After a youthful heartbreak, Claudia Martin resigned herself to a life without love. The independent lady first took a position as a governess and later opened her own school for girls in Bath, where she's been the respected headmistress for over a decade. But her well-ordered world begins to crumble when Joseph Fawcitt, Marquess of Attingsborough, shows up in her parlor. The handsome gentleman proves to be a charmer, but Claudia has no designs on finding a husband or even taking a lover. But when she joins her three friends, all of whom are former teachers from her school, in London and they insist upon her attending several balls and parties with them, Claudia seems to keep running into Joseph and eventually discovers that he's everything she could want in a man except for the fact that he's all but betrothed to someone else. But even that knowledge can't stop her from wanting to seize the moment in spite of knowing that it will likely lead to another heartbreak.
Joseph is heir to a dukedom, and with his father in questionable health, he's beginning to feel the pressure to marry and produce an heir of his own. His father has already met with the father of the most eligible woman in the ton, and the match is all but assured with nothing left but the formality of Joseph asking for her hand. However, once he gets to know Claudia, the prim and proper schoolteacher his friends have asked him to escort to London proves to be a temptation that's hard to resist. But Joseph has obligations, not only to his title, but also to the illegitimate daughter that society wants him to keep locked away in secret. When he reveals his special child's existence to Claudia and asks for her help in educating the girl, she gives him hope for the future, but he's still frustrated by the knowledge that it will be one in which his beloved daughter will always come in second to any legitimate family he has. However, events at a country house party lead to revelations, scandal, and eventually a blissful night in Claudia's arms. Will Joseph defy convention for a once in a lifetime love or will his obligations doom him to a loveless marriage with a woman who lacks Claudia's understanding, kindness, and passion?
Simply Perfect is the fourth and final book in Mary Balogh's Simply Quartet, which is a spin-off of her Bedwyn Saga. In it, we have the headmistress of Miss Martin's School for Girls, Claudia Martin herself. As she's preparing to make a trip to London with two of her graduates who are heading for new employment situations, a handsome gentleman shows up in her parlor. He's none other than Joseph, the Marquess of Attingsborough, and heir to a dukedom. He's also a sort of relation to her friend and former teacher, Susanna, who sent him to escort Claudia and her girls on their trip. Claudia thoroughly disdains members of the aristocracy, especially dukes, but feeling backed into a corner, she reluctantly accepts his offer. Along the way, she discovers that he's quite charming, but she still doesn't entirely trust him. Once they arrive in London, she keeps running into him at the various balls and parties that Susanna urges her to attend. The more they get to know one another, the more they find a deep attraction beginning to take root. Then Joseph introduces Claudia to his very special illegitimate daughter, asking it she might be able to educate young Lizzie at her school. The three spend a lot of time together while Claudia evaluates the possibility and she finds herself even more attracted to Joseph when she realizes what a doting father he is. However, he's also all but betrothed to a woman who is widely considered the perfect match for a duke in waiting, while she's naught but a mere schoolteacher. As hard as Claudia tries to be pragmatic about the situation, she still can't help following her heart, but she fears it will all end in yet another heartbreak for her.
Claudia is the last unmarried member of the group of four friends who worked side-by-side to educate the girls at Miss Martin's School. She, of course, is the one who started it all years ago. As the daughter of a country gentleman, she didn't have a lot of options open to her besides marriage, so following a youthful heartbreak that left her soured on love, she took up the profession of teaching and became governess to a young Freya Bedwyn, who was apparently a brat back then. Between Freya and her oldest brother and guardian Wolfric, the Bedwyn clan got on Claudia's last nerve, sending her marching off down the driveway with her dignity barely intact. From there, she started her school where she's become the beloved headmistress to both students and teachers alike. When Joseph shows up offering his carriage and an escort, she really wants to say no. After two bad experiences with dukes, she's not impressed with the aristocracy, but knowing it would be rude to refuse, she acquiesces. As they get to know one another during the trip and at the various functions they attend later, Claudia soon discovers that Joseph is everything she could hope for in a man, but he's also someone with many obligations - to his daughter, to his family, to his title, and to the woman he's all but betrothed to. However, in spite of all that, as well as the very real probability that she'll walk away with another broken heart, she can't help being drawn to him and savoring their stolen moments together.
