Isabeau, now Lady Bourke, is newly married and, for all that she’s trying desperately to make the best of the unfortunate situation, she very much wants to go home. Her husband wishes to have nothing to do with her, her husband’s servants dislike her, and Mrs. Cranch, the housekeeper and cook, is especially awful. Her cooking is barely edible, and she very clearly has no respect for Isabeau. It’s a miserable winter and the only comfort Isabeau has are the handful of books she has brought with her.
When two strangers come knocking, injured by bandits and needing help, Isabeau’s life is suddenly full of purpose. Renat and her brother, Gilani, are from Persia and, like Isabeau, not at all fond of the wet, cold, miserable weather outside the manor. Renat is confined to Isabeau’s bed to recover from her wound, and Isabeau finds herself charmed by the woman’s bold, vibrant personality. Renat’s brother is kind, bringing a sense of safety as he escorts her from dinner, and his polite company shields Isabeau from her new husband’s harsh temper.
But the two of them aren’t here by accident. They’ve come chasing something evil, something with a connection to Isabeau’s husband. Isabeau has never been so afraid, but she’ll do everything she can to help her new friends.
Isabeau is not bold or adventurous. She is timid, shy, uncertain, and not wanting or willing to cause distress to others. She hides behind politeness and courtesy, in the hopes that the same will be accorded to her. Born to a merchant father, she is unaccustomed to her rank as Lady Bourke; ordering people about is alien to her. Asking, being kind, and showing compassion are more native to her, and while it works on a few of the servants, it has no effect on Mrs. Cranch, who only seems to hate her more. Her husband is indifferent, even curt, but not abusive. Simply frightening, hostile, and unwelcome.
Gilani is charming and kind, gentle and understanding … but it’s Renat’s bright, teasing smiles, her unabashed flirting and offer of friendship that draw Isabeau to her. The romance is slow and subtle, with more time focused on the evil threat and Isabeau’s slow spark of defiance and courage. It’s also a book with gentle humor, such as when Renat and her brother are trying to rescue Isabeau from being a human sacrifice. Renat calls out to her, asking if she’s alright, and Isabeau politely informs her that she’s well, simply tied up. When there is debate over who might be a demon, Isabeau asks if it might be Mrs. Cranch, since her cooking is … well, it’s not very good.
Isabeau’s focus is always on other people, on whether they’ve been hurt or need help. For all that she hides behind Gilani and Renat, at the end, it’s Isabeau who has to save herself — and the horse, who really did most of the work. But Isabeau did try; she simply needed a little help at the end.
This is a fun read, very quick with excellent pacing, strong characters, and clean, cheerful prose. If you want a hint of gothic horror in your romance, a heroine with exquisite manners, and some shy flirting, then you should really give this book a try.