Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,022
07.03.2019

Alexia sniffed. “I am getting there. You must understand, Professor Lyall, this is a smidgen embarrassing. You must permit me to broach the matter in a slightly roundabout manner.”

“Far be it for me to require directness from you, Miss Tarabotti,” replied the werewolf in a tone of voice Alexia felt might be bordering rudely on sarcasm.

“Yes, well, anyway,” she continued huffily. “Only last night at a dinner event we both attended. Lord Maccon's behavior gave me to understand the previous evening's entanglement had been a… mistake.”

Miss Hisselpenny gave a little gasp of astonishment. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “how could he!”

“Ivy,” said Miss Tarabotti a touch severely, “pray let me finish my story before you judge Lord Maccon too harshly. That is, after all, for me to do.” Somehow Alexia could not endure the idea that her friend might be thinking ill of the earl.

Alexia continued. “This afternoon, I returned home to find him waiting for me in this very parlor. He seems to have changed his mind once again. I am becoming increasingly confused.” Miss Tarabotti glared at the hapless Beta. “And I do not appreciate this kind of uncertainty!” She put down the ribbon pillow.

“Has he gone and botched things up again?” asked the professor.

Floote entered with the tea tray. At a loss for what proper etiquette required, the butler had placed the raw liver in a cut-glass ice-cream dish. Professor Lyall did not seem to care in what form it was presented. He ate it rapidly but delicately with a small copper ice-cream spoon.

Floote served the tea and then disappeared once more from the room.

Miss Tarabotti finally arrived at the point. “Why did he treat me with such hauteur last night and then with such solicitude today? Is there some obscure point of pack lore in play here?” She sipped her tea to hide her nervousness.

Lyall finished his chopped liver, set the empty ice-cream dish on the piano top, and looked at Miss Tarabotti. “Would you say that initially Lord Maccon made his interest clear?” he asked.

“Well,” hedged Miss Tarabotti, “we have known each other for a few years now. Before the street incident, I would say his attitude has been one of apathy.”

Professor Lyall chuckled. “You did not hear his comments after those encounters. However, I did mean more recently.”

Alexia put down her teacup and started using her hands as she talked. It was one of the few Italian mannerisms that had somehow crept into her repertoire, despite the fact that she had barely known her father. “Well, yes,” she said, spreading her fingers expansively, “but then again, not decisively. I realize I am a little old and plain for long-term romantic interest, especially from a gentleman of Lord Maccon's standing, but if he was offering claviger status, oughten I to be informed? And isn't it impossible for…” She glanced at Ivy, who did not know she was a preternatural. She did not even know that preternatural folk existed. “For someone as lacking in creativity as me to be a claviger? I do not know what to think. I cannot believe his overtures represent a courtship. So when he recently ignored me, I assumed the incident in the street had been a colossal mistake.”

Professor Lyall sighed again. “Yes, that. How do I put this delicately? My estimable Alpha has been thinking of you instinctively, I am afraid, not logically. He has been perceiving you as he would an Alpha female werewolf.”

Miss Hisselpenny frowned. “Is that complimentary?”

Seeing the empty ice-cream dish, Miss Tarabotti handed Professor Lyall a cup of tea. Lyall sipped the beverage delicately, raising his eyebrows from behind the lip of the cup. “For an Alpha male? Yes. For the rest of us, I suspect, not quite so much. But there is a reason.”

“Go on, please,” urged Miss Tarabotti, intrigued.

Lyall continued. “When he would not admit his interest even to himself, his instincts took over.”

Miss Tarabotti, who had a brief but scandalous vision of Lord Maccon's instincts urging him to do things such as throw her bodily over one shoulder and drag her off into the night, returned to reality with a start. “So?”

Miss Hisselpenny said to her friend, looking at Lyall for support, “It is an issue of control?”

“Very perceptive, Miss Hisselpenny.” The professor looked with warm approval at Ivy, who blushed with pleasure.

