Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

mistress heroine

REVIEW: Wedded in Scandal by Jade Lee

REVIEW: Wedded in Scandal by Jade Lee

Dear Ms. Lee,

I fell head over heels in love with your hero in the very first few paragraphs of your novel, Wedded in Scandal.

“Yer wants to go in there? But, er, why?”

Robert Percy, Viscount Redhill, ignored the mine manager and began stripping off his coat and gloves. They were in the shack outside a coal mine that his father had purchased in a fit of drunken entrepreneurship. Sadly, the earl didn’t fall down in his cups like a normal person. No, instead he bought businesses, which Robert then had to save. And given that no one in his family knew anything about coal mining, this was going to be a challenge indeed.

But the first step in a new venture—or after one of his father’s drinking binges—was to inspect the new property. So he was determined to go down into the hellhole of a mine despite Mr. Hutchins’s objections. He’d already pulled off his coat and folded it neatly to the side, but after one glance outside at the filthy employees all lined up near the mine entrance, he stripped off his waistcoat as well. He would have taken off his fine lawn shirt, but he couldn’t greet his new employees half naked.

However, by the end of the second chapter, I no longer thought he was a paragon of male perfection. By the end of Chapter Two, I thought he was a pompous prick. I was wrong both times—Robert isn’t a jerk, although he does tend to arrogantly overwhelm most everyone he encounters, nor is he a dreamboat peer. By the end of the book, I liked him and understood why the heroine, Helaine Talbott, not only fell but stayed head over heels in love with him.

Wedded in Scandal Jade LeeHelaine has had a difficult past decade. When she was in her teens, her father, a drinker and a cheat, stole a case of fabulous brandy the Earl of Bedford had sent as a gift to his son, a soldier finding for England in Spain—Helaine’s father, the Earl of Chelmorton, had a drinking buddy in charge of certain military shipments to Spain and he somehow used information from his friend to nab the booze. Helaine’s dad, immoral and stupid, then threw a party and carelessly bragged about the brandy’s provenance. The Earl of Bedford, an unforgiving type, retaliated by socially destroying Helaine’s father, now known as the Thief of the Ton. Her father subsequently vanished and, within a few short months, Helaine and her mother were tossed out of the ton, and found themselves in the poorhouse. Helaine’s now business partner, a seamstress named Wendy (there’s a mystery there that’s never explained) bailed Helaine and her mother out of the poorhouse and suggested that Helaine and she—Wendy—open a dressmaking business together. Thrilled at a chance for survival, Helaine said yes. For years, Helaine has supported herself and her mother but, each day, Helaine worries the shop could fail and she and her mother will be again without resources. As a dressmaker and shop owner, Helaine has completely left her aristocratic past behind; in fact she keeps her past rank a secret, sure the ton wouldn’t buy clothes made, no matter how well, by the daughter of the Thief of the Ton. She uses the name Helen Mortimer and presents herself to clients as a lowly tradeswoman.

Helaine has one aristocratic client—the rest of her patrons are from the business class—the soon to be married Lady Gwendolyn, Robert’s sister. Gwen wants Helen to make Gwen’s trousseau—Helaine is really good at what she does. This would be marvelous for Helaine if she, Helaine, could convince merchants to let her buy fabrics and the like on credit which they, given that she’s a woman of no means, adamantly will not. Gwen, like all aristos, is used to buying on credit and so Helaine is stuck—she needs to make gorgeous creations for Gwen, but she can’t afford the fabrics she needs to do so. Desperate for funds, Helaine calls on Robert and asks if he will pay Gwen’s bills. Helaine tries to convince Robert the bills are for dresses already made, but he calls her bluff. Even worse, he accuses her of extortion, and readies to call the constable. Helaine implores him not to and tells him the truth, and he, still unwilling to pay her, says the best he can do is give Gwen control over her clothing funds and she, Gwen, can decide whether to pay Helaine. As the two bargain, Robert becomes enamored of the buxom, attractive Mrs. Mortimer. So much so, that, later the same day, he goes to Helaine’s shop with the intent of asking her to become his mistress.

Once there, he gets her alone and kisses her—she’s twenty-eight but knows nothing of passion. It’s a damn good kiss in part because

Nearly a decade ago, his uncle had taught him how to seduce a woman with just his tongue. It had been the most useful lesson any relative had ever given him.

