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Second Chances: A Romance Writers of America Collection, Page 3

J. Kenner

  Her eyes meet mine in the dark, and I see the moment she understands.

  "Oh." She swallows, breaths choppy. "I--no. I didn't expect ..."

  We look at each other, surely each of us weighing the hundreds of reasons why we shouldn't, with the single, urgent reason why we should. I want her. But she doesn't deserve the complexities that come with that sort of rash decision. And no matter how good she smells or tastes and how much time we've wasted, we can wait one more day.

  So I stroke her until she's shaking, until she's begging, until she's falling back in relief, and then pull her right up to me. While she catches her breath, I talk about anything that comes to mind--the boat, the fish, my family--and then ask her to tell me more about being out on the water, rowing. Hearing someone you're fond of talk about loving something you love, but loving it differently, is like hearing poetry. Her voice is even, and smooth. A little scratchy, too. And with her curled up on top of me, I think it might be heaven.

  A foot creaks just beyond, in the shadows, and as we both go still, and slowly sit up, we know.

  My heart drops, my skin pebbles with gooseflesh. "There's someone here."

  Footsteps retreat, and I hear the person climbing down the ladder. I'm hoping for the best-case scenario--that it was one of my brothers stumbling upon us by accident or someone from the crew looking for a forgotten sweatshirt or coffee mug--and not someone with a camera, capturing this on film.

  Emmy is rushing to pull on her clothes, but I can't see her expression in the dark. Did she know?

  "Was there a camera here?" I say, putting a finger under her chin and tilting her face to mine.

  She stares up at me, eyes wide. "What? I have no idea."

  I stand, bending to cover myself until I can get my sweats on. "Goddamnit."

  "Levi, I didn't set this up."

  I want to believe her. I really do. I don't want a soap opera made out of Emmy and me.

  She straightens her sweater, and I can't tell that moments ago she was curled up, nearly naked on me, talking about the water. Except her lips are swollen and her hair is wild, and she looks so fucking beautiful.

  "You should go," I tell her.

  Waves lap at the dock, bang against the sides of the boat, and I wonder if the ocean has always been as loud as it is while I wait for her to say something, anything.

  "Yeah," she finally says, standing. "I should."

  I DIDN'T EVEN BOTHER going home. It was easier to clear the boat and head downstairs than it was to get someone to help me drive all the way to my place and help me along the muddy path to the front door.

  I'm not generally a very pessimistic guy; if anything, I'm the one talking Finn and Colton down from the rafters when they get on a tear about something. But I'm also the first to admit that this lack of cynicism means I'm the one most likely to get messed with.

  Maybe Emmy didn't know, maybe that much is true. But it feels like the safest path forward is to get better, work on the boat, get back on the fish, and leave the romance subplots to my brothers.

  I'm already up by the time they come onboard the next morning, and I explain to them what happened.

  Finn listens quietly and then lets out a curse when he looks up and sees Matt and Giles on the deck walking toward us. They're wearing the kind of clothes that are supposed to look old but fit way too well to be anything but overpriced. Giles steps up on the ladder in a pair of suede sneakers. Matt has on a white linen shirt.

  "You two look ridiculous," I say.

  Everyone turns to me. It's the kind of thing Finn would say, and definitely the kind of thing Colton would say. Something's gotten into me lately.

  Matt grins at me when he's fully on deck. "Someone's in a mood."

  "I don't like the Emmy game," I tell him, straight up. "It's shady."

  He shakes his head at me. "We had to talk her into it, you know. Appearing on camera."

  "All right," I say, skeptical. "But last night crossed a line."

  "Last night?" Matt asks, confused.

  Giles shifts on his feet.

  "She agreed to help you, but it took some convincing to get her onscreen," Matt tells me, though my eyes are on Giles. "And she's not getting paid, if that helps. She told us we could pay her mom if we needed to put money somewhere. Think she's getting a new porch," he adds with a little shrug.

  I stare at him. Finn has gone still, watching Giles, too.

