Courtney Milan is the best, the very best, romance writer currently publishing, but she is not perfect and Once Upon a Marquess is a delightfully imperfect novel. Her trademark elements – eloquence, unexpected romantic moments, family politics, deciding for oneself who one will be – are here, they just don’t come together quite as successfully as they have in some of her previous efforts. The first book in her new Worth Saga, Milan is laying a lot of groundwork and she is mostly successful in establishing not only the main characters, but the necessary supporting relationships that leave the reader looking forward to the novels to come. I’d pre-order them now, if I could.
Lady Judith Worth is living in less than genteel poverty after a treasonous father and brother ruined the family name and fortune. At 26, she has held her remaining family together for eight long years through force of will and the kind of determination a general would marvel at. In her care, she has a fourteen year-old sister and a twelve year-old brother. The latter has just come home from a term at Eton, bloodied, bowed, and refusing to return. The former is somewhat spoiled and meant, I think, to come across as eccentric, but I found myself wanting either a fuller explanation for her behavior or some movement towards maturity. I assume both the reasons for her character and the growing up will be ongoing through the series.
Christian Trent, the Marquess of both Ashford and the novel’s title, comes back into Judith’s life when she requests his help. Once upon a time, they were young and in love. Once upon a time, he was asked to press the case against Judith’s brother and he did so successfully. Knowing he broke her heart – and she his – Christian wants nothing more than to do something, anything, to help the Worth family, even if it means keeping himself from Judith. He really does try, but Judith may be practical and managing quite well as head of the family, but she’s still unable to resist to the undeniable chemistry Milan has created for her leads. It handily separates itself from the “his eyes looked into her soul” fare of many genre works and, like real life couples, Judith and Christian have so much fun together and truly revel in each other’s company. Of course, their history stands in their way and Judith is determined to forge ahead on her own, but Christian is the world’s most adorable and charming tortured hero even when his quirkiness can be a bit much.
A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here. Since it’s the holiday season, I’ll specifically recommend A Kiss for Midwinter as both a classic of the genre and one of my top five (three? two?) romances of all time.