A Wager for the Lady’s Love (Preview)

Chapter 1

Lady Emma Baker hadn’t even been at the musicale for half an hour, yet she already couldn’t wait to return home and change. She turned her head, taking in the sight of the guests, and fought the urge to roll her eyes. Everywhere she looked were members of the ton, each clad in the pastel colors of the spring season, blending in with the light-colored floral decorations of the ballroom. The guests held dainty pastries and glasses of sparkling champagne in their gloved hands as they gossiped and passed each other compliments that may or may not have been genuine.

Emma stood in the crowd at her brother Thomas’ side, her back to the corner, smiling graciously but barely listening to their conversation at all. All around her came the high trill of overly polite voices speaking of the excessively dull subjects of business dealings, marriage matches, and who had caught the eye of the scandal sheets this Season. Still, though, she kept that smile on her face as best as she was able, nodding along in agreement with whatever her brother was saying.

Emma tried to inhale, but the corset seemed chokingly tight around her middle. She cursed inwardly, wishing for all the world that she could shuck the miserable garment off in favor of the freer dresses that she wore at home. Every second she spent at the dreadful gathering felt longer than the last, and she did not know how much more of the simpering and sweet-talking she could stand. The entire affair was silly, trivial; Emma could not understand how the ton could enjoy wasting so much time by spending it with people they possibly did not even like!

Oh, Thomas! When will you see that dragging me along to these dreadful events will do you no good in finding a match? I find everything about these social gatherings utterly boring. By the way some of these ninnies are looking at me, it’s clear that every soul in this room knows I am out of place here. As if to set Emma’s thought in stone, Thomas’ conversation partner turned towards Emma; she did not miss how the woman’s eyes ran across her, from the tip of her crown to the toe of her white shoes.

“Lady Emma, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see you here!” the woman said, catching Emma’s attention. Her voice only barely concealed the judgmental lilt that hid there. “I was so afraid that something may have happened when you did not come to my charity ball. Why, when your dear brother arrived without you, I was almost moved to tears, thinking the worst!”

Emma smiled stiffly, twining her fingers together. “No, Lady Halwood,” she said. “Nothing so serious as that. I’m ever so sorry for not attending, however.”

Lady Halwood sipped her champagne, gazing at Emma over the rim of the crystal glass. “Oh, wonderful, my dear,” the woman said. “I was ever so worried that you were stricken with the same illness that has your poor father in such cold clutches. I cannot imagine anything so horrible.”

Emma felt her stomach twist into a tight knot at the mention of her father. Thomas’ eyes fell on her swiftly, but she simply smiled up at her brother, hoping that the expression seemed sincere. In truth, however, Emma wished she were anywhere but standing there with Lady Halwood, even more so now that the woman had brought up the one subject that bruised Emma’s heart the worst.

“Thank you for your concern, my lady,” she said, hoping her voice sounded polite.

Emma turned towards Thomas, her eyes wide and pleading, hoping to communicate her unease. There was an unspoken exchange of words between herself and her brother, and then finally, Thomas nodded. With a smile, he gestured toward Emma’s lady’s maid standing near the doors to the terrace with his gloved hand. Emma knew that her beloved brother would not deny her a chance to step away if she truly needed it, but etiquette required she be accompanied. Emma knew that she would be calling attention to herself if she wandered away from her chaperone’s sight. She thought it a silly bother, as she was perfectly able to take care of herself if anything untoward should happen. However, Emma understood it would reflect upon Thomas if he permitted her to leave unchaperoned.

Emma passed him another tight quirk of her lips, hoping that it counted as a smile, and nodded to Lady Halwood. “Please excuse me for just a moment, Lady Halwood,” she said, without meeting the woman’s eyes. Standing in Lady Halwood’s presence one second longer while the woman made every attempt to pry tidbits about her father’s health only served to light an angry fire within her belly. Emma knew the lady to be dull, but nosey was one thing Emma wouldn’t tolerate.

“Please don’t be long, Emma. After all, we haven’t given our compliments to Baron Gainely yet. I shall be here when you return,” nodded Thomas.

