Without any warning, Daisy—gentle, placid Daisy—reared. Iron-shod hooves cleaved the air only inches from Anna’s face. She fell back against the stall door, cowering. A hoof thumped the wood next to her shoulder.
“Anna!” She heard the earl’s shout over the startled neighing of the nearby horses and Daisy’s own frantic whinnying.
A rat scurried underneath the stall door, flicking its naked tail as it disappeared. Lord Swartingham caught the horse’s halter and pulled the mare forcibly away. Anna heard a grunt and the slam of a stall door.
Strong arms wrapped around her. “Dear God, Anna, are you hurt?”
She couldn’t answer. Fear seemed to have clogged her throat. He ran his hands over her shoulders and arms, rapidly feeling and smoothing.
“Anna.” His face lowered toward hers.
She couldn’t help herself; her eyes closed.
He kissed her.
His lips were hot and dry. Soft and firm. They moved across hers lightly, before he angled his head and pressed strongly. Her nostrils flared, and she smelled horses and him. She thought irrelevantly that forever after she would associate the smell of horses with Lord Swartingham.
He skimmed her lips with his tongue, so softly that at first she thought she had imagined it. But he repeated the caress, a touch like suede leather, and she opened her mouth to him. She felt his warmth invading her mouth, filling it, stroking across her tongue. He tasted of the coffee he must have drunk at breakfast.
She clenched her fingers at the back of his neck, and he opened his own mouth wider and drew her closer to lean against him. One of his hands brushed across her cheek. She threaded her hands through the hair at his nape. His queue came undone, and she reveled in the silky feel of his hair between her fingers. He ran his tongue over her bottom lip and drew it between his teeth, gently sucking on it. She heard herself moan. She trembled, her legs hardly able to hold up her weight.
A clatter from the stable yard outside brought Anna abruptly back to her surroundings. Edward raised his head to listen. One of the stable hands was berating a boy for dropping equipment.
He turned his head back to Anna and smoothed his thumb over her cheek. “Anna, I…”
His train of thought seemed to slip away. He shook his head. Then, as if compelled, he brushed a gentle kiss over her mouth and lingered there a moment as the kiss deepened.
But something was wrong; Anna could feel it. He was slipping away. She was losing him. She pressed closer, trying to hold on. He ran his lips across her cheekbones and lightly, softly, over her closed eyelids. She felt his breath sift through her eyelashes.
His arms dropped, and she sensed him step away from her.
She opened her eyes to see him running his hands through his hair. “I’m sorry. That was—God, I’m so sorry.”
“No, please don’t apologize.” She smiled, warmth spreading through her breast as she gathered her courage. Maybe this was the time. “I wanted the kiss just as much as you. As a matter of—”
“What?” Anna recoiled as if he had struck her.
“I’m engaged to be married.” Edward grimaced as if in self-disgust or possibly pain.
She stood frozen, struggling to comprehend the simple words. A numbness seeped throughout her body, driving out the warmth as if it had never been.
“That’s why I went up to London. To finalize the marital settlements.” Edward paced, his hands agitatedly running through his disheveled hair. “She’s the daughter of a baronet, a very old family. I think they might have come over with the Conqueror, which is more than the de Raafs can say. Her lands—” He stopped suddenly as if she’d interrupted.
He met her eyes for an agonizing moment and then looked away. It was as if a cord that had stretched between them had been severed.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wren.” He cleared his throat. “I never should have behaved so badly with you. You have my word of honor that it won’t happen again.”
“I-I—” She struggled to force words through her swelling throat. “I ought to return to work, my lord.” Her only coherent thought was that she must maintain her composure. Anna moved to go—to flee, really—but his voice stopped her.
“What?” All she wanted was a hole to curl up in so she could never think again. Never feel again. But something in his face kept her from leaving.
Edward stared up at the loft as if searching for something, or someone. Anna followed his gaze. There was nothing there. The old loft was nearly empty. Where once mounds of hay must have lain, now only dust motes floated. The hay for the horses was stored below in empty stalls.
But still he stared at the loft. “This was my brother’s favorite place,” he said finally. “Samuel, my younger brother. He was nine years old, born six years after me. It was enough of a gap that I did not pay him much attention. He was a quiet boy. He used to hide in the loft, even though it gave Mother fits; she was afraid he’d fall and kill himself. It didn’t stop him. He’d spend half the day up there, playing, I don’t know, with tin soldiers or tops or something. It was easy to forget he was up there, and sometimes he’d throw hay down on my head just to aggravate me.” His brows drew together. “Or, I suppose, he wanted his elder brother’s attention. Not that I gave it to him. I was too busy at fifteen, learning to shoot and drink and be a man, to pay attention to a child.”
He walked a few paces away, still studying the loft. Anna tried to swallow down the lump in her throat. Why now? Why reveal all this pain to her now, when it couldn’t matter?
He continued, “It’s funny, though. When I first came back, I kept expecting to see him here in the stables. I’d walk in and look up—for his face, I guess.” Edward blinked and murmured, almost to himself, “Sometimes I still do.”
