The Highborn Housekeeper
In The Highborn Housekeeper, playing Good Samaritan leads to a woman returning to the home she fled twelve years before, to play detective and discover whether or not her father is a traitor. This is the third book in Sarah Mallory’s Saved From Disgrace series, and while it can be read as a stand-alone, readers of the previous books will be happy to see Nancy as the heroine of this story.
Nancy Hopwood is heading home to Yorkshire through the neighborhood she left twelve years ago when she ran away from home. She is anxious to be leave the area behind her, but a snowstorm (and subsequent damage to her carriage) delays her. While waiting for the carriage to be repaired, she takes a walk close to the nearby woods and finds a man who’s been beaten and left for dead. He begs Nancy to lend him her cloak and then leave him declaring “being anywhere near me puts you in danger. Someone intended to kill me tonight.” Nancy has no intention of deserting the “pig-headed, stubborn man”, and she returns with her carriage, intending to leave him at his home for nursing. Unfortunately, when they arrive at his house, his only servant is down with a terrible cold, and it is left to Nancy and her companion to nurse the bruised and beaten man back to health.
Five days later, Gabriel Shaw awakens to the vague memories of that night and to the knowledge that the “damnable…hen-witted woman” is still in his home. Gabriel is determined to have Nancy and her entourage gone – it is too dangerous for them to be there. Nancy suspects there is more going on than Gabriel is telling her. He and his manservant are still not fully recovered and there is too much snow for safe travel and yet, Gabriel insists that Nancy leaves:
“After the effort I have put into saving you, I do not intend to let anyone kill you now.”
“Very well, let us admit there is some danger. Staying here might jeopardise your own safety. I cannot take you into my confidence.”
“Well, you should.”
“Damnation woman, I do not want you here!”
“Since you are not yet well enough to physically throw me out of this house, Mr. Shaw, I think you should give in gracefully, do not you?”
So Nancy stays and the snow continues. When distracted by Gabriel, Nancy was returning to Prospect House (setting for the earlier novels in the series), a charity that provides a safe haven for women, where she has been the cook for a few years. She ran away from her father, the Earl of Masserton, when he tried to marry her to an aged roué when she was eighteen and she has not returned since. She has always felt at peace with her decision but now she is starting to feel a little unsure of her future path. Was being the cook at Prospect House all that life had in store for her? She and Gabriel spend a great deal of time together and although he still hasn’t confessed his occupation, she believes him to be on the side of good. There is a roaring attraction between the two and she wonders:
“After all, what have you got to lose? You are too old to worry about your virtue. Enjoy a brief liaison with an attractive man. Before it is too late.”
An affair follows, both parties convincing themselves that a brief fling (and nothing more) is just what they need and want. Right before Nancy is to leave Gabriel’s house, she overhears him stating “The key to this is Masserton Court.” Her old home! Nancy confronts Gabriel and he finally confides in her. He is working for the government, there are important papers being secreted out of England, and Masserton Court is somehow involved. Nancy convinces Gabriel to allow her to help prove the earl innocent (or not) and the story moves forward into a satisfying mystery.
The clever mystery afoot at Masserton Court is an entertaining story full of evil step-mothers, loyal retainers, and locked rooms. The Earl of Masserton is a bit of a cliché and the stepmother-to-be is a little predictable but Nancy and Gabriel are likeable characters – both a little jaded but still believing that kindness and goodness matters. Neither believes marriage to the other is possible (and it takes a while for either of them to admit that it would be desirable).
My main issue with the story is the lack of long-term romantic development between Nancy and Gabriel. They are definitely attracted to each other and I appreciated how they had many discussions about their desire and its implications before they agreed to an affair. But it was hard to see beyond the physical attraction, especially after Nancy left for Masserton Court. They were both so determined that nothing more could ever come of their liaison that I, too, started to doubt the strength of their love. It’s almost the end of the story before Gabriel considers that his feelings for Nancy might be love and that he could marry her. I just felt like the two of them were both willing to walk away (and not for good reasons) until it was almost too late.
As the third book in the Saved from Disgrace series, I think readers who enjoyed the first two novels will be pleased with The Highborn Housekeeper. I’m giving it a light recommendation as I found the mystery creative but the love story a little lackluster.
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