Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Lord Maccon almost reared right out of the armchair.

Alexia held on, teeth sinking into flesh. She did not want to draw blood, but she did intend to leave a mark and felt since he was a tough supernatural type, she had better do her worst. Any mark she left would not last long once they broke contact and he was out of her preternatural power. He tasted wonderful: of salt and meat—like gravy. She stopped biting and licked delicately at the red crescent-shaped brand she had left behind.

“Blast it all.” Lord Maccon's breathing was very rapid. “We have got to stop.”

Alexia nuzzled against him. “Why?”

“Because pretty bloody soon, I'm not going to be able to.”

Alexia nodded. “I suppose that is sensible.” She sighed. It felt like she had spent a lifetime being sensible.

The decision, it turned out, was taken away from them by some sort of commotion in the hallway. “Well I never,” said a lady's shocked voice.

Some quiet apologetic murmuring then ensued, the words of which were impossible to make out and probably emanated from Floote.

Then the woman issued forth once more, “In the front parlor? Oh, here on BUR business, is he? I understand. Surely not…” The voice trailed off.

Someone knocked loudly on the parlor door.

Miss Tarabotti slid hurriedly off Lord Maccon's lap. Much to her surprise, her legs seemed to be working properly. She yanked her bustle back into position and hopped up and down hurriedly to shake her skirts back into place.

Lord Maccon, in the interest of time, simply buttoned the top of his shirtwaist and bottom of his waistcoat and jacket. But he seemed defeated in any effort to rapidly tie his cravat.

“Here, let me do that.” Miss Tarabotti gestured him autocratically over and tied it for him.

While she busied herself with an intricate knot, Lord Maccon tried, equally inexpertly, to fix her hair. His fingers brushed the bite mark on her lower neck. “I am sorry about that,” he said contritely.

“Do I detect an honest-to-goodness apology?” asked Alexia, but she smiled, still fiddling with his cravat. “I do not mind the bruise. What I mind is that I cannot produce the same.” The bite mark she had given him only moments before had promptly vanished during the few seconds they separated while she straightened her dress. Then, she added, because Alexia never stayed silent when she ought, “These feelings you engender in me, my lord, are most indelicate. You should stop causing them immediately.”

He gave her a quick look to assess the seriousness, and then, unable to determine if she was joking or not, remained silent.

Miss Tarabotti finished with the cravat. He had arranged her hair so that it at least covered all signs of his amorous attentions. She walked across the room to draw the curtains and look out the front window to see who might have arrived.

The knocking continued on the parlor door until finally it burst open.

Of all odd couples, Miss Ivy Hisselpenny and Professor Lyall entered the room.

Ivy was talking nonstop. She spotted Miss Tarabotti instantly and flitted over to her, looking like an excited hedgehog in a loud hat. “Alexia, my dear, did you know there was a BUR werewolf lurking in your hallway? When I came for tea, he was squaring off against your butler in a most threatening manner. I was terribly afraid there might be fisticuffs. Why would such a person be interested in visiting you? And why was Floote terribly set on keeping him away? And why…?” She did not finish, having finally spotted Lord Maccon. Her large red and white striped shepherdess hat, with a curved yellow ostrich feather, quivered in agitation.

Lord Maccon was glaring at his second. “Randolph, you look awful. What are you doing here? I sent you home.”

Professor Lyall took in his Alpha's disheveled appearance, wondering what atrocious thing had been done to his poor cravat. His eyes narrowed and shifted toward Miss Tarabotti's loose hair. However, Lyall had been Beta for three consecutive pack leaders, and he was nothing if not discreet. Instead of commenting or answering Lord Maccon's question, he simply walked over to the earl and whispered rapidly into his ear.

Miss Hisselpenny finally noticed her friend's tousled state. Solicitously, she urged Alexia to sit and took up residence next to her on the little settee. “Are you feeling quite well?” She removed her gloves and felt Alexia's forehead with the back of her hand. “You are very hot, my dear. Do you think you might be running a fever?”

