In fact, Peter had improved their finances since his own father’s death shortly before their marriage. The older man had been a solicitor, but several ill-advised investments had landed him deeply in debt. After the wedding, Peter had sold the house he had grown up in to pay off the debts and moved his new bride and widowed mother into the much-smaller cottage. He had been working as a solicitor when he’d become ill and died within the fortnight.

Leaving Anna to manage the little household on her own. “Rinse, please.”

A stream of chilly water poured over her nape and head. She felt to make sure no soap remained, then squeezed the excess water from her hair. She wrapped a cloth around her head and glanced up. “I think I should find a position.”

“Oh, dear, surely not that.” Mother Wren plopped down on a kitchen chair. “Ladies don’t work.”

Anna felt her mouth twitch. “Would you prefer I remain a lady and let us both starve?”

Mother Wren hesitated. She appeared to actually debate the question.

“Don’t answer that,” Anna said. “It won’t come to starvation anyway. However, we do need to find a way to bring some income into the household.”

“Perhaps if I were to produce more lace. Or, or I could give up meat entirely,” her mother-in-law said a little wildly.

“I don’t want you to have to do that. Besides, Father made sure I had a good education.”

Mother Wren brightened. “Your father was the best vicar Little Battleford ever had, God rest his soul. He did let everyone know his views on the education of children.”

“Mmm.” Anna took the cloth off her head and began combing out her wet hair. “He made sure I learned to read and write and do figures. I even have a little Latin and Greek. I thought I’d look tomorrow for a position as a governess or companion.”

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“Old Mrs. Lester is almost blind. Surely her son-in-law would hire you to read—” Mother Wren stopped.

Anna became aware at the same time of an acrid scent in the air. “Fanny!”

The little maid, who had been watching the exchange between her employers, yelped and ran to the pot of stew over the fire. Anna groaned.

Another burned supper.

FELIX HOPPLE PAUSED before the Earl of Swartingham’s library door to take stock of his appearance. His wig, with two tight sausage curls on either side, was freshly powdered in a becoming lavender shade. His figure—quite svelte for a man of his years—was highlighted by a puce waistcoat edged with vining yellow leaves. And his hose had alternating green and orange stripes, handsome without being ostentatious. His toilet was perfection itself. There was really no reason for him to hesitate outside the door.

He sighed. The earl had a disconcerting tendency to growl. As estate manager of Ravenhill Abbey, Felix had heard that worrisome growl quite a bit in the last two weeks. It’d made him feel like one of those unfortunate native gentlemen one read about in travelogues who lived in the shadows of large, ominous volcanoes. The kind that might erupt at any moment. Why Lord Swartingham had chosen to take up residence at the Abbey after years of blissful absence, Felix couldn’t fathom, but he had the sinking feeling that the earl intended to remain for a very, very long time.

The steward ran a hand down the front of his waistcoat. He reminded himself that although the matter he was about to bring to the earl’s attention was not pleasant, it could in no way be construed as his own fault. Thus prepared, he nodded and tapped at the library door.

There was a pause and then a deep, sure voice rasped, “Come.”

The library stood on the west side of the manor house, and the late-afternoon sun streamed through the large windows that took up nearly the entire outside wall. One might think this would make the library a sunny, welcoming room, but somehow the sunlight was swallowed by the cavernous space soon after it entered, leaving most of the room to the domain of the shadows. The ceiling—two stories high—was wreathed in gloom.

The earl sat behind a massive, baroque desk that would’ve dwarfed a smaller man. Nearby, a fire attempted to be cheerful and failed dismally. A gigantic, brindled dog sprawled before the hearth as if dead. Felix winced. The dog was a mongrel mix that included a good deal of mastiff and perhaps some wolfhound. The result was an ugly, mean-looking canine he tried hard to avoid.

He cleared his throat. “If I could have a moment, my lord?”

Lord Swartingham glanced up from the paper in his hand. “What is it now, Hopple? Come in, come in, man. Sit down while I finish this. I’ll give you my attention in a minute.”

Felix crossed to one of the armchairs before the mahogany desk and sank into it, keeping an eye on the dog. He used the reprieve to study his employer for an idea of his mood. The earl scowled at the page in front of him, his pockmarks making the expression especially unattractive. Of course, this was not necessarily a bad sign. The earl habitually scowled.

Lord Swartingham tossed aside the paper. He took off his half-moon reading glasses and threw his considerable weight back in his chair, making it squeak. Felix flinched in sympathy.

“Well, Hopple?”

“My lord, I have some unpleasant news that I hope you will not take too badly.” He smiled tentatively.

The earl stared down his big nose without comment.

Felix tugged at his shirt cuffs. “The new secretary, Mr. Tootleham, had word of a family emergency that forced him to hand in his resignation rather quickly.”

There was still no change of expression on the earl’s face, although he did begin to drum his fingers on the chair arm.

Felix spoke more rapidly. “It seems Mr. Tootleham’s parents in London have become bedridden by a fever and require his assistance. It is a very virulent illness with sweating and purging, qu-quite contagious.”

The earl raised one black eyebrow.

“I-in fact, Mr. Tootleham’s two brothers, three sisters, his elderly grandmother, an aunt, and the family cat have all caught the contagion and are utterly unable to fend for themselves.” Felix stopped and looked at the earl.

Silence.

Felix wrestled valiantly to keep from babbling.

