He wiped his face and jerked the bellpull savagely.

Chapter Seventeen

The man in her bed stared at Aurea and then spoke softly. Sorrowfully. “So, my wife, you could not let well enough alone. I will quench your curiosity, then. I am Prince Niger, the lord of these lands and this palace. I have been cursed to assume the form of that foul raven by day and all my minions to become birds as well. My tormentor made one caveat to the spell: If I could find a lady to agree of her own will to marry me in my raven form, then I could live as a man from midnight to dawn’s first glow. You were that lady. But now our time together is at an end. I will spend the remainder of my days in that hated feathered form, and all that follow me are also so doomed….”

—from The Raven Prince

The next morning, Felix Hopple shifted from one foot to the other, sighed, and knocked at the cottage door again. He twitched his freshly powdered wig straight and ran a hand over his neckcloth. He’d never been on an errand quite like this one before. In fact, he wasn’t sure his job really entailed it. Of course, it was impossible to say that to Lord Swartingham. Especially when he stared at him with smoldering, black, devilish eyes.

He sighed again. His employer’s temper had been even worse than usual this past week. Very few knickknacks remained intact in the library, and even the dog had taken to hiding when the earl stalked through the Abbey.

A pretty woman opened the door.

Felix blinked and stepped back a pace. Was he at the right house?

“Yes?” The woman smoothed her skirt and smiled tentatively at him.

“Er, I-I was looking for Mrs. Wren,” Felix stuttered. “The younger Mrs. Wren. Have I the right address?”

“Oh, yes, this is the right address,” she said. “I mean, this is the Wren cottage. I’m just staying here.”

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“Ah, I see, Miss…?”

“Smythe. Pearl Smythe.” The woman blushed for some reason. “Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you, Miss Smythe.” Felix stepped into the tiny entryway and stood awkwardly.

Miss Smythe was staring, seemingly entranced by his middle. “Coo!” she blurted. “That’s the loveliest waistcoat ever.”

“Why, er, why thank you, Miss Smythe.” He fingered the buttons on his leaf-green waistcoat.

“Are those bumblebees?” Miss Smythe bent down to peer closer at the purple embroidery, giving him a quite inappropriate view down the front of her dress.

No true gentleman would take advantage of a lady’s accidental exposure. Felix looked at the ceiling, at the top of her head, and finally down her dress. He blinked rapidly.

“Isn’t that clever?” she said, straightening again. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so pretty on a gentleman before.”

“What?” he wheezed. “Er, yes. Quite. Thank you again, Miss Smythe. One rarely encounters a person of such fine sentiment about fashion.”

Miss Smythe appeared a little confused, but she smiled at him.

He couldn’t help but notice how lovely she was. All over.

“You said you came for Mrs. Wren. Why don’t you wait in there”—she waved toward a small sitting room—“and I’ll go fetch Mrs. Wren from the garden.”

Felix stepped into the small room. He heard the pretty woman’s retreating footsteps and the close of the back door. He paced to the mantel and looked at a little china clock. He frowned and took out his pocket watch. The mantel clock was fast.

The back door opened again, and Mrs. Wren came in. “Mr. Hopple, how can I help you?”

She was intent on rubbing the garden loam from her hands and didn’t meet his eyes.

“I’ve come on an, er, errand from the earl.”

“Indeed?” Mrs. Wren still did not look up.

“Yes.” He was at a loss as to how to continue. “Won’t you have a seat?”

Mrs. Wren glanced at him in puzzlement and took her seat.

Felix cleared his throat. “There comes a time in every man’s life when the winds of adventure blow out, and he feels a need for rest and comfort. A need to toss aside the careless ways of youth—or at least early adulthood in this case—and settle down to domestic tranquility.” He paused to see if his words had registered.

“Yes, Mr. Hopple?” She appeared more confused than before.

He mentally girded his loins and labored on. “Yes, Mrs. Wren. Every man, even an earl”—here he paused significantly to emphasize the title—“even an earl needs a place of repose and calm. A sanctuary tended by the gentle hand of the feminine sex. A hand guided and led by the stronger masculine hand of a, er, guardian so that both may weather the storms and travails that life brings us.”

Mrs. Wren stared at him in a dazed way.

Felix began to feel desperate. “Every man, every earl, needs a place of hymeneal comfort.”

Her brow puckered. “Hymeneal?”

“Yes.” He mopped his brow. “Hymeneal. Of or pertaining to marriage.”

She blinked. “Mr. Hopple, why did the earl send you?”

Felix blew out his breath in a gust. “Oh, hang it all, Mrs. Wren! He wants to marry you.”

She went completely white. “What?”

Felix groaned. He knew he would make a hash of this. Really, Lord Swartingham was asking too much of him. He was only a land steward, for pity’s sake, not cupid with his golden bow and arrows! There was no other choice now but to muddle on.

“Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham, asks for your hand in marriage. He would like a short engagement and is considering—”

“No.”

“The first of June. Wh-what did you say?”

