Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,044
07.03.2019

Miss Tarabotti pretended she was remaining on the stoop to wave him off. Once he was out of sight, however, she nipped furtively back down the front steps and round the side of the house.

“You certainly kept a close watch,” she accused the man lurking there.

“Good afternoon. Miss Tarabotti,” he said in a polite if mild voice—milder than usual, even for Professor Lyall, almost weak sounding.

Alexia frowned in concern. She tried to get a good look at his face under the ostentatious hat. “How came you to be on duty today, sir? I would have thought Lord Maccon required your expertise elsewhere.”

The professor looked pale and drawn, normal in a vampire but not in a werewolf. The lines on his face had deepened with strain, and his eyes were bloodshot. “Miss Tarabotti, it is getting on to full moon; his lordship has to be careful who he puts out to guard you come daylight. The young ones are not very stable at this time of the month.”

Alexia sniffed. “I appreciate his concern for my well-being. But I had thought there were others in BUR who might not be so taxed by daylight service. When is the moon?”

“Tomorrow night.”

Miss Tarabotti frowned. “Same time as Mr. MacDougall's speech at the Hypocras Club,” she said softly to herself.

“What?” The professor looked too tired to be interested.

Alexia waved a hand in the air. “Oh, nothing of import. You should go home, Professor, get some rest. You look absolutely awful. He should not work you so hard.” The Beta smiled. “It is part of my purpose.”

“To exhaust yourself protecting me?”

“To safeguard his interests.”

Miss Tarabotti gave him a horrified look. “I hardly think that an apt description.” Lyall, who'd seen the crested carriage parked just the other side of the Loontwill house, did not reply to that.

There was a pause.

“What did he do?” Alexia asked.

“Who?” replied Professor Lyall, although he knew perfectly well what she was asking about.

“The man you pretended to stumble into.”

“Mmm.” The werewolf was cagey. “It was more what he had.”

Miss Tarabotti tilted her head and looked inquiring.

“I wish you a pleasant evening. Miss Tarabotti,” said Professor Lyall.

Alexia gave him an exasperated look, then marched back up the front stairs and inside her house.

The family was clearly out, but Floote was waiting for her in the foyer with a most un-Floote-like expression of perturbation on his face. The door to the front parlor was open, a certain sign of visitors. Alexia was shocked. The Loontwills could not possibly have been expecting company, otherwise they would never have left the premises.

“Who is here, Floote?” she asked, fumbling with her hatpin.

The butler raised both eyebrows at her.

Alexia swallowed, suddenly nervous. She removed her hat and gloves and put them carefully on the hall table.

She took a moment to compose herself, checking her hair in the framed gilt hallway mirror. The dark mass was arranged a tad long for daytime, but she had a bite mark to cover up, and it was too hot for high necklines. She twitched several curls into place to better cover her bruise. Her own face looked back at her: firm chin, dark eyes, militant expression. Alexia touched her nose. Mr. Mac-Dougall thinks you are lovely, she told her reflection.

Then she set her spine as straight as possible and marched into the front parlor.

Lord Conall Maccon whirled about from where he stood. He had been facing the closed velvet curtains of the front window, staring at them as though he might be able to see right through the heavy material. In the dim light of the room, his eyes looked accusatory.

Miss Tarabotti paused on the threshold. Without a word, she turned back around, reached out, and slammed the parlor door shut firmly behind her.

Floote gave the closed door a long, hard look.

Outside in the street, Professor Lyall set his bone-weary self toward the BUR offices—just a few more records to check before bed. With one free hand, he patted a new bulge in his many-pocketed waistcoat. Why, he wondered, was a man with a syringe wandering Hyde Park? He turned back once to look at the Loontwills' house. A sudden smile creased his angular face as he noted the Woolsey Castle carriage waiting nearby. Its crest shone in the late afternoon sun: a quartered shield, two parts a moon-backed castle, two parts a moonless starry night. He wondered if his lord and master would, in fact, grovel.

The Earl of Woolsey wore a suit of dark chocolate, a cravat of caramel silk, and an air of ill-disguised impatience. He had been holding his kid gloves in one hand and slapping them rhythmically into the other when Miss Tarabotti entered the front parlor. He stopped instantly, but she had noted the fidget.

“What bee has gotten into your britches?” Miss Tarabotti asked without any attempt at a formal greeting. Formality was wasted on Lord Maccon. She took up position, arms akimbo, standing on the round primrose rug before him.

The earl countered with a gruff “And where have you been all day?”

Miss Tarabotti was disposed to be elusive. “Out.”

he earl would have none of it. “Out with whom?”

Alexia raised both eyebrows. He would find out from Professor Lyall eventually, so she said archly, “A nice young scientist.”

“Not that butterball chap you were nattering away with at dinner last night?” Lord Maccon looked at her in horror.

Miss Tarabotti glared viciously down her nose at him. Inside she was secretly delighted. He had noticed! “It just so happens that Mr. MacDougall has some absolutely fascinating theories on a wide range of topics, and he is interested in my opinion. Which is more than I can say for certain other gentlemen of my acquaintance. It was a beautiful day and a lovely drive, and he makes for quite an enjoyable conversation partner. A position, I am certain, you are entirely unfamiliar with.”

Lord Maccon looked suddenly very suspicious. His eyes narrowed, and their color lightened to the same caramel hue as his cravat. “What have you been telling him, Miss Tarabotti? Anything I should know?”

He was asking in his BUR tone of voice.

Miss Tarabotti looked around, expecting at any moment to see Professor Lyall emerge with a notepad or a metal plate and stylus. She sighed with resignation. Clearly, the earl had come to visit her only in his official capacity. Foolish of her to hope, she chided herself mentally. Then she wondered what exactly she was hoping for. An apology? From Lord Maccon! Ha. She sat down on a small wicker chair to one side of the sofa, careful to keep a proper distance between them. “What is interesting is more what he has been telling me,” she said. “He thinks being supernatural is some kind of disease.”

