Lily Doyle was an army brat who followed her father from one battlefield to the next all her life. When her father died he made his commanding officer, Neville Wyatt, promise to keep her safe. With the French army about to overtake them, Neville hastily married Lily so that, as an officer's wife, she would be treated well. But in the battle, Lily was killed and Neville was terribly wounded. Eventually he returned to England to take up his title as Earl of Killbourne, and even resolved to marry again, this time to his childhood friend. But just as they are about to wed--Lily bursts into the church. Because, it turns out, Lily was taken prisoner instead of killed, and has endured a year of captivity and months of hardship to be at Neville's side once more.
Neville is an honorable man, and truly cares for Lily. He immediately sets her up as his Countess, and defends her from his shocked family. But Lily has had no experience in high society, and she continually embarasses and shocks his family and villagers with her ignorance and rough manners. She feels trapped and bored, talking to people about subjects she has no interest or experience with, bound by rules she doesn't know. And so when Neville finds out that their marriage was never legally finalized, Lily refuses to legally marry him, thus freeing each of them from their unequal match. Instead, she becomes his cousin Elizabeth's paid companion; Elizabeth, a strong-minded woman with a love plot of her own, hires tutors so she may learn English and music. Lily revels in leaving behind her illiteracy and ignorance. In a passage I particularly enjoyed, Neville gets angry that Elizabeth is changing his free-spirited love by making her like all the rest of Society, but Elizabeth points out to him that Lily's fundamental character isn't changing, but rather her horizons are expanding as she learns more. Learning gives her more options, more choices, than she had before.
A murder plot is foiled, Neville and Lily confess their love, and finally they marry again, this time publicly acknowledged as equals.
I loved that this wasn't an easy Cinderella tale, nor (despite her introduction) was Lily a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This felt like a particularly rich, dense book, with lots of relationships, side characters, and plots. The lovers weren't seperated by a misunderstanding, let alone a silly one that could have been easily cleared up. There were serious issues* that Lily and Neville had to work out, and schemes by other characters that had to be dealt with.
*Trigger warningLily was raped while a prisoner, and she, Neville, and Elizabeth all talk and think about it a great deal over the course of the novel. I don't think there's any victim-blaming (although Lily does struggle with survivor guilt) or detailed flash backs.