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    “Such as?”

    A thoughtful moment passed. When it became apparent that neither of them could come up with a single suggestion, they both burst into laughter.

    “Master Jeremy,” came a deep voice from behind them.

    Still smiling, Jeremy turned to face the stranger. “Mr. Hunt,” he said heartily, extending his hand. “I’m surprised that you remember me.”

    “So am I—you’ve grown a head taller since I saw you last.” The man shook hands with him. “On leave from school, are you?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Seeing Annabelle’s confusion, Jeremy murmured in her ear, while the tall stranger motioned his friends to enter the rotunda without him. “Mr. Hunt—the butcher’s son,” Jeremy whispered. “I’ve met him a time or two at the shop, when Mama sent me to fetch an order. Be nice to him—he’s a capital fellow.”

    Bemused, Annabelle couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Hunt was unusually well dressed for a butcher’s son. He wore a smart black coat and the new style of more loosely tailored trousers that somehow didn’t disguise the lean, powerful lines of the body beneath. Like most of the other men entering the theater, he had already removed his hat, uncovering a head of dark, slightly wavy hair. He was a tall, big-boned man who looked to be about thirty, with strong features, a long blade of a nose, a wide mouth, and eyes so black that one couldn’t distinguish the irises from the pupils. His was an utterly masculine face, with a sardonic humor lurking about the eyes and mouth that owed nothing to frivolity. It was clear to even an undiscerning viewer that this man was rarely idle, his body and his nature patterned by hard work and keen ambition.

    “My sister, Miss Annabelle Peyton,” Jeremy said. “This is Mr. Simon Hunt.”

    “A pleasure,” Hunt murmured, with a bow.

    Even though his manner was perfectly polite, there was a glint in his eyes that imparted a strange flutter just beneath Annabelle’s ribs. Without knowing why, she shrank back into the shelter of her young brother’s arm even as she nodded to him. To her discomfort, she couldn’t seem to tear her gaze from his. It seemed as if some subtle current of recognition had passed between them…not as if they had met before…but as if they had come close several times until finally an impatient Fate had forced their paths to intersect. A strange fancy, but one she couldn’t seem to dismiss. Unnerved, she remained a helpless captive of his intent stare, until her cheeks were infused with hot, unwelcome color.

    Hunt spoke to Jeremy, even as he continued to stare at Annabelle. “May I accompany you into the rotunda?”

    A moment of awkward silence ensued before Jeremy replied, with studied nonchalance, “Thank you, but we’ve decided not to see the show.”

    One of Hunt’s dark brows arched. “Are you certain? It promises to be a good one.” His intuitive gaze moved from Annabelle’s face to Jeremy’s, reading the signs that betrayed their discomfort. His voice softened as he spoke to Jeremy. “No doubt there’s a rule that one should never discuss these matters in front of a lady. However, I can’t help wondering…is it possible, young Jeremy, that you were caught unaware by the increase in ticket prices? If so, I would be happy to advance you the extra coins—”

    “No, thank you,” Annabelle said quickly, her elbow digging hard into her brother’s side.

    Wincing, Jeremy stared up into the man’s unreadable face. “I appreciate the offer, Mr. Hunt, but my sister is unwilling—”

    “I don’t want to see the show,” Annabelle interrupted coolly. “I’ve heard that some of the effects are quite violent, and distressing to women. I would much prefer a peaceful walk in the park.”

    Hunt looked back at her, his deep-set eyes containing a gleam of mockery. “Are you so timid, Miss Peyton?”

    Annoyed by the subtle challenge, Annabelle took Jeremy’s arm and tugged insistently. “It’s time to leave, Jeremy. Let us not delay Mr. Hunt any longer, as I’m certain that he wishes to see the show—”

    “I’m afraid it will be quite ruined for me,” Hunt assured them gravely, “if you do not attend also.” He gave Jeremy an encouraging glance. “I should hate for a matter of mere shillings to deprive you and your sister of an afternoon’s entertainment.”

    Sensing that her brother was weakening, Annabelle whispered sharply in his ear, “Don’t you dare let him pay for our tickets, Jeremy!”

    Ignoring her, Jeremy replied candidly to Hunt. “Sir, if I did accept your offer of a loan, I’m not certain when I would be able to reimburse you.”

    Annabelle closed her eyes and let out a faint, mortified groan. She tried so desperately never to let anyone know of their straitened circumstances…and for this man to know that every shilling was so dear was more than she could bear.

    “There’s no hurry,” she heard Hunt say easily. “Come by my father’s shop on your next visit from school and leave the money with him.”

    “All right then,” Jeremy said with patent satisfaction, and they shook hands on the deal. “Thank you, Mr. Hunt.”

    “Jeremy—” Annabelle began, in a soft but murderous tone.

    “Wait right there,” Hunt said over his shoulder, already striding to the ticket stand.

    “Jeremy, you know how wrong it is to take money from him!” Annabelle glared into her brother’s unrepentant face. “Oh, how could you? It’s not proper— and the thought of being indebted to that kind of man is intolerable!”

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