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TIMELESS

CHAPTER ONE

In Which There Is Almost a Bath and Definitely a Trip to the Theater

“I said no such thing,” grumbled Lord Maccon, allowing himself, begrudgingly, to be trussed in a new evening jacket. He twisted his head around, annoyed by the height of the collar and the tightness of the cravat. Floote waited patiently for him to stop twitching before continuing with the jacket. Werewolf or not, Lord Maccon would look his best or Floote’s given name wasn’t Algernon—which is was.

“Yes, you did, my dear.” Lady Alexia Maccon was one of the few people in London who dared contradict Lord Maccon. Being his wife, it might be said that she rather specialized in doing so. Alexia was already dressed, her statuesque form resplendent in a maroon silk and black lace evening gown with mandarin collar and Asian sleeves, newly arrived from Paris. “I remember it quite distinctly.” She pretended distraction in transferring her necessaries into a black beaded reticule. “I said we should show our patronage and support on opening night, and you grunted at me.”

“Well, there, that explains everything. That was a grunt of displeasure.” Lord Maccon wrinkled his nose like a petulant child while Floote skirted about him, puffing away nonexistent crumbs with the latest in steam-controlled air-puffing dewrinklers.

“No, dear, no. It was definitely one of you affirmative grunts.”

Conall Maccon paused at that and gave his wife a startled look. “God’s teeth, woman, how could you possibly tell?”

“Three years of marriage, dear. Regardless, I’ve replied in the affirmative that we will be in attendance at the Adelphi at nine sharp in time to take our box. We are both expected. There’s no way out of it.”

Lord Maccon sighed, giving in. Which was a good thing, as his wife and Floote had managed to strap him into full evening dress and there was no way to escape that.

In a show of solidarity, he grabbed his wife, pulling her against him and snuffling her neck. Alexia suppressed a smile and, in deference to Floote’s austere presence, pretended not to enjoy herself immensely.

“Lovely dress, my love, very flattering.”

Alexia gave her husband a little ear nibble for this compliment. “Thank you, my heart. However, you ought to know that the most interesting thing about this dress is how remarkably easy it is to get into and out of.”

Floote cleared his throat to remind them of his presence.

“Wife, I intend to test the veracity of that statement when we return from this outing of yours.”

Alexia pulled away from Conall, patting at her hair self-consciously. “Thank you kindly, Floote. Very well done as always. I’m sorry to have drawn you away from your regular duties.”

The elderly butler merely nodded, expressionless. “Of course, madam.”

“Especially as there seem to be no drones about. Where are they all?”

The butler thought for a moment and then said, “I believe that it is bath night, madam.”

Lady Maccon paled in horror. “Oh, goodness. We had best escape quickly, then, Conall, or I’ll never be able to get away in time for—”

Clearly summoned by her fear of just such a delay, a knock sounded at Lord Akeldama’s third closet door.

How Lord and Lady Maccon had come to be residing in Lord Akeldama’s third closet in the first place was a matter of some debate among those privy to this information. A few speculated that there had been a negotiated exchange of spats and possibly promises of daily treacle tart. Nevertheless, the arrangement seemed to be working remarkably well for all parties, much to everyone’s bemusement, and so long as the vampire hives did not find out, it was likely to remain so. Lord Akeldama now had a preternatural in his closet and a werewolf pack next door, but he and his drones had certainly weathered much worse in the way of neighbors, and he had certainly housed far more shocking things in his closet, if the rumors were to be believed.

For nigh on two years, Lord and Lady Maccon had maintained the appearance of actually living next door, Lord Akeldama maintained the appearance of still utilizing all his closets, and his drones maintained the appearance of not having full creative control over everyone’s wardrobe. Most importantly, as it turned out, Alexia was still close enough to her child to come to everyone’s rescue. Unforeseen as it may have been when they originally concocted the arrangement, it had become increasingly clear that the home of a metanatural required the presence of a preternatural or no one was safe—particularly on bath night.

Lady Maccon opened the closet door wide and took in the sorry sight of the gentleman before her. Lord Akeldama’s drones were men of fashion and social standing. They set the mode for all of London with regards to collar points and spats. The handsome young man who stood before her represented the best London society had to offer—an exquisite plum tailcoat, a high-tied waterfall of white about his neck, his hair curled just so about the ears—except that he was dripping with soap suds, his neck cloth was coming untied, and one collar point drooped sadly.

“Oh, dear, what has she done now?”

“Far too much to explain, my lady. I think you had better come at once.”

Alexia looked down at her beautiful new dress. “But I do so like this gown.”

