Isabel Cosgrove, our heroine, had a walk-on role in the previous book, but it’s not necessary to have read that one first. This book picks up Isabel’s story in London in the midst of the shared season for her and her sister, up from Dorset for the occasion, and Isabel is suffering in comparison with the beautiful Cecilia. Our hero, Charles Galbraith, is in thrall to one of the ton’s incomparables, Julia Darling, who is a flighty piece, seeming to have lost interest in him in favour of another eligible. So Charles does what any young man would do when spurned by the woman he loves – he goes off and gets blind drunk, so drunk that he ends up in a wager with Isabel’s father, and wins her hand in marriage.
Now, there’s a lot to take on board here. Superficially it makes both Charles and Mr Cosgrove look like idiots. Charles is not only throwing away any possibility of Julia changing her mind again and coming back to him, he’s also binding himself for life to a woman he barely knows. And as for Mr Cosgrove, he looks like the world’s worst father for agreeing to such a wager in the first place (although, to be fair, he does have a better reason for his actions than mere drunken caprice). But Charles doesn’t, and the author sets herself quite a challenge here – from such an unpromising beginning, to make Charles into a sympathetic and heroic character. It’s a testament to her skill that she achieves this splendidly.
Fortunately for the reader inclined to dislike drunken Charles (ie me), sober Charles turns out to be a charming and honourable man, who immediately makes Isabel an offer in form. Which she rejects, even though she’s had the hots for him for years, because she doesn’t want a resentful husband, constantly mooning over his lost love and trying not to show it. Which is terribly decent of her. I’m not sure I could ever be quite so noble and self-sacrificing as the typical Regency heroine.
But she has a cunning plan. If she and Charles pretend to be betrothed for a while, it will make Julia jealous enough to return to Charles, and by that time Isabel’s beautiful younger sister will have achieved the expected stellar match and their father will be too pleased to be angry with Isabel. Now, there are more holes in this scheme than a sieve. I don’t know why it is, but whenever Regency characters get into a pickle, one of them is sure to say: I know, let’s pretend to be engaged! That’ll totally work! Which makes me want to bang their heads together and say: Guys, this is a terrible idea, don’t do it, OK? But they never listen.
So off they go with their fake betrothal, and of course all sorts of complications ensue, as expected. There’s a fairly dodgy subplot with a cute ingenue, who’s both naive and worldly-wise all at the same time, and the usual dastardly villain, and everything builds to a grand climax, which is good, dramatic stuff. But it’s the romance that steals the show here, and it’s my favourite sort, the slow build of two sensible and intelligent people towards their inevitable destiny. The denouement is delicious.
Niggles? Not many. Apart from a few anachronisms (a Regency hero who feels the need to ‘get out of his own head’?) and a plot that occasionally felt as if it was held together with chewing gum and string, this book was a delight. There was humour, some fun side-characters (I particularly liked gossipy plotter Mary) and a swoon-worthy hero. Isabel was a great heroine, and if her plan went a little awry, her intentions were the best, and I liked her a lot. I had some reservations about the premise and how drunken Charles would redeem himself, but the author pulled it off magnificently, so I can’t give this less than five stars. Looking forward to the next book about Isabel’s beautiful younger sister.