Disappointment shot through her. “Shall I wait for his return?” she asked.
“No, no. No need,” Mr. Hopple said. “His lordship left some papers for you to transcribe in the library. I’ll just show you there, shall I?”
Anna nodded and followed the steward out of the kitchen and up the back stairs into the main hallway. The floor was pink and black marble parquet, beautifully inlaid, although a bit hard to see in the dim light. They came to the main entrance, and she stared at the grand staircase. Good Lord, it was huge. The stairs led up to a landing the size of her kitchen and then parted into two staircases arching away into the dark upper floors. How on earth did one man rattle around in such a house, even if he did have an army of servants?
Anna became aware that Mr. Hopple was speaking to her.
“The last secretary and, of course, the one before him worked in their own study under the stairs,” the little man said. “But the room there is rather bleak. Not at all fitting a lady. So I thought it best that you be set up in the library where the earl works. Unless,” Mr. Hopple inquired breathlessly, “you would prefer to have a room of your own?”
The steward turned to the library and held the door for Anna. She walked inside and then stopped suddenly, forcing Mr. Hopple to step around her.
“No, no. This will do very nicely.” She was amazed at how calm her voice sounded. So many books! They lined three sides of the room, marching around the fireplace and extending to the vaulted ceiling. There must be over a thousand books in this room. A rather rickety ladder on wheels stood in the corner, apparently for the sole purpose of putting the volumes within reach. Imagine owning all these books and being able to read them whenever one fancied.
Mr. Hopple led her to a corner of the cavernous room where a massive, mahogany desk stood. Opposite it, several feet away, was a smaller, rosewood desk.
“Here we are, Mrs. Wren,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve set out everything I think you might need: paper, quills, ink, wipers, blotting paper, and sand. This is the manuscript the earl would like copied.” He indicated a four-inch stack of untidy paper. “There is a bellpull in the far corner, and I’m sure Cook would be happy to send up tea and any light refreshments you might like. Is there anything else you desire?”
“Oh, no. This is all fine.” Anna clasped her hands before her and tried not to look overwhelmed.
“No? Well, do let me know if you need more paper, or anything else for that matter.” Mr. Hopple smiled and shut the door behind him.
She sat at the elegant little desk and reverently ran a finger over the polished inlay. Such a pretty piece of furniture. She sighed and picked up the first page of the earl’s manuscript. A bold hand, heavily slanted to the right, covered the page. Here and there, sentences were scratched out and alternative ones scrawled along the margins with many arrows pointing to where they should go.
Anna began copying. Her own handwriting flowed small and neat. She paused now and again as she tried to decipher a word. The earl’s handwriting was truly atrocious. After a while, though, she began to get used to his looping Ys and dashed Rs.
At a little past noon, Anna laid aside her quill and rubbed at the ink on her fingertips. Then she rose and tentatively yanked at the bellpull in the corner. It was silent, but presumably a bell rang somewhere to summon someone to bring her a cup of tea. She glanced at the row of books near the pull. They were heavy, embossed tomes with Latin names. Curious, she drew one out. As she did so, a slim volume fell to the floor with a thud. Anna quickly bent to pick it up, glancing guiltily at the door. No one had yet responded to the bellpull.
She turned back to the book in her hands. It was bound in red morocco leather, buttery soft to the touch, and was without title. The sole embellishment was an embossed gold feather on the lower right corner of the cover. She frowned and replaced her first choice, then carefully opened the red leather book. Inside, on the flyleaf, was written in a childish hand, Elizabeth Jane de Raaf, her book.
Anna almost dropped the red book at the young maid’s voice. She hastily replaced it on the shelf and smiled at the maid. “I wonder if I might have some tea?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The maid bobbed and left without further comment.
Anna glanced again at Elizabeth’s book but decided circumspection was the better part of valor and returned to her desk to await the tea.
At five o’clock, Mr. Hopple rushed back into the library. “How was your first day? Not too strenuous, I hope?” He picked up the stack of completed papers and glanced through the first several. “These look very well. The earl will be pleased to get them off to the printers.” He sounded relieved.
Anna wondered if he had spent the day worrying about her abilities. She gathered her things and, with a last inspection of her desktop to make sure all was in order, bid Mr. Hopple good evening and set off home.
Mother Wren pounced the moment Anna arrived at the little cottage and bombarded her with anxious questions. Even Fanny looked at her as if working for the earl were terribly dashing.
“But I didn’t even meet him,” Anna protested to no avail.
The next several days passed swiftly, and the pile of transcribed pages grew steadily. Sunday was a welcome day of rest.
When Anna returned on Monday, the Abbey held an air of excitement. The earl had at last returned from London. Cook didn’t even look up from the soup she stirred when Anna entered the kitchen, and Mr. Hopple wasn’t there to greet her as had been his daily habit. Anna made her way to the library by herself, expecting to finally meet her employer.
Only to find the room empty.
Oh, well. Anna puffed out a breath in disappointment and set her luncheon basket down on the rosewood desk. She began her work, and time passed, marked only by the sound of her quill scratching across the page. After a while, she felt another presence and looked up. Anna gasped.
An enormous dog stood beside her desk only an arm’s length away. The animal had entered without any sound.
