Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29905-8
Historical Romance, 2016
The Runaway Governess makes me feel so much happiness in its first third or so. It feels like something different, and the main characters are twits who are after my heart. But by the time the story limps into its final act, I get so tired of the hero that I have a hard time remembering why I thought a few times earlier that this was a five-oogie read. It could have been the book of 2016, but alas, it isn’t meant to be.
The plot seems dumb on paper, but the author pulls it off beautifully. Isabel Morton, our heroine, has always dreamed of being a singer. But this is Regency-era England, and such are the circumstances of her life that she is told again and again that she should aspire to be a governess instead. This means no singing and no starting a family with a man she loves, sigh. Our heroine isn’t willing to give up so easily, however. When she believes that she can find respectable employment as a singer in London, upon graduation from her governess-y school, she bluffs and charms her way to England, only to discover that she has been misled and the man who wants to hire her actually owns a brothel. Worse, he puts a knife to her throat when she decides to decline his employment offer.
Now, don’t ask me how a man of that sort will visit a school for not-so-wealthy young ladies who are educated to be governesses, because I have no idea. There are some big holes in the premise, I admit, but the heroine’s determination to do she can to achieve her dreams and the not-at-all-clichéd way she goes about doing it win me over. Isabel could have been a huge moron in another author’s hands, but here, I feel that I can relate to her, and I actually like her for daring to take a risk like that. I also feel that I can understand her motives for doing things that are not exactly smart in this one, and hence, I like her. No, I adore her.
Our hero William Balfour, the eldest son and hence heir of a Viscount. His father wants him to marry and beget an heir, so the man decides to make funny things in his will to push William into looking for a wife. William doesn’t care… until his beloved horses are handed over by his father to his cousin. Still, he is reluctant to marry because, once upon a time, when he was thirteen, his mother died, his father went all weepy-crazy for a while, and he had to take care of his three sisters. It was a terrible experience, I’m told, once that makes him vow never to have a wife or children ever, and hence, he will always make sure that nobody is close enough to him to ever threaten his heart. I know, blah blah blah – the same old broken record.
But, I like him. His background story of being a rake does not gel with the way he behaves – mostly awkward, and simply terrible, horrible at reading and understanding women, so I have no idea how he supposedly scored the way he did in the past – but the author manages to sell this fellow very well. His behavior often makes me cringe, but he comes off as such a sad, confused boy that never grew up that I feel sorry for him. I also like how William is not the most gorgeous fellow in the house – Isabel’s first impression of him is that he looks “ordinary”. Furthermore, his behavior never comes off as malicious. I’ll explain more later – I’ll need to get to the wedding first for everything to make sense.
So, the wedding. As you can guess, he rescues her from the man holding the knife. Word gets out, however, that he assaulted a man and subsequently kidnapped a proper lady, so to keep the gossips from damaging his family – he still has two unmarried sisters – so he offers a marriage of convenience thing to Isabel. And this is the precise moment where I get this feeling that the book could be it.
She paused. One shouldn’t marry for money. But one shouldn’t overlook funds either. “How wealthy?”
“My children will have a governess. A tutor. And if you wed me – ” He shrugged. “Your children will have a governess. A tutor.”
“My son would be a viscount,” she mused.
He frowned. “Bite your tongue. There is never any rush for that.”
The hero is exactly what is captured in that short moment – his garbled train of thought, his confusion despite his own belief that he knows exactly what he wants. Likewise, the heroine is a romantic, but she can also be very pragmatic when the opportunity arises – she will go from someone in desperate need of funds to being the wife of a wealthy man who will make sure that any children she has will have a good life.
And I really like how the following chapters showcase very well the whole awkwardness of two strangers ending up married to one another. There is no emotional wailing from Isabel about not being loved right away; she knows what she is getting into, and she is determined to make the best of a situation by making her own friends and finding her own happiness if the hero doesn’t want a real wife. The hero keeps staying away from her, but – and this is a big reason why I can tolerate, and even like William for so long – he is obviously nuts about her. In fact, he tells himself if he really wanted a wife, she would be his first choice, and he feels very fortunate that she marries him regardless of the circumstances leading to their nuptials. He has no regrets and harbors no bitterness – he just doesn’t want to fall for the wife.
I like the whole thing. But here’s the problem: the author overplays the hero’s angst for too long, and soon, I become weary of his antics. Let’s face it, he’s wealthy, he has all his limbs, he has plenty of friends, his cousin is taking good care of the horses, and he is also surrounded by cheerleading folks who adore him. The author can only make him whine for so long before William start to resemble a big crybaby moping that he would just die if any fuzzy feeling blossom in his cold, withered heart. The whole thing is actually a boring conflict, so when it drags on all the way until almost the last page, I begin to lose interest in these later parts of the book. Isabel is far more patient than I could ever be, let’s just say, because William basically tries to guilt trip her into being his wife when he feels horny but keep away from him when he’s done – he wants his cake and to eat it too, in other words, and I soon go from liking him to giving him the middle finger salute. His interminable behavior and whining eventually kill all goodwill I have for the story.
So, that’s The Runaway Governess in a nutshell. It has everything I could have adored to pieces: a hero and a heroine who don’t always march to the common beat and are adorable for it, a portrayal of a marriage of convenience between strangers that is handled in a way that I find to be believable and mature, and generally lacking in silly heroine antics after the wedding takes place. But the hero… ugh, he just doesn’t know when to stop. The first half or so is amazing, the later parts are dire, so I suppose a three-oogie rating would be a fair one after I average out the wondrous things and the ugh ones.