To save her life, the young heiress of Ambersley is disguised as a boy and raised by servants, but when she and the unsuspecting new Duke eventually become close, complications arise in this Regency-era romance.
After 4-year-old Amber Johanna Vaughan barely escapes the suspicious fire that kills her parents, the gardener and his wife take her in and disguise her as a boy (they call her “Johnny”) to keep her safe from rapacious relatives. Once tracked down, the next-in-line heir, Derek Vaughan, proves himself a good master of Ambersley, making improvements and thwarting his villainous stepmother Rosalie’s plans. He takes an interest in bright little Johnny, now 7, and gives her an education. When jealous Rosalie engineers a duel between 17-year-old Johnny and Derek, the girl’s secret emerges and she reenters society as Johanna, Derek’s ward. Despite their mutual attraction, true love is threatened by misunderstandings, secrets and Rosalie’s machinations. Atwell (Lying Eyes, 2010) has an intriguing premise, and her craftsmanship shows in solid descriptions, smooth dialogue and observations, as in: “No wonder men thought ladies were such trivial creatures—they had nothing but trivialities to entertain them.” Historical accuracy adds greatly to the pleasure of the Regency romance, and while Atwell gets many details right, Lady Jersey would never be called Sally Jersey, and few if any Regency aristocrats would christen their children Amber, Derek or Curtis. More troubling, though, is the inconsistency of the characters. Rosalie’s son, Curtis, is a nasty, mean child; as a teenager, he colludes at a false rape charge; yet later on he becomes kind and helpful to Amber and Derek, with no simple explanation for the change. Derek is somber, morose and serious when we first meet him, a soldier who’d distinguished himself, yet he has a hair-trigger temper and jumps to the farthest conclusions. He’s furious with Johanna for “lying” to him with her disguised identity, even though doing so was the opposite of self-serving. It’s strange, too, that Johanna feels so deeply ashamed for a disguise that wasn’t, after all, her idea. And what exactly does Johanna see in Derek? He disdains women, thinks they’re all liars and tells Johanna so (as Johnny). His lighthearted, funny, sweet friend Harry seems a much better bet. Too many contrivances and almost willful misunderstandings drain interest from the love story.
Though written with some skill, Atwell’s novel lacks the lighthearted sparkle, wit, fun and true period flavor that defines a Regency romance.