Here’s a peek at the first chapter…..
A Second Chance for Love
Justin squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his eyelids—hard—the soft leather of his gloves cool on his hot skin.
But when he opened his eyes, she was still standing there.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he murmured. He closed the door to his carriage with a soft click and slumped back against it, unable to move his gaze from this specter from his past.
Juss was some distance away, and the light was dim, but he could see her clearly enough, and he’d know that prim mouth, turned-up nose, and fiery red hair anywhere—although most of it was covered with a hideous cap right now.
Even though he could see her with his own eyes, he had a hard time believing it.
She was carrying a large wooden crate down the back steps of Madam LeMonde’s stylish Bond Street dress shop. There was a small lantern perched on top of the box and it was illuminating her face in an eerie fashion. Judging by the way she was staggering, the box was heavy.
A gentleman would help her, his conscience prodded.
But I’m not a gentleman. Juss thought the word with all the loathing he felt for the breed.
He’d known his share of so-called gentlemen and a goodly number of them would just as likely push her against the wall and mount her as help her.
So he stayed where he was, his eyes dry from staring—as if she’d disappear if he blinked.
She paused at the bottom of the stairs and lifted one shoulder to rub at something on her jaw, an itch that had inconveniently developed while both her hands were full. The only other light in the narrow mews was from the lamp outside the back entrance of the nearest business, The Greedy Vicar public house.
It had been a decade since he’d last seen her but Justin would have recognized her even if it had been a century: Miss Oona Parker, the woman whose judgmental self-righteousness had sent his life into a downward spiral of poverty and suffering—a spiral that had, at long last, led him here. Miss Oona Parker, his damnation or his salvation, depending on how one looked at things.
She propped the box on her hip and unlocked the heavy wooden door that led to Madam’s storage vault. Even from this distance he could see that her movements were slow, almost bone-weary. Well, working as a drudge for a harpy like Madam LeMonde could not be easy. She lifted her burden with both hands and disappeared into the black maw, leaving the door ajar behind her.
Justin turned toward his coachman; Beekman was waiting patiently, wearing his customary bored expression. The two of them had first met in the louse house—not long after he’d seen Miss Parker for the last time—many years before Justin was a wealthy, powerful businessman in a position to offer Beekman—or anyone else—employment. At least not legal employment.
“Return for me in ten minutes” he told Beekman.
“Yes, Mr. Taylor.” Beekman clucked his tongue and the four chestnuts leapt forward, quickly disappearing into the velvety darkness of Cork Lane.
Justin didn’t normally tool around the city in his traveling coach but he’d just returned from his country house, which was a two hour drive, and he liked to work during the trip rather than take his curricle. Especially when the weather was sharp and chill like it was tonight.
He smelled snow in the air. As if on cue, a large snowflake landed on his nose—a prominent organ that attracted such assaults—and then the sky opened its vaults and the air around him swirled with white fluff that sparkled beneath the lamplight.
Fortunately he had on his heaviest woolen greatcoat even though his plans for the evening had included nothing more adventurous than stopping in at The Greedy Vicar for a meal, a few pints, and the monthly meeting with his manager before going home for the night.
Pure chance had brought him out the back entrance of the pub tonight; otherwise Juss might never have seen her. He usually visited this property just once a month, and almost always in the evening, when most of the other shops in the string of buildings would be closed for the night.
Yes, it had been a night like any other—until now. Until her.
Justin’s lips curved into a smile he knew was not nice. What were the bloody odds that he would see her after all these years? Especially now?
It had to be fate.
He pulled up his collar and strode through the quickly blanketing snow toward the dark rectangle that led to the building’s warren of vaults, his booted heels echoing damply as they struck the cobbles. He paused at the doorway, anticipation causing his pulse to accelerate and sending blood racing through his body. The freezing air chilled the sweat on his brow but he was uncomfortably hot beneath the layers of wool: hot with barely suppressed excitement.
What are you doing, Juss?
Fate has thrown her into my path, it doesn’t seem right to ignore this . . . opportunity.
It was a long, long time ago—another life. Leave it be; leave her be.
Juss ignored the voice and peered into the darkness beyond, allowing his eyes to adjust: he’d never listened to his better angel in the past, so why start now?
He knew it would be wiser to take this new information home and think about an approach, but there was no way in hell he was going home without seeing her—talking to her. His mind was blank just now, but he’d know what he wanted to say once he said it. That was his way: quick and confident. That was how he’d grown his measly few pence into shillings and then a handful of pounds, and, finally, into hundreds and thousands of pounds.
On that thought, he headed toward a flicker of light off to the left some fifteen feet ahead. He knew that was where she would be, because that was the storage area reserved for Madam Cecile LeMonde’s dress shop. Justin had known Dotty LeMonde since his first year in London, a decade earlier. The woman was from Old Saint Nichols Street and was no more French than he was.
