Michael Redmond, now the Duke of Cortland, has been ambushed on his way to London by highway robbers, who have stolen his coach and horses. He makes his way on foot to an inn, where he bumps into a face from the past, Lilly Bridges, now the widowed Lady Beauchamp. There’s a lot of history between them, but he’s now embarked on an urgent political mission and is betrothed, to boot, so that past must stay buried – if it can.
So right from the start, it’s clear that there’s a whole heap of sexual tension between these two. We see their past history unfolding in parallel with the present day events, but we’re already aware of their tragedy – that they should have married, but because of a misunderstanding, it never happened. She married the widower of her older sister, and he never married, although he’s recently betrothed himself unemotionally to the daughter of a political ally.
I’m not normally keen on the overworked trope of the Great Misunderstanding, but the author here makes it more credible than most such scenarios. There’s one major flaw in the logic, though. Lilly married her dead sister’s husband (a baron), a union frowned on by the church, because when a man and woman marry, they become ‘one flesh’. This means that her sisters are theoretically his sisters too, so a marriage to the deceased wife’s sister becomes incestuous. In theory. In practice, this was such a pragmatic solution to the problem of a widower with children that it actually happened quite a lot. One of Jane Austen’s brothers did exactly this. And, contrary to the statements in the books, such marriages are not illegal. It’s far, far more complicated than that. Such a marriage was voidable. That meant that it was perfectly legal until someone challenged it, at which point it became void, the marriage no longer existed and any children were rendered illegitimate.
That uncertainty made it unlikely in the extreme that any responsible nobleman would contract such a marriage because of the risk that a male heir might be suddenly disinherited. On the other side of the coin, no responsible father would push his daughter into such a union, either, because of the risk that she would be left without the protection of a husband. It would be disastrous. The whole premise of the book is that Lilly’s father persuades her to marry for security, when in fact he was putting her into a very uncertain and potentially ruinous situation.
That aside, the question of whether such a marriage would be scandalous is an interesting one. Lilly’s baron husband would have been listed in Debrett’s Peerage, together with the names of both his wives, so the matter could hardly be kept secret. It wasn’t a sensible choice for a peer, but I don’t know just how much of a scandal it would cause. These are interesting questions, and I applaud the author for treading in such murky legal territory, even if she doesn’t quite get all the complexities straight.
But this is just the background to the romantic difficulties faced by our two protagonists. Michael and Lilly find themselves thrown together by circumstance, and increasingly unable to keep their hands off each other. Neither of them is the restrained Regency type so beloved of Georgette Heyer. Lust overcomes them with increasing frequency and in a range of implausible al fresco settings. The sex scenes are tastefully done, but moderately graphic, so beware if that’s not your thing. It’s fairly obvious where things are going, but how they get there is always interesting. The ending is fairly dramatic, with a huge coincidence and an over-the-top villain, but I enjoyed it nevertheless, and everybody got what they wanted in the end.
Of the characters, I liked Lilly very much. She was enchantingly natural and genuine, following her heart more than her head but never regretting what she’s done. Michael I had a bit less sympathy for. Considering the position he was in, with his marriage fast approaching, he really was very bad about keeping his breeches buttoned with Lilly. He was constantly overcome with uncontrollable lust, and then swamped with guilt afterwards. Pro tip: feeling guilty doesn’t excuse the lapse in behaviour. By contrast, compare the actions of Michael’s friend Danbury. He’s a very contented bachelor, but he happily agrees to pretend to be a suitor to Lilly to deflect attention from her relationship with Michael, and when things go pear-shaped, he gallantly prepares to marry her to get everyone out of the pickle. That is a true hero.
Now, for those who are sensitive about anachronisms, this book is riddled with them, and the Americanisms are so egregious that I can’t believe the author even tried to avoid modern usage. The one that made me shudder from horror is ‘go potty’ (in a toilet context). This isn’t a British expression even today, and certainly not in the Regency era. I found myself sufficiently swept up in the story not to mind too much, but if swathes of ‘visit with’ and ‘passed’ and ‘off of’ and ‘gotten’ would upset you, this author is best avoided.
It’s actually a pity the author didn’t let a (British) proofreader loose on the book, because if the anachronisms could have been ironed out, this would have been a fine story indeed. The romance and the heart-breaking situation the protagonists find themselves in are examined in unswerving detail, the other characters are quite properly kept in the background, and there’s plenty of angst and deep emotion to satisfy even the most discerning reader. I loved it, and only the horrible anachronisms keep it to four stars.