A Gentleman's Game
Even though Theresa Romain is one of my favourite historical romance authors, I did raise my eyebrows when I learned that she was writing a series of books which would be based around the Sport of Kings (horse racing). I know nothing about it – or horses – and wasn’t quite sure I’d be interested in reading stories about horse-mad people… but Ms Romain has never steered me wrong yet and I trust her to tell a good story in which the characters are front and centre. And indeed, A Gentleman’s Game, the first novel in her new Romance of the Turf series, once again showcases her ability to tell a good story and to create strong, likeable characters with whom readers can engage and empathise.
Nathaniel Chandler is the younger son of Sir William, formidable patriarch and owner of the family horse training business and stud farm. Owing to a misjudged act of rebellion when Nathaniel was just fifteen, father and son have an uncomfortable relationship; and even though Nathaniel travels the country buying and selling horses and taking care of various aspects of the business, Sir William doesn’t really trust him and believes him to be irresponsible. Knowing his father’s opinion, Nathaniel finds himself almost unconsciously playing up to the view of him as a flippant, devil-may-care sort who doesn’t take anything seriously.
Returning from his latest trip, Nathaniel again encounters his father’s new secretary, Rosalind Agate, whom he quickly realises is intelligent, competent and possessed of a dry wit – and finds her to be much more appealing than he remembers. He has also returned to bad news; three of their horses (two of which are slated to run in the upcoming Derby at Epsom) have gone down with bad cases of colic for no apparent reason. Together, Nathaniel and Rosalind attempt to discover the cause – but Rosalind fears that she already knows.
She has come to work at Chandler Hall, but not primarily as Sir William’s secretary. Instead, she is there to spy and to go through his papers in order to ferret out information for Aunt Annie, the woman to whom Rosalind owes her life. When she was just thirteen, Rosalind was burned in a fire, and it was Aunt Annie who paid for the medical care that saved her. After her recovery, Rosalind was only too pleased to do whatever Annie asked of her, moving from place to place and job to job, never able to make friends or a real life for herself, and believing that she was working off the monetary debt occasioned by the cost of her care and treatment. She suspects that the horses have been deliberately poisoned by Annie or someone she knows in order to ensure Rosalind’s continued compliance with her plans to find material with which to blackmail Sir William.
When the horses have recovered, it is time to travel to Epsom, and this year, Nathaniel wants to be the one to plan and make the journey with the large numbers of staff, grooms and outriders needed to accompany two incredibly valuable pieces of horseflesh from Newmarket to Surrey. But his father doesn’t trust him enough to undertake such an enterprise alone and will allow it on one condition; that Rosalind accompanies him and reports back regularly on their progress. And, of course, on Nathaniel’s actions. Much of the story is devoted to the journey and to the friendship and romance that develop between Rosalind and Nathaniel, with the sub-plot concerning Aunt Annie and her hold over Rosalind a constant background presence. Rosalind has reached a point when she longs to break free of her decade-long link to Annie and to live a normal life. She is lonely, her life of lies and deceit meaning she has had to keep herself apart from others; yet with Nathaniel, she allows herself a little glimpse of what things could be like for her once she is free, no matter that she knows full well that allowing herself to fall for her employer’s handsome son is a bad idea.
Nathaniel is lonely, too, part of a family and yet not part of it because of his fractured relationship with his father. Behind the charming façade is a young man searching for himself and a purpose in life; one who wants his father’s respect but is not sure how to bridge the gap between them.
Both protagonists are appealing characters, although Nathaniel totally steals the show from the minute he appears on the page. He’s utterly adorable – funny, kind, sensitive and endearingly self-deprecating, he’s a delicious beta-hero who isn’t afraid of his feelings for Rosalind and isn’t shy about revealing them to her. He is also far more competent and knowledgeable than his father believes him to be, surprising even Rosalind with his ability to organise, fix and generally keep things moving when they’re on the road.
I enjoyed the book very much, although I wasn’t completely convinced by the blackmail/Annie sub-plot which I found somewhat confusing. Perhaps it will be picked up in future books, but as it stands, it left me with a number of questions: Why Rosalind? Was she just one of many “indebted spies”? Was the reason given for Annie’s enmity towards Sir William genuine? Maybe I missed something, or am overcomplicating things, but while the plotline provided a plausible background for Rosalind’s deception, it doesn’t quite hold up on closer inspection.
But really, this is a beautifully written and tender love story about two lonely people finding each other and finding the strength through their love for one another to break through the barriers that have been holding them back from making their lives their own. The later scenes between Sir William and Nathaniel are touchingly honest and Rosalind’s lively, messy family are an utter delight; and through it all, Ms Romain has made good use of the backdrop of horse breeding and training and has incorporated a lot of detail that is interesting without becoming overwhelming.
A Gentleman’s Game is a great start to this new series, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the Chandlers and the Crosbys.