Counting on a Countess
I’ve been looking forward to Counting on a Countess, the second book in Eva Leigh’s London Underground series, which features a set of clever, independent heroines in unusual circumstances who have to make their livings in a somewhat unorthodox manner. I’m a fan of Ms. Leigh’s; she’s a great storyteller and she creates memorable, strong heroes and heroines – and the promise of the story of a marriage-of-convenience between an earl and a smuggler captured my imagination straight away. I began reading with high expectations, which were met up until around the seventy percent mark when things suddenly fell apart and the heroine went from one I liked to one I disliked intensely. She never really redeems herself and as a result, what I’d confidently expected to be a high-grade read turned into a disappointing one.
Kit Ellingsworth, Earl of Blakemoor, has been drifting since the end of his military service. The only thing that keeps his nightmares at bay are his long-held dreams of building a pleasure garden, somewhere that will make people happy and will also provide employment for veterans and their families. But he knows it’ll have to remain a dream as he’ll never have the funds to make it a reality.
Until, that is, Kit is informed that his former commanding officer Lord Somerby has bequeathed him a large sum of money in his will – but there is one stipulation. Kit must marry within thirty days of being advised of the bequest. Surprised, but determined to fulfil the terms, Kit thinks it won’t be difficult to find a bride. After all, he’s young, handsome, charming and titled – but the weeks fly by and he’s almost down to the wire without having found a single young lady he wants to wed. Until, that is, he nearly bumps into a lovely red-headed woman at a ball – and feels an almost unprecedented pull of attraction that makes him think she might just be the one.
Tamsyn Pearce has come to London in desperation. After the deaths of her parents years earlier, she took it upon herself to provide for the local village of Newcome which, owing to high taxation and fishing restrictions, was suffering serious privation. For the past eight years, she has run a successful smuggling operation, but her uncle’s plans to sell the family home, Chei Owr, mean the operation is under threat. Tamsyn’s purpose in London is therefore twofold – to find a fence to sell the brandy and lace from the last run, and to find a husband with enough money to purchase Chei Owr. Her ideal husband will be content to live in town while she goes back to Cornwall; even better, he’ll be unobservant and maybe even a bit dim.
So… Kit needs a wife and Tamsyn needs a husband. Both are set on a marriage of convenience, but the awareness and desire that thrums between them right from their first meeting bodes ill for both of them, and especially for Tamsyn, who worries that she might fall for Kit’s charm and good-nature – something she can’t afford to do if she is to keep her smuggling a secret.
The day after their wedding, Kit receives another shock. The money will indeed be his, but Lord Somerby was worried about his spendthrift ways and, in a codicil, decreed that all the money will be in his wife’s control and that Kit will have to apply to her for funds and account for every penny. Kit agrees to this, believing he will be able to talk Tamsyn into giving him the money he needs to finance the pleasure garden. (And here’s a big plot-hole; suppose Kit had married one of the simpering debutantes that populate the ton in most historical romances? That would have been no safeguard against his frittering the money away, as she’d probably have given it all to him the first time he’d smiled at her or paid her a pretty compliment!)
In order to get what he wants, however, Kit recognises he needs to get to know his bride better. She was skittish on their wedding night, asking for more time to become accustomed to their marriage, and he realises she needs time to get to know him, too. So he sets about courting her, making thoughtful gestures, taking her to the theatre, on outings and spending time with her at their new home, amazed at the fact he actually enjoys spending evenings in with just Tamsyn for company.
The sexual chemistry between Kit and Tamsyn is electric, and apart from an oddly jarring scene that seems to have been thrown in for the sake of a bit of extra titillation (and as sequel-bait), Ms. Leigh develops their relationship very well. What begins – for Kit – as a means towards getting his new wife into bed and into persuading her to sign over the money, very quickly turns into a real courtship born of genuine, deepening affection for his bride and a desire to make her happy. For the first three quarters of the book, I enjoyed the storyline, I liked Kit and I liked Tamsyn. Kit is one of those heroes who seems to have drifted into his libertine’s ways for want of something better to do; he’s handsome and charming, as so many romantic heroes are, but he’s also good-natured, funny, kind and thoughtful. Tamsyn is intelligent and spirited, but the little she’s told Kit about her life after her parents’ deaths reveals that life hasn’t been kind since, which just adds to his desire to make her feel wanted and to make her smile.
It’s difficult to be specific about what goes wrong with the book without giving too much away, but when Kit finally opens up to Tamsyn about his hopes and dreams, she dashes them all with one word, and then high-tails it back to Cornwall without a word of explanation. Regardless of the viability – or otherwise – of Kit’s scheme, or the altruism of hers, Tamsyn is prepared, without a word of discussion to use the money with which she has been entrusted, but which is rightfully Kit’s, for her own purposes without even consulting him – AND she jumps to a nasty conclusion about his attentions to her since their marriage. That’s when my opinion of her took a nose-dive – and after that, when I thought I couldn’t dislike her more, Ms. Leigh proved me wrong. Worse, when Kit discovers the truth about what Tamsyn has been up to – in spite of his own strong feelings about the fact that she’s breaking the law – he agrees it must continue and says he’ll help! I almost threw my kindle down in disgust at this point; the fact that Kit is prepared to disregard his long-held principles – no matter that Tamsyn’s motives are good – stuck in my craw and, together with her continued deception and ridiculous justification to herself that he’d deceived her first (which I’d dispute) pretty much ruined the book. After that, there was no way the author was going to be able to save it – I was pleased that it was Kit’s quick-thinking that saved the day, but was relieved to reach the end.
My thorough dislike of the way things turn out makes this a difficult book to grade, because I fully accept that other readers may not have the same issues I had with Tamsyn’s deception and the way she treats Kit. I’m a hero-centric reader, so I tend to see things from the hero’s PoV more readily, and if you prize a gutsy, take-no-prisoners heroine above all, then you may enjoy the book more than I did. In the end, I’m going with a C+; I can’t quite bring myself to recommend Counting on a Countess because of my heroine-issues and the plot-holes, but I want to acknowledge its strengths. It’s a very well written book – the prose flows beautifully, the dialogue sparkles – and Kit and Tamsyn are perfect for one another. Their relationship is well-done, and they’re both strongly drawn and engaging (mostly) – but I can’t deny that the way Tamsyn continued to deceive Kit, the way she was so willing to believe the worst of him and how he was prepared to abandon his principles, left a nasty taste in my mouth that even now, hasn’t quite disappeared.