She caught her breath on a sob. He was going to London to bed another woman.
The raven flew with Aurea for another day and night, and everything she saw in that time belonged to him. Aurea tried to comprehend such wealth, such power, but it was beyond understanding. Her own father had only commanded a small portion of the people and lands that this bird seemed to own. Finally, on the fourth evening, she saw a great castle, made entirely of white marble and gold. The setting sun reflecting off it was so bright it made her eyes hurt.
“Who owns this castle?” Aurea whispered, and a nameless dread filled her heart.
The raven turned his huge head and regarded her with a glinting black eye. “Your husband!” he cackled….
—from The Raven Prince
That evening, Anna trudged home alone. After she’d pulled together her wits in the ruined garden, she’d returned to the library intending to work. She needn’t have bothered. Lord Swartingham hadn’t appeared all the rest of the afternoon, and as she was gathering her things at the end of the day, a young footman had brought her a small folded card. It was brief and to the point. His lordship would be leaving very early in the morning, and thus he would not see her before he left. He sent his regrets.
Since the earl wasn’t around to protest, Anna walked home instead of taking the carriage, partly in rebellion, partly because she needed time alone to think and compose herself. It wouldn’t do to return home with her face long and her eyes red. Not unless she wanted to be quizzed half the night by Mother Wren.
By the time Anna reached the outskirts of town, her feet were aching. She’d become used to the luxury of the carriage. She trudged on and turned into her lane, and there she stopped. A scarlet and black coach with gilt trim stood before her door. The coachman and the two footmen lounging against the vehicle wore matching black livery edged with scarlet piping and yards of gilt braid. Beside the vehicle, a gang of small boys hopped about, interrogating the footmen. Anna couldn’t blame them—it looked like minor royalty had come to call on her. She sidled around the carriage and entered her cottage.
Inside, Mother Wren and Pearl were having tea in the sitting room with a third woman whom Anna had never seen before. The woman was quite young, barely in her twenties. Ice-white powdered hair swept up her forehead in a deceptively simple style, setting off strange, light green eyes. She wore a black gown. Black usually indicated mourning, but Anna had never seen a mourning gown quite like this one. A cascade of shining jet-black material flowed around the sitting woman, and the overskirt pulled back to reveal scarlet embroidery on the petticoat below. The vivid stitching repeated on the low, square neckline and triple tiers of lace falling from the half sleeves. She looked as out of place in Anna’s little sitting room as a peacock in a hen yard.
Mother Wren looked up brightly at Anna’s entrance. “Dear, this is Coral Smythe, Pearl’s younger sister. We’ve just been having a dish of tea.” She gestured with her cup, almost sloshing the tea into Pearl’s lap in the process. “My daughter-in-law, Anna Wren.”
“How do you do, Mrs. Wren?” Coral spoke in a deep, husky voice that sounded like it should be coming from a man instead of an exotic young woman.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” Anna murmured as she accepted a cup of tea.
“We must be leaving soon if we’re to make London before dawn,” Pearl said.
“Are you recovered enough for the journey, sister?” Coral showed little emotion on her face, but she watched Pearl intently.
“Surely you will spend the night with us, Miss Smythe?” Mother Wren asked. “Then Pearl will have a fresh start in the morning.”
Coral’s lips curved in a meager smile. “I would not wish to inconvenience you, Mrs. Wren.”
“Oh, it’s not an inconvenience. It’s nearly dark out, and I can’t think it would be safe for two young ladies to travel right now.” Mother Wren nodded toward the window, which was indeed almost black.
“Thank you.” Coral inclined her head.
After they had finished the tea, Anna led Coral up to the room Pearl had been using so that the other woman could wash before supper. She brought some linens and fresh water for the basin and was turning to leave when Coral halted her.
“Mrs. Wren, I wish to thank you.” Coral watched Anna with fathomless pale green eyes. Her expression did not mirror her words.
“It’s nothing, Miss Smythe,” Anna replied. “We could hardly have sent you off to the inn.”
“Of course you could.” Coral’s lips twisted in a sardonic grimace. “But that is not what I speak of. I want to thank you for helping Pearl. She has told me how sick she was. Had you not brought her into your home and cared for her, she would have died.”
Anna shrugged uncomfortably. “Another person would’ve been along in a minute and—”
“And they would have left her there,” Coral interrupted. “Do not tell me anyone would do the same as you. Anyone did not.”
Anna was at a loss for words. Much as she would like to protest Coral’s cynical view of humanity, she knew the other woman was right.
“My sister walked the streets to put food in my mouth when we were younger,” Coral continued. “We were orphaned when she was barely fifteen, and soon thereafter, she was let go from her position as an underhousemaid in a fashionable house. She could have simply let me go to the poorhouse. Without me, she might have found another respectable job, perhaps married and had a family.” Coral’s lips tightened. “Instead she entertained men.”
Anna winced, trying to imagine such a dismal life. Such a total lack of options.
“I have tried to persuade Pearl to let me support her now.” Coral turned her head away. “But you do not want to hear our history. Suffice it to say that she is the only living thing on this earth that I love.”
Anna was silent.
“If there is ever anything I can do for you, Mrs. Wren”—Coral’s queer eyes bored into her—“you have but to name it.”
