Home > The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(4)

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(4)
Author: Tessa Dare

“Maybe I do.” Emma touched one hand to her brow. Her brain was spinning.

If he wasn’t ill . . . Could this be some sort of ploy to make her his mistress? Oh, Lord. Perhaps she’d given him the wrong impression with her willingness to disrobe.

“Are you—” There seemed no way to say it but to say it. “Your Grace, are you trying to get me into your bed?”

“Yes. Nightly. I said as much, not a minute ago. Are you listening at all?”

“Listening, yes,” she muttered to herself. “Comprehending, no.”

“I’ll have my solicitor draw up the papers.” He returned to his place behind the desk. “We can do it on Monday.”

“Your Grace, I don’t—”

“Tuesday, then.”

“Your Grace, I cannot—”

“Well, I’m afraid my schedule is quite booked for the rest of the week.” He flipped through the pages of an agenda. “Brooding, drinking, indoor badminton tournament . . .”

“No.”

“No,” he echoed.

“Yes.”

“Yes, no. Make up your mind, Miss Gladstone.”

She turned in a slow circle, looking about the room. What on earth was happening here? She felt like a Bow Street runner trying to solve a mystery: Emma Gladstone and the Case of the Missing Dignity.

Her gaze fell on the clock. Already past four. After leaving here, she must return the gown, pay her landlord, and then visit the market.

Having come this far, there was no way she could back down now.

She stiffened her posture. “Your Grace, you called my work ‘unicorn vomit.’ You asked me to disrobe for money. Then you made the absurd declaration that you would make me a duchess, and that I should visit your bed on Monday. This entire interview is nonsensical and humiliating. I can only conclude that you are making sport of me.”

He lifted one shoulder in an unapologetic shrug. “A scarred recluse must have some amusement.”

“What about your full schedule of drinking and indoor badminton? Isn’t that enough?” She had lost all patience now. She enjoyed a bit of teasing, and she could laugh at herself—but she had no desire to be the object of cruel jokes. “I’m beginning to suspect Miss Worthing’s reason for jilting you. You are exceedingly—”

“Hideous,” he supplied. “Repulsive. Monstrous.”

“Exasperating.”

He made a sound of bemusement. “So I’m being reviled for my personality? How refreshing.”

Emma lifted her hands in a nonthreatening gesture. “Your Grace, I shall impose on you no further. I am going to approach the desk, pick up the coins, and then back away. Slowly.”

In a series of cautious steps, she approached the desk and stopped within a yard of where he stood on the opposite side. Without breaking eye contact, she gathered the two pounds, three shillings from the desktop. Then, with the briefest of curtsies, she turned to leave.

He caught her by the wrist. “Don’t go.”

She turned and looked up at him, astonished.

The contact was electric. Like the jolt one received when grabbing a doorknob on a dry, cold day. Clashing and sparking with a force that belonged to neither of them, but existed only in the space between. The shock buzzed up the bones in her arm. Her breathing and pulse were suspended. She felt stripped down—not to her skin, but to the raw elements that composed her being.

The duke seemed stunned by it, too. His piercing blue eyes interrogated hers. Then he cast a confused look at his hand, as though he weren’t certain how it had come to be gripping her arm.

For a moment, Emma’s heart invented the wildest fancies. That he was someone other than the cynical, embittered man he seemed. That beneath the Before and After sketched on his face, there was a man—a hurting and lonely man—who remained unchanged in essentials.

Don’t believe it, Emma. You know your heart is a fool.

He released her, and the side of his mouth pulled into a wry smile. “You can’t leave now, Miss Gladstone. We’re just starting to have fun.”

“I don’t care to play this game.”

She gathered as much composure as she could locate. Clutching the coins in one hand, she picked up her skirts with the other and made haste in the direction of the door.

“Don’t trouble to bid me farewell,” he called.

I won’t.

“I shan’t bother, either. We both know you’ll be back.”

She paused—briefly—midstep. The duke believed they would see one another again?

Dear God. Not if Emma could help it.

Not in a thousand years.

 

“Isn’t it silly of me?” Miss Palmer stood in a draped corner of Madame Bissette’s shop, holding still as Emma measured her waistline. “More and more plump by the day. I suppose I’ve been eating too many teacakes.”

Emma doubted it. This was the second time in a month Davina Palmer had visited the shop to have a dress let out, and Emma had been stitching her wardrobe since her first Season. She’d never known the young woman to gain weight, and certainly not this rapidly.

Teacakes were not to blame.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t Emma’s place to say anything. But she’d taken a liking to Miss Palmer. She was the only daughter of a shipping magnate, and heiress to his fortune. A bit spoiled and sheltered, but she had a sparkle to her. She was a customer who always made Emma’s day better rather than worse, and that said something. Most of the ladies who came into the shop looked right through her.

Today, when she met Miss Palmer’s gaze, there was no sparkle. Only terror. The poor girl so clearly needed a confidante.

“How many months along?” Emma asked softly.

Miss Palmer dissolved into tears. “Almost four, I think.”

“Does the gentleman know?”

“I can’t tell him. He’s a painter. I met him when he came to paint the portrait of our dogs, and I . . . It doesn’t matter. He’s gone. Went to Albania in search of ‘romantic inspiration,’ whatever that means.”

It means he’s a scoundrel, Emma thought. “What of your family? Do they know?”

“No.” She shook her head with vigor. “There’s only Papa. He has such high expectations for me. If he knew I’d been so careless, he . . . he’d never look at me the same.” She buried her face in her hands and broke into quiet sobs. “I couldn’t bear it.”

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