This was originally the first scene for Proof by Seduction. When my agent first sent the manuscript out, this scene was part of the book. My editor suggested we tighten up the beginning by ditching this scene and making a few other changes, but those of you who are interested might want to see how it originally began…
areth had lost himself in his naturalist’s journal. The pages were ivory with age and black with rough ink drawings. But in his mind’s eye, the spindly sketches transformed into verdant jungle foliage lit by the scarlet breasts of a family of jungle macaws. Somewhere, his senses registered the rustle of paper, the play of light and shadow across the pages, and the draft of a door opening. Engrossed as he was in his work, Gareth had no attention to spare for the frivolous details of reality.
That, of course, had never stopped reality.
The shout burst through his concentration, puncturing his bubble of scientific enjoyment. Gareth jumped and dropped his pen. Ink spattered all over the chart he’d painstakingly constructed, and he looked up in irritation.
His study reappeared around him with sudden, savage focus. Account books were stacked chaotically along the edge of his desk, and a collection of leather-bound volumes lined the walls. It took Gareth three pounding heartbeats to orient himself to the abrupt appearance of another person. His cousin, Ned, lanky as only a youth just out of adolescence could be, waved a hand in front of Gareth’s face.
Gareth grimaced at the reminder that he was no longer just Gareth.
He was Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely. And he had responsibilities.
Mr. Edward Carhart was one of them.
“Ned. Why were you not announced?” Gareth blew out an exasperated breath and prodded the inky mess on his desk. “I’ve been working on this for hours.”
“Your butler did announce me,” Ned said. “Twice.”
Had Gareth been that immersed in his work? The sunlight filtering through the gap in his heavy gold curtains was that of late morning. The rays fell on a tray that his housekeeper had left as a not-so-gentle reminder to eat. Gareth hadn’t paid it any attention, and the soup had long since congealed.
“Handkerchief,” Gareth muttered, patting his pockets. “Where did I put my handkerchief?”
Finding no cloth-shaped lumps, he unknotted his cravat and pulled the linen from his neck. He dabbed at the droplets sprayed across the map. Under his efforts, the neat black blobs of ink strewn across the page transformed into smeared black blobs of ink.
He tossed the ruined cloth on the desk and tried to quell his resentment when he looked up at his cousin. “Well? What the devil are you doing here?”
There was no point offering Ned a seat. He could hardly call the chairs crowded around his desk “available,” cluttered as they were with piles of books and papers. Besides, the youth wouldn’t be staying long. Gareth would make sure of that.
Ned drew a deep breath. “We have plans for today.”
Gareth narrowed his eyes to suspicious slits. “We have plans for today? What are we doing? And why was I not informed?”
Ned pulled at his collar and looked away.
Gareth sighed. Ned was officially Gareth’s heir. But if the boy ever had to take over the duties of the estate, British high society would devour him like the swarming piranhas they were. Oh, he had to give his cousin credit. Ned tried to pull off an air of casual indifference. But indifference had never satisfied the responsibilities of the marquessate. The Marquess of Blakely had to be better than everyone else. And on that point, Ned failed utterly.
“Come now, Ned. Stand up straight and stop studying the carpet. There. That’s better. Now, what have you to say for yourself?” Ned took a few short, shallow breaths, as if for courage. “I came here—I came here to say something to you.” His next words came out all in a rush. “I’ve decided, as befits our stations in life, we are getting married.”
Gareth raised an eyebrow. “We are?”
A tentative answering nod.
Easy enough to dispose of that line of thinking. “Well, Mr. Carhart. I’m quite flattered, but I don’t think we should suit.”
Ned’s mouth fell open, and Gareth nodded with a twinge of satisfaction. But despite the red flush in his cousin’s cheeks, the young man took a step closer and placed his hands on the desk.
“Not to each other! And stop trying to put me off. To women.” Ned thumped the oak desk for emphasis. “Damn it, Blakely. If I have to marry, then you do, too.”
