In Which Parasols Prove Useful
Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.
She glared at the vampire.
For his part, the vampire seemed to feel that their encounter had improved his ball experience immeasurably. For there she sat, without escort, in a low-necked ball gown.
In this particular case, what he did not know could hurt him. For Miss Alexia had been born without a soul, which, as any decent vampire of good blooding knew, made her a lady to avoid most assiduously.
Yet he moved toward her, darkly shimmering out of the library shadows with feeding fangs ready. However, the moment he touched Miss Tarabotti, he was suddenly no longer darkly doing anything at all. He was simply standing there, the faint sounds of a string quartet in the background as he foolishly fished about with his tongue for fangs unaccountably mislaid.
Miss Tarabotti was not in the least surprised; soullessness always neutralized supernatural abilities. She issued the vampire a very dour look. Certainly, most daylight folk wouldn’t peg her as anything less than a standard English prig, but had this man not even bothered to read the vampire’s official abnormality roster for London and its greater environs?
The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, diving in for another chomp.
“I say!” said Alexia to the vampire. “We have not even been introduced!”
Miss Tarabotti had never actually had a vampire try to bite her. She knew one or two by reputation, of course, and was friendly with Lord Akeldama. Who was not friendly with Lord Akeldama? But no vampire had ever actually attempted to feed on her before!
So Alexia, who abhorred violence, was forced to grab the miscreant by his nostrils, a delicate and therefore painful area, and shove him away. He stumbled over the fallen tea trolley, lost his balance in a manner astonishingly graceless for a vampire, and fell to the floor. He landed right on top of a plate of treacle tart.
Miss Tarabotti was most distressed by this. She was particularly fond of treacle tart and had been looking forward to consuming that precise plateful. She picked up her parasol. It was terribly tasteless for her to be carrying a parasol at an evening ball, but Miss Tarabotti rarely went anywhere without it. It was of a style entirely of her own devising: a black frilly confection with purple satin pansies sewn about, brass hardware, and buckshot in its silver tip.
She whacked the vampire right on top of the head with it as he tried to extract himself from his newly intimate relations with the tea trolley. The buckshot gave the brass parasol just enough heft to make a deliciously satisfying thunk.
“Manners!” instructed Miss Tarabotti.
The vampire howled in pain and sat back down on the treacle tart.
Alexia followed up her advantage with a vicious prod between the vampire’s legs. His howl went quite a bit higher in pitch, and he crumpled into a fetal position. While Miss Tarabotti was a proper English young lady, aside from not having a soul and being half Italian, she did spend quite a bit more time than most other young ladies riding and walking and was therefore unexpectedly strong.
Miss Tarabotti leaped forward—as much as one could leap in full triple-layered underskirts, draped bustle, and ruffled taffeta top-skirt—and bent over the vampire. He was clutching at his indelicate bits and writhing about. The pain would not last long given his supernatural healing ability, but it hurt most decidedly in the interim.
Alexia pulled a long wooden hair stick out of her elaborate coiffure. Blushing at her own temerity, she ripped open his shirtfront, which was cheap and overly starched, and poked at his chest, right over the heart. Miss Tarabotti sported a particularly large and sharp hair stick. With her free hand, she made certain to touch his chest, as only physical contact would nullify his supernatural abilities.
“Desist that horrible noise immediately,” she instructed the creature.
The vampire quit his squealing and lay perfectly still. His beautiful blue eyes watered slightly as he stared fixedly at the wooden hair stick. Or, as Alexia liked to call it, hair stake.
“Explain yourself!” Miss Tarabotti demanded, increasing the pressure.
“A thousand apologies.” The vampire looked confused. “Who are you?” Tentatively he reached for his fangs. Gone.
To make her position perfectly clear, Alexia stopped touching him (though she kept her sharp hair stick in place). His fangs grew back.
He gasped in amazement. “What are you? I thought you were a lady, alone. It would be my right to feed, if you were left this carelethly unattended. Pleathe, I did not mean to prethume,” he lisped around his fangs, real panic in his eyes.
Alexia, finding it hard not to laugh at the lisp, said, “There is no cause for you to be so overly dramatic. Your hive queen will have told you of my kind.” She returned her hand to his chest once more. The vampire’s fangs retracted.
He looked at her as though she had suddenly sprouted whiskers and hissed at him.
