The fire popped in the corner.
All at once, Anna understood and nearly dropped the paper. A nymph and two satyrs were engaged in an act that did not seem physically possible. She tilted her head to the side. Evidently, it was possible. The words Aphrodite’s Grotto were engraved in ornate script beneath the rude illustration. The paper was a bill for two nights’ stay at a house, and one could guess the type of house from the scandalous little picture at the top of the page. Who knew a bordello sent out monthly bills like a tailor?
Anna felt a sickening lurch in her stomach. Lord Swartingham must frequent this place if he had the bill in his desk. She sat down heavily and covered her mouth with a hand. Why should the discovery of his baser passions bother her so? The earl was a mature man who had lost his wife years ago. No person with any worldly knowledge at all would expect him to remain celibate the rest of his life. She smoothed the loathsome page on her lap. But the fact remained that the thought of him participating in such an activity with some beautiful woman brought a strange welling in her chest.
Anger. She felt anger. Society might not expect celibacy from the earl, but they certainly expected it of her. He, as a man, could go to houses of ill repute and romp all night with alluring, sophisticated creatures. While she, as a woman, was supposed to be chaste and not even think of dark eyes and hairy chests. It was simply not fair. Not fair at all.
She pondered the damning letter for a moment longer. Then she placed it carefully back in the desk drawer under the new paper. She made to close the drawer, but stopped, staring at the raven book. Anna’s mouth thinned, and she impulsively snatched up the book. She slipped it in the center drawer of her own desk and returned to work. The rest of the afternoon dragged on. The earl never did return from the fields as promised.
Hours later, riding in the rattling carriage home, Anna tapped the back of one fingernail against the glass window and watched the fields turn into the muddy lanes of the village. The leather squabs smelled musty from the damp. She spotted a familiar street as they rounded a curve, and abruptly she stood and knocked on the carriage’s roof. John Coachman called to the horses, and the carriage jerked to a stop. Anna descended and hastily thanked the coachman. She was in an area with houses that were both newer and a little more grand than her own cottage. The third house in from the lane was a redbrick with white trim. She knocked at the door.
In a moment, a maid peered out.
Anna smiled at the girl. “Hello, Meg. Is Mrs. Fairchild at home?”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Wren.” Black-haired Meg smiled cheerily. “The missus will be that glad to see you. You can wait in the sitting room while I tell her you’re here.”
Meg led the way into a little sitting room with bright yellow walls. A marmalade cat stretched on the rug, sunning itself in the dying light slanting through the windows. On the settee, a basket of sewing things lay, the threads trailing out untidily. Anna bent to greet the cat while she waited.
Footsteps pattered down the stairs, and Rebecca Fairchild appeared in the doorway. “For shame! It’s been so long since you’ve visited, I’d begun to think you had abandoned me in my hour of need.”
The other woman immediately contradicted her words by hurrying over and hugging Anna. Her belly made the embrace difficult, for it was round and heavy, thrusting before Rebecca like the full sails of a ship.
Anna returned her friend’s hug fervently. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ve been lax in coming to see you. How are you?”
“Fat. No, it’s true,” Rebecca talked over Anna’s protest. “Even James, that dear man, has stopped offering to carry me up the stairs.” She sat rather abruptly on the settee, narrowly missing the sewing basket. “Chivalry is quite dead. But you must tell me all about your employment at the Abbey.”
“You’ve heard?” Anna took one of the chairs across from her friend.
“Have I heard? I’ve heard of practically nothing else.” Rebecca lowered her voice dramatically. “The dark and mysterious Earl of Swartingham has employed the young Widow Wren for unknown purposes and daily closets himself with her for his own nefarious ends.”
Anna winced. “I’m only transcribing papers for him.”
Rebecca waved this mundane explanation away as Meg entered with a tea tray. “Don’t tell me that. You realize that you’re one of the few to actually meet the man? To hear the village gossips tell it, he hides himself away in his sinister mansion simply to deprive them of the opportunity to inspect him. Is he really as repulsive as the rumors say?”
“Oh, no!” Anna felt a spurt of anger. Surely they weren’t saying Lord Swartingham was repulsive because of a few scars? “He’s not handsome, of course, but he’s not unattractive.” Quite attractive to her anyway, a small voice whispered inside. Anna frowned down at her hands. When had she stopped noticing his scars and instead started focusing on the man underneath them?
“Pity.” Rebecca appeared disappointed at the information that the earl wasn’t a hideous ogre. “I want to hear of his dark secrets and his attempts to seduce you.”
Meg quietly left.
Anna laughed. “He may have any number of dark secrets”—her voice hitched as she remembered the bill—“but he’s very unlikely to try and seduce me.”
“Of course he won’t while you’re wearing that awful cap.” Rebecca gestured with the teapot at the offending article of clothing. “I don’t know why you wear it. You’re not that old.”
“Widows are supposed to wear caps.” Anna touched the muslin cap self-consciously. “Besides, I don’t want him to seduce me.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because—” Anna stopped.
She realized—horribly—that her mind had gone blank, and she couldn’t think of a single reason why she didn’t want the earl to seduce her. She popped a biscuit into her mouth and slowly chewed. Fortunately, Rebecca hadn’t noticed her sudden silence and was now chattering on about hairstyles she thought would better suit her friend.
