Catherine lives a simple life in a little cottage. Although she is poor she was clearly brought up a lady, and so when the lord and lady of the manor need an extra seat filled at dinner she gets an invitation. This is how she meets the lord's rakish younger twin brother Rex, who is immediately smitten. A few misunderstandings based on his resemblance to his twin ensue, and Rex thinks she's flirting. He forces her to let him walk her home after a ball, and then tries to sleep with her. She rigidly declines, and Rex leaves feeling hard done by. But alas, he was observed coming out of her cottage, and as the gossip spreads Catherine's life grows rapidly more and more miserable, until at last the vicar refuses to let her come to church and demands she leave the village forthwith. Rex is long gone, but his brother demands he come back and marry Catherine to repair the damage.
They have a cold wedding and an awkward marriage, but slowly come to like each other. Then one of Rex's friends recognizes Catherine, and her dark secret comes out. She confides that shortly after her coming out she was raped by a gentleman after her money. She refused to marry him, but she was pregnant and the scandal ruined her reputation. After the baby was born--and alas, died--her father arranged to give her an allowance so long as she stayed in the little village and never left.
Rex is deeply upset, not least because it reminds him of how similarly he behaved toward her: how casually he treated her reputation and how little he listened to her actual words. Rex and Catherine discuss the future, and eventually decide that they have to brazen it out instead of hiding Catherine away. They go to London and enlist the help of all of Rex's friends and family, as well as Catherine's brother and father. They attend a grand ball, and the sheer number of people acknowledging Catherine gives her a little countenance--enough that she hopes she'll be able to have a few friendships and not have her children suspected as illegitimate. And then, Rex kills the gentleman who raped Catherine, seduced (there's an uncomfortable ambiguity about consent in this regard) his ex-fiance, and ruined many other women's reputations.
I was surprised at how much I liked this. Early on in the book, Rex was very pushy and kept assuming Catherine was flirting with him when she clearly wasn't. It made me dislike him a lot, and feel very uneasy about the romance. But luckily, the book and the other characters agreed with my viewpoint--numerous characters tell Rex to his face that he behaved badly, and he himself has a long, painful period where he's consumed with guilt.
The relationship between Rex's brother and his wife is a rare treat as well. It's rare to find side characters who are given so much characterization, or whose relationship troubles are so interesting. He has always been easy-going, perhaps to a fault, whereas her pride and controlling nature have grown with time. When matters come to a head, they each realize what the other person's true nature is like, and have a hard time staying in love.
The best part of this book, for me, was how it had no illusions about the sexism inherent in Regency society. There are serious consequences when someone bucks tradition and social mores, and Balogh doesn't let her characters off the hook. It's not self-flagellating, but it is at least partly a deconstruction of the popular romance tropes in which the hero won't take no for an answer, the lady secretly means yes, and the entire ton
cheers on their illicit relationship.