Phoebe, Lady Clare, is Kingston’s oldest daughter. When the book opens, Phoebe has been widowed for two years, and after living with her parents for all this time, she is just coming out of mourning. She has two small children who she is henceforth determined to raise at Clare, the seat of her older son, Justin’s viscountcy.
With her first husband, Henry, she had shared a loving, gentle relationship. He was everything a gentleman should be, with the emphasis on gentleness and noble pursuits. He was also very ill all his life with an unexplained illness that finally robbed him of life before the birth of his second son. He trusted his cousin, Edward, with all the estate matters and towards the end, appointed him as the executor of his estate and trustee of his children.
Both Henry and Edward behaved to the manor born and Edward’s stewardship of the land was done from a distance, to the point of sending the bailiff to collect the rents. Phoebe existed in a fog, content to let them manage her affairs, even as her life was increasingly filled up with nursing duties as Henry’s health failed. In the end, Henry made her promise him that she will accept Edward as her second husband, so that life at Clare — hers, the children’s, and the estate — would continue unchanged. While she said, she will think about it, she was almost certain that she would accept Edward once her mourning period was over.
As our story starts, Phoebe is out of mourning and is traveling with her family and children to the Ravenels’ estate where her brother is marrying Lord Trenear’s ward. It is there that she meets West Ravenel.
And her mind and body are stunned. West is a man of great energy, focused purpose, and compassion. He blows Phoebe out of her complacency and acceptance of life the way it is. He opens her world up to new possibilities, in her personal outlook as well as how to run the Clare estate. He empowers her to think that just because she is a woman, she doesn’t have to surrender her will to a man — she can think for herself. And she doesn’t know whether she is upside down or right-side up. Her entire being is buzzing with excitement and confidence and with ideas of what she wants to do and what she wants to achieve. And there is the instant strong attraction between them to contend with as well.
What I really liked about this book is that Phoebe never resents or talks down her first husband. She loved him then and loves him still, but it is possible for her to love another as well. Far too many books make the first marriage lesser in order to make the second marriage more significant. They also make the first husband less worthy, so that the current hero is more heroic. In showing how Phoebe loves both Henry and West, just differently, I liked how Kleypas showed how generous-hearted Phoebe is. And she is generous of her time, of her thoughtfulness, and of her compassion to everyone around her.
West falls hard and fast for her, just as she does for him. But West cannot allow himself to reach for a lifetime of happiness with her, and after the wedding, he lets her go home to Clare though neither of them is unaware of the other’s regard and with the knowledge that Edward is waiting to wed her.
Trust is such a small word but it hides a wealth of vulnerability inside it. To love you have to first trust. But before you can trust the other, you have to trust yourself. But West cannot separate his past from his current self and cannot trust himself to have changed. How can he then love her when he does not trust himself to deserve her?
In his salad days, West was a thorough scoundrel. We are not talking about the garden-variety rakes that are widely in evidence in historical romance. West was a rake with a capital ‘R’ – profligate and licentious, the stories of his drunkenness and affairs with married women were legion. In recent years, he has become thoroughly disgusted with who he used to be and has thrown himself completely into becoming an exemplary estate steward, deeply involved in every aspect of the position. When West meets Phoebe, he couldn’t be farther from the man he used to be.
Yet West believes that his entire life is blighted, that having remade his life is all for nothing. His past could rise up to taint his future life with Phoebe and her sons, or he might slip back into his old ways. He cannot believe in himself, cannot trust that he is a new man now. So he would rather remain unwed than destroy her life.
How Kleypas rescues West and his relationship with Phoebe is where Kleypas’ magical storytelling skills lie. With confidence and delicacy, she shores up his faith in himself and his faith in Phoebe’s love. Love does vanquish the past and conquer the future. And in so declaring, Kleypas shows how everyone is capable of love and how everyone has that someone who loves them back and believes in them completely.