Fanny cleared her throat. “Will the earl be following us, do you think?”
Anna glanced at the maid. Her brow was puckered.
“I thought you might be marrying the earl soon?” The girl phrased the statement as a question.
Fanny’s mouth trembled.
Anna said more softly, “It’s hardly likely, is it? An earl and me?”
“It is if he loves you,” the little maid said earnestly. “And Lord Swartingham does. Love you, I mean. Everyone says so.”
“Oh, Fanny.” She turned her eyes to the window as they blurred.
“Well, it is possible,” the girl insisted. “And you love the earl, so I don’t see why we’re going back to Little Battleford.”
“It’s more complicated than that. I-I would be a liability to him.”
“A what?” Fanny’s mouth scrunched up.
“A liability. A millstone about his neck. I can’t marry him.”
“I don’t know why—” Fanny broke off as the carriage clattered into an inn yard.
Anna seized gratefully on the interruption. “Let’s get out here and stretch our legs.”
Moving past the still-sleeping third passenger, they jumped down from the coach. In the yard, ostlers ran back and forth, tending the team of horses, unloading packages from on top of the coach, and bringing more out to replace them. The driver leaned down from his perch, shouting gossip to the innkeeper. To add to the noise and confusion, a private carriage was also stopped at the inn. Several men were bent over the right near horse, examining its hoof. The animal appeared to have either thrown a shoe or come up lame.
Anna took Fanny’s elbow and moved them both beneath the inn’s eaves so as not to be in the way of running men and boys. Fanny stood on one foot and then the other and finally blurted, “Excuse me, mum. I have to use the necessary.”
Anna nodded and the little maid scurried off. She idly watched the men tending to the lame horse.
“When exactly will the carriage be ready?” a strident voice exclaimed. “I’ve been waiting an hour already in this filthy inn.”
Anna stiffened at the familiar tones. Oh, God, not Felicity Clearwater. Not now. She shrank back against the inn wall, but fate wasn’t pulling its punches today. Felicity walked out of the inn and immediately saw her.
“Anna Wren.” The other woman’s mouth pinched until unbecoming lines radiated from her lips. “Finally.”
Felicity marched up and seized her arm in a commanding grip. “I can’t believe I’ve had to travel almost all the way to London just to talk to you. And I had to cool my heels at this wretched inn. Now listen carefully.” Felicity shook her arm for emphasis. “I don’t want to repeat myself. I know all about your little entanglement at Aphrodite’s Grotto.”
Anna felt her eyes widen. “I—”
“No.” Felicity cut her off. “Don’t try to deny it. I’ve a witness. And I know you met the Earl of Swartingham there. Aiming a bit high, weren’t you? I never would’ve guessed it of a timid little mouse like you.”
For a moment, the other woman almost looked curious, but she recovered and continued before Anna could get her mouth to work.
“That’s neither here nor there. This is the important part.” She shook Anna’s arm again, this time more roughly. “I want my locket and the letter in it back, and if you ever breathe a word about Peter and me, I’ll make sure every single soul in Little Battleford hears about your indiscretion. You and your mother-in-law will be driven out of town. I’ll see to it personally.”
Anna’s eyes widened. How dare…?
“I hope”—she gave a final nasty shake—“I’ve made myself clear.” Felicity nodded as if she’d finished with some small, domestic business. Dismissing an impertinent maid, perhaps. Unpleasant, but necessary. Now on to more important matters. She turned to walk off.
Felicity truly thought she was a timid little mouse, one who would crumple in a heap of fear at threats by her late husband’s lover. And wasn’t she? She was running from the man she loved. The man who cared for her and wanted to marry her. Running because of a filthy blackmail note. Anna felt ashamed. No wonder Felicity thought she could tread all over her!
Anna whipped out a hand and caught the other woman by the shoulder. Felicity almost went over in the inn yard muck.
“Oh, you have made yourself clear,” Anna purred as she backed the taller woman into the wall. “But you’ve made one slight miscalculation: that I’d give two farthings for your threats. You see, if I don’t care what you say about me, well then you have nothing to hold over me, now, do you, Mrs. Clearwater?”
Anna nodded as if Felicity had said something profound. “That’s right. But I, on the other hand, have something quite substantial about you. The fact that you tupped my husband.”
“And if memory serves me right”—Anna touched a finger to her cheek in mock amazement—“why it was just about the time your younger daughter was conceived. The one with red hair like Peter’s.”
Felicity slumped against the wall and looked at her as if she’d grown a third eye right in the middle of her forehead.
“Now what do you think the squire would say about that?” Anna asked sweetly.
The other woman tried a recovery. “Now see here—”
Anna stabbed a finger in her face. “No. You see here. If you ever try to threaten me or anyone I love again, I’ll tell all the inhabitants of Little Battleford that you were bedding my husband. I’ll have leaflets printed up and delivered to every house, cottage, and hovel in Essex. In fact, I’ll tell the whole country. You may very well have to leave England.”
“You wouldn’t,” Felicity breathed.
“No?” Anna smiled, not at all nicely. “Try me.”
