Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,036
07.03.2019

The earl arched a debonair eyebrow at her. “The first time we met, I believe it was I who took a particularly undignified tumble.”

“As I have informed you previously”—Alexia brushed off her dress—”I did not leave the hedgehog there intentionally. How was I to know you would sit on the poor creature?” She looked up from her ministrations and gasped in shock. “There is blood all over your face!”

Lord Maccon wiped his face hurriedly on his evening jacket sleeve, like a naughty child caught covered in marmalade, but did not explain. Instead he growled at her and pointed into the hackney. “See what you have gone and done? He got away!”

Alexia did not see, because there was nothing inside the cab to see any longer. The shadowed man had taken the opportunity her unfortunate tumble afforded to escape.

“I did not do anything. You opened the door. I simply fell out of it. A man was attacking me with a wet handkerchief. What else was I supposed to do?”

Lord Maccon could not say much in response to such an outlandish defense.

So he merely repeated, “A wet handkerchief?”

Miss Tarabotti crossed her arms and nodded mutinously. Then, in typical Alexia fashion, she opted to go on the attack. She had no idea what it was about Lord Maccon that always made her so inclined, but she went with the impulse, perhaps encouraged by her Italian blood. “Wait just a moment now! How did you find me here? Have you been following me?”

Lord Maccon had the good grace to look sheepish—if a werewolf can be said to look sheepish. “I do not trust vampire hives,” he grumbled, as though that were an excuse. “I told you not to come. Didn't I tell you not to come? Well, look what happened.”

“I would have you know I was perfectly safe in that hive. It was only when I left that things went all”— she waved a hand airily—“squiffy.”

“Exactly!” said the earl. “You should go home and stay inside and never go out again.”

He sounded so serious Alexia laughed. “You were waiting for me the entire time?” She looked curiously up at the moon. It was past three-quarters in size—an easy-change moon. She remembered the blood on his mouth and put two and two together. “It is a chilly night. I take it you were in wolf form?”

Lord Maccon crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes.

“How did you change so quickly and get dressed so fast? I heard your attack cry; you could not have been human at that point.” Miss Tarabotti had a good idea how werewolves worked, though admittedly she had never seen the earl himself change shape. In fact, she had never seen anyone do it outside of the detailed sketches in some of her father's library books. Still, there the earl stood before her, top hat to tails, untidy hair and hungry yellow eyes, nothing out of place—apart from the odd bit of blood. Lord Maccon grinned proudly, looking like a schoolboy who had just managed to translate his Latin perfectly. Instead of answering her question, he did the most appalling thing. He changed into wolf shape— but only his head—and growled at her. It was utterly bizarre: both the act itself (a weird melting of flesh and crunching of bones, most unpleasant in both appearance and sound) and the sight of a gentleman in perfect evening dress with an equally perfect wolf's head perched atop a gray silk cravat.

“That is quite revolting,” said Miss Tarabotti, intrigued. She reached forward and touched his shoulder so that the earl was forced to return to fully human form. “Can all werewolves do that, or is it an Alpha thing?”

Lord Maccon was a bit insulted by the casualness with which she assumed control of his change. “Alpha,” he admitted. “And age. Those of us who have been around the longest control the change best. It is called the Anubis Form, from the olden days.” Brought to fully human state by Alexia's hand still resting on his shoulder, he seemed to register their surroundings with new eyes. The hackney's wild flight and sudden halt had placed them in a residential part of London, not quite so up-market as the hive neighborhood but not so bad as it could be.

“We should get you home,” Lord Maccon asserted, looking around furtively. He removed her hand gently from his shoulder and curled it about his forearm, leading her at a brisk pace down the street. “Sangria is just a few blocks away. We should be able to hail a cab there at this time of night.”

“And somehow you think it is a good idea for a were-wolf and a preternatural to show up at the front door of the most notorious vampire club in London looking for a hackney?”

“Hush, you.” Lord Maccon looked faintly offended, as though her statement were one of doubt in his ability to protect her.

“I take it you do not want to know what I found out from the vampire hive, then?” Miss Tarabotti asked.

He sighed loudly. “I take it you want to tell me?”

Alexia nodded, tugging down the sleeves of her over jacket. She shivered in the night air. She had dressed to go from carriage to house, not for an evening stroll.

“The countess seems an odd sort of queen,” Miss Tarabotti began her story. “You did not let her appearance mislead you, did you? She is very old, not very nice, and only interested in advancing her personal agenda.” He removed his evening jacket and wrapped it around Alexia's shoulders.

“She is frightened. They have had three unexplainable new vampires appear inside Westminster territory in the past two weeks,” said Miss Tarabotti, snuggling into the jacket. It was made from a high-end Bond Street silk blend, cut to perfection, but it smelled of open grassland. She liked that.

Lord Maccon said something very rude, and possibly true, about Countess Nadasdy's ancestry.

“I take it she did not inform BUR?” Alexia pretended artlessness.

Lord Maccon growled, low and threatening. “No, she most certainly did not!”

Miss Tarabotti nodded and looked at the earl with wide innocent eyes, imitating Ivy as best she could. It was harder than one would have thought. “The countess gave me tacit permission to involve the government at this time.” Bat, bat, bat, went the eyelashes.

This statement, in conjunction with the lashes, seemed to make Lord Maccon even more annoyed. “As if it were her decision! We should have been informed at the onset.”

Miss Tarabotti put a cautionary hand on his arm. “Her behavior was almost sad. She is quite frightened. Although she would never openly admit to being unable to cope with the situation. She did say the hive has managed to catch two of these mystery roves and that they died shortly thereafter.”

Lord Maccon's expression said he would not put it past vampires to kill their own kind.

