Scandal and Miss Markham
Scandal and Miss Markham is the second book in Janice Preston’s Beauchamp Betrothals series, and picks up the story of Lord Vernon Beauchamp, the younger brother of Leo, the Duke of Cheriton whose romance was featured in the previous book, Cinderella and the Duke. Rather like his brother, Vernon meets his match in a most unexpected place and falls in love with a young woman not from his social class; but unlike the previous book, there is less drama and angst and the story – a road-trip romance – feels more cohesive and its events less episodic.
Miss Dorothea Markham (Thea) is the daughter of a successful glass manufacturer who lives with her parents and brother, Daniel, in Worcestershire. Her father has been unwell for some time following a stroke a few years back, and her mother – who holds Thea partly responsible for her husband’s illness – spends almost all her time caring for him and has little time to spare for her children. Between them, Daniel and Thea now run the family business, but Daniel had begun behave oddly of late, and now hasn’t been home for five days and Thea is worried. Not wanting to stir up unnecessary trouble for Daniel or for word to get out about his disappearance to adversely affect the business, Thea doesn’t call in any help; she doesn’t even tell her parents because she doesn’t want to worry her father – but by the fifth day she is practically frantic and berating herself for not trying to find him sooner.
The arrival of an unexpected – and unknown – visitor who insists on seeing Daniel interrupts Thea’s self-recriminations and increasingly agitated train of thought. By his clothes and bearing, Thea sees instantly that this is a gentleman, although she has never seen him before and can’t think what he could want with her brother. The visitor introduces himself as Lord Vernon Beauchamp, explaining that he seeks to investigate the contents of a letter Daniel wrote to Vernon’s brother, the Duke of Cheriton, in which he expressed concern about a distant cousin of the Beauchamps, one Henry Mannington. Thea has never heard of Mannington and is anxious to get rid of her unwanted visitor, but he is quick to sense something is not right and she ends up telling him about Daniel’s disappearance. Vernon is immediately drawn to this petite spitfire of a woman who clearly views men of his class as useless for anything but the pursuit of their own selfish depravity, and, with a shock, realises that he actually wants to help; his position as a ducal ‘spare’ leaves him playing second fiddle most of the time, and while he loves his brother and family, it does mean that Vernon has struggled to find his own place in the world. Now, though, he senses an opportunity to actually do something useful, so he offers to help Thea to find her brother. Or rather, he offers to find her brother while Thea sits at home and waits – which won’t do for her at all.
While pretending that she is content with such an arrangement, Thea is making plans to follow Vernon – in disguise of course – which she does, shortly after his departure for the local pub, The Nag’s Head, where he has told her he intends to ask around to glean what information he can. Thea is well aware that what she is doing by travelling alone – even wearing boy’s clothing – is dangerous and also knows that Vernon is sure to discover her at some point. But her plan is not to avoid discovery altogether – just for long enough so that they’re far enough away that it will be impractical for him to send her back home.
I’m not normally a fan of heroine-in-breeches stories, but it works here because the hero knows what’s going on from (almost) the start and, realising that no matter what he says or does, Thea will search for her brother with or without him, Vernon makes the effort to make the deception as plausible as possible. Ms. Preston has crafted an engaging story which sees the couple travelling together for several days as they gradually begin to amass clues and piece together what happened to Daniel. She cleverly weaves in an element of Thea’s backstory that at first seemed unrelated, but which gradually assumes greater importance as they realise the full extent of the betrayal and wrongdoing that has been practiced upon Thea and upon both families, while at the same time developing the relationship between the two leads in a believable way.
The story takes place over a matter of days, but the romance doesn’t feel rushed. Vernon is intrigued by Thea from the start, by the way she speaks her mind and makes no secret of her disdain for his ‘type’, while she is prickly and hates that she needs his help in order to do something she wants to do for herself. They have strong chemistry and make a great couple, although Thea’s distrust of Vernon – which is understandable, given that the last man she trusted abandoned her at the altar after swindling her father out of a large sum of money – goes on for a bit too long considering he proves himself over and over to be supportive and to have her best interests at heart. She is also apt to jump into a situation without properly thinking things through – which can be a little irritating – but fortunately, she does admit that fault and attempts to learn from her mistakes.
Those really are my only criticisms of what is otherwise a well thought-out story that moves at a good pace and in which the two protagonists are engaging and strongly characterised. Vernon might be a teeny bit too good to be true, but I liked the way he is willing to adjust his perceptions and admits that his eyes have been opened to the truth of people’s lives outside his privileged London circles – and his genuine desire to do something positive to help. In the end, this seemingly mis-matched couple have a lot to offer each other; helping Thea supplies the sense of purpose Vernon is looking for while his care and honesty help her to regain her self-confidence and ability to trust.
Scandal and Miss Markham – which works perfectly well as a standalone – packs plenty of story and romance into its 288 pages and is definitely worth picking up when you want a quick, but satisfying read.