When I read Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved, the seventh and final book in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series which took as its heroine Dora Debbins,  a thirty-nine-year-old spinster, who had “lost all hope of marriage,” I thought good on Balogh, venturing into rather virgin territory where women of a certain age, cherished within their family, unexpectedly find beloved themselves.  But it seems Mary Balogh has a few more tricks up her sleeve and now I’m “Anticipating Matilda.”

Lady Matilda Westcott is the support and stay of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale. Readers meet her in the first Westcott book, Someone to Love, when she, together with Louise and Mildred, her two younger sisters, bemoan the dreadful news that their late brother Humphrey, the deceased Earl of Riverdale, died a bigamist. Matilda fusses over her mother, although as usual, her efforts are disparaged:

“Do not fuss, Matilda,” she was saying in obvious exasperation. “I am not about to swoon.”

Matilda and the Westcott clan are problem solvers, intensely loyal to their extended family, legitimate or not. In Someone to Love, Anna, Humphrey’s legitimate daughter and legal heir, marries Avery, Duke of Netherby, which allows the family to pivot to Camille and Abigail, Humphrey’s illegitimate daughters, and bring them back into the fold. In Someone to Hold, the sisters have moved to Bath, where they reside with their wealthy maternal grandmother. The Westcotts use the grandmother’s seventieth birthday as an excuse to descend. Matilda displays protectiveness and prudishness when Camille’s friend Joel Cunningham asks her to accompany him on a private walk.

“It is hardly the thing, Mr. Cunningham,” Lady Matilda said, “for a single lady—”

“I believe my granddaughter is quite capable of making her own decisions, Matilda,” the dowager countess said.

“Of course she is,” Lady Molenor agreed. “If she—”

The contretemps is solved when Elizabeth, Lady Overfield volunteers to stay behind in the library while Camille and Joel stroll. Lizzie is a widow not a spinster, but like Matilda, she is on the front line of helping wherever she’s needed.

Someone to Wed is Wren and Alexander’s story, Alex being the new, impoverished Earl of Riverdale. Wren bears the internal scars of a grim childhood. She was cruelly neglected by her parents because of a very noticeable facial blemish. At ten she was rescued by her aunt and uncle. Their recent deaths left Wren fabulously wealthy. She decides to use her riches to reach for her deepest dream, a husband and family of her own. Wren has lived behind a veil for years, but Alex needs more than Wren’s money to forge a partnership: he needs a countess who stands beside him. Matilda is at her blunt best when she meets Wren, saying (after gazing at her with what looked like fascinated horror),

“I must beg leave to recommend some ointment that would clear it up in no time.”

Matilda’s mother – clearly the most outspoken Westcott – snaps at Matilda when she suggests Wren wear a veil.

“And why would she wear one at all, Matilda?” the dowager said, sounding irritated, as she often did with that particular daughter.” She is remarkably handsome apart from those purple marks, which I imagine one does not even notice after a while.”

Matilda is not to be envied, because she is so often on the receiving end of her mother’s bark and bite. If Matilda was concerned about Camille taking a private walk with a gentleman, you can imagine her reaction when Viola, her former sister-in-law, is found frolicking with a rake in Someone to Care. When the dowager is invited to visit the estate of Viola’s rakish marquess, Matilda proclaims it would “upset” her mother to go. But the dowager perceives the situation through realistic eyes—is Viola “making a foolish mistake,” again, she wonders?

“I would not know, Mama,” Lady Matilda said, holding the vinaigrette over her bag, reluctant to let go of it. “I have always been assiduous about avoiding him and gentlemen like him who really do not deserve the name. And he is not so young either. But Viola has no choice, you know.” She flushed deeply. “They were caught living in sin together.”

“Ha!” the dowager said. “Good for Viola. It is about time that girl kicked up her heels a bit.”

One wonders why Matilda has been assiduous about avoiding rakes. Is it because her late brother Humphrey was a bounder or is there something in her past that has cause it?

In a romantic Christmas ceremony at Wren and Alex’s country estate, Viola marries her marquess. The extended family, including Colin, Lord Hodges, Wren’s younger brother, comes together to celebrate the holidays.

