Excerpt: Touch of a Lady
The Touch of Seduction, Book 3
No one could put their finger on exactly what made Delphinia Preston different from the other gently bred young ladies who’d come out that Season. It wasn’t as if she possessed two left feet. She was as light-hearted as any of the other debutants. She had beautiful manners and sang like an angel.
But it was a rare person who felt at ease in her presence.
Mostly because one never knew when she’d voice someone’s secret thoughts or let slip something that she had no reason to know.
Some said her strange ability was due to the fact that on the night she was born, the sky rained down a shower of stars. Less charitable, albeit more practical gossips whispered that perhaps her mother had taken a gypsy lover. Maybe the quirky flashes of insight Delphinia received were as much an inheritance from that dusky fellow as her dark hair and slate grey eyes. Or it might have been because those unusual eyes of hers rarely missed the subtle flicker of a glance or a slight tightening of the lips and Del was simply an astute judge of human nature.
Whatever the reason, she always found herself draped with silks, fitted with a turban and veil and relegated to the fortune teller’s booth whenever the Daughters of the Golden Garter staged benefits for the Orphans of Soldiers who served in the War of Colonial Rebellion. The event at the Seabrooke estate had raised more money than any other since the Daughters began their crusade last year, but that didn’t mean Delphinia was happy about her part in it.
I’d have much rather been assigned to the booth selling kisses for sixpence, she thought irritably as she pretended to gaze into the faux crystal ball before her. Then I’d have been able to do good while simultaneously doing ‘bad.’
There were any number of young bucks at this house party she’d have happily kissed for no payment at all.
Instead, she was cooped up in a red silk tent with a glass bowl upended on the linen-covered table to serve as her gazing ball. Delphinia glanced up at Lady Judith Malden, her latest customer. The girl was knotting a handkerchief between her fidgeting fingers. When Del didn’t offer a prognostication right away, Lady Judith frowned.
“What do you see, Madame Zola?” Lady Judith asked, using Delphinia’s assumed name.
“Do not be so hasty to peer into the tomorrow,” Del said, her voice thick with a false Slavic accent. She always took care to disguise herself by altering her voice, especially if she knew the person whose future she foretold at these events. There were already enough rumors about her uncanny abilities. “The future, it is not always what we might wish.”
The debutant dropped her gaze to her white knuckles and nibbled her lower lip so furiously Del took pity on her.
“I see a mountain. No, wait. There are two of them in your future along with a ferocious beast. A great cat.” She waved her hands before her as if dividing an invisible mist. Everyone knew Lady Judith had set her cap for Lord Dumont, whose heraldic crest featured two peaks behind a lion rampant. “Yet the beast will come to heel most handily.” Del put a hand to her ear. “I hear a wedding march.”
“I knew it!” Lady Judith fished in her reticule and came up with half a crown instead of the required shilling. “Keep the extra for the orphans, Madame Zola. This news is worth every farthing.”
Lady Judith hurried out of the tent, anxious to share her good fortune with her friends.
Del sighed and deposited the coin in the pouch beneath the table. She hadn’t told her anything remarkable. Anyone might have made the same guess. If she really were to predict the future, Del might have had to tell Lady Judith that Lord Dumont would break her heart by flaunting his mistresses, or gamble away her dowry, or that their first born child wouldn’t see its second birthday. All were likely possibilities.
It was easier to tell people what they wanted to hear.
Del still told the truth as she saw it. She simply made sure she told only pleasant truths whenever she masqueraded as Madame Zola. Sometimes, she felt the press of the not-so-pleasant against the edges of her mind. She held those secret voices at bay. No one wanted to know what was really coming for them and, as long as Delphinia was careful not to touch any object that hummed to her when no one else could hear, she didn’t have to know either.
But maintaining a mental shield took concentration. Hers fluttered away with the breeze that entered the tent along with her next customer.
Tristan Chalcroft Nash, Viscount Edmondstone, heir to the Earl of Devonwood, removed his tricorne, ducked through the low entrance to her tent and filled the small space with his masculine presence. To say that he was handsome was as obvious as saying the ocean was wet.
And as inadequate.
Here’s a man I could drown in and not care a whit.
Since the beginning of the Seabrooke house party, Delphinia and her friends had covertly watched the young viscount, tittering over the way his knee britches displayed his strong calves and muscular thighs. While he was always decked out in the first stare of fashion, she’d never seen him don a wig. His sandy brown hair was clubbed back in a neat queue, the better to accentuate his square-jawed features and piercing dark eyes.
From across a room, he was devastating. Up close, Del could scarcely draw a breath.
“Am I to stand while you peer into my future?” he asked, his voice a rumbling purr with an edge of irritation in it. Like most of the gentlemen who entered her tent, he was a skeptic, but had likely come on the whim of a female friend. Or perhaps he wanted to see if she really was a gypsy girl who might be charmed into an indiscretion.
Del gave herself a mental shake. “Pray be seated, my lord,” she said, glad to be wearing a veil across her lower face. Being this close to the young viscount caused her cheeks to heat. “I will consult the spirits.”
“No need,” he said, plopping his cockaded hat on the table beside her crystal. “My future is already mapped out.”
“If you know what is before you, then why are you here?”
He made a tsking noise with his teeth and tongue. “For shame, Madame Zola. Such a small thing and you do not already know it? I harbor serious doubt about your abilities.” He settled on the chair across the table from her and hooked an ankle over one knee. “I’m only here to support the orphans.”
He was toying with her. Irritation fizzed down her spine. Her Madame Zola act might be a fraud most of the time, but if she wanted, she could dream up a future for him that would make his queue curl.
