What Janine is Reading: Lorraine Heath’s Hellions of Havisham
I haven’t had the best experience with Lorraine Heath; both Sweet Lullaby and Waking Up with the Duke disappointed me. However, lately I’ve been desperate for an engaging historical romance and I was intrigued by the premise of book two in the Hellions of Havisham series, The Earl Takes All, where the hero impersonates his dead twin so that his sister-in-law won’t miscarry her and his brother’s child. I also wanted to see if the book could carry this premise off; it seemed like a tough one. But since I don’t like coming into series from the middle, I decided to start with book one, Falling into Bed with a Duke (not to be confused with the aforementioned Waking Up with the Duke; they’re not even in the same series, ha).
Falling into Bed with a Duke
This one is set in the 1870s and it is not particularly faithful to history. The book begins when heiress Minerva Dodger and the Duke of Ashebury meet at a secret club for masked ladies who want anonymous sex. There were other more minor anachronistic details as well. The language wasn’t as horrible as it could be where anachronistic phrases are concerned, I suppose. I noticed an anachronism roughly every ten pages or so on average, and while that’s close to my limit, I can live with it when I’m enjoying the story. Occasionally Heath used cliched language, too. But the book was absorbing; Minerva and Ashe were an interesting pairing and had good chemistry. I liked them a lot and wanted to see where things would go.
I liked that Minerva was blunt and strong-minded. She was self-conscious about her looks but not in the typical romance way where the heroine thinks she is average looking and yet all the men hanker for her. In this case Minerva’s opinion of her looks is partly substantiated by the fact that none of her suitors are attracted to her, they just want her hefty dowry. Occasionally some man makes a disparaging comment (on page) about Minerva’s appearance, too.
The main conflicts in the book are that after Minerva meets the gorgeous Ashe at the masked ladies sex club, she fears he will be repulsed by her face if he ever sees it, and another significant conflict that emerges later, one that involves a secret Ashe hides.
Minerva’s unprepossessing looks made me like Ashe a lot because he finds her (both physically and in her personality) very attractive. The first time Ashe and Minerva meet up at the club she ends up calling it off. Ashe figures out who she is before they sleep together, he just doesn’t tell her, and by the time they do sleep together, he has seen her without her mask and he still desperately wants her.
I liked that Minerva deals with her circumstances head on and makes her own plan for her life. And even though that plan includes having sex with a stranger while masked, which is a bit of an @@, I was able to buy into it because choosing her own fate is a big part of her personality.
Ashe has an odd fetish for photographing beautiful legs and arms for his own private collection. This is linked to a childhood trauma; his parents died in a train accident and their limbs were mangled, so (even though he wasn’t present for that) he likes to photograph the human body “healthy” and “whole.” I feel this is ableist and it reads as contrived to create an early conflict between him and Minerva (the first time they meet he is blown away by her bare legs but she doesn’t let him photograph them).
I feel, though, that the book would be stronger if the story didn’t taken place over a short period of time (a week or two, I think).
The solution to the later conflict involves a clever and romantic gesture. Nevertheless, I would have preferred for Minerva and Ashe to marry before Ashe’s secret came to light. It would have given the book more dramatic heft.
This is a pretty good book, but a bit slight.
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The Earl Takes All
This was the book that got me to pick up the series in the first place. While Edward Alcott and his twin brother, Albert, Earl of Greyling, are on safari together, Albert is attacked by a gorilla. Albert, as he is dying, asks Edward to impersonate him so that his wife Julia, who has had multiple miscarriages in the past, will not lose their baby out of shock and grief. Edward has been in love with Julia for years but he has acted like an ass around her so that she and Albert would not suspect.
Edward takes up the charade his twin suggested. Julia, like the rest of society, believes it is Edward who died, and that Edward is Albert, though changed by a months-long trip abroad and the loss of his twin.
At first Edward tries to isolate himself from Julia but pretty soon Julia wants some snuggling and kissing and since she believes Edward is her husband, Edward has to comply. Julia is more attracted to “Albert” than she’s ever been in the past. Their kisses are hotter, their chemistry sexier, and she even falls in love with him “more.”
(Incidentally, I wasn’t crazy about this. Although it is not a favorite trope of mine, I might not have minded a heroine’s previous husband paling in comparison to the hero quite as much in another book. Since Edward and Albert were brothers, twins, and Albert had just died, it was unpleasant to read about how the dead Albert wasn’t quite as hot as his brother.)
Edward falls ever more in love with Julia, and while they don’t have sex (Julia is far into her pregnancy) they do get intimate in other ways, both physical and otherwise. Then of course the truth comes out.
The Earl Takes All isn’t a terrible book but I struggled with Edward’s charade. I understood he felt it was necessary if Julia was to carry her child to term, as well as his brother’s dying wish, but it is still a skeevy and non-consensual thing to do to her. Even though Edward is in an untenable situation it was hard for me to sympathize with him. I think this aspect of the plot might have worked better if he had been about to confess and right at that moment Julia had a miscarriage scare and that held him back.
I kept reading because Julia is a touching character. Her extreme vulnerability as a woman who falls deep/deeper in love with a man she believes is her husband and is unknowingly being deceived gave me a great deal of sympathy for her.
Another issue I had was that we didn’t see Edward grieve for his brother for long. Given that they were close, and twins, his grief should have been something he had to process over the course of the book.
