Evie Duggan has risen from Irish peasant to become Countess of Wareham -- with stops along the way in Seven Dials and Covent Garden, where she was an opera dancer. She married the Earl of Wareham after he won her in a card game. When he dropped dead shortly after the wedding, rumors swirled that she had done him in and she became known as the Black Widow. Completely ostracized by society, she retreats to Damask Manor in Pennyroyal Green, hoping to live quietly in her reduced circumstances. She has no interest in finding a new protector or even a husband, valuing her independence from men above all else.
The ladies of Pennyroyal Green have heard all about Evie, and they are not inclined to welcome her into village society. So, Evie seeks the assistance of the vicar, Adam Sylvaine, who happens to be handsome, charming, and dedicated to his chosen profession. Half the ladies in the village are in love with him, and church attendance has soared since his arrival. (Adam is a cousin to the Eversea family, which, along with the Redmonds, have been featured in the six titles of the Pennyroyal Green series).
Adam and Evie are attracted to one another, but each is determined to avoid any complications. Adam helps Evie ingratiate herself with the local ladies, and Evie gradually makes friends. The plot is not full of action, but there is an interesting series of village events -- tea parties, a charity bazaar, and a ball -- that moves things along. (There are a few Eversea sightings, and Violet Redmond makes a brief appearance, but this book does not bear much relationship to the earlier ones in the series.)
You can't help but feel a little sorry for Evie and the lonely life she faces, but she never feels sorry for herself. Adam is a totally new kind of tortured hero. As a village clergyman, he knows that he cannot become involved with this woman even as he grows to admire her more and more. He struggles a lot with this, and the author uses her Biblical knowledge to draw a very convincing portrait of a man of God undergoing temptation. This book is by no means in the "inspirational"genre, but there is a lot of soul-searching and looking to the Bible for answers. It never grated on me, but I suppose there might be some readers who would find this either silly or distasteful.
Adam is not the only character who knows his Bible, though. One of my favorite scenes has Evie delivering a lesson to a young miss who is jealous of her former best friend. I'm including this quote simply because I like it, and it made me think about envy in a completely new and different way:
"Miss Pitney, why do you suppose Envy is one of the Deadly sins? It is a sin against yourself. It harms you and blinds you to many things, including good intentions. God saw fit to make you perfect the way you are. Not more or less perfect than someone else--perfect as you are. You need to believe it for the right person to see it."
With entertaining secondary characters and her trademark humor, Julie Ann Long has crafted a clever, entertaining romance, including a slightly over-the-top dénouement. It's Pennyroyal Green, though, a not the real world, so it's just the way things ought to be.
Many thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for this ARC.