Here’s the premise: wealthy cit’s daughter Ellen Tatham and duke’s son Max Colnebrooke met, fell in love and married in a whirlwind romance in Egypt. But the fortunes of war meant that Max had to send his bride away to safety, and in the confused circumstances they both came to believe that the other has betrayed them. She ran away to Harrogate, pretending to be a widow to account for the birth of her son, James, while Max hurled himself into ever riskier enterprises, only returning when the unexpected death of his elder brother makes him the Duke of Rossenhall. Now he finds himself in Harrogate visiting old friends and meets up with Ellen again.
Now this is a delicious situation, because the two are thrown into any number of public meetings (what a lot of balls they had in Harrogate!), yet no one knows they are married, and there are reasons (of course there are!) why the secret can’t be revealed immediately. And there’s a big surprise for Max – he has a son and heir. So there’s a huge amount of tension between the two protagonists right from the start, both bitter about the apparent betrayal of the other, and yet still very much drawn to each other.
And this is, fundamentally, the whole plot. The two circle with stiff Regency politeness around each other, accepting that they have to live superficially as husband and wife because of their son, but trying very hard not to give way to the desire that lurks just below the surface. They don’t always manage it, so there’s the occasional passionate kiss and even a whole night of passion before they revert to that oh-so-restrained politeness. When they arrive at the ducal estate, there’s a malicious sister-in-law to contend with (widow of the older brother), and Ellen sets about making herself charming and duchess-like to servants, the steward, the tenants and the local residents.
And that is one of the problems with this book – Ellen is just a little too perfect. She’s beautiful, clever, a great manager, a wonderful mother and everyone loves her. I like a little more grit in the oyster, frankly. Max is pretty damn perfect, too, except for the whole guilt trip, which he places entirely on his wife’s shoulders. I suppose to be honest, the one problem they both have is pride – too much pride to confess what they really feel, or even to sit down and have a proper conversation. After all, there’s surely one subject they ought to be discussing openly, and that’s whether they intend to have more children. That’s what marriage is for, after all, if you’re a duke with a title and vast wealth to pass on. One heir really isn’t enough. But they never address the issue at all.
The story is a fairly simple one. There are no great mysteries or backstory revelations to unfurl, the minor characters are either out and out villains like the sister-in-law, or they’re saccharine sweet. Only Ellen’s old friend, the globe-trotting Miss Ackroyd, shows some spark of an interesting character (interesting to me, anyway; these things are deeply personal). And I have to say, I was a little unsettled to see the fresh widow jump immediately into a new romance. It seemed a little tasteless to me.
But none of these minor grumbles interfered very much with my enjoyment, and as I say, I romped through the book in no time, neglecting a lot of essential tasks to keep reading, which is always the sign of a good book. This one is deeply satisfying at the emotional level as the two main characters work through their bitterness to reach a rapport, although it took them perhaps a few chapters too many to get there. There’s some sex, but it’s tastefully done, and the writing is superb. Happily, not a single historical inaccuracy dinged my over-sensitive pedantometer. A good four stars.