Anna held herself very still while she tried to think. She wasn’t afraid of dogs. As a child, she’d owned a sweet little terrier. But this canine was the largest she’d ever encountered. And unfortunately it was also familiar. She’d seen the same animal not a week ago, running beside the ugly man who had fallen off his horse on the high road. And if the animal was here now… oh, dear. Anna rose, but the dog took a step toward her and she thought better of escaping the library. Instead, she exhaled and slowly sat back down. She and the dog eyed each other. She extended a hand, palm downward, for the dog to sniff. The dog followed her hand’s movement with its gaze, but disdained the gesture.
“Well,” Anna said softly, “if you will not move, sir, I can at least get on with my work.”
She picked up her quill again, trying to ignore the huge animal beside her. After a bit, the dog sat down but still watched her. When the clock over the mantelpiece struck the noon hour, she put down her quill again and rubbed her hand. Cautiously, she stretched her arms overhead, making sure to move slowly.
“Perhaps you’d like some luncheon?” she muttered to the beast. Anna opened the small cloth-covered basket she brought every morning. She thought about ringing for some tea to go with her meal but wasn’t certain the dog would let her move from the desk.
“And if someone doesn’t come to check on me,” she grumbled to the beast, “I shall be glued to this desk all afternoon because of you.”
The basket held bread and butter, an apple, and a wedge of cheese, wrapped in a cloth. She offered a crust of the bread to the dog, but he didn’t even sniff it.
“You are picky, aren’t you?” She munched on the bread herself. “I suppose you’re used to dining on pheasant and champagne.”
The dog kept his own counsel.
Anna finished the bread and started on the apple under the beast’s watchful eyes. Surely if it was dangerous, it would not be allowed to roam freely in the Abbey? She saved the cheese for last. She inhaled as she unwrapped it and savored the pungent aroma. Cheese was rather a luxury at the moment. She licked her lips.
The dog took that moment to stretch out his neck and sniff.
Anna paused with the lump of cheese halfway to her mouth. She looked first at it and then back to the dog. His eyes were liquid brown. He placed a heavy paw on her lap.
She sighed. “Some cheese, milord?” She broke off a piece and held it out.
The cheese disappeared in one gulp, leaving a trail of canine saliva in its former place on her palm. The dog’s thick tail brushed the carpet. He looked at her expectantly.
Anna raised her eyebrows sternly. “You, sir, are a sham.”
She fed the monster the rest of her cheese. Only then did he deign to let her fondle his ears. She was stroking his broad head and telling him what a handsome, proud fellow he was when she heard the sound of booted footsteps in the hallway. She looked up and saw the Earl of Swartingham standing in the doorway, his hot obsidian eyes upon her.
A powerful prince, a man who feared neither God nor mortal, ruled the lands to the east of the duke. This prince was a cruel man and a covetous one as well. He envied the duke the bounty of his lands and the happiness of his people. One day, the prince gathered a force of men and swept down upon the little dukedom, pillaging the land and its people until his army stood outside the walls of the duke’s castle.
The old duke climbed to the top of his battlements and beheld a sea of warriors that stretched from the stones of his castle all the way to the horizon. How could he defeat such a powerful army? He wept for his people and for his daughters, who surely would be ravished and slain. But as he stood thus in his despair, he heard a croaking voice. “Weep not, duke. All is not yet lost….”
—from The Raven Prince
Edward halted in the act of entering his library. He blinked. A woman sat at his secretary’s desk.
He repressed the instinctive urge to back out a step and double-check the door. Instead he narrowed his eyes, inspecting the intruder. She was a small morsel dressed in brown, her hair hidden by a god-awful frilled cap. She held her back so straight, it didn’t touch the chair. She looked like every other lady of good quality but depressed means, except that she was petting—petting for God’s sake—his great brute of a dog. The animal’s head lolled, tongue hanging out the side of his jaw like a besotted idiot, eyes half shut in ecstasy.
Edward scowled at him. “Who’re you?” he asked her, more gruffly than he’d meant to.
The woman’s mouth thinned primly, drawing his eyes to it. She had the most erotic mouth he’d ever seen on a woman. It was wide, the upper lip fuller than the lower, and one corner tilted. “I am Anna Wren, my lord. What is your dog’s name?”
“I don’t know.” He stalked into the room, taking care not to move suddenly.
“But”—the woman knit her brow—“isn’t it your dog?”
He glanced at the dog and was momentarily mesmerized. Her elegant fingers were stroking through the dog’s fur.
“He follows me and sleeps by my bed.” Edward shrugged. “But he has no name that I know of.”
He stopped in front of the rosewood desk. She’d have to move past him in order to escape the room.
Anna Wren’s brows lowered disapprovingly. “But he must have a name. How do you call him?”
“I don’t, mostly.”
The woman was plain. She had a long, thin nose, brown eyes, and brown hair—what he could see of it. Nothing about her was out of the ordinary. Except that mouth.
The tip of her tongue moistened that corner.
Edward felt his cock jump and harden; he hoped to hell she wouldn’t notice and be shocked out of her maidenly mind. He was aroused by a frumpy woman he didn’t even know.
The dog must’ve grown tired of the conversation. He slipped from beneath Anna Wren’s hand and lay down with a sigh by the fireplace.