Anna smiled a little uncomfortably at this reminder of the realities of Pearl’s profession. “But why would a gentleman submit to such an arrangement?”
“The gents like it because they know they’re getting to spend the night with a real lady.” The other woman shrugged. “If you can call her a lady.”
Anna blinked and then shook herself. “I’m keeping you from your rest. I’d better go see about my own supper.”
“All right, then.” Pearl yawned. “Thank you again.”
All through supper that evening, Anna was distracted. Pearl’s comment that it would be nice to do the choosing for once kept running through her head. She poked rather absently at her meat pie. It was true, even on her level of society, that the men got to do most of the choosing. A young lady waited for a gentleman to come calling, while the gentleman was able to decide which young ladies to court. Once married, a respectable woman waited dutifully for her husband in the marriage bed. The man made the overtures of marital relations. Or not, as the case may be. At least it had been so in Anna’s marriage. She’d certainly never let Peter know she might have needs of her own or that she might not be satisfied with what occurred in bed.
Later that night, as Anna got ready for sleep, she couldn’t stop imagining Lord Swartingham in Aphrodite’s Grotto as Pearl had described it. The earl being sighted and chosen by some daring woman of the aristocracy. The earl spending the night in a masked lady’s arms. The thoughts made her chest hurt even as she fell asleep.
And then she was in Aphrodite’s Grotto.
She wore a mask and searched for the earl. Men of every description, old, young, fair, and ugly, hundreds of men, filled a hall to overflowing. Frantically, she pushed through the mass, hunting for a singular pair of black, gleaming eyes, becoming more desperate the longer her search took. Finally, she saw him across the room, and she started running toward him. But as is the way with such nightmares, the faster she tried to run, the slower she went. Each step seemed to take an eternity. As she struggled, she saw another masked woman beckon to him. Without ever having seen her, he turned away and followed the other woman from the room.
Anna awoke in the dark, her heart pounding and her skin chilled. She lay absolutely still, remembering the dream and listening to her own roughened breathing.
It was some time before she realized she was weeping.
The huge raven flew with his new wife on his back for two days and two nights until on the third day, they came to fields golden with ripened grain.
“Who owns these fields?” Aurea asked, looking down from her perch.
“Your husband,” the raven replied.
They came to an endless meadow filled with fat cattle, their hides shining in the sun.
“Who owns these cattle?” Aurea asked.
“Your husband,” the raven replied.
Then a vast emerald forest spread below, rolling over hills as far as the eye could see.
“Who owns this forest?” Aurea asked.
“Your husband!” the raven cawed….
—from The Raven Prince
Anna walked to Ravenhill the next morning feeling tired and low after a restless night. She paused for a moment to admire the sea of bluebells blooming under the trees that lined the drive. The azure dots sparkled in the sunlight, like newly minted coins. Usually the sight of any flower brought a lightness to her heart, but today they did not. She sighed and continued her journey until she rounded a curve and stopped short. Lord Swartingham, striding briskly in his habitual mud-spattered boots, was coming from the stables and hadn’t caught sight of her yet.
He gave a terrific bellow. “DOG!”
For the first time that day, Anna smiled. Evidently the earl couldn’t find the ever-present canine and was reduced to roaring its common name.
She strolled toward him. “I don’t see why he should respond to that.”
Lord Swartingham swung around at the sound of her voice. “I believe that I gave the job of naming the mongrel to you, Mrs. Wren.”
Anna opened her eyes wide. “I did offer three different options, my lord.”
“And all of them were out of the question, as you well know.” He smiled evilly. “I think I’ve given you quite enough time to come up with a name. You shall produce one now.”
She was amused by his obvious intention to put her on the spot. “Stripe?”
“Too murderous.” Lord Swartingham folded his arms across his chest. “Come, come, Mrs. Wren. A woman of your wit can do better than this.”
“How about ‘Jock,’ then?”
“That won’t do.”
“Why not?” Anna retorted saucily. “I like the name Jock.”
“Jock.” The earl seemed to roll the name on his tongue.
“I wager the dog will come if I call him by that name.”
“Ha.” He stared down his nose in the superior manner of males the world over when dealing with silly females. “You are welcome to try.”
“Very well, I shall.” She tilted her chin. “And if he comes, you must show me around the Abbey’s gardens.”
Lord Swartingham raised his eyebrows. “And if he doesn’t come?”
“I don’t know.” She hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Name your prize.”
He pursed his lips and contemplated the ground at his feet. “I believe it is traditional in wagers between a woman and a man for the gentleman to ask for a favor from the lady.”
Anna drew in a breath and then had trouble releasing it.
The earl’s black eyes glittered at her from beneath his brows. “Perhaps a kiss?”
Oh, dear. Possibly she had been precipitous. Anna let out her breath in a puff and straightened her shoulders. “Very well.”
He waved a languid hand. “Proceed.”
Anna cleared her throat. “Jock!”
Lord Swartingham began to smirk.
Anna drew a deep breath and let loose a most unladylike shriek. “JOCK!”
They both listened for the dog. Nothing.
