A Scandalous Deal
This second book in Joanna Shupe’s The Four Hundred series introduces readers to Lady Eva Hyde, an intelligent and ambitious young woman who longs to make a career designing buildings. Her father, the world’s most famous architect, Lord Cassell (otherwise known as E.M. Hyde) has tutored her since she was a teenager, and she has studied and worked hard to hone her craft, but this is 1890, and she is barred from properly entering the profession because she is female. E.M. Hyde has recently been commissioned to design what is going to be America’s biggest, most modern and most luxurious hotel, the Mansfield, to be named after its owner, hotelier and millionaire, Philip Mansfield – but what the world at large does not know is that for the past two years, Eva’s father has been seriously ill, and in order to preserve his legacy and keep them afloat financially, his most recent designs – including those of the Mansfield Hotel – have been Eva’s work.
A Scandalous Deal opens as Eva is travelling to New York to meet with Mr. Mansfield and to oversee the project’s initial stages. Her plan is to explain that her father has been taken ill and is unable to make the trip to America and that she is fully versed on her his work and will act in his stead. The ship is not far from land when a bad storm blows up, leaving Eva and only one other passenger – a gentleman she’d met briefly a day or so earlier – prepared to brave the conditions and find themselves something to eat and drink for dinner. By the end of the evening, Eva is a little tipsy, but is still well able to appreciate the man’s handsome face and impressive physique – plus, the way he speaks to her, like an actual, intelligent person rather than as a delicate flower with nothing between the ears, makes her feel valued in a way no other man ever has. Deciding to throw caution to the wind – her marriage prospects in England are zero anyway, given she’s been nicknamed ‘Lady Unlucky’ due to the fact that she has been engaged three times and all her fiancés died – Eva has her first taste of real passion that night, although in the cold light of morning she realises she has perhaps been rather incautious.
It’s not going to come as a surprise (especially if you’ve read the book synopsis!) that the handsome stranger Eva met on the voyage turns out to be none other than Philip Mansfield himself. The mutual attraction that flared between them on the ship has not gone away, but given the circumstances – Eva is Philip’s employee and he’s not happy about the fact that she’s there and her father isn’t – both of them agree to put it behind them and to maintain a professional distance. Even so, Eva is somewhat dismayed when she learns that Philip is a very ‘hands on’ owner and manager, who spends most of his time at his sites; in her previous experiences, she, as her father’s representative, has been more or less left to oversee the work being undertaken, and she is unnerved at the prospect of having to maintain her deception on a day to day basis… as well as of seeing Philip every day and having to ignore the way he makes her feel. And Philip looks forward to the day that E.M Hyde is well enough to travel so that he will no longer need to see the infuriatingly desirable Eva every day.
But not seeing Eva and not thinking about her very soon becomes impossible and Philip finds it difficult to concentrate on anything else. It’s clear to him from her reactions that the desire he feels for Eva is reciprocated, so from then on there is only one solution. His proposal that they become the sort of friends who “on occasion, might not go home separately” is both scandalous and tantalising to Eva, who longs to experience again the passion she’d felt in Philip’s arms, but is also aware that she has a lot to lose should anyone find out.
There’s a lot to like about A Scandalous Deal. Eva and Philip are strongly drawn, attractive characters, the setting and the architectural details are lovingly described and have clearly been well researched and I really enjoyed the subplots concerning the corruption rife in the city at the time, the difficulties with the unions and Eva’s wonderfully inventive solution to the problems that arise as a result. The problem, though, is that there are too many subplots in the story – there’s one concerning the young woman Philip’s parents want him to marry and her father’s revenge when Philip makes it clear it’s not going to happen; another concerning a number of ‘accidents’ at the hotel site which threaten Eva’s safety and another about a commission from Philip’s formidable mother – that there’s not all that much room left over for the development of the central romance or for the principals to interact outside of the bedroom. The author establishes the attraction between Eva and Philip very well and there’s no question they have great chemistry; the love scenes are sensual and well-done, and I liked the way Eva wasn’t prepared to settle for anything less than a man who loved her for what she was and who would support her ambitions. I did, however, get annoyed with her when she jumped to conclusions about what Philip must be thinking simply because he looked or sighed the wrong way after they’d been intimate. It’s so transparently a plot device in a book that doesn’t need any more plot and makes Eva seem judgmental and unreasonable.
I did like the way that Philip is suddenly brought to realise that he had been applying one set of standards to one of his female friends and another to Eva, that he had ignored the importance she placed on retaining her independence and individuality. When he finally realises that he’s gone about things the wrong way, he’s big enough to admit his mistake and go all out – in a rather unusual but contextually appropriate Grand Gesture – to correct it and prove to Eva that he wants to support her in whatever she chooses to do.
A Scandalous Deal is an engaging and entertaining read, and Joanna Shupe continues to be one of the strongest writers of historical romance around. While there’s a lot of plot in the book, it’s all handled very well and there are no loose ends, but I can’t deny that I’d have liked the romance to have been more strongly developed in a more organic way. Nonetheless, it’s a solid addition to her current series, and I’ll definitely be looking out for book three later this year.