I’ve been looking forward to Marguerite Kaye’s new, four-book Matches Made in Scandal series, as each story is set in a different European city. While I certainly don’t object to historical romances set in the UK, I am always keen to venture elsewhere, and was definitely enticed by the thought of reading romances set in some of the most fabulous cities in the world – St. Petersburg, Paris, Venice and, finally, London.
From Governess to Countess opens with renowned – and now disgraced – herbalist, Allison Galbraith receiving a visit from a mysterious woman known only as ‘The Procurer’. This character links the four books in the series, and has a reputation for helping women in need of redemption and a second chance. Allison, a forthright Scot, had acquired a reputation as London’s pre-eminent herbalist, the only option open to a woman with a vocation to help the sick at the time the book is set. But when we meet her, she has been ostracised and vilified in the scandal sheets by a pre-eminent society physician following an incident to which the reader is not made privy until later in the book, but which has obviously destroyed not only Allison’s reputation but her confidence, too.
The Procurer tells Allison that she has come to offer her the chance to rebuild her life and career. She has been charged with finding someone with Allison’s particular talents to fill the position of governess to the children of the recently deceased Duke and Duchess Derevenko, and, enthused at the idea of travel and of getting away from England for a time – and the hefty fee – Allison agrees.
Count Aleksei Derevenko is a military man through and through, and was somewhat exasperated when he learned his late brother, Michael, had changed his will shortly before his death and named Aleksei as guardian to his young children. He can’t understand why his brother made the change when his former choice, their cousin, Felix, would have done a much better job, given he is familiar with all the court customs and protocols it will be necessary for children of such illustrious lineage to learn as they grow up.
When the woman he has engaged as governess for Catiche, Elena and Nikki arrives, Aleksei is momentarily taken aback. His idea of a governess – and herbalist – is certainly not the voluptuous young red-head standing before him who stirs up all the desires and appetites he has had no opportunity to indulge for months. By the same token Allison had not expected her new employer to be a tall, striking military man with ice blue eyes and a mouth that puts her in mind of kissing.
Over a cup of zavarka (black tea), Aleksei explains to Allison that he requires her services as a governess for as long as it takes him to make alternative arrangements for the guardianship of his nieces and nephew. Their former governess, Anna Orlova – to whom they had all been very attached – disappeared without explanation just before his brother’s death, and Aleksei does not feel equipped to deal with them. He plans to spend some of his time trying to find Orlova and to bring her back if he can; in the meantime, he wants Allison to assume charge of them.
What Aleksei doesn’t tell Allison until a little later, however, is the reason he particularly wanted someone knowledgeable about herbs and their properties to fill the position. He strongly suspects his brother-in-law and sister were murdered, and wants Allison to ascertain if the symptoms they exhibited could have been produced by any of the herbs available in the palace gardens or elsewhere in St. Petersburg.
From Governess to Countess is therefore part romance and part mystery as Allison and Aleksei work together to discover the truth about his brother’s death, while at the same time exploring the attraction that has pulled them toward one another since their very first meeting. Neither of them wants anything permanent; Aleksei intends to return to the army and Allison to England, and both agree that their liaison must be of finite duration. Neither of them, however, has bargained on love.
Ms. Kaye develops the relationship between her two protagonists very well, and the easy friendship into which they fall is enjoyable to read and something a little out of the ordinary for the genre. They are intensely drawn to one another physically, but they connect on an emotional level, too, and their frequent exchanges are refreshingly honest. There is no drawn-out angst, even towards the end when it seems the time for parting has arrived, and I was very relieved at the lack of flimsy contrivance for the sake of injecting some unnecessary drama into the story. I liked the way that Allison uses her time in St. Petersburg to really think about what she wants to do with the rest of her life and work out how to pursue an independent future. Aleksei is an attractive hero who is obviously an alpha male, but without the arrogance that is so often associated with the type; he’s thoughtful, insightful and charming, with a strong sense of honour and a good sense of humour, and the way he comes to appreciate the importance of family and to realise that the children need his love and guidance is nicely done.
On the downside, however, I found myself rather more invested in the friendship and comradeship between Allison and Aleksei than in their romance, which is pretty much founded on insta-lust. The couple has undoubted sexual chemistry, but Allison’s eagerness to jump into bed with Aleksei at the first opportunity makes her seem far too modern in spite of the different social mores of St. Petersburg and her desire to take charge of her own life. There are a couple of places in the mystery part of the story where both protagonists jump to conclusions without foundation, and in one particular place, they make an assumption that comes so completely out of the blue – and is so obviously wrong – that I had to read it several times to make sure I’d read it correctly!
Marguerite Kaye is one of my go-to authors, and even when her books don’t work for me on every level, her stories are extremely well-written and researched, her characters are interesting, and she makes excellent use of whichever historical setting she has chosen. While From Governess to Countess wasn’t a resounding success, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable, low-angst read, and one that merits a recommendation in spite of the reservations I have expressed.