on 18 July 2013
Audrey Blake`s husband was killed in India, in the same incident that killed the commanding officer of Viscount Blackthorne and his friends the Earl of Knightsbridge and the Duke of Rothford. Audrey didn't have much of a marriage as her husband only married her so he could use her dowry to purchase his commission and left for India immediately after their wedding night. As a result, Audrey is still living under her father's roof, and is desperate to escape. Not only is she widowed, she is blind - the result of a severe fever as a child - and her family thinks she is a useless invalid. Despite her blindness, however, Audrey is very adept at running the household, which is another reason her father is loath to let her leave so that she can live independently on her husband's property.
When Robert Henslow, Earl of Knightsbridge comes to visit - albeit two years after her husband's death - he asks her if there is anything he can do for her. He feels responsible for Martin Blake's death, and makes the offer out of guilt. He is stunned when Audrey asks him to help her to escape from her family home and is reluctant to help at first, unable to see why she would wish to do such a thing or to think of a way he can take her away without her father's permission.
Over the next few days, however, he begins to understand Audrey's predicament. It becomes clear to him that she is frequently overlooked, relegated almost to the position of "poor relation" and regarded as an embarrassment by her brother and sister. Her father constantly belittles her and reminds her of the failure of her first marriage as a way of keeping her under his thumb. At a dinner-party, it is apparent that none of the guests have ever met Audrey before, despite the fact that she has lived there all her life; her father has kept her more or less shut away since the death of her mother some years earlier, and she was the only one who treated her blind daughter as a person rather than a blind person.
Robert quickly realises that Audrey is a very capable and courageous woman and begins to admire her fortitude and determination. He also realises that there is only one way in which he can help her to escape without exposing her to gossip - they must announce their engagement, and he can escort Audrey to her property which is quite close to his own estates. Once she is settled, they can quietly end the engagement and nobody will be any the wiser - and Audrey will finally have achieved her dream of living independently.
When they arrive at Rose Cottage, it's immediately clear that all is not as it should be. Audrey and Robert assume that it is because the servants - cook/housekeeper, groundsman, footman, maid - have had a cushy time with no master or mistress and are reluctant to see it end, but it's not long before Audrey realises that the constant `little' errors - cold food, moved furniture - are designed to make her leave and that there must be something more to the staffs' recalcitrance.
The slowly developing affection between Robert and Audrey was the highlight of the book for me, and was beautifully written. Even though they are not really engaged to be married, Robert is always solicitous and tender, and often playfully affectionate towards her. Audrey is rather more reserved; her memories of her husband's treatment of her are never far away and she has vowed never to allow herself to trust a man again. But she hates that she is becoming more and more dependent on Robert - or rather, she thinks it's dependency when it's clear to the reader that it's not: she misses him when he's not around and wants to be with him, but is so prickly about her desire for independence and suspicious that he is motivated by pity for her situation and her blindness that she can't see that he's just as "dependent" on her for his happiness as she is on him.
I found both protagonists to be extremely likeable, even though I did find Audrey's repeated and stubborn refusals of Robert's genuine proposal rather annoying at times. Robert was a gorgeous beta hero; following an event which pulled him up short and made him realise at the age of twenty, that he was well on the way to becoming an autocrat like his father, he joined the army which he freely admits was the making of him. He has his hidden secrets, but it was rather refreshing to find a hero who didn't quite need wild horses to drag them from him and who was able to own his mistakes and try to atone for them as best he could. His experiences have given him insight, developed his intuition and turned him into a patient, understanding man who will make Audrey a wonderful, loving husband if she will let him.
Interestingly, the character who grows most during the course of the novel is Audrey's younger sister, Blythe. When we first meet her, she is self-centred and rather cruel to Audrey, but when she turns up at Rose Cottage in the latter half of the story, and begins to confess to just why she felt and acted the way she did, the sisters begin to rebuild their relationship. I'm not sure I completely bought into Blythe's change of heart to start with, but when it became clear that she was motivated by a genuine desire to atone for her past behaviour, I began to enjoy watching them become friends and I liked the way that Blythe was not afraid to ask difficult questions or tell Audrey a few home-truths when necessary.
I admit to being a sucker for stories where the hero and heroine become friends before they are lovers (and to liking a "fake-engagement" plot), and Surrender to the Earl certainly delivers on that score. Audrey and Robert are a perfect fit - as friends they are like-minded and genuinely appreciative of each other and there was plenty of romantic and sexual tension in the air when their feelings for each other began to grow into something more.
I've read some complaints about the slow pacing in the book, but personally, I didn't feel that at all. I was so engrossed in watching Robert and Audrey falling head-over-heels in love and enjoying their interactions that the fact that "nothing happened" didn't bother me in the slightest.
For me, the fact that the developing romance was placed so firmly at the heart of the book was key to my enjoyment, and I'll certainly be looking out for the next book in the series.