Her gaze flicked to his face. His lips were parted, wet where he’d run his tongue over them. Obviously he was as affected as she. The knowledge that her mere touch had that kind of power over him sparked her own arousal. Her hand encountered the black, curling hair on his chest. It was damp with perspiration. She slowly furrowed her fingers into the tangle, watching as the wisps curled around her fingertips as if to hold her. She could smell his masculine essence rising with the heat from his body.
She swayed forward, drawn by a force beyond her will. His chest hair tickled her lips. She buried her nose in his warmth. His chest moved jerkily now. She opened her mouth and exhaled. Her tongue crept forward to taste the salt on his skin. One of them, maybe both, moaned. Her hands clutched at his sides, and she could dimly feel his arms urging her closer. Her tongue continued to explore: tickling hair, tangy sweat, the corrugation of a male nipple.
The salt of her own tears.
She found that her eyes were leaking slowly, tears dripping down her face and mingling with the moisture on Edward’s body. It made no sense, but she couldn’t stop the tears. Any more than she could stop her body from yearning for this man or her heart from—loving him.
The realization brought her up short, cleared some of the haze from her mind. She inhaled shakily, and then pushed away from Edward’s embrace.
His arms tightened. “Anna—”
“Please. Let me go.” Her voice sounded scratchy to her own ears.
“Damn it.” But his arms opened, releasing her.
She backed swiftly away.
He scowled. “If you think I’ll forget this…”
“No need to warn me.” She laughed too shrilly, teetering on the edge of completely losing her composure. “I already know you don’t forget—or forgive—anything.”
“Goddamnit, you know damn—”
A knock sounded at the library door. Edward cut himself off and straightened, running his hand impatiently through his hair and dislodging his queue. “What?”
Mr. Hopple peered around the door. He blinked when he saw the earl’s state of undress but stuttered into speech nevertheless. “B-begging your pardon, my lord, but John Coachman says one of the rear carriage wheels is still being repaired by the blacksmith.”
Edward scowled at the steward and snatched up his shirt.
Anna took the opportunity to surreptitiously swipe at her wet cheeks.
“He assures me it will take only a day more,” Mr. Hopple continued. “Two at the most.”
“I haven’t that amount of time, man.” Edward had finished re-dressing and now swung around and began rummaging in his desk, knocking papers to the floor as he did so. “We’ll take the phaeton, and the servants can follow behind when the carriage is repaired.”
Anna looked up suspiciously. This was the first she’d heard of a trip. Surely, he wouldn’t dare?
Mr. Hopple frowned. “We, my lord? I wasn’t aware—”
“My secretary will accompany me to London, of course. I’ll be in need of her services, if I am to finish the manuscript.”
The steward’s eyes widened in horror, but Edward missed the reaction. He was staring at Anna challengingly.
She drew in a quick breath, mute.
“B-but, my lord!” Mr. Hopple stuttered, apparently scandalized.
“I’ll need to finish the manuscript.” Edward addressed his reasons to her, his eyes burning with a black fire. “My secretary will take notes at the Agrarian’s meeting. I’ll have to deal with various business matters pertaining to my other estates. Yes, I do believe it is essential that my secretary travel with me,” he finished in a lower, more intimate tone.
Mr. Hopple lurched into speech. “But she’s a-a—well! A female. An unmarried female, pardon my candor, Mrs. Wren. It isn’t at all proper for her to be traveling—”
“Quite. Quite,” Edward interrupted. “We’ll have a chaperone. Be sure and bring one with you tomorrow, Mrs. Wren. We leave just before daybreak. I shall expect you in the courtyard.” And he stomped out of the room.
Mr. Hopple trailed after, muttering ineffectual objections.
Anna truly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She felt a rough, wet tongue on her palm and looked down to see Jock panting by her side.
“Whatever am I to do?”
But the dog only sighed and rolled onto his back so that his paws waved in the air absurdly, which hardly answered her question.
Aurea wept for all that she had lost, alone there in the endless desert. But after a while, she realized that her only hope was to find her vanished husband and redeem both herself and him. So she set out to search for the Raven Prince. The first year, she hunted for him in the lands to the east. There, strange animals and stranger people lived, but no one had heard of the Raven Prince. The second year, she traveled the lands to the north. There, freezing winds ruled the people from dawn to dusk, but no one had heard of the Raven Prince. The third year, she explored the western lands. There, opulent palaces rose to the sky, but no one had heard of the Raven Prince. The fourth year, she sailed to the farthest south. There, the sun burned too close to the earth, but no one had heard of the Raven Prince….
—from The Raven Prince
“I’m very sorry, dear.” Mother Wren wrung her hands that evening as she watched Anna pack. “But you know how open carriages make my tummy do loops. Just the thought, in fact, is almost enough t-to…”
Anna looked up swiftly. Her mother-in-law had turned a delicate shade of green.
She pushed the older woman into a chair. “Sit down and breathe. Would you like some water?” Anna tried to open the only window in the room, but it was stuck.
Mother Wren pressed a handkerchief to her mouth and closed her eyes. “I’ll be all right in a moment.”
