“She isn’t in your room, my lord?”
“No.” Edward grit his teeth. “No, she isn’t in the room. Would I be down here asking after her if she were up in the room?”
“We have many other willing ladies, my lord.” The madam’s voice sounded ingratiating. “Perhaps I can send another to your room?”
Edward leaned forward. “I don’t want another. I want the woman I had last night and the night before. Who is she?”
Aphrodite’s eyes shifted behind the gold mask. “Now, my lord, you know we can’t reveal the identity of our lovely doves here at the Grotto. Professional integrity, you know.”
Edward snorted. “I don’t give a bloody damn about the professional integrity of a whorehouse. Who. Is. She?”
Aphrodite backed a step, as if alarmed. Not surprisingly, since he now loomed above her. She made a signal with her hand to someone over his shoulder.
Edward narrowed his eyes. He knew he had only a few minutes. “I want her name—now—or I will enjoy starting a riot in your parlor.”
“No need for threats. There are several other wenches here who would be eager to spend the night with you.” Aphrodite’s voice held a smirk. “Ones who don’t mind a pockmark or two.”
Edward went still. He knew well enough what his face looked like. It didn’t distress him anymore—he was past the age of agonized vanity—but it did repel some women. The little whore hadn’t seemed to mind his scars. Of course, last night they’d made love in the chair by the firelight. Perhaps it had been the first time she’d truly seen his face. Perhaps she had been so disgusted by the sight that she hadn’t bothered to show up tonight.
Edward pivoted on his heel. He grabbed a faux Chinese vase, raised it above his head, and slammed it to the floor. It shattered explosively. Conversation in the room ceased as heads turned.
Too much thought was bad for a man. What he needed was action. If he couldn’t work off his energy in bed, well, this was second best.
He was seized from behind and pulled around. A fist the size of a ham hurtled at his face. Edward leaned back. The blow went whistling past his nose. He brought his own right fist in low to the man’s belly. The other man oofed out the air in his lungs—a lovely sound—and staggered.
Three men moved in to take the other’s place. They were the big bruisers kept by the house to escort troublemakers outside. One of them got in a roundhouse to the left side of his face. Edward saw stars, but it didn’t stop him returning with a pretty uppercut.
Several of the patrons cheered.
And then after that, things became muddled. Many of the spectators appeared to be sporting men who thought the odds uneven. They joined the brawl with tipsy enthusiasm. Girls frantically scrambled over settees, shrieking and upsetting furniture in their haste to get out of the way. Aphrodite stood in the middle of the room, shouting orders that no one could hear. She stopped abruptly when someone shoved her headfirst into a bowl of punch. Tables flew through the air. An enterprising demimondaine began taking bets in the hallway from the men and girls who had flooded the stairs to view the commotion. Four more bullies and at least as many men from the upstairs rooms joined the melee. Some of the guests had clearly been interrupted in their entertainment, as they wore only breeches or—in the case of one rather distinguished looking old gent—a shirt and nothing else.
Edward was enjoying himself immensely.
Blood ran down his chin from a split lip, and he could feel one eye slowly swelling shut. A smallish villain clung to his back and hit him about the head and shoulders. In front of him, another, bigger man tried to kick his legs out from under him. Edward sidestepped the attempt and brought his own foot up to shove against the man’s other leg while his weight was off balance. He went down like a colossus.
The imp on his back was becoming a nuisance. Grabbing the man by his hair, Edward swiftly rammed himself backward into a wall. He heard a thunk as the man’s head met the solid surface. The man slid from Edward’s shoulders and landed on the floor along with a good deal of the plaster from the wall.
Edward grinned and glared around through his good eye for more prey. One of the house thugs attempted to sidle out the door. He looked wildly over his shoulder when Edward’s gaze settled on him, but there were none of his brethren to come to his aid.
“ ’Ave mercy, milord. I don’t get paid enough to be beat bloody like you done with the rest of the lads.” The thug held up his hands and backed away from Edward’s advance. “Why, you even did Big Billy in, and I ain’t never seen a man faster than him.”
“Very well,” Edward said. “Although, I can’t see out of my right eye, which evens the odds….” He looked hopefully at the cringing bully who smiled weakly and shook his head. “No? Well, then, I don’t suppose you know of a place where a man can get properly drunk, do you?”
Thus, a little while later, Edward found himself at what had to be the seediest tavern in the East End of London. With him were the house thugs, including Big Billy, now nursing a swollen nose and two black eyes but no hard feelings. Big Billy had his arm around Edward’s shoulders and was attempting to teach him the words to a ditty extolling the charms of a lass named Titty. The song seemed to have a lot of rather clever double entendres that Edward suspected were lost on him since he’d been standing drinks for everyone in the room for the last two hours.
“W-who was the whore you was looking for that started all this, milord?” Jackie, the thug asking, had not missed any of the rounds of drinks. He addressed the question to the air somewhere to Edward’s right.
“Faithless woman,” Edward muttered into his ale.
“All wenches are faithless tarts.” This bit of masculine wisdom came from Big Billy.
The men present nodded somberly, although it caused one or two to lose their balance and sit down rather abruptly.