Despite the stirring kiss, Helaine turns down his offer.  A few days later, he kisses her again, and, this time, he realizes despite her reputation as the long-term mistress of a recently dead Lord, she’s a virgin. He believes this is the reason she’s turned him down and he, sure the passion between the two of them would be remarkable, asks her again, differently.

“I have handled this incorrectly, Helaine, but the desire remains. I should like you to be my mistress.”

“And I desire to be an honest dressmaker who isn’t constantly accosted.”  She did not invest her words with anger. She simply stated it and prayed he would hear her.

He did understand her implication. His wince was proof of that. But that didn’t stop him from pleading his case. “I am a slow lover, Helaine, patient and generally considerate. And though I have never taken a virgin, I would make an exception for you. I would introduce you correctly to this business. And would pay handsomely for the privilege.”

She again says no. Her experience with her father has made her wary of all men. Furthermore, despite her age and circumstances, she dreams of marrying for love and would like to be a maiden on her wedding night. Robert hears her no, but also sees how she responds to him and, in every way, he wants her. So, he pursues her, sending her gifts, easing her way with the merchants—he gets a credit line for her at the best fabric merchant in London—and, in general, ruthlessly plans her seduction. He knows to take her is to go against both her wishes and those of his sister—Gwen is appalled her brother is hitting on her dresser and has ordered him to stop.

And yet he could not stop himself. Helaine drew him. She challenged his mind, she roused his protective instincts, and she made him harder than granite. No woman of his acquaintance had ever done all three things.

When he realizes who she really is, the daughter of a disgraced Earl, he is even less deterred.  He thinks no one of her class will ever marry her, so despite (because she’s a peer) he would now be “debauching an innocent,” he still schemes to seduce her. Being his mistress, he thinks, would be a pretty good life option for her.

Helaine, despite her dreams of marital bliss, knows Robert would never marry her. But Robert is very persuasive—he woos Helaine perfectly—and Helaine begins to reconsider her refusal to share his bed. Prior to meeting Robert and Gwen, Helaine has lived in social vacuum. She cares for her coworker, Wendy, and for a young woman named Penny who, with her little brother, comes to live with Helaine and her mother. (It appears Wendy is the heroine of Ms. Lee’s next book which is the only reason she’s in this one.) But other than her mother, Helaine never speaks with anyone from the world she grew up in. She also can’t risk anyone finding out the truth about her past, so she has, for years, kept to herself. Part of what makes Robert so seductive to Helaine—besides all those things he can do with his tongue—is the conversation he shares with her. The two banter, argue, and talk in a way Helaine hasn’t done for over a decade. She, within a few weeks of meeting him, falls in love with him. The chaste life she’s insisted upon for herself begins to seem drab, even self-limiting, compared to the life Robert relentlessly offers her.

I’m not sure, really, what I think about Robert. He is a great guy—when he’s not wooing Helaine, he’s either protecting his family and staff with skill and care, making sure those employed in the businesses his father’s recklessly purchased are well-paid and fairly treated, or managing the medical care and financial needs of a group of ex-prostitutes and their children he houses in a brothel his father once bought that he, Robert, has turned into a sort of half-way house. He loves his sister and he treats her fiancé and his family with compassion and humor. He cares deeply for Helaine and genuinely believes the life he is offering her is a good one. He feels it would be a crime for a woman with her passionate nature to live without a lover. He’s unusually likable and yet, his behavior is only valid because, at the end of the novel, he does the right thing—the title of the book is, after all, Wedded in Scandal. For much of the novel, his relentless pursuit of Helaine smacked of self-indulgence, even selfishness.

One thing that, for me, mitigates Robert’s behavior that Helaine has many of the same concerns about Robert’s behavior as I do. Helaine has worked hard in her dressmaking business and she’s learned to take care of herself. She also loves her work. She’s a strong, talented woman who normally has no trouble doing what’s best for herself and her shop. Many men have tried to seduce her and none of them, other than Robert, has ever interested her. She’s lived a disciplined life for the past ten years and she sees in Robert a threat to all she’s accomplished. But, just as Robert can’t help pursuing her, she can’t help responding. He touches her and she’s lost in the best way possible. When she does finally succumb to him, she’s knows she’s choosing passion over good sense, but she’s decided a love affair with Robert is worth its cost.