“Rebecca,” Anna interrupted, “do you think all men have need of more than one woman?”
Rebecca, who had been in the act of pouring a second cup of tea, looked up at her in a far-too-sympathetic manner.
Anna felt herself flush. “I mean—”
“No, dear, I know what you mean.” Rebecca slowly set the teapot down. “I can’t speak for all men, but I’m fairly sure James has been faithful. And, really, if he was going to stray, I think he would do so now.” She patted her tummy and reached for another biscuit.
Anna couldn’t sit still any longer. She jumped up and started examining the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece. “I’m sorry. I know James would never—”
“I’m glad you know.” Rebecca snorted delicately. “You should’ve heard the advice Felicity Clearwater gave me on what to expect from a husband when one is with child. According to her, every husband is simply waiting—” Rebecca stopped suddenly.
Anna picked up a china shepherdess and touched the gilt on her bonnet. She couldn’t see it very well. Her eyes were blurry.
“Now I’m the one who’s sorry,” Rebecca said.
Anna didn’t look up. She’d always wondered if Rebecca had been aware. Now she knew. She closed her eyes.
“I think that any man who took his marriage vows so lightly,” she heard Rebecca say, “has shamed himself unpardonably.”
Anna set the shepherdess back on the mantel. “And the wife? Would she not be partly to blame if he went outside the marriage for satisfaction?”
“No, dear,” Rebecca replied. “I don’t think the wife is ever to blame.”
Anna felt suddenly lighter. She tried a smile, though she feared it was a bit wobbly. “You are the best of friends, Rebecca.”
“Well, of course.” The other woman smiled like a self-satisfied and very pregnant cat. “And to prove it, I shall ring for Meg to bring us some cream cakes. Decadent, my dear!”
ANNA ARRIVED AT the Abbey the next morning dressed in an old blue worsted wool frock. She’d stayed up until well past midnight widening the skirt, but she hoped she could now sit a horse modestly. The earl was already pacing before the Abbey’s entrance, apparently waiting for her. He wore buckskin breeches with brown jackboots that came to midthigh. These last were rather scuffed and dull, and Anna wondered, not for the first time, about his valet.
“Ah, Mrs. Wren.” He eyed her skirt. “Yes, that will do nicely.” Without waiting for a reply, he strode around the Abbey toward the stables.
Anna trotted to keep up.
His bay gelding was already saddled and busy baring its teeth at a stable boy. The boy held the horse’s bridle at arm’s length and looked wary. In contrast, a plump chestnut mare was standing placidly by the mounting block. The dog emerged from behind the stables and came bounding up to Anna. He skidded to a stop in front of her and tried belatedly to regain some of his dignity.
“I’ve found you out, you know,” she whispered to him, and rubbed his ears in greeting.
“If you are through playing with that animal, Mrs. Wren.” Lord Swartingham frowned at the dog.
Anna straightened. “I’m ready.”
He indicated the mounting block, and Anna hesitantly approached it. She knew the theory of mounting a horse sidesaddle, but the reality was a bit more complicated. She could place one foot in the stirrup but had trouble pulling herself up to hook her other leg over the pommel.
“If you’ll allow me?” The earl was behind her. She could feel his warm breath, smelling faintly of coffee, on her cheek as he bent over her.
She nodded, mute.
He placed his large hands around her waist and lifted her without any visible effort. Gently, he set her on the saddle and held the stirrup steady for her foot. Anna felt herself flush as she looked down at his bent head. He’d left his hat with the groom, and she could see a few strands of silver threading his queue. Was his hair soft or bristly? Her gloved hand lifted and, as if of its own accord, lightly touched his hair. She immediately snatched back her hand, but the earl seemed to have felt something. He looked up and stared into her eyes for what seemed a timeless moment. She watched as his eyelids lowered, and a faint flush seeped across his cheekbones.
Then he straightened and caught the horse’s bridle. “This is a very placid mare,” he said. “I think you’ll have no trouble with her as long as there are no rats around.”
She stared blankly down at him. “Rats?”
He nodded. “She has a fear of rats.”
“I don’t blame her,” Anna murmured. She tentatively stroked the mare’s mane, feeling the stiff hair beneath her fingers.
“Her name is Daisy,” Lord Swartingham said. “Shall I lead you about the yard for a bit so you can get used to her?”
The earl clucked and the mare rocked forward. Anna clutched a handful of the mare’s mane. Her whole body tensed at the unfamiliar sensation of moving so far off the ground. The mare shook her head.
Lord Swartingham glanced at her hands. “She can feel your fear. Isn’t that right, my sweet girl?”
Anna, caught off guard by his last words, let go of the horse’s mane.
“That’s good. Let your body relax.” His voice surrounded her, enfolding her in warmth. “She responds better to a gentle touch. She wants to be stroked and loved, don’t you, my beauty?”
They walked around the stable yard, the earl’s deep voice enchanting the horse. Something inside Anna seemed to heat and melt as she listened to him, as if she were enchanted, too. He gave simple instructions about how to hold the reins and sit. By the end of a half hour, she felt a good deal more confident in the saddle.