Miss Tarabotti was surprised. Supernatural creatures, be they vampires, werewolves, or ghosts, owed their existence to an overabundance of soul, an excess that refused to die. Most knew that others like Miss Tarabotti existed, born without any soul at all. The estimable Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR), a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service, called her ilk preternatural. Alexia thought the term nicely dignified. What vampires called her was far less complimentary. After all, preternaturals had once hunted them, and vampires had long memories. Natural, daylight persons were kept in the dark, so to speak, but any vampire worth his blood should know a preternatural’s touch. This one’s ignorance was untenable. Alexia said, as though to a very small child, “I am a preternatural.”
The vampire looked embarrassed. “Of course you are,” he agreed, obviously still not quite comprehending. “Again, my apologies, lovely one. I am overwhelmed to meet you. You are my first”—he stumbled over the word—“preternatural.” He frowned. “Not supernatural, not natural, of course! How foolish of me not to see the dichotomy.” His eyes narrowed into craftiness. He was now studiously ignoring the hair stick and looking tenderly up into Alexia’s face.
Miss Tarabotti knew full well her own feminine appeal. The kindest compliment her face could ever hope to garner was “exotic,” never ‘“lovely.” Not that it had ever received either. Alexia figured that vampires, like all predators, were at their most charming when cornered.
The vampire’s hands shot forward, going for her neck. Apparently, he had decided if he could not suck her blood, strangulation was an acceptable alternative. Alexia jerked back, at the same time pressing her hair stick into the creature’s white flesh. It slid in about half an inch. The vampire reacted with a desperate wriggle that, even without superhuman strength, unbalanced Alexia in her heeled velvet dancing shoes. She fell back. He stood, roaring in pain, with her hair stick half in and half out of his chest.
Miss Tarabotti scrabbled for her parasol, rolling about inelegantly among the tea things, hoping her new dress would miss the fallen foodstuffs. She found the parasol and came upright, swinging it in a wide arc. Purely by chance, the heavy tip struck the end of her wooden hair stick, driving it straight into the vampire’s heart.
The creature stood stock-still, a look of intense surprise on his handsome face. Then he fell backward onto the much-abused plate of treacle tart, flopping in a limp-overcooked-asparagus kind of way. His alabaster face turned a yellowish gray, as though he were afflicted with the jaundice, and he went still. Alexia’s books called this end of the vampire life cycle dissanimation. Alexia, who thought the action astoundingly similar to a soufflé going flat, decided at that moment to call it the Grand Collapse.
She intended to waltz directly out of the library without anyone the wiser to her presence there. This would have resulted in the loss of her best hair stick and her well-deserved tea, as well as a good deal of drama. Unfortunately, a small group of young dandies came traipsing in at that precise moment. What young men of such dress were doing in a library was anyone’s guess. Alexia felt the most likely explanation was that they had become lost while looking for the card room. Regardless, their presence forced her to pretend that she, too, had just discovered the dead vampire. With a resigned shrug, she screamed and collapsed into a faint.
She stayed resolutely fainted, despite the liberal application of smelling salts, which made her eyes water most tremendously, a cramp in the back of one knee, and the fact that her new ball gown was getting most awfully wrinkled. All its many layers of green trim, picked to the height of fashion in lightening shades to complement the cuirasse bodice, were being crushed into oblivion under her weight. The expected noises ensued: a good deal of yelling, much bustling about, and several loud clatters as one of the housemaids cleared away the fallen tea.
Then came the sound she had half anticipated, half dreaded. An authoritative voice cleared the library of both young dandies and all other interested parties who had flowed into the room upon discovery of the tableau. The voice instructed everyone to “get out!” while he “gained the particulars from the young lady” in tones that brooked no refusal.
“Mark my words, I will use something much, much stronger than smelling salts,” came a growl in Miss Tarabotti’s left ear. The voice was low and tinged with a hint of Scotland. It would have caused Alexia to shiver and think primal monkey thoughts about moons and running far and fast, if she’d had a soul. Instead it caused her to sigh in exasperation and sit up.
“And a good evening to you, too, Lord Maccon. Lovely weather we are having for this time of year, is it not?” She patted at her hair, which was threatening to fall down without the hair stick in its proper place. Surreptitiously, she looked about for Lord Conall Maccon’s second in command, Professor Lyall. Lord Maccon tended to maintain a much calmer temper when his Beta was present. But, then, as Alexia had come to comprehend, that appeared to be the main role of a Beta—especially one attached to Lord Maccon.
