She sighed. “I am sorry, you know.”
“Sorry you were found out?” Edward’s voice was suspiciously silky.
She bit the inside of her cheek. “I’m sorry I deceived you.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Are you implying that I’m lying?” Anna grit her teeth to hold fast to her temper, trying to remember her vow about patience.
“Why, yes, my sweet, I believe I am.” His teeth sounded as if they were being ground. “You seem to have an innate facility for lying.”
She took a deep breath. “I understand why you would think that, but please believe that I never meant to hurt you.”
Edward snorted. “Fine. Good. You were in one of the most notorious brothels in London dressed as a high-priced whore, and I happened to walk in on you. Yes, I can see that you’ve been misunderstood.”
Anna counted to ten. Then she counted to fifty. “I was waiting for you. Only you.”
That appeared to take the wind out of his sails for a bit. The sun had risen fully now. They rattled around a curve and frightened two hares in the middle of the road.
“Why?” he barked.
She’d lost the thread of the conversation. “What?”
“Why did you choose me after, what, six years of celibacy?”
“But you’ve been widowed six.”
Anna nodded without explanation.
She could feel Edward looking curiously at her. “Whatever the time period, why me? My scars—”
“It had nothing to do with your bloody scars!” she burst out. “The scars don’t matter, can’t you see that?”
And it was her turn to be mute. The sun was very bright now, picking out every detail, leaving nothing hidden.
She tried to explain. “I believed… No. I knew we had an attraction. Then you left and I realized you were taking what you felt for me and giving it to another woman. A woman you didn’t even know. And I wanted—needed—” Anna threw up her hands in frustration. “I wanted to be the one you-you swived with.”
Edward choked. She couldn’t tell if he was appalled, sickened, or simply laughing at her.
Her temper suddenly came to a boil. “You were the one who left for London. You were the one who decided to-to tup another woman. You were the one who turned away from me. From us. Who is the greater sinner? I will no longer—urp!”
She gulped her words as Edward pulled the horses up so abruptly that they half reared. Jock was nearly catapulted from the seat. Anna opened her lips in alarm, but before she could protest, her mouth was covered by his. He thrust his tongue into her mouth without preamble. She tasted coffee as he stroked along her tongue, opening her lips farther for his access. Blunt fingers massaged the nape of her neck. She was surrounded by the musky scent of a man in his prime. Slowly, reluctantly, his mouth left hers. His tongue tenderly licked along her bottom lip as if in regret.
Anna blinked in the bright sunlight as he lifted his head. Edward studied her dazed features and must have been satisfied by what he saw there. He grinned, flashing white teeth. He caught up the reins and set the horses cantering down the lane, manes flying. Anna grabbed the seat back once again and tried to figure out what had just happened. It was rather hard to think with the taste of him still in her mouth.
“I’m going to marry you,” Edward shouted.
For the life of her, she didn’t know what to say. So she said nothing.
Jock barked once and let his tongue hang out of his mouth, flying in the wind.
CORAL TILTED HER face to the sky and felt the rays of the sun slide like liquid heat down her cheeks. She sat at the back door to the Wrens’ cottage, just as she had every day since she was well enough to rise from her sickbed. Around her, small green things were poking their fingers through the black earth, and nearby, a funny little bird was making quite a lot of noise. Strange how one never noticed the sun in London. The raucous cries of thousands of voices, the sooty smoke, the sewage-laden streets distracted and obscured until one no longer looked up. No longer felt the gentle touch of the sun.
“Oh, Mr. Hopple!”
Coral opened her eyes at the sound of her sister’s voice but otherwise remained still. Pearl had paused just inside the gate to the back garden. She was accompanied by a bantam man wearing the gaudiest waistcoat Coral had ever seen. He seemed shy, judging by the way he repeatedly tugged at the waistcoat. That was not surprising. Many men were anxious in the company of a woman they were attracted to. At least, the nicer ones were. But Pearl was playing with her hair, twirling and tangling it in her fingers, indicating that she was ill at ease as well. And that was surprising. One of the first things a whore learned was how to maintain a confident, indeed bold, mask when in the company of the stronger sex. It was the key to their living.
Pearl took leave of her escort with a pretty titter. She opened the gate and entered the small yard. She was almost to the back door when she noticed her sister.
“Goodness me, ducks, I didn’t see you sitting there.” Pearl fanned her flushed face. “You gave me a proper start, you did.”
“So I see,” Coral said. “You are not looking for a new prospect are you? You don’t have to work anymore. Besides, we will be leaving for London soon, now that I am better.”
“He’s not a prospect,” Pearl said. “At least not the kind you mean. He’s offered me a job as a downstairs maid at the Abbey.”
“Yes.” Pearl was blushing. “I’m trained as one, you know. I’d make a good maid again, I would.”
Coral frowned. “But you need not work at all. I told you I would look after you, and I will.”
Her sister pulled back her thin shoulders and thrust her chin forward. “I’m going to stay here with Mr. Felix Hopple.”
Coral stared for a short moment. Pearl’s stance never wavered.
“Why?” she finally asked, her voice even.
