Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


“I know this will not please you,” she said, “but I have decided to call on Lord Akeldama this evening while my family is out. Do not worry. I will make certain your guards can follow me. I am convinced LordAkeldama's residence is extremely secure.”

The Alpha grunted. “If you must.”

“He knows things,” she tried to reassure him.

Lord Maccon could not argue with that. “He generally knows too many things, if you ask me.”

Miss Tarabotti tried to make her position clear. “He is not interested in me, as anything, well… significant”

“Why would he be?” wondered Lord Maccon. “You are a preternatural, soulless.”

Alexia winced but strode doggedly onward. “However, you are?”

A pause.

Lord Maccon looked most put upon. His caressing thumb movement stopped, but he did not withdraw his hand from hers.

Alexia wondered if she should force the issue. He was acting as though he had not given the matter much thought. Perhaps he had not: Professor Lyall said the Alpha was acting entirely on instinct. And this was full moon, a notoriously bad time for werewolves and their instincts. Was it appropriate to inquire as to his feelings on the matter of her good self at this particular time of the month? Then again, wasn't this the time when she was most likely to get an honest answer?

“I am what?” The earl was not making this easy for her.

Alexia swallowed her pride, sat up very straight, and said, “Interested in me?”

Lord Maccon was quiet for a few long minutes. He examined his emotions. While admitting that at that moment—her small hands in his, the smell of vanilla and cinnamon in the air, the neckline of that damnable dress—his mind possessed all the clarity of pea soup full of ham-hock-sized chunks of need, there was something else lurking in said soup. Whatever it was, it made him angry, for it would desperately complicate everything in his well-ordered life, and now was not the time to tackle it.

“I have spent a good deal of time and energy during the course of our association trying not to like you,” he admitted finally. It was not an answer to her question.

“And yet I find not liking you comparatively easy, especially when you say things such as that!” Miss Tarabotti replied, trying desperately to extract her hand from his odious caress.

The action backfired. Lord Maccon tugged and lifted her forward as if she weighed no more than thistle down.

Miss Tarabotti found herself sitting flush against him on the small couch. The day was suddenly as warm as she had previously implied. She was scorched from shoulder to thigh by intimate contact with his lordship's prodigious muscles. What is it, she wondered, about werewolves and muscles?

“Oh my,” said Alexia.

“I am finding,” said the earl, turning toward her and caressing her face with one hand, “it very difficult to imagine not not disliking you on a regular and intimate basis for a very long time to come.”

Miss Tarabotti smiled. The smell of open fields was all about her, that breezy scent only the earl produced.

He did not kiss her, simply touched her face, as though he were waiting for something.

“You have not apologized for your behavior,” Miss Tarabotti said, leaning into his hand with her cheek. Best not to let him get the upper hand, so to speak, in this conversation by getting her all flustered. She wondered if she dared turn her face to kiss his fingertips.

“Mmm? Apologize? For which of my many transgressions?” Lord Maccon was fascinated by the smoothness of the skin of her neck, just below her ear. He liked the old-fashioned way she had put up her hair, all caught up at the back like a governess—better access.

“You ignored me at that dinner party,” Alexia persisted. It still rankled, and Miss Tarabotti was not about to let him slide without some pretense at contrition.

Lord Maccon nodded, tracing her arched black brows with a fingertip. “Yet you spent the evening engaging in a far more interesting conversation than I and went driving the next morning with a young scientist.”

He sounded so forlorn, Alexia almost laughed. Still no apology, but this was as close as an Alpha got, she supposed. She looked him dead-on. “He finds me interesting.”

Lord Maccon looked livid at that revelation. “Of that I am perfectly well aware,” he snarled.

Miss Tarabotti sighed. She had not meant to make him angry, fun as that could be. “What am I supposed to say at this juncture? What would you, or your pack protocol, like me to say?” she asked finally.

That you want me, his baser urges thought. That there is a future, not too far away in space or time, involving you and me and a particularly large bed. He tried to grapple with such salacious visions and extract himself from their influence. Blasted full moon, he thought, almost trembling with the effort.

He managed to control himself enough so that he did not actually attack her. But with the dampening down of his needs, he was forced to deal with his emotions. There it was, like a stone in the pit of his stomach. The one feeling he did not want to acknowledge. Further than just need, or want, or any of those less-civilized instincts he could so easily blame on his werewolf nature.

Lyall had known. Lyall had not mentioned it, but he had known. How many Alphas, Lord Maccon wondered, had Professor Lyall watched fall in love?

Lord Maccon turned a very wolflike gaze on the one woman who could keep him from ever becoming a wolf again. He wondered how much of his love was tied into that—the very uniqueness of it. Preternatural and supernatural—was such a pairing even possible?

Mine, said his look.

Alexia did not understand that glance. And she did not understand the silence that came with it.

She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous. “Bitch's Dance. Is it… my move?” she asked, naming pack protocol to give herself some credence. She did not know what was required, but she wanted him to know she had come to understand some part of his behavior.

Lord Maccon, still bowled over by the revelation he had just come to, looked at her as though he had never really seen her before. He stopped caressing her face and tiredly scrubbed at his own with both hands, like a little child. “My Beta has been talking, I see.” He looked at her through his hands. “Well, Professor Lyall has assured me that I have committed a grave transgression in my handling of this situation. That Alpha you may be, but werewolf you are not. Though I will add that, appropriate or not, I have enjoyed our interactions immensely.” He looked over at the wing chair.

