Miss Chloe Fong has plans for her life, lists for her days, and absolutely no time for nonsense. Three years ago, she told her childhood sweetheart that he could talk to her once he planned to be serious. He disappeared that very night.
Except now he’s back. Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, has returned to the tiny village he once visited with the hope of wooing Chloe. In his defense, it took him years of attempting to be serious to realize that the endeavor was incompatible with his personality.
All he has to do is convince Chloe to make room for a mischievous trickster in her life, then disclose that in all the years they’ve known each other, he’s failed to mention his real name, his title… and the minor fact that he owns her entire village.
Only one thing can go wrong: Everything.
“One of the best things to come out of the hellscape that is 2020. By turns consciously tender and fiercely witty, this is an unalloyed charmer.”
—The New York Times
“The Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan is not to be missed... The story is one lovely surrender. The world building is also wonderfully done — may there be more towns like Wedgeford in historical romance. And may there be more heroines who cross everything off their lists, including finding love and living happily ever after.”
“Milan’s specialty is writing complex, layered stories that blend family, food and history, featuring lovely, nuanced characters. This historical romance is a warm friends-to-lovers comfort read you’ll savor repeatedly.”
I have had the basic idea for this book since around 2013 or 2014, when I watched a documentary called “Wild in the Streets” about Ashbourne, a small town in Derbyshire that has a yearly tradition: Every Shrovetide, they play a game that is now called “Royal Shrovetide Football.” Ashbourne’s Shrovetide Football is not much like any of the things that get called football today, and it’s been played in the town since at least the 17th century. It became so popular that in 1928, Prince Philip came to play (and got a bloody nose for his trouble). Which is why it’s now called Royal Shrovetide Football.
The idea of a small town that is—for the space of a few days—very large due to an influx of visitors stuck with me. I eventually changed the nature of the game, the location of the town, the timing of the game, and... well, a million other things to make the Wedgeford Trials a unique event.
But this book’s code name is “Shrovetide.”
Wedgeford Down, Kent
Chloe Fong retrieved her board clip from beneath her arm on a fateful spring dawn, not realizing that calamity was about to befall her carefully ordered list.
The morning air was still cold enough to sink into her lungs. The low golden glow of the sun, tipping over the horizon, threatened to burn the fog away. But in this luminous hour when day broke, with the earth poised between gray and color, the mists still danced like happy ghosts across the meadow.
It was early enough that her list of tasks was new; she put on her spectacles and examined it. Her board clip was her most prized possession: a thin metal, light enough to be carried everywhere and yet stiff enough to be used as a makeshift writing desk. It had been a gift from her father, handed over gruffly after he returned from business one day. A newfangled clip, a metal holder that snapped into place by means of a spring mechanism, trapped sheets of paper against the writing surface, with room for a pencil as well. It was the perfect invention, if one made a daily list and consulted it regularly.
Chloe, of course, did.
Her tongue pressed between her lips as she examined the list, item by item, looking for—there. Fetch the sauces for tasting. The basket with the sauce bottles dangled precariously from two fingers beneath her board. Done. One completed…thirty-four remaining.
Was there anything in life more pleasurable than the sensation of striking a dark line through an item on one’s list with a pencil? Yes. There was the visceral sensation of taking out one’s pencil and striking a dark line through the last item on one’s daily list. Finishing a list had an almost talismanic quality, as if the act of turning intentions into words, then words into deeds, carried a subtle magic.
Completing today’s list, however… She’d need more than magic to get through it all. Chloe had the tasting with Naomi, the visit to the butcher and then Mr. Tanner to oversee the use of his ovens for her pork shoulder. There was the naming of Unnamed Sauce (and how many times that had appeared on her list, Chloe could not guess), the making of labels, the pasting of labels…
It was a good thing Chloe was busy this time of year. She needed a distraction.
In a few days, the village would be overrun with visitors to Wedgeford’s annual festival. And when it came to visitors…
Every year for nine years, he had come. Every year for the two years after that, he had not.
