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AGE OF IRON by Angus Watson

AGE OF IRON Angus Watson

Bloodthirsty druids and battle-hardened Iron Age warriors collide in the first volume of this action-packed historical fantasy trilogy.
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SYMBIONTMira Grant

The second terrifying novel in the Parasitology series by New York Times bestselling author Mira Grant!
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CHANGELESS by Gail Carriger – Extract

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet read SOULLESS by Gail Carriger be warned, there are spoilers below! To read chapter one of SOULLESS click here.

Chapter One

Wherein Things Disappear, Alexia Gets Testy Over Tents, and Ivy Has an Announcement

They are what?”

Lord Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, was yelling. Loudly. This was to be expected from Lord Maccon, who was generally a loud sort of gentleman—the ear-bleeding combination of lung capacity and a large barrel chest.

Alexia Maccon, Lady Woolsey, muhjah to the queen, Britain’s secret preternatural weapon extraordinaire, blinked awake from a deep and delicious sleep.

“Wasn’t me,” she immediately said, without having the barest hint of an idea as to what her husband was carrying on about. Of course, it usually was her, but it would not do to fess up right away, regardless of whatever it was that had his britches in a bunch this time. Alexia screwed her eyes shut and squirmed farther into the warmth of down-stuffed blankets. Couldn’t they argue about it later?

“What do you mean gone ?” The bed shook slightly with the sheer volume behind Lord Maccon’s yell. The amazing thing was that he wasn’t nearly as loud as he could be when he really put his lungs into it.

“Well, I certainly did not tell them to go,” denied Alexia into her pillow. She wondered who “they” were. Then she came about to the realization, taking a fluffy-cottony sort of pathway to get there, that he wasn’t yelling at her but at someone else. In their bedroom.

Oh dear.

Unless he was yelling at himself.

Oh dear .

“What, all of them?”

Alexia’s scientific side wondered idly at the power of sound waves—hadn’t she heard of a recent Royal Society pamphlet on the subject?

“All at once?”

Lady Maccon sighed, rolled toward the hollering, and cracked one eyelid. Her husband’s large naked back filled her field of vision. To see any more, she’d have to lever herself upright. Since that would probably expose her to more cold air, she declined to lever. She did, however, observe that the sun was barely down. What was Conall doing awake and aloud so freakishly early? For, while her husband roaring was not uncommon, its occurrence in the wee hours of late afternoon was. Inhuman decency dictated that even Woolsey Castle’s Alpha werewolf remain quiet at this time of day.

“How wide of a radius, exactly? It canna have extended this far.”

Oh dear, his Scottish accent had put in an appearance. That never bode well for anyone.

“All over London? No? Just the entire Thames embankment and city center. That is simply not possible.”

This time Lady Maccon managed to discern a mild murmuring response to her husband’s latest holler. Well, she consoled herself, at least he hadn’t gone entirely potty. But who would dare attempt to rustle up Lord Maccon in his private quarters at such an abysmal hour? She tried once more to see over his back. Why did he have to be so substantial?

She levered.

Alexia Maccon was known as a lady of regal bearing and not much more. Society generally considered her looks too swarthy to give much credence despite her rank. Alexia, herself, had always believed good posture was her last best hope and was proud to have acquired the “regal bearing” epithet. This morning, however, blankets and pillows thwarted her; she could only flounder gracelessly up to her elbows, her backbone as limp as a noodle.

All that her Herculean effort revealed was a hint of wispy silver and a vaguely human form: Formerly Merriway.

“Mummer murmur,” said Formerly Merriway, straining for full apparition in the not-quite darkness. She was a polite ghost, relatively young and well preserved, and still entirely sane.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Lord Maccon seemed to be getting only more irritated. Lady Maccon knew that particular tone of voice well—it was usually directed at her. “But there is nothing on this Earth that can do that.”

Formerly Merriway said something else.

“Well, have they consulted all the daylight agents?”

Alexia strained to hear. Already gifted with a low, sweet voice, the ghost was difficult to understand when she intentionally dampened her tone. Formerly Merriway might have said, “Yes, and they have no idea either.”

The ghost seemed frightened, which caused Alexia more concern than Lord Maccon’s irritation (which was sadly frequent). Little could frighten the already dead, with the possible exception of a preternatural. And even Alexia, soulless, was only dangerous under very specific circumstances.

“What, no idea at all? Right.” The earl tossed his blankets aside and climbed out of bed.

Formerly Merriway gasped and shimmered about, presenting her transparent back to the completely naked man.

Alexia appreciated the courtesy, even if Lord Maccon did not. Polite to the core was poor little Merriway. Or what was left of her core. Lady Maccon, on the other hand, was not so reticent. Her husband had a decidedly fine backside, if she did say so herself. And she had said so, to her scandalized friend Miss Ivy Hisselpenny, on more than one occasion. It may be far too early to be awake, but it was never too early to admire something of that caliber. The artistically pleasing body part drifted out of view as her husband strode toward his dressing chamber.

