Mrs. Bertrice Martin—a widow, some seventy-three years young—has kept her youthful-ish appearance with the most powerful of home remedies: daily doses of spite, regular baths in man-tears, and refusing to give so much as a single damn about her Terrible Nephew.
Then proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, a sprightly young thing of nine and sixty, crashes into her life. The Terrible Nephew is living in her rooming house, and Violetta wants him gone.
Mrs. Martin isn’t about to start giving damns, not even for someone as intriguing as Miss Violetta. But she hatches another plan—to make her nephew sorry, to make Miss Violetta smile, and to have the finest adventure of all time.
If she makes Terrible Men angry and wins the hand of a lovely lady in the process? Those are just added bonuses.
Author’s Note: Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him because he deserves them. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.
“Elderly lesbians take revenge for a lifetime of injury and insult while falling in love and literally burning everything down. That's it, that's the review. What more need be said?”
—Seattle Review of Books
“I am 100% here for furious, funny, sweet romance between two women of a certain age taking choir-enhanced vengeance on those who deserve it. But there is a lot going on beneath the surface, and in that respect, the story bears a strong resemblance to its heroines.”
—Smart Bitches Trashy Books
“This is a delightfully angry romp about two women who have had ENOUGH, are finding their voice, their power, and each other. It's probably the angriest romance I've ever read and I'm so impressed with the way Milan channeled something so many of us have been feeling into a glorious work that manages to explore themes of class, privilege, bisexuality, #notallmen, pervasive misogyny, and the cisheteropatriarchy.”
—Red Hot Books
All my books have code names. This one is “Man-Tears” because honestly, we are all in desperate need of more man tears. (Sorry men, not all men, but if you needed me to say that then I definitely meant you.)
Surrey County, England, late autumn, 1867
Miss Violetta Beauchamps had made a terrible mistake. It wasn’t the taxing journey from London. Nor was it the coin she’d spent—money she could ill afford—on hiring a cart to come to this large country house that belonged to one Mrs. Martin. Waiting in the parlor for half an hour with her doubts eating away at her certainty had not been a mistake, even though she had spent the entire time wondering if the reason she’d not been offered tea or refreshments was because the target already knew the truth.
No. She was beginning to think this entire scheme had been a very bad idea.
Well. Technically, she had known it was a bad idea the moment it came to mind. It had just been the best bad idea out of a truly rotten lot. She should apologize. She should go. She should—
She heard steps behind her, finally, and her circling thoughts fled like a flock of geese rising from a pond at the crack of a shot. She stood slowly, her back cracking audibly as she did.
“Well? What do you want?” The woman who came into the parlor did not look the way Violetta had imagined. She’d expected someone around her age, but stuffier in every regard—her hair, her gown, her corset, her manners. The woman who stood in the doorway had hair of pale white, tugged up into an unpretentious bun. She wore a loose, pink gown, probably silk—comfortable and opulent all at the same time.
Violetta had done her research. She always did. Mrs. Martin owned this massive home and had a fortune in the tens of thousands of pounds stashed in the five percents. Apparently all that money wasn’t enough for her to purchase a little politeness. This comfortable woman had the gall to demand what Violetta wanted, without so much as an introduction or an exchange of polite talk?
True, Violetta was here to swindle the woman. But Mrs. Martin didn’t know that yet.
Violetta considered her options before inclining her head. “And how do you do? You must be Mrs. Martin. I am Miss Violetta Beauchamps, up from London. I hope your morning has been going well.”
Mrs. Martin’s nose wrinkled at these pleasantries. She acted as if Violetta were some sort of an interloper.
Violetta was not just some sort of interloper—she was the worst sort. She was here to put one over on this woman. But from what she had seen of the massive house, Mrs. Martin wouldn’t miss what little Violetta would take, not in the slightest.
Mrs. Martin continued the conversation as she had begun it—with an unpleasant huff. “Blah blah blah,” she said. “Imagine I just uttered all the greetings that politeness requires. What do you want? Answer now, truthfully, or get out.”
What did Violetta want? She wanted not to starve. Moralists would undoubtedly tell her that it was too early to turn to crime out of desperation. She knew this; she had done the calculations (impeccably, perfectly—as always) for two nights running. She had spent all her life being careful, and she would not run through her savings for another five years, if she were frugal. She might—perhaps—at the age of sixty-nine find gainful employment once again, at a comfortable wage that allowed her to put aside a small sum on a monthly basis.
