Melissa's father (who turns out not to be her real father) has kept her within the four walls of their home most of her life, not allowing her to meet other people, or even touch the servants without gloves. (Her mother died of a contagious disease which caused him to be obsessed with protecting her daughter from illness.) At his death, when she is finally forced to leave her home to live with her uncle, she is obliged to do many things she has never done before, such as get close enough to touch a horse, ride in a carriage, and stand outside in the snow and rain.
It falls to her uncle, Lord Braddock, to take her in and try to arrange a suitable marriage. He seems rather a cold man--cynical about love and not looking for any such nonsense himself--but he is deeply involved in the House of Lords, particularly the sponsorship of laws against cousins marrying and baby farms, where unfortunate young women pay people to take care of their children, not knowing that the children are usually left to die.
Diane Stanhope, a spinster of 32 years who is chosen to be Melissa's chaperone, has long been attracted to the distinguished Lord Braddock, but knows that her plain looks and advanced age make it improbable that her feelings will be returned.
Lord Braddock's son John, who is called upon to help Melissa practice her manners and dancing before she is launched on society, finds himself attracted to her at once. Did I mention that Melissa is drop-dead gorgeous? But there are many reasons why he must not get serious about her. Since she was born prior to her mother's marriage to her "father," her birth is illegitimate and therefore makes her unworthy to marry in the highest circles. Of course, the hope is that she will continue to "pass" as the legitimate daughter of Lord Braddock's brother, and if that happens, she will be regarded as John's first cousin and therefore, according to his father's beliefs, too close a relative for marriage. (It matters not that they are not really related at all.) Another reason is because John, like his father, does not believe in love. He believes it's all a matter of lust that burns out eventually and leaves both parties miserable.
But it's not so easy for John to watch his friends begin to fall in love with Melissa, nor when she becomes engaged to one of them.
While I did enjoy the book, there were some issues that troubled me:
1. There are actually TWO mad lords in this story, one of which is described in the prologue, and the other in the first and subsequent chapters. Since the first mad lord was never named, initially I thought the uncle who took her in was the mad lord from the prologue (he was described as "cold" and seemed most unwilling to accept responsibility for her). Then when I discovered the "father" who had raised her in such isolation, I was really confused. The mad lord from the prologue does not play much of a part in the story, except that everyone is so afraid that society will recognize Melissa as his bastard daughter; I'm not sure why we had to know about him and his obsessive madness quite so soon.
2. The whole "bastardy" thing seemed over-emphasized. Yes, there was a lot of prejudice against bastards in society, but it is also true that many such offspring were foisted off on cuckolded husbands; in this story, there is even a mention of one such case of an heir succeeding to a title when he bore no resemblance to his father and everyone knew his mother's husband was not his father. In this case, Melissa's "father" adopted her and acknowledged her and the only person who knew otherwise was Lord Braddock (and eventually his son and a few others). I don't understand why he made such distinctions about her illegitimacy from the beginning, when one of the causes he himself espoused was eliminating the prejudice against illegitmates! I mean, his attitude when he went to collect her was like, well, I have to take responsibility for this bastard, try to pass her off as my niece, and find some stupid sot to marry her. And that leads to
3. I didn't care for Lord Braddock. No matter all the causes he supported, he was a cold, selfish man who didn't like to be bothered by reality. He was annoyed to have to hire a plain-looking chaperone for a niece who wasn't really a niece, and he put his own interests ahead of his son's almost until the very last page. I found the whole idea of his interest in the plain spinsterish chaperone entirely unbelievable.
4. There were some characterization issues too. Melissa is a little too perfect; I have a problem with characters that are so beautiful that everyone falls in love with them. John's interest in her seems primarily based on physical attraction. I didn't feel I really knew much of John's character. Diane Stanhope is a much more likable character here than in the previous book, where she seemed like a most unfeeling aunt, but I don't feel like I really know her or why Lord Braddock was attracted to her.
5. The resolution of the problem with the mad duke was anti-climactic. After the dramatic prologue, I was expecting an equally dramatic climax, but it was almost like the duke just faded away. It was too easy. I was disappointed.
6. Baby farms? Really? I've never heard of such a thing before. If they did exist, were they really called baby farms? (Update: I stand corrected: these did exist in late-Victorian England and they were indeed called baby farms. My apologies.)
7. Why would Melissa's adoptive father have her so rigorously trained in manners and dancing when he wouldn't even let her out of the house? She learned to dance with a phantom partner? Really? The dance instructor was not allowed to partner her?
It was an enjoyable book overall, though not one of the best I've read.