A Lady Unrivaled
A Lady Unrivaled is the final book in the Ladies of the Manor trilogy, set in the years immediately preceding the First World War, and which sees a group of young aristocrats involved in the search for some extremely valuable red diamonds. The romantic storylines are concluded in each book so there is no cliffhanging will-they, won’t-they?; but the mystery plot is overarching and because I haven’t read the previous books, I have to confess to feeling rather adrift for quite a large portion of the first few chapters of this one.
I gleaned that someone was out to acquire the “Fire Eyes”, as the diamonds are known, by whatever means necessary; that the hero of this book had been associated with some Rather Bad Men in the past and that the heroine is a determined to eliminate the threat to her family and friends by finding the diamonds and then – well, she’s not quite sure what to do with them, but whatever it is will be better than letting them fall into the undeserving hands of whoever is looking for them.
The author is thoughtful enough to have included a list of dramatis personae at the beginning, so I was at least able to work out who was who and was related to whom without too much trouble.
Lady Ella Myerston is the sister of the Duke of Nottingham (hero of book two, The Reluctant Duchess) and is currently staying with her friend Brook, Duchess of Stafford (The Lost Heiress) at the Staffords’ country seat in the Cotswolds. Brook is not best pleased when she discovers Ella reading up about the red diamonds and the curse that surrounds them; being around them put Brook into serious danger in the past and she doesn’t want the same fate to befall her friend. But Ella won’t be put off so easily and continues with her reading in secret.
James Azerly, the Earl of Cayton, earned Brook’s enmity when he unceremoniously jilted her cousin in order to marry an heiress. She still dislikes him intensely, but he’s her husband’s cousin, so it is impossible to cut ties completely, and besides, Stafford and Cayton have begun to reconcile since the death of the latter’s young wife in childbed just nine months earlier. Cayton carries a bucket-load of guilt over having broken the hearts of two women – one of them his wife – neither of whom he loved, over his mercenary motives for marriage, and over the fact that he failed to alert anyone to the plot to kidnap Brook in order to obtain the diamonds that was perpetrated by his friend Rushworth. But he is devoted to his little girl, and is determined to become a better man, even though he is continually plagued by doubt.
While it took a while for things to get going in the story – and for me to get into it – once I understood the background I started to enjoy it, and in the end found it a quite compelling read. Ella and Cayton are glass half-full/glass half-empty types; she is perpetually cheerful and optimistic, where he’s rather endearingly grumpy, and their interactions are definitely the highlight of the story. Ella refuses to accept James’ moodiness and sees the man he is trying to become rather than the man he was, showing him that she has faith in him and in his transformation in a way that humbles him. Their romance progresses steadily as Cayton gradually comes to believe that redemption and forgiveness are possible and their eventual HEA is easy to believe in. The one issue I have with them as a couple is that Cayton is so often weighed down by doubt that he is almost paralysed by it. Ella is the driving force for the events of the book until near the very end, and I would have liked James to have taken a more proactive role. Apart from that, however, he’s a well-developed character with an artistic soul and an attractive vulnerability that makes him all the more human.
The story surrounding the mysterious diamonds is nicely wrapped up, but not before Cayton is blackmailed into betraying his friends and the woman he is coming to love. Ella is firmly in the sights of the unstable Lord Rushworth, a dangerous man who will go to any lengths to secure the diamonds – but her belief in Cayton spurs him on and together, they work to keep each other and their loved ones safe while foiling Rushworth’s plans.
There are a number of secondary plotlines interweaving with the hunt for the diamonds and the developing romance between Ella and Cayton, but they don’t get in the way of the main storylines and add further background interest. The secondary characters are generally well-drawn, although Rushworth is rather a two-dimensional villain, as is his valet-cum-henchman. The dénoument is suitably tense, although I would suggest that it’s probably not the best idea to take a heavily pregnant woman with you on a rescue mission.
As this is an Inspirational Romance, there are a number of references to faith and spirituality, most of which feel suitably in keeping with the characters and the setting. I have to admit though, that there were a couple of times I found it just a tad heavy-handed, but that is probably just a matter of personal preference. It was certainly nothing that took me out of the story or detracted from it.
Ms. White writes extremely well and I enjoyed the way in which she developed all her different plotlines and brought them to satisfying conclusions. A Lady Unrivaled is an entertaining story featuring engaging, well-rounded characters that strikes a good balance between romance and plot. I’d certainly recommend it to others, but if you like the sound of it, you might want to consider reading the other books in the series first.