Today I Read…The Frog Who Croaked

The Frog Who CroakedToday I read Platypus Police Squad #1: The Frog Who Croaked by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, creator of the popular Lunch Lady graphic novels.

It’s a new day in Kalamazoo City, and hotshot rookie detective Rick Zengo is eager to strut his stuff on his first day with the Platypus Police Squad. He’s got a lot to live up to, as the grandson of the heroic Lieutenant Dailey who cleaned up the streets by putting away the notorious crime boss Frank Pandini many years ago. Too bad his first act as a police officer is to spill hot chocolate on his new partner, hard-nosed old-timer Corey O’Malley.

The new partners are assigned to a messy case down at the docks, involving a missing high school teacher and a duffel bag full of illegal fish. Zengo’s chief suspect? The city’s most beloved philanthropist, Frank Pandini Jr. Never mind that he has no proof, he knows that panda’s dirtier than the fish in the bag. He just needs to convince O’Malley, their sergeant, the mayor, and a town full of grateful residents that the panda giving them a free brand-new football stadium is a crook. Piece of cake, for a member of the Platypus Police Squad.

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This was actually an ARC I got from the 2013 OLA Super Conference, so I’ve had it waiting on my shelves for a while (yes, my to-read list really is that big). The book was published last year, and a sequel, Platypus Police Squad 2: The Ostrich Conspiracy, has since been published as well.

The interior art isn’t final, and there are several places where it’s marked Interior Art To Come. What art is included is obviously rough drafts just sketched in, but even from that I get the sense that the final art will be interesting and really add to the book.

One thing that I would have liked to have explained a little more in the text is the nature of the animals of Kalamazoo City. The world-building feels a little weak in this respect–there was one character, the police secretary Peggy, where I didn’t understand that she’s a turtle until Zengo mentions it after her second appearance, but the joke before that about her slow movements and speech isn’t funny until you know what she is. There are all sorts of animals living in the city, from anthropomorphic platypuses, frogs, lobsters, foxes, turtles, and pandas, but it almost seems irrelevant–the story mentions it so infrequently, and the different species aren’t confined to any one profession or behaviour (other than Peggy the slow turtle, who is also presented as being very old), that the characters could just as easily be human. The only world-building is directly concerned with the plot, so it seems generic. The characters mostly seem to be animals for the sake of the art and the pun in the title. And why is it the Platypus Police Squad? The only police officers we meet are platypuses, but there’s no real reason for that presented. Why can’t a fox be a police officer, or a raccoon, or a snake? Platypuses are allowed to be things other than police officers, because Zengo’s mother and father aren’t cops, so can other animals be cops even though the name of the department is the Platypus Police Squad? Yes, maybe I’m over thinking, but still.

The book is basically trying to be middle-grade hardboiled police procedural. Illegal fish are a barely veiled substitute for drugs, especially since there’s little explanation given to how illegal fish are ‘bad’ and different from legal fish. Apparently they both make people sick, and drive honest fishermen out of business, but everybody’s doing it because eating fish is a status symbol of your wealth, but the cops don’t really care? You’ve got the mismatched partners, the incompetent braggart cops, the jovial and well-respected secret crime boss, the well-meaning teacher who gets in over his head, the older partner’s daughter dating a suspect… Suddenly I’m thinking of the Lethal Weapon series crossed with 22 Jump Street with all the swearing taken out, and let me tell you, the Lethal Weapon movies without swearing just don’t work.

Honestly, I think this book would have made a better graphic novel than a novel–I get more depth and sense of the world from the loosely sketched art than from the text. I know that this is an ARC, and not a final product, and it’s an interesting idea to do such a hardboiled mystery–there are a lot of classic mystery elements that the young reader is introduced to. But the there’s no real twists to the plot, it feels a little stale and the world-building just isn’t there. It’s a decent draft–I hope the final product was more polished.

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Today I Read…The Thousand Dollar Tan Line

The Thousand Dollar Tan LineToday I read The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, the first Veronica Mars original novel, which follows the recent movie.

Ah, spring break in Neptune, California. There’s nothing quite like it. The time when hundreds of drunken college students descend on Neptune’s sun-soaked streets to party like they’re not flunking out of the very expensive schools mommy and daddy are paying for.

And Veronica Mars is right back where she started– back in Neptune, working in her father’s detective agency and trying to help people and pay the bills, in the face of a corrupt and incompetent sheriff’s office. Nancy Drew never had to put up with this shit.

But now girls have started to go missing from the wild parties that happen every night, and the good and very rich people of Neptune want these unfortunate and tourist-unfriendly events to stop happening. Oh, and to save the girls too, of course, as long as it’s handled discretely. Too bad they hired Veronica Mars to find the girls. Because discrete is definitely not her middle name.

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So, I loved the Veronica Mars movie (proud Kickstarter backer here!), and I was happy when Rob Thomas announced that he would be continuing the story in a series of original tie-in novels. It’s always best when the creator continues the story–they know their world the best, and Rob Thomas is definitely no exception. It’s a serviceable stand-alone mystery, but it shines best as part of the world of Veronica Mars. It’s filled with in-jokes and references that only the obsessive fan will catch, such as Martina Vasquez and Norris Clayton. It needs more Logan, but then I usually want more Logan. There’s some great set-up for future books, but I don’t want to get too in-depth since the movie is still in theaters. I will say that you should definitely see the movie before reading the book–the book occurs two months later, and there are a lot of events that have happened in Veronica’s life since we last saw her at Hearst College at the end of season three of the TV series. There’s a bit of a recap, but you’ll miss a lot of details if you don’t watch the movie first, and Veronica Mars has always been all about the details.

I know that I said it was a serviceable stand-alone mystery, but I would really recommend this book first to fans of Veronica Mars. Rob Thomas has said that he made the movie first for the fans and then for the wider audience, and the book is clearly the same. Veronica…she’s not always a nice person. Turning the other cheek to her just means that you’re a sucker who’s going to get hit twice. What she is, is fascinating. She screws up, and she tries again. She doesn’t give up. She’s deeply flawed as a person, but you still root for her even when she’s turned her life into a disaster. I think you need to get that to really feel for her as the protagonist. To understand why Dan Lamb is an ass, and why she worries about her father, and her issues with a certain person who shows up but isn’t in the movie and I’m definitely not saying more about that because spoilers.

So, to sum up, I loved it and I can’t wait for the next one! And Veronica Mars? You’re still a marshmallow.

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By Wednesday morning, the coastal town that sparkled at night looked … mundane. Not just mundane. Dirty. Pools of spilled beer collected in the seams of the sidewalk, and the rank tang of overfilled Dumpsters wafted out from the alleys. The ghostly forms of used condoms littered doorways and bushes, and shattered glass covered the street.

