“I may come into some criticism”—she folded her arms—“but I hardly think I’ll be ruined by an act of Christian charity.”
The earl made an inelegant sound. “The Christians in the village will be the first to pillory you.”
“You are extremely vulnerable. A young, attractive widow—”
“Working for a single man,” Anna pointed out sweetly. “Obviously, my virtue is in imminent peril.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, but others have.”
“That is exactly what I mean,” he shouted, apparently under the impression that if he bellowed loud enough, it would make his point. “You cannot associate with this woman!”
This was simply too much. Anna’s eyes narrowed. “I cannot associate with her?”
He crossed his arms on his chest. “Exactly—”
“I cannot associate with her?” she repeated over him, this time more loudly.
Lord Swartingham looked wary at her tone. As well he should.
“What of all the men who made her what she is by associating with her?” she asked. “No one worries about the reputation of the men who patronize whores.”
“I can’t believe you would speak of such things,” he sputtered in outrage.
The pressure in Anna’s head was gone, replaced by a rush of giddy freedom. “Well, I do speak of such things. And I know men do more than speak of them. Why, a man could visit a harlot regularly—every day of the week, even—and still be perfectly respectable. Whilst the poor girl who has engaged in the very same act as he is deemed soiled goods.”
The earl seemed to have lost the power of speech. He produced a series of snorts.
Anna couldn’t stop the river of words pouring from her mouth. “And I suspect it’s not only the lower classes who patronize such women. I believe men and, indeed, gentlemen of quality frequent houses of ill repute.” Anna’s lips trembled uncontrollably. “Indeed, it seems hypocritical for a man to use a whore but not help one when she is in need.” She stopped and blinked rapidly. She would not cry.
The snorts coalesced into a great roar. “My God, woman!”
“I think I shall go home now,” Anna managed to say just before she ran from the room.
Oh, Lord, what had she done? She’d lost her temper with a man and argued with her employer. And in the process, no doubt, she had destroyed any chance of continuing her work as secretary to the earl.
The people of the castle danced and shouted with joy. Their enemy had been defeated, and they no longer had anything to fear. But in the midst of their celebration, the raven flew back and landed before the duke. “I have done as I said and destroyed the prince. Give me now my price.”
But which daughter would be his wife? The eldest cried that she would not waste her beauty on a nasty bird. The second said now that the evil prince’s army was defeated, why fulfill the bargain? Only the youngest, Aurea, agreed to uphold her father’s honor. That very night, in what was the strangest ceremony any had witnessed, Aurea was wed to the raven. And as soon as she was pronounced his wife, the raven bade her climb on his back and he flew away with his bride clinging atop him….
—from The Raven Prince
Edward stared after Anna in baffled rage. What had just happened? When had he lost control of the conversation?
He turned and snatched two china figurines and a snuffbox from the mantelpiece and pelted them at the wall in rapid succession. Each exploded on impact, but it didn’t help. What had gotten into the woman? He had merely pointed out—firmly, to be sure—how unsuitable it was for her to harbor such a person in her own home, and somehow it had blown up in his face.
What the hell had happened?
He strode into the hall where a startled-looking footman was staring out the front door.
“Don’t just stand there, man.” The footman jumped and spun at Edward’s growl. “Run and tell John Coachman to take the carriage after Mrs. Wren. Silly woman’ll probably walk all the way back to the village just to aggravate me.”
“My lord.” The footman bowed and scurried away.
Edward thrust both hands into his hair and pulled hard enough that he felt the hair come undone from his queue. Women! Beside him, the dog whined.
Hopple peered around the corner like a mouse popping out of its hole to see if the storm was past. He cleared his throat. “Females are quite unreasonable sometimes, are they not, my lord?”
“Oh, shut up, Hopple.” Edward stomped out of the hall.
THE BIRDS HAD just begun their cheerful cacophony the next morning when the knocking started on the cottage’s front door. At first Anna thought the noise part of a hazy dream, but then her eyes opened blearily and the dream dissipated.
The banging, unfortunately, did not.
Anna crawled out of her pallet and found her sky-blue wrapper. Bundling it about her, she stumbled down the cold stairs barefoot, yawning so widely her jaw creaked. The caller had by this time worked himself into a frenzy. Whoever it was had very little patience. In point of fact, the only person she knew who had such a temper was…“Lord Swartingham!”
He had one muscular arm braced against the lintel above her head, the other one raised in preparation for another blow to the door. Hastily he lowered his fisted hand. The dog by his side stood and wagged his tail.
“Mrs. Wren.” He glowered at her. “Haven’t you yet dressed?”
Anna looked down at her wrinkled wrapper and bare toes. “Evidently not, my lord.”
The dog pushed past the earl’s legs and shoved his muzzle into her hand.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because it’s too early to do so?” The dog leaned against Anna as she petted him.
Lord Swartingham scowled at the oblivious hound. “You mug,” he said.
“I beg your pardon!”
The earl turned his scowl on her. “Not you, the dog.”
