Elizabeth Essex is a great writer, and I heartily recommend many of her books - but this one leaves a lot to be desired. The heroine is a typical, and typically pleasing, spunky resistor of Regency norms. She is also a devoted sister, which is how she finds herself in an engagement with a much older, and not very appealing local lord, Lord Aldridge. I enjoyed the set up of this novel a lot, and really loved the meeting between the heroine and hero. Our heroine, Antigone, punches a handsy young man on the dance floor at a ball, and retreats to the library. The hero is William Jellicoe, a character we met in "Almost a Scandal". (I loved that novel, and although Jellicoe had only a small role, I was very happy to meet him as a grown man.) He, too, wants to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of the ball, and makes his way to the library. The two engage in a lovely conversation that establishes their connection as friends (how great is that?!?), and ultimately go on to pursue a night of adventure, with a dollop of sexual chemistry. Wonderful! But sadly the novel does not maintain this level of charm and engagement.
**Spoilers to follow** Although Jellicoe is clearly enamored by Antigone, and pursues a relationship with her, he apparently thinks it's obvious that they won't marry because of his naval career. This obliviousness doesn't make sense, given his reliable and honorable character. Antigone falls in love with Will, but she, too, knows he won't marry her. This, too, doesn't quite make sense to me. And even as Antigone and Will's relationship continues to develop, Antigone's engagement with Aldridge is maintained. The more we learn about him, the worse he seems. At first, he's cold and controlling. Then, for a while, Antigone believes he's marrying her just for her horse. She's unhappy upon learning this, but at least it gives Aldridge a motive for wanting to marry her, which he had thus far been lacking. But then it turns out that Aldridge is actually a pedophile who finds boys in London to use for sexual gratification. Apparently this fact is widely know by his peers, but no one admits it or does anything about it. I don't know if this is a possibility in Regency England. Perhaps it's perfectly historically accurate. But it makes for pretty heavy going in a romance novel.
Moreover, the horrors don't end there. Finally, we learn that Aldridge had actually wanted to marry Antigone when she was 12 because she was a boyish girl. Her father refused multiple offers from Aldridge, but Antigone's mother was open to making a match between them. When Antigone's father dies, that opens the door for the mother to take up Aldridge's offer, even though she knows exactly who Aldridge is, what he does, and why he wants to marry Antigone. Antigone's father is described in the book as loving and wonderful, but also financially irresponsible. Her mother is presented as shallow and anxious about money and station. By the end, the mother is revealed as a moral monster, wholly willing to pimp out her daughter to another monster in order to secure her own well-being. I found it deeply unpleasant reading, as well as more than a little confusing. Supposedly, Antigone's parents loved each other. If her father was a deeply decent person, how can the sociopathic nature of his wife have escaped his notice? And how have Antigone and her sister lived normal, happy, healthy lives in the care of such a person? The moral psychology here makes no sense at all.
So please - do yourself a favor and go read "A Sense of Sin" or "The Danger of Desire", and give this one a pass.