I liked a good deal about this book. You write wonderful exchanges between the main characters. Your words are often witty—I loved the discussions between Robert and his butler Dribbs. The sex scenes in the book are good ones and showcase emotional and physical intimacy. Both leads are well-developed, interesting characters both together and apart. It’s rare in a romance that what happens when a couple is apart is as compelling as what they do together. It was an enjoyable book to read.

The book, however, has some glaring problems. Characters are introduced, seem important to the story, and then vanish. (What the hell happened to Irene?) Helaine’s secret doesn’t seem feasible. On the one hand, she creates an assumed identity as a tradeswoman and yet routinely puts herself in situations where she could easily be recognized as Lady Helaine. There are too many unexplained mysteries—who murdered Penny’s parents? Where did Wendy find the resources and the inclination to save Helaine and her mother from the poorhouse? Where is Helaine’s father?  Perhaps these plot lines will be explored in other books, but I found them distracting and open-ended.

I disliked the last few chapters of the book. Robert and Helaine create situations unbelievable and oddly goofy. Helaine behaves in the dreaded TSTL manner—this always ticks me off. The last chapter itself is infuriating and left the book ending on a poorly conceived note.

Spoiler:

[spoiler]Robert keeps trying to ask Helaine to marry him, but she’s just too busy getting Gwen ready for her wedding so Robert ends up proposing during his sister’s wedding. Gwen of course says she thrilled—she’s a big fan of Helaine—but I saw it as drama-rama.[/spoiler]

The next book in the series, Wedded in Sin, is Penny’s story and I am inclined to read it. I do, after all, want to know why her parents were killed. I liked Wedded in Scandal enough to give its sequel a chance. I’d call this book a B- read; I appreciated it even as I found the hero and the plot holes at times hard to enjoy.

Sincerely,

Dabney

AmazonBNSonyKobo

REVIEW: The King’s Courtesan by Judith James

REVIEW: The King’s Courtesan by Judith James

Dear Ms. James,

I vaguely recall hearing about your two previous books, Broken Wing and Libertine’s Kiss, and being a bit intrigued. They sounded like a bit of something different, with unusual settings and good reader buzz. When the opportunity came recently to read The King’s Courtesan, I jumped at the chance.

The King's Courtesan	Judith JamesHope Matthews and Robert Nichols both have traumatic pasts; Hope was raised in a brothel by her madam mother, who sold her to the highest bidder when she was just fourteen. Ten years later, Hope has risen in the world; she’s one of Charles II’s many mistresses. In spite of her somewhat tawdry profession, Hope has managed to retain her sweetness and innocence.

Robert’s story is even more tragic; he was only twelve when, with his parents away, Cavaliers invaded his family home and killed his beloved sister. Tormented by her memory and his own guilt at not saving her, Robert fights for the Puritans, soldiering while hunting down his sister’s killers. Once the war ends and Charles II is restored to the throne, Robert returns to his country manor, but the memories still haunt him; one of his targets has evaded him all these years. His life only becomes more empty and painful when he receives a royal decree ordering him to surrender his lands. Rebels against Charles II enjoyed a general amnesty, but it just so happens that Charles owes a powerful man a favor, and what the man wants is Robert’s estate.

All is not lost, though; when an old friend of Robert’s (the heroine of a previous book, Libertine’s Kiss) finds out about his lands being confiscated, she complains to the king (another friend and former admirer of hers, apparently). Charles decides to kill two birds with one stone: he has been trying to find a husband for Hope in order to make her more respectable. Charles is to be married to the Portuguese Infanta, and Hope, knowing her presence at Court will not be welcomed as easily by the new queen as that of Charles’ official mistress, the aristocratic Lady Castlemaine, has asked for his permission to retire to the country. She has money saved and only wants to live a quiet and respectable life. She cares for Charles, even loves him a little, but she knows he cannot really love her and would prefer to have her freedom. Charles balks at this, and schemes to wed Hope to a man who is respectable enough to restore her honor (at least the pretense of it) within the Court. Robert Nichols needs something from him, and so Charles summons him to London; he figures he’ll get Hope married off to Robert, sent off to the country for a while, and sometime after his marriage she can return to Court and to Charles’ bed.

