HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77906-2
Historical Romance, 2016 (Reissue)
Kasey Michaels’s An Improper Arrangement was first published digitally in 2015, and is only now made available in dead tree version. I have no idea why this was done in such a way, but hey, the ways of the publishing industry can be so mysterious sometimes. This is the first entry in a new series, which revolves around three English chaps who served in the Battle of Champaubert in 1814, only to barely escape with their lives when they were attacked and the man they asked to go back to base and warn the others, the very green Myles Neville, ended up losing his nerve and decamping. Today, the men will remain friends, and they will find adventures – and love – during the Little Season, which is like a warm-up for the main Season.
In this one, the plot is a bit convoluted on paper, so please bear with me.
The Dukedom of Cranbrook is cursed. Or so it seems, as every duke from the first one down died shortly before their sixtieth birthday. The current Duke of Cranbrook renounces his formerly more exciting lifestyle as his sixtieth birthday draws closer, becoming a reclusive hypochondriac who insists that he is dying every month or so. The Duchess is quite dismayed, as she used to have such a wonderful time seeing the world and doing fun things with her husband, and now he’s taken to his rooms and refusing to even snog her a little. Meanwhile, their nephew and our hero, Gabriel Sinclair, can only watch as every heir to the title dies either from disease or accident, until he’s now the next in line to inherit the whole thing should Uncle Basil succumb to the curse. Gabriel isn’t certain that the curse really exists, but he is understandably not too keen to step up and be the next Duke of Cranbrook.
Basil’s wife Vivien is not going to let her husband continue his nonsense. She’s humored him for two years, and now she wants the old Basil back. As she tells her nephew, she feels that she’s too old to find a lover, and she also feels too young to deprive herself from living just because her husband is acting crazy. So she has a plan. While traveling in America, she befriends a woman who ends up handing Viv a perfect instrument for her plans. Theodora Neville is the daughter of her mother from a previous marriage, and as far as everyone else knows, she and her mother (as well as a now deceased older brother whom she remembers barely) traveled to Virginia to avoid the bad memories of losing her father back in England. Viv immediately suspects, from Thea’s height and those distinctive eyebrows as well as the details of her past, that Thea’s mother may not be a widow but, rather, the discarded mistress of the Earl of Broxley who came to America to start a new life under false pretenses. Therefore, Thea may just be the illegitimate daughter of the Earl – who also happens to be the father of Myles, the kid that betrayed Gabriel and his buddies back during the Battle of Champaubert.
The Earl bullied Basil back in those days, and turned Basil into a joke among his peers, and Viv still holds a grudge to this day. She devises a plan that will galvanize Basil – whom she knows also holds a grudge – into wanting to leave the house: she would bring Thea to England, under the pretense of giving Thea a chance to attend the Little Season and helping her find a titled husband (something Thea’s mother wants for her). Gabriel will escort Thea around town, of course. What Viv has in mind is to wave Thea under the nose of the Earl of Broxley, to tell that man that they know the nasty secret that he’s tried to keep from everyone all this while. She is certain that Gabriel will cooperate with her, given Gabriel’s history with Myles.
On his part, Gabriel has stopped blaming Myles and has even forgiven that kid, as he knows now that Myles was too green and too young to be in the battlefield. It was Broxley who bought Myles a commission and forced that kid to serve when the kid was clearly not cut out for such things, and it was also Broxley that bribed and bought Myles’s way into being declared a war hero – an act that trivialized the sacrifices and deaths of the men betrayed by Myles. No, Gabriel doesn’t hate that kid, but he can direct his ire to Broxley. He isn’t comfortable about dragging Thea into his aunt’s plot, especially when he has a sneaking suspicion that he’d have to marry Thea at the end of the day out of a sense of obligation (after what they’d done to her) – making him collateral damage.
But one look at Thea, and those gorgeous long legs, and that fine, fine bosom… and the way she talks and looks at him… and he can’t think straight anymore.
And on her part, Thea has her own secrets that she is keeping close to her heart, for the time being. She has her own reasons for coming down to England. Will these secrets destroy her chances of having a happily ever after with Gabriel?
An Improper Arrangement has plenty of fun things to enjoy. The characters here all have interesting layers. Viv, for example, may seem like a dotty but benevolent old lady, but there is a ruthless streak in her, and for all her niceness towards Thea, she actually thinks that Americans are inferior to the English. Thea is a nice girl… for an American. Basil seems like a dotty guy too, but he can be selfish and self-absorbed as well. Even Gabriel and Thea are not cast in black and white – both have their prejudices and snobbery. Thea is BFF with her maid, for example, but she is very conscious of their differences in class. All these things may not endear these characters to readers who prefer democratic all-noble characters that are blind to class and social status, but I personally think all these little cattiness and quirks only make these characters feel more real as people of their time.
And they are entertaining, giving me many reasons to chuckle and snicker as they go around doing and saying all these funny things without being too over the top and ridiculous. This is a trademark of Kasey Michaels’s stories, of course, and she can still deliver the goods very well even after all this while. Basil’s hoarding of birds he found in his travels leads to some comical moments, and the banter between Thea and Gabriel can bring a smile to my face.
The thing is, this book sets up expectations that it takes forever to meet. Early on, I am led to believe that there will fireworks and explosions when Thea descends onto town during the Little Season. Broxley won’t be happy at all, and that man may do nasty things to ensure that his family skeletons remain in the closet. However, the bulk of this book focus on happenings in Basil’s home, and the characters only do things in the very late parts of the story. After setting up my anticipation, the story then dwells on Thea and Gabriel circling one another, the apparently endless and slow preparations for their upcoming trip, decisions on what to do with all those birds in the house… yes, yes, these scenes have their moments, but I’m led to believe that things will really be fun in London, so why aren’t we in London yet? When the story finally moves to London in its third act, I can only mutter, “Finally!” And then it is late, the pages are running out, and I get a rather anticlimactic showdown with Broxley.
I have had fun with An Improper Arrangement, but the pay-off is pretty lousy after all that build-up. I can’t feeling that this one would have been so much more fun if the author had kicked up the pacing a bit and let the plot move more briskly. As it is, it’s a gaily romp, but it can also be a bit of a let-down at the end of the day.