Anna wrote carefully, but it still took several drafts to compose a letter. Finally, she had a missive she was satisfied with, and she put it aside to take to the Little Battleford Coach Inn tomorrow. She was putting the quill box back into the walnut writing case when she realized that something was jammed in the back. The quill box would not fit in. She opened the half lid all the way and shook out the shallow case. Then she felt with her hand at the back. There was something round and cool there. Anna gave a tug and the object came loose. When she withdrew her hand, a little gold locket nestled in her palm. The lid was prettily chased with curlicues, and on the back was a pin so a lady could wear it as a brooch. Anna pressed the thin wafer of gold at the seam. The locket popped apart.
It was empty.
Anna snapped the two halves back together. She rubbed her thumb thoughtfully over the engraving. The locket was not hers. In fact, she had never seen it before. She had a sudden urge to fling it across the room. How dare he? Even after his death, to torment her in this way? Hadn’t she put up with enough when he lived? And now she found this little wretched thing lying in wait all these years later.
Anna raised her arm, the locket clenched in her fist. Tears blurred her vision.
Then she took a breath. Peter had been in his grave over six years. She was alive, and he had long ago turned to dust. She inhaled again and unfolded her fingers. The locket gleamed in her palm innocently.
Carefully, Anna placed it in her pocket.
THE NEXT DAY was Sunday.
The Little Battleford church was a small building of gray stone with a leaning steeple. Built sometime in the Middle Ages, it was terribly drafty and cold in the winter months. Anna had spent many a Sunday hoping the homily would end before the hot brick brought from home lost its heat and her toes froze completely.
There was a sudden hush when the Wren women entered the church. Several swiftly averted eyes confirmed Anna’s suspicion that she was the topic of discussion, but Anna greeted her neighbors without any indication that she knew she was the center of attention. Rebecca waved from a front pew. She sat beside her husband, James, a big blond man with a rather stout middle. Mother Wren and Anna scrunched in beside them on the bench.
“You certainly have been leading an exciting life lately,” Rebecca whispered.
“Really?” Anna busied herself with her gloves and bible.
“Mmm-hmm,” Rebecca murmured. “I had no idea you were considering the world’s oldest profession.”
That got Anna’s attention. “What?”
“They haven’t actually accused you of it yet, but some are coming close.” Rebecca smiled at the lady behind them who had leaned forward.
The woman drew back sharply and sniffed.
Her friend continued, “The town gossips haven’t had this much fun since the miller’s wife had her baby ten months after he died.”
The vicar entered and the congregation quieted as the service began. Predictably, the homily was on the sins of Jezebel, although poor Vicar Jones did not look like he enjoyed delivering it. Anna had only to glance at the ramrod-straight back of Mrs. Jones sitting in the front pew to guess who had decided on the subject matter. At last the service came to a dreary close, and they stood to exit the church.
“Don’t know why they left her palms and feet,” James said as the congregation began rising.
Rebecca looked up at her husband with fond exasperation. “What are you blathering about, darling?”
“Jezebel,” James muttered. “Dogs didn’t eat her palms and the soles of her feet. Why? Hounds not usually that particular about their victuals, in my experience.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes and patted her husband’s arm. “Don’t worry about it, darling. Perhaps they had different dogs back then.”
James didn’t look very satisfied with this explanation, but he responded to his wife’s gentle nudge toward the door. Anna was touched to note that Mother Wren and Rebecca arranged themselves on either side of her with James guarding her rear.
As it turned out, however, she did not need such a loyal barricade. For while she received several censorious looks and one cut direct, not all the ladies of Little Battleford were disapproving. In fact, many of the younger ladies were so envious of Anna’s new position as secretary to Lord Swartingham that it seemed to transcend her problematic championship of a prostitute in their eyes.
Anna was almost through the gauntlet of villagers outside the church and was beginning to relax when she heard an overly sweet voice at her shoulder. “Mrs. Wren, I do want you to know how very brave I think you are.”
Felicity Clearwater carelessly held her small cape in one hand, the better to show off her fashionable frock. Orange and blue nosegays tumbled over a background of primrose yellow. The skirt parted in front to reveal a blue brocade underskirt, and the whole concoction draped over wide panniers.
For a moment, Anna thought wistfully of how nice it would be to wear a gown as fine as Felicity’s; then Mother Wren bridled beside her. “Anna had not a thought for herself when she brought that poor woman home.”
Felicity’s eyes widened. “Oh, obviously. Why, to endure the displeasure of the entire village, not to mention the scolding from the pulpit she just received, Anna must not have had a thought at all.”
“I don’t think I shall take the lessons of Jezebel too seriously,” Anna said lightly. “After all, they might apply to other women in this village, too.”
For some reason, this rather weak rejoinder made the other woman stiffen. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.” Felicity’s fingers ran blindly across her hair like spiders. “Unlike you, no one could fault me for the company I keep.” Smiling tightly, Felicity swept off before Anna could think of a suitable riposte.
