Was this what she wanted? She wasn’t sure. But then his fingers feathered across her belly, down to where she was open to him, and she no longer cared. He played in her curls before skimming lower. She inhaled sharply, waiting—anticipating—where he would touch her next.

He stroked through her, parting her down there.

She bit her lip.

Then he brought his fingers up, wet with her juices and smeared them over her nipples. Vaguely she was aware that she should be shocked, but somehow in this place, with this man, she was beyond the mores of society. He worked her nipples, sliding and tugging as he made sure they were both thoroughly covered with her body’s moisture.

She caught her breath at the animal sensation. It was so crude, what he was doing, and it excited her terribly.

He bent his head and sucked a nipple into his mouth. He had made sure to sensitize her flesh, and she moaned and arched uncontrollably at the contact. He returned to her mound and slid his long, strong middle finger into her hollow. His thumb flicked across her stiff bud, and at the same time, he moved his finger in her.

Mewling noises built in her throat. She felt moisture sliding between her thighs.

He chuckled and brought his thumb down firmly on her sensitive knot. He suckled at her other breast. The sharp sensations at two different points of her body mingled and compounded one another until she grabbed his shoulders and arched her hips involuntarily. He brought his other hand to her back and held her steady as his thumb began to rotate.

She came explosively, gasping and shaking. She tried to close her legs, but the chair held them open. She could only hump her hips mindlessly as he pleasured her. Finally, when she began to whimper, he lifted her bottom and pushed her down on his manhood.

His breathing was labored as he slowly penetrated her slick passage. He forced her down relentlessly until she’d taken all of his thick warmth and was stretched almost painfully open. Then he carefully lifted her legs, one at a time, over the chair arms and brought them to either side of him. He lifted her up onto her knees so that just the head of his erection remained, stretching her entrance. He kept her there, balanced on top of his penis while he sucked and licked at her swinging nipples.

She moaned. He was driving her out of her mind. Frantically she tried to sink down on his burning erection, but he laughed darkly and held her poised on the edge of pleasure. She tried swiveling her hips, swirling the crown in her passage.

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He broke at that, pulling her down on him again and surging into her almost violently.

Oh, yes. She smiled savagely in satisfaction. She rode him, watching his face. He caressed her breasts and tilted his head against the chair. His eyes were closed, his lips drawn back from his teeth in a near snarl; the flickering firelight made a demon’s mask of his features.

Then he lightly pulled on both her nipples at the same time, and her own head arched at the sensation. Her hair cascaded down her back, swinging and brushing both her legs and his. She began to come in long, drawn-out waves, her vision clouding. His hips bucked against hers. He grabbed the cheeks of her bottom to hold her down on him, his penis fully sheathed in her passage as he ground and ground and ground against her softness, his head rolling against the chair as he came.

She fell forward, panting in the aftermath, to lie against his naked shoulder as he cradled her in his arms.

His face was half turned away, and she lazily watched him as he recovered. The lines that habitually creased his forehead and bracketed his mouth were softened. His long, inky lashes lay on his cheeks, hiding his piercing eyes. She wanted to stroke his face, to feel it with her fingertips. But by this time, she knew that he would not allow it.

Had she won what she wanted? She felt tears sting the corners of her eyes. Somehow it wasn’t right. The lovemaking had been even more wonderful tonight. But at the same time, as if in proportion to her physical ecstasy, she felt the gaping hole in her psyche more keenly. Something was missing.

He suddenly sighed and shifted. His flesh slid from hers. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed, laying her down gently. She shivered and tugged the coverlet over her shoulders, watching him. She wanted to speak, but what could she say?

He buttoned his shirt, tucked it in his breeches, and then buttoned those as well. He ran his fingers through his hair and grabbed his coat and waistcoat, walking to the door in the loose-jointed way of a man recently satisfied. He paused by the door. “Tomorrow.”

And then he was gone.

Anna lay there a minute, listening to his retreating footsteps, feeling melancholy. She was roused by bawdy laughter somewhere in the house. She got up and cleaned herself with the water and towels that sat conveniently by. Anna tossed the wet cloth down and then looked at it. The basin and linens were provided with the room to wash after a sexual encounter. It made her feel tawdry, like a whore, and wasn’t she perilously close to that state? She was letting physical desire so rule her that she met a lover in a brothel.

She sighed and donned a nondescript dark dress that she had brought along, bundled in a bag with a hooded cape and boots. Once dressed, she folded the lace gown and stuffed it into the bag. Had she left anything? Glancing around the room, she saw nothing of her own. She opened the door a crack and looked up and down the hallway. All clear. She pulled up her hood, and with her face still covered by the butterfly mask, ventured forth.

Coral had instructed her yesterday to be careful in the hallways and to go in and out only by the back stairs. A carriage would be waiting outside when she was ready to leave.

Anna moved now to the back stairs that Coral had indicated and ran down the flight. She sighed with relief when she reached the door and saw the waiting carriage. Her mask had begun to rub on the bridge of her nose. She untied it. Just as she removed the mask, three young bucks reeled around the corner of the house. Anna hastened toward the carriage.

In a sudden move, one of the men slapped another on the back in a friendly gesture. But the second man was so drunk that he lost his balance and careened into Anna, knocking both of them to the ground. “A-a-awfully sorry, m’dear.”

