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When a mad ghost threatens the queen, Alexia is on the case, following a trail that leads her deep into her husband’s past. Top that off with a sister who has joined the suffragette movement (shocking!), Madame Lefoux’s latest mechanical invention, and a plague of zombie porcupines, Alexia barely has time to remember she happens to be eight months pregnant.
Will Alexia manage to determine who is trying to kill Queen Victoria before it is too late? Is it the vampires again or is there a traitor lurking about in wolf’s clothing? And what, exactly, has taken up residence in Lord Akeldama’s second best closet?
Heartless is the fourth book of the Parasol Protectorate series: a comedy of manners set in Victorian London, full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Timeless
A Preview of Charming
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In Which Lady Alexia Maccon Waddles
Five months! Five months you—dare I say it—gentlemen have been sitting on this little scheme of yours and only now you decide to inform me of it!" Lady Alexia Maccon did not enjoy being surprised by declarations of intent. She glared at the men before her. Fully grown, and a goodly number of centuries older than she, yet they still managed to look like shamefaced little boys.
The three gentlemen, despite identical expressions of sheepishness, were as dissimilar as men of fashion and social standing could possibly be. The first was large and slightly unkempt. His perfectly tailored evening jacket draped about massive shoulders with a degree of reluctance, as if it were well aware that it was worn under sufferance. The other two existed in far more congenial partnerships with their apparel, although, with the first, dress was a matter of subtlety and, with the second, a form of artistic, nigh declamatory, expression.
Lady Maccon was not looking fearsome enough to inspire feelings of embarrassment in any gentleman, fashionable or no. Perilously close to her confinement at almost eight months, she had the distinct appearance of a stuffed goose with bunions.
"We didna want to worry you overly," ventured her husband. His voice was gruff in an attempt at calm solicitude. The Earl of Woolsey's tawny eyes were lowered, and his hair might actually have been dampened.
"Oh, and the constant vampire death threats are so very restful for a woman in my condition?" Alexia was having none of it. Her voice was shrill enough to disturb Lord Akeldama's cat, normally a most unflappable creature. The chubby calico opened one yellow eye and yawned.
"But isn't it the most perfect solution, my little lilac bush?" exalted Lord Akeldama, petting the cat back into purring, boneless relaxation. The vampire's discomfiture was the most manufactured of the three. There was a twinkle in his beautiful eyes, however downcast. It was the twinkle of a man about to get his own way.
"What, to lose possession of my own child? For goodness' sake, I may be soulless and I am, admittedly, not precisely maternal, but I am by no means heartless. Really, Conall, how could you agree to this? Without consulting me!"
"Wife, did you miss the fact that the entire pack has been on constant bodyguard duty for the past five months? It's exhausting, my dear."
Lady Maccon adored her husband. She was particularly fond of the way he strode about shirtless in a fit of pique, but she was finding she didn't actually like him at the moment—the fathead. She was also suddenly hungry, a terrible bother, as it distracted her from her irritation.
"Oh, indeed, and how do you think I feel being on the receiving end of such constant supervision? But, Conall, adoption!" Alexia stood and began to pace about. Or, to be more precise, waddle fiercely. For once, she was blind to the gilded beauty of Lord Akeldama's drawing room. I should have known better than to agree to a meeting here, she thought. Something untoward always occurs in Lord Akeldama's drawing room.
"The queen thinks it's a good plan." That was Professor Lyall joining the fray. His was probably the most genuine regret, as he disliked confrontation. He was also the one truly responsible for this plot, unless Alexia was very wrong in her estimation of his character.
"Bully for the ruddy queen. Absolutely not—I refuse."
"Now, Alexia, my dearest, be reasonable." Her husband was trying to wheedle. He wasn't very good at it—wheedling looked odd on a man of his proportions and monthly inclinations.
"Reasonable? Go boil your head in reasonable!"
Lord Akeldama tried a new tactic. "I have already converted the room next to mine into a positively charming nursery, my little pomegranate seed."
Lady Maccon was really quite shocked to hear that. She paused in her wrath and her waddling to blink at the vampire in surprise. "Not your second closet? Never that."
