Lady Henrietta Parker, daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, has turned down many a suitor for fear that the ton’s bachelors are only interested in her wealth. But despite the warnings of her dearest friends, Harriet and Hero, she can’t resist the challenge rudely posed by her stepsister: transform an ordinary London dockworker into a society gentleman suitable for the “marriage mart.” Only after a handshake seals the deal does Retta fear she may have gone too far . . .
When Jake Bolton is swept from the grime of the seaport into the elegance of Blakemoor House, he appears every inch the rough, cockney working man who is to undergo Retta’s training in etiquette, wardrobe, and elocution. But Jake himself is a master of deception—with much more at stake than a drawing room wager. But will his clandestine mission take second place to his irresistible tutor, her intriguing proposal . . . and true love?
The first in her new Once Upon a Bride series, Wilma Counts’ My Fair Lord is exactly what one would infer from such a title; a Pygmalion inspired tale with the principal roles reversed. Our Covent Garden flower-seller is morphed into a London dockworker by the name of Jake Bolton and our professor is Lady Henrietta (Retta) Parker, eldest daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, who is goaded into accepting a wager proposed by one of her sisters, that she – Retta – could transform “any worker off the London docks” into “your typical gentlemen of the ton.” It’s a popular trope (and the best version of it in historical romance, to my mind, is still Judith Ivory’s The Proposition), but unfortunately, in Ms. Counts’ hands it makes for rather a dull, pedestrian read, mostly because there’s a lot of telling and not much showing and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the principals.
Lady Henrietta is the only child of the Earl of Blakemoor from his first marriage, and she is several years older than her younger half-siblings, twins Gerald and Richard, and daughters Rachel and Miranda. The countess – her step-mother – resents Henrietta and, of course, favours her own children, something which wouldn’t bother Retta quite so much if it weren’t for the fact that her father knows it and does nothing about it. Disgruntled because the countess prevented her accompanying them to Vienna (where the Earl is to attend the Congress) and needled by the constant catty remarks made by her sisters over the fact that Retta is more or less on the shelf, she allows her irritation to get the better of her and is manoeuvred into making the above mentioned wager with spiteful Rachel. While her eldest brother, Gerald, urges caution, Retta’s stubborn streak won’t allow her to back down in the face of her sisters’ mockery, and the bet is made, even as Retta’s common sense tells her it’s a bad idea.
The search for a suitable subject starts the following day down at the docks and eventually settles upon Jake Bolton, who is, to say the least, surprised at the proposal set before him. But as luck would have it, his being installed in the London home of the Blakemoors could be just the thing Jake needs in order to uncover the identity of the person – or persons – responsible for leaking important government information which could undermine England’s negotiations in Paris and Vienna. For Jake is no dockworker; he’s Major Lord Jacob Bodwyn, a military officer and third son of the Duke of Holbrook who has been temporarily seconded to the Foreign Office on the orders of his commanding officer, the Duke of Wellington. The Blakemoors, along with several other prominent families, all of whom have varying degrees of access to sensitive information, have been under discreet surveillance for a while, and his removal to Blakemoor house will allow Jake to do some more close-up snooping.
The family comes up with a cover story to account for Jake’s presence, and his ‘education’ begins. It’s not long before Retta is feeling the first stirrings of an inappropriate attraction and Jake is feeling much the same, frustrated at having to maintain his cover around Retta. Their ‘lessons’ enable the pair to spend a fair bit of time together, while Jake sets about accomplishing his task, his observations leading him to suspect that one or two members of the household are very likely engaged in treasonous activities.
The premise is an intriguing one and promised much, but is let down by the execution, which is stodgy and lacks any sense of urgency in the suspense/espionage plotline. The opening chapter, which introduces Retta (and I really dislike that diminution of Henrietta – I keep typing Hetta and having to change it!) and her two sequel-bait friends is basically one long info-dump, and as I said earlier, there is a lot of telling and not much showing throughout, which makes for an extremely low-key, lacklustre romance. We’re told Retta is attracted to Jake and that she is bothered by it given the difference in their stations; we’re told Jake is attracted to Retta, but I was shown nothing to convince me of the connection I was asked to believe was growing between them. Jake enjoys their “verbal sparring and sharing of views” – but we are rarely privy to any of these sparring and sharing sessions. We’re told near the end of the book that Jake and Retta have spent a lot of time together over the four months of the experiment, but they don’t actually spend much time together on the page; most of the time, we are given a brief run-down of what happened after the fact.
There is pretty much no sexual tension between the couple and their first kiss is decidedly prosaic, with no build up to it whatsoever – unless you count build up as the author telling us two or three pages earlier that it’s going to happen:
A kiss perhaps? A kiss. What would that be like with Jake? She shook her head.
No. It simply could not – must not – happen.
But then it did. The very next day.
I also wasn’t wild about the fact that Retta, in an attempt to stomp out her attraction to Jake, decides to accept the attentions of other men, going driving or to the theatre or opera and other social events with a couple of other beaux. One of them is a gentleman whose proposal she had recently turned down, and it takes her a while to realise that she’s giving him false hope; I found it hard to believe she didn’t know what she was doing and really didn’t like her for it.
On a positive note, I did enjoy the familial relationships Retta has with her brothers, who are far more affectionate than her sisters, and with her uncle and aunt, who both credit and respect Retta’s intelligence and don’t try to interfere with her scheme even though they have their doubts about it. The author nicely contrasts these relationships with Jake’s longing for his own family, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade, and his sadness and frustration that he can’t be reunited with them – or even let them know he is back in England – while he is carrying out his mission.
On a technical note – I read an advance copy of the book, and there’s a large error I hope is corrected before publication which is that two chapters appear to have been transposed; there is an ‘incident’ referred to at the beginning of Chapter 16 that doesn’t happen until the middle of Chapter 17.
I’m consigning My Fair Lord to the ‘could have been better’ pile. Uninspired prose, unmemorable characters and a poorly written romance contrive to make it a book I can’t recommend.