“Jesus!” Edward jumped from the chair and shoved his arms into his coat. “When I finish with him, he won’t be able to visit a drab. I’ll cut off his stones. And then I’m going after Anna. How dare she not tell me someone was threatening her?” He stilled at a sudden thought, then swung around to Iddesleigh. “Why didn’t you give the note to me at once?”
The viscount shrugged again, unperturbed by his scowl. “The blackmailer won’t be at the Grotto until nine.” He took out a penknife and began cleaning underneath his thumbnail. “It’s only half past seven now. Didn’t see much point in rushing things. Perhaps we can have a bite to eat first?”
“If you weren’t so useful once in a while,” Edward growled, “I would have strangled you by now.”
“Oh, undoubtedly.” Iddesleigh put away the knife and reached for his cape. “But it would be nice to at least bring along some bread and cheese in the carriage.”
Edward scowled. “You’re not coming with me.”
“I’m afraid I am.” The viscount adjusted his tricorn to the proper angle in the mirror by the door. “And so is Harry. He’s waiting in the hall.”
“Because, my dear friend, this is one of those times when I can be useful.” Iddesleigh smiled ferally. “You’ll be needing seconds, won’t you?”
The old woman smiled at Aurea’s startled expression. “My sons roam the four corners of the earth. There isn’t a man or beast or bird that they don’t know. What is it you search for?”
Then Aurea told of her strange marriage to the Raven Prince and his avian followers and her search for her lost husband. The first three Winds shook their heads regretfully; they had not heard of the Raven Prince.
But the West Wind, the tall bony son, hesitated. “Sometime back, a wee shrike told me a strange story. She said there was a castle in the clouds where birds spoke with human voices. If you like, I’ll take you there.” So Aurea climbed on the back of the West Wind and wrapped her arms tightly around his throat so that she might not fall off, for the West Wind flies more swiftly than any bird….
—from The Raven Prince
Harry tugged at his black silk demimask. “Tell me again why we’re going masked, my lord.”
Edward drummed his fingers against the carriage door, wishing they could gallop through the London streets. “There was a small misunderstanding the last time I was at the Grotto.”
“A misunderstanding.” Harry’s voice was soft, noncommittal.
“It would be better were I not recognized.”
“Really?” Iddesleigh stopped fiddling with his own mask. He sounded fascinated. “I wasn’t aware Aphrodite barred anyone from her doors. What, exactly, did you do?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Edward waved an impatient hand. “All you need to know is that we must be discreet when we enter.”
“And Harry and I are also masked because…?”
“Because if this man follows me closely enough to know about my engagement to Miss Gerard, he’ll also know we three are comrades.”
Harry grunted in apparent assent.
“Ah. In that case, perhaps we ought to mask the dog as well.” The viscount looked pointedly at Jock, sitting upright on the bench next to Harry. The dog gazed alertly out the window.
“Try to be serious,” Edward growled.
“I was,” Iddesleigh muttered.
Edward ignored the other man to watch out the window himself. They were in an area near the East End that was not quite disreputable, yet not entirely respectable. He caught the movement of a skirt in a doorway as they passed. A trull displaying her wares. Less-benign shapes skulked in the shadows as well. Part of the Grotto’s allure was that it straddled the narrow line between the illicit and the truly dangerous. The fact that on any given night a small portion of the Grotto’s patrons were robbed or worse didn’t seem to diminish its attraction; to a certain sort, no doubt, it increased the appeal.
The glow of lights up ahead gave notice that they were nearing the Grotto. In another moment, the faux Greek façade came into view. White marble and an abundance of gilt lent Aphrodite’s Grotto a magnificently vulgar air.
“How do you plan to find the blackmailer?” Harry asked sotto voce as they descended from the carriage.
Edward shrugged. “At nine we’ll know how big the field is.” He strolled to the entrance with all the arrogance of his nine generations of aristocracy behind him.
Two burly fellows in togas guarded the doors. The drapes on the man nearest were a bit too short, revealing astonishingly hairy calves.
The guard squinted suspiciously at Edward. “ ’Ere now. Ain’t you the Earl of—”
“I’m so glad you recognized me.” Edward put one hand on the man’s shoulder and extended the other in a seemingly friendly shake.
The extended palm held a guinea. The guard’s fist closed smoothly over the gold piece and disappeared into the folds of his toga.
The man smiled greasily. “That’s all fine and good, my lord. But after last time, perhaps you wouldn’t mind…?” The man rubbed his fingers together suggestively.
Edward scowled. What cheek! He leaned into the other man’s face until he could smell the rot of his teeth. “Perhaps I would mind.”
The guard backed up, hands thrust out in a calming motion. “That’s good! That’s good, my lord! Step right in.”
Edward nodded curtly and climbed the steps.
Beside him, Iddesleigh murmured, “You really must tell me about this misunderstanding sometime.”
Edward ignored them. They were in, and he’d more important matters to consider.
“BUT WHERE DID HE GO?” Anna stood in the entrance hall to Edward’s town house, interrogating Dreary. She still wore her musty traveling clothes.
