Mrs. Loontwill was no longer hysterical. There was instead a steel-edged gleam in her pale blue eyes. A gleam that made Lord Maccon wonder which side Alexia had gotten her flinty personality from. Until that moment, he had blamed the deceased Italian father. Now he was not so certain.
Mrs. Loontwill said, voice high-pitched and abrasive, “You brazen hussy! Such sentiments should have prevented you from allowing him such liberties in the first place.”
Alexia was belligerent. “Nothing of significance has occurred. My honor is still intact.”
Mrs. Loontwill stepped forward and slapped her eldest daughter smartly across the face. The cracking sound echoed like a pistol shot through the room. “You are in no position to argue this point, young lady!”
Felicity and Evylin gasped in unison and stopped giggling. Floote made an involuntary movement from his statuelike state near the door.
Lord Maccon, faster than anyone's eye could catch, suddenly appeared next to Mrs. Loontwill, a steel grip about her wrist. “I would not do that again, if I were you, madam,” he said. His voice was soft and low and his expression bland. But there was a kind of anger in the air that was all predator: cold, impartial, and deadly. The anger that wanted to bite and had the teeth to back it up. This was a side of Lord Maccon that no one had seen before—not even Miss Tarabotti.
Squire Loontwill had the distinct impression that, regardless of his decision, Alexia was now no longer his responsibility. He also had the impression that his wife was actually in danger of her life. The earl looked both angry and hungry, and canines were inching down over his bottom lip.
Miss Tarabotti touched her hot cheek thoughtfully, wondering if she would have a handprint. She glared at the earl. “Let my mother go immediately, Lord Maccon.”
The earl looked at her, not really seeing her. His eyes were entirely yellow, not simply the colored part either but the whites as well, just like a wolf. Miss Tarabotti thought werewolves could not change during daylight, but perhaps this close to full moon anything was possible. Or perhaps it was another one of those Alpha abilities.
She stepped forward and forcibly placed herself between Lord Maccon and her mother. He wanted an Alpha female, did he? Well, she would give him Alpha in spades.
“Mama, I will not marry the earl against his will. Should you or Squire Loontwill attempt to coerce me, I will simply not submit to the ceremony. You will be left looking like fools among family and friends, and me silent at the altar.”
Lord Maccon looked down at her. “Why? What is wrong with me?”
This shocked Mrs. Loontwill into speaking again. “You mean you are willing to marry Alexia?” Lord Maccon looked at her like she had gone insane. “Of course I am.”
“Let us be perfectly clear here,” said Squire Loontwill. “You are willing to marry our Alexia, even though she is… well…,” he floundered.
Felicity came to his rescue. “Old.”
Evylin added, “And plain.”
“And tan,” said Felicity.
The squire continued. “And so extraordinarily assertive.”
Miss Tarabotti was nodding agreement. “My point exactly! He cannot possibly want to marry me. I will not have him forced into such an arrangement merely because he is a gentleman and feels he ought. It is simply that it is near to full moon, and things have gotten out of hand. Or”— she frowned—“should I say too much in hand?”
Lord Maccon glanced about at Alexia's family. No wonder she devalued herself, growing up in this kind of environment.
He looked at Felicity. “What would I possibly want with a silly chit just out of the schoolroom?” At Evylin. “Perhaps our ideas on beauty do not ally with one another. I find your sister's appearance quite pleasing.” He carefully did not mention her figure, or her smell, or the silkiness of her hair, or any of the other things he found so alluring. “After all, it is I who would have to live with her.”
The more Lord Maccon considered it, the more he grew to like the idea. Certainly his imagination was full of pictures of what he and Alexia might do together once he got her home in a properly wedded state, but now those lusty images were mixing with others: waking up next to her, seeing her across the dining table, discussing science and politics, having her advice on points of pack controversy and BUR difficulties. No doubt she would be useful in verbal frays and social machinations, as long as she was on his side. But that, too, would be part of the pleasure of marrying such a woman. One never knew where one stood with Alexia. A union full of surprise and excitement was more than most could hope for. Lord Maccon had never been one to seek out the quiet life.
He said to the squire, “Miss Tarabotti's personality is a large measure of her appeal. Can you see me with some frippery young thing whom I could push around at any opportunity and cow into accepting all my decisions?”
Lord Maccon was not explaining himself for Alexia's family's benefit but for hers. Although, he certainly did not want the Loontwills to think they were forcing him into anything! He was Alpha enough for that. This whole marriage thing was his idea, curse it. No matter that it had only just occurred to him.
Squire Loontwill said nothing in response to that. Because he had, in fact, assumed the earl would want just such a wife. What man would not?
Lord Maccon and the squire were clearly birds of entirely different feathers. “Not with my work and position. I need someone strong, who will back me up, at least most of the time, and who possesses the necessary gumption to stand up to me when she thinks I am wrong.”
“Which,” interrupted Alexia, “she does at this very moment. You are not convincing anyone, Lord Maccon. Least of all me.”
She held up her hand when he would have protested. “We have been caught in a compromising position, and you are trying to do the best by me.” She stubbornly refused to believe his interest and intentions were genuine. Before her family had interrupted them, and during all previous encounters, no mention of marriage had ever passed his lips. Nor, she thought sadly, had the word love. “I do appreciate your integrity, but I will not have you coerced. Nor will I be manipulated into a loveless union based entirely on salacious urges.” She looked into his yellow eyes. “Please understand my position.”
As though her family were not watching, he touched the side of her face, stroking the cheek her mother had hit. “I understand that you have been taught for far too long that you are unworthy.”
