“And what does bring you to our lovely, if odoriferous, capital?” Iddesleigh asked.
“Negotiating a marital alliance,” Edward replied.
Harry Pye’s eyes sharpened over the rim of his mug. His hand was wrapped around the cup. There was a disconcerting space where his ring finger should have been but wasn’t.
“Oh, braver man than I,” Iddesleigh said. “You must have been celebrating the impending nuptials when I saw you last night at the fair Aphrodite’s Grotto.”
“You were there?” Edward felt oddly reticent. “I didn’t see you.”
“No.” Iddesleigh smirked. “You looked quite, ah, relaxed when I saw you exit that establishment. I, myself, was engaged at the time with two eager nymphs, or I would have greeted you.”
“Only two?” Harry asked, deadpan.
“We were joined later by a third.” Iddesleigh’s icy gray eyes sparkled almost innocently. “But I hesitated to admit the fact for fear it would cause you two to doubt your manhood by comparison.”
Edward grinned and caught the boy’s eye. He held up a finger for another mug. “Good God. Aren’t you getting a trifle long in the tooth for such athletics?”
The viscount placed a lace-draped hand on his breast. “I assure you, on the honor of my dead and moldering forefathers, that all three wenches were wearing smiles when I left them.”
“Probably because of the gold they were clutching,” Edward said.
“You offend me deeply,” the viscount said as he smothered a yawn. “Besides, you yourself must’ve engaged in debauchery of one sort or another at the goddess’s domain. Admit it.”
“True.” Edward frowned at his mug. “But I won’t be for very much longer.”
The viscount looked up from inspecting the silver embroidery on his coat. “Never say you intend to be a chaste bridegroom?”
“I see no other option.”
Iddesleigh’s eyebrows arched. “Isn’t that a rather literal—not to mention archaic—interpretation of the bridal vows?”
“Perhaps. But I think it will make for a successful marriage.” Edward felt his jaw clench. “I want it to work this time. I need an heir.”
“I wish you luck, then, my friend,” Iddesleigh said quietly. “You must have chosen your lady carefully.”
“I did indeed.” Edward stared into his half-empty mug. “She is from an impeccable family; it goes back further than mine. She isn’t repulsed by my scars; I know because I asked her myself—something I omitted to do with my first wife. She’s intelligent and quiet. She’s handsome, but not beautiful. And she comes from a large family. God willing, she should be able to give me strong sons.”
“A Thoroughbred dam for a Thoroughbred sire.” Idde-s-leigh’s mouth quirked. “Soon your stables will overflow with hearty, squalling progeny. I’m sure you can hardly wait to begin getting offspring on your intended.”
“Who is the lady?” Harry asked.
“Sir Richard Gerard’s eldest, Miss Sylvia—”
Iddesleigh made a muffled exclamation. Harry glanced at him sharply.
“Gerard. Do you know her?” Edward finished slowly.
Iddesleigh studied the lace at his wrists. “My brother, Ethan’s wife was a Gerard. As I remember, the mother was something of a tartar at the wedding.”
“She still is.” Edward shrugged. “But I doubt I’ll have much contact with her after we’re married.”
Harry gravely raised his cup. “Congratulations on your betrothal, my lord.”
“Yes, congratulations.” The viscount lifted his cup as well. “And good luck, my friend.”
A COLD NOSE against her cheek woke Anna. She peeked and saw brown canine eyes only inches from her own. They stared at her urgently. Pungent doggy breath panted in her face. She groaned and turned her head to glance at the window. Dawn was just brightening the sky from a drowsy peach color to the more alert bright blue of day.
She looked back at the watching canine eyes. “Good morning, Jock.”
Jock took his forepaws from the mattress beside her head and backed up a step to sit down. He was very still, ears up, shoulder bunched, eyes alert to her every move. The very epitome of a dog waiting to go out.
“Oh, all right. I’m getting up.” She padded over to the basin and made an abbreviated wash before dressing.
Dog and woman crept down the back stairs.
Coral lived in a fashionable street near Mayfair, which was lined with white stone houses only a few years old. Most of these were quiet now except for an occasional maid washing the front steps or polishing a doorknob. Normally, Anna might feel uncomfortable walking about in a strange place without an escort, but she had Jock to accompany her. He leaned closer as if to protect her whenever anyone else approached. They strolled in companionable silence. Jock was busy sniffing out the intriguing smells of the city, while she was lost in her own thoughts.
During the night, she’d thought over her situation, and when Anna awoke this morning, she’d already known what she must do. She couldn’t meet him tonight. She was playing with fire, and she could no longer hide the fact from herself. In her need to be with Lord Swartingham, she’d flung aside all caution. She’d recklessly hared off to London and traipsed about a bordello as if it were a Little Battleford musicale. It was a miracle he hadn’t discovered her. And the incident the night before with the drunken bucks was too close. She could’ve been raped or hurt or both. How hypocritical of her to scold men for doing the very thing she’d done for the past two nights. She winced at the thought of what Lord Swartingham would have said had he found her out. He was a very proud man with a terrible temper.
Anna shook her head and glanced up. They were only a few houses down from Coral’s residence. Either her footsteps had led her back or Jock had a homing instinct.
