Proof By Seduction | Courtney Milan, Historical Romance Author

proof by seduction

Chapter One

London, 1836.

t welve years spent plying her trade had taught Jenny Keeble to leave no part of her carefully manufactured atmosphere to chance. The sandalwood smoke wafting from the brazier added a touch of the occult: not too cloying, yet unquestionably exotic. But it was by rote that she checked the cheap black cotton draped over her rickety table; routine alone compelled her to straighten her garishly colored wall hangings, purchased from gypsies.

Every detail—the cobwebs she left undisturbed in the corner of the room, the gauze that draped her basement windows and filtered the sunlight into indirect haze—whispered that here magic worked and spirits conveyed sage advice.

It was precisely the effect Jenny should have desired.

So why did she wish she could abandon this costume? True, the virulently red-and-blue striped skirt, paired with a green blouse, did nothing to flatter her looks. Layer upon heavy layer obscured her waist and puffed her out until she resembled nothing so much as a round, multi-hued melon. Her skin suffocated under a heavy covering of paint and kohl. But her disquiet ran deeper than the thick lacquers of cream and powder.

A sharp rat-tat-tat sounded at the door.

She’d worked twelve years for this. Twelve years of careful lies and half-truths, spent cultivating clients. But there was no room for uncertainty in Jenny’s profession. She took a deep breath and pushed Jenny Keeble’s doubts aside. In her place, she constructed the imperturbable edifice of Madame Esmerelda. A woman who could see anything. Who predicted everything. And who stopped at nothing.

With her lies firmly in place, Jenny opened the door.

Two men stood on her stoop. Ned, her favorite client, she’d expected. He was awkward and lanky, as only a youth just out of adolescence could be. A shock of light brown hair topped his young features. His lips curled in an open, welcoming smile. She would have greeted him easily, but today, another fellow stood several feet behind Ned. The stranger was extraordinarily tall, even taller than Ned. He stood several feet back, his arms folded in stern disapproval.

“Madame Esmerelda,” Ned said. “I’m sorry I didn’t inform you I was bringing along a guest.”

Jenny peered at the man behind Ned. The man’s coat was carelessly unbuttoned. Some tailor had poured hours into the exquisite fit of that garment. It was cut close enough to the body to show off the form, but loose enough to allow movement. His sandy-brown hair was tousled, his cravat tied in the simplest of knots. The details of his wardrobe bespoke an impatient arrogance, as if his appearance was little more than a bother, his attention reserved for weightier matters. That attention shifted to Jenny now, and a shiver raced down her spine. With one predatorial sweep of his eyes, he took in Jenny’s costume from head to toe. She swallowed.

“Madame Esmerelda,” Ned said, “this is my cousin.”

A cold glimmer of irritation escaped the other man, and Ned expelled a feeble sigh.

“Yes, Blakely. May I present to you Madame Esmerelda.” The monotone introduction wasn’t even a question. “Madame, this is Blakely. That would be Gareth Carhart, Marquess of Blakely. Et cetera.”

A beat of apprehension pulsed through Jenny as she curtsied. Ned had spoken of his cousin before. Based on Ned’s descriptions, she’d imagined the marquess to be old and perhaps a little decrepit, obsessed with facts and figures. Ned’s cousin was supposed to be coldly distant, frighteningly uncivil, and so focused on his own scientific interests that he was unaware of the people around him.

But this man wasn’t distant; even standing a full yard away, her skin prickled in response to his presence. He wasn’t old; he was lean without being skinny, and his cheeks were shadowed by the stubble of a man in his prime. Most of all, there was nothing unfocused about him. She’d often thought Ned had the eyes of a terrier: warm, liquid, and trusting. His cousin had those of a lion: tawny, ferocious, and more than a little feral.

Jenny gave silent thanks she wasn’t a gazelle.

She turned and swept her arm in regal welcome. “Come in. Be seated.” The men trooped in, settling on chairs that creaked under their weight. Jenny remained standing.

