|A character-driven novel with strong, smart characters is always fun to read, and this book is no exception.
In the month since his return from post-revolutionary France, Jack Fortescu, Duke of St. Jules, has gambled aggressively with Frederick Lacey, Earl of Dunston. The intensity of their competition seems to indicate that there is something more going on between them than card games. Losing badly, Dunston risks everything on one final turn of the cards.
He bets his estate, his house and “all the contents…animate and inanimate.” And loses. Minutes later, Frederick Lacey kills himself and Jack is en route to Lacey Court to meet Frederick’s half-sister, Arabella.
Jack finds Arabella, dirty and disheveled, tending her beloved orchids. She finds it difficult to feel much sorrow. She and her half-sibling had little liking for each other, and he clearly never gave a thought to her future.
With very little money of her own, Arabella must beg asylum from distant relatives unlikely to welcome the obligation. Then, Jack astonishes her by offering marriage in recompense for depriving her of her brother’s protection. Arabella refuses, only to be pleasantly surprised when he says she may remain at Lacey Court for as long as she likes. There’s a fly in the jam, though; Jack also plans to stay indefinitely.
Although she is immune to the moral outrage of her neighbors when they discover their unchaperoned living arrangements, Arabella does realize that marriage might actually solve her problems. She insists on a sufficiently large marriage portion to afford her some degree of independence, and living in London offers a couple of added benefits, including the chance to atone for the tragedy that linked Jack to her brother.
The power of the book is definitely in these two characters. Arabella is a strong, intelligent individual who knows what she wants from her life and pays attention to what’s going on around her. Her reactions to her situation are all very believable attempts to adjust to her situation. She consults people whose opinions she respects, and then makes up her own mind. Equally nice, there is nothing stupidly rigid about her; she picks her battles and doesn’t consider it weak to compromise.
Jack, while equally intelligent and observant, is definitely more of a charmer – and he is charmingly befuddled when he finds himself actually trying to persuade Arabella to accept him. Although Jack uses formality to keep people at a distance, it’s lovely to watch how he slowly becomes more lighthearted, and how the formalities, such as ‘Madam Wife,’ begin to sound suspiciously like endearments.
One of the things that made their developing relationship believable was that each actually paid attention to the other, rather than interpreting every action according to preconceived notions. For example, Jack doesn’t fly off the handle when Arabella tries to throw her brother’s suicide in his face. Instead, he calmly points out that, as there was little love lost between them, it’s faintly hypocritical of her to pretend that Jack has wounded her deeply. To her credit, Arabella acknowledges the truth and that’s the end of it.
There were a few glitches. After insisting repeatedly that she must leave Lacey Court, Arabella’s friends offer her a home, and she suddenly declines, stating that “she had to manage this alone.” It felt more like the author finding an excuse to keep them together than a genuine reaction from a character.
And, while it was laudable, in theory, for Jack not to abandon his mistress financially when he married, it wasn’t as though she’d have starved. Her noble husband supported her very well – all Jack was doing was subsidizing her outrageous gambling addiction. And, although he insisted to Arabella that he wouldn’t stand by and see the woman publicly humiliated, apparently it wasn’t a problem for him to watch her humiliate Arabella. It wasn’t in keeping with Jack’s supposed intelligence or feelings for Arabella.
For the most part, however, this is a light, appealing read, with a likable hero and heroine, that should keep readers nicely entertained.
-- Judi McKee