“I’ve already told you, I’m not paying. The earl is here, and it’s in your best interest to leave now, before he finds you.”

“But, the money—”

Anna stamped her foot in exasperation. “Look, you pea-brained nit, I haven’t got any money with me, and you really must—”

A large furry form leapt from behind Anna. There was a shout and a horrible, low growling. The blackmailer sprawled on the floor, his body nearly obliterated by Jock. The mastiff’s bared fangs were only inches from the man’s eyes, and a ridge of fur bristled down the dog’s back as he continued his menacing rumbling.

Belatedly, a woman screamed.

“Hold, Jock,” Edward said as he advanced. “Chilton Lillipin. I should’ve guessed. You must have been at your elder brother’s lecture yesterday.”

“Damnation, Swartingham, get this beast off me! What do you care about a sl—”

Jock barked, nearly taking off the man’s nose.

Edward placed a hand on the back of the dog’s neck. “I do, most certainly, care about this lady.”

Lillipin’s eyes narrowed craftily. “Then you’ll no doubt want satisfaction.”

“Naturally.”

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“I’ll have my seconds contact—”

“Now.” Although Edward spoke softly, his voice carried over the other man’s.

“Edward, no!” This was exactly what Anna had wanted to avoid.

Edward ignored her. “I have my seconds here.”

Viscount Iddesleigh and a shorter man with watchful green eyes stepped forward. Their faces were intent on this masculine game.

The viscount smiled. “Pick your seconds.”

Lillipin glanced around the room from his prone position. A young man, his shirt untucked, pulled his staggering companion to the front of the crowd. “We’ll second you.”

Oh, God! “Edward, stop this, please.” Anna spoke low.

He pulled Jock off Lillipin and toward her. “Guard.”

The dog obediently stood braced in front of Anna.

“But—”

Edward looked at her sternly, cutting off her words. He shed his coat. Lillipin jumped to his feet, removed his coat and waistcoat, and drew his sword. Edward unsheathed his own weapon. The two men stood in a suddenly cleared space.

This was happening too fast. It was like a nightmare she couldn’t stop. The room had grown silent, faces turned avidly at the prospect of bloodshed.

The men saluted, bringing their swords up before their faces; then each bent slightly at the knee, their blades in front of them. Slimmer and shorter than Edward, the younger man’s stance was consciously elegant with his left hand curved in a graceful arc behind his head. Lillipin wore a linen shirt trimmed in fountains of Belgian lace that flowed as he moved. Edward stood solidly, his unarmed hand held out behind him for balance, not grace. His black waistcoat had only a thin line of black braid along the edge, and his white shirt was unadorned.

Lillipin sneered. “En garde!” The younger man lunged. His rapier moved in a glinting flurry.

Edward blocked the attack. His sword slid and scraped against his opponent’s. He stepped back two paces as Lillipin advanced, weapon flashing. Anna bit her lip. Surely he was on the defensive? Lillipin seemed to think so as well. His lips curved in an oily grin.

“Chilly Lilly killed two men last year,” a voice crowed from the crowd behind her. Anna drew in her breath sharply. She’d heard of the bucks in London who amused themselves by challenging and killing less-skilled swordsmen. Edward spent most of his time in the country. Could he even defend himself?

The men moved in a tight circle, sweat gleaming on their faces. Lillipin lunged forward, and his sword chattered against Edward’s. Edward’s right sleeve shredded. Anna moaned, but no telltale red stained the sleeve. Lillipin’s blade darted out again, a snake striking, and bit into Edward’s shoulder. Edward grunted. This time crimson drops fell to the floor. Anna started forward, only to be halted by Jock’s jaws clamped gently around her arm.

“Blood,” Iddesleigh called out, echoed closely by Lillipin’s seconds.

Neither duelist wavered. The swords sang and attacked. Edward’s sleeve steadily bloomed a bright red. With each movement of his arm, blood sprayed over the floor, bright droplets that were immediately smeared into streaks by the combatants’ feet. Weren’t they supposed to stop at the first blood drawn?

Unless they fought to the death.

Anna stuffed her fist into her mouth to stifle a scream. She couldn’t distract Edward now. She stood absolutely still, her eyes brimming with tears.

Suddenly, Edward lunged and lunged again. His lead foot stomped against the floor with the ferocity of his attack. Lillipin fell back and brought his sword up to defend his face. Edward’s arm made a controlled circular movement; his blade flashed up and over his opponent’s weapon. Lillipin squealed in pain. The sword flew from his hand, sliding with a clatter across the room. Edward stood with the tip of his weapon pressed into the soft skin at the base of Lillipin’s throat.

The younger man breathed hard, his bleeding right hand cradled in his left.

“You may have won by luck, Swartingham,” Lillipin panted, “but you cannot stop me from talking once I leave this—”

Edward flung down his sword and slammed his fist into the other man’s face. Lillipin staggered back, arms flailed wide, and fell to the floor with a thump. He lay still.

“Actually, I can stop you,” Edward muttered, and shook his right hand.

There was a long-suffering sigh from directly behind Anna. “I knew you’d resort to fisticuffs eventually.” Viscount Iddesleigh stepped around her.

Edward looked affronted. “I did duel him first.”

“Yes, and your form was atrocious as always.”

The man with the green eyes rounded Anna’s other side and silently bent to pick up Edward’s sword.

“I won,” Edward said pointedly.

The viscount sneered. “Sadly so.”

