The vicarage had never run to a harpsichord when Anna’s family had occupied it. A fact Felicity knew very well, since she’d called there on several occasions as a girl.
Anna had taken a deep breath. “I’m afraid I don’t have any musical ability, but I do have a bit of Latin and Greek.”
Felicity had flicked open a fan and tittered behind it. “Oh, I do apologize,” she’d said when she’d recovered. “But my girls will not be learning anything so masculine as Latin or Greek. It’s rather unbecoming in a lady, don’t you think?”
Anna had grit her teeth, but managed a smile. Until Felicity had suggested she try the kitchen to see if Cook needed a new scullery maid. Things had gone downhill from there.
Anna sighed now. She might very well end up a scullery maid or worse, but not at Felicity’s house. Time to head home.
Rounding the corner at the ironmonger’s, she just managed to avoid a collision with Mr. Felix Hopple hurrying in the other direction. She skidded to a halt inches shy of the Ravenhill steward’s chest. A packet of needles, some yellow embroidery floss, and a small bag of tea for Mother Wren slid to the ground from her basket.
“Oh, do excuse me, Mrs. Wren,” the little man gasped as he bent to retrieve the items. “I’m afraid I was not minding where my feet carried me.”
“That’s quite all right.” Anna eyed the violet and crimson striped waistcoat he wore and blinked. Good Lord. “I hear the earl is finally in residence at Ravenhill. You must be quite busy.”
The village gossips were all abuzz at the mysterious earl’s reappearance in the neighborhood after so many years, and Anna was just as curious as everyone else. In fact, she was beginning to wonder about the identity of the ugly gentleman who had so nearly run her down the day before….
Mr. Hopple heaved a sigh. “I’m afraid so.” He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. “I am on the hunt for a new secretary for his lordship. It is not an easy search. The last man I interviewed kept blotting his paper, and I was not at all sure of his ability to spell.”
“That would be a problem in a secretary,” Anna murmured.
“If you find no one today, do remember that there will be plenty of gentlemen at church on Sunday morning,” Anna said. “Perhaps you will find someone there.”
“I’m afraid that will do me no good. His lordship stated he must have a new secretary by tomorrow morning.”
“So soon?” Anna stared. “That is very little time.” A thought dawned.
The steward was trying without success to wipe the mud from the packet of needles.
“Mr. Hopple,” she said slowly, “did the earl say he required a male secretary?”
“Well, no,” Mr. Hopple replied absently, still involved with the packet. “The earl simply instructed me to hire another secretary, but what other—” He stopped suddenly.
Anna straightened her flat straw hat and smiled meaningfully. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking lately about how much excess time I have. You may not be aware, but I’ve a very clear hand. And I do know how to spell.”
“You are not suggesting…?” Mr. Hopple looked stunned, rather like a gaffed halibut in a lavender wig.
“Yes, I do suggest.” Anna nodded. “I think it will be just the thing. Shall I report to Ravenhill at nine or ten o’clock tomorrow?”
“Er, nine o’clock. The earl rises early. B-but really, Mrs. Wren—” Mr. Hopple stuttered.
“Yes, really, Mr. Hopple. There. It is all settled. I shall see you tomorrow at nine o’clock.” Anna patted the poor man on the sleeve. He really did not look well. She turned to go but stopped when she remembered a very important point. “One more thing. What wage is the earl offering?”
“The wage?” Mr. Hopple blinked. “Well, er, the earl was paying his last secretary three pounds a month. Will that be all right?”
“Three pounds.” Anna’s lips moved as she silently repeated the words. It was suddenly a glorious day in Little Battleford. “That will do nicely.”
“AND NO DOUBT MANY of the upper chambers will need to be aired and perhaps painted as well. Have you got that, Hopple?” Edward leapt down the last three steps in front of Ravenhill Abbey and strode toward the stables, the late-afternoon sun warm on his back. The dog, as usual, followed at his heels.
There was no reply.
“Hopple? Hopple!” He pivoted, his boots crunching on the gravel, and glanced behind him.
“A moment, my lord.” The steward was just starting down the front steps. He seemed out of breath. “I’ll be there… in… a… moment.”
Edward waited, foot tapping, until Hopple caught up, then he continued around the back. Here the gravel gave way to worn cobblestone in the courtyard. “Have you got that about the upper chambers?”
“Er, the upper chambers, my lord?” the little man wheezed as he scanned the notes in his hand.
“Have the housekeeper air them,” Edward repeated slowly. “Check to see if they need painting. Do try to keep up, man.”
“Yes, my lord,” Hopple muttered, scribbling.
“I trust you have found a secretary.”
“Er, well…” The steward peered at his notes intently.
“I did tell you I needed one by tomorrow morn.”
“Yes, indeed, my lord, and in fact I do have a-a person who I think may very well—”
Edward halted before the massive double doors to the stables. “Hopple, do you have a secretary for me or not?”
The steward looked alarmed. “Yes, my lord. I do think one could say that I have found a secretary.”
“Then why not say so?” He frowned. “Is something wrong with the man?”
“N-no, my lord.” Hopple smoothed his terrible purple waistcoat. “The secretary will, I think, be quite satisfactory as a, well, as a secretary.” His eyes were fixed on the horse weather vane atop the stable roof.
