Lord Deverell's Secret

Harstairs House
by Amanda Grange
(Berkley, $14.00, G) ISBN 978-0-425-21773-3
Susannah Thorpe is rescued from the life of a governess to the bratty Russell children when Mr. Sinders, a lawyer, informs her that she has inherited both a sizeable fortune and an estate in Cornwall. Mr. Harstairs was once betrothed to Susannah’s great-aunt Caroline. Because he never married and had no heirs, he left his fortune to the surviving relative of the woman he loved.

There are conditions before Susannah can claim the inheritance. She must marry within a month or spend a month in Harstairs House without leaving the property. Susannah has no gentleman who can help her carry out the first possibility; she will spend the month in the house. Harstairs House is rumored to be haunted but after having been governess to the Russell children, Susannah is not easily frightened.

She asks Constance Morton, who had acted as companion to the spiteful Mrs. Russell, to join her. Constance is thrilled to be able to leave her employment behind. She is equally unfazed by the possibilities of a ghost.

Mr. Sinders deposits Susannah and Constance at Harstairs House and departs. They soon learn, however, that they are not alone in the house. Oliver Bristow and two friends are staying there as well. She learns that Oliver is a tenant and has another month on his lease. He refuses to leave a month early even though Susannah has inherited. Eventually, they decide to share the house, each group taking one wing of the house.

Oliver and his friends are suspicious of the two women even though they do not seem to pose a threat. Oliver and the other two men are engaged in secret doings, and a price has been put on their heads. Is it possible that Susannah and Constance are in league with their enemy?

Harstairs House is set in the Georgian era in 1793 but has the tone of a traditional Regency romance. The characters are polite and restrained; the conflict is non-threatening; a single kiss is about the extent of the romance.

The story moves slowly. There are hints of ominous danger confronting the three men, but other than wondering if Susannah’s and Constance’s arrival at Harstairs House means anything and trying to divert attention from their activities, Oliver and the others seem generally relaxed. Susannah and Constance take inventory of the house’s contents and list places they’d like to see once they can go to London. Several potential plot complications are avoided. The pace picks up slightly towards the end just in time for a completely unnecessary Big Misunderstanding to arise.

Susannah and Oliver are good people and good for each other. It’s easy to envision the two of them living in harmony into old age. Unlike the characters in many historical romances, they are not aristocrats and do not mingle in high society. Oliver has a family past that explains his present attitudes and ambitions.

Readers who have missed the Regency romances might want to check out Harstairs House. Readers who expect more excitement may be disappointed.

--Lesley Dunlap

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