Everything is Conall’s fault, blast that man! Just because Alexia is pregnant with an infant-inconvenience, and everyone knows that werewolves can’t have children, her thrice-bedamned husband assumes that she is an adulteress and throws her out of his house. And of course London Society finds out, as they always do, and they side with Conall just because he’s Lord Woolsey. And Alexia has been dismissed from Her Majesty’s Shadow Council. And worst of all, Alexia is forced to once more live with her family. The situation simply cannot be borne! (Although Conall’s reported headfirst dive into drunkenness does make her feel just a tiny bit better.)
So off Alexia goes to France and then Italy, home of the Templars, who have sworn to exterminate the supernatural threat (i.e. their existence). The Templars may hate supernaturals, but perhaps they will be more charitable towards a preternatural such as the soulless Alexia–besides, they did have some sort of association with Alexia’s late father Alessandro Tarabotti, also a preternatural. They may know something about how a werewolf and a preternatural could reproduce together. Shame they’re completely untrustworthy, but at least the food is good.
It’s nice to see Alexia’s renowned pragmatism break down a little here. She is deservedly furious with Conall for not believing in her truthfulness and fidelity, but she is also very hurt. Conall is likewise hurt and too proud to admit it, preferring to delve into Professor Lyall’s store of formaldehyde to quite thoroughly pickle himself. Fortunately for Alexia’s pride, Conall is the one who has to apologize since he was the one totally in the wrong, and Alexia savours that apology. I am amazed that Alexia manages to refrain from whacking her husband on his furry head with her parasol, so matter how richly he deserves it. Alexia and Conall have a wonderful relationship–they both remain exactly who they are, and they prove in this book that while they can live without each other, they can’t do it well, and they’ll bloody well drive everyone around them crazy until they get back together. When they’ll still drive everyone around them crazy. Oh well, can’t have everything, and the quarreling is really better than the crying and drinking, and how Alexia handles the situation.
We continue to learn about preternaturals and Alessandro Tarabotti’s life, but mysteries remain (of course they do, there’s two more books in the series!). Alexia is determined not to like her infant-inconvenience that has so thoroughly messed up her life (like mother, like daughter apparently), but it is a part of her and of Conall, so she reluctantly loves it even though it is putting her off her food.
It is an entertaining as ever to see the Templars’ reactions to Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon, especially when they take her prisoner. She may be only a woman, and a pregnant, aristocratic one, and without any powers like fangs or superhuman strength, but woe betide the one who thinks that makes her weak, stupid, or easy to control! Alexia is an excellent example of the oft-discussed and even more oft-misunderstood strong female character. She is not a strong female character, she is a strong character who happens to be female. She has a lot of flaws (a lot a lot of flaws), but she also has her strengths, and when she makes mistakes she whacks people over the head with her parasol until they are fixed. Now if only all problems were so easily solved…
This book, and this series, are excellent for people who love Victorian satire and characters who kick ass very politely.
The youngest Miss Loontwill rounded on Alexia, pointing a forkful of egg at her accusingly. “Captain Featherstonehaugh has thrown me over! How do you like that? We received a note only this morning.”
“Captain Featherstonehaugh?” Alexia muttered to herself. “I thought he was engaged to Ivy Hisselpenny and you were engaged to someone else. How confusing.”
“No, no, Evy’s engaged to him now. Or was. How long have you been staying with us? Nearly two weeks? Do pay attention, Alexia dear,” Mrs. Loontwill admonished.
Evylin sighed dramatically. “And the dress is already bought and everything. I shall have to have it entirely made over.”
“He did have very nice eyebrows,” consoled Mrs. Loontwill.
“Exactly,” crowed Evylin. “Where will I find another pair of eyebrows like that? Devastated, I tell you, Alexia. I am utterly devastated. And it is all your fault.”
Evylin, it must be noted, did not look nearly so bothered as one rightly ought over the loss of a fiancé, especially one reputed to possess such heights of eyebrow pre-eminence. She stuffed the egg into her mouth and chewed methodically. She had taken it into her head recently that chewing every bite of food twenty times over would keep her slender. What it did was keep her at the dinner table longer than anyone else.
“He cited philosophical differences, but we all know why he really broke things off.” Felicity waved a gold-edged note at Alexia—a note that clearly contained the good captain’s deepest regrets, a note that, judging from the stains about itself, had received the concerted attention of everyone at the breakfast table, including the kippers.
“I agree.” Alexia calmly sipped her barley water. “Philosophical differences? That cannot be true. You don’t actually have a philosophy about anything, do you, Evylin dear?”