Not knowing what lay beyond the door to the terrace, Emma then whisked herself away, her gown in her hands. She lugged it along unhappily, weaving through the crowd without much grace and avoiding the eyes of the ton. Emma was used to the ton casting deprecating glances her way. Disapproval of how she chose to live her life went back a long way. As she acknowledged her thanks to Conroy, her lady’s maid, for attending to a chaperone’s duty, an idea struck her. Hadn’t I seen a garden on our way into the foyer? Wandering amongst the wisteria and herbs is a far better way to spend my time indeed.

Thoughts of escaping the four walls of the ballroom to enjoy the fresh air and greenery of nature cheered Emma. She would much rather be amongst the new green shoots of grass, freshly poking their heads out of the dirt to meet the springtime instead of the upper crust of the ton. It was so perfect an idea that she had to stop herself from giving way to a tiny smile.

On the wall next to the terrace door was an ornate gilded mirror. Emma stopped to peer into the mirror, and her mouth twisted in a frown before she could stop it as she took in her reflection. The peach-colored gown she wore was from a few Seasons prior, and it clung to her body with the corset cinched tightly in the back. Emma hated the constrictive sleeves, feeling bound by a bandit’s rope instead of wearing one of her finest dresses. Emma’s eyes rested on her chignon, the light-blonde curls laying softly against her cheeks. She wanted nothing more than to tear out those pins and let her fall long down her back, as she always wore it at home.

Feeling rebellious and full of disdain for the faux propriety of the ton, she huffed and turned to slide through the ballroom door with Conroy ready to follow. Before she could even move her foot one inch, a sickeningly sweet voice cut through the ton’s prattling and laughter like a warm knife through butter.

“Why if it is not the strangest young lady in all of London?” Lady Katherine said from behind her. “I thought that this would be yet another event she would not attend. Didn’t you think so, Lady Alice?” Lady Katherine let one hand wander up to twist one raven-black curl. She pursed her lips and turned back to her cohort, who laughed in reply.

“Quite,” Lady Alice agreed. “I suppose she was taking the time to visit the modiste and choose the perfect pattern for a gown. I think the poor dear has worn that particular peach satin her past two Seasons!”

Emma had been too busy wincing at her reflection to see the two women advancing on her and smirking as though they’d caught her in a trap. She glanced behind them to see Lady Katherine’s and Lady Alice’s mothers only standing paces away. It seemed the mothers were too lost in conversation to witness the cruelties their daughters were inflicting on Emma then or even at past social events. Emma was beginning to think that the women did not mind at all what their daughters said to her.

          Emma twisted in discomfort; with every ball and gathering she attended, one thing only became more apparentshe did not belong at society gatherings.

“Are you not going to say anything?” Lady Katherine asked. “You’re just going to stand there like a buffoon who can’t speak? No wonder you’re on your third attempt at finding a match! You are quite the odd girl!”

“I should say so,” Lady Alice quipped. “Such a sad creature, with your outdated gown and poorly styled hair. My heart does not know whether to laugh at you or pity you for all your woeful attempts at being a lady.”

Emma’s heart plummeted at such harsh words, but she did not falter. Her spine stiffened with pride. Though she did feel the sting of tears threatening to spill over onto her cheeks, her honey-colored eyes did not blink, and her lips did not tremble.

“It does not matter to me what you think,” Emma responded. Her voice was steady, and her eyes flinty, ignoring the heaviness in her chest that was not there before. “You two may go about kissing toads to find your prince, but I need none of that. I am my own woman; marriage is of no interest to me.”

The two young women seemed mollified for a moment. Neither one of them spoke, and their eyes shifted to each other for a split second. Emma was about to silently congratulate herself for silencing them before the two young ladies burst into a fit of laughter.

“Can you believe how freely she admits it?” Lady Katherine laughed. “Perhaps she’s just realized she’s simply too much of a peculiar thing for marriage. I suppose it is better to accept it, after all!”

Emma glimpsed members of the ton near to them stealing glances in their direction. Lips moved in silent conversation, but Emma could not hear the gossip spoken in whispers. She did not have to hear what they were saying to know that she was the hot topic of the gathering. Lady Katherine and Lady Alice had a way of making sure that everyone knew just how aloof and strange they thought Emma was. Emma wanted to be free of this hive of rumors now more than ever, but her feet felt frozen to the floor. She did her best to look stoic and stick her chin out at them in defiance, but her head felt suddenly very heavy.

