Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived an impoverished duke and his three daughters….
—from The Raven Prince
LITTLE BATTLEFORD, ENGLAND
The combination of a horse galloping far too fast, a muddy lane with a curve, and a lady pedestrian is never a good one. Even in the best of circumstances, the odds of a positive outcome are depressingly low. But add a dog—a very big dog—and, Anna Wren reflected, disaster becomes inescapable.
The horse in question made a sudden sideways jump at the sight of Anna in its path. The mastiff, jogging beside the horse, responded by running under its nose, which, in turn, made the horse rear. Saucer-sized hooves flailed the air. And inevitably, the enormous rider on the horse’s back came unseated. The man went down at her feet like a hawk shot from the sky, if less gracefully. His long limbs sprawled as he fell, he lost his crop and tricorn, and he landed with a spectacular splash in a mud puddle. A wall of filthy water sprang up to drench her.
Everyone, including the dog, paused.
Idiot, Anna thought, but that was not what she said. Respectable widows of a certain age—one and thirty in two months—do not hurl epithets, however apt, at gentlemen. No, indeed.
“I do hope you are not damaged by your fall,” she said instead. “May I assist you to rise?” She smiled through gritted teeth at the sodden man.
He did not return her pleasantry. “What the hell were you doing in the middle of the road, you silly woman?”
The man heaved himself out of the mud puddle to loom over her in that irritating way gentlemen had of trying to look important when they’d just been foolish. The dirty water beading on his pale, pockmarked face made him an awful sight. Black eyelashes clumped together lushly around obsidian eyes, but that hardly offset the large nose and chin and the thin, bloodless lips.
“I am so sorry.” Anna’s smile did not falter. “I was walking home. Naturally, had I known you would be needing the entire width of the throughway—”
But apparently his question had been rhetorical. The man stomped away, dismissing her and her explanation. He ignored his hat and crop to stalk the horse, cursing it in a low, oddly soothing monotone.
The dog sat down to watch the show.
The horse, a bony bay, had peculiar light patches on its coat that gave it an unfortunate piebald appearance. It rolled its eyes at the man and sidled a few steps away.
“That’s right. Dance around like a virgin at the first squeeze of a tit, you revolting lump of maggot-eaten hide,” the man crooned to the animal. “When I get hold of you, you misbegotten result of a diseased camel humping a sway-backed ass, I’ll wring your cretinous neck, I will.”
The horse swiveled its mismatched ears to better hear the caressing baritone voice and took an uncertain step forward. Anna sympathized with the animal. The ugly man’s voice was like a feather run along the sole of her foot: irritating and tantalizing at the same time. She wondered if he sounded like that when he made love to a woman. One would hope he changed the words.
The man got close enough to the bemused horse to catch its bridle. He stood for a minute, murmuring obscenities; then he mounted the animal in one lithe movement. His muscular thighs, indecently revealed in wet buckskins, tightened about the horse’s barrel as he turned its nose.
He inclined his bare head at Anna. “Madam, good day.” And without a backward glance, he cantered off down the lane, the dog racing beside him. In a moment, he was out of sight. In another, the sound of hoofbeats had died.
Anna looked down.
Her basket lay in the puddle, its contents—her morning shopping—spilled in the road. She must’ve dropped it when she dodged the oncoming horse. Now, a half-dozen eggs oozed yellow yolks into the muddy water, and a single herring eyed her balefully as if blaming her for its undignified landing. She picked up the fish and brushed it off. It, at least, could be saved. Her gray dress, however, drooped pitifully, although the actual color wasn’t much different from the mud that caked it. She plucked at the skirts to separate them from her legs before sighing and dropping them. She scanned the road in both directions. The bare branches of the trees overhead rattled in the wind. The little lane stood deserted.
Anna took a breath and said the forbidden word out loud in front of God and her eternal soul: “Bastard!” She held her breath, waiting for a thunderbolt or, more likely, a twinge of guilt to hit her. Neither happened, which ought to have made her uneasy. After all, ladies do not curse gentlemen, no matter what the provocation.
And she was, above all things, a respectable lady, wasn’t she?
By the time she limped up the front walk to her cottage, Anna’s skirts were dried into a stiff mess. In summer, the exuberant flowers that filled the tiny front garden made it cheerful, but at this time of year, the garden was mostly mud. Before she could reach it, the door opened. A small woman with dove-gray ringlets bobbing at her temples peered around the jamb.
“Oh, there you are.” The woman waved a gravy-smeared wooden spoon, inadvertently flinging drops on her cheek. “Fanny and I have been making mutton stew, and I do think her sauce is improved. Why, you can hardly see the lumps.” She leaned forward to whisper, “But we are still working on dumpling making. I’m afraid they have a rather unusual texture.”
Anna smiled wearily at her mother-in-law. “I’m sure the stew will be wonderful.” She stepped inside the cramped hall and put the basket down.
The other woman beamed, but then her nose wrinkled as Anna moved past her. “Dear, there’s a peculiar odor coming from…” She trailed off and stared at the top of Anna’s head. “Why are you wearing wet leaves in your hat?”
Anna grimaced and reached up to feel. “I’m afraid I had a slight mishap on the high road.”
