The last man Judith Worth wants to see again is Christian Trent, the Marquess of Ashford—the man who spent summers at her family home, who kissed her one magical night…and then heartlessly ruined her father. But when a tricky business matter arises, he’s the only one she can ask for help. With any luck, he’ll engage a servant to take care of the matter, and she won’t even have to talk with him.
But Ashford has never forgotten Judith. He knows she will never forgive him for what he’s done, but when offered the chance to assist her, he arrives in person. His memory of Judith may have haunted him, but it pales in comparison to the reality of the vivacious, beautiful woman he rediscovers. Throughout his life, he has always done what is correct. But now, he finds himself doing something utterly wrong…falling in love with the one woman he can never have.
1. Once upon a Marquess |
1½. Her Every Wish |
1¾. The Pursuit Of… |
2. After the Wedding |
3. The Devil Comes Courting
4. The Return of the Scoundrel | 5. The Kissing Hour | 6. A Tale of Two Viscounts | 7. The Once and Future Earl
“Redheadedgirl and I both loved this book for the high quality of the writing, the craftsmanship, the characters, and the emotional whammies.”
“Milan as usual is exquisite. The banter is to die for, quirky and funny…. I as always don't hesitate to recommend it to everyone. Read it!”
“I found the whole thing enthralling, entertaining and utterly enjoyable.”
“Milan is a master at crafting complex and difficult situations for her characters to navigate.”
“I fell in love with the Worth family, quirks and all and didn't want this story to end.”
“unique and refreshing…This book is a keeper for me.”
The codename for this book was Opium. This still makes some degree of sense, but at this point, I've really started to think of it as Bill and Fred's Excellent Adventure. You’ll see why.
London, England, 1866
If it could have spoken, the tea table would have groaned. Biscuits, oranges, cordial, and two sorts of preserves were only the beginning of the burdens that Judith had forced the poor furniture to carry. Sandwiches and scones were still to come. The sugar bowl was filled; the teakettle stood ready to do justice to the small quantity of Darjeeling that she had purchased at far too high a price. The paper in the front parlor had been scrubbed of all its dirt, and a cheery bouquet of violets, obtained from the girl down by the market, decorated the side-table.
It had been three months since Judith Worth had last seen her younger brother, and nothing—nothing—would stand in the way of his homecoming. Everything was finally turning out right. Almost everything, that was. But so long as she managed to hand off that last unpleasant bit of business to someone even more unpleasant, it would be everything in truth.
“There.” She scooped the orange cat off the table, where it had jumped to investigate this strange and no doubt interesting collection of things to push onto the floor, and set the plate of sandwiches in its place. That left only… “Theresa,” Judith called, “where did you put the scones?”
No answer. Judith peered down the hall; nobody looked back at her except Squid, another one of Theresa’s cats. It licked a paw and regarded Judith with suspicion and a swishing tail.
“Theresa!” she called.
“What?” Her youngest sister was not in the kitchen plating pastries. She stood at the window, her willowy figure half-hidden by the curtains that Judith had so painstakingly sent out for washing.
Judith sighed. “Ladies don’t say ‘what.’ They say ‘your pardon,’ or ‘yes, Judith.’”
“But I said ‘what.’” Theresa puzzled this over with a frown. “So either ladies do say what, in which case you stand corrected, or I am not a lady, and I don’t need to say ‘your pardon.’”
Someone else would think her sister was sassing her. But no; that was just Theresa. And there were more pressing matters.
“What did you do with the scones?” Judith asked.
“What did you do with the scones?” Judith repeated.
“Your pardon,” Theresa shot back.
“For the love of mallards.” Judith inhaled and made herself count. One mallard. Two mallards. Three… “I did not mean that you were only allowed to say ‘your pardon,’” she finally managed. “Simply that it was a preferable response to shouting ‘what?’ like a common scullion. Please answer my question.”
“Oh, I understood what you meant,” Theresa said. “But you said ‘what,’ and I know you consider yourself a lady. I was just correcting you.”
“I said what? No, I didn’t.”
“What did you do with the scones,” Theresa repeated. “Although I have to admit that ‘your pardon did you do with the scones’ sounds extremely strange. It can’t be proper English.”
One mallard. Two—no. Never mind the mallards. No amount of mallard-counting was going to help. She’d given her sister one task the entire morning: Watch the scones. How hard could it be?
She took a deep breath. “Theresa. Where are the scones?”
