About the book
Let’s run away, together…”
After endless years of torment from her father, lady Emma has finally made her decision: she will run away from home and adopt the identity of a humble maid. But what she didn’t expect was running right into the alluring rogue, Langley, the Duke of Whitehaven.
Langley, the Duke of Whitehaven is a scarred man, both mentally and physically. His days of solitude are all he has, and the pain that lives deep within him remains ever since his days in the army. But when a peculiar wallflower maid shows right onto his doorsteps, he realizes he cannot resist her.
Running away from home could never be easy—Emma should have realized.
When her father finally finds her, he announces her horrid fate: she is to marry a cruel Earl she doesn’t love. And Langley will go to prison.
The District of Murward, Near London, England, 1810
“The Baron of Calber, accompanied by his gracious daughter Miss Emma Adams,” the master of ceremonies said, reading the names from the card.
They were awfully late arriving at the ball held at Murward Park. Only a few heads turned in their direction, seeing as the dance had already begun. The soft violin sound echoed throughout the place, reaching her ears and adding to her already tensed nerves.
“Go on then, Emma, step forward,” her father hissed. Emma reluctantly stepped into the room, feeling terribly nervous. It was her debut, after all.
The invitation to the ball had come from Lady Celia Murward herself, a friend of Emma’s father, requesting the pleasure of their company and intimating that the evening could serve as an opportune moment for Emma to be presented to the ton.
Since the death of Emma’s mother just eight years prior, Lady Murward had taken it on herself to act in her stead and keep an eye on Emma. She hurried over to greet them, exclaiming at the beautiful dress she had chosen for Emma to wear and had sent from her London modiste. It was a long, silver one, far too extravagant for the occasion, with feathers decorating her hair.
“Emma, you look splendid,” she exclaimed.
Lady Murward was a widow, her husband having been far older than she when they married, and without children of her own, she had little to do but involve herself in the affairs of others, Emma being a prime choice for her interests.
“Thank you, Lady Murward. I quite like it,” Emma said, suddenly feeling terribly shy.
Emma preferred the company of horses or the pianoforte far more than the ton. Her life had been stigmatized by solitude, with only her governess to keep her comfort, seeing as her father was often away on business. He had always wished for a son, so she was a mere disappointment in his eyes.
The Baron of Calber had no male heir, and in this, he considered himself lacking. He had never shied away from reminding Emma of his dissatisfaction, and the two had never been close, drifting further and further apart as the years went by.
“Oh, I am glad. Your mother would have wanted you to look the part for your debut, would she not, Winston?” Lady Murward said, addressing Emma’s father.
“What? Oh, yes, I am sure she would,” the Baron replied, and Lady Murward beamed.
“We shall have you dancing in no time, Emma. There are countless eligible gentlemen here tonight. I shall introduce you to them all,” she said, taking Emma by the hand.
There were perhaps forty or fifty people already milling about the ballroom. Murward Park was a most spectacular house, built in the neo-classical style, with two wings jutting out from a central colonnaded portico. The ballroom lay at its center, its rear windows looking over the gardens, with doors opening out onto a terrace beyond. As a child, Emma had often taken tea there with Lady Murward, where she would sit formally in the drawing room and be talked down to – seen and never heard. But this was different.
“I cannot dance,” she said, but Lady Murward laughed.
“Do not be silly, Emma. Did we not practice these months past?” she said, and Emma nodded.
Lady Murward had insisted they practice, but Emma was by no means a natural.
“But I was not entirely graceful,” Emma said, glancing shyly at the groups of gentlemen around the room. They were all staring at her.
“But they are showing an interest in you, already,” Lady Murward said, smiling at the gentlemen as further heads were turned.
Emma was a pretty woman, slender, with long blonde hair hidden under her elaborate hairdo. The only jewelry she allowed to touch her skin was her mother’s, as it was a beacon of luck for her.
“Am I to speak with them?” she asked, wondering what she could possibly say to such men.
“Remember what I taught you,” Lady Murward replied, “it is they who must speak to you. Come now, I shall make an introduction.”
