In Which Madame Esmerelda Makes Predictions for the New Year

London, January 1, 1838

“Well, Madame Esmerelda.” Miss Elizabeth Gramble sat on the black-covered chair and waited for her yearly dose of lies. “What do you foresee for us in the coming year?”

This visit to the London spiritualist was a decade-long tradition. Ladies—especially dumpy, forty-eight-year-old unmarried ladies—needed the occasional falsehood to continue on. Every year, Eliza and her sister, Miss Drusilla Gramble, visited Madame Esmerelda. Every year, they gawked at the gauzy fabric that fluttered on the walls, inhaled the sweet scent of foreign spices burning on the brazier.

As she had every year before, Madame Esmerelda bent her kerchiefed head over the dregs of a teacup. But before the fortune-teller could pronounce their future, Drusilla sighed.

“Madame Esmerelda need say nothing to me,” she said sadly. “Last year she promised I would obtain my dearest wish. Which is to own a pianoforte; yet here I sit with no instrument.”

Madame Esmerelda glanced up from contemplation of the teacup. Her lips pursed.

Eliza resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Of course Drusilla’s wish hadn’t been granted. The point of this visit was to pretend to have what they wanted, so they could survive the remainder of the year without.

“My dear Drusilla,” Eliza said into the waiting silence. “Where in our dwelling could we fit an instrument?”

Drusilla’s hands trembled. “I suppose you’re right. It’s foolish to want too much.”

Of course. On New Year’s Day, Eliza and her sister indulged in idle fantasies. But they gave up those wishes come the second of January.

Maybe Drusilla was as weary of surrendering as Eliza.

“Let me tell you what I see.” Madame Esmerelda’s voice was dark and smoky, weaving the stuff of every spinster’s fantasy. Eliza shut her eyes and waited in quiet desperation for her once-a-year dream.

“I see more of the same.”

The words were so coldly shocking, so unfairly pragmatic, that Eliza opened her eyes wide. “But—”

“More gray afternoons with cold toast for tea,” Madame Esmerelda said briskly, “more arguments over the level of the coal-scuttle.”

She and Drusilla had argued about precisely that, just yesterday morning.

“Madame Esmerelda!” Drusilla looked as shocked as Eliza felt. “We didn’t come here to—”

“To hear the truth?” Madame Esmerelda finished.

Of course not. They came to escape their long, slow slide into genteel spinsterhood.

Eliza shared a shaky, indrawn breath with her sister. “No,” she finally whispered. “It’s not the truth. I can’t bear for it to be.”

“Well.” The fortune-teller favored Eliza with a tight little smile. “What are you going to do to prove the tealeaves wrong?”

Prove. A challenging word, that, one that required more than sitting in a tiny parlor watching the pattern on the paper fade into oblivion.

Drusilla stood and offered her arm to Eliza. “We don’t have to listen to this. We’re leaving.”

It would have been a fine thing to sweep out of the room, noses upturned in glorious denial of reality; instead, it took a small eternity to extricate themselves, fussing with wraps and scarves and gloves. Ten minutes later, Eliza was walking down the snow-covered pavement with her sister.

Prove the woman wrong. But how were they to do that, when she was so unfortunately correct? Ladies didn’t prove anything; they acquiesced.

Eliza was tired of acquiescing. And like that, the germ of an idea came to her—not an unrealistic fantasy, but a reality so possible that her breath stung in her lungs.

She stopped and turned to her sister. “What if we were to invest the capital remaining to us in a pianoforte? You might teach young women of good family to play. I might instruct them on deportment.”

Drusilla reached out for her, hope trembling in her wide eyes. “Do something to earn an income? But we’re ladies. Our reputation—”

“Pffft.” Eliza smiled at her sister. “So far, our reputation has purchased us a small flat above a shop and boiled beef on Wednesdays. If Madame Esmerelda won’t give us a false dream this year, we’ll invent a real one on our own. One that will last every day, not just the first of January.”

Not twenty yards behind the two sisters, Madame Esmerelda stood at her window. She’d opened the black curtains, and the rays of the winter sun illuminated her small front room. Down the street, the two sisters walked away, arms linked. Their heads bent together; a spring had entered their steps. They didn’t look back.

The chance to tell the truth didn’t come often to fortune-tellers, but oh, it was sweet when it did. The woman who called herself Madame Esmerelda pulled the kerchief from her head and smiled.

“Yes,” she said softly. “This year, I think you’ll prove me wrong. It’s about time.”