Dear Ms. Ranney:
Here's a problem I have. Sometimes I get authors mixed up in my head. I got you mixed up with another author named Karen and I thought you and she were the same person so I haven't picked up any books of yours since 2005. After reading the Scottish Companion, though, I clearly need to go through your backlist. I'll probably end up buying the other Karen too since I am sure that my imperfect memory will fail me again when I am actually at the bookstore
Grant Roberson had abdicated his role as Earl of Straithern in favor of studying science in Italy for the past five years. The death of his brother, Andrew hastens him home. Shortly after his arrival, his second brother, James, falls ill and dies within 6 months of Andrew's death. Grant is suddenly confronted with his own mortality. It is suggested that his family might be suffering from a hereditary disease. With no immediate heirs, Grant requires a wife and an heir to preserve the earldom for his family. He offers a bargain with his doctor who has three daughters and extracts a promise for one of their hands in marriage. The eldest, Arabella, is designated to be the betrothed.
Arabella is unhappy. She would like to do nothing more than be single and study medicine with her father. Gillian Cameron is her paid companion. This is not a book of hijinks where Arabella switches places with Gillian and a deception is underfoot. Instead, each woman looks upon her role with disgruntled acceptance. Arabella will marry but she isn’t going to be happy about it and acts rudely most of the time. Gillian will be the paid companion, destined to sit in the background; to be neither seen nor heard.
Dr. Fenton took Gillian in after her family threw her out for some unknown disgrace. Gillian is told that she will lose her position as Arabella's companion if she doesn't get Arabella to shape up and ready for marriage.
Grant takes interest in Gillian even though he is betrothed to Arabella. Even at the outset, the interest is improper and Gillian reluctantly turns away from it. Yet, the temptation of a little freedom and a little attention to her starved ego, and Gillian finds she cannot stay away from Grant nor him from her. She was angry and she wasn't certain who she was angrier at: him for being so fascinating or herself, for being lured too easily. At times her helpless attraction to Grant is nearly palpable.
All of the characters were nuanced. Dr. Fenton was devoted to his family, indulgent even, but would not allow Arabella to weasel out of marriage and not above treating Gillian poorly to get what he wanted. Grant's mother was not a harridan, but a grieving woman who felt her opportunities had not lasted long enough. Arabella, frightening in her coldness, was made into that person by circumstances. Gillian recognized she gave up even the most simplest of dreams in her careless youth. She regrets it but understands her place. Grant is both scientist and reluctant landowner, the pressures of his father's legacy serve to both drive him away and bring him home again. He is haughty proud and not above engaging in an indiscretion with his wife to be's companion.
The flaws in the book were minor. Grant and Gillian's attraction in the face of the impending wedding seemed a bit too brazen; a bit too dishonorable. My other complaints related to the end of the book and would be too much of a spoiler to reveal but let me obliquely state that I thought Dr. Fenton's character veered a bit too much of a caricature and that Grant's actions in regards to the use of his laboratory seemed inconsistent with his dislike for the structure. Finally, the villainy that leads to the climactic scene is a common one and overused in the romance genre. Still, I'll be digging out my old copies or buying new ones online. B