A Lady in Need of an Heir
A Lady in Need of an Heir sees author Louise Allen skilfully gender-flipping the frequently used trope of a man needing to marry in order to produce an heir. In this story, a successful, independent businesswoman, whose family has been making wine and port in the Douro Valley for generations, is unwilling to cede control of her family legacy to a husband and has to find an alternative means to preserve it.
Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, has finally bowed to the pressure (read: constant nagging) of his godmother to travel to Portugal in order to persuade her niece to return to England, make a good marriage and settle down. Gabrielle Frost is a single lady of aristocratic lineage with no immediate family and should certainly not be living on her own and running a business – it’s just not done. Gray – a former soldier who knows the area well from his time spent with the English army during the Penisular War – quickly realises that the task his godmother has set isn’t going to be as easy as he had initially thought, because Miss Frost is clearly clever, determined and knows her own mind. It’s obvious that she has a very firm grasp of her business and very strong attachment to the Quinta do Falcão, which has been in her family for generations.
Gaby knows full well that her aunt is aiming to wed her to her foppish cousin George, which, Gray has to admit, would be a terrible match. Still, he is dead set against her remaining in Portugal on her own, no matter that he can see how capable and strong-minded she is. But over the next few days, as he begins to fully appreciate what the business means to Gaby and to see how skilfully she runs it, he starts to change his opinions somewhat.
Gaby loves the work she does and is justifiably proud of her accomplishments. Unfortunately however, the death of her younger brother during the recent war has left her with no one to pass Frost’s on to when the time comes; she has no close relatives and the idea of one day selling the business to a stranger is not one she relishes. Equally, the idea of marrying in order to produce an heir is abhorrent and would mean losing all control over the business; the law states that “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” And she is certainly not going to risk putting Frost’s into the hands of a man who could sell it off on a whim or run it into the ground.
After a slightly awkward misunderstanding with a close neighbour, Gaby decides that perhaps a visit to London for a couple of months might be a good idea. She can make it clear to her aunt that she has no intention of marrying George – or anyone – and perhaps it will give her the opportunity to carry out the daring scheme she has concocted. The only way to preserve Frost’s legacy will be to conceive a child without marriage – but it must appear as though she’s been married and widowed when she returns to Portugal, so that the child will not bear the stain of illegitimacy. Of course, the man she chooses must be discreet, and then agree to vanish from her life and have no contact with her or their child ever again.
She recognises from the outset that this will be far from an easy task, but is sure it’s the only way to secure Frost’s for future generations. And her growing feelings for Gray – and his for her – are adding layers of complication to an already difficult situation. Gaby immediately rules out the idea of asking Gray to father her child; using him in that way would be unfair, and the idea of marriage is equally impossible. Even if Gray had not made clear his disinclination to marry again, he has responsibilities that require his continued presence in England, while Gaby’s home and work is in Portugal, making a future together an impossible dream for both of them.
Ms. Allen does an extremely good job with her characterisation of Gaby as an independent woman of good sense with a mind and opinions of her own. Even better, the setting and the links that have existed between England and Portugal since the fourteenth century make Gaby’s situation an extremely plausible one that requires no mental gymnastics on the part of the reader to accept. The scenes in which we witness Gaby’s knowledge of her estate and the business of wine and port production add interest and colour to the story (without bogging it down), and I really appreciated the presence of a strong heroine who doesn’t need to prove herself to anyone, or prove herself by making others look weak. Gaby knows who she is and is comfortable in her own skin.
Gray is an admirable hero with a similar sense of self and aura of competence that are very attractive. His gradually dawning respect for Gaby is well done and I liked that, even when he doesn’t agree with her living alone and working for her living, he can appreciate her skill and understand the reasons behind her reluctance to marry. The attraction between the couple does spring up a little quickly perhaps, but there is plenty of chemistry between them and the author takes the time to develop their relationship before they do more than exchange a few heated kisses. One of the most satisfying things about this romance is the honesty between Gray and Gaby. There is a misunderstanding near the end, which serves to inject a bit of uncertainty into the latter part of the story, but for most of the book, the two communicate well, and don’t shy away from telling each other the truth, even when that truth is difficult to face. The one false note struck is in the backstory of Gray’s unhappy first marriage, which he seems to have been given in order to provide Reasons for his reluctance to remarry; but once he’s fallen for Gaby, he realises he’s crashed through that roadblock, so I had to wonder why the author had chosen to include it in the first place.
That’s the only thing that didn’t really work for me in A Lady in Need of an Heir, which is otherwise a refreshingly different historical romance and one I’m happy to recommend to others.