This is James's second book on the four the Essex Sisters, daughters of a Scottish viscount who was obsessed with his racing stables, to the point of beggaring the estate – and his daughters – before he died. They are now the wards of Ralph, the English Duke of Holbrook.
As a child, Annabel showed a talent for dealing with numbers. When she turned 13 her dissolute, horse-mad father put her in charge of the financially troubled family estate, and she spent years pinching pennies in order to keep herself and her sisters fed. She has sworn to never again live like that. She is having her first Season and wants to marry a rich Englishman who has nothing to do with horses. She has her sights set on Lord Rosseter, but it is a Scotsman, newly arrived in town to find a wife, who sets her heart aflutter.
Ewan Poley, the Earl of Ardmore, wants to find a wife fast and get back to his estate. He doesn't much care who he marries, he's sure he can get along with most anyone but he is anxious to get the business done and get home. He is at heart a farmer and is happiest on his estate with the odd assortment of people has gathered around him as his "family." He is quite taken with Annabel as well, and after they share a fabulous kiss, he asks her to marry him, but is refused. Annabel is sure he is just another poor Scotsman with an empty title looking for a rich wife. She has spent her entire life dreaming of getting out of Scotland. She is not about to marry a Scotsman and go back.
But Ewan and Annabel are found in a compromising position by the ton's greatest gossip and are forced to marry. This compromising situation was not of their own making. It was entirely the fault of Annabel's sister, Imogen, and herein lies my biggest gripe with this book.
In the last book, Much Ado About You, Imogen had eloped with the boy she'd been in love with all her life. They were married a total of two weeks when he died in a horse race. That was eight months ago and Imogen has been acting Very Badly ever since. She has lots of anger, lots of guilt; she is behaving scandalously and in danger of becoming ostracized from society. Her activities take up a good third of the novel, and before the compromising situation which forces the marriage between Annabel and Ewan, I found myself checking the cover of the book several times to make sure that this really was Annabel's book and not Imogen's.
Eloisa James is known for creating overarcing characters and situations which she then follows through several books. This worked very well in the "Duchess in Love" series with the love story of Esme and Sebastian. However, Imogen is no Esme. Esme was an adult, full-blown, complex, larger-than-life character whose story could be sustained over several books. Imogen is nowhere as compelling or interesting a character. She is a whiny, self-absorbed brat. Yes, she has cause for grief and anger, but she was a whiney, self-absorbed brat before her marriage and widowhood has not improved her. I don't know that I care to read two more books filled with her antics.
Ewan and Annabel, when we do get to spend time alone with them, are admirable and likeable characters. Annabel, though disappointed at having to marry a Scotsman, is practical and resigned to her fate, making the best of it. Thankfully, it is not too difficult to do, for Ewan is an exemplary man, almost too good to be true. There are some contrived conflicts in store for them, but as a whole, their story flows smoothly and held my interest – and I loved their Kissing Game. In fact, I could have used more of Ewan and Annabel and much less of Imogen.
Reviewed by Cheryl Sneed, November 16, 2005