“Ned, how can I assist you today?”

Ned beamed at her. “Well. Blakely and I have been arguing. He doesn’t think you can predict the future.”

Neither did Jenny. She resented sharing that belief.

“We’ve agreed—he’s going to use science to demonstrate the accuracy of your predictions.”

“Demonstrate? Scientifically?” The words whooshed out of her, as if she’d been prodded in the stomach. Jenny grasped the table in front of her for support. “Well. That would be. . . .” Unlikely? Unfortunate? “That would be unobjectionable. How shall he proceed?”

Ned waved his hand at his cousin. “Well, go ahead, Blakely. Ask her something.”

Lord Blakely leaned back in his chair. Up until this moment, he had not spoken a single word; his eyes had traveled about the room, though. “You want me to ask her something?” He spoke slowly, drawing out each syllable with precision. “I consult logic, not old charlatans.”

Ned and Jenny spoke atop each other. “She’s no charlatan!” protested Ned.

But Jenny’s hands had flown to her hips for another reason entirely. “Thirty,” she protested, “is not old!”

Ned turned to her, his brow lifting. A devastating silence cloaked the room. It was a measure of her own agitation that she’d forsaken Madame Esmerelda’s character already. Instead, she’d spoken as a woman.

And the marquess noticed. That tawny gaze flicked from her kerchiefed head down to the garish skirts obscuring her waist. His vision bored through every one of her layers. The appraisal was thoroughly masculine. A sudden tremulous awareness tickled Jenny’s palms.

And then he looked away. A queer quirk of his lips; the smallest exhalation, and like that, he dismissed her.

Jenny was no lady, no social match for Lord Blakely. She was not the sort who would inspire him to tip his hat if he passed her on the street. She should have been accustomed to such cursory dismissals. But beneath her skirts, she felt suddenly brittle, like a pile of dried-up potato parings, ready to blow away with one strong gust of wind. Her fingernails bit crescent moons into her hands.

Madame Esmerelda wouldn’t care about this man’s interest. Madame Esmerelda never let herself get angry. And so Jenny swallowed the lump in her throat and smiled mysteriously. “I am also not a charlatan.”

Lord Blakely raised an eyebrow. “That remains to be proven. As I have no desire to seek answers for myself, I believe Ned will question you.”

“I already have!” Ned gestured widely. “About everything. About life and death.”

Lord Blakely rolled his eyes. No doubt he’d taken Ned’s dramatic protest as youthful exaggeration. But Jenny knew it for the simple truth it was. Two years earlier, Ned had wandered into this room and asked the question that had changed both their lives: “Is there any reason I shouldn’t kill myself?”

At the time, Jenny had wanted to disclaim all responsibility. Her first impulse had been to distance herself from the boy, to say she wasn’t really able to see the future. But the question was not one a nineteen-year-old posed to a stranger because he was considering his options rationally. She’d known, even then, that the young man had asked because he was at his wits’ end.

So she’d lied. She told him she saw happiness in his future, that he had every reason to live. He’d believed her. And as time passed, he’d gradually moved past despair. Today, he stood in front of her, almost confident.

It should have counted as a triumph of some kind, a good deed chalked up to Jenny’s account. But on that first day, she hadn’t just taken his despair. She’d taken his money, too. And since then, she and Ned had been bound together in this tangle of coin and deceit.

“Life and death?” Lord Blakely fingered the cheap fabric that loosely draped her chairs. “Then there should be no problem with my more prosaic proposal.

I’m sure you are aware Ned must marry. Madame—Esmerelda, is it?—why don’t you tell me the name of the woman he should choose.”

Ned stiffened, and a chill went down Jenny’s spine. Advice hidden behind spiritual maundering was one thing. But she knew that Ned had resisted wedlock, and for good reasons. She had no intention of trapping him.

“The spirits have not chosen to reveal such details,” she responded smoothly.