Her heart beat against her chest as she glanced back at her father, who was staring with disapproval. She had to make a good impression, or else everything would be tarnished.
“This is my chance to make something of you,” he had told her.
“Good evening,” a young man said, stepping forward and bowing.
He was dressed in the uniform of the militia, an officer, decorated with several medals. A lustful look resided deep in his eyes, and his tousled blonde hair swept over his forehead, his hand now extended.
“Ah, Lieutenant Bowles, may I introduce Miss Emma Adams, daughter of the Baron of Calber,” Lady Murward said.
Emma offered the gentleman her hand, and he raised it to his thin lips, his touch lingering just a moment too long. She blushed.
“A pleasure, a true pleasure, My Lady. Samson Bowles, King’s militia,” he said, still fixing on her with his lustful eyes.
“Is it true this is your debut, My Lady?”
Emma nodded reluctantly, afraid of saying the wrong thing.
“How delightful. Then may I be the first to mark your dance card?” he said, raising his eyebrows, a smile creeping over his face.
“You might, sir,” Emma said, trying desperately to think of a way to extract herself from the lascivious lieutenant’s advances.
The lieutenant offered Emma his arm, and she had no choice but to take it, praying she would not embarrass herself in front of the other guests.
“Shall we?” he said, and Emma had no other choice but to follow.
The music was a waltz, and together they danced, Emma placing all her concentration on where her feet were going, the lieutenant’s hand placed firmly about her waist.
“And I am the first to have your hand this night?” he asked, clearly enjoying the thought of her innocence.
“You are, sir,” she said, blushing, his grip tightening on her.
“You dance well for one so young,” he said, and Emma forced a smile.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, and the lieutenant smiled.
“And when the dance is over, we shall step out onto the terrace. The gardens here are very private. We might walk amongst the roses,” he said, and Emma’s heart skipped a beat.
She had heard tell of such men, men who would offer compliments and attention when their mind was on one thing, and one thing only. She had no intention of allowing the lascivious lieutenant to be the first to plant a kiss on her lips and made protest immediately.
“I am really rather warm. I should like to take a moment for some refreshment,” she said as the dance approached an end.
“Very well, I shall be waiting,” he said, stepping back and bowing to her.
Emma was grateful for her quick thinking, though she felt like an animal caught in a trap. Everywhere she looked, gentlemen’s heads were turning to look at her, and she knew it was only a matter of time before another stepped forward to introduce himself. She glanced desperately around, breathing a sigh of relief as she spotted Lydia Ayer in the far corner of the room.
Emma had few friends in the district, but Lydia Ayer was perhaps the closest she could count on. She was the daughter of Lord and Lady Ayer and resided at Lockington Manor, a short carriage drive away from Emma’s own home at Calber Manor. Emma made straight for her, ignoring the looks of the gentleman she passed and greeting her friend with the enthusiasm of one whose day had just been saved.
“Oh, thank goodness, Lydia, I am so very pleased to see you,” Emma said, smiling at Lydia, who appeared somewhat surprised.
“Emma, I have not seen you for weeks. It is nice to see you too,” Lydia said, smiling at Emma, who glanced nervously over her shoulder, relieved to see that Lieutenant Bowles had already attached himself to another poor victim.
“I have been here at Murward Park preparing for this evening,” Emma replied.
“Ah, your debut, of course. How delightful for you,” Lydia said, and Emma again forced her face into a smile.
“It is… an experience,” she said, and Lydia laughed.
“To the gentlemen gathered here, the announcement of a debut is a cause for some excitement. You have stepped into that void, Emma,” she said, and Emma giggled nervously.
Lydia was a year older than Emma, and her debut had been, by all accounts, a success. She had a suitor, a man named Reginald Parks, and she was no longer part of that eligible set she spoke of.
“It is the way they all look at me,” Emma said, scanning around the room as several gentlemen raised their glasses to her.
“But of course, they will. You are a beautiful, single woman,” Lydia replied.
Emma was not ready for such an assault of interest.
“And am I to dance with them all?” she exclaimed.
“No, of course you are not. Only the ones you wish to, though it is not always easy to resist the advances of a gentleman’s intent,” she said, smiling at Emma, who felt her hopes diminishing.
