The detective smiled at Audrey Rose and disappeared through the door again. I couldn’t bring myself to look away. I did not want to be confronted with the reality of our situation. I was in dangerous territory—one little hint of hurting her and I’d never be able to go through with leaving. I shut all emotion down, freezing that blazing heat at my core. I would not be the one who made this harder on her. She had every right to choose her own fate.

And I had every right to close myself off and protect myself from hurt.

“Farewell, Miss Wadsworth.” I felt my composure breaking along with my heart. “It has been an absolute pleasure. Until we meet again.”

I needed to move quickly, but I couldn’t force myself into action. There was that overwhelming sense of wrongness, but I had no idea if it was the monster inside me, raging at losing this battle. I tipped my hat, desperate for stealing one more second, then commanded my legs to move. I don’t know what I hoped for—perhaps that she would cry out or curse me or block my path. That she’d tell me I was an idiot and then kiss me until we both regained our senses. I realized my hesitation was hope. Hope that she’d do any of those things. But she didn’t.

I dared a final glance at her as I passed by. She nodded, lips pursed. There would be no sweeping declarations of love. She was letting me go. The reality crashed into me and I fought a curious uprising in my stomach. I moved forward again, pausing at the doorframe. My fingers tapped a familiar staccato rhythm. One, two, three, one, two, three. Selfishness. That was part of the beast taunting me now. I would not submit to that monster. Not for her, or anyone.

I shoved myself into the corridor and rushed down the stairs, my pulse pounding in time to the sound of my shoes hitting the steps. If I ran fast enough, maybe I would discover a formula for escaping heartbreak.

I made it as far as the docks before I realized what an idiot I was. Love was noble. But it was also a fighter. It didn’t give up and run away. It didn’t surrender to a pompous jackass in sequined suits with abysmal morals. I’d be the worst sort of partner if I didn’t fight back against someone like that. Telling Wadsworth how much I loved her wasn’t selfish at all. Quite the opposite. The officer waved a hand in front of my face. “The precinct is just down—”

“I have an urgent matter to tend to,” I said, not at all sorry for cutting him off. “I’ll meet you at the morgue in two hours.”

Instead of waiting for a response, I practically bolted around the block, moving as swiftly as the crowded streets permitted. Carriages rumbled over cobblestones, women in bonnets and men in smart suits strolled along. I quickly scanned the shops, recalling Lord Crenshaw mentioning a shop in this neighborhood that made something I needed. Three doors down, I found it. Raising Cane. An oddly biblical pun, but clever nonetheless.

A bell tingled above as I pushed the door open. An old man as gnarled as the wood he was carving looked me up and down. “What can I do you for?”

I glanced around the small room. Walking sticks with knobs fashioned into serpents, eagles, great beasts like lions and elephants—and a gorgeous ebony rose. I plucked it from the rack and made my way to the old man. “I need a custom cane as well. I’d like a dragon’s head knob. On rosewood, if you can secure it.”

The man nodded and pulled out a tattered journal, tugging a pencil from behind his ear. “How tall are you?”

I drew my brows together. “A little over one hundred and eighty-six centimeters.”

He rolled his eyes. “In English, boy.”

I didn’t bother pointing out I was giving him the English metric. I did a quick calculation. “Six feet, one inch. But the cane isn’t for me,” I added, lowering my hand to the precise height. “It’s for someone who’s around—” I mentally tallied the estimate “—five feet, five inches.”

“Okay.” The man nodded. “Your woman?”

I opened my mouth, ready to release a litany of reasons why that phrase was offensive, but sighed. “My partner. She was injured during a knife fight.”

He seemed oddly impressed as he returned to his notepad. While he jotted notes, I walked around the room, inspecting the craftsmanship of his canes. They were all beautiful. He coughed and called me over. “What do you think of this?”

He turned his pad around, showing off a quick sketch of his design. It was almost perfect. “Do you mind?” I asked, indicating the pencil. He shook his head and handed it over. I wound the body of the dragon around the top portion of the cane. Then I added two rubies where the eyes were located. My ode to my favorite dragon in our Romanian home—Henri. I sketched a stiletto blade at the opposite end, then turned the notepad back around. “Can you craft it so pushing the ruby eye will release a hidden blade?”

He frowned a bit, considering. “Will she be getting into another knife fight?”

I thought about it for a fraction of a second. “Anything is possible.” I grinned. “Can you do it?”

“’Course I can, boy.” He seemed mildly insulted. “But Rome wasn’t built in day. Give me a week or two.”

I paid for the rose-knob cane and left a deposit and an address for the delivery of the custom one. The rosewood was a tribute to my mother, the dragon a nod to my Dracula heritage. I hoped Audrey Rose wouldn’t mind carrying around a symbol of my household—because I was sincerely hoping she’d agree to become a member of it.