Following an accident as a child, Neville Cross is speech impaired and that holds him back from fulfilling his dreams of a good life. When he meets Clara Hartwright, lady’s companion with a shockingly unladylike secret, he feels forced to challenge his low self-esteem to forge an independent life.
In the Parish Orphans of Devon Series we follow the orphan boys Justin Thornhill, Tom Finchley, Alex Archer and Neville Cross. Installment #4 is featuring Neville Cross, who is apprentice steward at Greyfriar’s Abby owned by his friend Justin. He finds it hard to do the paper work part of the position and prefers to work outside, particularly tending to the horses. Having had a troubled background, Neville is grateful to Justin for the opportunity to work and live on the estate. He doesn’t think he is able to do anything else and is afraid to venture out among people. He expects to be ridiculed for his trouble expressing himself. The parts of the story where we get a glimpse into his thoughts about himself and his life are heartbreaking. Neville’s confidence and outlook on life has really taken a toll. He is convinced he has to isolate himself at the Abbey for the rest of his life. There is not really anybody in his surroundings who challenges him to make a change until he meets Clara.

Clara Hartwright, comes for a Christmas visit together with her employer Mrs Bainbright. She needs her position to save enough money, so she tries to be as good a lady’s companion as she can be. She doesn’t feel she has the knack for staying silent and acting like a living ghost, but she has this shockingly unladylike project that needs funding and be kept an absolute secret. Clara seems an assertive and outspoken young woman, so slowly but surely she manages to challenge Neville’s preconceptions. With her help his mind is opened to dreams and opportunities he previously believed was out of his reach.

I really appreciated Clara’s desire to rid herself of some of the feminine constraints of the time, and there certainly were a lot of them to deal with and find creative ways around. I found it refreshing that the plot includes a mix of what might have been forward thinking or even revolutionary ideas at the time. Darwinistic ideas are balanced out with, to us, very old fashioned views.

Neville loves horses and the knowledge and interest in horses and dogs shines through in this work, which I find very enjoyable. Clara rescues old pug Bertie from being put down and secretly takes him with her to her new position. He seems to find a new and happier life in the country playing with his two new mastiff friends. I found him an enjoyable and funny supporting character in his own right.

There seems to have been thorough research ahead of writing this story into how Christmas decorations were made and what games and activities were played at the time. Some of the activities I even recognize as being done today as part of pre Christmas crafting or Christmas Workshops. As the plot is set at a Christmas gathering of friends and family in Devon, I found this part of the story entertaining and enjoyable adding to the Christmas vibe.

I read A Winter Companion (Parish Orphans of Devon #4) as a standalone. It worked well, but I think I would recommend reading the series starting with #1, gradually getting up to speed with characters and events. I found this to be a sweet, entertaining read and I would recommend it to fans of Mimi Matthews other works and readers of historical romance fiction.
Thank you to NetGalley and Victory Editing for this ARC in return for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

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