It seemed inevitable she would spend the evening fighting off gentlemanly attentions.
“And if I wish to dance with none of them?” she asked as Lydia raised her eyebrows.
“Then why are you here?” she said and walked off toward the refreshment table.
It was as though Lydia had been the guard at the entrance to a treasure house; for the moment Emma was left alone, three gentlemen immediately pounced on her, introducing themselves simultaneously, vying for her attention.
“Cyril Jones… Miss…?”
“My name is Lord Jeffrey Ardlington, it is my pleasure…”
“Loftus Kirk, and might I ask your name…?”
Emma looked at the three of them in astonishment, entirely overwhelmed by the attention, and being unable to think of anything meaningful to say, she fled, excusing herself to the powder room, just as the next dance struck up.
“You certainly made an impression tonight, Emma,” her father said as they rode home in the carriage. The carriage shook with the wind, but she paid no mind to it.
The ball had lasted all night, and the dancing only stopped once they were left famished. Emma had been unable to resist the advances of several handsome men who were rather insistent on joining her on the dance floor. That included Lieutenant Bowles.
“I did not expect it,” she confessed, surprised at her father’s tone of voice.
He rarely showed any interest in her.
“Because you are an attractive proposition, Emma. You are young, attractive, and with excellent prospects. I am sure any man of good fortune and high standing would be pleased to call you his own,” he replied.
It was late, the moon high in the sky, the interior of the carriage dark and gloomy, and Emma struggled to see the expression on her father’s face. These words were not what she expected to hear from him.
“I was not entirely keen on those whose attention I attracted,” she added, thinking back to the lascivious lieutenant.
“Ah, but they matter not, Emma. What matters is the one, single man whom you do approve of. I was talking to one such gentleman, and he intends to call on you tomorrow,” he said.
“But why did he not introduce himself?” she asked as her father chuckled.
“He told me he would prefer a private introduction. He is a man of considerable means, one whom you would do well to court the favor of. Yes, he will call on you tomorrow, and that will be most acceptable,” he replied.
Emma sighed. She hoped the gentleman in question would not be like Lieutenant Bowles or any of the other men at the ball for whom conquest, rather than romance, seemed to be their intentions. She had barely stepped out into society, and already she had her doubts as to the pleasures it could afford her. She had tasted the advances of men and found them somewhat lacking.
“And will I like him?” she asked. Her father tutted.
“He will like you, I am sure, and that is all that matters,” he replied, and that was the end of that.
But Emma could not look forward to the following day, not if it meant an encounter with a man she had no wish, nor desire, to acquaint herself with further. She felt trapped in obligation, her debut a movement from the familiar to the unknown. Courtship, betrothal, marriage – these were all things she had considered, things she desired, but only in their right and proper time. Emma intended to marry for love and no other reason, and she was not convinced that any man her father favored could be favored equally by herself.
“And my feelings count for nothing?” she asked as the carriage drew up outside Calber Manor.
“If I had my choice, it would have been a son I was seeing married,” he replied, clambering out of the carriage and leaving Emma sitting alone in the dark, tears rising in her eyes.
“Then I suppose I must make the best of things,” she whispered to herself, knowing that whatever the following day brought, it would not be the happiness she longed for.
The District of Murward, Near London, England, 1812
“The Earl of Darney to see you, ma’am,” the maid said, curtseying, as Emma sighed and rose from the pianoforte.
She had been busy practicing a new piece that morning, and the interruption was somewhat unwelcome, given she knew what was to come. Percy Harlow, The Earl of Darney, was a persistent presence in her life and had been ever since the morning after her debut when he had called at Calber Manor to make his introductions.
“You may show him in, Rose,” Emma said, nodding to the maid, who curtsied and hurried from the room.
It was a beautiful, late spring day, and the doors from the drawing room were open to the garden. A delightful scent was wafting into the room, roses and lavender, the breeze warm. Emma smoothed down her dress, glancing at her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. She was nineteen now and had largely absented herself from society in the months following her debut. There had been no end of suitors presented to her, but she had preferred to withdraw into solitude, much to her father’s disapproval. A moment later, Rose returned, and behind her came the Earl himself, a tall gentleman, far older than Emma, wearing a wig, and dressed in a long blue frock coat and breeches, a yellow cravat at his neck.
