The earl leaned into the carriage. “You needn’t bring a lunch tomorrow. You will be dining with me.”

He signaled the driver before she could thank him and the carriage lurched forward. Anna craned her neck to look back. The earl still stood before the steps with the huge dog. For some reason, the sight filled her with a melancholy loneliness. Anna shook her head and faced forward again, chastising herself. The earl had no need of her pity.

EDWARD WATCHED THE carriage round the corner. He had an uneasy feeling that he shouldn’t let the little widow out of his sight. Her presence beside him in the library that afternoon had been strangely soothing. He grimaced to himself. Anna Wren was not for him. She was of a different class than he, and, moreover, she was a respectable widow from the village. She wasn’t a sophisticated society lady who might consider a liaison outside of wedlock.

“Come.” He slapped his thigh.

The dog followed him back into the library. The room was cold and dreary again. Somehow it had felt warmer when Mrs. Wren had sat here. He strolled behind her rosewood desk and noticed a handkerchief on the floor. It was white with flowers embroidered in one corner. Violets, perhaps? Hard to tell since they were a bit lopsided. Edward lifted the cloth to his face and inhaled. It smelled of roses.

He fingered the handkerchief and walked to the darkened windows. His trip to London had gone well. Sir Richard Gerard had accepted the suit for his daughter. Gerard was only a baronet, but the family was old and sound. The mother had borne seven children, five of whom had lived to adulthood. Also, Gerard owned a small unentailed estate bordering his own in North Yorkshire. The man balked at adding this land to his eldest daughter’s dowry, but Edward felt sure he would come around in time. After all, Gerard would be gaining an earl as a son-in-law. Quite a feather in his cap. As for the girl…

Edward’s thoughts stopped, and for a horrible moment he couldn’t think of her name. Then it came to him: Sylvia. Of course, Sylvia. He hadn’t spent much time alone with her, but he’d made sure the match was agreeable to the girl. He’d asked her point-blank if the smallpox scars repelled her. She had said they did not. Edward balled his hand into a fist. Did she tell the truth? Others had lied about his scars and he had been fooled in the past. The girl could very well be telling him what he wished to hear and he would not find out her loathing until later. But what alternative did he have? To remain unmarried and childless the rest of his life for fear of a possible lie? That fate was untenable.

Edward stroked a finger across his cheek and felt soft linen against his skin. He still held the handkerchief. He stared at it a moment, rubbing the cloth with his thumb; then he carefully folded the handkerchief and laid it on the desk.

He strode from the room, the dog shadowing him.

ANNA’S ARRIVAL HOME in a grand carriage caused an excitement in the Wren household. She could see Fanny’s white face peering through the sitting room curtains as the coachman halted the horses outside the cottage. She waited for the footman to pull down the steps and then descended from the carriage self-consciously.

“Thank you.” She smiled at the young footman. “And you, too, John Coachman. I’m sorry to put you all to such a bother.”

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“Twern’t no bother, ma’am.” The coachman touched his fingertips to the brim of his round hat. “Just glad we could see you safely home.”

The footman leapt onto the back of the carriage, and with a nod to Anna, John Coachman clucked to the horses. The carriage had barely pulled away when Mother Wren and Fanny tumbled out of the cottage to bombard her with questions.

“The earl sent me home in his vehicle,” Anna explained as she led the way back inside.

“My, what a kind man,” her mother-in-law exclaimed.

Anna thought of the way the earl had ordered her to take the carriage. “Quite.” She removed her shawl and bonnet.

“Did you meet the earl himself, then, mum?” Fanny asked.

Anna smiled at the girl and nodded.

“I’ve never seen an earl, mum. What was he like?”

“He’s just a man like any other,” Anna replied.

But she was uncertain of her own words. If the earl was like any other man, then why did she have a strange urge to goad him into arguments? None of the other men of her acquaintance made her want to challenge them.

“I heard he has terrible scars on his face from the smallpox.”

“Fanny, dear,” Mother Wren exclaimed, “our inner selves are more important than our outer husks.”

They all contemplated this noble sentiment for a moment. Fanny puckered her brow as she worked it through.

Mother Wren cleared her throat. “I heard the pox scars ran across the upper half of his face.”

Anna quashed a smile. “He does have pox scars on his face, but they aren’t very noticeable, really. Besides, he has nice, thick black hair and handsome dark eyes, and his voice is very attractive, beautiful even, especially when he speaks softly. And he is quite tall, with very broad, muscular shoulders.” She stopped abruptly.

Mother Wren looked at her strangely.

Anna twitched off her gloves. “Is supper ready?”

“Supper? Oh, yes, the supper should be ready.” Mother Wren shooed Fanny toward the kitchen. “We have a pudding and a lovely roasted chicken Fanny got for quite a good price at Farmer Brown’s. She has been practicing her bargaining skills, you know. We thought it would be a treat to celebrate your employment.”

“How nice.” Anna started up the stairs. “I’ll freshen up.”

Mother Wren laid a hand on her arm. “Are you sure you know what you are doing, my dear?” she asked in a low voice. “Sometimes ladies of a certain age get, well, ideas about gentlemen.” She paused, then said in a rush, “He isn’t of our class, you know. It would only lead to hurt.”

