Anna swallowed. Her mouth was watering. “I can live without Lord Swartingham,” she declared very firmly.
Coral raised an eyebrow.
“I can! Besides, you weren’t there.” Anna suddenly felt as wilted as the dandelions. “He was horribly angry. He said terrible things to me.”
“Ah,” Coral said. “He is uncertain of you.”
“I don’t see why that should make you happy,” Anna said. “And, anyway, it’s much more than that. He’ll never forgive me.”
Coral smiled like a cat watching a sparrow hop near. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“WHAT DO YOU mean, you won’t marry me?” Edward paced from the curio shelf at one end of the small sitting room to the settee at the other end, pivoted, and came back again. Not such a great feat since he could cross the entire room in three strides. “I’m an earl, goddamnit!”
Anna grimaced. She should never have let him into the cottage. Of course, she hadn’t had much choice at the time, since he’d threatened to break down the door if she didn’t open it.
He had looked quite capable of doing it, too.
“I won’t marry you,” she repeated.
“Why not? You were eager enough to fuck me.”
Anna winced. “I do wish you would stop using that word.”
Edward swung around and assumed a hideously sarcastic expression. “Would you prefer swive? Tup? Dance the buttock jig?”
She compressed her lips. Thank goodness Mother Wren and Fanny had gone shopping this morning. Edward was making no effort to lower his voice.
“You don’t want to marry me.” Anna spoke slowly and enunciated each word as if talking to a hard-of-hearing village idiot.
“Whether I want to marry you or not isn’t the issue, as you well know,” Edward said. “The fact is, I must marry you.”
“Why?” She blew out a breath. “There is no possibility of a child. As you have made abundantly clear, you know I am barren.”
“I have compromised you.”
“I’m the one who went to Aphrodite’s Grotto in disguise. It seems to me that I compromised you.” Anna thought it commendable that she did not wave her arms in the air in exasperation.
“That’s ridiculous!” Edward’s bellow could probably be heard back at the Abbey.
Why did men think that saying something louder made it true? “No more ridiculous than an earl who is already engaged proposing marriage to his secretary!” Her own voice was raised now.
“I’m not proposing. I’m telling you we must marry.”
“No.” Anna crossed her arms.
Edward stalked across the room toward her, each step deliberate and meant to be intimidating. He didn’t stop until his chest was inches from her face. She craned her neck to meet his gaze; she refused to back away from him.
He leaned down until his breath brushed across her forehead intimately. “You will marry me.”
He smelled of coffee. Anna dropped her eyes to his mouth. Even in anger, it was disgustingly sensual. She retreated a step and turned her back. “I am not going to marry you.”
Anna could hear him breathing heavily behind her. She peeked over her shoulder.
Edward was looking thoughtfully at her bottom.
His eyes snapped up. “You will marry me.” He held up a hand when she started to speak. “But I’ll quit the discussion of when for now. In the meantime, I still need a secretary. I want you at the Abbey this afternoon.”
“I hardly think”—Anna had to stop to steady her voice—“I hardly think in light of our past relationship that I should continue as your secretary.”
Edward’s eyes narrowed. “Correct me if I am wrong, Mrs. Wren, but weren’t you the one who initiated that relationship? Therefore—”
“I said I was sorry!”
He ignored her outburst. “Therefore, I fail to see why I should be the one to suffer the loss of a secretary merely because of your discomfort, if that is the problem.”
“Yes, that’s the problem!” Discomfort didn’t begin to describe the agony it would be to try and carry on as before. Anna took a fortifying breath. “I can’t return.”
“Well, then,” Edward said softly, “I fear I’ll be unable to pay you your wages to date.”
“That’s…” Anna lost her power of speech in sheer horror.
The Wren household had been counting on the money that would be paid at the end of the month. So much so that they’d already accrued several small debts at the local shops. It would be bad enough, not having a job. If she couldn’t have the wages she’d already earned as Edward’s secretary, the results would be disastrous.
“Yes?” Edward inquired.
“That’s unfair!” Anna burst out.
“Now, dear heart, whatever gave you the idea that I played fair?” He smiled silkily.
“You can’t do that!”
“Yes, I can. I keep telling you that I’m an earl, but it hasn’t seemed to have sunk in yet.” Edward propped a fist beneath his chin. “Of course, if you come back to work, your wages will be paid in full.”
Anna closed her mouth and breathed rather forcefully through her nostrils for a bit.
“Fine. I’ll come back. But I want to be paid at the end of the week,” she said. “Every week.”
He laughed. “You are so untrusting.”
He lunged forward and, catching her hand, kissed the back of it. Then he turned her hand over and quickly pressed his tongue into her palm. For a second, she felt the soft, wet warmth and her intimate muscles clenched. He let go and was out the door before she could protest.
At least, she was fairly certain she would have protested.
OBSTINATE, OBSTINATE WOMAN. Edward swung himself into the bay’s saddle. Any other female in Little Battleford would’ve sold their grandmother to marry him. Hell, most of the women in England would sell their entire family, the family retainers, and the family pets to become his bride.