“Your thanks is enough,” Anna finally said. “I was glad to help your sister.”
“You do not take my offer seriously, I see. But keep it in mind. Anything within my power I will do for you. Anything at all.”
Anna nodded and started out of the room. Anything at all… She paused on the threshold and turned impulsively, before she had time to reconsider. “Have you heard of an establishment called Aphrodite’s Grotto?”
“Yes.” Coral’s expression became opaque. “Yes, and I know the proprietress, Aphrodite herself. I can get you a night or a week of nights at Aphrodite’s Grotto if that is your wish.”
She stepped toward Anna.
“I can get you a night with an accomplished male whore or a virginal schoolboy.” Coral’s eyes widened and seemed to flame. “Famous libertines or ragpickers off the street. One very special man or ten complete strangers. Dark men, red men, yellow men, men you’ve only dreamed of in the black of night, lonely in your bed, snug under your covers. Whatever you long for. Whatever you desire. Whatever you crave. You have only to ask me.”
Anna stared at Coral like a mesmerized mouse before a particularly beautiful snake.
She started to stutter a denial, but Coral waved an indolent hand. “Sleep on it, Mrs. Wren. Sleep on it, and on the morrow give me your reply. Now, if you do not mind, I wish to be alone.”
Anna found herself in the hallway outside her own door. She shook her head. Could the devil assume the guise of a woman?
Because temptation had surely been set before her.
She walked slowly down the stairs, Coral’s seductive offer lodged in her brain. She tried to shake it off, but to her horror, she found that she simply couldn’t. And the more she thought about Aphrodite’s Grotto, the more acceptable it became.
During the night, Anna changed her mind about Coral’s outrageous offer over and over again. She would wake from hazy, ominous dreams to lie debating, only to drift off again into a world where Lord Swartingham was eternally strolling away and she futilely running after. Toward morning, she gave up the pretense of sleep and lay on her back staring sightlessly at the still-dark ceiling. She clasped her hands beneath her chin like a little girl and prayed to God to let her resist this terrible proposition. A virtuous woman should have no trouble resisting, she was sure. A proper lady would never think of sneaking off to the dens of London to seduce a man who had made it abundantly clear that he was not interested in her.
When Anna opened her eyes again, it was daylight. She got up stiffly and washed her face and throat in the chilly water in the basin, then dressed and stole quietly out the door so as not to awaken her mother-in-law.
She went out to her flower garden. Unlike the earl’s garden, hers was small and neat. The crocuses were mostly over now, but some late daffodils remained. She bent to deadhead a daffodil that had stopped blooming. The sight of the tulips in bud momentarily brought peace back to her soul. Then she remembered the earl would be traveling to London today. She squeezed her eyes tight to shut out the thought.
At that moment, she heard a footstep behind her. “Have you made your decision, Mrs. Wren?”
She swiveled and saw a lovely Mephistopheles with pale green eyes. Coral smiled at her.
Anna started to shake her head, but then heard herself say, “I’ll accept your offer.”
Coral’s smile widened into a perfect, mirthless curve. “Good. You may accompany Pearl and me back to London in my carriage.” She gave a low laugh. “This should prove interesting.”
She reentered the cottage before Anna could think of a reply.
“WHOA, THERE,” EDWARD murmured to the bay. He held its head and patiently waited as the horse stomped and mouthed the bit. The bay was often fractious in the morning, and he’d saddled the horse earlier than usual. The sky was only just beginning to brighten to the east.
“Whoa, you old bastard,” he whispered. For the first time, it occurred to him that the horse he was talking to had no name. How long had he owned the bay? A half dozen years now, at least, and he’d never bothered to name him. Anna Wren would scold if she knew.
Edward winced as he finally mounted. That was exactly why he was making this trip: to drive thoughts of the widow from his mind. He’d chosen to work off some of the restlessness—both of body and of mind—by riding to London. His luggage and valet would follow behind in the carriage. But as if to mock that plan, the newly named Jock bounded up as soon as the bay clattered out of the stables. The dog raced out the door ahead of him; he had been missing the last half hour. Now his hindquarters were covered with malodorous mud.
Edward reined his horse around and sighed. He planned to visit his fiancée and her family this trip and finalize the engagement negotiations. An overlarge, smelly mongrel would not help his cause with the Gerard family.
The dog sat and regarded him with big, brown, only slightly bloodshot eyes. His tail swept the cobblestone behind him.
“I’m sorry, old man.” Edward leaned down to ruffle the canine’s ears. The nervous gelding sidled back a couple of steps, breaking the contact. “You’ll have to stay here this time.”
The dog cocked his head.
Edward felt a wash of unwelcome wistfulness. The dog didn’t belong in his life and neither did the lady.
“Guard, Jock. Watch her for me, boy.” He half smiled, half grimaced at his own whimsy. Jock was hardly a trained guard dog. And Anna Wren wasn’t his to guard in any case.
Shaking the thoughts away, he wheeled the bay and cantered down the drive.
AFTER SOME CONSIDERATION, Anna told Mother Wren that she would be traveling to London with Pearl and Coral to buy material for new gowns.
“I’m so glad we can finally afford material, but are you sure?” Mother Wren responded. Her cheeks were a rose pink, and she continued in a lower voice, “They’re very nice, of course, but they are, after all, courtesans.”