He strode down the garden path. She ran after him, her eyes blinded by tears, and tripped over a loose brick.
He stopped at the sound of her fall, his back still to her. “Such tears, Anna. Can you produce them at will like the crocodile?” And then, so softly she might have imagined it, “Were there other men?”
He walked away.
She watched as he disappeared through the gate. Her chest felt tight. She thought vaguely that perhaps she’d hurt herself in the fall. But then she heard a guttural, rasping sound, and a cold little part of her brain took note of what a strange noise her crying made.
How swift, how harsh was the punishment dealt for stepping outside her staid widow’s life. All the lessons and warnings, spoken and unspoken, that she’d been taught growing up had, in fact, come true. Although, she supposed her punishment wasn’t that envisioned by the moralizers of Little Battleford. No, her fate was far worse than exposure and censure. Her punishment was Edward’s hatred. That and the knowledge that she had never gone to London merely for the sex. All along it had been to be with him, Edward. It was the man she’d craved, not the physical act. It seemed she had been lying to herself just as much as she’d lied to him. How ironic to have finally tumbled to that realization now when all was ashes around her.
Anna didn’t know how long she lay there, her old brown dress growing damp from the overturned dirt. When her sobs finally died away, the afternoon sky had become overcast. She pushed herself up with both arms to a kneeling position and from there lurched to her feet. She wavered, but caught herself, one hand holding the garden wall for support. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Then she picked up the shovel.
Soon she would have to go home and tell Mother Wren that she no longer had a job. She would face a lonely bed tonight and a thousand nights after for the rest of her life.
But for now, she’d simply plant roses.
FELICITY PLACED A cloth dampened with violet water on her forehead. She’d retired to the little morning room, a place that usually brought her quite a bit of satisfaction, especially when she thought about how much it had cost to refurbish. The price of the canary-colored damask settee alone would have fed and clothed the Wren household for five years. But at the moment, her head was simply killing her.
Matters were not going well.
Reginald was moping about, moaning that his prize mare had miscarried. Chilly had gone back to London in a sulk because she wouldn’t tell him about Anna and the earl. And that same earl had been annoyingly obtuse at the soiree. Granted, most men in her experience were slow to one degree or another, but she wouldn’t have guessed Lord Swartingham was so thickheaded. The man had seemed not to know what she hinted at. How was she going to convince him to keep Anna quiet if he was too dim to realize he was being blackmailed?
Not blackmail. That sounded too gauche. Incentive. That was better. Lord Swartingham had an incentive to stop Anna from blathering Felicity’s past peccadilloes all over the village.
The door banged open at that moment, and the younger of her two daughters, Cynthia, skipped in. She was followed by her sister, Christine, at a more sedate pace.
“M’man,” Christine said. “Nanny says we must get your permission to go to the sweet shop in town. May we?”
“Pepp-er-mint sticks!” Cynthia skipped around the settee Felicity lay on. “Le-mon drops! Turk-ish delight!” Oddly, her youngest resembled Reginald in many ways.
“Please stop that, Cynthia,” Felicity said. “M’man has a headache.”
“I’m so sorry, M’man,” Christine replied, not sounding sorry at all. “We’ll leave as soon as we get your permission.” She smiled coyly.
“M’man’s permission! M’man’s permission!” Cynthia chanted.
“Yes!” Felicity said. “Yes, you have my permission.”
“Huzzah! Huzzah!” Cynthia ran from the room, her red hair streaming behind her.
The sight made her frown. Cynthia’s red hair was the bane of Felicity’s life.
“Thank you, M’man.” Christine closed the door primly.
Felicity groaned and rang for more toilet water. If only she hadn’t written that incriminating note in a fit of sentimentality. And what had Peter been thinking to save that locket? Men truly were idiots.
She pressed her fingertips over the cloth on her forehead. Perhaps Lord Swartingham really hadn’t known what she was talking about. He’d seemed confused when she had said they both knew the identity of the lady he’d met at Aphrodite’s Grotto. And if, in fact, he did not know her…
Felicity sat up, the cloth falling unheeded to the floor. If he did not know the woman’s identity, then she’d been trying to blackmail the wrong person.
ANNA KNELT IN her little garden in back of the cottage the next morning. She hadn’t the heart to tell Mother Wren she’d lost her employment. It had been late when she’d arrived home the night before, and this morning she hadn’t wanted to talk about it. Not yet, anyway, when the subject would only bring up questions she couldn’t answer. Eventually, she’d have to work up the courage to apologize to Edward. But that could wait, too, while she licked her wounds. Which was why she worked in the garden today. The mundane tasks of caring for vegetables and the smell of the freshly dug earth provided a kind of solace to her soul.
She was digging up horseradish roots to replant when she heard a shout from the front of the cottage. She frowned and lay down the shovel. Surely nothing was wrong with Rebecca’s baby? She lifted her skirts to trot around the cottage. The sound of a carriage and horses receded. A clearly feminine voice shouted again as she rounded the corner.
Pearl stood on the front step, holding another woman against her. At her approach, they both turned and Anna gasped. The other woman had two black eyes, and her nose looked as if it might be broken. It took Anna a couple of seconds to recognize her.
