Governess Abigail Chantry will do anything to save her sister and two dearest friends from destitution, even if it means breaking into an empty mansion in the hope of finding something to sell. Instead of treasures, though, she finds the owner, Lady Beatrice Davenham, bedridden and neglected. Appalled, Abby rousts Lady Beatrice's predatory servants and—with Lady Beatrice's eager cooperation—the four young ladies become her “nieces,” neatly eliminating the threat of disaster for all concerned!
It's the perfect situation, until Lady Beatrice’s dashing and arrogant nephew, Max, Lord Davenham, returns from the Orient—and discovers an impostor running his household…
A romantic entanglement was never the plan for these stubborn, passionate opponents—but falling in love may be as inevitable as the falling of autumn leaves…
And here is Qualisign's review:
This book begs to be the subject of an HaBO, which might run something like this:
I’m looking for a book that I read on my Kindle, so there is no cover art to confound or provide clues. The book begins with three young men meeting in a hot place. India? Nope, Malacca, in 1815 eating shrimp, hot and spicy for one, with a piquant dipping sauce for the other two. One of the guys, from Ireland, was dressed exceptionally flamboyantly, “like a pirate,” complete with a gold earring. Another guy had a letter that had been dropped in the ocean, so only parts of lines were still readable and the rest was a lavender smear. The letter seems to indicate that his beloved aunt was being mistreated by her staff.
No. Actually, I think the story began nine years earlier in 1806 when the spicy-shrimp guy was a young lordling in England and his uncle died with crippling debts, which meant the 18-year-old heir would have to sell the many family estates, including the house where his aunt lived. At this point, I got sidetracked by the question of why at least one of the family homes wasn’t entailed, but I digress. Young Lordling (the capital indicates his having received the title, even if the title was really Lord of Debts and Protector of Beloved Aunt’s Presumed Positive Memories). … Yeah. That’s how it started.
Then comes the part where a youngish, but sliding-into-spinster-territory, orphan governess, Abigail Chantry/Chance, with a heart of purest platinum, is pulled aside on the streets of London by a young woman with a limp and a Cockney accent, telling the governess that her sister is in a bad place and that she has to rescue her. Fast forward to a back alley behind a brothel and Abby is 1) reunited with her 6-years younger blonde beauty of a sister, Jane, who is barefoot and dressed in a chemise, having narrowly escaped having her virginity auctioned off after having been abducted, and collects 2) a second charge, another young beautiful dark-haired non-virgin, excellent cook, and orphan-of-highborn-missionaries-to-China and fellow abductee, Damaris, who had managed to thwart Jane’s first auction; and finally she adds 3) Cockney-spewing, one-leg-shorter-than-the other, virgin brothel housemaid and dressmaker extraordinaire, Daisy.
The three charges in hand, Abby promptly loses her position as a governess. The four decide to become sisters, and they move to horrible digs in London. Jane gets terribly ill; they have no money for a physician, so Abby takes over, finds men’s trousers and shirt (you may ask, as did I, where did they find those when they had NO money?), and decides to do some housebreaking – only because she had to fund a doctor for her apparently dying sister – in a basically dark mansion with a window left open for days, conveniently located across from their tiny room on an upper floor in an about-to-be-demolished slum building. A quick slip and slide across a slate roof, up – or was it down? – a drainpipe or two and Abby was in the mansion where the only thing she found was an old lady in bed. The old lady’s first line was glorious: “Have you come to kill me?”
Platinum-hearted “Miss Burglar” gives Lady Beatrice (“Aunt Bea”) water, checks in on her a couple of days later in her housebreaker garb, feeds her, then in another a couple of days moves in with her sisters. A butler and bouncer are conveniently located a few flights below them in the condemned house. Abby dispatches the horrible staff of four who had been starving – and stealing from – the old lady, then cleans her up, cleans her room, brings in a doctor, feeds her and starts a regime to get her back on her feet. The not-quite-as-young-as-he-once-was-but-still-young Lordling steams back from his hot place, stomps into Auntie’s house, meets the “sisters” and assumes that the leader of the sisterhood(lums), Abby, was the instigator of the abuse. And that was just the first five chapters.