Miss Tarabotti felt as though she was beginning to understand. “At the dinner party, he was waiting for me to make overtures?” She almost squeaked in shock. “But he was flirting! With a… a… Wibbley!”

Professor Lyall nodded. “Thereby trying to increase your interest—force you to stake a claim, indicate pursuit, or assert possession. Preferably all three.”

Both Miss Tarabotti and Miss Hisselpenny were quite properly shocked into silence at the very idea. Though Alexia was less appalled than perturbed. After all, had she not just discovered, in this very room, the depth of her own interest in equalizing the male-female dynamic? She supposed if she could bite Lord Maccon on the neck and regret that she left no lasting mark, she might be able to claim him publicly.

“In pack protocol, we call it the Bitch's Dance,” Professor Lyall explained. “You are, you will forgive my saying so, Miss Tarabotti, simply too much Alpha.”

“I am not an Alpha,” protested Miss Tarabotti, standing up and pacing about. Clearly, her father's library had failed her entirely on the niceties and mating habits of werewolves.

Lyall looked at her—hands on hips, full-figured, assertive. He smiled. “There are not many female werewolves. Miss Tarabotti. The Bitch's Dance refers to liaisons among the pack: the female's choice.”

Miss Hisselpenny maintained an appalled silence. The very idea was utterly alien to her upbringing.

Miss Tarabotti mulled it over. She found she liked the idea. She had always secretly admired the vampire queens their superior position in hive structure. She did not know werewolves had something similar. Did Alpha females, she wondered, trump males outside the romantic arena as well? “Why?” she asked.

Lyall explained. “It has to be up to the female, with so few of them and so many of us. There is no battling over a female allowed. Werewolves rarely live more than a century or two because of all the infighting. The laws are strict and enforced by the dewan himself. It is entirely the bitch's choice every step of the dance.”

“So, Lord Maccon was waiting for me to go to him.” Miss Tarabotti realized for the first time how strange it must be for the older supernatural folk to adjust to the changing social norms of Queen Victoria's daylight world. Lord Maccon always seemed to have such things well in hand. It had not even occurred to Alexia that he had made a mistake in his behavior toward her. “Then what of his conduct today?”

Miss Hisselpenny sucked in a gasp. “What did he do?” She shivered in delighted horror.

Miss Tarabotti promised to tell her the particulars later. Although this time, she suspected, she would not be able to reveal every detail. Things had progressed a little too far for someone of Ivy's delicate sensibilities. If merely looking at that wingback chair could make Alexia blush, it would certainly be too much for her dear friend.

Professor Lyall coughed. Miss Tarabotti believed he was doing so to hide amusement. “That may have been my fault. I spoke to him most severely, reminding him to treat you as a modern British lady, not a werewolf.”

“Mmm,” said Miss Tarabotti, still contemplating the wingback chair, “perhaps a little too modern?”

Professor Lyall's eyebrows went all the way up, and he leaned a little out of the shadows toward her.

“Alexia,” said Miss Hisselpenny most severely, “you must force him to make his intentions clear. Persisting in this kind of behavior could cause quite the scandal.”

Miss Tarabotti thought of her preternatural state and her father, who was reputed to have been quite the philanderer before his marriage. You have no idea, she almost said.

Miss Hisselpenny continued. “I mean to say, not that one could bear to think such a thing, but it must be said, it really must…” She looked most distressed. “What if he only intends to offer you carte blanche?” Her eyes were big and sympathetic. Ivy was intelligent enough to know, whether she liked to acknowledge it or not, what Alexia's prospects really were. Practically speaking, they could not include marriage to someone of Lord Maccon's standing, no matter how romantic her imagination.

Alexia knew Ivy did not intend to be cruel, but she was hurt nonetheless. She nodded glumly.