The Sea Nymph Motel was eerily silent when eighteen-year-old Bri Lafond stumbled in. Almost all of the guests were spring breakers, and the party didn’t get started until early afternoon. She had been at a rave on the inland edge of town, and by the time the party had wound down at 4:00 a.m. she hadn’t been able to get a cab. She’d still been high enough that the idea of walking back to the motel had seemed feasible. Now, bone tired, she trudged through the sandy courtyard to the room she and her three best friends from UC Berkeley had rented. It was one of the cheapest available, facing the Dumpster in the parking lot. Now she didn’t care, fumbling with the lock and wanting only to fall into one of the two doubles they’d been sharing all week.

The room’s blinds gaped open, letting in a ray of pallid light. Leah was sprawled across the bed with her head shoved under a pillow, still wearing a sequined dress from the night before. Her legs were bruised and smudged with dirt. Melanie sat with her back to the headboard, sipping from a paper Starbucks cup. She wore board shorts and a bikini top, her long blond hair tousled and smears of makeup caking her eyes. She looked up when she heard the door open.

“I have a surf lesson in, like, half an hour, and I’m still drunk,” she said. She looked at Bri, her eyes focusing with difficulty. “Where’ve you been? You look like shit.”

“Thanks a lot.” Bri leaned down to unzip her boots, her feet throbbing. “Where’s Hayley? Is she surfing too?”

“Haven’t seen her.” Melanie closed her eyes and rested her head back against the wall. Bri froze, one boot off, the other still pinching her toes. She looked up.

“Since when?”

“Since … since the party on Monday, I guess.” Melanie opened her eyes. “Shit.”

Bri blinked, then tugged the other boot off her foot. She sank to the bed and gently pushed Leah’s shoulder. “Hey, Leah. Wake up. Did you see Hayley yesterday?”

Leah gave a low moan from under the pillow. For a moment she curled into a tight ball, her arm circled protectively over her head. It took them a few more minutes of prodding and cooing her name before she finally pulled away the pillow and looked blearily up at them. “Hayley? Not since the … the party on Monday.”

A bleak, empty feeling expanded into every corner of Bri’s body. She scrolled back through her messages. There was nothing from Hayley since Monday afternoon.

Now Bri remembered seeing Leah doing lines of coke off an antique coffee table, holding her long honey-colored hair off her neck as she bent over. She remembered hands running up her hips, a slurring male voice telling her she’d be really hot if she grew her hair out. She remembered seeing flashes of Hayley, leaning up to whisper in the ear of a boy in a perfectly cut white suit, his eyes long lashed and sultry, his lips pouting playfully.

Beyond that everything was a blur. She’d woken up the next morning in a lawn chair by the motel pool, shivering in the early morning chill, her purse tucked under her head. She had no idea how she’d gotten home.

“Did you see her leave the party with someone?” Bri looked at her friends. Both shook their heads slowly.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Melanie said hesitantly. “She’s probably with some guy she met at the party. She’ll come up for air sooner or later.”

“But we promised we’d check in with each other at least once a day. We promised.” Bri’s voice was shriller than she’d meant for it to sound. They’d made a pact on the way down that no matter what they were up to, no matter how much fun they were having, they’d look out for one another. The dark, empty feeling in her gut yawned even wider.

What’s your favourite genre?

Let’s try some polls! What’s your favourite genre?

Today I Read…The Dead Kid Detective Agency

Dead Kid Detective AgencyToday I read The Dead Kid Detective Agency, written and illustrated by Evan Munday, the first book in th e Dead Kid Detective Agency series.

October Schwartz hasn’t been having the best luck lately. Her depressed dad has moved them to the tiny town of Stickville, where he’s a teacher at her new high school, only she’s younger than everybody else. She met a really cool girl, who immediately gets the whole school to call her “Zombie Tramp”. Oh, and there are a bunch of dead kids hanging out in the cemetery behind her house, and only October can see them. How’s a girl to write the greatest horror story ever (Two Knives, One Thousand Demons) under these conditions?

Then October’s favourite teacher dies under suspicious circumstances, and no one is willing to listen to October when she says Mr. O’Shea didn’t kill himself. No one, that is, except the dead kids: Cyril, Morna, Tabetha, Kirby, and Derek, children from different times who have one thing in common–none of them know how they died. Together October and the ghosts form the Dead Kid Detective Agency to investigate Mr. O’Shea’s death, and his life. After all, who would want to kill a French teacher? Their investigation leads them all the way back to 1960s Quebec and the Front de liberation du Quebec, and the secrets of the teachers of Stickville.

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I met Evan Munday at last year’s OLA Festival of Trees, where I helped him with his workshop. He was a lively presenter and he made his book sound really interesting, so I picked it up at the Word on the Street Festival and it finally made it to the top of my to-read pile (and by pile I mean mountain range). I’m glad I bought it- Munday tells an entertaining tale that sets the stage well for the following books (the second book Dial M for Morna has been released). Munday also drew the cartoons scattered throughout the book.

The book is set in modern times, but there are pieces of Canadian history throughout the book, since each of the dead kids is from a different era, and Mr. O’Shea’s death is connected to the FLQ. It’s worked in in an interesting way, and adds some humour when the kid from the 1700s tries to drive a car. The point of view switches between October and an omniscient narrator, which can be a bit much when it switches mid-chapter, but it usually adds to the humour. The mystery is well-built and the characters are lively and interesting, especially the dead ones. The living ones include the loyal friends, the mean girls, the good and bad teachers, and the distant relatives required of a young adult novel, but the familiar archetypes never feel stale. (Though just what is Stacey’s last name?)

At 300 pages this isn’t a terribly quick read, but it’s a fun one, even when Munday is sneakily trying to make you learn things–I mean, knowledge of A-ha is important to musical history, so he can probably be forgiven for the other history bits. (Whaddaya mean, who’s A-ha? Kids, sheesh.) A good read for anyone who likes their protagonist to be pop-culture saavy and quick with a quip (Buffy Summers, how I miss you!), as well as those who like their characters to not understand how the metal cart moves without a horse.

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October Schwartz is not dead.

Now, there are plenty of dead folks in this book (you read the title before starting the book, right?), it’s just that October Schwartz does not happen to be one of them. That said, it was her first day at Sticksville Central High School, and she sort of wished she were dead.

October had moved to Sticksville only a month earlier, and she didn’t know anyone yet, unless you counted her dad and maybe the Korean lady who sold her gum at the convenience store. She’d spent the month of August reading in the cemetery behind their house and working on writing her own book. So her first day of high school was even more nerve-wracking than it was for most of the students at Sticksville Central. The way she figured it, everybody was going to hate her. They certainly had in her old town. Why should this one be any different?

There were plenty of reasons for the average high school student to hate her: she wasn’t chubby, but she wasn’t not chubby, which, to those naturally inclined to be unpleasant people, meant she was fat. Also, she wore more black eyeliner than most — barring only silent film actresses, really. Add to that the natural black hair she’d inherited from her mom and her affinity for black clothing, and she was like a walking teen vampire joke waiting to happen.

Today I Read…After the Night

After the NightToday I read After the Night by Linda Howard.