“Ah, Professor Lyall, how nice to see you again.” She smiled in relief.
Professor Lyall, the Beta in question, was a slight, sandy-haired gentleman of indeterminate age and pleasant disposition, as agreeable, in fact, as his Alpha was sour. He grinned at her and doffed his hat, which was of first-class design and sensible material. His cravat was similarly subtle, for, while it was tied expertly, the knot was a humble one.
“Miss Tarabotti, how delicious to find ourselves in your company once more.” His voice was soft and mild-mannered.
“Stop humoring her, Randolph,” barked Lord Maccon. The fourth Earl of Woolsey was much larger than Professor Lyall and in possession of a near-permanent frown. Or at least he always seemed to be frowning when he was in the presence of Miss Alexia Tarabotti, ever since the hedgehog incident (which really, honestly, had not been her fault). He also had unreasonably pretty tawny eyes, mahogany-colored hair, and a particularly nice nose. The eyes were currently glaring at Alexia from a shockingly intimate distance.
“Why is it, Miss Tarabotti, every time I have to clean up a mess in a library, you just happen to be in the middle of it?” the earl demanded of her.
Alexia gave him a withering look and brushed down the front of her green taffeta gown, checking for bloodstains.
Lord Maccon appreciatively watched her do it. Miss Tarabotti might examine her face in the mirror each morning with a large degree of censure, but there was nothing at all wrong with her figure. He would have to have had far less soul and a good fewer urges not to notice that appetizing fact. Of course, she always went and spoiled the appeal by opening her mouth. In his humble experience, the world had yet to produce a more vexingly verbose female.
“Lovely but unnecessary,” he said, indicating her efforts to brush away nonexistent blood drops.
Alexia reminded herself that Lord Maccon and his kind were only just civilized. One simply could not expect too much from them, especially under delicate circumstances such as these. Of course, that failed to explain Professor Lyall, who was always utterly urbane. She glanced with appreciation in the professor’s direction.
Lord Maccon’s frown intensified.
Miss Tarabotti considered that the lack of civilized behavior might be the sole provenance of Lord Maccon. Rumor had it, he had only lived in London a comparatively short while—and he had relocated from Scotland of all barbaric places.
The professor coughed delicately to get his Alpha’s attention. The earl’s yellow gaze focused on him with such intensity it should have actually burned. “Aye?”
Professor Lyall was crouched over the vampire, examining the hair stick with interest. He was poking about the wound, a spotless white lawn handkerchief wrapped around his hand.
“Very little mess, actually. Almost complete lack of blood spatter.” He leaned forward and sniffed. “Definitely Westminster,” he stated.
The Earl of Woolsey seemed to understand. He turned his piercing gaze onto the dead vampire. “He must have been very hungry.”
Professor Lyall turned the body over. “What happened here?” He took out a small set of wooden tweezers from the pocket of his waistcoat and picked at the back of the vampire’s trousers. He paused, rummaged about in his coat pockets, and produced a diminutive leather case. He clicked it open and removed a most bizarre pair of gogglelike things. They were gold in color with multiple lenses on one side, between which there appeared to be some kind of liquid. The contraption was also riddled with small knobs and dials. Professor Lyall propped the ridiculous things onto his nose and bent back over the vampire, twiddling at the dials expertly.
“Goodness gracious me,” exclaimed Alexia, “what are you wearing? It looks like the unfortunate progeny of an illicit union between a pair of binoculars and some opera glasses. What on earth are they called, binocticals, spectoculars?”
The earl snorted his amusement and then tried to pretend he hadn’t. “How about glassicals?” he suggested, apparently unable to resist a contribution. There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it that Alexia found rather unsettling.
Professor Lyall looked up from his examination and glared at the both of them. His right eye was hideously magnified. It was quite gruesome and made Alexia start involuntarily.
“These are my monocular cross-magnification lenses with spectra-modifier attachment, and they are invaluable. I will thank you not to mock them so openly.” He turned once more to the task at hand.
“Oh.” Miss Tarabotti was suitably impressed. “How do they work?” she inquired.
Professor Lyall looked back up at her, suddenly animated. “Well, you see, it is really quite interesting. By turning this little knob here, you can change the distance between the two panes of glass here, allowing the liquid to—”
The earl’s groan interrupted him. “Don’t get him started, Miss Tarabotti, or we will be here all night.”
Looking slightly crestfallen, Professor Lyall turned back to the dead vampire. “Now, what is this substance all over his clothing?”