This stuff is pure, unadulterated HaBO crack! I’d be first in line to read it – and the sequels! The story continues with more multiplayer wackiness with Abby, and later Jane, as the target of low-life thugs out to harm/kill Abby and then to re-abduct Jane. Max, the Lordling, thwarts the first attempt, making him at least question whether or not Abby was truly as despicable as he assumed. The “sisters” are claimed as nieces by Aunt Bea (not to be confused with Mrs. B, the good-hearted madam, earlier owner-operator of the brothel, mother of Mort, the current evil brothel owner-operator, who, in turn, is not to be confused with Morton Black, the private investigator hired by Lordling Max to inquire about the “sisters,” who, in turn, is not to be confused with Blake, the butler of Abby’s prior employer, who, in turn, is not to be confused with Blake Ashton, one of the several partners in Flynn & Co.
Whew! That’s a lot of disambiguating for someone like me who reads so quickly that the names don’t actually get pronounced in my head so much as having alphabetic forms that match. Other fine bits in the book include a secret engagement to a citizen’s daughter (then age 10) who was part of how the 18-year-old Max pulled himself out of the black hole of debt; a literary society based on reading torrid books, eating cakes washed down with alcohol, and chatting about anything but literary devices; and an outrageously funny scene in which Lady Beatrice explains to an old society friend over dinner how the four very different young women were born to her [made-up] half-sister, who was supposedly a product of a secret divorce due to an affair and hasty second marriage of Lady Beatrice’s mother and an Austrian count, covered up by her presumed death. [“She had died. Max had seen the grave.”] Max’s denial of all aspects of the farfetched tale was dismissed by Bea in such a way that it gained a veracity of its own that stretched deliciously throughout the longer story, allowing the young women acceptance in society:
[Lady Beddington:] “And to think I’ve known you all these years, Bea, and I’d never even heard of your half sister, Griselda.”
[Max:] “Not surprising, since–“
[Lady Beatrice:] “Since Papa didn’t like us to speak of her. Of course, poor Max was raised believing Papa’s lies.” His aunt added in a forgiving tone, “He still finds it hard to accept the truth, poor boy.”
The book is worthy of a RITA nomination, but having read several of the others nominated in the category, I would be very surprised if this were to win. The romance itself was somewhat bland. Basically it was a case of: “S/he makes my heart go pit-a-pat, so I want him/her, but my principles are such that I must honor his/my previous engagement despite my feels.”
The only romantic encounter between Abby and Max – that is until the end of the book after the erstwhile fiancée was on her way to her own HEA with another – occurred after Max thwarted the murder attempt aimed at Abby. The encounter was comprised of a mutually ardent kiss in an alleyway with Abby lying where she had been knocked down in the alley-muck with Max’s knife wound bleeding over the back of her shirt. Despite the down and dirty potential, it was very sweet. And bland.
Alternatively, Lady Beatrice was written beautifully. She was acerbic, witty, kind, pragmatic and occasionally tired, in pain and even confused. I don’t remember the last time I read a secondary, and especially older, character with as much complexity. Anne Gracie included some very real details of elder abuse that built the character of both Aunt Bea and the sisters. The sisters themselves were somewhat more caricatured, with Abby given the most detail, though she remained, like her romance, rather bland. I was most disappointed with the portrayal of Daisy, whose dress designing skills seemed to be the salvation of them all. It was Daisy who hennaed Aunt Bea’s cropped do, painted her toenails, and created stunning dressing gowns for her. It was Daisy who was taken with Max to a couple of magistrates to finger the evil brothel owner and his equally evil cohorts. It was Daisy who designed the gowns in which the (other) sisters held court at their literary societies. However, almost everything Daisy did was off stage. On stage, Daisy was the only one of the sisters who managed to fit into an ancient pair of Aunt Bea’s high heels, but the fact that with her limp, she wouldn’t be able to walk – or dance – in them rather took away the joy of that spotlight. Given the excellent portrayal of Lady Beatrice, I would definitely read another in the series to see how Daisy blooms when she gets her “Chance” book.
In sum, I loved the complexity of the relations, and the sheer number of characters of different ages and from different social situations was handled quite well. Conversely, a few of characters were jarringly, if not downright gratuitously, cartoonish. (Was it really necessary to include a reference to the source of Max’s apparent sexual expertise as a “Chinese widow who didn’t want to remarry” in the middle of the only sex scene, right at the end of the book, but before the epilogue/wedding?)
In some ways, I wish that this book were set in an alternate Regency period so that I wouldn’t have to be so upset about anachronisms, but that’s life. The action and active narrative scenes were wonderful; the romance was ‘meh’, even though I did like both Abby and Max, a couple of straight up menschen. Yep. I’d probably have to read this book if it were an HaBO, and I wouldn’t regret it. Would I read it again? Probably not. Would I read the next in the series? Undoubtedly.