Miss Dair cleared her throat delicately, interrupting them. “Gentlemen, I am quite certain this is a subject best left for later.” She gestured with her head at Miss Tarabotti, who had momentarily been forgotten.
Miss Tarabotti munched down her third piece of Battenberg and tried to look cunning.
Dr. Caedes swung around and gave her a very hard look. “You”—his tone was excessively accusatory—“are going to be trouble. Preternaturals always are. Just you keep a careful eye on those moon howlers you keep walking out with. Werewolves also have an agenda to keep to. You do realize that?”
“And you bloodsuckers, of course, are all sweetness and light with only my best interests at heart,” Alexia shot back, brushing Battenberg crumbs casually off her lap.
“Look at the plucky young thing! She is trying to make a funny,” said Lord Ambrose snidely.
Miss Tarabotti stood and nodded to the assembled company. The words being bandied about were getting dangerously rude. So rude, in fact, that unless she missed her guess, actions would soon be required. She would rather cut her visit short at words. This seemed an opportune moment to vacate the premises.
“Thank you for a delightful visit,” she said, smiling in a way she hoped looked predatory. “It has been most”— she paused, deliberating, choosing her words carefully— “educational.”
Miss Dair looked to the hive queen. At the countess's nod, she pulled a nearby bell rope that was discreetly hidden behind a heavy velvet drape. The beautiful blond maid appeared once more in the doorway. Miss Tarabotti followed her out, feeling a bit like she had just escaped the jaws of some unpleasant beast.
She was just starting down the front steps toward her cab when she was waylaid by a fierce grip on her upper arm. The lovely Angelique was far stronger than she appeared to be. It was not supernatural strength either; she was only a drone.
“Yes?” Miss Tarabotti tried to be polite.
“You are of ze BUR?” The maid's violet eyes were wide, earnest.
Alexia did not know quite what to say to that. She did not wish to lie, for she had no official sanction. A pox on Lord Maccon and his archaic principles! “I am not quite official, but—”
“You could take zem a message, yez?”
Miss Tarabotti nodded, leaning forward. Partly to appear interested, partly to ease the viselike grip the girl persisted in maintaining on her arm. Tomorrow, she thought, I will be covered in bruises.
Angelique glanced around. “Ask zem. Ask zem, please, to look for ze missing ones. My master, he iz a rove. He vanishez last week. Poof.” She snapped her fingers. “Like zat. Zey brought me to ze hive because I am pretty and do good work, but ze comtesse, she only just toleratez me. Without hiz protection, I do not know how long I will last.”
Miss Tarabotti had no idea what the girl was on about. Lord Akeldama once said hive politics put the workings of the British government, whether daylight or shadow, to shame. She was beginning to understand the truth of his words. “Uh, I am not sure I quite follow.”
Well, thought Alexia, no harm in trying. “Try to do what, exactly?”
“To find out where ze roves are gone. Az well az why ze new onez come.” Clearly, Angelique liked listening at keyholes.
Miss Tarabotti blinked, trying to follow. “Vampires are going missing, as well as appearing out of thin air? You are certain they are not the same, with, say, lots of makeup and appalling shirts to make them look like new larvae?”
“No, miz.” The maid gave Alexia's weak attempt at humor a reproachful look.
“No, I suppose they would not be so unfashionable, even as a hoax.” Miss Tarabotti sighed and nodded. “Very well, I shall try.” She was thinking that the world was getting even more confusing, and if the hive had no idea what was going on, and BUR even less, what could she possibly do to comprehend the situation?
Nevertheless, the maid seemed satisfied. Clearly, she did not share Alexia's reservations. She let go of Miss Tarabotti's arm and slipped back into the house, closing the massive door firmly behind her.
Alexia, frowning in puzzlement, marched down the stairs and into the waiting hackney. She did not notice that it was not the same hackney as the one she had originally arrived in, nor that it was driven by a different coachman.
She did, however, realize instantly that there was someone already residing inside the cab. “Oh dear, I do beg your pardon! I thought this carriage was available,” said Miss Tarabotti to the bulky individual slouched in the corner of the facing seat. “I told my driver to wait, and here you were in exactly the same spot, with the cab door open. I simply assumed. I do apologize. I…” She trailed off.
The man's face was in shadows, his features obscured by a wide coachman's hat. He did not seem to have anything to say. No greeting, no acceptance of her apologies. He did not even bother to move his gray-gloved hand to tip that horribly inappropriate hat to a strange lady blundering about in his rented transport.
“Well,” said Miss Tarabotti, disgusted by his rudeness, “I shall just be off then.”
She turned to leave, but the driver had climbed down off the box and now stood outside in the street, barring her exit. His features were not shadowed. A nearby gas lamp lit them silky gold and shiny. Alexia jerked backward in horror. That face! It was like a wax copy of something not quite human, smooth and pale with no blemish, no scar, and no hair to speak of. On the forehead four letters had been written in some sort of smudged black substance: VIXI. And those eyes! They were dark and curiously blank, so flat and expressionless it was as though nothing lived within the mind behind them. Here was a man who watched the world without blinking, yet somehow refrained from looking directly at anything.
Miss Tarabotti backed away from that smooth face in repugnance. The apparition reached forward and slammed the door to the cab, jerking the handle to lock it closed. Only then did his set expression change. He grinned a slow lazy grin that crept across his waxy face the way oil spreads over water. His mouth was full of straight white squares, not teeth. Alexia was certain that smile would haunt her dreams for years to come.
The wax man vanished from the door window, presumably to pull himself onto the driver's box, for, within the next moment, the carriage jerked and began to move. It rattled and creaked over the London street cobbles, heading toward a place Alexia was reasonably confident she had no desire to visit.
