Page count: 362 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 41 mins
Rating: 4 stars
While this is the third novel Mia Vincy has published, and the second book chronologically in her Stanhope Abbey series, all the books work well on their own. She writes excellent historical romances, though, so you should check out all of them.
Arabella Larke has been promised to Guy Roth, the Marquess of Hardbury since they were both children. He's been off exploring the world for years and years, and Arabella has been able to put off any other offers of marriage because she claimed to be honouring this agreement. However, Hardbury has returned to England, and one of the first things he did was send a letter breaking the engagement. Arabella's father is sick of waiting for Arabella to find a husband and start producing heirs, so he promises to cast her off entirely if she doesn't accept the suit of Lord Sculthorpe, a wealthy baron, and lauded war hero. Since Sculthorpe's words and leers make Arabella's skin crawl, she is desperate to find a way to escape marriage to him.
At the Prince Regent's ball in his honour, Guy Roth finds himself reunited with his former betrothed after she schemes to get them literally tied together for a time. While they were growing up, Arabella was the only one who ever dared to properly challenge him and they had a very combative relationship. She always liked to brag about how she was going to be a Marchioness one day, and Guy isn't really surprised to discover that Arabella is now a haughty, proud, and very manipulative woman. She represents everything he fled England to escape, including his now-dead father's tyrannical control over Guy. He's convinced she's upset that she's lost her chance to become his wife, and refuses to listen to anything she suggests, even as he fights his attraction to her.
While Guy was away, defying his father's expectations, his sisters were put under the guardianship of one of his father's friends, Sir Walter Threadgold. Guy wants to find a nice, calm, charming wife, regain guardianship of his sisters and settle down into the family life he's always dreamed of. He just needs to prove that Sir Walter is mismanaging his sisters' money somehow, he just needs to find the proof.
Back before Guy left England, he fell in love with an unsuitable woman, who his father disapproved of. Arabella's current fiancee, Lord Sculthorpe, ended up seducing this woman, and when challenged to a fight by Guy left him beaten severely and humiliated. The lady in question ended up becoming one of London's most popular courtesans. Arabella, therefore, believed that Guy might want to aid her in getting revenge against Sculthorpe by pretending to still be engaged to Arabella (until she could sort out a more suitable husband for herself). To her dismay, he distances himself from schemes, manipulation, dishonesty, and skulduggery of any kind. Guy is all that is honourable and stalwart, which doesn't really help Arabella get out of the match with the creepy Lord Sculthorpe, who seems obsessed with her virginity and the fact that he will possess her once they're married.
While Guy may be honest, honourable, and not have a manipulative bone in his body, his life-long rivalry with Arabella means that he doesn't just toss her out when she shows up at his townhouse at midnight, demanding that he deflower her (she's determined to claim her virtue for herself, because she'll be damned if Sculthorpe gets it). He thinks it's yet another scheme to get him to marry her and wants to reject her, but instead, their strange battle of wills and wits ends up with Arabella having achieved her goal of getting deflowered, leaving Guy absolutely baffled when she then leaves and claims she's gotten all she needed from him.
As Guy still insists on believing the worst about her, and refusing to listen to a word she says about how his eldest sister Frederica is in trouble, Arabella takes matters into her own hands and makes sure her family invites the Threadgolds to their estate, so Guy's sisters are nearby and she can keep an eye on them. She's shocked to discover that her father has decided that rather than getting married in the spring, like she's first believed, he intends for her to marry Sculthorpe within the month. She has a lot less time to free herself than she believed but refuses to be told what to do by anyone. If only Guy would have agreed to the fake engagement plan, everything would be so much easier...
If there wasn't already a very famous romance novel (possibly THE most famous) called Pride and Prejudice, that would be an excellent alternate title for this book. Arabella's twin brother Oliver died when they were children, and her entire life since then, Arabella has tried with everything she has to be a worthy heir to her father, while only meeting coldness and disappointment. To the world at large, she appears arrogant, haughty, and overly proud, so incredibly guarded that only a very few know her true self. She's ambitious, independent, and incredibly intelligent, constantly strategising and plotting, but mostly to take care of others and make sure that her friends and the people of the estate she is due to inherit one day are safe and well. She's been raised by her mother to be strong, forthright, and outspoken and refuses to suffer fools. Unfortunately, this has made her very unattractive on the marriage mart, and she's never had a chance to flirt or charm and because of her father's coldness has convinced herself that she is impossible for any man to actually love. She plans to wed the eldest son at the neighbouring estate, so they can live in an amicable and mutually beneficial, yet passionless marriage.
If Arabella is the proud one, Guy is very much the prejudicial one. Growing up, he only ever saw the fiercely ambitious and deeply competitive Arabella, the only one who never let him win or get away with anything, and never seemed to bother being nice to him, even though she seemed very pleased about her future as his marchioness. Controlled in every aspect of his life by his domineering father, Guy as a young man tried everything he could to rebel, ending up with his eventually leaving the country, cut off from any funds, and having to make his own way in the world. The years away built him into a strong and independent man, and now he's one of the highest peers in the realm and a deeply sought after match and business partner. Guy was disgusted by all the underhanded deals his father kept making, and because his father always intended him to marry Arabella, he's determined to choose a bride for himself, someone preferably the complete opposite of what she has grown up to become.
Yet every time he and Arabella meet, he can't deny his physical attraction to her, and he finds arguing with her exhilarating. Everyone, from Arabella to his sister Freddie assures him that he will be bored witless if he marries a sweet, quiet, biddable, and well-behaved young lady as his wife, but it takes him a long time to listen. It also takes him quite a long time to see the truth of Arabella's character, not exactly helped by her tendency to mask her true feelings behind hauteur and pride and getting super prickly every time she feels vulnerable. She would rather Guy despise her than see her as weak and needy, so it takes the two quite a long time to find their happy ending, even as they keep giving into their passions and falling into each other's arms along the way.
I thought Lord Sculthorpe was a villain who could have been dispensed with much earlier in the story than he was, and that's one of the reasons I don't rate this book higher. On the other hand, Arabella's mother turned out to be a wonderful surprise and I wish she'd been present for more of the story.
After three novels from Mia Vincy, all excellent, she's now achieved auto-buy status from me. I suspect the next book in the series may be about Arabella'a artist friend Juno, and the duke that she claims to be platonic friends with and nothing more. I can't wait.
Judging a book by its cover: Mia Vincy's romances all have these wonderful dreamy covers, where the edges seem to have been softened, all dominated by one particular colour. Arabella's cover gets to be in tones of purple, indigo, and violet - which happens to be some of my favourites. At one point in the novel, Arabella is compared to an expansive starry sky (I know, it's very romantic), so it seems appropriate that this cover looks like she's surrounded by dark evening clouds.