Theresa frowned and looked around the room, as if trying to figure out where she’d set them. The small front parlor wasn’t what their family had once had. Once, Judith wouldn’t have had to make the sandwiches herself, nor even place them on the table. Once, the dishes would have been porcelain and her younger brother would have been escorted by a pair of footmen in a coach instead of making his own way home on foot.
But there was no point counting once upon a times. Once was not now. Now there were sandwiches and there was a table, and while Judith still had breath in her body, there would always be a welcome home.
Assuming, of course, that she ever found the scones.
Despite Judith’s haphazard efforts to teach her sister deportment, Theresa always seemed to need something in her hands. Her fingers, seemingly of their own accord, pulled a bit of hair loose from the coronet of blond braids arranged on her head.
“Scones.” Judith tapped the single empty spot on the table with her finger.
“Right.” Theresa slowly nibbled that strand of hair. “Those. I got distracted.”
Some people thought Theresa stupid. She wasn’t—she’d already surpassed Judith in mathematics, and when she could make herself sit still long enough to read, she understood everything. But she was always distracted—or, at least, she was always distracting herself. She’d been difficult from the moment she was born.
“Concentrate,” Judith said. “Start from the beginning. You took the scones from the oven. Then what happened?”
“No, before that,” Theresa corrected. “I got distracted by the body on the front stoop.”
Judith winced. “Drat. Not another dead rat. At least tell me it’s in one piece. Or did Squid get at this one, too?”
Theresa turned back to the window. “I don’t think we should blame Squid for this body. It looks human; that sort of prey is rather out of his league.”
Judith’s mind went blank. Slowly—because someone had to do something—she crept forward and looked through the curtains. “Oh,” she heard herself say, as if from a very great distance. “You’re right. I don’t think Squid is at fault…”
“Of course not,” Theresa said. “He is really an excellent cat.”
Her eyes didn’t seem capable of focusing. Once upon a time, there had never been bodies, not anywhere on the family properties.
She had, in fact, believed that time included the present. The neighborhood they lived in was cramped and crowded, but it was at least safe. Or so she’d thought. It—she found it easier to think of the thing before her front door as an it—lay, limbs splayed at odd angles, all awkward turns and disjointed twists. The head faced away, and a blond wig and a cap obscured the face. Ragged hair—possibly blond beneath the cap—obscured the face. A scarf in fluttering blue and red wound around the neck.
Eton colors. Her heart came to a standstill. But this…thing was far too small to be her brother. Her pulse started again with a painful thud as she recognized one last detail: A knife handle protruded from the chest.
“Wait here,” she said sharply.
Once upon a time, she might have screamed, but she was beyond an attack of the vapors. Lady Judith Worth—that poor specimen of belabored femininity who might once have collapsed in a swoon—had been through too much to hesitate now. She made her way to the front door and thrust it open.
A breeze, scented with smoke from the factory three streets over, wafted in. The street was mostly empty. Little curls of fog greeted her, flirting with bits of rubbish that had collected in the gutter. Thirty yards down, almost hidden by the mist, Old Mother Lamprey stirred a common pot by the side of the street. A man passed by her, clutching a coat around him and looking warily from side to side. Alas; there was nobody about who looked as if they’d just left a corpse behind.
She took a step forward and let out a sigh of relief. No wonder the limbs had seemed so unnatural. It wasn’t a body—at least, this thing had never been living. It was a set of clothes stuffed with straw, the sort of straw guy that might be burned in a glorious bonfire in early November.
But it was July. Guy Fawkes Day was a distant memory. And this was not just any set of clothes. It was the blue-fabric uniform that an Eton boy would wear, complete with insignia. Whoever had left this grotesque thing here had thrust a knife through what would have been the heart of the corpse, spearing it to the top post of the railing. It was a rusted blade with a splintering handle, but the knife didn’t have to be sharp to cut to the point.
Judith had seen that tableau before. It had been in the caricatures of her father that had hung in all the gossip-shop windows: stabbed through the heart and buried at the crossroads, as all suicides had once been.
There was a reason she had no use for once upon a times.
She walked up to the body and took hold of the knife. If she gripped it hard enough, her hands would stop shaking—just like that. She gave the handle a hard yank.
It resisted for a moment, sending splinters through her gloves. Then it came free of the wooden post with a jolt, one that sent her staggering back a pace.
A piece of paper, folded several times over, and small enough that she’d not noticed it at first, remained speared on the blade. She slid it off and unfolded it.
To Benedict WorthLESS, the note read, traitor’s son and useless rat. We look forward to the next Half. Come prepared. Better yet, crawl away like the cowardly scum you are and don’t come at all.
