I picked this book because I had not yet read it and have been spending the past several months working my way through Heyer's Regency romances. I'm so pleased I alighted on this one. Miles Caverleigh is, hands down, my favorite Heyer hero encountered thus far. Most of her heroes are impeccably dressed "pinks of the ton", be they dandies or corinthians. They are at the apex of their social world, their cravats are the envy of London, and emotion is something foreign to them until the right lady comes along to steal their hearts. Miles Caverleigh is the opposite. Banished to India as a young man, he returns to England some years later without a care for fashion, convention, or what his relatives might think of his eccentricities. More on him in a moment.
Abigail (Abby) Wendover, at twenty-eight, has given up the notion that she will meet the right man and has focused her concerns on managing (with the dubious assistance of her older sister, the also single Selina) her seventeen year-old niece, the high spirited, headstrong, wealthy, and, of course, beautiful Fanny Wendover. Our story begins when Abby returns to her home in Bath after several weeks of visiting with relatives. She has been warned that Selina has permitted (and assisted) Fanny to fancy herself in love with a known fortune hunter, Mr. Stacy Caverleigh, the nephew of Miles. Abby is determined to prevent her niece from being ensnared by Stacy, so when she hears someone referred to as "Mr. Caverleigh" she assumes it must be Stacy and, putting aside "missish" regards for convention, introduces herself. I will now quote almost the entire episode, which is dreadfully long, because it highlights what Heyer does best - completely outrageous and ridiculously funny dialogue:
'Mr Caverleigh?'Of course, it's love at first sight, at least as soon as the heroine will allow herself to recognize that fact. Heyer novels are notoriously formulaic, but I keep reading for the laughs. Yes, it's slapstick, but hysterical nonetheless, precisely in the tradition of Britain's best comedy, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Monty Python. Heyer's work is far from great literature, and I have enormous issues with comparisons between her and Austen, as I think, but for setting, they are worlds apart. Still, my husband and I keep devouring book after book, reading aloud to each other and laughing hysterically all the while. Black Sheep is amongst my favorite so far, right next to Friday's Child, Cotillion, Fredericka, and Arabella. I believe I will, in time, read all her novels and then return to my favorites, happily romping through English history with some of the most colorful characters in print.
He had picked up a newspaper from the table in the centre of the room, and was glancing through it, but he lowered it, and looked enquiringly across at her. His eyes, which were deep-set and of a light grey made the more striking by the swarthiness of his complexion, held an expression of faint surprise; he said: 'Yes?'
If he was surprised, Abby was wholley taken aback. She had formed no very precise mental picture of him, but nothing she had been told had led her to expect to be confronted with a tall, loose-limbed man, considerably older than herself, with harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin, and not the smallest air of fashion. He was wearing a coat which fitted too easily across his very broad shoulders for modishness, with buckskins and topboots; his neck-tie was almost negligently arranged; no fobs or seals dangles at his waist; and his shirt-points were not only extremely moderate, but even a little limp. She was so much astonished that for a full minute she could only stare at him, her brain in a whirl. He had been described to her as a young, handsome town-beau, and he was nothing of the sort. He had also been described, by her brother-in-law, as a loose fish, and that she could far more readily believe: there was a suggestion of devil-may-care about him, and these deeply carven lines in his lean countenance might well (she supposed) betray dissipation. But what there wasin him to have captivated Fanny - and Selina too! - she found herself quite unable to imagine. Then, as she continued to stare at him, she saw that a look of amusement had crept into his face, and that a smile was quivering at the corners of his mouth, and she perceived very clearly why Fanny had allowed herself to be fascinated by him. But, even as an answering smile was irresistibly drawn from her, it occured to her that Selina, even in her sillier moments, would scarcely refer to a man of her own age as a very pretty-behaved young man, and she exclaimed, with that impetuosity so frequently deplored by the elder members of her family: 'Oh, I beg your pardon! I mistook - I mean, - I mean - Are you Mr Caverleigh?'
'Well, I've never been given any reason to suppose that I'm not!' he replied.
'You are? But surely - ?' Recollecting herself, Abby broke off, and said, with all the composure at her command: 'I must tell you, sir, that I am Miss Wendover!'
She observed, with satisfaction, that this disclosure exercised a powerful effect upon him. That disturbing smile vanished, and his black brows suddenly snapped together. He ejaculated: 'Miss who?'
'Miss Wendover,' she repeated, adding, for his further enlightenment: 'Miss Abigail Wendover!'
'Good God!' For a moment, he appeared to be startled, and then, as his curiously light eyes scanned her, he disconcerted her by saying: 'I like that! It becomes you, too.'
Roused to indignation, Abby, losing sight of the main issue, allowed herself to be lured into retorting: 'Thank you! I am excessively obliged to you! It is an outdated name, commonly used to signify a maidservant! You may like it, but I do not!' She added hastily: 'Nor, sir, did I make myself known to you for the purpose of discussing my name!'
'Of course not!' he said, so soothingly that she longed to hit him. 'Do tell me what it is you do wish to discuss! I'll oblige you to the best of my power, even though I don't immediately understand why you should wish to discuss anything with me. Forgive me! - I've no social graces! - but have I ever met you before?'
'No,' replied Abby, her lips curling in a contemptuous smile. 'You have not, sir - as well you know! But you will scarcely deny that you are acquainted with another member of my family!'
