Anna stood. “Can I help you?”
“Oh, don’t get up. I don’t want to disturb your duties.” Felicity flicked a hand in her direction as she inspected the rickety iron ladder in the corner. “I’ve just come to deliver an invitation for Lord Swartingham to my spring soiree.” She stroked a gloved fingertip over an iron rail and wrinkled her nose at the rust-colored dust that came away.
“He isn’t in at the moment,” Anna said.
“No? Then I must entrust it with you.” Felicity sauntered to the desk and produced a heavily embossed envelope from a pocket. “You will give this…” She was holding out the envelope, but her words trailed away as she looked at Anna.
“Yes?” Anna self-consciously brushed a hand over her hair. Did she have a smudge on her face? Something caught between her teeth? Felicity looked as if she’d solidified into marble. Surely dirt couldn’t justify that much shock.
The embossed velum in Felicity’s hand trembled and fell to the desk. She glanced away, and the moment was gone.
Anna blinked. Perhaps she’d imagined the look.
“Do make sure Lord Swartingham receives my invitation, won’t you?” Felicity was saying. “I’m certain he won’t want to miss the most important social event in the area.” She aimed a brittle smile in Anna’s direction and walked out the door.
Anna absently dropped her hand to her throat and felt cool metal under her palm. She wrinkled her brow as she remembered. This morning as she’d dressed, she had thought the fichu about her neck rather plain. She’d rummaged in the tiny box that held her meager stock of jewelry, but her only pin was too big. Then her fingers had touched the locket she’d found in Peter’s case. This time she’d experienced only a twinge when she saw the locket. Perhaps it was losing the power to hurt her, and she’d thought, Well, why not? and defiantly pinned the locket at her neck.
Anna fingered the trinket at her throat. It was cold and hard under her hand, and she wished that she’d not given in to her morning impulse.
DAMN! DAMN! DAMN! Felicity stared sightlessly from her carriage as it bumped away from Ravenhill Abbey. She’d not endured eleven years of groping and poking by a man old enough to be her grandfather to have it all fall apart now.
One would think that Reginald Clearwater’s quest for children had been satisfied with the four grown sons his first two wives had borne him, not to mention the six daughters. After all, Felicity’s predecessor had died giving birth to his youngest male offspring. But no, Reginald was obsessed with his own potency and the task of getting children on his wife. There were times during his twice-weekly marital visits when she wondered if it were really worth all this trouble. The man had run through three wives and still didn’t have any skill in the bedchamber.
But despite its downside, she absolutely adored being the squire’s wife. Clearwater Hall was the largest house in the county, excepting, of course, Ravenhill Abbey. She had a generous clothing allowance and her own carriage. She looked forward to lovely—and very expensive—jewelry every birthday. And the local shopkeepers nearly genuflected when she called. All in all, it was a life well worth preserving.
Which brought her back to the problem of Anna Wren.
Felicity touched her hair, skimming over it, checking for strands out of place. How long had Anna known? Impossible that the locket had been an accident. Coincidences of that magnitude just did not happen, which meant the wretched woman was taunting her after all this time. The letter that Felicity’d written to Peter had been penned in the heat of lust and was quite, quite damning. She’d placed it in the locket he’d given her and handed it to him, never thinking he would keep the silly thing. And then he’d died, and she’d been on tenterhooks, waiting for Anna to come calling with the evidence. When the locket had not turned up in the first couple of years, she’d thought Peter had either sold it or buried it—along with the letter inside—before he’d died.
Men! What useless creatures they were—aside from the obvious.
Felicity drummed her fingers on the windowsill. The only reasons for Anna to show her the locket now were either revenge or blackmail. She grimaced and ran her tongue along her front teeth, feeling their edges. Dainty, smooth, and sharp. Very sharp. If little Anna Wren thought she could frighten Felicity Clearwater, she was about to find out just how very mistaken she was.
“I BELIEVE I OWE you a forfeit, Mrs. Wren,” the earl announced as he stalked into the library later that afternoon. The sun streaming in the windows highlighted silver threads in Lord Swartingham’s hair. His boots were muddy again.
Anna laid down her quill and held out her hand to Jock, who had accompanied his master into the room. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten this morning’s debt, my lord.”
He arched an arrogant brow. “Are you impugning my honor?”
“If I were, would you call me out?”
He made an inelegant sound. “No. You’d probably win if I did. I’m not a particularly good shot, and my sword work needs practice.”
Anna raised her chin loftily. “Then perhaps you should be careful what you say to me.”
One corner of Lord Swartingham’s mouth curled up. “Are you coming to the garden, or do you wish to continue bandying words with me here?”
“I don’t see why we cannot do both,” she murmured, and gathered her wrap.
She took his arm, and they strolled out of the library. Jock trailed them, ears perked at the prospect of a ramble. The earl led her through the front door and around the corner of the Abbey past the stables. Here the cobblestones turned to mown grass. They passed a low hedge enclosing a kitchen garden to the side of the servants’ entrance. Someone had already started leeks. Delicate green wisps lined a trench that would later be filled in as the plants grew. Beyond the kitchen garden was a sloped lawn at the bottom of which was a larger, walled garden. They picked their way down the slope on a gray slate walk. As they neared, Anna saw that ivy nearly obscured the old red bricks of the wall. A wooden door was hidden in the wall, overhung with brown vines.