The marquess pulled an end of lead pencil from his pocket and licked it. He bent over a notebook and scribbled a notation. “Can’t predict future with particularity.” He squinted at her. “This will be a damned short test of your abilities if you can do no better.”

Jenny’s fingers twitched in irritation. “I can say,” she said slowly, “in the cosmic sense of things, he will meet her soon.”

“There!” crowed Ned in triumph. “There’s your specifics.”

“Hm.” Lord Blakely frowned over the words he’d transcribed. “The ‘cosmic sense’ being something along the lines of, the cosmos is ageless? No matter which girl Ned meets, I suppose you would say he met her ‘soon.’ Come, Ned. Isn’t she supposed to have arcane knowledge?”

Jenny’s pinched her lips together and she turned away, her skirts swishing about her ankles. Blakely’s eyes followed her; but when she cast a glance at him over her shoulder, he looked away. “Of course, it is possible to give more specifics. In ancient days, soothsayers predicted the future by studying the entrails of small animals, such as pigeons or squirrels. I have been trained in those methods.”

A look of doubt crossed Lord Blakely’s face. “You’re going to slash open a bird?”

Jenny’s heart flopped at the prospect. She could no more disembowel a dove than she could earn an honest living. But what she needed now was a good show to distract the marquess.

“I’ll need to fetch the proper tools,” she said.

Jenny turned and ducked through the gauzy black curtains that shielded the details of her mundane living quarters from her clients. A sack, fresh from this morning’s shopping trip, sat on the tiny table in the back room. She picked it up and returned.

The two men watched her as she stepped back through a cloud of black cloth, her hands filled with burlap. She set the bag on the table before Ned. “Ned,” she said, “it is your future which is at stake. That means your hand must be the instrument of doom. The contents of that bag? You will eviscerate it.”

Ned tilted his head and looked up. His liquid brown eyes pleaded with her.

Lord Blakely gaped. “You kept a small animal in a sack, just sitting about in the event it was needed? What kind of creature are you?”

Jenny raised one merciless eyebrow. “I told you I was expecting the two of you.” And when Ned still hesitated, she sighed. “Ned, have I ever led you astray?”

Jenny’s admonition had the desired effect. Ned drew a deep breath and thrust his arm gingerly into the bag, his mouth puckered in distaste. The expression on his face flickered from queasy horror to confusion. From there, it flew headlong into outright bafflement. Shaking his head, he pulled his fist from the bag and turned his hand palm up.

For a long moment, the two men stared at the offending lump. It was brightly colored. It was round. It was&mdash

“An orange?” Lord Blakely rubbed his forehead. “Not quite what I expected.” He scribbled another notation.

“We live in enlightened times,” Jenny murmured. “Now, you know what to do. Go ahead. Disembowel it.”

Ned turned the fruit in his hand. “I didn’t think oranges had bowels.”

Jenny let that one pass without comment.

Lord Blakely fished in his coat pockets and came up with a polished silver penknife. It was embossed with laurel leaves. Naturally; even his pens were bedecked with proof of his nobility. His lordship had no doubt chosen the design to emphasize how far above mere commoners he stood. The marquess held the weapon out, as formally as if he were passing a sword.

Soberly, Ned accepted it. He placed the sacrificial citrus on the table in front of him, and then with one careful incision, eviscerated it. He speared deep into its heart, his hands steady, and then cut it to pieces. Jenny allotted herself one short moment of wistful sorrow for her after-dinner treat gone awry as the juice ran everywhere.

“Enough.” She reached out and covered his hand mid-stab. “It’s dead now,” she explained gravely.

He pulled his hand away and nodded. Lord Blakely took back his knife and cleaned it with a handkerchief.

Jenny studied the corpse. It was orange. It was pulpy. It was going to be a mess to clean up. Most importantly, it gave her an excuse to sit and think of something mystical to say—the only reason for this exercise, really. Lord Blakely demanded particulars. But in Jenny’s profession, specifics were the enemy.

“What do you see?” asked Ned, his voice hushed.

