Once Upon a Marquess

By: Courtney Milan

The Worth Saga, Book 1

Chapter One

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 clean, 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 figured out that last unfortunate bit of business with her sisters, it would be everything in truth.

“There.” Judith scooped the orange cat off the table.

Caramel had jumped up to investigate this strange and no doubt interesting collection of things to push onto the floor, and she meowed in protest at having her purpose frustrated. Judith set the sandwiches in her 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. He 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 in the front room, 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.

“Your pardon?”

“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.’” Her patience felt like an act of heroism. “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 solitary task the entire morning: Take care of the scones. How hard could it be?

She took a deep breath. “Theresa. Where are the scones?”

Theresa frowned and looked around, 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 way home from the station 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, not remotely. She was just the kind of clever that cared so little for what others thought that it was often mistaken for stupidity. 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.