His boss, preferring the direct approach, resumed his frown and looked accusingly at Alexia. “What on God’s green earth is that muck?”
Miss Tarabotti said, “Ah. Sadly, treacle tart. A tragic loss, I daresay.” Her stomach chose that moment to growl in agreement. She would have colored gracefully with embarrassment had she not possessed the complexion of one of those “heathen Italians,” as her mother said, who never colored, gracefully or otherwise. (Convincing her mother that Christianity had, to all intents and purposes, originated with the Italians, thus making them the exact opposite of heathen, was a waste of time and breath.) Alexia refused to apologize for the boisterousness of her stomach and favored Lord Maccon with a defiant glare. Her stomach was the reason she had sneaked away in the first place. Her mama had assured her there would be food at the ball. Yet all that appeared on offer when they arrived was a bowl of punch and some sadly wilted water-cress. Never one to let her stomach get the better of her, Alexia had ordered tea from the butler and retreated to the library. Since she normally spent any ball lurking on the outskirts of the dance floor trying to look as though she did not want to be asked to waltz, tea was a welcome alternative. It was rude to order refreshments from someone else’s staff, but when one was promised sandwiches and there was nothing but watercress, well, one must simply take matters into one’s own hands!
Professor Lyall, kindhearted soul that he was, prattled on to no one in particular, pretending not to notice the rumbling of her stomach. Though of course he heard it. He had excellent hearing. They all did. He looked up from his examinations, his face all catawampus from the glassicals. “Starvation would explain why the vampire was desperate enough to try for Miss Tarabotti at a ball, rather than taking to the slums like the smart ones do when they get this bad.”
Alexia grimaced. “No associated hive either.”
Lord Maccon arched one black eyebrow, professing not to be impressed. “How could you possibly know that?”
Professor Lyall explained for both of them. “No need to be so direct with the young lady. A hive queen would never have let one of her brood get into such a famished condition. We must have a rove on our hands, one completely without ties to the local hive.”
Alexia stood up, revealing to Lord Maccon that she had arranged her faint to rest comfortably against a fallen settee pillow. He grinned and then quickly hid it behind a frown when she looked at him suspiciously.
“I have a different theory.” She gestured to the vampire’s clothing. “Badly tied cravat and a cheap shirt? No hive worth its salt would let a larva like that out without dressing him properly for public appearance. I am surprised he was not stopped at the front entrance. The duchess’s footman really ought to have spotted a cravat like that prior to the reception line and forcibly ejected the wearer. I suppose good staff is hard to come by with all the best ones becoming drones these days, but such a shirt!”
The Earl of Woolsey glared at her. “Cheap clothing is no excuse for killing a man.”
“Mmm, that’s what you say.” Alexia evaluated Lord Maccon’s perfectly tailored shirtfront and exquisitely tied cravat. His dark hair was a bit too long and shaggy to be de mode, and his face was not entirely clean-shaven, but he possessed enough hauteur to carry this lower-class roughness off without seeming scruffy. She was certain that his silver and black paisley cravat must be tied under sufferance. He probably preferred to wander about bare-chested at home. The idea made her shiver oddly. It must take a lot of effort to keep a man like him tidy. Not to mention well tailored. He was bigger than most. She had to give credit to his valet, who must be a particularly tolerant claviger.
Lord Maccon was normally quite patient. Like most of his kind, he had learned to be such in polite society. But Miss Tarabotti seemed to bring out the worst of his animal urges. “Stop trying to change the subject,” he snapped, squirming under her calculated scrutiny. “Tell me what happened.” He put on his BUR face and pulled out a small metal tube, stylus, and pot of clear liquid. He unrolled the tube with a small cranking device, clicked the top off the liquid, and dipped the stylus into it. It sizzled ominously.
Alexia bristled at his autocratic tone. “Do not give me instructions in that tone of voice, you…” she searched for a particularly insulting word, “puppy! I am jolly well not one of your pack.”
Lord Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, was Alpha of the local werewolves, and as a result, he had access to a wide array of truly vicious methods of dealing with Miss Alexia Tarabotti. Instead of bridling at her insult (puppy, indeed!), he brought out his best offensive weapon, the result of decades of personal experience with more than one Alpha she-wolf. Scottish he may be by birth, but that only made him better equipped to deal with strong-willed females. “Stop playing verbal games with me, madam, or I shall go out into that ballroom, find your mother, and bring her here.”
