Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,043
07.03.2019

“I was simply sitting,” Alexia explained, placing the sandwich aside, having lost her appetite. “He launched himself at me, totally unprovoked. His feeding fangs were out. I am certain if I had been a normal daylight woman, he would have bled me dry. I simply had to defend myself.”

Professor Lyall nodded. A vampire in a state of extreme hunger had two socially acceptable options: to take sips from various willing drones belonging to him or his hive, or to pay for the privilege from blood-whores down dockside. This was the nineteenth century, after all, and one simply did not attack unannounced and uninvited! Even werewolves, who could not control themselves at full moon, made certain they had enough clavigers around to lock them away. He himself had three, and it took five to keep Lord Maccon under control.

“Do you think maybe he was forced into this state?” the professor wondered.

“You mean imprisoned until he was starving and no longer in possession of his faculties?” Lord Maccon considered the idea.

Professor Lyall flipped his glassicals back down off his hat and examined the dead man's wrists and neck myopically. “No signs of confinement or torture, but hard to tell with a vampire. Even in a low blood state, he would heal most superficial wounds in”—he grabbed Lord Maccon's metal roll and stylus, dipped the tip into the clear sizzling liquid, and did some quick calculations—“a little over one hour.” The calculations remained etched into the metal.

“And then what? Did he escape or was he intentionally let go?”

Alexia interjected, “He seemed perfectly sane to me— aside from the attacking part, of course. He was able to carry on a decent conversation. He even tried to charm me. Must have been quite a young vampire. And“—she paused dramatically, lowered her voice, and said in sepulchral tones—“he had a fang-lisp.”

Professor Lyall looked shocked and blinked largely at her through the asymmetrical lenses; among vampires, lisping was the height of vulgarity.

Miss Tarabotti continued. “It was as though he had never been trained in hive etiquette, no social class at all. He was almost a boor.” It was a word she had never thought to apply to a vampire.

Lyall took the glassicals off and put them away in their little case with an air of finality. He looked gravely at his Alpha. “You know what this means, then, my lord?”

Lord Maccon was not frowning anymore. Instead he was looking grim. Alexia felt it suited him better, setting his mouth into a straight line and touching his tawny eyes with a determined glint. She wondered idly what he would look like if he smiled a real honest smile. Then she told herself quite firmly that it was probably best not to find out.

The object of her speculations said, “It means some hive queen is intentionally biting to metamorphosis outside of BUR regulations.”

“Could it be just the once, do you think?” Professor Lyall removed a folded piece of white cloth from his waistcoat. He shook out the material, revealing it to be a large sheet of fine silk. Alexia was beginning to find the number of things he could stash in his waistcoat quite impressive.

Lord Maccon continued. “Or this could be the start of something more extensive. We'd better get back to BUR. The local hives will have to be interviewed. The queens are not going to be happy. Apart from everything else, this incident is awfully embarrassing for them.”

Miss Tarabotti agreed. “Especially if they find out about the substandard shirt selection.”

The two gentlemen wrapped the vampire's body in the silk sheet. Professor Lyall hoisted it easily over one shoulder. Even in their human form, werewolves were considerably stronger than daylight folk.

Lord Maccon rested his tawny gaze on Alexia. She was sitting primly on the chesterfield. One gloved hand rested on the ebony handle of a ridiculous-looking parasol. Her brown eyes were narrowed in consideration. He would give a hundred pounds to know what she was thinking just then. He was also certain she would tell him exactly what it was if he asked, but he refused to give her the satisfaction. Instead he issued a statement. “We'll try to keep your name out of it, Miss Tarabotti. My report will say it was simply a normal girl who got lucky and managed to escape an unwarranted attack. No need for anyone to know a preternatural was involved.”

Now it was Alexia's turn to glare. “Why do you BUR types always do that?”

Both men paused to look at her in confusion. “Do what, Miss Tarabotti?” asked the professor.

“Dismiss me as though I were a child. Do you realize I could be useful to you?”

Lord Maccon grunted. “You mean you could go around legally getting into trouble instead of just bothering us all the time?”

Alexia tried to keep from feeling hurt. “BUR employs women, and I hear you even have a preternatural on the payroll up north, for ghost control and exorcism purposes.”

Lord Maccon's caramel-colored eyes instantly narrowed. “From whom, exactly, did you hear that?”

Miss Tarabotti raised her eyebrows. As if she would ever betray the source of information told to her in confidence!

The earl understood her look perfectly. “Very well, never you mind that question.”

“I shall not,” replied Alexia primly.

Professor Lyall, still holding the body slung over one shoulder, took pity on her. “We do have both at BUR,” he admitted.

Lord Maccon elbowed him in the side, but he stepped out of range with a casual grace that bespoke much practice. “But what we do not have is any female preternaturals, and certainly not any gentlewomen. All women employed by BUR are good working-class stock.”

“You are simply still bitter about the hedgehogs,” muttered Miss Tarabotti, but she also bowed her head in acknowledgment. She'd had this conversation before, with Lord Maccon's superior at BUR, to be precise. A man her brain still referred to as that Nice Silver-Haired Gentleman. The very idea that a lady of breeding such as herself might want to work was simply too shocking. “My dearest girl,” he had said, “what if your mother found out?”

“Isn't BUR supposed to be covert? I could be covert.”

Miss Tarabotti could not help trying again. Professor Lyall, at least, liked her a little bit. Perhaps he might put in a good word.

Lord Maccon actually laughed. “You are about as covert as a sledgehammer.” Then he cursed himself silently, as she seemed suddenly forlorn. She hid it quickly, but she had definitely been saddened.