A lump formed in Emma’s throat, and she was desperate to erase those awful sounds that assaulted her ears and pierced her heart, though she tried her best not to show it. She strangled her tears in her throat, wishing that there was someone who understood her, one solitary soul who would stand out among the rest, like a beam of light in the darkness.


Kenneth Fenwick, Earl of Herbert, was in a foul mood, though he would not admit it. For once, life was truly not going his way. His mouth tilted downwards ever so slightly at the edges, and his mossy green eyes were dark in annoyance. Throughout the ballroom rang the laughter of young ladies, tittering like the sound of sweet birds. An irritated breath rushed out of him, and his hands delved into his pockets.

“You needn’t look so cross,” Alexander, his cousin, said at his side. “Perhaps it was all for the good that Lady Rose rescinded her agreement.”

Kenneth straightened as if the words seared him like a brand. He arched one dark brown brow as a gaggle of young ladies passed by before him.

“It is a good thing,” he said, “and I am not cross. I am simply … thinking, Alex.”

Alexander laughed, the sunniness on his face matching the bright blaze of red hair that crowned his head. His teeth flashed in a grin, and he shook his head at his cousin, mirroring him by plunging his own hands into his coat.

Thinking,” he echoed. “That is a surprise. It’s thinking that’s gotten you into this mess in the first place, hasn’t it? Thinking you did not need to call on your betrothed for weeks, thinking you could ignore her letters, thinking you could puff your chest up at any pretty young thing that crosses your path.”

Alexander rose his brows, and a teasing, grim expression clouded his face dramatically. “Oh, cousin, whenever will you learn? A lady’s heart is a fragile thing!”

“Yes, yes,” Kenneth countered. “You don’t need to instruct me in the ways of wooing ladies; of that, I can assure you.”

The frown was still present, but his cousin’s presence always did make him feel a little better. Alexander had a pleasant way about him that always brought a smile to Kenneth’s face, even on the darkest of days. He was just a cheerful sort of fellow, well-liked by the ton and always with an enlightened word or a joke resting just at the tip of his tongue.

“Of course, cousin,” Alexander said. “The marriage was then simply not meant to be. Perhaps you’re star-struck lovers with some other beautiful young lady. Maybe Lady Priscilla, perhaps? She does have quite the eye-catching fashion choices, wouldn’t you say?”

The woman in question was just a few arm’s lengths away. Lady Priscilla stood out amongst the pastel crowd in an elaborate display of every shade in yellow, purple, and green.

“What a ghastly mélange of feathers she’s wearing upon her head,” Kenneth remarked, sending Alexander into a hearty round of laughter. “But no, I don’t think my destiny lies with Lady Priscilla, though I could have any single one of these ladies. Without any doubt, in fact.”

Alexander took an appraising look around the ballroom, his hand on his angular chin. “Without a doubt?” he asked.

“None whatsoever.”

Kenneth’s sour mood completely disappeared as he watched a shred of slyness sprout up in his cousin’s brown eyes. The bow of the man’s lips curved up in a smile that already looked victorious. I wonder what he has in mind this time. I hope it’s enough to cheer me up after the mess with Rose. Perhaps it will even be enough to take my mind off of what is happening at home as well. But Kenneth did not want to think about either of those things, especially the latter; he pushed those thoughts away and focused only on his cousin.

          Alexander looked around conspiratorially for a moment. Kenneth realized that he was ensuring that everyone around them was securely locked in conversation and that no prying ears were listening.

“How about a bit of a wager then?” Alexander asked, his voice dropping low. “Let us prove just how much of a prince with the ladies as you say you are.”

Kenneth’s eyebrow raised, a smile playing in his eyes now. There could be no telling what Alexander had up his sleeve, but Kenneth had always been one to find out. “And what are the terms?”

“Oh, nothing so much as to strain your sensibilities or purse,” Alexander began. “You try to win the heart and hand of a young lady of my choosing. You’ll have, oh, let us say, six weeks to do so. I don’t think those are harsh terms, by any stretch of the mind.”

“You would not be insinuating one Lady Priscilla?!” he whispered harshly.

Alexander let out a puff of air through his nostrils, a silent laugh that only Kenneth would have been able to notice. “Not Lady Priscilla,” he said. “But if you lose, you won’t be getting off lightly. You must walk naked in the streets of London. Completely bare.”

