By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
It took me a long while to get into this book, and more particularly, a long while to warm up the hero, Harry Fitzroy. (As the surname suggests, Harry is the great-great-great-grandson of a royal bastard.) He comes to the country intending to propose to the beautiful and flighty Lady Julia, but badly injures his leg when she spooks his horse. Julia is too shallow to imagine life with an invalid husband, so she hightails it back to London to find a new beau, leaving Harry to recover in the capable care of her plain and retiring younger sister, Gus. (Yes, Gus. I do get tired of reading historical romances where the main characters always have froufy names like Sebastian and Isabella, so in some ways more down-to-earth, period appropriate names like Harry and Augusta are refreshing… but Gus is pushing the envelope. Gus isn't fun and flirty, and it really isn't sexy, IMO.)
Harry's sense of entitlement really put me off at first. I'm sure duke's sons probably are extremely entitled, and it was part of the plot that Harry start off as a bit of a prat and evolve into a better person, but if his transformation had taken any longer than it did I probably would have given this book up as a bad job and DNF'd it. Initially, he has no notice or care for how much effort it requires Gus and the household staff to cater to his whims. His self-absorbed cluelessness strongly reminded me of a girl I met in college: she came from a family of unimaginable (to me) wealth, and she had absolutely no sense of how to do the most basic housekeeping tasks, and seemingly no understanding that if she did not do these things herself, others would have to do them for her. She would eat an apple and put the core down on the nearest flat surface, rather than finding a trash can. She'd finish her meals and leave all her dishes at the table, evidently never noticing that everyone else bussed their own. And since it was her classmates (myself and other work study grunts) who cleaned up these messes, she found herself the focus of a great deal of resentment from her peers, which she didn't seem to understand. Similarly, Harry invited musicians and tradesman from London to come and entertain and serve him in the country, and never mentioned their impending arrival to Gus, insensitive to the fact that she had to scramble to prepare meals and rooms and arrange for the comfort of these unanticipated guests.
However, as his health improved, so did Harry's humanity, such that in the end, this was a sweet, believable romance. I could see what both Harry and Gus saw in the other, and it was more than just physical attraction or the emotional intensity of Harry's ordeal. They supported each other, communicated honestly, and each brought out the best in the other: Gus encouraged Harry to work on his recovery and to shrug off the cruel derision of society when he must walk with a cane, and Harry gave Gus the confidence to take on her new role as Countess and future duchess and move about in London society for the first time in her life. For these reasons, I have a lot more faith in this couple's happy ever after than I do in a lot of romance novels, because we see the strong, lasting foundations of their marriage rather than just the whirlwind infatuation of courtship.
I also found the treatment of the servants in this book to be refreshing. So often in historical romance, servants are wallpaper -- ubiquitous but intentionally unobtrusive. Here, Isabella Bradford develops the characters of Gus's lady's maid, Mary, and Harry's valet, Tewkes, so that we have a real sense of the relationship that they have with their employers. At several points early in the romance, Tewkes dares to show his disapproval of the liberties Harry is taking with the unprotected Gus, whose father has gone with Julia to London (wrongly figuring that Julia's virtue is the one most in need of safeguarding). Tewkes points out to Harry the risk to her reputation, and Harry takes this warning to heart rather than dismissing it as meddlesome interference by a subordinate. Likewise, Mary keeps Gus apprised of gossip both of the servants and of their aristocratic guests, thereby enabling Gus to be a more efficient manager of her household and also giving her information she needs to be a more supportive partner to Harry.
I didn't love this book, but I'm glad I stayed with it despite my initial dislike of Harry and an occasionally dragging plot: in the end, the central romance was sweet and authentic, and a little bit different from the typical English historical.
***ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***