As her father had intimated on their first introductions, he was a man of considerable success, at least in monetary terms. He ran a successful shipping business between London and the colonies and had mercantile interests in Europe and beyond. His wealth was considerable – valued at some twenty thousand a year, and he possessed estates in Derbyshire, Hampshire, and Kent, as well as a townhouse in London from which he had just arrived.
“Emma, how pleased I am to see you,” he said, bowing to her with a smile, “it has felt like an age since I was last in your company.”
In truth, it had been but a week since the Earl had last graced the drawing room, and he had called in the intervening period, though Emma had hidden in the library and instructed Rose to tell the Earl she was not at home.
“It does feel that way,” Emma said, gritting her teeth.
The Earl was a pleasant enough man, and there could be no doubting the sincerity of his intentions. But his persistence was unattractive, and Emma had long since grown tired of his constant attention. He seemed assured of his right to possess her, and she knew he had come to her this day with intent in his heart.
“The Earl of Darney is an excellent match for you,” her father had told her, enthusing over the Earl’s qualities, even though he had little actual knowledge of the man’s character.
The Earl was rich, possessed of a fortune which Emma’s father believed himself worthy of a share in, and he was willing to use Emma as a bargaining chip in its acquisition. He had made no secret of the fact, his interest in his daughter’s marriage was purely monetary and for personal gain.
“And my own opinion of him does not count?” she had asked, and her father had waved his hand dismissively.
“I never wanted a daughter, but now I have one; I must see to it she is married. Is that not the duty of a father?” he had snapped back at her.
Emma could not question his intentions, for they were that of any conscientious father, though she knew them to be entirely self-serving. Her marriage would benefit her father, and thus she had no choice in the matter of who it was she married.
“But how glad I am to be here now,” the Earl continued, sitting down in a chair by the fireplace and smiling at Emma, who forced her face into a smile and sat down opposite him.
“I was just practicing the pianoforte,” she said, in the vague hope he might apologize for interrupting her and return at a later date.
But the Earl did not seem aware of the inconvenience he had caused and merely smiled at her, exclaiming his delight in some of her previous recitals.
“I do love to hear you play the pianoforte, Emma. It is music to my ears,” he said, and she had to prevent herself from laughing at the ridiculous obviousness of his words.
“It is music, my Lord, very definitely,” she said.
“But it is not music I have come to speak of,” he said, clearing his throat.
Emma stiffened, knowing the inevitability of what was to come. There had been no formal courtship between them, for Emma had attracted the attention of a considerable number of gentlemen in the district, who, although knowing her to be a recluse, had persisted in their attempts to garner her affections. But none had been as persistent as the Earl of Darney, and in the months past, the others had trailed away as fresh opportunity presented itself, leaving only the Earl as a possible suitor.
“Some tea, perhaps?” she asked, hoping to prolong the inevitable for as long as possible.
“Perhaps later, Emma. No, I have come on a most urgent matter, and after considerable discussion with your father. I had hoped you and I might meet sooner than we have, for our previous recent encounters have been somewhat rushed or have not afforded us these moments alone,” he said, looking imploringly at her, his nerves visibly rising.
“Lady Murward’s salon is hardly the place for intimate discussions,” Emma said, and the Earl nodded.
“I find conversation there somewhat stilted, and there have been matters… well, of great importance, that have kept me from you. That is why I am so pleased to find you here this morning. Your father told me you would be,” he said, smiling nervously at her.
Emma knew her father had a hand in this. He had arranged the whole thing and without any thought to her own feelings in the matter. Ever since her debut at Murward Park, it had been her father’s intention to see her married to the Earl of Darney. He was the man who had introduced himself to her father that evening and made clear his interest in Emma before calling the next day in the hopes of making an impression.
