When Winnefred Blythe was 13, her father died rescuing horses from a burning stable. As he lay dying, he asked the nearest gentleman to accept his Freddie as a ward and the Marquess of Engsly, thinking he was taking on a boy and feeling generous at having his valuable horses saved, agreed. Upon learning he had acquired a young girl, he passed along her care to his wife, who arranged for Freddie to be sent to the country in the care of another slightly older young lady and with a certain sum of money to be settled upon them every year – the majority of which the marchioness promptly siphoned off for herself, leaving the girls in abject poverty. At the start of the story, the Marquess is dead, the Marchioness has absconded with stolen money, and the new Marquess is searching for his stepmother and in doing so discovers the existence of Freddie.
Lucien, the new Marquess, assigns the task of investigating Freddie’s situation to his brother Gideon, who has returned from the war with a fair share of crippling survivor’s guilt and who Lucien feels would benefit from “playing knight-errant.” However, being left to their own devices for the past dozen years has made Freddie and her companion, Lilly, quite capable of fending for themselves and Gideon finds a less than enthusiastic welcome – the ladies believe he and his brother are fully aware of their financial straits and in fact refused to aid them when Freddie begged for assistance when Lilly was deathly ill. It is up to Gideon to convince the ladies that he is there to make amends for his stepmother’s behavior and when he tells them they can have anything they wish from the Engsly estate, Lilly asks for a season for Freddie – which necessitates Gideon staying around for several weeks so Lilly can help prepare her for her introduction to society. This is, of course, the set up for Freddie and Gideon to grow on one another and succumb to one another’s charms.
Freddie is a joy – she is clever, stubborn, kind-hearted and can outcuss a sailor. Her best friend, other than Lilly, is a goat named Claire. For his part Gideon is noble, charming, funny, and a wee bit prone to petty jealousy. I did get a little tired of his insistence that he couldn’t marry/be responsible for anyone but it wasn’t worse than any other Tormented Hero Plot Device. This book is sweet and mostly free of overt drama – the relationship progresses because Freddie and Gideon talk to each other and learn about one another. Gideon has his survivor’s guilt and Freddie has abandonment issues so the process is a bit rocky but not rife with miscommunication. There’s no InstaLust and the journey from suspicion to friendship to love was delightful.
I really enjoyed these characters and found myself a bit wistful when the end of the book began to approach that I was nearing the end of my time with them. I kind of want to be able to follow Winnefred on Instagram and enjoy the photos she would post of Claire snuggled up in piles of hay. I admire that Winnefred does a better job of being rational when angry than I do (I seem to have quite the soft spot for cranky heroines). I liked the relationship between Gideon and his brother. I liked that Gideon prefered when Freddie smelled of lavender and hay than when she smelled of lavender alone. It was just a nice book, darn it, and a good start to Cannonball 11.