“You name him if you must.” Edward shrugged again and rested the fingertips of his right hand on the desk.
The assessing stare she leveled at him stirred a memory. His eyes narrowed. “You’re the woman who made my horse shy on the high road the other day.”
“Yes.” She gave him a look of suspicious sweetness. “I am so sorry you fell off your horse.”
Impertinent. “I did not fall off. I was unseated.”
He almost contested that one word, but she held out a sheaf of papers to him. “Would you care to see what I’ve transcribed today?”
“Hmm,” he rumbled noncommittally.
He withdrew his spectacles from a pocket and settled them on his nose. It took a moment to concentrate on the page in his hand, but when he did, Edward recognized the handwriting of his new secretary. He’d read over the transcribed pages the night before, and while he’d approved of the neatness of the script, he’d wondered about the effeminacy of it.
He looked at little Anna Wren over his spectacles and snorted. Not effeminate. Feminine. Which explained Hopple’s evasiveness.
He read a few sentences more before another thought struck him. Edward darted a sharp glance at the woman’s hand and saw she wore no rings. Ha. All the men hereabouts were probably afraid to court her.
“You are unwed?”
She appeared startled. “I am a widow, my lord.”
“Ah.” Then she had been courted and wed, but not anymore. No male guarded her now.
Hard on the heels of that thought was a feeling of ridiculousness for having predatory thoughts about such a drab female. Except for that mouth… He shifted uncomfortably and brought his wandering thoughts back to the page he held. There were no blots or misspellings that he could see. Exactly what he would expect from a small, brown widow. He grimaced mentally.
Ha. A mistake. He glared at the widow over his spectacles. “This word should be compost, not compose. Can’t you read my handwriting?”
Mrs. Wren took a deep breath as if fortifying her patience, which made her lavish bosom expand. “Actually, my lord, no, I can’t always.”
“Humph,” he grunted, a little disappointed she hadn’t argued. She’d probably have to take a lot of deep breaths if she were enraged.
He finished reading through the papers and threw them down on her desk, where they slid sideways. She frowned at the lopsided heap of papers and bent to retrieve one that had fluttered to the floor.
“They look well enough.” He walked behind her. “I will be working here later this afternoon whilst you finish transcribing the manuscript thus far.”
He reached around her to flick a piece of lint off the desk. For a moment, he could feel her body heat and smell the faint scent of roses wafting up from her warmth. He sensed her stiffen.
He straightened. “Tomorrow I’ll need you to work with me on matters pertaining to the estate. I hope that is amenable to you?”
“Yes, of course, my lord.”
He felt her twist around to see him, but he was already walking toward the door. “Fine. I have business to attend to before I begin my work here.”
He paused by the door. “Oh, and Mrs. Wren?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Yes, my lord?”
“Do not leave the Abbey before I return.” Edward strode into the hallway determined to hunt down and interrogate his steward.
IN THE LIBRARY, Anna narrowed her eyes at the earl’s retreating back. What an overbearing man. He even looked arrogant from the rear, his broad shoulders straight, his head at an imperious tilt.
She considered his last words and turned a puzzled frown on the dog sprawled before the fire. “Why does he think I’d leave?”
The mastiff opened one eye but seemed to know that the question was rhetorical and closed it again. She sighed and shook her head, then drew a fresh sheet of paper from the pile. She was his secretary, after all; she’d just have to learn to put up with the high-handed earl. And, of course, keep her thoughts to herself at all times.
Three hours later, Anna had nearly finished transcribing the pages and had a crick in her shoulder for her efforts. The earl hadn’t yet returned, despite his threat. She sighed and flexed her right hand, then stood. Perhaps a stroll about the room was in order. The dog looked up and rose to follow her. Idly, she trailed her fingers along a shelf of books. They were outsized tomes, geography volumes, judging by the titles on their spines. The books were certainly bigger than the red-bound one she’d looked at last week. Anna paused. She hadn’t had the courage to inspect that little volume since she’d been interrupted by the maid, but now curiosity drove her to the shelf by the bellpull.
There it was, nestled beside its taller mates, just as she’d left it. The slim red book seemed to beckon her. Anna drew it out and opened it to the title page. The print was ornate and barely readable: The Raven Prince. There was no author given. She raised her eyebrows and flipped several pages until she came to an illustration of a giant black raven, far larger than the ordinary bird. It stood on a stone wall beside a man with a long white beard and a weary expression on his face. Anna frowned. The raven’s head was tilted as if it knew something the old man didn’t, and its beak was open as though it might—
“What do you have there?”
The earl’s deep tones startled her so badly that Anna did drop the book this time. How had such a large man moved so silently? He crossed the carpet now, with no regard to the muddy tracks he left, and picked up the book at her feet. His expression went flat when he saw the cover. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
Then he looked up. “I thought I’d order tea,” he said prosaically. He tugged at the bellpull.
The big dog thrust his muzzle in his master’s free hand. Lord Swartingham scrubbed the dog’s head and turned to place the book in the drawer of his desk.