Kenneth stared at him, a disbelieving smile on his lips. “I shall be arrested! Public indecency wouldn’t be excused, not even for one as pleasing to the eye as myself.”

“Then you shall have to ensure you win,” Alexander replied. “After all, you were ever so confident before. And do not tell me that those excellent business partnerships your father made before his passing would not assist in hauling your no-good head out of prison. You would spend no more than an afternoon there.”

Kenneth hesitated for a moment and then surrendered to the bursts of excitement he felt stirring within him at the prospect of another of Alexander’s bets. “I’ll take your wager,” he said. “I shall show you the extent of my charm since you’ve asked me to prove it. It isn’t as though I could ruin my reputation any more than I’ve already done myself. And who shall our lucky lady be?”

Kenneth watched Alexander scan the room before movement caught his eye a few paces to their right. A young lady with curled blonde hair was moving swiftly towards the door. Behind her, two other ladies were laughing, one pointing cruelly in her direction.

“Where are you going, Emma?” one of the women asked.

“Out to play in the dirt and muck just like a farm animal,” the other called after the fleeing young lady. “Leave her, Alice; we have our duties as proper ladies to fulfill.”

Yes, like finding some poor fellow to shackle in marriage, Kenneth thought to himself. He blazed, unsure from where this righteous anger for the persecuted woman came. Usually, the social affairs of women disinterested him, but this rude scene of deliberate mocking a lovely lady roused indignation that would not stop nagging at his conscious.

“Well, that looks like a fair challenge for you,” Alexander observed. “That’s who I’ll choose then. The somewhat different and unapproachable daughter of the Earl of Chester, Lady Emma Baker. That ought to keep you busy for those six splendid weeks.”

Kenneth considered how out of place Lady Emma looked, surrounded by the finery of the ton. She was like a single wildflower among a bouquet of heavily perfumed roses. Her beauty could not be denied; even from his precise angle, he could see her high, sharp cheekbones, her soft black lashes laying against her skin. He noticed that Emma Baker was much more than the other women of the ton. Kenneth supposed it came from spending long hours outdoors—perhaps she enjoyed horseback riding or gardening.

Either one was a curious habit for a young woman of the ton to entertain regularly, and Kenneth thought it no wonder that she was being teased over it. Yet, he also had to wonder what Lady Emma was so interested in outside of the four walls of a good English home. The women he had interacted with never had a mind to talk or think about anything other than marriage.

Kenneth’s anger flared as he watched the two youthful beauties begin laughing again; most likely, they were still teasing Emma for her uniqueness. They held their hands to their pink lips, curved tightly in malicious smiles. The two bullies were only an arm’s length away from Kenneth and Alexander now, and he could easily hear every word they spoke.

“How will she ever manage to secure the attention of a gentleman?” one asked. “I’d wager her scowl alone is enough to secure for her a life as a spinster, let alone her hair and gowns!”

Another spire of anger shot forth from within the earl as he watched Lady Emma, hoping she had made it out to the terrace, too far to hear the insulting words. The youthful tormentors ensured everyone knew what they were giggling over; they were purposefully doing it, considering how loudly they spoke. Still, not a soul defended the Earl’s daughter. She was treated with disregard by those who mocked her and the bystanders indifferent to her struggles.

How utterly cruel. Before he knew what he was doing, the Earl of Herbert opened his mouth to speak, intending to talk loudly enough for anyone near to hear him.

“I’m ever so glad that I have a young lady who has already caught my eye, Alex. Someone whose heart I already know. After all, Alex, some of the sweetest-looking flowers smell quite rotten when you truly find out what is on the inside. Would you not agree?” Kenneth gazed explicitly in the direction of Lady Katherine and Lady Alice.

The two women stopped short as they passed by. For a moment, their mouths hung open, and then simultaneously, their faces turned bright red. One of them looked like she might speak, but before she could make a fool of herself any further, her friend tugged on her hand, and they both sped away.

“What was that all about?” Alexander asked, a teasing smile on his face. “‘Someone whose heart you already know?’ Perhaps you are taking the bet too seriously, defending your damsel in distress even before introductions are made?”

Kenneth laughed, though his gaze lingered on the door Lady Emma went through. “Accompany me to the terrace, cousin. I’m in need of escaping from the stifling air in this room.

