Our story begins with the hero, Sir Richard Wyndham - one of Heyer's jaded, overly pursued gentleman, of the Mr. Darcy model - being coerced to marry by his mother and sister. The lady they have in mind is one Melissa Brandon, daughter of the improvident Lord Saar, whose family has long been affiliated with the Wyndhams, and with whom Sir Richard has long been considered to be unofficially engaged. The problem is, according to his brother-in-law George, that Melissa is "an iceberg". This, according to his sister, Louisa, is an asset: "To be sure, if you were in the habit of falling in and out of love, it would be a different matter. But to be plain with you, you are the coldest, most indifferent, selfish creature alive, Richard, and you will find Melissa an admirable partner." But her husband has rather different advice:
"Do you know what I'd do if I were you, my boy?"And so he goes to Lord Saar's house in order to propose to Melissa Brandon. Even her brother, the Honorable Cedric, whom he meets at the door, warns him off:
"Yes," said Sir Richard.
George was disconcerted. "Damn it, you can't know!"
"You would do precisely what I shall do."
"Oh - offer for Melissa Brandon, of course," said Sir Richard.
"Well, I wouldn't," said George positively. "I wouldn't marry Melissa Brandon for fifty sisters! I'd find a cosier armful, 'pon my soul I would!"
"The cosiest armful of my acquaintance was never so cosy as when she wanted to see my purse-strings untied," said Sir Richard cynically.
George shook hi head. "Bad, very bad! I must say, it's enough to sour any man. But Louisa's right, you know: you ought to get married. Won't do to let the name die out." An idea occurred to him. "You wouldn't care to put it about that you'd lost all your money, I suppose?"
"No," said Sir Richard, "I wouldn't."
"I read somewhere of a fellow who went off to some place where he wasn't known. Devil of a fellow he was: some kind of foreign count, I think. I don't remember precisely, but there was a girl in it, who fell in love with him for his own sake."
"There would be," said Sir Richard.
"Don't do it! There isn't a fortune big enough to settle our little affairs: take my word for it! Have nothing to do with Beverley! They say Fox gamed away a fortune before he was twenty-one. Give you my word, he was nothing to Bev, nothing at all. Between ourselves, Ricky, the old man has taken to brandy. H'sh! Not a word! Musn't tell tales about m'father1 But run, Ricky! That's my advice to you: run!"Undaunted, Sir Richard meets with Melissa, who makes it very clear that it is entirely to be a marriage of convenience and that, if her family were not in such dire straight, she could do much better. They make an appointment for him to apply to her father on the morrow, and Sir Richard takes himself off to his club to drown his sorrows.
Though Sir Richard can well handle his drink, his predicament and relatively drunken state lead him to wander home that evening via a roundabout route, during which ramble he spots a young boy dangling from a window, the makeshift ladder he had fashioned out of sheets not being long enough to reach the ground. Sir Richard comes to his assistance, and upon catching the runaway in his arms, discovers that it is in fact a young lady. Miss Penelope Creed (or Pen, as she is casually called) informs him that a) she is an heiress and an orphan, and b) that her aunt is pressuring her to marry her "fish-faced" cousin, which is why she is absconding in the night. Perhaps it is the drink, or maybe Cedric's advice is sounding more reasonable all the time - either way, Sir Richard decides to accompany her on her journey to the region of her birth, where a childhood friend once promised to marry her, and whom she now depends on to be her deliverer. Transparently, the course of their adventures, which prove to be terribly convoluted, will lead this unlikely couple to fall in love. Mystery and suspense abound until they finally come to the inevitable understanding, facilitated, in fine Heyer style, by a long-delayed and crushing embrace.
I reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post: this novel is highly enjoyable and extremely amusing, in spite of the really very dark subject matter. Without giving away too many details, anyone with knowledge of Regency morals will instantly perceive the predicament that Pen and Sir Richard have thrust themselves into by traveling together, even though (or perhaps particularly because) our heroine maintains her masculine disguise throughout the story. Yet regardless of the lurking dangers, the book is uproariously funny, and Pen is a heroine to enchant even the coldest heart, as Sir Richard so aptly demonstrates.