That first year he had not come to the Trials, she had waited eagerly—anxiously, even. She’d put him on her list, and the item had remained stubbornly undone, unable to be completed in his absence. Rationality had set in after that first disappointment. Think about him only once today had been on her list for months before she accomplished it even once, and she found herself consistently, illogically, backsliding.
At this point, he’d skipped two years of Trials; this would make year three. He wasn’t coming back.
It was time to remove him from her life the way he had removed himself: completely. He had no right to her list. His absence had no right to her list. And if maybe, now, with the Trials on top of them, a hint of nostalgia reared its head? She would stomp it into the ground. She was far too busy to waste time on moldering melancholy.
Chloe squared her shoulders and put her pencil behind the clip. The sun was now halfway over the horizon, oranges and pinks and golds tinting the sky with a riot of color. The valley was ringed by blue rolling hills; little golden buttercups had popped up all around the meadow.
Sometimes people thought she was cold, with her spectacles and her lists and her plans and her board clip and her hair always in a strict bun. Miss Fong, she had been told too many times, you’re intimidating.
Everyone thought she was cold until they needed her to be efficient. Today, Chloe needed to be colder and more efficient than she had ever been. She shut her eyes, inhaled cool air, and—
“Chloe,” someone said, interrupting her preparations.
She jumped, startled, and whirled about.
It turned out that jumping and whirling, when one was barely holding on to a basket full of little glass-stoppered bottles, was a bad idea. She accidentally let go of both the basket and her board clip; three of the little sauce bottles fell. One broke, splattering glass and reddish-brown liquid on her list.
Her list. It felt ominous.
Chloe looked up in agony, and then—when she saw who had spoken—shut her eyes in redoubled agony. She had seen him for scarcely half a second, but she hadn’t needed even that to identify the shape of him leaning against the wall of the barn. He looked the way laughter sounded; he was tapping his lips with one finger and smiling down at her with unholy glee. He had always looked like he was laughing at her.
He was here. Why in God’s name was he here?
“You.” She reached almost without thought to touch the bracelet on her wrist. “You.” She took in a deep breath.
She’d been small in comparison with him ever since he’d shot up in height when he was fourteen. But being small had never stopped people from calling her intimidating, so she straightened as high as she could manage and glared at him.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
He just smiled more broadly. “Miss Fong. What shocking informality after our three years apart. I appreciate it.”
He was tall and dark and handsome. The perfect storybook hero, if storybook heroes had ever been half-Chinese. She could see the similarities she shared with him in the planes of his face, the width of his nose, the fold of his eyelids. And he was giving her that infernal smile that had haunted her lists for far too long.
He wasn’t like the heroes in any of the English storybooks Chloe had read as a child, but he hadn’t matched the stories her Ba told her, either. There had been a time, back when he’d focused on her so intently, seeking her out year after year, when she’d thought he was a story written just for her.
Stupidity, that. He’d been written only for himself. He had nothing to do with her.
She glared at him. “Answer the question or go away.” As always, she regretted the words the instant they came out of her mouth. Why had she given him a choice, when she only wanted him to leave? She changed tactics. She was going to have to be horribly inhospitable. “What are you doing here?”
There was a lazy humor to the slouch of him. She gritted her teeth as he turned to her.
“We haven’t seen each other in three years, but I agree with your assessment—it feels as if no time has passed at all. Of course I grant you permission to call me by just my surname. ‘Mr. Yu’ sounds all too stuffy between childhood friends, does it not? But ‘Jeremy’ would do just as well, if not better. You used to call me that.”
“You.” Chloe took a deep breath. “I was addressing you by a common, indeed, a generic pronoun. Not your surname.”
Yu wasn’t even his real surname; she knew that. It was just the one he’d given. Nothing about him was real. Not that easy familiarity nor his laughing eyes. He was a specter, the sort that cropped up every year until finally, it didn’t. He was the kind of man who made her want to light firecrackers.
Alas. Whatever demons might be expelled by the cracking sound of gunpowder, Jeremy Yu was not one of them.
“Well, then,” Jeremy said, “let’s try a more specific name, then. Jeremy.” He leaned toward her again, his eyes sparkling. “You can say that, yes? It’s my name. You’ve used it before.”
