From Governess to Countess by Marguerite Kaye is the first book her Matches Made in Scandal series and, on paper, it's loaded with Wendy Catnip. There's a heroine hiding away, licking her wounds following a scandal; a hero bowing under the weight of obligation he thought he had dodged; the political shenanigan-laden backdrop that is Russian politics (seriously, it doesn't matter the time period - although this book is set post Napoleonic Wars); and what should have been a compelling mystery. And yet somehow, after a really intriguing set-up, it all falls strangely flat.
Allison Galbraith was raised by her grandmother and is a skilled herbalist. She had a thriving practice - until the death of a child and a doctor determined to protect his reputation and standing threw her under the proverbial bus. Being a woman, making her own way in the world, has meant Allison has had to scrap and fight for her livelihood and now the scandal rags are painting her as a Jezebel harlot of loose morals. So yes, she's hiding. Then a mysterious woman, only known as "The Procurer," knocks on her door with a business proposition. Her client has need of a skilled herbalist who can also pose as a governess to his brother's three orphaned children. Allison, hearing the voice of her chastising Scottish grandmother in her ear, takes the opportunity presented and runs with it.
She arrives in St. Petersburg to meet her new employer Count Aleksei Derevenko. Up until recently Aleksei was fighting Napolean, a military career something he could indulge given he's "the spare." Then he gets word that his older brother has died and a few short days later is followed in death by his wife. His two nieces and nephew are now orphans, and against all logic his brother has named him the children's guardian - a task Aleksei is completely unsuited for. Adding to his troubles, Aleksei is convinced his brother's death was no accident and he's not sure who he can trust in the gossipy hot-bed that is St. Petersburg society. He suspects his brother may have been poisoned and he needs an outsider with a good cover story to help him investigate. So he turns to The Procurer who in turn offers up Allison.
I loved the set-up of this story. The Procurer is so mysterious we never learn her name (she will get her own romance down the road!) and she's this intriguing cross between Regency-era concierge and "fixer." She doesn't get her hands dirty in this story - she's the one who makes the introductions, pairing up two people who can mutually benefit each other. It's really a clever idea for a series.
However after the intriguing set-up things start to bog down. Kaye falls a bit in love with her setting, which is understandable, but it all tends to slow down the pacing of the story. The simplest way to put it would be it lacks urgency. As romance readers we're well versed in gossipy London drawing rooms and snide comments at balls - trust me when I saw it's child's play to the intrigue that surrounded the Russian Czarist court. And there's very little of that here. Outside of Allison and Aleksei attending a ball at the Winter Palace, most of this story takes place at Aleksei's palace with him taking off to talk to people and investigate while Allison reins in the kidlets and tackles the mystery of the possible poisoning. For a book set in St. Petersburg, it's a rather insular story with very little courtly shenanigans to spice up the proceedings.
And that's probably where my disappointment lies. Because while the mystery itself is fairly straight-forward I think the promise of St. Petersburg as a setting had me expecting something "more." More cloak and dagger. More "who can you trust?" More subterfuge. And, in the end, while the author writes the more realistic denouement, my desire to see high treason and political shenanigans is thwarted.
The romance itself is nice but never really elevates itself to high passion, but I did appreciate how the author paired up two people bowing under the weight of expectations and societal norms. I liked that the hero understood the heroine's drive and "calling" in her chosen profession and I liked how the heroine helps the hero find a little bit of himself. It isn't the most compelling romance Kaye's written, but it's...nice. Though I realize that sounds damning with faint praise.
In the end this was a pleasant if not entirely memorable read for me. The premise of the series is dynamite however, and the concept that a woman in the Regency era could fill the role that The Procurer does hits all of my sweet spots. This wasn't love at first sight, but I'll be reading the next book in the series.
Final Grade = C+