In Regency England, Isabel will discover that the key to unlocking the mystery of her past may also open the door to romance. But first she must find it—in the depths of Emberwilde Forest. For as long as she can remember, beautiful and free-spirited Isabel has strained against the rules and rigidity of the Fellsworth School in the rolling English countryside. No longer a student, Isabel set her sights on a steady role as a teacher at the school, a safe yet stifling establishment that would enable her to care for her younger sister Lizzie, who was left in her care after her father’s death. The unexpected arrival of a stranger with news of unknown relatives turns Isabel’s small, predictable world upside down, sweeping her and her young charge into a labyrinth of intrigue and hidden motives. At her new family’s invitation, Isabel and Lizzie relocate to Emberwilde, a sprawling estate adjacent to a vast, mysterious wood rife with rumors and ominous folklore—along with whispers of something far more sinister. Perhaps even more startling, two handsome men begin pursuing Isabel, forcing her to learn the delicate dance between attraction, the intricate rules of courtship, and the hopes of her heart. Isabel never dared to dream that love could be hers. Now, at the edge of a forest filled with dark secrets, she faces a fateful choice between love and duty.
Isabel, a former student at the Fellsworth School, now wants to set herself up for a long teaching career there so that she might comfortably provide for her half-sister, Lizzie (different mothers). With both their parents gone, Isabel is now Lizzie's appointed guardian. Just as Isabel is trying to recommend herself for a long-term teaching position, she receives a letter from a previously unknown aunt, inviting Isabel to come and live at Emberwilde, the family estate.
This aunt, Margaret Ellison, does write in her letter that Isabel is welcome "whatever the circumstances" (of her present situation). Isabel presumes this means that Lizzie is also welcome. Though Aunt Margaret is noticeably taken aback by the surprise addition of Lizzie, she stays true to her word and lets both girls settle in to their new rooms at Emberwilde. Margaret's daughter, Constance, is actually thrilled to have the extra companionship!
Isabel quickly notices that the Ellisons -- Margaret and her husband, Charles --- appear to be the epitome of privileged; meanwhile Isabel and Lizzie arrived to the house with little more than the two dresses each Fellsworth school supplied them. The girls are expected to swiftly turn themselves into ladies of high standing, but they've been working the worker bee life so long it's difficult to shake the instinct to make oneself useful.
While trying to find a sense of balance in this new world, Isabel attracts the eye of two potential suitors: First there's Mr. Bradford, one of the escorts on her trip to Emberwilde Hall and the superintendent of the orphanage sponsored by the Ellisons; his competition is lawman Colin Galloway. Serious in temperment, Galloway is also a respected land owner in his own right, being the owner of Darbenton Court. Due to a devastating fire years before that killed his parents and all his siblings, Galloway lives the low-profile life in a boarding house while he builds up the funds to renovate the family estate. For some time now, Charles Ellison has been urging Galloway to take a wife and reclaim the life and title he was destined to have. These pleas were largely falling on deaf ears until the day he first spots Isabel. Galloway and Bradford have actually known each other since boyhood and Galloway is quite familiar with some of the less impressive pieces of Bradford's character. Knowing what he knows pushes Colin to keep Isabel's whereabouts on his radar at all times.
Lots of mystery, secrets and scandals worked into this plot!
*How long before word gets out that the Ellisons are living beyond their means and Charles is struggling to "keep the lights on" (in early 1800s terms, that is)?
*Emberwilde Forest --- legend has it that the woods behind the estate are swarming with the ghosts of gypsies killed in a skirmish when previous generations of Ellisons tried to drive them out.... but is the forest truly haunted or are the stories just a front criminals continue to perpetuate to keep a lid on their illegal activities going down out there?
* Galloway seems like a good dude, but MAN, does Mrs. Ellison have a beef with him! It seems she blames Colin for the death of her eldest son, when the guys went off to war together, Colin returning home but not the son. Now Mrs. Ellison uses this history and her bitterness to justify forbiding Isabel to associate with him.... will they ever get around this? (You know hearts will find a way!)
While maybe not ALWAYS the most exciting story, it is sweet and infused with enough innocent mystery to make this a lovely, easy read. Ladd builds enough doubt around Bradford's character to keep one wondering for most of the story and Galloway certainly has a degree of swoon-worthiness to his quiet, steady self. There's also throwback elements here and there to classic Gothic and Regency lit... a touch of Wuthering Heights, what with our MC finding a chance to rise above orphanage background. Also, in terms of the romance triangle --- there's flashes of Gaston vs The Beast or even Wickham vs Darcy (from Austen's Pride and Prejudice), one could argue.
While all the books in this series are set in Surrey. England in the early 1800s or so, there's not too much else linking the characters between the books (not so far as I can see, anyway), so these can easily be enjoyed as stand-alone novels.
FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.