His Beta grabbed him by the arm with his free hand. “Really, sir, manners.”

The earl cleared his throat and looked contrite. “No offense meant, Miss Tarabotti.” The Scottish lilt was back in his voice.

Alexia nodded, not looking up. She plucked at one of the pansies on her parasol. “It's simply, gentlemen”—and when she raised her dark eyes they had a slight sheen in them—“I would so like something useful to do.”

Lord Maccon waited until he and the professor were out in the hallway, having bid polite, on Professor Lyall's part at least, farewells to the young lady, to ask the question that really bothered him. “For goodness' sake, Randolph, why doesn't she just get married?” His voice was full of frustration.

Randolph Lyall looked at his Alpha in genuine confusion. The earl was usually a very perceptive man, for all his bluster and Scottish grumbling. “She is a bit old, sir.”

“Balderdash,” said Lord Maccon. “She cannot possibly have more than a quarter century or so.”

“And she is very”—the professor looked for a gentlemanly way of putting it—“assertive.”

“Pah.” The nobleman waved one large paw dismissively. “Simply got a jot more backbone than most females this century. There must be plenty of discerning gentlemen who'd cop to her value.”

Professor Lyall had a well-developed sense of self-preservation and the distinct feeling that if he said anything desultory about the young lady's appearance, he might actually get his head bitten off. He, and the rest of polite society, might believe Miss Tarabotti's skin a little too dark and her nose a little too prominent, but he did not think Lord Maccon felt the same. Lyall had been Beta to the fourth Earl of Woolsey since Conall Maccon first descended upon them all. With barely twenty years gone and the bloody memory still strong, no werewolf was yet ready to question why Conall had wanted the bother of the London territory, not even Professor Lyall. The earl was a confusing man, his taste in females equally mystifying. For all Professor Lyall knew, his Alpha might actually like Roman noses, tan skin, and an assertive disposition. So instead he said, “Perhaps it's the Italian last name, sir, that keeps her unwed.”

“Mmm,” agreed Lord Maccon, “probably so.” He did not sound convinced.

The two werewolves exited the duke's town house into the black London night, one bearing the body of a dead vampire, the other, a puzzled expression.

CHAPTER TWO

An Unexpected Invitation

Miss Tarabotti generally kept her soulless state quite hush-hush, even from her own family. She was not undead, mind you; she was a living, breathing human but was simply… lacking. Neither her family nor the members of the social circles she frequented ever noticed she was missing anything. Miss Tarabotti seemed to them only a spinster, whose unfortunate condition was clearly the result of a combination of domineering personality, dark complexion, and overly strong facial features. Alexia thought it too much of a bother to go around explaining soullessness to the ill-informed masses. It was almost, though not quite, as embarrassing as having it known that her father was both Italian and dead.

The ill-informed masses included her own family among their ranks, a family that specialized in being both inconvenient and asinine.

“Would you look at this!” Felicity Loontwill waved a copy of the Morning Post at the assembled breakfast table. Her father, the Right Honorable Squire Loontwill, did not divert his concentrated attention from the consumption of an eight-minute egg and toast. But her sister, Evylin, glanced up inquiringly, and her mama said, “What is it, my dear?” pausing in midsip of her medicinal barley water.

Felicity pointed to a passage in the society section of the paper. “It says here that there was a particularly gruesome incident at the ball last night! Did you know there was an incident? I do not remember any incident!”

Alexia frowned at her own egg in annoyance. She had been under the impression Lord Maccon was going to keep everything respectfully quiet and out of the society papers. She refused to acknowledge the fact that the sheer number of people who had seen her with the dead vampire meant that any such endeavor was practically impossible. After all, the earl's purported specialty was accomplishing several impossible things before dawn.

Felicity elaborated, “Apparently someone died. No name has been released, but a genuine death, and I missed it entirely! A young lady discovered him in the library and fainted from the shock. Poor lamb, how horrific for her.”

Evylin, the youngest, clucked her tongue sympathetically and reached for the pot of gooseberry jelly. “Does it say who the young lady is?”

Felicity rubbed her nose delicately and read on. “Unfortunately, no.”

Alexia raised both eyebrows and sipped her tea in un-characteristic silence. She winced at the flavor, looked with narrowed eyes at her cup, and then reached for the creamer.

Evylin spread jelly with great attention to applying a precisely even layer over the top of the toast. “How very tiresome! I should love to know all the relevant details. It is like something out of a gothic novel. Anything else interesting?”

“Well, the article continues on with a more extensive review of the ball. Goodness, the writer even criticizes the Duchess of Snodgrove for not providing refreshments.”

“Well, really,” said Evylin in heartfelt agreement, “even Almack's has those bland little sandwiches. It is not as if the duke could not see to the expense.”

“Too true, my dear,” agreed Mrs. Loontwill.

Felicity glanced at the byline of the article. “Written by 'anonymous.' No commentary on anyone's attire. Well, I call that a pretty poor showing. He does not even mention Evylin or me.”

The Loontwill girls were quite popular in the papers, partly for their generally well-turned-out appearance and partly because of the remarkable number of beaux they had managed to garner between them. The entire family, with the exception of Alexia, enjoyed this popularity immensely and did not seem to mind if what was written was not always complimentary. So long as something was written.

Evylin looked annoyed. A small crease appeared between her perfectly arched brows. “I wore my new pea-green gown with the pink water lily trim simply so they'd write about it.”

Alexia winced. She would prefer not to be reminded of that gown—so many ruffles.

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