“Where is Lyall?” he barked.

Lady Maccon tried to go back to sleep.

“What! Lyall’s gone too? Is everyone going to disappear on me? No, I did not send him….” A pause. “Oh yes, you are perfectly correct, I did. The pack was”— blub blub blub —“coming in at”— blub, blub —“station.” Splash. “Shouldn’t he have returned by now?”

Her husband was obviously washing, as periodically his bellowing was interrupted by soggy noises. Alexia strained to hear Tunstell’s voice. Without his valet, her louder half was bound to look quite disastrously disheveled. It was never a good idea to let the earl dress unsupervised.

“Right, well, send a claviger for him posthaste.”

At which point, Formerly Merriway’s spectral form vanished from view.

Conall reappeared in Alexia’s line of sight and gathered up his gold pocket watch from the bedside table. “Of course, they will take it as an insult, but nothing to be done about it.”

Ha, she had been right. He was, in fact, not dressed at all but was wearing only a cloak. No Tunstell then.

The earl seemed to remember his wife for the first time.

Alexia counterfeited sleep.

Conall shook Alexia gently, admiring both the tousled mound of inky hair and the artfully feigned disinterest. When his shaking became insistent, she blinked long lashes at him.

“Ah, good evening, my dear.”

Alexia glared at her husband out of slightly red-rimmed brown eyes. This early evening tomfoolery wouldn’t be so horrible if he had not kept her up half the day. Not that those particular exertions had been unpleasant, simply exuberant and lengthy.

“What are you about, husband?” she inquired, her voice laced buttery-smooth with suspicion.

“All apologies, my dear.”

Lady Maccon absolutely hated it when her husband called her his “dear.” It meant he was up to something but was not going to tell her about it.

“I must run off to the office early tonight. Some important BUR business has cropped up.” From the cloak and the fact that his canines were showing, Alexia surmised that he literally meant run, in wolf form. Whatever was going on must need urgent attention, indeed. Lord Maccon usually preferred to arrive at BUR in carriage, comfort, and style, not fur.

“Has it?” muttered Alexia.

The earl began to tuck the blankets about his wife. His large hands were unexpectedly gentle. Touching his preternatural spouse, his canines disappeared. In that brief moment, he was mortal.

“Are you meeting with the Shadow Council tonight?” he asked.

Alexia considered. Was it Thursday? “Yes.”

“You are in for an interesting conference,” advised the earl, goading her.

Alexia sat up, undoing all of his nice tucking. “What? Why?” The blankets fell, revealing that Lady Maccon’s endowments were considerable and not fabricated through fashionable artifice such as stuffed corset or too-tight stays. Despite nightly familiarity with this fact, Lord Maccon was prone to dragging her onto secluded balconies at balls in order to check and “make certain” this remained the case.

“I am sorry for waking you so early, my dear.” There was that dreaded phrase again. “I promise I shall make it up to you in the morning.” He waggled his eyebrows at her lasciviously and leaned down for a long and thorough kiss.

Lady Maccon sputtered and pushed at his large chest ineffectually.

“Conall, what is going on?”

But her irritating werewolf of a husband was already away and out of the room.

“Pack!” His holler resounded through the hallway. At least this time he had made a pretense of seeing to her comfort by shutting the door first.

Alexia and Conall Maccon’s bedroom took up the whole of one of the highest towers Woolsey had to offer, which, admittedly, was more of a dignified pimple off the top of one wall. Despite this comparative isolation, the earl’s bellow could be heard throughout most of the massive building, even down to the back parlor, where his clavigers were taking their tea.

The Woolsey clavigers worked hard about their various duties during the day, looking after slumbering werewolf charges and taking care of daylight pack business. For most, tea was a brief and necessary respite before they were called to their other nonpack work. As packs tended to favor boldly creative companions, and Woolsey was close to London, more than a few of its clavigers were actively engaged in West End theatricals. Despite the lure of Aldershot pudding, Madeira cake, and gunpowder black tea, their lord’s yodel had them up and moving as fast as could be desired.

The entire house suddenly became a hubbub of activity: carriages and men on horseback came and went, clattering on the stone cobbles of the forecourt; doors slammed; voices called back and forth. It sounded like the dirigible disembarkation green in Hyde Park.

Emitting that heaviest of sighs that denotes the gravely put-upon, Alexia Maccon rolled herself out of bed and picked up her nightgown from where it lay, a puddle of frills and lace, on the stone floor. It was one of her husband’s wedding gifts to her. Or more probably gifts to him , as it was made of a soft French silk and had scandalously few pleats. It was quite fashion-forward and daringly French, and Alexia rather liked it. Conall rather liked taking it off her. Which was how it had ended up on the floor. They had negotiated a temporal relationship with the nightgown; most of the time, she was able to wear it only out of the bed. He could be very persuasive when he put his mind, and other parts of his anatomy, to it. Lady Maccon figured she would have to get used to sleeping in the altogether. Although there was that niggling worry that the house might catch fire and cause her to dash about starkers in full view of all. The worry was receding slowly, for she lived with a pack of werewolves and was acclimatizing to their constant nudity—by necessity if not preference. There was, currently, far more hairy masculinity in her life than any Englishwoman should really have to put up with on a monthly basis. That said, half the pack was away fighting in northern India; someday there would be even more full-moon maleness. She thought of her husband; him she had to deal with on a daily basis.

