Kat Martin’s Heartless has an interesting premise and intriguing characters. It doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise, but it’s an entertaining read anyway.
Ariel Summers is the daughter of a drunken, abusive peasant. At fourteen, she longs to escape her life of poverty and ignorance, so she makes a devil’s bargain with the Earl of Greville, who is known to have a taste for extremely young women. She proposes to become his mistress, after he sends her to school and gives her the refinement she needs to be a lady. When she makes this bargain, Ariel doesn’t have a very good idea what it will entail; but after four years at an exclusive finishing school, she understands very well what she offered the rakish earl, and she hopes to be able to repay him some other way.
Unbeknownst to Ariel, the old Earl of Greville is dead, and the man who has been paying her way at the school is his son, Justin Ross. Justin, the new Earl of Greville, is illegitimate and never knew a moment’s love from his father, but was officially adopted just before the earl died. He has enjoyed reading Ariel’s letters and following her progress through school, but since he’s not your typical Regency rake he has no intention of making her his mistress, regardless of the bargain she struck with his father. He changes his mind the moment he first sees her – in the arms of his most hated enemy, Phillip Marlin.
What follows is an intriguing battle of wills. Ariel is innocent and reluctant, but will fulfill her part of the bargain because she gave her word. Greville, who has never known love, finds it impossible to believe that Ariel can be as innocent as she appears. Their relationship builds slowly from antagonism to wary truce to friendship to love. They learn to understand one another amidst much distrust, and it’s very romantic when they finally let down some of their barriers and come together. I found this part of the book extremely enjoyable and engrossing.
Then the Big Misunderstanding happens, and is it a doozy. Wham – he believes she betrayed him, so he betrays her, she hates him, he hates her – and gee, if she had just told him about those notes Phillip Marlin had been sending her, none of it would have happened. As with most Big Misunderstandings, this one is frustrating because it could so easily have been avoided, and because the consequences are so incredibly out of proportion with the actual events.
The second part of the book falls into a well-worn path. Justin attempts to make amends, but Ariel doesn’t trust him, and there are some obvious bad guys who mean them both harm. There’s also a dash of skanky villain sex, which is never one of my favorite narrative techniques. Nevertheless, because by this time I liked both characters very much, I enjoyed the rest of the book even though it contained none of the freshness of the first half.
There’s nothing new or exciting about Heartless, and if you don’t like Big Misunderstandings you might want to skip it. But Martin is an accomplished romance writer and she tells her story well, and in spite of my problems with this book I devoured it in a day. If you’re in the mood for an undemanding, comfortable read, you might like it as well.