Just because she’d never been struck by extraordinary luck before didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
The woman hadn’t invited her to sit, but then again, Mrs. Martin had told her to imagine whatever pleasantries she wanted. She sank back onto the white and gold damask sofa in this fussy parlor and pinched the bridge of her nose.
Violetta had not made it to this age with the pleasant fortune of having fifty-seven pounds in the bank, with no debts, without being excessively practical.
Mrs. Martin was pretty in the way that conventional, comfortable women often were. She came and sat opposite Violetta with something near perfect posture. Of course. She had no burdens weighing down her shoulders. She had no fears dragging at her future. Her head was held high; her neck was long and graceful.
Violetta had never been pretty, not at any age. She’d always been too round, and one of her eyes had never moved as it ought—“it’s disconcerting,” a man had told her once. “It’s unnatural.”
She’d learned not to look at people directly.
Now that she was older, she was even less exciting. Everyone wished she would disappear, and she would be happy to fade into the background so long as she had enough to eat for the rest of her life, thank you.
Nobody was going to hire her again—not for the wage she was used to earning, at any rate. She was sixty-nine and unmarried—one of the so-called surplus women who choked up the attics and rooming houses of London. Never mind her experience, her meticulous calculational capabilities, her voluminous memory. She was old and unpretty, and she could either scrape and grow more and more desperate as the years passed…or she could do this.
All she had to do was tell one lie. Everything else would be God’s honest truth. One lie, and if it was believed, she’d be able to spend the rest of her days in her comfortable room, taking nice walks in the park and enjoying the sunshine when it came.
One lie, and she’d have all of that, instead of a slow slide into desperation.
She started with that one lie: “I am here on a matter of business. I own a rooming house in London.”
She did not own the rooming house in question; she had managed it for Mr. Toggert and his father and grandfather before him for forty-seven years, along with twelve of his other properties. She’d made them a reasonable sum of money. For decades, the reigning Toggerts had praised her diligence, her book-keeping, her careful work. The latest Mr. Toggert had promised her a pension if she worked for him until she was seventy.
He’d sacked her two days ago, eleven months shy of that goal.
Mrs. Martin rolled her eyes, looking singularly unimpressed. “Good for you. I hope you like it.”
Violetta pressed on. “I rent rooms to several men, including—”
“Well,” interrupted Mrs. Martin. “There’s your problem, right there. I have no idea what cockamamie story you’re about to tell me, but don’t rent rooms to men. They get drunk, piss in the corner, and who knows what else? If you’d desist in that one thing, I’m certain your life would improve immensely. There. Problem solved. Are we finished?”
In Violetta’s forty-seven years managing Mr. Toggert’s rooming houses, men had done every single one of those things. Monthly. She fixed her face in a smile. “Allow me to explain. One of the men who has taken a set of rooms in my house is Robert Cappish.”
The look on Mrs. Martin’s face changed from annoyed to something far worse. Her nose wrinkled. Her eyes rolled. She looked upward and shook her head.
“Well,” she said after a moment. “That’s an even worse problem. You have my sincerest condolences on your lack of intelligence in letting rooms to what has to be the worst specimen of humanity on the planet. We do not use that name around here, I am sorry to say. If you must refer to him, you may call him the ‘Terrible Nephew.’”
Violetta had not wanted to lease the room to him at all. She had wanted him tossed out years ago. Mr. Toggert had insisted. “He has not paid a penny in twenty-seven months.”
“That’s because he doesn’t have any money,” Mrs. Martin replied. “He did his best to spend his mother’s allowance when she was alive. After she passed away a decade ago, he ran through his inheritance in a matter of five years, and my patience two years after that. Throw him out on the street. Sell his belongings. Salt the earth behind him as he leaves. What on earth has taken you so long?”
Mr. Toggert had said that if they pressed the matter, they would lose his custom, which would be considerable once Mr. Cappish came into his inheritance. The current Mr. Toggert had insisted they wait, and only make occasional gentle inquiries. Then he had demanded to know why his profits had gone down. Violetta had explained that it had been his decisions that had led to the result, but he hadn’t listened. He had sacked her.
She had realized, watching his eyes glaze through her careful explanation, that it had all been a pretext. He had wanted to sack her and avoid the pension. He’d created the excuse to do so.