A timid knock sounded, followed by a long pause. Then the door to the bedchamber was pushed slowly open, and a heart-shaped face paired with dark blond hair and enormous violet eyes peered in. The eyes were apprehensive. The maid to whom they belonged had learned, to her abject mortification, to give her master and mistress extra time before disturbing them in the bedchamber. One could never predict Lord Maccon’s amorous moods, but one could certainly predict his temper if they were interrupted.

Noting his absence with obvious relief, the maid entered carrying a basin of hot water and a warm white towel over one arm. She curtsied gracefully to Alexia. She wore a modish, if somber, gray dress with a crisp white apron pinned over it. Alexia knew, though others did not, that the high white collar about her slender neck disguised multiple bite marks. As if being a former vampire drone in a werewolf household were not shocking enough, the maid then opened her mouth and proved that she was also, quite reprehensibly, French.

“Good evening, madame.”

Alexia smiled. “Good evening, Angelique.”

The new Lady Maccon, barely three months in, had already established her taste as quite daring, her table as incomparable, and her style as trendsetting. And while it was not generally known among the ton that she sat on the Shadow Council, she was observed to be on friendly terms with Queen Victoria. Couple that with a temperamental werewolf husband of considerable property and social standing, and her eccentricities—such as carrying a parasol at night and retaining an overly pretty French maid—were overlooked by high society.

Angelique placed the basin and a towel on Alexia’s dressing table and disappeared once more. She reappeared a polite ten minutes later with a cup of tea, whisked away the used towel and dirty water, and returned with a determined look and an air of quiet authority. Usually, there was a minor contest of wills when dressing Lady Maccon, but recent praise in the society column of the Lady’s Pictorial had bolstered Alexia’s faith in Angelique’s decisions à la toilette.

“Very well, you harridan,” said Lady Maccon to the silent girl. “What am I wearing tonight?”

Angelique made her selection from the wardrobe: a military-inspired tea-colored affair trimmed in chocolate brown velvet and large brass buttons. It was very smart and appropriate to a business meeting of the Shadow Council.

“You will have to leave off the silk scarf,” said Alexia, her token protest. “I shall need to show neck tonight.” She did not explain that bite marks were monitored by the palace guards. Angelique was not one of those who knew Alexia Maccon sat as muhjah. She may be Alexia’s personal maid, but she was still French, and despite Floote’s feeling on the matter, the domestic staff didn’t have to know everything .

Angelique acquiesced without protest and put Lady Maccon’s hair up simply, complementing the severity of the dress. Only a few loops and tendrils peeked out from under a small lace cap. Then Alexia made good her escape, aflutter with curiosity over her husband’s early departure.

There was no one to ask. No one waited at the dinner table; clavigers and pack alike had vanished along with the earl. The house was empty but for the servants. Alexia turned her concentrated interest on them, but they scattered about their various tasks with the ease of three months’ practice.

The Woolsey butler, Rumpet, refused, with an air of affronted dignity, to answer her questions. Even Floote claimed to have been in the library all afternoon and overheard nothing.

“Floote, truly, you simply must be acquainted with what has transpired. I depend upon you to know what is going on! You always do.”

Floote gave her a look that made her feel about seven years of age. Despite graduating from butler to personal secretary, Floote had never quite lost his severe aura of butlerness.

He handed Alexia her leather dispatch case. “I reviewed the documents from last Sunday’s meeting.”

“Well, what is your opinion?” Floote had been with Alexia’s father before her, and, despite Alessandro Tarabotti’s rather outrageous reputation (or perhaps because of it), Floote had learned things. Alexia was finding herself, as muhjah, more and more reliant upon his opinion, if only to confirm her own.

Floote considered. “My concern is with the deregulation clause, madam. I suspect that it is too soon to release the scientists on their own recognizance.”

“Mmm, that was my assessment as well. I shall recommend against that particular clause. Thank you, Floote.”

The elderly man turned to go.

“Oh, and, Floote.”

He turned back, resigned.

“Something substantial has happened to overset my husband. I suspect research in the library may be called for when I return tonight. Best to clear your schedule.”

“Very good, madam,” said Floote with a little bow. He glided off to summon her a carriage.

Alexia finished her repast, gathered up her dispatch case, her latest parasol, and her long woolen coat, and wandered out the front door.

