Seven years after our last encounter with the members of the scandalous House of Rohan, author Anne Stuart returns to nineteenth century England to bring us a fifth book in the series, Heartless, which picks up the story of the youngest Rohan, Lord Brandon, and Emma Cadbury, the woman who cared for him and saved his life following his return from war and his subsequent descent into depravity and addiction. Their relationship began in book four, Shameless, but although it’s been several years since I read that book, the author has included enough information about the couple’s backstory here for a new reader not to feel as though they have missed anything, and for the reader newly returned to the series to feel the same.
Note: This review contains spoilers for Shameless.
Captain Lord Brandon Rohan of His Majesty’s army returned from the Afghan Wars so seriously injured that he wasn’t expected to live. Emma Cadbury, formerly the youngest, most successful Madam in London, worked as a volunteer at St. Martin’s Military Hospital, and was assigned to take care of Brandon on what was believed would be his last night on earth. But Emma managed to pull Brandon back from the brink, stubbornly refusing to let him sink into death. Over the next few weeks, a subtle bond formed between the pair, as Brandon revealed things about himself he’d never told anyone, talking to Emma night after night about the war and the horrors he’d seen, endured and committed. As he regained his strength, their teasing gradually turned into gentle flirtation, until each night ended with a goodnight kiss, which Brandon insisted would give him something to live for throughout the next day.
Emma may have been a courtesan, but her experience with men was limited to the sexual act – which she normally undertook while numbed by drink or laudanum; emotions – other than distaste or disgust – were never involved. But when one of Brandon’s goodnight kisses turned into something more than a chaste peck, she panicked – terrified by the strength of her reaction to him – and didn’t return to his bedside again. After that, he was reunited with his family and, apart from one further fateful occasion, he and Emma haven’t seen each other since.
Until, that is, almost three years later, when Brandon attends the baptism of the newest Rohan, youngest daughter of his brother, the viscount. Having spent those years healing, drying out and weaning himself off drugs, Brandon is reluctant to expose himself once again to society and all its temptations, although he can’t deny he misses his family and that he needs to apologise and rebuild his relationship with his brother. So he travels to Suffolk from the Scottish estate he has now made his home, and is more than a little put out when one of the other guests, his sister-in-law’s dearest friend, Mrs. Cadbury, seems to take him in dislike – especially as there’s something about her that draws him.
Since her stint as an unpaid ‘nurse’ at St. Martin’s, Emma has worked hard to learn surgical skills and is now performing operations at the hospital under the direction of Mr. Fenrush – a venal, ham-handed butcher who kills more patients than he saves but who maintains his position simply by virtue of being a man. It’s quite possible there were women performing surgical procedures at this point in history, although I admit I found it a little hard to believe that Emma was performing them at a hospital in 1840. It’s true that she is disdained by her male colleagues and only tolerated because of her connection to the Rohans, but it’s still a bit of a stretch. Anyway – she has agreed to stay with her dearest friend, Mélisande, Viscountess of Rohan, for a couple of weeks after the christening – until, that is, Brandon arrives. Fully recovered, imposing and – though scarred – very attractive and exuding sensuality, he’s the last person Emma expects to see and one she desperately wants to avoid. She immediately starts plotting her departure, having no wish to experience again the stirrings of desire and other uncomfortable feelings he had awakened in her so long ago. Still, she can’t deny that she’s just a little bit hurt that he doesn’t remember her at all – even as she tells herself it’s for the best.
Brandon returned from war wounded in both body and mind, his handsome features marred by severe scarring on one side of his face, his body broken and his mind confused and tortured by the ravages of war. The one bright light in his existence was his “Harpy”, as he named Emma – and when she abandoned him, he was both heartbroken and furious. Sinking deeper and deeper into sin and depravity, drinking and taking drugs to forget the past, he tried to take his own life, and would have succeeded, had it not been for Emma. She saved him again – but owing to a mind addled by drink and drugs, his recollections of that time are hazy and although he feels an almost visceral connection to Emma, and certainly desires her, Brandon cannot explain what it is about her that draws him so strongly. He’s a rather unusual hero among Anne Stuart heroes, because other than a brief time when he lashes out at Emma while under the misconception that she’s deliberately deceived him, he isn’t cruel, arrogant or morally ambiguous – at least, not in this story, although he was like that in the past.
While I did enjoy Heartless, I realised while writing this review that most of the storylines I’ve recounted here actually happened in the fourth Rohan novel, Shameless. Most of the interesting things in Emma and Brandon’s relationship happened in that book, and if we take out the scenes in this one which feature someone trying to kill Emma, it’s fairly uneventful. Brandon and Emma meet again and feel an intense connection which Brandon, at least, doesn’t understand; and Emma is simultaneously dismayed (and a tad irritated) that he doesn’t remember who she is and spends most of the book running away or avoiding him. And, er, that’s pretty much it. The pacing is stodgy in places and some parts are repetitive; the mystery plot is flimsy and the identity of the villain supremely obvious – to the reader, if not immediately to Emma, who takes a while to wise up to the fact that yes, someone is, in fact, trying to do away with her.
Fortunately however, Emma and Brandon carry the story through the sheer force of their personalities and the strong sexual chemistry that burns between them. They are complex, flawed characters who have experienced some of the worst life has to offer and their HEA is hard-won and well-deserved. Ms. Stuart’s writing is assured – as one would expect of someone who is a veritable doyenne of the genre – and engaging, and while the plot of Heartless perhaps leaves something to be desired, the novel will no doubt be appreciated by those who’ve waited seven years for Brandon and Emma to get their happy ending.