Felicity narrowed her eyes. She wouldn’t trust Chilly at her back in a dark alley, but he did have his uses. “Did you find out where she went to in London?”
“Of course.” Chilly smirked at himself in the glass. His gold canine winked back at him. “The little chit ended up at a bawdy house called Aphrodite’s Grotto. Not once, but twice. Can you believe?”
“It’s a high-flying establishment.” Chilly gave a last tug to his wig and abandoned the mirror to glance at her. “Ladies of the ton sometimes go there in disguise to meet their paramours.”
“Really?” Felicity tried not to sound intrigued.
Chilly poured a tumblerful of the squire’s best smuggled brandy. “Seems a little above a country widow.”
Yes, it did. How had Anna Wren paid for such a place? The establishment Chilly described was expensive. Her lover would have to be rich. He must have a good knowledge of London and the less-reputable haunts of the ton. And the only gentleman who fit that description in Little Battleford, the only gentleman who had traveled to London during the same time period as Anna Wren, was the Earl of Swartingham. A triumphant shiver went down Felicity’s spine.
“What’s this all about, then?” Chilly peered over his glass at her. “Who cares if a brown mouse has a secret life?” He sounded a bit too curious for her taste.
“Never you mind.” Felicity lounged back on the chaise and stretched luxuriantly, her breasts thrusting out. Chilly’s attention was immediately diverted. “I’ll tell you someday.”
“Don’t I at least get a reward?” Chilly pretended to pout, an unattractive sight. He strolled closer and crowded against the edge of the chaise.
He had done well. And Felicity felt on good terms with the world. Why not humor the man? She stretched out a feline hand to the buttons on Chilly’s breeches.
EDWARD PULLED THE mangled cravat from his neck that night. He had to get control of his body’s impulses. He scowled and tossed the crumpled neckcloth on top of a chair. His room in the Abbey was a rather dismal place, the furniture big and clumsy, the colors drab and depressed. It was a wonder the de Raafs had been able to maintain the family line at all in such a setting.
Davis, as usual, wasn’t around when he might be useful. Edward wedged the heel of his boot in the bootjack and began levering. He’d come very close to not letting go of Anna in the stable yard. To kissing her, in fact. It was exactly the sort of thing he’d been trying to prevent for the last few weeks.
The first boot fell to the floor, and he started work on the second. The trip to London was supposed to have solved this problem. And now with the marriage nearly finalized… Well, he had to start acting the part of a soon-to-be-married man. No pondering Anna’s hair and why she had put off her cap. No contemplating how close she had stood when she’d applied the salve. And especially, he would not think of her mouth and how it would feel if he opened it wide beneath his own and…
The second boot came off, and Davis, with exquisite timing, banged into the room. “Goramity! What is that smell? Pee-yeew!”
The valet held a stack of freshly laundered cravats in his hands, the apparent reason for his rare, voluntary visit to his employer’s rooms.
Edward sighed. “A good evening to you, too, Davis.”
“Christ all Jaysus! Fell in a pigsty, did you?”
Edward began pulling off his stockings. “Are you aware that some valets actually spend their time helping their masters to dress and undress rather than making rude comments about their person?”
Davis cackled. “Ha. Should’ve told me you were having problems buttoning your pantyloons, m’lord. I would’ve helped you.”
Edward scowled. “Just put away the cravats and get out.”
Davis tottered to the highboy, pulled out a top drawer, and dumped the cravats in. “What’s that slimy stuff on your mug?” he asked.
“Mrs. Wren kindly gave me some salve for my bruises this afternoon,” Edward said with dignity.
The valet tilted toward him and inhaled with a loud snuffling sound. “That’s where the stank is coming from. It smells like horseshit.”
“Well, it do. Haven’t smelled anything near that bad since you was a lad and fell on your arse into that pigsty back of Old Peward’s farm. Remember that?”
“How could I forget with you around?” Edward muttered.
“Gor! Thought we’d never get the stank out of you that time. And I had to throw away them breeches.”
“Pleasant as this recollection is—”
“ ’Course, you never would’ve fallen in if you hadn’t been ogling Old Peward’s daughter,” Davis continued.
“I was not ogling anyone. I slipped.”
“Naw.” Davis scratched his scalp. “Your eyes were about falling out of your head they were, gawking at her big bubbies.”
Edward grit his teeth. “I slipped and fell.”
“Almost a sign from the Lord above, that,” Davis said, waxing philosophical. “Gawp at a girl’s bubbies and land in pig shit.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. I was sitting on the railing of the pigsty and I slipped.”
“Prissy Peward sure did have big dugs, that lass did.” Davis sounded a little wistful.
“You weren’t even there.”
“But that pigsty stank had nothing on the horseshit on your face now.”
The valet made his way back to the door waving a liver-spotted hand in front of his face as he went. “Must be balmy to let a woman smear horsesh—”
“All over your face.”
The valet reached the door and slanted around the corner, still mumbling. Since his progress was, as usual, slow, Edward could hear his nattering for a good five minutes more. Oddly, it became louder the farther Davis moved from the door.
Edward frowned at himself in his shaving mirror. The salve did smell terrible. He reached for a basin and poured some water into it from the pitcher on his dresser. He picked up a washcloth and then hesitated. The salve was already on his face, and it had pleased Anna to put it there. He rubbed his thumb across the edge of his jaw, remembering her soft hands.