'Oh, no! I won't deny that!' he assured her. 'Won't you sit down?'
'I, sir,' said Abby, ignoring this invitation, 'am Fanny's aunt!'
'No. are you indeed? You don't look old enough to be anyone's aunt,' he remarked.
This piece of audacity was uttered in the most casual way, as though it had been a commonplace instead of an impertinence. He did not seem to have any idea that he had said anything improper, nor, from his general air of indifference, could she suppose him to have intended a compliment. She began to think that he was a very strange man, and one with whom it was going to be more difficult to deal than she had foreseen. He was obviously fencing with her, and the sooner he was made to realise that such tactics would not answer the better it would be. So she said coldly: 'You must know very well that I am Fanny's aunt.'
'Yes, you've just told me so,' he agreed.
'You knew it as soon as I made myself known to you!' She checked herself, determined not to lose her temper, and said, as pleasantly as she could: 'Come, Mr Caverleigh! let us be frank! I imagine you also know why I did make myself known to you. You certainly contrived to ingratiate yourself with my sister, but you can hardly have supposed that you would find all Fanny's relations so complaisant!'
He was watching her rather intently, but with an expression of enjoyment which she found infuriating. He said: 'No, I couldn't, could I? Still, if your sister likes me - !'
'My sister, Mr Caver;eigh, was not aware, until I enlightened her, that you are not, as she had supposed, a man of character, but on of - of an unsavory reputation!' she snapped.
'Well, what an unhandsome thing to have done!' he said reproachfully. 'Doesn't she like me anymore?'
Abby now made the discovery that it was possible, at one and the same time, to be furiously angry, and to have the greatest difficulty in suppressing an almost irresistible desire to burst out laughing. After a severe struggle, she managed to say: 'This - this is useless, sir! Let me assure you that you have no hope whatever of gaining the consent of Fanny's guradian to your proposal; and let me also tell you that she will not come into possession of her inheritance until she is five-and-twenty! That, I collect, is something you were not aware of!'
'No,' he admitted. 'I wasn't!'
'Until that date,' Abby continued, 'her fortune is under the sole control of her guardian, and he, I must tell you, will not, under any circumstances, relinquish that control into the hands of her husband one moment before her twenty-fifth birthday, if she marries without his consent and approval. I think it doubtful, even, that he would continue to allow her to receive any part of the income accruing from her fortune. Not a very good bargain, sir, do you think?'
'It seems to be a very bad one. Who, by the way, is Fanny's guardian?'
'Her uncle, of course! Surely she must have told you so?' replied Abby impatiently.
'Well, no!' he said, still more apologetically. 'She really had no opportunity to do so!'
'Had n0 - Mr Caverleigh, are you asking me to believe that you - embarked on this attempt to recover your own fortune without first discovering what were the exact terms of her father's will? That is coming it very much too strong!'
'Who was her father?' he interrupted, regarding her from under suddenly frowning brows. 'You talk of her inheritance - You don't mean to tell me she's Rowland Wendover's daughter?'
'Yes - if it should be necessary for me to do so - which I strongly doubt!' said Abby, eyeing him with hostility. 'She is an orphan, and the ward of my brother James.'
'Poor girl!' He studied her appraisingly. 'So you are a sister of Rowland Wendover! You, know, I find that very hard to believe.'
'Indeed! It is nevertheless true - though in what way it concerns the point at issue -'
'Oh, it doesn't!' he said, smiling disarmingly at her. 'Now I come to think of it, he had several sisters, hadn't he? I expect you must be the youngest of them. He was older than I was, and you a mere child. By the by, when did he die?'
This question, put to her in a tone of casual interest, seemed to her to be so inapposite that the suspicion that he was drunk occurred to her. He showed none of the recognizable signs of inebriation, but she knew that her experience was limited. If he was not drunk, the only other explanation of his quite fantastic behavior must be that he was slightly deranged. Unless he was trying, in some obscure fashion, to set her at a disadvantage? She found it impossible to understand what he hoped to gain by his extraordinary tactics, but the look f amusement on his face made her feel, uneasily, that he had an end in view: probably an unscrupulous end. Watching him closely, she said: 'My brother died twelve years ago. I am his youngest sister, but you are mistaken in thinking me a mere child. I daresay you wish I were!'
'No, I don't. Why should I?' he asked, mildly surprised.
'Because you might find it easier to flummery me!'
'But I don't want to flummery you!'
'Just as well!' she retorted. 'You won't succeed! I am more than eight-and-twenty, Mr Caverleigh!'
'Well, that seems like a child to me. How much more?'
She was by now extremely angry, but for the secong tome she was obliged to choke back an involuntary giggle. She said unsteadily: 'Talking to you is like - like talking to an eel!'
'No, is it? I've never tried to talk to an eel. Isn't a waste of time?'
She choked. 'Not such waste of time as talking to you!'
'You're surely not going to tell me that eels find you more entertaining than I do?' he said incredulously.
That was rather too much for her: she did giggle, and was furious with herself for having done so.
'That's better!' he said approvingly.
She recovered herself. 'Let me ask you one question, sir! If I seem like a child to you, in what light do you regard a girl of seventeen?'
'Oh, as a member of the infantry!'
This careless reply made her gasp. Her eyes flashed; she demanded: 'How old do you think my niece is, pray?'
'Never having met your niece, I haven't a notion!'