“Who is it, Anna?” Mother Wren stood on the stairs, peering anxiously down. Fanny hovered in the hall.
“It’s the Earl of Swartingham, Mother,” Anna said as if it were usual for peers to come calling before breakfast. She turned back to him and said more formally, “May I present my mother-in-law, Mrs. Wren. Mother, this is his lordship, Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham.”
Mother Wren, in a frothy pink wrapper, bobbed a perilous curtsy on the stairs. “How do you do?”
“A pleasure, I’m sure, ma’am,” the man at the door muttered.
“Has he broken his fast yet?” Mother Wren asked Anna.
“I don’t know.” Anna swiveled to Lord Swartingham, whose scarred cheeks were reddening. “Have you broken your fast yet?”
“I…” He seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He frowned harder.
“Ask him in, Anna, do,” Mother Wren prompted.
“Won’t you please join us for breakfast, my lord?” Anna inquired sweetly.
The earl nodded. Still frowning, he ducked his head to clear the lintel and stepped inside the cottage.
The elder Mrs. Wren swept down the staircase, fuchsia ribbons fluttering. “I am so glad to meet you, my lord. Fanny, hurry and put the kettle on.”
Fanny squealed and dashed into the kitchen. Mother Wren ushered their guest into the tiny sitting room, and Anna noticed it seemed to shrink in size as he entered it. He sat down gingerly on the only armchair while the ladies took the settee. The dog happily made a circuit of the room, poking his nose into corners until the earl growled at him to sit down.
Mother Wren smiled brightly. “Anna must have been mistaken when she said you’d sacked her.”
“What?” He gripped the arms of his chair.
“She was under the impression that you would no longer have need of a secretary.”
“Mother,” Anna whispered.
“That is what you said, dear.”
The earl’s eyes were intent on Anna. “She was mistaken. She is still my secretary.”
“Oh, how nice!” Mother Wren positively beamed. “She was quite upset last night when she thought she was no longer employed.”
The older woman leaned forward confidentially as if Anna had disappeared from the room. “Why, her eyes were quite red when she came in from the carriage. I think she may have been weeping.”
Mrs. Wren turned an innocent gaze on her daughter-in-law. “Well, they were, dear.”
“Were they, indeed?” the earl murmured. His own ebony eyes gleamed.
Fortunately, Fanny saved her from making a reply by entering with the breakfast tray. Anna noted with relief that the girl had thought to make coddled eggs and to toast some bread to go with their usual porridge. She’d even found a bit of ham. Anna sent an approving nod to the little maid, who grinned back cheekily.
After the earl had partaken of a truly amazing quantity of coddled eggs—what luck that Fanny had gone to market only yesterday—he rose and thanked Mother Wren for the breakfast. Mother Wren smiled flirtatiously at him, and Anna wondered how long it would be before the whole village heard that they had entertained the Earl of Swartingham in their wrappers.
“Can you dress for riding, Mrs. Wren?” the earl asked Anna. “I have my gelding and Daisy waiting outside.”
“Of course, my lord.” Anna excused herself and went to her room to change.
A few minutes later, she ran back down the stairs and found the earl waiting for her in the front garden. He was contemplating the wet earth to the side of her door where blue grape hyacinth and yellow daffodils were cheerfully blooming. He looked up when she came out of the house, and for an instant, there was an expression in his eyes that made her catch her breath. She glanced down to pull on her gloves and felt her cheeks heat.
“About time,” he said. “We’re later than I had planned.”
Anna ignored his curtness and stood by the mare, waiting for his help to mount. The earl advanced and wrapped his big hands around her waist before throwing her up into the saddle. He stood below her for a moment, the wind teasing a lock of his dark hair, and searched her face. She stared back, all thought having fled from her mind. Then he turned to his own horse and mounted.
The day was bright. Anna didn’t remember hearing rain during the night, but the evidence of it lay everywhere. Puddles stood in the lane, and the trees and fences they passed still dripped. The earl walked the horses out of the village and into the countryside.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Mr. Durbin’s sheep have begun to lamb, and I wanted to see how the ewes are doing.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I should have told you about today’s outing earlier.”
Anna kept her eyes straight ahead and made a noncommittal sound.
He coughed. “I might’ve, had you not left so precipitously yesterday afternoon.”
She arched a brow but did not reply.
There was a lengthy lull broken only by the dog’s eager yelp as he flushed a rabbit from the hedge along the lane.
Then the earl tried again. “I’ve heard some people say my temper is rather…” He paused, apparently searching for a word.
Anna helped him. “Savage?”
He squinted at her.
He frowned and opened his mouth.
She was quicker. “Barbaric?”
He cut her off before she could add to her list. “Yes, well, let us simply say that it intimidates some people.” He hesitated. “I wouldn’t want to intimidate you, Mrs. Wren.”
He looked at her swiftly. He didn’t say anymore, but his expression lightened. In another minute, he had kicked the bay into a gallop along the muddy lane, throwing up great clumps of earth. The dog gave chase with his tongue hanging from the side of his mouth.