Courtney Milan's Carhart series is now available in one boxed set. This set contains two full-length books and a novella.
This Wicked Gift: Lavinia Spencer is too poor to be anything but practical. But when her younger brother lands himself in trouble, she has no choice but to do the unthinkable. She accepts the help of the dishonorable man that she's always wanted, even knowing that it might mean her ruination...
Proof by Seduction: When Gareth Carhart discovers that his vulnerable young cousin is seeing a fortune teller, he vows to prove her a fraud. But he soon discovers that Jenny Keeble is far more than she appears to be, and before he knows it, he's caught in her spell…
Trial by Desire: Lady Kate Carhart has no use for the husband who left her years ago. But when he returns, disrupting her carefully-laid plans, she has no choice but to distract him…any way she can.
This is an enhanced ebook. In addition to the text of the book itself, it contains pictures, audio, and author commentary. You can read this enhanced ebook on any device, but the audio content may not be accessible on all ereaders. That content has been made available on the web, so you won't miss anything if your device doesn't support audio.
About the Author
Courtney Milan is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical romance. Her books have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist.
Courtney lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, a medium-sized dog, and an attack cat. Before she started writing historical romance, she experimented with various occupations: computer programming, dog-training, scientificating.... But her favorite job is the one she's now doing full time--writing romance.
If you want to know when Courtney's next book will come out, please visit her website at http://www.courtneymilan.com, where you can sign up to receive an email when she has her next release.
Read an Excerpt
The Carhart Series
By Courtney Milan
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2014 Courtney Milan and Rawles Lumumba
All rights reserved.
It was four days until Christmas and four minutes until the family lending library closed for the evening. Lavinia Spencer sat, the daily ledger opened on the desk in front of her, and waited for the moment when the day would end and she could officially remove her five pennies from the take. Every day since summer, she'd set aside a coin or five from her family's earnings. She'd saved the largesse in a cloth bag in the desk drawer, where nobody would find it and be tempted to spend it. Over the weeks, her bag had begun to burgeon. Now, she had almost two pounds.
Two pounds in small, cold coins to the rest of the world. For Lavinia, the money meant pies. Spices, sugar and wine to mull them with. And, once she scoured the markets, perhaps a goose — a small goose — roasted alongside their usual turnips. Her two pounds meant a Christmas celebration that would make Papa sit up and smile. Six months of planning — but the effort had been worth it, because Lavinia was going to deliver a holiday meal just like the ones her mother had prepared.
The business they'd conducted today had been frenetic. Lavinia finished adding columns in the daybook and nodded to herself. Today's take — according to her records — had been very fine indeed. If she hadn't miscalculated, today she'd let herself take six pennies from the till — half a shilling that made her that much more certain of goose, as opposed to mere stewing fowl. Lavinia took a deep breath. Layered atop the musk of leather-bound volumes and India ink, she could almost detect the scent of roast poultry. She imagined the red of mulled wine swirling in mugs. And in her mind's eye, she saw her father sitting taller in his chair, color finally touching his cheeks.
She reached for the cash box and started counting.
The bell above the door rang — at a minute to closing. A gust of winter wind poured in. Lavinia looked up, prepared to be annoyed. But when she saw who had entered, she caught her breath.
It was him. Mr. William Q. White — and what the Q stood for, she'd not had the foresight to demand on the day when he'd purchased his subscription. But the name rolled off the tongue. William Q. White. She could never think of him as simply a monosyllabic last name. His name had rolled off her tongue, as it happened, far too many times in the last year for her own good.
He took off his hat and gloves at the threshold and shook droplets of water from the sodden gray of his coat. Mr. William Q. White was tall and his dark hair was cropped close to his skull. He did not dawdle in the doorway, letting the rain into the shop as so many other customers did. Instead, he moved quickly, purposefully, without ever appearing to rush. It was not even a second before he closed the door on the frigid winter and entered the room. Despite his alacrity, he did not track in mud.
His eyes, a rich mahogany, met hers. She bit her lip and twisted her feet around the legs of her stool. He spoke little, but what he said —
"Miss Spencer." He gestured with his hat in acknowledgment.
