Lord Swartingham mounted his gelding and led off at a walk down the drive. The dog trotted beside them, sometimes disappearing into the high grass beside the drive only to reappear a few minutes later. When they reached the road, the earl let the bay have its head, galloping down the road a short distance and back again to work off some energy. The little mare watched the male antics without any sign that she wanted to break out of a walk. Anna lifted her face to the sun. She so missed its warmth after the long winter. She caught a flash of pale saffron beneath the hedges that lined the road.
“Look, primroses. I think those are the first this year, don’t you?”
The earl glanced to where she pointed. “Those yellow flowers? I haven’t seen them before.”
“I’ve tried to grow them in my garden, but they don’t like to be transplanted,” she said. “I do have a few tulips, though. I’ve seen the lovely daffodils in the copse at the Abbey. Do you have tulips as well, my lord?”
He seemed a little startled by the question. “There may be tulips still in the gardens. I remember my mother gathering them, but I haven’t seen the gardens in so long….”
Anna waited, but he didn’t elaborate. “Not everyone enjoys gardening, of course,” she said to be polite.
“My mother loved to garden.” He stared off down the lane. “She planted the daffodils you saw, and she renovated the great walled gardens behind the Abbey. When she died…” He grimaced. “When they all died, there were other, more important things to be seen to. And now the gardens have been neglected for so long, I should have them taken down.”
“Oh, surely not!” Anna caught his lifted eyebrow and lowered her voice. “I mean to say, a good garden can always be restored.”
He frowned. “To what point?”
Anna was nonplussed. “A garden always has a point.”
He arched an eyebrow skeptically.
“My own mother had a lovely one when I was growing up at the vicarage,” Anna said. “There were crocuses, daffodils, and tulips in the spring, followed by pinks, foxgloves, and phlox, with Johnny-jump-ups running throughout.”
As she talked, Lord Swartingham watched her face intently.
“At my cottage now, I have the hollyhocks, of course, and many of the other flowers my mother grew. I wish I had more room to add some roses,” she mused. “But roses are dear and take up quite a bit of space. I’m afraid I can’t justify the expense when the vegetable garden comes first.”
“Perhaps you could advise me on the Abbey’s gardens later this spring,” the earl said. He turned the bay’s head and started down a smaller dirt track.
Anna concentrated on the business of turning the mare. When she looked up, she saw the flooded field. Mr. Hopple was already there, talking to a farmer in a woolen smock and straw hat. The man was having a hard time looking Mr. Hopple in the face. His eyes kept dragging lower to the amazing pink waistcoat Mr. Hopple wore. Something black was embroidered along the edges. As Anna drew nearer, she saw that the embroidery seemed to represent little black pigs.
“Good morning, Hopple, Mr. Grundle.” The earl nodded to his steward and the farmer. His eyes flicked to the waistcoat. “That’s a very interesting garment, Hopple. I don’t know that I’ve seen the like before.” The earl’s tone was grave.
Mr. Hopple beamed and smoothed a hand down his waistcoat. “Why, thank you, my lord. I had it made at a small shop in London on my last trip.”
The earl swung a long leg down from his horse. He gave the reins to Mr. Hopple and walked to Anna’s horse. Gently grasping Anna’s waist, he lifted her down. For the briefest moment, the tips of her breasts brushed the front of his coat and she felt his large fingers tighten. Then she was free, and he was turning to the steward and the farmer.
They spent the morning tramping through the field, examining the water problem. At one point, the earl stood knee-deep in muddy water and investigated a suspected source of the flood. Anna took notes in a small book he provided for her. She was glad she had chosen an old skirt to wear since it soon became thoroughly filthy about the hem.
“How do you intend to drain the field?” Anna asked as they rode back to the Abbey.
“We’ll have to dig a trench across the north side.” Lord Swartingham squinted thoughtfully. “That may be a problem because the land there runs into Clearwater’s property, and for courtesy’s sake, I’ll have to send Hopple to ask permission. The farmer has already lost his pea crop, and if the field isn’t made tillable soon, he’ll miss his wheat—” He stopped and shot a wry look at her. “I’m sorry. You can’t be interested in these matters.”
“Indeed, I am, my lord.” Anna straightened in her saddle and then hurriedly grabbed Daisy’s mane when the horse sidestepped. “I’ve been most absorbed in your writings about land management. If I understand your theories correctly, the farmer should follow a crop of wheat with one of beans or peas and then with one of mangel-wurzels and so on. If that is the case, shouldn’t this farmer plant mangel-wurzels instead of wheat?”
“In most instances, you would be right, but in this case…”
Anna listened to the earl’s deep voice discussing vegetables and grains. Had agriculture always been this fascinating and she’d never realized it? Somehow she didn’t think so.
AN HOUR LATER, Edward found himself bemusedly holding forth on various ways of draining a field during luncheon with Mrs. Wren. Of course the topic was an interesting one, but he’d never had occasion to talk to a woman about such masculine matters before. In fact, he had hardly any occasion to talk to women, at least since the death of his mother and sister. He’d flirted when young, naturally, and knew how to make light social chatter. But to exchange ideas with a woman as one did with a man was a new experience. And he liked talking with little Mrs. Wren. She listened to him with her head tilted to one side, the sun streaming in through the dining room window gently highlighting the curve of her cheek. Such utter attention was seductive.
