An Heir of Uncertainty
Colonel Winstead Vaughan is surprised to learn that he has inherited an earldom following the very unexpected death of the young Earl of Radbourne, a distant cousin. Win’s own estate of Hamble Grange is in financial difficulties, and things are looking bleak; he had to remove his younger brother from Cambridge because he could not afford the fees and, looking years ahead, doesn’t know how he will provide a suitable dowry for his five-year-old daughter when the time comes. So while he is naturally sorry to hear of a young life tragically ended, he can’t help feeling just a bit relieved that his financial problems appear to have been solved.
Summoned to Yorkshire by the estate’s solicitors, Win undertakes the arduous journey from Hampshire accompanied by Julia and his brother, Freddie, only to find upon arrival that the situation is not as he had been informed. It appears that the young earl’s wife of three months is pregnant, and that the earldom is now in abeyance until she has the baby. Win is naturally a bit disgruntled at having travelled all that way with a fractious five-year-old and incessantly chattering nineteen-year-old when he might not stand to inherit after all, and immediately decides to return home to wait out the months until the birth.
Lina, Lady Radbourne had not realised she was expecting at the time she was notified of the death of her husband, but by the time she did realise, it was too late, and the estate’s trustees had already summoned the ‘new earl’. Not wanting to create any more awkwardness, she moves to the dower house with her sister, so that Win – who is still the heir presumptive – can stay at Belryth Abbey. Lina and Win are naturally a little apprehensive around each other, but when, the day after his arrival, Win encounters Lina on a walk and escorts her home to discover that the dower house has been broken into, he decides that perhaps he should stick around for a while for a rest before undertaking the 250 mile journey home – and to make sure the necessary repairs are taken care of. Over the next few days, a series of other seeming “accidents” – poisoned tea, a dead dog, and then a ‘trip’ into the path of a moving carriage – directed at Lina and her unborn baby suggest that someone is deliberately trying to harm her, and Win is the obvious suspect. After all, he has most to gain should her child not be born. But even in the few short days they have known each other, Lina has learned that Win is a man to be trusted. And more than that, she can’t stop thinking about him, the strength of the attraction she feels startling and quite new. Lina had been very fond of her husband, but had married him out of friendship and a desire for security for herself and her younger sister rather than because of any romantic attachment.
Win is similarly smitten with Lina, and is puzzled by the fact that nobody in the area has a good word to say about her. Before he meets her, the estate’s trustees talk about her as if she is a jezebel, a woman of extremely lax morals whose baby is likely not even her late husband’s. On meeting her, he wonders if they were talking about the same woman, because Lina is decorous and ladylike as well as being lovely.
I’m not going to reveal whodunit – or who tried to do it – but the author keeps the plot twisting and turning right up until the end, throwing in a few extra and very plausible suspects along the way – and the reveal, when it comes, is suitably shocking. The romance between Win and Lina, while it takes place over just a few days, is nonetheless fully developed, and the sexual tension between them crackles whenever they’re in scenes together.
But the thing that elevates this book into more than ‘just’ an historical mystery is the richness of the characterisation and the sense of community Ms. Everett has created around this small Yorkshire village. All the secondary characters are superbly drawn, from the lovelorn doctor to the grumpy local magistrate, and her depiction of Win’s brother, Freddie, is superb. Today, we’d recognise him as being on the autistic spectrum, but back then, of course, he would have just been regarded as rather odd, what with his obsession with pigeons, his forthright and literal honesty and his utter lack of guile. Freddie is wonderfully endearing and it’s obvious that the brothers would do anything for each other. Win and Lina are fully-rounded characters with more than a bit of emotional baggage which trips them both up at key moments; the circumstances of Win’s unhappy marriage make it difficult for him to fully consider a future with Lina, and Lina is wary of making her mother’s mistakes. Both of them need to come to terms with their pasts so they can move forward into the future together, and their eventual realisations about what is really important is handled well.
An Heir of Uncertainty is a book I can heartily recommend. Alyssa Everett gets the balance between romance and whodunit just right; and while perhaps the ending is a little too neatly tied up, it doesn’t spoil what is a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining read.