Jessica Maitland is employed as governess in the household of General Streathern, where she cares for the generalís grandniece, Gabriela. Jessica has endured the loss of her familyís good name due to a scandal involving her father. She doesnít know the exact nature of her fatherís offense, but it resulted in his dismissal from his career as an army officer. Jessica lost her place among the ton and received very little support from her acquaintances, including the man she had thought to marry. Later, her fatherís death forced her to rely at first on relatives, then on her skills as a governess and seamstress to make her way. She is grateful to the general, who sought her out six years ago to care for Gabriela. Now, content in her role and very close to Gabriela, Jessica finds herself in yet another difficult situation.
The general suffers from bouts of apoplexy, which have weakened the old man. Streathern makes a final request of Jessica. His rapidly failing health has attracted his greedy relatives, Lord and Lady Vesey, to his bedside. These two unsavory characters have an Ďopen marriageí of sorts, and each allows the other freedom to dally at will. Unfortunately, itís common knowledge that Lord Veseyís amorous tastes run toward girls of Gabrielaís age. The general knows that it isnít just money the Veseys are after, but that they will take Gabriela with them , too.
Streathern makes Jessica promise that upon his death, she will take Gabriela immediately away from Lord Vesey. Gabrielaís father stipulated in his will that if the general were to become unable to care for Gabriela, she should become the ward of his very dear friend, Richard, Duke of Cleybourne. Then the general dies suddenly, and Jessica sets out with Gabriela for the dukeís estate in Yorkshire.
When Gabrielaís father thought of making Richard her guardian, he had in mind a man happily married, with a daughter of his own, but fours years earlier the duke also suffered a terrible loss. His wife and young daughter were killed in a carriage accident that has scarred him emotionally. Deeply depressed, he has returned to Yorkshire after a four-year absence, and though his loving servants are thrilled to have the duke home for Christmas, he has come there to end his own life. When Jessica unexpectedly arrives with Gabriela, the duke is not happy to meet them.
The romance that unfolds between Richard and Jessica is volatile. She is a survivor and expects nothing less from him. She decides to push him into recovery by taking a very high-handed attitude. Jessica and Gabriela soon have Richard feeling emotions long ignored. Jessica is understandably tough, with a good combination of strength and insecurity in her personality. Richard is a noble, tortured hero, and his honorable nature is at odds with his plan to kill himself, but maybe thatís what the author intended. Apparently he is distracted enough by Jessica to carry on. I would have liked for them to spend more time alone getting to know each other, but there is still a lot left to cover in this story. Suddenly the house fills up with people.
The tiresome Veseys follow closely behind Jessica and behave like gnats at a picnic; I really got annoyed with them quickly. (Thankfully, the threat to Gabriela posed by Lord Vesey remained only a threat, since that had very great gross-out potential.) Richardís beautiful sister-in-law arrives, without her husband and looking a lot like Richardís dead wife. A blizzard forces several travelers in the area to take shelter at the castle and mysteries unfold, cloak and dagger style, since everyone just happens to fit neatly into the plot. A little far fetched, I thought, and since I just wanted a little more slap and tickle between these two emotional charactersÖ but perhaps Iím being greedy.
Finally, we are left with a huge question mark about two secondary characters. It felt like an end -of -season cliff hanger. Not being one to delay gratification well, I was put out. I guess itís a setup for another novel? Anyway, readers of The Hidden Heart must hope that the good will outweigh the bad.