“Yes, indeed,” Hopple said. “Except for the four days when you first left for London, of course.”
Jock flushed a rabbit and gave chase.
Edward stopped and turned to the steward. “What?”
“Mrs. Wren didn’t come to work whilst you were in London.” Hopple swallowed. “Except for the day before you came back, that is. She worked that day.”
“I see,” Edward said. But he didn’t see.
“It was only for four days, my lord.” Hopple hastened to smooth things over. “And she was all caught up on the paperwork, so she told me. It wasn’t as if she let her work lie.”
Edward stared thoughtfully at the mud beneath his feet. He remembered the vicar’s mention of a “trip” the night before. “Where did she go?”
“Go, my lord?” Hopple looked to be stalling. “I, er, don’t know if she went anywhere at all. She didn’t say.”
“The vicar said she had made a trip. He intimated that she’d gone to do some shopping.”
“Maybe he was mistaken,” Hopple said. “Why, if a lady couldn’t find what she wanted in the shops in Little Battleford, she’d have to go to London to discover better. Surely Mrs. Wren didn’t go that far.”
Edward grunted. He went back to staring at the ground at his feet. Only now he knit his brows. Where had Anna gone? And why?
ANNA BRACED HER feet and hauled on the old garden door with all her might. Edward had given her the day to herself, but she couldn’t stay that long asleep. Instead, after spending the morning resting, she thought she’d use the free time this afternoon to plant the roses. The door remained stubbornly shut for a moment, then it gave suddenly and flew open, almost throwing her on her rear. She dusted her hands and picked up her basket of gardening tools before slipping into the neglected garden. Edward had brought her here just over a week ago. In that little time, there’d been a great change within the old walls. Green shoots were poking up in the beds and between the cracks in the walkway. Some were obviously weeds, but others had a more refined air. Anna even recognized a few: the reddish tips of tulips, the unfurling rosettes of columbine leaves, and the dew-spangled palms of lady’s mantle.
Each was a treasure she discovered with delight. The garden wasn’t dead. It only lay dormant.
She set down her basket and went back out the garden door to bring in the remaining rosebushes Edward had given her. She’d already planted three in her own little garden. The rosebushes lay outside, still wet from the buckets of water. Each had begun to sprout tiny green buds. She looked down at them. They had brought her such hope when Edward had given them to her. Even though that hope was dead, it didn’t seem fair to let the roses languish. She would plant them today, and if Edward never visited the garden again, well, she’d know they were here.
Anna dragged the first batch into the garden and let them flop down in the muddy path. She straightened and glanced around in search of a likely spot to plant them. The garden had a pattern once upon a time, but now it was almost impossible to discern what it had been. She shrugged and decided to divide the plants evenly between the four main flower beds. She picked up her shovel and began hacking through the tangled growth in the first bed.
ANNA WAS IN the garden when Edward found her that afternoon. He was irritable. He’d been searching for her some fifteen minutes, ever since Hopple had informed him that she was at the Abbey. Really, he shouldn’t have sought her out at all; he’d made just that resolution this morning. But something inside him seemed constitutionally incapable of keeping away from his secretary when he knew her to be nearby. So he was frowning at his own lack of fortitude when he spotted her. Even then he paused by the garden door to admire the picture she made. She had dropped to her knees in the dirt to plant a rose. Her head was uncovered, and her hair was coming down from the knot at the nape of her neck. In the bright afternoon sunlight, the brown locks gleamed gold and auburn.
Edward felt a tightening in his chest. He rather thought it might be fear. He scowled and paced down the path. Fear was not an emotion that a strong man such as himself should feel when confronting a meek little widow, he was sure.
Anna caught sight of him. “My lord.” She brushed the hair from her brow, leaving a smear of dirt behind. “I thought I would plant your roses before they died.”
“So I see.”
She gave him an odd look but evidently decided to make nothing of his strange mood. “I’ll plant some in each bed since the garden is laid out in such symmetrical lines. Later, if you wish, we could surround them with lavender. Mrs. Fairchild has some lovely lavender plants by her back walk, and I know she would be pleased to let me take some cuttings for your gardens.”
Anna stopped her monologue to brush away her hair again, further smearing the dirt on her forehead. “Bother. I forgot to bring the watering can.”
She frowned and started to climb to her feet, but he forestalled her. “Stay there. I can fetch the water for you.”
Edward ignored her aborted protest and strode back up the path. He reached the garden door, but something made him hesitate. Forever after, he would ponder what impulse made him pause. He turned and looked back at her, still kneeling by the rosebush. She was packing the earth around it. While he watched, Anna raised her hand and with her little finger hooked back a lock of hair behind her ear.
All sound stopped for a terrible, timeless minute, as his world shuddered and toppled around him. Three voices whispered, murmured, babbled in his ear and then coalesced into coherent language:
Hopple by the ditch: I thought when that dog went missing for several days, we were well rid of it.
Vicar Jones at Mrs. Clearwater’s soiree: I wondered if she’d bought a new dress on her trip.