“Blackmail. Yes. And you should know.”
Felicity’s face blanched.
“Oh, and one more thing. I need a ride to London. Immediately. I’m taking your carriage.” Anna wheeled and started for the carriage, grabbing Fanny, who was gawking beside the inn door, as she went past.
“But how am I to return to Little Battleford?” Felicity wailed behind her.
Anna didn’t bother to look back. “You are welcome to my seat on the coach.”
HE SAT IN A CRACKED leather armchair in the town house library because he could not bear the memories in his bedroom.
There was one bookcase to lend the room its name. Dusty religious volumes filled the shelves, lined in rows like tombstones in a graveyard, untouched for generations. The only window was draped in blue velvet, pulled to one side by a tarnished gilt rope. He could see the phantom roofline of the next building over. Earlier, the festering red sun had silhouetted the multiple chimneys on the roof as it set. Now it was near dark outside.
The room was cold because the fire had died.
A maid had come some time back—he wasn’t sure when—to rebuild the fire, but he’d ordered her out. No one had bothered him since. Now and then, he heard murmured voices outside in the hall, but he ignored them.
He didn’t read.
He didn’t write.
He didn’t drink.
He simply sat, holding the book on his lap, and thought and stared at nothing as the night entombed him. Jock nudged his hand once or twice, but he ignored that contact as well, until the dog gave up and lay down by his side.
Was it the pox scars? Or his temper? Hadn’t she enjoyed his lovemaking? Was he too enthralled with his work? Or did she simply not love him?
That only. So small and yet everything.
If his title, his wealth, his—God!—his love had not mattered to her, he had nothing. What had driven her away? It was a question he couldn’t answer. A question he couldn’t let go. It engulfed him, consumed him, became the only thing that counted at all. Because without her, there was nothing. His life stretched before him in gray, ghostly tones.
He was without anyone to touch his soul as Anna had, without the completeness she had provided. He hadn’t even noticed until she was gone: there was a great, gaping hole in his being without her.
Could a man live with such a void inside of him?
SOMETIME LATER, EDWARD vaguely noticed a flurry of raised voices in the hall drawing nearer. The library door opened, revealing Iddesleigh.
“Oh, this is a pretty sight.” The viscount closed the door behind him. He set the single candle he carried on a table and threw his cape and hat on a chair. “A strong, intelligent man brought low by a woman.”
“Simon. Go away.” Edward didn’t move, didn’t even turn his head at the intrusion.
“I would, old boy, if I hadn’t a conscience.” Iddesleigh’s voice echoed eerily about the room. “But I find I have. A conscience, that is. Damned inconvenient.” The viscount knelt at the cold fireplace and began assembling a pile of tinder.
Edward frowned a little. “Who sent for you?”
“Your strange elderly man.” Iddesleigh reached for the coal scuttle. “Davis, I think? He was concerned for Mrs. Wren. He seems to have taken a liking to her, rather like a pullet imprinting on a swan. He may have been worried about you as well, but it was hard to tell. I can’t think why you keep the creature on.”
Edward didn’t answer.
Iddesleigh delicately stacked lumps of coal around his tinder. It was odd to see the fastidious viscount working at such a dirty job. Edward hadn’t suspected he knew how to lay a fire.
Iddesleigh spoke over his shoulder, “So, what’s the plan? To sit here until you freeze? A bit passive, what?”
“Simon, for the love of God, leave me be.”
“No, Edward. For the love of God—and you—I’ll stay.” Iddesleigh struck flint and steel, but the tinder wouldn’t catch.
“She’s gone. What would you have me do?”
“Apologize. Buy her an emerald necklace. Or, no, in this lady’s case, buy her more roses.” A spark caught and began to lick at the coals. “Anything, man, but sit here.”
For the first time, Edward stirred, an uncomfortable shifting of muscles still too long. “She doesn’t want me.”
“Now that,” Iddesleigh said as he stood and took out a handkerchief, “is an out and out lie. I saw her with you, remember, at Lillipin’s lecture. The lady is in love with you, although God only knows why.” He wiped his hands on the handkerchief, turning it black, then contemplated the ruined square of silk for a moment before throwing it into the flames.
Edward turned his head away. “Then why did she leave me?” he muttered.
Iddesleigh shrugged. “What man knows a woman’s mind? Certainly not I. You might’ve said something to offend, almost surely did, in fact. Or she might’ve taken a sudden dislike to London. Or”—he dipped his hand into his coat pocket and held out a piece of paper between two fingers—“she might’ve been blackmailed.”
“What?” Edward jolted upright and grabbed the slip of paper. “What are you talking…” His voice trailed away as he read the damned note. Someone had threatened Anna. His Anna.
He looked up. “Where the hell did you get this?”
Iddesleigh showed his palms. “Davis again. He gave it to me in the hall. Apparently it was on the grate in your room.”
“The goddamn son of a whore. Who is this man?” Edward brandished the paper before viciously screwing it into a ball and throwing it into the fire.
“I have no idea,” Iddesleigh said. “But he must frequent Aphrodite’s Grotto to know so much.”