“I’m busy.” She glanced down at the mess at her feet—the broken bottle and her board clip. “I—” She stopped. There was still glass and brown sauce all over her list, blotting out her daily tasks. “Fiddlesticks!”
He glanced down, his eyes falling on the debris. “Oh, no. Chloe, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d startle like that.” His mouth twitched. “Or that you’d be carrying glass, for that matter.”
“Not that you’d know what I’m doing now—” Chloe started to say, but before she could properly upbraid him, he knelt in front of her, pulling out a handkerchief, picking up the broken shards of glass.
The sight of him on his knees before her… It brought to mind wicked things, things she’d only allowed herself to imagine years before. Even then, she’d known it was foolish.
She’d always known that what they had was flirtation, nothing but flirtation. She’d liked him anyway, knowing the whole time that holding him in any degree of affection was a bad idea. She’d liked his jokes. She’d liked the way he teased her—relentless and yet gentle the entire time. She’d liked him so much, and knowing that she was being a fool hadn’t helped her stop.
She had always known that one day, he would go away and never come back. She had accepted that. But here he was, against all expectations: back and looking at her the way he always had, as if she were the center of his considerable attention.
“Oh, give that to me,” she said crossly.
She leaned down, reaching out a hand and snatching her board clip from his grip before straightening. The paper was definitely stained; three items weren’t even visible, and half the right side of her list had been spattered with sauce. She could smell it now, salt and sweet and sour and savory all at once, the taste of her childhood in liquid form.
“There’s nothing you can do. It’s ruined.” She had to get him to go away. She had feelings, and they were going to come out, and she didn’t want him to see them. “Stop pretending to be considerate; I know you too well for that. Just pretend I don’t exist. You did it for years; you ought to be good at it by now.”
“I beg your pardon.” He was still squatting on the ground, looking up at her with a faint smile. “I will accept all of that except the last. I have never had any particular talent at ignoring you, and I definitely did not develop it.”
She glared at him straight-on. It was the first time she’d allowed herself to look at him in more than glances since he arrived, and it was a mistake. He rose to stand as she watched, and she felt her throat contract involuntarily.
He had always been handsome, but his effortless good looks used to have a boyish quality to them, enough that she’d always been able to remind herself that he was two years her junior.
He had grown up. His shoulders were just a little broader; his jaw just a little more square. His expression seemed so sincere, but like everything about him, his looks were always deceiving. He was dressed in a dark navy suit that highlighted the brightness of his smile, paired with a shirt that seemed impossibly snow-white. There was more than a hint of muscle in the thickness of his thighs…and her perusal of his person had officially become ridiculous. She was not thinking about his damnable thighs. She was not supposed to be thinking of any part of him at all.
She turned to look at her spoiled list, face burning.
“I’m truly sorry,” he said, “for the untimely demise of your list. But there is one small bright side.”
Her entire plan for the afternoon had been blotted out by the spill. “There isn’t. Not one. You have no idea how deathly busy I am today.”
“No, there is this,” he told her with a lazy smile. “When you rewrite it, you can put me on it.”
* * *
It had been three years since Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, had last come to Wedgeford, and in that time he’d thought about Chloe Fong and her lists. He’d thought about her a lot.
He’d imagined telling her to put him on her list about four hundred times, and had constructed a dozen separate responses from her, ranging from welcoming (not likely) (incredibly not likely) to downright devastating. Now he was here and she was glaring at him.
It had been a long time, and yet he recognized her plain gown of ecru muslin from a prior visit. He’d thought about her in this gown—or, to be honest, out of it—often enough, thought about untying the big brown bow of her sash or undoing the buttons down her front.
She looked at him with angry, sparking eyes through her spectacles. He had thought his memory of her was crystal clear, but faced with her in the flesh, he could see every point where his recollection had failed. He had forgotten about the silk tassel earrings she wore. Today, little golden fringes dangled from her lobes halfway to her shoulders. He had forgotten about the dimple in her left cheek, the precise black of her hair—so much richer in the first rays of sunlight than his memory could reconstruct—the brown beauty spot three-quarters of the way down her neck. God, how had he forgotten that spot? It had once figured so heavily in his imagination.
