Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,014
07.03.2019

Miss Hisselpenny blushed beet red but still wanted to know more. “Why would he do such a thing, do you think?”

“I am under the impression tongues are often involved in such exertions.”

Ivy was not dissuaded. “You know what I mean. Why would he kiss you in the first place? And in a public thoroughfare!”

Miss Tarabotti had puzzled over that question all morning. It caused her to remain uncharacteristically silent during family breakfast. Statements from her sisters that just yesterday would have elicited cutting remarks had passed without a murmur. She had been so quiet her mother actually asked her, solicitously, if she was feeling quite the thing. She had acquiesced that she was a little out of sorts. It had given her an excuse not to go glove shopping that afternoon.

She looked at Ivy without quite seeing her. “I must conclude it was done entirely to keep me quiet. I cannot think of any other reason. As you said, we dislike each other most intensely, have done since he sat on that hedgehog and blamed me.” But Miss Tarabotti's voice did not carry the same amount of conviction it once had on that subject.

Alexia was soon to discover that this did seem to be the case. That evening, at a large dinner party given by Lord Blingchester, Lord Maccon actively avoided talking to her. Miss Tarabotti was most put out. She had dressed with particular care. Given the earl's apparent partiality for her physique, she had chosen an evening dress of deep rose with a daringly low décolletage and the latest in small bustles. She had arranged her hair to fall over the side of her neck, covering the bite mark, which meant hours at the curling iron. Her mama had even commented that she looked very well for a spinster.

“Nothing we can do about the nose, of course, but otherwise quite creditable, my dear,” she'd said, powdering her own tiny button specimen.

Felicity had even said the dress was a good color for Alexia's complexion, in a tone of voice that implied that any color found complementing Alexia's olive skin was truly a miracle of the first order.

It all went to no avail. For had Alexia looked like a vagabond, she was certain Lord Maccon would never have noticed. He greeted her with a shamefaced “Miss Tarabotti” and then seemed at a loss. He did not deliver her the cut direct, or imply anything that might affect her social standing; he simply seemed to have nothing to say to her. Nothing at all. For the entire evening. Alexia almost wished they were back at loggerheads.

She felt compelled to conclude that he was mortified to have kissed her in the first place and was hoping she would forget it ever happened. While knowing any well-bred lady would do simply that, Alexia had enjoyed the experience and did not feel like behaving properly over it. Still, she must conclude that all agreeable sensations were entirely one-sided, and now Lord Maccon felt nothing more than a palpable wish never to see her again. He would treat her with painful correctness in the meantime.

Well, Miss Tarabotti thought, what had she expected? She was nothing more than a soulless spinster, lacking both subtlety and grace. Lord Maccon was a peer of the realm, Alpha of his pack, owner of a considerable quantity of property, and, well, somewhat stunning. All her hopeful attention to appearance aside, and the fact that earlier in the evening the mirror had shown her looking, even to her critical eye, passably pretty, Alexia now felt utterly inadequate.

She must accept that Lord Maccon was providing her, to the best of his ability, with an out. He was being agonizingly polite about it. Throughout the Blingchesters' aperitifs, he arranged things so they were in each other's company, but when they were, he then had nothing to say to her. His behavior screamed acute embarrassment. He could barely stand to look in her direction.

Miss Tarabotti tolerated the ridiculous behavior for about half an hour and then went from confused and unhappy to extremely angry. It did not take much with Alexia. Italian temperament, her mother always said. She, unlike Lord Maccon, did not feel like being polite.

From that moment on, every time Lord Maccon entered a room, Miss Tarabotti arranged to leave it. When he moved purposefully across the receiving area toward her, Alexia sidled sideways and inserted herself seam-lessly into a nearby conversation. It was usually something inane like the latest perfume from Paris, but it also involved various marriageable girls causing Lord Maccon to balk. When she sat, she did so between occupied chairs, and she was careful never to be alone or in any untenanted.

When time came for supper, Lord Maccon's place card, originally near hers, had magically migrated to the other end of the table. There he spent an uncomfortable evening talking with a young Miss Wibbley on a string of utterly frivolous topics.

Miss Tarabotti, half a world away—eight whole place settings!—still managed to overhear the conversation. Her dinner partner, a scientist in some socially acceptable form, was ordinarily just the kind of personage Alexia hoped to be seated next to. In fact, her ability to converse comfortably with the intellectual set was openly acknowledged as the main reason a spinster of her shelf life continued to be invited to dinner parties. Unfortunately, she found herself uncharacteristically ill-equipped to assist the poor gentleman in his conversational inadequacies.

“Good evening. The name's MacDougall. You'd be Miss Tarabotti, correct?” was his opening gambit.

Oh dear, thought Alexia, an American. But she nodded politely.

The supper began with an array of petite oysters over ice with cool lemon cream. Miss Tarabotti, who thought raw oysters bore a remarkable resemblance to nasal excrement, pushed the offensive mollusks away and watched from under her eyelashes in horror as Lord Maccon consumed twelve of them.

“Is not that an Italy sort of a name?” asked the scientist timidly.

Miss Tarabotti, who always thought her Italian heritage far more embarrassing than her soulless state, considered this a weak topic—especially from an American. “My father,” she admitted, “was of Italian extraction. Unfortunately, not an affliction that can be cured.” She paused. “Though he did die.”

Mr. MacDougall did not seem to know how to respond. He laughed nervously. “Didn't leave a ghost behind, did he?”

Alexia wrinkled her nose. “Not enough soul.” Not any soul at all, she was thinking. Preternatural tendencies bred true. She was what she was because of her father's soullessness. The planet ought, by rights, to be overrun with her kind. But BUR, actually Lord Maccon—she winced—had said that there were simply too few of them to start with. In addition, preternaturals tended to live very short lives.

