|When I reviewed Courtney Milan’s novella in Harlequin’s Christmas anthology, I was intrigued by her hero and heroine, a poor clerk and the daughter of an impoverished owner of a lending library. Lavinia Spencer and William White live far from the ton that is the usual locale of English historicals. They live in a world where £10 was a huge amount of money. I enjoyed this very different view of early 19th century England, but I predicted, with some regret, that her debut novel would return to the more familiar world of the nobility. I was half right. And what makes Proof by Seduction such a compelling tale is the other half.
The hero of Milan’s story is a familiar character: a cold, imperious nobleman whose position and upbringing have left him impervious to emotion. But in addition to the distance from ordinary feelings arising from his rank, Gareth Carhart, Marquess of Blakely is a scientist, a man whose entire approach to the world is based on reason and proof. Thus, when he discovers that his young nephew and heir is in the thrall of a fortune teller, Blakely sets out to demonstrate to Ned that this woman is a fraud.
Jenny Keeble, aka Madame Esmerelda, is likewise, on the surface, a recognizable romance heroine. Of uncertain parentage, she was raised at a girls’ school and provided with a genteel education. When she turned eighteen and the support disappeared, however, she did not take the usual path of becoming a teacher, governess or companion. Instead, she ran off to London and for twelve years has supported herself at a very modest level of comfort as a psychic. She is very proud of her ability to sense what her clients want and need to hear.
Jenny is appalled at Blakely’s determination to unmask her to Ned, not simply because she appreciates the fees but because the young man of nineteen who began to visit her two years earlier was on a path to self-destruction. Her counsel had convinced Ned that his future would be happy and she is fearful that the sudden discovery that she is a fraud will set him off on a downward spiral. (Think of a therapist who knows that a client is not quite yet ready to stand on his own.) But Blakely refuses to hear her warning, so determined is he to prove Ned that he has been Madame Esmerelda’s dupe.
Blakely’s quest draws Jenny unwillingly into his world and into an effort to thwart his designs. Blakely can see through her disguise, but Jenny can also see beyond the marquess’ cold façade to the lonely man whose position and personality have kept him from meaningful human contact. Blakely is shocked to discover his attraction to a woman he knows is a charlatan. Jenny is surprised that she is drawn to her opponent, both sexually and personally.
Milan has succeeded in drawing two fully realized characters in Blakely and Jenny. She has also succeeded in making this romance across class lines believable. Clearly, for there to be the hoped for happy ending, Blakely will have to change significantly. This requirement for major alterations in a hero’s behavior is commonplace in romantic fiction. We can start with Mr. Darcy. But sometimes the change seems superficial or inexplicable. Not so here. Milan makes the reader believe that Jenny has enabled Gareth to escape the emotional strictures that have made happiness unattainable.
The “other half” that makes this story so compelling is the reality with which Milan paints Jenny’s life. This is a woman for whom the world offers few choices. That she has, by whatever means, managed to support herself and attain a small degree of security is seen as admirable. But the author also shows how fragile that security can be, how a poor woman without prospects can be buffeted by those who have power. That Jenny chooses not to take the easy way out, not to accept the role as a kept woman, however much she may love Gareth, is the only course she can take to be true to herself. One wonders how many women could be as strong, but believes that Jenny is.
The chemistry between Gareth and Jenny is hot and the love scenes are hotter. But what makes Proof by Seduction a keeper for me are the characters and the love story. Milan convinced me that Gareth was changed by his love for Jenny, that he discovered through her his humanity, and they would live happily ever after. What more can a reader want?