And Hopple again just today: Mrs. Wren didn’t come to work whilst you were in London.
A scarlet haze obscured his vision.
When it cleared, he was almost upon Anna and knew that he had started for her even before the voices had become understandable. She was still bent beside the rosebush, unaware of the approaching storm until he stood over her and she glanced up.
He must have worn the knowledge of her deceit on his face because Anna’s smile died before it had fully formed.
Cautiously, Aurea lit the candle and turned to hold it high over her lover’s form. Her breath caught, her eyes widened, and she gave a start. A very small start, but enough of one to send a drop of hot wax spilling over the lip of the candle and onto the shoulder of the man who lay beside her. For it was a man—not monster or beast—but a man with smooth, white skin; long, strong limbs; and black, black hair. He opened his eyes, and Aurea saw that they, too, were black. A piercing, intelligent black that, somehow, was familiar. On his chest glinted a pendant.
It was in the shape of a small, perfect crown inlaid with glowing rubies….
—from The Raven Prince
Anna was debating whether or not she’d set the rosebush at the right depth in the hole when a shadow fell across her. She glanced up. Edward stood over her. Her first thought was that he had returned too soon to have brought the watering can.
And then she saw his expression.
His lips were drawn back in a rictus of rage, and his eyes burned like black holes in his face. In that moment, she felt an awful premonition that he’d somehow found out. In the seconds before he spoke, she tried to rally, to reassure herself that there was no possible way he could have discovered her secret.
His words killed all hope.
“You.” She didn’t recognize his voice, it was so low and terrible. “You were there at the whorehouse.”
She’d never been good at lying. “What?”
He squeezed his eyes shut as if at a bright light. “You were there. You waited for me like a female spider, and I fell neatly into your web.”
Dear Lord, this was even worse than she had imagined. He thought she’d done it for some kind of sick revenge or joke. “I didn’t—”
His eyes snapped open, and she threw up a hand to ward off the hell she saw in them. “You didn’t what? Didn’t travel to London, didn’t go to Aphrodite’s Grotto?”
Her eyes widened, and she started to rise, but he was already on her. He grasped her by the shoulders and lifted her easily, effortlessly, as if she weighed no more than thistledown. He was so strong! Why had she never before realized how much stronger the male was in relation to the female? She felt like a butterfly seized by a great black bird. He swung her body against the nearby brick wall and pinned her there. He lowered his face to hers until their noses nearly touched, and he could surely see his own reflection in her wide, frightened eyes.
“You waited there, wearing nothing but a bit of lace.” His words washed over her face in a hot, intimate breath. “And when I came, you flaunted yourself, offered yourself, and I fucked you until I couldn’t see straight.”
Anna felt each puff of his exhalation against her own lips. She flinched at the obscenity. She wanted to deny it, to say that it did not describe the sublime sweetness they’d discovered together in London, but the words caught in her throat.
“I was actually worried that contact with the prostitute you sheltered would ruin your good name. What a fool you made me. How could you hold back your laughter when I begged your pardon for kissing you?” His hands flexed on her shoulders. “All this time I’ve been restraining myself because I thought you were a respectable lady. All this time when you only wanted this.”
He swooped in then and devoured her mouth with his own, ravishing her softness, making no allowances for her smaller size, for her femininity. His lips crushed hers against her teeth. She moaned, whether in pain or desire, she could not tell. He thrust his tongue into the cavern of her mouth without preamble or warning, as if he had every right.
“You should have told me that this was what you wanted.” He raised his head to gasp. “I would’ve obliged you.”
She seemed incapable of coherent thought, let alone speech.
“You had only to say the word and I could have taken you on my desk in the library, in the carriage with John Coachman up front, or even here in the garden.”
She tried to form words through the fog of her confusion. “No, I—”
“God knows I’ve been hard for days—weeks—around you,” he ground out. “I could’ve tumbled you at any time. Or can’t you admit that you want to bed a man whose face looks like mine?”
She tried to shake her head, but it fell helplessly as he bent her back over his arm. His other hand dropped to her hips and jerked them into his own. The unyielding hardness of his erection pressed against her soft belly.
“This is what you crave. What you traveled all the way to London for,” he whispered against her mouth.
She moaned in denial even as her hips arched into his.
He stilled her movement with an iron grip and tore his mouth away from hers. But almost as if he couldn’t leave the lure of her skin, he returned. His mouth trailed across her face to catch an earlobe between his teeth.
“Why?” His question sighed into her ear. “Why, why, why? Why did you lie to me?”
She tried again to shake her head.
He punished her with a sharp nip. “Was it a jest? Did you find it amusing to lay with me one night and then play the virtuous widow the next? Or was it a perverse need? Some women find the thought of bedding a pox-scarred man stimulating.”
She jerked her head violently then, despite the pain when his teeth scraped across her ear. She couldn’t—could not—let him think that. “Please, you must know—”
He turned his head. She tried to face him, and he did the most terrifying thing yet.
He let her go.
“Edward! Edward! For God’s sake, please listen to me!” Strange that this was the first time she had called him by his Christian name.