There’s been a shortage of really good historical romance so far this year. I can count the number of DIKs I’ve given on the fingers of one hand, and sadly, the lists of upcoming releases for the second half of the year don’t look to be offering much to shout about either. But a shortage isn’t a complete absence; there have been a few gems, and début author Minerva Spencer’s Dangerous – the first book in her new series The Outcasts – is among them.
I am going to raise my hand and admit that when I first read the synopsis – our heroine was kidnapped by pirates, sold to a Sultan and lived in a harem for seventeen years – I had my doubts. Not just because of the old-skool connotations associated with the premise, but because so many of the historicals published at the moment are setting aside character and romantic development in favour of mystery and adventure plots – and I was leery of reading yet another poorly conceived story featuring a hero and heroine in the grips of insta-lust who gallivant around breaking all the rules that governed male/female interactions in the early nineteenth century and jumping into bed in chapter three. So I picked up Dangerous with a bit of trepidation, but was quickly engaged by the confident, lively writing and breathed a sigh of relief at the realisation that my preconceptions had been unjustified.
Lady Euphemia Marlington, daughter of the Duke of Carlisle, has recently returned to London following the aforementioned seventeen years spent in the harem of Baba Hassan, Sultan of Oran. Now aged thirty-two, she is well beyond marriageable age and is already an object of curiosity and gossip given her prolonged absence from society – and her father is desperate to find her a husband before she does something scandalous that will render her completely unmarriageable. Her vivacity, wit and forthright manner already set her apart from the other ladies of the ton, and she’s most definitely not the demure, biddable sort so many men want to take to wife – but Carlisle hopes that the enormous dowry he’s offering will outweigh the fact of Mia’s lack of societal polish (and her advanced age.) To Mia’s dismay, most of the men dangling after her (dowry) are either past their prime or young striplings; but ultimately, her plans don’t require her to like or spend much time with her husband. What she wants is a man who will marry her and then leave her alone so that she can pursue her scheme of returning to Oran in order to reunite with her son, Jabril.
Adam de Courtney, Marquess of Exley, is the father of three daughters, a widower twice over and doesn’t really want another wife. But what he wants is one thing, what he needs is another… and he needs an heir. He’s surprised at being sought out by the Duke of Carlisle when society at large generally gives him a wide berth, believing him to have been responsible for the deaths of both his wives …until he realises that the duke wants to recruit him to the ranks of possible suitors for his recently returned daughter. Adam is not inclined to be manipulated – until he sets eyes on Mia. Red-haired, green-eyed and simply oozing sensuality, she is not at all what he’d expected, and against his better judgement, he’s fascinated. He has no intention of offering for her… until he does, surprised to hear from the lady herself that the sort of marriage she proposes is one sought after by most men – one with no emotional entanglements. Feeling unaccountably lucky to have found a woman who seems to have no qualms about being wedded, bedded and left to her own devices, Adam proposes, even though he’s sure Mia is up to something. He just can’t work out what.
Mia is just as drawn to the handsome, coolly aloof marquess as he is to her, even though she realises that he isn’t going to be easy to manage and that she’s going to have to be careful around him if she’s to follow through with her plan to return to Oran. Fortunately however, the fact that his principal estate is near the south coast is perfect for her plans – and the fact that she wants him desperately, wants the pleasure she’s sure he will be able to give her, is an added bonus.
There are so many ways the author could have got this story wrong; by turning it into a comedic fish-out-of-water tale as Mia continually outrages society with her lack of observance of the customs and societal norms; by telling a melodramatic story of her kidnap and rescue or focusing on Adam’s past and engaging in much angst and hand-wringing over his dead wives – but she skilfully avoids the potential pitfalls and instead concentrates on building the relationship between her principals and, even better, writes a couple who act their ages (thirty-two and thirty-seven) rather than like brainless teenagers. Mia hasn’t learned to dissemble and simper like an English miss; she is comfortable with her body and who she is, and the mental acuity necessary to maintain her existence amid the intrigue of the sultan’s court means she’s accustomed to thinking for herself. Mia’s lack of inhibition, her obvious enjoyment of sex and her fierce intellect all delight her new husband, while Mia is falling in love with the loving, generous man she is discovering beneath Adam’s façade of icy disdain.
There are things Adam and Mia keep from each other – fairly big things – but their relationship is, for the most part, an honest one; and when the Big Secret comes into play in the last part of the book, Ms. Spencer doesn’t drag it out. This couple actually communicates with each other and owns up when they do something wrong; the romance is well-developed and the sex scenes (of which there are several) do a great job of showing the couple’s growing intimacy and how it leads to trust, and eventually to love.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Dangerous, and although it’s not without its flaws, none of them were large enough to spoil my overall enjoyment. While the aforementioned sex scenes are well written and integral to the development of the relationship, there are perhaps a few too many of them; and Mia has a number of almost-TSTL moments in the last few chapters which feel somewhat out of character. Adam’s dead wives and his reasons for keeping his daughters away from London are plot-overkill; I get that there needs to be a reason for him to have been shunned by society, but the rest of it is largely unnecessary, especially as the concerns that lead him to keep his daughters sequestered in the country are dismissed by one sentence from Mia in a rather clumsy ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moment.
But those really are minor criticisms, and I’d definitely recommend Dangerous to anyone looking for a new voice in historical romance. Ms. Spencer’s writing is sophisticated and witty, the two principals are fully-rounded and there’s an engaging secondary cast, too, one of whom is going to be the hero in the next book in the series, Barbarous, which is due out in October. You can be sure I’ll be picking it up.
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