Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Miss Tarabotti's big dark eyes welled with tears.

Lord Maccon had never before seen her cry. It did the most remarkable thing to his own emotions. He became irrationally angry that anything might make his stalwart Alexia sad. He wanted to kill someone, and this time it was not at all tied into being a werewolf. It couldn't be, as, held tightly in her arms, he was as human as possible.

Alexia paused to take a breath, and Lord Maccon said, in an attempt to distract her from her unhappiness and himself from homicidal thoughts, “Aye, this is all very informative, but why are you here?”

“Oh, they put me in with you to check the authenticity of my abilities as a preternatural,” she answered, as though this fact were perfectly obvious. “They have your BUR files on me, the ones that were stolen, and they wanted to see if the reports were true.”

Lord Maccon looked ashamed. “Sorry about that. I still do not know how they got through my security. But what I meant was, how did you get here, to the club?”

She tried to find the least embarrassing place to rest her hands. Finally she decided the middle of his back was safest. She was seized with a most irrational desire to rub her fingertips up and down the indentation of his spine. She resisted and said, “Technically, I believe they were after Lord Akeldama, something about his being very old. Apparently this is an important factor in their experimentation. I was having dinner with him. I told you I was going to, remember? They chloroformed his entire residence and brought me along because I was with him. They only realized who I was when Mr. MacDougall came into my cell and saw me. He used my name, and the other man, he is called Siemons, remembered it from your paperwork. Oh! And you should know, they have an automaton.” She tensed at the memory of that awful waxy thing.

Lord Maccon rubbed his big hands over her back in an absentminded soothing motion. Miss Tarabotti took it as an excuse to loosen her own grasp a mite. The temptation to begin her own rubbing was almost overwhelming.

He interpreted her relaxed hold the wrong way. “No, do not let go,” he said, shifting his grip to pull her, if possible, even more intimately against his naked body. Then he answered her statement. “We had surmised that it was an automaton. Though I have never before encountered one filled with blood. It must be some newfangled construction. It may even be on a clockwork frame. I tell you, science can do amazing things these days.” He shook his head. His hair brushed against Alexia's cheek. There was an edge of admiration mingled with the disgust in his voice.

“You knew it was an automaton, and you did not tell me?” Miss Tarabotti was most disgruntled, partly because she had not been informed and partly because Lord Maccon's hair was so very silky. So was his skin, for that matter. Alexia wished she had gloves on, for she had given up and was now running her fingers in circles against his back.

“I hardly see how your knowing might have improved matters. I am certain you would have continued to engage in your customary reckless behavior,” said Lord Maccon rudely, not at all perturbed by her caress. In fact, though they were arguing, he had taken to nuzzling her neck between phrases.

“Ah-ha, I like that,” replied Alexia. “I might remind you that you, too, have now been captured. Was that not a consequence of your reckless behavior?”

Lord Maccon looked worried. “Quite the opposite, actually. It was the consequence of too predictable nonreckless behavior patterns. They knew exactly where to find me and at what time I would return home on full-moon night. They used chloroform on the whole pack. Blast them! This Hypocras Club must hold a controlling interest in a chloroform company, given the sheer amount of the chemical that they seem to have access to.” He cocked his head, listening. “From the number of howls, it sounds like they brought the entire pack in. I do hope the clavigers escaped.”

“The scientists do not seem interested in drones or clavigers,” said Miss Tarabotti reassuringly, “only fully supernatural and preternatural types. They seem to believe they must protect the commonwealth against some mysterious threat posed by yourself and others of your set. In order to do this, they are trying to understand the supernatural, to which end they have been conducting all sorts of horrendous experiments.”

Lord Maccon stopped nuzzling, lifted his head, and growled, “They are Templars?”

“Nothing so church-bound as that,” Miss Tarabotti said. “Purely scientific investigators, simply warped, so far as I can tell. And obsessed with octopuses.” She looked sad, knowing the answer before she asked the next question. “Do you think the Royal Society is involved?”

Lord Maccon shrugged.

Alexia could feel the movement all up and down her body, even through her layers of clothing.

“I rather believe they must be,” he said. “Though I suspect we would find that difficult to prove. There must have been others as well; the quality of the machinery and supplies alone would seem to indicate some considerable monetary investment on the part of several unknown benefactors. It is not entirely a surprise to us, you realize? After all, normal humans are right to suspect a supernatural agenda. We are basically immortal; our goals are likely to be a little different from those of ordinary people, sometimes even at odds. When all is said and done, daylight folk are still food.”

Alexia stopped petting him and narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion. “Am I allied with the wrong side in this little war?”

In reality, she did not have much doubt. After all, she had never heard cries of pain and torture coming from the BUR offices. Even Countess Nadasdy and her hive seemed more civilized than Mr. Siemons and his machines.

“That depends.” Lord Maccon lay passive in her arms. On full-moon night in human form, he was dependent upon her ability and her whim for his sanity. It did not sit well with an Alpha. All the choices were hers, including this one. “Have you decided which you prefer?”

“They did ask for my cooperation,” she informed him coyly. Miss Tarabotti was enjoying having the upper hand over Lord Maccon.

The earl looked worried. “And?”

Alexia had never even contemplated Mr. Siemons's offer as a real possibility. Yet Lord Maccon was looking at her as though she had actually had a choice. How could she explain to the earl that, quite apart from anything else—including their constant arguments—he had her complete loyalty? She could not—not without having to admit, to herself or him, why that might be the case.

“Let us simply say,” she said at last, “that I prefer your methods.”

