Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,048
07.03.2019

“Aye?”

Professor Lyall was crouched over the vampire, examining the hair stick with interest. He was poking about the wound, a spotless white lawn handkerchief wrapped around his hand.

“Very little mess, actually. Almost complete lack of blood spatter.” He leaned forward and sniffed. “Definitely Westminster,” he stated.

The Earl of Woolsey seemed to understand. He turned his piercing gaze onto the dead vampire. “He must have been very hungry.”

Professor Lyall turned the body over. “What happened here?” He took out a small set of wooden tweezers from the pocket of his waistcoat and picked at the back of the vampire's trousers. He paused, rummaged about in his coat pockets, and produced a diminutive leather case. He clicked it open and removed a most bizarre pair of goggle like things. They were gold in color with multiple lenses on one side, between which there appeared to be some kind of liquid. The contraption was also riddled with small knobs and dials. Professor Lyall propped the ridiculous things onto his nose and bent back over the vampire, twiddling at the dials expertly.

“Goodness gracious me,” exclaimed Alexia, “what are you wearing? It looks like the unfortunate progeny of an illicit union between a pair of binoculars and some opera glasses. What on earth are they called, binocticals, spectaculars?”

The earl snorted his amusement and then tried to pretend he hadn't. “How about glassicals?” he suggested, apparently unable to resist a contribution. There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it that Alexia found rather unsettling.

Professor Lyall looked up from his examination and glared at the both of them. His right eye was hideously magnified. It was quite gruesome and made Alexia start involuntarily.

“These are my monocular cross-magnification lenses with spectra-modifier attachment, and they are invaluable. I will thank you not to mock them so openly.” He turned once more to the task at hand.

“Oh.” Miss Tarabotti was suitably impressed. “How do they work?” she inquired.

Professor Lyall looked back up at her, suddenly animated. “Well, you see, it is really quite interesting. By turning this little knob here, you can change the distance between the two panes of glass here, allowing the liquid to—”

The earl's groan interrupted him. “Don't get him started, Miss Tarabotti, or we will be here all night.”

Looking slightly crestfallen, Professor Lyall turned back to the dead vampire. “Now, what is this substance all over his clothing?” His boss, preferring the direct approach, resumed his frown and looked accusingly at Alexia. “What on God's green earth is that muck?”

Miss Tarabotti said, “Ah. Sadly, treacle tart. A tragic loss, I daresay.” Her stomach chose that moment to growl in agreement. She would have colored gracefully with embarrassment had she not possessed the complexion of one of those “heathen Italians,” as her mother said, who never colored, gracefully or otherwise. (Convincing her mother that Christianity had, to all intents and purposes, originated with the Italians, thus making them the exact opposite of heathen, was a waste of time and breath.) Alexia refused to apologize for the boisterousness of her stomach and favored Lord Maccon with a defiant glare. Her stomach was the reason she had sneaked away in the first place. Her mama had assured her there would be food at the ball. Yet all that appeared on offer when they arrived was a bowl of punch and some sadly wilted water-cress. Never one to let her stomach get the better of her, Alexia had ordered tea from the butler and retreated to the library. Since she normally spent any ball lurking on the outskirts of the dance floor trying to look as though she did not want to be asked to waltz, tea was a welcome alternative. It was rude to order refreshments from someone else's staff, but when one was promised sandwiches and there was nothing but watercress, well, one must simply take matters into one's own hands!

Professor Lyall, kindhearted soul that he was, prattled on to no one in particular, pretending not to notice the rumbling of her stomach. Though of course he heard it. He had excellent hearing. They all did. He looked up from his examinations, his face all catawampus from the glassicals. “Starvation would explain why the vampire was desperate enough to try for Miss Tarabotti at a ball, rather than taking to the slums like the smart ones do when they get this bad.”

Alexia grimaced. “No associated hive either.”

Lord Maccon arched one black eyebrow, professing not to be impressed. “How could you possibly know that?"

