Anna smiled for no reason and lifted her face to the soft morning breeze.
They continued down the lane until they came to a pasture bordered by a stream. The earl leaned down to unlatch the gate, and they rode in. As they neared the far corner, Anna saw that there were five men gathered close to the stream with a number of shepherd dogs milling about.
One of the men, an older fellow with grizzled hair, looked up at their approach. “Milord! Now, here’s a right mess, then.”
“Durbin.” The earl nodded to the farmer and dismounted. He walked over to help Anna dismount. “What’s the problem?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Ewes in th’ stream.” Durbin spat to the side. “Silly drabs. Must’ve followed each other down th’ bank and now can’t come up it. Three of them heavy with lamb, too.”
“Ah.” The earl approached the stream, and Anna followed. She could see now the five ewes caught in the swollen stream. The poor animals were tangled in the debris by an eddy. The bank was almost four feet deep at that particular point and was slippery with mud.
Lord Swartingham shook his head. “There’s no help for it but to use brute force.”
“Just what I was thinking meself.” The farmer nodded approvingly at having his own idea confirmed.
Two men, along with the earl, lay flat on the stream’s bank and reached down to pull on the sheep’s wool. This, with the added incentive of the shepherd dogs harrying them from behind, convinced four of the ewes to scramble up the slimy bank. They tottered off, bleating their confusion at being so ill-used. The fifth ewe, however, was out of reach of the men on the bank. She was either too trapped or too stupid to climb from the stream on her own. Prostrate on her side, she bleated forlornly in the water.
“Gor. That one’s good and stuck.” Farmer Durbin sighed, and wiped his sweaty brow with the hem of his smock.
“Whyn’t we send old Bess down to plague her, Da?” The farmer’s eldest son fondled the ears of a black and white dog.
“Nay, lad. I don’t want to lose Bess in the water. ’Tis over her head there. One of us’ll have to go in after the daft beast.”
“I’ll do it, Durbin.” The earl stepped away and took off his coat. He threw it to Anna, who barely caught it before it hit the ground. His waistcoat followed, and then he was pulling his fine lawn shirt over his head. He sat on the bank to wrestle off his jackboots.
Anna tried not to stare. She didn’t often see a half-naked man. Actually, she couldn’t remember ever seeing a man without a shirt in public. There were indented pox scars scattered across his torso, but she was more interested in other things. Her imagination had been correct. He did indeed have hair upon his chest. Quite a bit, in fact. Black swirls stretched across his breast and funneled down to his hard stomach. The hair narrowed to a thin ribbon that crossed his flat navel and then disappeared into his breeches.
The earl stood in his stockinged feet and half climbed, half slid down the steep bank and into the water. The muddy stream swirled around his hips as he waded to the side of the frightened ewe. He bent over the animal, working at the branches holding her. His wide shoulders gleamed with sweat and streaks of muck.
A shout rose from the watching men. The ewe was free, but in her haste to escape the stream, she had shouldered the earl, who went down in a geyser of muddy water. Anna gasped and started forward. Lord Swartingham’s dog raced back and forth along the bank, barking excitedly. The earl emerged from the stream like a ragged Poseidon, water running in sheets off his torso. He was grinning even though his hair was plastered to his skull, the ribbon holding it having been lost in the stream.
The dog was still barking his disapproval of the whole proceeding. Meanwhile, the farmer and his relatives staggered about, gasping with laughter and slapping their knees. They were all but rolling on the ground in their hilarity. Anna sighed. Apparently an aristocrat getting a dunking was the most amusing thing the men had ever seen. Males were very perplexing at times.
“Oy! Milord! Do you always have trouble holding your wenches?” one of the men shouted.
“Nay, lad, she just didn’t like the feel of his hand on her arse.” The farmer made a graphic gesture that sent the men off again.
The earl laughed, but nodded toward Anna. Thus reminded of her presence, the men stopped their jests, although they continued to snigger. The earl lifted both hands to slick the water from his face.
Anna caught her breath at the sight. With his hands at the back of his head, squeezing the water from his hair, his muscles stood out in sharp relief. The sun glinted off his flexed arms and chest, and his black underarm hair curled damply. Rivulets of grimy water, mixed with blood from the ewe, ran down his chest and arms. His low-slung breeches clung to his hips and thighs, delineating the bulge of his manhood. He looked quite pagan.
The earl waded to shore and climbed the bank with a helping hand from the farmer’s sons. Anna gave herself a shake and hurried over with his clothes.
He used the fine lawn shirt as a towel and then threw on his coat over his bare chest. “Well, Durbin, I hope you will call me the next time you are unable to handle a female.”
“Aye, milord.” The farmer slapped Lord Swartingham on the back. “My thanks for helping us out. Don’t remember when I’ve seen a grander splash.”
That set the men off again, and it was some little while before the earl and Anna could leave. By the time they were mounted, the earl’s body was shaking with cold, but he showed no sign of hurry.
“You’ll catch your death of cold, my lord,” Anna said. “Please ride on to the Abbey ahead of me. You can go much faster without Daisy and me to slow you down.”