“We agreed, Ned.” Gareth lowered his voice, and Ned bent his head and leaned closer to listen. “We agreed I’d come home and run the damnable estates. I’d keep the tenants from rioting. I didn’t have to come back. I could have stayed in Brazil—”
“Where,” Ned muttered, “you’d get eaten by elephants.”
Gareth stared in stunned surprise. “Elephants are—”
Herbivores. From Africa. Judging by the hopeful look on Ned’s face, the youth undoubtedly knew, and he was trying to divert the inevitable. The conversation was tilting precariously out of Gareth’s control.
“Elephants,” he continued calmly, “are irrelevant. What is relevant is our agreement. I manage the estates. You produce the next generation. And that is the end of the matter. Good day, Ned.” Gareth pulled his chart towards him, a clear dismissal.
“No.” Ned expelled the word in a sullen squeak.
“No.” Stronger this time. Ned straightened defiantly. “That agreement was between you and Mama. Well, I’m not an infant any longer. I’m twenty-one.” He folded reed-thin arms over his skinny chest, as if to emphasize a point. “And I want to renegotiate.”
Gareth sighed. He couldn’t blame the boy for wanting to escape the arrangement. For all the wealth and prestige that came with the title, the responsibility was crushing. Gareth had loathed the prospect of inheriting when he was Ned’s age. Thirteen years later, he had made his peace with the prospect of playing Lord Blakely. But it had been touch and go in his younger days.
“Listen, Ned. There are these brilliant butterflies in the Americas. They’re quite striking. Orange and black. Rather easy to spot, if you’re a winged predator.”
Ned shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. “Is this going to be a relevant story about butterflies, or are you off on a naturalist tangent again?”
Gareth ignored him. “The problem is, they’ll make any bird that eats them nauseous.”
Ned shook his head vigorously. “No no no. Not birds. We’re not talking about birds. You always talk about birds.”
“Any given sparrow need only eat one, and then it knows forever: Never, ever eat the orange butterflies, no matter how pretty they are.”
Ned clapped his hands over his ears. “Please stop.”
“That sparrow is me. I considered getting married once. It didn’t work. I have no desire to repeat the event.”
Ned bit his lip. “Right. I see.”
Gareth hoped so. He had no intention of letting the damned estate destroy what little happiness he’d managed to find. Other lords enjoyed ruling their estates and prying into every last tenant’s business. They wanted wives who would march into the smallest hovel and demand to hear the newest plans for summer-gardens. They demanded worship from their farmers in exchange for leadership. Gareth didn’t want to lead anyone. If his estates prospered—and they did, if barely—he preferred his tenants show their thanks by leaving him alone. The last thing Gareth needed was to let some chit destroy the few moments of solitude he’d managed to salvage from the wreckage of his title. And he certainly wasn’t about to let Ned take on the role of nag, either.
Ned’s eyes dropped, and he turned to go. His fists clenched at his sides. Then he turned back, his lips compressed into a white, trembling line.
Gareth gave him his most quelling look. “Well? What is it now?” He patted the paper on the desk. “Don’t take all day, Ned. I have this chart to finish.”
Instead of answering, Ned stepped forward and yanked the chart from Gareth’s grip.
“What—!” Gareth jumped to his feet in startlement. His hands closed on empty space.
Ned was quicker. He jerked at the fire screen. It fell, striking the carpet with a dull metallic clatter. A heartbeat later, he’d tossed the paper in. For a second, it glowed, lit by burning logs.
Gareth snapped his mouth shut before he could finish his sentence. What in blazes, he’d been about to say. But the paper was in blazes already.
“There,” Ned gloated. “Now your chart’s done.”
Gareth sank slowly into his seat. When he finally spoke, he intended the arctic tone of his voice to freeze. “What possessed you to do that?”
But Ned didn’t freeze. He didn’t even shiver. Instead, he dusted his hands in satisfaction. “Madame Esmerelda told me to.”
