The Last Of The Winter Roses by Jeanne Savery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I picked this one up because I love ugly duckling stories, and I was intrigued by the fact that the ugly duckling of the Roses, as they were called, was the one Rose that St. John Worth wanted. I didn't realize that they had a turbulent history until I started the book. Ardith thought St. John's proposal five years ago was a joke that he had planned with two of his drunk cronies. It broke her young, insecure, love-struck heart. At that point, she abandoned any attempt at a season and fled to her Aunt Sibley, an independent spinster who raised her to be the same. Five years lady, she is a woman of consequence, with an independent life as Aunt Sibley's heir. She is content running her estate, raising horses, and taking care of the tenants and the country folk who are in need of medicine but don't trust the local doctor. She's managed very well to avoid St. John and any other suitors. However, when she leaves her sister's house, who has just given birth to her third daughter, she ends up caught in a bad snowstorm, and is forced to see shelter at St. John's house. Unfortunately, he is there. From that point on, she'll find him very hard to avoid.
I ended up loving this book. It just had that certain something that kept me turning the pages. There is built in angst and pathos for Ardith's situation. She is tall, dark, lanky, strong-featured, and not feminine enough compared to her older, prettier, blond, perfect sisters. She has given up on the idea of marriage because she feels she lacks those qualities that a man would want in a bride. St. John's cruel trick was the final factor that convinced her of that fact. And then, there is the fact that she has come to treasure her independence. Her father doesn't know what to do with her. He's not even allowed through the gate of her estate, nor is St. John. She has total autonomy. However, St. John's renewed presence in her life makes her second guess her determination not to wed, and that he was just playing a trick on her.
I really loved and felt for Ardith. She was very insecure about her charms as a woman, and it was clear why as I saw how her family treated her. As if there was something wrong with her and she'd never measure up. Even her father made jokes about her not being pretty or womanly, although he admired her pluck. I liked that she was a capable woman. She was very skilled at healing, running an estate, and was a much admired and respected horse-breeder. When she showed her doubts at her lack of beauty or social charm, I didn't find it annoying, because it wasn't in a self-pitying way. She had made the most of what she had, and she had determined to have a good life, even if she wasn't going to be some man's beloved, beautiful society wife. The secret hurt that she'd experienced from St. John felt very real to me. Even more so because it was a misunderstanding, but her low self-esteem, caused by the way her family treated her, made it worse.
St. John was a dear from the beginning. I felt bad for him, because he truly loved Ardith. Even five years later, he was very much in love with her, but stayed away out of respect for her. When he got his chance to woo her, his chance at finally having her as his bride, he didn't let the opportunity pass him by. He wasn't afraid to use whatever means available in his arsenal. I loved how he stood up for her with Ardith's overbearing, but very thick-headed father. He even fell out of sorts with him because he wasn't going to back down, and was willing to defend Ardith, even if it put him in her father's bad graces. I appreciated the fact that St. John loved Ardith for who she was. He wanted her in his life, and was willing to make compromises to make sure she was happy in their life together. Even so, he was no pushover. He showed determination and a sense of grace and honor in his pursuit of Ardith. He was very patient, even when Ardith was stubborn to trust in him. He understood the uphill battle to win back her trust and was in it for the long hall. He was a really good man. A man any woman would be glad to have as her beloved husband. I was cheering for him to win Ardith's heart back into his keeping.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the humor. I love the way that a good trad regency brings in the funny aspects of the speech and the everyday interactions of the characters. Ms. Savery captured the feel of the period very well. She used a few phrases that were new to me, but I forgot to write them down to look them up, but they made me feel she had done her research on this period, going way beyond just window-dressing. Poor Ardith's hands were full managing her sisters' issues, since her father was pressing for a grandson, even willing to bribe the first couple who gave him one. Her sisters (except the one who just gave birth) fled to Ardith for protection when their marriages were under strain from their father's edict, and it was funny seeing how Ardith's loyal gatekeeper showed no respect for title or rank in turning away both Ardith's dad, St. John (who won him over with his devotion to Ardith), and her sisters' spouses. This book was laugh-out loud funny in more than a few scenes. Ardith's dad was not an intelligent man. And he was so set in his ways. He just had no clue how to deal with a stubborn, independent daughter like Ardith.
This book was a nice breath of fresh air. An impulse buy from the clearance rack that more than paid for its spot on my keeper shelf. I am usually lured in fairly easy by the plain Jane theme, especially when the hero is smitten and wooing the plain Jane, so that got my attention. But the good writing and engaging story and characters kept my interest. I'd definitely recommend this one.
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