Indeed, an impression had been made, but it was not the one he had hoped. Emma found the Earl something of a bore, his conversation stilted and awkward. They shared no interests – though the Earl feigned his delight in her playing of the pianoforte – and had little in common save their position in society. It was an entirely mismatched arrangement, and though Emma knew what was now to come, she had no intention of accepting it.
“I am sure he did,” Emma said, angry at the thought of her father playing such games.
He had spent so long being absent from his fatherly duties that the manner in which he now behaved was quite out of keeping with his previous demeanor. Emma knew he had always wanted a son, and he blamed her for not being that son and her poor mother for not providing one. Theirs had been a loveless marriage, and Emma had felt so sorry for her mother in life, a woman who had tried only to please the husband who so rejected her.
“Because I had to see you, Emma. I had to speak to you. We have waited long enough for this moment,” he said, his hands clenched, his brow growing sweaty.
“To be alone?” she asked, wishing there was some way of extracting herself from his intentions.
“Yes, but for the moment we both know to be ours,” he said, and now he almost fell from the chair, stumbling forward in an awkward show of falling to one knee.
Emma startled, recoiling, as he reached up and took her by the hand.
“My Lord, I am…” she began, but he interrupted her.
“Please, no words until I have spoken what is in my heart, Emma. Since the moment I first set eyes on you at your debut, I have thought of these words. I cannot contain them any longer. You have had other suitors, as befits a woman of such beauty as yourself, but I hope it is I who has captured your heart,” he said, his voice trembling.
Emma had always been taught by her mother – and a string of governesses – to be polite and well-mannered. She was naturally quiet and reserved, preferring her own company to that of others. But she had a determination to her, one instilled in her by her mother, who had always made the best of things and taught Emma to be firm in what she wanted.
“But, my Lord…” Emma began, not wishing to upset the Earl, having no intention of giving into his proposal.
“Marry me, Emma; that is all I ask. It is what I wish for more than anything in the world. You and I were destined for one another, of that I am certain. Had I not been invited to the ball that evening, had it not been your debut, we might not have met, but we did, and how happy that has made me,” he said.
Emma did not think it that much of a coincidence that they had met at Lady Murward’s ball. The entire district had been invited and, being far enough from London that such events were by no means a regular occurrence, anyone who was anyone in a radius of some ten or twenty miles had been in attendance.
“Goodness,” she said, trying to sound surprised, “I had not expected a proposal to come so suddenly.”
He looked at her with a puzzled expression. The proposal could hardly be called sudden, made as it was some eighteen months after they had first met.
“Suddenly?” he said, looking up at her in confusion.
“I mean… I had not expected you to make such a proposal today,” she said, blushing under his gaze.
“Ah, I see. You thought perhaps I would have invited you for a walk or to sit by the river. No, Emma, I could hardly contain myself, and I have already spoken with your father, who thinks such a match to be the very best possible hope for you. One must have the permission of a woman’s father,” he said, and Emma smiled through gritted teeth.
“I believe I must have a little time to think this over,” she said, unwilling to offer any answer in the immediacy of such a passionate outburst.
“But do you not wish for it? If there is hesitation on your part, then I must know why,” he said, and Emma shook her head.
“I must have time to speak to my father, to learn his opinion on the matter,” she said, and the Earl shook his head.
“But he is entirely in agreement and thinks it to be the most excellent of matches. There can be no doubt we are meant to be as one, and we can be married in the swiftest of time. I will have no trouble obtaining a special license from the Bishop, a close and personal friend of mine. We could be married by the first day of summer,” he said, looking longingly up at her, his eyes wide and imploring.
The first day of summer was but a matter of weeks away, and the thought of such a swift doom was enough to make Emma feel ill.
“Please, my Lord, allow me some time to think. I am not refusing, I simply must consider this… extraordinary offer,” she said as he sighed.
“Yes, forgive me. There is much here to consider. I have made my intentions clear, however, and I will say again that I am in love with you, Emma, and wish only for you to be my wife. I will return tomorrow afternoon to hear your answer. But in the meantime, know that I shall be in the very throes of turmoil awaiting your response,” he said, rising from his knees and bowing to her.
