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The Raven Prince
By Elizabeth Hoyt
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived an impoverished
duke and his three daughters....
-from The Raven Prince
LITTLE BATTLEFORD, ENGLAND
The combination of a horse galloping far too fast, a muddy lane with
a curve, and a lady pedestrian is never a good one. Even in the best
of circumstances, the odds of a positive outcome are depressingly
low. But add a dog-a very big dog-and, Anna Wren reflected, disaster
The horse in question made a sudden sideways jump at the sight of
Anna in its path. The mastiff, jogging beside the horse, responded
by running under its nose, which, in turn, made the horse rear.
Saucer-sized hooves flailed the air. And inevitably, the enormous
rider on the horse's back came unseated. The man went down at her
feet like a hawk shot from the sky, if less gracefully. His long
limbs sprawled as he fell, he lost his crop and tricorn, and he
landed with a spectacular splash in a mud puddle. A wall of filthy
water sprang up to drench her.
Everyone, including the dog, paused.
Idiot, Anna thought, but that was not what she said. Respectable
widows of a certain age-one and thirty in two months-do not hurl
epithets, however apt, at gentlemen. No, indeed.
"I do hope you are not damaged by your fall," shesaid instead. "May
I assist you to rise?" She smiled through gritted teeth at the
He did not return her pleasantry. "What the hell were you doing in
the middle of the road, you silly woman?"
The man heaved himself out of the mud puddle to loom over her in
that irritating way gentlemen had of trying to look important when
they'd just been foolish. The dirty water beading on his pale,
pockmarked face made him an awful sight. Black eyelashes clumped
together lushly around obsidian eyes, but that hardly offset the
large nose and chin and the thin, bloodless lips.
"I am so sorry." Anna's smile did not falter. "I was walking home.
Naturally, had I known you would be needing the entire width of the
But apparently his question had been rhetorical. The man stomped
away, dismissing her and her explanation. He ignored his hat and
crop to stalk the horse, cursing it in a low, oddly soothing
The dog sat down to watch the show.
The horse, a bony bay, had peculiar light patches on its coat that
gave it an unfortunate piebald appearance. It rolled its eyes at the
man and sidled a few steps away.
"That's right. Dance around like a virgin at the first squeeze of a
tit, you revolting lump of maggot-eaten hide," the man crooned to
the animal. "When I get hold of you, you misbegotten result of a
diseased camel humping a sway-backed ass, I'll wring your cretinous
neck, I will."
The horse swiveled its mismatched ears to better hear the caressing
baritone voice and took an uncertain step forward. Anna sympathized
with the animal. The ugly man's voice was like a feather run along
the sole of her foot: irritating and tantalizing at the same time.
She wondered if he sounded like that when he made love to a woman.
One would hope he changed the words.
The man got close enough to the bemused horse to catch its bridle.
He stood for a minute, murmuring obscenities; then he mounted the
animal in one lithe movement. His muscular thighs, indecently
revealed in wet buckskins, tightened about the horse's barrel as he
turned its nose.
He inclined his bare head at Anna. "Madam, good day." And without a
backward glance, he cantered off down the lane, the dog racing
beside him. In a moment, he was out of sight. In another, the sound
of hoofbeats had died.
Anna looked down.
Her basket lay in the puddle, its contents-her morning
shopping-spilled in the road. She must've dropped it when she dodged
the oncoming horse. Now, a half-dozen eggs oozed yellow yolks into
the muddy water, and a single herring eyed her balefully as if
blaming her for its undignified landing. She picked up the fish and
brushed it off. It, at least, could be saved. Her gray dress,
however, drooped pitifully, although the actual color wasn't much
different from the mud that caked it. She plucked at the skirts to
separate them from her legs before sighing and dropping them. She
scanned the road in both directions. The bare branches of the trees
overhead rattled in the wind. The little lane stood deserted.
Anna took a breath and said the forbidden word out loud in front of
God and her eternal soul: "Bastard!" She held her breath, waiting
for a thunderbolt or, more likely, a twinge of guilt to hit her.
Neither happened, which ought to have made her uneasy. After all,
ladies do not curse gentlemen, no matter what the provocation.
And she was, above all things, a respectable lady, wasn't she?
By the time she limped up the front walk to her cottage, Anna's
skirts were dried into a stiff mess. In summer, the exuberant
flowers that filled the tiny front garden made it cheerful, but at
this time of year, the garden was mostly mud. Before she could reach
it, the door opened. A small woman with dove-gray ringlets bobbing
at her temples peered around the jamb.
"Oh, there you are." The woman waved a gravy-smeared wooden spoon,
inadvertently flinging drops on her cheek. "Fanny and I have been
making mutton stew, and I do think her sauce is improved. Why, you
can hardly see the lumps." She leaned forward to whisper, "But we
are still working on dumpling making. I'm afraid they have a rather
Anna smiled wearily at her mother-in-law. "I'm sure the stew will be
wonderful." She stepped inside the cramped hall and put the basket
The other woman beamed, but then her nose wrinkled as Anna moved
past her. "Dear, there's a peculiar odor coming from . . ." She
trailed off and stared at the top of Anna's head. "Why are you
wearing wet leaves in your hat?"
