When James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, is ordered to marry Theodora Saxby by his father, the Duke, he naturally recoils - but not because T...moreWhen James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, is ordered to marry Theodora Saxby by his father, the Duke, he naturally recoils - but not because Theo isn't beautiful or because women of the ton whisper that she looks like a man. It's because his father is heavily in debt due to unwise investments and, even worse, as Theo's guardian, he has embezzled some of her impressive inheritance in trying to make his money back.
Theo and her mother have lived with the duke's family since her father died when she was little. A wealthy man and the duke's best friend, Theo's father made the Duke of Ashbrook his daughter's guardian, and Theo and James have grown up together like brother and sister. Theo knows she's rather ugly, a state not helped by her mother's insistence she wear pale pink with lots of frills. Now seventeen, she yearns to marry so that she can be free to be the woman of fashion she wants to be, setting her own unique style - including cutting off her hair.
When the beautiful twenty-one year old earl suddenly woos Theo and gives her a kiss that changes everything - a kiss in a public place where a number of people, including the Prince Regent himself, catch them at it - Theo couldn't be happier. The first two days of her marriage to James are full of passion, and Theo couldn't be happier. All that is destroyed when she learns that James married her for her money - married her at the behest of her father, that he tricked her.
With both men, James and the Duke, at her mercy - or the mercy of her money - Theo lays down some ground rules. She banishes them from her sight, takes over the running of the estates, and lives life as an independent woman. James takes to the seas and, when his ship is overtaken by a pirate, joins piracy rather than see his men drown and his ship sink. The duke, after a couple of lonely years in the country, dies wishing he could see his son one last time.
As the years go by and there's no word of James' whereabouts, Theo is faced with the decision of having him declared dead so that his cousin, Lord Cecil Pinkler-Ryburn, can take over the duchy, something he really doesn't want to do. But some life-altering moments in James' life force him to reconsider the things he values most, and whether returning to win Theo, the woman he loves more than anything, back is a greater cause than obeying her command to go. For as James learns, there's more to Theo's reaction to her discovery than he would have guessed, and it will take some cunning on his part to convince her that she shouldn't be ashamed of her passion.
My second Eloisa James novel didn't have the wit and charm of the first one of hers I read, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, but it did have other things to merit it. James takes her characters on intense journeys and really makes them work hard at coming together, and I was never sure where she was going to take the plot. This made for some pleasant surprises along the way and a fairly strong novel for the most part, only to be let down by the ending.
Theo and James' youthful characters are established well at the beginning, and I liked both of them. James does have honour and integrity, and puts up a good fight against his father, but is left with little choice. On the one hand, he does genuinely care for Theo - whom he calls Daisy - and he thinks she's beautiful and comes to love her (or admit his love for her, after years of staring at her bosom across the dining table), but he knows that when she finds out (as she surely will) the reasons behind his sudden interest in marrying her, she'll flip. And she does.
Theo has no delusions about her looks, but knows she has the wit and intellect to make up for her lack of beauty. At first she has her sights set on another man, someone James went to school with (and who apparently likes to cross-dress, according to James, not that Theo believes him), but James' kiss obliterates any thought of anyone else. Her reaction to hearing the truth of her marriage was set up well and entirely believable; more than that, it was very empowering. James had made Theo his partner not just in marriage but in handling their money and the Ashbrook estate, something he insisted his father hand over to him upon his marriage lest he ruin it any further. And since the money is all hers, she had the power to made demands. As tragic a scene as it is, it's also hugely satisfying.
I didn't see the pirate part coming, and couldn't help thinking that it was all a bit unnecessary, though it was certainly more fun this way and more exciting (and dangerous) too. James changes so much while he's away, and is barely recognisable when he returns. But he's matured, and while he still feels for Theo the passion he always felt, he's learnt more than some new lovemaking techniques: he's learnt how to rein it in and be patient. Theo was spooked by the passionate demands the young James placed on her, but mostly she was deeply humiliated by the compromising position the Duke found them in, just before she learned the truth. As the lonely years have gone by, she's isolated herself even further by convincing herself she's not a passionate person, she has no interest in sex, and they should just get a divorce - something she's sure the Prince Regent will grant in the circumstances.