  "All right," Giles says, calm as can be even with all eyes on him. "Yeah, it was me yesterday. Someone saw Emmy head back to the boat and I sent Dave down. We did get some great footage on camera. He only caught you ... well, after. We don't have to decide yet how to handle it. From a production standpoint, a new relationship--with Finn's marriage and Colton's constant bed bunnies--would be great for diversifying our personal angles. But from a dude perspective? Levi," he says, smiling, "don't fuck this one up."

  I'm sure they know where I can find her--but I didn't stay long enough to ask. If Emmy returned to Victoria, that would definitely suck. But I also like to think that after watching her all these years I know her well enough to know she wouldn't leave town without one last word.

  Turns out Matt was giving me a clue with the porch: construction has already started, and her mom is there, directing hulking men carrying pavers to the new walkway. I see Emmy in an upstairs window, and when I call out to her, she looks at me. Even at a distance I can tell she's determined as hell.

  I've seen her make this face before anything from a math test to a relay race at our school's spring festival. My heart tightens in thrill and nerves.

  Emmy comes outside and makes her way toward me. "I'm busy," she says. "You need me to find you a new nurse?"

  I laugh. "The leg is fine. I'm here to talk."

  "Come back later."

  "Later, huh?"

  She watches, fighting a smile. "Mom's going out. I'll be here."

  I look past her at the house facing the water, the hulking gray stone building she grew up in. It's true that it's seen some wear over the years, lashed by salt spray and wind. The porch was probably collapsing, the windows need replacing, but the structure is good. That thing will last until the earth itself falls apart.

  "When are you heading back to Victoria?" I ask.

  "Not sure yet."

  "You don't like it there?"

  "I like it there fine," she says, her jaw set. "I like it here better."

  "Not as many patients to tend to," I say.

  "Plenty of patients, but they're all stubborn," she says, "or big man babies."

  This makes me laugh, and I reach for her, pulling her close to me. "I know you didn't set us up last night."

  "You know that now," she corrects.

  "I'll always admit when I'm wrong," I tell her, kissing her neck. "I'm sorry, Emmy."

  She shivers under my lips, and I feel her hands as they slide up my arms and over my shoulders. "Yeah?"


  When she opens the door that night, I nearly drop the bunch of flowers I've got clutched in my fist. Emmy is wearing a short dress and boots. Her hair is loose, spilling over her shoulders. She stares up at me like she knows me, like mine was the face she's been looking down the drive for, waiting on.

  Emmy takes the flowers, thanking me with a peck on my cheek. We nearly had sex on the boat last night, but tonight she's a picture of sweetness, leading me into the kitchen, where it smells like bubbling tomato sauce, basil, and garlic bread baking in the oven.

  "How was your day?" she asks.

  "Good. Quiet."

  She hums, nodding, and I watch as she puts the flowers into a vase and sets the whole thing on a windowsill.

  Emmy turns, moving to the fridge and sliding her hand over my stomach as she passes. It's such a casual intimacy, and my heart is racing.

  "Want a beer?" she asks.

  I glance to the kitchen island and see she's got a glass of wine. "Sure, thanks."

  The cap hisses as she pops it off with a bottle opener
mounted to the fridge, and her fingers slide across mine when she hands me the bottle.

  I wish I had more grace, but the question hammers at my thoughts until I can't keep it in anymore: "Are we gonna do this?" I ask her.

  With a little smile, she looks up at me. "Do what?"

  I don't even know the word for it. "Date? Stop wasting time?"

  She shakes her head, smiling. "I don't want to date."

  My brows pull together. "I didn't realize."

  "Date, to me," she says, "means we're casual. It means we see other people, too."

  I am far, far out of my element here. But Emmy doesn't seem to mind. I tell her, "I have no idea what it means since I haven't really done it, but ... I'll put it out there, Em. I'd like to be with you, however you're willing."

  She takes a step back, and then another, pushing herself on the kitchen island only a couple of feet away. "Then yeah, we're doing this," she says.

  "There may be cameras sometimes," I remind her, following her on my crutches, and stepping between her legs when she reaches out with those boots, pulling me closer.

  "We'll deal with it. But no cameras come into my bedroom."

  I lick my lips on instinct, the way I might before taking a bite of fruit. "Do I come into your bedroom?"