Anna cleared her throat. “I was just looking. I hope you don’t mind—”
But the earl waved her to silence as a parlor maid appeared at the door. He spoke to the maid. “Bitsy, have Cook put together a tray with some bread and tea and whatever else she has about.” He glanced at Anna, seemingly as an afterthought. “See if she has some cakes or biscuits, too, will you?”
He hadn’t asked if Anna preferred sweets, so it was just as well that she did. The maid bobbed and hurried out of the room.
Anna pursed her lips. “I really didn’t mean—”
“No matter,” he interrupted. The earl was at his desk, pulling out ink and quills in a haphazard manner. “Look around if you choose. All these books should be put to some use. Although, I don’t know that you’ll find much of interest in them. Mostly boring histories, if I remember correctly, and probably moldy to boot.”
He stopped to peruse a sheet lying on the desktop. She opened her mouth to try again but was distracted by the sight of him stroking the quill while he read. His hands were large and tanned, more so than a gentleman’s hands should be. Black hairs grew on the back. The thought popped into her head that he probably had hair on his chest as well. She straightened and cleared her throat.
The earl looked up.
“Do you think ‘Duke’ is a good name?” she asked.
His face blanked for a second before it cleared. He glanced at the dog in consideration. “I don’t think so. He would outrank me.”
The arrival of three maids bearing heavily laden trays saved Anna from making a reply. They set up the tea service on a table near the window and then withdrew. The earl gestured her to the settee on one side while he took a chair on the other.
“Shall I pour?” she asked.
“Please.” He nodded.
Anna served the tea. She thought she felt the earl watching her as she went through the ritual, but when she looked up, his gaze was on his cup. The quantity of the food was intimidating. There was bread and butter, three different jellies, cold sliced ham, pigeon pie, some cheese, two different puddings, small iced cakes, and dried fruit. She filled a plate for the earl with some of each, remembering how hungry a man could be after exercise; then she chose a few pieces of fruit and a cake for herself. Apparently the earl didn’t need conversation during the meal. He methodically demolished the food on his plate.
Anna watched him while she nibbled at a lemon cake.
He lounged in the chair, one leg bent at the knee, the other extended half under the table. Her eyes followed the long length of his mud-splattered jackboots, up muscled thighs to trim hips, over a flat stomach to a chest that widened out to quite broad shoulders for such a lean man. Her gaze skittered to his face. His black eyes gleamed back at her.
She flushed and cleared her throat. “Your dog is so”—she glanced at the homely animal—“unusual. I don’t believe I have ever seen one like it before. Where did you get it?”
The earl snorted. “The question should be, where did he get me?”
“I beg your pardon?”
The earl sighed and shifted in his chair. “He turned up one night about a year ago outside my estate in North Yorkshire. I found him along the road. He was emaciated, flea-bitten, and had a rope tangled about his neck and forelegs. I cut the rope off, and the damned animal followed me home.” He scowled at the dog beside his chair.
It wagged its tail happily. The earl lobbed a piece of pie crust, which the dog snapped out of the air.
“Haven’t been able to get rid of him since.”
Anna pursed her lips to hide a smile. When she looked up, she thought the earl was staring at her mouth. Oh, dear. Did she have icing on her face? She hastily dabbed at her lips with a finger. “He must be quite loyal to you after you rescued him.”
He grunted. “More like he’s loyal to the kitchen scraps he gets here.” The earl rose abruptly and rang for the tea things to be removed, the dog following his steps. Apparently tea was over.
The rest of the day passed companionably.
The earl wasn’t a silent writer. He muttered to himself and ran his hand through his hair until strands of it became dislodged from his queue and fell around his cheeks in disarray. Sometimes he jumped up to pace the room before returning to his desk to furiously scribble. The dog seemed used to the earl’s compositional style and snored by the fireplace, unperturbed.
When the hall clock chimed the five o’clock hour, Anna started to gather her basket together.
The earl frowned. “Are you leaving already?”
Anna paused. “The hour has struck five, my lord.”
He looked surprised, then glanced out the darkening windows. “So it has.”
He stood and waited while she finished and then escorted her to the door. Anna was very conscious of his presence beside her as she walked down the hall. Her head didn’t quite come to his shoulder, reminding her again of how large a man he was.
The earl scowled when he saw the empty drive outside. “Where is your carriage?”
“I haven’t one,” she said rather tartly. “I walked from the village.”
“Ah. Of course,” he said. “Wait here. I’ll have my carriage brought round.”
Anna started to protest, but he ran down the steps and strode off toward the stables, leaving her with the dog for company. The animal groaned and sat down. She stroked his ears. They waited quietly, listening to the wind stirring the treetops. The dog suddenly pricked up his ears and got to his feet.
The carriage rumbled around the corner and pulled up before the front steps. The earl climbed out and held the door for Anna. Eagerly, the mastiff started down the front steps ahead of her.
Lord Swartingham frowned at the animal. “Not you.”
The dog lowered its head and went to stand at his side. Anna placed her gloved hand in the earl’s as he helped her into the carriage. For a moment, strong, masculine fingers tightened around hers; then she was released to sit on the red leather seat.