Emma rose and curtsied, and there was an awkward pause, the Earl then taking his leave, reminding her again of his most profound admiration for her. When the door closed behind him, Emma sank back down in her chair and sighed. She had no intention of saying yes and had bought herself only the matter of a day to think of some way in which to extract herself from this arrangement. She barely had time to think before the door flew open and her father appeared, red-faced and angry.
“Why did you not accept?” he demanded, and Emma folded her arms and scowled at him.
“I did not say no, either. But I was not about to agree to something so immediately without due consideration. How dare you promise my hand to a man I have no desire to marry,” she said, as her father banged his fist down on the lid of the pianoforte.
“The Earl of Darney is hardly a stranger to you. He has been a suitor ever since your debut. He is a man of good character and fortune. What is there you object to about him?” he demanded.
“That I am not in love with him,” she said. Her father shook his head.
“Love? What has love to do with it? Do all marriages begin in love? Your mother and I…” he began, but Emma interrupted him.
“Mother loved you, but you did not love her. You blamed her for not giving you an heir, and you have blamed me all my life for not being that heir. I will not be talked down to about love from a man whose own marriage was loveless,” she exclaimed.
“You will marry the Earl, and that is the end of it,” her father replied, but Emma would not hear of it.
His words made her all the more determined not to marry the Earl, a man for whom she could summon nothing but common courtesy for and for whom there could be no possibility of love – not now, not ever.
“I will not marry him, father, and when he calls tomorrow, I shall tell him as much,” she replied.
Her father scowled at her, stepping forward and lowering his voice in a menacing tone.
“You shall marry him, Emma, and that is final,” he replied before turning on his heels and marching from the room.
But Emma, quiet and well-mannered as she was, had no intention of marrying the Earl of Darney. Now, with the strength of that conviction in her heart, she vowed to find a way to extract herself from what seemed an inevitability, one which was soon to close in on her, bringing with it terrible and unforeseeable consequences.
“Hurry Rose, I must leave before my father returns,” Emma said, hurriedly stuffing clothes into a small bag, listening for the sounds of her father’s horse returning from his evening ride.
“Please, ma’am, must you leave like this? Can you not wait?” the maid asked, tears welling up in her eyes.
But Emma shook her head, taking the maid by the hand.
“You have been my only friend in this house, Rose, but I cannot stay, not now. My father is adamant I shall marry the Earl of Darney, and he wants his answer tomorrow. What else can I say but yes, even when my heart is so set against such a terrible fate? Now please, we must exchange clothes. I must not look like one of my rank and class if I am to be convincing in my flight,” she exclaimed as Rose began to sob.
“Surely there must be a way. Are there not other suitors? Another man who could save you from this terrible fate?” she exclaimed, but Emma shook her head.
“Not by tomorrow afternoon. I had foolishly imagined my father’s charity in the matter or that there would be another man, one whom I, myself, found attractive, a man I could fall in love with. It is not that I dislike the Earl of Darney, but I do not love him, and I will not be forced into such unhappiness, not for my father’s sake, not for anybody’s sake,” she said, snatching up a few odd pieces of jewelry, and the locket containing her mother’s picture, a gift on her deathbed.
“But where will you go, ma’am? It is a dangerous world out there, and what will become of you?” Rose asked, handing Emma one of her dresses to change into.
It was true that Emma had thought little as to what would come next. She had made the decision to leave following the impassioned argument with her father, knowing there could be no persuading him to alter his intention to see her married to the Earl of Darney. He was unwavering in his conviction, and she was unwavering in hers – stubbornness being a trait each shared for better or worse.
Now, she intended to leave Calber Manor behind and make her own way in the world, away from the expectations of her father. She would make her way to London, imploring charity and fortune to see her well. It was hardly a carefully considered plan, but Emma felt she had no choice. She could either take her chances in the world or face the certainty of misery at the hands of her father and the Earl of Darney.
“I shall take a horse from the stables. My father will not know I am gone until the morning, for he has never had any wish to dine with me. You will not be implicated, Rose, for you shall say you knew nothing of it. I have my jewelry and a little money from my allowance. I will find a place to stay, and perhaps I will take a position as a governess,” she said, for the thought of doing so had its attractions.