Anna poured some water from a pitcher on the dresser and pressed the glass into her hand. The older woman sipped it, and the color began to return to her cheeks.
“It’s just too bad Coral left so suddenly.” Mother Wren had repeated the sentiment with variations all day.
Anna flattened her mouth.
Fanny had roused them that morning after finding a note in the kitchen. In the note, Coral had simply thanked them for their care. Anna had run upstairs to look in the room where Coral had been sleeping, but it was empty and the bed already made. There she discovered another note pinned to the pillow. Coral asked that Pearl be allowed to stay a while longer, and she’d included gold coins that clinked to the floor when Anna unfolded the note.
Anna had tried to give the money to Pearl, but the other woman had shaken her head and backed away. “No, ma’am. That there money is for you and Mrs. Wren. You’ve been the best friends me and Coral have ever had.”
“But you’ll need it.”
“You and Mrs. Wren need it, too. Besides, I have a position I’ll be starting soon.” She had blushed. “Up at the Abbey.”
Anna shook her head. “I hope Coral is all right. Her bruises had barely begun to fade. Pearl doesn’t even know where she could have gone besides back to London.”
Mother Wren pressed a hand to her forehead. “Had she only waited, she could’ve accompanied you to London.”
“Maybe Pearl wouldn’t mind delaying her work at the Abbey and going with me first.” Anna pulled out a drawer in her dresser and hunted for a pair of stockings without any holes.
“I rather think Pearl will want to stay here.” Her mother-in-law set the glass down carefully on the floor beside her chair. “She seems to have met a gentleman at the Abbey.”
“Really?” Anna half turned, her hands full of stockings. “Who do you think it is? One of the footmen?”
“I don’t know. The day before last, she asked me about the household and who worked there. And then she muttered something about bees.”
“Does the Abbey have a beekeeper?” Anna wrinkled her brow in thought before shaking her head and folding a pair of stockings and placing them in her bag.
“Not that I know of.” Mother Wren shrugged. “In any case, I’m glad Lord Swartingham has decided to take you to London. He’s such a nice man. And he’s interested in you, dear. Perhaps he’ll be asking you an important question there.”
Anna winced. “He’s already asked me to marry him.”
Mother Wren jumped up and let out a squeal worthy of a girl a quarter of her age.
“And I told him no,” Anna finished.
“No?” Her mother-in-law looked aghast.
“No.” She carefully folded a chemise and placed it in her bag.
“Damn Peter!” The other woman stamped her foot.
“I’m sorry, dear, but you know as well as I do that you wouldn’t have turned that lovely man down if it hadn’t been for my son.”
“Now, there’s no use making excuses for him.” Mother Wren actually looked stern. “The good Lord knows I loved Peter. He was my only son, and he was such a darling little boy. But what he did to you in your marriage was just plain unforgivable. My dear husband, had he been alive at the time, would’ve taken a horsewhip to Peter.”
Anna felt tears prick her eyes. “I didn’t realize you knew.”
“I didn’t.” Mother Wren sat down again with a thump. “Not until that last illness. He was feverish and started talking one night when I was up with him. You’d gone to bed already.”
Anna looked down at her hands to hide the fact that tears were blurring her vision. “He was so upset when he found out I couldn’t have babies. I’m sorry for that.”
“I’m sorry, too. Sorry that you couldn’t have children together.”
Anna wiped her face with her palm and heard her mother-in-law’s skirts rustle as she came near.
Plump, warm arms wrapped around her. “But he had you. Do you know how happy I was when Peter married you?”
“You were—are—the daughter I never had,” Mother Wren murmured. “You’ve taken care of me all these years. In many ways, I’ve grown closer to you than I ever was to Peter.”
For some reason, this made Anna weep harder.
Mother Wren held her, rocking slightly from side to side. Anna cried great, heaving sobs that tore from her chest and made her head hurt. It was so painful to have this part of her life exposed when she’d kept it hidden away from the light so long. Peter’s infidelity had been her own secret shame to bear and suffer alone. Yet, all this time, Mother Wren had known, and what was more, she did not blame her. Her words felt like an absolution.
Finally, Anna’s sobs slowed and quieted, her eyes still closed. She felt so weary, her limbs heavy and listless.
The older woman helped her to lie down and smoothed the coverlet over her. “Just rest.”
Mother Wren’s cool, soft hand gently brushed the hair from her forehead, and she heard her murmur, “Please be happy, dear.”
Anna lay dreamily and listened to the click of the other woman’s heels as she went downstairs. Even with her headache, she felt at peace.
“GONE TO LONDON?” Felicity’s voice rose until it nearly cracked.
Two ladies walking by the Wren cottage glanced over at her. She turned her back to them.
The elder Mrs. Wren was looking at her oddly. “Yes, just this morning with the earl. Lord Swartingham said he couldn’t do without her at his club meeting. I can’t think now what they are called, the Aegeans or some such. It’s amazing what these society gentlemen find to amuse themselves with, isn’t it?”
Felicity fixed a smile on her face as the old woman babbled on, though she wanted to scream with impatience. “Yes, but when will Anna return?”