Unable to think of a reply, he simply glared. She was right. The thought tore at him. Anna was only his secretary, plain and simple. He couldn’t be with her all the time. He couldn’t stop any insults. He couldn’t even protect her from insulting advances. Such guardianship was the prerogative of a husband only.

Anna interrupted his thoughts. “I shouldn’t have danced with you again so soon. It isn’t proper.”

“I don’t give a damn what’s proper,” Edward said. “Besides, you knew it was the only method to get me away from that baboon.”

She smiled up at him, and something inside his chest wrenched. How was he to keep her safe?

Edward was still pondering that question two hours later. He leaned against a wall and watched Anna lead a panting gentleman in a country reel. She clearly needed a husband, but he couldn’t imagine her with a man. Or rather, he couldn’t imagine her with another man. He scowled.

Someone coughed deferentially at his elbow. A tall young man with a bob wig stood next to him. His Geneva collar identified him as Vicar Jones.

The vicar coughed again and smiled nearsightedly at him through his pince-nez. “Lord Swartingham. So good of you to attend our little local entertainment.”

Edward wondered how he managed to sound like a man twice his age. The vicar couldn’t be over thirty. “Vicar. I’m enjoying Mrs. Clearwater’s soiree.” To his surprise, he realized that he spoke the truth.

“Good, good. Mrs. Clearwater’s social events are always so well planned. And her refreshments are just delicious.” The vicar demonstrated by gulping enthusiastically at his punch.

Edward eyed his own punch and made a mental note to check on the vicar’s stipend. Obviously the man was not used to decent food.

“I say, Mrs. Wren is certainly cutting a dashing figure on the dance floor.” The vicar squinted as he watched Anna. “She looks different tonight.”

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Edward followed his gaze. “She isn’t wearing a cap.”

“Is that it?” Vicar Jones sounded vague. “You have sharper eyes than I, my lord. I wondered if she’d bought a new dress on her trip.”

Edward was raising his own cup of punch to his lips when the vicar’s words sunk in. He frowned and lowered the cup. “What trip?”

“Hmm?” Vicar Jones still watched the dancers, his mind obviously not on the conversation.

Edward was about to repeat the question a little more forcefully this time when Mrs. Clearwater interrupted them. “Ah, Lord Swartingham. I see you know the vicar.”

Both men started as if they’d been goosed simultaneously in the arse. Edward turned a strained smile on his hostess. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that the vicar was peering around as if for escape. “Yes, I’ve met Vicar Jones, Mrs. Clearwater.”

“Lord Swartingham has most graciously helped with the new church roof.” Vicar Jones made eye contact with another guest. “I say, is that Mr. Merriweather? I must have a word with him. If you’ll excuse me?” The vicar bowed and hurried away.

Edward eyed the vicar’s retreating form with envy. The man must have attended the Clearwater soirees before.

“How lovely to have a moment alone with you, my lord,” Mrs. Clearwater said. “I did want to discuss your trip to London.”

“Oh?” Maybe if he caught the elder Mrs. Wren’s eye. It wasn’t done to just abandon a lady.

“Yes, indeed.” Mrs. Clearwater leaned closer. “I have heard that you were seen at some most unusual places.”

“Really?”

“In the company of a lady we both know.”

Edward’s attention swung back to Felicity Clearwater. What the devil was the woman talking about?

“Fe-lee-ci-ty!” A male voice, rather the worse for drink, yodeled nearby.

Mrs. Clearwater winced.

Squire Clearwater was making his way unsteadily toward them. “Felicity, m’dear, mustn’t monopolize the earl. He’s not interested in talk of fashions and fr-fr-fripperies.” The squire dug a pointy elbow into Edward’s ribs. “Eh, my lord? Hunting’s the thing. A man’s sport! What? What?”

Mrs. Clearwater made a sound that, in a male, might have been considered a snort.

“Actually, I don’t hunt much,” Edward said.

“Hounds baying, horses galloping, the smell of blood…” The squire was in his own world.

Across the room, Edward saw Anna put on a wrapper. Damn it. Was she leaving without bidding him good-bye?

“Excuse me.”

He bowed to the squire and his wife and pushed through the mass of people. But at this hour, the soiree had become quite crowded. By the time Edward reached the door, Anna and Mrs. Wren were already outside.

“Anna!” Edward shoved past the footmen in the hall and pushed open the door. “Anna!”

She was only a few steps away. At his shout, both she and Mrs. Wren turned.

“You shouldn’t walk home alone, Anna.” Edward glowered, then realized his slip. “Nor you, Mrs. Wren.”

Anna looked confused, but the older woman beamed. “Have you come to escort us home, Lord Swartingham?”

“Yes.”

His carriage was waiting nearby. They could ride, but then the evening would be over in a matter of minutes. Besides, it was a beautiful night. He signaled the carriage to follow behind them as they walked. He offered Anna one arm and Mrs. Wren the other. Although the ladies had left the party early, the hour was late and it was dark. A full moon shone, gloriously large in the black sky, casting long shadows before them.

As they neared a crossroads, Edward heard the sudden clatter of running feet ahead of them, loud in the quiet air. Immediately he set the ladies behind him. A slight form flew around the corner. It veered toward them.

“Meg! Whatever is the matter?” Anna cried.

