Coral in the Raven Prince

Anna plunged a trowel into the soft earth and viciously dug up a dandelion. What could Edward have been thinking when he sent Mr. Hopple to propose to her this morning? Obviously he hadn’t been overcome by love. She snorted and attacked another dandelion.

The back door to the cottage scraped open. She turned and frowned. Coral was dragging a kitchen stool into the garden.

“What are you doing outside?” Anna demanded. “Pearl and I had to half carry you up the stairs to my room this morning.”

Coral sat on the stool. “Country air is supposed to heal, is it not?”

The swelling on her face had gone down somewhat, but the bruising was still evident. Pearl had packed her nostrils with lint in an attempt to heal the break. Now they flared grotesquely. Coral’s left eyelid drooped lower than the right, and Anna wondered if it would rise again with time or if the disfigurement was permanent. A small, crescent-shaped scar was scabbed over under the drooping eye.

“I expect I should thank you.” Coral tilted her head back against the cottage wall and closed her eyes, as if enjoying the sunlight on her damaged face.

“It is the usual thing to do,” Anna said.

“Not for me. I do not like being in other people’s debt.”

“Then don’t think of it as a debt,” Anna grunted as she uprooted a weed. “Consider it a gift.”

“A gift,” Coral mused. “In my experience, gifts usually have to be paid for in one way or another. But perhaps with you that truly is not so. Thank you.”

She sighed and shifted position. Although she had sustained no broken bones, there’d been bruises all over her body. She must still be in a great deal of pain.

“I value the regard of women more than men,” Coral continued. “It is so much rarer, especially in my profession. It was a woman who did this to me.”

“What?” Anna was horrified. “I thought the marquis . . . ?”

The other woman made a dismissive sound. “He was but her instrument. Mrs. Lavender told him I was entertaining other men.”

“But why?”

“She wanted my position as the marquis’ mistress. And we have some history between us.” Coral waved a hand. “But that does not matter. I will deal with her when I am well. Why are you not working at the Abbey today? That is where you usually spend your days, is it not?”

Anna frowned. “I’ve decided not to go there anymore.”

“You have had a falling out with your man?” Coral asked.

“How—?” 

“That is who you saw in London, is it not? Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham?”

“Yes, that’s who I met,” she sighed. “But he’s not my man.”

“It has been my observation that women of your ilk—principled women—do not bed a man unless their heart is involved.” Coral’s mouth quirked sardonically. “They place a great deal of sentimentality on the act.”

Anna took an unnecessarily long time to find the next root with the tip of her trowel. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I did place a great deal of sentimentality on the-the act. But that is neither here nor there now.” She bore down on the trowel handle, and the dandelion popped out of the soil. “We argued.”

Coral regarded her with narrowed eyes for a moment and then shrugged and closed her eyelids again. “He found out it was you—”

Anna looked up, startled. “How did you—?”

“And now I suppose you will meekly accept his disapproval,” Coral continued without pause. “You will hide your shame behind a façade of respectable widowhood. Perhaps you could knit stockings for the poor of the village. Your good works will surely comfort you when he marries in a few years and beds another woman.”

“He’s asked me to marry him.”

Coral opened her eyes. “Now that is interesting.” She looked at the growing pile of wilted dandelions. “But you refused him.”

Whack! 

Anna started hacking at the dandelion pile. “He thinks me a wanton.”

Whack!

“I’m barren and he needs children.”

Whack!

“And he doesn’t want me.”

Whack! Whack! Whack!

Anna stopped and stared at the heap of broken, oozing weeds.

“Doesn’t he?” Coral murmured. “And what about you? Do you, ah, want him?”

Anna felt heat flooding her cheeks. “I’ve been without a man for many years now. I can be alone again.”

A smile flickered across Coral’s face. “Have you ever noticed that once you have had a taste of certain sweets—raspberry trifle is my own despair—it is quite impossible not to think, not to want, not to crave until you have taken another bite?” 

“Lord Swartingham is not a raspberry trifle.”

“No, more of a dark chocolate mousse, I should think,” Coral murmured.

“And,” Anna continued as if she hadn’t heard the interruption, “I don’t need another bite, uh, I of him.”

A vision of that second night rose up before her eyes: Edward bare-chested, his trousers undone, lounging in that chair before the fire like a Turkish pasha. His skin, his penis, had gleamed in the firelight.

 

Anna swallowed. Her mouth was watering. “I can live without Lord Swartingham,” she declared very firmly.

Coral raised an eyebrow.

“I can! Besides, you weren’t there.” Anna suddenly felt as wilted as the dandelions. “He was horribly angry. He said terrible things to me.

“Ah,” Coral said. “He is uncertain of you.”

“I don’t see why that should make you happy,” Anna said. “And anyway, it’s much more than that. He’ll never forgive me.”

Coral smiled like a cat watching a sparrow hop near. “Maybe. Maybe not.”