Alexia wrinkled her nose. “Well, I like that! That is hardly playing a fair game. How unnecessarily callous,” she admonished. Her mother did not know that Alexia was preternatural. Mrs. Loontwill, as she was Loontwill since her remarriage, leaned a little too far toward the frivolous in any given equation. She was prone to wearing yellow and engaging in bouts of hysteria. Combining her mother with a dead vampire and her daughter’s true identity was a recipe for disaster on all possible levels.
The fact that Alexia was preternatural had been explained to her at age six by a nice gentleman from the Civil Service with silver hair and a silver cane—a were-wolf specialist. Along with the dark hair and prominent nose, preternatural was something Miss Tarabotti had to thank her dead Italian father for. What it really meant was that words like I and me were just excessively theoretical for Alexia. She certainly had an identity and a heart that felt emotions and all that; she simply had no soul. Miss Alexia, age six, had nodded politely at the nice silver-haired gentleman. Then she had made certain to read oodles of ancient Greek philosophy dealing with reason, logic, and ethics. If she had no soul, she also had no morals, so she reckoned she had best develop some kind of alternative. Her mama thought her a bluestocking, which was soulless enough as far as Mrs. Loontwill was concerned, and was terribly upset by her eldest daughter’s propensity for libraries. It would be too bothersome to have to face her mama in one just now.
Lord Maccon moved purposefully toward the door with the clear intention of acquiring Mrs. Loontwill.
Alexia caved with ill grace. “Oh, very well!” She settled herself with a rustle of green skirts onto a peach brocade chesterfield near the window.
The earl was both amused and annoyed to see that she had managed to pick up her fainting pillow and place it back on the couch without his registering any swooping movement.
“I came into the library for tea. I was promised food at this ball. In case you had not noticed, no food appears to be in residence.”
Lord Maccon who required a considerable amount of fuel, mostly of the protein inclination, had noticed. “The Duke of Snodgrove is notoriously reticent about any additional expenditure at his wife’s balls. Victuals were probably not on the list of acceptable offerings.” He sighed. “The man owns half of Berkshire and cannot even provide a decent sandwich.”
Miss Tarabotti made an empathetic movement with both hands. “My point precisely! So you will understand that I had to resort to ordering my own repast. Did you expect me to starve?”
The earl gave her generous curves a rude once-over, observed that Miss Tarabotti was nicely padded in exactly the right places, and refused to be suckered into becoming sympathetic. He maintained his frown. “I suspect that is precisely what the vampire was thinking when he found you without a chaperone. An unmarried female alone in a room in this enlightened day and age! Why, if the moon had been full, even I would have attacked you!”
Alexia gave him the once-over and reached for her brass parasol. “My dear sir, I should like to see you try.”
Being Alpha made Lord Maccon a tad unprepared for such bold rebuttals, even with his Scottish past. He blinked at her in surprise for a split second and then resumed the verbal attack. “You do realize modern social mores exist for a reason?”
“I was hungry, allowances should be made,” Alexia said, as if that settled the matter, unable to understand why he persisted in harping on about it.
Professor Lyall, unobserved by the other two, was busy fishing about in his waistcoat for something. Eventually, he produced a mildly beaten-up ham and pickle sandwich wrapped in a bit of brown paper. He presented it to Miss Tarabotti, ever the gallant.
Under normal circumstances, Alexia would have been put off by the disreputable state of the sandwich, but it was meant so kindly and offered with such diffidence, she could do nothing but accept. It was actually rather tasty.
“This is delicious!” she stated, surprised.
Professor Lyall grinned. “I keep them around for when his lordship gets particularly testy. Such offerings keep the beast under control for the most part.” He frowned and then added a caveat. “Excepting at full moon, of course. Would that a nice ham and pickle sandwich was all it took then.”
Miss Tarabotti perked up, interested. “What do you do at full moon?”
Lord Maccon knew very well Miss Tarabotti was getting off the point intentionally. Driven beyond endurance, he resorted to use of her first name. “Alexia!” It was a long, polysyllabic, drawn-out growl.
She waved the sandwich at him. “Uh, do you want half of this, my lord?”
His frown became even darker, if such a thing could be conceived.
Professor Lyall pushed his glassicals up onto the brim of his top hat, where they looked like a strange second set of mechanical eyes, and stepped into the breach. “Miss Tarabotti, I do not believe you quite realize the delicacy of this situation. Unless we can establish strong grounds for self-defense by proving the vampire was behaving in a wholly irrational manner, you could be facing murder charges.”
