Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Impasse reigned. The fight in the alley beyond seemed evenly matched, and the wax-faced man could not get to Alexia so long as the vampire held on to his leg.

The sound of heavy-booted footsteps and a sharp, high-pitched whistle rent the night air. Running around the corner of the back street came two constables. Rows of protective silver and wooden straight pins decorated the front of their uniforms, gleaming in the moonlight. One of them held an Adam's cross pistol, cocked and loaded with a deadly sharp wooden stake. The other held a Colt Lupis revolver, the silver-bullet-slinger out of America—only the best from that most superstitious of countries. Upon seeing the nature of the participants, he put the Colt away and pulled out a large wooden policeman's baton stake instead.

One of the men fighting in the alley yelled something sharp and commanding in Latin. Then he and his companion ran off, presumably leaving only BUR agents behind. The wax-faced man stopped jerking toward Alexia's window. Instead, he turned on the hapless fallen vampire and lashed out at the supernatural man's face. There was a scrunch of breaking bone. Still, the vampire would not let go. The wax-faced man stepped inward, put all his weight on his trapped leg, and then shifted downward with his free foot, slamming the vampire's wrists with all his might. Alexia heard another ghastly wet crunching sound. With both wrists shattered, the vampire was forced to relax his grip. With one final, emotionless grin up at Alexia, the wax-faced man turned and raced away, battering through the two policemen as though they were not even there. The one with the cross pistol got off an excellent shot, but the wooden bullet did not even cause the wax man to stumble.

Alexia's vampire protector stood, shaky. His nose was broken, and his wrists hung limply, but when he looked up at Miss Tarabotti, his face was full of satisfaction. Alexia winced in sympathy at the blood spattered over his cheeks and chin. She knew he would heal quickly enough, especially if they could get him to fresh blood soon, but she could not help feeling empathy for his current pain, which must be acute.

A stranger, Alexia realized, a vampire, had just saved her from she knew not what unpleasantness. Saved her, a preternatural. She put her hands together and raised her fingertips to her lips, bowing forward in a silent prayer of thanks. The vampire nodded acknowledgment and then motioned her to step back inside the bedroom.

Miss Tarabotti nodded and retreated into the shadows of her sleeping chamber. “What's going on here, then, me lad?” she heard one constable ask as she closed the shutters firmly behind her.

“Attempted burglary, I believe, sir,” the vampire replied.

A sigh came from the constable. “Well, let me see your registration papers, please.” To the other vampires, “And yours as well, please, gentlemen.”

Miss Tarabotti had an understandably difficult time getting back to sleep after that, and when she finally managed it, her dreams were full of vampires with lifeless faces and shattered wrists who kept turning multiple Lord Maccons into wax statues tattooed with the word VIXI over and over again.

Miss Tarabotti's family was unexpectedly en masse and entirely in an uproar when she arose for breakfast the next morning. Usually this was the calmest time of day, with Squire Loontwill up first, Alexia second, and the remainder of the household a distant third. But, due to the excitement of the night, Miss Tarabotti was the last to awaken. She deduced she must be uncommonly late indeed, for when she went down the stairs, it was to find that her nearest and dearest were crowded in the hallway rather than the breakfast room.

Her mother came toward her, wringing her hands and looking more than usually dippy. “Fix your hair, Alexia, do, dear, do. Hurry! He has been waiting for nearly an hour. He is in the front parlor. Of course the front; nowhere else would do at all. He would not let us wake you. Lord knows why he wants to see you, but no one else will do. I hope it is not official business. You have not been up to anything, have you, Alexia?” Mrs. Loontwill left off wringing her hands to flutter them about her head like a herd of excited butterflies.

“He ate three cold roast chickens,” said Felicity in a shocked voice. “Three, at breakfast time!” She spoke as though she was not certain which to be more offended by, the quantity or the hour.

“And he still does not look happy,” added Evylin, big blue eyes even bigger and bluer than usual in awe.

“He arrived unfashionably early and did not even want to talk with Papa, and Papa was willing to visit with him.” Felicity was impressed.

Alexia peeked in the hallway mirror and patted her hair into place. Today she had dealt with the bruises on her neck by donning a teal paisley shawl over her black and silver day dress. The shawl's pattern clashed with the geometric design trimming the fold of the dress, and it covered over the flattering square neckline of the bodice, but some things could not be helped.

Seeing nothing at all wrong with her hair, except that perhaps the simple knot was a bit old-fashioned, she turned to her mother. “Please calm yourself, Mama. Who exactly is waiting in the parlor?”

Mrs. Loontwill ignored the question, hustling her eldest daughter down the hall as though she were a blue frilly sheepdog and Alexia a reluctant black sheep.

Alexia opened the door to the parlor and, when her mother and sisters would have followed her inside, shut it firmly and unceremoniously in their faces.

The Earl of Woolsey was sitting in stony silence on the sofa farthest from the window, with the carcasses of three chickens on silver platters before him.

Before she could prevent herself, Miss Tarabotti grinned at him. He simply looked so bashful, with all those chickens, like poultry skeleton sentries, standing guard before him.

“Ah,” said the earl, raising one hand as though to ward off her smile. “None of that, Miss Tarabotti. Business first.”

Miss Tarabotti would have been crestfallen, except for the “first.” She also remembered Professor Lyall's words. She was supposed to make the next move in this little dance of theirs. So, instead of taking offense, she lowered her eyelashes, filed her smile away for later, and took a seat near to him but not too near.

“Well, what brings you to call on me this morning, then, my lord? You certainly have thrown the Loontwill household into a tizzy.” She tilted her head to one side and strove for cool politeness.

“Um, aye, apologies for that.” He looked abashedly at the chicken carcasses. “Your family, they are a bit, well”—he paused, hunting for the right word and then appearing to have come up with a new one of his own— “fibberty-jibbitus, are they not?”