When the earl and his cousin stepped onto the terrace, Kenneth saw Emma below in the garden being consoled by her lady’s maid. She turned for only a moment, her eyes searching for other possible harassers, but it was enough for Kenneth to see her face. Her cheeks were pink, nearly red in her surely tumultuous emotion, and one glimmering teardrop sat at the very corner of her almond-shaped eyes. Briefly, their eyes met over the flowers and shrubs. Kenneth was stunned by the bow of her pink lips and the brightness of her gaze. He stood there, frozen, locked in her stare, and then she turned away. Before he could drink in one more drop of her beauty, Emma and her companion walked further into the garden, and she was gone from sight.

Kenneth turned to Alexander, though the sight of Emma’s honey-brown eyes were enough to him melt him like the sun. “To answer your impertinent question, I am not taking your wager too seriously. I’m simply feeling rather stressed lately, and that pair of painted-up vipers was merely the final straw. I had to let out some steam, it seems. There have been some goings-on at home that have left me feeling slightly troubled.”

“Truly?” Alexander asked with concern stamped across his features.

Kenneth hesitated, reflecting a somberness somewhere distant in his green gaze. He hadn’t planned on filling Alexander in on the odd happenings that had been plaguing him of late, not until he had more information, but the thought of sharing some of his worries with his childhood companion was tempting. I’m going to have to tell him sometime. But saying the words aloud is somehow frightening, as if that would make my fears seem more real than I would like to admit. I want to think it’s all still a coincidence.

          And yet, the earl could not resist discussing the subject; he wondered for a moment if Alexander might just tell him he was being foolish and paranoid. But Alexander already did look worried, and so Kenneth began his story.

“Strange occurrences,” Kenneth said. “I truly didn’t want to worry you, and at first, I thought that I’d come across just a string of bad luck.”

“Bad luck?”

“Exactly that,” replied Kenneth. “I went out hunting recently and came across a wild boar with tusks the like of which you’ve never seen. You know how I like a clean shot, so I dismounted and tried to take the creature by surprise. I aimed my rifle, certain that I would bring the beast down, but my weapon never fired. It was all I could do to hurry back and mount my horse before the beast speared me straight through!”

“Surely you don’t think wild pigs are targeting you?” Alexander questioned, half-smiling.

“That isn’t all,” Kenneth continued. “A servant was injured on the way up the staircase a few days ago. The top step was undeniably tampered with; the nails pulled right out of the wood. I would have been certain that someone only meant me harm if the events stopped there, but then the most chilling event of all occurred. A rock the size of my skull was hurled straight through my bedchamber window. I’m beginning to fear for my sister’s life as well. You know just as well as I how her emotional state would plummet if something ever happened to me. I am the only immediate family she has left.”

Kenneth and his younger sister, Lady Teresa Fenwick, lost their parents when Kenneth was eighteen years of age, and Teresa was but a child of eleven years. Teresa had come to rely on Kenneth not only as a brother but as a substitute parent. He had assumed responsibility for Teresa after their parents’ death, and she was the only person who had his love and good grace. He would never forgive himself if anything happened to Teresa on his account.

“But cousin,” Alexander said, his eyes wide, “you don’t mean—”

“Yes, someone is trying to kill me, and I aim to find out who,” declared the Earl of Herbert.

 Chapter 2

“Home at last, and where I belong,” sighed Emma to herself. She sat in her garden; the aromatic scent of herbs carried on the breeze. Her hands delved into the dirt, free at last from the lace gloves that confined her so. A cotton dress hung from her body, still fine enough to be considered a lady’s day dress, but plainer, lighter, and with far more room to breathe.

Emma recalled the events of that morning’s musicale, sorrow building up within her chest. She didn’t know why Katherine’s and Alice’s words bothered her; she did not care for fashion or the latest hairstyles. Most importantly, winning the attention of gentlemen of the ton did not interest her. Emma wondered why she felt like weeping so when those very things were pointed out to her as flaws.

Soft, dirt-smudged fingers tugged at a tall green sprig topped with a halo of white flowers, unearthing it from the dirt. Emma had to pull with some difficulty, but the flower gave way after putting her back and shoulders into her endeavor. With a small blade no larger than her pinkie finger, she sawed the roots from the green stalk until, at last, the dark brown tangle fell away. Emma smiled, satisfied, and placed it inside the wicker basket at her side. She stood, huffing a breath from the exertion, and brushed her dirt-soiled hands down the skirts of her gown.