Faith Devlin has been in love with Gray Rouillard for as long as she can remember. He’s beautiful, smart, a football star, and the only son of the wealthiest family in the county. He is the golden prince of Prescott, Louisiana, and he knows it. And he’s kind to Faith when no one else is. Daughter of a whore and a drunk, and sister to drunks and whores and an idiot, Faith knows she is different from her family- she likes books and the forest and looking after her youngest brother Scottie, who was born retarded. She knows she’s born for greater things, but in the meantime she’s only eleven, and content to admire eighteen-year-old Gray from afar.

And then Gray’s father Guy runs away with his mistress, Renee Devlin, Faith’s mother, leaving behind his wife and two children and abandoning the Rouillard family business without formally passing the reins to Gray. In a rage, Gray turns the trashy Devlins out of the shack they have been squatting in on Rouillard land, and has the sheriff run the entire family out of the county. Faith will never forget that humiliating and painful night, scrambling to pick up her family’s meager belongings in the dark, with Scottie crying and clutching at her, wearing only her nightgown as grown men leared the silhouette of her young body, and her beloved Gray calling her and her entire family worthless trash.

Twelve years later, Faith Devlin Hardy has returned to Prescott, a beautiful young widow with her own successful travel agency. She is determined to find out what really happened that night–she knows that her mother never ran away with Guy, so where has he been all these years as her family fell apart? Gray is just as mad as ever and determined to protect his fragile family- his mother who hadn’t been seen in public since her abandonment, and his sister who slit her wrists when told her father had left her. Unfortunately, the son seems to be just like the father, with an uncontrollable appetite for a Devlin woman. Gray wants Faith in his bed but out of his town, but Faith has sworn never to be run out of town again, even by the still-beautiful Gray. Tied together by lust and anger and the memory of that long-ago night that devastated both their families, they build a passionate relationship that is threatened by the secret of Guy’s disappearance, and the person who will do anything to keep that secret.

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I’ve read this book before, but not for years, so I picked it up again on a whim. I remember enjoying it much more when I was younger. It’s not because it’s a bad book, or poorly written- on the contrary, it’s a very good book, with strong characters, a descriptive setting, and a detailed mystery. Linda Howard has long been considered a powerhouse of the romance novel world, prolific and talented. I think the problem is a combination of the novel being a little dated (it was first published in 1995) and the way that I’ve changed over time. Gray Rouillard is handsome, smart, strong, ruthless, wealthy, a respected businessman, a well-known lover of women, and determined to get his own way no matter what. He is a perfect example of a classical romance novel hero. And I really want to slap him.

He makes gestures towards gender equality- he is proud of Faith for owning a successful travel agency, with multiple locations. He knows exactly what she left town with, and what she has had to struggle against to win her success. However, he is also still slightly indulgent, and there is a distinct whiff of “you’ve done very well honey, for a woman in your position” around his remarks. He also thinks that he has the right to bully her out of town and still occupy her bed, just because he wants her body but he puts what he perceives to be the needs of his sister and mother over hers. It will be easier for him if Faith moves to a town near Prescott where he can still visit regularly, so she can be out of sight and out of mind for all of the good and prejudiced people of the town.

Faith falls into the classic trap of loving an asshole man because of the way he makes her feel. It’s to her credit that she doesn’t stop her investigation when it displeases Gray, but that also falls into the “spunky heroine” cliché. Then they can keep having angry sex to make up any arguments, and then argue again so they can have more sex.

Basically, Gray is an arrogant jerk because he is in a romance novel- he eventually improves slightly when Faith is proven right, and of course they fall in love because romance novel, but I think I’ve taken too many women’s studies courses since the last time I read this book to be comfortable liking it too much. Still, for women who still find the arrogant jerk schtick attractive, this is an excellent read. Or men who love to read about the jerk and the feisty redheads who love them.

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The two girls began darting swiftly around the yard, gathering up every item they came to. Faith worked harder than she ever had in her life, her slender body bending and weaving, moving so fast that Scottie couldn’t keep up with her. He followed in her path, sobbing hoarsely, his pudgy little hands clutching at her whenever she came within reach.

Her mind was numb. She didn’t let herself think, couldn’t think. She moved automatically, cutting her hand on a broken bowl and not even noticing. One of the deputies did, though, and gruffly said, “Here, girl, you’re bleeding,” and tied his handkerchief around her hand. She thanked him without knowing what she said.

She was too innocent, and too dazed, to realize how the lights of the cars shone through the thin fabric of her nightgown, silhouetting her youthful body, her slim thighs and high, graceful breasts. She bent and lifted, each change of position outlining a different part of her body, pulling the fabric tight across her breast and showing the small peak of her nipple, the next time revealing the round curve of her buttock.

She was only fourteen, but in the stark, artificial light, with her long, thick hair flowing over her shoulders like dark flame, with the shadows catching the angle of her high cheekbones and darkening her eyes, her age wasn’t apparent.

What was apparent was her uncanny resemblance to Renee Devlin, a woman who had only to walk across a room to bring most men to some degree of arousal. Renee’s sensuality was sultry and vibrant, beckoning like a neon sign to male instincts. When the men looked at Faith, it wasn’t her whom they were seeing, but her mother.

Gray stood silently, watching the proceedings. The rage was still there, still cold and consuming, undiluted. Disgust filled him as the Devlins, father and sons, staggered around, cussing and making wild threats. With the sheriff and his deputies there, though, they weren’t going to do anything more than shoot off their mouths, so Gray ignored them. Amos had had a close call when he’d pushed the youngest girl down; Gray’s fists balled, but she had jumped up, apparently unhurt, and he had restrained himself.

The two girls were rushing around, valiantly trying to gather up the most necessary items. The male Devlins took out their vicious, stupid frustrations on the girls, snatching things from their arms and throwing the items to the ground, loudly proclaiming that no goddamn body was going to throw them out of their house, not to waste time picking things up because they weren’t goin’ nowhere, goddamn it. The oldest girl, Jodie, pleaded with them to help, but their drunken boasting drowned out her useless efforts.

The younger girl didn’t waste her time trying to reason with them, just moved silently back and forth, trying to bring order to chaos despite the clinging hands of the little boy. Despite himself, Gray found his gaze continually seeking her out, and himself unwillingly fascinated by the graceful, feminine outline of her body beneath that almost transparent nightgown. Her very silence drew attention to her, and when he glanced sharply around, he noticed that most of the deputies were watching her, too.

There was an odd maturity to her, and a trick of the lights gave him the strange feeling that he was looking at Renee rather than her daughter. The whore had taken his father from him, driven his mother into mental withdrawal, and nearly cost his sister her life, and here she was again, tempting men in her daughter’s flesh.

Jodie was more voluptuous, but she was noisy and cheap. Faith’s long, dark red hair swirled over the pearly sheen of her shoulders, bared by the straps of that nightgown. She looked older than he knew she was, not quite real, an incarnation of her mother drifting silently through the night, every move like a carnal dance.

