The shuffling did not quicken.
He exhaled again and leaned on the door frame. “I’m going to dismiss you one of these days. I’m going to replace you with a trained bear. It couldn’t possibly perform any worse than you. Do you hear me, Davis?”
Davis, his valet, materialized around the corner holding a tray with hot water. The tray trembled. The servant slowed his already-snaillike progress even more when he saw the earl.
Edward snorted. “That’s right, don’t exert yourself. I have all the time in the world to stand about the corridor in my nightshirt.”
The other man appeared not to hear. His movements were down to a crawl now. Davis was an aged rascal with sparse hair the color of dirty snow. His back was bent in a habitual stoop. A large mole with sprouting hairs grew by the side of his mouth as if to make up for the lack of hair above the watery gray eyes.
“I know you can hear me,” Edward shouted in his ear as he passed.
The valet started as if just noticing him. “Up early, are we, m’lord? So debauched we couldn’t sleep, eh?”
“My sleep was dreamless.”
“That so?” Davis gave a cackle that would have done credit to a buzzard. “ ’Tisn’t good for a man your age, not sleeping well, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“What are you mumbling about, you senile old coot?”
Davis set the tray down and shot a malicious glance at him. “Drains the manly vigor, it does, if you know what I mean, m’lord.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean, thank God.” He poured the ewer of lukewarm water into a basin on his dresser and began to wet his jaw.
Davis leaned close and said in a hoarse whisper, “Tupping, m’lord.” He winked, a hideous sight.
Edward eyed him irritably as he lathered.
“It’s all fine for a young man,” the valet continued, “but you’re getting up there, m’lord. The elderly need to preserve their strength.”
“You would certainly know.”
Davis scowled and picked up the razor.
Edward immediately snatched it out of his hand. “I’m not such a fool as to allow you near my neck with a sharp blade.” He began scraping the soap under his chin.
“ ’Course, some don’t have to worry about saving their strength,” the valet said. The blade approached the dent in Edward’s chin. “Have a problem with their cock crowing, if you know what I mean.”
Edward yelped as he nicked his chin. “OUT! Get out, you evil old pisspot.”
Davis wheezed as he scurried to the door. Some, hearing the whistling sound, would have worried for the old man’s health, but Edward wasn’t fooled. It wasn’t often his valet triumphed over him this early in the morning.
Davis was laughing.
THE TRYST HADN’T gone exactly as she’d expected, Anna reflected the next morning. They had made love, naturally. And he hadn’t seemed to have recognized her. That was a relief. But really, the more she thought about Lord Swartingham’s lovemaking, the more uneasy she became. He’d been a good lover. A wonderful lover, actually. She had never known such physical pleasure before, so she hadn’t been able to predict that. But the way he hadn’t kissed her on the mouth…
Anna poured herself a cup of tea. Early again to breakfast, she had the room to herself.
He hadn’t let her touch his face at all. It seemed impersonal somehow. Of course that was natural, wasn’t it? He imagined she was a prostitute or a woman of loose morals, for goodness sake. Therefore, he’d treated her like one. Wasn’t that what she had expected?
Anna beheaded a kipper and poked the tines of her fork into its side. She should have expected it, but she hadn’t. The problem was that while she had been making love, he had been… well… having sex. With a nameless prostitute. It was very depressing.
She made a face at her decapitated kipper. And what in heaven’s name was she supposed to do about tonight? She hadn’t planned on staying in London more than two nights. She should be leaving for home today on the first coach. Instead, she sat in Coral’s breakfast room mashing up an innocent kipper.
Anna was still frowning moodily when Coral strolled into the room wearing a sheer, pale-pink wrapper trimmed with swan’s down feathers.
The other woman stopped and eyed her. “Did he not come to the room last night?”
“What?” It took a moment for Anna to register the question. “Oh. Yes. Yes, he came to the room.” She blushed and hurriedly took a sip of tea.
Coral helped herself to some coddled eggs and toast from the sideboard and gracefully dropped into a chair across from Anna. “Was he too rough?”
“You did not enjoy it?” the other woman pressed. “He couldn’t bring you to climax?”
Anna nearly choked on her tea in her embarrassment. “No! I mean, yes. It was quite enjoyable.”
Coral unperturbedly poured herself a cup of tea. “Then why do I find you this morning morose when you should have stars in your eyes?”
“I don’t know!” Anna found to her horror that she had raised her voice. What was the matter with her? Coral was right, she’d gotten her wish, spent a night with the earl, and still she was dissatisfied. What a contrary creature she was!
The other woman had arched her eyebrows at her tone.
Anna crumbled a bit of toast, unable to meet her eyes. “He wants me to go back tonight.”
“Rea-lly.” The other woman drew out the word. “That is interesting.”
“I shouldn’t go.”
Coral sipped her tea.
“He might recognize me if we meet again.” Anna pushed the kipper to one side of her plate. “It would be so unladylike to return a second night.”
“Yes, I do see your problem,” Coral murmured. “One night at a brothel is perfectly respectable, whilst two comes perilously close to being déclassé.”
