|Eloisa James just gets better with every book. This one was a treat from start to finish.
Imogen, Lady Maitland, has been widowed for nearly a year, but because her marriage to Draven Maitland lasted only two weeks before the wastrel died, her guardian still feels responsible for her. He isn’t particularly impressed with Imogen’s ill-disguised (albeit so far unsuccessful) attempts to celebrate the end of her mourning by having an affair with a rake.
Unfortunately her guardian, Rafael, the Duke of Holbrook, doesn’t have a lot of moral ground to stand on. Rafe is a drunkard who seems ill-equipped to take care of anyone. He is also scandalizing society by welcoming his bastard half-brother, Gabriel, and Gabriel’s infant daughter, Mary, into his home. Gabe, in spite of his unfortunate birth, has risen to the illustrious position of professor of Divinity at Cambridge and is pretending to be a widower to spare his beloved daughter the stigma of illegitimacy.
Rafe has promised that he will use his own influence to smooth Mary’s path, and also finds himself agreeing to refurbish the theater on his estate so that a play can be staged showcasing Mary’s actress mother, Loretta. Loretta’s pregnancy interrupted her promising career and, as she has declined to marry Gabe, he feels obliged to help her get it back on track.
Imogen is less than delighted to hear that Rafe has asked for the assistance of Gillian Pythian-Adams in mounting this production. Gillian was betrothed to Draven Maitland when Imogen persuaded him to run away to Gretna Green with her. The two women find an unexpected rapport, but this odd relationship is further complicated when both find themselves attracted to Gabe, who is an attractive – and sober – version of his half brother. Gillian, who is something of an Original, is not happy at the prospect of losing yet another gentleman’s regard to the lovely Imogen.
As you might guess from the very abbreviated description, this story interweaves two love stories in a style that bears a very strong resemblance to classic farce. With a deft hand, Ms. James has created a swiftly paced book that is both entertaining and beautifully structured.
The main characters are all multi-layered individuals, each with his or her own charm – and foibles. Not all are lovable immediately, but the author is very adept at revealing character so I placed my trust in her early and was never disappointed. As with most romances, it was no surprise that there would be a happy ending, but as with the best romances, the author has set her characters some significant challenges, and introduced enough twists and turns that there was plenty of suspense as to how they might possibly manage it.
Rafe, however, is certainly the central character, and his transformation from self-pitying inebriate to a compelling leading man is fun to watch – as is Imogen’s somewhat baffled observation of it. Both characters discover that there is a fairly significant gap between what they think they want and what they actually want, and they learn the difference gradually and often in spite of themselves.
The contrast between the sober, sensible Gabe and the careless, drunken Rafe is a wonderful device that cleverly points up both the charm and the flaws of both characters. Each, ultimately, is a lovely romantic hero, and the book’s energy and witty dialogue slowly evolves into wonderful sexual tension.
Imogen and Gillian are very different women, but each is strong and intelligent and uses these qualities in very different ways to achieve what she wants. Each is also full of surprises – wonderfully difficult to predict, both for the heroes and the reader. In most books with multiple storylines I find myself dissatisfied, usually because one story interests me much more than the other. Here, however, I enjoyed both romances very much and could not be sorry when the focus shifted.
Lighthearted as well as complex, satisfyingly romantic and sensual, and written with verve, this book is a delight on every level.
-- Judi McKee