Juss heard Miss Parker before he saw her. There was the sound of something being dragged—a ladder maybe—and the dull clunking of wood on stone.
When he reached the door to the storage area she was at the far side of the large room, perched on a ladder to replace large spools of thread on dowels that had been attached to the low crossbeams.
Justin crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe to watch her.
He still had no idea what he was going to do—perhaps speak or perhaps just slip away—but he’d do it after she came down off the ladder.
A large, worn overcoat covered her slender body from neck to feet. The only part of her clothing he could see was the high neck of her gown—a serviceable gray—long sleeves, and worn brown ankle boots. She was facing away from him so he studied her shoulders, narrow but straight, her posture so rigid she appeared to have an iron rod in place of a spine.
The stable lads had called her Miss Oona Purity and had taken every opportunity to put themselves in her path. They’d never been openly disrespectful, just teasing and mocking. Of course not far beneath that mockery was desire—at least that’s the way it had been for Justin—because she was one of the most beautiful women he’d seen before or since. Small and shapely, with hair like spun copper and big green eyes.
She had ignored them, not even bothering to glance their way most of the time, as if they were the dregs of humanity sprung up from the gutters. Many of them were the dregs—including Justin—so it wasn’t as if her judging looks were slanderous.
The competition to help her mount and dismount her horse had been fierce but Juss had always made certain that he was the one to slide his hands around the beautiful—and haughty—young woman’s tiny waist.
Now that Juss was older he realized she must have been rather alone in the viscount’s household. Unlike the other servants she ate her meals in her room or sometimes the schoolroom, and had very little interaction with the rest of them. She couldn’t have been very old—certainly younger than twenty—and the governess position must have been her first.
He’d only spoken to her a few times and she’d kept their conversations brief and to the point, an action that had only made her more unattainable and therefore desirable.
Juss had slept with his first woman at fourteen and they’d not stopped throwing themselves at him ever since. He’d been an arrogant little fuck by the age of twenty-four—which is how old he’d been when he’d met Miss Oona Purity—certain of his ability to charm the birds out of the trees. Or at least to charm one pretty young governess out of her shell.
But she’d barely given him the time of day.
His lips curled up. Well, not until she’d run squealing to the viscount about catching him and Clara.
And here she was in the flesh: Miss Oona Purity.
Juss waited and watched in silence, his mind on the last time he’d seen her—the day his life went to hell.
Oona’s fingers were so cold they actually hurt with it. She’d put on her coat and scarf but, foolishly, hadn’t pulled on her gloves. She’d wanted to hurry and finish this before Madam came into the back room after serving her last customer.
The older woman wasn’t cruel, but she tended to get short-tempered with her five employees, especially Oona, the only one of the workers who had no skills to offer other than a nimble mind and strong back. She was also the newest employee, having come to Madam just five months ago.
Oona took the last spool from the box and raised it over her head. The dowel was behind her and she’d either have to get down and move the heavy ladder to reach it, or . . . .
It was foolish and dangerous, but she arched her back and stretched, holding the spool over her head. She’d just put the hole near the dowel when her foot slipped a little and sent the rickety ladder wobbling. She shrieked as the spool slipped from her fingers and plummeted to the floor, her body right behind it.
Time stretched and slowed, giving her a moment to imagine how it would feel when she hit the cold stone floor. Oona squeezed her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and prepared for the worst. And then she slammed into a pair of strong arms, their owner grunting from the force of impact, his knees pressing into her back as he bent to absorb her weight.
The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the underside of a masculine, angular jaw. Her rescuer tilted his chin down and eyes like blue flame burned into her as he cradled her body against his broad, unyielding chest.
Oona’s brain struggled with the information her eyes provided: high, sharp cheekbones, a firm chin, a prominent Romanesque nose with a bump on the proud curve, and full, sinful lips that were pulled into a mocking smile. His thick, silky black hair was cut into a fashionable crop just long enough to let a lock flop teasingly over his brow.
Her head was warm and muzzy and she felt unnaturally aware of his warm body. No. No, it couldn’t be.
“How nice of you to drop in, Miss Parker.”
The voice was more polished, but the cockney still lurked beneath the façade.
“Juss.” The word was out before she could catch it. Her face heated at the use of his pet name, a privilege he’d never granted her. “Er, Mr. Taylor,” she amended.
His mouth pulled up higher on one side, his hooded eyes glinting. “Ah, so you do remember me.”
As if anyone ever forgot Justin Taylor. Oona could tell by his smug tone that he wasn’t surprised at all that she knew who he was.
“Are you hurt?” His low voice vibrated through her body and reminded her she was still tight against his chest.
His arms clenched slightly, as if he might keep her, and her pulse thundered at the thought. But he lowered her with sudden swiftness and her feet hit the ground with a loud clack.
