Until he slumped over her, his chest heaving in enormous gasps. She ran her hands over his buttocks, her eyes still closed, trying to make the intimacy last. Oh, how she wanted this man! She wanted to hold him like this tomorrow and fifty years hence. She wanted to be by his side every morning when he woke, she wanted his to be the last voice she heard before she fell asleep at night.
Edward shifted then and rolled to his back. She felt the cool air brush her damp skin. One lean arm bundled her close to his side.
“I have something for you,” he said.
She felt a weight on her chest and picked it up. It was The Raven Prince. She blinked back tears and stroked the red morocco cover, feeling the indentations of the embossed feather beneath her fingers. “But, Edward, this was your sister’s, wasn’t it?”
He nodded. “And now it is yours.”
“Hush. I want you to have it.”
He kissed her so tenderly she felt her heart fill and overflow with emotion. How could she continue to deny her love for this man? “I-I think—” she began.
“Shh, sweet. We’ll talk in the morning,” he murmured huskily.
Anna sighed and snuggled against him, inhaling his sharp, male scent. She hadn’t felt this blissfully happy in years. Maybe never.
The morning would come soon enough.
Aurea and the old woman shared the crust of bread before the little fire. As Aurea swallowed the last bite, the door flew open and a tall, bony fellow came in. The wind blew the door shut behind him.
“How fair you, Mother?” he greeted the crone.
The door opened once more. This time a man with hair standing on end like the fluff of a dandelion entered. “A good evening to you, Mother,” he said.
Next, two more men stomped in, the wind whistling behind them. One was tall and tanned, the other plump and ruddy cheeked. “Hello, Mother,” they cried together.
All four men sat by the fire, and as they did, the flames blew and flickered, and the dust swirled and spun on the floor around their feet.
“And have you guessed who I am?” The old woman grinned toothlessly at Aurea. “These are the Four Winds, and I am their mother….”
—from The Raven Prince
Anna was dreaming of a black-eyed baby the next morning when a masculine voice chuckled in her ear and woke her.
“I’ve never seen anyone sleep so deeply.” Lips brushed from her earlobe to her jaw.
She smiled and snuggled closer, only to find that there wasn’t a warm body next to hers. Confused, she opened her eyes. Edward was standing by the bed already dressed.
“I’m going to see Gerard. Hush.” He placed a finger against her lips when she would have spoken. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. We’ll make plans when I return.” He leaned down to give her a kiss that made her thoughts scatter. “Don’t leave my bed.”
And he was gone before she could reply. She sighed and rolled over.
The next time she woke, a maid was drawing the curtains.
The girl looked up as she stretched. “Oh, you’re awake, mum. I’ve brought some tea and fresh buns.”
Anna thanked the maid and sat to take the tray. She noticed a folded note sitting next to the teapot. “What’s this?”
The maid looked over. “I don’t know, mum, I’m sure. A boy delivered it to the door and said it was for the lady in the house.” She curtsied and left.
Anna poured herself a cup of tea and picked up the note. It was rather grubby. On the reverse side, it had been sealed with wax, but without any mark. She used the butter knife to open it, then raised the teacup to her lips as she read the first line.
The cup clattered to the saucer.
It was a blackmail note.
Anna stared at the nasty thing. The author had seen her at Aphrodite’s Grotto and knew she’d met Edward there. In sordid terms, he threatened to tell the Gerard family. She could prevent this disaster by coming to the salon at Aphrodite’s Grotto tonight at nine o’clock. She was instructed to bring one hundred pounds hidden in a muff.
Anna set aside the missive and contemplated her cooling tea and dying dreams. Just moments before, happiness had seemed so close. She’d almost grasped it in her hand, almost held its fluttering wings. Then it had darted and flown, and she was left with empty air in her palm.
A tear fell from her cheek onto the breakfast tray.
Even if she had one hundred pounds—which she didn’t—what would keep the blackmailer from demanding the same sum again? And again? He might even raise the price of his silence. If she were to become the Countess of Swartingham, she would be a prime mark. And it hardly mattered that Edward was at this very moment breaking off his engagement to Miss Gerard. She would be disgraced if the rest of society were to find out about her visits to Aphrodite’s Grotto.
Worse, Edward would insist on marrying her anyway, despite a scandal. She would bring shame and disaster to Edward and his name. The name that meant so very much to him. It was impossible for her to destroy him like this. There was only one thing to do. She must leave London and Edward. Now, before he returned.
She knew no other way to protect him.
“YOU WOULD REJECT my daughter for a-a…!” Sir Richard’s face darkened to a dangerous shade of puce. He looked in imminent danger of an apoplectic fit.
“A widow from Little Battleford,” Edward finished the other man’s sentence before he could find a less-suitable description for Anna. “Yes, sir.”
The two men faced off in Sir Richard’s study.
The room reeked of stale tobacco smoke. The walls, already a muddy brown color, were made dimmer by the soot streaks that started halfway up and disappeared into the gloom near the ceiling. A single oil painting hung slightly askew over the mantel. It was a hunting scene, with white and tan hounds closing in on a hare. Moments from being torn limb from limb, the hare’s flat black eyes were serene. On the desk, two cut-glass tumblers stood half full with what was undoubtedly a fine brandy.