“Oh, ma’am!” The girl bent double, clutching her side as she tried to catch her breath. “It’s Mrs. Fairchild, ma’am. She’s fallen down the stairs, and I can’t help her up. I think the baby’s coming, too!”

Chapter Fifteen

So Aurea flew back in her magnificent golden carriage, her sisters’ plan churning in her head. The raven greeted his returned wife almost indifferently. Aurea ate a splendid dinner with him, bade the raven good night, and went to her room to wait for her sensuous visitor.

Suddenly he was there beside her, more urgent, more demanding than he had ever been before. His attentions left Aurea sleepy and satiated, but she stuck stubbornly to her plan and kept herself awake even as she heard her lover’s breath settle into the evenness of sleep. Quietly, she sat up and felt for the candle she had earlier left on the table beside the bed….

—from The Raven Prince

“Oh, my Lord!” Anna tried to remember when exactly Rebecca had thought the baby would come. Surely not for another month?

“Dr. Billings is at the soiree,” Edward said with calm authority. “Take my carriage, girl, and fetch him quickly.” He turned and shouted instructions to John Coachman as he waved the carriage forward.

“I’ll go with Meg,” Mother Wren said.

Edward nodded and helped her and the maid into the carriage. “Is there a midwife to find as well?” He directed the question at Anna.

“Rebecca was going to have Mrs. Stucker—”

“The midwife is attending Mrs. Lyle,” her mother-in-law interrupted. “She lives four or five miles out of town. Several ladies were talking about it at the party.”

“Fetch Dr. Billings to Mrs. Fairchild first, and then I’ll send my carriage for Mrs. Stucker,” Edward ordered.

Mother Wren and Meg nodded from inside the carriage.

Edward slammed the door shut and stepped back. “Go, John!”

The coachman shouted to the horses, and the carriage rattled away.

Edward caught Anna’s hand. “Which way is Mrs. Fairchild’s house?”

“It’s just ahead.” Anna snatched up her skirts and ran toward the house with Edward.

The front door to Rebecca’s house stood ajar. All was dark except for a curtain of light that fell from the entrance onto the walkway. Edward pushed open the door and Anna followed. She looked around. They stood in the front hall with the stairs to the upper floor immediately before them. The lower part could be seen in the light from the hall, but the higher steps were in darkness. There was no sign of Rebecca.

“Could she have moved herself?” Anna gasped.

They heard a low moan from the upper stairs. Anna ran up before Edward could move. She heard him curse behind her.

Rebecca lay on a landing midway up the staircase. Anna thanked the fates that she had stopped here, instead of falling down the longer, second flight of stairs. Her friend was on her side, the great mound of her belly more prominent in that position. Her face shone white and greasy with perspiration.

Anna bit her lip. “Rebecca, can you hear me?”

“Anna.” Rebecca held out her hand, and she caught it. “Thank God you are here.” She gasped and her hand tightened painfully.

“What is it?” Anna asked.

“The baby.” Rebecca expelled her breath. “It’s coming.”

“Can you rise?”

“I’m so clumsy. My ankle is hurt.” There were tears in Rebecca’s eyes and traces of others on her face. “The baby is too soon.”

Anna’s own eyes were suddenly flooded with tears. She bit the inside of her cheek as she tried to control them. Tears would not help her friend.

“Let me carry you up to your room, Mrs. Fairchild.” Edward’s deep voice interrupted her thoughts.

Anna glanced up. Edward stood behind her, his face grave. She stepped to the side, letting Rebecca’s hand go. Edward eased his palms under the laboring woman, then squatted and positioned her in his arms before rising in one fluid movement. He was obviously careful not to jostle Rebecca’s ankle, but she whimpered and squeezed her hands in the front of his coat. Edward’s lips tightened. He nodded to Anna, and she went ahead of him up the stairs and down the upper hall. A single candle flickered on a bedside table in Rebecca’s room. Anna hurried to take it and to light several others. Edward turned sideways to enter, and then laid her friend gently on the bed. For the first time, Anna noticed that he was very pale.

She pushed a damp lock of hair off Rebecca’s forehead. “Where is James?”

Anna had to wait for the answer as another pain hit her friend. Rebecca moaned low, and her back arched off the bed. When it was over, she was panting. “He went to Drewsbury for the day on business. He said he would return tomorrow after midday.” Rebecca bit her lip. “He will be so cross with me.”

Edward muttered something sharp behind them and paced to the dark bedroom windows.

“Nonsense,” Anna scolded softly. “None of this is your fault.”

“If only I hadn’t fallen down the stairs,” Rebecca sobbed.

Anna was trying to comfort her when the front door slammed below. The doctor had obviously arrived. Edward excused himself to direct the man up.

Dr. Billings tried to wear an impassive face, but it was evident that he was quite worried. He bandaged Rebecca’s ankle, which had swollen already and turned purple. Anna mostly sat by Rebecca’s head, holding her hand and talking to her in an attempt to calm her. It wasn’t easy. According to the calculations of the midwife and Rebecca, the baby was a month early. As the night progressed Rebecca’s agony grew worse, and she became despondent. She was convinced she’d lose the baby. Nothing Anna said seemed to help, but she stayed by the other woman, holding her hand and stroking her hair.

A little over three hours after the doctor had arrived, Mrs. Stucker, the midwife, blew into the room. A short, rotund woman with red cheeks and black hair, now liberally sprinkled with gray, she was a welcome sight.