“Lord Akeldama accidentally touched her.”

“Oh, good gracious!” Lady Maccon seized her parasol and her beaded reticule—now containing a fan; her opera glassicals; and Ethel, her .28-caliber Colt Paterson revolver—and charged down the stairs after the drone. The poor boy actually squelched in his beautifully shined shoes.

Her husband, with a grumbled, “Didn’t we warn him against that?” came crashing unhelpfully after.

Downstairs, Lord Akeldama had converted a side parlor into a bathing chamber for his adopted daughter. It had become clear rather early on that bathing was going to be an event of epic proportions, requiring a room large enough to accommodate several of his best and most capable drones. Still, this being Lord Akeldama, even a room dedicated to the cleanliness of an infant was not allowed to be sacrificed upon the unadorned altar of practicality.

A thick Georgian rug lay on the floor covered with cavorting shepherdesses, the walls were painted in pale blue and white, and he’d had the ceiling frescoed with sea life in deference to the troublesome child’s evident unwillingness to associate with such. The cheerful otters, fish, and cephalopods above were meant as encouragement, but it was clear his daughter saw them as nothing more than squishy threats.

In the exact center of the room stood a gold, claw-footed bathtub. It was far too large for a toddler, but Lord Akeldama never did anything by halves, especially if he might double it at three times the expense. There was also a fireplace, before which stood multiple gold racks supporting fluffy and highly absorbent drying cloths and one very small Chinese silk robe.

There were no less than eight drones in attendance, as well as Lord Akeldama, a footman, and the nursemaid. Nevertheless, nothing could take on Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama when bathing was at stake.

The tub was overturned, saturating the beautiful rug with soapy water. Several of the drones were drenched. One was nursing a bruised knee and another a split lip. Lord Akeldama had tiny soapy handprints all over him. One of the drying racks had fallen on its side, singeing a cloth in the fire. The footman was standing with his mouth open, holding a bar of soap in one hand and a wedge of cheese in the other. The nanny had collapsed on a settee in tears.

In fact, the only person who seemed neither injured nor wet in any way was Prudence herself. The toddler was perched precariously on top of the mantelpiece over the fire, completely naked, with a very militant expression on her tiny face, yelling, “Noth, Dama. Noth wet. Noth, Dama!” She was lisping around her fangs.

Alexia stood in the doorway, transfixed.

Lord Akeldama straightened where he stood. “My darlings,” he said, “tactic number eight, I think—circle and enclose. Now brace yourselves, my pets. I’m going in.”

All the drones straightened and took up wide boxer’s stances, forming a loose circle about the contested mantelpiece. All attention was focused on the toddler, who held the high ground, unflinching.

The ancient vampire launched himself at his adopted daughter. He could move fast, possibly faster than any other creature Alexia had ever observed, and she had been the unfortunate victim of more than one vampire attack. However, in this particular instance, Lord Akeldama moved no quicker than any ordinary mortal man. Which was, of course, the current difficulty—he was an ordinary mortal. His face was no longer deathless perfection but slightly effete and perhaps a little sulky. His movements were still graceful, but they were mortally graceful and, unfortunately, mortally slow.

Prudence leaped away in the manner of some kind of high-speed frog, her tiny, stubbly legs supernaturally strong but still toddler unstable. She crashed to the floor, screamed in very brief pain, and then zipped about looking for a break in the circle of drones closing in upon her.

“Noth, Dama. Noth wet,” she cried, charging one of the drones, her tiny fangs bared. Unaware of her own supernatural strength, the baby managed to bash her way between the poor man’s legs, making for the open doorway.

Except that the doorway was not, in fact, open. Therein stood the only creature who little Prudence had learned to fear and, of course, the one she loved best in all the world.

“Mama!” came her delighted cry, and then, “Dada!” as Conall’s shaggy head loomed up from behind his wife.

Alexia held out her arms and Prudence barreled into them with all the supernatural speed that a toddler vampire could manage. Alexia let out a harrumph of impact and stumbled backward into Conall’s broad, supportive embrace.

The moment the naked baby came into contact with Alexia’s bare arms, Prudence became no more dangerous than any squirming child.

“Now, Prudence, what is this fuss?” remonstrated her mother.

“No, Dama. No wet!” explained the toddler very clearly, now that she did not have the fangs to speak around.

“It’s bath night. You don’t have a choice. Real ladies are clean ladies,” explained her mother, rather sensibly, she thought.

Prudence was having none of it. “Nuh-uh.”

