The lifeblood of the village of Ivy Hill is its coaching inn, The Bell. When the innkeeper dies suddenly, his genteel wife, Jane Bell, becomes the reluctant landlady. Jane has no idea how to manage a business, but with the town's livelihood at stake and a large loan due, she must quickly find a way to save the inn.
Despite their strained relationship, Jane turns to her resentful mother-in-law, Thora, for help. Formerly mistress of The Bell, Thora is struggling to overcome her losses and find purpose for the future. As she works with Jane, two men from her past vie for her attention, but Thora has promised herself never to marry again. Will one of them convince her to embrace a second chance at love?
As pressure mounts from the bank, Jane employs new methods, and puzzles over the intentions of several men who seem to have a vested interest in the place, including a mysterious newcomer with secret plans of his own. With the help of friends old and new, can Jane restore life to the inn, and to her empty heart as well?
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A bustling small English village of Ivy Hill and it’s iconic coaching inn are the setting for this first in the Tales of Ivy Hill series. New colorful characters, complex relationships, and a troublesome situation that brings everyone together. In the spirit of Austen, Gaskell, and Hardy, the author weaves a heartwarming story that gently pulls the reader into the Ivy Hill world and had the reader cheering soundly for Jane and her friends to win against the odds and keep the inn from closing.
The story begins with widow, Jane Bell, confronted with troubles that finally pull her out of the fugue she has been in since the death of her husband the year before. Jane was reared as a gentleman’s daughter on a nearby estate and she shocked many when she married the local innkeeper’s son and then inherited the family inn when he died.
The local banker brings shocking news that Jane’s husband took out a large loan and never paid it back and now the bank is set to call in the debt and will take the inn. Jane wavers at first with the possibility of just letting the inn go and trying to live on a pittance, but then the yard and horse handler, Gabriel Locke, opens her eyes to how many depend on the inn for their livelihood and that extends to many other businesses in the village. Jane owes it to everyone to try even though John kept her separate from the actual running of the inn and she has little concept of what it will take to turn things around and make a profit.
Jane’s mother in law, Thora, returns and Jane swallows her pride and partners with the stern and exacting, but hardworking Thora along with John’s brother, Patrick, and former manager, Talbot, to turn things around in the three months they have left before they must report back to the bank on the status of the inn.
Thora has her own peace to make with her decision to leave, her relationship with Jane, with Talbot, and with her former home, the Bell Inn. She is pursued by two men who see past her hard exterior to the woman inside. Will she take a chance on love with one of them or hold to her decision to avoid losing her independence?
As the series title indicates this is more than the story of a person, but a whole village of people. This first book focuses on Jane Bell and her mother in law, Thora Bell, but also introduces several other characters and the set up for the series. There are some complicated relationship histories between Jane and the other Bells and other members of the village and for Thora Bell. I enjoyed how the author wrote these two ladies with strengths and flaws, that they heal as they are faced with challenges, and they both must face a life after losing a husband.
Jane had the struggle to straddle the line between her former class as a gentleman’s daughter and now being a working class woman as the widow of an innkeeper. She has her private sorrows, personal pride, and struggles now with her own ignorance and assumptions along with other’s assumptions about her.
Thora grew up an innkeeper’s daughter and then was an innkeeper’s wife and an innkeeper’s mother. The inn is all she knows then she must give pride of place to a woman who has remained aloof and hasn’t impressed her with being deserving of her son or the inn. Returning and making amends with Jane is difficult, but then Jane desperately needs her help and Thora realizes she has another chance to be involved in the life of the inn.
This is a gently-paced blend of historical, sweet romance, and mystery in the tale. I liked seeing the strong nods to scenes and characters that harked back to more than one classic writer. Those little Easter eggs were fun to encounter along the way.
The inspirational elements were suited to the story of growth and renewal- pride overcome, forgiveness and understanding of the past, compassion for others, and generosity to those hurting or in need.
The historical aspect was obviously well researched and the details are fascinating throughout the story though there are times when they slow things down somewhat. I personally didn’t mind this balance with the character and action side of the plot. I loved the focus on the coaching inn, the coaching industry at the time, women in business, village life and the upper working class of the day.
In the background of Jane and Thora’s story is also the story of Rachel, Mercy, Patrick and Timothy who all grew up together. The mysterious Gabriel Locke and the newcomer Nicholas Ashford also have their parts to play. The story tied up Thora’s story, but left Jane’s and these others open and on-going looking forward to more in the series. It doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger since the main conflict was resolved just an ongoing story with installments.
All in all, this was a grand start to a new series. I love the small village setting and the intro to the characters and series plot. I enjoy stories of the underdog and second chances and family and friends like this. I would recommend it to those who enjoy sweet historical romance, light historical fiction and inspirational fiction.
My thanks to Bethany House Publishers for the opportunity to read this story in exchange for an honest review.
Returning after an absence, Thora Bell—former mistress of the coaching inn—discovers it has fallen into disrepair under her daughter-in-law’s ineffective leadership. Thora goes to see Walter Talbot, the inn’s former manager, who left The Bell to run his family’s farm. Thora recognizes a perplexing change in Talbot. Is it simply because he is no longer in her family’s employ, or is there more to it?