Lord Maccon, who was a werewolf and “cursed,” had heard that description before. He crossed his arms and loomed at her.

“Oh, for goodness' sake,” tsked Miss Tarabotti, “do sit down.”

Lord Maccon sat.

Miss Tarabotti continued. “Mr. MacDougall… that is his name, you know? Mr. MacDougall. Anyhow, Mr. MacDougall believes that the supernatural state is brought about by a blood-borne pathogen that affects some humans but not others, because some possess a certain physical trait and others do not. Presumably under this theory, men are more likely to possess said trait, and that is why they survive metamorphoses more frequently than women.”

Lord Maccon relaxed back, the tiny couch creaking under his weight. He snorted his contempt of the idea.

“There is, of course, one chief problem with his conjectures,” Alexia went on, ignoring the snort.

“You.”

“Mmmm.” She nodded. There was no room in Mr. MacDougall's theory for those who had no soul at all and canceled out those who had too much. What would Mr. MacDougall make of a preternatural? Assume she was a kind of proximity antidote to the supernatural disease? “Still it is an elegant theory with what little knowledge he has to go on.” She did not have to say that she respected the young man who had thought of it. Lord Maccon could see that in her face.

“So wish him joy of his delusions, and leave it be,” the earl said grimly. His canines were beginning to show, and the color of his eyes had gone further toward the yellow end of brown.

Miss Tarabotti shrugged. “He shows interest. He is smart. He is wealthy and well connected, or so I understand.” He thinks I am lovely. She did not say that out loud. “Who am I to complain at his attentions, or discourage them for that matter?”

Lord Maccon had cause to regret the words he had uttered to Professor Lyall the night Alexia killed the vampire. Apparently she was thinking of getting married. And she seemed to have found someone to marry her, despite being half Italian. “He will take you back to America, and you a preternatural. If he is as smart as you imply, he would figure that little fact out eventually.”

Miss Tarabotti laughed. “Oh, I am not thinking of marrying him, my lord. Nothing so rash. But I enjoy his company; it relieves the monotony of the day, and it keeps the family off the offensive.”

Lord Maccon felt a rush of palpable relief at this blithe assurance and was annoyed with himself for it. Why should he care so much? His canines retracted slightly. Then he realized she had specified marry and that in his experience, she was rather modern in her sensibilities for a spinster. “You are considering something else non-marriage with him, perhaps?” His voice was practically a growl.

“Oh, for pity's sake. Would it bother you if I were?”

Lord Maccon actually sputtered slightly at that.

Alexia suddenly realized what she was doing. She was sitting, having a polite conversation with Lord Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey—whom she did not like and with whom she was supposed to be extremely annoyed—about her romantic involvement (or lack thereof). It was just that his presence caused her to become overall addlepated.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Wait a moment. Why am I speaking with you at all? My lord, your behavior last night!” She stood and began to swish about the cluttered little room, her eyes sparking fiercely. She pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You are not simply a werewolf; you, my lord, are a rake. That is what you are! You took advantage the other night, Lord Maccon. Admit it! I have no idea why you felt it necessary to do”—she paused, embarrassed—“what you did, the evening of my near abduction. But you have clearly since thought better of it. Why, if you were not interested in me as anything more than a”—she stumbled, trying to find the right terminology—“momentary plaything, you might at least have just told me outright afterward.” She crossed her arms and sneered at him. “Why didn't you? You think I was not strong enough to take it without causing a scene? I assure you, no one is better used to rejection than I, my lord. I think it very churlish of you not to inform me to my face that your breach in manners was an unfortunate impulse of the moment. I deserve some respect. We have known each other long enough for that at the very least.” At that, her steam began to run out, and she felt a heat behind her eyes she refused to believe might be tears.

Now Lord Maccon was getting angry but for different reasons. “So you've figured it all out, have you? And why, pray tell, would I suddenly be thinking better of my… what did you call it? Unfortunate impulse of the moment?” He sounded particularly Scottish. Alexia would have been amused by the fact that the more angry the earl got, the more burr crept into his speech. But she was too angry to notice. All tears had retracted at that.

She stopped pacing and cast her hands heavenward. “I have no earthly idea. You started it. You ended it. You treated me like a distant and not-very-well-liked acquaintance all last evening. Then you turn up in my front parlor today. You tell me what you were thinking yesterday at dinner. As sure as I am standing here, I have no clue as to what you are about, Lord Maccon. That is the honest truth of it.”

The earl opened his mouth and then closed it again. Truth be told, he did not know what he was doing there either, so he could not very well explain. Grovel, Lyall had said. He had no idea how to do such a thing. Alphas simply did not grovel; arrogance was part of the job description. Lord Maccon might only recently have won leadership of the Woolsey Castle pack, but he had always been an Alpha.

Miss Tarabotti could not help herself. It was rare that anyone left the Earl of Woolsey at a loss for words. She felt both triumphant and confused. She had tossed and turned most of the night over his disdainful treatment. She had even thought to call on Ivy to ask her opinion of his conduct. Ivy of all people! She must be desperate. Yet here before her sat the object of her perturbation, apparently at her verbal mercy.

So, of course, being Alexia Tarabotti, she cut straight to the heart of the matter. She looked down at the primrose rug, because, brave as she was, she could not quite face his yellow eyes. “I am not very”—she paused, thinking of the scandalous pictures in her father's books—“experienced. If I did something wrong, you know”—she waggled a hand in the air, even more embarrassed now but bound and determined to get it over with—“with the kissing, you must excuse my ignorance. I…”

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