“Now why would you do something like that?” a voice asked from behind her.

She whirled around to see Thomas, a rueful expression clinging to his features that so resembled hers. “It’s just one of my older gowns. This is the only one I wear in the garden so that I won’t ruin any of my others. You needn’t chastise me about staining it.”

“I meant the root,” Thomas said. “I was simply wondering why you took that and not the flower itself. Poor thing; it’s pretty enough to be put in a vase and admired, don’t you think?”

Emma cast a glance at the abandoned blossom, frowning to herself. Her eyes did not leave the ground. “Perhaps the flower didn’t want to be stuck in a vase and gawked at by anybody and everybody. Perhaps it wants to be left alone, out here in nature. Maybe that’s where she enjoys her time best.” Emma sighed, feeling an onset of emotion that she couldn’t quite explain welling up again. She set the basket down, her chest tight and her eyes warm and wet.

“Well,” Thomas said, after a moment of heavy silence, “I don’t suppose a root will look quite right in a vase, but I had to ask.”

Emma smiled despite herself, a white gleam in the late afternoon sunlight. As a child, her older brother had always been her constant companion, and nothing had changed as adults. But her smile faded from her face when she remembered the true reason she’d visited her herb garden.

“It’s for Father,” she said. “These plants were imported from across the sea. Supposedly they are nearly a miracle cure for breathing difficulties. I think that this might be what he needs.”

“You always were quite bookish with those dusty old tomes on medicine and flora,” Thomas laughed, not quite touching the subject. “I suppose I had better find you a husband who can appreciate such an underrated trait in a young lady.”

Emma scoffed, waving her hand about dismissively. “Oh, go on,” she said, with a small curving smile. “Where would I have any room in my heart for a husband, with you and father around to appreciate my unique qualities?”

Thomas raised an eyebrow at her. “Emma,” he said, his tone sinking lower in his seriousness. “You cannot be alone forever. You need to find a gentleman, and soon.”

“Or else I shall become a spinster?” she asked, laughing. “That life suits me anyway. I have no time to search for a husband when Father so desperately needs…”

She trailed off after seeing her brother’s expression. His brown eyes were glassy and sorrowful. Thomas had his hands tucked behind his back, as he always did when sorry about something. Emma did not have to ask to know what it was.

“Emma,” Thomas pleaded, “please do not string your heart along with the hope of Father’s return to good health. I hate to see you brought up so high, only to crash lower and lower still every time. Please, let us just enjoy all the time left we have with Father without tainting our memories with desperation and false hope.”

She turned her head, suddenly unwilling to look at him or the root in her basket. Emma refused to believe these words; she turned them away at the door to her heart the moment they began to knock.

“I know how you feel, Emma. He is my father too.”

“But it was not you that killed Mother.”

Tension hung in the air for a moment before she then swooped down to collect her basket, ignoring the ache in her heart. Emma did not mean to sound so petulant, so self-deprecating; she knew that it was she who had placed the weight of her burden squarely upon her shoulders. And yet, it was something that she felt she had to do.

“You did not kill Mother either,” Thomas said quietly. “A complication during childbirth is hardly the fault of the child, Emma.”

Emma shook her head, unsure of what to say. Her hands tightened on the wicker basket.

“I do not wish to speak on the subject any longer,” she said. “I wanted to see Father before he falls asleep for the evening.”

“Emma, wait,” appealed Thomas. “Before you go, I wanted to tell you that we’ll be attending Lord and Lady Berkin’s ball tomorrow evening. Perhaps a little additional time around others is what you need. And it’s important to me that you begin to consider your needs a little more.”

Emma stood with her back to him; for a split second, she fought the urge to tell him that no, she would not be attending the ball and that he would be attending himself if he’d like to go. But this emotion was quelled before it even began. Emma knew her anger sprang from desperation for their father and that Thomas was working through his pain over the man’s illness, too.

“Thank you, brother, for your concern,” was all she said. She brushed by him, up the walkway and through the door before he could speak another word about the ball.