“So you admit responsibility?” Evylin was moved to swallow early so she could launch the attack once more. She tossed her blond curls, only one or two shades removed from the color of her egg.
“Certainly not. I never even met the man.”
“But it is still your fault. Abandoning your husband like that, staying with us instead of him. It is outrageous. People. Are. Talking.” Evylin emphasized her words by stabbing ruthlessly at a sausage.
“People do tend to talk. I believe it is generally considered one of the better modes of communication.”
“Oh, why must you be so impossible? Mama, do something about her.” Evylin gave up on the sausage and went on to a second fried egg.
“You hardly seem very cut up about it.” Alexia watched as her sister chewed away.
“Oh, I assure you, poor Evy is deeply effected. Shockingly overwrought,” said Mrs. Loontwill.
“Surely you mean affected?” Alexia was not above a barb or two where her family was concerned.
At the end of the table, Squire Loontwill, the only one likely to understand a literary joke, softly chortled.
“Herbert,” his wife reprimanded immediately, “don’t encourage her to be pert. Most unattractive quality in a married lady, pertness.” She turned back to Alexia. Mrs. Loontwill’s face, that of a pretty woman who had aged without realizing it, screwed itself up into a grimace Alexia supposed was meant to simulate motherly concern. Instead she looked like a Pekingese with digestive complaints. “Is that what the estrangement with him is over, Alexia? You weren’t… brainy… with him, were you, dear?” Mrs. Loontwill had refrained from referring to Lord Maccon by name ever since her daughter’s marriage, as if by doing so she might hold on to the fact that Alexia had married—a condition believed by most to be highly unlikely right up until the fateful event—without having to remember what she had married. A peer of the realm, it was true, and one of Her Majesty’s finest, to be certain, but also a werewolf. It hadn’t helped that Lord Maccon loathed Mrs. Loontwill and didn’t mind who knew it, including Mrs. Loontwill. Why, Alexia remembered, once, he had even—She stopped herself from further thought of her husband, squashing the memory ruthlessly. Unfortunately, she found that, the agitation of her thoughts had resulted in toast mutilated beyond all hope of consumption. With a sigh, she helped herself to another piece.
“It seems clear to me,” interjected Felicity with an air of finality, “that your presence here, Alexia, has somehow overset Evy’s engagement. Even you cannot argue your way out of that, sister dear.”
Felicity and Evylin were Alexia’s younger half-sisters by birth and were entirely unrelated if one took into account any other factors. They were short, blond, and slender, while Alexia was tall, dark, and, quite frankly, not so very slender. Alexia was known throughout London for her intellectual prowess, patronage of the scientific community, and biting wit. Felicity and Evylin were known for their puffed sleeves. The world, as a result, was generally more peaceful when the three were not living under the same roof.
“And we are all aware of how considered and unbiased your opinion is on the matter, Felicity.” Alexia’s tone was unruffled.
Felicity picked up the scandal section of the Lady’s Daily Chirrup, clearly indicating she wanted nothing more to do with the conversation.
Mrs. Loontwill dove courageously on. “Surely, Alexia, darling, it is high time you returned home to Woolsey? I mean to say, you’ve been with us nearly a week, and, of course, we do love having you, but he is rumored to be back from Scotland now.”
“Bully for him.”
“Alexia! What a shocking thing to say!”
Evylin interjected. “No one has seen him in town, of course, but they say he returned to Woolsey yesterday.”
Felicity crinkled the gossip section of the paper explanatorily.
“He must be pining for you, my dear,” Mrs. Loontwill resumed the attack. “Pining away, miserable for want of your…” She flailed.
“For want of my what, Mama?”
“Uh, scintillating companionship.”
Alexia snorted—at the dining table. Conall may have enjoyed her bluntness on rare occasion, but if he missed anything, she doubted her wit was top of the list. Lord Maccon was a werewolf of hearty appetites, to say the least. What he would miss most about his wife was located substantially lower than her tongue. An image of her husband’s face momentarily broke her resolve. That look in his eyes the last time they saw each other—so betrayed. But what he believed of her, the fact that he doubted her in such a way, was inexcusable. How dare he leave her remembering some lost-puppy look simply to toy with her sympathies! Alexia Maccon made herself relive the things he had said to her, right then and there. She was never going to go back to that—her mind grappled for a description—that untrusting nitwit!
