This second book from new author Elizabeth Kingston is miles away – both chronologically and geographically – from her first one - The King’s Man - which was set in medieval Wales. A Fallen Lady is a Regency set in a quiet English village, and I am pleased to say that Ms Kingston is as much at home with the social conventions of the early nineteenth century as she was with the brutal, turbulent times of the thirteenth century.
Six years earlier, Lady Helen Dehaven suddenly and unaccountably ended her betrothal, even after she and her fiancé had been discovered in a compromising position. Ruined in the eyes of an unforgiving society, Helen flees her brother’s home after he dismisses her one attempt at an explanation, and settles in a small village where she lives in relative obscurity but among friends.
But now, Alex, the Earl of Whitemarsh, wants to find his sister, and in a case such as this, there is only one man to whom he can turn. Stephen Hampton, the Earl of Summerdale is the keeper of society secrets, a man who knows everyone and everything and who can be relied upon to use that knowledge with the utmost discretion. Alex gives Stephen to understand that he wants to find out if Helen will consider a reconciliation and also suggests that maybe Stephen will be able to find out the truth of what happened six years ago.
Stephen Hampton is young, rich, good-looking and extremely well respected, with a reputation for upstanding propriety. He might not, then, be the best person to go looking for a fallen woman, but his friend’s request comes to him at a propitious time. Increasingly uncomfortable with the demands of his position and of the endless round of tawdry secrets and intrigue into which he is so often drawn, Stephen is keen to get away from London for a while. The prospect of a sojourn at his estate in Herefordshire – which is close to the village of Bartle-on-the-Glen which Helen has made her home – is thus an attractive one.
Helen is naturally suspicious when Stephen appears, making it clear that while she would love to see Alex and his new wife, she is not prepared to do so at any price. Her brother didn’t believe her years ago when she told him the truth and she was deeply, indelibly hurt by that. At first, Stephen judges her as society has judged her, but there is something about Helen that draws him, and he can’t resist seeking her out, coming to realise that there is more to her situation than meets the eye and that society has condemned her unjustly. The pair develops an unlikely friendship, finding pleasure in each other’s company even as they tread warily around one another - and for the first time in his life, Stephen discovers a sense of belonging; with Helen, with her friends and the society in which she lives.
A Fallen Lady is a gently moving story in which there is no overarching plot or major action; the romance IS the story and it’s by turns funny, tender and incredibly poignant. The two leads are well-developed, complex characters whose roles are slightly reversed; Helen is the one with the dark past and Stephen is the peacemaker, possessed of a warm, sunny disposition, even though he, too, has some demons of his own to exorcise. Their romance moves at a leisurely but believable pace, given what Helen experienced in the past, and while Ms Kingston doesn’t write overly explicit love scenes, she has imbued the relationship with a wonderful degree of longing and sexual tension.
Stephen is a truly lovely hero; warm, funny and protective, when he falls, he falls hard, and it’s clear he is prepared to do anything for Helen, even if it means making a sacrifice of his own reputation and good standing. Helen is rather more difficult to like, however, and even though the trauma she suffered makes her thoughts and actions completely understandable, it is almost heart-breaking to read the way she holds back from Stephen while he gives her so much of himself.
That’s the only reason I’ve given A Fallen Lady a B+ rather than an A-. Otherwise, it’s a compelling and beautifully written story about characters I came to genuinely care about. Elizabeth Kingston has well-and-truly cemented her position on my radar, and I will definitely be looking out for whatever she comes up with next.