Only to discover exactly where everyone had gone—outside onto the sweeping front lawn that led up to the cobbled courtyard of the castle. They had managed to multiply themselves, don attire of a military persuasion, and, for some reason known only to their tiny little werewolf brains, proceed to engage in setting up a considerable number of large canvas tents. This involved the latest in government-issue self-expanding steam poles, boiled in large copper pots like so much metal pasta. Each one started out the size of a spyglass before the heat caused it to suddenly expand with a popping noise. As was the general military protocol, it took far more soldiers than it ought to stand around watching the poles boil, and when one expanded, a cheer erupted forth. The pole was grasped between a set of leather potholders and taken off to a tent.

Lady Maccon lost her temper. “What are you all doing out here?”

No one looked at her or acknowledged her presence.

Alexia threw her head back and yelled, “ Tunstell! ” She had not quite the lung capacity to match that of her massive husband, but neither was she built on the delicate-flower end of the feminine spectrum. Alexia’s father’s ancestors had once conquered an empire, and it was when Lady Maccon yelled that people realized how that was accomplished.

Tunstell came bouncing over, a handsome, if gangly, ginger fellow with a perpetual grin and a certain carelessness of manner that most found endearing and everybody else found exasperating.

“Tunstell,” Alexia said calmly and reasonably, she thought, “ why are there tents on my front lawn?”

Tunstell, Lord Maccon’s valet and chief among the clavigers, looked about in his chipper way, as if to say that he had not noticed anything amiss and was now delighted to find that they had company. Tunstell was always chirpy. It was his greatest character flaw. He was also one of the few residents of Woolsey Castle who managed to remain entirely unfazed by, or possibly unaware of, either Lord or Lady Maccon’s wrath. This was his second-greatest character flaw.

“He didn’t warn you?” The claviger’s freckled face was flushed with exertion from helping to raise one of the tents.

“No, he most certainly did not.” Alexia tapped the silver tip of her parasol on the front stoop.

Tunstell grinned. “Well, my lady, the rest of the pack has returned.” He flipped both hands at the canvas-ridden chaos before her, waggling his fingers dramatically. Tunstell was an actor of some note—everything he did was dramatic.

“Tunstell,” said Alexia carefully, as though to a dim child, “this would indicate that my husband possessed a very, very big pack. There are no werewolf Alphas in England who can boast a pack of such proportions.”

“Oh, well, the rest of the pack brought the rest of the regiment with them,” explained Tunstell in a conspiratorial way, as though he and Alexia were partners engaged in the most delightful lark.

“I believe it is customary for the pack and fellow officers of a given regiment to separate upon returning home. So that, well, one doesn’t wake up to find hundreds of soldiers camping on one’s lawn.”

“Well, Woolsey has always done things a little differently. Having the biggest pack in England, we’re the only ones who split the pack for military service, so we keep the Coldsteam Guards together for a few weeks when we get home. Builds solidarity.” Tunstell gestured expansively once more, his fine white hands weaving about in the air, and nodded enthusiastically.

“And does this solidarity have to occur on Woolsey’s front lawn?” Tap tap tap went the parasol. The Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) was experimenting with new weaponry of late. At the disbanding of the Hypocras Club several months previous, a small compressed steam unit had been discovered. It apparently heated continually until it burst. Lord Maccon had shown it to his wife. It made a ticking noise just prior to explosion, rather like that of Alexia’s parasol at this precise moment. Tunstell was unaware of this correlation or he might have proceeded with greater caution. On the other hand, being Tunstell, he might not.

“Yes, isn’t it jolly?” crowed Tunstell.

“But why?” Tap tap tap.

“It is where we have always camped,” said a new voice, apparently belonging to someone equally unfamiliar with the ticking, exploding steam device.

Lady Maccon whirled to glare at the man who dared to interrupt her midrant. The gentleman in question was both tall and broad, although not quite to her husband’s scale. Lord Maccon was Scottish-big; this gentleman was only English-big—there was a distinct difference. Also, unlike the earl, who periodically bumped into things as though his form were larger than his perception of it, this man seemed entirely comfortable with his size. He wore full officer formals and knew he looked good in them. His boots were spit-shined, his blond hair coiffed high, and he boasted an accent that very carefully was no accent at all. Alexia knew the type: education, money, and blue blood.

She gritted her teeth. “Oh, it is, is it? Well, not anymore.” She turned back to Tunstell. “We are hosting a dinner party the evening after next. Have them remove those tents immediately.”

“Unacceptable,” said the large blond gentleman, moving closer. Alexia began to believe that he was no gentleman, despite his accent and immaculate appearance. She also noticed that he had the most cutting blue eyes, icy and intense.

Tunstell, a look of worry behind his cheery grin, seemed unable to decide whom to obey.

Alexia ignored the newcomer. “If they must camp here, move them around to the back.”

Tunstell turned to do her bidding but was stopped by the stranger, who put a large white-gloved hand on his shoulder.

“But this is preposterous.” The man’s perfect teeth snapped at Lady Maccon. “The regiment has always taken up residence in the forecourt. It is far more convenient than the grounds.”