  She looks at my mouth, and her hands move to my chest, unbuttoning my shirt as she goes. "I think you can come anywhere you want."

  I feel my face heat as the meaning of her words hits me like a whip. "Emmy, are you going to kiss me with that filthy mouth, or what?"

  Her lips curve in a smile just before I capture them in a kiss. She's so soft, so sweet; kissing her reminds me of pressing honeysuckle to my lips as a kid, sucking out the nectar. Like this I pull sounds from her, realizing in a burst of heat that she's got this tiny dress on, with tiny lace underneath, and things like pasta sauce can just sit on the stove and be patient for a while.

  Christina Lauren is the combined pen name of long-time writing partners/besties/soulmates Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. The number one international best-selling coauthor duo writes both young adult and adult fiction and together have produced fourteen New York Times best-selling novels. They are published in over thirty languages, have received multiple starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal, won both the Seal of Excellence and Book of the Year from RT BookReviews, and have been featured in publications such as Forbes, The Washington Post, Time, Entertainment Weekly, O, The Oprah Magazine, and more. Their third YA novel, Autoboyography, will be released in September, followed by a contemporary romance, Roomies, in December.

  London, 1830

  THE TOWNHOUSE WAS LIT like a bonfire, every sconce that could contain light ablaze. Laughter and music spilled through the air, the temptation of revelry too much to refuse an invitation to the Maddern ball, though it was a week before Christmas and as cold as the Arctic. Guests entered the foyer through the heavy oak doors, bitter cold brightening their cheeks as they shed their cloaks to reveal the finery beneath, and footmen scurried among them, burdened with discarded cloaks as they ushered the arrivals in the direction of the ballroom.

  Shoulder against the wall, Edgington observed the activity. He'd accepted the invitation to this ball purely on a whim though he'd known it would be tedious, and nothing in the time since his arrival had disabused him of this notion. After an obligatory turn of the ballroom, he'd stationed himself in the entrance hall, gaining some faint amusement from the arrival of those so desperate for society they ventured out on a night like this. Ah, but then, what did it say about him that he was among their number?

  A couple passed him, close enough he could almost discern their conversation. Tittering behind her gloved hand, the female glanced at him. Edgington met her eyes. The woman blanched, her gaze quickly skittering away as she urged her partner toward the ballroom.

  He smiled faintly. His reputation was in full effect, it seemed.

  Shifting his weight, he considered his options. Maybe he should make his way to his club or a gambling house or any one of a number of entertainments he'd previously patronized. While it held amusement to force his presence upon a society clearly unwilling to host him, there were vastly more interesting ways to spend an evening--not that he could think of any at this present moment. Of late, the life of a profligate had started to pall, and he found himself wondering about his estate in Ambleside. Of what might be involved in land management, and how the sun would feel against his skin as he stood in a field, the gentle bleat of sheep carried on the breeze.

  With a twist of his lips, he dismissed such fancies. He must be getting old to become prone to maudlin thoughts. Besides, the earls of Edgington were bred for better things, or so his father had told him. However, his father had also told him he was a useless fool, and if his wife had managed to present him with a spare as was proper, he would not suffer his eldest son as heir.

  Why his father despised him, Edgington didn't know, but he'd long reconciled himself to the knowledge that his father held no affection for him, and he'd found delight in living down to his opinion of him. A smirk twisted his lips. The greatest of his perversions could boast inception in his desire to enrage his father and, truth be told, he was a little lost as to his purpose now that the man was gone.

  Once, though, he'd thought to have something more. His smirk died as memory curled about him. Once, he'd thought perhaps he was more than the sum of his parts, more than what his parents had made him. Once, someone had looked at him as if he could be better and, for a brief moment, he'd believed her.

  However, that was ten years and a lifetime ago, and he'd gone in another direction. Maybe, though ... maybe it was time to turn his path. Maybe, instead of his club, he would go home. Maybe tomorrow he'd strategize a new life, one that gave him purpose.

