Beyond Scandal and Desire
Lorraine Heath kicks off her new Sins for All Seasons series with Beyond Scandal and Desire, the story of a man intent on revenge upon the father who abandoned him and the young woman he intends to use as part of the scheme he has concocted in order to achieve that end. I’m not a great lover of the heroine-as-instrument-of-revenge trope, but I trust Lorraine Heath to deliver an engaging and emotionally rich story and know that she has the writing chops to turn a hackneyed plotline into something a little different. She certainly manages that here and crafts an intense, sensual character-driven romance with a final twist I didn’t quite see coming.
Mick Trewlove has known for many years that his mum isn’t his biological parent, and discovered the identity of his father, the Duke of Hedley, when he was fifteen. Knowing he had been consigned at birth to the not-so-tender mercies of a baby farmer (a terrible practice whereby women took in illegitimate children of the nobility and often ensured they did not live), Mick – who has worked hard to make something of himself and is now a successful businessman – is still fuelled by anger at the man who threw him away like so much rubbish. He is determined that his father should publicly acknowledge him, admit him to be worthy and regret his decision to cast him aside, but other than one unequivocal refusal, Mick’s written requests have all gone unanswered. Furious at the duke’s dismissal, Mick sets in motion his plan to destroy Hedley’s legitimate son and heir, the Earl of Kipwick and ruin his ward, Lady Aslyn Hastings – who happens to be Kipwick’s intended. “She’d be to him (Mick) whatever the woman who had given birth to him had been to his father, and he’d throw the similarities into the duke’s face.”
Lady Aslyn’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Eames, were killed in a train crash when she was just a girl. She has led a very sheltered life with her guardian and his wife, who rarely goes out into society and is of a delicate constitution. The two are clearly devoted to one another, and Aslyn can’t help but hope that her own marriage will prove equally felicitous. Although nothing is official, it’s widely known that Aslyn has been destined for Kipwick since the cradle. But Aslyn has become rather restless of late, and is chafing at the restrictions that are constantly imposed upon her by her gender, her position and the duchess, who dislikes going out and encourages Aslyn to remain home as often as possible. Thinking that perhaps an evening visit to the Cremorne pleasure gardens will yield a glimpse of something exciting, she hopes to persuade Kipwick to remain there until after dark, when, according to the gossip rags, the naughty undertakings that have titillated her imagination are… undertaken. Sadly however, it seems as though the place is rather staid, and she has just owned to Kip that Cremorne isn’t quite what she expected when a young woman accidentally bumps into them and promptly introduces herself as Miss Fancy Trewlove. When a tall, handsome, dark-eyed gentleman emerges from the shadows and is introduced as her brother, Aslyn – whose ‘understanding’ with Kipwick means she has never been courted or even experienced the mildest of flirtations – is struck by the sheer force of his presence and shocked at the strength of her physical reaction to him.
While Mick hadn’t planned for his sister to engineer the meeting, he makes the most of the opportunity, rather surprised to find that Lady Aslyn is not what he expected; unlike most young ladies of her class, she is approachable and easy to talk to. She is also, Mick notes with satisfaction, intrigued by him and has hardly taken her eyes off him since he first appeared – which is all to the good as far as his plans go.
This is the first of many encounters Mick contrives with Aslyn, over the course of which he finds himself growing reluctantly fascinated by her mix of intelligence, innocence and curiosity about the world around her. Before long, his desire for the woman herself far outstrips his desire for revenge against his father – but even if Aslyn were not promised to Kipwick, there is no possibility that the daughter of an earl and a bastard – even one with noble blood running through his veins – can have a future together.
The revenge plot hums along in the background but Ms. Heath focuses firmly on the developing relationship between Aslyn and Mick, whose immediate fascination with each other soon goes beyond infatuation and physical attraction and turns into a deep emotional connection that neither had expected. Both are engaging, well-rounded characters and I particularly enjoyed watching Aslyn coming to realise that while she cares for Kip, he is not the man who makes her heart race and her blood pound. Even before meeting Mick, she had begun to question the nature of Kip’s feelings for her and wonder why he’s never attempted to steal so much as a kiss – but her visceral reaction to Mick makes her start to question her situation even more. Mick is good-looking, self-assured, solicitous and charming; he’s like no-one else Aslyn has ever met but just as important as the physical attraction that draws her to him is the way he actually converses with her frankly, opening up a world of which she has largely been ignorant and showing her just how narrow her world-view really is. More than that, he listens to her and encourages her in her own opinions, something the men of her own class never do.
Mick is a sexy, diamond-in-the-rough hero who is perhaps just a little too good to be true in spite of his plan to use Aslyn, bring down Kipwick and force Hedley to recognise him. Everything Mick has, he’s worked bloody hard for, and his many business interests encompass housing, hotels and shops, the latter two providing badly-needed employment for people living in the less prosperous areas of London. He is devoted to his ‘family’ – other illegitimate children ‘farmed’ out to Ettie Trewlove – and believes everyone deserves a chance. But Mick doesn’t see himself as a philanthropist or benefactor – he just thinks he’s a bloke who did what he needed to do to get on in life, and is touched when Aslyn calls his achievements – calls him – remarkable. The trouble is though, that I couldn’t quite credit that a highly successful, self-made man of thirty-one with so much going on in his life would still be craving validation from someone who had made his disinterest so clear. I suppose one could argue that revenge is never rational, but Mick’s determination to get the duke to acknowledge him didn’t really ring true, and as that’s the driving force behind plot, I’ve knocked my final grade down a notch.
In spite of that, however, I enjoyed the book, and am intrigued enough by Mick’s ‘siblings’ to want to continue with the series. Beyond Scandal and Desire is a solid, if slightly flawed start, and I’m sure fans of the genre and the author will enjoy it.