“Now,” said Alexia to Tunstell, still ignoring the intruder. Imagine talking to her in such a tone of voice, and they hadn’t yet been introduced.

Tunstell, less cheerful than she had ever seen him, was looking back and forth between her and the stranger. Any moment now, he might place his hand upon his head and enact a swoon of confusion.

“Stay precisely where you are, Tunstell,” instructed the stranger.

“Who the devil are you?” Alexia asked, the man’s cavalier interference irritating her into using actual profanity.

“Major Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings.”

Alexia gawked. No wonder he was so very full of himself. One would have to be, laboring all one’s life under a name like that.

“Well, Major Channing, I shall ask you not to interfere with the running of the household. It is my domain.”

“Ah, you are the new housekeeper? I was not informed that Lady Maccon had made any such drastic changes.”

Alexia was not surprised by this assumption. She was very well aware of the fact that she was not of the appearance others patently expected of a Lady Maccon, being too Italian, too old, and too, frankly, ample. She was going to correct his error before further embarrassment ensued, but he did not provide her with the opportunity. Clearly Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings enjoyed the cadence of his own voice.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about our camping arrangements. I assure you, neither his lordship nor her ladyship will take you to task.” The ladyship in question flushed at his presumption. “You simply let us get on with our business and return to your duties.”

“I can assure you,” said Alexia, “everything that occurs in or around Woolsey Castle concerns me.”

Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings smiled his perfect smile and twinkled his blue eyes in a way Alexia was certain he believed to be alluring. “Now, really, neither of us has time for this, do we? Just you scamper off and get about your daily chores, and we shall see about a bit of a reward later for your obedience.”

Was that a leer? Alexia actually thought it might be. “Are you philandering with me, sir?” She was imprudently startled into asking.

“Would you like me to be?” he replied, grin widening.

Well, that certainly settled that. This was no gentleman.

“Uh-oh,” said Tunstell very softly, backing away slightly.

“What a nauseating thought,” said Lady Maccon.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Major Channing, moving in closer, “a fiery Italian thing like you, with a nice figure and not too old, might have a few lively nights left. I always did fancy a bit of the foreign.”

Alexia, who was only half Italian, and that only by birth, having been raised English to the bone, could not decide which part of that sentence offended her most. She sputtered.

The repulsive Channing person looked like he might actually try to touch her.

Alexia hauled off and hit him, hard, with her parasol, right on the top of his head.

Everyone in the courtyard stopped what they were about and turned to look at the statuesque lady currently engaged in whacking their third in command, Woolsey Pack Gamma, commander of the Coldsteam Guards abroad, with a parasol.

The major’s eyes shifted to an even icier blue and black about the rim of each iris, and two of his perfect white teeth turned pointed.

Werewolf, was he? Well, Alexia Maccon’s parasol was tipped with silver for a reason. She walloped him again, this time making certain the tip touched his skin. At the same time, she rediscovered her powers of speech.

“How dare you! You impudent”— whack —“arrogant”— whack —“overbearing”— whack —“unobservant dog!” Whack, whack. Normally Alexia wasn’t given to such language or unadulterated violence, but circumstances seemed to warrant it. He was a werewolf and, without her touching him and canceling out his supernatural abilities, practically impossible to damage. Thus, she felt justified in clobbering him a couple of times for discipline’s sake.

Major Channing, shocked by a physical attack from an apparently defenseless housekeeper, shielded his head and then grabbed the parasol, using it to yank her toward him. Alexia lost her grip, and Major Channing stumbled back in possession of the accessory. He looked like he wanted to hit her back with it, which could have done Alexia some real damage, as she had no supernatural healing abilities at all. But instead, he tossed the parasol aside and made as if to slap her.

Which was when Tunstell leaped onto his back. The redhead wrapped long arms and legs about the major, trapping Channing’s limbs at his sides.

The assembled newcomers gasped in horror. For a claviger to attack a member of the pack was unheard of and was grounds for instant expulsion. However, those of the pack and their companion clavigers who knew who Alexia was all dropped whatever they were doing and rushed forward to assist.

Major Channing shook Tunstell off and backhanded him hard across the face. The strike sent Tunstell to the ground easily. The claviger gave a loud groan and collapsed.

Alexia gave the blond blackguard a glare of wrath and bent to check on the fallen redhead. His eyes were closed, but he appeared to be breathing. She stood and said calmly, “I would stop this now, if I were you, Mr. Channing.” She dropped the “major” out of contempt.

“I should say not,” said the man, unbuttoning his uniform and stripping off his white gloves. “Now you both need discipline.”

In the next second, he began to change. In polite company, this would have been shocking, but most everyone there had witnessed the event before. Over the decades since pack integration, the military had become as comfortable with werewolf change as they were with profanity. But to change in front of a lady, even if one did think she was a housekeeper? Murmurs of alarm rippled through the crowd.