James knows otherwise, of course, and goes about planning how to convince Theo that he's exactly the man she wants, not some cold, asexual bore who's only interested in polite conversation and nothing else. Awakening Theo's passion is a task he takes seriously, but he's determined to fix his marriage and have her love him again. While I love a romance where part of the focus is on the woman ceasing to be ashamed of her own desires, it was this ending that somehow, I'm not entirely sure how, missed its mark with me. I think I was just disappointed that so much of their marriage, in the book, was spent apart, that when you add up the before and after parts there wasn't a whole lot to it. Lots of character development and plenty of chemistry, to be sure, but I wished for more scenes, more time with them together, as a couple, either in love or otherwise. I felt a bit cheated at the end, that it was over so quickly. It worked for the story, just didn't quite work for my own sense of satisfaction, if that makes any sense.
As a coming-of-age story, for both Theo and James, this is a great read. Entertaining, passionate and resonating with genuine human emotion, The Ugly Duchess is worth reading, despite my final feeling of deflation.(less)
Carissa Portland styles herself as a "lady of information" - and with good reason, for how else will she know as soon as the ton learns about the indi...moreCarissa Portland styles herself as a "lady of information" - and with good reason, for how else will she know as soon as the ton learns about the indiscretion in her past, and the real reason why she's living with her uncle and his family in London? That doesn't mean she can't be trusted with a secret, but Sebastian, Viscount Beauchamp, doesn't see things that way. Caught snooping in the Inferno Club, around which there is much conjecture (a den of debauchery is the common belief), Beau knows that the only way to ensure the orphaned busybody never speaks of what she learned there, is to marry her.
While they both understand that this is a marriage arranged between them - to protect her reputation, and his secrets - their mutual attraction and chemistry is undeniable. Beau has always been the lady's man, dallying with married women and fighting duels with their husbands, but now that he has a wife, he's finding monogamy to be no hard chore. The only trouble is, as a parliamentary investigation of the Inferno Club probes ever deeper into the group of men's activities with the intent to shut them down for good, or worse, Carissa is determined to help her new husband. How will he keep her out of harm's way, for her own good, when she won't listen or obey him? Wasn't that the point of marrying her in the first place? But as the stakes grow ever higher, Sebastian learns that his wife is more than a pretty decoration he needs to keep quiet.
This is the fifth book in the Inferno Club series, but the first that I've read - and the first book by Gaelen Foley that I've read, too. I always enjoy historical romance, but I mostly approach each one expecting an enjoyable story, fun characters, good banter, and non-cheesy sex scenes. I almost always get that, too - there's just something about historical romance: it follows a formula just like all romance books, but it's a good formula. The rest is up to the author, their style and voice and where they take the story, so really you never really know what you're going to get. I have to say this, though: I loved this story, it was refreshing and intelligent and had great characters you could really connect with without being annoyed, and an original plot that didn't commandeer the romance side of things. I loved it so much, I promptly ordered the previous four books so I could read those too. It was a fantastic introduction to Gaelen Foley's work.
The Inferno Club is a front for the Order, a group of aristocratic spies set up long before by the reigning monarch, to aid in war. These days, with the threat of Napoleon gone (for the moment), they work to eradicate (read: kill) the leaders of a group called the Prometheans. In My Scandalous Viscount, however, it is not the Prometheans they are up against, but government bureaucracy and a homegrown threat. Foley weaves in other layers of the Regency period, politics and unrest (like the Jacobites and others), the kind of background life that is glaringly absent from most historical romances, right back to Jane Austen.
"So this horrid little power-crazed bureaucrat that you have to answer to might still be harboring Radical sympathies that he's taking out on the Order?" [...] "It doesn't matter," [Beau] said rather vehemently. "He's not going to destroy the Order. Not while I'm there. He can try, but we've been around a hell of a lot longer than these 'modern men of progress' and their shiny new ideas." "What kinds of ideas?" "Dissolve the monarchy. Disband the aristocracy. Marriage is also outdated in their circles. Free love is all the mode." She gave him a sardonic look. "What?" "Sounds like what the ton espouses." "No, no, there is a big difference between the time-honored tradition of adultery in the aristocracy and the Radical notion of free love, my dear. One abuses the sanctity of marriage with idle gallantry; the other rejects it from the outset, along with any notion of chivalry." "They don't believe in chivalry?" she exclaimed. "I should think not. They see it as an insult." "How?" "In their world, women are the same as men, and neither want nor require any sort of male protection or deference." Carissa struggled to comprehend such a world. "But if there's no marriage ... and ladies are the same as gentlemen ... then what about the children? And who takes care of the old people? What becomes of the families?" "Oh, my dear, you are woefully provincial. Haven't you heard? The family is an artificial system of oppression," he replied. "They've got no more use for it than for the Church. Haven't you read the inimitable Godwins, or noticed how poets like Shelley and Blake are always making up their own religions?" "No one can simply invent right and wrong." "You can try, if you're arrogant enough. Up is down, right is wrong, women are men, and before you know it, no one needs anyone anymore. Forget civility - the human race will then be free to descend into 'the perpetual war of every man against his neighbor' that Hobbes described two hundred years ago." [pp.152-3]
I love that Foley made such an effort to put the historical back into historical romance. Things were happening at the time, not just balls and matchmaking. Ideas were being discussed, old ways of doings things questioned - you can start to see the roots of our own current society in the above discussion, can't you? And obviously they were unwelcome ideas, for many. It's the glimpse into another era, a different kind of society, that really makes this book satisfying to read. (Plus, I love the occasional dollop of irony, too.)
