Heartless (Parasol Protectorate #4)

Chapter 2

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Lord Akeldama didn’t miss a beat. He opened his arms wide as though to embrace her. “Darlingest of Alexias, welcome to the family.”

“You do realize I may have to take up residence in your other closet?”

“Sacrifices, sacrifices.”

“What? Absolutely not.” Lord Maccon stood and glared down at his wife.

Lady Maccon got that look on her face. “I’m already in London two nights a week for the Shadow Council. I’ll come in on Wednesday and stay through to Monday, spend the rest of the week at Woolsey.”

The earl could do math. “Two nights? You’ll give me two nights?! Unacceptable.”

Alexia wouldn’t budge. “You’re in town on BUR business most evenings yourself. You can see me then.”

“Alexia,” said Lord Maccon on a definite growl, “I refuse to petition for visiting rights with my own wife!”

“Tough cheese. I am also this child’s mother. You are forcing me to choose.”

“Perhaps, if I may?” Professor Lyall interjected.

Lord and Lady Maccon glowered at him. They enjoyed arguing with each other almost as much as they enjoyed any other intimate activity.

Professor Lyall called upon the sublime confidence of the truly urbane. “The house adjacent is to let. If Woolsey were to take it on as a town residence, my lord?.?.?.?? You and Lady Maccon could maintain a room here at Lord Akeldama’s but pretend to live next door. This would keep up the appearance of separation for when the child arrives. You, Lord Maccon, could spend meals and so forth with members of the pack while they are in town. Of course, parts of the month everyone would have to return to Woolsey for security purposes, and there’s hunting and runs to consider. But it might work, as a temporary compromise. For a decade or two.”

“Will the vampires object?” Alexia rather liked the idea. Woolsey Castle was a little too far outside of London for her taste, and those buttresses—positively excessive.

“I don’t believe so. Not if it is made absolutely clear that Lord Akeldama has complete parental control, proper documentation and all. And we manage to keep up pretenses.”

Lord Akeldama was amused. “Dolly, darling, so deliciously unprecedented—a wolf pack living directly next to a vampire such as moi.”

The earl frowned. “My marriage was also unprecedented.”

“True, true.” Lord Akeldama was on a roll. He swept to his feet, dumping the cat unceremoniously off his lap, and began sashaying about the room. This evening he wore highly polished oxblood boots and white velvet jodhpurs with a red riding jacket. It was all purely decorative. Vampires rarely rode—most horses would have none of it—and Lord Akeldama disdained the sport as disastrous to one’s hair. “Dolly, I adore this plan! Alexia, sugar drop, you must make over your town house to complement mine. Robin’s-egg blue with silver detailing, don’t you think? We could plant lilac bushes. I do so love lilac bushes.”

Professor Lyall was not to be sidetracked. “Do you believe it will work?”

“Robin’s-egg blue and silver? Of course. It will look divine.”

Alexia hid a smile.

“No.” Professor Lyall possessed infinite patience, whether dealing with Lord Maccon’s temper, Lord Akeldama’s purposeful obtuseness, or Lady Maccon’s antics. Being a Beta, Alexia figured, must be rather like being the world’s most tolerant butler. “Will having your vampire residence adjacent to a werewolf pack work?”

Lord Akeldama raised his monocle. Like Lyall’s spectacles, it was entirely artificial. But he did love the accessory so. He had several, set with different gemstones and in different metals to match any outfit.

The vampire regarded the two werewolves in his drawing room through the small circle of glass. “You are rather more civilized under my dear Alexia’s tutelage. I suppose it could be tolerated, so long as I do not have to dine with you. And, Lord Maccon, might we have words on the proper tying of a cravat? For my sanity’s sake?”

Lord Maccon was nonplussed.

Professor Lyall, on the other hand, was pained. “I do what I can.”

Lord Akeldama looked at him, pity in his eyes. “You are a brave man.”

Lady Maccon interjected at this juncture. “And you wouldn’t mind Conall and myself occasionally in residence?”

“If you see to the cravat situation, I suppose I could surrender yet another closet to the cause.”

Alexia swallowed down a broad grin and tried to be as serious as humanly possible. “You are a noble man.”

Lord Akeldama tilted his head in gracious acceptance of the accolade. “Whoever thought I would have a werewolf living in my closet?”

“Hobgoblins under the bed?” suggested Lady Maccon, allowing her grin to emerge.

“La, butterball, I should be so lucky.” A gleam entered the vampire’s eyes, and he brushed his blond hair flirtatiously off his neck. “I suppose your pack must spend a good deal of time underdressed?”

The earl rolled his eyes, but Professor Lyall was not above a little bribery. “Or not dressed at all.”

Lord Akeldama nodded in pleasure. “Oh, my darling boys are going to love this new arrangement. They often take a keen interest in remarking upon the activities of our neighbors.”

“Oh, dear,” muttered Lord Maccon under his breath.

Biffy remained unmentioned, although everyone was thinking about him. Alexia, being Alexia, decided she would bring the taboo subject out into the open. “Biffy is going to be pleased.”

Silence met that statement.

Lord Akeldama assumed a forced lightness of tone. “How is the newest member of the Woolsey Pack?”

In truth, Biffy was not adjusting as well as anyone would like. He still fought the change each month and refused to try shifting of his own volition. He obeyed Lord Maccon implicitly, but there was no joy in it. The result was that he was having trouble learning any modicum of control and had to be locked away more nights than not because of this weakness.

However, not being inclined to confide in a vampire, Lord Maccon only said gruffly, “The pup is well enough.”

Lady Maccon frowned. Had she and Lord Akeldama been alone, she might have said something to him of Biffy’s tribulations, but as it was, she let her husband handle it. If they, indeed, moved in to Lord Akeldama’s neighborhood and home, he would find out the truth of the matter soon enough.