The hired man, bent over his work, did not see her approach. His hat brim shaded his face. She noticed his muscular forearms as he raised the hammer and brought it down in competent, effective strokes. The man glanced up and glanced again, the tool stilling in his hands. When he fully lifted his head, she saw his face, and drew up short in surprise.
“Talbot?” She blinked. Walter Talbot had always worn gentleman’s attire—coat, waistcoat, trousers, and polished shoes in his role as head porter and manager. Not workman’s clothes. She had not seen him in rolled-up shirt sleeves since adolescence, and certainly never with fine linen clinging to sweaty shoulders and chest.
“Hello, Mrs. Bell.”
“I didn’t recognize you,” she said, oddly irritated. “From a distance I thought you must be the hired man.”
“He has gone to town for a part. I’m trying to repair this plow blade, but it’s as stubborn as . . . my last boss.” He set down the tool, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his neck and brow. “Forgive my appearance. I was not expecting guests.”
She waved away the apology. “Never mind that. I just returned . . . for a visit . . . and was sorry to hear about Bill.”
He nodded, expression pinched. “Me too. I was updating the timetables when word came. I should have been here.”
“I was shocked to hear you’d left the inn.”
“I didn’t like to leave Jane on her own. But the farm is my responsibility now. It’s hard labor, though it is good to have the work of my hands mean something.”
“Your work at the inn meant something.” Thora shook her head. “Just to leave like that, after so many years . . .”
“You left. When it suited you.”
The bite in his voice surprised her. She said, “Jane didn’t want me there. And she didn’t exactly welcome me back with open arms.”
“If you came charging in, grim faced and disapproving, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Thora had a frank relationship with Talbot before, but now she noticed a complete lack of obsequiousness on his part. “I did not charge in . . . exactly. Though of course I was concerned. Word reached me that the place was going to ruin. I had to come.”
“Word of that reached you all the way in Bath? From Bertha Rooke, no doubt.”
“Yes.” Thora went on to tell him what she had learned, about the loss of several coaching lines and the unpaid bills. “Did you know about the inn’s . . . difficulties?”
“Not to that extent.” He shook his head, lips tight. “But don’t blame your daughter-in-law. At least not her alone. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but John—”
“Then don’t,” Thora snapped. “I won’t hear a word against him.”
Talbot looked down at her sharp tone and kicked at a clod of dirt. “Suit yourself.”
Thora shook her head again. “Patrick is back and trying to help. Had you heard that as well?”
Talbot nodded but offered no comment.
Thora added, “He has his work cut out for him. You would not believe the condition of your desk.”
“It isn’t my desk any longer. Nor your inn to fret over.”
“I know. But the inn is part of me, like one of my children. And a mother never stops fretting over one of her own.”
“I can understand that.” He looked down in thought, again digging the toe of his boot in the dirt. He offered, “I could come by now and again, and show him a few things. If no one would mind.”
“Mind? I’d be eternally grateful. And so would Jane, if she is not a complete fool.”
“Jane is not a fool. Disinterested, inexperienced, ignorant at worst. Though certainly clever enough, if she wanted to learn.”
Thora huffed. “I’ll never understand why Jane chased after John if she had no interest in the inn.”
“She didn’t chase after John. I never saw a man pursue a woman like John pursued Jane Fairmont.”
Thora shook her head. “But she was completely unsuited and unsuitable. Well. No one asked my opinion. Nothing new there.”
Thora realized she must sound the shrew. Giving way to bitterness was a waste of energy. She inhaled and gentled her voice. “How is Nan bearing up?”
“Not well. She has been ill for a long time, as you know. And Bill’s death has laid her very low indeed. Consumption, Dr. Burton says. He calls when he can, but there is little he can do.”
“I am sorry to hear it.”
He nodded. “Sadie Jones helps care for her. And the parson and Mrs. Paley come out often to pray for her.”
Thora asked, “Is it . . . strange . . . living in the same house together with Nan now that your brother is gone?”
“A little at first. But she can’t live on her own.” He tilted his head and looked at her askance. “Don’t tell me you are going to wag your finger at us, like some mean-spirited gossips do? There is nothing improper going on. Good heavens, the woman is an invalid. Sadie has to help her with everything.”
Thora said gently, “There was a time you admired Nan.”
He lifted his hat and combed agitated fingers through reddish-blond hair. “That was twenty years ago. Before she chose my brother. Now she is like a sister to me. An ailing sister, who needs me.”
I need you. The shocking words ran through Thora’s mind, but she bit her tongue. Where had that come from?
Walter Talbot grimaced and replaced his hat. “I seem to have a knack for admiring women destined to marry other men.”
Thora said cynically, “You haven’t missed much—except a lot of heartache and frustration. Marriage is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“I disagree, Thora. In the past, and even now, I miss . . . a great deal.”
She looked at him, not certain what he meant. How strange to hear her given name in his low voice after so many years of Mrs. Bell or madam. But she did not object.
Be sure to enter the giveaway before you leave—the winner will receive a $20 Teavana gift card and a package of four inspirational British romances from four different eras (The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill by Julie Klassen, A Haven on Orchard Lane by Lawana Blackwell, The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White, Not by Sight by Kate Breslin). The winner will be notified on December 22.
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