The unfortunate by-product of Mrs. Loontwill's second marriage, both Felicity and Evylin were markedly different from their older half sister. No one upon meeting the three together would have thought Alexia related to the other two at all. Aside from an obvious lack of Italian blood and completely soul-ridden states, Felicity and Evylin were both quite beautiful: pale insipid blondes with wide blue eyes and small rosebud mouths. Sadly, like their dear mama, they were not much more substantive than “quite beautiful.” Breakfast conversation was, therefore, not destined to be of the intellectual caliber that Alexia aspired to. Still, Alexia was pleased to hear the subject turn toward something more mundane than murder.
“Well, that's all it says about the ball.” Felicity paused, switching her attention to the society announcements. “This is very interesting. That nice tearoom near Bond Street has decided to remain open until two am to accommodate and cultivate supernatural clientele. Next thing you know, they will be serving up raw meat and flutes of blood on a regular basis. Do you think we should still frequent the venue, Mama?”
Mrs. Loontwill looked up once more from her barley and lemon water. “I do not see how it can do too much harm, my dear.”
Squire Loontwill added, swallowing a bite of toast, “Some of the better investors run with the nighttime crowd, my pearl. You could do worse when hunting down suitors for the girls.”
“Really, Daddy,” admonished Evylin, “you make Mama sound like a werewolf on the rampage.”
Mrs. Loontwill gave her husband a suspicious glance. “You haven't been frequenting Claret's or Sangria these last few evenings, have you?” She sounded as though she suspected London of being suddenly overrun with were-wolves, ghosts, and vampires, and her husband fraternizing with them all.
The squire hurriedly backed away from the conversation. “Of course not, my pearl, only Boodles. You know I prefer my own club to those of the supernatural set.”
“Speaking of gentlemen's clubs,” interrupted Felicity, still immersed in the paper, “a new one opened last week in Mayfair. It caters to intellectuals, philosophers, scientists, and their ilk—of all things. It calls itself the Hypocras Club. How absurd. Why would such a class of individual need a club? Isn't that what they have public museums for?” She frowned over the address. “Terribly fashionable location, though.” She showed the printed page to her mother. “Isn't that next door to the Duke of Snodgrove's town house?”
Mrs. Loontwill nodded. “Quite right, my dear. Well, a parcel of scientists coming and going at all hours of the day and night will certainly lower the tenor of that neighborhood. I should think the duchess would be in a veritable fit over this occurrence. I had intended to send round a thank-you card for last night's festivities. Now I think I might pay her a call in person this afternoon. As a concerned friend, I really ought to check on her emotional state.”
“How ghastly for her,” said Alexia, driven beyond endurance into comment. “People actually thinking, with their brains, and right next door. Oh, the travesty of it all.”
Evylin said, “I will come with you, Mama.”
Mrs. Loontwill smiled at her youngest daughter and completely ignored her eldest.
Felicity read on. “The latest spring styles from Paris call for wide belts in contrasting colors. How regrettable. Of course, they will look lovely on you, Evylin, but on my figure…”
Unfortunately, despite invading scientists, the opportunity to gloat over a friend's misfortune, and imminent belts, Alexia's mama was still thinking about the dead man at the Snodgroves' ball. “You disappeared for quite a while at one point last night, Alexia. You would not be keeping anything important from us, would you, my dear?”
Alexia gave her a carefully bland look. “I did have a bit of a run-in with Lord Maccon.” Always throw them off the scent, she thought.
That captured everyone's attention, even her step-father's. Squire Loontwill rarely troubled himself to speak at length. With the Loontwill ladies, there was not much of a chance to get a word in, so he tended to let the breakfast conversation flow over him like water over tea leaves, paying only half a mind to the proceedings. But he was a man of reasonable sense and propriety, and Alexia's statement caused him to become suddenly alert. The Earl of Woolsey might be a werewolf, but he was in possession of considerable wealth and influence.
Mrs. Loontwill paled and noticeably mollified her tone. “You did not say anything disrespectful to the earl, now, did you, my dear?”
Alexia thought back over her encounter. “Not as such.”
Mrs. Loontwill pushed away her glass of barley water and shakily poured herself a cup of tea. “Oh dear,” she said softly.
Mrs. Loontwill had never quite managed to figure out her eldest daughter. She had thought that putting Alexia on the shelf would keep the exasperating girl out of trouble. Instead, she had inadvertently managed to give Alexia an ever-increasing degree of freedom. Thinking back on it, she really ought to have married Alexia off instead. Now they were all stuck with her outrageous behavior, which seemed to be progressively worsening as she got older.
Alexia added peevishly, “I did wake up this morning thinking of all the rude things I could have said but did not. I call that most aggravating.”
Squire Loontwill emitted a long drawn-out sigh.
Alexia firmly put her hand on the table. “In fact, I think I shall go for a walk in the park this morning. My nerves are not quite what they should be after the encounter.” She was not, as one might suppose, obliquely referring to the vampire attack. Miss Tarabotti was not one of life's milk-water misses—in fact, quite the opposite. Many a gentleman had likened his first meeting with her to downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice—that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a
distinct burning sensation. No, Alexia's nerves were frazzled because she was still boiling mad at the Earl of Woolsey. She had been mad when he left her in the library. She had spent a restless night fuming impotently and awoken with eyes gritty and noble feelings still on edge.
Evylin said, “But wait. What happened? Alexia, you must tell all! Why did you encounter Lord Maccon at the ball when we did not? He was not on the guest list. I would have known. I peeked over the footman's shoulder.”
“Evy, you didn't,” gasped Felicity, genuinely shocked.
