Lady Arabella Lucia Fairborne has no need of a husband. She has a fine inheritance for the taking, a perfectly capable mind, and a resolve as tough as nails. But what she doesn’t have is the freedom to defy her cousin’s will–and his will is to see her married immediately to the husband of his choosing. So is it any wonder that she dresses herself as a scullery maid and bolts into the night?
Colin Somerville’s current mission for the home office is going poorly. Who would have expected otherwise for a rakish spy tasked with transporting a baby to the care of the royal palace. But when, injured and out of ideas, Colin stumbles upon a beautiful maid who knows her way around a sickroom, it seems salvation has arrived. Until he realizes that though Lucy may be able to help him survive his expedition, he may not escape this ordeal with his heart intact…
When I reviewed Rachael Miles’ début, Jilting the Duke, earlier this year, I noted that the author had crafted an entertaining story featuring engaging protagonists and a well-developed central romance that, in spite of a few reservations, had been a compelling read overall. As a result, I was eagerly looking forward to Chasing the Heiress, the follow-up book, which was to tell the story of another of the Somerville brothers, who, like his older brother, is a former soldier turned agent for the Crown. Unfortunately, however, I came away from this one a little disappointed.
Despite an exciting, fast-paced opening, the story drags somewhat until well into the second half, the romance never really catches fire, and while the protagonists start out as fairly engaging, by the end of the book, they have both become a little bland.
That exciting opening I spoke of sees Colin Somerville escorting a very pregnant young woman – a princess from a lesser European state and cousin of the Prince Regent – across the English countryside in order to get her to safety in London. When the carriage is waylaid, Marietta is shot and Colin is similarly wounded but manages to get them to the nearest inn, where the capable landlady – who is also (fortunately) the local midwife – takes immediate charge, tending to Marietta and eventually delivering her baby. Having reached relative safety, Colin finally allows himself to be treated as well, but rather than calling someone in from outside, he is treated by a lower servant – a scullery maid by the name of Lucy – who, in spite of the fact that she spends her days washing dishes, turns out to be a surprisingly skilled and knowledgeable healer. Colin quickly discovers that she gained both those things on the battlefields of Belgium and France, whence she’d followed the drum with her army officer father. Colin is content to let her patch him up, but I really could have done without the lustful thoughts about Lucy at this point; the guy has been shot, lost a lot of blood, is in a great deal of pain and is worried about the shot pregnant woman in the next room. I should have thought assessing the shagability of the scullery maid would have been the last thing on his mind.
The reader is already privy to the fact that Lucy is no scullery maid, but is actually Lady Arabella Lucia Fairbourne, a wealthy heiress fleeing from her evil relatives who are prepared to stop at nothing to gain control of her inheritance. (This is just one of several inconsistencies that distracted me and pulled me out of the story; I had to wonder how an officer’s daughter was also a Lady, because I don’t recall it being stated that her father was titled). Her great-aunt entrusted Lucy with a letter on her death-bed, and insisted she take it personally to an old friend in London. The letter will prove Lucy’s claim to her property once and for all and ensure her safety from the murderous machinations of her slimy cousin, Marner. (Another bout of head-scratching ensued here, as I wondered why the great-aunt hadn’t simply told Lucy what was in the letter.)
The bulk of the first part of the novel is taken up with Colin and Lucy’s growing closeness and their burgeoning romance. The couple has a lot in common, they enjoy each other’s company and acknowledge their attraction to each other quite easily, but as a result there is little romantic tension between them. In addition, the pacing of this part of the book is problematic. I’m normally all over those parts of a story in which the hero and heroine spend time getting to know each other and making a solid foundation for their relationship, but here, I found myself frequently wanting things to just move along already. There is too much unnecessary detail here and at other points throughout the story; and at others, too many unanswered questions and inconsistencies, leading to the impression that whole novel would have benefited from some more judicious editing.
It wasn’t until around the 60% mark on my Kindle that things started to pick up – which makes it difficult to talk about the plot without giving away too much. Colin and Lucy have to leave the inn, and break their journey at the home of Lady Emmeline Hartley a very old friend of Colin’s with whom he had one of those “if we’re not married by twenty-five we’ll marry each other” pacts. Emily is an engaging character in a difficult situation; she’s under a lot of pressure to marry from her horrid family, sees that Colin is in love with Lucy and admits that she’s in love with someone else, too – but this is a brief interlude that feels as though it has been plugged in just so the author can up the angst level towards the end of the book when Colin believes Lucy has left him. This part of the novel is primarily concerned with pulling together the various mystery and suspense threads that the author has laid throughout the story as well as some from the previous book, as we are re-introduced to the mysterious criminal mastermind, Charters, and to the missing Somerville brother, Benedict, who seems to be playing Xavier to Charters’ Magneto. But while Ms. MIles pulls those elements together well, the romance loses focus; and there is so much else going on that it feels as though by this point, she is falling over herself to cram everything in before the end of the book.
Lucy and Colin have both seen the ravages of war and are carrying around unpleasant memories and, in Colin’s case, a load of guilt over his previous mission. He is troubled, worn down by all the things he’s seen and done and he wants out. Lucy has learned to be self-sufficient and her war-time experiences have taught her that life is fleeting and that one should make hay while the sun shines. I liked that about her; she wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted, and her attitude to life is honest and pragmatic. But then her self-sufficiency is allowed to go too far, as she keeps her secrets from Colin for too long which ultimately place her in great danger. And Colin, who begins the novel as witty, clever and rather charming, somewhere along the way turns into a man whose motivations lead to some strange behavior and who is, at the end of the book, a bit of a wimp.
One of my principal criticisms of Jilting the Duke was that it was too busy, and the same is true of Chasing the Heiress. I maintain that Ms Miles is a talented writer; her prose is excellent and she can tell a good story, but she needs someone at her back with a big red pencil who can tell her when she’s over-complicating or dragging things out unnecessarily. Another concern is that although she is obviously someone who believes in conducting extensive research, for some reason that research didn’t reveal that we didn’t have pound coins in England until 1983, or that men in England at this period would have worn breeches or trousers and not pants.
I can’t recommend Chasing the Heiress wholeheartedly, but I’ll say again that Ms Miles has a lot of potential and is an author I’m going to keep an eye on. The good things in the book are very good, and I was drawn in by the continuing story of the evil Charters which is obviously going to run throughout all the books in the series. The next book, Tempting the Earl features the enigmatic Harrison Walgrave, Colin’s superior and (apparently) Home Office spymaster, and his estranged wife… damn, but that’s like catnip to yours truly, so I’ll probably be picking it up.