“Would you have preferred he best me?” Edward demanded.

“No, but in a perfect world, classic form would win every time.”

“This isn’t a perfect world, thank God.”

Anna couldn’t stand it any longer. “Idiot!” She hit Edward’s chest, but then remembered and frantically tore at his bloody sleeve.

“Darling, what—?” Edward sounded nonplussed.

“It’s not enough that you had to fight that awful man,” she panted, her vision half obscured by tears. “You let him hurt you. You’re bleeding all over the floor.” Anna got the sleeve open and felt dizzy when she saw the terrible gash marring his beautiful shoulder. “And now you’re probably going to die.” She sobbed as she pressed her handkerchief, pitifully inadequate, against his wound.

“Anna, sweetheart, hush.” Edward tried to put his arms around her, but she batted them aside.

“And for what? What was worth dueling that horrible man over?”

“You.” Edward spoke softly, and her breath caught midsob. “You are worth anything and everything to me. Even bleeding to death in a brothel.”

Anna choked, unable to speak.

He brushed his hand tenderly along her cheek. “I need you. I told you that, but you didn’t seem to believe me.” He took a breath and his eyes glittered. “Don’t ever leave me again, Anna. I won’t survive the next time. I want you to marry me, but if you can’t do that…” He swallowed.

Her eyes filled with tears anew.

“Just don’t leave me,” he whispered.

“Oh, Edward.” She sighed as he framed her face with bloody hands and kissed her tenderly.

He husked across her lips, “I love you.”

Distantly, she heard a whoop and several catcalls. The viscount cleared his throat nearly in her ear.

Edward lifted his head but kept his eyes on Anna’s face. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Iddesleigh?”

“Oh, indeed. The whole Grotto can see you’re busy, de Raaf,” the viscount said dryly.

Edward looked up and seemed to notice their audience for the first time. He scowled. “Right. I need to take Anna home and get this”—he gestured to his shoulder—“seen to.” He glanced at the unconscious Lillipin, who was now drooling. “Can you take care of that?”

“I suppose I’ll have to.” The viscount pursed his lips in distaste. “There must be a ship sailing somewhere exotic tonight. You don’t mind, do you, Harry?”

The green-eyed man grinned. “Sailoring will do this lout a world of good.” He grabbed Lillipin’s feet. Viscount Iddesleigh took the other end, none too gently, and together they lifted Chilly Lilly.

“Congratulations.” Harry nodded at Anna.

“Yes, felicitations, de Raaf,” the viscount drawled as he walked past. “I do hope I’ll merit an invite to the impending nuptials?”

Edward growled.

Chuckling, the viscount sauntered out, holding half of an unconscious man. Edward immediately clamped a hand around Anna’s arm and began pushing her through the mass of people. For the first time, she noticed that Aphrodite herself watched from the edge of the crowd. Anna’s mouth dropped open. The madam now stood a head shorter than previously and had catlike green eyes behind her golden mask. Her hair was powdered with gold dust.

“I knew he would forgive you,” Aphrodite purred as Anna threaded her way past; then she raised her voice. “Drinks on the house for everyone in celebration of love!”

The crowd roared behind them as Anna and Edward ran down the front steps into the waiting carriage. Edward thumped on the roof and collapsed on the cushions. He hadn’t let go of her for a second, and now he pulled her into his lap and covered her mouth with his own, taking advantage of her parted lips to thrust his tongue in. It was several minutes before she could draw a breath.

He drew back only to deliver a series of little nips along her bottom lip. “Will you marry me?” he breathed so close to her that the air from his body whispered across her face.

More tears blurred Anna’s eyes. “I love you so much, Edward,” she said brokenly. “What if we never have a family?”

He cupped her face in his hands. “You are my family. If we never have children, I will be disappointed, but if I never have you, I will be devastated. I love you. I need you. Please trust me enough to be my wife.”

“Yes.” Edward was already nibbling a row of kisses down her neck, so it was hard for her to get the word out, but she said it again anyway, because saying it was important.

“Yes.”

Epilogue

The West Wind flew with Aurea to a castle in the clouds surrounded by wheeling birds. As she stepped from his back, a giant raven alighted beside her and transformed into Prince Niger.

“You have found me, Aurea, my love!” he said.

As the Raven Prince spoke, the birds drifted down from the sky and turned one by one into men and women again. A great shout of exultation arose from the Raven Prince’s followers. At the same time, the clouds dissolved from around the castle to reveal that it sat at the summit of a great mountain.

Aurea was dazed. “But how is this possible?”

The prince smiled, and his ebony eyes glinted. “Your love, Aurea. Your love has broken the curse….”

—from The Raven Prince

THREE YEARS LATER…

“And Aurea and the Raven Prince lived happily ever after.” Anna closed the red morocco leather book softly. “Is he asleep?”

Edward shifted the silk screen so it would shade the toddler from the afternoon sun. “Mmm. For some time now, I think.”

They both looked at the deceptively cherubic face. Their son lay on ruby-red silk cushions, piled in the center of the walled garden at the Abbey. His short limbs sprawled, as if sleep had overcome him in midmotion. Rosebud lips pursed over the two fingers in his mouth, and a gentle wind stirred his raven curls. Jock lay beside his favorite human, unconcerned by the chubby hand that clutched his ear. Around them, the garden bloomed in full glory: Flowers spilled onto the pathways in multicolored exuberance, and climbing roses nearly covered the walls. The air was filled with the scent of roses and the hum of bees.