Lord Akeldama came over. He was once more pale, his movements quick and sharp. “Apologies, my little dumpling. She got away from Boots there and hurled herself at me before I could dodge.” He moved one fine white hand to stroke his adopted daughter’s hair back from her face. It was safe to do so now that Alexia held her close.

Prudence narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “No wet, Dama,” she insisted.

“Well, accidents will happen and we all know how she gets.” Alexia gave her daughter a stern look. Prudence, undaunted, glared back. Lady Maccon shook her head in exasperation. “Conall and I are off to the theater. Do you think you can handle bath night without me? Or should we cancel?”

Lord Akeldama was aghast at the mere suggestion. “Oh, dear me no, buttercup, never that! Not go to the theater? Heaven forfend. No, we shall shift perfectly well here without you, now that we’ve weathered this one teeny-tiny upset, won’t we, Prudence?”

“No,” replied Prudence.

Lord Akeldama backed away from her. “I’ll stay well out of range from here on, I assure you,” continued the vampire. “One brush with mortality a night is more than enough for me. It’s quite the discombobulating sensation, your daughter’s touch. Not at all like your own.”

Lord Maccon, who had been placed in a similar position on more than one occasion with regard to his daughter’s odd abilities, was uncharacteristically sympathetic to the vampire. He replied with a fervent, “I’ll say.” He also took the opportunity of Prudence being in her mother’s arms to ruffle his daughter’s hair affectionately.

“Dada! No wet?”

“Perhaps we could move bath night to tomorrow,” suggested Lord Maccon, succumbing to the plea in his daughter’s eyes.

Lord Akeldama brightened.

“Absolutely not,” replied Lady Maccon to both of them. “Backbone, gentlemen. We must stick to a routine. All the physicians say routine is vital to the well-being of the infant and her proper ethical indoctrination.”

The two immortals exchanged the looks of men who knew when they were beaten.

In order to forestall any further shilly-shallying, Alexia carried her struggling daughter over to the tub, which had been righted and refilled with warm water. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have plopped the child in herself, but worried over the dress, she passed Prudence off to Boots and stepped well out of harm’s way.

Under the watchful eye of her mother, the toddler acquiesced to full immersion, with only a nose wrinkle of disgust.

Alexia nodded. “Good girl. Now do behave for poor Dama. He puts up with an awful lot from you.”

“Dama!” replied the child, pointing at Lord Akeldama.

“Yes, very good.” Alexia turned back to her husband and the vampire in the doorway. “Do have a care, my lord.”

Lord Akeldama nodded. “Indeed. I must say I had not anticipated such a challenge when Professor Lyall first suggested the adoption.”

“Yes, it was foolish of all of us to think that Alexia here would produce a biddable child,” agreed the sire of said child, implying that any flaw was Alexia’s fault and that he would have produced nothing but the most mild-mannered and pliant of offspring.

“Or even one that a vampire could control.”

“Or a vampire and a pack of werewolves, for that matter.”

Alexia gave them both a look. “I hardly feel I can be entirely at fault. Are you claiming Sidheag is an aberration in the Maccon line?”

Lord Maccon tilted his head, thinking about his great-great-great-granddaughter, now Alpha werewolf of the Kingair Pack, a woman prone to wielding rifles and smoking small cigars. “Point taken.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a tremendous splash as Prudence managed to pull, even without supernatural strength, one of the drones partly into the bath with her. Several of the others rushed to his aid, cooing in equal distress over his predicament and the state of his cuffs.

Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama would have been difficult enough without her metanatural abilities. But having a precocious child who could take on immortality was overwhelming, even for two supernatural households. Prudence actually seemed to steal supernatural abilities, turning her victim mortal for the space of a night. If Alexia had not interfered, Lord Akeldama would have remained mortal, and Prudence a fanged toddler, until sunrise. Her mother, or presumably some other preternatural, was the only apparent antidote.

Lord Maccon had accustomed himself, with much grumbling, to touching his daughter only when she was already in contact with her mother or when it was daylight. He was a man who appreciated a good cuddle, so this was disappointing. But poor Lord Akeldama found the whole situation distasteful. He had officially adopted the chit, and as a result had taken on the lion’s share of her care, but he was never actually able to show her physical affection. When she was a small child, he’d managed with leather gloves and thick swaddling blankets, but even then accidents occurred. Now that Prudence was more mobile, the risk was simply too great. Naked touch guaranteed activation of her powers, but sometimes she could steal through clothing, too. When Prudence got older and more reasonable, Alexia intended to subject her daughter to some controlled analytical tests, but right now everyone in the household was simply trying to survive. The toddler couldn’t be less interested in the importance of scientific discoveries, for all her mother tried to explain them. It was, Alexia felt, a troubling character flaw.

