Hester Poitenvant, the Widow Poitenvant, is head of the Mayfair Academy, an institution that prepares girls to make good matches in the marriage mart. She is one of the rarest of women, one who makes her own way in the world, and prizes her independence, yet is accepted by the ladies of the ton for the services that she can provide for them and their daughters. But she has secrets that she dare not reveal.
Ten years ago, her mother insisted on Hester having a season, but as the daughter of a loose woman whose reputation preceded her, Hester received only the most lewd proposals, and not even one honorable one. Hester fled to the country, returning to London only after her motherís death. With the help of one of her motherís friends, Verna Delisle, she transformed herself into a ďwidowĒ, and began to work with Verna at the academy, eventually taking it over when Verna wanted to retire. Believing that a staid and older appearance that doesnít outshine her pupils is most effective in persuading their parents to hire her, Hester scrapes her hair back into a knot, wears spectacles she doesnít need and dark, unfashionable dresses that hide her figure. Her changed appearance has convinced the ton of her respectability, and over the last four seasons all of the girls who have attended her academy have made happy matches. She is called the Bridemaker, able to make a silk purse out of a sowís ear.
This season she is working with three girls, the most important of them Dulcie Bennett, a sweet, shy, pretty girl whose avaricious mother and spendthrift brother have demanded that she find someone titled and wealthy rather than someone she loves. But Dulcie has a crush on Adrian Hawke, the bastard son of a Scottish lord, who has made his fortune in America, and is in London for his cousin Catherineís wedding and to make some business contacts with members of society. (Her parents, Neville and Olivia Hawke are the H/H from The Matchmaker.) Dulcieís brother, George, Lord Ainsley, is one of Adrianís bitterest enemies. George was one of the bullies at Eton who made Adrianís life miserable as a boy.
Encountering Hester and the Bennetts at a party, Adrian quickly decides to pursue Dulcie in order to enrage George and his mother Lady Ainsley. But Hester, who wants to protect Dulcie and help her find happiness rather than a rich husband, confronts him and asks him to stay away from Dulcie. It is a scene fraught with sexual tension, during which both parties are instantly and unwillingly attracted to each other.
Hesterís false widowhood (and virginity) are not her only secrets. Her mother ran away from her boring, countrified husband when Heather was a child, soon after her brother was born, to live with a series of lovers. She took Heather with her, but left the infant behind with his father. Now that brother, who doesnít know she exists, has come up from his estate for the fifth year in pursuit of a wife.
Naturally, it all ends happily, but the convoluted path to that ending makes for a involving and interesting read. Hester is a determined and independent woman, if a little too apt to ignore whatís right in front of her face, whether it has to do with her or with Dulcie. Adrian is the dashing, handsome rake required in most Regency historical romances, the kind of handsome devil most women (except Hester) would love to try and tame. But Hester runs from him, in an effort to keep her secrets, hide her increasing fascination with him, and figure out how to marry off Dulcie to someone she loves. Adrian, not knowing the reasons for her inexplicable behavior, continues to pursue her, creating several hilarious debacles with the various members of this large cast of characters. The selfish and greedy Bennetts (Lady Wainsley and her son Lord Wainsley) are stereotypical, and little more than caricatures of villains, creating havoc wherever they are. The book would have been improved by more attention to making them more complex.
The Bridemakerís plot twists and turns, complicated by the various machinations of the characters, each with his or her own agenda and subplots, make it a quick read. Itís a great combination of humor, romance, secrets that must finally be revealed, selfishness, confusion, and a wonderful disregard for the pretentious propriety that is the essence of the ton, as the couples sort themselves out, revealing themselves to be wonderfully well-matched, and as lives change in ways that the reader sometimes doesnít expect.
--Joni Richards Bodart