Miss Tarabotti looked under her eyelashes at Lord Maccon. “That is one way of phrasing it.”

Professor Lyall stopped whispering.

Lord Maccon's face flushed. He was newly upset about something. “They did what?” Was he ever not upset?

Whisper, whisper.

“Well, proud Mary's fat arse!” said the earl eloquently.

Miss Hisselpenny gasped.

Miss Tarabotti, who was getting very used to Lord Maccon's ribald mannerisms, snickered at her friend's shocked expression.

Issuing forth several additional creative statements of the gutter-born variety, the earl strode to the hat stand, shoved his brown topper unceremoniously on his head, and marched out of the room.

Professor Lyall shook his head and made a tut-tutting noise. “Fancy going out into public with a cravat like that.”

The cravat in question, with head attached, reappeared in the doorway. “Watch her, Randolph. I will send Haverbink round to relieve you as soon as I get to the office. After he arrives, for all our sakes, go home and get some sleep. It is going to be a long night.”

“Yes, sir,” said Professor Lyall.

Lord Maccon disappeared once more, and they heard the Woolsey Castle carriage clattering off at a breakneck speed down the street.

Miss Tarabotti felt forsaken, bereft, and not entirely unworthy of the pitying glances Ivy was casting in her direction. What was it about kissing her that caused the Earl of Woolsey to feel it necessary to disappear with such rapidity?

Professor Lyall, looking uncomfortable, removed his hat and overcoat and hung them up on the stand just made vacant by vanished Lord Expletive. He then proceeded to check the room. What he was looking for, Alexia could not guess, but he did not seem to find it. The Loontwills kept to the height of what was required of a fashionable receiving parlor. It was greatly overfurnished, including an upright piano that none of the ladies of the house could play, and cluttered to capacity with small tables covered with embroidered drop cloths and crowded with assemblages of daguerreotypes, glass bottles with suspended model dirigibles, and other knickknacks. As he conducted his investigation, Professor Lyall avoided all contact with sunlight. In style since the supernatural set rose to prominence several centuries ago, the heavy velvet drapes over the front window nevertheless allowed some small amount of daylight to creep into the darkness. The Beta was fastidious in his avoidance of it.

Miss Tarabotti figured he must be very tired indeed to feel such ill effects. Older werewolves could go several days awake during the daytime. The professor must be pushing his time limit, or suffering some other ailment.

Miss Tarabotti and Miss Hisselpenny watched with polite curiosity as the urbane werewolf wandered about the room. He checked behind Felicity's insipid watercolors and underneath the infamous wingback armchair. Alexia blushed inwardly thinking about that chair and trying not to remember what had so recently occurred there. Had she really been so forward? Disgraceful.

When the silence became too unbearable, Miss Tarabotti said, “Do sit down, Professor. You look positively dead on your feet. You are making us dizzy wandering about the room like that.”

Professor Lyall gave a humorless laugh but obeyed her order. He settled into a small Chippendale side chair, which he moved into the darkest recess of the room: a little nook near the piano.

“Should we order some tea?” Miss Hisselpenny asked, concern for both his peaked appearance and Alexia's obviously feverish condition outweighing all sense of propriety.

Miss Tarabotti was impressed by her friend's resource. “What an excellent notion.”

Ivy went to the door to call for Floote, who magically appeared without needing to be summoned. “Miss Alexia is not feeling quite the thing and this gentleman here…,” she faltered.

Alexia was appalled at her own lack of manners. “Ivy! You don't mean to say you have not been introduced? And here I thought you knew each other. You came in together.”

Miss Hisselpenny turned to her friend. “We encountered one another on the front stoop, but we never formally made each other's acquaintance.” She turned back to the butler. “I am sorry, Floote. What was I saying?”

“Tea, miss?” suggested the ever-resourceful Floote. “Will there be anything else, miss?”