She made a dictatorial gesture at Conall.

Rather like a trained dog—although no one would dare suggest the comparison to any werewolf—Lord Maccon stood, offering both his hands. He hoisted his wife to her feet. During the last few months, Alexia had taken to using him thus on multiple occasions.

Professor Lyall stood as well.

“So it’s decided?” Alexia looked at the three supernatural gentlemen.

They all nodded at her.

“Excellent. I shall have Floote make the arrangements. Professor, can you leak our relocation to the papers so that the vampires find out? Lord Akeldama, if you would use your very own special distribution methods as well?”

“Of course, my little dewdrop.”

“At once, my lady.”

“You and I”—Lady Maccon grinned up at her husband, immersing herself, albeit briefly, in his tawny eyes—“have packing to do.”

He sighed, no doubt contemplating the pack’s reaction to the fact that their Alpha was about to reside, at least part of the time, in town. The Woolsey Pack was not exactly renowned for its interest in high society. No pack was. “How do you manage to drag me into such situations, wife?”

“Oh”—Alexia stood on tiptoe and leaned in to kiss the tip of his nose, balancing her belly against his strong frame—“you love it. Just think how terribly dull your life was before I came into it.”

The earl gave her a dour look but ceded the point.

Alexia nestled against him, enjoying the tingles his massive body still engendered in her own.

Lord Akeldama sighed. “You lovebirds, how will I endure such flirtations constantly in my company? How déclassé, Lord Maccon, to love your own wife.” He led the way out of his drawing room and into the long arched front hallway.

Inside the carriage, Lord Maccon scooped his wife against him and planted a buzzing kiss on the side of her neck.

Lady Maccon had initially thought Conall’s amorous attentions would diminish as her pregnancy progressed, but she was happily mistaken. He was intrigued by the alterations of her body—a spirit of scientific inquiry that took the form of her being unclothed as often as he could arrange it. It was a good thing this was the season for such activities; London was experiencing quite the nicest summer in an age.

Alexia settled against her husband and, grabbing his face in both hands, directed his kissing toward her mouth for a long moment. He gave a little growl that was almost a purr and hauled her closer. Her stomach got in the way, but the earl didn’t seem bothered.

They spent a half hour or so thus pleasantly occupied until Alexia said, “You really don’t mind?”

“Mind?”

“Living in Lord Akeldama’s closet?”

“I’ve done more foolish things for love in the past,” he answered, rather unguardedly, before nibbling on her ear.

Alexia shifted against him. “You have? What?”

“Well, there was this—”

The carriage bucked and the window above the door shattered.

The earl immediately shielded his wife from the flying glass with his own body. Even fully mortal, his reactions were fast and military sharp.

“Oh, doesn’t that just take the sticky pudding?” said Alexia. “Why is it always when I’m in a carriage?”

The horses screamed and the coach lurched, coming to a rattling halt. Something had definitely spooked the beasts into rearing against their traces.

In classic werewolf fashion, Lord Maccon didn’t wait to see what it was but burst out the door, changing form at the same time to land in the road a raging wolf.

He’s brash, thought his wife, but terribly handsome about it.

They were outside of London proper, following one of the many country lanes toward Barking that would eventually branch off to Woolsey Castle. Whatever had startled the horses seemed to be giving Lord Maccon a bit of stick. Alexia poked her head out to see.

Hedgehogs. Hundreds of them.

Lady Maccon frowned and then looked closer. The moon was only half full, and though it was a clear summer night, it was challenging to make out the particulars. She reassessed her first impression of the roly-poly attackers. These were far bigger than hedgehogs, with long gray spines. They reminded her of a series of etchings she’d once seen in a book on Darkest Africa. What had that creature been named? Something to do with pig products? Ah, yes, a porcupine. These looked like porcupines. To her utter amazement, they also seemed to be able to eject their spines at her husband, embedding them into his fur-covered flesh.

As each wickedly barbed spine hit, Conall howled in distress and bent to yank the projectile out with his teeth.

Then he seemed to partly lose control of his back legs.

Numbing agent? wondered Alexia. Are they mechanical? She grabbed her parasol and stuck the tip of it out the broken window. Firming her grip with one hand, she activated the magnetic disruption emitter with the other by pulling down on the appropriate lotus leaf in the handle.

The animals continued to attack Conall with no slowing or reaction to the invisible blast. Either the parasol was broken, which Alexia doubted, or the creatures had no magnetic parts. Perhaps they were as biological as they initially appeared.

Well, if they are biological… Lady Maccon took out her gun.

The earl had objected to his wife carrying firearms, until the vampires orchestrated the gravy-boat attack. After that, he took Alexia out behind Woolsey Castle, ordered two members of his pack to run about holding trenchers over their heads, and showed her how to shoot. Then he’d gifted her with a small but elegant gun, American made and delectably deadly. It was a .28 caliber Colt Paterson revolver, customized with a shorter barrel and a pearl handle—the former for ease of concealment and the latter to match Lady Maccon’s hair accessories.

Alexia named the gun Ethel.

She could hit the Woolsey pot shed at six paces if she concentrated, but anything smaller or farther away was rather beyond her skill level. This didn’t stop her from carrying Ethel, usually inside a reticule made to match her gown. However, it did stop her from pointing Ethel at any of the creatures near her husband. She could just as easily damage him as them.

Conall had managed to pull out most of the spines embedded in his body, but new and freshly equipped porcupines only fired at him again. Alexia tried to stop herself from panicking, as those projectiles might, just possibly, be silver tipped. However, while he seemed a tad overwhelmed and groggy, none had managed to hit him in any vital organs. Not yet. He was snapping and snarling, trying to get his deadly jaws about the creatures, but they seemed to move remarkably quickly for such pudgy animals.

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