Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,041
07.03.2019

“I have had a report from the Westminster hive of yet another rove appearance,” said Professor Lyall. “At least they told us this time. Funny that they should find out before we did; I did not think they concerned themselves so closely with rove activities.”

His boss did not seem to hear this. “She completely ignored me, blasted female! Spent the entire evening flirting with a scientist. An American scientist, if you ken such an appalling thing!” The Alpha sounded particularly Scottish in his dudgeon.

Professor Lyall ceded to the fact that, for the moment, he was not likely to get any real work done. “Be fair, my lord. You undertook to ignore her first.”

“Of course I ignored her! It is her responsibility to come to me at this juncture. I made my initial interest perfectly clear.”

Silence.

“I kissed her,” he explained, aggrieved.

“Mmm, yes, I had the dubious pleasure of witnessing that, ah-hem, overly public occurrence.” Lyall sharpened his pen nib, using a small copper blade that ejected from the end of his glassicals.

“Well! Why hasn't she done anything about it?” the Alpha wanted to know.

“You mean like whack you upside the noggin with that deadly parasol of hers? I would be cautious in that area if I were you. I am reasonably certain she had it custom made and tipped with silver.”

Lord Maccon looked petulant. “I mean like attempt to talk to me, or perhaps not talk at all but simply drag me off somewhere…” He trailed off. “Somewhere dark and soft and…” He shook himself like a wet dog. “But, no. Instead she utterly dismissed me, not a single word. I believe I liked it better when she was yelling at me.” He paused and then nodded to himself. “I know I liked it better.”

Professor Lyall sighed, put down his quill, turned his entire attention upon his boss, and attempted to explain. Ordinarily, Lord Maccon was not quite so thickheaded. “Alexia Tarabotti is not going to behave in accordance with pack dynamics. You are enacting the traditional courting ritual for Alpha females. It may be instinct for you, but this is the modern age; many things have changed.”

“That woman,” Lord Maccon spat, “is definitely alpha and most certainly female.”

“But not a werewolf.” Professor Lyall's voice was aggravatingly calm.

Lord Maccon, who had been behaving entirely on instinct, looked suddenly crestfallen. “Have I handled this situation entirely wrong?”

Professor Lyall was reminded of his Alpha's origins. He might be a relatively old werewolf, but he had spent much of that time in a barely enlightened backwater city in the Scottish Highlands. All the London ton acknowledged Scotland as a barbaric place. The packs there cared very little for the social niceties of daytime folk. Highland werewolves had a reputation for doing atrocious and highly unwarranted things, like wearing smoking jackets to the dinner table. Lyall shivered at the delicious horror of the very idea.

“Yes. You have behaved, I would go so far as to say, badly. I suggest a well-crafted apology and an extended session of abject groveling,” said the Beta. His expression remained mild, but the look in his eyes was flinty. His Alpha would find no sympathy there.

Lord Maccon stood up very straight. He would have towered over his second even if Lyall were not sitting down. “I am not a groveler!”

“It is possible to learn many new and interesting skills in one lifetime,” advised Professor Lyall, unimpressed by the posturing.

Lord Maccon looked mutinous.

Professor Lyall shrugged. “Well, you had best give up now, then. I never quite understood your interest in the young lady to begin with. I am convinced the dewan would have much to say on the subject of unsanctioned intimacy between a werewolf and a preternatural regardless of your mistake with Miss Tarabotti.” Of course, he was baiting his Alpha, perhaps unwisely.

Lord Maccon went red and sputtered. To tell the truth, he could not quite fathom his interest in her either. There was just something about Alexia Tarabotti that made her immensely appealing. Perhaps it was the turn of her neck or the secret smile she sometimes got when they argued that said she might be yelling at him for the pure fun of it. As far as Lord Maccon was concerned, nothing was worse than a timid woman. He was often prone to lamenting the loss of all those stalwart Highland lasses of his misspent youth. Alexia, he often felt, would adapt well to rough Scottish cold, and rock, and plaid. Was that the source of the fascination? Alexia in plaid? His mind carried that image one or two steps further, taking her out of the plaid and then on top of it.

