Here’s the premise: the widowed Earl of Strickland (Miles) has decided that he really must remarry, if only for the sake of his two small daughters. His sister helpfully invites a suitable widow as a house guest, and Charlotte is seemingly everything he’s looking for – beautiful, refined, ladylike and clearly happy to become a countess. But accompanying her is her younger half-sister, Hannah, who’s the exact opposite – unsophisticated, accident-prone and never happier than when studying Saxon ruins. And she certainly doesn’t want a husband, even so charming a one as the earl.
Now this chugs along very pleasantly. Hannah gets into scrape after scrape, which the rather starchy earl finds amusing rather than shocking. She gets along like a house on fire with the children, too, which he’s pleased about. And the widow, despite being exactly the sort of woman he’d thought he wanted, somehow leaves him cold. Even so, it takes him a long, long time to realise what it is he does want.
I liked both Miles and Hannah very much. He’s a bit stuffy, what with all that weight of family history on his shoulders, but he unbends beautifully with Hannah, and she’s a delight, especially when she’s gets all excited about Saxon history and architecture. They both feel very real. I wish I could say the same about the other characters. The children, especially the older one, are a bit too precocious, I was terrified every time the toddler was left with the eight-year-old twins (near the lake! Eek!) or simply ignored, and most of the other adults blur together in my mind. The side romance felt too perfunctory for words, and could have been left out altogether without in any way impinging on the story.
The biggest problem is the widowed older sister, Charlotte. She comes across as such a cold, mercenary person, who enticed her first husband, a much older man, into matrimony, and is now set on doing the same thing with Miles, even though she doesn’t particularly like him, and certainly doesn’t have any affinity for his children. She’s also pretty horrible to Hannah, which Hannah takes rather well, in fact. I would have liked to see Charlotte either get a proper comeuppance, or else get her own romance. Either would have worked.
Some niggles. No earl, now or in the Regency, would ever address his small daughter as ‘pumpkin’. I wasn’t too sure about ‘poppet’ either. He’s such a stuffy character that I couldn’t see him having pet names for them at all. There are some logistics oddities – Epping in Northamptonshire? When did it move from Essex? And I wondered greatly at the huge number of horses the earl must have had sitting around in his stables just waiting for the time when his guests would need to take out four separate vehicles.
Nevertheless, this is a delightful read, very resonant of Heyer, with a heroine trying (and frequently failing) to be demurely ladylike and a stiff-necked earl learning to unbend and laugh again. There’s no sex, just a bit of tongue-tangling kissing. Four stars.