Emma knew she would not miss her father nor her life in the district of Murward, which now felt more like a prison than a home. But Rose seemed doubtful, and while Emma knew her words sounded naïve, she was determined not to give in to her father’s demands.
“Please, ma’am, just consider what you are doing. You shall lose everything, and all your finery, your possessions, your position. None of it will mean anything if you leave,” Rose said as Emma took up the bag with a determined look on her face.
“But I shall have my freedom, Rose, and that is worth far more,” she said, glancing around her chambers one last time.
The decision to leave had been hurried, but the thought was by no means new. She had often imagined what her life might be like, away from the rigid expectations of society. Lady Murward had been as forceful as her father in her expectation of Emma marrying, and if it had not been her father who forced the issue, then their neighbor would undoubtedly have done so.
“You must marry, Emma; you simply must. It is all you should hope for,” Lady Murward had told her.
But Emma was not about to have her life decided for her. She was yet to fall in love, and she knew she could never force herself to do so. Love would find her at the right moment and not before, of that, she was certain, and she kissed Rose on the cheek, thanking her again for her faithful service.
“I will always remember your kindness, Rose, and I promise we shall see one another again,” she said, opening the door to her chambers cautiously and peering out.
Her father liked to take a ride before dinner and had set off earlier that evening to ride across his estate. Emma would take a horse and ride into the village, taking the London road, hoping no one would see her. It was a risk, but one that was worth taking for the freedom she would finally enjoy. The Earl of Darney would be terribly upset, but Emma could summon little guilt for her flight, given he had never once sought her true opinion on the proposal, expecting rather than seducing.
“You must go out by the side door, ma’am, not through the hallway. Mr. Collingwood is polishing your father’s shoes, and he will take great delight in telling him of your deception,” Rose said, leading Emma down the servant’s stairs and into the pantry.
The other servants were taking their evening meal before the return of their master. Emma’s father prided himself on punctuality and demanded the same from his servants. Dinner was always served at eight o’clock, whether in summer or winter, Emma’s father making a show of his personal wealth by burning candles long into the night.
“I have everything I need,” Emma said as Rose thrust a bundle containing bread, cheese, and apples into her hands.
“If you are ever at a loss, call at the servant’s door of a great house, ma’am. There is often charity there for travelers,” Rose said, and Emma smiled.
“I shall do so, but I hope it will not come to that. I shall live on my wits,” she said, and without further delay, she slipped out of the side door and hurried to the stables, where she found several of her father’s horses tethered up.
But knowing he would miss even one that was not in its place when he returned, Emma took a horse belonging to one of the servants, hoping that her father would show charity by recompensing the man to whom the beast belonged. It was a young black horse with a white dot on its forehead. A pleasant animal who whinnied and stomped his foot as Emma hastily saddled him, stroking his mane and whispering in his ear.
“You shall carry me to London,” she said, untethering the horse and leading him out into the stable yard.
There was no one else around, the stable boy being inside with the others servants, and with a final glance at Calber Manor, the only home she had ever known, Emma climbed onto the horse and urged it quickly out of the stable yard, taking a circuitous route behind the house and across the heath toward the village. There could be no turning back now, and as she rode away, a tear ran down her cheek that it had come to this, everything she had known now left behind, and only the uncertain lying ahead.
Emma was tired. She had ridden long into the night, taking the road toward London from the village until she passed the thirty-mile milestone. It was dark by then, the moon high in the sky, and though it had been a warm day, there was a chill in the air; Emma had wrapped her shawl tightly around her shoulders.
It had all seemed so simple at first, she would leave Calber Manor behind, and in doing so, she would also leave her problems behind – the Earl of Darney, societal expectations, the duty of marriage to a man she did not love. But while all that was the case, she had no real notion of what lay ahead or of what she would do now she had escaped.
She startled at the sound of an owl overhead, its majestic white figure gliding through the air above her, its screech echoing through the trees. She was riding through the lonely country, and she knew it would not do for a woman to be out alone at night on such a remote stretch of road. She had heard stories of robbers and bandits on the roads, outlaws who would hold up the mail wagons or force wealthy travelers to divest of their possessions.