It was signed simply: You know who.
Anger flooded her vision with red. Her little brother. This was her little brother they were talking about, her sweet twelve-year-old boy. She’d practically raised him herself. She’d fought for him. She’d scrimped and saved, and when money hadn’t been enough, she had argued. She hadn’t let up, not until the trustees had reluctantly agreed to let her brother come to Eton for the summer Half as a start. She’d worked for years so he could have this one chance to take the place that should have been his.
And this You know who had stuck a knife through his heart in effigy. They’d called him Benedict Worthless.
After the scandal with their father and their elder brother, she hadn’t imagined that Benedict would be popular. Not at first. But she’d hoped that if only she managed to get Benedict off to school, his warm smile and his wry sense of humor would eventually win over the other boys.
Stupid. That was what came of once-upon-a-time thinking. Those wistful if onlys never happened, not to their family.
But it didn’t matter. Eight years ago, Judith had promised that her brother and sister would have the life they had been born to, no matter what she had to do to see it through. She hadn’t ground her way through impossible odds just so some bullying schoolboys could ruin Benedict’s chances.
“It’s not a very good body,” Theresa said behind her. “The legs are too short in proportion to the torso. Don’t you think?”
“Theresa,” Judith said. “Do you think it’s good manners to criticize bodies?”
“No,” Theresa said. “Just good fun.”
Judith changed the subject. “I thought I told you to stay in the house.”
“But I wanted to see.”
Judith sighed. “A lady does as she’s told.”
Theresa shrugged this off. “That’s a useless rule. What is the point in even articulating it? If I’m a lady, I shall simply tell myself to do as I please. That way, I can satisfy everyone.”
She cast a glance at her sister, but there was no time to chop logic. First things first: Judith had to get rid of this thing before Benedict arrived home. If this was what greeted him upon his arrival home, he’d likely suffered enough indignities the last few months. She could spare him this one. She knelt in front of the makeshift corpse, gathered its limbs, and lifted.
The thing’s behind teetered, sliding down her gown, spitting straw down the steps to the house.
Judith gritted her teeth, shifted her weight, and regathered the straw man in her arms. It was unwieldy and she couldn’t see her footing, but she held on as best as she could. One step down. A second. She found the third with her toe, but as she moved forward, her shoe slipped on loose hay.`She grabbed for the rail, and as she did, one of the arms worked loose, smacking her with a cuff that spattered straw in her face.
She dropped the body and swiped at her stinging eyes. Either she’d have to take it in pieces—and there was no time for that—or…
The man who had passed by Mother Lamprey a few minutes back hadn’t taken any soup from her. Instead, he’d continued down the street, headed toward Judith. He frowned at the house two doors down from her and took a piece of paper from his pocket, peering suspiciously at it.
Judith made a snap decision. She straightened her spine and marched toward him.
“Ahoy there,” she called. “My good man.”
The man straightened and half-turned his head to her.
“Yes,” she said, a little more loudly. “You there. I have a task for you, if you care to earn a shilling. It won’t take but five minutes.”
He turned all the way toward her, and in that moment, Judith realized her mistake. She knew this man, and he didn’t need her shilling.
In her mind, she’d thought of him as an unpleasant man. She’d let her feelings alter her memory, stooping his straight back, narrowing those wide, laughing eyes. The reality of him was all too different. Little curls of black hair peeked out from under his hat. His trousers were crisply ironed and clean; his coat was tailored to the precise fit of his shoulders. Beneath the new mud he’d acquired on this street, his boots were the deep, glossy black that only the most dedicated valet could achieve. His eyes met hers. Dark, thick eyebrows shielded mobile eyes of a lighter brown. They were smiling eyes, mischievous eyes, eyes that said that this man knew a good joke, and if you leaned in, he’d tell you the punch line.
Those eyes lied. She knew them all too well.
He took a step toward her. “There you are, Judith. Of course I’ll help.” His lip quirked. “And there’s no need to pay me. We’re old friends, are we not?”
It had been eight years since she’d last seen him in the flesh. The sight of him froze her in place, robbing her momentarily of speech. Speak of once upon a times gone awry. Once upon a time, there had been a marquess, and Lady Judith Worth had thought that he would conquer the world.
He had. She hadn’t realized at the time that he meant to take it from her.
“Well.” She swallowed. “Lord Ashford. I have no idea what you’re doing here, but I suppose you’ll have to do.”
For a moment, that eternal smile of his faltered. He looked into her eyes, and she felt a cold wind sweep over her.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I suppose I will.”