Alexia was also surprised. It was only just nightfall, and it was nowhere near full moon. Which meant this man was older and more experienced than his brash behavior indicated. He was also darn good at the change, polished in its execution despite what her husband had once described as the worst pain a man could stand and still live. Alexia had seen youngsters of the pack writhe and whimper, but Major Channing shifted smoothly from human to wolf. Skin, bone, and fur rearranged itself, resulting in one of the most beautiful wolves Alexia had ever seen: large and almost pure white, with icy blue eyes. He shook off the remains of his clothing and circled slowly about her.

Alexia braced herself. One touch from her and he would be human again, but that was no guarantee of safety. Even mortal, he would still be bigger and stronger than she, and Alexia was without her parasol.

Just as the huge white wolf charged forward, a new wolf leaped in front of Alexia and Tunstell, teeth bared. The newcomer was considerably smaller than Major Channing, with sandy fur frosted black about the head and neck, pale yellow eyes, and an almost foxlike face.

There was an awful thud of fur-covered flesh, and the two scrabbled against one another, claws and teeth ripping. The white wolf was bigger, but it presently became clear that the smaller wolf possessed greater speed and cunning. He used the other’s size against him. In a matter of moments, the smaller wolf had twisted about and taken a clean firm death grip on Major Channing’s throat.

Quick as it had started, the fight ended. The white wolf flopped instantly down, rolling to present his belly in submission to his diminutive opponent.

Alexia heard a groan and dragged her eyes away from the fight to see that Tunstell was now sitting upright and blinking blearily. He was bleeding copiously from the nose but otherwise appeared merely dazed. Alexia passed him a handkerchief and bent to look for her parasol. She used it as an excuse not to watch as the two werewolves changed back into human form.

She did peek. What hot-blooded woman wouldn’t? Major Channing was all muscle, longer and leaner than her husband but, honesty compelled her to admit, not at all unsightly. What surprised her was the small sandy-haired man of indeterminate age standing calmly next to him. She would never have accused Professor Lyall of gratuitous musculature. But there he was, assuredly fit. What profession had Lyall had before he became a werewolf? Alexia wondered, not for the first time. A couple of clavigers appeared with long cloaks and covered over the object of Lady Maccon’s speculation.

“What the hell is going on?” Major Channing spat as soon as his jaw had sufficiently returned to human form. He turned to glare at the urbane man standing quietly next to him.

“I did not challenge you. You know I would never challenge you. We settled that years ago. This was a perfectly acceptable matter of pack discipline. Misbehaving clavigers must be tamed.”

“Unless, of course, one of them is no claviger,” said Professor Randolph Lyall, long-suffering Beta of the Woolsey Pack.

The blond man looked nervous. His face lost most of its arrogance. Alexia thought he was considerably more attractive that way.

Professor Lyall sighed. “Major Channing, Woolsey Pack Gamma, allow me to introduce you to Lady Alexia Maccon, curse-breaker, and your new Alpha female.”

Alexia disliked the term curse-breaker; it sounded terribly sportsmanlike, as though she were about to engage in a protracted bout of unremitting cricket. Since some werewolves still considered their immortality a curse, she supposed it was an odd kind of accolade, praise that she could stave off the bestiality of full moon. To be called curse-breaker was certainly more complimentary than soul-sucker. Trust the vampires to come up with a term that implied an even more crass kind of sport than cricket—if such a thing could be conceived.

Alexia found her parasol and stood. “I could say it was a pleasure to meet you, Major Channing, but I would not wish to perjure myself so early in the evening.”

“Well, confound it,” said Major Channing, glaring first at Lyall and then at everyone else around him, “why didn’t any of you tell me?”

Alexia did feel a little guilty at that. She had let her temper get the better of her. But really, he hadn’t given her time to introduce herself.

“I take it you were not informed of my appearance, then?” Alexia asked, prepared to chalk another thing up onto the board of her husband’s mistakes for the night. He was going to get a ruddy earful when he got home.

Major Channing said, “Well, no, not precisely. I mean, yes, we had a short missive a couple months back, but the description was not… you understand… and I thought you would be…”

Alexia hefted her parasol thoughtfully.

Channing backpedaled rapidly. “… less Italian,” he said finally.

“And my dear husband did not warn you of the truth of it when you arrived?” Alexia was looking more thoughtful than angry. Perhaps Major Channing was not so bad. After all, she, too, had been surprised at Lord Maccon’s choosing her to wed.

Major Channing looked irritated at that. “We have not yet seen him, my lady. Or this faux pas might have been avoided.”

“I do not know about that.” Lady Maccon shrugged. “He is prone to exaggerating my virtues. His descriptions of me are generally a tad unrealistic.”

Major Channing dialed his charm back up to the highest setting—Lady Maccon could practically see the gears crunching and the steam spiraling off his body. “Oh, I doubt that, my lady.” Unfortunately for the Gamma, who did genuinely recognize Alexia’s appeal, Alexia chose to take offense.

She went cold, her brown eyes hard and her generous mouth compressed into a straight line.