Sometimes she smiled crookedly at what he was saying. He was fascinated by that lopsided smile. One edge of her rose-colored lips always tilted upward more than the other side. He became aware that he was staring at her mouth, hoping to see that smile again, fantasizing about what it would taste like. Edward turned his head aside and closed his eyes. His arousal was pressing against the front placket of his breeches, making them uncomfortably tight. He’d found he had this problem almost constantly of late when in the company of his new secretary.
Christ. He was a man above thirty, not a boy to moon over a woman’s smile. The situation might be laughable if his cock didn’t ache so much.
Edward abruptly realized that Mrs. Wren was asking him a question. “What?”
“I asked if you were all right, my lord,” she said. She looked worried.
“Fine. I’m fine.” He took a deep breath and wished irritably that she would call him by his given name. He longed to hear her say Edward. But no. It would be highly inappropriate for her to call him by his Christian name.
He gathered his scattered thoughts. “We should return to work.” He stood and strode from the room, feeling as if he were fleeing fire-breathing monsters rather than one plain little widow.
WHEN THE CLOCK struck five, Anna tidied the small pile of transcripts she’d finished that afternoon and glanced at the earl. He was sitting scowling at the paper in front of him. She cleared her throat.
He looked up. “Is it time already?”
He rose and waited as she gathered her things. The dog followed them out the door, but then he bounded down the stairs to the drive. The animal sniffed intently at something on the ground and then rolled, happily rubbing his head and neck in whatever it was.
Lord Swartingham sighed. “I’ll have one of the stable boys wash him before he enters the Abbey again.”
“Mmm,” Anna murmured thoughtfully. “What do you think of ‘Adonis’?”
He gave her a look so full of incredulous horror that she was hard-pressed not to laugh. “No, I suppose not,” she murmured.
The dog got up from his refreshment and shook himself, flipping one of his ears inside out. He trotted back to them and tried to look solemn with his ear still inside out.
“Self-control, lad.” The earl righted the dog’s ear.
At this Anna did chuckle. He looked at her sideways, and she thought his wide mouth twitched. The carriage trundled up then, and she entered with his assistance. The dog knew by now that he was not allowed to ride and merely watched wistfully.
Anna settled back and watched the familiar scenery roll by. As the carriage came upon the outskirts of town, she saw a wad of clothes in the roadside ditch. Curious, she leaned out the window to get a better look. The bundle moved, and a head with fine, pale-brown hair rose and turned toward the sound of the carriage.
“Stop! John Coachman, stop at once!” Anna pounded on the roof with her fist.
The carriage slowed to a halt, and she flung open the door.
“What is it, miss?”
She saw the startled face of Tom, the footman, as she ran past the back of the carriage with her skirts held in one hand. Anna reached the place where she had seen the clothes and stared down.
In the ditch lay a young woman.
The moment the duke agreed to his bargain, the raven leapt into the air with a powerful rush of wings. At the same time, a magical army streamed from the castle’s keep. First came ten thousand men, each armed with a shield and sword. They were followed by ten thousand archers carrying long, deadly bows and full quivers. Finally, ten thousand mounted men galloped forth, their horses gnashing their teeth and ready for battle. The raven flew to the army’s head and met the prince’s troops with a crash like thunder. Clouds of dust covered both forces so that nothing could be seen. Only the terrible cries of men at war were heard. And when the dust finally cleared, not a trace of the prince’s army remained save for a few iron horseshoes lying in the dirt….
—from The Raven Prince
The woman lay on her side in the ditch, both legs curled as if seeking warmth. She clutched a dirty shawl about pitifully thin shoulders. The dress beneath the shawl had once been a bright pink but was now smeared with grime. Her eyes were closed in a face that looked yellowish and unhealthy.
Anna held her skirt out of the way with one hand and used the other to steady herself against the bank as she clambered down to the stricken woman. She noticed a foul smell as she drew nearer.
“Are you hurt, ma’am?” She touched the pale face.
The woman moaned and her large eyes flew open, making Anna start. Behind her, the coachman and footman slid down the little slope with a rattle.
John Coachman made a disgusted noise in his throat. “Come away, Mrs. Wren. This here ain’t for the likes of you.”
Anna turned her eyes to the coachman in astonishment. He averted his face, watching the horses. She looked at Tom. He inspected the rocks at his feet.
“The lady is hurt or ill, John.” She knit her brow. “We need to summon help for her.”
“Aye, mum, we’ll send back someone to take care of her,” John said. “You should come to the carriage and go home now, Mrs. Wren.”
“But I can’t leave the lady here.”
“She’s no lady, if you understand my meaning.” John spat to the side. “It ain’t fit for you to bother yourself with her.”
Anna looked down at the woman she’d drawn into her arms. She noticed now what she hadn’t before: the unseemly show of skin at the woman’s dress top and the tawdry nature of the material. She frowned in thought. Had she ever met a prostitute? She thought not. Such persons lived in a different world than poor country widows. A world that her community explicitly forbade from ever intersecting with hers. She should do as John suggested and leave the poor woman. It was, after all, what everyone expected of her.