Gareth ran his hands through his hair in frustrated bafflement. Ned’s words made even less sense than man-eating elephants. “Who is Madame Esmerelda? And what does she have against tropical bird flocking?”
“Madame Esmerelda,” said Ned, with a lift of his chin, “is my spiritual advisor.”
“Your what?” Gareth’s world shifted queasily on its axis. People were always a bit of a mystery to Gareth; society left him feeling isolated and awkward. But Ned was a blood relative. Surely, he could not participate in that madness.
His cousin’s assault on Gareth’s research imbued the youth with new bravery. He pointed to the sagging pile of cold meat on the tray. “Are you going to eat that?”
“Madame Esmerelda?” Gareth prompted.
“My spiritual advisor. You know. A seer. A prophetess. A fortune teller.” Without bothering with fork or knife, Ned crammed a handful of beef in his mouth and chewed.
Gareth examined Ned’s features. No smile flickered; no amusement glinted in those sober eyes. He was serious. And, Gareth thought with a wince, the youth would someday inherit the Blakely estates.
“I understand the concept of a spiritual advisor. I am merely questioning the desirability of consulting some fraud who claims to see the future.”
The youth shook his head patiently and mumbled through his mouthful. “Nobody believed Cassandra either, and look where that got the Trojans.”
“Ned, you do realize that Cassandra was a mythological character? That she, like Apollo, did not actually exist?”
“Well.” Ned chewed. And chewed. Then swallowed. “There is that. But I’ve met Madame Esmerelda. She’s real.”
“I should hope so, as you’ve become an arsonist at her command,” Gareth said dryly. “Did she tell you my research was detrimental to the well-being of the Empire?”
“Not specifically. But she said I shouldn’t let you shove me around like a”—his gaze traveled around the room and rested on Gareth’s desk—“like a limp cravat. She said I could learn to order you around, rather than the reverse.”
Gareth choked. “You believed her when she said that was possible?”
Ned licked the gravy from his fingers. “Of course I did. Would you reject your fate?”
“I am a rational man. I believe in rational endeavors.”
“As do I.”
Gareth rolled his eyes. “Fortune tellers are not precisely rational.”
Ned hunched his scrawny shoulders in offense. “Her veracity is as good as scientifically proven.”
“Not by my science,” Gareth said. “Or my proof. Ned, you cannot wander around believing every half-cocked theory you hear.”
Ned kicked the metal screen where it lay against the carpet and scowled. “Your version of science involves living like a hermit. I like my way better.”
The accusation rang true. Gareth had known it for years. But that knowledge didn’t stop him from gritting his teeth. After all, it wasn’t science that had lead to his isolation; it was logic. He hated the faked politesse of high society. He hated everything about his title. His one consolation—his one escape from the strictures of being Lord Blakely—was his scientific work. Data, after all, could not deceive.
Gareth plucked the ink-stained cravat off his table and twirled it around his fingers. “My version of science requires observation. Induction. Verifiability.”
“So observe Madame Esmerelda.”
In the years since Gareth had returned from Brazil and inherited the title from his grandfather, he’d done his best to ignore his young cousin. The boy, his mother reported, was a bit unpredictable. Gareth had hoped—foolishly, it seemed—that Ned would become responsible on his own. When he did, Gareth intended to dump the duty of continuing the succession on him.
The plan wasn’t going to work. Gareth’s father had died at the age of thirty-seven. Gareth might have as little as three years to make a man of his cousin. Otherwise, as soon as Ned inherited, he would happily trade the unentailed properties for a magic bean and a kiss on the cheek. With a sigh, Gareth mentally added “Disillusion Ned” to his long list of dreary responsibilities. Given Ned’s incendiary assault on Gareth’s paperwork, he’d have to start now.
“Are you telling me your Madame Esmerelda’s predictions will stand up to scientifically rigorous testing?”
“Without a doubt.”
“Well.” Gareth stood and threw his ink-drenched cravat on the fire. It sputtered, damply, then caught flame. “Let’s see you prove it, then.”