Anna had difficulty meeting her eyes. “Coral is very grateful for the care we extended to Pearl. They’re really quite close, you know.”

“Yes, but—”

“And she has offered me the use of her carriage both to take me to London and to ride back again.”

Mother Wren’s brows knit uncertainly.

“It’s a most generous offer,” Anna said softly. “It’ll save us the cost of a stagecoach ride, besides being more comfortable. I’ll be able to buy additional fabric with the money we would’ve spent on the stage.”

Mother Wren visibly wavered.

“Wouldn’t you like a new gown?” she wheedled.

“Well, I do worry about your comfort, dear,” Mother Wren finally said. “If you are happy with this arrangement, then so am I.”

“Thank you.” Anna kissed her on the cheek and ran up the stairs to finish packing.

The horses were already stomping outside when Anna came down again. She hurriedly said her good-byes and climbed in the carriage, where the Smythe sisters waited. Anna waved out the window as they drove away, much to the amusement of Coral. She was about to draw her head back in when she caught sight of Felicity Clearwater standing down the street. Anna hesitated, her eyes meeting the other woman’s. Then the carriage swept past, and she sat back in the seat. She bit her bottom lip. Felicity could not possibly know why she traveled to London, but seeing her still made Anna uneasy.

Across from her, Coral raised an eyebrow.

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Anna grabbed the strap over her head as the carriage turned a corner, bouncing the women inside. She lifted her chin.

Coral smiled slightly and nodded.

They made a stop at Ravenhill Abbey so Anna could inform Mr. Hopple that she’d be absent from her work for a few days. The carriage waited at the end of the drive, out of sight, while she walked to the Abbey and back. It was not until she was almost returned to the carriage that she realized Jock was shadowing her.

She turned to face the dog. “Go back, Jock.”

Jock sat down in the middle of the drive and regarded her calmly.

“Now, sir. Go home, Jock!” Anna pointed to the Abbey.

Jock turned his head to look in the direction of her finger, but didn’t move.

“Fine, then,” she huffed, feeling silly arguing with a dog. “I’ll just ignore you.”

Anna walked the rest of the way determinedly not paying attention to the enormous dog following her. But when she rounded the gates of the Abbey and saw the carriage, she knew she had a problem. The footman had caught sight of her and had opened the vehicle’s door in anticipation of her entering it. There was a blur and a scrabble of claws on gravel as Jock dashed past her and leapt inside the carriage.

“Jock!” Anna was appalled.

From inside the carriage came a commotion that rocked it briefly from side to side; then it stood still. The footman stared in the door. She came alongside him and hesitantly peeked in as well.

Jock sat on one of the plush seats. Across from him, Pearl watched the dog, horrified. Coral, predictably, was unperturbed and smiling faintly.

Anna had forgotten how frightening Jock could be on first sight. “I’m so sorry. He’s really quite harmless.”

Pearl, rolling her eyes to the side to see her, looked unconvinced.

“Here, let me get him out,” Anna said.

But this proved difficult. After one menacing growl from Jock, the footman made it clear that his job did not include handling dangerous animals. Anna scrambled into the carriage to try to cajole the dog out. When that did not work, she grabbed hold of the loose fur near his neck and attempted to drag him out. Jock simply set his feet and waited while she wrestled.

Coral started laughing. “It appears that your dog wants to come with us, Mrs. Wren. Leave him alone. I do not mind another passenger.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Anna panted.

“Indeed you could. Do not let us argue. Come inside and protect Pearl and me from the beast.”

Jock seemed content when Anna sat. Once it was established that he would not be ejected, he lay down and went to sleep. Pearl watched him tensely for a while. When he didn’t move, her head began to nod. Anna rested against the fine plush carriage cushions and thought sleepily that they were even finer than Lord Swartingham’s. In a little while, she, too, was asleep, weary from the lack of rest from the night before.

They stopped once in the afternoon for a late luncheon at an inn along the high road. Shouting ostlers ran out to hold the heads of the stomping horses while the women climbed down stiffly. The inn was surprisingly clean, and they enjoyed some nice boiled beef and cider. Anna made sure to bring a bit of the meat out to the carriage for Jock. Then she let him run around the yard and frighten the stable boys before they continued on their journey.

The sun had already set when the carriage drew up before a smart London row house. Anna was surprised at the luxury of the house, but then thought of Coral’s carriage and realized she shouldn’t be.

Coral must have noticed her gawking at the façade, because she smiled enigmatically. “All from the kindness of the marquis.” She made a sweeping gesture, and her smile turned cynical. “My good friend.”

Anna followed her up the front steps and into the shadowed entryway. Their footsteps echoed on gleaming white marble floors. The walls were paneled in white marble as well, leading up to a plastered ceiling with a glittering crystal chandelier. It was a very beautiful, but very empty entrance. She wondered if it reflected its current occupant or the absent owner.

Coral turned at that moment to Pearl, who was beginning to droop from the long ride. “I want you to stay here with me, sister.”

“Your marquis won’t like me staying here long. You know that.” Pearl looked anxious.

Coral’s lips twisted the slightest bit. “Let me worry about the marquis. He will understand my wishes. Besides, he is out of the country for the next two weeks.” She smiled almost warmly. “Now let me show you to your rooms.”