“Even the hedgehog?” Miss Tarabotti was not certain what was happening. Had he just admitted intentions? Were they purely physical? If so, should she pursue a liaison? No word of marriage had yet crossed his lips. Werewolves, being supernatural and mostly dead, could not have children. Or so her father's books purported. They rarely married as a result, professional experts in bedsport or clavigers being the preferred approach. Alexia contemplated her own future. She was not likely to get another opportunity such as this, and there were ways to be discreet. Or so she had read. Although, no doubt, given the earl's possessive nature, all would be revealed eventually. Reputation be damned, she thought. It is not as though I have any significant prospects to ruin. I would simply be following in my father's philandering footsteps. Perhaps Lord Maccon would stash me away in a little cottage in the countryside somewhere with my library and a nice big bed. She would miss Ivy and Lord Akeldama and, yes, she must admit, her silly family and sillier London society. Alexia puzzled. Would it be worth it?

Lord Maccon chose that moment to tilt her head back and kiss her. No gentle approach this time, but straight to that long, hot branding of lips, and teeth, and tongue.

Plastering herself against him, annoyed, as always seemed to be the case when he accosted her, with the amount of clothing between her hands and his torso. Only one possible answer to that: yes, it would be worth it.

Miss Tarabotti smiled against his lordship's insistent mouth. Bitchs Dance. She drew back and looked up into his tawny eyes. She liked the predator hunger she saw there. It spiced the delicious salty taste of his skin, that sense of risk. “Very well, Lord Maccon. If we are going to play this particular hand, would you be interested in becoming my…” Miss Tarabotti scrabbled for the right word. What does one properly call a male lover? She shrugged and grinned. “Mistress?”

“What did you say?” roared Lord Maccon, outraged.

“Uh. The wrong thing?” suggested Alexia, mystified by this sudden switch in moods. She had no more time to correct her gaffe, for Lord Maccon's yell had reached out into the hallway, and Mrs. Loontwill, whose curiosity was chomping at the proverbial bit, burst into the room.

Only to find her eldest daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.


A Problem of Werewolf Proportions

Mrs. Loontwill did what any well-prepared mother would do upon finding her unmarried daughter in the arms of a gentleman werewolf: she had very decorous, and extremely loud, hysterics.

As a result of this considerable noise, the entirety of the Loontwill household came rushing from whatever room they had formerly been occupying and into the front parlor. Naturally, they assumed someone had died or that Miss Hisselpenny had arrived in a bonnet of unmatched ugliness. Instead, they found something far less likely— Alexia and the Earl of Woolsey romantically enmeshed.

Miss Tarabotti would have moved off the couch and seated herself an appropriate distance from Lord Maccon, but he coiled one arm about her waist and would not let her shift.

She glared at him in extreme annoyance from under dark brows. “What are you doing, you horrible man? We are already in enough trouble. Mama will see us married; you see if she does not,” she hissed under her breath.

Lord Maccon said only, “Hush up now. Let me handle this.” Then he nuzzled her neck. Which naturally made Miss Tarabotti even more put out and uncomfortable.

Felicity and Evylin paused in the doorway, eyes wide, and then commenced hysterical giggling. Floote appeared at their heels and hovered in a worried but mostly invisible manner next to the hat stand.

Mrs. Loontwill continued to scream, more in surprise than in outrage. The earl and Alexia? What would this do to their social standing?

Miss Tarabotti fidgeted under the warmth of Lord Maccon's arm. Surreptitiously, she tried to pry his fingers off where they gripped her waist, just above her hipbone. His arm rested across the top of her bustle —shocking. He merely winked at her subtle struggles in apparent amusement. Winked!

I mean, thought Alexia, really!

Squire Loontwill bumbled into the front parlor with a handful of household accounts he had been in the middle of reckoning. Upon observing Alexia and the earl, he dropped the accounts and sucked his teeth sharply. He then bent to retrieve the paperwork, taking his time so as to consider his options. He ought, of course, to call the earl out. But there were intricate layers to this situation, for the earl and he could not engage in a duel, being as one was supernatural and the other not. As the challenger, Squire Loontwill would have to find a werewolf to fight the earl as his champion. No werewolf of his limited acquaintance would take on the Woolsey Castle Alpha. As far as he knew, no werewolf in London would take on such a Herculean task, not even the dewan. On the other hand, he could always ask the gentleman to do the right thing by his stepdaughter. But who would willingly take on Alexia for life? That was more of a curse than even werewolf change. No, Lord Maccon would probably have to be forced. The real question was whether the earl could be persuaded in a nonviolent manner to marry Alexia or if the best the squire could hope for was for her to become simply one of Woolsey's clavigers.

Mrs. Loontwill, naturally, complicated the issue.

“Oh, Herbert,” she said pleadingly to her silent husband, “you must make him marry her! Call for the parson immediately! Look at them… they are…,” she sputtered, “canoodling!”

“Now, now, Leticia, be reasonable. Being a claviger is not so bad in this day and age.” Squire Loontwill was thinking of the expense of Alexia's continued upkeep. This situation might turn out to be profitable for all concerned, except Alexia's reputation.

Mrs. Loontwill did not agree. “My daughter is not claviger material.”

Alexia muttered under her breath, “You have no idea how true a statement that is.”

Lord Maccon rolled his eyes heavenward.

Her mother ignored her. “She is wife material!” Mrs. Loontwill clearly had visions of drastically improved social status.

Miss Tarabotti stood up from the couch to better confront her relations. This forced the earl to release her, which upset him far more than her mother's hysterics or her stepfather's cowardice.

“I will not marry under duress, Mama. Nor will I force the earl into such bondage. Lord Maccon has not tendered me an offer, and I will not have him commit unwillingly. Don't you dare press the issue!”