Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,055
07.03.2019

It sent tingling shocks through Alexia's entire body—a most delightful sensation, better than hot tea on a cold morning. She moaned and rubbed herself up against him, enjoying his big werewolf-sized body, pushing her neck against his mouth.

Someone cleared his throat delicately.

Lord Maccon bit down harder.

Miss Tarabotti lost complete control of her kneecaps, grateful for the wide hand firmly supporting her nether regions.

“Pardon me, my lord,” said a polite voice.

Lord Maccon stopped biting Miss Tarabotti. He pulled away, putting about a finger's width of space between them. It felt like a yard. He shook his head, glanced at Alexia in shock, let go of her bottom, stared at his own hand as though accusing it of independent action, and then looked thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Unfortunately, Miss Tarabotti was too befuddled to truly appreciate the earl's uncharacteristic expression of chagrin.

He recovered himself soon enough and let loose a string of unsavory words Miss Tarabotti was certain no gentleman ought ever use around a lady, no matter how provoked. Then Lord Maccon turned to stand before her, shielding her decidedly mussed appearance from view.

Miss Tarabotti, knowing she should straighten her hat and probably the bodice of her dress and the fall of her bustle as well, could do nothing more than lean forward limply against Lord Maccon's back.

“Randolph, you could have chosen a better time,” said the earl in exasperation.

Professor Lyall stood diffidently in front of his Alpha. “Possibly. But this is pack business, and it is important.”

Alexia blinked stupidly at the Beta from around the earl's upper arm. Her heart was doing crazy things, and she still could not locate her kneecaps. She took a deep breath and put some serious attention into tracking them down.

“Miss Tarabotti, good evening,” acknowledged Professor Lyall, apparently unsurprised to find her the object of his lordship's amorous attentions.

“Didn't I recently send you on circuit?” Lord Maccon, back to his customary annoyed state, seemed to have turned all his considerable aggravation on to his Beta instead of Miss Tarabotti for once.

Alexia decided, then and there, that Lord Conall Maccon clearly had only two modes of operation: annoyed and aroused. She wondered which one she would prefer to deal with on a regular basis. Her body joined in that discussion without shame, and she actually managed to shock herself into continued silence.

Professor Lyall did not seem to require a response to his salutation from Miss Tarabotti. He answered Lord Maccon's question instead. “I uncovered a situation in Canterbury. It was unusual enough to drive me back here to London without bothering further on circuit.”

“Well?” said Lord Maccon impatiently.

Alexia came back to her senses finally and straightened her hat. She pulled up on the neckline of her dress at the shoulder and fluffed out the fall of her bustle. Then she realized she had just engaged in a protracted act of lewdness, bordering on marital relations, in a public street, with Lord Maccon! She fervently hoped that very street would open up and swallow her whole. She became even hotter than she had been moments before, this time with abject humiliation. This was, it must be admitted, a far less pleasant sensation.

While Miss Tarabotti contemplated whether spontaneous human combustion might be due to acute embarrassment, Professor Lyall continued. “You had all the loners stationed along the coast 'round Canterbury, remember? Well, all but one has gone missing. Plus a number of rove vampires have also vanished.”

Lord Maccon jerked in surprise.

Alexia realized that she was still plastered against his back. She stepped away and to one side quickly. Her knees were back in working order.

With a growl of possession, Lord Maccon snaked out one long arm and yanked her back against his side.

“Funny,” said Miss Tarabotti, trying to ignore the growl and the arm.

“What is funny?” asked the earl, sounding stern. Despite his gruff tone, he used his free hand to adjust his coat more securely over her shoulders and neck.

Miss Tarabotti swatted at him and his solicitousness.

“Stop that,” she hissed.

Professor Lyall's bright eyes followed the interaction. His expression did not change, but Alexia had an inkling he was secretly laughing at them both.

She said, “The drone maid said exactly the same thing about the London roves. A good number of them have been going missing for several weeks, apparently.” She paused. “What about London lone werewolves? Are they still all accounted for?”