Another nervous laugh issued from her dinner companion. “Funny you should say, me boasting a bit of an academic interest in the state of the human soul.”

Miss Tarabotti was only half listening. At the other end of the table. Miss Wibbley was saying something about her third cousin who had suddenly undertaken horticultural pursuits. Her family was evidently distrustful of this development. Lord Maccon, after glancing once or twice down the table at Alexia and her scientist, was now looking down at the vacuous girl with an expression of tolerant affection and sitting far too close.

“My particular study focus,” continued Mr. MacDougall desperately, “would be the weighing and measuring of the human soul.”

Miss Tarabotti looked miserably into her bouillabaisse. It was tasty as these things go. The Blingchesters kept a superb French chef. “How,” asked Alexia, not really interested, “would one go about measuring souls?”

The scientist looked trapped; apparently this aspect of his work did not make for civilized dinner conversation.

Miss Tarabotti became more intrigued. She put down her spoon, a mark of how unsettled her feelings that she did not finish the stew, and looked inquiringly at Mr. MacDougall. He was a plumpish young man, adorned with a pair of dented spectacles and a hairline that looked like it anticipated imminent demise. The sudden full force of her interest seemed to unnerve him.

He babbled. “Haven't quite got around to ironing out the specifics, you might say. But I've drawn up plans.”

The fish course arrived. Mr. MacDougall was saved from having to elaborate by pike breaded in a rosemary-and-black-pepper crust.

Miss Tarabotti took a small bite and watched Miss Wibbley bat her eyelashes at Lord Maccon. Alexia was familiar with the maneuver; it was the one Ivy had taught her. That made her angry. She pushed the fish away peevishly.

“So how would you approach such a study?” she asked.

“I had thought to use a large Fairbanks scale, customized with supports to hold a man-sized cot,” Mr. MacDougall explained.

“Then what would you do, weigh someone, kill them, and then weigh them again?”

“Please, Miss Tarabotti! No need to be crude! I've not worked out the details yet.” Mr. MacDougall looked faintly ill.

Alexia, taking pity on the poor sod, switched to theoretical avenues. “Why this particular interest?”

He quoted, “The affections of soul are enmattered formulable essences. That is precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of nature.”

Miss Tarabotti was not impressed. “Aristotle,” she said.

The scientist was delighted. “You read Greek?”

“I read Greek translations,” Alexia replied curtly, not wishing to encourage his obvious interest.

“Well, if we could divine the soul's substance, we might measure for its quantity. Then we would know, before the death bite, whether a person might be able to become supernatural or not. Imagine the lives that could be saved.”

Alexia wondered what she would weigh on such a scale. Nothing? Probably, that would be a novel experience. “Is that why you have come to England? Because of our integration of vampires and werewolves into regular society?”

The scientist shook his head. “Things are not so bad as all that across the pond these days, but, no, I'm here to present a paper. The Royal Society invited me to inaugurate the opening of their new gentlemen's club, Hypocras. Heard of it?”

Miss Tarabotti had, but she could not remember when, nor could she recall anything further about it. She simply nodded.

The fish course was taken away and the main dish set down before them: roasted beef short ribs with gravy and root vegetables.

At the far end of the table, Lord Maccon's dinner companion let out a tinkling laugh.

Miss Tarabotti asked Mr. MacDougall quite out of the blue, “Miss Wibbley is very attractive, wouldn't you say?” She tipped her rib from its upright presentation position and sawed away at the meat viciously.

The American, being an American, looked openly over at the girl in question. He blushed and said timorously into his food, “I prefer ladies with dark hair and a bit more personality.”

Alexia was charmed despite herself. She decided she had wasted enough of the evening, not to mention the delicious meal, agonizing over Lord Maccon. She proceeded to give the hapless Mr. MacDougall the full force of her attention for the remainder of supper. A situation he seemed to regard with mixed terror and delight.

Miss Tarabotti, never one to pass up an opportunity to display her bluestocking tendencies, matched wits with the young scientist on a wide range of subjects. Leaving the weighing of souls for another occasion, the salad course moved them on to recent innovations in various engine designs. Over fruit and bonbons, they broached the physiological correlation between mental and behavioral phenomena and how this might affect vampire hive dynamics. By coffee, which was served in the drawing room, Mr. MacDougall had asked for and received permission to call upon Miss Tarabotti the following day. Lord Maccon was looking as black as thunderclouds, and Miss Wibbley seemed unable to distract him further. Alexia did not notice the werewolf's disgruntlement; new techniques in the capture of evanescent reflections were just so riveting.

Miss Tarabotti departed the party still feeling rejected by the earl but secure in the knowledge she could look forward to further intellectual conversation the following day. She was also pleased with herself, convinced that while she might be upset by Lord Maccon's behavior, she had given no indication of this to him nor to anyone else who mattered.

Lord Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, paced his office like a caged, well, wolf.

“I do not understand what she is playing at,” he grumbled. He was looking even scruffier than usual. This contrasted sharply with the fact that he was still in evening dress, having just come from the Blingchesters' dinner party. His cravat was terribly mussed, as though someone had been pawing at it.

Professor Lyall, sitting at his own small desk in the far corner of the room, looked up from behind a mound of metal scrolls. He pushed a pile of wax rubbings to one side. He reflected sadly that his Alpha really was a hopeless case so far as fashion was concerned. He looked to be moving in that direction in the romantic arena as well.

Like most werewolves, they kept nighttime business hours. Essentially, the Blingchesters' dinner had been Lord Maccon's breakfast.

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