Lord Swartingham took hold of the door’s rusty iron handle and pulled. The door squeaked and opened an inch, then stopped. He muttered something and glanced at her.
She smiled encouragingly.
He wrapped both hands around the handle and braced his feet before yanking mightily. Nothing happened for a second, and then the door gave up with a groan. Jock shot through the opening into the garden. The earl stood aside and gestured her in with a wave of his hand.
She ducked her head to peer inside.
She saw a jungle. The garden appeared to be in the shape of a large rectangle. Or at least that had been its outline at one point. A brick path, barely discernible beneath debris, ran around the inside of the walls. It connected with a central walk in the shape of a cross that divided the garden into four smaller rectangles. The far wall held another door, almost hidden beneath the skeleton of a creeper. Perhaps a second garden or a series of gardens lay beyond.
“My grandmother laid out the original plans for these beds,” the earl said from behind her. Somehow they’d gone through the doorway, although Anna didn’t remember moving. “And my mother expanded and developed them.”
“It must have been very beautiful once.” She stepped over a break in the walkway where some of the bricks had heaved out of the ground. Was the tree in the corner a pear?
“Not much left of all her work, is there?” he replied. She could hear him kicking at something. “I suppose it would be best simply to have the walls torn down and the place leveled.”
Anna jerked her head around to him. “Oh, no, my lord. You mustn’t do that.”
He frowned at her protest. “Why not?”
“There’s too much here that can be saved.”
The earl assessed the overgrown garden and ruined walk with clear skepticism. “I don’t see even one thing worth saving.”
She shot him an exasperated glance. “Why, look at the espaliered trees on the walls.”
He swiveled to where she pointed.
Anna began picking her way to the wall. She stumbled over a rock hidden in the weeds and righted herself only to catch her toe again. Strong arms caught her from behind and lifted her easily. In two long strides, Lord Swartingham was by the wall.
He set her down. “Is this what you want to see?”
“Yes.” Anna, breathless, peeked at him sideways.
He stared rather grimly at the espaliered tree.
“Thank you.” She turned back to the pathetic tree against the wall and was immediately distracted. “I think it’s an apple tree or perhaps a pear. You can see where they’re planted all around the garden walls. And this one here is in bud.”
The earl dutifully examined the branch indicated. He grunted.
“And really all they need is some good pruning,” she chattered on. “You could make your own cider.”
“I’ve never much liked cider.”
She lowered her brows at him. “Or you could have Cook make apple jelly.”
He arched an eyebrow.
She almost defended the merits of apple jelly, but then she spied a flower hiding in the weeds. “Do you think that’s a violet or maybe a periwinkle?”
The flower was a couple of feet from the edge of a bed. Anna bent from the waist to get a closer look, placing one hand on the ground to steady herself.
“Or perhaps a forget-me-not, although usually they bloom in big groups.” She carefully plucked the flower. “No, I’m silly. Look at the leaves.”
Lord Swartingham was very still behind her.
“I think it may be a type of hyacinth.” She straightened and turned to consult him.
“Oh?” The single word came out a baritone guttural.
She blinked at his voice. “Yes, and of course where there’s one, there’s always more.”
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You haven’t been listening to me, have you?”
He shook his head. “No.”
He was watching her intently, in such a way that Anna’s breath quickened. She could feel her face heat. In the quiet, the breeze playfully blew a thin lock of hair across her mouth. He reached out very slowly and brushed it away with the tips of his fingers. The calluses on his hand rasped against the sensitive skin of her lips, and she closed her eyes in yearning. He carefully tucked the lock back into her coiffure, his hand lingering at her temple.
She felt his breath caress her lips. Oh, please.
And then he dropped his hand.
Anna opened her eyes and met his obsidian gaze. She stretched out her own hand to protest—or perhaps touch his face, she wasn’t sure, and it didn’t matter anyway. He’d already whirled and paced a few steps away from her. She didn’t think he had even noticed her own aborted gesture.
He turned his head so that she could see only his face in profile. “I beg your pardon.”
“Why?” She tried to smile. “I—”
He made a chopping motion with the blade of his hand. “I will be traveling tomorrow to London. I fear I have some business there that can no longer wait.”
Anna squeezed her hands into fists.
“You may continue admiring the garden if you wish. I need to return to my writing.” He strode rapidly away, his boots grinding against the broken bricks.
Anna opened her clenched fists and felt the crushed flower slip from her fingers.
She glanced around the ruined garden. It had so many possibilities. Some weeding by the wall over there, some planting in the bed here. No garden was ever truly dead if a proper gardener knew how to nurture it. Why, it only needed a bit of care, a bit of love….
A veil of tears obscured her eyes. She wiped at them irritably with a trembling hand. She’d forgotten her handkerchief inside. The tears overflowed her eyes and rolled to her chin. Bother. She’d have to use her sleeve to mop them. What sort of lady was caught without a handkerchief? A pitiful sort of one, obviously. The sort a gentleman couldn’t bring himself to kiss. She scrubbed her face with the inside of her forearm, but the tears kept reappearing. As if she’d believe that nonsense about work in London! She was a mature woman. She knew where the earl meant to do his work. In that nasty brothel.