I liked the set-up here relatively well; Robert and Hope are somewhat evenly matched in that both are at the mercy of their powerful king, and don’t actually have a lot of say in the matter of their own marriage. Robert at least is given the respect of being told about it ahead of time (Charles also graces him with a new title and some extra lands in addition to returning Robert’s original lands to him, to sweeten the pot). Hope, on the other hand, ends up tricked into marriage and bundled off with Robert to his country estate practically in the blink of an eye. She is furious with Charles, and furious with Robert as well, thinking him nothing more than a base fortune-hunter (this after feeling an overwhelming attraction upon first meeting him). For Robert’s part, he is attracted to Hope as well, but angry about the marriage and feeling like a cuckold already.

So, the story here is pretty straightforward. Robert and Hope are tied together, at least for the time being, and full of misunderstandings about each other. This leads to a dynamic that I’m less fond of: the bickering hero and heroine. Robert and Hope have a basic pattern that they cycle through on the way to and after arriving at his estate: make goo-goo eyes, get along briefly, get into a dumb fight, sulk. Lather, rinse, repeat. I was tired of it after the first go-round.

I think one of the reasons I was interested in this book was the feeling that I got that it was a bit “old-style.” And it is. But I forgot that this is a double-edged sword – those old-style romances have aspects I really like and miss (different settings!), but they also have aspects that I don’t care for (rather overly traditional and conservative gender characterizations).

Ultimately, it’s on characterization that the book really started to falter for me. Robert is a stock character – brooding, tortured soldier who feels that no one can love him because of the blood on his hands. Hope is, to be a bit flip about it, a hooker with a heart of gold. She’s had a hard life, sure, but it hasn’t kept her from being extraordinarily pure of heart and fairly pure of body. It turns out (quelle surprise!) that Hope is less experienced than advertised…considerably less experienced than one would expect of a girl raised in a brothel, sold at 14, and mistress to a king. Since the “experienced heroine” hook was part of the attraction of the book for me, I found Hope’s innocence and sweetness rather irritating. That is already not my favorite type of heroine (though it can work in some books), and I already resent the age-old romance dynamic of angelic=heroine and cynical and worldly=hero. Throw in the lack of truth in advertising, and I’m a pretty annoyed reader.

Not that Hope is entirely a softy – she deals fairly well with the at-first hostile staff of her new home, and she has a reputation of being somewhat saucy (one of the things that attracted Charles to her in the first place). Perhaps it’s in Robert’s eyes that Hope seems the most childlike and angelic:

His thoughts were filled with a sad-eyed elf with violet eyes.

She patted it absently as she watched out the window, looking for all the world like a lost little waif.

She looked as fragile as a child and he felt like a great bloody oaf.

A couple of things: descriptions of heroines that compare them to children, when observed from the POV of the hero, should be sparing to nonexistent in romance. It’s really kind of yuck. Also, maybe it’s just me, but at this point, when I hear “elf”, I think “Dobby” from the Harry Potter books, and I’m not sure that’s what the author is going for. It didn’t help that the “elf” nickname eventually sticks as Robert’s chief endearment for Hope.

In any case, the contrasting of the big, brutish hero and the tiny, childlike heroine got old pretty quickly. As did the many descriptions of her raven hair and violet eyes. (Now I’m remembering another negative of older-style romances! Constant mentions of the heroine’s physical attributes! Though my favorite will always be the Jennifer Wilde book that was told in the first person by the heroine and still managed to work in mentions of her auburn tresses every couple of pages.)

The prose in The King’s Courtesan is mostly competent, if a bit uninspired, but I had to laugh at the following pronouncement by one of the hero’s friends:

For my money, he’s been married to that cold dark bitch called war.

No. Just no. Someone – editor, crit partner - someone should have put the kibosh on that laughably melodramatic line.

Reading this over, I wonder if I seem unduly harsh. The King’s Courtesan is not a *bad* book; but it’s not a very good one, either. My grade: C.

Best regards,

Jennie

Goodreads | Amazon | BN | nook | Sony | Kobo | eHarlequin