His Countess for a Week
Sarah Mallory’s His Countess for a Week is a mix of mystery and romance featuring an appealing hero who, when the book opens, has just returned to England after having been pardoned of the crime for which he was transported to Australia six years earlier. Randolph Kirkster, the new Earl of Westray (who originally appeared in the author’s Pursued for the Viscount’s Vengeance),has endured much and has emerged as a better man for it, one who is determined to make up for the idleness of his youth and to fulfil his responsibilities to those dependent upon him. Sadly, however, his heroine is far less interesting and engaging, which made it difficult to become invested in the romance.
After arriving in Portsmouth, Randolph (mostly shortened to Ran, which I really didn’t like), decides to visit one of his smaller estates, Beaumont Hall in Devon, before making his way to his principal seat in Oxfordshire. Accompanied by his manservant, Joseph Miller – really his best friend – whom Ran credits with saving his life on more than one occasion – Ran arrives at Beaumont and is surprised when the housekeeper informs him that his countess – who has been in residence for the past two weeks – is out for the evening and is staying the night at neighbouring Meon House.
Curious to discover both the identity of the lady masquerading as his wife and her reasons for doing so, Ran makes his way to Meon House, and is immediately conveyed to his ‘wife’ – who promptly faints at the sight of him.
When she’d hatched her scheme to find the person responsible for the death of her husband George, Arabella Roffey had believed the Earl of Westray to be far, far away and that there was no chance of her deception being exposed. When told her husband had arrived, for a brief second, Arabella had expected to see her beloved George, not an austerely handsome stranger – but knowing the game is up, she does not attempt to excuse her behaviour or deceive him as to her purpose and explains she has reason to suspect that something happened to her husband on his most recent visit to Meon House. Realising she was unlikely to learn anything as plain Mrs. Roffey, she decided the best way to gain entrée to the circles George was moving in was to pretend to hold a title – and this evening was her first opportunity to meet some of the people in attendance at the house at the time of George’s last visit.
To her surprise, not only does the earl not immediately expose her as an imposter, he offers to help her in her quest for the truth – help she accepts rather begrudgingly. Arabella returns to Beaumont Hall with Ran, and during the next week, tells him more about her husband and her suspicions that he did not die of natural causes. She believes he was a victim of Lady Meon and her set, who lure young men to her remote house, likely drug them and fleece them when they’re not in their right minds. It’s obvious to the reader – and to Ran – that Arabella is in deep denial where George is concerned, and that she has no idea of his true nature, but at this point in the story, Ran recognises the futility of attempting to enlighten her.
While Arabella’s persistence in believing the best of George – who clearly doesn’t deserve her regard – does become irritating quickly, the author does a good job of showing why the character thinks as she does and how she is holding on to her belief as something of a defence mechanism. What I found less easy to excuse was Arabella’s treatment of Ran; her constant reminders to herself of his past as a convict may have been her way of denying her attraction to him, but she spends a lot of time avoiding Ran or deliberately pushing him away, which seemed rather ungrateful considering his offers to help and his understanding of her situation.
Ran is a marvellous hero who oozes vitality and confidence, a far cry from the feckless, unstable young man we met in the earlier book. Kind, honourable and compassionate, he’s comfortable in his own skin and knows who he is; he’s put his wild youth behind him but takes responsibility for his actions and is genuinely determined to live a better life. But as I said at the beginning, I found Arabella a lot less appealing, and it’s hard to root for a couple when you believe one half of it doesn’t deserve the other.
The identity of the villain(s) of the piece is signalled fairly early on, but they’re such lip-smacking, cape-twirling baddies that I found myself eagerly awaiting their comeuppance and caught up in Ran and Arabella’s search for proof.
His Countess for a Week boasts a gorgeous hero and a decent suspense plot, but I didn’t warm to the heroine for well over half of the book, which is kind of a death knell for any romance. I’m a fan of the author’s and will continue to read her books, but I can’t, in all honesty, quite recommend this one.