The Cinderella Countess
The Cinderella Countess is the story of Annabelle Smith, a gifted healer and herbalist and Lytton Staines, the Earl of Thornton. I have a soft spot for Cinderella stories. When I read of Annabelle Smith’s piercing violet blue green golden eyes, I knew she was of aristocratic blood, even though she is ignorant of her family origins. This aha moment is reminiscent of the scene in Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades when the Duke of Avon lays eyes on Leon/Leonie, an urchin from the French slums. The ‘lad’ pleads with the duke to unhand him: “… the light of an adjacent street lamp fell on that white agonized countenance. Great violet-blue eyes gazed wildly up at him, terror in their depths.” The adjectives white and violet-blue are clues that someone – possibly unbeknownst to them – is masquerading as a member of the lower classes.
Annabelle, unlike Heyer’s Leonie, is a grown-up who has carved out a satisfactory life for herself and her aunt, Tante Alicia. Her skill at healing even the most hopeless cases brings the Earl of Thornton to Whitechapel, in “London’s poverty-stricken East End,” to plead with her to find a cure for his sister. The physicians who attend the Ton have not been able to diagnose what ails Lady Lucy or devise a treatment. Annabelle is the perfect medicine, not only quickly deducing what is wrong with Lucy, but also restoring her spirits and equanimity.
Why is the Earl of Thornton, Thorn to his friends, so hot and bothered by Annabelle’s calm, capable presence? Thorn discusses his dilemma with his good friend Shay, the hero of the first in the Gentlemen of Honor series, A Night of Secret Surrender (for curious readers, I hadn’t read the first two books in the series but I was able to follow the interplay perfectly). One evening Annabelle steps out of character when she reacts very badly to a single glass of wine. Annabelle is so worried (she passes out after talking wildly in perfect aristocratic French) that she thinks privately she might be a lush. The earl and his friend Shay, well accustomed to strong liquor, think not. Although Shay straight out asks Thorn if Annabelle is the earl’s mistress.
‘Hell. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know what to think, that is the trouble. She looks like a sultry angel, gets drunk like a sot and speaks two languages, both in the accents of the high born. And yet she resides in Whitechapel? There has to be a story there.’
‘Don’t dig, Shay. I want her to tell me of it herself.’
‘There you go again. Who have you turned into, Thorn? I have never before known you to be so protective of a woman and one you imply you are not even sleeping with. Every unmarried female of the ton would like you to place a wedding ring on their finger and the unhappily married ones would settle for merely a turn in your bed. You have thrown off Mrs Castleton and made a fortune with every investment that you touch, yet here you are… shepherding a secretive seraph around London and keeping her well away from the wolves of society.’
In Shay’s words, has the earl met his match? Thorn is the complete package: no wonder every woman in London is after him. But there’s something about the mysterious healer that fascinates him because she’s so much more than she appears on the surface.
When Annabelle and her aunt are almost mowed down by an elegant carriage that deliberately targets them, Thorn stations a burly gentleman at their door. Days later, the bodyguard rescues them after their little establishment is torched. Thorn is beside himself, but Annabelle remains serene. Her vocation as a healer allows her to remain calm when faced with calamity.
Annabelle loves Whitechapel: it has been a refuge for her and Tante Alicia. Sophia James captures the appeal of Annabelle’s neighborhood.
It was vital and busy and ever changing, the sedate and beautiful square of the Earl of Thornton’s a far cry from here.
Here anything was possible, if not probable, and the folk who inhabited the lodgings were as diverse as the houses themselves. The milkmaids with their balance of buckets and their beautiful skin, the fish vendors, the children with their dirty faces and bare feet, the loose women, the clergy, the constabulary, the drunks. It was a tapestry of colour, form and shape, against a backdrop of violence and community.
Belle had walked these streets since she was twelve and newly come from France.
So many clues for our Cinderella Story. Annabelle is inquisitive, sensitive, brave, and wise, an old soul who is not looking to be rescued. Rather she has love and wisdom to offer to the man she loves. Will Thorn be that man? Their journey to an HEA is complicated and occasionally perilous, but they make a delightful couple.