It was Coral.
“Oh, Lord!” Anna gasped.
The front door opened.
Anna rushed to take Coral’s other arm. “Fanny, hold the door for us, please.”
Fanny, wide-eyed, obeyed as they awkwardly maneuvered Coral in.
“Told Pearl,” Coral whispered, “not to come here.” Her lips were so swollen, the words were indistinct.
“Thank goodness she didn’t listen to you,” Anna said.
She judged the narrow stairs to the upper floor. They’d never make it up the steps with Coral leaning so heavily on them. “Let’s bring her into the sitting room.”
They gently lowered Coral to the settee. Anna sent Fanny up the stairs for a blanket. Coral’s eyes had closed, and Anna wondered if she’d fainted. The other woman was breathing sonorously through her mouth, her nose too misshapen and swollen to let in air.
Anna pulled Pearl to the side. “What happened to her?”
The other woman darted an anxious glance at Coral. “It was that marquis. He came home last night falling-down drunk; only, he wasn’t so drunk he couldn’t do that to her.”
“He didn’t have a reason as I could see.” Pearl’s lips trembled. At Anna’s shocked stare, she grimaced. “Oh, he mumbled something ’bout her seeing other men, but that was a crock. Coral thinks of bed sport as business. She wouldn’t be doing it with someone else while she had a protector. He just enjoyed putting his fists into her face.”
Pearl wiped away an angry tear. “If I hadn’t gotten her out when he went to piss, he probably would’ve killed her.”
Anna put an arm around her shoulder. “We must thank the Lord that you were able to save her.”
“I didn’t know where else to bring her, ma’am,” Pearl said. “I’m sorry to bother you after how kind you were before. If we can stay a night or two, just until Coral can get back on her feet.”
“You’re welcome to stay however long it takes for Coral to become well again. But I fear it’ll be more than a night or two.” Anna looked worriedly over at her battered guest. “I must send Fanny for Dr. Billings right away.”
“Oh, no.” Pearl’s voice rose in panic. “Don’t do that!”
“But she needs to be seen to.”
“It’d be better if no one knows we’re here ’sides Fanny and the other Mrs. Wren,” Pearl said. “He might try looking for her.”
Anna slowly nodded. Coral was obviously still in danger. “But what about her wounds?”
“I can take care of them. There aren’t any broken bones. I already checked, and I can straighten her nose again.”
“You can fix a broken nose?” Anna looked at Pearl strangely.
The other woman tightened her lips. “I’ve done it before. It comes in handy in my trade.”
Anna closed her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to doubt you. What do you need?”
Under Pearl’s direction, Anna quickly gathered water, rags, and bandages, as well as the jar of her mother’s salve. Pearl worked over her sister’s face with her help. The little woman was matter-of-fact, even when Coral moaned and tried to knock away her hands. Anna held down the injured woman’s arms so that Pearl could finish bandaging. She sighed with relief when Pearl indicated they were done. They made sure that Coral was as comfortable as possible before retiring to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of tea.
Pearl sighed as she lifted the hot tea to her lips. “Thank you. Thank you so much, ma’am. You’re so good.”
Anna half laughed, a funny little croak. “It’s I who should thank you, if only you knew. I need to do something good right now.”
EDWARD THREW DOWN his quill and paced to the library windows. He hadn’t written a coherent sentence all day. The room was too quiet, too big for his peace of mind anymore. All he could think of was Anna and what she’d done to him. Why? Why choose him? Was it his title? His wealth?
God! His scars?
What possible reason could a respectable woman have to don a disguise and act the part of a whore? If she’d wanted a lover, couldn’t she have found one in Little Battleford? Or was it that she liked playing the whore?
Edward rubbed his forehead against the cold glass of the window. He remembered everything he had done to Anna in those two nights. Every exquisite place his hand had touched, every inch of skin his mouth had tongued. He remembered doing things he would never have dreamed of performing with a lady, let alone one he knew and liked. She’d seen a side of himself that he’d made pains to hide away from the world, a private, secret side. She’d seen him at his most bestial. What had she felt when he had pressed her head toward his cock? Excitement? Fear?
And there were more thoughts he could not stop. Had she met other men at Aphrodite’s Grotto? Had she shared her beautiful, lush body with men she didn’t even know? Had she let them kiss her wanton mouth, let them paw her breasts, let them rut on her willing, spread body? Edward pounded the window frame with his fist until the skin cracked and blood splattered. Impossible to wipe the obscene images from his mind of Anna—his Anna—with another man. His vision blurred. Christ. He was crying like a lad.
Jock nudged his leg and whimpered.
She’d brought him to this. He was completely undone. And yet it made no difference because he was a gentleman and she, despite her actions, was a lady. He would have to marry her, and in doing so give up all his dreams, all his hopes, of having a family. She couldn’t have children. His line would die with his last breath. There would be no girls that looked like his mother, no boys that reminded him of Sammy. No one to open his heart to. No one to watch grow. Edward straightened. If that was what life held for him, so be it, but he would make damn sure Anna knew her price.