Second Chances -- Available Now
Chances Are Series --
Lady Emma Easton’s elopement to an elderly earl shields her from an abusive father, until her husband’s death leaves her vulnerable once again. When she learns her father is scheming to marry her off to a brutal man, only one man can protect her—the earl’s trusted friend, Viscount Drake.
After losing his wife, Lord Harold Drake vowed never to marry again. But his heart warms to the young widow he’s promised to protect. Emma’s love frees him from the darkness that’s consumed him. But now Drake must protect her from her father’s evil whims, or face losing her forever.
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England, August 1820
Emma tried to turn the doorknob again, knowing it was still locked. Other times she’d frantically yanked at the knob for hours, but eventually learned it did no good and only served to heighten her fear. With no moon tonight, it was dreadfully dark—too dark for shadows. And her every move caused the floorboards to creak and moan. She despised being locked in the attic.
Two days now, and her father had not opened the door. Scratching an itch on her cheek started it bleeding again. She hunched over and tugged the hem of her skirts to her face to wipe the wetness.
Her father never struck her before yesterday. She couldn’t understand why he’d gotten so angry. After being introduced to her betrothed, she’d gone for a long ride on Lancelot. From the time she was a young girl, her father explained she would be married shortly after turning sixteen. Nevertheless, actually meeting her betrothed, an entire year before the wedding, was a bit of a shock and she’d needed to be alone to adjust to the idea.
When she returned, her father was waiting at the stable. He yanked her from atop the horse. “You will not ride off alone again,” he shouted, and cracked the back of his hand across her cheek, so hard her head snapped to the side. His ring must have cut her, because her cheek had bled intermittently ever since, and the spot where he hit her smarted.
Now, as she remembered meeting her fiancé, Lord Ashton, a chill ran up her spine. His age surprised her more than his paunchy build. He must be older than forty years, or fifty. When he kissed her hand, he hesitated and stared at her with frighteningly cold eyes. She couldn’t even recall what color they were.
The scrape of the key in the lock startled her. She straightened and stepped away from the door. Emma saw the outline of a woman’s skirts. Was she bringing Emma food? Only her father ever opened the door when she was punished.
The woman grabbed Emma’s hand and tugged her toward the open door. Emma snatched her hand back. If she left the attic and her father returned to release her, he would be furious if she wasn’t here. She didn’t want the maid to get into trouble because of her.
“Come with me.” Emma recognized Selma’s soft voice.
“Now.” The maid’s words were quiet, yet forceful. She pulled Emma’s hand and this time Emma followed. Without so much as a candle to guide them, they tiptoed down the servants’ stairway and rushed through the kitchen to the back door of the house. Selma unlatched the lock and they escaped into the night.
Taking a deep breath of damp air, Emma stopped and lifted her face to the heavens. The August night, filled with the sweet scent of roses, smelled so much better than the musty attic.
Selma yanked Emma’s wrist. She took the maid’s cue and ran alongside her. Having not eaten in two days, her stomach burned. After a short while colors flashed before her eyes. Her legs caught on her skirts and she stumbled. Selma helped her regain footing and they rounded the house and darted through the garden on the front lawns of her father’s estate. The property was handsomely enriched by beautiful flowering gardens. Once in a part of the garden protected by a stone wall, Emma ripped her arm from Selma’s hold and stopped running. She bent over at the waist and tried to catch her breath.
“We must continue,” Selma said. “It isn’t much farther. You do want to be away from your father, don’t you?” Selma pointed down the path.
Two silhouetted carriages waited.
They ran fast as they neared the coaches. Emma’s legs gave out again. She fell face first into the grass. Selma tried to pull her hands, but Emma was too exhausted to pick herself up. “Selma. Go. I—”
Suddenly, strong arms whisked her from the ground and lifted her in the air. Emma would have shrieked if she had any breath. Not able to fully see the man’s face, his profile was blunt and his nose rounded.
Selma hurried ahead and opened the door to the second carriage. The man thrust Emma to the floor inside. Before Selma closed the carriage door, she said, “Be happy, Miss Emma.”
Emma spun around and could barely see men’s trousers. She tried to move.
“Wait, little one,” his croaking voice whispered. “Let us get away from here before we try to get you up.”
The carriage began moving and Emma rested her head against her folded arms and stayed in a heap on the floor. She concentrated on her breaths and tried not to gulp in air.
The man’s words were kind. Little one. No one had ever called her that. After a while, the man lit a lamp and she lifted her head. He leaned over and offered his wrinkled hands. She raised her arms and he wrapped his cold fingers around her clammy ones and pulled until she was high enough to sit on the seat across from him.
“You will never have to fear your father again.” With only the light from one lamp, his eyes appeared dark and his hair gleaming white. He sat hunched over a bit, slumped. She got a closer view of him and decided he was the oldest man she’d ever seen.