Unwillingly, Gray felt his shaft stir and thicken, and he was disgusted with himself. He looked around at the deputies and saw his response mirrored in their eyes, an animal heat that they should be ashamed of having for a girl that young.

God, he was no better than his father. Give him a whiff of a Devlin woman and he was like a wild buck in rut, hard and ready. Monica had nearly died today because of Renee Devlin, and here he was watching Renee’s daughter with his cock twitching in his britches.

She walked toward him, carrying a pile of clothes. No, not toward him, but toward the truck behind him. Her green cat eyes flickered at him, the expression in them hooded and mysterious. His pulse leaped, and the look of her broke his tenuous hold on his temper. The events of the day piled up on him and he lashed out with devastating fierceness, wanting the Devlins to suffer as he had suffered.

“You’re trash,” he said in a deep, harsh voice as the girl drew even with him. She halted, frozen to the spot, with the kid still clinging to her legs. She didn’t look at Gray, just stared straight ahead, and the stark, pure outline of her face enraged him even more. “Your whole family is trash. Your mother is a whore and your father is a thieving drunk. Get out of this parish and don’t ever come back.”

Today I Read…Fool Moon

Fool MoonToday I read Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second book in The Dresden Files. I’ve previously reviewed the first book Storm Front here.

Wizard Harry Dresden’s rent payment is late again, a student of his is asking uncomfortable questions about very powerful, very dangerous magic, and werewolves are killing people, most notably the bodyguard of Chicago’s most powerful mobster Gentleman Johnny Marcone. Great. Dresden knew it was safer to be a cat person.

Now he has to figure out how to turn Marcone’s (admittedly very generous) job offer down–after all, a wizard who consults for the police can’t really work for a mobster too. Except he might have a little trouble getting the cops to pay his bill after getting arrested for murder. And not stopping a werewolf from tearing apart the police station, and several police officers. And escaping from custody with the help of yet more werewolves, albeit a more friendly variety.

Seriously, is everyone a werewolf except Dresden?

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I know that one of the later books in the series is called White Night,  but Harry Dresden definitely has White Knight Syndrome–something that he really needs to learn to control. He can’t protect everyone, and his chivalrous efforts towards women in particular are neither wanted nor effective. Kim dies because Dresden tries to protect her by not telling her everything, and Murphy and many other police officers get hurt because he tries to handle everything himself. As a feminist, I want to smack him upside the head a little. Fortunately, he starts relying on his friends a little more in the following books, so I guess you can teach an old wizard new tricks.

I’d put a slightly higher rating on this one than the previous book due to the bloodier murders–werewolves are not the tidiest eaters. There are also a LOT of them, considering that Dresden has never met a werewolf until this case. Butcher invents several varieties, and then has examples of each one. Good werewolves, bad werewolves, in control friendly werewolves, werewolves who start out with good intentions and then lose control and start murdering people, people who choose to be werewolves, people who are cursed to be werewolves, lone werewolves, werewolves in a pack…it’s practically a werewolf documentary. Still, it’s only the second book in the series, so Butcher is still worldbuilding.

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I sat back down, frustrated. Dammit. Kim was one of several people I had coached through the difficult period surrounding the discovery of their innate magical talents. It made me feel like crap to withhold information from her, but she had been playing with fire. I couldn’t let her do that. It was my responsibility to help protect her from such things, until she knew enough to realize how dangerous they were.
To say nothing of what the White Council would think of a nonwizard toying with major summoning circles. The White Council didn’t take chances with things like that. They just acted, decisively, and they weren’t always particular about people’s lives and safety when they did it.
I had done the right thing. Keeping that kind of information out of Kim’s hands had been the right decision. I had been protecting her from danger she didn’t, couldn’t, fully appreciate.
I had done the right thing—even if she had trusted me to provide answers for her, as I had in the past, when teaching her to contain and control her modest magical talents. Even if she had trusted me to show her the answers she needed, to be her guide through the darkness.
I’d done the right thing.
Dammit.
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I closed my hands around the keys. “Just sit down and relax for a while, Murph. We need to talk.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Harry,” she said.
“This is the thanks I get for saving your life. Twice, now. You’re going to hold out on me.”
“You should know how it works,” she said, scowling. But she settled back in her seat and looked out the windshield of the car. We could see the police, forensics, and the FBI suits moving back and forth inside the building. We were both quiet for a long time.
The funny thing was that the problems between Murphy and me came from the same source as the problems with Kim Delaney earlier tonight. Murphy had needed to know something to pursue an investigation. I could have given her the information—but it would have put her in danger to do so. I’d refused to say anything, and when I’d pursued the trail by myself all the way to its end, there had been some burning buildings and a corpse or two. There wasn’t enough evidence to bring any charges against me, and the killer we’d been after had been dealt with. But Murphy hadn’t ever really forgiven me for cutting her out of the loop.
In the intervening months, she’d called me in for work several times, and I’d given the best service I could. But it had been cool between us. Professional. Maybe it was time to try to bridge that gap again.
“Look, Murph,” I said. “We’ve never really talked about what happened, last spring.”
“We didn’t talk about it while it was happening,” she said, her tone crisp as autumn leaves. “Why should we start now? That was last spring. It’s October.”
“Give me a break, Murphy. I wanted to tell you more, but I couldn’t.”
“Let me guess. Cat had your tongue?” she said sweetly.
“You know I wasn’t one of the bad guys. You have to know that by now. Hell’s bells, I risked my neck to save you.”
Murphy shook her head, staring straight forward. “That’s not the point.”
“No? Then what is?”
“The point, Dresden, is that you lied to me. You refused to give me information that I needed to do my job. When I bring you in on one of my investigations, I am trusting you. I don’t just go around trusting people. Never have.” She took a grip on the steering wheel, her knuckles whitening. “Less than ever, now.”
I winced. That stung. What’s worse, she was in the right. “Some of what I knew . . . It was dangerous, Murph. It could have gotten you killed.”
Her blue eyes fixed on me with a glare that made me lean back against the car door. “I am not your daughter, Dresden,” she said, in a very soft, calm voice. “I am not some porcelain doll on a shelf. I’m a police officer. I catch the bad guys and I put their asses away, and if it comes down to it, I take a bullet so that some poor housewife or CPA doesn’t have to.” She got her gun out of its shoulder holster, checked the ammo and the safety, and replaced it. “I don’t need your protection.”
“Murphy, wait,” I said hastily. “I didn’t do it to piss you off. I’m your friend. Always have been.”
She looked away from me as an officer with a flashlight walked past the car, shining the light about on the ground as he looked for exterior evidence. “You were my friend, Dresden. Now . . .” Murphy shook her head once and set her jaw. “Now, I don’t know.”
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We went down what looked like a servant’s narrow spiral staircase, down into the basement. She led me to the back of a storage room and pushed open a heavy, steel door there that opened onto a small, stark chamber, all of concrete, with no other exits. In the center of the chamber was another three-ring summoning circle, but this one’s symbols had been made from silver and set into the concrete of the floor. Short bars of what looked like a mixture of silver and obsidian were interspersed around the second circle, creating what would, if the circle was functional, be a very formidable barrier.
But the symbols had been marred, torn, broken. Several from the critical inner ring had been pried up from the floor and were simply missing. Some of the bars had been broken. The circle, as it was, was nonfunctional and worthless—but whole, it would have served to contain Harley MacFinn when he shifted into his beast form. The room was a prison he had created for himself, something to contain the fury of the beast inside of him.
But someone had intentionally marred the circle, made the prison useless.
And I abruptly understood Kim Delaney’s request. She had to have known Harley MacFinn, maybe through her environmental activism. She must have learned of his curse, and wanted to help him. When I had refused to help her, she had attempted to re-create the greater summoning circle upstairs in the bedroom, to hold in MacFinn once the moon rose. As I had warned her would happen, she had failed. She hadn’t had the knowledge necessary to understand how such a construct would function, and consequently, she hadn’t been able to make it work.
MacFinn had killed her. Kim was dead because I had refused to share my knowledge with her, because I hadn’t given her my help. I had been so secure in my knowledge and wisdom; withholding such secrets from her had been the action of a concerned and reasoned adult speaking to an overeager child. I couldn’t believe my own arrogance, the utter confidence with which I had condemned her to death.
I started to shake, harder, too many things pressing against my head, my heart. I could feel the pressure, somewhere inside of me, that switch on the inside of my head quivering, getting ready to flick back beneath a tide of raging anger, fury, regret, self-hatred. I took deep breaths and closed my eyes, trying not to let it happen.
I opened my eyes and looked up at Murphy. God, I needed to talk to her. I needed a friend. I needed someone to listen, to tell me it would be all right whether it was the truth or not. I needed someone to let me unload on them, to keep me from flying apart.
She regarded me with cold, angry eyes.
“Karrin,” I whispered.
She drew from her pocket a crumpled piece of paper. She unfolded it, and held it up to me, so that I could see Kim Delaney’s graceful handwriting, the sketch of the summoning circle that she had brought to me in McAnally’s. The sketch I had refused to tell Kim about. The sketch I had crumpled into a little ball and tossed on the floor, and which Murphy had picked up, absently, just to get the trash out of people’s way.
And I realized why there was so much anger in Murphy’s eyes.
I stared at the sketch. “Karrin,” I began again. “Stars above, you’ve got to listen to me.” I took the sketch from her hands, my fingers trembling.
“Harry,” she said, in a calm tone. “You lyingbastard,” and on the word she drove her fist into my stomach, hard, doubling me over. The motion put my head within easy reach, and her fist took me across the jaw in a right cross that sent me to the floor like a lump of wet pasta, stars dancing in my vision.
I was only dimly aware of her taking the sketch back from me. She twisted my arms painfully behind my back, and snapped her handcuffs around my wrists. “You promised me,” she said, her voice furious. “You promised. No secrets. You lied to me all along. You played me like a sucker the entire while. Goddammit, Dresden, you’re involved in this and people are dying.”
“Murph,” I mumbled. “Wait.”
She grabbed my hair, jerked my head back, and slammed me across the jaw again, near-berserk anger lending her strength. My head swam, and blackness closed over my vision for several seconds.
“No more talking. No more lies,” I heard her say, and she dragged me to my feet, shoved my face and chest against a wall, and began searching me for weapons. “No more people torn up like meat on a block. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
She took my blasting rod. My shield bracelet. The energy ring. Even my lump of chalk. Her voice went on, hard, cold, and professional, letting me know my rights.
I closed my eyes and leaned against the stone wall. Next to my head, it was the softest thing in the room. I didn’t try to fight or to explain.
What was the point?