“He’s asked leave to court me, and I’ve told him he may.”
“And when he learns what you are?”
“I think he already knows.” Pearl saw her question and quickly shook her head. “No, I haven’t told him, but my last stay here wasn’t a secret. And if he doesn’t know, I’ll tell him. I think he’ll have me anyway.”
“Even if he accepts your former life,” Coral said gently, “the other villagers may not.”
“Oh, I know it will be rough. I’m not a young girl with pixie dust in her eyes anymore. But he’s a proper gentleman.” Pearl knelt beside Coral’s chair. “He treats me so kindly, and he looks at me like I might be a lady.”
“And so you will stay here?”
“You could stay, too.” Pearl spoke low and reached to grasp Coral’s hand. “We could both start a new life here, have families like normal folk. We could have a wee cottage like this one, and you could live with me. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
Coral looked down at her hand intertwined with her older sister’s. Pearl’s fingers were biscuit-colored with small, light scars around the knuckles, mementos of her years of service. Her own hand was white, smooth, and unnaturally soft. She withdrew it from Pearl’s clasp.
“I’m afraid I cannot stay here.” Coral tried to smile but found she couldn’t. “I belong in London. I’m just not comfortable any other place.”
“Hush, dear. My lot in life was drawn a long time ago.” Coral stood and shook out her skirts. “Besides, all this fresh air and sunshine can’t be good for my complexion. Come inside and help me pack.”
“If that’s what you want,” Pearl said slowly.
“It is.” Coral held out her hand to pull her sister to her feet. “You have told me how Mr. Hopple feels, but you never said how you feel about him.”
“He makes me feel safe and warm.” Pearl blushed. “And he kisses so nicely.”
“A lemon curd tart,” Coral murmured. “And you always were so very fond of lemon curd.”
“Never mind, dear.” Coral brushed her lips across her sister’s cheek. “I’m glad you have found the man for you.”
“AND FURTHERMORE, THIS crackpot theory only deepens the suspicion that your senility of the brain is now in an advanced stage. My commiserations.”
Anna frantically scribbled the words as Edward paced before her rosewood desk. She’d never taken dictation before and found to her dismay that it was harder than she would have thought. The fact that Edward composed his scathing letters at a breakneck pace certainly did not help.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that The Raven Prince was back on her desk. Ever since that ride in the phaeton two days ago, she and Edward seemed to be playing a game with the book. One morning she’d found the book lying in the center of her desk. She’d returned it to him silently, but after luncheon it’d been back on her desk again. She’d put it on Edward’s desk, again, and the process had been repeated. Several times. So far, she hadn’t worked up the courage to ask what, exactly, the book meant to him and why he seemed to be giving it to her.
Now Edward wandered over in the midst of his dictation. “Perhaps your sad mental deterioration has a family root.” He braced a fist on her desk. “I remember your uncle, the Duke of Arlington, was similarly stubborn on the issue of swine breeding. Indeed, some say his final apoplectic fit was the result of a too-heated discussion about farrowing pens. Do you find it hot in here?”
Anna had gotten as far as writing hot when she realized that the last question was directed at her. She glanced up in time to see him discard his coat.
“No, the room seems most temperate.” Her tentative smile froze as Edward drew off his neckcloth.
“I’m overly warm,” he said. He unbuttoned his waistcoat.
“What are you doing?” Anna squeaked.
“Dictating a letter?” He arched his eyebrows in a parody of innocence.
“No, I would be disrobing if I removed my shirt,” Edward said, doing just that.
“Put your shirt back on this instant,” Anna hissed.
“Why? Do you find my torso offensive?” Edward leaned nonchalantly against her desk.
“Yes.” Anna winced at his expression. “No! Put your shirt back on.”
“You’re sure you’re not repulsed by my scars?” He leaned closer, his fingers trailing across the marks on his upper chest.
Her eyes helplessly followed his hypnotic hand before she snapped her gaze away. A scathing reply teetered on the edge of her tongue. She was stopped by Edward’s studied ease. The question was clearly important to the impossible man.
She sighed. “I don’t find you repulsive at all, as well you know.”
“Then touch me.”
“Do it,” he whispered. “I need to know.” He caught her hand and pulled her to stand in front of him.
Anna looked into his face, struggling between propriety and the desire to reassure him. The true problem was, of course, that she wanted to touch him. Too much.
She raised her hand. Hesitated. Then touched. Her palm rested, trembling, on the juncture of Edward’s throat and chest, just where she could feel the implacable beat of his heart. His eyes seemed to darken impossibly to a deeper shade of black as he stared at her. Her own breast labored to fill with air as her hand glided down over firm muscle. She could feel the indentations of the pox scars, and she paused to circle one gently with her middle finger. His eyelids fell, as if weighted. She moved to another scar and traced it as well. She watched her own hand and thought about the long-ago pain these scars represented. The pain to a young boy’s body and the pain to his soul. The room was quiet save for the whisper of their mutual strained breaths. She’d never explored a man’s chest in such minute detail. It felt too good. Sensual. More intimate in some ways than the act of sex itself.