Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,053
07.03.2019

“Never mind that now, Evy,” said Felicity impatiently. “The important question is, what will you wear for a wedding dress, Alexia? You look horrible in white.”

The afternoon papers reported the bulk of the news accurately enough. Miss Tarabotti and Lord Akeldama's names were left out, and the exact makeup of the experiments was omitted in favor of emphasizing their sensational grisliness and illegal nature.

The reports threw all of London into a fervor of speculation. The Royal Society scrambled to deny any association with the Hypocras Club, but BUR commenced a whirlwind of undercover operations. A good many other scientists, some with well-known names indeed, suddenly found themselves without funding, on the run, or in prison. No one ever explained the octopuses.

The Hypocras Club was shut down permanently and Its premises impounded and placed on the market. It was bought by a nice young couple from East Duddage whose success in the chamber-pot business had brought them up in the world. The Duchess of Snodgrove regarded the entire affair as a travesty designed solely to impinge on her social standing. The fact that her new neighbors, nice young couple or no, hailed from Duddage and were involved in trade sent her into a fit of hysteria so pervasive her husband removed her instantly to the country ducal estates in Berkshire for the sake of everyone's health. He sold their town house.

As far as Miss Tarabotti was concerned, the worst thing to result from the whole sordid affair was that, although both club premises and Lord Akeldama's house had been searched top to bottom, BUR never did recover her brass parasol.

“Bah,” she complained to her intended as they strolled through Hyde Park late one evening, “I did so love that parasol.”

A carriage of dowagers swept past. One or two nodded in their direction. Lord Maccon tipped his hat to them.

Society had come, albeit reluctantly, to accept the fact that one of the most eligible bachelors was going off the market by marrying a spinster nobody. One or two, witness the nods, had even come around to extending cautious overtures of friendship to Miss Tarabotti. Miss Tarabotti further improved her standing among the aristocracy as a force to be reckoned with by turning her large nose up at such sycophancy. Lady Maccon-to-be was clearly as formidable as her intended.

Lord Maccon took Miss Tarabotti's arm soothingly. “I shall have them make you a hundred such parasols, one for every dress.”

Miss Tarabotti raised her eyebrows at him. “Silver tipped, you realize?”

“Well, you will be facing down the dewan several times a week; you might need some silver. Though I do not anticipate he will give you too much trouble.”

Alexia, who had not yet had an opportunity to meet the other members of the Shadow Council and would not until after her wedding, looked at Lord Maccon curiously. “Is he really that fainthearted?”

“Nope. Simply ill-prepared.”

“For what?”

“You, my love,” the earl said, tempering the insult with an endearment.

Alexia sputtered in such a charming way that Lord Maccon simply had to kiss her, right there, in the middle of Hyde Park. Which made her sputter even more. Which made him kiss her more. It was a vicious cycle.

Of course, it was Mr. MacDougall who had taken possession of the brass parasol. The poor young man had slipped everyone's mind, including Alexia's, as soon as the Hypocras investigation was put to rest. He took the parasol back to America with him—as a sort of memento. He had been genuinely heartbroken to read the announcement of Miss Tarabotti's engagement in the Gazette. He returned to his mansion in Massachusetts and threw himself with renewed scientific vigor and a more cautious attitude into measuring the human soul. Several years later, he married a veritable battle-ax of a woman and happily allowed himself to be bossed around for the remainder of his days.

EPILOGUE

Miss Alexia Tarabotti did not wear white to her wedding. Apart from the fact that Felicity was perfectly correct in stating that it clashed something terrible with her skin tone, she figured that when one has seen one's affianced naked and covered in blood, one is no longer quite pure enough for white.

