Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.
I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally. So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience. Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.
Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river. Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide. She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms. Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue. She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank. Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat. Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.
Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard. The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time. Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.
Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England. Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief. A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers. Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area. Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.
Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest. Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.
But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God. But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?
Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same. Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war. Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.
The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes. The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.