She patted the dog’s head. “Good boy. We had better go in and start packing for home.”
Jock perked up his ears at the word home.
At that moment, a carriage pulled up in front of Coral’s house. Anna hesitated, then retraced her steps around the corner and peeked back. Who could be calling at such an unfashionable hour? A footman jumped down from the carriage and placed a wooden step under the door before opening it. A male leg advanced, but withdrew inside the carriage again. She could see the footman moving the step an inch or two to the left; then a burly man with heavy shoulders descended. He stopped a moment to say something to the footman. From the way the servant bowed his head, it looked to be a set-down.
The burly man entered the house.
Was he Coral’s marquis? Anna contemplated this turn of events while Jock waited patiently by her side. From what little she knew about the marquis, it would perhaps be prudent if she didn’t meet him. She didn’t want to cause trouble for Coral, and she was uneasy at the thought of letting someone of quality see her at Coral’s residence. Although it was extremely unlikely she would cross paths again with a marquis, the incident the night before with the drunken bucks had made her wary. She decided to enter the house from the servants’ entrance and thus perhaps escape notice.
“It’s a good thing I’d planned to leave today anyway,” she muttered to Jock as they crossed the kitchens.
There was a great flurry of activity in the kitchen. Maids scurried and the footmen helped bring in a mountain of luggage. Anna was hardly acknowledged as she climbed the dark back stair. Just as well. She and Jock moved soundlessly down the upper hall. Anna opened the door to her room and found Pearl anxiously waiting.
“Oh, thank God you’re back, Mrs. Wren,” the other woman said when she saw her.
“I took Jock for a walk,” Anna said. “Was that Coral’s marquis I saw coming in the front?”
“Yes,” Pearl said. “Coral wasn’t expecting him for another week or more. He’ll be angry if he finds she has guests.”
“I was just going to pack and leave, so I’ll be out of his way.”
“Thank you, ma’am. That’ll make it ever so much easier for Coral, it will.”
“But what will you do, Pearl?” Anna bent to drag out her soft bag from under the bed. “Coral said she wanted you here with her. Will the marquis let you stay?”
Pearl picked at a hanging thread on her cuff. “Coral thinks she can get him to let me stay, but I don’t know. He’s awful mean sometimes, even if he is a lord. And the house belongs to him, you know.”
Anna nodded her understanding as she carefully folded her stockings.
“I’m glad Coral has such a nice place to live, with servants and carriages and things,” Pearl said slowly. “But that marquis makes me nervous.”
Anna paused with a handful of clothes in her arms. “You don’t think he would hurt her, do you?”
Pearl stared back somberly. “I don’t know.”
EDWARD PROWLED THE bordello room like a caged tiger denied a meal. The woman was late. He checked the china clock over the hearth again. Half an hour late, damn her. How dare she make him wait for her? He reached the fireplace and stared into the blaze. He’d never obsessively gone back to the same woman. Not once, not twice, but three times now.
The sex had been so good each time. She was so responsive. She had held nothing back, acting like she was as much under his spell as he was under hers. He was not naïve. He knew women who were paid for sex often faked an excitement they did not feel. But a body’s natural reaction could not be faked. She had been wet, literally soaked, in her desire for him.
He groaned. The thought of her wet pussy was having a predicable effect on his cock. Where the hell was she?
Edward swore and pushed himself away from the mantelpiece to resume his pacing. He’d even begun to daydream, in the manner of a starry-eyed stripling, about what her face looked like underneath the mask. More disturbing, he had imagined that she might look like Anna.
He stopped and placed the crown of his head against the wall, hands braced on either side. His chest expanded as he breathed deeply. He had come to London to rid himself of this awful fascination for his little secretary before he married. Instead, he’d found a new obsession. But had that stopped the original fixation? Oh, no. His longing for Anna had not only grown stronger, but was also mingled with lust for the mysterious little whore. He had two obsessions now instead of one, and they were tangled together in his overwrought brain.
He pounded his head against the wall. Perhaps he was going mad. That would explain everything.
Of course, none of this mattered to his cock. Mad or sane, it was still overeager to feel the woman’s tight, slippery sheath. He stopped banging his head against the wall and looked at the clock again. She was thirty-three minutes late now.
By God’s balls, he wasn’t going to wait another minute more.
Edward snatched his coat up and slammed out of the room. Two gray-haired gentlemen were strolling down the hall. They took one look at his face and pressed to the side as he stormed past. He ran down the grand staircase two risers at a time and stalked into the parlor where the male customers went to mingle and meet disguised ladies and whores. He scanned the gaudy room. There were several women in bright colors, each surrounded by eager men, but only one woman wore a golden mask. She was taller than the other females and stood apart, alert to the currents in the room. Her full-face mask was smooth and serene, the eyebrows symmetrical incised arcs above the almond-shaped eyeholes. Aphrodite watched over her wares with a beady eagle eye.
Edward strode directly to her. “Where is she?” he demanded.
The madam, normally an unflappable woman, jerked at his sudden question by her side. “Lord Swartingham, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Where is the woman I was to meet tonight?”