“Perhaps your future is not so definite as you think.” She dropped her voice into seductress range. “Since you obviously know all, tell me what you see for yourself and I will tell you if the spirits concur.”
“The spirits have nothing to say about it. My future will shortly be in the hands of a flesh-and-blood woman.” His clipped tone told her he wasn’t very happy about it.
“You speak of a coming match, do you not?” Del fanned the air over the upended bowl and stared at it. It was safer than looking at Lord Edmondstone’s wickedly distracting face. “With one who is named for blossoms. Lily… Rose–no, more encompassing than that. A name that includes all flowers. Florence. Lady Florence Armitage, the Duke of Seabrooke’s daughter.”
No rumor had reached her ear about the pending match, but during the past week of the house party, Del had marked how many times Lady Florence was seated next to Lord Edmondstone at the long dining table and how often he’d featured prominently on her dance card. Del had drawn her own conclusions. Someone was trying to throw them together.
Lord Edmondstone sat up straight. “The negotiations have been conducted in secret. No one is supposed to know about it.”
Her guess was right. Del couldn’t suppress a smile. “The spirits know all.”
“You are not pleased by the prospect of wedding the lady?”
“I’m not pleased by the prospect of wedding anyone.” He leaned back in the chair, crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes at her as if he were trying to penetrate her disguise.
“Most noblemen live for their own pleasure. If the match displeases you, why do you commit to it?
“Because someday I’ll be the Earl of Devonwood. I know my duty.”
Lady Florence was considered no end of a catch for her political connections alone. The daughter of a duke would bring not only a staggering dowry, but hefty portions of prestige to the House of Devonwood.
“And do you always do your duty?” Delphinia asked.
He nodded curtly. “I’d be less a man if I didn’t.”
“But will you know happiness in the doing of it?”
“That’s neither here nor there.”
She made a show of gazing into the crystal bowl as if it had something to reveal to her. “Then you do not wish to know if you will be happy with your choice?”
“My happiness doesn’t signify in the slightest. Only a child or a fool expects to be happy.”
“I expect to be,” she said, straightening her spine. “And I am not a child or a fool.”
“You’re a woman. It’s natural for you to find happiness in marriage. A man’s satisfaction is often not found in his own home.” He arched a brow at her. “I can always keep a mistress as my father did before me.”
Delphinia’s brows drew together.
“Don’t tell me the spirits disapprove of me taking my ease with a light-o-love, Madame Zola.”
If he were speaking to Miss Delphinia Preston, his comments would be considered beyond the pale. However, Madame Zola was expected to be an overindulgent confessor who offered absolution for the cost of a shilling with no penance required. She decided to answer his frankness with her own.
“No, the spirits care nothing for this and Society doesn’t either so long as you are discreet,” she said, speaking only what was true. Delphinia couldn’t name a single couple of her acquaintance who lasted beyond their first year of marriage without one or both of them taking lovers. “But I think your heart will not find what you seek with a mistress.”
“My heart isn’t looking for anything. Particularly not with a mistress. That will involve another part of my anatomy entirely.” He cast her a wicked grin.
“All hearts seek whether they know it or not.”
“And what does yours seek, Madame?”
Someone to still the press of voices trying to break into my mind. Someone who fills up the empty place in my chest. Someone whose soul is the calm sea upon which I may launch my small craft without fear of squalls.
But Tristan Nash didn’t deserve that kind of naked honesty from her. In fact, now that she’d spent a little time alone with him, she didn’t like him nearly as well as she’d thought she would. Any man who could so coldly contemplate both marriage and a mistress in the same conversation was not her sort of fellow.
So she simply extended her hand, palm up.
“My heart seeks someone who’ll cross my palm with silver for the sake of the orphans.”
“Fair enough,” he said as he pulled a sovereign out of his waistcoat pocket. “For the orphans.”
Delphinia secreted the coin between her breasts, behind the stiff busk of her corset. When she looked up, she realized her actions had drawn his attention there. He smiled at her ample decolletage.
“Now I know who you are,” he said. “You’re the Preston girl. Delcie, is it?”
“Delphinia,” she corrected, tingling beneath the layer of whalebone under his intense scrutiny. Her mother had always assured her that her bosom was one of her best assets. Now the swells that confirmed her femininity had unmasked her.
“You’re related to the Earl of Meade, I think.”
“Have you a copy of DeBrett’s in your pocket, my lord?” It irritated Delphinia that she was being judged solely on her pedigree as outlined in the social register. Of course, the fact that Lord Meade was her uncle was the only reason Delphinia was still included in this sort of social gathering. She’d been born to threadbare gentility on an untitled branch of the Preston family, but her connections were good. Provided she married well, she’d still be considered part of the aristocracy. Otherwise, she’d lapse into common obscurity. Sometimes she thought that would be no bad thing. “Do you think people may be measured solely by their place among the peerage?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be spending so much time talking to you, would I?”
The man was insufferable. She rose to her feet. “We are finished here.”
“Not quite. It appears to me that we are both in possession of one another’s secrets. I know who Madame Zola is, which I gather you’d rather not become public knowledge or you wouldn’t try so hard to disguise yourself. And you know who I’m destined to wed, which I never should have confirmed. Truth to tell, I don’t know why I did. In any case, I propose we keep the information between ourselves.” He extended a hand to her. “Do we have an accord?”
She glared at him for a moment. It wouldn’t do her any favors to be known as the fortune-teller. If he wanted his match with the duke’s daughter kept private until the announcement was made, it was nothing to her. She took his hand for a firm shake.
Then the signet ring on his right forefinger sent a fiery message up her arm, smashing through her mental defenses, and screamed its secrets to her brain.