“I’m quite all right, Mrs. Wren,” he replied through teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to be deprived of your dulcet company for even a moment.”
Anna glared at him for she knew he was being sarcastic. “You don’t have to prove how manly you are by catching the ague.”
“So you consider me manly, Mrs. Wren?” He grinned like a little boy. “I was beginning to think that I battled a stinking sheep for nothing.”
Anna tried, but it was impossible to keep her mouth from twitching. “I didn’t know landowners helped their tenants so,” she said. “Surely it is unusual?”
“Oh, certainly unusual,” he replied. “I suppose the majority of my peers sit in London letting their arses widen while their stewards run their estates.”
“Then why do you choose to wade into muddy streams after sheep?”
The earl shrugged his damp shoulders. “My father taught me that a good landowner knows his tenants and what they are doing. Then, too, I am more involved because of my agricultural studies.” He shrugged again and smiled at her rather ironically. “And I’m fond of wrestling ewes and the like.”
Anna returned the smile. “Did your father wrestle ewes as well?”
There was a silence, and she feared for a moment that she’d asked too personal a question.
“No, I don’t remember him getting that dirty.” Lord Swartingham watched the road ahead. “But he didn’t mind wading into a flooded field in spring or overseeing the harvest in fall. And he always took me with him to mind the people and the land.”
“He must’ve been a wonderful father,” she murmured. To have raised such a wonderful son.
“Yes. If I’m only half as good a father to my own children, I’ll be content.” He looked curiously at her. “You had no children from your marriage?”
Anna glanced down at her hands. They were clenched in fists over the reins. “No. We were married for four years, but it was not God’s will to grace us with children.”
“I’m sorry.” There seemed to be honest regret in the earl’s eyes.
“As am I, my lord.” Every day.
They were silent then until Ravenhill Abbey came into sight.
WHEN ANNA REACHED home that evening, Pearl was sitting up in bed and eating soup with Fanny’s help. She was still thin, but her hair had been pulled back from her temples with a bit of ribbon, and she wore one of the little maid’s old dresses. Anna took over the duty and sent Fanny down to finish making the supper.
“I forgot to thank you, ma’am,” Pearl said shyly.
“It’s quite all right.” Anna smiled. “I only hope you feel better soon.”
The other woman sighed. “Oh, I just need some rest, mostly.”
“Are you from around here, or were you traveling through when you became ill?” Anna proffered a bit of beef.
Pearl chewed slowly and swallowed. “No, ma’am. I was trying to get back to London where I live. A gent brought me out here in a fine carriage promising to set me up proper like.”
Anna raised her brows.
“I thought he was going to put me up in a little cottage.” Pearl smoothed the sheet under her fingers. “I’m getting older, you know. I can’t be working too much longer.”
Anna remained silent.
“But it were just a con,” Pearl said. “He only wanted me for a party with some friends.”
Anna cast about for something to say. “I’m sorry it wasn’t a permanent position.”
“Yeah. And that weren’t even the worst of it. He expected me to entertain him and his two friends.” Pearl’s mouth twisted down.
Two friends? “You mean you were to, um, entertain three gentlemen at once?” Anna asked faintly.
Pearl pursed her lips and nodded. “Yeah. All together or one after another.” She must have seen Anna’s shock. “Some of them fine gentlemen likes to do it together, sort of showing off to each other. But the girl gets hurt lots of times.”
Good Lord. Anna stared at Pearl, appalled.
“But it don’t really matter,” Pearl continued. “I walked out.”
Anna could only manage a nod.
“Then I started feeling bad on the coach back. I must’ve dozed off, ’cause next thing I knew, my purse was gone and I was having to try to walk since the coach wouldn’t let me back on without my money.” Pearl shook her head. “I would’ve been dead for sure if you hadn’t found me when you did.”
Anna looked down at her palms. “May I ask you a question, Pearl?”
“Sure. Go ahead.” The other woman folded her hands at her waist and nodded. “Ask me anything you want.”
“Have you heard of an establishment called Aphrodite’s Grotto?”
Pearl cocked her head back against the pillow and looked at Anna curiously. “I didn’t think a lady like you knew about such places, ma’am.”
Anna avoided Pearl’s gaze. “I heard it mentioned by some gentlemen. I don’t think they knew I’d overheard.”
“I don’t guess not,” Pearl agreed. “Why, Aphrodite’s Grotto is a real high-priced bawdy house. The girls who work there have it soft, that’s for sure. ’Course, I’ve heard that some high-class ladies go there with their faces hidden by a mask to pretend to be what I am.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “You mean…?”
“They take whatever gent that catches their fancy in the room below and spends the night with them.” Pearl nodded matter-of-factly. “Or however long they want. Some even take a room and instruct the madam to send up a man of a certain description. Maybe a short, blond fellow or a tall, red-headed one.”
“It sounds a bit like picking a horse.” Anna wrinkled her nose.
Pearl gave the first smile Anna had seen. “That’s clever, ma’am. Like picking a stud.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t mind being the one that does the choosing for once, instead of the gents always getting to do the deciding.”