The carriage, decorated with rich deep colors, dark wood, and comfortable seats, was elegance at its finest. This man must be of great means.
“Good heavens, you look a fright.”
No doubt his words were true.
“Pardon, you aren’t responsible for your appearance.” He frowned. “Would you like some food?” He handed her the basket from the seat beside him. She smelled the heavenly scent of bread and cheeses. When she brushed aside the linen covering and peeked inside, she also found meat pies, fruit, and a corked bottle.
“Thank you. Would you like some?” she asked.
He smiled. “No, but very kind of you to offer.”
She pulled the cork out and sipped the liquid. Water never tasted so refreshing. She knew to eat and drink slowly. The first few times after being deprived of food for a long while, she’d gorged and made herself sick. She began chewing on a piece of bread.
“We must decide what to do with you, child.” The man’s gray brows puckered. “I am prepared to take you to my estate. I am often in need of someone to help with my household accounts and…can you do mathematics?”
She swallowed her mouthful. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Also, I am sometimes sick and in need of someone to care for me.”
“Are you asking me to become a maid? If my father learns of my position, he will retrieve me. I am betrothed.”
The man nodded. “Yes, I know. Selma is my housekeeper’s niece. She is the one who arranged for you to escape after learning of your betrothal to Lord Ashton. Rumor is he killed his first wife.”
A shiver passed through her. No wonder the man’s eyes had been so cold.
“My father will learn Selma helped me run away.”
“You need not worry after Selma. She will be on a ship with two of her brothers tomorrow headed for America.”
Good. She didn’t want Selma reprimanded.
The old man smiled sadly. “You look like you’ve survived a war.” He swiped the linen that had covered the basket and wiped her cheek, it must be bleeding again. “I’ll kill the bastard.” His gruff words should have terrified her, but he obviously was not mad at her.
“My name is Miss Emma Kerr.”
“I am Harmon Westbourne. Earl of Easton.”
“I have never had the pleasure of meeting an earl.”
“We’re an ornery lot.”
She laughed and realized how long it had been since she’d enjoyed merriment in her life. She wanted to feel comfortable with this man and a part of her did, except another worry crouched in and crowded her mind. “Sir, my lord, if my father learns I am at your estate, he will insist I be returned home.”
“Not if he has no legal claim to being your guardian.”
“Sir…my lord, I am only fifteen.”
“I contemplated your dilemma during my ride. If your father found you working at my estate before you turned the age of one-and-twenty, he would have a legal right to claim you as his ward. However, if you were living there in another capacity, he couldn’t.” His dark eyes softened. “Please don’t misinterpret my words. I simply want to protect you. I know of only one way.” He wiped her cheek again. “I pledge to protect you, feed you, and clothe you. But I will need a vow from you in return.”
If he was promising she’d never be locked in the attic or have to marry Lord Ashton, she’d acquiesce to almost anything. “Of course.”
“You must read to me when I ask, balance the account books regularly, and help me in any capacity I may need. Can you do those things?”
“Shall we be off to Gretna Green then?”
Gretna Green. People went there to marry. Her heart pounded so hard, she wondered if he could hear it. “I am not of an age to marry.”
“In Scotland you are. An elopement is the only way I can shelter you from your father. We will be husband and wife in name only. Do you understand?”
Her head spun.
“Do you know what goes on between a man and a woman in a marriage bed? Do you know how children are begot?”
Befuddled, she shook her head.
He let out a frustrated breath. “No one has explained procreating to you? Well, I suppose with no mother, how would you have learned?” He smiled sadly again. “A paper will say we are married, Emma. But you and I will be making vows to be friends.”
“We will be married?”
“Yes, that is the single lawful way I can protect you. Some will be shocked a man as old as I would marry a girl as young as you.”
“They wouldn’t want us to be friends?”
“They wouldn’t want us to be married. They would think it unnatural.”
Her face scrunched. “Forever why?” She had heard of older men marrying younger women. And she was betrothed to Lord Ashton. What was wrong with marrying an older man?
He snorted and at first she thought he might be upset, then he chuckled. “Only an angel could be as innocent as you.” He reached out and patted her hand. “Others will not understand we are friends. They will think we…that is to say…they will think we share a marriage bed.”
Bother, she felt like a fool.
“I will treat you as I would a sister or a child.”
She flinched, thinking of her father.
“Look at me, Emma.”
She lifted her head and his shadowed eyes met hers.
“I will never hurt you.” The truth in his voice set her at ease.
“Or procreate with me?”
“That is right.”
“And that will please me?”
He grinned. “Yes, child. Although one day I have confidence you will find a man to love and learn the splendor of affairs of the heart.” The earl’s voice was soft.
Confounded, she didn’t understand a word of what he was saying.
The earl cleared his throat. “I think you will be happy living at my estate. You can be your own person. Read whatever you like. And you can speak freely with me.”
There was no decision to make. This would save her from Lord Ashton and her father. “I accept your proposal, my lord.”