He sat down with a sigh at his desk. Silence descended for about half an hour; nothing disturbed the night's stillness but the shuffling of papers, the tink of metal slates, and an occasional sip of tea.

Finally Lord Maccon looked up. “Grovel, you say?”

Lyall did not glance away from the latest vampire report he was perusing. “Grovel, my lord.”

CHAPTER SIX

Driving with Scientists, Dabbling with Earls

Mr. MacDougall arrived promptly at eleven-thirty the next morning to whisk Miss Tarabotti away for a drive. His appearance caused quite a tizzy in the Loontwill household. Alexia was, naturally, expecting the gentleman. She sat awaiting his arrival calmly in the front parlor, wearing a forest green carriage dress with gold filigree buttons down the front, an elegant new broad-brimmed straw hat, and a cagey expression. The family surmised her imminent departure from the hat and gloves, but they had no idea who might be calling to take her out. Aside from Ivy Hisselpenny, Alexia did not entertain callers often, and everyone knew the Hisselpennys owned only one carriage, and it was not of sufficient quality to merit gold filigree buttons. The Loontwills were left to assume that Alexia was awaiting a man. There was little in the world at that moment that any of them could find more surprising. The possible reintroduction of the crinoline would have caused less shock. They had pestered her throughout the morning's activities to reveal the gentleman's name, but to no avail. So the Loontwills had finally settled into waiting with her, agog with curiosity. By the time the long-awaited knock came, they were quite frenzied with anticipation.

Mr. MacDougall smiled shyly at the four ladies who all seemed to have tried to open the front door at the same time. He issued a round of polite salutations to Mrs. Loontwill, Miss Evylin Loontwill, and Miss Felicity Loontwill. Miss Tarabotti introduced them with only minimal grace and an air of embarrassment before grabbing onto his proffered arm in a pointed manner and with an undisguised air of desperation. Without further ado, he helped her down the stairs and into his carriage, and settled on the box next to her. Alexia deployed her trusty brass parasol and tilted it in such a way she would not have to look any more at her family.

He drove a pair of elegant chestnuts: calm and quiet beasts, but well matched for pace and color, and goers even though they lacked a certain spirited fire in the eye. The carriage was equally unassuming, not a high flyer but a tidy little buggy well appointed with all modern conveniences. The chubby scientist handled all three like he owned them, and Alexia reassessed her opinion of him. Everything about the equipage was in tip-top condition, and he had clearly spared no expense, even though he was only visiting England for a short while. The carriage included a crank-operated water-boiling canteen for tea on-the-go, a long-distance monocular optical viewing device for the better appreciation of scenery, and even a small steam engine linked to a complex hydraulic system the purpose of which Alexia could not begin to fathom. Mr. MacDougall was a scientist, certainly, and an American, no doubt, but he also seemed to possess taste and the means by which to inventively display it properly. Miss Tarabotti was suitably impressed. As far as she was concerned, it was one thing to have wealth and quite another to know how to show it off appropriately.

Behind them, Alexia's family huddled in a delighted clucking mass. Thrilled upon seeing that it was, indeed, a man who had come to take the eldest daughter out, they were doubly delighted to find out that he was the respectable young scientist of the evening before. New heights of euphoria had been reached (especially by Squire Loontwill) once it was deduced that he seemed to possess more capital than was to be hoped for in any standard member of the intellectual set (even an American).

“He may actually be a very good catch,” said Evylin to her sister as they stood on the stoop waving Alexia off. “A little portly for my tastes, but she cannot afford to be choosey. Not with her age and appearance.” Evylin tossed one of her golden ringlets carelessly behind her shoulder.

“And we all thought her marriage prospects exhausted.” Felicity shook her head at the wonders of the universe.

