Sophie Mercer Evans is brilliant, well read, opinionated and organized. She considers herself plain in appearance and has self image issues in that regard. Sophie married a despicable rake who basically wooed and spirited her away from her family at a young age because she was an heiress. Tommy Evans wanted her money, and he got it by defiling and marrying her, then he leaves her in the country while he goes off to "Town" to whore, drink and spend every penny of her fortune. Tommy was a disgusting man.
It is through her husband that Sophie meets Gwilym Earl of Banallt on a fateful night in 1811. Tommy brings Banallt home after a night of drinking and whoring. Tommy then proceeds to pass out dead drunk and Banallt sets his roving eye on Sophie. His indecent proposal earns Sophie's contempt. She is a proper woman who took her marriage vows seriously. Sophie did not cheat on her husband.
I usually don't enjoy books that flip back and forth between time periods. However, in this story it was written in an exemplary manner because it revealed how this couple's lives intersected and it showed the progression of their tumultuous relationship.
The story opens in 1814, 3 years after Sophie and Banallt's initial meeting. Tommy, thankfully, has died through his own recklessness. Sophie is therefore a free woman and has no intention of falling in love and having what is left of her heart broken again. Banallt too is a widower.
Sophie's brother, John Mercer, is written as an intelligent upstanding character whom she loves deeply. John is a politician and has earned his way to become an advisor to the Duke of Vedaelin, who resides in London. John wants his sister with him and takes her to London when he is called to the Duke's side. There, Sophie assists her brother with his administrative affairs and to set up their household. She also becomes acquainted with the members of the ton for the first time.
As was the way in that time, women were not allowed to be involved with the business affairs of men and they were "looked after" by their closet relative. Decent young women did not travel about unescorted and suitors required acceptance by their family. John, being Sophie's only surviving relative, is her protector. John knows of Banallt's scandalous reputation and wants to prevent his sister from further hurt at all costs, essentially he doesn't want the Earl messing with his sister.
Banallt has always been attracted to beautiful, buxom blonde women, everything, in his mind, Sophie is not. Yet he is inexorably drawn to her intelligence and wit, her expressive beautiful eyes, and over the years through the peaks and valleys of their relationship he falls desperately in love with her. I think the thing that caused a lump in my throat and my heart to fall into the pit of my stomach when reading this story was Sophie's longing for him but her determination not to fall for Banallt because she saw him as the cur that was her husband. Sophie assumed he would leave her desolate just as Tommy did despite Banallt's declarations otherwise. I could feel Banallt's frustration and pain at his inability to convince her of his honorable intentions.
This is a novel about a man's quest to earn back first the respect and then hopefully the love of the woman that he yearns for above all else. As a reader, I was struck by the subtle exchanges between them; that look of longing across the room; the gentle touch of fingers on a soft cheek; or a quite verbal exchange. The prose was quite, lovely.
Sophie and Banalt's story is also one of a deep friendship, and how, during times of great personal loss and tragedy, they turn to one another for comfort.
If you do decide to read this book make sure you've got a few hours of reading time to devote to it because I know I certainly had trouble putting it down.
By the way, I think this is one of the most sensual covers I've ever seen on a book.