The Countess Confessions

Book 14
February 04, 2014

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Chapter 1

1820, England

The fortune-teller’s tent was the talk of the party. It stood beyond the reach of the light shed by lanterns that twinkled in the trees. Even the footmen positioned in the garden wondered whether it had been pitched illegally or was there to entertain the guests. Judging by the chattering young ladies and gentlemen lined up on the footbridge to the dark hollow where the gypsy fortune-teller had encamped, no one cared why she’d appeared. Upon her arrival she had allegedly announced she would give readings tonight that pertained to romance.

Few of the well-heeled guests would have found the courage to approach her if she hadn’t come to the party.

“What an enchanting surprise. Lord Fletcher’s wife or daughter must have talked him into hiring her. She’s reading for free, I heard.”

“Well, I hope she doesn’t run out of inspiration before my turn.”

Inspiration? It was patience the fortune-teller needed. So far Miss Emily Rowland had predicted only happy outcomes for the lovelorn, and those had exhausted her talent for deception. Each snippet of excited chatter that reached her ear only made her heart sink lower. She was doing all of this in the pursuit of love, to predict romance for one particular guest at tonight’s ball, although as the evening progressed, it seemed more likely this scheme would bring about her ruination.

She sat up in her squeaky cane-backed chair, cringing as the tiny bottle that sat on the table wobbled precariously to one side. Emily had no idea what substance the green glass contained. She had borrowed it from her brother, Michael, to use for atmosphere after overhearing one of his Rom friends whisper to him over the garden wall, “Use this when all else fails.”

Emily didn’t believe in magic. She doubted she’d have the courage to sprinkle it on her heart’s desire when he appeared. She couldn’t imagine what the results would be if she dared. When the time came, she suspected she wouldn’t have the nerve to use the potion, whether or not it was imbued with any power, on the gentleman she hoped would offer her a marriage proposal.

“Are you ready for me?” a man asked at the door.

“Yes. Enter.” And be quick about it, she thought as she moved her wobbly bottle to a safer position on the table, away from the flickering oil lamp, about which her brother had said, “For the love of heaven, Emily, whatever you do, don’t let the light fall to the straw.”

The fifth person to seek her services happened to be a cad whom Emily disliked too much to hide it. He whipped his horse to show off, treated his servants like lumps of dirt, and was staring with vulgar fascination down Emily’s bodice while she feigned interest in the palm of his hand.

“I fear, Mr. Prickett, that your palm reveals a short life line.” She drew her hand from his and slid back into her creaking chair.

“Nonsense,” he said in an indolent voice. “Longevity runs in the family. Give me the name of the next lady fortunate enough to share my bed.”


“I beg your pardon.” His face portrayed the conceit of a man who refused to believe he had been dealt an insult. “Did you say, ‘Miss Todd’? I don’t believe I know anyone by that name. Is she here tonight? A lady I’ve yet to meet?”

“How should I—”

A loud cough from behind the tent reminded Emily that a fortune-teller told her clients what they wanted to hear, not the truth. But, honestly, what did she know of palm reading and French tarot cards?

She could not have been in her right mind when she had allowed her friend Lucy, Lord Fletcher’s daughter, to talk her into this strategy. Once Emily had seized upon the idea, she had turned to her half brother to employ his help. She should have listened to Michael’s warnings instead of letting Lucy’s enthusiasm for matchmaking erode her judgment.

“You are desperate, Emily,” Lucy had untactfully reminded her.

“I am desperately in love, yes.”

“With a gentleman who does not realize you exist,” Lucy said, her bluntness meant to motivate Emily before she became officially known in Hatherwood as an eccentric spinster.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Emily had suggested. “He notices other ladies. I’ve tried to make him notice me. I’ve done everything but turn cartwheels on the cricket field when he plays. I’ve dropped my reticule on his foot. I’ve bumped into him twice in the churchyard. And all he ever does is apologize and go on his merry way.”

“You might have been too obvious.”

“So in your opinion, wearing a curly black wig, tinting my skin, and telling omens are subtle ways to draw his attention?”