“Mr. Cap—” Violetta caught herself at the other woman’s ferocious glower. “Your, ah, Terrible Nephew claims you will pay on his behalf.”
“He lies.” Mrs. Martin sighed. “He is very good at that, you know. I have far more experience denying his creditors than you have in collecting, I am certain.”
“But when we let him the rooms, you signed as surety.”
“I would never have done so. That was also a lie.”
Violetta had never considered this possibility. It had seemed so perfect, the opportunity. Still, she could not give in so easily.
“But…” She leaned down and found her bag at her feet, and withdrew the file she had stolen before she left Mr. Toggert’s office that final time. She had a record of payments (few); here, a copy of the lease, signed in Mr. Cappish’s own hand. And there…
“Here.” She held out the sheet. “This is your signature, agreeing to pay the amount in question if he fails to do so.”
“That’s not my signature,” Mrs. Martin shot back. She stood, waved a maid forward, and—when the woman returned a half minute later with a lap desk—scrawled lazily along a sheet of paper. “That’s my signature.” She folded her arms. “My Christian name is spelled Bertrice. B-E-R-T-R-I-C-E, not B-E-R-T-E-R-I-C-E. I know how to spell my own name. My idiot of a Terrible Nephew does not.”
“He forged it, I’m sure,” Mrs. Martin said. “He does that. He can’t be trusted. Not at all. He truly is terrible. A little forgery is the mildest of his crimes.”
Drat. Her plan had seemed so simple—go to Mrs. Martin, apologetically demand payment for the two and a half years due, collect almost seventy pounds, and then disappear with her ill-gotten gains.
Was it a crime?
But it should also have been a crime to promise a woman a pension and then—after forty-seven years of service—sack her eleven months before the pension came due, for doing precisely what you’d made her do under protest. Two wrongs didn’t make a right, but occasionally they did make an escape.
There was nothing for her to do but beg.
She bowed her head before Mrs. Martin. “I am sorry. I ought to have been more zealous in looking over matters.”
Mrs. Martin blinked, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Why are you apologizing to me?”
“I know you have no obligation to me,” Violetta continued, “but I implore you. You cannot leave me with this man in my rooming house, his debts unpaid. I’m old.”
“You’re not old. You’re my age.”
“I’m sixty-nine,” Violetta said. “I’m weaker than him physically, and I have no way to press the matter, not without risking my own safety. The proceeds from the rooming house are my only income. I beg you, woman to woman. Please help me.” She bowed her head. She could hear the hint of her own very real desperation peeking out in the quaver of her voice, and she hoped it would be convincing.
Silence was heartening, because Mrs. Martin was not immediately rejecting the idea. She had been blunt enough throughout the conversation; Violetta had no doubt that she’d have scoffed immediately if she were entirely unmoved.
Instead, Mrs. Martin reached out and picked up the file. Violetta’s meticulous marks marched down that that first sheet, indicating when he’d paid (the first three months only) and what he’d done thereafter. She’d left little notations of conversations after every encounter.
“Hmph.” Mrs. Martin tapped one such notation. “This sounds very like him.”
Every month, she’d tallied the amount owing. Interest had been added; the sum had grown larger and larger.
Mrs. Martin flipped to the last page, to that final sum. A little more than sixty-eight pounds. It would be enough to save Violetta.
“You want me to pay this?” she asked.
Mrs. Martin looked up. “It’s such a shame. I have vowed that my Terrible Nephew will never get a single penny of mine, not in any way. You cannot imagine the depths of hatred that I harbor for him. He is a wandering fleshbag of fetid morals, and I would rather encase every penny I have in pig manure and toss it into London Harbor than allow him to have the benefit of a single coin.”
Mrs. Martin raised a hand. “Give me a moment.”
She stood. She straightened, grimacing as she did so, and then leaned on a walking stick. After a moment, her face smoothed.
She left the room with scarcely a limp.
Two minutes later, a maid brought in the refreshments that politeness and hospitality demanded should have provided long before. She laid it all out from a tray—tea and biscuits and sandwiches. For one ridiculous moment, Violetta imagined herself swiping the sugar biscuits into her bag. It had been so long since she had anything sweet at all. Instead, she took one and bit off a corner and let the rich, buttery sweetness dissolve on her tongue.
If she had Mrs. Martin’s money, there would be biscuits every day.
God. If only she did.