Professor Lyall explained for both of them. “No need to be so direct with the young lady. A hive queen would never have let one of her brood get into such a famished condition. We must have a rove on our hands, one completely without ties to the local hive.”

Alexia stood up, revealing to Lord Maccon that she had arranged her faint to rest comfortably against a fallen settee pillow. He grinned and then quickly hid it behind a frown when she looked at him suspiciously.

“I have a different theory.” She gestured to the vampire's clothing. “Badly tied cravat and a cheap shirt? No hive worth its salt would let a larva like that out without dressing him properly for public appearance. I am surprised he was not stopped at the front entrance. The duchess's footman really ought to have spotted a cravat like that prior to the reception line and forcibly ejected the wearer. I suppose good staff is hard to come by with all the best ones becoming drones these days, but such a shirt!”

The Earl of Woolsey glared at her. “Cheap clothing is no excuse for killing a man.”

“Mmm, that's what you say.” Alexia evaluated Lord Maccon's perfectly tailored shirtfront and exquisitely tied cravat. His dark hair was a bit too long and shaggy to be de mode, and his face was not entirely clean-shaven, but he possessed enough hauteur to carry this lower-class roughness off without seeming scruffy. She was certain that his silver and black paisley cravat must be tied under sufferance. He probably preferred to wander about bare-chested at home. The idea made her shiver oddly. It must take a lot of effort to keep a man like him tidy. Not to mention well tailored. He was bigger than most. She had to give credit to his valet, who must be a particularly tolerant claviger.

Lord Maccon was normally quite patient. Like most of his kind, he had learned to be such in polite society. But Miss Tarabotti seemed to bring out the worst of his animal urges. “Stop trying to change the subject,” he snapped, squirming under her calculated scrutiny. “Tell me what happened.” He put on his BUR face and pulled out a small metal tube, stylus, and pot of clear liquid. He unrolled the tube with a small cranking device, clicked the top off the liquid, and dipped the stylus into it. It sizzled ominously.

Alexia bristled at his autocratic tone. “Do not give me instructions in that tone of voice, you…” she searched for a particularly insulting word, “puppy! I am jolly well not one of your pack.” Lord Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, was Alpha of the local werewolves, and as a result, he had access to a wide array of truly vicious methods of dealing with Miss Alexia Tarabotti. Instead of bridling at her insult (puppy, indeed!), he brought out his best offensive weapon, the result of decades of personal experience with more than one Alpha she-wolf. Scottish he may be by birth, but that only made him better equipped to deal with strong-willed females. “Stop playing verbal games with me, madam, or I shall go out into that ballroom, find your mother, and bring her here.”

Alexia wrinkled her nose. “Well, I Me that! That is hardly playing a fair game. How unnecessarily callous,” she admonished. Her mother did not know that Alexia was preternatural. Mrs. Loontwill, as she was Loontwill since her remarriage, leaned a little too far toward the frivolous in any given equation. She was prone to wearing yellow and engaging in bouts of hysteria. Combining her mother with a dead vampire and her daughter's true identity was a recipe for disaster on all possible levels.

The fact that Alexia was preternatural had been explained to her at age six by a nice gentleman from the Civil Service with silver hair and a silver cane—a were-wolf specialist. Along with the dark hair and prominent nose, preternatural was something Miss Tarabotti had to thank her dead Italian father for. What it really meant was that words like I and me were just excessively theoretical for Alexia. She certainly had an identity and a heart that felt emotions and all that; she simply had no soul. Miss Alexia, age six, had nodded politely at the nice silver-haired gentleman. Then she had made certain to read oodles of ancient Greek philosophy dealing with reason, logic, and ethics. If she had no soul, she also had no morals, so she reckoned she had best develop some kind of alternative. Her mama thought her a bluestocking, which was soulless enough as far as Mrs. Loontwill was concerned, and was terribly upset by her eldest daughter's propensity for libraries. It would be too bothersome to have to face her mama in one just now.

Lord Maccon moved purposefully toward the door with the clear intention of acquiring Mrs. Loontwill.

