Lady Knightley’s Secret by Anne Ashley
(Harlequin, $4.50, PG) ISBN 0-373-51168-X
***
I am not one of those readers who rejects the “big misunderstanding” plot out of hand. I have lived long enough to understand that “failure to communicate” is an all too common human failing. However, there are “big misunderstandings” that are so huge and, in a way, so unnecessary, that they detract mightily from my enjoyment of a story. I fear that the secret that Lady Knightly keeps is one such misunderstanding.

As our story begins, Sir Richard Knightly is recovering from wounds received at Waterloo in the home of an Englishwoman who was in Brussels during the battle. Sir Richard was left blinded by a blow during the battle, but his doctor is hopeful that he will recover his sight once he has had time to heal. Mary Smith has nursed him devotedly since he was carried into her house. On the eve before his bandages are to be removed, she comes into his room. Richard reaches out for comfort to this kind and caring woman. Not only is he grieving for friends lost in battle, but also has received the news that his brother and sister-in-law were killed in a carriage accident. Mary offers him the comfort he seeks.

When Richard discovers that Mary is a virgin, he immediately offers to marry her. But when the doctor arrives and removes the bandages from his eyes, he discovers that Mary has departed from Brussels, leaving him a letter rejecting his offer because she knows he does not love her. Richard might well have gone looking for her, but discovers that a “Mary Smith” was a passenger on a packet that sank in the Channel. So Richard returns home to pick up his life and fulfill his responsibilities to his orphaned niece.

A year later, Elizabeth Mary Beresford has come to visit her friend Verity, Viscountess Darwood. In the months since Waterloo, she has lost her beloved grandmother and is only now returning to society. Imagine her surprise when another guest arrives to visit the Darwoods, Sir Richard Knightley. Actually, the two have a history. Their fathers had arranged a match between the two, but while Richard was fighting in Spain, Elizabeth had sent him a letter renouncing the arrangement. She was aware that Richard did not love her although she had long been in love with her handsome neighbor.

Yes, as you have guessed, “Mary Smith” is really Elizabeth Beresford. She is no longer the gawky teenager Richard remembers, but has become a lovely young woman. She is also a considerable heiress. As they spend time together, Richard comes to appreciate her intelligence, her kindness, and wit. Then, thanks to the machinations of Elizabeth’s nasty sister, Evadne, Richard and Elizabeth are locked in a wine cellar all night. When gossip requires that the two wed, Elizabeth agrees because she is now convinced that Richard’s feelings for her have changed.

Then comes the wedding night, when Richard discovers that his bride is not a virgin. In fury, he accuses her of betrayal and storms out of the house and to London, where he behaves in a truly reprehensible fashion. Elizabeth is dreadfully hurt. And here we have the really big misunderstanding.

I guess I understand why the author chose this particular plot device. After all, it allows her to have Richard come to his senses and seek to regain both the love and respect of his wife. But I have to admit that it didn’t work for me. Why would an intelligent woman like Elizabeth keep her secret once she had agreed to wed Richard? Or, once he had reacted so angrily - a not completely unreasonable response - why did she not tell him the truth?

Thus, despite my fondness for both the hero and heroine, I found myself shaking my head in dismay and my enjoyment of the story decreased markedly. I also found the subsequent machinations of the evil sister just a bit over the top as well.

Hence, despite a number of good elements, Lady Knightley’s Secret just didn’t quite work. Acceptable, perhaps, but not worthy of a recommendation.

--Jean Mason


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