This Regency sweet romance is a lovely version of the traditional Three Little Indians murder mystery but with hearts rather than lives on the line. There are connections and relationships between the characters that even their hostess does not understand from the start.
Lady Bournaud, a curmudgeonly old woman with a gentle side, decides she’s been selfish for long enough, having withdrawn into mourning at the death of her husband some twenty years ago. To make amends and assist those around her, she arranges for a house party over Christmas and invites people she believes will suit with the intention of leaving them well matched for a future of happiness.
It’s a well-known premise, but Simpson introduces a lovely cast of characters with some surprise additions to the story. She leads the reader through the trials and tribulations of love. This wouldn’t be a Regency romance if not for the characters having barriers to their love, some social, some being blind when expectations are not met, and some the consequence of a hidden past shame.
The main focus is on Beatrice, Lady Bournaud’s companion, and the secret sorrow she hides behind, but each of the mixed group of characters gets a chance to discover where their hearts belong and to make a choice about what to do. Nor is this time spent sitting around contemplating. Thanks to the harsh weather on the Northern end of England, there are heart-stopping moments that have nothing to do with the mistletoe they hang about the rooms.
The characters fall into a lively mix of social standing and upbringing. One is a reverend with limited resources, another the daughter of an earl, a third comes from Canada where she was raised with survival not society as the highest concern, the fourth holds title and wealth but has never been challenged, the fifth a hard-working man who has earned both position and title not without costs, and then there’s Beatrice.
It’s a big cast, and those are merely the principles with Lady Bournaud making up the last. The story is told in a fluid point of view. Any of the above-mentioned characters hold the narrative at any one moment with switches occurring between paragraphs as well as between scenes. That said, the writing is smooth enough I never had trouble understanding whose perspective I was in.
Lady Bournaud has plans for every one of her guests, plans that take into account wealth and position but fail to consider the influence of hearts. While the pairings come clear to the reader early on, there are consequences and expectations holding them apart even beyond the role David played in Beatrice’s shadowed past. This makes both for a lively tale and a fine introduction into the rules of Regency society while giving us a character who proves an exception to those rules in almost every instance.
My only quibble with the book is the first chapter. It does not fairly represent the novel with the exception of the author’s determination to hold off on revealing Beatrice’s secret for as long as possible. Though I didn’t see much point in holding back the details, that I could have accepted. The first chapter, however, is a long introduction without the kind of details that would make it enjoyable and tells us nothing we couldn’t learn from the back cover text. I hope it does not turn aside interested readers because as soon as the second chapter began, I was hooked. This is interesting because the second chapter was mostly backstory, and yet it build a firm image of David’s character as the first one offered only obscure hints as to Beatrice’s troubles.
Bottom line: this is an enchanting story filled with characters who are more complex than they might initially appear to be, real character growth moments, and a story that takes into account the social rules of the time, and how they could both pressure and enable those seeking love and happiness. Well worth the read.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.