Up ahead, she could see the outline of buildings, a farm perhaps, and she slowed the horse to a trot, peering through the gloom. There were no lights burning in the windows of the farmhouse up ahead, and a small copse of trees to her left would provide shelter for the horse while she sought refuge in one of the barns. If she rose early the next morning, no one would ever know she had been there.
“You stay here tonight,” she whispered, patting the horse’s mane as she tethered it to a tree.
The horse whinnied and stomped its foot, though it too seemed glad of the rest. Emma looked around her, and as certain as she could be in the dark that she was not being watched, she hurried toward the nearest barn. It was filled with bales of hay, and she clambered up a ladder onto a parapet, burrowing down into the straw so that she was quite snug if somewhat disheveled, pleased to have made her escape.
She could only imagine what her father would say the next morning when he discovered she was gone. Would he send out a search party for her, she wondered? He would not be happy that she was gone, but there would be little he could do to bring her back. Emma had no intention of returning home, not until the matter was settled. She would write to her father from London, explaining the reason for her flight, and perhaps then he would understand she was earnest in her desire to marry for love rather than duty.
It did not take long for her to fall asleep, having eaten an apple and piece of cheese to stave off the hunger rising in her stomach. But the hay was soft and warm, and soon her thoughts had turned to dreams, imagining herself far away from her troubles, finally permitting the happiness she knew should be hers.
“Fetch me three bales, there are the sheep to feed, too,” came a voice from below.
Emma awoke with a start, the sun shining through a gap in the barn roof, and she sat up in a panic, listening to the voices of two men below.
“I’ll bring four out, father, just in case, the animals have been hungry lately with the dry weather,” came the response, and Emma peered fearfully over the parapet, on which she had been sleeping, to see a man – a boy of no more than eighteen – standing below.
“I will get the cart,” a call came from outside.
The boy began to hum to himself. He was handsome and well-built, strong, too, for he lifted the bales of hay single-handedly, heaving one onto his shoulder, before returning to the next. Emma held her breath. If he came up the ladder, then she was sure to be discovered, and she scolded herself for sleeping late, wondering whether the horse had been discovered hidden in the copse.
“Now then, which was the first we laid down, old straw always first, that is what father said,” the boy pondered, and to Emma’s horror, he mounted the ladder to climb onto the parapet.
She squirmed back, trying to bury herself in the straw. But it was no use, and as his head popped above the parapet, he let out an exclamation of the utmost surprise.
“Well now, what do we have here then?” he asked, grinning at her.
“Please, do not say anything. I mean no harm. I was… lost, you see, and took refuge here for the night. I have only slept amongst the straw, I have taken nothing, I have…” she began, convinced he would call his father at once and have her hauled before the magistrate.
“Wait now, you do not look the sort who would sleep in a barn for the night,” he said, climbing up onto the parapet and looking her up and down.
Despite wearing Rose’s dress, Emma knew her looks remained that of a woman of high rank and class. Her hair was combed and tied into a French bun, her skin was soft and smooth, her hands delicate, and without the look of one who had worked hard at any point in their life. She blushed, emerging from the straw, a pleading look on her face.
“Please, I am running away,” she said, for there was something about the boy which made her feel as though she could trust him.
“Is that so? From where?” he asked, his head cocked to one side, and in a few brief words, Emma explained what and who it was she was running from.
The boy gazed at her in wide-eyed astonishment, just as a shout came from below.
“Where are you, boy? Bring those bales out,” his father called out.
“Wait here, I will help you,” he said, and before Emma could reply, his head disappeared down the ladder, and he was calling out in response to his father.
Emma sighed. She had wanted to ride swiftly away that morning, to be well on the way to London before her father realized she was gone. At most, she was only ten miles or so from Calber Manor and still in danger of discovery. But there was nothing she could do but wait, trusting in a boy she did not know, praying her secret would not be discovered. It was all a great and terrible risk. She had gone from everything to nothing, and now all that stood between her and discovery was a bemused farmhand, and the ladder of a hay barn…
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