I loved this book. I didn’t think I was going to like it, because the prologue is a grim war scene, but this is merely a brief backdrop to the main story. Yes, it’s important, but the author never dwells on the details, and so it becomes, as it should, the underlying thread of explanation for many of the characters, and not the central focus.
Here’s the premise: Major Matthew Southam returns from India after unexpectedly inheriting a title and a small estate. His surviving family, his stepmother and half-brother and half-sister, rather wish he had died in India, and have been quietly helping themselves to his fortune for years. Meanwhile, the inherited estate is neglected and empty of servants and furniture. Matthew is too traumatised by his war experiences to do more than drink, and then drink some more.
Meanwhile, Mrs Charlotte MacKinnon, a widow with a young son living in the nearest village to the estate, is hard-pressed to make ends meet. She writes cute children’s stories and a nature column for a London publisher, helps local businessmen manage their finances and generally uses her education and brains to earn what coins she can. She shares her home with another soldier’s widow, also called MacKinnon, so the two are rather charmingly known to the locals as Mrs Captain and Mrs Sergeant.
And if that were all, this would be a standard Regency romance between a strong man damaged by war, brought back to reality and happiness by the love of a good, if impoverished, woman. But this is not quite that story, and part of the reason is, perhaps, the most fascinating character I’ve come across for some time, Sergeant Webb, who’s returned from India with Matthew and attached himself to him. Matthew is so wrapped up in his own misery that he more or less hands over responsibility for getting things straight to Webb. He hasn’t a clue about fixing up houses, but he’s a man who’s happy to go out and find people with more knowledge than him, which includes Charlotte. And so she and Matthew are thrown together, and gradually, very, very gradually, aided by Charlotte’s young son, Charlotte’s common sense, Webb’s organisational abilities and the house itself, the two reach an accord.
There’s some drama in the later stages caused by their pesky relatives, but at bottom this is a beautiful slow-build romance, with the underlying theme that even grievous war injuries needn’t define the rest of your life. I loved the main characters, I loved their first kiss and I loved seeing the house gradually brought back to a healthy and functioning state alongside Matthew’s own recovery. I never would have thought that details about furniture and linens and paintwork would be so interesting, but they were. And if Sergeant Webb became implausibly clever at organising everyone, he was so much fun that I quite forgave him. The humour isn’t the conventional Regency romp style, but the sort that jumps up and slaps you on the head when you least expect it, and lightens a book that might otherwise be quite dark at times.
A great read, and highly recommended for anyone looking for something a little more meaty than the average frothy Regency. Five stars.