He’d missed her. He’d missed everything about her.
She straightened her spine and glared up at him. “You are not going on my list. It is my list; I get to make it.”
Ah, that was good. Just a little minor repudiation. There was hope. He couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face.
“I genuflect to the sovereignty of your list, of course,” Jeremy said. “Your list is sacred.”
She turned away from him in one sharp movement and strode back to her house.
Chloe had fascinated him from the moment he’d met her. She was a bit more than two years his elder and had sported such a continual air of perfect competence that he’d wondered how it was possible for her to exist.
If he had any talent for plain speech, he might have confessed the depths of his feelings by now and obtained her understanding in return. Unfortunately, Jeremy had none. He’d told her how he felt, but somehow, whenever he looked at her, his thoughts never came out as something sober and intellectual like I respect the things that matter to you. No. Instead, everything he felt got tied up and turned around into I genuflect to the sovereignty of your list.
His words were honestly meant, yes, but the delivery was far less believable. He wished he had a plan for his stupid mouth, but plans were her talent. His? Not so much. For now, he followed behind her.
After three steps, she turned back to him, waving a hand in the air. “It’s like you’ve forgotten everything I have ever said to you. Have you made any progress at all? Or are you still—you?”
It was as if she’d heard his thoughts. “No progress at all,” he admitted. “I regret to inform you that I will always be me.”
She exhaled loudly. “Have you considered a steady course of continual self-improvement?”
“Tried it.” He shrugged. “It went about as you’d expect. Don’t worry; there’s no need to remind me of the charges you laid on me. My memory is, like the rest of me, extraordinary.”
She glared at him. “I told you to be serious. And yet here you are.”
It had been a moonlit night three years ago, after the Trials had ended. They had both spent the day unsuccessfully attempting to keep another team from crossing a bridge, and then unsuccessfully trying to foil the subsequent victory. Jeremy and Chloe had both been exhausted and frustrated in their team’s defeat. Perhaps it had been a mistake, what happened in that particular moment.
He’d convinced her to go on a walk with him and she’d agreed, which had made him feel optimistic. He’d been twenty—he had thought himself so very mature—and young and full of humor; she had walked beside him, letting him twine his hand with hers. He’d gathered up all his courage. He’d made sure they were hidden from prying eyes, and he’d stopped and leaned in, because he’d known her for almost a decade and he’d adored her for approximately the same length of time.
Perhaps it had been a mistake, but the moonlight had lit the light brown of her skin with silver, and nobody had ever accused Jeremy of engaging in lengthy deliberations prior to action. He had tried to kiss her.
She’d set a hand on his chest and said exactly this: “Jeremy, don’t do this unless you can be serious.”
Be serious. He had known precisely what she meant. It hadn’t been a plea for him to stop joking for good; such a thing would have been impossible, and besides, she liked his jokes. She had wanted him to be serious about her. About them. For three minutes, not all of eternity.
If Jeremy had been a farmer in Wedgeford, on the strength of such encouragement, he would have bought a ring and proposed the next day.
But Jeremy was not a farmer. At the time, it had seemed like a fair price to pay for a prize like Chloe—figuring out how to fit her in his life without destroying what he loved best about her. Too bad he’d never succeeded.
Jeremy had never been one for plans; he just seized the moments that he found. So he did what he did best: He smiled at her. “That is precisely what you told me. I remember it well. It turns out, that is your list for me, and we have already established that we don’t usually get to make each other’s lists.”
She rolled her eyes and started to turn away. “I wish I could. If I could make your list, I would—”
“I said usually for a reason.” He spread his arms wide, grinning at her. “Congratulations! Here I am to grant your wish!”
The look she gave him would have proven fatal at a slightly lesser distance than the three paces between them.
“Miss Fong,” Jeremy said, thinking as swiftly as he could, “as you know, I am a gentleman of some small amount of property.”