“You will not be yourself. You shall be a fortune-teller who slips Emily’s name into his thoughts as his future beloved. As soon as you’re finished, you will disappear, remove your disguise, and become Emily again. And this time when he sees you, everything will be different. He won’t know why he never noticed you before. He’ll wonder how he could ever have missed such a charming—”

Mr. Prickett’s voice startled her back into her role. “Where am I to meet this lady?” he asked, apparently unaware that his plans for a lustful evening were of no concern to the fortune-teller.

Her brother bumped up against the tent in subtle warning. Michael was invigorated by his Romany blood, which came from the secret affair their mother had carried on a month before she married Emily’s father, the man who had once believed himself to be her older brother’s sire as well. When the young baroness was dying she had revealed the truth, cleansing her conscience and breaking the baron’s heart by forcing him to realize he had been cuckolded, that his only son and heir was not his own.

Mr. Prickett’s voice jarred her again. “What else do you see for me and this woman?”

“Separation. Woe. Perhaps even a lawsuit.”

He frowned. “Why don’t you give the cards a try?”

“The reading is over,” she said. “I have lost contact with the other side.”

“What other side?” he demanded with a doubtful look.

The other side of the tent. Or the side of me that claims some link to sanity. He can take his pick. “Go,” she said, rising from the noisy chair. “Unstable elements are interfering with my ability to read or influence the future.”



He started to protest until a cloaked lady entered, forcing him to either make a scene or an exit. Fortunately he chose to leave. The lady who hurried into the tent perched on the stool in front of Emily’s table. “Well?” she asked, biting her lip as she swung her cloak up from the straw. “Is our little fortune-teller ready to meet her fate?”

She stared across the table at Lucy’s cheerful face. “Is Camden still outside?” she whispered.

“He certainly is.”

“How does he look?”

“No different than usual. Well, are you going to read my cards?”

“Not again. We spent all last night reading them, and Michael has given me so many details about the deck that I’m afraid I don’t remember what all the inverted positions mean.”

“Make them up. None of us at the party know. There’s only one person who matters. Read the future in my palm.” She held out her hand. “Practice for your next customer.”

“I can predict your future if, against all odds, I manage to convince Camden that he and I belong together. You will be a bridesmaid at our wedding.”

“How lovely!”

“But if by any chance he recognizes me, you and I will be found out and sent to our aunts for discipline. We shall spend the next season in disgrace.”

A pleasant male voice called from the head of the line outside the tent’s entrance. “Are you almost done in there? The band is tuning up in the ballroom, and champagne is being served. We don’t want to miss the dance.”

“That’s him,” Lucy said, as if Emily would not recognize the voice that haunted her dreams on a nightly basis. “The seventh in line. I’ll slip out the back and listen. Or do you prefer privacy? I wouldn’t want to inhibit your performance.”

“Privacy? You must be joking. Michael has his ear to the tent in the event that I make an utter fool of myself and need his intervention. You might as well return to the party before your father finds out what we’ve done.”

“Don’t worry about him. He’s too busy entertaining—”

A commotion of raised male voices, one of them Camden’s, diverted Lucy and Emily’s attention. It sounded as if he and another man were exchanging words. But Camden never quarreled with anyone. His even temper was one of the qualities Emily adored.

“Are they arguing?” Lucy whispered, her eyes wide with disbelief.

“Hush. I think so.”

“Well,” Camden said, more placating than combative, “I have been standing in line a dashed long time, sir, but if you are in a hurry, I suppose I—”

Emily could not make out what else Camden said. A deeper voice responded, and there followed a shuffling of feet and silence.

“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 in 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.

“Who?” She realized then that he spoke with a deep Scottish brogue. “Oh, him. He was kind enough to give me his place.”

“But . . . did he leave? Voluntarily, that is?”

“I’ve no idea. Does it matter?”

Obviously it didn’t matter to this interloper. Poor, polite Camden must have been too intimidated to object. After all, what kind of person pushed ahead of guests he didn’t even know at a party? Who did he think he was?

Perhaps she didn’t want to know.

She realized then that there were seven deadly sins, and that the man who stared back at her with false guile looked prepared to commit at least one of them before the night came to an end.

The Countess Confessions