Title: To Swoon and To Spar
Series: The Regency Vows, #4
Author: Martha Waters
Publication date: April 11, 2023
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
The Regency Vows series returns with this story about a viscount and his irascible new wife who hopes to chase her husband from their shared home so that she can finally get some peace and quiet—only to find that his company is not as onerous as she thought.
Viscount Penvale has been working for years to buy back his ancestral home, Trethwick Abbey, from his estranged uncle. And so he’s thrilled when his uncle announces that he is ready to sell but with one major caveat—Penvale must marry his uncle’s ward, Jane Spencer.
When the two meet in London, neither is terribly impressed. Penvale finds Jane headstrong and sharp-tongued. Jane finds him cold and aloof. Nevertheless, they agree to a marriage in name only and return to the estate. There, Jane enlists her housekeeper for a scheme: to stage a haunting so that Penvale will return to London, leaving her to do as she pleases at Trethwick Abbey. But Penvale is not as easily scared as his uncle and as their time together increases, Jane realizes that she might not mind her husband’s company all that much.
The Regency Vows series is a fun, upbeat set of stories centered around a circle of friends who have decidedly non-traditional love stories in a time when social rules are everything. Four books in, the series continues in its lively approach, this time focusing on a marriage of convenience that (surprise, surprise) turns into a true romantic match.
The first three books focused on three close friends — Violet, Diana, and Emily — each getting their own story of love, bickering, bargains, sexytimes, and total devotion, plus healthy doses of their friendship, which really makes the books stand out. Yes, they’re romances, but the women’s relationships with one another are just as important as the love stories.
Here in book #4, To Swoon and To Spar, the story shifts to Diana’s brother, Lord Penvale — close to his sister, very good friends with all of his sister’s friends’ husbands, but not particularly looking for love or marriage. Since childhood, his one goal (or should we say, obsession?) has been to buy back his family’s estate from his greedy uncle.
At long last, the uncle is ready to sell, but there’s a catch: He wants to be rid not only of the Cornwall estate, but also his ward, a serious young woman named Jane whose late father served with him in the Navy. If Penvale wants Trethwick, he’ll have to marry Jane. Penvale wants the estate, and Jane wants to be rid of her guardian. The match seems to offer both what they want, and after a very sensible discussion, they agree to move forward.
Penvale does not know that Jane is secretly plotting to drive him away from Trethwick. She doesn’t hate Penvale and has no malicious motivation — she’s simply very shy and introverted, and would rather be left alone at the beloved mansion in Cornwall to enjoy the huge library and the gorgeous views, without a pesky husband to contend with.
Needless to say, all does not go according to plan, and Penvale is not nearly as gullible as Jane had hoped. And as is true with all of the pairings in this series, sparks fly, and before long, the dry, sensible all-business marriage threatens to turn into a true meeting of hearts and minds.
While the ghost story aspect is very silly (maybe even ridiculous), it’s still cute to read, and I liked both Penvale and Jane as characters. Early on, I missed the rest of the friend circle and their banter and antics, but eventually they do show up, and dial up the fun to eleven.
Jane is quite prickly, and at first I thought she was one of these typical strong-willed heroines that we’ve seen so many times, where unpleasantness is meant to be a sign of her independence and proto-feminism. But in actuality, so much of Jane’s unfriendliness can be attributed to her social awkwardness and intense shyness, and it makes her so relatable and lovable.
The writing is jaunty and witty, and made me giggle throughout the book, such as…
Jane meant to make an elegant, stately departure at this juncture, but at that moment, she came to learn a truth — perhaps not universally acknowledged but undeniable all the same: It is impossible for a lady to extract herself from straddling a gentleman’s lap with anything approaching grace.
Of course, I knew for sure that Jane was a woman after my own heart when she (irritably) explains to a visitor:
“I like to reread books from time to time,” Jane added. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Since this is a romance, I suppose it’s a requirement that there’s a major falling out between Penvale and Jane that drives them apart prior to the inevitable happy ending. The misunderstanding and separation felt like the weakest links in the story to me, as both seemingly smart characters jumped to miserably unfounded conclusions — but fortunately, this unhappy phase wasn’t dragged out for too long.
To Swoon and To Spar is an entertaining, silly, joyful addition to a sweet series, and I look forward to seeing which couple will take center stage next time around. I have my guesses… but we’ll have to wait and see!