"Indeed. You see how seriously I am taking this, my dearest petal? I have relocated clothing for you."
"For my child, you mean." But Alexia was impressed despite herself.
She looked to Lyall for assistance and tried desperately to calm herself and behave as practically as possible. "And this will stop the attacks?"
Professor Lyall nodded, pushing his spectacles up with one finger. They were an affectation—he had no need of them—but they gave him something to hide behind. And something to fiddle with. "I believe so. I have not, of course, been able to consult with any queens outright. The hives refuse to admit to an extermination mandate, and BUR has not yet determined how to prove definitively the vampires are"—he coughed gently—"trying to kill your child. And by default, you."
Alexia knew that the Bureau of Unnatural Registry was handicapped by a combination of paperwork and proper appearances. That is to say, because it was the enforcing body for England's supernatural and preternatural subjects, it had to seem at all times to be obeying its own laws, including those that guaranteed the packs and the hives some level of autonomy and self-governance.
"Monsieur Trouvé's homicidal mechanical ladybugs?"
"Never did trace the vampires' agent in Europe."
"The exploding gravy boat?"
"No appreciable evidence left behind."
"The flaming Mongolian poodle?"
"No connection to any known dealer."
"The poisoned dirigible meal that Mr. Tunstell consumed in my stead?"
"Well, given the general foulness of food while floating, that could simply have been a coincidence." Professor Lyall removed his spectacles and began to clean the clear lenses with a spotless white handkerchief.
"Oh, Professor Lyall, are you making a funny? It doesn't suit you."
The sandy-haired Beta gave Lady Maccon a dour look. "I am exploring new personality avenues."
"Well, stop it."
"Yes, my lady."
Alexia straightened her spine as much as her protruding belly would allow and looked down her nose at Professor Lyall where he sat, legs crossed elegantly. "Explain to me how you have arrived at this solution. Also, given that you have not proposed this scheme to the hives, how do you know with such confidence that it will stop this annoying little tic they seem to have developed wherein they continually try to murder me?"
Professor Lyall looked helplessly at his coconspirators. Lord Maccon, with a wide grin, slouched back into the golden velvet settee, making it creak in protest. Neither Lord Akeldama nor any of his drones were built to Lord Maccon's scale. The couch was overwhelmed by the experience. It had this in common with a good deal of furniture.
Lord Akeldama merely continued to twinkle unhelpfully.
Clearly surmising that he had been left out to dry, Professor Lyall took a long breath. "How did you know it was my idea?"
Alexia crossed her arms over her very ample chest. "My dear sir, give me some credit."
Professor Lyall put his glasses back on. "Well, we know that the vampires are afraid of what your child could be, but I think they are wise enough to know that if raised with the proper precautions, even the most natural-born predator will behave in an entirely civilized fashion. You, for example."
Alexia raised an eyebrow.
Her husband snorted derisively.
Professor Lyall refused to be intimidated. "You may be a tad outrageous, Lady Maccon, but you are always civilized."
"Hear, hear," added Lord Akeldama, raising a long-stemmed glass and then taking a sip of the pink fizzy drink within.
Lady Maccon inclined her head. "I shall take that as a compliment."
Professor Lyall soldiered bravely on. "It is vampire nature to believe that any vampire, even—you'll pardon the insult, my lord—Lord Akeldama, will instill the correct ethical code in a child. A vampire father would ensure the baby is kept away from the corruption of Americans, Templars, and other like-minded antisupernatural elements. And, of course, you, Lord and Lady Maccon. Simply put, the hives will feel like they are in control, and all death threats should stop as a result."
Alexia looked at Lord Akeldama. "Do you agree with that prediction?"
Lord Akeldama nodded. "Yes, my dearest marigold."
The earl was beginning to look less annoyed and more thoughtful.
Professor Lyall continued. "Lord Akeldama seemed the best solution."
Lord Maccon wrinkled his nose at that and huffed derisively.
Professor Lyall, Lord Akeldama, and Alexia all pretended not to hear.
"He is more powerful than any other rove in the area. He has a goodly number of drones. He is centrally located, and as potentate, he carries the authority of Queen Victoria. Few would dare interfere with his household."