He wasn’t egotistical. It had nothing to do with him personally. It was the title he bore that had such a high market value. Well, that and the money that came with the title. But not for Anna Wren, impoverished widow of no social standing. Oh, no. For her and her only, he was good enough to bed, but not wed. What did she think he was? A cock for hire?
Edward tightened the reins as the bay shied at a blowing leaf. Well, that same sensuality that had led her to meet him in a brothel was going to be her downfall. He’d caught her staring at his mouth in midargument, and it had dawned on him: Why not use her sexuality for his own purposes? What matter why she had decided to seduce him—whether because of his scars or no—the more important point was that she had. She liked his mouth, did she? She would see it all day, every day, as his secretary. And he would be sure to remind her what other things she was missing until she consented to be his bride.
Edward grinned. In fact, it would be his pleasure to show her just what rewards awaited her when they wed. With her lustful nature, Anna wouldn’t be able to hold out long. And then she would be his wife. The thought of Anna as his wife was strangely comforting, and a fellow could get used to such feminine lust in a wife. Oh, yes, indeed.
Smiling grimly, Edward kicked the gelding into a gallop.
Aurea stared, horrified, at her husband. Then the first rays of dawn streamed through the high palace window and fell upon the prince, and his form began to shrink and convulse. The broad, smooth shoulders shriveled and diminished; his wide, elegant mouth protruded and hardened; and the fingers of his strong hands metamorphosed into wispy, tarnished feathers. And as the raven appeared, the walls of the palace shook and trembled until it dissolved and disappeared. There was a great whirring and flapping of wings as the raven and all his followers took to the skies.
Aurea found herself alone. She was without clothing, food, or even water in a dry plain that stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see….
—from The Raven Prince
Anna was just about at the end of her patience. She caught herself tapping a toe and carefully stilled her foot. She stood in the stable courtyard while Edward argued with a groom about Daisy’s saddle. Apparently there was something wrong with it. What, exactly, she did not know, since no one deigned to tell her, a woman, the problem.
She sighed. For nearly a week she’d bitten her tongue and dutifully done Edward’s bidding as his secretary. Never mind that some of his orders were clearly calculated to make her lose her self-possession. Never mind that at least once a day Edward made some remark about the perfidy of women. Never mind that every time she’d happened to glance up, her eyes had collided with Edward’s staring back at her. She’d been ladylike, she’d been meek, and it was almost killing her.
Anna closed her eyes now. Patience. Patience was a virtue she must master.
“Are you falling asleep?” Edward spoke right beside her, making Anna jump and glare, a reaction he missed, as he’d already turned away. “George says the girth is too worn. We’ll have to take the phaeton instead.”
“I don’t think—” Anna started.
But he strode to where a team was being hitched to the vehicle.
Anna gaped and then trotted after him. “My lord.”
He ignored her.
“Edward,” she hissed
“Darling?” He stopped so suddenly, she nearly skidded into him.
“Don’t. Call. Me. That.” She’d said it so many times in the last week, the words had become a chant. “There isn’t room on that thing for a groom or maid.”
He glanced at the phaeton casually. Jock had already jumped into the high seat and was sitting alertly, ready for a ride. “Why would I want to take a groom or maid to look at fields?”
Anna pursed her lips. “You know very well.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“As a chaperone.” She smiled sweetly for the benefit of the stablemen.
He leaned close. “Sweetheart, I’m flattered, but even I can’t seduce you whilst driving a phaeton.”
Anna blushed. She knew that. “I—”
Edward seized her hand before she could say more, pulled her to the carriage, and tossed her on the seat. He went to help the grooms hitching the horses.
“Overbearing man,” she muttered to Jock.
The mastiff thumped his tail and laid his massive head on her shoulder, smearing it with canine drool. After another few minutes, Edward vaulted to the seat, making the carriage shake, and caught the reins. The horses stepped out, and the phaeton started forward with a jerk. Anna grabbed the back of her seat. Jock leaned into the wind, ears and jowls flapping. The phaeton rounded a corner fast, and she jostled against Edward. For a moment, her breast pressed against the hard slab of his arm. She righted herself and took a firmer hold of the side.
The carriage veered, and Anna bumped against him again. She glared, but it had no effect. Every time she let go of the seat back, the vehicle lurched and she was forced to grab it.
“Are you doing that on purpose?”
There was no answer.
“If you are shaking me about to put me in my place,” she huffed, “I do think it is rather infantile of you.”
An ebony eye glanced at her through sooty lashes.
“If you want to punish me,” she said, “I can understand, but surely wrecking the phaeton would inconvenience you as well.”
He slowed fractionally.
Anna placed her hands in her lap.
“Why would I want to punish you?” he asked.
“You know.” Really, he was the most exasperating creature when he wanted to be.
They bowled along the lane for a bit in silence. The sky began to lighten and then blush a shy crimson. Anna could see his features more clearly. They did not look confiding.