West End Earl
West End Earl starts out as a charming romance that develops from a strong friendship between two equals. But the book gets overburdened by dramatic twists and ideas in the second half, making the reader groan at some of the belabored choices made by the author; and although the romance is worthwhile, I have to mark the book down for the incredibly high number of ludicrous choices.
Ophelia – Phee – Hardwick has a pretty big secret under her cap – and waistcoat. Phee’s Uncle Milton is the greedy, scheming and grasping sort, and he’s already tried to kill her once (and has successfully murdered her twin brother) to get his hands on the estate left behind by her parents. To protect her inheritance and her life, she’s been hiding under the identity of her late brother, Adam, until she hits the age of majority. It’s a ruse that’s worked very well so far – ten years, to be precise – lived with meager means on a skimpy allowance and only the vicar who buried her brother knowing who she really is, but she’s made it work. Though she longs to live as herself, posing as Adam has allowed her to get an education and go places society ladies simply aren’t allowed to. Now she stands on the edge of adulthood, prepared to stake her claim and get her skinflint, murdering uncle off her back for once and for all.
‘Adam’ is a close friend and land surveyor for his employer Calvin, the Earl of Carlyle, who has entered into this Season with only one mission on his mind – get his spirited sister Emma married off to an honorable man who won’t rob her blind or hurt her. Surely his best friend – an innocent who has no expressed interest in women and whom he has nicknamed Puppy – will be happy to look out for Emma? ‘Adam’ tries his best – but an accident reveals Phee’s secret. Instead of exposing her, Cal agrees to help her maintain her ruse.
Cal and Phee soon find themselves trying to juggle Emma’s coming out, keeping Phee’s secret and trying to avoid paying off one of his father’s old debts by marrying the daughter of a business associate. All the while their friendship begins to turn to true love. But how can they be together when so many misunderstandings and dangers are afoot?
Cal is a great hero – giving, generous, worried about his friends and family foremost of all, which makes him incredibly likable. I liked calm, cool-headed, wry Phee for most of the book – until the last quarter required her to become a totally reactionary ninny. Uncle Milton is also a believably menacing villain (even though I found the way he is removed from the narrative disappointingly easy and pat), and it was fun seeing Lottie and Ethan from the first book in the series again. Also, Emma is quite amusing.
The romance between Cal and Phee is sexy, appealing, and filled with banter, though I really felt as though Cal made the mental adjustment from seeing Phee as a friend to a potential love interest too swiftly. I generally believed that Cal would be the sort of guy who would give Phee the type of marriage she wanted and would allow her mind for business to flourish while engaging in fencing matches with her and having her behave as his hostess.
But the plot keeps trying to undo their connection because it is so overstuffed with unneeded twists and goofy choices. The last quarter of the book alone includes a fake wedding, an out of wedlock pregnancy, a falsified death and an invented identical cousin who clears the way for our hero and heroine to marry. I get that the ton was socially oppressive, but it’s all a bit much. Especially when…well, I won’t spoil the book for you, but it’s all too much plot and not enough characters, especially when they drove the front half of the book so well. The author then throws in a Big Mis thanks to some misheard words, and… Oy! The book did not need it at all.
As a romance, West End Earl is witty and lovely and the hero and heroine worth rooting for, but the over-stuffed and often ridiculous plot weighs the whole thing down, and I can’t rate it any higher.