“I’m sure I don’t know, ma’am.” The butler seemed genuinely at a loss.
She stared at him in frustration. She’d spent all day traveling, had composed and recomposed her apology to Edward, had even daydreamed about making up afterward, and now the silly man wasn’t even here. It was a bit anticlimactic, to say the least.
“Doesn’t anyone know where Lord Swartingham is?” She was beginning to whine.
Fanny shifted from one foot to the other beside her. “Maybe he went looking for you, mum.”
Anna switched her gaze to Fanny. In doing so, a movement at the back of the hall caught her eye. Edward’s valet was tiptoeing away. Sneakily.
“Mr. Davis.” She snatched at her skirts and trotted after the man more briskly than was ladylike. “Mr. Davis, wait a moment.”
Drat! The old man was faster than he looked. He darted around the corner and up a back staircase, feigning deafness.
Anna panted after him. “Stop!”
The valet turned at the top of the stairs. They were in a narrow hallway, evidently the servants’ quarters. Davis made for a door at the end of the corridor, but Anna was faster on level ground. She put on an extra burst of speed and reached the door before the little man. She slammed her back to the closed door, her arms outstretched on either side, barring him from his sanctuary.
“Oh, was you wanting me, mum?” He opened rheumy eyes wide.
“Quite.” She inhaled deeply, trying to catch her breath. “Where is the earl?”
“The earl?” Davis looked around as if expecting Edward to pop out of the shadows.
“Edward de Raaf, Lord Swartingham, the Earl of Swartingham?” Anna leaned closer. “Your master?”
“Don’t have to be snotty.” Davis actually looked wounded.
“M’lord might’ve had an idea,” the valet said carefully, “that he was needed somewheres else.”
Anna tapped her foot. “Tell me right now where he is.”
Davis cast his eyes up and then to the side, but there was no help in the dim hallway. He heaved a sigh. “He might’ve found a letter.” The manservant didn’t meet her eyes. “He might’ve gone to a nasty house. Had an awful strange name, Aphroditty or Aphro—”
But Anna was already running down the servant’s stair, skidding on the turns as she rounded them. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
If Edward had found the blackmail note…
If he’d gone to confront the blackmailer…
The blackmailer obviously had no sense of honor and was probably dangerous. What would he do when cornered? Surely Edward wouldn’t take on such a man by himself? She whimpered. Oh, yes, he would. If anything happened to him, it would be her fault.
Anna ran flat out through the hall, shoved past Dreary, still dithering, and banged open the door.
“Mum!” Fanny started after her.
Anna did a little spin. “Fanny, stay here. If the earl returns, tell him I’ll be back soon.” She turned again and cupped her hands to bellow at the carriage pulling away from the town house. “Stop!”
The coachman yanked hard on the reins, causing the front horses to half rear. He looked around. “What is it now, mum? Don’t you want to rest a bit now you’re in London? Mrs. Clearwater—”
“I need you to drive me to Aphrodite’s Grotto.”
“But, Mrs. Clearwater—”
The coachman sighed wearily. “Which way is it, then?”
Anna gave succinct directions, then scrambled into the carriage she’d so recently exited. She gripped the leather straps and prayed, Oh, dear God, let me be in time. She couldn’t live with herself if Edward were hurt.
The carriage ride was hellishly interminable, but finally she alighted and ran up the long marble steps. Inside, Aphrodite’s Grotto echoed with the chatter and laughter of London’s denizens of the night. Every young buck, every aging roué, every lady mincing on the fine edge of respectability seemed to be gathered at Aphrodite’s. It was a quarter to nine, and the throng was boisterous, uninhibited, and more than slightly drunk.
Anna drew her cloak tightly about her. The rooms were hot and smelled of burning wax, unwashed bodies, and alcoholic spirits. Nevertheless, she kept the wrap on, a thin barrier between herself and the crowd. Once she glanced up and noticed leering cupids on the ceiling. They were pulling back a painted veil to reveal a voluptuously pink Aphrodite surrounded by a… well, an orgy.
Aphrodite seemed to wink down at her with knowing eyes.
Anna hastily averted her gaze and continued her search. Her plan was simple: find the blackmailer and lure him away from the Grotto before Edward got to him. The problem was that she didn’t know who the blackmailer was. In fact, she didn’t even know if it was a man. Nervously, she kept an eye out for Edward as well. Perhaps if she could find him before the blackmailer appeared, she could convince him to just leave. Although she had a hard time imagining Edward backing away from a fight, even one he might lose.
She entered the main salon. Here couples lounged on settees, and young bucks prowled for their evening’s entertainment. She saw at once that it would be prudent to keep moving, so she perambulated about the room. The classical theme was continued here, with various scenes of Zeus seducing young ladies. The one of Europa and the Bull was particularly graphic.
“I told you to bring a muff.” A peevish voice at Anna’s elbow interrupted her thoughts.
“I’m not paying your ridiculous price.” The blackmailer didn’t look that frightening. He was younger than she’d expected, with a familiar, receding chin. Anna frowned. “You’re the macaroni from the lecture.”
The man looked irritated. “Where’s my money?”