Someone to Trust is the story of Elizabeth Overfield and Colin’s burgeoning friendship and romance. They are separated by nine years, which wouldn’t be problematic if Colin was nine years older than Elizabeth’s thirty-five but they’re the opposite. The dowager warns Elizabeth not to allow fondness to “cloud your friendship” with Colin, describing them as “practically brother and sister.” Given Matilda’s persona, how might Elizabeth expect her to react?

Her eyes met those of Cousin Matilda, who was hovering as usual slightly behind her mother’s chair on the other side of the hearth. Matilda was looking steadily back at her, and an unexpected understanding passed between them. One was so often inclined to dismiss Matilda as a sort of caricature of the aging spinster who had devoted her life to her mother’s care. But family lore had it that as a young girl she had refused a number of eligible suitors her father had chosen for her because she had a romantic attachment to a younger son of a gentleman of no particular account and no fortune. Elizabeth did not know the truth of the story, but something in Matilda’s expression inclined her to believe it.

Wren’s husband Alex is not inclined to look with favor on Colin and Elizabeth’s decision to wed, nor are most of the Westcotts but love is not to be denied. No one is happier than Matilda when Elizabeth and Colin announce their engagement.

“Not all of us will try to persuade Elizabeth to change her mind,” Matilda said, interrupting. “Not all of us were blind over Christmas or have remained blind this spring. Nine years are nothing when the heart is involved.”

Well! Who would have expected that? Matilda is the epitome of loving support to her kinswoman Elizabeth in Someone to Trust but in the sixth Westcott story, Someone to Honor, she literally pulls a rabbit out of a hat and saves the day. Spoilers ahead… be warned.

Abigail Westcott marries Lieutenant Colonel Gil Bennington without inviting her family to the nuptials. Haste is of the essence because Gil is fighting to get custody of his young daughter Katy, who lives with her maternal grandparents. They detest him. Gil’s lawyer thinks a wife will make Gil’s case to retrieve his daughter more compelling. Like Abby, Gil is illegitimate but unlike her, he’s not part of an aristocratic family – his mother was a washerwoman. When Abby comes to London and shares her news with her family, Viola, her mother, states baldly that the Westcotts are about to descend on her.

“Matilda and Mildred and Louise called here this morning,” her mother said. “Your father’s three sisters. The triumvirate. The eternal fixers. I suppose they spoke for everyone. They are concerned, Abby, especially when for six years you have shown such marked reluctance to marry anyone. Of course they are concerned.

At a family meeting Matilda declares that they “need a plan for drawing him into the family, for making him feel welcome.” And even more is needed to help Gil and Abby.

“And we need a plan,” Aunt Matilda continued, “to make sure that he and Abigail succeed in getting custody of his child. It is quite unthinkable that a father not be allowed to take his own child home with him when he clearly loves her and did not consent to her being taken to her grandparents in the first place.”

Abigail is asked if Gil knows who his father is—and she reluctantly replies Viscount Dirkson. Viola remembers him as a member of Humphrey’s set, which, as Grandmama drily adds, “is not a strong recommendation.” Why then would Matilda persuade Viola’s step-son Bertrand, who has an acquaintance with Dirkson’s son, to escort her to Dirkson’s townhouse? You’ll have to read Someone to Honor to savor all the details but suffice to say, Dirkson is a surprise character witness at Gil’s custody hearing.

What a delight to learn that the seventh Westcott story, Someone to Remember, will feature Lady Matilda Westcott and Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson. The couple are in their mid-fifties. Matilda recalls when “the two of them had discovered once upon a time that he was precisely one month to the day older than she.” Once upon a time – how can I possibly wait until November 5th to find out precisely how and when and why Matilda and Charles knew each other? Here’s a little teaser from Goodreads to whet your appetite while you’re “Anticipating Matilda”!

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to see Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders if, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built for over three decades or risk losing her once again.

Thank you, Mary Balogh, for continuing to stretch the edges of romance – I cannot wait to read Matilda and Charles’s love story.

~ Janet Webb

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