Lord Maccon went perfectly still. A gleam entered his beautiful tawny eyes. “Is that so? Which ones?” Miss Tarabotti pinched him for such blatant innuendo. It did not matter where she pinched, as the earl was a bare canvas of pinchability.

“Ow!” said the Alpha, looking pained. “What was that for?”

“May I remind you we are in grave danger? I have managed to acquire for us, at most, an hour of grace time.”

“How on earth did you finagle that?” he asked, rubbing the place she had just pinched.

Alexia smiled. “Luckily, your files on me did not report everything. I simply told Mr. Siemons my preternatural powers took an hour to activate.”

“And they threw you into this cell with me anyway?” Lord Maccon was not pleased in the least by this bit of information.

“Did I not just say that I preferred your methods? Now you know why.” Alexia twitched uncomfortably. She was getting a cramp in one of her shoulders. Lord Maccon's torso was rather too large to have one's arms wrapped around for an extended period of time, especially when one was lying on a hard wooden floor. Not that she was about to complain, mind you.

Her evident discomfort made the earl ask, in all seriousness, “I did not hurt you, did I?”

Miss Tarabotti cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow at him. “I mean, when I attacked you just now, in wolf form? We werewolves do not remember much that happens during the full moon, you see. It is all embarrassingly instinctual,” he admitted.

Miss Tarabotti patted him reassuringly. “I think you realized, almost despite yourself, that it was me you nearly killed.”

“I smelled you,” he admitted gruffly. “It sparked off a whole different set of instincts. I do remember being very confused, but not much else.”

“What kind of different instincts?” Miss Tarabotti asked archly. She knew she was treading dangerous ground, but for some reason she could not resist encouraging him. She wanted to hear him say it. She wondered at what time she had become such a hardened flirt. Well, she reasoned, one must get something from one’s mother’s side of the family.

“Mmm. The reproductive variety.” The earl began to nibble her neck with wholly concentrated interest.

Miss Tarabotti's innards turned toward a feel of mashed potatoes. Fighting her own urge to nibble back, she pinched him again, harder this time.

“Ow! Stop that!” He left off nibbling and glared at her. It was a funny thing to see such an expression of wounded dignity on the face of such an enormous and highly dangerous man—even if he was naked.

Alexia said practically, “We have no time for such monkeyshines. We must determine a way out of this predicament. We have to rescue Lord Akeldama, and we absolutely must close this wretched club down. Your amorous intentions are not currently part of the agenda.”

“Is there a way they might become so, in the not-too-distant future?” Lord Maccon asked meekly, shifting against her in a manner that ensured she realized the nibbling had affected his outsides just as much as her insides. Alexia was partly shocked, partly intrigued by the idea that as he was naked, she might actually get to see what he looked like. She had seen sketches of the nude male, of course, for purely technical purposes. She was given to wonder if werewolves were anatomically bigger in certain areas. Of course, she was touching Lord Maccon, so such supernatural traits ought rightly to be canceled out, but in the interest of scientific curiosity, she shifted her lower body away from him a handbreadth and peeked downward. She was thwarted by the material of her own skirt wadded between them.

Taking her movement as withdrawal rather than curiosity, the earl pulled her back against him possessively. He slid one leg between her two, trying to shift multiple skirts and petticoats out of his way.

Miss Tarabotti sighed in long-suffering style.

He returned to nibbling and then nipping and kissing softly up and down the entire column of her throat. This was causing most distractingly invigorating frissons of sensation up and down her sides, over her ribs, and toward her nether regions. It was almost uncomfortable, as though her skin itched from underneath.

Also, due to his unclothed state. Alexia was learning ever more about the veracity of some of those sketches. Still, her father's books had not entirely done the situation justice. Lord Maccon slid one hand up into her hair.

So much for tying it back, thought Alexia as he loosed it from her hard-won ribbon. The earl tugged at the black tresses, pulling her head back so as to more fully expose her neck to his lips and teeth.

Miss Tarabotti decided that there was something excruciatingly erotic about being fully dressed with a large naked man pressed against her from breast to foot.

Since she had not been able to see for herself exactly what the earl's frontal area looked like, Alexia decided to try the next best thing and began to work her hand around to touch. She was not entirely sure this was the kind of action a young lady undertook in such situations, but then again, most young ladies did not get themselves into them to start with. In for a penny, in for a pound, she decided. Miss Tarabotti always was one to seize the moment. So she seized.

Lord Maccon, and the certain portion of his anatomy now firmly in her grasp, jerked violently.

Miss Tarabotti let go. “Oops,” she said. “Should I not have?” She trailed off, humiliated.

He hastened to reassure her. “Oh no, you most certainly should. It was simply unexpected.” He pressed up against her receptively.

Embarrassed but more curious than anything else, purely scientifically, mind you, Alexia continued her explorations, a little more tenderly this time. His skin in that area was very soft, and there was hair nested at the base. He produced the most delicious noises under her tentative touch. She became increasingly intrigued but was also getting more and more concerned with the logistics of any further proceedings.

“Um, Lord Maccon?” she said finally in a cautious whisper.

The earl laughed. “No choice at this point, Alexia; you simply must call me Conall.”

She swallowed. He could feel the movement under his lips.

“Conall, aren't we getting a tad carried away given the circumstances?”

The earl pulled her head back so he could look her directly in the eyes. “What are you blathering on about now, you impossible female?” His tawny eyes were glazed with passion, and he was breathing hard. Alexia was shocked to discover her own breathing was far from relaxed.