She sat in her usual place at the small rosewood desk in his library. She looked serene and golden in the morning light from the window, as if she hadn’t moved from the desk the entire time he had been in London. It was a strangely comforting thought. Edward noted that she had a small smudge of ink on her chin.
And something was different about her appearance.
“I haven’t used any salve, Mrs. Wren, because there is no reason to.” He tried to walk the remaining feet to his desk without limping.
Naturally, she noticed that, too. “And your leg! Why are you limping, my lord?”
“I am not limping.”
She arched her eyebrows so high, they nearly disappeared into her hairline.
Edward was forced to glare in order to emphasize the lie. He tried to think of an explanation for his injuries that wouldn’t make him look a total fool. He certainly couldn’t tell his little secretary that he’d been in a brawl at a brothel.
What was it about her appearance?
“Did you have an accident?” she asked before he could think of a suitable excuse.
He seized on the suggestion. “Yes, an accident.” Something about her hair… A new style, perhaps?
His respite was brief.
“Did you fall off your horse?”
“No!” Edward strove to lower his voice and had a sudden inspiration. He could see her hair. “No, I didn’t fall off my horse. Where is your cap?”
As a distraction, it failed abysmally.
“I’ve decided not to wear it any longer,” she said primly. “If you didn’t fall off your horse, then what did happen to you?”
The woman would have been an outstanding success with the inquisition.
“I…” For the life of him, he could not think of a suitable story.
Anna looked worried. “Your carriage didn’t overturn, did it?”
“Were you run down by a cart in London? I hear the streets are terribly crowded.”
“No. I wasn’t run down by a cart either.” He tried to smile charmingly. “I like you without your cap. Your tresses shine like a field of daisies.”
Anna narrowed her eyes. Perhaps he hadn’t any charm. “I wasn’t aware that daisies were brown. Are you sure you didn’t fall off your horse?”
Edward gritted his teeth and prayed for forbearance. “I did not fall off my horse. I have never—”
She raised one brow.
“Hardly ever been unseated from my horse.”
A swift expression of enlightenment came over her features. “It’s all right, you know,” she said in an unbearably understanding voice. “Even the best horsemen fall off their mounts sometimes. It is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Edward got up from his desk, limped across to hers, and placed both hands, palms down, upon it. He leaned over until his eyes were only inches from her hazel ones. “I am not ashamed,” he said very slowly. “I did not fall off my horse. I was not thrown from my horse. I wish to end this discussion. Is that amenable to you, Mrs. Wren?”
Anna swallowed visibly, drawing his eyes to her throat. “Yes. Yes, that’s quite amenable to me, Lord Swartingham.”
“Good.” His gaze rose to her lips, wet where she had licked them in her nervousness. “I thought of you while I was gone. Did you think of me? Did you miss me?”
“I—” she started to whisper.
Hopple breezed into the room. “Welcome back, my lord. I hope your sojourn in our lovely capital was pleasant?” The steward came to a halt when he noticed Edward’s stance over Anna.
Edward slowly straightened, his eyes never leaving Anna. “My stay was pleasant enough, Hopple, although I found I missed the… loveliness of the country.”
Anna looked flustered.
Mr. Hopple started. “Lord Swartingham! Whatever happened to—?”
Anna cut him off. “Mr. Hopple, have you time to show the earl the new ditch?”
“The ditch? But—” Hopple looked from Edward to Anna.
Anna twitched her eyebrows as if a fly had landed on her forehead. “The new ditch to drain Mr. Grundle’s field. You did mention it the other day.”
“The… Oh, yes, Farmer Grundle’s ditch,” Hopple said. “If you will come with me, my lord, I think you’ll be interested in inspecting it.”
Edward’s eyes were back on Anna. “I’ll meet with you in half an hour, Hopple. I’ve something I wish to discuss with my secretary first.”
“Oh, yes. Yes. Er, very well, my lord.” Hopple departed, looking befuddled.
“What was it you wished to discuss with me, my lord?” she asked.
Edward cleared his throat. “Actually, there’s something I want to show you. If you’ll come with me?”
Anna appeared mystified but stood and took his arm. He led her out to the hall, turning to the back door instead of the front. When they stepped into the kitchen, Cook nearly dropped her morning cup of tea. Three maids were clustered by the table where Cook sat, like acolytes around their priest. All four females came to their feet.
Edward waved them back down again. No doubt he’d interrupted a morning gossip. Without explanation, he continued through the kitchen and out the back door. They crossed the wide stable yard, his boot heels ringing on the cobblestones. The morning sun shone brightly, and the stables cast a long shadow behind them. Edward rounded a corner of the building and stopped in the shade. Anna glanced around, looking puzzled.
Edward had a sudden, awful feeling of uncertainty. It was an unusual gift. Maybe she wouldn’t like it or—worse—be insulted.
“This is for you.” He gestured abruptly at a muddy lump of burlap.
Anna looked from him to the burlap. “What—?”
Edward stooped and threw back a corner of the bundle. Underneath lay what looked like a bunch of dead, thorny sticks.
That noise had to be a good sign in a female, didn’t it? Edward frowned uncertainly. Then she smiled up at him, and he felt warmth suffuse his chest.