Miss Tarabotti grabbed the handle of the door, rattling it ineffectively. She braced one shoulder against it and pushed hard, putting her entire weight behind the shove. Nothing.
“Now, my dear,” said the shadowed man, “no cause to carry on like that.” His face remained obscured, although he was now leaning toward her. There was an odd smell in the air, like sweet turpentine. It was by no means a pleasant odor.
Miss Tarabotti sneezed.
“All we want to know is who you are and what you are doing visiting the Westminster hive. This will not hurt a bit.” He lunged at her. He was holding a damp handkerchief in one hand—the apparent source of the unpleasant smell.
Alexia was not given to bouts of hysterics. However, she was also not one to stay quiet when circumstances warranted volume. She screamed, loud and long. It was one of those shrill, high shrieks, the kind only terrified women or very good actresses can produce. The scream exited the hackney cab as though no walls stood in the way and rent the quiet London night, cutting through the sound of horse hooves on stone. It rattled the leaded glass of the slumbering residences. It caused more than one stray cat to look about, suitably impressed.
At the same time, Miss Tarabotti braced herself back against the locked door. Without her parasol, her best defense was a good sharp-heeled kick. She was wearing her very favorite walking boots. They had lovely hourglass heels made of wood that gave her a little too much height for fashion but were pretty enough to make her feel almost elegant. They were also the pointiest pair of shoes she owned. Her mother had considered their purchase quite shockingly French. Alexia aimed one hard heel at the shadowed man's kneecap.
“No call for that!” he said, dodging the kick.
Miss Tarabotti was not certain if he was objecting to the kick or the scream, so she issued both again— with interest. He seemed to be having a difficult time negotiating Alexia's multiple layers of skirts and ruffles, which formed a particularly efficacious barrier in the tight confines of the hackney. Unfortunately, Alexia's own defensive movements were equally restricted. She leaned back stubbornly and kicked out again. Her skirts swished.
Despite Miss Tarabotti's best efforts, the shadowed man's handkerchief was coming inexorably toward her face. She twisted her head away, feeling dizzy. The sweet fumes were almost overwhelming. Her eyes began to water slightly. Time seemed to slow. Alexia could not help wondering what she had done to offend the heavens so much they sent two attackers at her in the space of one short week.
Just when she felt there was no more hope and she was in imminent danger of succumbing to the fumes, there came an unexpected noise. One designed, Miss Tarabotti suspected, by this newfangled concept of evolution to chill the bones of mankind. It was a vast, roaring, snarling howl. It shivered the air and the blood and the flesh all up and down one's spine. It was the cry a predator made only once, when the prey was not yet dead, but the kill was assured. In this particular case, it was followed by a loud thump as something hit the front of the cab hard enough to rattle the two who struggled within.
The carriage, which had been picking up some speed, jerked to an abrupt halt. Alexia heard the screaming cry of a terrified horse. There came a snap as the animal broke free of its traces, and then the sound of galloping hooves as it took off alone through the London streets.
Another loud thump reverberated—flesh against wood. The cab shook again.
Miss Tarabotti's attacker became distracted. He left off forcing the handkerchief on her and instead pulled down the window sash and leaned out, craning his head around toward the driver's box. “What is going on out there?”
No answer was forthcoming.
Miss Tarabotti kicked the back of his knee.
He turned around, grabbed her boot, and jerked it forward.
She fell back against the door, hard enough to bruise her spine on the handle, her layers of dress and corset failing to shield her.
“You are beginning to annoy me,” the shadowed man growled. He yanked her foot sharply upward. Alexia struggled valiantly to stand upright on only one leg and screamed again, this time more of a shriek of anger and frustration than distress.
As though in response, the door she leaned against opened.
With a small squeak of alarm. Miss Tarabotti fell backward out of the cab, legs and arms flailing. She landed with an “oof” on something solid but fleshy enough to comfortably break her fall.
She took a deep breath of the stale London air and then coughed. Well, at least it was not chloroform. She had not met the chemical in person before, it being only newly circulated among the most scientifically minded of the medical profession, but she had a good idea that must be what saturated the shadowed man's ominous handkerchief.
Her landing mattress squirmed and growled. “Good God, woman! Shift off.”
Miss Tarabotti was no lightweight. She made no bones about enjoying food—on a fairly regular basis and generally of the toothsome variety. She kept her figure through regular exercise, not a tightly controlled diet. But Lord Maccon, for it was he who squirmed, was very strong and ought to have shifted her easily. Instead he seemed to be having some trouble removing her from atop of him. It took an inordinate amount of time for such a big man, even if such intimate contact with a preternatural canceled out his supernatural strength.
As a general rule, Lord Maccon appreciated a voluptuous woman. He liked a bit of meat on the female form, more to grab on to—and more to chew off. His voice, annoyed as always, belied the gentleness in his big hands as he took the excuse of removing Alexia's generous curves from his person to check for injuries.
“Are you unhurt, Miss Tarabotti?”
“You mean, aside from my dignity?” Alexia suspected Lord Maccon's handling was a tad more than was strictly called for under the circumstances, but she secretly enjoyed the sensation. After all, how often did a spinster of her shelf life get manhandled by an earl of Lord Maccon's peerage? She had better take advantage of the situation. She smiled at her own daring and wondered who could be said to be taking advantage of whom!
Eventually, the earl levered her into a sitting position. He then rolled out from under her and stood, jerking her unceremoniously to her feet.
“Lord Maccon,” said Miss Tarabotti, “why is it that around you I always end up in some variety of indelicate and prone position?”