Instead, she wore ivory: a sumptuous French-made dress selected and designed with Lord Akeldama's consummate assistance. It took into account the new trend in cleaner lines and long sleeves, hugging her upper torso and showing her curves to perfection. The square neckline of the bodice was cut quite low, much to Lord Maccon's approval, but it came up high in the back and around her neck in a demi-collar, reminiscent of some exotic robe from the Rococo era. It was held closed by an exquisite opal brooch at her throat and started a fashion trend in necklines that persisted for nearly three whole weeks.

Miss Tarabotti told no one the dress's design was a last-minute alteration due entirely to the fact that, two days before the wedding, the earl got her alone in the dining room for almost an hour. As always, the bite marks she had left on him faded the moment they separated. She sighed, not unhappily. Really, the amount of attention he paid to her neck, one would think he was a vampire.

Biffy did her hair for the prestigious event. He had been loaned to Miss Tarabotti for the duration of the wedding planning. He knew a phenomenal amount about who must be invited, who should be invited, what the invitations ought to look like, which flowers to order, and so forth. As bridesmaid, Ivy Hisselpenny did her best, but the poor thing was a tad overwhelmed by the particulars. Biffy developed a dab hand at keeping Ivy well out of tasks that involved style of any kind, so that, in the end, everything looked lovely and managed not to clash. Even Ivy.

The ceremony was to take place just after sunset on a quarter-moon night so that everyone could attend. Just about everyone did: including the queen, Lord Akeldama and all his drones, and the cream of London society. Most notably absent were the vampires, who had not even bothered to politely refuse invitations but instead snubbed the couple outright. “They have good reason to object,” said Lord Akeldama.

“But not you?”

“Oh, I have good reason, too, but I trust you, little innovator. And I like change.” He left it at that, despite Alexia's pointed further inquiries.

The Westminster hive proved the exception of the mass vampire cut direct. Countess Nadasdy sent Lord Ambrose to observe the ceremony, but clearly under duress. She also sent Alexia an unexpected gift, which arrived while she was dressing the afternoon of the wedding.

“Did I not say she would get rid of me?” said Angelique with a self-deprecating smile.

Miss Tarabotti was a little overwhelmed. “You are in favor of a new position? With me?”

The violet-eyed girl shrugged in a blase French kind of way. “My master, he iz dead because of ze scientists. Lady's maid, it iz better than housemaid.”

“But what about your drone status?”

Angelique looked coy. “Zer iz always claviger, yez?”

“Very well, then, welcome,” said Miss Tarabotti. Of course, the French girl must, perforce, be a spy, but Alexia reasoned it was better to know and keep her close than force the hive into more desperate maneuvering. It did cause a twinge of worry. Why were the vampires fussing so?

Angelique began immediately to assist Biffy in finishing the last of Alexia's coiled updo, arguing mildly on the subject of a flower above the right ear.

They both protested when Alexia stood, not yet fully dressed, and waved them off.

“I must pay someone a visit,” she said imperiously. It was late afternoon: the sun had not yet set, and there was still much to do before the big event that night.

“But right now?” sputtered Biffy. “It is your wedding evening!”

“And we have only just finished ze hair!”

Miss Tarabotti could tell that these two were going to be a force to be reckoned with. But so was she. Alexia instructed them to get her dress ready and that she would be back within the hour, so not to fret. “It is not like anything can actually occur without me, is it? I have to see a friend about the sun.” She took the Loontwills' carriage without asking and went round to Lord Akeldama's gilt-edged town house. She sailed in the front door past various drones and woke Lord Akeldama from his deadlike daytime sleep with a touch.

Human, he blinked at her groggily.

“It is almost sunset,” said Miss Tarabotti with a tiny smile, her hand on his shoulder. “Come with me.”

Clad only in his sleeping robe, she took the vampire firmly by the hand and led him up through the splendor of his gilt house and out onto the rooftop into the waning light.

Alexia rested her cheek on his shoulder, and they stood silently together and watched the sun set over the city.

Lord Akeldama refrained from pointing out she would be late for her own wedding. Miss Tarabotti refrained from pointing out that he was crying. She figured it was a good way to end her career as a spinster.