The house felt quiet and already full of mourning. To Emma, it was nearly unbearable. The air was heavy with illness and sadness, and as Emma trudged up the stairs to her father’s bedchamber, she already felt the dread of facing the illness head-on, of genuinely looking at how ravaged the man’s body was. She paused outside of the door, taking a solid breath in, and then knocking.

“Yes?” said a male voice. The door opened to reveal a middle-aged man in an everyday cotton shirt. “Ah, Lady Emma, please come in. Your father was just asking about you.”

“Thank you, Johnson.”

Emma entered, and Johnson, the butler, stepped outside and shut the door, leaving her with some privacy. Lord Chester was sitting up, his hands folded across his lap as he rested beneath the heavy quilt. The man had his eyes closed; Emma noted with dismay how much older he looked than he had even last month.

“Hello, Father,” Emma said. “How are you feeling this afternoon?”

Lord Chester opened his hazy eyes, blinking once and then again. When his vision settled, the man smiled slowly. Emma could easily see how little energy her father had left. Yet, she marveled at his insistence that he was always ‘very good today’ or ‘quite well.’ Emma wasn’t sure if he believed that for his children’s benefit or his benefit, but she loved him all the more for saying it.

“Oh, my dear,” he said. “Quite well, quite well. And what have you got there? Have you gone flower-picking?” He motioned towards the wicker basket she still carried.

Emma smiled at the predictability of her father’s answer. She looked down at the basket and chuckled, “I meant to set this aside before I came to see you. I suppose I was just eager when Johnson told me you were awake. I wanted to see you after returning home from the awful musicale, but you were sleeping peacefully. I didn’t dare wake you.”

Her father laughed, the sound like wind through dead branches. “Oh, love,” he said, “your mother did so hate social events too. She was rather the odd bird, they said, but I loved her even more for it. You do remind me of her so much.” Even now, her father looked as though he were trying to will away the effects of his illness to ease Emma’s mind. He sat up as straight as he was able, though it was not much, and his lips trembled in a smile.

Emma’s eyes softened. He just doesn’t wish me to worry about him. Oh, Father! You are the picture of stoicism, even if you are bedridden. If only I could have half as much courage as you have.

“Thomas wants me to go to another ball tomorrow night,” she said, sighing dramatically in a successful attempt to cheer her father. “Can you believe the nerve your son has? Trying to force me into the prying eyes of the ton?”

“I cannot blame him,” Lord Chester said. “You are a gem to be adored, Emma. Thomas simply wants the best for you. As do I.”

She sat down on her father’s bed, reaching out to take his wrinkled hand. The silence between them was ripe with sadness, but also with a warm love that Emma knew would transcend this life with her father when it was time.

“You think I should go as well, don’t you?” she asked glumly. “Father, please, I do not require marriage to be happy.”

“I did not say you did,” he said, holding his other hand up. “I do not think that at all. Your mother was happy before me. It was not necessary for her life exactly to be as she wished it. Only after we met did we realize what we were missing in our lives. Perhaps you are happy now. But Emma, I could truly rest easy knowing that someone was taking care of you, that you would be safe, protected. Loved.”

Emma felt emotion crawling up her throat, but she would not give way to it. She squeezed her father’s hand and opened her mouth to change the subject when Lord Chester interjected before she could speak.

“Promise me you will think about it, Emma,” he begged. “Promise me at least that much, my sweet daughter. Then your dear old father will be satisfied.”

She swallowed her words, her will, and then smiled.

“I promise, Father,” she said. “I shall think about it.”

Lord Chester’s expression softened to one of tranquility, and then he blinked repeatedly, his eyelids heavy. His gaze did not seem focused, and Emma felt a sharp pang of concern shoot through her.

“I should let you rest, Father,” Emma said. “I have kept you awake far too long.”

But the Earl was already sound asleep. His ragged breaths rose above Emma’s, wet and thick. Emma gazed at his wiry white hair, at the heavy lines beneath his eyes. It was not age taking her father’s life, but something to do with his lungs, a mysterious danger that evaded every physician and nurse in London. He was upon death’s stoop, and yet all he would concern himself with was Emma. She shut the door quietly behind her, her fingers trembling.

The prospect of the ball lingered on Emma’s mind; she told herself that she would not break her father’s heart before she had a chance to save him.

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