An Heiress at Heart
I’ve always been fascinated by Sommersby-type stories where someone pretends to be a person they’re not, only to find the deception has gone too far. Jennifer Delamere’s An Heiress at Heart is such a romance, with the twist that it’s not the hero who’s pretending, it’s the heroine.
Lizzie Poole and her brother Tom are seeking a new start in life. Lizzie was abandoned by a man, so Tom challenges the man to a duel and kills his opponent, and the two of them flee to Australia, where they’re befriended by Edward Somerville. Like them, he’s English, but he and his wife arrived in Australia ten years earlier. When Lizzie sees his wife she realizes why Edward took an interest in them – she and the wife, Ria, look exactly alike.
Fast-forward a few years. Edward and Ria have died, and Tom is lost in a shipwreck. Lizzie returns to England, but she does so using Ria’s name. Ria believed Lizzie to be her illegitimate half-sister, and that Lizzie would be able to find letters from her parents to prove the truth of this. Of course, it will be easier to live as noblewoman Ria than as nobody Lizzie, hence the pretense. Ria has described her home and family to Lizzie, so she feels prepared to carry off the deception.
Unfortunately, while she’s plucking up the courage to approach Ria’s grandmother’s house, she’s knocked down by a carriage. Two gentlemen, Geoffrey Somerville and Ria’s cousin James Simpson, rescue her, are shocked at her appearance, and carry her inside. It turns out Ria fled England because she was supposed to marry the eldest Somerville brother (now deceased), but instead she eloped with Edward, the middle brother. Geoffrey, the youngest and a clergyman, now inherits a barony but finds his brother’s widow is far more of a problem, because while he’s attracted to her, legally he can’t marry her. (It was illegal for a man to marry his deceased brother’s widow at this time in England).
Meanwhile Lizzie tries to maintain her Ria façade while searching for the letters (and not having much luck). But then she discovers that the man who abandoned her wasn’t actually killed in the duel. He turns up, is at once suspicious, and hangs around trying to expose her.
While the web of connections is a bit tangled, the plot is simple. Lizzie and Geoffrey meet on various social occasions as she’s reintroduced to everyone. She feels guilty about impersonating Ria. He fights his attraction to his brother’s lovely widow and his corresponding lack of attraction to a shy young lady with a marriage-minded mama. Rinse and repeat.
I was never bored, but that’s partly because I kept reading to see how the inevitable exposure occurs (through the time-honored ritual where the heroine can’t sleep so she wanders to the library in her nightie only to find the hero there, that’s how) and partly because I enjoyed the other characters. James is irreverent and funny, making him a refreshing contrast to Geoffrey, and he falls for the girl who wasn’t good enough for Geoffrey. I can’t wait to try his book.
But as for Lizzie and Geoffrey… meh. He loves her because she’s beautiful and because she has more empathy for the working classes than Ria did. Likewise, she finds him intelligent and kind and handsome, but there’s no real depth to these two. They don’t bring out the best in each other or work together to solve a problem, which is perhaps understandable, since Lizzie is pretending to be someone else while Geoffrey keeps reminding himself that he can’t marry his brother’s widow. So I wasn’t feeling the romance.
The historical backdrop is well-written, with descriptions of the Crystal Palace and the social reforms of the period, which is another thing to enjoy about the story. It’s a no-sex romance, which is in keeping with Geoffrey’s morals, and although there is a little inspirational content, this is very slight and never preachy. Ultimately, I found this an easy read but will just as easily forget it – except for James, fingers crossed for his story. If you’re looking for a historical romance, you could do worse than An Heiress at Heart, but you could also do much better.