“I see . . . I see . . . an elephant.”

“Elephant,” Lord Blakely repeated, as he transcribed her words. “I hope that isn’t the extent of your prediction. Unless, Ned, you plan to marry into the genus Loxodonta.”

Ned blinked. “Loxo-wha?”

“Comprised, among others, of pachyderms.”

Jenny ignored the byplay. “Ned, I am having difficulties forming the image of the woman you should marry in my mind. Tell me, how do you imagine your ideal woman?”

“Oh,” Ned said without the least hesitation, “she’s exactly like you. Except younger.”

Jenny swallowed uncomfortably. “Whatever do you mean? She’s clever? Witty?”

Ned scratched his chin in puzzlement. “No. I mean she’s dependable and honest.”

The mysterious smile slipped from Jenny’s lips for the barest instant, and she looked at him in appalled and flattered horror. If this was how Ned assessed character, he would end up married to a street thief in no time at all.

Lord Blakely’s hand froze above his paper. No doubt his thoughts mirrored hers.

“What?” Ned demanded. “What are you two staring at?”

“I,” said Lord Blakely, “am dependable. She is—”

“You,” retorted Ned, “are cold and calculating. I’ve known Madame Esmerelda for two full years. And in that time, she’s become more like family than anyone else. So don’t you dare talk about her in that tone of voice.”

Jenny’s vision blurred and her head swam. She had no experience with family; all she remembered was the unforgiving school where an unknown benefactor had paid her tuition. She’d known since she was a very small child that she stood alone against the world. That had brought her to this career—the sure knowledge that nobody would help her, and everyone would lie to her. Lying to them instead had only seemed fair play.

But with Ned’s words, a quiet wistfulness filled her. Family seemed the opposite of this lonely life, where even her friends had been won by falsehoods.

Ned wasn’t finished with his cousin. “You see me as some kind of tool, to be used when convenient. Well, I’m tired of it. Find your own wife. Get your own heirs. I’m not doing anything for you any longer.”

Jenny blinked back tears and looked at Ned again. His familiar, youthful features were granite. Beneath his bravado, she knew he feared his elder cousin. And yet he’d stood up to the man just now. For her.

She wasn’t Ned’s family. She wasn’t really his friend. And no matter what had transpired between them, she was still the fraud who bilked him of a few pounds in exchange for false platitudes. Now he was asking her to repay him with more lies.

Well. Jenny swallowed the lump of regret in her throat. If deceit was all she had, she would use it. But she hadn’t saved Ned’s life for his cousin’s convenience.

Lord Blakely straightened. His outraged glower—that cold and stubborn set of his lip—indicated he thought Ned was a mere utensil. That Lord Blakely was superior in intelligence and birth to everyone else in the room, and he would force their dim intellects to comprehend the fact.

He thought he was superior to his cousin? Well. She was going to make the marquess regret he’d ever asked for specifics.

“Ned, you recently received an invitation to a ball, did you not?”

He puckered his brow. “I did.”

“What sort of a ball?”

“Some damned fool crush of a coming-out, I think. No intention of going.”

The event sounded promising. There were sure to be many young women in attendance. Jenny could already taste her revenge on the tip of her tongue.

“You will go to this ball,” she pronounced. And then she swept her arms wide, encompassing the two men. “You will both go to this ball.” Lord Blakely looked taken aback.

“I can see nothing of Ned’s wife in the orange. But at precisely ten o’clock and thirty-nine minutes, Lord Blakely, you will see the woman you will marry. And you will marry her, if you approach her in the manner I prescribe.”

The scrape of Lord Blakely’s pencil echoed loudly in the reigning silence. When he finished, he set the utensil down carefully.

“You wanted a scientific test, my lord.” Jenny placed her hands flat on the table in satisfaction. “You have one.”

And if the ball was as crowded as such things usually were, he would see dozens of women in every glance. He’d never be able to track them all. She imagined him trying to scribble all the names in his notebook, being forced by his own scientific methods to visit every lady, in order to fairly eliminate each one. He would be incredibly annoyed. And he’d never be able to prove her wrong, because who could say he had recorded every woman?