What if…? A Theory on Who Writes the Richard Castle Books?

I love that they’ve actually published the Richard Castle books from the show Castle, with Storm Front due out this month and Deadly Heat due in September. It’s a great marketing scheme to promote Richard Castle as the actual author, including in the books themselves, and with a Richard Castle Facebook page and blog. But I have wondered who the real author is. Jeannie Ruesch makes an interesting case here.

Who Writes Richard Castle Books?.

Today I Read…Timeless

TimelessToday I read Timeless, the fifth and final book in the Parasol Protectorate series. You can read my reviews of the other books in the series, Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, and Heartless.

Life is about as settled as it ever gets for the preternatural Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon. She and her husband Lord Conall Maccon and the Woolsey werewolf pack are settled into their London townhouse. Well, the pack is settled into the townhouse–Alexia and Conall are secretly settled in the third closet of their next-door neighbour, the impeccably stylish vampire Lord Akeldama, who is raising their metanatural daughter Prudence (it was let him adopt the baby, or get murdered by the other vampires of London. It was still a hard decision.). The Maccons are also the patrons of the Tunstell’s Acting Troupe a la Mode, run by Alexia’s dear friend Ivy Tunstell and her husband–useful, since they need a good reason to go to Egypt when summoned by Queen Matakara. Patrons accompanying a troupe for a command performance is perfectly natural, now isn’t it? Much more expected than the oldest living vampire wanting to meet a toddler–even one as remarkable as Prudence Maccon.

Suddenly all roads seem to lead to Egypt, between Matakara’s invitation, a Kingair werewolf being shot after returning from Egypt, and the rumours that Alexia’s father was doing something there when he met Alexia’s mother.

Thank goodness Alexia has a new parasol–the sun isn’t the only deadly thing in Egypt.

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And thus concludes the Parasol Protectorate, at least for now. Finally all of the various mysteries of the series are tied up, and people are as settled as they can get. I’ve enjoyed the gradual expansion throughout the series from the focus on Alexia to watching each of her friends. I’m hard put to pick a favourite character–I do love Lord Akeldama and his outrageousness, but I also have a fondness for Biffy, so much stronger than he thinks he is and so devoted to making the world beautiful one accessory at a time, and for Professor Lyall, so quiet and competent and easily overlooked, while so completely ruthless in the name of his pack. And I’d love to see the books turned into a movie just so I could see Ivy’s hats–I’m not sure my imagination is up to the task.

All of the books in the series are fairly similar, with similar strengths. In a less-skilled author than Carriger, it could start to feel repetitive, but Alexia never quite loses her unique charm (otherwise known as bashing people with her parasol, verbally or literally, as required). The books are very visual, with detailed descriptions, particularly of the clothing of the time. The first two books have been published in manga form, with the third on the way–I may have to track them down to see how they have visually interpreted Carriger’s world.

It’s always a little sad to reach the end of the story–you have to say goodbye to the people you’ve met on this strange, wonderful journey. The nice thing is that you can pick the book up again, but it’s different when you’re walking a path you’ve walked before than when you are forging through new ground. Still, Timeless is a good ending, as far as endings go. The good live happily ever after, if somewhat noisily in the case of Alexia and Conall. Those who have done wrong, even in the name of the greater good, are punished, but still have the hope of redemption. You can’t ask for more than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexia stood in the doorway, transfixed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” replied Prudence.