Alexia swallowed her bite of sandwich so quickly she partly choked and started to cough. “What?”
Lord Maccon turned his fierce frown on his second. “Now who is being too direct for the lady’s sensibilities?”
Lord Maccon was relatively new to the London area. He had arrived a social unknown, challenged for Woolsey Castle Alpha, and won. He gave young ladies heart palpitations, even outside his wolf form, with a favorable combination of mystery, preeminence, and danger. Having acquired the BUR post, Woolsey Castle, and noble rank from the dispossessed former pack leader, he never lacked for a dinner invitation. His Beta, inherited with the pack, had a tense time of it: dancing on protocol and covering up Lord Maccon’s various social gaffes. So far, bluntness had proved Professor Lyall’s most consistent problem. Sometimes it even rubbed off on him. He had not meant to shock Miss Tarabotti, but she was now looking most subdued.
“I was simply sitting,” Alexia explained, placing the sandwich aside, having lost her appetite. “He launched himself at me, totally unprovoked. His feeding fangs were out. I am certain if I had been a normal daylight woman, he would have bled me dry. I simply had to defend myself.”
Professor Lyall nodded. A vampire in a state of extreme hunger had two socially acceptable options: to take sips from various willing drones belonging to him or his hive, or to pay for the privilege from blood-whores down dockside. This was the nineteenth century, after all, and one simply did not attack unannounced and uninvited! Even werewolves, who could not control themselves at full moon, made certain they had enough clavigers around to lock them away. He himself had three, and it took five to keep Lord Maccon under control.
“Do you think maybe he was forced into this state?” the professor wondered.
“You mean imprisoned until he was starving and no longer in possession of his faculties?” Lord Maccon considered the idea.
Professor Lyall flipped his glassicals back down off his hat and examined the dead man’s wrists and neck myopically. “No signs of confinement or torture, but hard to tell with a vampire. Even in a low blood state, he would heal most superficial wounds in”—he grabbed Lord Maccon’s metal roll and stylus, dipped the tip into the clear sizzling liquid, and did some quick calculations—“a little over one hour.” The calculations remained etched into the metal.
“And then what? Did he escape or was he intentionally let go?”
Alexia interjected, “He seemed perfectly sane to me— aside from the attacking part, of course. He was able to carry on a decent conversation. He even tried to charm me. Must have been quite a young vampire. And”—she paused dramatically, lowered her voice, and said in sepulchral tones—“he had a fang-lisp.”
Professor Lyall looked shocked and blinked largely at her through the asymmetrical lenses; among vampires, lisping was the height of vulgarity.
Miss Tarabotti continued. “It was as though he had never been trained in hive etiquette, no social class at all. He was almost a boor.” It was a word she had never thought to apply to a vampire.
Lyall took the glassicals off and put them away in their little case with an air of finality. He looked gravely at his Alpha. “You know what this means, then, my lord?”
Lord Maccon was not frowning anymore. Instead he was looking grim. Alexia felt it suited him better, setting his mouth into a straight line and touching his tawny eyes with a determined glint. She wondered idly what he would look like if he smiled a real honest smile. Then she told herself quite firmly that it was probably best not to find out.
The object of her speculations said, “It means some hive queen is intentionally biting to metamorphosis outside of BUR regulations.”
“Could it be just the once, do you think?” Professor Lyall removed a folded piece of white cloth from his waistcoat. He shook out the material, revealing it to be a large sheet of fine silk. Alexia was beginning to find the number of things he could stash in his waistcoat quite impressive.
Lord Maccon continued. “Or this could be the start of something more extensive. We’d better get back to BUR. The local hives will have to be interviewed. The queens are not going to be happy. Apart from everything else, this incident is awfully embarrassing for them.”
Miss Tarabotti agreed. “Especially if they find out about the substandard shirt selection.”
The two gentlemen wrapped the vampire’s body in the silk sheet. Professor Lyall hoisted it easily over one shoulder. Even in their human form, werewolves were considerably stronger than daylight folk.
Lord Maccon rested his tawny gaze on Alexia. She was sitting primly on the chesterfield. One gloved hand rested on the ebony handle of a ridiculous-looking parasol. Her brown eyes were narrowed in consideration. He would give a hundred pounds to know what she was thinking just then. He was also certain she would tell him exactly what it was if he asked, but he refused to give her the satisfaction. Instead he issued a statement. “We’ll try to keep your name out of it, Miss Tarabotti. My report will say it was simply a normal girl who got lucky and managed to escape an unwarranted attack. No need for anyone to know a preternatural was involved.”
