This very short novella is a prequel to the 8-volume Brothers Sinister series, telling the story of Serena Barton and Hugo Marshall. Parents to Oliver and Free (the protagonists of full novels 2 and 4 in the series), they are initially adversaries, pitted against each other by the current Duke of Clermont. See, Serena is carrying his illegitimate child, and the Duke is already in the doghouse with his wife who, naturally, is the one who comes from money, and the Duke needs that money. Since Clermont would rather his wife not find out about this latest indiscretion, he needs Hugo to take care of it. Hugo, for his part, isn’t an actual paid employee of the Duke, per se, but has a wager with him that if he can get the Duke’s finances in order within a year, the Duke will pay him a tidy lump sum that will enable him to start a business on his own. So Clermont’s best interests are Hugo’s best interests, you might say. But what happens when Hugo’s need to make Serena “go away” run directly up against her stubborn need for reparations? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out! I’m sure no love or attraction is involved, whatsoever.
I first read The Governess Affair in March, 2013, according to Goodreads — a full year-and-a-half ago. At the time, I rated it rather harshly, giving it only 2/5 stars. When, now, I look through all of Courtney Milan’s books on Goodreads that I have read, this stingy score sticks out like a sore thumb. When I thought of all of the potential reasons why I scored it so low — including the possibility that I just hadn’t learned to stop worrying and love The Romance yet — I ended up concluding that, with the Kindle edition clocking in at 180 pages, it was worth a fast re-read to see if my initial drive-by impression was fair.
Well… my new rating — inasmuch as one person’s arbitrary shifting opinion matters — is a solid 3.5 stars. It’s a fresh, quippy, tightly-written novella, with typically intelligent Milan characters. The attraction is real, and the pivotal love scene, and Hugo’s trick with the hairpins, is brilliant and sensitively done. It’s still not in the top tier of Milan’s books for me, though. This may partly be that she seems to get better with almost every book. For me, it comes mostly down to Serena coming off as very wishy-washy toward the beginning, with her prevarication being hand-waved away as a clever negotiation tactic. I mean, how does she expect to get anywhere like this:
HM: What is it that you want?
SB: I want what I am owed! I am tired of being silent!
HM: Okay, well what happened, and what do you think you are owed?
SB: I won’t tell you, you gossip.
HM: Well, we will give you fifty pounds and a positive reference for future employment.
SB: That’s not good enough!
And to be fair, she’s right. And she has a reason to be cautious and not just go telling anyone who asks her sordid story. But she correctly ascertains fairly early on that Hugo is able and willing to help her, and she still doesn’t level with him, opting instead for pushing his limits and flirting. It’s not that she’s NOT clever, and she certainly wins in the end, but redundant rehashing of dialogue much like the above for several chapters didn’t make for completely engrossing reading.
All the same, this really isn’t bad. It’s just that Milan has gotten even better, and also that A Kiss for Midwinter is such a GREAT novella in this same series that this one doesn’t hold up in comparison.