Carissa was no simpering miss or pig-headed, argumentative hussy. She was dignified, quietly strong, determined, loyal, aware of her strengths and weaknesses, level-headed, intelligent and resourceful. She wasn't without flaws, she didn't always make the best decisions - hampered by the period she's living in as much as anything else - but she had courage and wits. She sometimes got herself into situations that don't end well, or that backfire, and that made her more interesting. The indiscretion in her past holds her back, but once Beau learns all about it - and solves the problem, in a way that a woman of the period never could - she's no longer burdened by the weight of looming scandal, or her uncle's censure, or her own guilt. She gets a refreshing new start, and courage inspired in her by a woman, not a husband:
It was not the fact that [Angelique] had slept with Beau that chiefly bothered her. Many women had, she'd been forced to accept. But that was in the past: She was the one he had married. What she was jealous about was how he had talked to Angelique. He had treated her with the respect due an equal, as if she were a man. The contrast could not have been more marked as he assisted his little bride to the carriage and hovered over her every move with the utmost protectiveness. Lord, did he see her as helpless? Was she? If only she had but a small dose of that Frenchwoman's audacity... When she thought of how timid and secretive she had become ever since her fall from grace, how frightened of disapproval, she was angry at herself. Shame had made her sneaky. One thing she'd say for the brazen Angelique - she did not appear in the least ashamed of what she was. [p.221]
Beau I liked immediately, as well. He's quickly established as a rakehell, a scoundrel, a womaniser, but there's no particular angst behind it - or rather, he is trying to avoid a marriage like his parents', but he doesn't agonise over it - and he doesn't resist his attraction to Carissa. I especially liked how he handled his sudden knowledge that Carissa wasn't the inexperienced virgin he'd assumed her to be, even if later he believed he'd handled it wrong, wanting to give her time to learn to trust him, and come to him voluntarily with the truth. It effectively holds a mirror up to his own past behaviour:
Would his passionate redhead make a cuckold of him? Was he doomed to walk in his humiliated father's footsteps? Yet how could he, of all people, ever honestly complain, after his own past dalliances with other fellows' wives? He probably deserved it. [...] Beau closed his eyes, rubbed his brow, and after a long moment's fight with himself, decided by an act of will that he was not going to get angry about this. [...] Let her come to him and speak her piece when she was ready. [...] He knew it wouldn't be easy for her. She had already said herself that she didn't trust anybody. But forcing her to give him the details, humiliating her with the fact that he knew she was lying, or hurting her in any way was unacceptable. Sooner or later, he swore to himself, he'd win Carissa's trust. [pp.138-9]
One of the best things about this book was that, every time a situation arose where I felt I knew what would happen, based on all the historical romances I've read, and felt rising disappointment, it proved me wrong. The above situation is a case in point. As discovery neared, I was sure he'd find out immediately, throw a hissy fit and slam a door in her face without even waiting to hear her side of things. Or one of a few other outcomes that also seemed likely. Instead, Sebastian's quiet resolve was a refreshing change from the theatrics and moodiness that all too often permeate romance novels: here was a realistic person, one who didn't leap to conclusions but actually wanted to encourage trust and open communication in a relationship. If I hadn't respected Beau before then, I did after that. It's not as if he's perfect, of course, and their relationship goes through some big upheavals, with trust a growing problem between them. Hardly surprising, considering how they got married in the first place.
This is clearly not a series you have to read in order - or at least, starting it with book five didn't do any harm. Quite the opposite in fact, it was a wonderful introduction to the series, and I'm keen to go back to the beginning and play catch-up. If you're looking for a lively, engaging historical romance that doesn't follow the usual path, be sure to pick up Gaelen Foley's My Scandalous Viscount.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)