At thirty-five, Claudia is a firmly on the shelf spinster who definitely has the crisp, matronly veneer of a schoolteacher. She didn't get where she is without a backbone of steel, but underneath her prim, proper exterior beats a kind, passionate heart. She begins the story pretty prickly toward Joseph and thinking some rather uncharitable things about him, although I have to give her credit for being self-aware enough to realize that she's being unfair to him. Gradually, though, she comes to see him in a different light, and from there, things begin warming up between them. I like that she's a very loving and giving person, first toward her girls and fellow teachers, then toward Joseph and Lizzie. She's willing to risk heartbreak for the perfect memory of being with him even if it's only for a short time. I was perhaps ever so slightly frustrated with her when the way seemed to finally clear for an HEA, but she was still making excuses for why it wouldn't work, although I did understand that she had obligations of her own and that it was going to be a huge adjustment for her. I loved what she decided to do at the end, though, and how she didn't give up her independent streak or her love of teaching.
As a duke in waiting, Joseph is a somewhat typical aristocrat in that he understands his obligations to the title, and due to his father's questionable health, he's being pressured to find a wife soon. His father and the father of a young aristocratic woman have basically already made the deal and him actually offering for her hand is now little more than a formality. She happens to be none other than Portia, who was attached to Lucius back in the first book of the series, Simply Unforgettable, and now has her sights set on Joseph. The only problem is that while she's perfect for him on paper, she lacks any kind of passion or even kindness in her heart, so he fears that theirs will likely be a loveless marriage. This might not be a problem for many members of the ton who would simply take a mistress to satisfy those needs, but Joseph is a man who believes in monogamous relationships even if that relationship is only with a mistress, much less with a wife, which is one thing about him that utterly endeared me. The other is that's he's a doting father to his illegitimate daughter, Lizzie, who lost her mother - his longtime mistress - the year before. He's been a loving, involved parent in her life since the day she was born and wants the best for her in everything, which is why he asks Claudia if she'd be willing to admit Lizzie to her school despite the little girl's disability. He'd already been attracted to Claudia anyway, but seeing her interact with his beloved daughter only deepens his feelings for her. Joseph would also like nothing more than to shout it from the rooftops that Lizzie is his, so he's frustrated by the fact that titled gentlemen simply can't acknowledge their by-blows and that she'll always come second to his legitimate family. I really like how all this worked out and admired Joseph, not only for being a responsible father, but also for not being ashamed of his child in spite of the circumstances of her birth and her not being perfect. A part of me wanted him to just kick Portia to the curb for her snotty behavior, but I also understood that having things play out the way they did was more historically accurate. In any case, I did fall for Joseph and thought he was a wonderful hero.
Simply Perfect boasts a huge cast of supporting characters, so many, in fact, that I had a hard time keeping them all straight and more or less had to give up. I admit that it might have been easier if I'd read the Bedwyn Saga first, because most of these characters were introduced in those books. Joseph's cousin, Neville, the only one who knows about Lizzie, and his wife, Lily, who had their story told in the Bedwyn prequel, One Night for Love, support Joseph. Then there's Kit and Lauren from A Summer to Remember. Many of the Bedwyns are present as well, along with their families, including Wulfric and Christine (Slightly Dangerous), Freya and Joshua (Slightly Scandalous), and Morgan and Gervase (Slightly Tempted). Claudia finally gets a chance to bury the hatchet with Wulfric and Freya. Neville's sister, Gwen, whose story is told in The Proposal, Book #1 of the Survivor's Club series, puts in several appearances. There is also a huge anniversary party for the Earl and Countess of Redfield who I feel certain were introduced somewhere in these books as well. And of course, all of Claudia's friends including Lucius and Frances (Simply Unforgettable), Sydnam and Anne (Simply Love), and Peter and Susanna (Simply Magic) reunite to support Claudia. If only I'd read the Bedwyn books, I probably could have said that this was the perfect wrap-up to both series because of all the familiar faces. As is, though, I'm feeling inspired to at some point do just that and then re-read the Simply Quartet just to get the full impact.
Overall, Simply Perfect was a near-perfect story that was a pleasure to read. It was sweet and emotional, giving me all the feels I expect from a romance. Joseph and Claudia are clearly made for one another and the thought that they were very nearly kept apart simply because of their differing social backgrounds was nearly infuriating, but at the same time kept me reading to see just how they were finally going to get their HEA. Claudia's mysterious benefactor is also revealed and it was exactly who I'd been suspecting. Other than the few minor things I've already mentioned the only reason I dropped a half star is because this is a very slow burning story. It took until probably halfway into it before Joseph and Claudia share their first kiss and quite a bit farther before they make love for the first time. Even then, it seems like they're destined to be heartbroken for the rest of their lives until fate intervenes and helps push things along. Because of how long it takes for things to happen, the pacing occasionally felt a bit too slow. But otherwise, this was a lovely story that I very much enjoyed. Now I look forward to going backwards to learn all about the other interesting characters I was introduced to in this series and to read about all of their HEA endings, too.
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