Unremarkable words, but her toes curled in their slippers nonetheless. He spoke in a deep baritone, his voice as rich as the finest drinking chocolate. But what really made her palms tingle was a wild, indefinable something about his accent. It wasn't the grating Cockney the delivery boys employed, nor the flat, pompous perfection of the London aristocracy. He had a pure, cultured voice — but one that was nonetheless from somewhere many miles distant. His Rs had just a hint of a roll to them; his vowels stretched and elongated into elegant diphthongs. Every time he said "Miss Spencer," the exotic cadence of his speech seemed to whisper, "I have been places."
She imagined him adding, "Would you like to come with me?"
Yes. Yes, she would. Lavinia rather fancied a man with long ... vowels.
And oh, she knew she was being foolish and giddy about Mr. William Q. White. But if a girl couldn't be foolish and giddy about a man when she was nineteen, when could she be foolish? It was hard to be serious all the time, especially when there was so much to be serious about.
And so she took a risk. "Merry Christmas, Mr. White."
He was examining the shelves. At her words, he turned toward her. His eyes slid from her waist up to her face, and Lavinia ducked her head and stared at the stack of pennies in front of her to hide her blush.
He didn't need to speak to make her giddy, not when he looked at her with that breathtaking intensity. For one scalding moment, she thought he was going to address her. He might even step toward her. Her hands curled around the edge of the desk in anticipation. But instead, he shook his head and turned back to the shelves.
A pity. Not today, then. Maybe not any day. And with Mr. William Q. White ignoring her again, it was time for Lavinia to set her fancies to one side and give herself over to seriousness. She counted the coins from the cash box and piled them into stacks of twelve, making sure to exactly align the pennies atop each other before starting a new pile.
Lavinia prided herself on her ability to get the take exactly right. Her longest stretch of perfection was thirty-seven days in a row, spanning the entirety of October. That run had been ruined by a penny's difference on November 4. She had no intention of letting October's record stand, however. It had been twenty-two days since her last error. Today would be number twenty-three.
She'd counted and double-counted every transaction. If she was so much as a ha'penny short, she'd eat Mr. William Q. White's extremely wet hat. Her hands flew as she placed dirty coins into careful piles. Four, six, eight, and with the loose coins, that made seven shillings, and four and one-halfpence. Less than she'd imagined. She bit her lip in suspicion and glanced at the tally in the ledger.
Trepidation settled in an indigestible mass in Lavinia's belly. There, written in black and white in the daily ledger, was the final sum. Ten shillings, four and one-half pence.
She wasn't half a penny short. She was missing three full shillings.
Lavinia recounted the coins, but there was no error. Of course not; Lavinia did not make errors in accounting. Nobody would take her to task for the missing coins. Her father was too ill to examine the books, and her brother would never question Lavinia's jurisdiction over the shop.
Still, she did not like to question herself. How had she made such a stupendous error? She felt a touch of vertigo, as if the room were spinning in circles around the ledger.
She knew what she had to do. It hurt — oh, how it stung. Those three shillings could be the difference between a small goose and no goose at all. But with her father's creditors clamoring, and the cost of his medicines growing almost monthly, the family could not spare more than a handful of pennies' loss each day. Lavinia slid open the drawer to make up the difference from her precious Christmas hoard.
She always placed the bag in the same spot — precisely halfway back and flush against the left side. But her fingers met no velvet mass lumpy with coin. She groped wildly and found nothing but the smooth wood of the drawer from corner to corner. Lavinia held her breath and peered inside. There was nothing in the drawer but a cracked inkwell, and that — she checked — contained nothing but bluish smears.
"Hell." It was the worst curse word she could imagine. She whispered it; it was either that, or shriek.
She wasn't missing a few shillings. She was missing the full two pounds. All of Christmas had just disappeared — everything from the decorative holly down through her carefully planned menu.
"Vinny?" The words were a tremulous query behind her.
With those words, the rising tide of Lavinia's panic broke against an absolute certainty. She knew where her precious two pounds had gone.