Anna’s room was a pretty little chamber done in a dusky blue and white. Coral and Pearl bid her good night, and she made ready for bed. Jock sighed heavily and lay down before the fire in the grate. She brushed out her hair and talked to him. She very firmly didn’t let herself think about the morrow. But as she lay down to sleep, all the thoughts she had tried to keep at bay rushed in. Was she about to commit a grave sin? Could she live with herself after tomorrow? Would she please the earl?

To her chagrin, it was this last thought that she worried over the most.

FELICITY LIT THE candelabra from her taper and set it carefully on the corner of the desk. Reginald had been particularly amorous tonight. A man of his age should have slowed down in his bed sport.

Felicity snorted to herself. The only thing that had slowed down was the time it took him to reach completion. She could’ve written a five-act play whilst he huffed and sweated over her. Instead, she’d pondered the reasons a provincial widow like Anna Wren might be journeying to London. The elder Mrs. Wren, when quizzed, had claimed the trip was to purchase materials for new dresses. A plausible excuse, true, but there were many other diversions an unattached lady might find in that city. So many, in fact, that Felicity thought it might be worthwhile to discover exactly what Anna did in London.

She pulled out a sheet of paper from her husband’s desk and uncapped the inkwell. She inked her quill and then paused. Who among her acquaintances in London would be the best choice? Veronica was too curious. Timothy, while a racehorse between the sheets, had, unfortunately, the same mental capacity outside the bed. Then there was… Of course!

Felicity smiled in self-satisfaction as she traced the first letters in her missive. She wrote to a man who was not quite honest. Not quite a gentleman.

And not nice at all.

Chapter Nine

The raven wheeled over the gleaming white castle, and as he did so, scores of birds flew from the walls: thrushes and titmice, sparrows and starlings, robins and wrens. Every songbird Aurea could recognize and many that she could not came to welcome them. The raven landed and introduced them as his loyal retainers and servants. But while the raven had the power of human speech, these smaller birds did not.

That evening, the servant-birds led Aurea to a magnificent dining room. There she saw a long table splendidly prepared with delicacies she’d only dreamed of. She expected the raven to dine with her, but he did not appear, and she ate all alone. Afterward, she was shown to a beautiful room and found there a nightgown of gauzy silk that was already laid out for her on the big bed. She dressed in this and climbed into the bed, falling immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep….

—from The Raven Prince

The damned wig itched like bloody hell.

Edward balanced a plate of meringues on his lap and wished he could poke a finger under his powdered wig. Or just take the cursed thing off. But wigs were de rigueur in polite society, and visiting his prospective bride and her family definitely qualified. He’d ridden all day yesterday to get to London and had arisen unfashionably early this morning, as was his wont. And then he’d had to cool his heels for several hours before it was deemed an appropriate time to go calling. Damn society and its asinine rules anyway.

Across from him, his future mother-in-law talked to the room at large. Or, rather, lectured. Lady Gerard was a handsome woman with a broad forehead and round, light blue eyes. She capably debated the current fashion in hats all by herself. Not a topic he himself would have chosen, and by the nodding of Sir Richard’s head, not one of the older man’s favorites either. It would seem, however, that once Lady Gerard started talking, only an act of God could stop her. Such as a bolt of lightning. Edward narrowed his eyes. Perhaps not even that.

Sylvia, his intended, sat gracefully across from him. Her eyes were as round and blue as Lady Gerard’s. She had the true English coloring: a healthy peaches-and-cream complexion and thick golden hair. She reminded him not a little of his own mother.

Edward took a sip of tea and wished it was whiskey. On the little table beside Sylvia sat a vase of poppies. The flowers were bright scarlet, and they perfectly accented the yellow and orange room. They, along with the girl perched next to them in her indigo gown, made a picture worthy of a master. Had her mother posed her there? Lady Gerard’s shrewd blue eyes flashed as she expounded on gauze.

Definitely posed.

Except poppies didn’t bloom in March. These must have cost a pretty penny because it was impossible to tell unless one studied the blooms closely that they were made of silk and wax.

He set aside his plate. “Would you mind showing me your gardens, Miss Gerard?”

Lady Gerard, caught in a pause, gave permission with a satisfied smile.

Sylvia rose and proceeded him through the French doors into the compact town garden, her skirts swishing behind her. They strolled silently down the path, her fingers lightly resting on his sleeve. Edward tried to think of something to say, a light conversational topic, but his mind was strangely blank. One did not discuss crop rotation with a lady, nor how to drain a field or the newest techniques in composting. In fact, there was nothing at all that interested him that he could safely discuss with a young lady.

He glanced down at his feet and noticed a small yellow flower, not a daffodil or primrose. Edward stooped to finger it, wondering if Mrs. Wren had one like it in her garden.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked Miss Gerard.

Sylvia bent to examine the flower. “No, my lord.” Her smooth brows knit. “Shall I ask the gardener for you?”

“No need.” He straightened and dusted off his hands. “I just wondered.”

They’d reached the end of the path where a little stone bench squatted against the garden wall.

Edward withdrew a large white handkerchief from his coat and laid it on the bench. He gestured with one hand. “Please.”

The girl settled gracefully and folded her hands in her lap.