Mr. Haverbink bowed deeply, muscles rippling all up and down his back, and lumbered from the room.
Miss Hisselpenny sighed and fluttered her fan. “Ah, for the countryside, what scenery there abides…,” quoth she.
Miss Tarabotti giggled. “Ivy, what a positively wicked thing to say. Bravo.”
The Loontwills returned from their shopping expedition flushed with success. Except for Squire Loontwill, who was now less flush than he had been and wore an expression more often seen on men returning from battle— one that had been badly lost with many casualties. Floote appeared at his elbow with a large glass of cognac. The squire muttered something about Floote-liness being next to godliness and downed the liquor in one gulp.
No one was surprised to find Miss Tarabotti entertaining Miss Hisselpenny in the front parlor. The squire muttered a greeting only just long enough to satisfy politeness and then retreated to his office with a second glass of cognac and the mandate that he was not to be disturbed for any reason.
The ladies Loontwill greeted Miss Hisselpenny in a far more verbose manner and insisted on showing off all of their purchases.
Miss Tarabotti had the presence of mind to send Floote for more tea. It was clearly going to be a long afternoon.
Felicity pulled out a leather box and lifted the lid. “Look at these. Are they not utterly divine? Do you not wish you had some just like?” Lying in scrumptious grandeur on a bed of black velvet was a pair of lace elbow-length evening gloves in pale moss green with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons up the sides.
“Yes,” agreed Alexia, because they were. “But you do not own an evening gown to match, do you?”
Felicity waggled her eyebrows excitedly. “Very perceptive, my dear sister, but I do now.” She grinned in a most indecorous manner.
Miss Tarabotti thought she could understand her step-father's deathly pallor. An evening gown to match such gloves would cost a small fortune, and whatever Felicity purchased, Evylin must have in equal value. Evylin proved this universal law by proudly displaying her own new evening gloves in silvery blue satin with rose-colored flowers embroidered about the edge.
Miss Hisselpenny was considerably impressed by such largesse. Her family's means did not extend into the realm of embroidered gloves and new evening gowns on a whim.
“The dresses are due next week,” said Mrs. Loontwill proudly, as though her two daughters had accomplished something marvelous. “Just in time for Almack's, we hope.” She looked down her nose at Ivy. “Will you be attending, Miss Hisselpenny?”
Alexia bridled at her mother, who was perfectly well aware that the Hisselpennys were not of a quality suitable to such an illustrious event. “And what new dress will you be wearing. Mama?” she asked sharply. “Something appropriate, or your customary style—a gown better suited to a lady half your age?”
“Alexia!” hissed Ivy, truly shocked.
Mrs. Loontwill turned flinty eyes on her eldest daughter. “Regardless of what I am wearing, it is clear you will not be there to see it.” She stood. “Nor, I think, will you be permitted to attend the duchess's rout tomorrow evening.” With that punishment, she swept from the room.
Felicity's eyes were dancing with merriment. “You are perfectly correct, of course. The gown she picked out is daringly low-cut, frilly, and pale pink.”
“But really, Alexia, you should not say such things to your own mother,” insisted Ivy.
“Who else should I say them to?” Alexia grumbled under her breath.
“Exactly, and why not?” Evylin wanted to know. “No one else will. Soon Mama's behavior will affect our chances.” She gestured to Felicity and herself. “And we do not intend to end up old maids. No offense meant, my dear sister.”
Alexia smiled. “None taken.”
Floote appeared with fresh tea, and Miss Tarabotti gestured him over. “Floote, send my card round to Auntie Augustina, would you please? For tomorrow night.”
Evylin and Felicity looked only mildly interested at this. They had no aunt named Augustina, but a meeting organized for a full-moon night with a personage of such a name must be a fortune-telling of some kind. Clearly, Alexia, unexpectedly and cruelly confined to the house by their mother's anger, must organize some kind of entertainment for herself.
Ivy was not so foolish as that. She gave Alexia a what-are-you-up-to? look.
Alexia only smiled enigmatically.
Floote nodded grimly and went off to do as he was bid.
Felicity changed the subject. “Have you heard? They are making jewelry out of this fantastic new lightweight metal—allum-ninny-um or something. It does not tarnish like silver. Of course, it is very dear at the moment, and Papa would not allow for the purchase of any.” She pouted.
Miss Tarabotti perked up. Her scientific papers had been all agog over new ways of processing this metal, discovered twenty or so years ago. “Aluminum,” she said. “I have read about it in several Royal Society publications. It has finally debuted in the London shops, has it? How splendid! You know, it is nonmagnetic, nonaetheric, and anticorrosive. “
“It is what and what?” Felicity bit her bottom lip in confusion.
“Oh dear,” said Evylin, “there she goes, no stopping her now. Oh, why did I have to have a bluestocking for a sister?”
Miss Hisselpenny stood. “Ladies,” she said, “you really must excuse me. I should be getting on.” The Miss Loontwills nodded.
“Quite right. That is how we feel when she goes all scientificish as well,” said Evylin with feeling. “Only we have to live with her, so we cannot escape,” added Felicity.
Ivy looked embarrassed. “No, really, it is simply that I must get home. My mother was expecting me a half hour ago.”
Miss Tarabotti accompanied her friend to the door. Floote appeared with the offensive shepherdess hat, all white striped, red trim, and yellow ostrich glory. Alexia disgustedly tied it under Ivy's chin.
Looking out into the street, the two ladies observed Mr. Haverbink hovering across the way. Alexia gave him a tiny wave. He nodded to them politely.
Ivy flicked open her red parasol. “You never did intend to attend the duchess's rout tomorrow night at all, did you?”
Miss Tarabotti grinned. “You have caught me out.”
“Alexia.” Ivy's voice was deeply suspicious. “Who is Auntie Augustina?”