Anna shoved her knuckle into her mouth and bit down. She didn’t want to hear this. Didn’t want to feel any sympathy for this man.
“This stable was full before,” he said. “My father loved horses, used to breed them. There were lots of grooms and my father’s cronies hanging around out here, talking horseflesh and hunting. My mother was in the Abbey, holding parties and planning my sister’s coming-out. This place was so busy. So happy. It was the best place in the world.”
Edward touched the worn door of an empty stall with his fingertips. “I never thought I would leave. I never wanted to.”
Anna hugged herself and bit back a sob.
“But then the smallpox came.” He seemed to stare into space, and the lines in his face stood out in sharp relief. “And they died, one by one. First Sammy, then Father and Mother. Elizabeth, my sister, was the last to go. They cut off her hair because of the fever, and she cried and cried inconsolably; she thought it her best feature. Two days later, they put her into the family vault. We were lucky, I guess, if you can call it luck. Other families had to wait for spring to bury their dead. It was winter and the ground was frozen.”
He drew a breath. “But I don’t remember that last, only what they told me later, because by then I had it, too.”
He stroked a finger over his cheekbone where the smallpox scars clustered, and Anna wondered how often he had made the gesture in the years since.
“And, of course, I survived.” He looked at her with the bitterest smile she’d ever seen, as if he tasted bile on his tongue. “I alone lived. Out of all of them, I survived.”
He closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, his face was smoothed into a blank, firm mask. “I’m the last of my line, the last of the de Raafs,” he said. “There are no distant cousins to inherit the title and the Abbey, no waiting obscure heirs. When I die—if I die without a son—it all reverts to the crown.”
Anna forced herself to hold his gaze, though it left her trembling.
“I must have an heir. Do you understand?” He grit his teeth and said, as if he were pulling the words, bloody and torn, from his very heart, “I must marry a woman who can bear children.”
Who was her lover? Aurea’s sisters inquired, their brows creased with false concern. Why had she never seen him in the light of day? And having never seen him, how could she be sure he was human at all? Perhaps a monster too horrible to be exposed to daylight shared her bed. Perhaps this monster would get her heavy with his child, and she would bear something too awful to imagine. The longer Aurea listened to her sisters, the more disquieted she became until she knew not what to think or do.
It was then that the sisters suggested a plan….
—from The Raven Prince
For the rest of that day, Anna simply endured. She made herself sit at the rosewood desk in the Abbey library. She made herself dip her quill in the ink without spilling a drop. She made herself copy out a page of Edward’s manuscript. When she finished that first page, she made herself do it again. And again. And yet again.
That was the job of a secretary, after all.
Long ago, when Peter had first proposed to her, she’d thought about children. She’d wondered whether their children would have red or brown hair, and she’d daydreamed possible names. When they’d married and moved into the tiny cottage, she’d worried if there would be enough room for a family.
She had never worried about not having children.
The second year of the marriage, Anna had begun to watch her monthly flow. The third year, she wept every month when she saw the rust-colored stain. By the fourth year of her marriage to Peter, she knew he had turned to someone else. Whether because she was inadequate as a lover or as a breeder or both, she never found out. And when Peter died…
When he died, she took her hopes for a child and wrapped them carefully in a box and buried that box deep, deep in her heart. So deep, she thought never to face that dream again. Except, with one sentence, Edward had exhumed the box and ripped it open. And her hopes, her dreams, her need to bear a child were as fresh now as they had been when she was newly wed.
Oh, dear God, to be capable of giving Edward children! What she wouldn’t do, what she wouldn’t give up, to be able to hold a baby. A baby made from both of their bodies and souls. Anna felt a physical ache in her chest. An ache that expanded outward until she could hardly keep herself from curling up to hold it in.
But she must maintain her composure. She was in Edward’s library—indeed, Edward sat not five feet away—and she couldn’t show her pain. Fiercely, she concentrated on moving her quill across the paper. Never mind that the scratches she made with the quill were illegible, never mind that the page would have to be recopied later. She would get through this afternoon.
Several ghastly hours later, Anna slowly gathered her things, moving like a very old woman. As she did so, the invitation to Felicity Clearwater’s dance fell from her shawl. She stared at it a moment. A lifetime ago she’d meant to remind Edward about the soiree. It seemed inconsequential now. But Mother Wren had said it was important that Edward participate in local social events. Anna straightened her shoulders. Just this one thing, then she could go home.
“Mrs. Clearwater’s soiree is tomorrow night.” Her voice creaked.
“I don’t intend to accept Mrs. Clearwater’s invitation.”
Anna refused to look at him, but Edward’s voice didn’t sound much better than her own.
“You’re the most important aristocrat in the area, my lord,” she said. “It would be gracious to attend.”
“It is the best way to hear the latest village gossip.”
“Mrs. Clearwater always serves her special punch. Everyone agrees it is the best in the county,” she lied.