“Harmon, you must call me Harmon.” He reached over and grabbed a cane, striking it against the roof of the carriage and their rolling pace quickened. “It will take three days to reach Gretna Green.”
She picked an apple out of the basket and a small knife. Cutting the apple down the center, she handed him half, feeling comfortable, safe, and happy for the first time in her life. “Well, Harmon, three days should give you ample time to explain procreation.”
Her husband-to-be laughed.
Northampton, England, February 1825
Emma smoothed a few strands of gray hair from Harmon’s forehead, wishing for a way to forestall the inevitable. The huge four-poster bed dwarfed his frail, feeble body. Gold brocade drapes and bedspread cast a regal glow to the chamber, adding a jaundiced yellow to his already pallid complexion.
A fit of coughs rumbled in his chest. Harmon reached for a glass of water on the bedside table. His clumsy fingers couldn’t quite grasp it and he knocked it over. “Bollocks.” He slumped back on the bed.
She’d been so young when they married five years ago, his gruff words and manners should have terrified her. But from the first moment they met, she’d found Harmon’s ways endearing. She knew if she offered any type of sympathy he’d scoff, willful old man that he was.
Emma snatched a linen cloth from the bedside drawer and swabbed the mess. After pouring another glass of water, she leaned over him. “May I be of assistance?” She carefully put an arm around him and held his head and shoulders straight, then brought the glass to his lips. After he took a sip, she leaned him back on the pillows.
“Damn. I hate that you have to do everything for me.”
She smiled. “You are quite welcome.”
A ghost of a grin passed his lips. “Please forgive me, dear.”
Shock ran through her. She’d never heard him utter the word please.
Hands slightly shaking, unsure if the tremors were from his words or because she hadn’t broken her fast this morning, she doused a cloth in the basin filled with warm water. She wiped Harmon’s face and neck. He would undoubtedly fall asleep soon and always rested better when clean. She splashed a tiny amount of sandalwood cologne on her palm and rubbed it on his jaw. Weeks ago he’d grumbled about how he feared he smelled like death, so she’d made this a daily habit. The clean, fresh scent tickled her nose.
Harmon didn’t open his eyes when he said, “Tell Simmons to send Drake up as soon as he arrives.”
She straightened the bedclothes around him. “You’re going to drive Simmons to Bedlam. You’ve told him dozens of times.”
“I must see Drake.”
“I will remind him.” Her feet were leaden as she trudged across the floor. Before she shut the door, she glanced back at the bed. Harmon’s eyes were closed, and his chest heaved with each breath he fought to take. Stacked on the nightstand were his beloved books. He never tired of listening to Byron, Blake, and other poets and authors.
Tears pricked her eyes. How many more times would she enjoy reading to him?
Voices from the foyer caught her attention, and she glanced down the stairwell.
Harold Drake, the fifth Viscount Drake, his tall lithe form meticulously dressed in black, stood at the entrance. Simmons took his coat and pointed toward the stairs. Lord Drake acknowledged each servant by name. He had been an esteemed guest at Westbourne for years. She’d never known a time when he didn’t visit once a month. Not even two years ago, after his wife’s death.
She glanced toward Harmon’s door. What did he want to discuss with Lord Drake?
“Lady Easton?” Lord Drake had already climbed the steps. “How is he? Simmons practically pushed me up the stairs.”
A lump lodged in her throat. If she looked into his eyes and saw sympathy, she would not be able to stop her tears. Not meeting his gaze, she motioned to the door with her arm.
He gingerly slipped her hand through the crook of his arm and laid it on his coat sleeve—still cold from the freezing weather. Together they made their way to Harmon’s room. After a quick knock, Lord Drake towed her over the threshold. “Look what I found in the hallway.”
Harmon cracked his eyes open. “You have a treasure there, my boy.”
Lord Drake squeezed her arm and released her before he approached the bed. “We are due for a ride, Harmon. Shall I have Endicott saddled?”
Harmon’s eyes flashed with longing. “I am want for a ride.”
“It’s good to see you, my friend.”
“At least I’m alive.” Harmon coughed.
The men usually exchanged many quips during their visits, but today Harmon cut their banter short. “I’m glad you’re here, Drake. We need to speak.”
She started for the door.
“Emma, please stay,” Harmon said.
A shiver raced through her. He’d said please again. “As you wish.” She moved to the opposite side of the bed from Lord Drake and sat in an armchair.
Harmon reached out a trembling hand, and she leaned over the huge mattress to clasp it.
He inhaled a shallow breath. “Drake, the day your father saved my life, he and I became brothers. You are like a son to me. That is why I want to grace you with my most prized possession.” He grabbed Lord Drake’s hand and placed it over hers. “Emma will make you a good wife.”
Lord Drake’s stunned gaze collided with hers.
A heated flush spread through her body. She glared at her husband. “Bloody hell. This is what you had to speak to him about?”