Here is Melissa, our heroine. Her father has died, and her wastrel brother is celebrating his death and his inheritance of $0 by...throwing a big house party and refusing to acknowledge it. Melissa and her cousin, saucy American widow Bea who talks frankly about things like the treacherous desires of a woman’s body, are reduced to hiding in their rooms avoiding the raucous guests, especially Lord Heflin, who will apparently pursue anything with a viable orifice. Melissa is a late bloomer (she is described as looking no more than 14, although she’s 17) and recovering from the flu. She’s just had a bad year. When she overhears Lord Heflin telling her brother that he’ll forgive all his gambling debts if he can just have her, she and Bea decide that striking out to find her estranged grandmother and begging sanctuary is their only alternative.
Enter our (alleged) hero, Lord Rathburn. He’s been blithely sowing his wild oats when he receives notice that his grandmother is dying and has sent for him. This is bad because she has specifically said to him in the past that he will only inherit all her money (and she’s got plenty) if he is married or betrothed at the time of her death. So he’s going to visit her, thinking about how to get out of this pickle, and drinking a lot of brandy while doing so, because why not?
Everybody meets at an inn, as you do. Melissa has dyed her hair and borrowed a couple of the housekeeper’s gowns, and is posing as Bea’s cousin Harriet, on their way to try their luck in America. They have run into difficulties because the elusive grandmother is currently in Bath and won’t be home for two weeks. Melissa and Bea do not have the funds to stay at an inn, even this crappy one, for that long. Drunken Lord Rathburn hears them talking about their situation, and impulsively makes an offer. Have “Harriet” pose as his intended for two weeks while he visits his grandmother, and he’ll return them to the area safely so they can resume their alleged journey. They agree, although Melissa hates the idea of deceiving an old lady, and there’s a lot of sniping and sparring as they work out a convincing story of how they met and head off. This is where my first WTF kicked in. Remember, Melissa is described as looking like a child normally, even more so since she’s been ill, and also being rather unattractive with her hair dyed black and wearing ugly dresses. So Rathburn’s periodic flares of attraction to her are kind of creepy, since she currently looks like a sick 14-year-old.
They arrive. Grandmother is ill, but perks up quite a bit when it appears that Rathburn does in fact have an actual fiancée. He and Melissa snipe at each other almost constantly—he finds her rude and unladylike, which she’s had to learn to be to deal with her brother and his stupid friends, while she thinks he’s only slightly less drink-sodden and spendthrift than her brother. She also is aware of his reputation (through Bea, who he hits on) as a bit of a cad and a womanizer. So when one of those pangs of unwanted attraction has him kissing her, she responds for an instant (stupid female urges!), then calls him all sorts of names and stomps away. The two weeks continue in this vein, with Melissa befriending Grandmother while Rathburn is laid up with a cold, and learning that she was a late bloomer too, as well as finding out that they are related—their grandmothers in fact know each other, and she and Rathburn are distant cousins. The visit ends, he hires a coach to take her ‘home’, they snipe at each other in lieu of farewells, and that’s the end of it.
Skip ahead about nine months. Melissa’s grandmother takes her in, likes her, and agrees to take her to London for a Season and teach her to be a Proper Lady. Bea sails home to America, and Melissa hits 18 and is suddenly blooming, now a tall, voluptuous blonde whom everyone loves. Rathburn is having a less-fun time. His grandmother really did up and die recently, and changed her will to say that he will only inherit if he marries his fiancée, Miss Harriet, within twelve months of her death. Since Rathburn has no idea of “Harriet’s” real name, family, or location, he figures he’s screwed. When her last letter reaches him, asking him to be friendly to an old friend’s granddaughter named Melissa during her first Season, he figures he’ll just go to London and have some fun before he’s ruined.
Well, they meet. Melissa recognizes him instantly...and he does not. He feels that immediate pang of lust and attraction, and marvels at it (he’s never met this incomparably beautiful woman before!), but doesn’t connect it with dowdy little Harriet. Melissa, on the other hand, firmly believes he knows who she is and is playing some long game designed to ruin her Season. So he keeps trying to be nice to her, and she keeps cutting him off with cold shoulders and sharp words. And he keeps A) trying and trying, because one does not ignore such powerful pantsfeelings!, B) obtusely NOT REALIZING who she is even though she rides just like Harriet and comes from Harriet’s part of England and uses Harriet’s turns of phrase constantly, and C) angrily informing her that not one of the gentlemen courting her is really worthy of her. She responds just as angrily, snap snap OMG we’re kissing...and I quit. Because they’re both stupid, I really don’t like him, and they don’t really like each other. This “romance” is going to end in Regency-era “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and I want no part of that.
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