Jessica Gilmore’s latest category romance, Expecting the Earl’s Baby, holds out the promise of a marriage-of-convenience between opposites. Gilmore is a good hand at tropish writing, aware of the genre’s conventions in a witty, loving way; the last Gilmore category Miss Bates reviewed was a wonderfully written reunited husband-wife story. Though marriage-of-convenience is difficult to pull off in contemporary romance, Gilmore made a great start with a magical castle setting to add a touch of old-world fantasy and top it off with cheeky regency allusions. It reminded Miss Bates of one of her favourite castle-set romances (which also has the advantage of being Christmas-set!) Fiona Harper’s Snowbound In the Earl’s Castle. Gilmore’s heroine, like Harper’s, is an artistic working gal. Daisy Huntingdon-Cross, a wedding photographer, is doing a shoot at Hawksley Castle when her dedication to be last of the party to leave lands her, her stilettos, and flimsy car tires in a foot of snow. Her about-face to the castle to ask for help has her: ” … skid[ding] straight into a fleececlad chest. It was firm, warm, broad. Not a ghost. Probably not a werewolf. Or a vampire. Supernatural creatures didn’t wear fleece as far as she knew.” Said chest belongs to one pragmatic earl who offers chains for her tires because ” ‘… wouldn’t want you to freeze to death on the premises. Think of the paperwork.’ ” Humming “Good King Wenceslas” as she tiptoes in his steps’ wake, Daisy is attracted to The Chest. As is the guy in possession of The Chest, Sebastian Beresford, Earl of Holgate … and, well, one thing leads to another … six weeks later, Daisy returns to Hawksley Castle to tell Sebastian he’s going to be a daddy.
The lines quoted above are evidence of the wit and whimsy with which Gilmore’s romance opens. Maybe the premise is implausible and these two wonderful, smart people succumbing to being anything less than responsible isn’t believable. Yet, this opening captured Miss Bates, as well as what we learn about Seb and Daisy. Seb inherited a heavily indebted estate, thanks to his profligate parents. Seb has a strong sense of responsibility about preserving his heritage; particularly so given he’s a historian with an “expensive education … academic credentials and … various doctorates.” An Oxford don, earl, and looker; he’s a tad dour, has rejected his parents’ lavish life-style and embraced his grand-father’s austerity and love of tradition and solitude. Nevertheless to help maintain the estate, he opened it up to wedding ventures. Hence, Daisy. Now, a baby, and like the throwback that he is, Seb proposes marriage. Daisy sees this as preposterous and quips, ” ‘Are we in a regency novel? Seb, you haven’t besmirched my honour. There’s no need to do the honourable thing.’ ” Maybe not, but a title for her baby, and more importantly, an opportunity to give her a family convinces Daisy to accept Seb.
Like Seb, Daisy is a character whose identity was formed by her famous family. If Seb is blue-blood aristocract, Daisy’s the product of a rock star father, model mother, and two high-achieving older sisters. As the baby and self-proclaimed “wild child” expelled from her prestigious private school, Daisy’s always felt she had to prove herself. And she has, with her great business and artistic sense, but still feels less than. Her family, whom we meet when she and Seb announce their seemingly love-struck engagement, are loving, kind, and proud of Daisy … if only she’d see it. One of the best moments in Gilmore’s novel is when Daisy realizes she doesn’t have to prove herself to her family: her feelings of inferiority and need to declare her independence were about her. A lovely, tender scene ensues with her dad when Daisy realizes she loves Seb, but is unsure about his feelings for her.
Daisy’s right to feel unsure about Seb. Seb declares his pragmatic approach to this marriage from the moment of his proposal: ” ‘Romantic fantasies … are the biggest disservice to marriage.’ ” Seb is an emotionally careful man, with his parents’ wildness an example he’s rejected. He believes marriage works when it’s about mutual respect and decorum, not emotion. Daisy, with her hat collection, humour, and affection, bowls him over. Her belief in romance and love are on her sleeve: ” ‘Two people finding each other, plighting their troth in front of all their friends and family, what could be more romantic than that?’ ” Seb can’t believe Daisy’s able to say “plight their troth” with a straight face, but she is genuine … and she wins him over. Gilmore renders Seb’s fall into the ways of the heart tenderly and poignantly. The romance is built on their differing stances on romance, love, and marriage.
Another aspect to Gilmore’s novel Miss Bates thought well done was the conflict between Daisy and Seb. It would be silly to make it “cross-class” in terms of their birth. Instead, it made sense to Miss Bates that Daisy is, in keeping with her lack of confidence, frightened she can’t live up to Seb’s education. Barely scraping through academic subjects, Daisy’s education centred solely on her photography. She is unsure she can navigate Seb’s Oxonian world: “Daisy tried not to dwell on the disparity in their education … How could they ever be equal? How could she attend professional events at his side? Make conversation with academics? She would be an embarrassment.” Miss Bates felt for Daisy and thought the conflict viable and original. Seb, being the emotionally clueless nincompoop that he is, doesn’t endear himself to Daisy, or the reader when he responds to her trepidations: ” ‘This is Oxford, Daisy. People come here to learn.’ There was a reproving tone in his voice that hit her harder than she liked, a reminder that this was his world, not hers … How on earth was she going to fit in? Say the right things, do the right things, be the right kind of wife?” Daisy is loving, kind, and smart … Seb, in these scenes, comes across as mean and supercilious. Miss Bates, not the soft-hearted Daisy, relished his humbling and grovel.
Even though Miss Bates lauded all these good bits of Expecting the Earl’s Baby, she can’t say the romance novel was an overall success. What appeared initially to be an intense romance between two people navigating a relationship where they weren’t sure one existed was constantly interrupted. The narrative was broken up by the appearance of Daisy’s parents, Seb’s Oxonian career, and, frankly, a lot of descriptions of Daisy’s redecorating of Hawksley Castle. Ho hum to MissB., but it may be another reader’s cuppa. Jessica Gilmore’s Expecting the Earl’s Baby was better in its parts than whole. Miss Austen says of it “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Jessica Gilmore’s Expecting the Earl’s Baby, published by Harlequin, was released on April 7th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC, via Netgalley.