Edward found himself inspecting the weather vane. It squeaked and revolved slowly. He tore his gaze from it and looked down. The dog sat beside him, head cocked, also staring at the weather vane.
Edward shook his head. “Good. I will be absent tomorrow morning when he arrives.” They walked from the late-afternoon sunshine into the gloom of the stables. The dog trotted ahead, sniffing in corners. “So you will need to show him my manuscript and generally instruct him as to his duties.” He turned. Was it his imagination or did Hopple look relieved?
“Very good, my lord,” the steward said.
“I will be traveling up to London early tomorrow and shall be gone through the rest of the week. By the time I return, he should have transcribed the papers I have left.”
“Indeed, my lord.” The steward was definitely beaming.
Edward eyed him and snorted. “I shall be looking forward to meeting my new secretary when I return.”
Hopple’s smile dimmed.
RAVENHILL ABBEY WAS a rather daunting sort of place, Anna thought as she tramped up the drive to the manor the next morning. The walk from the village to the estate was almost three miles, and her calves were beginning to ache. Fortunately, the sun shone cheerily. Ancient oaks bordered the drive, a change from the open fields along the lane from Little Battleford. The trees were so old that two horsemen could ride abreast through the spaces between them.
She rounded a corner, gasped, and halted. Daffodils dotted the tender green grass beneath the trees. The branches above wore only a fuzz of new leaves, and the sunshine broke through with hardly any impediment. Each yellow daffodil shone translucent and perfect, creating a fragile fairyland.
What sort of man would stay away from this for almost two decades?
Anna remembered tales of the great smallpox epidemic that had decimated Little Battleford in the years before her parents moved into the vicarage. She knew the present earl’s family had all died from the disease. Even so, wouldn’t he have at least visited in the intervening years?
She shook her head and continued. Just past the daffodil field, the copse opened up and she could see Ravenhill clearly. It stood four stories high, built of gray stone in the classic style. A single central entrance on the first floor dominated the façade. From it, twin curving staircases descended to ground level. In a sea of open fields, the Abbey was an island, alone and arrogant.
Anna started on the long approach to Ravenhill Abbey, her confidence fading the closer she got. That front entrance was simply too imposing. She hesitated a moment when she neared the Abbey, then veered around the corner. Just past the corner, she saw the servants’ entrance. This door, too, was tall and double, but at least she didn’t have to mount granite steps to reach it. Taking a deep breath, she tugged on the big brass knob and walked directly into the huge kitchen.
A large woman with white-blond hair stood at a massive central table. She kneaded dough, her arms elbow-deep in an earthenware bowl the size of a kettle. Strands of hair came down from the bun at the top of her head and stuck to the sweat on her red cheeks. The only other people in the room were a scullery maid and a bootblack boy. All three turned to stare at her.
The fair-haired woman—surely the cook?—held up floury arms. “Aye?”
Anna raised her chin. “Good morning. I’m the earl’s new secretary, Mrs. Wren. Do you know where Mr. Hopple might be?”
Without taking her eyes from Anna, the cook yelled to the bootblack boy, “You there, Danny. Go and fetch Mr. Hopple and tell him Mrs. Wren is here in the kitchen. Be quick, now.”
Danny dashed out of the kitchen, and the cook turned back to her dough.
Anna stood waiting.
The scullery maid by the massive fireplace stared, absently scratching her arm. Anna smiled at her. The girl quickly averted her eyes.
“Ain’t never heard of a lady secretary before.” The cook kept her eyes on her hands, swiftly working the dough. She expertly flipped the whole mass onto the table and rolled it into a ball, the muscles on her forearms flexing. “Have you met his lordship, then?”
“We’ve never been introduced,” Anna said. “I discussed the position with Mr. Hopple, and he had no qualms about me becoming the earl’s secretary.” At least Mr. Hopple hadn’t voiced any qualms, she added mentally.
The cook grunted without looking up. “That’s just as well.” She rapidly pinched off walnut-sized bits of dough and rolled them into balls. A pile formed. “Bertha, fetch me that tray.”
The scullery maid brought over a cast-iron tray and lined up the balls on it in rows. “Gives me the chilly trembles, he does, when he shouts,” she whispered.
The cook cast a jaundiced eye on the maid. “The sound of hoot owls gives you the chilly trembles. The earl’s a fine gentleman. Pays us all a decent wage and gives us regular days off, he does.”
Bertha bit her lower lip as she carefully positioned each ball. “He’s got a terrible sharp tongue. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Tootleham left so—” She seemed to realize the cook was glaring at her and abruptly shut her mouth.
Mr. Hopple’s entrance broke the awkward silence. He wore an alarming violet waistcoat, embroidered all over with scarlet cherries.
“Good morning, good morning, Mrs. Wren.” He darted a glance at the watching cook and scullery maid and lowered his voice. “Are you quite sure, er, about this?”
“Of course, Mr. Hopple.” Anna smiled at the steward in what she hoped was a confident manner. “I am looking forward to making the acquaintance of the earl.”
She heard the cook humph behind her.
“Ah.” Mr. Hopple coughed. “As to that, the earl has journeyed to London on business. He often spends his time there, you know,” he said in a confiding tone. “Meeting with other learned gentlemen. The earl is quite an authority on agricultural matters.”