I loved this book! The characters come on stage with wounds, bruises, laughter and longings that are slow-roasted over the fire of daily life and extraordinary events that were entirely believable. No one is a modern super-character dressed in Regency clothing, thank you Ms. Andersen! The hero and heroine are consistent with the era that produced them and are surrounded by family, friends, obligations, and anxieties that have produced their unique story.
John Haldane, Earl of Strathairn and Lady Sibella Winborne have known each other for years but not, for a refreshing change, as an excuse to rush the romance. Sibella has observed changes the battlefields of Spain left on Strathairn and resolved to enjoy nothing more than his friendship ... until he kissed her. Strathairn admits he cares for her but insists nothing will come of his feelings. He's a spy and though the war is over, there is still a need for his unique talents. So, her family discourages him from courting Sibella while warning her against hoping for Strathairn to change professions. Being cruel to be kind, he advises her to dismiss the thoughts his kiss stirred. Everyone is sensible and doing just as they ought, which is not producing the happy result expected.
Of course, romance readers will not be surprised by this.
Bemused, courted by a gentleman her family approves of, she first tries to convince Strathairn they're perfectly suited. However, she is no femme fatale and he is nobly determined. Sibella reluctantly accepts his decision and convinces herself it's better to accept the offer she has rather than waiting for an offer that will never come. Strathairn applauds her decision, even goes so far as to encourage Sibella to put aside doubts about her fiancé.
This story could have devolved in to a farce, or worse, angst ridden depression. Instead, it stayed the course; the characters developed well-enough to carry the tale.
Strathairn had valid reasons to deny himself wife and hearth. Besides facing his partner's widow, he had firsthand experience of how loved ones could be used as sources of information and pawns of revenge. Suffering from survivor's guilt, his rest was seldom undisturbed. He was haunted by the loss of comrades that received no recognition for their sacrifice, just as he has and will not. Strathairn was not able to be anyone's perfect anything while performing perfectly for his King and Country. I admired his recognition of what was inevitable even as I wanted to whisper in his ear, maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones. Wisely, he ignored me, demonstrating his depth of care for Sibella that went beyond what he wanted for the moment to what he wanted for her. His reasoning sold him as both an agent of the crown and a genuine hero. Further, the fact his love for Sibellla was only a part of the motivation to confront both his past and future instead of using her as a magik wand endeared him (and the author) to me. That he allowed Sibella time to heal, just as she had given him that same gift, made me want to sing hallelujah!
Likewise, Sibella was a woman confronting her twenty-sixth year. Considering the life expectancy of the time, she wasn't out of line feeling pressured to fish or cut bait, and yet, she hesitated because her heart insisted her desires mattered. She wanted not only a husband, but a mate - a partner, children and a family that reflected all she knew and hoped to be. Her love for her family that was so earnestly reciprocated, the way she made a place for herself while maintaining her own identity in a large family was a precious depiction of a (real) Regency woman. I was proud of her for giving Strathairn more than a couple chances to realize how excellently they would row together. I equally understood when she let those dreams go; there was only so much a woman could do - without jumping the shark. Her conflict over her doubts regarding the menace - uh fiancé were believable precisely because she knew settling for the image of her dreams would never be as wonderful as having them. Her fears that her family would dismiss her doubts wasn't a trite misunderstanding or villainy on the part of her family, it made sense in context of the situation and mores of the time.
Best of all, the secondary characters were wonderful, in their own right, in this story, as they stood. They didn't overwhelm the hero or heroine but they weren't passive, two-dimensional cut outs either. I especially adore when a mother is depicted as a genuinely caring person, foibles and all. The pacing allowed time for the characters to evolve, for the romance to mature, and the need for healing to be more than a hand wave. In the end, you have no doubt this couple will ever settle for the image of romance.
My only complaint is the book cover that I didn't see until after I wrote this review. I know sex sells, but for this book it's misleading as far as the contents within. Thank goodness for e-readers where the only thing exposed is the Scooby Doo band-aid on the scratched surface.
Reviewed for Romance Reviews Magazine - I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review