“Yes,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “You’re very wealthy. We all know that; it’s why everyone calls you ‘Posh Jim’ around here.” Her nose wrinkled. “Congratulations. All your riches must be very nice for you.”
Jeremy tried not to grimace. He had actually never said that he was very wealthy. He had tried to avoid the topic altogether. But very wealthy was a horrific understatement, and the misunderstanding on the topic was entirely Jeremy’s fault.
Not that he had ever precisely lied; he had just misled. A little. The first year, he had come to the village unaccompanied at the age of twelve. At the time, it had not seemed prudent to announce to a group of complete strangers that the child who had appeared with no guardian in sight was in fact the very wealthy Duke of Lansing. He’d read books, after all. That was how wealthy dukes who were also children got abducted and held for ransom.
So he had introduced himself as Jeremy Yu. It was not exactly a lie. Yu had been his mother’s name, after all, and it was one of his six names…just not his father’s family name. Selectively editing out all his other names? A slip of the tongue. Neglecting to mention his title? It wasn’t a lie; he left off all his titles but the one during most of his introductions, anyway. Deleting that one was just…being selective in his speech. Or something.
The or something had grown. The second year he’d visited, he had been having too much fun to ruin it by forcing everyone to become stuffy and bow to him and call him “Your Grace.” It had been impossible to hide the fact that he had means. His clothing, his accent, his manners, his ability to patronize businesses in Wedgeford… these were all too indicative of his class. But it was easy enough to misdirect. Nobody saw a half-Chinese boy of thirteen and thought, “By George, that child must be a duke.”
By the time the ninth year had rolled around, the information he was withholding had become an increasingly awkward weight. He had friends who knew nothing about him. He was in love with a woman who had no idea who he actually was.
She had told him to be serious; he had realized he was in love with her and wanted to marry her. Then he had recollected that he was the Duke of Lansing, and she had absolutely no idea. Finally, he’d remembered that his mother had so hated her life as duchess that she had fled the country with Jeremy in tow the week his father had been put in his grave.
Was that what he was going to offer Chloe? A life she hated? How could he be serious about her under those circumstances?
“I am twenty-three,” he told the woman he was in love with. “Do you know what gentlemen of my age and means are expected to do around the age of twenty-three?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Get in drunken brawls?”
“No, that’s nineteen. At twenty-three, I’m expected to start thinking of marriage. My aunt will not stop bothering me.”
In point of fact, Jeremy was going to have to figure out what, precisely, he would tell his Aunt Grace. His aunt always wanted the best for him…but her conception of what was best for her half-Chinese nephew lacked both imagination and experience.
“She insists that I will have to do almost no work in the matter; she’ll find me a few good girls—her words, not mine—and all I must do is give her a list of my criteria.”
Chloe audibly scoffed at this. “My felicitations on your pending nuptials. How lovely for you. You get to pick among the ladies as if you were shopping for apples.”
Jeremy had never actually shopped for apples; he was nonetheless fairly certain that the analogy was inapt on several points, the most prominent being that he had his eye on only one apple, and it was her. “As I said. I have some means available to me.”
Chloe’s eyes narrowed. “You see? This is how you always worm your way in. You’re setting up an interesting story, not telling me all the relevant information, and tricking me so that I end up listening to you when I have no intention of doing so. None of this has anything to do with me, and I am excessively busy. So, if you don’t mind, I will—”
“It has four things to do with you.”
“It has zero things to do with me.”
“Three, as a compromise.” Jeremy beamed at her.
She let out a pained breath. “You may recite two. But only two, and then we are finished. Utterly finished.”
“Thank you,” Jeremy said solemnly. “Here is what it has to do with you: I am bad at making lists, and you are exceptionally good at them.”
She tilted her head. “True. I do not, however, see the relevance. We are done. Farewell forever.”
“Absolutely not.” Chloe shook her head. “That was already two things: your ineptitude at list-making and my competence. You don’t get a third. We agreed.”
“That was a single thing: Our relative capacity at list making.”
She let out a huff. “You are such a cheat. You have not changed one iota.”