Alexia continued. “The mysterious newcomers seem entirely new. She said they arrive knowing nothing of customs, laws, or politics.”

Lord Maccon walked along silently, processing this information for a few steps. He hated to admit it, but Miss Tarabotti had single-handedly ascertained more about what was transpiring than any of his agents. He was forced into feeling… What exactly was that sensation? Admiration? Surely not.

“Do you know what else these new ones do not know about?” asked Alexia nervously.

The earl suddenly had a very odd expression of confusion upon his face. He was eyeing her as though she had changed unexpectedly into something entirely non-Alexiaish.

“You seem to be far better informed than anyone else at the moment,” responded the earl nervously with a sniff.

Miss Tarabotti touched her hair self-consciously under his appraising look, and then she answered her own question. “They do not know about me.”

Lord Maccon nodded. “BUR, the packs, and the hives try to keep preternatural identity as secret as possible. If these vampires are being metamorphosed outside the hive, they would have no reason to know your kind even existed at all.”

Miss Tarabotti was struck by something. She stopped in her tracks. “That man, he said they wanted to know who I was.”

“What man?”

“The man with the handkerchief.”

Lord Maccon groaned. “So they were after you specifically, blast it! I thought they might be after any drone or vampire, and you were just exiting the hive at the wrong time. You do realize they are going to try again?”

Alexia glanced up at him, pulling his jacket closer about her. “I guess I had best not give them another opportunity. “

Lord Maccon was thinking exactly the same thing. He moved a little closer, curling her arm more firmly about his. He started them both moving once more toward Sangria, light, and company, and away from the empty, echoing side streets. “I'll have to set a watch on you.”

Miss Tarabotti snorted. “And what happens at full moon?”

Lord Maccon winced. “BUR has daylight and vampire agents, as well as werewolves.”

Alexia got on her proverbial high horse. “I will not have strangers dogging my every step, thank you. You, certainly, Professor Lyall if I must, but others…”

Lord Maccon grinned foolishly at that particular prioritization. His company had just merited a “certainly.” What she said next, however, drove the smile right off his face.

“What if I arrange to be around Lord Akeldama during the full moon?”

The earl looked daggers. “I am certain he would be extremely helpful in a fight. He could ruthlessly flatter all your attackers into abject submission.”

Miss Tarabotti grinned. “You know, your intense dislike of my dear vampire friend could almost sound like jealousy if the idea were not so patently absurd. Now, listen, my lord, if you simply let me—”

Lord Maccon let go of her arm, stopped, turned, and, to her complete surprise, kissed her full on the lips.

CHAPTER FIVE

Dinner with an American

The earl grabbed Miss Tarabotti's chin with one big hand and the small of her back with the other, pulling her toward him hard. He slanted his mouth over hers almost violently. She jerked back. “What are you…?”

“Only way to keep you quiet,” he grumbled, taking her chin in a firmer grip and planting his mouth atop hers once more.

It was not the kind of kiss Alexia had ever experienced before. Not that she had been kissed all that frequently prior to this particular point in time. There were a few aberrations in her youth when some rogue or other thought a young and swarthy chaperone might be an easy mark. In such cases, the experience had been sloppy and, due to her ever-present and aptly applied parasol, brief. Lord Maccon's kiss was expertly administered. From his enthusiasm, Miss Tarabotti felt he might be trying to make up for her previous deficit in the arena of kissing. He was doing a bang-up job of it. Which was to be expected considering his years, possibly even centuries, of experience. Since she was holding his coat closed about her, Alexia's arms were effectively trapped by his sudden embrace, giving him full access without impediment. Not, Alexia thought, that she would be inclined to struggle.

The kiss itself was initially quite gentle: slow and soft. Alexia found it surprising given the violence of his embrace. She also found it faintly unsatisfying. She gave a little murmur of frustration and leaned in toward him. Then the kiss changed. It became harder, rougher, parting her lips with purpose. There was even, shockingly, tongue involved in the proceedings. Miss Tarabotti was not certain about that. It bordered on sloppy, but then again, the sheer heat of it… Her pragmatic preternatural self assessed the situation and realized that she could definitely learn to love the taste of him: like one of those expensive French soups, dark and rich. She arched her back. Her breath had gone all uneven, perhaps because her mouth was clogged with kisses. Alexia was just beginning to come to terms with the tongue concept and notice that she was now getting too warm to need the earl's jacket, when he left off kissing, pushed the coat roughly down, and started nibbling on her neck.

No need to think on that for any span of time. Miss Tarabotti knew instantly that she adored the sensation. She leaned into him even more, too lost in the gathering feelings to really register the fact that his left hand, which had been residing comfortably at the small of her back, had worked its way downward and, apparently un-hindered by her bustle, was forming a newly intimate association with her posterior.

Lord Maccon moved her about, still nibbling, shoving the trailing ribbons of her perch hat aside so he could get at the back of her neck. He paused at one point to growl into her ear, sounding bewildered, “What is that spice you always smell like?”

Miss Tarabotti blinked. “Cinnamon and vanilla,” she admitted. “I use it in my hair rinse.” Not prone to flushing, even under the most trying of circumstances, her skin nevertheless felt strangely hot and full.

The earl did not reply. He simply went back to nibbling.

Alexia's head lolled, but she frowned for a second, certain there was something she was not supposed to be doing. Since engaging in a passionate embrace, with a peer of the realm, in the middle of the public street, did not occur to her as inappropriate just then, she immersed herself in the nibbles. They were becoming sharper and more insistent. Alexia found that she liked the idea of maybe a bite or two. As if in response to that thought, Lord Maccon sank his human—due to their shockingly informal embrace and the fact that she was a preternatural—teeth into the place where her neck and shoulder joined.

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