“Cat.” Rebecca’s own eyes narrowed rather like a feline.
Back at the cottage, Anna spent the rest of the day darning stockings, a talent that she’d by necessity become expert at. After her own supper, she crept up to Pearl’s room and found the woman much better. Anna helped her sit up and eat some porridge thinned with milk. Pearl was quite a pretty woman, if worn looking.
Pearl fidgeted with a lock of her pale hair for several minutes before finally bursting out, “Why’d you take me in, then?”
Anna was startled. “You were lying by the side of the road. I couldn’t leave you there.”
“You know what kind of a girl I am, don’t you?”
“I’m a trollop.” Pearl said the last word with a defiant twist to her mouth.
“We thought you might be,” Anna replied.
“Well, now you know.”
“But I don’t see that it makes any difference.”
Pearl appeared stunned. Anna took the opportunity to spoon some more gruel into her open mouth.
“Here now. You aren’t one of them religious types, are you?” Pearl’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Anna paused with the spoon in midair. “What?”
Pearl agitatedly twisted the sheet covering her knees. “One of them religious ladies that grab girls like me to reform them. I heard that they feeds them nothing but bread and water and makes them do needlework till their fingers bleed and they repent.”
Anna looked at the milky gruel in the bowl. “This isn’t bread and water, is it?”
Pearl flushed. “No, ma’am, I suppose it isn’t.”
“We’ll feed you more substantial fare when you are up to it, I assure you.”
Pearl still looked uncertain, so Anna added, “You may go any time you like. I sent a letter to your sister. Perhaps she’ll arrive soon.”
“That’s right.” Pearl seemed relieved. “I remember giving you her direction.”
Anna stood. “Try not to worry; just sleep well.”
“Aye.” Pearl’s brow was still wrinkled.
Anna sighed. “Good night.”
“ ’Night, ma’am.”
Anna carried the bowl of gruel and the spoon back down the stairs and rinsed them out. It was quite dark by the time she retired to a small pallet made up in her mother-in-law’s room.
She slept dreamlessly and didn’t wake until Mother Wren gently shook her shoulder. “Anna. You had better get up, dear, if you’re to get to Ravenhill on time.”
Only then did it occur to Anna to wonder what the earl would think of her patient.
MONDAY MORNING, ANNA entered the Abbey library warily. She’d walked all the way from her cottage dreading the confrontation with Lord Swartingham, hoping against hope that he’d be more reasonable than the doctor had. However, the earl seemed just as usual—rumpled and grumpy with his hair and neckcloth askew. He greeted her by growling that he had found an error on one of the pages she had transcribed the day before. Anna breathed a grateful sigh of relief and settled down to work.
After luncheon, however, her luck ran out.
Lord Swartingham had made a short trip into town to consult with the vicar about helping to finance a renovation of the apse. His return was heralded by the front door crashing against the wall.
Anna winced at the bellow and the subsequent slamming of the door. The dog by the fire lifted his head.
“Damnation! Where is the woman?”
Anna rolled her eyes. She was in the library where she always could be found. Where did he think she might be?
Heavy-booted feet stomped across the hall; then the earl’s tall form darkened the doorway. “What’s this I hear about an unsuitable refugee at your home, Mrs. Wren? The doctor was at great pains to tell me of your folly.” He stalked over to the rosewood desk and braced his arms in front of her.
Anna lifted her chin and attempted to look down her nose at him, no small feat since he was employing his great height to tower over her. “I found an unfortunate person in need of help, my lord, and, naturally, brought her to my home so that I might nurse her back to health.”
He scowled. “An unfortunate bawd, you mean. Are you insane?”
He was far more angry than she had anticipated. “Her name is Pearl.”
“Oh, fine.” He pushed away from her desk forcefully. “You are on intimate terms with the creature.”
“I only wish to point out that she is a woman, not a creature.”
“Semantics.” The earl waved a dismissive hand. “Have you no care for your reputation?”
“My reputation is hardly the point.”
“Hardly the point? Hardly the point?” He swung around violently and began pacing the carpet in front of her desk.
The dog laid back his ears and lowered his head, following his master’s movements with his eyes.
“I wish you wouldn’t parrot my words,” Anna muttered. She could feel a flush creeping up her cheeks, and she wished she could control it. She didn’t want to appear weak before him.
The earl, at the farther end of his track, seemed not to hear her reply. “Your reputation is the only point. You are supposed to be a respectable woman. A slip like this could paint you blacker than a crow.”
Really! Anna straightened at her desk. “Are you questioning my reputation, Lord Swartingham?”
He stopped dead and turned an outraged face toward her. “Don’t be a ninny. Of course I’m not questioning your reputation.”
But Anna rode over him. “If I am a respectable woman, surely you can trust my good sense.” She could feel her own anger rising, a great pressure inside her head threatening to escape. “As a respectable lady, I consider it my duty to help those less fortunate than I.”
“Don’t use sophistry with me.” He pointed a finger at her from across the room. “Your position in the village will be ruined if you continue this course.”