Now it was Alexia’s turn to glare. “Why do you BUR types always do that?”
Both men paused to look at her in confusion.
“Do what, Miss Tarabotti?” asked the professor.
“Dismiss me as though I were a child. Do you realize I could be useful to you?”
Lord Maccon grunted. “You mean you could go around legally getting into trouble instead of just bothering us all the time?”
Alexia tried to keep from feeling hurt. “BUR employs women, and I hear you even have a preternatural on the payroll up north, for ghost control and exorcism purposes.”
Lord Maccon’s caramel-colored eyes instantly narrowed. “From whom, exactly, did you hear that?”
Miss Tarabotti raised her eyebrows. As if she would ever betray the source of information told to her in confidence!
The earl understood her look perfectly. “Very well, never you mind that question.”
“I shall not,” replied Alexia primly.
Professor Lyall, still holding the body slung over one shoulder, took pity on her. “We do have both at BUR,” he admitted.
Lord Maccon elbowed him in the side, but he stepped out of range with a casual grace that bespoke much practice. “But what we do not have is any female preternaturals, and certainly not any gentlewomen. All women employed by BUR are good working-class stock.”
“You are simply still bitter about the hedgehogs,” muttered Miss Tarabotti, but she also bowed her head in acknowledgment. She’d had this conversation before, with Lord Maccon’s superior at BUR, to be precise. A man her brain still referred to as that Nice Silver-Haired Gentleman. The very idea that a lady of breeding such as herself might want to work was simply too shocking. “My dearest girl,” he had said, “what if your mother found out?”
“Isn’t BUR supposed to be covert? I could be covert.”
Miss Tarabotti could not help trying again. Professor Lyall, at least, liked her a little bit. Perhaps he might put in a good word.
Lord Maccon actually laughed. “You are about as covert as a sledgehammer.” Then he cursed himself silently, as she seemed suddenly forlorn. She hid it quickly, but she had definitely been saddened.
His Beta grabbed him by the arm with his free hand. “Really, sir, manners.”
The earl cleared his throat and looked contrite. “No offense meant, Miss Tarabotti.” The Scottish lilt was back in his voice.
Alexia nodded, not looking up. She plucked at one of the pansies on her parasol. “It’s simply, gentlemen”—and when she raised her dark eyes they had a slight sheen in them—“I would so like something useful to do.”
Lord Maccon waited until he and the professor were out in the hallway, having bid polite, on Professor Lyall’s part at least, farewells to the young lady, to ask the question that really bothered him. “For goodness’ sake, Randolph, why doesn’t she just get married?” His voice was full of frustration.
Randolph Lyall looked at his Alpha in genuine confusion. The earl was usually a very perceptive man, for all his bluster and Scottish grumbling. “She is a bit old, sir.”
“Balderdash,” said Lord Maccon. “She cannot possibly have more than a quarter century or so.”
“And she is very”—the professor looked for a gentlemanly way of putting it—“assertive.”
“Pah.” The nobleman waved one large paw dismissively. “Simply got a jot more backbone than most females this century. There must be plenty of discerning gentlemen who’d cop to her value.”
Professor Lyall had a well-developed sense of self-preservation and the distinct feeling that if he said anything desultory about the young lady’s appearance, he might actually get his head bitten off. He, and the rest of polite society, might believe Miss Tarabotti’s skin a little too dark and her nose a little too prominent, but he did not think Lord Maccon felt the same. Lyall had been Beta to the fourth Earl of Woolsey since Conall Maccon first descended upon them all. With barely twenty years gone and the bloody memory still strong, no werewolf was yet ready to question why Conall had wanted the bother of the London territory, not even Professor Lyall. The earl was a confusing man, his taste in females equally mystifying. For all Professor Lyall knew, his Alpha might actually like Roman noses, tan skin, and an assertive disposition. So instead he said, “Perhaps it’s the Italian last name, sir, that keeps her unwed.”
“Mmm,” agreed Lord Maccon, “probably so.” He did not sound convinced.
The two werewolves exited the duke’s town house into the black London night, one bearing the body of a dead vampire, the other, a puzzled expression.
Copyright © 2009 by Tofa Borregaard