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

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

“Dada! No wet?”

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

Lord Akeldama brightened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or even one that a vampire could control.”

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

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

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

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Afterward, Biffy could only just recall that ride back home, stumbling into the house and up the stairs, he and Professor Lyall leaning against one another in exhaustion. But he remembered perfectly the Beta’s face, a single sharp look when they reached the door to his chamber, almost frightened. It was a look Biffy recognized. He had neither the strength nor the interest in allowing loneliness to pillage anyone else’s peace of mind.

So he made the offer. “Would you like company, Professor?”

Professor Lyall looked at him, hazel eyes desperate. “I wouldn’t… that is… I couldn’t… that is… I’m not all that… capable.” He gave a weak little flap of a gesture indicating his still-wounded state, his fatigue, and his disheveled appearance all in one.

Biffy gave a little puff of a chuckle. He had never seen the urbane professor discombobulated before. Had he known, he might have flirted more in the past. “Just company, sir. I should never presume even if we were both in perfect health.” Besides, my hair must look atrocious. Imagine being able to attract anyone in such a state, let alone someone of Lyall’s standing.

The corner of his Beta’s mouth twitched, and he withdrew behind a veil of dispassionate hazel eyes. “Pity, pup? After you heard what Lord Woolsey did to me? It was a long time ago.”

Biffy had no doubt Professor Lyall was as proud, in his way, as any other man of good breeding and refined tastes. He tilted his head, showing his neck submissively. “No, sir. Never that. Respect, I suppose. To survive such things and still be sane.”

“Betas are made to maintain order. We are the butlers of the supernatural world.” An analogy no doubt sparked by the advent of Floote, who glided down the hallway toward them, looking as concerned as it is possible for a man to look who, so far as Biffy could tell, never displayed any emotion at all.

“You are well, gentlemen?”

“Yes, thank you, Floote.”

“There is nothing I can get for you?”

“No, thank you, Floote.”

“Investigation?” The butler arched an eyebrow at their fatigued and roughened state.

“No, Floote, a matter of pack protocol.”

“Ah.”

“Carry on, Floote.”

“Very good, sir.” Floote drifted away.

Biffy turned to make his way to his own sleeping chamber, assured now that his overtures had been rejected. He was forestalled by a hand on his arm.

Lyall had lovely hands, fine and strong, the hands of an artist who practiced a craft, a carpenter, perhaps, or a baker. Biffy had a sudden fanciful image of Lyall with a smudge of flour on his face, going comfortably into old age with a fine wife and brood of mild-mannered children.

The sandy head tilted in silent invitation. Professor Lyall opened the door to his bedroom. Biffy hesitated only a moment before following him inside.

By the time the sun set that evening, they were both fully recovered from the ordeal, having slept the day away without incident. Fully recovered and curled together naked in Lyall’s small bed.

Biffy learned, through careful kisses and soft caress, that Lyall was not at all disturbed by messy hair. In fact, his Beta’s hands were almost reverent, stroking through his curls. Biffy hoped that with his own touch he could convey his disregard for Lyall’s past actions and suffering, determined that none of what they did together should be about shame. Most of it, Biffy guessed, was about companionship. There might have been a tiny little seed of love. Just the beginnings, but a tender, equality of love, of a kind Biffy had never before experienced.

Professor Lyall was as different from Lord Akeldama as was possible. But there was something in that very difference that Biffy found restful. The contrast in characters made it feel like less of a betrayal. For two years, Biffy had held on to his hope and his infatuation with the vampire. It was time to let go. However, he didn’t feel that Lyall was edging Lord Akeldama out. Lyall wasn’t the type to compete. Instead he was carving himself a new place. Biffy might just be able to make the room. Lyall was, after all, not very big, for a werewolf. Of course, he worried about Felicity’s story of Alessandro Tarabotti, about whether Lyall was capable of loving him back, but it was early yet and Biffy allowed himself to revel in the simple joy that can only be found in allaying another’s loneliness.

When Lyall lay flush against him, nuzzling up into his neck, Biffy thought they fit well together. Not matched colors so much as coordinated, with Lyall a neutral cream satin, perhaps, and Biffy a royal blue.

Today I Read…Heartless

Today I read Heartless, the fourth book in the Parasol Protectorate seriHeartlesses by Gail Carriger. Check out my reviews of the first three books, Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless.

Lady Alexia Tarabotti Maccon is not enjoying her delicate condition. The infant-inconvenience kicks her, disrupts her appetite, and the vampires want to kill her to prevent the baby from being born. It’s been a very trying eight months (particularly for the men in her life: chiefly, her werewolf husband, Lord Conall Maccon; his beta, Professor Lyall; and her close friend, the vampire Lord Akeldama). And now they’ve come up with the most outrageous scheme: to let Lord Akeldama adopt and raise her child! Of course, it would pacify the vampires, and Akeldama is even willing to remodel his second closet into a nursery–you simply can’t ask more of him than to relocate clothing. And the house next door is for sale, so Alexia could stay close. And it will put Biffy, the most recent member of the werewolf pack in close quarters with his former master and, er, special friend, Lord Akeldama, which is nice since Biffy isn’t quite adjusting to his emergency werewolfification as well as could be hoped… Perhaps it isn’t so foolish an idea after all.

Then Alexia and Conall get attacked by poisoned porcupines. A deranged ghost is claiming there is a plot to assassinate the queen. Alexia’s best friend Ivy and her husband have formed an acting troupe, and requested Lady Maccon become their patroness. The French inventor Madame Lefoux has created an enormous mechanical brass octopus and is attacking the home of the vampire queen Countess Nadasdy in an effort to retrieve her son Quesnel. And worst of all, Alexia’s sister Felicity is claiming to have thrown over gowns and gossip for tweed and suffrage, and is moving in with the Maccons.

When people say that Lady Maccon is in an interesting condition, they are not exaggerating in the slightest.

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Alexia continues to be thoroughly incapable of not having an adventure, and proves that just because she is pregnant most certainly does not mean that she will be slowing down in any way. She may be barely able to waddle around, but she will still vigorously investigate the threat against the queen’s life. Even if she does initially mistake which queen the threat is against. We learn a bit more about preternaturals and supernaturals, and why the vampires feel so threatened by Alexia and Conall’s child, as well as about the former Kingair assassination plot which drove Conall away from his original pack.

Biffy the new werewolf is one of my favourite characters, and it’s interesting to see his struggle with his new curse of lycanthropy. He used to be a drone and lover of Lord Akeldama, and had once hoped to become a vampire himself in time. Unfortunately, in the last book Conall was forced to bite him to save his life, and being a werewolf is very different from being a vampire, even though both are immortal. He still loves Akeldama, even though a romance between a vampire and a werewolf is unheard of, and they both know they must part. Still, the heart is harder to convince than the head is.

