An Affair with a Notorious Heiress
If you’re a fan of historical romance, you’re probably also a fan of Lorraine Heath. I’m both, but I didn’t like this book. The characters are clichéd, the dialogue is wooden, and the writing – well, if the cover didn’t say Ms. Heath wrote it, I wouldn’t have believed it. In An Affair with a Notorious Heiress there’s a whole lot telling, not a lot of showing and two unappealing principals (she’s sanctimonious, he’s smug) – though the secondary characters don’t fare much better. I wanted to like this redemption story (I read it twice!), but it’s just not up to the usual standard I expect from Ms. Heath in terms of writing, characterisation and plot.
Alistair Mabry, Marquess of Rexton, is single, eligible, wealthy and handsome. As a child, he was bullied and taunted because of his mother’s scandalous past (she’s Frannie Darling, featured in Surrender to the Devil), but Rexton was resilient and emerged from his childhood with a hard-earned confidence and belief in himself. However, despite his parents’ own improbable love match, he’s a marriage-shy bachelor, determined to only marry someone of good breeding with an impeccable reputation. As the story opens, Rexton is reluctantly attending a ball thrown by his sister Grace, biding his time before heading to the card room in order to avoid the marriage minded mamas.
Just when he has decided he’s stayed long enough, he’s approached by an American, Garrett Hammersley, who asks him for a favor – would Rexton court his younger niece Virginia? Rexton tells him he isn’t looking for a wife, and Hammersley is quick to clarify the request. He doesn’t want Rexton to actually court Gina, only to give the appearance of it and thereby drum up interest from other eligible gents. Gina is the younger sister of the notorious Lady Landsdowne, and Hammersley believes that relationship has damaged her prospects for a good match. In return for his help, Hammersley will let Rexton take Black Diamond, his stallion, to stud. Rexton can’t resist the opportunity and after a brief negotiation of the terms, agrees.
After spending the evening paying his attentions to the sweet but young Gina, he invites her for a ride in the park the following day. Arriving at Landsdowne Court (where Gina lives with her NOTORIOUS sister Mathilda – Tillie – Landsdowne), he’s escorted into the parlor to wait. Hearing footsteps, he turns to greet Gina, but is caught off guard when her sister greets him instead.
She stopped in front of him, her blue eyes – shrewd, calculating, suspicious – slowly raking over him, taking his measure. Much to his annoyance, he found himself straightening his spine a tad, when he’d thought it was a straight as a poker. With hair as black as midnight, she in no way resembled her sister. This woman was no innocent. She didn’t harbor dreams of love and romance. Poetry interested her not in the least. Pixie dust wasn’t sprinkled about her. She was all strength and vinegar. She wouldn’t break in his bed. He’s wager if anyone were vulnerable there, it would be he.
Um. Okay. Tillie tells him Gina overslept but that she’s preparing herself, though it might be a while before she makes an appearance. She offers him a whisky (because he strikes her as being a whisky man), and then, while sipping a whisky of her own (it’s 2:00 pm!), she proceeds to tell him why he probably isn’t good enough for her sister based on little more than this first impression. Rexton provides deliberately provocative answers (it’s meant to be sexy talk. I think?) to her questions about his intentions and suitability. The pair proceeds to discuss Gina as if she’s a small child and not a grown woman, and as the conversation progresses, Rexton finds himself increasingly attracted to the unsuitable Tillie.
Mathilda Paget, Countess of Landsdowne, knows her divorce and the scandal that preceded it, damaged Gina’s prospects and only wants the best for her sister. But after her horribly unhappy marriage, she’s determined to help Gina find the perfect husband and believes Rexton too wise, too experienced and too knowledgeable in the ‘ways of women’. (Yeah, I rolled my eyes, too). So instead, she proceeds to insult him, insinuate he won’t make a good husband, and discuss Gina as if the girl isn’t bright enough to pick a husband on her own (spoiler alert: she isn’t). When Gina finally makes an appearance, the three of them head off for their ride. Although Tillie is supposed to be acting as chaperone, she and Rexton continue to bicker (we’re supposed to think they’re flirting) and after Rexton chastises Gina for her response to what makes her happy – pretty frocks, a generous allowance, chocolates – he insists a woman shouldn’t be so easy to please. Based on that response, Tilly realizes:
…the Marquess of Rexton was a man who liked to win, who thrived on competition. And who sought pleasure in all aspects of his life. Pleasure, and danger, and gratification. If he hadn’t been born into the aristocracy, if he hadn’t been born into wealth, influence, and privilege, if he’d been born into a hardscrabble life in America, he’d have been the sort to forge an empire, to carry others on his back, to stand his ground, to never back down. She was not at all pleased at the way that knowledge make it difficult for her to draw in breath, make her consider how fortunate any woman would be to stand beside him.
What?! She knows all this … how?
I wish I could tell you things get better as the story progresses, but they don’t. Tilly and Rexton not-so-secretly fall for each other as he plays at courting Gina. Tilly, sanctimonious and notorious (I won’t spoil why), denies her growing feelings for Rexton and laments her past. Even when the truth about Rexton’s intentions – and the deal he struck with Hammersley – is revealed halfway through the book, it fails to inject any life into the story. Tillie is furious at her uncle, but ultimately decides Gina still needs Rexton’s help and negotiates her own deal with him. From this ludicrous conversation on, I struggled to simply make it to the end.
Tillie was unhappy in her marriage and orchestrated events so that her husband had no choice but to demand a divorce from her. I like that she wasn’t willing to settle, that she loves her sister and wants better for her, and even that she’s suspicious of Rexton, but none of those things excuse her boorish and sanctimonious behavior. She treats Gina like she’s an idiot (she is, just a bit), Rexton like he’s a bounder, and rebuffs kindness like it’s her job. I understand pride, but come on. Very little about her is appealing except her good looks.
Rexton doesn’t fare much better. I didn’t dislike him, but frankly, he isn’t that witty and seems a bit dull. He treats Gina like a benevolent sugar daddy, Tillie like she’s a potential mistress, and of course, he’s an adored son, uncle and brother. He’s also an ace at cards – ready to cheat and fleece unwitting ex-husbands when necessary, and he likes to do a little vigilantism on the side (don’t we all?). He’s also vain. When Gina confesses she’s relieved to stop pretending she doesn’t know he really wants Tillie:
He stared at her. No woman had ever rejected him. No woman had ever failed to be attracted to him. “I don’t understand. I’m not an ogre. I’m titled. One day I’ll be a duke. My coffers overflow. I-”
Ugh. We get it. You’re hot stuff. Enough, already.
Secondary characters are clichéd archetypes of either very good or bad people. Rexton’s extended family, his friends, Tillie’s sister – they’re the good guys. The best. Generous, forgiving, kind. Tillie’s ex? His friends? His family? They’re the bad guys. The worst. Lechers and self-righteous prigs. There’s no subtlety or nuance to any of these folks, and I did an awful lot of eye rolling whenever we were introduced to someone new.
I wish I could close this review out with things I liked about the story, but there simply isn’t anything that stands out. I’ll continue to purchase and read Ms. Heath’s books – I do love her writing, and I’m hopeful An Affair with a Notorious Heiress proves to be an anomaly. Unfortunately, I fear this book will only be notorious for how poorly it compares with the rest of her catalog.