Alexia caved with ill grace. “Oh, very well!” She settled herself with a rustle of green skirts onto a peach brocade chesterfield near the window.

The earl was both amused and annoyed to see that she had managed to pick up her fainting pillow and place it back on the couch without his registering any swooping movement.

“I came into the library for tea. I was promised food at this ball. In case you had not noticed, no food appears to be in residence.”

Lord Maccon who required a considerable amount of fuel, mostly of the protein inclination, had noticed. “The Duke of Snodgrove is notoriously reticent about any additional expenditure at his wife's balls. Victuals were probably not on the list of acceptable offerings.” He sighed. “The man owns half of Berkshire and cannot even provide a decent sandwich.”

Miss Tarabotti made an empathetic movement with both hands. “My point precisely! So you will understand that I had to resort to ordering my own repast. Did you expect me to starve?”

The earl gave her generous curves a rude once-over, observed that Miss Tarabotti was nicely padded in exactly the right places, and refused to be suckered into becoming sympathetic. He maintained his frown. “I suspect that is precisely what the vampire was thinking when he found you without a chaperone. An unmarried female alone in a room in this enlightened day and age! Why, if the moon had been full, even I would have attacked you!”

Alexia gave him the once-over and reached for her brass parasol. “My dear sir, I should like to see you try.”

Being Alpha made Lord Maccon a tad unprepared for such bold rebuttals, even with his Scottish past. He blinked at her in surprise for a split second and then resumed the verbal attack. “You do realize modern social mores exist for a reason?”

“I was hungry, allowances should be made,” Alexia said, as if that settled the matter, unable to understand why he persisted in harping on about it.

Professor Lyall, unobserved by the other two, was busy fishing about in his waistcoat for something. Eventually, he produced a mildly beaten-up ham and pickle sandwich wrapped in a bit of brown paper. He presented it to Miss Tarabotti, ever the gallant.

Under normal circumstances, Alexia would have been put off by the disreputable state of the sandwich, but it was meant so kindly and offered with such diffidence, she could do nothing but accept. It was actually rather tasty.

“This is delicious!” she stated, surprised.

Professor Lyall grinned. “I keep them around for when his lordship gets particularly testy. Such offerings keep the beast under control for the most part.” He frowned and then added a caveat. “Excepting at full moon, of course. Would that a nice ham and pickle sandwich was all it took then.”

Miss Tarabotti perked up, interested. “What do you do at full moon?”

Lord Maccon knew very well Miss Tarabotti was getting off the point intentionally. Driven beyond endurance, he resorted to use of her first name. “Alexia!” It was a long, polysyllabic, drawn-out growl. She waved the sandwich at him. “Uh, do you want half of this, my lord?” His frown became even darker, if such a thing could be conceived.

Professor Lyall pushed his glassicals up onto the brim of his top hat, where they looked like a strange second set of mechanical eyes, and stepped into the breach. “Miss Tarabotti, I do not believe you quite realize the delicacy of this situation. Unless we can establish strong grounds for self-defense by proving the vampire was behaving in a wholly irrational manner, you could be facing murder charges.”

Alexia swallowed her bite of sandwich so quickly she partly choked and started to cough. “What?”

Lord Maccon turned his fierce frown on his second. “Now who is being too direct for the lady's sensibilities?”

Lord Maccon was relatively new to the London area. He had arrived a social unknown, challenged for Woolsey Castle Alpha, and won. He gave young ladies heart palpitations, even outside his wolf form, with a favorable combination of mystery, preeminence, and danger. Having acquired the BUR post, Woolsey Castle, and noble rank from the dispossessed former pack leader, he never lacked for a dinner invitation. His Beta, inherited with the pack, had a tense time of it: dancing on protocol and covering up Lord Maccon's various social gaffes. So far, bluntness had proved Professor Lyall's most consistent problem. Sometimes it even rubbed off on him. He had not meant to shock Miss Tarabotti, but she was now looking most subdued.

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