“No. S’not true,” Edward said.
“What s’not true?”
“All women faithless,” Edward said carefully. “I know a woman who’s as p-pure as the driven snow.”
“Who’s that?” “Tell us, then, milord!” The men clamored to hear the name of this feminine paragon.
“Mrs. Anna Wren.” He raised his glass precariously. “A toast! A toast to the most un-un-unblemished lady in England. Mrs. Anna Wren!”
The tavern erupted in boisterous cheers and toasts to the lady. And Edward wondered why all the lights went out suddenly.
HIS HEAD WAS coming apart. Edward opened his eyes, but then immediately thought better of that idea and squeezed them shut again. Carefully, he touched his temple and tried to think why the top of his head felt like it was about to explode.
He remembered Aphrodite’s Grotto.
He remembered the woman not showing up.
He remembered a fight. Edward grimaced and gingerly probed with his tongue. His teeth were all intact. That was good news.
His mind strained.
He remembered meeting a jolly fellow…. Big Bob? Big Bert? No, Big Billy. He remembered—Oh, God. He remembered toasting Anna in the worst hellhole he had ever had the misfortune to drink watered-down ale in. His stomach rolled unpleasantly. Had he really bandied Anna’s name about in such a place? Yes, he thought he had. And, if he recalled correctly, the whole roomful of disreputable rogues had bawdily toasted her.
Davis opened the door, letting it bang against the wall, and slowly shuffled into the room bearing a laden tray.
Edward moaned again. The sound of the door had nearly made his scalp separate from his skull. “Damn your eyes. Not now, Davis.”
Davis continued on his snaillike course to the bed.
“I know you can hear me,” he spoke slightly louder, but not too loud, for fear of setting his head off again.
“Been in our cups have we, m’lord?” Davis shouted.
“I didn’t know you’d overindulged as well,” Edward said from behind the hands covering his face.
Davis ignored this. “Lovely gents what brought you home last night. New friends of yours?”
Edward parted his fingers to shoot a glare at his valet.
Evidently it bounced harmlessly off the man. “Bit long in the tooth to be guzzling so much, m’lord. Might lead to gout at your age.”
“I’m overwhelmed by your concern for my health.” Edward looked at the tray Davis had now managed to set on the bedside table. It held a cup of tea, already cold, judging by the scum floating on top, and a bowl of milk-toast. “What the hell is this? Nursery pap? Bring me some brandy to settle this head.”
Davis pretended deafness with an aplomb that would have done justice to the finest stage in London. He had had many years of practice, after all.
“Here’s a lovely breakfast to put vigor back into you,” the valet bawled in his ear. “Milk is very strengthening for a man at your age.”
“Get out! Get out! Get out!” Edward roared, and then had to hold his head again.
Davis retreated to the door, but he couldn’t resist a parting shot. “Need to watch your temper, m’lord. Might go all red in the face and buggy-eyed with apoplexy. Nasty way to go, that.”
He scooted through the door with amazing dexterity for a man his age. Just before the bowl of milk-toast hit.
Edward groaned and closed his eyes, his head flopping back on the pillow. He ought to get up and start packing to go home. He’d obtained a fiancée and visited the Grotto, not once, but twice. He had, in fact, done all he’d meant to do when he’d decided to travel to London. And even if he felt far worse now than he had when he’d first come, there was no point in staying in the city. The little whore wouldn’t return, he would never encounter her again, and he had responsibilities of his own to see to. And that was as it should be.
There was no room in his life for a mysterious masked woman and the transitory pleasure she brought.
The days and nights passed as if in a dream, and Aurea was content. Perhaps she was even happy. But after several months, she began to have an urge to see her father. The urge grew and grew until all her waking moments were filled with a longing for her father’s face, and she became listless and sad.
One night at dinner, the raven turned the bright ebony bead of his eye upon her and said, “What causes this malaise I sense in you, my wife?”
“I long to see my father’s face again, my lord,” Aurea sighed. “I miss him.”
“Impossible!” the raven squawked, and left the table without another word.
But Aurea, although she never made complaint, so missed her parent that she stopped eating and only picked at the delicacies set before her. She began to waste away until one day the raven could no longer stand it. He flapped into her room angrily.
“Go, then, and visit your sire, wife,” he cawed. “But be very sure that you return within a fortnight, for I would pine were you to stay longer.”
—from The Raven Prince
“Oh, my goodness!” Anna exclaimed the next day. “What have you done to your face?”
She would notice the bruises. Edward halted and glowered at her. She hadn’t seen him in five days, and the first words out of her mouth were an accusation. Briefly, he tried to imagine any of his previous, male secretaries daring to comment on his appearance. It was impossible. In fact, he couldn’t think of anyone, save his current female secretary, who made such impertinent comments to him. Oddly, he found her impertinence endearing.
Not that he let it show. Edward raised a brow and tried to put his secretary in her place. “I have done nothing to my face, thank you, Mrs. Wren.”
It had no noticeable effect.
“You can’t call that black eye and the bruises on your jaw nothing.” Anna looked disapproving. “Have you put any salve on it yet?”