“Please, please go.” She still didn’t look at him, but she could feel his gaze on her face, as palpable as a hand.
“As you wish.”
“Good.” Anna jammed her hat on her head and then remembered something. She opened her center desk drawer and took out The Raven Prince. She carried it over to Edward’s desk, laying it softly on top. “This is yours.”
She turned and left the room before he could reply.
THE HALL WAS stiflingly hot, the decorations from two years ago, and the music off-key. It was Felicity Clearwater’s annual spring soiree. Every year, the citizens of Little Battleford who were lucky enough to receive an invitation put on their very best clothes and drank watery punch at the Clearwater home. Felicity Clearwater stood by the door to welcome her guests. She wore a new gown, an indigo-blue muslin this year with cascading flounce down the sleeves. The underskirt sported a pattern of flying crimson birds on a light blue field, and there were crimson bows in a V outlining her bodice. Squire Clearwater, a portly gentleman in orange-clocked stockings and the full-bottomed wig of his youth, fidgeted beside her, but it was clearly understood that the event belonged to Felicity.
Anna had made it through the receiving line with only a frosty greeting from Felicity and a rather abstracted one from the squire. Relieved to have gotten that ordeal out of the way, she hovered at the side of the room. She’d unwarily accepted a glass of punch from the vicar and now had no choice but to sip it.
Mother Wren stood beside Anna and cast anxious glances at her. Anna hadn’t told her what had occurred in the stables between Edward and herself. Nor did she intend to. But her mother-in-law still sensed something was wrong. Evidently, Anna wasn’t very good at pretending cheer.
She took another grim sip of the punch. She wore her best gown. She and Fanny had spent some time over it, trying to make the alterations as neat as possible. The dress was a light apple green, and they had freshened it with the addition of white lace at the neckline. The lace also hid the modification of the neckline from a curve to the more fashionable square. Fanny, in a fit of artistic invention, had devised a rosette for Anna’s hair from some of the lace and a bit of green ribbon. Anna hardly felt festive, but it would have hurt Fanny’s feelings not to wear the rosette.
“The punch isn’t bad,” Mother Wren whispered.
Anna hadn’t noticed. She took another sip and was pleasantly surprised. “Yes. Better than rumored.”
Mother Wren fidgeted for a moment before coming up with another conversational foray. “It’s too bad Rebecca couldn’t attend.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“You know she can’t be seen at social occasions, dear, so close to her confinement. In my day, we didn’t dare set foot out of the house once we began to show.”
Anna wrinkled her nose. “It’s so silly. Everyone knows she’s increasing. It isn’t as if it’s a secret.”
“It’s the propriety that matters, not what everyone knows. Besides, Rebecca is so far along, I don’t think she would like to stand for hours. There are never enough seats at these dances.” Mother Wren looked around the room. “Do you think your earl will come?”
“He’s not my earl, as you well know,” Anna said somewhat bitterly.
Mother Wren glanced at her sharply.
Anna tried to modulate her tone. “I told him that I thought it a good idea for him to attend the soiree.”
“I hope he comes before the dancing commences. I do like to see a fine, manly figure on the dance floor.”
“He mayn’t come at all, and then you’ll have to be content with Mr. Merriweather’s form on the dance floor.” Anna gestured with her cup to that gentleman, standing across the room.
Both women looked at Mr. Merriweather, a skeletal gentleman with knock-knees, who was talking to a substantial matron in a peach-colored frock. As they watched, Mr. Merriweather leaned closer to make a point and absentmindedly tilted his punch cup. A thin stream of liquid trickled down the décolletage of the lady’s dress.
Mother Wren shook her head sadly.
“Do you know,” Anna said thoughtfully, “I’m not sure Mr. Merriweather has ever made it through a reel without losing his place.”
Mother Wren sighed. Then she glanced over Anna’s shoulder at the door and visibly brightened. “I don’t think I’ll have to make do with Mr. Merriweather after all. There’s your earl at the door.”
Anna turned to view the entrance to the dance room and raised her cup to her lips. For a moment, she forgot it there as she caught sight of Edward. He wore black knee breeches with a sapphire coat and waistcoat. His black hair, brushed in an uncharacteristically neat queue, gleamed like a bird’s wing in the candlelight. He stood nearly a head taller than any other man in the room. Felicity was plainly delighted with her luck at being the first to entice the elusive earl into a social setting. She had a firm hand on his elbow and was introducing Edward to anyone within speaking distance.
Anna smiled wryly. Edward’s shoulders were bunched, and his expression was grim. Even across the room, she could tell that he was holding on to his temper by a thread. He looked to be in danger of making the faux pas of walking away from his hostess. He glanced up at that moment and caught her eye.
She sucked in her breath at the contact. Impossible to read his expression.
He turned back to Felicity and said something, then began to make his way through the crowd toward Anna. She felt liquid coolness on her wrist and glanced down. Her hand was trembling so hard she was sloshing the remains of the punch on her arm. Anna clasped her other hand around the cup to steady it. For an instant, she came close to bolting, but Mother Wren was right beside her. And she’d have to face him again sometime.