Alexia asked from the couch, “Do we have any liver?”

“Liver, miss? I shall inquire of the cook.”

“If we do, simply have her chop it small and serve it raw.” Miss Tarabotti double-checked with a glance at Professor Lyall, who nodded gratefully.

Both Ivy and Floote looked aghast, but there seemed to be nothing they could do to gainsay Alexia's request. After all, in the absence of the Loontwills proper, this was Miss Tarabotti's house to rule over.

“And some jam and bread sandwiches,” said Miss Tarabotti firmly. She felt a bit more composed, now that Lord Maccon had vacated the premises. Miss Tarabotti, once composed, was generally of a peckish proclivity.

“Very good, miss,” said Floote, and glided off.

Alexia performed introductions. “Professor Lyall, this is Miss Ivy Hisselpenny, my dearest friend. Ivy, this is Professor Randolph Lyall, Lord Maccon's second in command and protocol advisor, so far as I can tell.”

Lyall stood and bowed. Ivy curtsied from the doorway. Formalities over with, both returned to their seats.

“Professor, can you tell me what has occurred? Why did Lord Maccon depart in such haste?” Miss Tarabotti leaned forward and peered into the shadows. It was hard to read the professor's expression in the dim light, which gave him a decided advantage.

“Afraid not, Miss Tarabotti. BUR business.” He shut her down shamelessly. “Not to worry, the earl should get it all sorted through in short order.”

Alexia leaned back in the settee. Idly she picked up one of the many pink ribbon-embroidered cushions and began plucking at one of the tassels. “Then I wonder, sir, if I might ask you somewhat about pack protocol?”

Miss Hisselpenny's eyes went very wide, and she reached for her fan. When Alexia got that look in her eye, it meant her friend was about to say something shocking. Had Alexia been reading her father's books again? Ivy shuddered to even think such a thing. She always knew no good would come of those reprehensible manuscripts.

Professor Lyall, startled by this sudden switch in topic, looked uncomfortably at Miss Tarabotti.

“Oh, is it secret?” asked Alexia. One was never quite certain with the supernatural set. She knew there existed such concepts as pack protocol and pack etiquette, but sometimes these things were learned via cultural acumen and never taught or talked of openly. It was true that werewolves were more integrated into everyday society than vampires, but, still, one never knew unless one was actually a werewolf. Their traditions were, after all, much older than those of daylight folk.

Professor Lyall shrugged elegantly. “Not necessarily. I should caution, however, that pack rules are often quite blunt and not necessarily intended for a lady of Miss Hisselpenny's delicacy.”

Alexia grinned at him. “As opposed to mine?” she asked, putting him on the spot.

The professor was not to be trifled with. “My dear Miss Tarabotti, you are nothing if not resilient.”

Ivy, blushing furiously, spread open her fan and began fluttering it to cool her hot face. The fan was bright red Chinese silk with yellow lace at its edge, clearly selected to match the reprehensible shepherdess hat. Alexia rolled her eyes. Was Ivy's dubious taste now extending to all her accessories?

The fan seemed to give Miss Hisselpenny some courage. “Please,” she insisted, “do not forbear needlessly on my account.”

Miss Tarabotti smiled approvingly and patted her friend on the upper arm before turning expectantly back to face Professor Lyall in his darkened corner. “Shall I come to the point, Professor? Lord Maccon's manners have been highly bewildering of late. He has made several”—she paused delicately—“interesting incursions in my direction. These began, as you no doubt observed, in the public street the other evening.”

“Oh, dear Alexia!” breathed Miss Hisselpenny, truly shaken. “You do not mean to tell me you were observed.”

Miss Tarabotti dismissed her friend's concern. “Only by Professor Lyall here, so far as I am aware, and he is the soul of discretion.”

Professor Lyall, though clearly pleased by her accolade, said, “Not to be rude. Miss Tarabotti, but your aspect of pack protocol is…?”