unclaimed Given that our “assignment” for the TBR Challenge this month involved reading an author who’s represented more than once in our TBR piles, I couldn’t wait to jump into Courtney Milan’s 2011 release, Unclaimed. If you enjoy strong, character-driven romance, this book is an amazing treat. Definitely a DIK read for me.

This book comes second in the Turner Brothers trilogy, and while it can be read on different levels, it’s deeply satisying no matter how far you want to let your mind dig into it. On the surface, Milan tells an emotional story of two painfully misunderstood people who somehow manage to figure one another out enough to make the other whole. And underneath the surface? Well, Courtney Milan devotes more than a little bit of time to skewering the “keeping up appearances” school of morals. The musings on morality and hypocrisy that run through the story are thoughtfully done and lingered in my mind as long as the actual love story.

As readers of Unveiled may remember, the youngest Turner brother, Mark, has achieved some fame for himself by publishing a guide to male chastity. In early Victoria England, the popularity of his book gets him mobbed on the streets and noticed by the highest levels of government. As the story opens, we learn that Mark has been offered an appointment to sit on a powerful commission but he’s not sure if he will take it. Meanwhile, courtesan Jessica Farleigh is in dire need of funds and would like to obtain them without having to take on yet another protector. She learns that a former lover of hers wants to discredit Mark and that if she can seduce the virgin Mark Turner, then the prize money will be hers.

Weary of fame, Mark has retired to the village of Shepton Mallet. Jessica uses the last of her money to set herself up there as a widow in hopes of catching his eye. And catch his eye she does. Even as a respectable widow, the villagers mistrust the independent widow with the flashy wardrobe and inappropriate manners. Mark sees past the facade, though, and recognizes the wariness beneath Jessica’s brazen exterior. She fascinates him and he cannot help but deepen his acquaintance with her.

From her, the tension becomes obvious and the author does a fabulous job of building it slowly and steadily throughout the story. Mark may be a virgin but he’s no saint and he’s certainly not made of stone. Then again, the closer they come to a romantic and sexual relationship, the more Jessica starts to truly like and love Mark. Freedom is still a tantalizing prospect, but the ruin of Mark Turner starts to look like too high a price to pay. I won’t spoil the book by saying how it all winds up, but I will say that the author deserves major points for winding up the conflict in a way that both satisfies and goes outside what one might expect to happen.

And then there are the characters. I read Unveiled some time ago, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Mark’s story. Focusing on the virgin hero who writes about chastity just seemed too gimmicky to me. The Mark Turner we meet in Unclaimed definitely doesn’t come off as a gimmick, though. Mark is a virgin but one very quickly figures out that this comes as a natural outgrowth of who he is. Far from lording his famous chastity over others, Mark has to exert intense self-control to maintain the life he leads and he clearly does so because of his regard for others rather than for himself. He’s one of the most generous, compassionate heroes I’ve encountered in ages and he’s the perfect match for the battle-hardened Jessica. Best of all, he’s proof that a good guy can have a lot of unexpected depth. A man who says things like, “You’ve always been your own knight,…riding to your rescue. I’m just the man who came along and saw how brightly your armor shone,” might seem a little too good to be true, but the author has a way of making one want to believe he exists out there somewhere.

Victorian literature abounds with cautionary mutterings about those unfortunate girls who get ruined and come to a bad end on the streets. That’s the story of Jessica’s life. Many books romanticize the courtesan and her supposed sexual freedom. However, this story is set in the 1840s, a time when society didn’t allow women much by way of sexual freedom and the author recognizes this in her story. Instead of freedom, we see the toll that Jessica’s life takes on her in terms of social isolation and having to rely on the largesse of men she doesn’t love or even respect. She’s desperate to survive and hopefully leave this lifestyle, and because of what has happened to her, she’s had to harden herself against the world. She doesn’t start off inclined to find sympathy and common cause with Mark but in the face of his genuine decency, the cold cynicism starts to melt.

In terms of love scenes, this isn’t the steamiest romance in the world but the long dance leading up to that ultimate consummation ranks as one of the more engaging courtships in romance. Mark and Jessica engage one another’s minds and hearts long before things get even remotely physical, and it’s truly a fantastic dance. If you’re looking for a well-written, unforgettable romance, Unclaimed is one of those books that deserves to be liberated from the TBR pile right away.

– Lynn Spencer