|I don’t know why I picked up How I Met My Countess. I don’t like cutsey titles; I’m not wild about the secret agent plot in Regency historicals; I don’t read Elizabeth Boyle. (Point of clarification: I would have said that I had never read Boyle, but in doing my research for this review, I discovered that I had reviewed one of her books ten years ago. I have no memory of said book which I suppose isn’t surprising, given the volume of my romance reading.) By the way, the fact that I felt compelled to do research to write this is one reason I feel I can’t give an all out recommendation for this book. I felt the need to try to uncover the origins of some of the characters who popped up which means Boyle did not necessarily provide the context for the story.
Still, since I very much enjoyed the poignant romance in the first half of the book, I can’t regret the impulse to discover how the Earl of Clifton met his countess.
Lord Clifton comes from a family that prides itself on its service to England. He chooses a somewhat unusual kind of service. He and his illegitimate brother Malcolm have been recruited to serve the Foreign Office as special agents. The year is 1808 and the threat of Napoleon looms large. To prepare Clifton and Malcolm for their missions, they have been sent to the Hampstead home of George Ellyson, a man who has spent his life spying for Britain. Now retired from active service, Ellyson uses his knowledge and skill to train the young men who will be sent into danger.
Ellyson was recruited as a child by the Duke of Parkerton (he had tried to pick the duke’s pocket.) While he was educated as a gentleman, his base origins means that his daughters, Lucy and Mariana, are not accepted by society. (That their mother, an Italian contessa, left her family to become a high-class courtesan doesn’t help.) Lucy, the serious daughter, takes immediate umbrage at the earl’s high handed attitude. She doesn’t believe that he has what it takes to become a successful agent. For his part, Clifton views Lucy as the very opposite of what a true lady (and potential countess) should be. Yet Lucy’s antagonism and Clifton’s aloofness disguise the fascination that each feels for the other.
I used the term “poignant” to describe the romance that develops between Lucy and Clifton because the two young people know that there are real barriers that stand in the way of their love. There are the social barriers but equally daunting is the fact that Clifton has committed himself to a dangerous career. Lucy, realizing better than most exactly what the man she has come to love will face, turns her attention to making sure that he has all the skills he needs. Clifton, for his part, recognizes that the commitment he and Malcolm made, somewhat carelessly, to become agents, may cost him more than he realized at the time. Lucy father, fearing that his beloved daughter cannot find happiness with a man of high social status, separates the two lovers and keeps them apart.
One of the challenges that always faces a reviewer is not to reveal too much about the story so by the usual conventions, I should not indicate what happens seven years later when the plot continues. But the fact that Boyle introduces the novel with a preface means that readers have some idea of what transpired in the interim. Lucy is introduced as Lady Standon, one of the three “dowager” Marchionesses of Standon. Standon is the courtesy title given to the heirs of the Duke of Holindrake. The long life of the ninth duke and the accidents of birth and death, means that three women – Minerva, Elinor and our Lucy – have held the title of marchioness. All are in their early thirties and all are the responsibility of the tenth duke. Obviously, How I Met My Countess is the first in a planned trilogy about the Ladies Standon.
The second half of this story tells how Lucy and Clifton meet again after a seven year hiatus, how they misunderstand each other’s feelings and actions, and how they find their happily ever after. This part of the story, while entertaining, simply does not have the impact of the first part. This is why I find myself giving How I Met My Countess three rather than four hearts.
Still, I am intrigued enough by the premise and the characters that, should I come across them, I will probably pick up the second and third books in this trilogy. Boyle has written an entertaining story that, while uneven, is nevertheless a satisfactory read.