Miss Tarabotti felt inexplicably like crying. She turned her face away from his caress.
He let his arm drop. Clearly, the damage done could not be mended with a few words from him in the space of one disastrous morning.
“Mama,” she said, gesturing expansively, “I will not have you manipulating this situation. No one need know what has occurred in this room. So long as you all hold your collective tongues for once.” She glared at her sisters. “My reputation will remain intact, and Lord Maccon will remain a free man. And now I have a headache; please excuse me.”
With that, she gathered what was left of her dignity and swept from the room. She retreated upstairs to the sanctity of her own boudoir to indulge in a most uncharacteristic but blessedly short-lived bout of tears. The only one who caught her at it was Floote, who placed a sympathetic tea tray on her bedside table, including some of Cook's extra-special apricot puffs, and issued orders with the household staff that she was not to be disturbed.
Lord Maccon was left in the bosom of her family.
“I believe, for the moment, we ought to do as she says,” he said to them.
Mrs. Loontwill looked stubborn and militant.
Lord Maccon glared at her. “Do not interfere, Mrs. Loontwill. Knowing Alexia, your approbation is likely to turn her more surely against me than anything else possibly could.”
Mrs. Loontwill looked like she would like to take offense, but given this was the Earl of Woolsey, she resisted the inclination.
Then Lord Maccon turned to Squire Loontwill. “Understand, my good sir, that my intentions are honorable. It is the lady who resists, but she must be allowed to make up her own mind. I, too, will not have her coerced. Both of you, stay out of this.” He paused in the doorway, donning his hat and coat and baring his teeth at the Loontwill girls. “And, you two, keep quiet. Your sister's reputation is at stake, and never doubt that it drastically impacts your own. I am not one to be trifled with in this matter. I bid you good day.” With that, he left the room.
“Well, I never,” said Mrs. Loontwill, sitting down heavily on the couch. “I am not sure I want that man for a son-in-law.”
“He is very powerful, my dear, no doubt, and a man of considerable means,” said Squire Loontwill, attempting to establish a silver lining of some kind.
“But so rude!” persisted his wife. “And all that, after eating three of our best chickens!” She gestured limply at the carcasses in question, a blatant reminder that, whatever it was that had just occurred, she had clearly emerged the loser. The chickens were beginning to attract flies. She pulled the bell rope for Floote to come and clear them away, peeved with the butler for not disposing of them sooner.
“Well, I shall tell you one thing. Alexia is definitely not attending the duchess's rout tonight. Even if I had not already forbidden her, today's behavior would have sealed it. Full-moon celebration or not, she can stay at home and think long and hard on her many transgressions!”
Mr. Loontwill patted his wife's hand sympathetically. “Of course, my dear.”
There was no “of course” about it. Miss Tarabotti, knowing her family's propensity for the dramatic, followed suit by keeping to her room most of the day and refusing to leave it even to see them depart that evening. Appreciating the tragedy of it all, her two sisters made sympathetic cluck-clucking noises outside her closed door and promised to bring back all the latest gossip. She would have been more reassured if they had promised not to engage in any gossip of their own. Mrs. Loontwill refused to speak to her, an occurrence that did not tax Alexia in the slightest. Eventually the house fell silent. She breathed a prodigious sigh of relief. Sometimes her family could really be very trying.
She stuck her head out of her bedroom door and called, “Floote?”
The butler appeared on cue. “Miss?”
“Hail a cab, please, Floote. I am going out.”
“Are you certain that is wise, miss?”
“To be wise, one might never leave one's room at all,” quoted Miss Tarabotti.
Floote gave her a skeptical look but went downstairs as bidden to flag down a hackney.
Miss Tarabotti summoned her maid and went about changing into one of her more serviceable evening gowns. It was an ivory taffeta affair with small puffed sleeves, a modest scooped neckline, and trimmed out with raspberry pin-tucked ribbon and pale gold lace edging. True, it was two seasons old and probably should have been made over before now, but it was comfortable and wore well. Alexia thought of the dress as an old friend, and knowing she looked passably well in it, tended to don it in times of stress. Lord Akeldama expected grandeur, but Miss Tarabotti simply hadn't the emotional energy for her russet silk fancy, not tonight. She curled her hair over her still-marked shoulder, coiling part of it up with her two favorite hair pins, one of silver and one of wood. She braided the rest loosely with ivory ribbon. It contrasted becomingly with her dark tresses.
By the time she was ready, it was dark outside her window. All of London nested safely in those few hours after sunrise, before the moon climbed into the sky. It was a moment supernatural folk called twinight: just enough time to get werewolves under lock and key before the moon herself appeared and drove them to become mad unstoppable monsters.
Floote gave Miss Tarabotti one more long warning glance as he handed her up the steps of the cab. He did not approve of her going out on such a night. He was certain she would get into mischief. Of course, Floote tended to be under the impression that the young miss was up to no good whenever she was out of his sight. But on full moon in particular, no possible benefit could come of it.
Miss Tarabotti frowned, knowing exactly what the butler was thinking, despite his face remaining perfectly impassive. Then she smiled slightly. She must admit, he was probably correct in his opinion.
“Be careful, miss,” Floote instructed severely but without much hope. He had, after all, been butler to her father before her, and just look what happened to Alessandro. Prone to willful and problematic lives, the Tarabottis.
“Oh, Floote, do stop mothering. It is most unbecoming in a man of your age and profession. I will only be gone a few hours, and I will be perfectly safe. Look.” She pointed behind Floote to the side of the house, where two figures appeared out of the night shadows like bats. They moved with supernatural grace coming to stand several feet from Alexia's hackney, obviously prepared to follow it.