All of the books in the series follow a formula: mystery, danger, witty banter, but it’s a formula that works very well. Alexia and Conall’s eternal arguments are always entertaining, as are the perfectly proper and extremely absurd Victorian manners. It’s not quote what I would call British humour, as exemplified by Monty Python and Douglas Adams, but it is a genteel cousin. Carriger continues to describe Victorian society, clothing, and manners very well, but it is her more than lively characters (Alexia certainly is) that shine.

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Alexia had only a moment of reprieve to appreciate the macabre sight of a wolf luring away a flock of porcupines like some Aesop’s version of the Pied Piper. A thud resounded on the driver’s box on the outside of the carriage. Something far larger than a porcupine had hit the claviger coachman and knocked him out. Seconds later, for speed was always their strong point, the parasol was bashed out of Alexia’s grasp and the carriage door yanked open.

“Good evening, Lady Maccon.” The vampire tipped his top hat with one hand, holding the door with the other. He occupied the entrance in an ominous, looming manner.

“Ah, how do you do, Lord Ambrose?”

“Tolerably well, tolerably well. It is a lovely night, don’t you find? And how is your”—he glanced at her engorged belly—“health?”

“Exceedingly abundant,” Alexia replied with a self-effacing shrug, “although, I suspect, unlikely to remain so.”

“Have you been eating figs?”

Alexia was startled by this odd question. “Figs?”

“Terribly beneficial in preventing biliousness in newborns, I understand.”

Alexia had been in receipt of a good deal of unwanted pregnancy advice over the last several months, so she ignored this and got on to the business at hand.

“If you don’t feel that it is forward of me to ask, are you here to kill me, Lord Ambrose?” She inched away from the carriage door, reaching for Ethel. The gun lay behind her on the coach seat. She had not had time to put it back into its reticule with the pineapple cut siding. The reticule was a perfect match to her gray plaid carriage dress with green lace trim. Lady Alexia Maccon was a woman who liked to see a thing done properly or not at all.

The vampire tilted his head to one side in acknowledgment. “Sadly, yes. I do apologize for the inconvenience.”

“Oh, really, must you? I’d much rather you didn’t.”

“That’s what they all say.”

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Miss Felicity Loontwill sat in Lord Akeldama’s drawing room in a dress of sensible heathered tweed with only one layer of trim and six buttons, a hat with minimal feathers, and a gray knit shawl with a ruffled collar.

“Oh, my heavens,” exclaimed Lady Maccon upon seeing her sister in such a state. “Felicity, are you quite all right?”

Miss Loontwill looked up. “Why, yes, of course, sister. Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Is there something amiss with the family?”

“You mean, aside from Mama’s predilection for pink?”

Alexia, blinking in flabbergasted shock, lowered herself carefully onto a chair. “But, Felicity, you are wearing last season’s dress!” She lowered her voice, in genuine fear that her sister might be deranged. “Andknitwear.”

“Oh.” Felicity wrapped the ghastly shawl tighter about her neck. “It was necessary.”

Lady Maccon was only further shocked by such an unexpected statement. “Necessary? Necessary!”

“Well, yes, Alexia, do pay attention. Have you always been this frazzled, or is it your unfortunate condition?” Felicity lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Necessary because I have been fraternizing.”

“You have? With whom?” Alexia became suspicious. It was very late at night for an unmarried young lady of quality to be cavorting about unchaperoned, especially one who kept daylight hours and whose parents shunned association with the supernatural set.

“I am wearing tweed. With whom else? Some poor unfortunates of the middle class.”

Lady Maccon would have none of it. “Oh, really, Felicity, you can hardly expect me to believe that you have had anything whatsoever to do with the lower orders.”

“You may choose to believe it or not, sister.”

Alexia wished for a return of her ability to stride about and loom threateningly. Sadly, striding was several months behind her, and should she attempt to loom, she would undoubtedly overbalance and pitch forward in graceless splendor. She settled for glaring daggers at her sibling. “Very well, then, what are you doing here? And how did you know to find me at Lord Akeldama’s residence?”

“Mrs. Tunstell told me where to find you.” Felicity looked with a critical eye at the golden magnificence surrounding her.

“Ivy? How did Ivy know?”

“Madame Lefoux told her.”

“Oh, she did, did she? And how—”

“Apparently someone named Professor Lyall told Madame Lefoux your relocation was taking place this evening and that you would hole up at Lord Akeldama’s, in case there were any orders pending delivery. Have you commissioned a new hat, sister? From that crass foreign female? Are you certain you should be patronizing her establishment after what happened in Scotland? And who is this Professor Lyall person? You haven’t taken up with academics, have you? That cannot possibly be healthy. Education is terribly bad for the nerves, especially for a woman in your state.”

Lady Maccon grappled for some appropriate response.

Felicity added, in a blatant attempt at distraction, “Speaking of which, you have gotten tremendously portly, haven’t you? Is increasing supposed to cause you to swell quite so much as all that?”

Lady Maccon frowned. “I believe I have increased, as it were, to the maximum. You know me—I always insist on seeing a thing done as thoroughly as possible.”

“Well, Mama says to make certain you don’t get angry with anyone. The child will end up looking like him.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, emotional mimicking they call it, and—”

“Well, that’s no trouble. It will simply end up looking like my husband.”

“But what if it is a female? Wouldn’t that be horrible? She’d be all fuzzy and—”

Felicity would have continued but Lady Maccon lost her patience, a thing she was all too prone to misplacing. “Felicity, why are you visiting me?”

Miss Loontwill hedged. “This is quite the remarkable abode. I never did think I should ever see inside of a vampire hive. And so charming and gleaming and full of exquisite collections. Almost up to my standards.”

“This is not a hive—there is no queen. Not in the technical definition of the word. I will not be so easily detoured, Felicity. Why have you shown up at such a time of night? And why would you undertake such pains to discover my whereabouts?”

Her sister shifted on the brocade settee, her blond head tilted to one side and a small frown creased her perfect forehead. She had not, Alexia noticed, modified her elaborately styled ringlets to match her lowbrow outfit. A row of perfect flat curls were gummed to her forehead in the very latest style.

“You have not paid the family much mind since your return to London.”

Lady Maccon considered this accusation. “You must admit, I was made to feel rather unwelcome prior to my departure.” And that is putting it mildly. Her family had always been a mite petty for her taste, even before they unilaterally decided to expel her from their midst at the most inconvenient time. Since her ill-fated trip to Scotland and subsequent dash across half the known world, she had simply elected to avoid the Loontwills as much as possible. As Lady Maccon, denizen of the night, who fraternized with werewolves; inventors; and, horror of horrors, actors, this was a relatively easy undertaking.

“Yes, but it’s been positively months, sister! I did not think you the type to hold a grudge. Did you know Evylin has renewed her engagement to Captain Featherstonehaugh?”

Lady Maccon only stared at her sister, tapping one slipper lightly on the carpeted floor.

Miss Loontwill blushed, looking toward her and then away again. “I have become”—she paused as though searching for the correct way of phrasing it—“involved.”

