Home > Prudence (The Custard Protocol #1)(16)

Prudence (The Custard Protocol #1)(16)
Author: Gail Carriger

“No insult intended, dear cousin,” replied Rue, anxious to get out of the cloying atmosphere of the hive quickly. “But it is actually your ward I wish to see.”

The countess was taken aback at such a request. “Quesnel? But I thought you two loathed each other.”

“Now, now, cousin, loathe is such a strong word. We have been known to clash on a few occasions.”

The countess raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. “Indeed? I believe you once stole poor Ambrose’s vampire abilities merely so you could dunk Quesnel into the duck pond.”

Rue blushed. Admittedly, Quesnel’s behaviour had been very bad indeed, but she had escalated matters more than she should. “That was a long time ago.”

The queen looked misty-eyed. “Was it? Ah, time passes so oddly for you mortals.”

“She was eight,” said a mild tenor voice, tinged with a slight French accent. “I was down from university. I remember it well.”

Rue whirled to face Quesnel.

The man advanced towards her.

Quesnel Lefoux was one of the few males Rue had ever met whom she could not manage. He was unlike the large gruff werewolves of her father’s pack, easily swayed by feminine wiles. Nor was he like the effete elegant courtiers of Akeldama’s domicile influenced by whispered gossip and cheeky innuendo. Quesnel Lefoux was a different breed entirely, which accounted for a great deal of Rue’s difficulty with the man. He would not be categorised. He was of medium build and medium height. He moved like a dancer but had the manners of an academic and an inflated opinion of his own repartee. He smiled easily and was inclined to wit rather than wisdom despite his being one of the most brilliant mechanics of the modern age. He was a terrible flirt, which everyone blamed on his being French. To cap the offence, Rue’s acting abilities always failed her around him. As a result, he was prone to either making her head spin with banter, or overwhelming her with the desire to dump tea on his head, sometimes both at the same time.

“Lady Prudence, to what do I owe this unalloyed pleasure?” Quesnel took her hand and bent to kiss her wrist, lips whisper-soft and actually daring to touch skin. He was entirely human and had nothing to fear from Rue in that regard. Except that she badly wanted to box his ears for the impertinence.

Instead Rue simply withdrew her hand as soon as was polite. She resisted the urge to rub at the spot his lips had touched. “I was looking for you, Mr Lefoux. If you could spare me a moment?”

Quesnel exchanged a pointed look with the vampire queen.

Countess Nadasdy shrugged – the barest hint of a movement so as not to upset the drape of her gown. There was a dangerously covetous look in her blue eyes. However, she made no objection to the proposed private assignation.

Quesnel tilted his head. “Very well, mon petit chou, come into my lair. Or would you prefer a walk around the grounds?”

Rue decided it was best to keep matters in the open. “The grounds. I could use the fresh air.”

Quesnel offered her his arm, which Rue took, almost scared of his warmth.

He led her through the hall and out the back into the beautifully tended grounds. Before leaving the house, he casually paused to unstrap and toss aside a whole mess of gadgetry. It was a mark of how unsettled the man made her that Rue hadn’t noticed it until that moment.

“What’s that?” she asked.

He dismissed the advanced assemblage. “Tools mostly, I find it useful to have everything on me when I’m working. But they get in the way the rest of the time, when one has lovely visitors to attend.”

Woolsey had once been home to Rue’s father’s pack. In fact, she had been born there, but had never lived in the place herself. It still bore a few signs of wolf occupation. The occasional scratch mark, silver chains in a hall cupboard, and extensive dungeons underground. Over the last two decades, the countess had done her best to improve Woolsey, with only modest success. The castle itself was a patchwork of buildings, for it had been added to by a variety of owners with wide-ranging tastes, including several Alpha werewolves. It proved that even with a millennium of knowledge not every house could be made beautiful.

The grounds were a different matter. The vampires had hired a veritable army of attractive gardeners. The countess, confined inside, could only appreciate them at night – both grounds and gardeners – from the windows of her abode. But she did both, frequently. Much had been done to make the view from above, as well as the walk within, a delight to the eye. There were gazebos and fountains, ponds and dells, bird baths and statues, not to mention an elaborate maze of creamy gravel with contrasting topiary and a cluster of silver birches at the centre.

Under the three-quarter moon, Quesnel led Rue along a winding black stone path, passed well-tended shrubs, beautiful herbaceous borders, rows of fruit trees, and the occasional Grecian temple. They talked of mutual acquaintances, asking after each other’s families until they arrived at a picturesque pond with water-lilies and weeping willows all around.

Rue looked at it thoughtfully. “Is that the pond?”

“Why, yes, it is. Such a high-spirited young thing.” Quesnel rubbed his posterior as though still remembering landing on it.

“Who? Me or you?” Rue wondered.

“Both, I suppose.”

Rue was willing to let bygones be bygones if he was. “Mere childhood kerfuffles.”

“Speak for yourself. I was fully grown and should have known not to tease a spoiled metanatural. I should have also known the rest.” He led her to a marble bench.

   
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