“A mishap?” Mother Wren dropped the spoon in her agitation. “Are you hurt? Why, your gown looks as if you’ve wallowed in a pigsty.”
“I’m quite all right; just a bit damp.”
“Well, we must get you into dry clothes at once, dear. And your hair—Fanny!” Mother Wren interrupted herself to call in the general direction of the kitchen. “We’ll have to wash it. Your hair, I mean. Here, let me help you up the stairs. Fanny!”
A girl, all elbows, reddened hands, and topped by a mass of carroty hair, sidled into the hall. “Wot?”
Mother Wren paused on the stairs behind Anna and leaned over the rail. “How many times have I told you to say, ‘Yes, ma’am’? You’ll never become a maid in a big house if you don’t speak properly.”
Fanny stood blinking up at the two women. Her mouth was slightly ajar.
Mother Wren sighed. “Go put a pot of water on to heat. Miss Anna will be washing her hair.”
The girl scurried into the kitchen, then popped her head back out. “Yes, mum.”
The top of the steep stairs opened onto a miniscule landing. To the left was the elder woman’s room; to the right, Anna’s. She entered her small room and went straight to the mirror hanging over the dresser.
“I don’t know what the town is coming to,” her mother-in-law panted behind her. “Were you splashed by a carriage? Some of these mail-coach drivers are simply irresponsible. They think the entire road is theirs alone.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Anna replied as she peered at her reflection. A faded wreath of dried apple blossoms was draped over the edge of the mirror, a memento from her wedding. “But it was a single horseman in this case.” Her hair was a rat’s nest, and there were still spots of mud on her forehead.
“Even worse, these gentlemen on horses,” the older woman muttered. “Why, I don’t think they’re able to control their animals, some of them. Terribly dangerous. They’re a menace to woman and child.”
“Mmm.” Anna took off her shawl, bumping her shin against a chair as she moved. She glanced around the tiny room. This was where she and Peter had spent all four years of their marriage. She hung her shawl and hat on the hook where Peter’s coat used to be. The chair where he once piled his heavy law books now served as her bedside table. Even his hairbrush with the few red hairs caught in its bristles had long ago been packed away.
“At least you saved the herring.” Mother Wren was still fretting. “Although I don’t think a dunking in mud will have improved its flavor.”
“No doubt,” Anna replied absently. Her eyes returned to the wreath. It was crumbling. No wonder, since she had been widowed six years. Nasty thing. It would be better in the garden rubbish pile. She tossed it aside to take down later.
“Here, dear, let me help you.” Mother Wren began unhooking the dress from the bottom. “We’ll have to sponge this right away. There’s quite a bit of mud around the hem. Perhaps if I applied a new trim…” Her voice was muffled as she bent over. “Oh, that reminds me, did you sell my lace to the milliner?”
Anna pushed the dress down and stepped out of it. “Yes, she quite liked the lace. She said it was the finest she’d seen in a while.”
“Well, I have been making lace for almost forty years.” Mother Wren tried to look modest. She cleared her throat. “How much did she give you for it?”
Anna winced. “A shilling sixpence.” She reached for a threadbare wrap.
“But I worked five months on it,” Mother Wren gasped.
“I know.” Anna sighed and took down her hair. “And, as I said, the milliner considered your work to be of the finest quality. It’s just that lace doesn’t fetch very much.”
“It does once she puts it on a bonnet or a dress,” Mother Wren muttered.
Anna grimaced sympathetically. She took a bathing cloth off a hook under the eaves, and the two women descended the stairs in silence.
In the kitchen, Fanny hovered over a kettle of water. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the black beams, scenting the air. The old brick fireplace took up one whole wall. Opposite was a curtain-framed window that overlooked the back garden. Lettuce marched in a frilled chartreuse row down the tiny plot, and the radishes and turnips had been ready for a week now.
Mother Wren set a chipped basin on the kitchen table. Worn smooth by many years of daily scrubbing, the table took pride of place in the middle of the room. At night they pushed it to the wall so that the little maid could unroll a pallet in front of the fire.
Fanny brought the kettle of water. Anna bent over the basin, and Mother Wren poured the water on her head. It was lukewarm.
Anna soaped her hair and took a deep breath. “I’m afraid we will have to do something about our financial situation.”
“Oh, don’t say there will be more economies, dear,” Mother Wren moaned. “We’ve already given up fresh meat except for mutton on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And it’s been ages since either of us has had a new gown.”
Anna noticed that her mother-in-law didn’t mention Fanny’s upkeep. Although the girl was supposedly their maid-cum-cook, in reality she was a charitable impulse on both their parts. Fanny’s only relative, her grandfather, had died when she was ten. At the time, there’d been talk in the village of sending the girl to a poorhouse, but Anna had moved to intervene, and Fanny had been with them ever since. Mother Wren had hopes of training her to work in a large household, but so far her progress was slow.
“You’ve been very good about the economies we’ve made,” Anna said now as she worked the thin lather into her scalp. “But the investments Peter left us aren’t doing as well as they used to. Our income has decreased steadily since he passed away.”
“It’s such a shame he left us so little to live on,” Mother Wren said.
Anna sighed. “He didn’t mean to leave such a small sum. He was a young man when the fever took him. I’m sure had he lived, he would’ve built up the savings substantially.”