He threw down the washcloth.
He could wash off the salve when he shaved in the morning. It wouldn’t hurt to leave it on tonight. He turned from the dresser and took off the remainder of his clothes, folding and placing them on a chair as he did so. There was at least one advantage to having an unusual valet: He had learned to be neat with his apparel since Davis didn’t deign to pick up after him. Standing naked, Edward yawned and stretched before climbing into the ancient four-poster bed. He leaned over and blew out the bedside candle and then lay there in the dark staring at the shadowy outlines of the bed curtains. He wondered fuzzily how old they were. Certainly older than the house itself. Had they originally been this awful shade of brownish yellow?
His eyes sleepily swept the room, and he saw near the door the shape of a woman.
He blinked and suddenly she stood by his bed.
She smiled. The same smile Eve wore when she’d held the fateful apple out to Adam. The woman was gloriously nude except for a butterfly mask on her face.
He thought, It’s the whore from Aphrodite’s Grotto. And then, I’m dreaming.
But the thought drifted away. She slowly rubbed her hands up her midriff, drawing his eyes with them. She cupped her breasts and leaned forward so the tips were at the level of his eyes. Then she began to pinch and tease her own nipples.
His mouth went dry as he watched her nipples elongate and turn cherry red. He lifted his head to kiss her breasts, for his mouth fairly watered with the need to taste her, but she moved away with a taunting smile. The woman lifted her flowing, honey-brown hair away from her neck. Curling tentacles clung to her arms. She arched her slender back, thrusting her breasts up and forward like juicy fruit before him. He growled and felt his cock throb against his stomach at her teasing.
The woman smiled a witchy smile. She knew exactly what she was doing to him. She smoothed her hands back down her torso, past her thrusting breasts, over her downy belly, and paused. Her fingers just touched the glinting curls of her bush. He willed her to move them farther, but she teased him, lightly combing through her maiden hair. Just when he could stand it no longer, she chuckled low and spread her legs.
Edward didn’t know if he still breathed. His eyes were locked on her hands and her pussy. She parted her nether lips for him. He could see the ruby skin glistening with her fluid and smell her musk lifting from her flesh. She dipped one slender finger into her cleft. Slowly, she stroked up and found her clitoris. She petted herself, her finger moving in slippery circles on the bud. Her hips began to rotate, and she let her head fall back and moaned. The sound mingled with Edward’s own groan of pure lust. He was rock hard, pulsing with need.
He watched as she tilted her pelvis toward him. She slid her middle finger into her pussy and moved it out and back again, slowly, languidly, the finger shining with her moisture. Her other hand moved faster on her clitoris, torturing the fragile nubbin. Suddenly she stiffened, her head still thrown back, and moaned, low and keening. Her finger worked furiously in and out of her body.
Edward groaned again. He could see the evidence of her orgasm sliding down her silky thighs. The sight nearly sent him over the edge. The woman sighed and relaxed, her hips swiveling sensuously one last time. She drew her fingers from herself and brought them, wet and shining, to his lips. She brushed her fingers over his mouth, and he tasted her desire. Dazedly, he looked up at her and realized that the mask had fallen away from her face.
Anna smiled down at him.
Then his orgasm took him, and he woke to the almost agonizing jerking of his cock as he gained his release.
ANNA’S EYES ADJUSTED to the cool dimness the next morning as she wandered down the packed-earth aisle of Ravenhill Abbey’s stables. The building was venerable. It had served the Abbey through several reconstructions and expansions. Stones the size of a man’s head formed the foundation and the lower walls. Six feet from the ground, the walls became sturdy oak that led up to the exposed rafters, vaulting twenty feet overhead. Below, stalls flanked a central aisle.
The Ravenhill stables had room for fifty horses easily, although fewer than ten were currently in residence. The relative paucity of horses saddened her. This must at one time have been a thriving, active place. Now the stables were quiet—like a grizzled, slumbering giant. It smelt of hay, leather, and decades, perhaps centuries, of horse manure. The odor was warm and welcoming.
Lord Swartingham was to meet her here this morning so they could ride out to inspect more fields. Anna’s makeshift riding habit trailed in the dust behind her as she walked. Every now and then, an equine head poked curiously over a stall and nickered a greeting. She spotted the earl farther ahead, deep in conversation with the head groom. He towered over the older man. Both stood in a beam of dusty sunlight at the far end of the stables. As Anna neared, she could hear that they were discussing the problem of a gelding with a chronic limp. Lord Swartingham glanced up and caught sight of her. She paused by Daisy’s stall. He smiled and turned back to the head groom.
Daisy was already saddled and bridled and tied loosely in the aisle. Anna waited, softly talking to the mare. She watched Lord Swartingham lean down to listen to the head groom, his full attention on the older man. The head groom was a wiry, aged specimen. His hands were knotted now with arthritis and healed bones, broken long ago. He carried himself proudly, his head stiffly erect. The old man, like many countrymen, talked slowly and liked to discuss a problem at length. Anna noticed that the earl patiently let him have his say, neither hurrying him nor cutting off his speech, until the head groom felt that the problem has been sufficiently mulled over. Then Lord Swartingham gently clapped the man on the back and watched him walk out of the stable. The earl turned and started for her.