The dandy was giggling as he tried to push himself off of Anna, elbowing her in the stomach in the process. He got as far as bracing his body on his arms, but stayed there, swaying, as if too befuddled to move any farther. Anna shoved at him, trying to shift his weight. The back door to Aphrodite’s Grotto opened. The light from the door fell across her face.

The buck grinned drunkenly. A gold canine glinted in his mouth. “Why, you’re not too bad at all, love.” He leaned down in what he obviously considered a seductive manner and breathed an ale-filled puff into her face. “What say you an’ me—?”

“Get off me, sir!” Anna hit the man’s chest hard and managed to knock him off balance. He fell to the side, swearing foully as he did so. She scrambled quickly in the opposite direction, out of his reach.

“Come here, you tart. I’ll—”

The dandy’s friend saved her from hearing the rest of the undoubtedly obscene comment. The man hauled him up by the scruff of his shirt. “Come on, chum. No need to play with the downstairs help when we’ve got a couple of highfliers waiting inside.”

Laughing, they dragged off their protesting friend.

Anna ran to the carriage, scrambled inside, and slammed the door behind her. She was shaking from the ugly incident. An incident that could have been much uglier.

She had never been mistaken for a woman of anything other than the highest morals. She felt degraded. Tainted. She took deep breaths and firmly reminded herself that she had nothing to be upset about. She hadn’t been hurt by the fall, and the rude young man’s friends had hustled him away before he had insulted her or even laid hands on her. True, he had seen her face. But it was highly unlikely that she would run into him in Little Battleford. Anna felt a little better. Surely there could be no repercussions.

TWO GOLD COINS flipped through the air, flashing in the light from the back door of Aphrodite’s Grotto. They were caught by hands that were remarkably steady.

“That went well.”

“Glad to hear it, old boy.” One of the bucks smirked, looking almost as drunk as he was supposed to be. “Mind telling us what that was all about?”

“ ’Fraid I can’t do that.” The third man’s lip lifted in a sneer, and his gold tooth gleamed. “It’s a secret.”

Chapter Eleven

Many months passed while Aurea lived in her raven-husband’s castle. During the day, she amused herself by reading from the hundreds of illuminated books in the castle’s library or by taking long walks in the garden. In the evening, she feasted on delicacies she had only dreamed of in her former life. She had beautiful gowns to wear and priceless jewels to decorate herself with. Sometimes the raven would visit her, appearing suddenly in her rooms or joining her at dinner without any notice. Aurea found that her strange spouse had a wide and intelligent mind, and he would engage her in fascinating conversations. But always the big black bird would disappear before she retired to her rooms in the evening.

And every night, in the dark, a stranger came to her bridal bed and made exquisite love to her….

—from The Raven Prince

“Hail, O defender of the turnip and master of the ewe,” a deep sarcastic voice drawled the next morning. “Well met, my fellow Agrarian.”

Edward squinted through the smoke in the cavernous coffeehouse. He could just make out the speaker, lounging at a table in the right rear corner. Defender of the turnip, eh? Winding his way through cluttered, age-blackened tables, Edward reached the man and slapped him hard on the back.

“Iddesleigh! It’s not yet five in the afternoon. Why are you awake?”

Simon, Viscount Iddesleigh, didn’t rock forward under the hearty back slap—he must have been bracing himself—but he did wince. A lean, elegant man, he wore a fashionable white-powdered wig and laced-edged shirt. To many he no doubt appeared a fop. But appearances in this case were deceiving.

“I’ve been known to see the light of day afore noon,” Iddesleigh said, “although not often.” He kicked a chair out from the table. “Sit, man, and partake of that hallowed brew called coffee. The gods, had they known of it, would’ve had no need of nectar on Olympus.”

Edward waved at a boy serving drinks and took the proffered chair. He nodded at the silent third man sharing the table. “Harry. How’re you?”

Harry Pye was a land steward on an estate somewhere in the north of England. He wasn’t often in London. He must be here on business. In contrast to the flamboyant viscount, Harry almost blended into the woodwork. He was a man most would hardly notice in his ordinary brown coat and waistcoat. Edward knew for a fact that he carried a wicked dagger in his boot.

Harry nodded. “My lord. It’s good to see you.” He didn’t smile, but there was an amused gleam in his green eyes.

“God’s blood, Harry, how many times have I told you to call me Edward or de Raaf?” He signaled the boy again.

“Or Ed or Eddie,” Iddesleigh cut in.

“Not Eddie.” The boy banged a mug down, and Edward took a grateful sip.

“Aye, my lord,” he heard Harry murmur, but Edward didn’t bother replying.

He glanced around the room. The coffee at this house was very good. That was the main reason the Agrarian Society met here. It certainly wasn’t because of the architecture. The room was crowded, with a too-low ceiling. The short door lintel was known to catch the taller members a nasty crack on the crown on entering. The tables had probably never been scrubbed, and the mugs didn’t bear a close inspection. And the staff was a shifty lot who could be selectively hard of hearing when they didn’t feel like serving, no matter the rank of the customer. But the coffee was fresh and strong, and any man was welcome to the house as long as he had an interest in agriculture. Edward recognized several titled men sitting at tables, but there were also small landowners up for a day in London and even working stewards such as Harry. The Agrarians were known for the strange equality of their club.