When a group of old friends liven up their card game by putting unusual stakes on the table–distasteful duties and worthless old things that they would like to get rid of–it’s all in good fun. That is, until their drunken guest, the young Vicomte Duvalier, offers up his old maiden aunt in exchange for a worthless Irish bog! Disgusted by the wager but constrained by honor to play his hand, the Earl of Rotherham plays to lose. But the woman who shows up on his doorstep is not the dowdy old spinster that he’d been led to expect.
Miss Diana Wetherby is twenty-six years old, charming, and forthright. When she learns of her nephew Ferdinand’s disgusting wager of her dear Aunt Sophy while she herself is being pressured into a marriage with a much older man, she flees to England with her aunt and makes a wee substitution: she and her parrot Bijou take Sophy’s place. And what’s the harm in it, after all? She, too, is an “old maiden aunt” who has spent too many years on the shelf.
Although Lady Ephigenia, Rotherham’s own unmarried aunt, was expecting a woman of her own years, she soon welcomes Diana as a bosom companion. Unfortunately, when Rotherham shows up with his friends (all of whom had witnessed the distasteful bet), she finds her deception has become much more perilous. She doesn’t care for the Earl’s unsavory reputation around women. At the same time, she also has to fend off multiple suitors.
Worse, Rotherham is convinced that Diana is playing a deep game. What reason could she have for (he suspects) deceiving him and his mother and insinuating herself into an Earl’s home other than trying to snag a wealthy or titled husband? As his suspicion grows, so does his attraction and jealousy over Diana. His virulent prejudice is enough to make him blind to all of Diana’s actions.
Fontayne has not written a good book. For example, she is incapable of finding an adjective for a horse other than “mettlesome,” which I counted as the descriptor for no fewer than six steeds (a roan who is later described as mild, Diana’s own mount, and Rotherham’s matched grays). Lazy, lazy writing.
Worse, she uses the same “trick” over and over to confirm Rotherham’s (and Diana’s) prejudices. He kisses her and she responds. She must be a slut. He sees her give his friend a chaste kiss on the cheek. She must be a slut and a fortune hunter. She catches him kissing someone in a garden–he must be a liar and a traitor! He catches her kissing the same friend affectionately on the cheek (AGAIN! to congratulate him on his engagement) and concludes she’s a liar and a traitor! What a great excuse land a facer on his poor, innocent, longtime friend!
Ok, there were parts of the story that were sweet. The scene in which Rotherham’s three friends all feel compelled to make Diana an offer at the same time in order to rescue her reputation is endearing. Old Aunt Sophy’s story–and her emergence from the station of spinster and poor relation to something better–is enjoyable to read.
However, no matter how likable Diana can be, she is overshadowed by the author’s tiresome manipulation of the same old tricks. Rotherham doesn’t grow over the course of the book, either–he’s making the same mistakes and unflattering assumptions about the woman he supposedly loves at the end of the book as he was from the beginning. If anything, he grows more intolerable as each chapter passes.
I cannot believe that this couple could survive for a moment beyond the final page of this book. In fact, I can’t believe that this couple even came together by the end of the book. Anyone else would have been a better choice. Add in a paint-by-numbers villainess, an abduction/elopement subplot, a couple horse races, and annoyingly similar phaeton accidents, and you have exactly 200 pages. But unfortunately, aside from the bright spots I mentioned above, those pages are tepid, unbelievable, and devoid of pleasure.
When a romance novel leaves a reader thinking, “Please, no, anyone but him!,” the author has made serious mistakes.