Desert Isle Keeper
Convenient Proposal to the Lady
Convenient Proposal to the Lady is the third book in Julia Justiss’ series featuring Hadley’s Hellions, four young men who forged strong friendships at school and university and who are now united in their dedication to bringing about political reform. While the romance in each book is most definitely to the fore, there’s enough social and political detail to add depth and an extra layer of interest to each story. That, combined with my favourite trope of a marriage of convenience made this entry in the series an especially enjoyable one.
Benjamin Tawny was born on the wrong side of the blanket to a viscount and a former governess. His father publicly acknowledges him, and has always provided for Ben and his mother, enabling Ben to go to school and university, which has helped him to make the sorts of connections necessary for him to pursue his chosen career. But Ben has never been particularly well-disposed towards the viscount, believing him to have been a heartless seducer who left the woman he had ruined to social ostracism and censure.
In spite of being base born, Ben is, like his fellow Hellions, a rising star in the political firmament; he has represented his parliamentary seat for almost eight years, has earned the respect of his constituents and has a reputation for being honest, determined, hard-working and above all, honourable. So when he overhears a group of men making a wager as to who can seduce and ruin a young lady, and knowing the sort of treatment meted out to ‘fallen’ women, he can’t stand by and do nothing. He decides to seek out Lady Alyssa Lambourne and warn her that she has been made the target of a plot by Lord Denbry solely because of the enmity that lies between him and Lady Alyssa’s brother.
Ben is lucky enough to encounter the lady one morning when she is alone and out sketching. He is rather unnerved by the strong spark of sensual awareness he feels around her, and just as surprised to discover that he has never met anyone quite like her; she’s direct, clever, fiery and an extremely talented artist to boot. Alyssa feels drawn to Ben even though she is initially suspicious of both him and his motives; but she agrees to take his warning on board and observe the behaviour of the single young gentlemen who are present at the house-party she is attending. She also agrees to meet Ben the following morning to report on her findings – and sure enough, she tells him that not only are two of the men (known to be Denbry’s cronies) paying her more attention than she thinks she warrants, but Denbry himself has arrived and is doing his best to ingratiate himself with her. Alyssa is furious and plans to revenge herself on these men who think her so stupid and so desperate as to fall for their lies – but Ben tries to caution her against it, reminding her that Denbury can still ruin her by dropping a few well-chosen words in receptive ears. Alyssa is adamant, however. She doesn’t care about her reputation and in fact, thinks a slur on it may be to her advantage, as it might force her domineering father to finally wash his hands of her, meaning she can get away and start living her own life. And it does indeed appear as though her plan has sent his-smarmy-lordship away with his tail between his legs. But unfortunately, Alyssa’s triumph is short lived; Denbry’s revenge is not long in coming and if not for Ben’s timely intervention she would have been completely ruined. And worse, it seems that Ben is the one who will be ruined if Alyssa persists on turning down the proposal of marriage he makes her in order to salvage her reputation.
One of the things the author does very well in this book is to show clearly how little control women had over their own lives at this time. Women were the property of their menfolk, had no rights and, in the upper echelons especially, reputation was everything and the conventions had to be very strictly observed. Alyssa wants to live independently and pursue a career as an artist but cannot do so without the funds – an inheritance from an aunt – that her father withholds from her. Given her father’s brutal treatment of her, it’s no wonder that she does not want to transfer control of her life from one man to another and thus rejects Ben’s proposal – but his arguments and promise that he will allow her to pursue her artistic career eventually win her around, and even though she has misgivings, she agrees to a marriage of convenience.
Ben hopes for more than that, however, knowing that Alyssa is as strongly attracted to him as he to her, and counts himself fortunate that his bride is a woman he can respect and admire as well as desire. For reasons he can’t quite fathom, Alyssa is skittish, so he promises not to attempt to seduce her, hoping desperately that she will come to him when she is ready to consummate their marriage. But Alyssa is determined that won’t happen. She already feels more for Ben than she thinks is wise, and is sure that if she makes love with him, she won’t be able to stop herself falling for him completely.
Both characters are extremely likeable and have to deal with long-standing issues that inform their choices as adults. Even though he is a successful, self-made man and a member of parliament, Ben can’t help feeling the stigma of being born illegitimate; and Alyssa has been so constantly belittled by her father and brother that she is awkward in company and believes she can never be the sort of wife Ben really needs. Yet the depth of their regard for each other shines through from the very beginning, and the intensity of their physical attraction leaps off the page. The romance develops naturally from their friendship, and the fact that they are open with each other and talk about their hopes and fears is very refreshing. There is a handful of secondary characters who are nicely fleshed-out – the villain chillingly so – and I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we were given of the changing relationship between Ben and his father.
Convenient Proposal to the Lady is a beautifully written, touching romance between two characters whose flaws and insecurities only add to their attractiveness and whose dilemmas feel very real. This is one of the strongest historical romances I’ve read recently, and I’m recommending it without hesitation.