Once a Courtesan
Once a Courtesan, the second in Liana LeFey’s Once Wicked series, is a novel I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did. Some aspects of it worked very well, but others fell flat. It’s one of those books with a great deal of potential and I admired the heroine immensely, but it’s not a romance I’d reread.
Jacqueline Trouvère is the headmistress of a girls’ school, one which hides a secret – all the pupils’ mothers were prostitutes who wanted their children to have a better life or whose children were taken there after their mothers died. Jacqueline and her staff teach French, needlework, etiquette, and so on, preparing the girls for respectable work.
Naturally, no one can know about the girls’ origins. Or, for that matter, about Jacqueline’s. A former courtesan, she was horribly scarred by the first and only man she’d ever known. She understands only too well what her girls have suffered, and will do anything to protect them.
Enter Will Danbury, a constable in disguise as a professor of mathematics. He’s investigating the murders of several prostitutes whose children have subsequently disappeared, and he’s afraid they’ve been taken by the Temple of Aurora, a discreet and highly select brothel which caters to depraved tastes. If this security-heavy school is a façade for the Temple and if the beautiful but close-mouthed headmistress is a procurer for the perverts, he’s going to find out.
If the description so far gives you an unpleasant feeling, that’s what I experienced – especially when Will secretly reads the little girls’ files and discovers one of them had contracted syphilis. You can imagine how. It was difficult to get immersed in romance when I kept thinking of traumatized children.
It also didn’t help that after I finished the story, I realized that while I had a very clear picture of Jacqueline, I couldn’t remember a single detail of Will’s appearance, or anything about him other than that he’s extremely observant. Alhough otherwise, I have to say that he didn’t strike me as particularly good at his profession. He asks Jacqueline far too many questions about her students, which she calls him out on, and then she catches him reading their files.
By then he’s shown he’s willing to protect the school, but it doesn’t excuse the invasion of other people’s privacy. Jacqueline seems to realize he’s the nominal hero of the novel, though, because she gives him a key to the room which holds the files.
Other than this, I liked Jacqueline a lot. She’s kind, tough and resourceful, the sort of person others lean on in a crisis, and after her past experiences, she deserved a happy ending. Unfortunately even the love scene left something to be desired, no pun intended. It was great that Will looked past her scars and showed her a respectable man would want her so badly as to do anything for her, but I would have preferred more of a buildup to the sex.
That said, there’s a reason this isn’t as developed as it could be, and that’s to do with the mystery of who killed the prostitutes, which involves an enemy from Jacqueline’s past. This novel is almost a historical romantic suspense, with a few scenes that might be better suited to a dark thriller (spoiler: one intimidation tactic involves a butchered dog left outside the school). A lot of the novel is taken up by this subplot, and the climactic showdown reminded me a bit of Reservoir Dogs, with different people pointing guns at each other.
If you’re already a fan of Liana LeFey’s historicals, Once a Courtesan might work for you. But for me personally, this was the kind of romance that went halfway, stopped, and left me wishing it had run the distance.