“There are none, aside from the dewan. Although he is sort of above the packs, rather than outside of them. Woolsey Castle has always kept strict loner regulations, and we enforce them to the letter,” Professor Lyall said proudly.

“The dewan has even stronger feelings on the matter than I,” added Lord Maccon. “Well, you know how conservative the Shadow Council tends to be.” Miss Tarabotti, who did not, as she had very little to do with Queen Victoria's government, nodded as though she knew exactly what they were talking about. “So we have got werewolves and vampires disappearing and new vampires appearing.” She mulled over the quandary.

“And someone trying to make you disappear as well,” added Lord Maccon.

Professor Lyall looked upset to hear that. “What?”

Alexia was touched by his concern.

“We will discuss it later,” ordered Lord Maccon. “Right now I ought to get her back home, or we will have a whole new set of problems to cope with.”

“Should I come along?” asked his second.

“In that state? You will only exacerbate the situation,” mocked the earl.

Alexia noted for the first time—so embarrassed was she at her inadvertent assignation—that Professor Lyall was wrapped in a large coat and wore neither hat nor shoes. She looked with greater care; he did not have any trousers on either! Scandalized, she covered her mouth with one hand.

“You had better scamper off back to the den,” instructed the earl.

Professor Lyall nodded and turned away, padding silently on bare feet round the corner of a nearby building. A moment later, a small lithe sandy-colored wolf, with intelligent yellow eyes and a cloak in its mouth, trotted back into the street. He nodded at Alexia once and then took off at a flat run down the cobbled road.

The rest of the night was comparatively uneventful. Outside Sangria, Miss Tarabotti and Lord Maccon ran into a handful of young bucks, dandies of the first order with pinked collars and high-shine shoes, who offered them use of a carriage. The dandies were so inoffensively foppish and so entirely inebriated that Lord Maccon felt comfortable enough taking them up on the offer. He saw Miss Tarabotti safely to her door, the servants' entrance, of course, and into the care of a worried Floote, the family none the wiser to her evening's peregrinations. Then Lord Maccon disappeared round the edge of a building.

Miss Tarabotti peeked out her window directly after she had dressed for bed. She was not certain what it said about her lifestyle that she found it immensely comforting to see an enormous wolf, his brown coat brindled gold and gray, pacing the back alley below her room.

“Lord Maccon did what?” Miss Ivy Hisselpenny set her gloves and beaded reticule down with a clatter onto the hall table of the Loontwills' entranceway.

Miss Tarabotti ushered her friend into the front parlor. “Keep your voice down, my dear. And please, for goodness' sake, remove that bonnet. It's positively scorching my eyeballs.”

Ivy did as requested, staring at her friend all the while. She was so surprised by what she had just heard; she did not even have the capacity to take obligatory offense at Alexia's customary hat-related abuse.

Floote appeared with a heavy-laden tray and plucked the bonnet out of Miss Hisselpenny's grasp. He held the offensive article—a purple velvet affair covered with yellow flowers and a large stuffed guinea fowl—between thumb and forefinger and retreated out of the room. Miss Tarabotti closed the door firmly behind him… and the bonnet.

Mrs. Loontwill and the young lady-twills were out shopping, but they were due back at any moment. It had taken Ivy eons to gather momentum that morning, and now Alexia could only hope they remained uninterrupted for sufficient time to cover all the necessary gossip.

She poured raspberry cordial.

“Well!” insisted Miss Hisselpenny, sitting down in a wicker chair and fixing one curl of her dark hair absent-mindedly.

Alexia passed her a glass of cordial and said flatly, “You heard correctly. I said that Lord Maccon kissed me last night.”

Miss Hisselpenny did not touch the beverage, so prodigious was her shock. Instead she set her glass down on a small side table for safety's sake and leaned forward as much as her corset would allow. “Where?” She paused. “Why? How? I thought you disliked him most intensely.” She frowned, her dark brows creasing. “I thought he disliked you most intensely.”