“I do like winning,” Jeremy said. “It is, as you have noted, an ongoing talent of mine. Stop interrupting. Second, if you were to ask me what qualities I wanted on my list for an ideal spouse—if I wanted a list that best reflected my desires—that list would be a list of your qualities.”
As soon as he said it, he realized that it was brilliant. Jeremy had two problems, as he saw it. First, there was the as-yet-unsolved problem of being a duke—he’d figure that one out somehow. Maybe. But second, and more immediately relevant, there was the problem of Chloe herself.
If he had said, Chloe, I want to marry you, she would have thought it a joke and thrown her board at his head—well, maybe not her board, not with her list attached to it—but she’d have found something else. Something like... He glanced at the bottles in her basket. Yes. Rather more like that. Those would shatter.
As it was, she froze in place. She glanced at him through downcast eyelashes. Her voice came out low. “My…qualities?”
The problem had never been how serious Jeremy was about her; it had been how serious she thought he was. She had to convince herself first. How better to have her do that, than to make a list? He wasn’t precisely sure how that would work itself out, but Chloe had always been better at details.
“Yes,” he said. “Your qualities. If I have to marry someone, it needs to be someone like you.”
She swallowed. “Like me?”
Yes, Jeremy thought. Someone exactly like you, in exactly every way. No other woman would do. He nodded.
She inhaled and turned away. When she spoke, her voice was very small. “I don’t think you could pay me to make that list.”
He hadn’t considered that, but actually, now that she mentioned it, it seemed like a good idea.
“On the contrary.” Jeremy grinned at her. “I could pay you to do it. Do you wish me to do so?”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t do it for two pounds.”
She looked so earnest, saying two pounds as if it were an immense and insurmountable sum. Of course she had never thought him serious. The difference in scale between them was massive. For her, two pounds was a vast sum—the amount her father might make after working for a few weeks as a chef for hire, and that much, only because of his exceptional skill. For Jeremy, two pounds was basically nothing.
“Not for two. What about three?”
She shook her head again, but this shake came more slowly. He should feel badly at bribing her into convincing herself that he was in love with her, but then, he’d already spent years trying to figure out how to convince her any other way, and the bribery had mostly been her idea, anyway.
“Four?” he offered.
“Not even for five.” She truly didn’t sound convinced. She was as bad at misdirection as Jeremy was good at it.
For a moment, he thought about offering her a truly remarkable sum—something that would mean something even to him. Six thousand, perhaps. But she’d just roll her eyes and tell him to be serious. The amount would be outside her comprehension.
“Not for—” She bit her lip, perhaps realizing how many pounds seven was. She swallowed and looked down. “Well, maybe for seven.” She glared at him. “But you don’t really mean to give me seven entire pounds just to make one fiddly list. That would be obscene.”
He’d been right to keep the numbers low. “If it’s a maybe for seven,” he said, “it’s a yes for ten, isn’t it?”
Her lips trembled a moment.
“I will swear a solemn oath on my father’s grave. I’ll give you ten pounds, and I’ll throw in an entire box of the thickest, creamiest, most perfect list-making paper that you have ever seen.”
She shut her eyes. “You’re not fair. You’re never fair.”
It was only right that he warn her. “I didn’t come here to play fair.”
“What did you come here for?”
There was a simple answer to that. A terrible answer, he knew, but simple. I came here to convince you to marry me. Then to tell you who I am. And finally to convince you that you should still marry me anyway, after you realize what a bad bargain I would be.
In the end, he misled her with the truth. “I came here because I intend to get married.”
Still she hesitated. She looked away, her shoulders rising and falling with every breath. “You’ll pay me ten pounds? You’ll sign a contract to that effect?”
“Of course,” he said. “Make that the first item on our list: Whoever it is I marry must insist I sign contracts. I like that in a woman.”
She looked up to the heavens, as if searching the light clouds overhead for patience. “I’m not sure ten pounds is enough. I’m not sure any amount would suffice, but…” She swallowed. “But very well. It’s agreed. I’ll take your ten pounds in exchange for a list.”