Rothewell is a dissolute drunkard whose past, like many romance heros, haunts him. He attempts to escape it by playing cards and drinking himself into an oblivion, but this plan backfires on him by ruining his health. One night he is playing cards when the pot is sweetened with Comte Valigny's daughter, Camille. He wishes to get his ungrateful daughter off his hands, and she wishes to be away from her father. Her pickings are slim, and in a rare burst of compassion, Kieren cheats because her other option that night is even worse than him.
Camille's background is equally sordid to that of Kieren. Her mother had been married to an English lord, but she ran off with the comte early into her marriage. The husband divorced her mother, which was scandalous, and Valigny never married her mother thanks to some Church rule about divorced people marrying. After her mother's death, Camille found that her maternal grandfather left her a large bequest, and she pushed Valigny to find her a husband.
Neither Kieren nor Camille want anything more than a business-like marriage. As time passes, though, this becomes impossible. This is one of Carlyle's books that doesn't have a mystery behind it--it is more character-driven than plot-driven. The questions brought up in this book are about Camille's parentage and Kieren's health.
Carlyle is very good at writing tortured, yet realistic, characters. They have good reasons for being the way they are from their pasts, and this goes beyond a mere "I was a spy for the English government during the Napoleonic Wars" spiel that so many books have. That or the "My mother died when I was young" or "My daddy didn't love me" chestnuts that are thrown about. No, Carlyle's characters have been through a lot. And I respect her in that not all of her nobles are earls or dukes. She uses those titles, but lesser noblemen are acceptable as well.