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Forbidden to Love the Duke(102)

By:Jillian Hunter

“I shall investigate,” Lucy said before Emily, prompted by instinct, could ask her to stay.

She reached down for the handle of her basket. In it several decks of tarot cards, labeled in French and English, sat neatly tied in red silk ribbons. “Michael?” she said over her shoulder, but he gave no answer.

Had he left his post to investigate the disturbance? She turned her head to glimpse Lucy escaping the tent. No sooner had her friend disappeared than the seventh person stepped inside.

Seven. It was a mystical number from ancient times. When Michael had suggested that assigning Camden a number in line would give Emily time to prepare herself for his reading, she hadn’t realized that she would become such a popular attraction at the party. She hadn’t dreamed that the man she desired and one she did not know would argue over who would be the next to sit before her. No one had ever fought to be with Emily until now. If anything, she was the last girl to be invited to a party or a picnic, and often she wasn’t asked at all. Now Michael was gone.

And the stranger standing before her in all his charismatic arrogance did not resemble the man she had expected, in demeanor or appearance. His hard face might not have disconcerted Emily if she had met the man before and had developed a tolerance to the impact he wielded. Under ordinary circumstances, she might not have found herself breathless from his unadulterated masculinity. High cheekbones and hollowed contours defined his face. A handsome man, to be sure. One whose vitality of presence, whose self-possession, a woman might encounter once in a lifetime. Emily realized that it was rude of her to stare. But she couldn’t help herself, and he had made a scene to be the next man in her tent. What did he intend to conquer? Surely not a vagabond girl.

She waited for him to speak. He appeared to take her response to his magnetism for granted. Emily would have dearly loved to summon Lucy back to the tent to whisper, “Look at him. Where did he come from? Is he as attractive as I think?”

Lucy had gone, however, and some vital instinct in the back of Emily’s mind set up a warning cry. Flee. Run now or live to rue this moment. But a dreadful suspense weighted her to the chair. His presence rendered her incapable of movement. And, really, what was there to fear? What was the worst that could happen with others outside the tent?


Seven was a lucky number.

There were the Seven Hills of Rome. Seven Sisters of the Pleiades. Seven days in the week. Seven archangels. Seventh heaven. Shakespeare’s seven ages of man.

The number did, however, possess some dark connotations. An English gentlewoman visiting London would never want to explore the stews of Seven Dials. And wasn’t there a fairy-tale giant who wore seven-league boots?

Emily leaned back in her chair and stared at her seventh customer as he sat down casually on the stool. He cast an enormous shadow in the candlelit tent. She felt swallowed in darkness. He was wearing boots, too, with a long black evening jacket over a white shirt, and a pair of black pantaloons.

She had never seen him before. She would not have forgotten those impious blue eyes and the smile that somehow hinted he knew she was an imposter and that he fully expected to be forgiven for ruining her scheme. His impressive physique, combined with his longish dark red hair and light beard, would have made him stand out at any function Emily was likely to attend.

“Really, sir,” she said breathlessly, the admonishment too restrained for a man of his presumption to respect. But who had stolen her voice?

And why had he stolen Camden’s place? A true rogue rarely needed an introduction to romance, which made Emily wonder why he had ducked into the tent when she had been expecting another man.

“I hope you don’t mind my switching places with the other man in line,” he said, his gaze taking in her appearance as if he sensed there was something odd about it but he wasn’t sure what it was. “I ran into a spot of embarrassment at the party. I noticed a person I wasn’t quite ready to encounter yet. I needed shelter to hide out and collect my thoughts. I’m sure someone with your experience will understand. You must be used to keeping secrets.”

Experience? Secrets? Never in her twenty-five years had Emily been confronted with the type of man the vicar had always warned the ladies in his congregation to avoid. Hatherwood produced one or two scoundrels a century, if that.

She was instantly drawn to the playfulness in his eyes, delighted and appalled by his unabashed male authority. So, a stranger had thrown her off course. She would simply have to recover and resume her role before the gentleman he had usurped, Camden, was sitting before her.

“What happened to the man who was next in line?” Emily asked, refusing to acknowledge his aplomb. The nerve of him. Supplanting Camden for his convenience.