Lady Alexia Maccon was the type of woman who, if thrown into a briar patch, would start to tidy it up by stripping off all the thorns. Over the past few weeks and throughout the course of an inexcusably foul train journey back from Scotland, she thought she had come to terms with her husband’s rejection of both her and their child. She was finding, however, at the oddest and most irregular moments, that she hadn’t. She would feel the betrayal, like some writhing ache just under her ribs, and become both incredibly hurt and transcendently angry without warning. It was exactly like an acute attack of indigestion—only with one’s finer feelings involved. In her more lucid moments, Alexia reasoned that the cause of this sensation was the unjustness of it all. She was quite accustomed to defending herself for having done something inappropriate, but defending herself when completely innocent made for a dissimilar, and far more frustrating, experience. Not even Bogglington’s Best Darjeeling succeeded in soothing her temper. And if tea wasn’t good enough, well, what was a lady to do? It was not, certainly not, that she still loved the man. That was entirely illogical. But the fact remained that Alexia’s temper was tender about the edges. Her family ought to have recognized the signs.
Felicity snapped the paper closed suddenly, her face an uncharacteristic red color.
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Loontwill fanned herself with a starched doily. “What now?”
Squire Loontwill glanced up and then took refuge in close examination of his egg.
“Nothing.” Felicity tried to shove the paper under her plate.
Evylin was having none of it. She reached over, snatched it away, and began scanning through it, looking for whatever juicy tittle-tattle had so disturbed her sister.
Felicity nibbled on a scone and looked guiltily at Alexia.
Alexia had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She finished her barley water with some difficulty and sat back in her chair.
“Oh, golly!” Evylin seemed to have found the troublesome passage. She read it out for all to hear. “‘London was flabbergasted last week when news reached this reporter’s ears that Lady Maccon, previously Alexia Tarabotti, daughter of Mrs. Loontwill, sister to Felicity and Evylin, and stepdaughter to the Honorable Squire Loontwill, had quit her husband’s house, after returning from Scotland without said husband. Speculation as to the reason has been ample, ranging from suspicions as to Lady Maccon’s intimate relationship with the rove vampire Lord Akeldama, to suspected family differences hinted at by the Misses Loontwill’—oh look, Felicity, they mentioned us twice!—‘and certain lower-class social acquaintances. Lady Maccon cut quite a fashionable swath through London society after her marriage’—la, la, la… Ah! Here it picks up again—‘but it has been revealed by sources intimately connected to the noble couple that Lady Maccon is, in fact, in a most delicate condition. Given Lord Maccon’s age, supernatural inclination, and legally recognized postnecrosis status, it must be assumed that Lady Maccon has been indiscreet. While we await physical confirmation, all signs point to The Scandal of the Century.’ ”
Everyone looked at Alexia and began talking at once.
Lord Conall Maccon was drunk.
He was not drunk in the halfhearted manner of most supernatural creatures, wherein twelve pints of bitter had finally turned the world slightly fuzzy. No, Lord Maccon was rip-roaring, tumble down, without a doubt, pickled beyond the gherkin.
It took an enormous quantity of alcohol to get a werewolf that inebriated. And, reflected Professor Lyall as he steered his Alpha around the side of an inconvenient potshed, it was almost as miraculous a feat to attain such quantities as it was to ingest them. How had Lord Maccon finagled such an arrangement? Not only that, how had he managed to acquire said booze so consistently over the past three days without visiting London or tapping into Woolsey Castle’s well-stocked cellar? Really, thought the Beta in annoyance, such powers of alcoholism could almost be thought supernatural.
Lord Maccon lurched heavily into the side of the potshed. The meat of his left shoulder and upper arm crashed against the oak siding. The entire building swayed on its foundation.
“Pardon,” apologized the earl with a small hiccough, “didna see ya there.”
“For Pete’s sake, Conall,” said his Beta in tones of the deeply put-upon, “how did you manage to get so corned?” He tugged his Alpha away from the abused shed.
“Na drunk,” insisted his lordship, throwing one substantial arm across his Beta’s shoulders and leaning heavily upon it. “Jush a tiny little slightly small bit’a squiffy.” His lordship’s accent got distinctly more Scottish in times of great stress, strong emotion, or, apparently, under the influence of vast amounts of liquid intoxicants.
They left the safety of the potshed.
The earl pitched forward suddenly, his grip on his Beta the only thing that managed to keep him upright. “Whoa! Watch that bit’o ground there, would ya? Tricky, tricky, jumps right up at a man.”
“Where did you acquire the alcohol?” Professor Lyall asked again as he tried valiantly to get his Alpha back on track across the wide lawn of Woolsey’s extensive grounds, toward the castle proper. It was like trying to steer a steamboat through a tub of turbulent molasses. A normal human would have buckled under the strain, but Lyall was lucky enough to have supernatural strength to call upon at times of great difficulty. Lord Maccon wasn’t simply big; he was also tremendously solid, like a walking, talking Roman fortification.