“They are suited,” said their mother. “He is clearly bookish. I did not follow a single word of their conversation at dinner last night, not one jot of it. He must be bookish.”

“You know what the best of this situation is?” added Felicity, catty to the last. Her father's murmur of “All that money” going either unheard or unacknowledged, she answered her own question. “If they do marry, he will take her all the way back to the Colonies with him.”

“Yes, but we will have to put up with the fact that everyone important will know we have an American in the family,” pointed out Evylin, her eyes narrowing.

“Needs must, my darlings, needs must,” said their mother, ushering them back inside and closing the door firmly behind them. She wondered how little they could get away with spending on Alexia's future wedding and retreated to the study with her husband to consult on the matter.

Of course, Miss Tarabotti's relations were getting well ahead of themselves. Alexia's intentions toward Mr. MacDougall were of an entirely platonic nature. She simply wanted to get out of the house and talk with a person, any person, in possession of an actual working brain, for a change. Mr. MacDougall's intentions might have been less pure, but he was timid enough for Miss Tarabotti to easily ignore any verbal forays in the romantic direction. She did so initially by inquiring after his scientific pursuits.

“How did you get interested in soul measuring?” she asked pleasantly, delighted to be out of doors and disposed to be kind to the facilitator of her freedom.

It was an unexpectedly beautiful day, pleasantly warm with a light and friendly little breeze. Miss Tarabotti's parasol was actually being put to its intended use, for the top was down on Mr. MacDougall's buggy, and she certainly needed no more sun than was strictly necessary. The mere whiff of daylight and her tan deepened to mocha and her mama went into hysterics. With both hat and parasol firmly in place, her mama's nerves were assured complete safety—from that quarter at least.

Mr. MacDougall tsked to his horses, and they assumed a lazy walk. A vulpine-faced sandy-haired gentleman in a long trench coat left his station beneath the lamppost outside the Loontwills' front door and followed at a discreet distance.

Mr. MacDougall looked at his driving companion. She was not one to be considered fashionably pretty, but he liked the strong tilt to her jaw and determined glint in her dark eyes. He had a particular partiality for firm-willed ladies, especially when they came coupled with a jaw that was shapely, eyes that were large and dark, and a handsome figure to boot. He decided she seemed resilient enough for the real reason he wanted to measure souls, and it made for a nicely dramatic story anyway. “It's not bad to admit here, I suppose,” he said to start, “but you should understand, in my country I'd not speak of it.” Mr. MacDougall had a bit of flare for the dramatic well hidden behind the receding hairline and spectacles.

Miss Tarabotti placed a sympathetic hand on his arm. “My dear sir, I did not intend to be nosy! You are of a mind to think of my question as officious?”

The gentleman blushed and pushed at his spectacles nervously. “Oh no, of course not! No such thing. It's just that my brother was turned. Vampire you see. My older brother.”

Alexia's response was characteristically British. “Felicitations on a successful metamorphosis. May he make his mark on history.”

The American shook his head sadly. “Here, as your comment implies, it is generally thought a good thing. In this country, I mean to say.”

“Immortality is immortality.” Alexia did not mean to be unsympathetic, but there it was.

“Not when it comes at the price of the soul.”

“Your family keeps the old faith?” Alexia was surprised. Mr. MacDougall, after all, was a scientist. Scientists were generally not given to overly religious backgrounds.

The scientist nodded. “Puritans to the very core. Not a progressive bone among them: so supernatural means 'undead' to them. John survived the bite, but they repudiated and disinherited him anyway. The family gave him three days' grace and then hunted him down like a rabid dog.”

Miss Tarabotti shook her head in sorrow. The narrow-mindedness of it all! She knew her history. The puritans left Queen Elizabeth's England for the New World because the queen sanctioned the supernatural presence in the British Isle. The Colonies had been entirely backward ever since: religious fingers in all their dealings with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. It made America into a deeply superstitious place. Fates only knew what they'd think of someone like her!

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