Miss Tarabotti sipped her cordial, being poised and cagey. She did so like to torture Ivy. She relished the expression of avid curiosity on her friend's face. On the other hand, she was also itching to tell all.

Miss Hisselpenny peppered her further. “What exactly happened? Spare me no detail. How did it come to pass?”

“Well, it was a cold night, but there was still one last dirigible in the sky. Floote helped me sneak out the back and—”

Ivy groaned, “Alexia!”

“You said spare no detail.”

Ivy gave her a dour look.

Miss Tarabotti smiled. “After I went to see the hive queen, someone tried to abduct me.”

Ivy's jaw dropped. “What!”

Alexia passed her a plate of shortbread, drawing out the suspense. Miss Hisselpenny waved it away frantically. “Alexia, this is torment!”

Miss Tarabotti ceded to her friend's nervous constitution. “Two men tried to abduct me in a fake hackney cab as I left the hive house. It was actually somewhat frightening.”

Ivy remained silent and enthralled while Alexia detailed the attempted abduction. Eventually she said, “Alexia, you should report this to the constabulary!”

Miss Tarabotti poured them more raspberry cordial from the cut-glass decanter. “Lord Maccon is the constabulary or, more properly, BUR's form thereof. He is keeping an eye on me in case they try again.”

Miss Hisselpenny was even more intrigued by this bit of news. “Is he? Really? Where?”

Alexia led her to the window. They looked out onto the road. A man stood on the street corner leaning against a gas lantern post, his eyes firmly fixed on the Loontwills' front entranceway. He was vaguely disreputable-looking, wearing a long tan duster and the most ridiculous wide-brimmed John Bull hat. It looked like something favored by American gamblers.

“And you think my hats are bad!” Ivy giggled.

“I know,” agreed Miss Tarabotti fervently. “But what can one do? Werewolves lack subtlety.”

“That does not look like Lord Maccon,” said Miss Hisselpenny, trying to make out the features under the hat. She had met the earl only a few times, but still… “Much too short.”

“That is because it is not. Apparently, he departed this morning before I arose. That is his Beta, Professor Lyall, all in all a superior being so far as manners are concerned. According to him, Lord Maccon's gone home to rest.” Miss Tarabotti's tone said she expected the earl to have told her that himself. “Well, we had a busy night.”

Ivy twitched the heavy velvet curtains back to cover the front window once more and turned to her friend. “Yes, well, so it would seem with all that kissing! Which, I must point out, you have yet to address. You simply must tell me. What was it like?” Miss Hisselpenny found most of the books in Alexia's father's library shameful to read. She covered her ears and hummed whenever Miss Tarabotti even mentioned her papa, but she never hummed so loudly she could not hear what was said. But now that her friend possessed firsthand experience, she was simply too curious to be embarrassed.

“He simply, in a manner of speaking, grabbed me. I believe I was talking too much.”

Ivy made the appropriate shocked noise of disagreement over such an outlandish idea.

“And the next thing I knew…” Alexia fluttered her hand in the air and trailed off.

“And do go on,” encouraged Miss Hisselpenny, her eyes wide with avid curiosity.

“He used his tongue. It made me feel very warm and dizzy, and I do not know quite how to articulate it.” Miss Tarabotti felt odd telling Ivy about the experience. Not because it was an indelicate topic but because she partially wished to keep the sensation to herself.

She had awoken that morning wondering if any of it had actually occurred. It was not until she noticed a large bite-shaped bruise on her lower neck that she accepted the previous night's events as reality and not some sort of torturous dream. She was forced to wear an ancient slate and navy striped walking dress as a result of the bite mark, one of the only garments in her wardrobe that boasted a high neckline. She decided it would be best not to tell Ivy about the bruise, particularly as she would then have to explain why it was impossible for Lord Maccon to ever give her a real werewolf bite.

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