He hurriedly switched the subject, turning to Professor Lyall. “Why was our venerated leader not at the station to meet us? I had some fairly urgent business to discuss with him.”

Lyall shrugged. There was an air about him that suggested the major not push this particular subject. It was the nature of a Gamma to criticize, but equally common was a Beta’s support, no matter how rude the Alpha’s actions. “Urgent BUR matters,” was all he answered.

“Yes, well, my business might also be urgent,” snapped Major Channing. “Hard to know, especially when he is unavailable to see to the needs of the pack.”

“What exactly happened?” Professor Lyall’s tone implied that whatever this urgent business, it was probably Major Channing’s fault.

“The pack and I experienced something unusual on board ship.” Major Channing clearly felt that if the Beta could be cagey, so could he. He turned pointedly to Alexia. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Maccon. I apologize for the dust-up. Ignorance is no excuse; I assure you I am well aware of that. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to make it up to you to the best of my poor abilities.”

“Apologize to Tunstell,” replied Lady Maccon.

That was a blow: the pack Gamma, third in command, apologizing to a lowly claviger. Major Channing sucked in his breath but did exactly as he was told. He made a pretty speech to the redhead, who looked progressively more and more embarrassed as it rattled on, terribly conscious of his Gamma’s humiliation. By the end, Tunstell was so flushed his freckles had disappeared entirely behind the red. After which Major Channing disappeared in a huff.

“Where is he going?” wondered Lady Maccon.

“Most likely to move the regiment’s camping arrangements to the back of the house. It will have to wait a short while, my lady, for the tent poles to cool.”

“Ah.” Alexia grinned. “I win.”

Professor Lyall sighed, looked briefly up toward the moon, and said as though appealing to a higher deity, “Alphas.”

“So”—Alexia gave him an inquiring look—“would you mind explaining Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings to me? He does not seem like a man my husband would choose to run with his pack.”

Professor Lyall tilted his head to one side. “I am not privy to his lordship’s feelings on the gentleman, but regardless of Lord Maccon’s preferences, Channing was inherited along with Woolsey. As was I. Conall had no choice. And, quite frankly, the major is not so bad. A good soldier to have guarding one’s back in a battle, and that is the honest truth. Try not to be too put off by his manner. He has always behaved himself in the capacity of Gamma, a decent third in command, despite disliking both Lord Maccon and myself.”

“Why? I mean, why you? I can perfectly comprehend not liking my husband. I dislike him intensely most of the time.”

Professor Lyall stifled a chuckle. “I am given to understand that he does not approve of spelling one’s name with two ll ’s. He finds it inexcusably Welsh. I suspect he may be quite taken with you, however.”

Alexia twirled her parasol, embarrassed. “Pity’s sake, was he being honest under all that syrupy charm?” She wondered what it was about her physique or personality that only large werewolves seemed to find her alluring. And would it be possible to change that quality?

Professor Lyall shrugged. “I should steer well clear of him in that arena, if I were you.”

“Why?”

Lyall struggled for the polite way of putting it and then finally settled on the indelicate truth. “Major Channing likes his woman feisty, to be sure, but that is because he likes”—a delicate pause—“refining them.”

Alexia wrinkled her nose. She sensed the indelicate underpinning to Professor Lyall’s comment. She would have to research it later, confident that her father’s library would provide. Alessandro Tarabotti, preternatural, had lived a racy life and passed on to his daughter a collection of books, some of them with terribly wicked sketches, which attested to his raciness. Alexia had those books to thank for the fact that some of her husband’s more innovative desires did not provoke her into fainting fits on a regular basis.

Professor Lyall merely shrugged. “Some women like that kind of thing.”

“And some women like needlepoint,” replied Alexia, resolving to think no more on her husband’s problematic Gamma. “And some women like extraordinarily ugly hats.” This comment was sparked by the fact that she had just caught sight of her dear friend, Miss Ivy Hisselpenny, disembarking from a hackney at the end of Woolsey’s long entranceway.

Miss Hisselpenny was a long way away, but there was no doubt it was her—no one else would dare sport such a hat. It was a mind-numbing purple, trimmed in bright green, with three high feathers emerging from what looked to be an entire fruit basket arranged about the crown. Fake grapes spilled down and over one side, dangling almost to Ivy’s pert little chin.

“Fiddlesticks,” said Lady Maccon to Professor Lyall. “Am I ever going to make it to my meeting?”

Lyall took that as a hint and turned to go. Unless, of course, he was fleeing from the hat. His mistress stopped him.

“I truly do appreciate your unexpected intervention just now. I did not think he would actually attack.”

Professor Lyall looked at his Alpha’s mate thoughtfully. It was a rare unguarded look, his face free of its customary glassicals, his mild hazel eyes puzzled. “Why unexpected? Didn’t you think I was capable of defending you in Conall’s place?”