Coral smiled whimsically at her. “Why don’t we go shopping for those fabrics you told your mother-in-law you would be bringing back. It will give you time to think. You can make up your mind later this afternoon.”
“What a very good idea. Thank you.” Anna set her fork down. “I’d better go change.”
She rose from the table and hurried out of the morning room, her spirits lifting. She only wished she could abandon her thoughts of tonight as easily as her breakfast. Despite what she’d told Coral, Anna was very much afraid that she’d already made up her mind.
She was going to return to Aphrodite’s Grotto and Lord Swartingham again.
THAT NIGHT, THE earl entered the room where Anna waited without saying a word. The only sounds were the quiet shush of the door closing and the crackle of the fire. She watched him pace forward, his face in shadow. Slowly, he shrugged out of his coat, his big shoulders bunching. And then she glided to him before he could make the first move, before he could take control. She stood on tiptoe to kiss his mouth. But he deflected the movement, drawing her close to his body instead.
She was determined this time to make their dance more personal, to make him understand that she was real. To touch at least some of him. She took advantage of her position and quickly worked the buttons on his waistcoat open. It came undone and she attacked the shirt beneath.
He reached to catch her hands, but she already had the shirt partly undone. She greedily reached for her prize: his flat, masculine nipples. Her fingers stroked through his chest hair until she found them; then she swayed forward and licked his nipples as he’d done the night before to hers, feeling vaguely triumphant that she’d gained the upper hand so soon. His hands fell away from where they had risen to catch her wrists. He caressed her bottom instead.
His height was a hindrance to her—she couldn’t reach all that she wanted. So she pushed him back into one of the armchairs by the fire. It was important to her that she win this battle tonight.
He sprawled there, his shirt half-open in the firelight. She knelt between his outspread legs and slid her hands into his shirt, all the way up to his shoulders; then her fingers smoothed down his arms, taking the fabric with them. She pulled the shirt off him and let it fall to the floor. That left her free to run her hands over his beautiful, muscled shoulders and arms. She moaned her delight in finally being able to feel the power and warmth of his body. She felt light-headed with anticipation.
He stirred and brought her hands to the front of his breeches. Her fingers trembled, but she brushed his hands aside when he tried to help her. She pushed the concealed buttons through their holes, feeling his erection growing all the while beneath her fingers; then she reached inside to draw him out.
He was gorgeous. Thick and large, with pulsing veins that stood out along his shaft. A swollen crest. The sight filled her with heat. She made a crooning sound in her throat and spread the placket of his breeches as far as it would go so she could look at his chest and stomach and penis. She adored the sight: the black wiry curls of his pubic hair, the thick column, standing now to his navel, and the heavy sac of his testes beneath. His naked skin gleamed, as if gilded by the firelight.
He growled and ran his fingers into the hair behind her head. He gently urged her mouth down to his penis. For a moment, she hesitated. She’d never… Did she dare? Then she remembered their battle. This was but one skirmish, but it was important she win them all. And besides, she was excited at simply the thought. It was this last that decided her.
Tentatively, she grasped his erection and brought it away from his belly to her lips. She looked up. His face was flushed with arousal. Her eyelids lowered, and she enveloped the crown of his penis in her mouth. His hips jerked when her tongue touched him, and she felt the triumph rise in her again. She could control a man this way. She could control this man. She glanced up again. He was watching her as she licked and suckled his manhood, his ebony eyes glittering in the firelight. His fingers flexed in her hair.
She let her eyelids fall as she brought her mouth down as far as she could over his length. Then she slowly pulled up, pursing her lips and sucking on the thick shaft as it withdrew from her mouth. She heard him moan, and his pelvis arched convulsively. She licked around the ridge below the head. It felt like chamois over iron and tasted of male musk, the salt of sweat, and victory. Surely after this—after tonight—things would somehow be different. She explored that area with her tongue for a while. Then she felt his hand cover hers. He guided her fingers in a slow stroke up and down.
She moved her hand faster as he urged her to take his penis into her mouth again with a nudge of his hips. This time when she drew back up to the head, she tasted a saline drop at the tip. She licked the slit at the top to see if there was more. He groaned again. Anna wriggled in excitement. She’d never done anything so sexually stimulating in her life. Her body was damp and slick, and her breasts seemed to throb with each groan she wrung from him.
His hips began to move rhythmically as she worked him. The sensuous, liquid sounds of her mouth on his body were explicit in the still room. Suddenly he bucked, gasping, and tried to withdraw from her mouth. She wanted to feel his finish, though, wanted to experience this intimacy together, wanted to be with him at his most vulnerable. She held on and sucked more strongly. Tangy warmth filled her mouth. She almost came herself with the knowledge that she’d brought him complete satisfaction.
He sighed and bent down to draw her into his lap. They sprawled there for a while, the fire in the grate snapping. She leaned her head on his shoulder and pulled her hair out of her eyes with a hooked little finger. After a time, he drew her gown from her breasts. Languidly, he played with her nipples, stroking and squeezing gently for many minutes.
Anna drifted, her eyes half closed.
Then he lifted her to pull the gown all the way off. He turned her around and settled her on his lap, naked and facing him. Her legs draped over the chair’s arms. She was splayed before him. Vulnerable.