With one last glare to ensure Prudence remained at least mostly submerged, Alexia made good her escape, dragging her husband behind her. Conall held his amusement in check until they were inside the carriage and on their way toward the West End. Then he let out the most tremendous guffaw.

Alexia couldn’t help it—she also started to chuckle. “Poor Lord Akeldama.”

Conall wiped his streaming eyes. “Oh, he loves it. Hasn’t had this much excitement in a hundred years or more.”

“Are you certain they will manage without me?”

“We will be back in only a few hours. How bad can it get?”

“Don’t tempt fate, my love.”

“Better worry about our own survival.”

“Why, what could you possibly mean?” Alexia straightened and looked out the carriage window suspiciously. True, it had been several years since someone tried to kill her in a conveyance, but it had happened with startling regularity for a period of time, and she had never gotten over her suspicion of carriages as a result.

“No, no, my dear. I meant to imply the play to which I am being dragged.”

“Oh, I like that. As if I could drag you anywhere. You’re twice my size.”

Conall gave her the look of a man who knows when to hold his tongue.

“Ivy has assured me that this is a brilliant rendition of a truly moving story and that the troupe is in top form after their continental tour. The Death Rains of Swansea, I believe it is called. It’s one of Tunstell’s own pieces, very artistic and performed in the new sentimental interpretive style.”

“Wife, you are taking me unto certain doom.” He put his hand to his head and fell back against the cushioned wall of the cab in a fair imitation of theatricality.

“Oh, hush your nonsense. It will be perfectly fine.”

Her husband’s expression hinted strongly at a preference for, perhaps, death or at least battle, rather than endure the next few hours.

***

The Maccons arrived, displaying the type of elegance expected from members of the ton. Lady Alexia Maccon was resplendent, some might even have said handsome, in her new French gown. Lord Maccon looked like an earl for once, his hair almost under control and his evening dress almost impeccable. It was generally thought that the move to London had resulted in quite an improvement in the appearance and manners of the former Woolsey Pack. Some blamed living so close to Lord Akeldama, others the taming effect of an urban environment, and several stalwart holdouts thought it might be Lady Maccon’s fault. In truth, it was probably all three, but it was the iron fist of Lord Akeldama’s drones that truly enacted the change—or should one say, iron curling tongs? One of Lord Maccon’s pack merely had to enter their purview with hair askew and handfuls of clucking pinks descended upon him like so many mallard ducks upon a hapless piece of untidy bread.

Alexia led her husband firmly to their private box. The whites of his eyes were showing in fear.

The Death Rains of Swansea featured a lovelorn werewolf enamored of a vampire queen and a dastardly villain with evil intent trying to tear them apart. The stage vampires were depicted with particularly striking fake fangs and a messy sort of red paint smeared about their chins. The werewolves sported proper dress except for large shaggy ears tied about their heads with pink tulle bows—Ivy’s influence, no doubt.

Ivy Tunstell, Alexia’s dear friend, played the vampire queen. She did so with much sweeping about the stage and fainting, her own fangs larger than anyone else’s, which made it so difficult for her to articulate that many of her speeches were reduced to mere spitting hisses. She wore a hat that was part bonnet, part crown, driving home the queen theme, in colors of yellow, red, and gold. Her husband, playing the enamored werewolf, pranced about in a comic interpretation of lupine leaps, barked a lot, and got into several splendid stage fights.

The oddest moment, Alexia felt, was a dreamlike sequence just prior to the break, wherein Tunstell wore bumblebee- striped drawers with attached vest and performed a small ballet before his vampire queen. The queen was dressed in a voluminous black chiffon gown with a high Shakespearian collar and an exterior corset of green with matching fan. Her hair was done up on either side of her head in round puffs, looking like bear ears, and her arms were bare.

Bare!

Conall, at this juncture, began to shake uncontrollably.

“I believe this is meant to symbolize the absurdity of their improbable affection,” explained Alexia to her husband in severe tones. “Deeply philosophical. The bee represents the circularity of life and the unending buzz of immortality. Ivy’s dress, so like that of an opera girl, suggests at the frivolousness of dancing through existence without love.”

Conall continued to vibrate silently, as though trembling in pain.

“I’m not certain about the fan or the ears.” Alexia tapped her cheek thoughtfully with her own fan.

The curtain dropped on the first act with the bumblebee-clad hero left prostrate at the feet of his vampire love. The audience erupted into wild cheers. Lord Conall Maccon began to guffaw in loud rumbling tones that carried beautifully throughout the theater. Many people turned to look up at him in disapproval.

