Here’s the premise: Clara Christopher is an itinerant poor relation, fetching up at this aunt or that cousin for a few weeks at a time before moving on, and that’s exactly how she likes it. She supposes that she’ll have to settle down eventually, either in marriage, since she’s had a few offers and isn’t yet at her last prayers, or by becoming a paid companion, preferably to someone who also likes to travel about. If she were to marry, she’d like it to be someone like Lord Allingcote, a man she met some years ago, who made her his deeply appreciative flirt for a few days before they parted. Since then, she’s heard of him visiting one or other of her distant relations, but never at the same time as her.
Now she’s helping eccentric Lady Lucker organise a winter wedding for her daughter Prissie. Lady Lucker’s eccentricity runs to pretending to have not two farthings to rub together, so all her effort is expended on getting the most expensive wedding gifts out of her relations, and ensuring that her neighbours provide all the food for the occasion. It’s an enterprise that amuses Clara, being used to managing on not very much herself, so the two get along famously, and Lady Lucker’s skinflint ways and economies form a lot of the humour of the book.
And needless to say (because there wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise), Clara’s Lord Allingcote is one of the guests, and happily he not only remembers her, he seems inclined to carry on the flirtation right where it left off. Or is he even flirting at all? Is it possible that he has remembered Clara in exactly the way she remembers him? But the fly in this ointment is Miss Nel Muldoon, a flighty piece and wealthy orphan whom Allingcote is escorting to London to offload onto a willing couple. Or so he says… but is he in fact betrothed to her? Or about to be? What is going on with him anyway?
The reader is left in just such a muddle as Clara herself, knowing that she’s Allingcote’s target to flirt with, but having no idea of his intentions. And Allingcote isn’t sure of Clara’s feelings, either. And so they circle round each other, getting into deeper and deeper water until the charming Nel forces things to a head. Why is it that every Regency of this era has to feature an elopement? Or if it isn’t that, it’s an abduction of some sort. I know it adds a bit of drama to spice up an otherwise placid tale but just a touch of plausibility wouldn’t go amiss.
Anyway, Nel’s shenanigans are just a backdrop for the banter between the two principals. There’s a lot of sparkle to it, just as there should be, but I particularly loved the ambiguity in it. There really is subtext dripping from every word, so even though the reader can see (or hope, at least) that the words mean one thing, it’s easy to see how they would be misinterpreted, leaving both parties floundering, uncertain of the other’s feelings. In some ways it’s frustrating – I just want to shake them, and tell them to speak openly for once. But this is the Regency, so subtlety is all.
Beautifully written, and enjoyable from start to finish. Five stars.