The Bargain

The Bartered Bride

The Burning Point

Captured Hearts

The China Bride

A Distant Magic

Kiss of Fate

Loving a Lost Lord

The Marriage Spell

One Perfect Rose

The Rake

Shattered Rainbows

The Spiral Path

Stolen Magic

Twist of Fate

The Wild Child

Never Less Than A Lady
by Mary Jo Putney
(Zebra, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-1-4201-0329-8 
Never Less Than A Lady is the second installment of long popular Mary Jo Putney’s “Lost Lord” series.  The so-called “Lost Lords” are a group of young men who attended Westerfield Academy, an unusual school for the scions of the aristocracy and gentry who were viewed as trouble and/or trouble makers by their parents or guardians.  Its mistress, Lady Agnes Westerfield, had discovered a talent for helping difficult boys become upstanding men.  The bonds formed by the school’s students are deep and abiding.

The first book in the series, Loving a Lost Lord, introduced a number of the characters who will clearly have their own stories in the future. Never Less Than A Lady is the story of Major Alexander Randall.  Orphaned at five, Randall was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, the Earl of Daventry.  Unfortunately, this also brought him within the orbit of his nine year old cousin, Viscount Brandon.  Brandon was already a sadistic bully who made Randall’s life almost intolerable.  Understandably, Randall became a difficult child who finally found salvation through Lady Agnes’ kindness and understanding.

The story begins when Randall, serving in Spain, receives a surprising letter from his uncle informing him that he has become the presumptive heir to the title.  Brandon had died under mysterious circumstances a decade or more earlier.  Daventry’s second son had died about two years earlier, but there were still cousins between Randall and the earldom.  But the accidents of death had left Randall as the only heir and his uncle orders him to sell out and return home to find a wife.  Weary of war and still suffering the after effects of a serious wound, the major decides to return to England.  The idea of settling down on his estate and starting a family has real appeal, but he will find his own wife.

With this project in mind, he decides to visit the estate of his friend the Duke of Ashton’s wife.  Perhaps Mariah’s twin sister will suit.  But in actuality, Randall is drawn to Cumberland by the prospect of reacquainting himself with Mrs. Julia Bancroft, Mariah’s friend and the local midwife and healer. 

Randall had met Julia the previous year when she was recruited to accompany Mariah to London as chaperon.  Randall had disguised his attraction to the widow by treating her coldly.  But she has never been out of his mind.  Clearly she is a woman with secrets; she seems too much a lady to be a mere country midwife.

Randall’s arrival proves fortuitous because that very day, Julia’s past has caught up with her.  Though she had tried to remain anonymous, her visit to London had led her enemy to discover that she is not in fact dead.  His henchmen arrived at her cottage and abducted her.  Julia knows she is going to her death.

When Randall rescues her from her kidnappers,  Julia is forced to tell him the truth about her life. Married at sixteen to a brutal man, she was horribly mistreated until one night, as her husband was assaulting her, she pushed him away.  He fell and hit his head on the edge of the hearth.  The blow killed him, but both her father-in-law and her father believed she had murdered her husband.  She managed to escape and faked her own death.  Good fortune and her own determination had allowed her to recreate a life for herself, but now she knows that she will have no peace.

It does not take Randall long to realize that Julia’s husband was his own nemesis, Viscount Brandon and she herself is the daughter of a duke.  She begs him to take her to a port where she can flee the country.  Instead, he proposes marriage.  Julia at first demurs; she is understandably averse to intimacy and fears she is barren.  On the other hand, the plan offers her protection and would allow her to resume the life she once had.  Randall convinces her of his own regard and she knows she is attracted to him.  When he proposes a Scottish marriage which would allow her to divorce him should her situation prove unbearable, she agrees.

The romance in Never Less Than A Lady centers on Randall’s patient wooing of his bride.  He recognizes what an exceptional woman she has become and believes that he can overcome her hesitations.  For her part, Julia now knows more of the world and of relationships and she understands what a fine man Randall is.  She becomes more open to intimacy than she would have believed possible.

The plot of the story centers on Julia’s reemergence into society and to the challenges she faces.  If her father and ex-father-in-law reject her, there are others who welcome her back into what was once her world.

Randall and Julia are admirable and likable characters.  Their love story is compelling and satisfying.  They deserve their happily ever after.

I enjoyed Never Less Than A Lady.  If the plot depends a bit much on coincidences, well romances and life are often like that. Never Less Than A Lady isn’t quite the equal of the many Putney novels that sit on my keeper shelves, but it is an enjoyable read.   

--Jean Mason

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