Her Highness, My Wife
I don’t have the difficulty some readers do with fake-royalty stories, especially if they have an historical setting. What I do have difficulty with, however, is unsympathetic characters, and the heroine of Her Highness, My Wife teetered on the verge of almost too unsympathetic for my taste. A very attractive hero and a plot that kept me reading to the tidy conclusion of the story saved the book for me.
Tatiana Pruzinsky, hereditary princess of the kingdom of Avalonia, has come to England on a quest. She must find the legendary Heavens of Avalonia, a set of jewels that her great-aunt Sophia smuggled out of Avalonia over fifty years earlier. Possession of the Heavens is seen in her country as proof of legitimacy to sit on the throne, and Tatiana’s cousin Valentina has attempted to lead an insurrection against Tatiana’s family. The princess plans to travel to the homes of three ladies who were helpful to Sophia all those years ago, and she’s devised a story to cover her real purpose. She’ll pretend that she’s merely writing a biography of Sophia, and while she’s staying in their homes she’ll snoop around in an attempt to find clues to the whereabouts of the Heavens. In order to travel less conspicuously, Tatiana’s decided that she needs a “husband.” She’s got the perfect candidate: Lord Matthew Weston, the man she abandoned after a one-week wedding.
Matt has spent the fifteen months, three weeks, and four days since Tatiana walked out on him (but, hey, who’s counting?) trying to forget her. It was only after she ditched him that Matt discovered Tatiana’s real identity, and her omission of that truth still rankles at him. The impoverished younger son of a marquess, Matt is a former naval officer who’s been involved in ballooning in an effort to raise enough money so he can buy an interest in a shipping business. Tatiana offers to pay him for his help in her quest, whose true nature she withholds from him. While the money’s tempting, the real bait for Matt is the chance to spend time with Tatiana and learn why she duped him before. He’s determined that it won’t happen again, and he fools himself into thinking the trip will be a chance to get her out of his system, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize that’s the last thing he wants. And yet…he knows she’s still hiding something from him, and her lack of total truthfulness is driving him crazy.
There isn’t a whole lot of sexual tension in this story, since it’s obvious that these two still want each other, which isn’t to say that it’s not a sexy story, because it is; the attraction between Matt and Tatiana is very strong and the love scenes are nicely done. The real tension comes from Tatiana’s withholding of information from Matt. Will she tell him? How much will she tell him? Will he get tired of her lying? Might he try a little of his own?
I was never able to warm up to Tatiana, in large part because of her innate mendacity. She lies about things big and small. For example, aside from the Grand Lie about her real identity and her purpose on this trip, she suffers from motion sickness and deals with it by taking a medicinal dose of foul-tasting Avalonian brandy just before entering a carriage. Does she explain this to Matt? No, she coolly informs him that it’s an Avalonian tradition to drink a toast before setting out on a journey, so they go through this little ritual every morning. Why? Why not just tell him the truth and have done with it? And just how did she think she was going to be able to waltz into these ladies’ homes and start poking around without being detected and questioned about her activities? Matt was a lot more likable and I had very little trouble with his character. He’s a little world-weary, a little cynical, but remains basically optimistic, and his sense of humor helps him keep things in perspective.
Technically, the book is cleanly executed. The sometimes-witty dialogue serves both to advance the story and shed light on the characters’ pasts. There’s an amusing running gag between Matt and Tatiana about how they’re drawn to each other; the metaphors get more and more outrageous and funny. The ballooning angle, while vaguely described and never bogged down in technical detail, is different and it adds an element of interest. Secondary characters do their job of supporting the main action, although I did find Valentina a bit of a cardboard villainess – it’d be interesting to see whether Ms. Alexander could ever find a way to redeem her in a future story.
Her Highness, My Wife is one of several loosely connected books, and a number of former “stars” make brief appearances here. The test of a book written as part of a series is whether it can stand on its own; I’m happy to report that this one passes that test. I only wish I’d been able to like the heroine better, as it would have made the experience of reading the book far more enjoyable for me.