Anna grimaced and reached up to feel. "I'm afraid I had a slight
mishap on the high road."
"A mishap?" Mother Wren dropped the spoon in her agitation. "Are you
hurt? Why, your gown looks as if you've wallowed in a pigsty."
"I'm quite all right; just a bit damp."
"Well, we must get you into dry clothes at once, dear. And your
hair-Fanny!" Mother Wren interrupted herself to call in the general
direction of the kitchen. "We'll have to wash it. Your hair, I mean.
Here, let me help you up the stairs. Fanny!"
A girl, all elbows, reddened hands, and topped by a mass of carroty
hair, sidled into the hall. "Wot?"
Mother Wren paused on the stairs behind Anna and leaned over the
rail. "How many times have I told you to say, 'Yes, ma'am'? You'll
never become a maid in a big house if you don't speak properly."
Fanny stood blinking up at the two women. Her mouth was slightly
Mother Wren sighed. "Go put a pot of water on to heat. Miss Anna
will be washing her hair."
The girl scurried into the kitchen, then popped her head back out.
The top of the steep stairs opened onto a miniscule landing. To the
left was the elder woman's room; to the right, Anna's. She entered
her small room and went straight to the mirror hanging over the
"I don't know what the town is coming to," her mother-in-law panted
behind her. "Were you splashed by a carriage? Some of these
mail-coach drivers are simply irresponsible. They think the entire
road is theirs alone."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Anna replied as she peered at her
reflection. A faded wreath of dried apple blossoms was draped over
the edge of the mirror, a memento from her wedding. "But it was a
single horseman in this case." Her hair was a rat's nest, and there
were still spots of mud on her forehead.
"Even worse, these gentlemen on horses," the older woman muttered.
"Why, I don't think they're able to control their animals, some of
them. Terribly dangerous. They're a menace to woman and child."
"Mmm." Anna took off her shawl, bumping her shin against a chair as
she moved. She glanced around the tiny room. This was where she and
Peter had spent all four years of their marriage. She hung her shawl
and hat on the hook where Peter's coat used to be. The chair where
he once piled his heavy law books now served as her bedside table.
Even his hairbrush with the few red hairs caught in its bristles had
long ago been packed away.
"At least you saved the herring." Mother Wren was still fretting.
"Although I don't think a dunking in mud will have improved its
"No doubt," Anna replied absently. Her eyes returned to the wreath.
It was crumbling. No wonder, since she had been widowed six years.
Nasty thing. It would be better in the garden rubbish pile. She
tossed it aside to take down later.
"Here, dear, let me help you." Mother Wren began unhooking the dress
from the bottom. "We'll have to sponge this right away. There's
quite a bit of mud around the hem. Perhaps if I applied a new trim ..."
Her voice was muffled as she bent over. "Oh, that reminds me,
did you sell my lace to the milliner?"
Anna pushed the dress down and stepped out of it. "Yes, she quite
liked the lace. She said it was the finest she'd seen in a while."
"Well, I have been making lace for almost forty years." Mother Wren
tried to look modest. She cleared her throat. "How much did she give
you for it?"
Anna winced. "A shilling sixpence." She reached for a threadbare
"But I worked five months on it," Mother Wren gasped.
"I know." Anna sighed and took down her hair. "And, as I said, the
milliner considered your work to be of the finest quality. It's just
that lace doesn't fetch very much."
"It does once she puts it on a bonnet or a dress," Mother Wren
Anna grimaced sympathetically. She took a bathing cloth off a hook
under the eaves, and the two women descended the stairs in silence.
In the kitchen, Fanny hovered over a kettle of water. Bunches of
dried herbs hung from the black beams, scenting the air. The old
brick fireplace took up one whole wall. Opposite was a
curtain-framed window that overlooked the back garden. Lettuce
marched in a frilled chartreuse row down the tiny plot, and the
radishes and turnips had been ready for a week now.
Mother Wren set a chipped basin on the kitchen table. Worn smooth by
many years of daily scrubbing, the table took pride of place in the
middle of the room. At night they pushed it to the wall so that the
little maid could unroll a pallet in front of the fire.
Fanny brought the kettle of water. Anna bent over the basin, and
Mother Wren poured the water on her head. It was lukewarm.
Anna soaped her hair and took a deep breath. "I'm afraid we will
have to do something about our financial situation."
"Oh, don't say there will be more economies, dear," Mother Wren
moaned. "We've already given up fresh meat except for mutton on
Tuesdays and Thursdays. And it's been ages since either of us has
had a new gown."
Anna noticed that her mother-in-law didn't mention Fanny's upkeep.
