Two years after the death of the Earl of Riverdale, his family has overcome the shame of being stripped of their titles and fortune–except for his onetime countess, Viola. With her children grown and herself no longer part of the social whirl of the ton, she is uncertain where to look for happiness–until quite by accident her path crosses once again with that of the Marquess of Dorchester, Marcel Lamarr.
Marcel Lamarr has been a notorious womanizer since the death of his wife nearly twenty years earlier. Viola caught his eye when she herself was a young mother, but she evaded his seduction at the time. A prize that eluded him before, she is all the more irresistible to him now although he is surprised to discover that she is as eager now for the excitement he offers as he is himself.
When the two defy convention and run away together, they discover that the ties of respectability are not so easily severed, and pleasure can ensnare you when you least expect it.
This fourth book in Mary Balogh’s Westcott series is a gently moving and beautifully observed story about a woman trying to define herself and her purpose in life after the death of the man she had believed, for more than twenty years, to be her husband. Readers familiar with the series will recall that the Westcotts were thrown into upheaval by the revelation that the head of the family, the Earl of Riverdale, had contracted his second marriage bigamously, rendering his son and two daughters illegitimate and his wife… not his wife at all.
Viola Kingsley had, when a much younger woman, been pretty much sold into marriage to Humphrey, the Ear of Riverdale, who was in desperate need of her large dowry. For more than twenty years, she had been the perfect wife, mother and countess; composed, confident, poised and dignified, she had been widely respected and, in spite of the fact that her marriage was not at all happy, she had a comfortable life, children she adored, friends and such occupation as she desired.
Two years earlier, however, she discovered that her life had been based on a lie, that she was not and had never been the Countess of Riverdale at all, but that she had lived in sin with the Earl for more than two decades. In shame and humiliation, and shunned by society, she fled with her daughters, Camille and Abigail, to her mother’s home in Bath and then, with Camille about to be married, Viola left Abigail with her mother and went to live with her brother, a country vicar, and re-assumed her maiden name. But she couldn’t remain with her brother forever – and when she was reunited with the family, was surprised and touched when her husband’s legitimate daughter Anna (the Duchess of Netherby) asked her to return, with Abigail, to her previous home at Hinsford. Viola has been a mess of roiling emotions for the past couple of years; feeling she has no right to be counted as one of the Westcott family, she has repeatedly tried to distance herself from them, only to be brought back to the fold by the generous and sympathetic group of people who, regardless of legalities, continue to regard Viola as one of their own.
At the end of the previous book, Someone to Wed, we learned that Viola had, without telling anyone where she was going, absented herself from the family gathering celebrating the birth of Camille’s son. But Viola has finally snapped. The love and acceptance she has encountered from her not-family is stifling her, and although she knows she is being incredibly ungrateful, she just can’t bear to be around them. For two years she has tried to disappear into the background, maintaining a façade of quiet acceptance, internalising her own pain and suffering – and she can’t do it any more. She needs to figure out who and what she is – she has spent her forty-two years being a countess, a wife, a daughter, a mother… but who is she now?
When the hired carriage she is travelling in needs to be repaired, Viola breaks her journey at an inn, where she encounters someone she hasn’t seen in almost fifteen years – the austerely handsome and compellingly attractive Mr. Marcel Lamar, a man whose reputation as an inveterate womaniser has only grown over the years. Their last encounter had been at a ball when Viola, who was deeply infatuated with Marc, but was nonetheless a faithful wife in spite of the unhappiness of her marriage, had rebuffed his flirtation and told him in no uncertain terms to leave her alone – and he took her at her word.
Marc has, for the past two years, been the Marquess of Dorchester, although it appears that Viola is unaware of this and still refers to him as “Mr.” – he doesn’t bother to correct her. He is widely known to be a rake, reputed to be a man without a heart and doesn’t put himself out for anyone or anything. He has stopped at an inn on his way to pay one of his semi-annual visits to his country seat where he will spend a couple of days with his twins, Bertrand and Estelle who are nearing their eighteenth birthdays, and then he will disappear back to London and his own life, leaving them in the capable hands of their aunt, to whom he entrusted them following his young wife’s death almost twenty years previously.
He is somewhat surprised to recognise Viola when she arrives at the inn, and not at all surprised to find that he is as attracted to her now as he was the last time he’d seen her. They strike up a conversation and agree to spend the next day together, and Marc delights in watching Viola gradually breaking out of her carefully constructed shell of dignity and propriety to reveal a woman with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous, who does not stand on ceremony and, he suspects, is possessed of hidden depths of passion he very much hopes to explore.
If you’ve read the synopsis, you’ll know that Viola and Marc agree to run away together to indulge in a brief affair. Both are running from their families for different reasons, which, in Marc’s case, prove to be especially heartbreaking. For almost twenty years, he has denied himself the love and affection of his children and those around him because of the burden of guilt he carries over the death of his wife, believing himself to be an unworthy and unfit father. He has deliberately isolated himself, indulging only in physical relationships and thinking himself incapable of falling in love… although of course, what Ms. Balogh does brilliantly is to show him doing just that while completely unaware of what’s happening – or at least in very deep denial about it.
Equally brilliant is the way Ms. Balogh has so perfectly captured and conveyed Viola’s situation. She needs time and space to work out who she is and where she goes from here, and much as she loves her daughters and other members of her extended family and feels guilty for not wanting to be with them, she knows she can’t continue as she has been doing and needs to break out of the rut. I’m sure there are many women who will relate to her predicament whether it be in relation to the loss of a partner or “empty nest” syndrome; there comes a point when we realise we’ve been defining ourselves in one way for many years and that we’re a bit lost when we no longer fit that definition. I applauded Viola for wanting to take time for herself and for being selfish for probably the first time in her life. She’s a grown woman – why shouldn’t she have an affair with a handsome man? Provided they’re discreet, they’re hurting no-one – and they both know it’s a finite fling… don’t they?
The first half of the book, in which Viola and Marc embark upon their physical relationship and at the same time develop a friendship outside of the bedroom is beautifully done, peppered with moments of humour and tender affection, insight and longing. In the second half, however, things start to run away a bit; I won’t spoil the storyline, but while there were things I really liked – such as meeting Marc’s children – there were others that struck me as a bit off, such as Marc jumping to a fairly unwarranted conclusion about Viola’s wishes. His misguided attempt to protect her reputation is understandable, but there are too many fingers in too many pies, and I just wanted everyone to go home so that Marc and Viola could straighten things out between them without any more needless angst!
Had the second half of Someone to Care continued in the same vein as the first, I probably would be calling it my favourite of the series, but the weaker second half means it just misses that appellation. Still, it’s an excellent addition to the Westcott canon, and I, for one, was delighted to read a story featuring an attractive, vibrant heroine in her forties. Ms. Balogh once again delivers a character-driven romance of great emotional depth and insight and I’m sure fans will enjoy it.