Lavinia placed her hands on her hips. She forced herself to turn around slowly, rather than whirling as she wished. Her brother, still wrapped for the blustery weather outside, smiled weakly, holding out his hands in supplication. Water dripped from his coat and puddled on the floor.
James was four years younger than her, but Mama had always said to subtract ten years from a man's age when calculating his sense. James had never seen fit to prove Mama's formula wrong.
"Oh." He peered beyond her to the coins, stacked in grim military ranks along the edge of the counter and the ransacked drawer. His lip quirked. "I see you've, um, already tallied the cash."
"James Allen Spencer." Lavinia reached out and grabbed his ear.
He winced, but didn't dodge or protest — a sure sign of guilt.
"What," she demanded, "have you done with my two pounds?"
It was warm inside the lending library, but William White still felt cold inside. His hand clenched around the solitary bank note in his pocket. The paper crumpled in his fist, cutting into his palm. It had been ten years since anyone had wished him a merry Christmas. Fitting, that it would happen on this day — and that Lavinia Spencer would be the one to do so.
Christmas was a luxury for the wealthy — or, perhaps, an illusion for the young and innocent. William had not been any of those since the winter evening a decade ago when he'd been cut off from the comfortable life he'd been living.
He stared past the books shelved in front of him, their titles blurring with the smooth leather of their bindings. The scene clouded into an indistinct, foggy mass.
Tonight, a solicitor had finally tracked him down. William had been leaving his master's counting house, having just finished another pitiful day of pitiful work, performed for the pitiful salary of four pounds ten a quarter. As soon as he'd set foot outside, he'd been set upon by an unctuous man.
For one second, when the lawyer had introduced himself, a flush of uncharacteristic optimism had swept through William. Mr. Sherrod had seen fit to remember the promise he'd made. William could come home. He could forget the menial work he did as a clerk. He could abandon the grim day-to-day existence of labor followed by sleep and bone-chilling want.
But no. It turned out Adam Sherrod was not generous. He was dead.
He'd remembered William in his will — to the tune of ten pounds. Ten pounds, when he'd been responsible for the loss of William's comfort, his childhood and, ultimately, William's father. Ten pounds, when he had promised most sincerely to take care of William, should it be necessary. It had become necessary ten Christmases ago, and Mr. Sherrod had not lifted a finger to help.
William had no real claim on Mr. Sherrod's money. He had, in fact, nothing but the memory of a promise that the man had kicked to one side. But still, he'd remembered.
Thus dissipated one of the elaborate dreams he'd fashioned to motivate himself on the hardest days. He would never return to Leicester. He would never be able to rise above his father's errors; hell, he would never even rise above his fellow clerks. This evening, he'd been damned to live in the hell of poverty for the rest of his life. There would be no salvation.
That last legacy should have been no surprise. After all, it was only in fairy tales that Dick Whittington came to London as an impoverished lad and ended up Lord Mayor. In reality, a man counted himself lucky to earn eighteen pounds a year.
So yes, Christmas was for the young. It was for blue-eyed angels like Miss Lavinia Spencer, who would never be confronted with the true ugliness of life. It was for women who wished customers a merry Christmas without imagining the holiday could be anything other than happy. Christmas was not for men who'd had one of two fantasies shattered in one evening.
It was the second fantasy that had drawn William here.
Miss Spencer was slim and vivacious. She couldn't help but move her hands when she talked. She smiled far too much. She blushed far too easily. And her hair was forever falling out of its pins into unruly cinnamon waves that clung to her neck. She was one of those souls who remembered countless trivialities — names of customers, names of cats, the health of everyone's spouse.
If he'd received even a fraction of those ten thousand pounds, as promised ... Well, that was a subject for many a cold and lonely night indeed. Because he'd have found a way to get her into his bed, over and over.
William paused, his hand on the spine of a book, and attempted to banish the image that heated thought conjured. Miss Lavinia Spencer, undoing the ties that fastened her cloak. The wool would fall to the floor in a swirl, and those cinnamon waves of hair would slip from their pins. He couldn't think of that. Not now. Not here. It was not, however, his strength of mind that sent the vision away. It was the sound of speech.
