Edward sighed and kicked at some debris under the water, sending up a splash of mud. She was a lady. That he had never been wrong about even if he had misjudged her attraction at first. As a gentleman, he shouldn’t even be thinking about Anna in this way. That was what whores were for, after all. Ladies simply didn’t contemplate kneeling in front of a man and slowly bending their beautiful, erotic mouths down to…
Edward shifted uncomfortably and scowled. Now that he was officially engaged to Miss Gerard, he must stop thinking about Anna’s mouth. Or any other part of her for that matter. He needed to put Anna—Mrs. Wren—right out of his mind in order to have a successful second marriage.
His future family depended on it.
WHAT FUNNY THINGS roses were: prickly hard on the surface, yet so fragile inside, Anna mused that evening. Roses were one of the most difficult flowers to grow, needing much more coddling and worry than any other plant; yet, once established, they might grow for years, even if abandoned.
The garden behind her cottage was only about twenty feet by thirty, but there was still room for a small shed at the back. She’d used a candle in the gathering dusk to light her way as she had rummaged about in the shed and had found an old washbasin and a couple of tin buckets. Now she carefully laid the roses in the containers and covered them with the bitterly cold water from the little garden well.
Anna stood back and regarded her work critically. It had almost seemed like Lord Swartingham had avoided her after he’d given her the roses. He hadn’t shown up for luncheon, and he’d only stopped by the library once that afternoon. But of course he had plenty of work built up over the five days that he had been gone, and he was a very busy man. She pulled the muddy burlap over the top of the washbasin and buckets. She’d set the containers in the shade of the cottage so they wouldn’t burn in the sun tomorrow. It might be a day or two before she could plant them, but the water would keep them vital. She nodded and went in to wash up for supper.
The Wren household dined on roasted potatoes and a bit of gammon that night. The meal was almost over when Mother Wren dropped her fork and exclaimed, “Oh, I’ve forgotten to tell you, dear. While you were gone, Mrs. Clearwater invited us to her spring soiree the day after next.”
Anna paused with her teacup halfway to her lips. “Really? We’ve never been invited before.”
“She knows you’re friends with Lord Swartingham.” Mother Wren smiled complacently. “It would be a coup for her if he attended.”
“I don’t have any influence over whether the earl will attend or not. You know that, Mother.”
“Do you really think so?” Mother Wren tilted her head. “Lord Swartingham hasn’t made any effort to join our social diversions. He accepts no invitations to tea or dinner, and he hasn’t bothered to attend church on Sundays.”
“I suppose he does keep to himself,” Anna admitted.
“Some are saying he is too proud to be seen at the country amusements here.”
“That isn’t true.”
“Oh, I know he is quite nice.” Mother Wren poured herself a second cup of tea. “Why, he had breakfast in this very cottage with us and very gracious he was, too. But he hasn’t gone out of his way to endear himself with many others in the village. It doesn’t do his reputation good.”
Anna frowned down at her half-eaten potato. “I hadn’t realized so many saw him in that light. The tenants on his land adore him.”
Mother Wren nodded. “The tenants might. But he needs to be gracious to those higher up in society as well.”
“I’ll try to convince him to come to the soiree.” Anna straightened her shoulders. “But it might be a job. As you say, he isn’t very interested in social events.”
Mother Wren smiled. “In the meantime, we need to discuss what we’ll wear to the soiree.”
“I hadn’t even thought of that.” Anna frowned. “All I have is my old green silk gown. There simply isn’t enough time to have the material I brought from London made into dresses.”
“It is a shame,” Mother Wren agreed. “But your green gown is very becoming, my dear. The lovely color brings roses to your cheeks and sets off your hair so well. Although, I suppose the neckline is sadly out of date.”
“Maybe we could use some of the trimmings Mrs. Wren bought in London,” Fanny said shyly. She’d been hovering nearby throughout the conversation.
“What a good idea.” Mother Wren beamed at her, making the girl flush. “We had better get started tonight.”
“Yes, indeed, but there is something I want to find before we begin on the dresses.”
Anna pushed back her chair and crossed to the old kitchen cupboard. She knelt and opened the bottom cabinet and peered in.
“Whatever are you looking for, Anna?” Mother Wren asked from behind her.
Anna backed out of the cabinet and sneezed before triumphantly holding up a dusty little jar. “My mother’s salve for bruises and abrasions.”
Mother Wren looked at the jar doubtfully. “Your mother was a wonderful amateur herbalist, my dear, and I’ve been grateful for her salve many times in the past, but it does have an unfortunate odor. Are you sure you need it?”
Anna got up, briskly shaking out the dust in her skirts. “Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for the earl. He had an accident with his horse.”
“An accident with his horse?” Her mother-in-law blinked. “Did he fall off?”
“Oh, no. Lord Swartingham is much too good a horseman to fall off his horse,” Anna said. “I’m not sure what exactly happened. I don’t think he wants to discuss it. But he has the most terrible bruises on his face.”
“On his face…” Mother Wren trailed off thoughtfully.
“Yes, one of his eyes looks quite bruised, and his jaw is black and blue.”
“So you intend to put the salve on his face?” Mother Wren covered her own nose as if in sympathy.
Anna ignored her theatrics. “It will help him heal faster.”
