So, Harlequin is engaging in a little cover-art sleight-of-hand. The only babies in this worth mentioning are a disagreeable little tyke named Charlie--and as I am the mother of The Demon Baby of Bethany, I know disagreeable when I see it--who gets occasional baths and cuddles from our heroine and another one that she is a temporary nanny to (and at that point, the principles are not on hand-holding terms).
Emma Trent, '25 going on 15', is eking out a living as a paid companion to a woman enjoying the spoils of her deceased husband's fabled pickled onion fortune. Pickled. Onion. Fortune. Ladies, we're not on the bottom of the barrel. We're on the scummy, muddy underside.
But Mama--brave, peptic Mama--doesn't have much of a pension since her husband died and her brother-in-law absconded with all her money without leaving a forwarding address (...to set up a Ponzi scheme, I'll bet.) so Emma has to take her licks.
Until Mama's peptic ulcer perforates.
Sir Paul Wyatt ('I'm forty. Do you find that old?') has met Emma before but the blossoming seeds of love find no purchase in the rocky ground of Mother's medical trauma. He tears off for the hospital and performs miracles while a shocked Emma trails behind. The ensuing days find Emma unemployed (that's what you get when you insult your boss and then double-down and do it again) and accepting rides to and from the hospital with Sir Paul--a kind, if remote, presence. She can't really be bothered thinking about him. Mama is going to need a lot of care and attention and money. Ugh. Money. She doesn't have any--Miss Emma was educated at the 'In Case of Disaster Break the Piggy Bank' School of Economics. Searching feverishly for a short-term job (that danged otter sanctuary won't open for weeks and weeks!), she pounces on this likely-looking gem:
Editorial Note: She's a first-time mother of one unexceptional unnamed boy (yes, the charming mother hasn't got around to that) and she's made a classic rookie mistake. Now, I feel for the woman. Not a baby-person myself (yes, I know I have four but there was a very steep learning curve at work), my initial forays into the strange and wonderful world of nursing and bowel movements were spotty at best and, let me tell you, if there had been someone, anyone at all, to hand my baby off to, I'd have done it in a minute. Ignorance coupled with laziness (I had those in spades.) added to opportunity (That I didn't have.) conspire to keep Doreen from becoming competent and motherly.
And, unfortunately, Doreen earns high marks in Incompetence. Emma earns every cent she makes, enrolls Doreen in an Emma Trent Course of Housewifery ('Oh! You mean I feed the baby and then check the nappy?') and works herself into a flinders in order to welcome Mother home in style.
Meanwhile, Sir Paul has tracked her down, swings by Doreen's house (he knows her!) and reads the situation at a glance. So he takes Emma a meal of fish and chips because he hates to see her looking this way.
And then Mother comes home! Is that an elderly cousin I see on my horizon, shaping up into the perfect post-nuptial companion? Alas! It's a pulmonary embolism. (Oh. That was the round, cozy shape in the distance...) Mother kicks the bucket because of a blood clot.
The death and the funeral are ghastly but they're made worse, somehow, because Sir Paul hasn't come. He doesn't have any obligation to, of course, but Emma can't help but wait for him anyway. The flood of tears when he does show up is inevitable. 'I've been in America.' (Of course.)
I'm not sure when the idea struck him but it's a boffo. 'Will you marry me, Emma?'
'You won't mind me not loving you?' she finally answers.
So, why has he proposed? He says at the end that he loved her from the start--the evidence doesn't fully support that, for me but, neither is it obvious that he doesn't. I rather think that he likes her because she is entirely without coyness and willing to accept what life has to offer. He does love her, perhaps, but he doesn't know that and he doesn't know her well. She's restful and hard-working and better than the circumstances she's landed in. That's good enough for him.
He takes her off to live in sin in his thatched cottage in the aptly named village of Lustleigh. ( I kid! I kid!) The couple are quietly content with one another but Sir Paul has taken to avoiding Miss Emma and don't think she hasn't noticed. I adore her when she runs him to ground in his study. 'Don't you want to marry me? It's quite all right if you've changed your mind...' That's Emma--dishing up what life has served her and willing to tuck in no matter what. His blood probably runs hot and cold at that. Doesn't that woman know what it's doing to him--having her there, day after day, wearing those cardigans, walking his dogs, sleeping in full-length cotton night gowns in the guest room?! If she hasn't seen him it's because he's standing under a steady stream of ice-cold showers every spare minute he can. She isn't ready to hear that.
But as she takes to the aisle in her mandatory MOC her Dawning Realization cold-cocks her.