Lord Akeldama also cried during the ceremony, which took place at Westminster Abby. Well, he was a bit of a weeper. So did Mrs. Loontwill. Miss Tarabotti, rather callously, figured her mama's tears were more for the loss of her butler than for the loss of her daughter. Floote had given notice and moved, along with Alexia's father's entire library, into Woolsey Castle that very morning. Both were settling in nicely.

The wedding was hailed as a masterpiece of social engineering and physical beauty. Best of all, as Alexia's bridesmaid, Miss Hisselpenny was not permitted to choose her own hat. The ceremony went unexpectedly smoothly, and in no time at all. Miss Tarabotti found herself Lady Maccon.

Afterward, everyone assembled in Hyde Park, which was admittedly unusual, but exceptions had to be made when werewolves were involved. And there certainly were a goodly number of werewolves. Not simply Lord Maccon's pack but all the loners, other packs, and clavigers within traveling distance had attended the celebration.

Luckily, there was enough meat for them all. The only aspect of wedding procedure Alexia had invested genuine involvement and time into was the food. As a result, the tables set about their corner of the park fairly groaned under their burdens. There were galantines of guinea fowl stuffed with minced tongue quivering in aspic jelly and decorated with feathers made of lemon-soaked apple peel. No fewer than eight pigeons in truffle gravy nesting in coils of pastry made their appearance and disappearance. There were stewed oysters, fried haddock fillets in anchovy sauce, and grilled sole with peach compote. Having noted Lord Maccon's fondness for poultry, the Loontwill cook provided woodcock pie, roast pheasant in butter sauce with peas and celery, and a brace of grouse. There was a baron of beef, a forequarter of mutton glazed with red wine, and lamb cutlets with fresh mint and broad beans—all offered on the rarer side. Corner dishes included lobster salad, spinach and eggs, vegetable fritters, and baked potatoes. In addition to the massive bride's cake and the piles of nutty groom's cakes for the guests to take home, there were rhubarb tarts, stewed cherries, fresh strawberries and purple grapes, gravy boats of clotted cream, and plum pudding. The food was declared an unqualified success, and many a plan was made to visit Woolsey Castle for luncheon once Alexia took over supervision of its kitchens.

Miss Hisselpenny took the entire event as an excuse to flirt with anything male and on two legs, and a few on four. This seemed perfectly acceptable, until Alexia spotted her going goggle-eyed over the repulsive Lord Ambrose. The new Lady Maccon crooked an imperious finger at Professor Lyall and sent him to salvage the situation.

Professor Lyall, muttering something about “new brides having more to concern themselves with than meddling,” did as ordered. He insinuated himself seamlessly into the conversation between Lord Ambrose and Miss Hisselpenny, and hustled Ivy away for a waltz without anyone the wiser to his militarylike intervention tactics. He then carried Ivy off to the other side of the lawn, which was serving as the dance floor, and introduced her to Lord Maccon's redheaded claviger, Tunstell.

Tunstell looked at Ivy.

Ivy looked at Tunstell.

Professor Lyall noted with satisfaction that they wore identical expressions of the stunned-donkey variety.

“Tunstell,” instructed the Beta, “ask Miss Hisselpenny if she would like to dance.”

“Would you, um, like to, um, dance, Miss Hisselpenny?” stuttered the normally loquacious young man.

“Oh,” said Ivy. “Oh yes, please.”

Professor Lyall, all forgotten, nodded to himself. Then he dashed off to deal with Lord Akeldama and Lord Ambrose who seemed to be getting into some sort of heated argument on the subject of waistcoats.

“Well, wife?” asked Alexia's new husband, whisking her about the lawn.

“Yes, husband?”

“Think we can officially escape yet?”

Alexia looked about nervously. Everyone seemed to be suddenly fleeing the dance floor, and the music was changing. “Um, I think, perhaps, not just yet.” They both stopped and looked about.

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