“I’m sure you know best,” Mother Wren replied, but she didn’t look particularly convinced.
THE NEXT MORNING, Anna ran her quarry to ground in the stable yard. Lord Swartingham stood firing instructions at Mr. Hopple, who was noting them as best he could in a little book. Jock lay nearby, but he got up to greet Anna when he saw her. The earl noticed, stopped, and turned his black eyes on Anna. He smiled.
Mr. Hopple glanced up at the cessation of directions. “Good morning, Mrs. Wren.” He looked back to Lord Swartingham. “Shall I start on these, my lord?”
“Yes, yes,” the earl replied impatiently.
The steward hurried away, looking relieved.
The earl sauntered over. “Is there something you need?” He kept walking until he stood too close to her.
She could see the fine threads of silver in his hair. “Yes,” she said briskly. “I need you to hold still.”
His beautiful ebony eyes widened. “What?”
“I have some salve for your face.” She produced the little jar from her basket and held it up.
He eyed it dubiously.
“It’s my late mother’s own recipe. She swore by its healing properties.”
Anna took the lid off, and the earl jerked his head back at the pungent smell that rolled up. Jock attempted to put his nose in the jar.
Lord Swartingham pulled the dog down by the scruff of his neck. “Good God. It smells like horse—” He caught her narrowed eye. “Hide,” he finished lamely.
“Well, that’s appropriate for the stable yard, don’t you think?” she replied tartly.
The earl looked worried. “It doesn’t actually have horse—”
“Oh, no.” Anna was shocked. “It’s composed of sheep fat and herbs and some other things. I’m not sure exactly what. I’d have to look up my mother’s recipe to tell you. But there is definitely no horse—uh, nothing objectionable in it. Now hold still.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her tone but obediently stood motionless. She scooped out a greasy glob with her finger, stretched on tiptoe, and began to smooth it over his cheekbone. He was very tall, and she had to crowd rather close in order to reach his face. Lord Swartingham was silent, breathing deeply as she spread the salve carefully up near his black eye. She could feel him watching her. She took another dollop and began to rub it gently on his discolored jaw. The salve was cool but became warm and slippery as his skin heated it. She felt the faint scrape of his beard under her fingers and had to fight the urge to linger. She completed the last pass and let her hand fall.
He looked down at her.
In moving closer to him in order to apply the salve, she’d crept between his spread legs. His heat surrounded her body. She started to step away. But his hands wrapped around her arms. His fingers flexed, and he seemed to gaze intently at her. Anna held her breath. Would he…?
He let her go.
“Thank you, Mrs. Wren.” He opened his mouth as if to say something more and then shut it. “I have some work to attend to. I’ll see you later this afternoon.” He nodded curtly before turning away.
Jock looked at her, whined, and then followed his master.
Anna watched them stride away, then sighed and thoughtfully put the lid back on the salve jar.
So Aurea went home to visit her father. She traveled in a golden coach drawn by flying swans, and she carried with her many beautiful things to give to her family and friends. But when her older sisters saw the wonderful gifts that the younger girl had brought home, their hearts, instead of filling with gratitude and pleasure, wallowed in jealousy and spite. The sisters put their beautiful, cold heads together and began to quiz Aurea about her new home and her odd husband. And little by little, they heard all: the richness of the palace, the avian servants, the exotic meals, and finally—and most importantly—the silent, nocturnal lover. Hearing the last, they grinned behind their pale hands and set to planting the seeds of doubt in their little sister’s mind….
—from The Raven Prince
“Farther to the top.” Felicity Clearwater wrinkled her brow and stared at the ceiling in her larger sitting room. The drawn curtains muted the afternoon sun outside. “No. No, more to the left.”
A masculine voice muttered irritably.
“That’s it,” she said. “There. I think you’ve got it.” In the corner, a crack snaked across the ceiling. She’d never noticed it before. It must be new. “Did you find her?”
Chilton Lillipin, “Chilly” to his intimates, one of whom was Felicity, spat out a hair. “My darling gosling, do try to relax. You’re disturbing my artistry.” He bent again.
Artistry? She suppressed a snort. She closed her eyes for a bit and tried to concentrate on her lover and what he was doing, but it was no use. She opened her eyes again. She really needed to have the plasterers in to repair that crack. And the last time they’d come, Reginald had been an absolute bear, stomping about and grumbling as if the workmen were only there to bother him. Felicity sighed.
“That’s it, sweetheart,” Chilly said from below. “Just lie back and let a master lover bring you to heaven.”
She rolled her eyes. She’d almost forgotten the master lover. She sighed again. There was no help for it.
Felicity began to moan.
Fifteen minutes later, Chilly stood before the sitting room mirror, carefully adjusting his wig. He studied his reflection and slid the wig marginally to the right on his shaved head. He was a handsome man, but just a bit off, in Felicity’s opinion. His eyes were pure blue, but they were set just a shade too close together. His features were regular, but his chin gave up and slid into his neck just a bit too soon. And his limbs were well muscled, but his legs were a fraction too short to be in proportion to the rest of his body. Chilly’s offness continued into his personality. She’d heard rumors that, although skilled in swordplay, Chilly proved his prowess by challenging less-accomplished men to duels and then killing them.