Neither glass had been touched.
“You have played with Sylvia’s good name, my lord. I’ll have your head for this,” Sir Richard bawled.
Edward sighed. This discussion had turned even uglier than he’d anticipated. And his wig, as always, itched. Surely the old fellow wasn’t going to call him out? Iddesleigh would never let him hear the end of it were he forced to duel a stout, gout-ridden baronet.
“Miss Gerard’s reputation will not suffer from this at all,” Edward said as soothingly as possible. “We’ll put it out that she dismissed me.”
“I’ll take you to court, sir, for breach of promise!”
Edward narrowed his eyes. “And lose. I’ve infinitely more funds and contacts than you. I will not marry your daughter.” Edward let his voice soften. “Besides, court would only serve to make Miss Gerard’s name the talk of London. Neither of us wants that.”
“But she has lost this entire season to find a suitable husband.” The pendulous flesh under Sir Richard’s chin trembled.
Ah. Now the real reason for the man’s temper. He was less worried about his daughter’s name than the prospect of funding another season for her. For a moment, Edward felt pity for the girl with such a parent. Then he seized the opening.
“Naturally,” he murmured, “I’ll want to recompense you for your disappointment.”
Sir Richard’s little eyes creased greedily at the corners. Edward sent up a prayer of thanks to whatever gods watched over him. He’d come altogether too close to having this man as his father-in-law.
Twenty minutes later, Edward emerged into the sunlight on the Gerard’s front stoop. The old man had been a keen bargainer. Like a pudgy bulldog with one end of a bone he refused to relinquish, he’d growled and tugged and shook his head furiously, but in the end they’d come to an agreement. Edward was considerably lighter in the pocket as a result, but he was free of the Gerard family. All that remained was to return to Anna and make wedding plans.
He grinned. If his luck held out, she’d still be in his bed.
Whistling, he ran down the steps to his carriage. He only paused to pull off the awful wig and toss it to the ground before entering the vehicle. He glanced out the window as the carriage pulled away. A ragpicker was trying the wig on for size. The white-powdered wig with its stiff side curls and tail contrasted strangely with the man’s filthy clothes and unshaven face. The ragpicker bent, grasped the handles of his wheelbarrow, and jauntily trundled off.
By the time the carriage pulled up before his town house, Edward was humming a bawdy tune. With the Gerard engagement out of the way, he saw no reason why he shouldn’t be a married man in a month. A fortnight, if he could get a special license.
He shoved his tricorn and cape at a footman and took the stairs two at a time. He still had to win an assent from Anna, but after last night, he felt sure that she’d capitulate soon.
He rounded the stairs and strode down the hall. “Anna!” He pushed open the door to his room. “Anna, I—”
He stopped short. She wasn’t in the bed. “Damnation.”
He strode through the connecting door into the sitting room. It, too, was empty. He heaved a sigh of exasperation. Walking back into his bedroom, he stuck his head out the door and bellowed for Dreary. Then he paced across the room. Where was the woman? The bed was made, the curtains drawn. A fire had burned out on the grate. She must’ve left the room some time ago. He noticed Elizabeth’s red book sitting on the dresser. There was a scrap of paper on top of it.
He started for the book as Dreary entered the room.
“Where’s Mrs. Wren?” Edward picked up the folded paper. His name was written on the front in Anna’s hand.
“Mrs. Wren? The footmen informed me that she left the house at about ten o’clock.”
“Yes, but where did she go, man?” He opened the note and began to read it.
“That’s just it, my lord. She didn’t say where…” The butler’s voice buzzed in the background as Edward comprehended the words written in the note.
So sorry… must go away… Yours always, Anna
She’d left him.
“Are you all right, my lord?”
“She’s gone,” Edward whispered.
Dreary buzzed around some more, and then he must have left, because after a while, Edward found that he was alone. He sat in front of a dead fire in his bedroom, alone. But then that was what, until very recently, he’d been most used to.
THE COACH RATTLED and bumped over a pothole in the road.
“Ouch,” Fanny exclaimed. She rubbed her elbow, which had hit the door. “Lord Swartingham’s carriage sure was better sprung.”
Anna murmured an assent, but she really didn’t care. She supposed she should be making plans. Deciding where to go once they reached Little Battleford. Thinking about how to raise some money. But it was terribly hard to think, let alone plan right now. It was much easier to stare out the window of the coach and let it take her where it would. Across from them, the only other occupant of the coach, a spare little man with a gray wig tilted over one brow, snored. He’d been asleep when they began their trip in London and hadn’t woken since, despite the jostling of the coach and the frequent stops. From the smell that emanated from him, a pungent blend of gin, vomit, and unwashed body, he wouldn’t waken if trumpets announced the second coming. Not that she cared very much either way.
“Do you think we’ll be in Little Battleford by night?” Fanny asked.
“I don’t know.”
The maid sighed and plucked at her apron.
Anna felt a brief moment of guilt. She hadn’t told Fanny why they were leaving London when she’d woken her this morning. Indeed, she’d hardly spoken to the girl at all since departing Edward’s town house.