Contracted as His Countess
Louise Allen is an author whose work I’ve enjoyed many times in the past, and I always look forward to a new release from her. Contracted as His Countess is a standalone historical romance that puts a slightly different spin on a familiar trope, and the very different backgrounds of the two protagonists make for some interesting situations and conflicts. But somewhere around the half-way point, the story loses focus and never really regains it; the romance is not well developed and even thought the eleventh-hour black moment is actually set up earlier in the book, it nonetheless feels flimsy and awkward.
Madelyn Aylmer is the daughter of a rather eccentric gentleman whose fascination with the gothic period went far beyond that of many of the other nineteenth century gothic revivalists. He lived as a medieval nobleman in his own castle, complete with moat, drawbridge and portcullis, dressed in medieval attire, eschewed modern conveniences and even wanted his servants to dress the part. He brought up his only daughter with medieval values and sensibilities; indeed Madelyn has had very little interaction with the outside world and is, indeed, much like the ivory-tower bound princess in a fairy tale. Now her father is dead, and she is duty-bound to fulfil his last request, which is to marry a man with bloodlines that can be traced back to before the Conquest, a man of impeccable breeding.
That gentleman is Jack Ransome, Earl of Dersington, who is commonly known in society as Jack Lackland because his is an empty title. In fact, he styles himself plain Mister Ransome, seeing no point in calling himself an earl because without lands, retainers or wealth, he has no power and therefore, no function as an aristocrat. His profligate father and elder brother left nothing, and he supports himself by working as an enquiry agent. He arrives at Castle Beaupierre in response to the invitation from Miss Aylmer, and is surprised at his reaction to the statuesque young woman dressed in clothes of a bygone age who greets him. Madelyn Aylmer is not pretty by the standards of the day, but she’s most certainly and unconventionally attractive in her poise and serenity. Plain by modern standards, yet somehow lovely and utterly remote.
Jack is even more surprised when she tells him the reason for her invitation. Over the years, her father had searched out and acquired every scrap of the lost Dersington lands, and these will of course be returned to Jack upon their marriage. He is stunned – and then angry at the idea that this young woman thinks she can buy him… but also feels an unexpected hope at the prospect of regaining his family’s property, and after thinking it over – and admitting to himself that his unaccountable attraction to Madelyn will at least make the act of begetting heirs a pleasant one – he agrees to the match. But with the condition that Madelyn must live in the present and not the past, and that she will learn how to conduct herself appropriately in nineteenth century society.
The marriage of convenience for money is a common enough trope, but Madelyn’s unusual upbringing and Jack’s rejection of his title – and the widespread disapproval of his peers that incurrs – opened up the potential for some different sorts of conflicts to those usually found in this type of story, and I eagerly raced through the first few chapters. Jack finds Madelyn someone to help her to learn all the rules that govern society and its interactions, from learning how to act as hostess to what clothes to wear. Madelyn is determined to do her best to fit in, Jack’s intentions are good in providing her with someone to guide her, and so are those of her mentor, but those good intentions basically translate to Madelyn finding herself wearing unflattering clothes in colours that do not suit her and feeling as though she is being forced to give up her individuality. I sympathised with her; she wanted to be a credit to Jack but was being pushed in directions that made her anything but, and I was pleased when she took a stand and decided to find a compromise that would work for her and for Jack. I was very much on her side in this – until she did something silly as a way of demonstrating her ability to make sound judgments about how to behave, which was not only dumb but out of character.
The biggest problem with the book though, is the romance. Or rather, the lack thereof. Ms. Allen is capable of creating terrific sexual tension between her heroes and heroines and is very skilled at developing a believable romance in the relatively short page count of a category romance. Here, however… well, let’s just say she must’ve been having an off day (or several), because there’s no chemistry between Jack and Madelyn, and other than a few references to the fact that Jack is surprised he’s attracted to her because she’s not his type (and we’re reminded rather too often that she’s not conventionally attractive), and that Madelyn finds Jack very handsome, there’s very little in the way of attraction, and the kisses and single (rather tame) love scene are damp squibs rather than fireworks.
So I’m marking Contracted as His Countess down as one of those books that had a lot of potential that was ultimately not realised. It’s a shame when an author whose work you normally enjoy lets you down, but it happens; and although I can’t recommend this, I hope to enjoy more of Ms. Allen’s books in the future.