Lady Maccon shook her head. It was true she had never had much confidence in the physical abilities of her husband’s Beta, with his slight frame and professorial ways. Lord Maccon was massive and treelike; Professor Lyall was built more on the shrub scale. But that wasn’t what she had meant. “Oh no, unexpected because I had assumed you would be with my husband tonight, if this BUR problem is so very bad.”

Professor Lyall nodded.

Lady Maccon tried one last time. “I don’t suppose it was the arrival of the regiment that had my husband in a dither?”

“No. He knew the regiment was due in; he sent me to meet them at the station.”

“Oh, he did, did he? And he did not see fit to inform me?”

Lyall, realizing he might have just gotten his Alpha into some very hot water indeed, dissembled. “I believe he was under the impression you knew. It was the dewan who ordered the military recall. Withdrawal papers came through the Shadow Council several months ago.”

Alexia frowned. She remembered vaguely the potentate arguing vociferously with the dewan on this subject at the beginning of her stint as muhjah. The dewan had won, since the strength of Queen Victoria’s regiments and the building of her empire was dependent upon her alliance with the packs. The vampires held controlling interest in the East India Company and its mercenary troops, of course, but this had been a matter for the regulars and so the werewolves. Still, Lady Maccon had not realized the results of that decision would end up encamping on her doorstep.

“Don’t they have a proper barracks somewhere they should be shambling off to?”

“Yes, but it is tradition for them all to stay here for several weeks while the pack re-forms—before the daylight soldiers head homeward.”

Lady Maccon watched Ivy wend her way through the chaos of military tents and baggage. She moved with such purpose it was as though she walked with exclamation marks. Hydrodine engines emitted small puffs of yellow smoke at her as she passed and compressed expansion tent stakes hissed as they were pulled prematurely from the ground. All were now being taken back down and moved around the side of the house and into Woolsey’s extensive grounds.

“Have I mentioned recently how much I dislike tradition?” Alexia said, and then panicked. “Are we expected to feed them all?”

The grape bunches bobbed in time with Ivy’s rapidly mincing footsteps. She did not even pause to investigate the disarray. She was clearly in a hurry , which meant Ivy had news of note.

“Rumpet knows what to do. Don’t concern yourself,” advised Professor Lyall.

“You really cannot tell me what is going on? He was up so very early, and Formerly Merriway was definitely involved.”

“Who, Rumpet?”

That earned the Beta a look of profound disgust.

“Lord Maccon did not inform me of the particulars,” Professor Lyall admitted.

Lady Maccon frowned. “And Formerly Merriway won’t. You know how she gets, all-over nervous and floaty.”

Ivy attained the steps to the front door.

As she neared, Professor Lyall said hastily, “If you will excuse me, my lady, I should be getting on.”

He bowed to Miss Hisselpenny and vanished around the corner of the house after Major Channing.

Ivy curtsied to the departing werewolf, a strawberry on a long silk stem wiggling about in front of her left ear. She didn’t take offense at Lyall leaving so precipitously. Instead, she trotted up to the stoop, blithely ignoring Alexia’s dispatch case and waiting carriage, certain in the knowledge that her news was far more important than whatever affair was causing her friend to depart forthwith.

“Alexia, did you know there is an entire regiment decamping on your front lawn?”

Lady Maccon sighed. “Really, Ivy, I would never have noticed.”

Miss Hisselpenny ignored the sarcasm. “I have the most splendid news. Should we go in for tea?”

“Ivy, I have business in town, and I am already late.” Lady Maccon refrained from mentioning that business was with Queen Victoria. Ivy knew nothing of her preternatural state, nor her political position, and Alexia thought it best to keep her friend ignorant. Ivy was particularly adept at being ignorant but could cause extensive havoc with the smallest scrap of information.

“But, Alexia , this is very important gossip!” The grapes vibrated in agitation.

“Oh, have the winter shawls from Paris come into the shops?”

Ivy tossed her head in frustration. “Alexia, must you be so tiresome?”

Lady Maccon could barely tear her eyes off of the hat. “Then, please, do not keep it to yourself one moment longer. Pray tell me at once.” Anything to get her dearest friend gone posthaste. Really, Ivy could be too inconvenient.

“Why is there a regiment on your lawn?” Miss Hisselpenny persisted.

“Werewolf business.” Lady Maccon dismissed it in the manner calculated to most efficiently throw Ivy off the scent. Miss Hisselpenny had never quite accustomed herself to werewolves, even after her best friend had the temerity to marry one. They were not exactly commonplace, and she had never had to cope with their brand of gruffness and sudden nudity. She simply couldn’t seem to acclimatize to it the way Alexia had. So she preferred, in typical Ivy fashion, to forget they existed.

“Ivy,” said Lady Maccon, “what exactly are you doing here?”

“Oh, Alexia, I am terribly sorry for descending upon you so unexpectedly! I hadn’t the time to send round a card, but I simply had to come and tell you as soon as it was decided.” She opened her eyes wide and flipped both hands toward her head. “ I am engaged.”

(c) 2010 Tofa Borregaard

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