frock to wear), was to use Kev’s arrest (for the original kidnapping) and Jacobs’s arrest (for the latest one) to bring pressure to bear on the ministers to curtail Academy actions.
“If the Academy can no longer research potions at all, they’ll have no reason to pursue you,” Charles explained.
Perry clucked. “They were so worried about police monitoring, but without police monitoring, pressure has only increased for the ministers to do something, anything.”
“Should I give my story to another reporter?”
Charles half-smiled at Aubrey’s acerbity.
“Maybe later. I want to visit Lord Simon. I'll drop you at home on the way."
“I should go too.”
“Lord Simon likes talking to me,” Aubrey said. “He's curious about what I'm going to do with my life.” He would enjoy seeing her with Charles, but she didn't say so aloud. “I'm a witness, you know. I can identify the location, show you what happened.”
What had happened was that Kev was dead.
His body was a pile at the center of the great hall, a troubling assortment of limbs splashed with red.
A lanky man, hands in pockets, stood over the corpse. He turned as Charles and Aubrey entered.
“Ah, Miss St. Clair,” his voice untroubled by more than curiosity.
Another person who knew her—she'd believe she'd been a real molly during her bespelling, if Charles didn't say otherwise.
Charles and Lord Simon.
“I'm Stevenson,” the lanky man said, extending his hand to Charles who shook it.
“From the Academy?”
“Yes. We heard about Mr. Marlow's mauling.” Stevenson glanced at Aubrey.
“Self-defense,” Charles said quickly.
Aubrey protested. “I only scratched him.”
Stevenson barked a laugh. “Not according to Jacobs.”
“We’d like to question him,” Charles said.
“You can have him. He ran to the Academy, but we don’t want the headache.” Stevenson's eyes darted back to Aubrey. “He keeps saying, ‘Just a cat? Simon made her a bloody tiger.’”
Charles went out to the carriage. Patrick had come with them, and Charles sent him to fetch Jacobs from the Academy infirmary.
“You won't have any trouble collecting him,” Stevenson said indifferently. “Sir James—let’s just say there's been a regime change. Sir James is looking for new patrons.”
“I'll have the body collected,” Charles said.
“It's not like we want to cut him open.”
A tiger. Aubrey sat silently in the hackney, Charles’s arm around her shoulders.
“It was self-defense,” he said again.
She wondered if she should feel disgusted or guilty—bad—about Kev. But Kev had been evil and stupid. She didn’t even feel satisfaction. Just—he was done, over.
What did slow her thoughts, focus her mind was—
Tiger. Something dangerous, possibly even to Charles, who seemed entirely unworried.
She would have to be careful. With Charles.
With the Academy, however—
Would Stevenson's cohorts risk experimenting on a creature that could kill with the swipe of the paw?
If she was drugged maybe. Captured. Held—
She could still prove dangerous. She might become a lion. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to give the Academy that impression.
She said, “I think the Academy should show me more respect,” and Charles laughed.
The hackney stopped. Charles had brought her to her family’s home. Aubrey stepped down slowly, Charles behind her, and paused at the end of the short path.
If she didn’t want to become an Academy experiment, she certainly no longer wanted to be not-quite-a-debutante living in Richard's house under Gloria's eye. That life would have been enough once. Survivable.
No longer, she thought as she started towards the front door, Charles at her heels. Survival was a starting point, not an end one.
For an end—
There was Charles, the life offered by that cozy upstairs room in Police Headquarters. She would no longer have to read about mysteries in the newspapers; she would witness them directly.
Her family and Gloria waited in the sitting room. Mother, ready to swoon, reclined on the divan. Andrew stood beside her. He waved weakly at Aubrey (older sisters can be such embarrassments).
Richard came forward, grasped Aubrey’s shoulders, and peered down into her face.
Gloria didn’t believe it. Gloria stood in plump disapproval behind Richard’s shoulder, her supposedly affable mouth pursed, ready to rebuke.
I might even be able to rescue Richard.
Aubrey raised her hands away from Richard’s arms, let her claws spring out. She stared straight at Gloria and hissed. Full-mouth.
Gloria shrieked. Mother swooned, then quickly opened her eyes; she didn’t want to miss anything. Andrew gaped and sat. And all the while Gloria kept shrieking.
Richard looked over Aubrey’s shoulder, said, “Maybe you should just take her,” his voice impossibly dry.
“Yes,” Charles said in a matching tone. “I think that's a good idea.”
In Cleveland Square, the doors of Police Headquarters were propped open. Perry stood on the front step issuing orders to police going on patrol.
“You’re back,” he said to Aubrey and Charles.
“To stay,” Aubrey said, and a few of the police whistled and grinned, eyes resting on Charles's impassive face.
“Good, good,” Perry said and also glanced at Charles. “Patrick picked up the boy, Jacobs. The Academy didn’t object. David Duclaire wants a quote.”
Aubrey went up the steps and through the front doors. She heard Charles mount the steps behind her two at a time; reaching the lobby, he tapped her shoulder before she could start her ascent to Charles’s room. Their room.
“I told you, I prefer regulation,” he said softly against her ear.
She tipped her chin back to study the smiling-lined eyes.
She said, “Tigers are difficult to domesticate.”
His mouth tipped at one corner.
“I’ll give it a try. I’ll also get a license.”
Aubrey patted his cheek, claws open, though not to scratch, and turned back towards the stairs. Behind her, she heard Charles head towards the office, greet Mr. Duclaire.
Deep inside, she began to purr.