Desert Isle Keeper
To Charm a Naughty Countess
Theresa Romain has followed up her wonderful It Takes Two to Tangle with another, equally well-written and strongly characterised romance which pairs Caroline, the widowed Countess of Stratton, (a secondary character from the earlier book), with a rather unusual ducal hero.
Caroline is beautiful, wealthy, and is – even nearing thirty – one of the foremost beauties of the ton. As we saw in the previous book, she is never without a coterie of admirers surrounding her, and quite happily plays them off against each other, knowing that most of the men who pay court to her are after her money. She has no pressing need or desire to remarry, takes the occasional lover, and is content with her life as a rich, independent woman.
Until one night, she is confronted with a piece of her past in the form of Michael Layward, Duke of Wyverne. Eleven years ago, Caroline had been a debutante of nineteen, a beauty but without fortune, and had become fascinated with the mysteriously handsome and intense Layward. At a ball one evening the pair were caught in a passionate embrace, but instead of the expected marriage proposal, Michael left London almost immediately for his Lancashire estates, citing the imminent death of his father as the reason for his precipitate departure. His father’s death shortly afterwards left Michael in possession of a depleted estate and fortune and he never returned to London.
Caroline’s reputation was left in tatters and it was only the proposal of the elderly Earl of Stratton that restored her to the bosom of society.
The book is set in 1816, often referred to as “the year without a summer” and the dreadful weather has severely affected the plans Michael has made to further his attempts to pull himself out of debt. He’s a progressive, interested in new scientific advances and keen to employ new methods when it comes to the management and use of his land and assets. But crops are failing, land is flooded and all his avenues for obtaining credit are exhausted. If he is not to go bankrupt and destroy the livelihoods of all those who depend on him, he has but one option – to find himself a rich wife without delay.
Michael is a refreshingly different sort of romantic hero, a brilliant, intense, and very direct eccentric whose preference for tinkering with gadgets rather than schmoozing among the ton led to his being labelled “Mad Michael” all those years ago. He suffers from extreme social anxiety which can lead to panic attacks and headaches, and his dislike of social situations and, above all, situations over which he cannot exert a measure of control, is what caused him to flee London and not return for eleven years. But Michael is nothing if not conscientious. His concern for his land, property and tenants is uppermost in his mind and he knows what he must do if he is to ensure their futures.
Even a gap of eleven years cannot silence the gossipmongers. He’s a duke, so bound to be accepted in ballrooms and drawing rooms across London, but he is still “Mad Michael” to many. Yet to Caroline, he’s still Michael – handsome, endearing , fascinating, socially inept and frustrating in equal measure.
When Michael apprises her of his situation and his need to marry, Caroline – having already turned down his proposal of marriage –takes it upon herself to smooth his path through society and help him to find a bride.
While the direction the novel will ultimately take is no surprise, the journey on which Ms Romain takes her characters and the reader is full of subtlety and rich in emotional depth. Both protagonists change and develop throughout the story, having to face up to some unpleasant truths along the way which ultimately strengthen them and their relationship.
On the surface, Caroline has everything she wants – financial independence, the greater personal freedom that comes with widowhood and the ability, as she remarks several times, to do exactly as she likes. But it’s clear to the reader that she isn’t as happy as she makes out. She wants to be needed, which is partly why she is so keen to help Michael to further his marriage plans. She believes that his proposal to her was motivated purely by the need for her money rather than any need for her as a woman; Michael appears so self-contained and self-sufficient that she fears marriage to him would mean as lonely an existence as the one she lives now, and she is not prepared to settle for that. Especially given the fact that it doesn’t take long for Michael to worm his way back into her heart – not that he’d ever really left it since that fateful night a decade or so before.
Michael is a gorgeous hero, charmingly vulnerable yet implacable at the same time. He finds society completely baffling; people don’t say what they mean or mean what they say and –
The every day tasks that came easily to others – talking about the weather, dancing, laughing, flirting, lovemaking – were a struggle to him.
He is tightly buttoned emotionally most of the time, fearing the loss of control that comes with strong feelings, the sort of feelings that Caroline evokes in him. He doesn’t understand why she lives the way she does, putting up with fops and fools fawning over her when it doesn’t make her happy; and she tells him in no uncertain terms that his way of life – being completely devoted to work and duty – doesn’t appear to be making him happy either. Michael has to learn to make room in his life for happiness, love and affection, emotions with which he doesn’t have a great deal of experience.
To Charm a Naughty Countess is beautifully and intelligently written, with excellent characterisations across the board, and especially of the two principals. Michael and Caro at first seem to be complete opposites – she a social butterfly, he a recluse – but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that they are rather like two sides of the same coin as they seek to truly understand each other. I did think that perhaps Caro should have given Michael a couple of pointers as to her own wants occasionally – knowing him so well, she should have realised that perhaps he wasn’t able to discern her need to be desired for herself rather than for her money – although I can understand her need for him to work it out for himself.
The story is well-developed and displays a maturity in terms of the writing and the outlook of the characters that isn’t often found in historical romance nowadays. Ms Romain has found herself another place on my keeper shelf, and I’m eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.