A book from Jo Beverley is always a treat, and Winter Fire is a welcome and worthy addition to the Malloren saga. After finishing this one, I immediately started re-reading the previous installments.
Miss Genova Smith is accompanying the elderly Trayce sisters to Rothgar Abbey for Christmas. The sisters have not seen their Malloren relations for many years, due to a rift in the family, so their great-nephew, the Marquess of Ashart (in whose opulent coach they are traveling), would likely not be pleased to discover their destination. The elderly pair remembers Rothgar fondly from his childhood, however, and hope to mend the estrangement.
Their journey is interrupted when they discover another coach in the ditch. Mrs. Dash, the occupant, begs them to take her infant and maid to warmth at the inn ahead. Genova instinctively mistrusts the woman and her instincts appear to be confirmed when a rakish gentleman appears at the inn looking for Mrs. Dash. The woman has apparently abandoned her child and the man Genova identifies as the father seems blithely ready to follow her example. Genova tries, unsuccessfully, to stop him. From her involvement, the man – actually the Marquess of Ashart – deduces that she is in cahoots with Mrs. Dash.
Ashart gets no further than the stables, where he finds his own servants and discovers that his darling aunts are at the inn. He cannot leave the old dears to fend for themselves and returns – where he and Genova are each unpleasantly surprised to discover the other’s connection to the Trayce sisters. Genova is even more disgusted with the handsome rake’s lack of concern for his child.
For his part, when Ash discovers the ladies’ destination he suspects that Rothgar might be the mastermind behind what is an apparent plot to discredit him. He decides to accompany them. Before they can depart, however, Ash and Genova are discovered in a highly compromising situation. This forces them to attend Christmas at Rothgar Abbey as an engaged couple, although they agree that, when the time is right, Genova will cry off.
This book had a very strong appeal for me, largely because it incorporates several of my favorite romance elements. Genova, although she comes from a modest background, is strong, quick-witted and has a healthy self-esteem. She’s no boring paragon, though – she also has a temper, which livens things up considerably. This combination makes for a likable and energetic heroine whose actions, while perhaps not always prudent, are never silly.
Ashart is the character who changes most, however, as he searches for the truth about Mrs. Dash’s baby and is forced to come to terms with what he has always believed about his Malloren cousins. He is strong enough to appreciate Genova’s vitality and outspokenness and smooth enough to carry off their masquerade with style. In fact, Ashart is one of the few characters in the series who can rival Rothgar’s suave aplomb, but his nature is much more playful so Ash’s intensity is more lighthearted and witty, and less overtly dangerous (I use the word “overtly” deliberately).
The combination of these two characters creates wonderful sexual tension that sparkles throughout the book – particularly as they do not intend to marry. To indulge their desires would spell disaster, so they spend most of the book flirting with them, dancing up to the edge of passion and then retreating. In the hands of a lesser author this might become tedious, but Ms. Beverley handles it masterfully and by the time they finally give in, the reader is as anxious for it as the characters.
There’s more, of course. This is a much more intricate story than I’ve been able to describe, and the author is much better at telling it, so I suggest you set aside some time and enjoy it for yourself.
-- Judi McKee