“And how did you get all the way out here? I distinctly remember tucking you into bed before leaving your room last night.” Professor Lyall spoke very clearly and precisely, not entirely sure how much was seeping into his Alpha’s thick skull.
Lord Maccon’s head bobbed slightly as he attempted to follow Professor Lyall’s words.
“Went for a wee nightly run. Needed peace and quiet. Needed air in my fur. Needed fields under my paws. Needed, oh I canna—hic—explain… needed the company of hedgehogs.”
“And did you find it?”
“Find what? No hedgehogs. Stupid hedgehogs.” Lord Maccon tripped over a daphne bush, one of the many that lined the pathway leading up to a side entrance of the house. “Who bloody well put that there?”
“Peace, did you find peace?”
Lord Maccon stopped and drew himself upright, straightening his spine and throwing his shoulders back. It was an action driven by memory of military service. It caused him to positively tower over his second. Despite his ramrod-straight back, the Alpha managed to sway side to side, as if the aforementioned molasses-bound steamboat was now weathering a violent storm.
“Do I,” he enunciated very carefully, “look like I have found peace?”
Professor Lyall had nothing to say in response to that.
“Exactly!” Lord Maccon made a wide and flailing gesture. “She is wedged”—he pointed two thick fingers at his head as though they formed a pistol—“here.” Then rammed them at his chest. “And here. Canna shake her. Stickier than”—his powers of metaphor failed him—“stickier than… cold porridge getting all gloopy on the side of a bowl,” he finally came up with triumphantly.
Professor Lyall wondered what Lady Alexia Maccon would say to being compared to such a pedestrian foodstuff. She would probably compare her husband to something even less agreeable, like haggis.
Lord Maccon looked at his Beta with wide, soulful eyes, the color of which changed with his mood. Currently they were a watered-down caramel and highly unfocused. “Why’d she have ta go an do a thing like that?”
“I don’t think she did.” Professor Lyall had been meaning to have this out with his Alpha for some time. He had simply hoped the discussion would occur during one of Lord Maccon’s rare moments of sobriety.
“Well, then, why’d she lie about it?”
“No. I mean to say, I do not believe she was lying.” Lyall stood his ground. A Beta’s main function within the werewolf pack was to support his Alpha in all things—publicly, and to question him as much as possible—privately.
Lord Maccon cleared his throat and looked at his Beta in myopic seriousness from under fierce eyebrows. “Randolph, this may come as a shock, but I am a werewolf.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Two hundred and one years of age.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Pregnancy, under such circumstances, you must understand, is not possible.”
“Certainly not for you, my lord.”
“Thank you, Randolph, that is verra helpful.”
Professor Lyall had thought it rather funny, but he’d never been much good at humor. “But, sir, we understand so very little about the preternatural state. And the vampires never did like the idea of you marrying her. Could it be they knew something?”
“Vampires always know something.”
“About what might happen. About the possibility of a child, I mean.”
“Poppycock! The howlers would have said somewhat to me at the outset.”
“Howlers do not always remember everything, do they? They cannot remember what happened to Egypt, for one.”
“God-Breaker Plague? You saying Alexia is pregnant with the God-Breaker Plague?”
Lyall didn’t even dignify that with an answer. The God-Breaker Plague was the werewolf moniker for the fact that in Egypt supernatural abilities were rendered negligible. It could not, by any stretch of the imagination, act as a paternal agent.
They finally made it to the castle, and Lord Maccon was momentarily distracted by the Herculean task of trying to climb steps.
“You know,” continued the earl in outraged hurt once he’d attained the small landing, “I groveled for that woman. Me!” He glared at Professor Lyall. “An’ you told me to!”
Professor Lyall puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. It was like trying to have a conversation with a distracted and very soggy scone. Every time he pushed in one direction the earl either oozed or crumbled. If he could simply get Lord Maccon off the sauce he might be able to talk some sense into him. The Alpha was notoriously emotional and heavy-handed in these matters, prone to flying off the cogs, but he could usually be brought around to reason eventually. He wasn’t all that dim.
Professor Lyall knew Lady Maccon’s character; she might be capable of betraying her husband, but if she had done so, she would admit to it openly. Thus, logic dictated she was telling the truth. Lyall was enough of a scientist to conclude from this that the currently accepted gospel truth, that supernatural creatures could not impregnate mortal women, was flawed. Even Lord Maccon, pigheaded and hurt, could be convinced of this line of reasoning eventually. After all, the earl could not possibly want to believe Alexia capable of infidelity. At this point, he was simply wallowing.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you sobered up?”
“Wait, lemme ponder that.” Lord Maccon paused, as though giving the matter deep consideration. “Nope.”