The earl slowly pivoted to face her, the crunching of his boots in the gravel drive loud in the stillness. They stood only a few feet distant. He took a step, his beautiful, heavy-lidded eyes intent on her face.
Anna could feel the blood pounding in her chest. She licked her lips.
His gaze dropped to her mouth, and his nostrils flared. He took another step, and they were now only a foot apart. As if in a dream, she saw his hands rise and grip her arms, felt the pressure of his big fingers through her mantle and gown.
Anna began to tremble.
He bent his dark head toward hers, and his warm breath caressed her lips. She closed her eyes.
And heard the dog clatter into the yard.
Anna opened her eyes. Lord Swartingham was frozen. Slowly, he turned his head, still only inches from hers, to stare at the canine. The dog grinned back, tongue hanging from his mouth, panting.
“Shit,” the earl breathed.
Quite, Anna thought.
He let go of her suddenly, stepped away, and turned his back. He ran both hands through his hair and shook his shoulders. She heard him take a deep breath, but his voice was still husky when he spoke. “It appears you have won the wager.”
“Yes, my lord.” She hoped she sounded sufficiently nonchalant, as if she was used to having gentlemen nearly kiss her in their driveways. As if she wasn’t having trouble catching her breath. As if she didn’t desperately wish the dog had stayed far, far away.
“I’ll be pleased to show you the gardens,” the earl muttered, “such as they are, after luncheon. Perhaps you can work in the library until then?”
“Won’t you be coming to the library as well?” She tried to conceal her disappointment.
He still hadn’t turned to face her. “I find that there are matters that need my attention around the estate.”
“Of course,” Anna murmured.
He finally looked at her. She noticed his eyes were still heavy lidded, and she rather fancied he glanced at her bosom. “I’ll see you at luncheon.”
She nodded, and the earl snapped his fingers at the dog. As he passed her, she thought she heard him mutter something to the beast. It sounded more like idiot than Jock.
JESUS GOD, WHAT was I thinking? Edward strode angrily around the Abbey.
He’d deliberately maneuvered Mrs. Wren into an untenable position. There was no way she could have denied his crude advances. As if a woman of her fine sensibilities would have welcomed a kiss from a pox-scarred man such as he. But he hadn’t thought of his scars when he drew her into his arms. He hadn’t thought of anything. He’d acted on pure instinct: the lust to touch that beautiful, erotic mouth. His cock had been full, achingly erect, in seconds at the mere thought. He’d nearly been unable to let go of Mrs. Wren when the dog had showed up, and then he’d been forced to turn his back to keep her from getting an eyeful. He still hadn’t relaxed.
“And what were you doing, Jock?” Edward growled down at the happily oblivious mastiff. “Your timing needs work, lad, if you want to continue devouring the bounty of the Abbey’s kitchen.”
Jock grinned an adoring doggy grin up at him. One ear was flopped inside out, and Edward straightened it absently. “A minute earlier or a minute later—preferably later—would’ve been a better moment to come gamboling up.”
He sighed. He couldn’t let this rampant lust continue. He liked the woman, for God’s sake. She was witty and unafraid of his temper. She asked questions about his agricultural studies. She rode about his fields through mud and muck without a word of complaint. She even seemed to enjoy their jaunts. And sometimes when she looked at him, her head tilted to the side and all her attention focused solely on him, there was something that seemed to turn in his chest.
He frowned and kicked a pebble on the path.
It was unfair and dishonorable to subject Mrs. Wren to his brutish advances. He shouldn’t be combating thoughts of her soft breasts, wondering if she had pale pink nipples or if they were a deeper rose color. Contemplating whether her nipples would pucker up immediately when he drew his thumb across them or wait coyly for the feel of his tongue.
He half laughed, half groaned. His cock was once again at stand and pulsing with blood at just the thought of her. His body hadn’t been this out of control since he’d been a lad with a newly deepened voice.
He kicked another pebble and stopped on the path, hands on hips, to tip his head back to the sky.
It was no use. Edward rolled his head back against his shoulders, trying to ease the tension. He would have to make a trip to London soon to spend a night or even two at Aphrodite’s Grotto. Perhaps after that he could be in his secretary’s presence without lustful thoughts taking over his mind.
He ground the pebble he had been kicking into the mud as he pivoted and started back to the stables. He was approaching the idea of going to London as a chore. He no longer anticipated spending the night in a demimondaine’s bed. Instead, he felt weary. Weary and yearning for a woman he could not have.
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, Anna was reading The Raven Prince when the banging started. She’d only gotten as far as the third page, which described a magical battle between an evil prince and an enormous raven. It was an odd little fairy tale, but it was engrossing, and it took her a minute to recognize the sound of the Abbey’s front door knocker. She’d never heard it before. Most of the callers to the Abbey came by way of the servants’ entrance.
She slipped the book back into her desk and picked up a quill as she listened to the sound of rapid footsteps, probably the footman, in the hall answering the door. A vague murmur of voices, one of them feminine, then a lady’s heels tapped toward the library. The footman threw open the door, and Felicity Clearwater strolled in.