The story starts with a tragedy. A ship sailing from Jamaica sinks just before it reaches England’s shore, leaving only two survivors. The first is a badly injured woman. The other is a baby girl, who is quickly deposited into the arms of Daniel Thackery, Earl of Ashbrook. He had come to the port to meet Phoebe Dunn, his bride-to-be. A baby wasn’t in his plans—but as the baby is a blackamoor (the Regency-era term for people with dark skin) like him, the sailors assume the child must be his. If he doesn’t claim the girl, who he can only assume was Phoebe’s daughter, she’ll be sent to an orphanage, or worse. Daniel is not one to leave an innocent without protection, so he adopts the baby and names her Hope.
Meanwhile, the other survivor, identified as Jemima St. Maur, can’t remember anything about her life before the shipwreck. Her only certainty, which comes from a place deeper than memory, is that her baby was taken from her. She’s filled with fear and despair, which only worsen when she’s committed to Bedlam—but, of course, she’s not in Bedlam for long. When Vanessa Riley’s An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler picks back up two years later, Jemima has become the toast of society. She has her pick of suitors, even if the only one who catches her eye is the barrister who secured her release and restored her to the ton—none other than Daniel himself.
It sounds like a setup straight out of a Hollywood movie, as Daniel rescues Hope, then Jemima, with the tantalizing possibility that the three of them are meant to be a family. While there’s a lot of humor and playfulness (Jemima’s letters to Daniel are highly entertaining), Riley doesn’t pull her emotional punches. An Earl opens on a powerful note, with Daniel waiting in line at the dock, seeing each person ahead of him grapple with the sight of the name of a loved one on the casualty list. When the narrative shifts to Jemima, alone and afraid in the hospital, the stakes only grow more intense.
As the romance between Jemima and Daniel progresses, the heaviest weight comes from their vulnerabilities. Though Daniel is wealthy, educated, clever, kind and truly gentlemanly, he lives with the constant knowledge that as a Black man, any toe out of line could result in all his status and privilege being stripped away. Riley dispels the myth of the all-white Regency—people of color rose to the titled elite in this and in many other historical periods—while also refusing to diminish or gloss over an iota of the bigotry and judgment a blackamoor earl would face.
Jemima’s horrible experiences in Bedlam hang over her, shadowing not just how others perceive her but how she perceives herself and the security of her position. She was committed by an associate of her family, less because of her amnesia and more because it was convenient for her to be out of the way. With a clear and all-too-personal understanding of how easy it is for a woman to be committed to an asylum, she carries a fearful certainty that what happened before could happen again.
It’s no wonder that trust is a major theme of this romance. It’s not an easy thing for Daniel or Jemima to offer, not with so many people lined up to judge them. Their hesitance to trust each other can get a bit frustrating at times, but Riley makes it clear that they have good reason for their reservations. Love wins out over fear in the sweet ending—and the truth of what happened the day the ship sank, even when it’s not quite what anyone expected, sets them both free.