Desert Isle Keeper
A Lady's Lesson in Scandal
Nell Whitby works in an East End cigar factory and lives with her invalid mother in a tiny hovel in Bethnal Green. It’s a tough life and a hand-to-mouth existence; and making things worse, her abusive step-brother is drinking away the money that could pay for her mother’s medicine and keeps suggesting that Nell starts making money on her back to pay for it. With her dying breaths, her mother tells Nell that she must get in touch with her father – her real father – the Earl of Rushden, and raves about having stolen her in order to save part of him and to save Nell.
Homeless and grieving for her loss, Nell decides she’ll do more than contact the Earl of Rushden, whom she believes must have got her mother pregnant and then thrown her out. She breaks into his bedroom late one night intent on murder – only to discover that the earl died some months earlier. The new earl, Simon St. Maur, is a very distant relation of the previous one; he’s also a lot younger, handsome as hell and twice as hot. But while he has inherited the Rushden estates and title, Simon is pockets to let, the old earl having disliked him so intensely that he left his two million pound fortune to his twin daughters and his estates to Simon without leaving him the means to run them.
Most believed Rushden to be mad, bequeathing half his fortune to a girl long thought dead. Over the years, there have been a number of imposters claiming to be Lady Cornelia Aubyn, but after years of searching, the daughter who had been kidnapped as a young child was never found. Yet now, incredibly, here she is, a golden opportunity if ever Simon saw one. He recognises Nell immediately and realises they can help each other; by marrying her, he will gain access to half the late earl’s fortune, and at the same time, he can restore her to her proper place in society. The fact that she’s an uncouth guttersnipe doesn’t really deter him; she’s got spirit and intelligence, and will easily be able to learn how to behave properly in society. Besides, the marriage can be annulled later; they’ll reach a financial settlement and go their separate ways, both of them much better off than they started out.
Not surprisingly, Nell thinks Simon is talking out of his arse when he tells her who she really is. Having been brought up in the slums and with no expectations of ever having anything better, she agrees to go along with Simon’s scheme simply in order to placate him even as she is pricing up the silver and stashing away small items she thinks to sell when she runs off. But there are small things niggling at the back of her mind; the familiarity of a picture, for instance, and the fact that she really does look very much like Lady Katharine, her supposed twin – that sew enough seeds of doubt in Nell’s mind as to make her start to believe that perhaps she really is the missing heiress. Then there’s her growing attraction to Simon, who, she quickly realises, is very far from being the sort of brainless, selfish product of his class she assumes all aristocrats to be.
This is very much a character-driven story, and Ms. Duran has created a couple of very attractive, multi-layered protagonists in Nell and Simon. At first glance, Simon seems to be a bit stereotypical – handsome and titled, but broke and needing to marry money. And it’s true – he is and he does – but he’s much more than that, which makes him all the more appealing. Like Nell, he has been hardened by his upbringing albeit in a different way, his harsh, cynical outlook on life concealing deeply buried vulnerabilities. He is a gifted musician and pianist, but because it wasn’t the done thing for a gentleman to excel in artistic pursuits, his family belittled his talent and wanted him to suppress it. Now, however, he is one of the foremost patrons of the arts in England, and the man all of society looks to in matters of artistic taste – To disagree with the Earl of Rushden’s artistic opinions was to risk being thought a bumpkin. Yet he is as trapped by his circumstances as Nell is by hers.
Nell is understandably prickly and quick to mistrust. Her life has been a difficult one and I completely understood her reluctance to believe Simon straight away, even though it would mean escape from her old life into a life of continued luxury. She keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for things to go wrong and makes her plans accordingly. It’s not until some way into the book that she finally accepts that she really is Lady Cornelia and agrees to undergo the training she will need to make her fit for society. Even then, however, she fights it, denouncing all the various conventions and social mores as hypocrisy – The rules here were rotten. The quick-fire verbal exchanges between Nell and Simon are superbly constructed, showing their matched wit and their equality of mind while also highlighting the very great social gulf between them.
Until coming here, until learning what it meant to be privileged, she’d not understood how far down St. Maur’s kind had to look in order to see hers. But here, in his own words, was the philosophy that made his lot comfortable with never bothering to look down at all.
“Money’s no virtue. It shouldn’t be an end in itself.” She gave a dry little laugh. “And neither should pleasure. If you knew any gin addicts, you’d realise that.”
Watching these two wary, naturally suspicious people move around each other in ever decreasing circles is an absolute delight. The romance is extremely well-developed as the initial spark of attraction between the couple gradually strengthens and deepens into love, and the sexual chemistry between them is utterly delicious and leaps off the page. Both characters are changed by their relationship, Simon especially, as he comes to see and understand the depth of the privation faced by so many people day after day; and Nell learns to stop expecting the worst all the time and to see herself as a woman whose background doesn’t mean she is unworthy of happiness and love. Ms Duran doesn’t sugar-coat the life Nell has lived, the squalor and the degradation and the way it has shaped her, or ignore the fact that, in spite of her noble birth, Nell is never really going to be fully accepted in society and will be forever “between classes”.
Loving him would not be easy. It would mean never again completely belonging anywhere – save with him. But she would belong with him. He would be her home, she thought.
But what gives the reader confidence for their future is that both of them are well aware of the difficulties they are likely to face and are prepared to face them together.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it’s one I’ll revisit, but it isn’t without its problems. Well into the second half, Nell has a massive over-reaction to something she overhears and then refuses to believe the truth about it; and there’s a nefarious plot by those who are intent on keeping the old earl’s money for themselves which crosses the line into melodrama. But otherwise, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal is a beautifully written and intense love story with complex, flawed characters who may not always be likeable but whose motivations are clear and understandable. Their continual reappraising of each other through words and actions is masterfully done, and I was pleased that Nell ends the book as essentially the same fiercely intelligent, strong woman she started out as, but has finally learned to trust in her happiness with the man she loves. I can’t do anything other than but the book on my Keeper shelf.