Oona staggered back a step. “Wh-what are you doing here?” she demanded, tilting her head back sharply to meet his gaze; he looked nothing like his former self, and yet he did.
“You’re welcome, ma’am.” His hat had fallen, likely when he’d caught her, and he bent to pick it up.
Oona’s face heated. “Oh. I’m sorry, of course I’m grateful that you were here to catch me. But—”
“In answer to your question, I own this building,” he said coolly, but she could hear the pride simmering beneath his words. His full lips were curved into a faint smile, the same smirk he’d always worn in repose. It was remarkable how familiar the expression was even though she’d not seen it for a decade. As ever, he made Oona feel young, ignorant, gauche; that wasn’t all he’d made her feel.
But right now it was making her feel like an idiot. “You’re Mr. Taylor—Mr. Justin Taylor?”
“In the flesh.”
“Oh. I never put the two names together,” she said, sounding breathy and foolish.
“Taylor is a common name, as is Justin. Why would you ever link your employer’s landlord with an impoverished, disgraced groom you knew many years ago?”
Oona frowned at the slight but menacing emphasis on the word disgraced. Did he think she judged him for losing his position so long ago? The thought made her grimace; if he only knew about how she’d lost her position. Oona cringed at the thought of the arrogant, confident, and successful man in front of her learning about her mortifying disgrace. And it was clear that he was successful. Her eyes flickered over his elegantly clad body: skintight black pantaloons and a wool overcoat that embraced his broad shoulders as closely as a lover, his leather-clad hands holding a high-crowned black beaver hat.
What had happened to him? How had he gone from a groom to . . . this? Dozens of questions swirled around in her head like too many fish in a pond. Oona snatched at one, “How long have you known I worked for Madam LeMonde?”
He reached into his pocket and took out his watch. “Perhaps ten minutes.”
Why did that make her feel marginally less anxious?
Did you think he was stalking you, Oona?
No, she thought no such thing. In fact, she was more than a little surprised that he would even remember who she was.
He replaced his watch and once again turned his uncomfortable gaze on her.
Oona swallowed, loudly, and his lips twitched: he was enjoying her discomfort.
“Why are you looking at me that way?” she asked.
His eyebrows rose. “What way?”
Oona was good with words, but she had none to describe this particular look.
“I didn’t know you were a seamstress as well as a governess,” he said when she didn’t reply. “But then I suppose that’s not surprising as we did not occupy the same spheres—me being in the stables and you being in his lordship’s house.”
“No, I’m not—” she hesitated, uneasy at what she was about to admit to this man—a man who’d always flustered her, even when he’d been a mere groom. And now. . .
“Yes?” he prodded. “You’re not . . .”
“I’m not a seamstress; I’m the all-around dogsbody.” She’d not meant to sound so belligerent, but there it was.
“You didn’t like governessing?”
“Yes, actually, I enjoyed it a great deal.”
“Ah, I see.”
Oona was about to ask him just what it was he saw, but then she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.
He glanced around and then stooped to pick up the spool. “Where does it go?”
“Oh, you don’t have to—”
“Fine.” She pointed to the second to last dowel. “By the navy thread.”
He had to stand on his toes to slide it onto its holder, but it was done in a blink.
“Are you finished here?” he asked.
“Yes. I just need—” but he’d already bent to pick up her empty box and lamp.
“Come, I’ll walk you out.” His tone was peremptory—commanding. Certainly not the tone a groom would use. But then he wasn’t a groom anymore, was he?
When he opened the door, Oona gasped. “Oh, how lovely.” She stared up at the dark sky, the view a dizzying one as thousands of glinting flakes hurtled toward her.
When he said nothing she turned to find him staring at her from beneath heavy lids. “Yes, isn’t it?” he said, and then pulled the door shut with a sharp snap, his eyes never leaving hers.
“Um.” Oona reached a shaking hand into her coat pocket for the heavy key. “I need to—”
He held up a ring with a half-dozen keys. “I’ve already locked it.”
“Do you always—”
“Finish other people’s sentences?” His lips curved that same non-smile. “No, not always.” He gestured toward Cork Street, where she saw a luxurious black coach with four restless chestnuts. “May I offer you a ride anywhere, Miss Parker—is it still Miss Parker?”
“No—I mean, yes.” She shook her head at her bumbling. “Yes, it’s still Miss Parker. No, I don’t need a ride as I’ve not finished work for the evening.” She remembered her manners at the last moment. “But thank you.”
He handed her the box and lamp and then bowed. “I wish you a good evening, Miss Parker.”
Like a street urchin staring in a shop window, Oona watched as he made his way to the magnificent carriage, his booted feet muffled by the thin layer of snow. He opened the door and hopped in without steps, his greatcoat fluttering like a dark flag in the snow-dotted night.
Oona wondered if he’d look back before he closed his door.
But he didn’t and the carriage rolled away into the darkness.
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