He clasped his hands behind his back and absently watched the little yellow flower. “Does this alliance suit you, Miss Gerard?”
“Perfectly, my lord.” Sylvia didn’t look at all perturbed by the bluntness of his question.
“Then will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good.” Edward bent to kiss the dutifully presented cheek.
His wig itched more than ever.
“THERE YOU ARE.” Coral’s voice broke the silence in the little library. “I am glad you found something of interest.”
Anna nearly dropped the illustrated book in her hands. She whirled to find the other woman watching her with an amused look on her face.
“I’m sorry. I guess I’m still keeping country hours. When I came down to the breakfast room, they weren’t ready yet. The maid said I could look in here.” Anna held up the open book in her hands as evidence, and then hastily lowered it when she remembered the explicit engravings inside.
Coral glanced at the volume. “That one is very good, but you might find this one more helpful for what you plan tonight.” She crossed to another shelf, took down a slim green volume, and pressed it into Anna’s hands.
“Oh. Um… thank you.” Anna knew she was turning seven shades of red. Rarely had she been so mortified in her life.
In her yellow-sprigged morning gown, Coral looked no older than sixteen. She might have been a young lady of good family about to go out calling on other girlish acquaintances. Only her eyes spoiled the illusion.
“Come. Let us break our fast together.” Coral led the way into the breakfast room where Pearl already sat.
There was a full sideboard of hot dishes, but Anna found she didn’t have much appetite. She settled in a chair across from Coral with a plate of toast.
After they ate, Pearl excused herself and Coral leaned back in her chair. Anna felt her shoulder blades tense.
“Now,” her hostess said, “perhaps we should make some plans for this evening.”
“What do you suggest?” Anna asked.
“I have several dresses you might want to look at. Any one of them can be altered to fit you. In addition, we should discuss sponges.”
“I beg your pardon?” Anna blinked. How were bathing sponges going to help her?
“You may not be aware of them.” Coral sipped her tea serenely. “Sponges that can be inserted into the female body to prevent a child.”
Anna’s mind froze on the thought. She’d never heard of such a thing. “I… that’s probably not necessary. I was married for four years without conceiving.”
“Then we will disregard them.”
Anna fingered her teacup.
Coral continued, “Do you plan to attend the downstairs reception at Aphrodite’s Grotto to pick out a likely male or”—she regarded Anna shrewdly—“or do you have a specific gentleman you would like to meet there?”
Anna hesitated and took a sip of tea. How far could she trust Coral? Until now, she had rather naïvely followed Coral’s lead, had literally done everything the woman had suggested. But she hardly knew her, after all. Could she entrust her with what she really wanted—with, in fact, Lord Swartingham’s name?
Coral seemed to understand her silence. “I am a whore,” she said. “And in addition to that, I am not a nice woman. But despite these facts, my word is gold.” She watched Anna intently, as if it were very important that she believe her. “Gold. I swear to you that I will not knowingly harm or betray you or anyone who you hold dear.”
Coral’s mouth twisted. “It is I who should thank you. Not everyone would take the word of a prostitute seriously.”
Anna ignored that. “Yes, as you have guessed, I’d like to meet a particular gentleman.” She took a deep breath. “The Earl of Swartingham.”
Coral’s eyes widened infinitesimally. “Have you made an appointment to rendezvous with Lord Swartingham at Aphrodite’s Grotto?”
“No. He has no knowledge of this,” Anna said firmly. “Nor do I want him to.”
The other woman gave a tiny, breathy laugh. “Forgive me, I am puzzled. You wish to spend the night with the earl—intimately—without him being aware of it. Do you plan to drug him?”
“Oh, no. You mistake me.” Her face must be permanently stained a deep red by this point, but Anna struggled on. “I do wish to spend the night with the earl—intimately. I just don’t want him to know it is me, as it were.”
Coral smiled and tilted her head skeptically. “How?”
“I’m explaining this badly.” Anna blew out a sigh and tried to order her thoughts. “You see, the earl has traveled to London on business. I have reason to believe that he’ll visit Aphrodite’s Grotto, probably tonight.” She bit her lip. “Although, I’m not sure exactly when.”
“That can be ascertained,” Coral said. “But how do you propose that he not know you?”
“Pearl has said that many ladies and demimondaines wear a mask when they visit Aphrodite’s Grotto. I thought I might wear one as well.”
“You don’t think it will work?” Anna anxiously tapped at the side of her teacup.
“You are employed by the earl, are you not?”
“I’m his secretary.”
“In that case, you must be aware there is a much higher chance of him finding you out,” Coral warned.
“But if I wear a mask—”
“There is still your voice, your hair, your figure.” Coral ticked off each point on the tips of her fingers. “Even your scent, if he has been near enough to you.”
“You’re right, of course.” Anna felt close to tears.
“I am not saying it cannot be done,” Coral reassured her coolly. “Just… You do understand the risks?”
Anna tried to think. It was difficult to concentrate this close to what she wanted. “Yes. Yes, I think so.”
