Here’s the premise: Lady Arabella Astley, the sister of the Duke of Ashmore, has run away from her home, all the way to Cornwall in answer to an advertisement for a governess, calling herself Miss Weston. It’s not immediately clear why she felt the need to do this, since there’s no lead in and the first chapter opens with Arabella being interviewed, after a fashion, by the fourteen year old daughter of the house. But it doesn’t really matter, since the three children are delightfully eccentric (and very funny), and then Arabella meets their father… Philip Merivale is a blacksmith and inventor, prone to working shirtless, and devilishly handsome. The family lives in ramshackle style in a cottage, and Arabella finds herself forced to help with the household chores – even cooking! When she’s never even been in a kitchen before! It’s all very educational for a duke’s sister, and Arabella shows her independence and determination in spades when it’s her day to cook. Philip immediately works out that she’s of noble blood, but his secret takes longer to reveal itself.
Given the title, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Philip is the very unwilling heir to a dukedom. He is the Earl of Threthewick (which is a horrible name, by the way, and impossible to pronounce). I’m not sure why he’s an earl, since a duke’s heir apparent has the rank of a marquess, but let that pass. His son should have a title too (he has the rank of an earl), but let that pass, too. Anyway, Philip has fallen out with his grandfather, the duke, for understandable reasons, and likes to pretend that he’s just a humble blacksmith and the dukedom is nothing to do with him. Which just makes him daft, frankly. He’s going to be the duke one day, whether he likes it or not, and his son after him, and the fact that his son has to point that out to him shows which of the two is the most sensible.
But then, Arabella’s not exactly the most sensible person ever, either. Running away to Cornwall without even so much as a change of clothes and not thinking that her very loving brother might be frantic with worry is also pretty daft. I can admire her pluck, and her brother is definitely over-protective, but still, a little more planning wouldn’t have gone amiss. And then, when she discovers exactly who Philip is, and realises that he’s been berating her for keeping the secret of her noble origins from him, when he’s been doing exactly the same, she doesn’t storm back to the cottage and yell at him, as any normal person would do. She doesn’t tackle him about it at all, she just carries on as if nothing very much had happened. Which doesn’t make much sense to me. I was looking forward to the explosion and it just didn’t happen.
But the romance… ah, the romance! I can forgive all sorts of questionable plot deviousness for a romance like this. Arabella’s journey from oh-my-goodness-a-man-without-a-shirt to despairing love is beautifully drawn, and there were some wonderful moments along the way. Philip’s journey is a little more uneven, and I wanted to slap him upside the head sometimes for not acknowledging what he was feeling, but then a ducal heir who can convince himself that he’s nothing but a humble blacksmith is not a man of great self-knowledge or introspection. At least he got there in the end, if a little bit late and overly melodramatic.
I mentioned above that this is not a particularly convincing version of the Regency. Every author creates his or her own evocation of the era, of course, and since none of us lived through it, they’re all equally valid. But this one feels a little bit off, to me. Arabella teaches Philip how to behave amongst his peers and at formal dinners, and while this is all very funny, it’s more Victorian than Regency. The serving of each separate dish as a course (soup, fish, meat, etc) by footmen, the array of cutlery (oyster forks! When oysters were so abundant and cheap that they were exclusively a dish of the poor until late in the Victorian era; the upper classes only cooked with them), the raised pinkie when drinking tea – please, no! There are also a lot of Americanisms in the writing, so if this bothers you, Laporte is best avoided. But this is one of those cases where I was enjoying the story so much that I merely smiled at these little bumps in the smooth path of my reading.
If you’re not too bothered about these minor details, this is a fun read, with two lovely characters falling very believably in love, a fine array of entertaining minor characters and a nice glimpse at the married life of the couple from the previous book. Four stars.