Professor Lyall, whose sensitivities were touched by Miss Tarabotti's suddenly sad eyes, said, “I cannot believe my lord's intentions are anything less than honorable.”

Miss Tarabotti smiled, wobbly. “That is kind of you to say, Professor. Still, it seems as though I am faced with a dilemma. Respond as your pack protocol dictates”— she paused seeing Ivy's eyes widen —“risking my reputation with ruination and ostracism. Or deny everything and maintain as I have always done.”

Miss Hisselpenny took Miss Tarabotti's hand and squeezed it sympathetically. Alexia squeezed back and then spoke as though trying to convince herself. She was, after all, soulless and practical. “Mine is not precisely a bad life. I have material wealth and good health. Perhaps I am not useful nor beloved by my family, but I have never suffered unduly. And I have my books.” She paused, finding herself perilously close to self-pity.

Professor Lyall and Miss Hisselpenny exchanged glances. Something passed between them. Some silent pact of purpose to do… Ivy knew not what. But, whatever the future. Miss Hisselpenny was certainly glad to have Professor Lyall on her side.

Floote appeared in the doorway. “A Mr. Haverbink to see you. Miss Tarabotti.”

Mr. Haverbink entered the room, shutting the door behind him.

Professor Lyall said, “Forgive me not standing, Haverbink. Too many days running.”

“Not a worry, sir, not a bit of it.” Mr. Haverbink was an extraordinarily large and thuglike man of working-class extraction. What origins his cultivated speech left in doubt, his physical appearance demonstrated. He was the type of good farming stock that, when the oxen collapsed from exhaustion, picked up the plow, strapped himself to it, and finished tilling the fields by hand.

Miss Tarabotti and Miss Hisselpenny had never before seen so many muscles on one individual. His neck was the size of a tree. Both ladies were suitably impressed.

Professor Lyall made introductions. “Ladies, Mr. Haverbink. Mr. Haverbink, this is Miss Hisselpenny, and this is Miss Tarabotti, your charge.”

“Oh!” said Ivy. “You are from BUR?”

Mr. Haverbink nodded affably. “Aye, miss.”

“But you are not…?” Miss Tarabotti could not tell how she knew. Perhaps it was because he seemed so relaxed in the bright sunlight or because how grounded and earthy he seemed. He showed none of the dramatic flair one expects with excess soul.

“A werewolf? No, miss. Not interested in being a claviger either, so I shan't ever become one. Gone up against a couple in the boxing ring once or twice, so do not worry yourself on that account. Besides, the boss does not seem to think we will have trouble from that quarter, leastways not during the daytime.”

Professor Lyall stood slowly. He looked bent and old, his mercurial face thin and drawn.

Mr. Haverbink turned to him solicitously. “Begging your pardon, sir, but his lordship gave me strict instructions to see you into the carriage and off to the castle. He has got the situation well in hand back at the office.”

Professor Lyall, nearly to the point of utter exhaustion, made his way haltingly to the door.

The hugely muscled young man looked like he would prefer to simply pick the Beta up and carry him out to the street, relieving the werewolf of his obvious distress. But, showing that he did indeed have experience working with the supernatural set, he respected his superior's pride and did not even try to assist him with an arm.

Polite to the last, Professor Lyall collected his hat and coat, donned both, and bowed his farewell from the parlor doorway. Alexia and Ivy were afraid he might topple right over, but he righted himself and made it out the front door and into the Woolsey Castle carriage with only a few stumbles here and there.

Mr. Haverbink saw him safely on his way and then came back into the parlor. “I'll be just out the front by yon lamp-post if you need me, miss,” he said to Miss Tarabotti. “I'm on duty until sundown, and then there'll be three vampires in rotation all night long. His lordship is not taking any chances. Not after what just happened.”

Though dying of curiosity, Ivy and Alexia knew better than to hound the young man with questions. If Professor Lyall would not tell them anything about what had taken the earl away so suddenly, this man would be equally unforthcoming.

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