Lord Akeldama tapped Lyall playfully with the back of one hand. "Dolly, you flatterer, you."
Professor Lyall ignored this. "He is also your friend."
Lord Akeldama looked up to his ceiling, as though contemplating possible new canoodling for the painted cherubs depicted there. "I have also implied that because of a certain unmentionable incident this winter, the hives owe me a debt of honor. My potentate predecessor may have taken matters into his own lily-white hands, but the fact remains that the hives should have exerted some control over his activities on their behalf. His kidnapping of my droney poo was utterly inexcusable, and they are very well aware of that little fact. I hold a blood debt and intend to bite them back with this arrangement."
Alexia looked at her friend. His posture and demeanor were as relaxed and frivolous as ever, but there was a hardness about his mouth that suggested he actually meant what he was saying. "That is a rather serious statement coming from you, my lord."
The vampire smiled, showing fang. "Better revel in the experience, my little cream puff. It will probably never occur again."
Lady Maccon nibbled at her lower lip and went to sit in one of Lord Akeldama's more upright chairs. She found it tricky these days to extract herself from couches and love seats and preferred simply not to get involved with plushy furniture.
"Oh, I can't think." She rubbed at her belly, annoyed at the fuzziness in her own brain, the persistent product of lack of sleep, physical discomfort, and hunger. She seemed to spend all her time either eating or dozing—sometimes dozing while eating and, once or twice, eating while dozing. Pregnancy had given her a new window into the human capacity for consumption.
"Oh, blast it, I'm positively starving."
Instantly, all three men proffered up comestibles extracted from inner waistcoat pockets. Professor Lyall's offering was a ham sandwich wrapped in brown paper, Lord Maccon's a weather-beaten apple, and Lord Akeldama's a small box of Turkish delight. Months of training had seen the entire werewolf household running attendance on an increasingly grumpy Alexia and learning, to a man, that if food was not provided promptly, fur might fly, or worse, Lady Maccon would start to weep. As a result, several of the pack now crinkled as they moved, having desperately stashed snacks all about their personage.
Alexia opted for all three offerings and began to eat, starting with the Turkish delight. "So you are genuinely disposed toward adopting my child?" she asked Lord Akeldama between bites, and then looked at her husband. "And you are willing to allow it?"
The earl lost his amused attitude and knelt before his wife, looking up at her. He put his hands on her knees. Even through all her layers of skirts, Alexia could feel the wide roughness of his palms. "I'm taxing BUR and the pack to keep you safe, wife. I've even contemplated calling in the Coldsteam Guards." Curse him for looking so handsome when he came over all bashful and sincere. It quite undid her resolve. "Not that I would do it any differently. I protect my own. But Queen Victoria would be livid if I pulled military strings in a personal matter. Well, more livid than she already is over my killing the potentate. We must be clever. They're older and craftier and they'll keep trying. We canna continue on like this for the rest of our child's life."
Perhaps he has learned something about pragmatism being married to me, Alexia thought. Oh, but why'd he have to turn all sensible now? She tried desperately not to fly into a tizzy over his unilateral handling of the situation. She knew that it cost Conall a terrible price to admit to any kind of inability. He liked to think he was all-powerful.
She cupped his cheek with her gloved hand. "But this is our baby."
"Do you have a better solution?" It was an honest question. He was genuinely hoping she could think up an alternative.
Alexia shook her head, trying not to come over mawkish. Then she firmed up her mouth. "Very well." She turned to Lord Akeldama. "If you intend to take possession of my child, then I'm moving in, too."
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?"
"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?"
"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.
In the interest of scientific experimentation, Alexia fired Ethel out the carriage window at a porcupine nearer to the edge of the undulating herd. Proximity and density combined to result in her actually hitting one. Not the one she'd aimed at, but… The animal in question fell heavily to one side and began to slowly bleed, thick black blood, the kind of blood emitted by vampires. Alexia wrinkled her nose in disgust. Once in her past, a certain wax-faced automaton had also oozed such blood.
Another shot rang out. The coachman, a newer claviger, was also firing on their attackers.
Lady Maccon frowned. Were these porcupines already dead? Zombie porcupines? She snorted at her own flight of fancy. Surely not.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 448 pages