Ned’s mouth had fallen open. His hand slowly came up to hide a pleased smile. “There,” he said. “Is that specific enough for you?”

The marquess pursed his lips. “By whose clock?”

One potential excuse slipped from Jenny’s grasp. Not to worry; she had others.

“Your fob watch should do.”

“I have two that I wear from time to time.”

Jenny frowned. “But you inherited one from your father,” she guessed.

Lord Blakely nodded. “I must say, that is incredibly specific. For scientific purposes, can you explain how you got all of this from an elephant?” Jenny widened her eyes in false innocence. “Why, Lord Blakely. The same way I got an elephant from an orange. The spirits delivered the scene as an image into my mind.”

He grimaced. She could not let her triumph show, and so she kept her expression as unchanging and mysterious as ever.

“So,” Ned said, turning to his cousin, “you agree, then?”

Lord Blakely blinked. “Agree to what?”

“When you find the girl in question and fall in love, you’ll agree Madame Esmerelda is not a charlatan.”

The marquess blinked again. “I’m not going to fall in love.” He spoke of that emotion in tones as wooden and unmoving as a dried-out barrel.

“But if you did,” Ned insisted.

“If I did,” Lord Blakely said slowly, “I’d admit the question of her competence had not been scientifically proven.”

Ned cackled. “For you, that’s as good as an endorsement. That means, you’ll consult Madame Esmerelda yourself and leave me be.”

A longer pause. “Those are high stakes indeed. If this is to be a wager, what do you put up?”

“A thousand guineas,” Ned said immediately.

Jenny nearly choked. She’d thought herself unspeakably wealthy for the four hundred pounds she’d managed to scrimp and save and stash away. A thousand pounds was more money than she could imagine, and Ned tossed it about as if it were an apple core.

Lord Blakely waved an annoyed hand. “Money,” he said with a grimace. “What would either of us do with that paltry amount? No. You must risk something of real value. If you lose, you’ll not consult Madame Esmerelda or any other fortune teller again.”

“Done,” said Ned with a grin. “She’s always right. I can’t possibly lose.”

Jenny couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Because Ned could do nothing but lose. What if he began to doubt Jenny’s long-ago assurances? What if he discovered that he owed his current happiness to the scant comfort of Jenny’s invention? And Jenny could not help but add one last, desperately selfish caveat: What if Ned learned the truth and disavowed this curious relationship between them? He would leave her, and Jenny would be desperately alone.

Again.

She inhaled slowly, hoping the cool air would help her calm down. The two men would go to the ball. Lord Blakely would look around. For all she knew, he might even decide to marry a girl he saw. And once he rejected all the women whose names he’d recorded, she’d tell him he’d seen a different woman at the appointed time out of the corner of his eye.

The wager would become a nullity, and she wouldn’t have to see the fierce loyalty in Ned’s eyes turn to contempt. Jenny’s pulse slowed and her breath fell into an even rhythm.

Lord Blakely lounged back in his chair. “Something has just occurred to me.”

The devilish gleam in his eye froze Jenny’s blood. Whatever it was the dreadful man was about to say, she doubted he’d thought of it at that minute.

“What will stop her from claiming it was some other chit I was meant for? That I saw two girls at the designated time, and chose the wrong one?”

He’d seen through her. A chill prickled the ends of Jenny’s fingers.

Ned frowned. “I don’t know. I suppose if that happens, we’ll have to call the bet off.”

The marquess shook his head. “I have a better idea. Since Madame Esmerelda’s seen everything in the orange, she’ll be able to verify the girl’s identity immediately.”

He met her eyes and all Jenny’s thoughts—her worries for Ned, the loneliness that clutched her gut—were laid bare in the intensity of his gaze.

His lip quirked sardonically. “We’ll take her with us.”

~ divider ~

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