Lady Charlotte Wylder is the eldest daughter of an Earl but she, her sisters, and her mother have lived in a remote house in Dorset since her father's early death. She has been able to grow up far from the strictures of proper society, running a bit wild and climbing trees. She vaguely remembers the deep and abiding love between her parents and on the rare occasions she thinks of her future, she hopes to find that too. When a solicitor arrives at Ransom Manor, Lady Charlotte discovers that her future has long been settled and now all she must do is to meet it. Her father and the late Duke of Marchbourne agreed to the marriage of their children when Charlotte was an infant and March, the current Duke, was all of eight. The impetuous, impulsive, but engaging Charlotte will be a Duchess, with all the propriety that entails.
The Duke of Marchebourne is a model of comportment. He is a bit of a stickler for appearance because he still suffers from the stain of his family's history. The first Duke of Marchbourne was the illegitimate son of the King and an actress. And March's father was an unrepentant and rapacious womanizer. So March does everything in his power to maintain decorum and bely not only his base origins but to not avoid behaving like his father. But even the proper March cannot wait until the officially set introduction to meet his prospective bride. Riding to intercept her carriage, he discovers his future wife high in the branches of a tree, rescuing her sister's cat, not exactly the place a future Duchess should be. March, misunderstanding the situation, climbs into the tree himself to rescue Charlotte and finds himself captivated by and definitely attracted to his future bride. From this unconventional meeting, blossoms a lusty courtship and a quick marriage. It is only after their marriage that March and Charlotte face struggles about how to behave both publically and privately with each other. And when each of them seeks advice about their difficulties, what they are told is all wrong.
Charlotte wants to behave with the decorum expected of a Duchess and a lady but privately she is unsatisfied and unhappy. March is worried that he is treating his young, eager to please wife like a lowborn whore rather than the angel in the house. And neither of them can bear to discuss their worries or desires with the other, leading to most of their misunderstandings and low level misery. The conflict between them is slight and they slide fairly easily from arranged marriage into an honest love for each other, so Bradford adds in a baddie and a not entirely necessary plot twist to create more tension between Charlotte and March.
The historical context here is wonderful and knowledgeably detailed. The internal struggle March faces seems to go on a bit long and it is hard to believe that his mentor, Brecon, was once married given the advice he offers his uncertain friend. It also does seem a tad odd that Charlotte is not comfortable talking about sex and pleasure with her husband but will approach her strict and proper Aunt Sophronia, with whom she has not previously had any relationship, to find answers. Quibbles aside, it was interesting to read a romance where the main characters not only liked each other from the start, had a sexual spark (or conflagration), but were also determined to be happy together and love each other rather than constantly sparring.