Mrs. Martin returned a few minutes later, sitting herself across from Violetta.
“Sarah,” she said, “the ink and paper, please.” The maid—who had been standing in the corner since serving refreshments—retrieved the lap desk from where it had been set earlier, removed a pen and a creamy sheet of paper, and set these in front of Mrs. Martin.
Mrs. Martin dipped the pen, a lovely thing of bottle-green, the sort that expensive stores displayed in windows to entice people to enter, and unceremoniously tapped it against the inkwell.
“I have decided that I will do you a favor, Mrs…. What did you say your name was again?”
“Miss,” Violetta corrected. “I am Miss Violetta Beauchamps.”
Mrs. Martin started writing.
“‘I, Mrs. Bertrice Martin’—note the correct spelling.”
She pointed at the page, and Violetta nodded.
“‘I, Mrs. Bertrice Martin, do agree to use my best efforts to remove—’” Another frown, and she looked up. “Dear God, if this is to be a legal document, I suppose I must use the Terrible Nephew’s actual name.” She spoke in a way that practically enunciated the capitals. “What do you think?”
Violetta had no idea what was happening. “Perhaps you could soften the effect by using a sufficient number of adjectives?”
“Mmm. Adjectives. I like the way you think. Where was I? Ah, yes. ‘…my best efforts to remove the despicable, detestable, disgusting—’” She frowned. “That’s not enough, gah, my aging brain—”
“Putrid,” Violetta suggested. “Loathsome. Slimy. Beastly.”
“Excellent. All of those,” Mrs. Martin said, scribbling hastily, “but not beastly. I prefer the company of beasts to men.”
“Unfair to crickets.”
“That will have to do. ‘…slimy, vile Robert Cappish (hereinafter “said Terrible Nephew”) from Miss Violetta Beauchamps’s property. In exchange, Miss Violetta Beauchamps agrees to never allow said Terrible Nephew to lease one of her rooms again, and to assist in such efforts to remove said Terrible Nephew as requested.’”
That was all well and good, but Violetta needed money. She licked her lips.
Mrs. Martin just looked at her and nodded once, before bending over the paper once more. “‘If I am successful in this aim,’” she narrated, “‘I promise to give Miss Beauchamps the sum of sixty-eight pounds and 12 shillings for her service, such amount not to be accredited to said Terrible Nephew’s account because dear God that idiot needs to pay his debts like an actual human being instead of lying like a snake.’” She wrote this out as she spoke.
“Should we be using words like ‘idiot’ and ‘vile’ in a legal contract?” Violetta mused. “It seems a bit improper.”
“Ah, well.” Mrs. Martin frowned at the page. “Maybe you have a point? I don’t know. Perhaps as long as we make it clear it’s intended to be legal—like this. ‘Hereby signed, Mrs. Bertrice Martin.’” She scrawled her signature across the page, then gestured the maid over. “Sarah, you’ll witness. The ‘hereby’ makes it more legalistic, don’t you think?”
Violetta was not sure of that. She was not sure about any of this. Honestly, she had just hoped for a handful of bills hastily shoved her way. How was she supposed to get the Terrible Nephew to vacate the premises, when she lacked that authority? That would make this two crimes, not just one.
But on the other hand… If Mr. Toggert never found out why the Terrible Nephew left…?
It was almost the perfect fraud. Mrs. Martin wasn’t asking for his account to be credited; she insisted on not doing so, in fact. So the Terrible Nephew would still owe Mr. Toggert the money.
And Mr. Toggert rarely paid attention to his properties. He had not yet hired her replacement; he might not yet for another week. By the time he realized what had happened—and he might never know—Violetta would be long gone, the money with her.
If all went well, Violetta would get something very like her pension and nobody would ever realize that she’d cheated for every penny of it.
She picked up the pen. “Hereby signed,” she intoned, “Violetta Beauchamps.”
A moment too late, she realized that perhaps she ought not to have signed her actual, legal name to a crime. Ah, well. Some criminal she made. Good thing she wasn’t planning to make a habit of this.
She looked over to see Mrs. Martin smiling.
“This is good,” Mrs. Martin said. “My physician said I should embark on an adventure. He suggested Bath. Boring. This is much better. I cannot imagine anything more exhilarating and adventurous than making the Terrible Nephew less comfortable in his surroundings. Let’s get started, shall we? I can’t wait.”
Content notes coming soon-ish.