In 19th-century England, a romance frustrated by circumstance struggles to begin anew.
Sylvia Stafford’s father was an unrepentant gambler and lost the family fortune in a card game; ashamed, he took his own life, leaving Sylvia penniless, abandoned by fair-weather friends, and forced to take a position as a governess to survive. Before her drop in station, she’d begun a romance with Col. Sebastian Conrad, who was sent to India soon afterward to help put down a rebellion. Sebastian was badly wounded, his face horribly disfigured; when he returned to England, he learned that his father and brother died, leaving him in charge of the family estate as the Earl of Radcliffe. Surly and withdrawn, Sebastian now lives a lonely life; his meddling sister discovers that he still keeps a locket of hair given to him by Sylvia, so she conspires to bring her to his estate to revive his sagging spirits. Reluctantly, Sylvia agrees, but at first, the tension between her and Sebastian isn’t borne of rekindled love but rather deep resentment. Sylvia believes that Sebastian deserted her because he never responded to the numerous love letters she sent him. However, Sebastian, too, feels jilted; unbeknownst to Sylvia, those missives never arrived. Debut author Matthews adroitly captures the internal conflicts of her two main characters, particularly Sebastian’s mixed emotions: “He wanted to hate her. At the same time, much to his mortification, he wanted to grab hold of her, to pull her into his arms and cover her soft mouth with his.” Specifically, she shows how Sebastian harbors the suspicion that Sylvia is simply seeking to improve her own lot and how Sylvia believes that Sebastian is repulsed by her family’s sullied reputation. Although the overall story is somewhat formulaic—a love frustrated by mutual misunderstandings—the author’s prose is consistently refined and elegant, and she memorably builds the simmering attraction between Sylvia and Sebastian.
A beautifully told, if not groundbreaking, historical love story.