Anna looked down at the fragile old hand on her arm; then she deliberately smiled and glanced up. “I am well aware that anything of a personal nature between Lord Swartingham and me would be improper. There’s no need to worry.”

The older woman searched her eyes a moment longer before patting Anna’s arm. “Don’t be too long, dear. We haven’t burned the supper yet tonight.”

Chapter Four

The duke turned and saw a huge raven perched on the wall of the castle. The bird hopped closer and cocked its head. “I will help you defeat the prince if you give me one of your daughters as my wife.”

“How dare you, sirrah!” The old duke quivered in indignation. “You insult me to imply I would even think to wed one of my daughters to a dusty bird.”

“Fine words, my friend,” the raven cackled. “But be not so quick. In a moment, you’ll lose both your daughters and your life.”

The duke stared at the raven and saw that this was no ordinary bird. It wore a golden chain around its neck, and a ruby pendant in the shape of a small, perfect crown hung on the chain. He looked back to the threatening army at his gates and, seeing he had little to lose, agreed to the unholy bargain….

—from The Raven Prince

“Have you considered the name ‘Sweetie’?” Anna asked as she spooned up some stewed apple.

She and the earl sat at one end of the immense dining room table. From the fine layer of dust on the mahogany at the other end of the table, she guessed that this room must not be used much. Did the earl even take his supper here? Yet the dining room had been opened every day of the last week for their luncheon. In that week, she’d learned that the earl was not a conversationalist. After many days of grunts and monosyllabic replies, it’d become something of a game to provoke a response from her employer.

Lord Swartingham paused in the act of cutting a piece of steak and kidney pie. “Sweetie?”

His eyes were on her mouth, and Anna realized she’d licked her lips. “Yes. Don’t you think ‘Sweetie’ a darling name?”

They both looked down at the dog beside the earl’s chair. It was gnawing on a soup bone, sharp fangs glittering.

“I think ‘Sweetie’ may not be altogether suitable for his personality,” Lord Swartingham said, placing the pie slice on his plate.

“Hmm. Perhaps you’re right.” Anna thoughtfully chewed. “Yet, you yourself haven’t offered an alternative.”

The earl sawed vigorously at a lump of meat. “That’s because I’m content to let the animal remain nameless.”

“Didn’t you have any dogs as a boy?”

“I?” He stared at her as if she’d asked if he’d had two heads as a boy. “No.”

“No pets at all?”

He scowled down at his pie. “Well, there was my mother’s lapdog—”

“There, you see,” Anna exclaimed in triumph.

“But the animal was a pug and an extremely irritable one at that.”

“Even so—”

“Used to growl and snap at everyone but Mother,” the earl mused, apparently to himself. “No one liked it. Once bit a footman. Father had to give the poor fellow a shilling.”

“And did the pug have a name?”

“Fiddles.” The earl nodded and took a bite of pie. “But Sammy called it Piddles. He also fed it Turkish delight just to see it get the candy stuck to the roof of its mouth.”

Anna smiled. “Sammy was your brother?”

Lord Swartingham had raised a glass of wine to his lips, and he paused for a fraction of a second before sipping. “Yes.” He placed the glass precisely beside his plate. “I’ll need to check on various matters on the estate this afternoon.”

Anna’s smile died. Their play was apparently at an end.

He continued, “Tomorrow I’ll need you to ride out with me. Hopple wants to show me some fields with a drainage problem, and I’d like you to take notes for us as we discuss possible solutions.” He looked up. “You do have a riding habit, don’t you?”

Anna tapped her fingers against her teacup. “As a matter of fact, I’ve never ridden.”

“Never?” His eyebrows shot up.

“We don’t have a horse.”

“No, I suppose not.” He frowned down at the pie on his plate as if it were to blame for her lack of suitable attire. “Have you a gown you could use as a habit?”

Anna mentally ran through her meager wardrobe. “I could alter an old one.”

“Excellent. Wear it tomorrow and I shall give you an elementary riding lesson. It shouldn’t be too hard. We’ll not be riding very far.”

“Oh, but, my lord,” Anna protested, “I don’t want to put you to any trouble. I can ask one of the grooms to help me learn.”

“No.” He glared at her. “I will teach you to ride.”

Overbearing man. She pursed her lips and refrained from a reply, sipping her tea instead.

The earl finished his pie in two more bites and pushed back his chair. “I’ll see you before you leave this afternoon, Mrs. Wren.” With a muttered “Come,” he strode out of the room, the still-nameless dog following him.

Anna stared after the two. Was she peeved because the earl ordered her about, very much like the dog? Or touched that he insisted on teaching her to ride himself? She shrugged and finished the dregs of her tea.

Entering the library, she crossed to her desk and began writing. After a short while, she reached for a fresh sheet only to find there was none. Bother. Anna stood to ring for more paper and then remembered the stack in the earl’s side drawer. She slipped behind his desk and pulled the drawer open. There on top of a pile of clean sheets lay the red leather book. Anna moved it aside and drew out a few sheets. A piece of paper drifted to the floor as she did so. She bent to pick it up and saw that it was a letter or a bill. A curious mark was engraved at the top. There appeared to be two men and a woman, but she could not make out what the diminutive figures were doing. She turned the letter this way and that in her hand, studying it.