  A laugh rang out over the throng. Something about it tugged at a half-remembered memory, something he'd convinced himself he'd forgotten. The hairs on his neck stood up, and he pulled himself straight, straining to look over the throng to find the owner of the laugh. Heart a fast beat in his chest; he skipped over each face and figure, certain he was wrong.

  As if magic, the crowd parted. And he saw her.

  His heart froze. For an endless moment, he stared. Then the world started again, his heart lurching to a wild rhythm he couldn't contain.

  She'd only just arrived. Cheeks rosy, she removed a dark cloak to reveal she wore green, not the pale green of her youth but a deep emerald. A feather of the same hue set jauntily in her hair deepened the strawberry-blonde curls and no doubt brought out the green flecks in her hazel eyes. He couldn't see their color from here, but he remembered them, remembered their light as she beamed a smile. Remembered them wet, and then remembered them devoid of any emotion at all.

  Face animated, she gestured at the crowd as she spoke to the dark-haired woman beside her. The woman said something and she laughed again, the sound of it skipping along his spine. Linking her arm with her companion, she made her way toward the ballroom, chatting all the while.

  Edgington followed them. They entered the ballroom, and the whirl enveloped him, hundreds of people in a too small room, but the lure of the feather atop her head was too great.

  The feather stopped. Pushing through the crowd, he saw her friend had greeted someone, temporarily leaving her to her own devices. A polite smile on her face, she looked about the ballroom, her smile brightening every now and then.

  Hidden in the crowd, he watched her. Now, it was obvious why he'd come to the ball--for the slight chance he would see her.

  He'd heard about her return. It had been in all the papers, the triumphant return of Viscount Hargrove's sister. They'd been full of her exploits on the Continent, the countries she'd seen, the society she'd kept. Each article he'd devoured, unable to keep the distance he maintained with everyone else, but then, that was nothing new. He'd never been able to distance himself from her.

  Ten years since he'd seen her, and she hadn't changed. Maybe she was
a bit older, her hair a bit more gold, but she still looked as she did when he was a callow youth of twenty-one and more than a little infatuated. He remembered every curve of her face, the softness of her skin. The way her mouth moved under his.

  Her gaze wandered to the dancing, and a wistful kind of smile occupied her face. His pulse a thunder in his ears, he wanted, quite stupidly, to ask her to dance.

  Closing his eyes briefly, he shook himself. As if she would say yes. If he were to approach her, the smile would disappear from her features, as would all emotion. He knew. He'd seen it happen before.

  Her gaze moved again and their eyes locked.

  For a moment, a split second, her smile remained, and he had an insane hope that all had been forgiven, that, perhaps, he could approach her. Then, all expression bled from her face, and she regarded him coolly, her joy in the evening gone.

  His heart sank. He'd known she'd react so, though a part of him had hoped he'd been wrong. A part of him had hoped he could approach her, could ask her to dance, could ask for her hand.

  But, of course, he couldn't. She was Sofia Hargrove. The girl he'd ruined.

  SOFIE STARED AT VISCOUNT March. He had changed in the past ten years. His golden hair used to riot about his head in a tumble of curls, but now dark blond strands were clipped close to his head and slicked with pomade. His dress was sober, too, unrelieved black with a snowy white cravat, as if he knew such clothing would frame his pale skin, wide shoulders, and slim hips. His eyes would still be gray, not that she could see that from here, nor would she ever wish to confirm it. She'd be quite happy never to speak to him again, and thus forever be in ignorance if his eyes were the same shade of gray she, to her great disgust, still remembered.

  The viscount--no. He must be the earl now. The Earl of Edgington. She'd read of his father's death in the English newspapers in Vienna ... or was it Prague? Wherever it had been, she'd skipped over news of him and very deliberately turned the page.

  The earl stared at her. Sofie resisted the urge to check her hair and then cursed herself for even thinking it. She'd known she'd come across him eventually. The three weeks she'd been in London, she'd held her breath, certain she would turn a corner and there he'd be. Every time she'd attended a ball or a dance, the theater, even walking in the park she'd thought she'd see him. When she hadn't, she'd foolishly allowed herself to believe she would never see him, that maybe she would pass this time in London without encountering him again, visiting her family and friends before returning to the Continent and the life she had built for herself