“Roses!” she exclaimed.
She dropped to her knees to examine one of the dormant rosebushes. He’d carefully wrapped them in damp burlap to keep the roots from drying out before departing from London. Each bush had only a few thorny branches, but the roots were long and healthy.
“Careful, they’re sharp,” Edward murmured to her down-bent head.
Anna counted busily. “There’s two dozen here. Do you mean to put them all in your garden?”
Edward scowled at her. “They’re for you. For your cottage.”
Anna opened her mouth and for a moment seemed at a loss for words. “But… even if I could accept them all, they must have been terribly expensive.”
Was she refusing his gift? “Why can’t you accept them?”
“Well, for one, I couldn’t fit them all in my little garden.”
“How many could you fit?”
“Oh, I suppose three or four,” Anna said.
“Pick out the four you want, and I’ll send the rest back.” Edward felt relief. At least she wasn’t rejecting the roses. “Or burn them,” he added as an afterthought.
“Burn them!” Anna sounded horrified. “But you can’t just burn them. Don’t you want them for your own garden?”
He shook his head impatiently. “I don’t know how to put them in.”
“I do. I’ll plant them for you in thanks for the others.” Anna smiled up at him, looking a little shy. “Thank you for the roses, Lord Swartingham.”
Edward cleared his throat. “You’re welcome, Mrs. Wren.” He had a strange urge to shuffle his feet like a little boy. “I suppose I ought to see Hopple.”
She simply looked at him.
“Yes… Ah, yes.” Good God, he was stuttering like an imbecile. “I’ll just go find him, then.” With a muttered farewell, he strode off in search of the steward.
Who knew giving presents to secretaries could be so stressful?
ANNA ABSENTLY WATCHED Lord Swartingham walk away, her hand fisting in the muddy burlap. She knew how this man felt against her in the dark. She knew how his body moved when he made love. She knew the deep husky sounds he produced in the back of his throat when he reached his climax. She knew the most intimate things one could know about a man, but she didn’t know how to reconcile that knowledge to the sight of him in the daylight. To reconcile the man who made love so sublimely to the man who brought her rosebushes from London.
Anna shook her head. Perhaps it was too hard a question. Perhaps one could never understand the difference between the passion of a man at night and the civil face he showed during the day.
She hadn’t realized what it would be like to see him again after spending two unbelievable nights in his arms. Now she knew. She felt sad, as if she’d lost something that had never truly been hers. She’d gone to London with the intention of making love to him, to enjoy the physical act as a man would: unemotionally. But as it turned out, she wasn’t as stoic as a man. She was a woman, and where her body went, her emotions followed willy-nilly. The act had somehow bound her to him, whether he knew it or not.
And he could never know it now. What had transpired between them in that room at Aphrodite’s Grotto must remain her secret alone.
She stared blindly down at the rose stems. Perhaps the roses were a sign that things could still be healed. Anna touched a prickly rose branch. They must mean something, surely? A gentleman didn’t usually give such a lovely gift—such a perfect gift—to his secretary, did he?
A thorn pricked the ball of her thumb. Absentmindedly, she sucked on the wound. Maybe there was hope after all. As long as he never, ever discovered her deception.
LATER THAT MORNING, Edward stood calf-deep in muddy water, inspecting the new drainage ditch. A lark sang in the border of Mr. Grundle’s field. Probably ecstatic it was dry. Nearby, two smock-clad laborers from Grundle’s farm shoveled muck to keep the ditch free of debris.
Hopple also stood in muddy water, looking particularly aggrieved. This might be in part because he had slipped and fallen in the scummy water once already. His waistcoat, formerly an egg-yolk yellow with green piping, was filthy. The water from the ditch gushed into a nearby stream as the steward explained the engineering of the project.
Edward watched the laborers, nodded at Hopple’s sermon, and thought about Anna’s reaction to his gift. When Anna spoke, he had a hard time keeping his eyes off her exotic mouth. How such a mouth had come to be on such a plain little woman was a great mystery, one that apparently could enthrall him for hours. That mouth could lead the Archbishop of Canterbury to sin.
“Don’t you think so, my lord?” Hopple asked.
“Oh, most definitely. Most definitely.”
The steward looked at him strangely.
Edward sighed. “Just continue.”
Jock bounded into view with a small, unfortunate rodent in his mouth. He leaped the ditch and landed with a splash of muddy water, completing the ruin of Hopple’s waistcoat. Jock presented his find to Edward. It was immediately apparent that his treasure had left this life quite some time ago.
Hopple backed hastily away, waving a handkerchief before his face and muttering irritably, “Good gracious! I thought when that dog went missing for several days we were well rid of it.”
Edward absently petted Jock, the odoriferous present still in the dog’s mouth. A maggot fell with a plop into the water. Hopple swallowed and continued his explanation of the wonderful drain with his handkerchief over his nose and mouth.
Of course, after coming to know Anna, Edward had no longer found her so plain. In fact, he was at a loss to explain how he had so thoroughly discounted her the first time they met. How was it that he’d initially thought her rather ordinary? Except for her mouth, of course. He’d always been aware of her mouth.