Although the girl was supposedly their maid-cum-cook, in reality she
was a charitable impulse on both their parts. Fanny's only relative,
her grandfather, had died when she was ten. At the time, there'd
been talk in the village of sending the girl to a poorhouse, but
Anna had moved to intervene, and Fanny had been with them ever
since. Mother Wren had hopes of training her to work in a large
household, but so far her progress was slow.
"You've been very good about the economies we've made," Anna said
now as she worked the thin lather into her scalp. "But the
investments Peter left us aren't doing as well as they used to. Our
income has decreased steadily since he passed away."
"It's such a shame he left us so little to live on," Mother Wren
Anna sighed. "He didn't mean to leave such a small sum. He was a
young man when the fever took him. I'm sure had he lived, he
would've built up the savings substantially."
In fact, Peter had improved their finances since his own father's
death shortly before their marriage. The older man had been a
solicitor, but several ill-advised investments had landed him deeply
in debt. After the wedding, Peter had sold the house he had grown up
in to pay off the debts and moved his new bride and widowed mother
into the much-smaller cottage. He had been working as a solicitor
when he'd become ill and died within the fortnight.
Leaving Anna to manage the little household on her own. "Rinse,
A stream of chilly water poured over her nape and head. She felt to
make sure no soap remained, then squeezed the excess water from her
hair. She wrapped a cloth around her head and glanced up. "I think I
should find a position."
"Oh, dear, surely not that." Mother Wren plopped down on a kitchen
chair. "Ladies don't work."
Anna felt her mouth twitch. "Would you prefer I remain a lady and
let us both starve?"
Mother Wren hesitated. She appeared to actually debate the question.
"Don't answer that," Anna said. "It won't come to starvation anyway.
However, we do need to find a way to bring some income into the
"Perhaps if I were to produce more lace. Or, or I could give up meat
entirely," her mother-in-law said a little wildly.
"I don't want you to have to do that. Besides, Father made sure I
had a good education."
Mother Wren brightened. "Your father was the best vicar Little
Battleford ever had, God rest his soul. He did let everyone know his
views on the education of children."
"Mmm." Anna took the cloth off her head and began combing out her
wet hair. "He made sure I learned to read and write and do figures.
I even have a little Latin and Greek. I thought I'd look tomorrow
for a position as a governess or companion."
"Old Mrs. Lester is almost blind. Surely her son-in-law would hire
you to read-" Mother Wren stopped.
Anna became aware at the same time of an acrid scent in the air.
The little maid, who had been watching the exchange between her
employers, yelped and ran to the pot of stew over the fire. Anna
Another burned supper.
FELIX HOPPLE PAUSED before the Earl of Swartingham's library door to
take stock of his appearance. His wig, with two tight sausage curls
on either side, was freshly powdered in a becoming lavender shade.
His figure-quite svelte for a man of his years-was highlighted by a
puce waistcoat edged with vining yellow leaves. And his hose had
alternating green and orange stripes, handsome without being
ostentatious. His toilet was perfection itself. There was really no
reason for him to hesitate outside the door.
He sighed. The earl had a disconcerting tendency to growl. As estate
manager of Ravenhill Abbey, Felix had heard that worrisome growl
quite a bit in the last two weeks. It'd made him feel like one of
those unfortunate native gentlemen one read about in travelogues who
lived in the shadows of large, ominous volcanoes. The kind that
might erupt at any moment. Why Lord Swartingham had chosen to take
up residence at the Abbey after years of blissful absence, Felix
couldn't fathom, but he had the sinking feeling that the earl
intended to remain for a very, very long time.
The steward ran a hand down the front of his waistcoat. He reminded
himself that although the matter he was about to bring to the earl's
attention was not pleasant, it could in no way be construed as his
own fault. Thus prepared, he nodded and tapped at the library door.
There was a pause and then a deep, sure voice rasped, "Come."
The library stood on the west side of the manor house, and the
late-afternoon sun streamed through the large windows that took up
nearly the entire outside wall. One might think this would make the
library a sunny, welcoming room, but somehow the sunlight was
swallowed by the cavernous space soon after it entered, leaving most
of the room to the domain of the shadows. The ceiling-two stories
high-was wreathed in gloom.
The earl sat behind a massive, baroque desk that would've dwarfed a
smaller man. Nearby, a fire attempted to be cheerful and failed
dismally. A gigantic, brindled dog sprawled before the hearth as if
dead. Felix winced. The dog was a mongrel mix that included a good
deal of mastiff and perhaps some wolfhound. The result was an ugly,
mean-looking canine he tried hard to avoid.
He cleared his throat. "If I could have a moment, my lord?"
Lord Swartingham glanced up from the paper in his hand. "What is it
now, Hopple? Come in, come in, man. Sit down while I finish this.
I'll give you my attention in a minute."
Excerpted from The Raven Prince
by Elizabeth Hoyt
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Hoyt.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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