"Vinny, you have to understand." The recalcitrant whine of her brother was barely audible from where William stood, obscured by the shelves.
Over the past year, the elder Mr. Spencer had come into the shop less frequently. William had noted with some disapproval that it was Miss Spencer who'd taken his place downstairs. She'd greeted customers and accepted deliveries. Her brother, James, had been conspicuously absent from useful employment.
"It was just a temporary loan. He needed the money to pay the guards so he could get at his goods without his creditors finding out." James ended on a querulous note, as if his bald assertion yearned to become a question.
"Bribe the guards, you mean." That was Miss Spencer — incorruptible, of course. She was speaking in an almost whisper, but the shop was quiet enough that William could hear every word echoing amongst the books.
"But Mr. Cross promised me ten percent! And he even drew up a proper partnership agreement. Since you never let me help in here, I thought I could find a way to pay Papa's bills on my own. I was going to buy you a Christmas present. When's the last time you had a new dress, Vinny?"
"I'd rather have my two pounds. You are getting to the part where you took the money without asking me?"
"I thought I'd be able to slip it back in before you found out. After all, Mr. Cross's warehouse was supposed to contain three hundred bricks of tea, and several casks of indigo. Ten percent would have been a fortune."
There was a moment of disapproving silence. "I see. Since you do not seem to be weighed down by exorbitant shipping profits, I must conclude your foray into trade was unsuccessful."
A sullen scuffle of shoes followed. "After I gave him the two pounds, Cross told me we needed fifty more to pay the excise men."
William had heard of similar tricks before. It was the sort of fraudulent promise made by ruffians who preyed on the greedy and the indolent — a pledge of fabulous wealth, soon, if only the mark in question handed over a tiny amount. It started with a few shillings. Next, the trickster would require three pounds for a bribe, followed by fifty for customs. The fraud only ended when the target was bled dry.
"Well, of course I saw through him then," the younger Spencer continued. "I called him a cheat. And then he told me he'd have me up in front of a magistrate for failing to deliver on my promissory note."
"Uh." James drew the syllable out. His hesitance echoed among the books. "You recall that partnership agreement?"
"Yes ...?" She did not sound the least bit encouraging.
"It turns out that paper I signed was actually a promissory note for ten pounds."
The inarticulate cry of protest Miss Spencer made was not angelic at all. William peeked around the corner. She was seated on her stool, her head in her hands. She rocked back and forth, the seat tipping precariously. Finally she spoke through her fingers. "You didn't read it when you signed it?"
"He looked honest."
Wood scraped against the slate floor as Miss Spencer pushed her stool back and stood. William pulled his head behind the shelves before she could spot him.
"Oh, my Lord," she swore, downright unrighteous in her wrath. "A man offered you a partnership predicated upon attempted bribery, and you didn't question his integrity?"
William did not dare breathe into the silence that followed. Then James spoke again. "Vinny, if I must appear before a magistrate, could we claim —"
"Be quiet," she snapped furiously. "I'm thinking."
So was William. Frauds and cheats, if they were any good, made excessively good barristers for themselves in court. The common person could not risk a loss at law. William would not want to stand in young James's shoes before a magistrate. He gave it even odds the boy would prevail.
"No," Miss Spencer said, almost as if she'd heard William's thoughts, and decided to correct him. "We'd win, but we'd have to pay a barrister. No magistrate."
"Vinny, do we have ten pounds? Can't we make him just go away?"
"Not if we want to pay the apothecary."
Excerpted from The Carhart Series by Courtney Milan. Copyright © 2014 Courtney Milan and Rawles Lumumba. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThis Wicked Gift,
Proof by Seduction,
Trial by Desire,
The Duchess War: Excerpt,
Madame Esmerelda's Predictions for the New Year,
This Wicked Gift: Enhanced Content,
Proof by Seduction: Enhanced Content,
Trial by Desire: Enhanced Content,