Alexia felt a tremor of real fear flutter through her breast. Or is that indigestion? “Oh, no, Felicity. Not with someone unsuitable? Not with someone middle class. Mama would never forgive you!”

Felicity stood and began to wander about the gilded room showing considerable agitation. “No, no, you misconstrue my meaning. I have become involved with my local chapter of the”—she lowered her voice dramatically—“National Society for Women’s Suffrage.”

If Lady Maccon hadn’t already been sitting down, she would have had to sit at such a statement. “You want to vote? You? But you can’t even decide which gloves to wear of a morning.”

“I believe in the cause.”

“Poppycock. You’ve never believed in anything in your whole life, except possibly the reliability of the French to predict next season’s color palette.”

“Well. Still.”

“But, Felicity, really this is so very common. Couldn’t you start up a ladies aid society or an embroidery social?You? Politically minded? I cannot deem such a thing feasible. It has only been five months since I met with you last, not five years, and even then you could not change your character so drastically. A feathered bonnet does not molt so easily as that.”

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Lady Maccon hesitated, wondering exactly how much to reveal. Ivy was a dear little soul, but was she reliable? She decided to buck up and take the plunge. “Ivy, have you ever wondered if there might, just possibly, be something slightly unusual about me?”

“Well, Alexia my dear, I never liked to say, but I have always wondered about your hat preferences. They have struck me as mighty plain.”

Lady Maccon shook her head. The long blue ostrich feather of her not-at-all-plain hat wafted back and forth behind her. “No, not that, I mean . . . Well, dash it, Ivy, there’s nothing for it.”

Mrs. Tunstell gasped in enchanted shock at Lady Maccon’s lowbrow language. “Alexia, you have been fraternizing with werewolves overmuch! Military men can be terribly bad for one’s verbal concatenation.”

Alexia took a deep breath and then blurted out, “I’m preternatural.”

Ivy’s dark eyes widened. “Oh, no! Is it catching?”

Alexia blinked at her.

Ivy donned a sympathetic expression. “Is it a terribly painful condition?”

Lady Maccon continued to blink.

Ivy put a hand to her throat. “Is it the baby? Will you both be well? Should I send for barley water?”

Alexia finally found her voice. “No, preternatural.You might know the term, as in soulless? Or curse-breaker. I have no soul. None at all. As a matter of fact, I can cancel it out in supernatural creatures given half a chance.”

Ivy relaxed. “Oh, that. Yes, I knew. I shouldn’t let it concern you, my dear. I doubt anybody minds.”

“Yes, but . . . Wait, you knew?”

Ivy tut-tutted and shook dark ringlets at her friend in mock amusement. “Of course I knew—have done for simply ages.”

“But you never mentioned a thing to me on the subject.” Alexia was not often flummoxed. She found it an usual sensation and wondered if this was what Ivy felt like most of the time. Her friend’s revelation did, however, give her some degree of confidence in her next move. Despite all her frivolities, Ivy could clearly keep a secret and, it turned out, was more observant than Alexia had previously given her credit for.

“Now, Alexia, I thought you were embarrassed about it. I didn’t want to bring up an uncomfortable personal disability. I have more sensitivity and care for the feelings of others than that!”

“Ah, oh, well. Of course you do. Regardless, as a preternatural, I am currently engaged in some investigations. I was hoping to enlist your aid. It has to do with my husband’s work.” Alexia didn’t want to tell Ivy absolutely everything, but she didn’t want to fib outright either.

“For BUR? Espionage! Oh, really? How terribly glamorous.” Ivy clasped yellow-gloved hands together in delight.

“To which end I was hoping to, well, induct you into a kind of secret society.”

Ivy looked as though she had not heard anything so thrilling in all her life. “Me?” she squeaked. “Really? How marvelous. What’s it called, this secret society?”

Alexia hesitated and then, recalling a phrase her husband had once offered up in the heat of annoyance, suggested tentatively, “The Parasol Protectorate?”

“Oooh, what a perfectly splendid name. So full of ornamentation!” Ivy practically bounced up and down on the lavender settee in her excitement. “Must I make a pledge, or memorize a sacred code of conduct, or engage in some pagan ritual or other?” Ivy had an expectant look on her face that suggested she would be very disappointed if this were not the case.

“Well, yes, of course.” Lady Maccon floundered, trying to come up with something appropriate to the occasion. She couldn’t make Ivy kneel, not in that dress—a periwinkle muslin day gown with an extremely long, tight bodice of the style favored by actresses.

After a moment’s thought, Alexia stood laboriously and waddled over to the umbrella stand to retrieve her parasol. This she opened and placed point downward in the center of the room. Since the room was so very small, this did manage to take up most of the free space. Motioning Ivy to stand, Alexia handed her the handle and said, “Spin the parasol three times and repeat after me: I shield in the name of fashion. I accessorize for one and all. Pursuit of truth is my passion. This I vow by the great parasol.”

Ivy did as she was told, face serious and concentrated. “I shield in the name of fashion. I accessorize for one and all. Pursuit of truth is my passion. This I vow by the great parasol.”

“Now pick the parasol up and raise it, open, to the ceiling. Yes, just like that.”

“Is that all? Shouldn’t the vow be sealed in blood or something like?”

“Oh, do you think?”

Ivy nodded enthusiastically.

Alexia shrugged. “If you insist.” She took back her parasol, snapped it closed, and twisted the handle. Two wickedly sharp spikes projected out of the tip, one of silver, the other of wood.

Ivy inhaled in appreciation.

Lady Maccon flipped the parasol about. Then she took off one of her gloves. After a moment’s hesitation, Ivy did the same. Alexia nicked the pad of her thumb with the silver spike and then did the same for Ivy, who gave a little squeak of alarm. Then Alexia pressed their two thumbs together.

“May the blood of the soulless keep your own soul safe,” intoned Alexia, feeling appallingly melodramatic but knowing Ivy would love this better than anything.

Ivy did. “Oh, Alexia, this is so very stirring! It should be part of a play.”

“I shall have a special parasol made up for you, similar to mine.”

“Oh, no, but thank you for the thought, Alexia. I couldn’t possibly carry an accessory that emitted things all willy-nilly like that. Really, I’m much obliged, but I simply couldn’t bear it. You, of course, manage to carry it off with aplomb, but it would be too vulgar on someone like me.”

Lady Maccon frowned, but knowing her friend’s true weakness, she made another suggestion. “A special hat, perhaps?”

Ivy hesitated.

“Madame Lefoux designed my parasol.”

“Well, perhaps a small hat. One that isn’t too oozy?”

Alexia smiled. “I am convinced that could be arranged.”

Today I Read…Blameless

BlamelessToday I read Blameless by Gail Carriger, the third book in the Parasol Protectorate  series. I’ve previously reviewed the first two books Soulless and Changeless.

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.

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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.

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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.”

“Who says?”

Felicity crinkled the gossip section of the paper explanatorily.

“Oh, they.”

“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.

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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.”