The title: Proof by Seduction
The author: Courtney Milan
Publication: Harlequin, 2010
Got it from: A library
Courtney Milan has been getting a lot of buzz since this book debuted last year, so when I read the premise I just had to try it out. It's 1836, and Jenny Keeble, aka Madame Esmerelda, pretends to predict the future for the rich and titled of London. It's the only way she knows how to make an honest living, with no prospects for a respectable job. One day a young man named Ned comes to her. He's suicidal, depressed, and in desperate need of guidance. Jenny convinces him that it's written in the stars he will thrive and grow into a man.
Flash-forward two years later, and Ned is completely under the spell of Madame Esmerela, believing everything she says without question. This enrages his uncle, Gareth, the Marquess of Blakely, who is a scientist and demands evidence for everything. One night he goes along with Ned to confront the so-called gypsy Esmerelda. Jenny is desperate to retain Ned's trust and bring the haughty Lord Blakely down a peg or two. So she makes a bet with him that she really can predict the future, and he must complete three tasks to win his future wife.
The first two-thirds of this novel were a delight. The time period comfortably straddles the conventions of the Regency and Victorian worlds, giving it a timeless 19th-century feeling. Gareth is an archetypal Mr. Darcy, putting on a cold demeanor while struggling with an overwhelming physical attraction to Jenny. Jenny is no typical historical debutante - she's in her 30's - and she matches Gareth intellectually to produce some fun (and funny) verbal sparring. But this is also an extremely emotional book. Gareth fights the whole way through to break free of his fear of being ridiculed and it takes him a long time to come around to seeing the value in human companionship. Jenny also must face her own demons, and see the consequences of her lies.
The book only loses points because the last third of the book meandered too much, being relentlessly uncheerful and going around in circles of sadness without anything really developing. I felt like both Gareth and Jenny could have come to their senses much sooner. Still, I loved the first part of the book and couldn't put it down. It's now on my list of all-time favourite romances.