As things settle down (I'll steal from Prince William here: They're as calm as ducks on the water--the surface looks peaceful and serene but they're both paddling madly underneath.), Sir Paul asks his Lady Wyatt (yes she is!) if she's willing to do some volunteer work for a friend of his. Emma agrees to go to work a few mornings a week at a home for babies under the direction of Diana Pearson. (Grab your popcorn! Here comes the good part!)
Diana was born to be in charge. She is the Chief and she presides elegantly over her Indians--Emma and Maisie.
Maisie. There are not a whole lot of auxiliary characters who can best Maisie for mind-blowing magnificence--she listens at key-holes (!) and, while bathing a succession of infants, fills Emma in on the set-up. Emma likes her but feels suspicious of Diana...and jealous of the cozy relationship she seems to enjoy with Sir Paul. Emma, bashing her egg, wish[ed] it was Diana...
But how much trouble can she cause? Well, since Paul is in 'Boston, USA' he's inadvertently opened a portal to another realm (Brussels has one as well), amplifying little barbs and evils into seismic events. But then suddenly, Diana is all kinds of helpful. See, there's a group of 'travelers' on the moor with some sick babies and would Emma care to...? Crafty Diana. She knows the words 'sick babies' act as a super-sonic dog whistle that only Aramintas can hear. Emma tears off with haste and sensible sobriety, offering help and ambulances and every needful thing. Lives are rescued (no thanks to Diana) and she ought to be a heroine...
Her face, when she turns it to Paul upon his arrival home, is a mixture of surprised delight. Her delight is met with...cold rage. Paul, a hitherto mellow hero, falsely primed by Diana into believing that Emma endangered her life to be some glory-hound and genuinely terrified to think about the danger she weathered, begins to feel his oats and forgets himself:
Diana is worth a dozen of you.No.
|Unforgivable...that's what you are.|
- Crucio--excruciating pain
- Imperio--surrender of free will
- Avada Kedavra--instant death
- Diana is worth a dozen of you--turns the hearer into a gob-smacked icicle
La Neels attempts to counterbalance Paul's wrongness by getting Emma to believe Diana's poison about him (Which leads to a flaming row) but the fact remains that he broke some unwritten laws.
Diana is finally vanquished (with the help of Ear-to-the-door-Maisie) and Paul has his hands full to catch Emma before she walks out on him.
Misunderstandings are untangled in the nicest of ways.
Rating: I'm not kidding around here when I say I haven't the faintest clue what to rate this. Will I read this again? Heck yes. Is it awesome? Not quite. Am I considering taking a light eraser to a certain Unforgivable Curse? Possibly.
The beginning kind of muddied about for a while and didn't grab me very much--his attraction is by no means certain and the Venerable Neels picks up and drops characters like they're face cards in a competitive bridge competition. It began to pick up when Emma goes to work for the tragically underused Doreen Hervey--a woman doomed to lose her husband and his wealth in an untimely accident and be a beautiful mill stone around her son's neck. The wedding, Paul's tentative courtship, some mourning that feels real and her dawning realization...all nice bits.
|...but dropped on the floor.|
So, I think the angstiness was great and all and I adore how confused and off-kilter our hero is throughout the end (Where did his sweet Emma go?) but...(It's always that 'but'.) I think that, if Paul has a fatal flaw, it's that he married Emma too soon. He put her in a little box (marked sweet, nice, plain) and all this slanging will be good for the marriage in the long run.
So, if pressed, I'd give this a Mince Pie That Has Been Dropped on the Ground. (Even though large parts of it make me consider applying the Five-second rule.)
Food: Casserole and dumplings, steak and kidney pudding with a drop of stoat in the gravy, toad-in-the-hole, home made mince tarts, Cook makes her a pasty to take home after mother's illness, he enjoys Petit Beurre biscuits, he brings her fish and chips (the darling) as the first hint that he loves her, lobster bisque, boeuf en croute and she enjoys one pitiful little meal of two sausages and a bit of yoghurt.
Fashion: Emma wears a pleated gray skirt and cardigan--'that essentially British garment'. Paul looks dashing in clerical gray and spotless linen. When she splashes out, Emma buys a dress in garnet-red and another in turquoise (Emma, girlfriend, I approve.), trades her plain felt hat for a velvet trifle and wears a woolen dress in winter white for her wedding. She also buys a silver-gray (How gray was my childhood in Lustleigh...) dress with long sleeves and a modest neckline and dons a plain jersey dress suitable for a parish council meeting.