Well, thought his wife, at least he managed to hold it in until the break.

Eventually, her husband controlled his mirth. “Brilliant! I apologize, wife, for objecting to this jaunt. It is immeasurably entertaining.”

“Well, do be certain to say nothing of the kind to poor Tunstell. You are meant to be profoundly moved, not amused.”

A timid knock came at their box.

“Enter,” yodeled his lordship, still chuckling.

The curtain was pushed aside, and in came one of the people Alexia would have said was least likely to visit the theater, Madame Genevieve Lefoux.

“Good evening, Lord Maccon, Alexia.”

“Genevieve, how unexpected.”

Madame Lefoux was dressed impeccably. Fraternization with the Woolsey Hive had neither a deleterious nor improving effect on her attire. If Countess Nadasdy had tried to get her newest drone to dress appropriately, she had failed. Madame Lefoux dressed to the height of style, for a man. Her taste was still subtle and elegant with no vampiric flamboyances in the manner of cravat ties or cuff links. True she sported cravat pins and pocket watches, but Alexia would lay good money that not a one solely functioned as a cravat pin or a pocket watch.

“Are you enjoying the show?” inquired the Frenchwoman.

“I am finding it diverting. Conall is not taking it seriously.”

Lord Maccon puffed out his cheeks.

“And you?” Alexia directed the question back at her erstwhile friend. Since Genevieve’s wildly spectacular charge through London and resulting transition to vampire drone, no small measure of awkwardness had existed between them. Two years on and still they had not regained the closeness they had both so enjoyed at the beginning of their association. Madame Lefoux had polluted it through the application of a rampaging octomaton, and Alexia had finished it off by sentencing Genevieve to a decade of indentured servitude.

“It is interesting,” replied the Frenchwoman cautiously. “And how is little Prudence?”

“Difficult, as ever. And Quesnel?”

“The same.”

The two women exchanged careful smiles. Lady Maccon, despite herself, liked Madame Lefoux. There was just something about her that appealed. And she did owe the Frenchwoman a debt, for it was the inventor who had acted the part of midwife to Prudence’s grossly mistimed entrance into the world. Nevertheless, Alexia did not trust her. Madame Lefoux always promoted her own agenda first, even as a drone, with the Order of the Brass Octopus second. What little loyalty and affection for Alexia she still had must, perforce, be a low priority now.

Lady Maccon moved them on from the platitudes with a direct reminder. “And how is the countess?”

Madame Lefoux gave one of her little French shrugs. “She is herself, unchanging, as ever. It is on her behest that I am here. I have been directed to bring you a message.”

“Oh, yes, how did you know where to find me?”

“The Tunstells have a new play, and you are their patroness. I admit I had not anticipated your presence, my lord.”

Lord Maccon grinned wolfishly. “I was persuaded.”

“The message?” Alexia put out her hand.

“Ah, no, we have all learned never to do that again. The message is a verbal one. Countess Nadasdy has received instructions and would like to see you, Lady Maccon.”

“Instructions? Instructions from who?”

“I am not privy to that information,” replied the inventor.

Alexia turned to her husband. “Who on earth would dare order around the Woolsey Hive queen?”

“Oh, no, Alexia, you misunderstand me. The instructions came to her, but they are for you.”

“Me? Me! Why . . .” Alexia sputtered in outrage.

“I’m afraid I know nothing more. Are you available to call upon her this evening, after the performance?”

Alexia, whose curiosity was quite piqued, nodded her acquiescence. “It is bath night, but Lord Akeldama and his boys must really learn to muddle through.”

“Bath night?” The Frenchwoman was intrigued.

“Prudence is particularly difficult on bath nights.”

“Ah, yes. Some of them don’t want to get clean. Quesnel was like that. As you may have noticed, circumstances never did improve.” Genevieve’s son was known for being grubby.

“And how is he muddling along, living with vampires?”

“Thriving, the little monster.”

“Much like Prudence, then.”

“As you say.” The Frenchwoman tilted her head. “And my hat shop?”

“Biffy has it marvelously well in hand. You should drop by and visit. He’s there tonight. I’m certain he would love to see you.”

“Perhaps I shall. It’s not often I get into London these days.” Madame Lefoux began edging toward the curtain, donning her gray top hat and making her good-byes.

She left Lord and Lady Maccon in puzzled silence, with a mystery that, it must be said, somewhat mitigated their enjoyment of the second act, as did the lack of any additional bumblebee courtship rituals.