“I said no.” Mrs. Wren spoke in a staccato. “Tell him that I am sorry. Very sorry. But there is no possible way that I can marry him.”

“But-but-but…” Felix took a deep breath to quell his stutter. “But he is an earl. I know his temper is quite foul, really, and he does spend a good deal of time in mud. Which”—he shuddered—“he actually seems to like. But his title and his considerable—one might even say obscene—wealth make up for that, don’t you think?”

Felix ran out of breath and had to stop.

“No, I don’t.” She moved toward the door. “Just tell him no.”

“But, Mrs. Wren! How will I face him?”

She closed the door gently behind her, and his despairing cry echoed in the empty room. Felix slumped into a chair and wished for an entire bottle of Madeira. Lord Swartingham was not going to like this.

ANNA PLUNGED A trowel into the soft earth and viciously dug up a dandelion. What could Edward have been thinking when he sent Mr. Hopple to propose to her this morning? Obviously he hadn’t been overcome by love. She snorted and attacked another dandelion.

The back door to the cottage scraped open. She turned and frowned. Coral was dragging a kitchen stool into the garden.

“What are you doing outside?” Anna demanded. “Pearl and I had to half carry you up the stairs to my room this morning.”

Coral sat on the stool. “Country air is supposed to heal, is it not?”

The swelling on her face had gone down somewhat, but the bruising was still evident. Pearl had packed her nostrils with lint in an attempt to heal the break. Now they flared grotesquely. Coral’s left eyelid drooped lower than the right, and Anna wondered if it would rise again with time or if the disfigurement was permanent. A small, crescent-shaped scar was scabbed over under the drooping eye.

“I expect I should thank you.” Coral tilted her head back against the cottage wall and closed her eyes, as if enjoying the sunlight on her damaged face.

“It is the usual thing to do,” Anna said.

“Not for me. I do not like being in other people’s debt.”

“Then don’t think of it as a debt,” Anna grunted as she uprooted a weed. “Consider it a gift.”

“A gift,” Coral mused. “In my experience, gifts usually have to be paid for in one way or another. But perhaps with you that truly is not so. Thank you.”

She sighed and shifted position. Although she had sustained no broken bones, there’d been bruises all over her body. She must still be in a great deal of pain.

“I value the regard of women more than men,” Coral continued. “It is so much rarer, especially in my profession. It was a woman who did this to me.”

“What?” Anna was horrified. “I thought the marquis…?”

The other woman made a dismissive sound. “He was but her instrument. Mrs. Lavender told him I was entertaining other men.”

“But why?”

“She wanted my position as the marquis’ mistress. And we have some history between us.” Coral waved a hand. “But that does not matter. I will deal with her when I am well. Why are you not working at the Abbey today? That is where you usually spend your days, is it not?”

Anna frowned. “I’ve decided not to go there anymore.”

“You have had a falling out with your man?” Coral asked.

“How—?”

“That is who you saw in London, is it not? Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham?”

“Yes, that’s who I met,” she sighed. “But he’s not my man.”

“It has been my observation that women of your ilk—principled women—do not bed a man unless their heart is involved.” Coral’s mouth quirked sardonically. “They place a great deal of sentimentality on the act.”

Anna took an unnecessarily long time to find the next root with the tip of her trowel. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I did place a great deal of sentimentality on the-the act. But that is neither here nor there now.” She bore down on the trowel handle, and the dandelion popped out of the soil. “We argued.”

Coral regarded her with narrowed eyes for a moment and then shrugged and closed her eyelids again. “He found out it was you—”

Anna looked up, startled. “How did you—?”

“And now I suppose you will meekly accept his disapproval,” Coral continued without pause. “You will hide your shame behind a façade of respectable widowhood. Perhaps you could knit stockings for the poor of the village. Your good works will surely comfort you when he marries in a few years and beds another woman.”

“He’s asked me to marry him.”

Coral opened her eyes. “Now that is interesting.” She looked at the growing pile of wilted dandelions. “But you refused him.”

Whack!

Anna started hacking at the dandelion pile. “He thinks me a wanton.”

Whack!

“I’m barren and he needs children.”

Whack!

“And he doesn’t want me.”

Whack! Whack! Whack!

Anna stopped and stared at the heap of broken, oozing weeds.

“Doesn’t he?” Coral murmured. “And what about you? Do you, ah, want him?”

Anna felt heat flooding her cheeks. “I’ve been without a man for many years now. I can be alone again.”

A smile flickered across Coral’s face. “Have you ever noticed that once you have had a taste of certain sweets—raspberry trifle is my own despair—it is quite impossible not to think, not to want, not to crave until you have taken another bite?”

“Lord Swartingham is not a raspberry trifle.”

“No, more of a dark chocolate mousse, I should think,” Coral murmured.

“And,” Anna continued as if she hadn’t heard the interruption, “I don’t need another bite, uh, night of him.”

A vision of that second night rose up before her eyes: Edward bare-chested, his trousers undone, lounging in that chair before the fire like a Turkish pasha. His skin, his penis, had gleamed in the firelight.