“The cat?” Lord Swartingham snarled softly.

Felix started to stutter a reply but was interrupted by a bellowed obscenity. He ducked with newly practiced ease as the earl picked up a pottery jar and flung it over Felix’s head at the door. It hit with a tremendous crash and a tinkle of falling shards. The dog, apparently long used to the odd manner in which Lord Swartingham vented his spleen, merely sighed.

Lord Swartingham breathed heavily and pinned Felix with his coal-black eyes. “I trust you have found a replacement.”

Felix’s neckcloth felt suddenly tight. He ran a finger around the upper edge. “Er, actually, my lord, although, of course, I’ve searched qu-quite diligently, and indeed, all the nearby villages have been almost scoured, I haven’t—” He gulped and courageously met his employer’s eye. “I’m afraid I haven’t found a new secretary yet.”

Lord Swartingham didn’t move. “I need a secretary to transcribe my manuscript for the series of lectures given by the Agrarian Society in four weeks,” he enunciated awfully. “Preferably one who will stay more than two days. Find one.” He snatched up another sheet of paper and went back to reading.

The audience had ended.

“Yes, my lord.” Felix bounced nervously out of the chair and scurried toward the door. “I’ll start looking right away, my lord.”

Lord Swartingham waited until Felix had almost reached the door before rumbling, “Hopple.”

On the point of escape, Felix guiltily drew back his hand from the doorknob. “My lord?”

“You have until the morning after tomorrow.”

Felix stared at his employer’s still-downcast head and swallowed, feeling rather like that Hercules fellow must have on first seeing the Augean stables. “Yes, my lord.”

EDWARD DE RAAF, the fifth Earl of Swartingham, finished reading the report from his North Yorkshire estate and tossed it onto the pile of papers, along with his spectacles. The light from the window was fading fast and soon would be gone. He rose from his chair and went to look out. The dog got up, stretched, and padded over to stand beside him, bumping at his hand. Edward absently stroked its ears.

This was the second secretary to decamp in the dark of night in so many months. One would think he was a dragon. Every single secretary had been more mouse than man. Show a little temper, a raised voice, and they scurried away. If even one of his secretaries had half the pluck of the woman he had nearly run down yesterday… His lips twitched. He hadn’t missed her sarcastic reply to his demand of why she was in the road. No, that madam stood her ground when he blew his fire at her. A pity his secretaries couldn’t do the same.

He glowered out the dark window. And then there was this other nagging… disturbance. His boyhood home was not as he remembered it.

True, he was a man now. When he had last seen Ravenhill Abbey, he’d been a stripling youth mourning the loss of his family. In the intervening two decades, he had wandered from his northern estates to his London town house, but somehow, despite the time, those two places had never felt like home. He had stayed away precisely because the Abbey would never be the same as when his family had lived here. He’d expected some change. But he’d not been prepared for this dreariness. Nor the awful sense of loneliness. The very emptiness of the rooms defeated him, mocking him with the laughter and light that he remembered.

The family that he remembered.

The only reason he persisted in opening up the mansion was because he hoped to bring his new bride here—his prospective new bride, pending the successful negotiation of the marital contract. He wasn’t going to repeat the mistakes of his first, short marriage and attempt to settle elsewhere. Back then, he’d tried to make his young wife happy by remaining in her native Yorkshire. It hadn’t worked. In the years since his wife’s untimely death, he’d come to the conclusion that she wouldn’t have been happy anywhere they’d chosen to make their home.

Edward pushed away from the window and strode toward the library doors. He would start as he meant to; go on and live at the Abbey; make it a home again. It was the seat of his earldom and where he meant to replant his family tree. And when the marriage bore fruit, when the halls once again rang with children’s laughter, surely then Ravenhill Abbey would feel alive again.

Chapter Two

Now, all three of the duke’s daughters were equally fair. The eldest had hair of deepest pitch that shone with blue-black lights; the second had fiery locks that framed a milky-white complexion; and the youngest was golden, both of face and form, so that she seemed bathed in sunlight. But of these three maidens, only the youngest was blessed with her father’s kindness. Her name was Aurea….

—from The Raven Prince

Who would have guessed that there was such a paucity of jobs for genteel ladies in Little Battleford? Anna had known that it wouldn’t be easy to find a position when she left the cottage this morning, but she’d started with some hope. All she required was a family with illiterate children needing a governess or an elderly lady in want of a wool-winder. Surely this was not too much to expect?

Evidently it was.

It was midafternoon now. Her feet ached from trudging up and down muddy lanes, and she didn’t have a position. Old Mrs. Lester had no love of literature. Her son-in-law was too parsimonious to hire a companion in any case. Anna called round on several other ladies, hinting that she might be open to a position, only to find they either could not afford a companion or simply did not want one.

Then she’d come to Felicity Clearwater’s home.

Felicity was the third wife of Squire Clearwater, a man some thirty years older than his bride. The squire was the largest landowner in the county besides the Earl of Swartingham. As his wife, Felicity clearly considered herself the preeminent social figure in Little Battleford and rather above the humble Wren household. But Felicity had two girls of a suitable age for a governess, so Anna had called on her. She’d spent an excruciating half hour feeling her way like a cat walking on sharp pebbles. When Felicity had caught on to Anna’s reason for visiting, she’d smoothed a pampered hand over her already immaculate coiffure. Then she’d sweetly enquired about Anna’s musical knowledge.