Felicity must have signaled the musicians. The violins let out a shriek.
“Ah, Mrs. Wren. A pleasure to meet you again.” Edward bowed over Mother Wren’s hand. He didn’t smile.
Her mother-in-law didn’t seem to care. “Oh, my lord, I’m so glad you could attend. Anna has been dying to dance.” Mother Wren lifted her eyebrows meaningfully.
Anna wished she had bolted when she’d had the chance.
The broad hint hung there in the air between them for an uncomfortably long time before Edward spoke. “If you would do me the pleasure?”
He didn’t even look at her. For goodness sake, he had been the one to kiss her!
Anna pursed her lips. “I didn’t know you danced, my lord.”
Edward’s gaze snapped around to her. “Of course I can dance. I am an earl after all.”
“As if I’d forget that,” she muttered.
Edward narrowed his obsidian eyes.
Ha! She certainly had his attention now.
He held out a gloved hand, and she demurely placed her own in it. Even with two layers of fabric between their palms, she could feel his body heat. For a moment, she remembered what it was like to run her fingertips down his nude back. Hot. Sweaty. Achingly good. She swallowed.
With only a nod to Mother Wren, he towed her out onto the dance floor where he proved he could indeed dance, albeit rather heavily.
“You do know the steps,” Anna said as they met to promenade down the center of the dancers.
She saw him scowl out of the corner of her eye. “I wasn’t born under a rock. I know how to behave in polite society.”
The music ended before Anna could form an appropriate reply. She curtsied and started to tug her hand from Edward’s grasp.
He pulled her hand firmly to him and tucked it in the crook of his elbow. “Don’t you dare think of deserting me, Mrs. Wren. It’s your fault I’m at this bloody soiree to begin with.”
Must he keep touching her? She looked around for a distraction. “Perhaps you would care for some punch?”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Would I?”
“Well, maybe not,” she admitted. “But it’s the only thing to drink at the present, and the refreshment table is in the opposite direction from Mrs. Clearwater.”
“Then let us try the punch by all means.”
He walked toward the punch table, and she found that people stepped aside naturally for him. In no time at all, Anna was sipping her second glass of weak punch.
Edward had pivoted slightly to the side to answer a question from the vicar when she heard a sly voice at her elbow. “I’m surprised to see you here, Mrs. Wren. I’d heard you had taken up a new profession.”
EDWARD TURNED SLOWLY to face the speaker, a florid man in an ill-fitting wig. He didn’t look familiar. Beside him, Anna had stiffened, her face frozen.
“Have you learned any new skills from your recent guests?” The man’s entire attention was fixed on Anna.
She opened her mouth, but for once Edward beat her to it. “I don’t believe I heard you correctly.”
The swine seemed to notice him for the first time. His eyes widened. Good.
The silence in their immediate vicinity began to spread outward through the room as the guests became aware that something interesting was happening.
The fellow was braver than he looked. “I said—”
“Be very, very careful what you say next.” Edward could feel the muscles in his shoulders flexing.
The other man finally appeared to comprehend the danger he was in. His eyes widened, and he visibly swallowed.
Edward nodded once. “Good. Perhaps you’d care to apologize to Mrs. Wren for what you did not say.”
“I—” The man had to stop and clear his throat. “I am most sorry if anything I said offended you, Mrs. Wren.”
Anna nodded stiffly, but the man was correctly looking toward Edward to see if he had redeemed himself.
He had not.
The man swallowed again. A bead of sweat slid greasily along the edge of his wig. “I don’t know what came over me. I am most abjectly sorry to have caused you any pain whatsoever, Mrs. Wren.” He pulled at his neckcloth and leaned forward to add, “I really am an ass, you know.”
“Yes, you are,” Edward said gently.
The man’s complexion turned a sickly hue.
“Well!” Anna said. “I think it is about time for the next dance. Isn’t that the music beginning?”
She spoke loudly in the general direction of the musicians, and they immediately took her up on the suggestion. She snatched Edward’s hand and began marching toward the dance floor. She had quite a strong grip for such a little thing. Edward shot one last, narrow-eyed glare at the swine, and then docilely permitted himself to be led away.
“Who is he?”
Anna looked up at him as they formed the set. “He didn’t really hurt me, you know.”
The dance began and he was forced to wait until the figures drew them together again. “Who is he, Anna?”
She looked exasperated. “John Wiltonson. He was a friend of my husband’s.”
“He made a proposition to me after Peter’s death.”
“He wanted to marry you?” His brows drew together.
“An indecent proposition.” Anna’s eyes were averted. “He was—is—already married.”
He stopped dead, causing the couple next in line to bump into them. “He assaulted you?”
“No.” She pulled on his arm, but he remained steadfast. She hissed in his ear, “He wanted me to become his mistress. I refused.” The dancers behind them were beginning to pile up. “My lord!”
Edward allowed himself to be pulled into the dance again, although they were no longer in time to the music. “I never want to hear someone speak so of you again.”
“A fine sentiment, I’m sure,” she replied tartly. “But you can hardly spend the rest of your life following me about intimidating the impertinent.”