Alexia ignored them and left the breakfast room to hunt down her favorite shawl. Mrs. Loontwill might have tried to stop her, but she knew such an attempt would be useless. Getting information out of Alexia when she did not want to share was akin to trying to squeeze blood from a ghost. Instead, Mrs. Loontwill reached for her husband's hand and squeezed it consolingly. “Do not worry, Herbert. I think Lord Maccon rather likes Alexia's rudeness. He's never publicly cut her for it, at least. We can be grateful for small mercies.”
Squire Loontwill nodded. “I suppose a werewolf of his advanced age might find it refreshing?” he suggested hopefully.
His wife applauded such an optimistic attitude with an affectionate pat on the shoulder. She knew how very trying her second husband found her eldest daughter. Really, what had she been thinking, marrying an Italian? Well, she had been young and Alessandro Tarabotti so very handsome. But there was something else about Alexia, something… revoltingly independent, that Mrs. Loontwill could not blame entirely on her first husband. And, of course, she refused to take the blame herself. Whatever it was, Alexia had been born that way, full of logic and reason and sharp words. Not for the first time, Mrs. Loontwill lamented the fact that her eldest had not been a male child; it would have made life very much easier for them all.
Under ordinary circumstances, walks in Hyde Park were the kind of thing a single young lady of good breeding was not supposed to do without her mama and possibly an elderly female relation or two in attendance. Miss Tarabotti felt such rules did not entirely apply to her, as she was a spinster. Had been a spinster for as long as she could remember. In her more acerbic moments, she felt she had been born a spinster. Mrs. Loontwill had not even bothered with the expenditure of a come-out or a proper season for her eldest daughter. “Really, darling,” Alexia's mother had said at the time in tones of the deepest condescension, “with that nose and that skin, there is simply no point in us going to the expense. I have got your sisters to think of.” So Alexia, whose nose really wasn't that big and whose skin really wasn't that tan, had gone on the shelf at fifteen. Not that she had ever actually coveted the burden of a husband, but it would have been nice to know she could get one if she ever changed her mind. Alexia did enjoy dancing, so
she would have liked to attend at least one ball as an available young lady rather than always ending up skulking in libraries. These days she attended balls as nothing more than her sisters' chaperone, and the libraries abounded. But spinsterhood did mean she could go for a walk in Hyde Park without her mama, and only the worst sticklers would object. Luckily, such sticklers, like the contributors to the Morning Post, did not know Miss Alexia Tarabotti's name.
However, with Lord Maccon's harsh remonstrations still ringing in her ears, Alexia did not feel she could go for a walk completely unchaperoned, even though it was midmorning and the antisupernatural sun shone quite brilliantly. So she took her trusty brass parasol, for the sake of the sun, and Miss Ivy Hisselpenny, for the sake of Lord Maccon's easily offended sensibilities.
Miss Ivy Hisselpenny was a dear friend of Miss Alexia Tarabotti's. They had known each other long enough to trespass on all the well-fortified territory of familiarity.
So when Alexia sent round to see if Ivy wanted a walk, Ivy was very well aware of the fact that a walk was only the surface gloss to the proceedings.
Ivy Hisselpenny was the unfortunate victim of circumstances that dictated she be only-just-pretty, only-just-wealthy, and possessed of a terrible propensity for wearing extremely silly hats. This last being the facet of Ivy's character that Alexia found most difficult to bear. In general, however, she found Ivy a restful, congenial, and, most importantly, a willing partner in any excursion.
In Alexia, Ivy had found a lady of understanding and intelligence, sometimes overly blunt for her own delicate sensibilities, but loyal and kind under even the most trying of circumstances.
Ivy had learned to find Alexia's bluntness entertaining, and Alexia had learned one did not always have to look at one's friend's hats. Thus, each having discovered a means to overlook the most tiresome aspects of the other's personality early on in their relationship, the two girls developed a fixed friendship to the mutual benefit of both. Their Hyde Park conversation reflected their typical mode of communication.
“Ivy, my dear,” said Miss Tarabotti as her friend bustled up, “how marvelous of you to find time to walk at such short notice! What a hideous bonnet. I do hope you did not pay too much for it.”
“Alexia! How perfectly horrid of you to criticize my hat. Why should I not be able to walk this morning? You know I never have anything better to do on Thursdays. Thursdays are so tiresome, don't you find?” replied Miss Hisselpenny.
Miss Tarabotti said, “Really, I wish you would take me with you when you go shopping, Ivy. Much horror might be avoided. Why should Thursday be any different than any other weekday?”
And so on.
The day was quite a fine one, and the two ladies walked arm in arm, their full skirts swishing and the smaller, more manageable bustle, just come into fashion last season, making it comparatively easy to move around. Rumor had it that in France, certain ladies had dispensed with the bustle altogether, but that scandalous mod had yet to reach London. Ivy's and Alexia's parasols were raised against the sun, though, as Alexia was fond of saying, such an effort was wasted on her complexion. Why, oh why, did vampire-style paleness have to rule so thoroughly the fashionable world? They strolled along, presenting a fetching picture: Ivy in cream muslin with rose flowers, and Alexia in her favorite blue walking gown with velvet edging. Both outfits were trimmed with those many rows of lace, deep pleated flounces, and tucks to which only the most stylish aspired. If Miss Hisselpenny sported a slight overabundance of the above, it must be understood it was the result of too much effort rather than too little.
Partly due to the pleasant weather and partly due to the latest craze for elaborate walking dresses, Hyde Park was decidedly crowded. Many a gentleman tipped his hat in their general direction, annoying Alexia with constant interruptions and flattering Ivy with such marked attentions.
“Really,” grumbled Miss Tarabotti, “what has possessed everyone this morning? One would think we were actually tempting marriage prospects.”
“Alexia! You may see yourself as off the market,” remonstrated her friend, smiling shyly at a respectable-looking gentleman on a handsome bay gelding, “but I refuse to accept such an injurious fate.”