At 80% the conflict between Julia and Edward is resolved and the main conflict that remains (this isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the blurb) is that they can’t marry because English law does not permit marriage to the sibling of a late spouse. Kudos to Heath for knowing her history but I didn’t see a great solution in the offing.
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The Viscount and the Vixen
At this point there was only one full-length novel in the series left for me to read and I still had warm feelings for book one, so I thought “Why not?” and checked book three, The Viscount and the Vixen, out of the library.
Of all three of the full-length Hellions of Havisham novels, this one had the most absurd premise. Viscount Locksley’s supposedly lunatic father, the Marquess of Marsden, advertises for a wife. His three criteria are that she be strong, healthy and fertile, because he needs an heir, or rather, a spare. He hopes that his son (Locke), whom he has been badgering to give him that second heir for years, will be so aghast at his father’s decision to remarry that he’ll marry Portia Gadstone himself instead.
Locke is determined never to fall in love. After all, his father was driven mad by the loss of Locke’s mother; Marsden has let half their country house languish and claims to have seen his late wife’s ghost. But Portia Gadstone, his father’s chosen bride, is clearly an opportunistic social climber, a selfish, shallow woman. Locke is certain that he could never fall in love with such a creature so to spare his father he decides to marry her (so as to provide his father with another heir) almost on the spot. That he thinks she’s hot is a bonus.
What neither Marsden nor Locke know is that Portia isn’t the widow she claims to be, but a pregnant unmarried woman with an enemy, and that she fears for the safety of her baby and is entering the marriage to protect the child. She could never fall in love with Locke either, she thinks, which is just as well since she already feels guilty enough for conning him and his father.
(I feel that although Portia is desperate to protect her unborn child, what she does is still horrible, since when she marries Locke she knows that all he and his kindly father want from her is an heir.)
Here’s a list of the ridiculousness in this book:
When Marsden advertises for a wife Portia, a commoner, is the only woman who replies to the ad. Come on! Only one commoner wants to marry a marquess? Mad or not, older or not, there would be more takers than that.
Mary Balogh has a couple of books that begin with the hero advertising for a wife but at least in those books the heroes want inappropriate wives. That’s not the case here. Marsden wants an heir. Would any aristocrat in 1882 really not care about the birth of his wife when her child will eventually inherit his title? It would be one thing if he was in love with a commoner and threw caution the wind to marry her but that’s not the case here.
There are many more absurd things. Marsden and Locke are so poor that they initially have only three servants (a cook, a housekeeper and a footman) and Locke works in his mine alongside the miners. I honestly doubt they’d have been able to keep their estate and titles from reverting to the crown under those circumstances.
But wait, there’s more—Portia, now a viscountess, cleans and dusts alongside the servants. The servants accept her easily as their mistress despite no one knowing her birth. Half the house has not been seen to in years; it’s all dusty and abandoned. Marsden is a little bit off and supposedly wants it that way but why hasn’t Locke ever tried to restore it / keep it up / talk his father out of this home neglect?
Locke doesn’t question Portia about her background. When he asks her, she evades, and he, though he knows she’s evading, doesn’t pursue it. Setting aside the question of social class, if he’s falling for her, shouldn’t he be more curious?
I kept reading for a while because I wanted to see what would happen once Portia’s pregnancy was revealed, and because Locke and Portia had good chemistry and the sex was hot. But at the 58% point Portia still had not had any pregnancy symptoms and no one suspected anything. The only conflicts are that we know it and Locke’s angst about falling in love when he doesn’t want to.
The motive for that last, as I’ve stated before, is that Marsden’s grief for Locke’s mother supposedly drove him “mad.” Except that Marsden isn’t mad. At worst he he’s a bit frail, nostalgic, and distracted. He does believe that his wife’s ghost is haunting the house and its environs (I’m sure this has a rational explanation I would have found out about if I had kept reading) but he is perfectly level-headed otherwise.
Eventually the hot sex got old despite the chemistry and so the pregnancy revelation became the main thing I was reading for. And the book got more and more outlandish the longer I read. I stopped at the 58% point, when Ashe, Minerva, Julia and Edward were about to visit, since I thought this would probably postpone the pregnancy coming to light even longer and I didn’t have the patience for that.
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When the Marquess Falls
There is a fourth book in the series, a 103-page novella, When the Marquess Falls, about Locke’s parents. But since Linnie, Locke’s mother and the heroine in this novella, is long dead when The Viscount and the Vixen begins and we know that she died so early in Locke’s childhood that he can’t remember her, I don’t plan to read that one.
I liked her westerns back in the day but I think I’m going to skip these.
@Jayne: Yeah, I don’t think these books would be your thing. I only tried one of her westerns (Sweet Lullaby) and didn’t care for it a bit—it was another DNF. At this point I’ve read five of her books, and four of the five were DNFs, so I should probably call it quits.
@Janine Ballard: At this point, I think you have given her books a fair chance.
Lorraine Heath jumped the shark for me long ago, but these reviews were entertaining! The only Heath book I would recommend is Always to Remember. Set in the post-Civil War period, the hero is a conscientious objector who the heroine despises at first because he refused to join up with his best friend (her husband who later fell in battle). I’m not sure how it would read to Americans today, given the current divisions in society, but it felt more historically plausible than any of Heath’s English ‘historicals.’
@oceanjasper: that sounds like a good conflict although the Civil War aspect would probably make it sketchy these days. I liked the conflict in FALLING INTO BED WITH A DUKE, it was pretty strong. so Heath has a strong capacity for storytelling, it’s just the execution that sucks.