Althea Markham, an unmarried rich countess, has had enough of the London social scene with men courting her for her money and title. Although her mother insists she’s beautiful if only she would take the trouble, Althea doesn’t quite believe it. What’s more, to counteract her beautiful and charming French mother, she acts more like the dowager duchess than her mother does… which makes her a bit on the homely side. But her sojourn in the Camberly country estate reveals there is more to her coquettish mother… and Althea meets a man on a mission whom she reluctantly falls in love with.
The most interesting person in the story, I have to say, is Celeste Markham, Althea’s French mother. She’s charming, wise, loving and loyal to her family and personal cause. Celeste also has depth beneath her breezy demeanor and justifiable reasons for her actions, which makes it easy to empathize with her. She knows her faults, and doesn’t hesitate to tell her own daughter what Althea’s shortcomings are – in a nice, motherly concern fashion, of course.
Althea, on the other hand, is a bit of a starch throughout the book, which makes it really hard to like her. Maybe if she had shown a bit of rebellious streak, something in her manner that she enjoyed her part in furtive activities instead of acting as if it was a responsibility, not an adventure, she might have been saved as a heroine. I wasn’t entirely convinced that there was one romantic bone in Althea’s body.
Although John Ridley plays at being the dashing spy, he actually hates it. At least, he hates the reality of doing the job – the small dingy cottage, the plain clothes and the less than edible food that he has to deal with. As the second son, he’s a bit envious and bitter towards his brother, a marquis, who also works for the government but lives a much more lavish and glamorous lifestyle… as befitting a marquis. John’s testy attitude is understandable, but still not a very pretty trait to see in a romantic hero. It all changes, however, when he finally inherits from a very rich aunt and relations between the brothers turn for the better.
And, alas, the heart of the book, the romance between Althea and John, is lackluster at best. Although the romance takes twists and turns that makes one’s head spin, it’s still not interesting enough to get caught up in. Most, if not all, obstacles between the two lovers seem contrived, as if added only to prolong the misery of these two protagonists. Both sulk way too much, Althea the more annoying of the two because, frankly for the most part, she’s just plain unlikable.
Another point of contention, besides the hero and heroine's lack of personalities, is the fact that Althea, a never-before-married, only daughter, is a countess. In all other historical novels, it's made clear that only a MALE relation can inherit a title, and a daughter cannot unless she marries a titled gentleman. So how is it that Althea is a Countess of Camberly and her mother a dowager countess? It was never really explained (unless I missed it?) in the book. And although I'm no regency historian, a question to the right people (mainly other readers and authors who have researched the subject) makes it clear that it is impossible for an unmarried miss to have any sort of title - except for, I’m told, maybe an "honorable". How could a regency author overlook to explain that important fact?
With very few good things about the story, there’s just not enough to recommend it.