Coral regarded her a moment more. Then she clapped her hands once. “Good. I think we shall first work on the costume. We will need a mask that conceals most of your face. Let us consult my maid, Giselle. She is very good with a needle.”
“But how do we know if Lord Swartingham will visit tonight?” Anna protested.
“I almost forgot.” Coral rang for writing utensils and began composing a letter at the breakfast room table. She talked as she wrote. “I know the proprietor and part owner of Aphrodite’s Grotto. She used to go by Mrs. Lavender, but now she is Aphrodite herself. A money-grubbing old witch, but she owes me a favor. A rather large one as it happens. She probably thinks I have forgotten the matter, so she will be all the more disconcerted to receive this letter.” Coral lifted her lips in a feral smile. “I make it a habit to never let a debt go, so in a way, you are doing me a kindness.”
She blew upon the ink to dry it, folded and sealed the letter, then rang for a footman. “The gentlemen who patronize Aphrodite’s Grotto often make an appointment in advance so that they may be assured a room and a woman for the night,” Coral explained. “Mrs. Lavender will inform us if that is the case with your earl.”
“And if it is?” Anna asked anxiously.
“Then we will plan.” Coral poured more tea for them both. “Perhaps you can take a room, and we will have Mrs. Lavender send Lord Swartingham to you.” She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that is the best idea. We will have the room lit by only a few candles so he will not be able to see you well.”
“Wonderful.” Anna grinned.
Coral looked briefly startled and then smiled back with the most sincere expression Anna had ever seen on her face.
The plan just might work.
APHRODITE’S GROTTO WAS a splendid sham, Anna reflected that night as she peered from the carriage window. A four-story building, all white marble columns and gold leaf, the place was apparently magnificent. It was only on second glance that one noticed the marble of the columns was painted on and that the “gold” was tarnished brass. The carriage pulled into the mews behind the building and stopped.
Coral, sitting in the shadows across from Anna, leaned forward. “Are you ready, Mrs. Wren?”
Anna took a deep breath and checked that her mask was firmly tied on. “Yes.”
She stood on shaky legs and followed Coral down from the carriage. Outside, a lantern by the back door threw a feeble light into the mews. As they picked their way up the path, a tall woman with hennaed hair opened the door.
“Ah, Mrs. Lavender,” Coral drawled.
“Aphrodite, if you please,” the woman snapped.
Coral inclined her head ironically.
They stepped into the lit hall, and Anna saw that Aphrodite wore a violet gown fashioned to look like a classical toga. A gold mask dangled from one hand. The madam turned shrewd eyes on Anna. “And you are…?”
“A friend,” Coral replied before Anna could say a word.
Anna shot her a grateful glance. She was very glad that Coral had insisted she don the mask before leaving the town house. It wouldn’t be wise to expose herself to the madam.
Aphrodite gave Coral a nasty look and led the way up the stairs and down the hall to pause before a door. She opened it and gestured inside. “You have the room until dawn. I will inform the earl that you wait for him when he arrives.” With that, she swooshed away.
Coral’s lips curved in a secret smile. “Good luck, Mrs. Wren.” And then she, too, was gone.
Anna carefully closed the door behind her and took a moment to steady her breath as she looked around. The room was surprisingly tasteful. Well, considering it was in a brothel. She rubbed her arms, trying to make them warm. Velvet curtains draped the window, a banked fire glowed in a lovely white marble fireplace, and two upholstered chairs stood by the hearth. She flipped back the covers on the bed. The linens were clean—or at least they appeared so.
She removed her cloak and draped it over a chair. She wore a diaphanous gown underneath that she’d borrowed from Coral. Anna supposed it was meant to be a nightdress, but it was extremely impractical. The upper half consisted mostly of lace. Coral had assured her, nevertheless, that this was the appropriate attire for a seduction. The satin mask on her face was butterfly shaped. It covered her forehead and hairline and swept down over most of her cheeks. The eyeholes were oval and tilted at the corners, giving her eyes a vaguely foreign shape. Her hair flowed about her shoulders, the ends carefully curled. Lord Swartingham had never seen her with her hair down.
Everything was ready. Anna skittered to the mantelpiece and fiddled with a candle. What was she doing here? This was a silly plan that would never work. What had she been thinking? There was yet time to renege. She could leave this room and find the carriage—
The door opened.
Anna whirled and froze. A masculine shape loomed in the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light. For a fraction of a second, she felt fear and stepped back apprehensively. She couldn’t even tell if it was Lord Swartingham. Then he entered, and she knew by the shape of his head, by his stride, by the movement of his arm as he took off his coat, that it was he.
The earl laid the coat on a chair and advanced toward her in his shirt, breeches, and waistcoat. Anna didn’t know what to do or say. She nervously pulled her hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear with the crook of her little finger. She couldn’t see his expression in the dim candlelight any more than he could see hers.
He reached for her and took her in his arms. She relaxed at the movement and lifted her face, expecting his kiss. But he didn’t kiss her lips. Instead, he bypassed her face altogether and laid his open mouth against the curve of her neck.