Alexia's dark eyes twinkled at him. “You noticed? Imagine having to live with them all the time.”

“I'd as soon not, thank you. Though it certainly speaks highly of your strength of character,” he said, smiling unexpectedly. The expression suffused his normally cross face.

Miss Tarabotti's breath caught. Until that moment, she had not actually thought of the earl as pretty. But when he smiled. Oh dear, it was most inconvenient to deal with. Particularly before breakfast. She wondered what exactly was entailed in her making a first move.

She removed her paisley shawl.

Lord Maccon, who had been about to speak, paused, arrested midthought by the low neckline of the dress. The stark silver and black coloration of the material brought out the creamy undertones of her Mediterranean skin. “That dress will make your complexion come over all tan,” Mrs. Loontwill had criticized when she ordered it. But Lord Maccon liked that. It was delightfully exotic: the contrast of that stylish dress and the foreign tones of her complexion.

“It is unseasonably warm this morning, wouldn't you say?” said Miss Tarabotti, putting her wrap to one side in a way that caused her torso to dip forward slightly.

Lord Maccon cleared his throat and managed to track down what he had been about to say. “Yesterday afternoon, while you and I were… otherwise engaged, someone broke into BUR headquarters.”

Miss Tarabotti's mouth fell open. “This cannot possibly be good. Was anyone grievously injured? Have you caught the culprits? Was anything of value stolen?”

Lord Maccon sighed. Trust Miss Tarabotti to get straight to the meat of the issue. He answered her questions in order. “Not seriously. No. And mostly rove vampire and loner wolf files. Some of the more detailed research documentation also vanished, and…” He looked upset, pursing his lips.

Miss Tarabotti was worried more by his expression than by his words. She had never seen the earl with a look of such worry on his face. “And?” she prompted, sitting forward anxiously.

“Your files.”

“Ah.” She leaned back.

“Lyall returned to the office to check on something or other, even though I had ordered him home to bed, only to find all those on duty insensate.”

“Good gracious, how?”

“Well, there was not a mark on them, but they were quite solidly asleep. He checked the office and found it ransacked and those certain records stolen. That was when he came to alert me here. I verified his information, although, by the time I arrived, everyone was awake once more.”

“Chloroform?” suggested Alexia.

The earl nodded. “That does seem to be the case. He said a lingering scent was on the air. It would have taken quite a considerable amount of it too. Few have access to such a quantity of the chemical. I have all available agents tracking major scientific and medical institutions for any recent orders for large shipments of chloroform, but my resources are always taxed at full moon.”

Alexia looked thoughtful. “There are a number of such organizations around London these days, are there not?”

Lord Maccon shifted toward her, his eyes soft caramel and affectionate. “You can see that there is further concern for your safety? Before, we could assume that they did not know exactly what you were, they thought you just an interfering daylighter. Now they know you are a preternatural, and they know it means you can neutralize the supernatural. They will want to dissect you and understand this.”

Lord Maccon hoped to impress upon Miss Tarabotti the full range of the danger. She could be very stubborn over these kinds of things. Tonight, being full moon, neither he nor his pack could keep watch over her. He trusted his other BUR agents, even the vampires, but they were not pack, and a werewolf could not help whom he trusted most. That would always be pack. But no were-wolf could guard on full moon—all the human parts of them vanished in the space of one night. In fact, he himself should not even be outside right now. He should be home safe and asleep, with his claviger handlers keeping an eye on everything. Especially, he realized, he should not be around Alexia Tarabotti, whom, like it or not, his carnal urges had taken an overly proprietary interest in. There was a reason werewolf couples were locked in the same cell together on full moon. Everyone else had to take solitary vigil in bestial form, vicious and relentless, but passion was passion and could be channeled into more pleasurable and slightly less violent pursuits, so long as the female was equally cursed and so able to survive the experience. How, he wondered, would it be to weather the moon in human form, held there by the touch of a preternatural lover? What an experience that would be. His baser instincts urged such musings on, driven by the damnable neckline of Miss Tarabotti's dress.

Lord Maccon picked up the paisley shawl and shoved it at Alexia's chest area. “Put that back on,” he ordered gruffly.

Miss Tarabotti, instead of taking offense, smiled serenely, lifted the garment from his grasp, and placed it carefully behind her and out of his reach.

She turned back and, greatly daring, took one of his large rough hands in both of hers.

“You are worried for my safety, which is sweet, but your guards were most efficacious last night. I have no doubt they will be equally competent this evening.”

He nodded. He did not withdraw his hand from her tentative touch but turned it to curl about hers. “They reported the incident to me just before dawn.”

Alexia shivered. “Do you know who he is?”

“He who?” asked the earl, sounding like a donkey. Absentmindedly, he ran his thumb over her wrist in a reassuring caress.

“The wax-faced man,” said Miss Tarabotti, eyes glazed with memory and fear.

“No. Not human, not supernatural, not preternatural,” he said. “A medical experiment gone astray, perhaps? He is filled with blood.”

She was startled. “How would you know such a thing?”

He explained. “The fight, at the carriage? When they tried to abduct you. I bit him; do you not recall?” She nodded, remembering the way the earl had only changed his head into wolf form and how he had wiped the blood from his face onto his sleeve.

One shapely male lip curled in disgust. “That meat was not fresh.”

Alexia shuddered. No, not fresh. She did not like to think of the wax man and his compatriots having her personal information. She knew Lord Maccon would do his best to see her protected. And, of course, last night had proved that these mysterious enemies knew where to find her, so nothing had fundamentally changed with the theft of the BUR papers. But now that the wax-faced man and the shadowed man with his chloroform handkerchief knew she was soulless, Miss Tarabotti felt somehow terribly exposed.