This book takes place primarily in London in 1799.
William Manderville, the Earl of Bonnington, has cultivated a reputation for being a charming rake. Only a few people know that he is actually an undercover agent for England. The pleasure trips he takes to France are actually meant to allow him to smuggle important information back to England. He always takes a pretty woman with him, someone others are supposed to believe is just his latest mistress. She often is, but she's also meant to help him maintain his cover. Unfortunately, the woman he had with him during his last trip almost got them both killed by speaking too freely with a French lover she'd taken behind Will's back. They managed to get out, but Will had to kill three men.
Will is determined to have a better partner next time, someone pretty, willing to do as she's told, and smart enough not to invite additional trouble. When he sees a painting of a beautiful woman, he thinks he might have found who he's looking for. He hunts down the painting's model, Harriet Treene, a lowborn orange-seller, and things eventually work out so that he offers her a job as his next partner. He tells her that she'd be his mistress in name only - the important thing is that everyone who sees them believe she's his mistress, so that they can go to France together without comment. He promises to eventually repay her by providing her with the funds to set up the tea shop she dreams of having.
Harriet thrives in her role, modeling for paintings and stirring up talk about "Miss Calliope" (Harriet's nickname, because of a painting she models for). The trouble is, although this was all supposed to just be a ruse, Harriet and Will have started to fall for each other. Harriet doesn't want to be Will's mistress, but she also doesn't think an orange-seller and an earl can have any other kind of future together. Will, for his part, becomes more and more worried about bringing Harriet with him to France - the more he comes to care for her, the more he fears putting her in danger.
I had never read a book by Miranda Jarrett before, and all I knew about this one was that it was a historical romance, likely one with a countess in it. I found the setup, with an earl hero who is an undercover spy training an orange-seller to play the part of his mistress and help maintain his cover, to be interesting. Unfortunately, I kind of disliked Will at first. I wasn't fond of the way he thought about women. From what I could tell, he didn't really want a partner, he wanted someone who could be beautiful, obedient, and good in bed if he felt like sleeping with her. Actually, here's a quote:
“'All I wish for now is a replacement for Jenny,' he [Will] declared, 'a sweet-tempered little hussy with a strong enough stomach for the sea, one who will take orders like a soldier and be willing to risk her pretty neck for the sake of her king and country.'”(p. 6)He made me wish that Harriet would turn out to be plain, but, of course, she was breath-takingly beautiful.
Thankfully, Will gradually became more likable. I really enjoyed his playful conversations with Harriet, and I liked how kind he was towards her. I loved the scene where Will let Harriet sleep in his bed for her comfort, talking to her, learning about her and telling her about himself, until she fell asleep – after which he left the bed to go sleep elsewhere. He might have been able to convince her to have sex with him, but he was gentlemanly and didn't. When Harriet and Will stumbled upon the duchess' father's secret porn stash (heh), I expected that the book's first sex scene was nigh and was pleasantly surprised when Harriet changed her mind and Will didn't get upset.
I was a little less pleased when Will and Harriet fell into bed with each other not long after Will declared that Harriet wasn't his mistress and that she shouldn't think of herself that way. Will is an earl, and Harriet had no guarantee that he wouldn't tire of her and leave her. He probably would have been as nice as possible about it, but still. The line between “lover” and “mistress” was thin and depended upon Will's continued interest in Harriet. I thought it was a bit silly for her to sleep with him after she'd spent most of the book saying she wouldn't be so stupid as to do something like that.
Harriet was...interesting, a mixture of flirtatious and naive, worldly and innocent. Several of her interactions with Will were very flirty (the song with the oranges sticks in my mind as a good example), but there were other times she was almost prudish. She would probably have been horrified to learn that Will had once participated in an orgy. Heck, I was kind of horrified to learn that. Granted, it was only a stray thought of his, and I already knew he'd had sex with lots of women prior to meeting Harriet. Still, I could probably have done without knowing that about him. It contributed to my wish that he could be tested for STDs prior to sleeping with Harriet.
Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked. So, Harriet. While she seemed nice enough, it was hard for me to get a handle on her. She seemed capable: for instance, she escaped a man who tried to kill her and then held herself together until a better opportunity to fall apart presented itself. However, I was never quite convinced that she really knew what she was getting herself into by agreeing to go with Will to France.
When I first realized that Will was an undercover spy and that Harriet was going to be his new partner, I expected there to be some action-packed spy moments, maybe prefaced by scenes in which Will showed Harriet what she'd need to know in order to best be of assistance. If you go into this book expecting lots of “spy stuff,” you'll probably be disappointed – almost all of the book is Will and Harriet getting everybody to talk about “Will's new mistress, Miss Calliope” and preparing to go to France. True, there are a couple “danger” moments in the book. Harriet's clothes are slashed, and a man tries to kill her. However, all of that felt like a setup for greater danger later on, in France. I kept waiting and waiting for heavier spy stuff, but Harriet and Will didn't go to France until maybe the last 50 pages of the book.
That last portion of the book felt rushed. The showdown with the book's villain was, for me, a bit of a disappointment, and I thought Zeke was handled badly. A brand new character, whom Will knew nothing about, allowed to be on Will's ship while he was acting in his role as a spy? I thought for sure Zeke would turn out to be a traitor, particularly since he mentioned that his mother had died of consumption and one of the villain's informants had been consumptive. While taking Zeke onto his ship was a nice thing to do, it made Will look like an idiot of a spy.
All in all, I didn't think this was a bad book, but it wasn't a great one either. If I were to give this one a grade, I think I'd give it a C, or maybe a C+. Yes, I just gave a book a grade. I've gone back to keeping a spreadsheet of the things I read, and I've been privately grading them so as to make it easier to sort them from best to worst later on. I may or may not state what grade I gave them in my posts. It'll probably depend upon how confident I feel about those grades.
FYI, the title of this book is misleading. Since Harriet is an orange-seller, I assumed that the “countess” part meant that Will was going to cave and propose to her early on, or that they were perhaps going to pretend marriage or engagement or something. Not so – Will doesn't propose until nearly the end of the book.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series) - When I think of cross-class romance, I think of this series. It's a little hard to find the manga now, but you should be able to get it through interlibrary loan if your local library offers that service. The anime differs somewhat from the manga, but it's much easier and less costly to get. This series is slower-paced than Jarrett's book, but it does have a little dark drama here and there and, like I said, lovely cross-class romance. I've written about all the volumes of the manga and both seasons of the anime - be warned, my posts have spoilers.
- The Secret Duke (book) by Jo Beverley - I haven't read this, but I added it to the list because it's a Georgian romance (although I think it takes place two or three decades before Jarrett's book) and because the hero is a titled man with a dangerous secret life. Beverley has written other Georgian romances.
- The King's Favorite: A Novel Nell Gwyn and King Charles II (book) by Susan Holloway Scott - While looking for read-alikes, I learned that Miranda Jarrett (historical romance) and Susan Holloway Scott (historical fiction) are one and the same. If you don't mind reading about an entirely different time period (late 1600s), this book might appeal to you if you'd like another feisty orange-seller heroine who becomes a (real) mistress.
- The Spymaster's Lady (book) by Joanna Bourne - This book takes place in 1802 (another Georgian romance!) and, from the sounds of things, has lots and lots of "spy stuff," which should satisfy those who, like me, wished that Jarrett's book had had more of that.