Miss Tarabotti laughed. “I believe you once referred to the individual in question as 'outrageous' and disapproved of our association.”
Ivy closed her eyes in horror for a long moment. She had been thrown off by the gender switch, but that was simply the kind of code Alexia and her butler used around the Loontwills. “Twice in one week!” she said, shocked. “People will begin to talk. They will think you are turning into a drone.” She looked thoughtfully at her friend. A practical, statuesque, stylish woman, not the type vampires usually went in for. But then, everyone knew: Lord Akeldama was no ordinary vampire. “You are not actually taking up as a drone, are you? That is a very big decision.”
Not for the first time, Alexia wished she could tell Ivy about her true nature. It was not that she did not trust Miss Hisselpenny; it was simply that she did not trust Miss Hisselpenny's tongue not to run away with her at an inopportune moment.
In answer, she said only, “You have no idea how impossible that is, my dear. Do not worry. I will be perfectly fine. “
Miss Hisselpenny did not look reassured. She pressed her friend's hand briefly and then walked off down the street, shaking her head softly. The long curling yellow ostrich feather swished back and forth like the tail of an angry cat—the motion of her disapproval.
Only Ivy, thought Alexia, could emit censure in such a sunny and fluffy manner.
Miss Tarabotti returned to the tender mercies of her half sisters and prepared herself for an evening of familial bliss.
Miss Tarabotti was awakened in the small hours of the night by the most phenomenal ruckus. It seemed to be emanating from just below her bedroom window. She crept out of bed, throwing a white muslin pelisse over her nightgown, and went to see what was occurring.
Her window, as it belonged to one of the less prestigious rooms of the house, looked out over the servants' kitchen entrance and into a back alley where tradesmen made their deliveries.
The moon, only one night away from being full, illuminated the struggling forms of several men below her with a silvery sheen. They were apparently engaged in a bout of fisticuffs. Alexia was fascinated. They seemed evenly matched and fought mostly in silence, which lent a decided aura of menace to the proceedings. The noise that had awakened her was apparently caused by a dustbin overturning; otherwise, only the sound of flesh hitting flesh and a few muffled grunts rent the air.
Alexia saw one man strike out hard. His punch landed full in the face of one of the others. It was a palpable hit that ought to have set the second man flat. Instead, the opponent whipped around and hit back, using the momentum of his own spin. The sound of fist on skin echoed through the alleyway, an unpleasantly wet thudding.
Only a supernatural could take a hit like that and remain unfazed. Miss Tarabotti remembered Professor Lyall saying there would be vampires guarding her tonight. Was she witnessing a vampire-on-vampire battle? Despite the danger, she was excited by this idea. Rarely was such a thing to be seen, for while werewolves often brawled, vampires generally preferred subtler methods of confrontation.
She leaned out her window, trying to get a better look. One of the men broke free and headed toward her, looking up. His blank eyes met hers, and Alexia knew that he was no vampire.
She bit back a scream of horror, no longer fascinated by the battle below. It was a visage she had seen before: the wax-faced man from her botched abduction. In the light of the moon, his skin had a dull metallic sheen like pewter, so smooth and lifeless she shuddered in abject revulsion. The letters still marked his forehead, sootlike, VIXI. He saw her, pale nightgown against the darkened interior of the slumbering house, and grinned. As before, it was like no grin she had ever seen, a slashed unnatural opening full of perfect square white teeth, splitting across his head as a tomato will split when it is dropped into boiling water.
He ran toward her. A smooth three stories of brick lay between them, yet somehow Alexia knew there was no safety in that.
One of the other men broke away from the fighting group and sprinted after her attacker. Alexia doubted he would arrive in time. The wax-faced man moved with utter efficiency and economy of motion, less a man running than a water snake slithering.
But his pursuer clearly was a vampire, and as Miss Tarabotti watched, she realized she had never before seen a vampire run at full speed. He was all liquid grace, his fine Hessian boots making only a buzzlike whispering on the cobblestones.
The wax-faced man reached the Loontwills' house and began to climb up the brick side. Unhindered, spider like, he oozed up the wall. That utterly expressionless face of his remained tilted up at Alexia. It was as though he were hypnotized by her face, fixated on her and only her. VIXI. She read the letters over and over and over again. VIXI. I do not want to die, thought Alexia. I have not yet yelled at Lord Maccon for his most recent crass behavior! Thrown into a panic, she was just reaching to slam her shutters closed, knowing they were but flimsy protection from such a creature, when the vampire struck.
Her supernatural protector leaped up and forward, landing on the wax-faced man's back. He grabbed the creature's head and yanked it around, hard. Either the added weight or the yank caused the wax-faced man to let go of the brick wall. They both fell, landing with a horrendous bone-crunching crash in the alley below. Neither screamed nor spoke, even after such a fall. Their companions continued their equally silent battle behind them, without pausing to observe the tumble.
Miss Tarabotti was certain the wax-faced man must be dead. He had fallen nearly an entire story, and only supernatural folk could survive such an experience unscathed. As no werewolf or vampire would ever look the way the wax-faced man looked, he must, perforce, be some kind of normal human.
Her supposition was in error, for the wax-faced man rolled about on top of the vampire's fallen form and then sprang once more to his feet, turned, and single-mindedly headed back toward the house. And Alexia.
The vampire, hurt but not incapacitated, anticipated this move and had an iron grip with both hands on one of the wax-faced man's legs. Instead of trying to fight off the vampire, the man behaved in an entirely illogical manner. He simply kept jerking in Alexia's direction, like a child denied a treat and incapable of being distracted by anything else. He dragged the vampire behind him by slow degrees. Every time he surged toward her, Alexia flinched, even though she was high above him in her third-story room.